My sole memory of the Pinnacle Peak trail in Mt. Rainier National Park as a teenager with my family was a steep loose shale path the width of a finger nail with a cliff on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Oh, and terror. It was my first known experience with aeroacrophobia, decades before I knew its name.
Imagine my confusion when a friend told me, followed up by a trip report on the WTA from a hiker with the moniker “oldwoman,” that Pinnacle Saddle (half way to the Peak) was an easy trail with a staggering view and a mountain meadow payoff. Others call it strenuous, but I decided to put it on my summer hike list anyway.
Yesterday was the day. And a gorgeous one it is. I get my adventure latte and gas (which sets me back a few minutes, wanting to get the the Park ahead of the heat and the line-up at the gate), and it’s 5:50 before I head out of town.
I take the route across the valley below my house. Mt. St. Helens is disappeared in haze, but the hay rolls and barn in the wispy fog make me glad to be alive and living in this place as I head across this vast and beautiful county as the sun rises.
I’m third in line at Park entrance at the single ranger booth that’s open this early. Later both booths will be open with a line down the road. Flashing my lifetime pass (cost me $10 a few years back vs the $30 per car single entry fee), I drive into my favorite place on the planet. I wind along the Nisqually River, through the dark forest on the sun dappled road and break out to views of Herself.
I turn onto the Stephens Canyon Road just short of Paradise. A few moments later I’m at Reflection Lake. I lace up my boots, slap on knee straps, slather on sun screen, pump on Deet, grab my poles, sling on my camel pack and walk down to the lake for a couple photos.
I’m on the trail at 8:15. There are a few cars in the parking area, but I have the trail by myself for now. The 1.3 miles to the saddle starts in forest on a soft dirt and fir needle floor. Herself is behind me, the Tatoosh Range above me. The sun hasn’t risen above the ridge line, keeping the trail in the shade. It was 57º when I left the car, but I’m closer to the sun here, and I know when it shows itself, it will get hot fast.
The alpine scent overcomes me. Other places have that scent, but there is something about this Park that is the smell of childhood. The picnic table just below Paradise where my mother passed out paper plates to my father, my sisters and me, the tuna sandwiches she mixed with tiny chopped sweet gherkin pickles and meticulously spread to four corners of the white bread before we left home, packing them in the cooler with the blue frozen gel pack. The grey jays—camp robbers—squawking from the trees waiting for a dropped crumb and the chipmunks that ran right up onto the table and grabbed potato chips from our plates.
I climb steeply above timberline onto shale and past talus fields, where I build an inukshuk to show Mama where to come. The stones I choose refuse to balance, and my eye is on the rising sun. I get a few to stay standing, shoot some film, tell Mama to find me, and move on.
There are no scary parts. I come up with four possible explanations for my memory: 1) faulty memory, 2) it’s beyond the saddle, 3) the trail has been widened in the past 50 years, 4) I’ve become a less fearful person. They are all feasible. Even #3. There is one stretch that could have been it, the up slope side has a long human-made retaining wall and the trail has been extended in width. I won’t solve the puzzle today, because I’m not going to the Peak.
I reach my destination at 9:45. A marmot greets me at the door, as the trail busts open into the sun above the meadows looking out over the Cascade Range. It is breathtaking.
The layers of mountains in the haze remind of the Smoky Mountains, except these newer mountains are more rugged, of course. And today, anyway, it really is smoke. The left coast is on fire, obscuring Mt. Adams, which I know is right ahead of me. I suppose St. Helens is out there too.
Signage (the only one up here) says the maintained trail ends at the door between the cliffs and there are paths everywhere down into the meadow. I know the trail to the left is Pinnacle Peak, and guess the one to the right is Plummers Peak, which I am thinking of going to.
I decide to start with the meadow. There are a dozen two- and three–pronged choices. Which are trails and which snow melt routes? There are boot prints in all of them. There aren’t even any signs like those dotting the meadows at Paradise to tell me what is not a trail. I start one way, then retrace my steps and go another, deciding later I was right the first time. Or not.
No matter, it’s wide open and all trails go to the same place: across the meadow where a streams babbles down, and on across to a ridge where the trail gets lost in the rocks. I keep going, watching boot prints and looking ahead to where I can pick up the trail that’s not a trail again. I want to see what’s around the corner and over the ridge. Probably more of the vast sweep of mountains, and St. Helens and Hood, no doubt. But they will be hidden, and it’s become clear this is not a way to Plummer’s Peak.
