September 23, 2021
I thought my 2021 adventuring was done. I’ve hiked some twenty trails this season, and now I’m ready to get the autumn tasks at the “farm” done so I can hunker down by the fire for winter. (Except, bad news, the worst news, my sixty-year old chimney has reached the end of its life. It needs a very costly liner and insert.) I was glad early in the week when it rained and I could put off the outdoor tasks. But then, a gorgeous day and the mountains were calling. One more adventure.
I decide on an early rising—not so onerous this time of year—and head to Mt. Rainier NP’s Reflection Lake for sunrise, followed by a hike across the road up to Pinnacle Saddle. This time, finally, I’m planning to continue up Plummer Peak after reading two recent trip reports that give me confidence—both that I can find the unmaintained trail and that it isn’t as treacherous as it appears.
I’m up with my 4:15 alarm and at the coffee kiosk twenty-five minutes away when they open at five o’clock. The weather isn’t stellar, yet, but I’m confident in the forecast. I’m through the Park gate before it’s staffed.
I follow my head lamps up the winding road through the tall, dark forest. A fox or young coyote trots across the road from the up-hill side to the down, unfazed by my lights. In retrospect, it was an omen of the breathtaking day ahead.
Backing into a parking space along the road, I’ve just time to put on my boots and walk to the end of the lake for best vantage point before the light begins to slip up into the tree line. There are few clouds. I was right about the forecast, but it means there won’t be a stellar sunrise. It’s the payoff for carefully choosing the best weather for adventuring.
When the sun reaches the tree tops and color fades, I walk back around toward my car, catching the reflection the lake is named for.
I grab my pack and poles and head up the trail across the road. The few sunrise viewers leave in their cars, the new arrivals are here for the reflection; I have the trail to myself.
This is a pretty easy trail, through trees at the outset and then into the open with Rainier at my back. It’s hot mid-day, when most people hike it, and those I meet on the return will be huffing and puffing, but it’s comfortable now.
Nearing the top, I turn to admire Herself, putting off the steps into the saddle and what’s beyond, holding onto the juiciness of anticipation for a few more moments. Looking down the switchbacks I just traversed, I see no one. Glorious solitude.
I walk the last few paces into the opening and the breath leaves my body. It is magnificent! Fog fills the canyons, the sun lighting it up. Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, and Mt. St. Helens rise above it, as clear of the usual forest fire haze as I have ever seen them. I stand in awe, tears in my eyes.
I walk down into the meadow and find a rock to sit on and drink it in.
My heart is broken to no longer be able to share my hikes with my mother when I return home. And never to have with my father. I don’t believe without doubt there is an afterlife, or if there is if I will see them again, but I want it to be so. I’m going with that until I know otherwise, at which point I won’t care and there will be no disappointment. My mother, late in her life, said there had been enough beauty in this life, she didn’t deserve any more. I don’t know about deserving more, but there is certainly beauty here. I could do without the ugliness of people, but I am fortunate to be able to sit in this wild glory.
Apparently being overwhelmed by gloriousity does not manifest in speechlessness for everyone. Two very loud exclaimers arrive in the saddle, one walking up the Pinnacle Peak trail and shouting back down to the other. I leave my rock and go in search of the unclear Plummer Peak trail, praying they don’t follow me.
I find what might be the one of the two trails recommended by the trip reporter and head up the ridge. (The other hikers start back down the way they came. Thank you.) I wouldn’t say the trail is entirely without treachery, but I’ve done worse.
Halfway up, unsure of where the trail is, I look on one side of the narrow ridge, rocky along the drop off. If that’s the trail, I could be complete with “just” a 345 degree view. On the hand, maybe the trail is on the other side. I proceed on instinct, grateful for boot prints.
At a tiny tarn, I walk around the pond for a photo op of the mountain. I love these little bodies of water that come and go, drain and refill. Apparently it was dry a week ago, before snow put a light coat on Rainier and rain or snow restored the tarn.
The trip report said the trail doesn’t go past the tarn, so I retrace my steps but don’t see where it continues up. I understand (sort of) the Park not wanting to maintain this popular trail, but I wish they would flag best routes, if only to keep boots off the meadows. I return to the tarn looking for a way and scramble up through the rocks following boot prints of other confused hikers until I reconnect with the “real” route.
