Not My Mountain, the last day
I coax myself out of bed before the first hint of dawn on my last morning; the coldest of my four days here. The first two mornings were veiled in smoky haze, the third was overcast. This morning, though, I can see starlight through the trees from my tent window.
I slide into my flip flops and zip up my jacket. Wrapping my blanket around me, I slip through the trees in the dark to my chair by the lake. Pinpoints of light dot the sky. I identify the Big Dipper hanging right above the silhouetted mountain, but find nothing else familiar. I look for Orion, but can’t spot it. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the night sky. Even on my hill above my small town—unlike when I was growing up here—there is too much light.
I sit and breath in the silence and wonder until a weak glow begins to blot out the stars around the horizon, then return to my bed to get warm, reading by the light of the lantern.
At 6:00, I return to the lake. Only the bright planet remains visible in the still-dark sky. Owls call from the forest as dawn come; the mergansers fish. One dives suddenly, and comes up with a tiny forage fish. One of its mates fights for it, while the third floats on, looking for its own. Each time a fish is caught, the duck stands up in the water, perhaps to lengthen its gullet for the fish to slide down. I hope for an eagle or an osprey, but they still don’t show up.
Upright wisps of mist float across the far side of the lake, like a heavenly host of skaters silently gliding on an ice-covered pond. I imagine them to include my father and his brothers and sisters on their Michigan farm lake, and I weep for longing of those bygone days when they were young and I was not yet here. I feel embraced by their presence, even as they remain distant from me. Do they know I am here? Watching? Perhaps my tears are for my mother, the last (wo)man standing. I wish she could join them, released from the bounds of her own darkness here in this world.
The sky brightens, and suddenly the glow of the sun—no longer the red ball of the first smoky mornings—peeks above the tree line. The chipmunks scamper out of their nest to greet it, pausing to honor the new day. As it quickly rises into place, they move on to find breakfast.
With a sigh of contentment, I rise too as the camp begins to stir, to make coffee, then return to the lake edge to bask in the sun’s warmth one more time before I make my last breakfast and take down camp. The ghost skaters have left the lake and so must I.
Every place on the planet is beautiful at dawn.
I return home around the east side of the Mt. Hood Scenic Loop. I am glad to see “my mountain” across the river.
I visit Multnomah Falls with a throng of people. As it turns out, we are one of the last throngs to visit for now, due to the wildfire engulfing the area. Three days later the interstate the Falls sits beside closes, along with the Bridge of the Gods crossing the Columbia River to Washington (which the fire jumped). Today, the fire is only 8% contained, and the highway remains closed pending removal of some 200 unstable trees in danger of falling on the roadway and to check for loose boulders.
The Eagle Creek fire is thought to be caused by teens throwing fireworks into the Gorge. I am sick and horrified, sad and angry at the resulting change in this wilderness; even as I am reminded that it is wilderness. It will return, different, as happens in wild places subject to mischief of nature and of humans.
Mt. Hood is not my mountain, but I’m grateful I was there last week (and not this week).
Cheryl Strayed, cute animal photos, Hoodview Campground, Mt. Hood, Mt. Hood National Forest, Olallie Lake Resort, Olallie Lake Scenic Area, Pacific Crest Trail, Timothy Lake, Whitewater fire, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Willamette National Forest
Not My Mountain, the Fourth Day
The morning sky is dramatic this morning, the mountain hidden behind clouds until the sun comes up. I eat my breakfast with the wildlife.
I’m torn between wanting to explore and yearning to spend the day at my campsite reading and writing. I’m becoming more sure, though, that I won’t be back across the border any summer soon, so I opt for a short explore.
There’s a branch off the road to the campground, with a sign pointing to “Olallie Lake, 25 miles.” I Google it. “Olallie Lakes Scenic Area,” “Olallie Lake Resort.” I picture the Olympic Peninsula’s Lake Quinault Resort. I will take my lunch and book in case it’s really beautiful and I want to stick around. Otherwise, I figure three hours, max.
I head out at 9:45, checking my odometer at the intersection. Eleven miles in, the road changes to one lane at a fork. Not one way, one lane, with frequent wide spaces to pull off. There’s a sign: “Olallie Lake, 28 miles.” I’m no math genius, but 25 minus 11 does not make 28. The only thing to tell me which way to go, is a 42 painted on the pavement. I hope I’m supposed to stay on the same road.
I go another mile and a half and there is another small road sign: “Olallie Lake, 28 miles.” Have I stumbled into the Twilight Zone?
Roadside bushes encroach onto the jagged margins of the pavement. At least it’s paved, and pothole free. I meet no cars.
Ten more miles and I see a T in the road ahead. And a car! And a sign! The cross road is a two-lane, with a newly painted yellow line down the center. I discover I had been holding my breath just a little. The sign informs I am in Bull Trout Country! And that if I don’t know, I should let it go. I don’t know if that means anglers can only keep the bull trout or only anything else. What I do know is, it’s not any help to me at all. Did I mention I have no map? (Though as I write this, I remember there might still be an old atlas in the drawer under the passenger seat. Too late now, and that road probably isn’t on it anyway.) I intuit that I need to turn right.
I pass signs to other campground along the way, but nothing about Olallie. The road follows the curve of the river that runs along side it, and is beautiful, but I begin to think I’m not in the right place. The 25 miles, no, 39 miles, has now been 50 miles. Did I miss a sign? Or…
I come upon a ranger station slash camp store, but I don’t see it in time to pull off. It’s several more miles, down the mountain, before I can turn around. So far this quick explore is more of an adventure than I had intended today.