I turn back and sit on a flat rock in the stream where a little waterfall drops into a pool in a flat spot then gives way to the tumble again. It’s perfect, though not very photogenic, like it was created for a Pixar movie. The insects are keeping to themselves too. I wish I’d brought Rebecca here last week instead of here.
I don’t have much time today, I have out-of-town guests coming and oodles to do before they arrive. As I clamber back up through the deep cuts from last month’s snow melt, I observe a young couple on the Pinnacle Peak trail. She scampers right around a curve, while he proceeds with extreme caution. I see his foot slip once on what looks like a very narrow trail. Aha! Is that the spot? It looks embarrassingly short to have occupied such a large space in my memory for five decades.
I get back to the doorway and decide to go a little way toward Plummer’s Peak. I go far enough to decide next time I will go farther. Then I go up the other trail to check out the scary spot. It is narrow, and there is evidence that it has been slid off of. But to unintentionally glissade would not be world without end. At the very worst, there’s a large bush that would break a slide. I could do it. Of course, I don’t know what’s beyond. And it’s in the sun from the get go.
Back at the doorway, the young couple is eating lunch in the shade. They offer to take my photo with Herself. I take theirs. I ask them where they are from. They live in Portland, he says, but she is from the Netherlands and he is from Ohio. It’s only later I realize with a chuckle how perfectly that explains their performance I had observed on the trail.
I meet many hikers coming up as I head down, in full on sun. They are panting and red-faced. I’m sorry for them, and congratulate myself on my early arrival. It explains the discrepancy in the assessment of the trail difficulty. Easy to moderate if you hike in the shade, strenuous if in the sun. My inukshuk is still standing!
I get back to Flutterby at 11:45, and head up to Paradise. I need to go to the bathroom, if there’s a parking spot, and I want to see when the parking lot fills up on a weekday, for future reference. Before noon is the answer. I drive slowly past the overnight lot, there are cars circling the two aisles. I go on to the regular lot, cars are circling. I didn’t take my boots off when I finished hiking, because I was NOT going to be seen at Paradise in flip flops even if I was only going to the bathroom. So I’m stuck in them now.
At the edge of the lot, Just before I head down the one road loop route on the other side of the valley, I turn into the lot. What the heck. Maybe I’ll get lucky. I head for the last aisle. An engine starts up and back-up lights come on in the car beside me. I put ‘er in reverse and score the absolute closest spot to the Inn.
The parked cars snake down the road below the Inn. At the Park entrance, 45 minutes down from Paradise, there is a long line of cars waiting to get in. I wonder where they think they will park. Flutterby’s thermometer says 81º. I will be back on Thursday with my mid-Atlantic coast friend. We’ll be arriving early.
Meanwhile, the Pinnacle trail has been redeemed, after 50 years.
#adventurelog, Adventure Log, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Daughter on Duty, family caregiving, hikes at Snoqualmie Pass, hiking in the PNW, Kendall Katwalk, meeting the spirit of dead loved ones, memories of my mother, mothers and daughters, Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, solo hiking
Dateline: July 17, 2018
I can’t tell you what Kendall Katwalk looks like, because after some 17 miles of a 12-mile hike, and 9-1/2 hours on the trail, I didn’t get to it. But I’m ahead of myself.
It’s not my usual start to a hike, nor my usual region. I spend the night in Seattle with the family so I can get an early start for a hike in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The Littles get up early, so it isn’t difficult to be on the road at 5:15. Missing my lovely coffee kiosk in Centralia, I have to settle for Starbucks, the only thing open.
The adventure begins with two interstates rather than SW Washington back roads. The trailhead is just 2/10ths of a mile from I-90; and now I know one of the upsides of the miles of potholed, washboard forest service road routes to trailheads: the trails are miles from the madding crowd. The roar of traffic accompanies me for much of the hike, and the stupendous views of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness include the interstate and the Alpental ski resort at Snoqualmie Pass.