It is quite a scramble the last bit, holding onto rocks and trees, but not exposed or scary. There are places for feet. I squeeze sideways between a rock and a tree trunk, perfectly exemplifying a rock and a hard place.
My head pops up over the rocky ridge top. I’m gobsmacked. This is the most astounding place I have ever been. I sit on the wide rocks and just look. I’m utterly alone, and grateful for it. I can’t bear for anyone to come. I can’t bear to leave. I stay for an hour. I want this place to be the last thing in my memory bank when my time is up. If this isn’t heaven, like my mother, I don’t need an afterlife.
I will never have enough of this, but I finally retrieve my poles and start back down. Five more minutes and I would have had company. A young man and an elderly man a few yards down are nearing the top—perhaps grandfather and grandson.
Me (to elderly man): This place is spectacular!”
Him: “There is no end to God’s creation, is there?”
Me: “Well, She outdid Herself on this one.”
Him: “What’s that?”
Me: “She outdid Herself on this one.”
Him: “Oh. Mm.” Nervous chuckle.
I continue on my way, smiling and high-fiving myself for rocking his assumptions.
The trail is easier to find going down, though I still lose it a couple of times in the rocks. There is a huge group of hikers eating lunch in the saddle. I don’t understand hiking in packs, but to each their own. It is time for me to leave. I meet many more people as I descend. One group of four older women inspires me. I see the first one, white hair, bent over, clutching her pole. “I want to be you!” I say. When she lifts her head, her back remains hunched. I realize she probably isn’t as old as I assumed and I’m embarrassed for saying anything. “Oh you do?” she says, amused. “Do you want my asthma? And my sciatica?” “If it comes with your courage to do this anyway,” I say. “I admire you.” The third woman is considerably older than I am, but I don’t tell her I want to be her. But I do. I want to be hiking through my next decade.
As I walk, I think about where I’ve just been. What if all the world leaders, and leaders of all the various movements in the world, were to put down arms, silence angry words, set aside opinions and sit, maybe two-by-two, shoulder-to-shoulder, on this mountain top without speaking. Would anything change? What if they were to sit in circle in a darkened room with an image of this place surrounding them on the walls—a view so big they would feel small and insignificant and a little foolish perhaps—calmly, with minds open, seeking common ground. Would anything change?
There are marmots! They are too busy fattening up to pose for the paparazzi. They’ve had their first taste of winter and they have work to do. And I finally capture a pika!
I meet a young couple; I imagine them to be honeymooners. I’m a little envious of their lifetime ahead of learning how to be in relationship with one another, learning how to be in relationship with themselves in that duality. What would I say to my younger self about that? Recognize your need for alone time, claim it. Find your superpower and live into it. Sit in silence with your partner in a place like this. Hold hands. Feel her/his heartbeat in your palm. Be two. And be one. Honor your self. Make sure you are honored.
As I enter the trees, I take a photo of a cloud formation, not seeing the color until I get it off my camera. A trick of the lens, I suppose (no filter, I don’t know how to do fancy), but I feel the angels of my ancestors have been to the mountaintop with me today.
I’m back at the car at 12:15. Five hours for a 4.5 mile hike. Lots of sitting, scrambling, wandering, and wondering. I head for Paradise, deciding not to do another hike, wanting this to be my day. I’ll use the facilities and head for Base Camp Grill. Of course, mid-day, the parking lot is overflowing. I pull into a handicap spot across from the Inn’s front door and hang my mother’s tag on the mirror. Thank you, Mama. I’m back in four minutes and on my way.
Is it my imagination, or is this the best salmon burger and beer I’ve ever had here?
This will all shut down for winter soon. The Grill will close, Paradise will require chains and snowshoes, the marmots will be underground, I will be in front of my electric fireplace. I guess I need to call the chimney people for an estimate. But today, my heart is full.
I thank you God for most this amazing day.
For the leaping greenly spirits of trees
And a blue true dream of sky
And for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes . . .
Back at home, night falls, and two barred owls engage in call and response that goes on and on and on. As I get this post ready to publish, one flies into the maple tree below the deck where I sit typing.
May your autumn be a blessing.