I’m on the trail (part of the Pacific Crest) before 7am, while the temperature is still refreshing. It’s going to be another hot one before I’m done, but I plan to miss the worst of it. It’s a 12-mile hike with 2600 feet elevation gain, both of which are at my limit. Though not super steep, the trail is relentlessly up, for a long time. It’s not the most beautiful forest I’ve been in, and other than a couple of stream crossings, it’s monotonous. The other advantage of FS road approaches: a lot of the upshit is in the car and the trailhead is closer to the payoff point.
It gives me plenty of time for reflection. Of course my thoughts turn to my mother, a relationship that is now frozen in time for the rest of my life. I can’t change it, but I can better understand it. I continue to speculate on her shame at not caring well for her mother (her belief), and her obsession with “helping” me not have the same regrets.
First of all, while of course I have regrets, I know I could not have done better. I can re-story the past—cast it in a different light—but I can’t change it. She was who she was and I am who I am. That doesn’t change because she’s gone. My mother, however, had re-storyed her relationship with her own ancient mother into some falsehood she spent the next 30 years being mired in guilt over. “Someday you will understand what it’s like to be old,” she told me, wanting me to understand right then.
As I walk, one foot in front of the other, the road noise a constant companion, my thoughts return again to how easily I forgot the challenges after she died. What I understood, because I educated myself, was that she could not (or would not) comprehend my attempts to reason with her. (Mostly I was never sure if that was a brain thing or a control thing.) And her brain could not assimilate multiple pieces of information thrown at her at once, i.e. normal conversation. What I also understood was that understanding that did not make it any less frustrating. Probably there are more patient people than I; I was and am, at least outwardly, more patient with people who are not my mother. You can’t ever leave your ancient history with your mother behind. I forgave myself in advance for any sorrow at not being able to do it better that might linger after she was gone.
I’m sure she had the same issues in caring for her mother. Her mother was maddening, and no amount of understanding that she was old could make my mother less frustrated and hurt. Difference was, she turned the re-storying after death into failure and shame at not doing it better.
My mother worked out her shame by telling her mother’s story for the rest of her life: on paper, on cassette tapes, and verbally to anyone who would listen. I suppose I am doing the same, seeking to reconcile any hurt between us, forgiving myself, forgiving her, hoping she forgives me.
Surprisingly, the two young women in the parking lot when I left don’t catch up to me until two miles in. By the end of the day I will see several pairs of women hiking together—college students, I surmise. I think of my mother hiking with her girlfriends in the Smokies, until they met men and probably never hiked without them again. It makes me kind of sad.
At one hour, the trail finally gets more interesting as it breaks out of the trees to cross a talus slope with a jaw-dropping view. A solitary pica scurries from rock to rock, but doesn’t let me take its picture. If I squint my ears, I can imagine the highway noise to be a rushing river. I build a cairn to help my mother find her way.
I plunge back into trees after resetting my mother’s pedometer that I finally remembered to bring, forgetting to press start at the trailhead. When I get back to the car I’ll add two miles.
I’m more than ready when I finally leave the woods behind for the rest of the ascent. Kendall Gardens, at 5000 feet elevation, is full of heather, bunch berry, penstemon, phlox, columbine, paintbrush, spirea (I’m trying to learn the flowers). Mt. Rainier graces the horizon behind me whenever I look back.
Some time later, in a snow patch, I take an overgrown path a few feet off the trail to a sweet overlook. Back to the snow patch, I continue.
I come to what I assume is Kendall Katwalk at what, according to the pedometer, is about the right mileage: maybe a bit over 6 miles. I had no intention of crossing what was described by its name and by the WTA as a narrow path blasted out of the side of a rock face. Though trip reports said it wasn’t really scary, I figured I had no need to prove to myself I could do it.
However, Mt. Rainier is peaking around the curve at the end, and I have that gosh darn curiosity about what’s around corners. It really isn’t bad at all and my aeroacrophobia doesn’t kick in. Or maybe I’ve just learned to channel my inner mountain goat; which reminds me, I really need to clean the roof.
I walk a few yards beyond, until the trail starts down, then turn around. When I get to the beginning side of the Katwalk, I reset my pedometer again, noting that it says four miles, plus the two I missed at the beginning, of course. This should be exactly half way, giving me a more accurate reading than adding on approximate mileage at the end. I pass the snow patch and stop beyond to eat my lunch. The bugs attack when I stop and I apply Vick’s Vapo-rub, which put the insects off but does nothing for the taste of my lunch.
As I walk again, a moth lands on the orange bear whistle that hangs from my pack. And stays and stays, slowly lifting its wings up and down. I begin moving again with it riding along, until a gnat flies into my mouth and I blow it out, blowing the moth off too. It reminds me of the time Mama said she had a stomach ache and told the hospice nurse she might have swallowed a fly, or maybe a lady bug. (She was serious. Read the story here.) Right after that, I see a ladybug on a flower stretching out into the trail. A true deep red ladybug, not those pale Asian intruders that fill my living room windows. Crazy. I think the moth (the first four letters of mother) is Mama’s spirit letting me know she forgives me, and sending the ladybug just in case I don’t get it.
That’s when I begin to sense trouble. It steals in as silently as the beating wings of the moth. Was the moth(er) warning me or reassuring me in advance that all would be well?
The trail doesn’t seem familiar, there weren’t this many snow patches on the way up, were there? I meet two young men who passed me on the way up and I’m more confused. I puzzle over it for the next mile. How could I have gotten to the destination ahead of them? I convince myself that they stopped somewhere or took a detour, otherwise I will think myself mad. But really, was there this much snow?
Then I spot a lake. There was no lake on the way up.
And a wide expanse of snow, which I cross, knowing there was absolutely nothing like this before. And it’s scary. The snow is getting soft and there are melted out holes that go way down to rocks below. It’s an invisible talus field, and the foot tracks across it are not over the solid path that will be obvious in coming weeks.
On the other side I meet another pair of young women.
“Is this the way to Summit West parking lot?” I ask them. They tell me it is. The way they are going. Not the way I am going.
“Kendall Katwalk isn’t that way?” I ask, pointing in the direction from which I’ve come.
“No,” they say, “it’s across there,” pointing the way they’ve come from, across a divide to another slope.
What the fuck? How did I mess up? Surely there were no other trails. They kindly tell me they got a little confused too. They ask if I crossed a narrow place. Yes. With a big lake below? No. I tell them I’m going just around the curve where they tell me there are two lakes; and that I’m not looking forward to crossing the snow field again.
I glance at the lakes and scurry back the way they were going, realizing I don’t want to lose them and spending not a second’s regret that I won’t see the Katwalk and I won’t be back. They’re going where I’m going and I suddenly wonder if I’m having a dementia event. My mother thought I suffered it. They finish crossing the field and feign a need to stop and rest. I think they are waiting to make sure the dotty old woman makes it. I’m not sorry they’re waiting. When they see that I’ll be fine, they leave. I hike fast to keep a visual on them, but eventually they are too fast for me.
I come to the first familiar snow patch again. There has been no trail I might have missed. But there must have been. I’m tired now and it’s hot. I’m scared. I don’t know what’s more terrifying: I’ve lost my mind or I’ve lost the trail. There are plenty of people up here, I know I’ll get back, so I just concentrate on where I left my mind.
I turn back the way I came again. I meet a trail runner (he’s not the first one, and they make me think I’m not the only crazy person up here), and ask him which direction the parking lot is. He tells me that’s where he’s headed and assures me I can’t miss it.
I turn around once more, cross the narrow trail I thought was the Katwalk for what I think is the third time, but is obviously the fourth.
I work out what must have happened. At that first snow patch when I briefly left the trail, I wasn’t paying attention and instead of continuing toward the Katwalk, I turned the way I had come from. The narrow chiseled portion of the trail must have looked different going the opposite direction and I didn’t recognize that I had been there.
I think I will never get back to the markers I know are coming: the shade, the stream crossing, the first talus slope, the picnic table just in from the trailhead. I’m exhausted. My feet hurt. Though I’m not aware until I empty the water bladder in my pack at home, I’ve consumed most of my water. It’s a couple hours after I get back to Seattle, that I realize the insects were biters and I itch from neck to ankles. The pedometer says 11 miles, I add the six I figured I hiked before the last resetting. No wonder I’m tired. (I’m not sure of the pedometer’s accuracy, since the length of a stride up mountains and over rocks, roots, and rivers are not the consistent length of those on a track.)
I let the family know I won’t be there for dinner and stop for a salmon burger and beer at the ski resort village. I need to relax before I hit rush hour traffic in Seattle. It’s not Basecamp Grill at Rainier, and Snoqualmie is not the Gifford Pinchot. It’s good to get out, but there’s no place like home, Dorothy.
Postscript: Turns out what I thought was the Katwalk really was the Katwalk. I did get there. And crossed it four times. The lake I almost got to was well beyond my destination. Vindicated.
#adventurelog, #ilovewhereilive, Adventure Log, Anne Lamott, Daughter on Duty, Ed's Trail, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Help Thanks Wow, hiking, hiking in the PNW, Lewis River Region, Silver Star Mountain Trail, Washington Trails Association, Yacoult Burn State Forest
Dateline: July 11, 2018
Help. Thanks. Wow!
The prayer that is sufficient for everything is applicable for this hike in all its essential bits. The impassible road; the belated arrival at the parking area; the soul-expanding, eye-popping majesty of Creation.
The day starts at 5:30 at the espresso kiosk where my favorite barista is on duty. She hasn’t been there the past couple of times and I’ve had to tell the replacement my order. As she whizzes up my 16 oz. extra-hot latte without asking what I want, she asks me about the hike I had been off on last time she saw me, remembering it had been my birthday. (That was three weeks ago.) I tell her about the unexpected adventure and we chat about where I’m off to this time. She asks me if I’ve been to Goat Creek (yes). I give her my blogger card so she can read about this adventure, and I’m off, off to a great beginning.
It is, again, my favorite kind of morning to drive south on I-5: the sun’s promise glowing just above the horizon through the fog, blue sky above as it clears. I’m going three-quarters of the way to Portland, so I settle into Flutterby’s comfy seats (made by NASA, I’ve heard), with my latte and recorded book.
I should have used the exit instructions on the WTA website, but Google Maps had a different idea so I have two sets of directions. It’s probably a short-cut from the north, so I take it, later wishing I had consulted an actual physical map first instead of waiting until I get lost. I have a pretty good sense of direction and a compass on my dash, and I like depending on them. With not much help from Siri, I get back on track eventually. Part of the adventure.
I heard about this trail in the Lewis River Region for the first time from a friend of my sister’s who was there over the weekend. “The road is the worst I’ve ever been on,” she told me. “Worse than Goat Creek?” I wondered. Now that was a bad road. WTA warned of the road to Silver Star too. “Must have a high clearance vehicle and 4-wheel drive.” Check and check.
First you drive 6.6 miles up a bumpy DNR road creatively named L1100, then you turn off onto Road 4109 “a road to the right going uphill.” It’s unmarked, as are several roads going uphill to the right before it. I watch for the clues offered by the WTA and hope for the best.
The “best” cannot be attributed to Road 4109. It’s not just potholes, but abysses. I go .4 of the 2.7 miles to the trailhead and stop at the grand canyon of ruts.
In spite of all-wheel-drive, Flutterby’s rear wheels are spinning without purchase. She’s digging in her heels, screaming “hell no!” The ravine on the right as I scrape vegetation on the left will swallow half the car if I fall in. Maybe, I think, CuRVy’s wheels—my 20-year-old Honda CRV that is no longer mine—could have hugged the edges, but Flutterby’s wider body is not going to flit by; there will be no return from a missed calculation. Plus I don’t know what’s coming up.
I briefly wonder what other trail I can find in the area, foiled again by a road as I was on my birthday. But, no! The road may defeat me, but the goal will not! There just happens to be room not only to turn around, but to park out of the way right there before the chasm. I will walk.
I lace up my boots, unfold my trekking poles, and take off.
I know I walk uphill at about 2 miles an hour, and I figure this will be all up. But there won’t be any photo ops, so I project an hour for the 2.3 miles. I’m already behind the time I thought I would be at the trailhead, what with chatting with the barista, getting lost en route, and the surety that Google Maps didn’t take the condition of L1100 and Road 4109 into account in their projections. Still, it’s only 8:45 and the hike itself is just 5 miles RT. I can for sure add 4.6 miles, albeit boring ones.
As I walk, my mind strays to my years as Daughter on Duty. I lived with my mother for almost five years before the road defeated me; but the goal did not. There was not a good option then for staying on the road I started off on, there is no option for this road but to choose another mode of transportation. I tried through those 5 years at home with Mama to take the high road, but often found myself on the edge of the rut I kept falling into, never learning that you can’t fight dementia with reason. You just can’t. Moving her to assisted living was not defeat, nor is this, they are just different roads to the same end.
At exactly the one-hour mark, I round a curve and there ahead the road ends in a giant keyhole, and the horizon opens up.
I would have felt the road hike worth it even if I went no farther than the parking lot. There is Mt. St. Helens and the vista that stretches to the silhouetted Olympic Mountains. The Pacific Ocean is out there somewhere beyond the towns on the valley floor and the patchwork of forest and selective clear cuts and reforesting. My father would be proud that I’m seeing the view not as travesty as I once did as a cocky youth, but as using and replenishing for another generation our renewable natural resources.
The WTA’s trail instructions are unclear. There are many options here as the two trails wind up the mountain, one on the west side overlooking the valley, the other on the east overlooking the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. But the WTA gave a cautionary tale about a stretch in which a slipping foot would be disastrous on Ed’s Trail, on the east side; so when I arrive at the junction, I will stay on the wide rocky Silver Star trail to the west.
At the diversion of the trails, my heart expands right out of my chest, my eyes open wide.
Mt. St. Helens has company: Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams; the three white queens laid out in a row. And, turning 90º, there is Mt. Hood. Snowy mountains against cerulean sky beyond verdant forests. I’m a little disoriented at first, viewing the girls not from the angle I’m accustomed to; but eventually I figure it out and name them.
I take a long drink of it all, then start up the trail not marked “Ed’s Trail.” Signage will remain sketchy (i.e. non-existent) as the trails enter and leave the one I’m on and crisscross the mountain between the two trails. I expect they all go up, though, to the pointed peak I can see above me. If I hit the scary place, I can always retrace my steps and take another route.
“How many stars could you see from here?” I wonder, when I come upon a fire pit on a wide windy spit of meadow.
As I hike, the sound waves are full of the hum of nectar-seeking bees in the profusion of paintbrush, Queen Anne’s lace, tiger lily, columbine, pasque flower, penstemon, Oregon iris, gentian, bear grass, elephant’s head, valerian, and on and on. Butterflies silently flit from bloom to bloom with the same goal. Is this even real?
I turn around when the trail begins to descend into the forest on the other end, backpacking country. After lunch on a rock at the top of world, I head back down the rocky trail until I get to a cross path I saw on the way up and take it. I reach the top and look down on the Gifford Pinchot, across to Mt. Hood. The trail continues both up and down. I wonder if it’s Ed’s Trail, and decide to give it a try for the return to the parking area. I can always return to the familiar safe trail, I tell myself again.
I meet two guys coming up. They confirm it is indeed Ed’s Trail; the best side, they say. They tell me the place “with a bit of a scramble” is on up, beyond where I came from. Yay! They have been here many times, they say, and have never seen the road like it is. They came in a jeep,. They tell me there are two 4×4 pickups in the parking area and more cars down where mine is. I’m not a chicken shit, just wise.
I get back to my car, meeting another rugged pick-up truck, and find Flutterby’s had company, and another car has just arrived. The driver directs me out of my tight parking spot without scraping bottom on the drop off between car and road. He tells me this is his favorite hiking spot. “Two years ago the road was not like this,” he says. If the road gets improved (which seems unlikely), I will go back. If not, I’ll move on to other trails. I have weekly summer hikes all laid out until mid-September with two weeks free for make-up dates or additions. Only two are trails I’ve hiked before. God, I love where I live.
What a day, what a way to forget the horrors of the world for a few hours and bask in the beauty of the way it was intended to be. Thank you, thank you to all that was, is, and will be that my legs can carry me to places like this for now. I think of my parents, who surely never came here, but would have loved it. I carry them with me always.
When I get home and showered, I sit on the deck with an Alaskan amber and the western tanager makes a return. A young one this time, it’s the second I’ve seen since my mother died, and only the third time I’ve seen one in the six years (I missed my anniversary last week, BTW) since my return to the PNW. It sits on the railing post, head cocked, observing me; like it’s looking right into me. Hopping two posts closer to the feeder, it turns toward me again. “Hi, Mama,” I say. It looks a moment longer then flies off, passing the feeder that clearly wasn’t its interest.
It’s an unpretentious name for a lake in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Gifford Pinchot National Forest that’s been on my hike list for a while. After all, it’s just a public water source; undeserving, apparently, of a name like The Enchantments or something.
After six miles of forest service road above the tiny mountain town of Packwood, Flutterby and I arrive just before 9am to an empty parking lot with Mt. Rainier looming across the valley against cloudless blue.
It’s an easy 5 mile hike in to the lake, just 600 feet of barely noticeable elevation change, and I don’t really need my trekking poles, but I use them anyway. Really, I do need them. My joints are aging, they distribute the abuse; nevertheless, I am hurting by the time I get back to Flutterby. Ten miles is a long hike for so early in the season. And there is hiking on snow, and several blown down trees to scramble over.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m a slow hiker, I’m okay with that. I hike alone, who cares what my pace is. I don’t. Two, two and a half miles an hour gets me where I want to go. Of course I brake for photo-ops. I remember my mother’s frequent stops on family hikes for picture taking and plant identification. Drove me and my sisters crazy. And now I’m as obsessed as she was. Thank goodness for digital cameras. And solo hiking.
Snow melt has been recent along this trail, as noted by the flattened but not defeated ferns. (Is everything a metaphor for my mother’s old age and death?) The snow under the trees, and in patches on the trail the last maybe mile, competes for season’s rights with the lush green moss and budding shrubs, where death meets rebirth. The creeks are full as they tumble down from the top of the mountain, trickling across the trail where I rock hop across.
I look down at my feet to dozens of heart-shaped rocks. My mother collected them, so I look for one to take home and add to hers. But once picked up and examined, they merely look like rocks, so I leave them lie.
I arrive above the lake, sparkling and clear, Herself reflected right in front of me. I stop breathing for a minute.
When my breath returns, I continue up the trail that skirts the lake for a while, stopping when a serious blow down over a wide creek helps me decide I’m done. I go off-trail over to the lake where I sit on a log and eat my lunch mesmerized by the mountain. The blue sky. The clear lake. The green green. “Stellajoe,” my father would say to my mother, “how would you like to live in a place like this on a day like this?” I would! I do!
I sit on the log for an hour with my notebook and pen, writing a beginning of my part of my mother’s eulogy. I cry again for her loss and for my gain to have been her daughter; in gratitude that my parents migrated to this land where I can always find them in places of beauty.
The only people I encounter all day are a party of four that passes me on the way back, and their dog named Grace; and a party of two I meet an hour later, and their dog named Grace. Grace has walked with me for the past two weeks since my mother entered her final bit of the journey, when grace walked her home. I carried her with me today.
Dateline: August 15, 2017
Snowgrass Flat, Gifford Pinchot NF, Goat Rocks
8.2 miles, + the added loop and my mistake
It was not an auspicious start to the day, I overslept—a rare occurrence. I didn’t wake up until the time I had hoped to leave the house. I carried written directions this time, not relying on memory, like I did when I went to Mowich Lake several weeks ago and ran down my car battery while I tried to figure out where I needed to be.
What I forgot was the WTA (Washington Trails Association) assumes everyone is coming from Seattle, and the inconspicuous sign I wasn’t yet looking for to Forest Service Road #21, was a right turn before Packwood, not a left turn beyond Packwood. Ten miles past the turn, while waiting at the beginning of the line for the pilot truck to take traffic past road construction, clock ticking and knowing this was good and truly not right, I realized I had a Gifford Pinchot map in the car door. That’s when I remembered I wasn’t coming from Seattle. I hate it when part of the adventure is my own stupidity.
I turned around in the La Wis Wis Campground entrance, which fortunately was right beside me, before having to pass the road construction and wait in line again. A victory.
The 15.5 miles of gravel FS road (with a stretch of serious washboard, but no potholes) took 45 minutes. I was at the trailhead at 10, an hour and a half past when I wanted to be there. The ambrosia alpine scent began right at the parking lot. It’s a smell that could make a person pass out, and it drove away any lingering disgust with myself.
The first hour through the beautiful forest was virtually, stunningly flat, with a few low grade downs that would be ups on the return. I chose this trail partly because at 8 miles, it wasn’t the 14 Indian Henry’s was. I wasn’t ready for that much again so soon. I didn’t expect it to be easy, though.
It started up, then, but never did get particularly difficult. Indian Henry’s is my comparison now; this was a piece of cake. And there were a few huckleberries to sweeten the climb! Also water features that are always a distraction. And glimpses of mountain peaks.
Climbing to these “parks” is like the heroes’ journey, the prescripted writing of novels and movies. The trail starts getting closer to the crowns of the trees and there are glimpses of the sky opening up beyond them. Your heart quickens for the climax; then nope, not yet. Then anticipation builds again toward the climax; and again, not yet.
Then, finally, the trail breaks out of the curtain of trees and stretched out ahead is the glorious open-meadow vista, the curve of the azure sky, the horizon of mountains, the flowers. And you want to fall to your knees, toss back your head, throw out your arms, and sigh or shout, sing or whisper: thank you, thank you, thank you.
I guess that sounds like sex. But I have more experience with the heroes’ journey than I do with sex. (Speaking of sex, did you know grasshoppers can hop while mating? Awkward.)
There were an unusual number of hikers at the top who were likely using their Senior Access passes on this glorious day. It was nice to see “my people” there. I even spoke to some.
In spite of the rigors of the road to get here, Snowgrass Flat is the most popular hike in the Gifford Pinchot. A note on the kiosk at the trailhead warns not to be surprised if there were 100 people at the flat. There weren’t that many on a weekday, still there were more than I usually see anywhere other than Paradise.
I knew many of the cars in the full parking area were backpackers. There are a plethora of campsites scattered about the meadows and in the trees, and it’s part of a network of trails, including the Pacific Crest. This is a national forest, not a national park. Although it is well cared for, the rules of use are less stringent. I even thought it possible I could manage to pack into here myself. The thought of watching the sun set and the sun rise in this place made my heart leap up. A personal questing time, perhaps. Probably won’t happen, but a girl can dream. I feel strong.
One of the (backpacking) elders I spoke with suggested I take the loop back. It’s two sides of a small triangle out of the meadow that follows the PCT for a ways then loops back via Trail 97 to Trail 96 (Snowgrass). I had seen that on the kiosk map and decided NOT to do it, given my late start. I confess I had in the back of my mind, if I got back to Packwood early enough, I could return home via Ashford and the Base Camp Grill.
Temptation overcame judgement; I decided what the heck, I would do it. But I wasn’t ready to head back yet. I walked on through the meadow on the PCT to a cairn on a small patch of dirt, and stood glorying in the vista. I gazed, further tempted, at the green hill beyond me, wanting to know with all my heart what could be seen beyond it. Possibly Mt. Adams and Mt. Baker, maybe even Mt. Hood, though it was a little hazy low on the horizon. The man who urged me to take the loop said the highest Washington point on the PCT is somewhere just over there.
But if I was returning by an unfamiliar route, I best not. I built my own wobbly cairn (falling as I snapped the shot) instead, took one more wistful look at the hill, and started back down the trail. I would be here again. I could save it for another day.
I met two women of my age or so coming up from the way I was headed. “It’s beautiful,” they said. Affirmation.
I watched a couple pikas playing in a talus field, trying and failing to get a good photo before they scampered off. And I missed the intersection with Trail 97. I thought it seemed too far, and it was getting late. I was a teeny bit anxious. Finally I knew it couldn’t possibly be right. I asked the next hikers I met. Yep, missed it. Maybe 3/4 of a mile back. The signs up here, unlike national parks, are mostly nailed on trees. This one was on the back of one, from the direction I’d come. Also they don’t have miles on them. And there are a lot of unmarked trails, that might not be trails.
I came to a river crossing, on logs and stones. The sign sorta sign said to cross it. It was nearly 4:00 now, and getting dark and shadowy in the trees. I met someone coming up. Okay, that’s a good sign. She liked my hat. I liked hers. Just as I was getting anxious again, I came to the trail intersection. Never been quite so glad to see a familiar place.
It was a beautiful loop. I’m glad I did it.
I scurried on down the trail and got to the car at 5:30. No time for the Grill. Next summer. Late July or so for the flowers.
I have picked a gloriosity of hikes this summer. Spray Park at Mowich Lake, Indian Henry’s at Longmire”—both at the height of the flowers. This one I will do again. And again. As long as I can. It’s my new Paradise, sans crowds and traffic.