In the ranger station/store, I tell the ranger/store clerk my confusion. She pulls out a map that is just a bunch of road numbers on lines with no pattern at all. But yeah, I was supposed to turn left at the Bull Trout sign. She highlights the route, xxxing out a road that is the direct line to my destination. “It’s closed,” she says. “Fire.” Terrific.
I head back the way I came. At the Bull Trout sign I look for what I missed. Or what was missing. There are two posts with NOTHING ATTACHED TO THEM! But, golly, I’m glad to know about the fish.
I find the turnoff to the lake: 14 miles farther. How could this part be 14 miles and the whole thing was advertised at 25?
After six miles, what had been fir forest, then mixed conifer, is now pine. I groan. My provincialism kicks in. I have no affinity for pine trees, nor for the environments in which they live.
With the change to pine forest, the one-lane paved road drops off to gravel with Honda-swallowing potholes. The speedometer needle hovers around zero. Eight miles of this? I consider turning around, cut my losses. But I’ve come this far, and my mother-grown curiosity to see it out wins the debate battling in my head. I have been meeting a fair number of cars. If I break an axle or blow a tire, I’m not alone. Did I mention AT&T in Oregon has its limits? If not for the pine trees, the road might have made me think the destination was worth the trouble.
There is also a Vanagon behind me. They apparently thought at two miles an hour I wanted to go faster, and they had pulled over and let me pass. I guess I was going faster, because I lost them in rear view mirror.
An hour later (eight miles, remember), I arrive at the lake, car intact. It is no Lake Quinault Resort. Though the lake is pretty, I immediately wish I had stayed put at “my lake.” But then what would I have written about?
The Vanagon pulls in about 10 minutes behind me. They come here often, the husband tells me, and the road has never been this bad. When his wife returns, she tells me the road gets worse every year. But she has never seen it so smoky. “There’s a fire close by,” she says, confirming what the ranger told me. “And Mt. Jefferson is right there across the lake.” Not today. Later, when I look at pictures online, I see Mt. Hood is behind the cabins, as well. Not today. I feel cheated.
The resort is a stop on the Pacific Crest Trail. I wonder if Cheryl Strayed slept here. I need to reread her memoir. In back of the store, I find a box of items “for PCT hikers only,” and remember Cheryl left things in such boxes to lighten her pack.
I eat my lunch with a pair of chipmunks. Cute, but I know their teeth are sharp and I don’t care to know how sharp. I snap a couple photos and shoo them away. Several times. Then return to my car.
This time I can anticipate some of the potholes, and the eight miles takes just 40 minutes. Six hours, 125 miles later, I can at least say I have explored the Oregon back country. Still not my mountain. I pray the last beer in the cooler is still cold.
As of today, September 7, the Whitewater Fire has burned 13,000 acres. It was discovered two days before my excursion to Olallie Lake. Cause unknown.
Adventure Log, cute animal photos, Hoodview Campground, Lake Timothy, Little Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, Mt. Hood historic Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood Meadows, Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon wildfires, sunrises, sunset
As I write this, five days after my return to Washington, Mt. Hood National Forest is on fire. I’ve spent too much time this afternoon looking at photos, and I’m sad and sick. I feel bad for dissing Oregon, because it is—like all of our vast country’s natural areas—a national treasure. Roads I was on are closed this week, including the interstate that passes Multnomah Falls. Trails and campgrounds in the area of the one I enjoyed are closed, threatened, or—at best—inundated with smoke that blots out the beauty. Part of the Pacific Crest Trail adjacent to the portion I hiked is closed.
At least one of the Oregon fires is believed to have been started by reckless fireworks. More than 30,000 acres are currently burning from that one fire that joined up with another one. The Washington fire near Mt. Rainier in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest—where I hiked last month— was, I heard, thought to be ignited by lightening.
I looked at the fire incident website, and counted well over a dozen active wildfires in Washington and Oregon. My forester father would say fire is nature at work; it makes for healthier forests. But these fires are threatening property, national landmarks, beloved recreation areas. Perhaps we don’t get to choose, humans are the interlopers here. But it is heartbreaking, particularly when caused by careless (read stupid) humans.
I am feeling very fortunate that, except for the beginning of my adventure, the skies and the air were clear. The wind shifted right after I left and everything changed again.
Not My Mountain, the Third Day
The smoke has cleared and the sun rises yellow instead of red. I’m ready and waiting for it. The man with the recorder is back with friends; and the chipmunk, that seems to sleep until just the moment the sun peaks over the ridge, then scampers out and worships with me before scurrying about looking for breakfast.
The mountain, if not soaring, is at least pointing into blue sky. I am eager to see it up close.
I quickly make a lunch and head out. An hour later, I am at its base. It’s a year-round snow sports venue! I had no idea. (The US ski team trains here in the summer.) Men (I saw no women) are clomping about in ski boots and hefting their snow boards. It’s weird.
There are ski lifts that go two-thirds of the way up the mountain. Could I say I climbed a snow-capped peak if I rode the lift? No trees, no meadows, no flowers. Just rock and dirt, and some snow.
I go into the Welcome Center to see if there are hiking trails somewhere. Wrong place. I’m not renting skis, repairing a snow board, buying any permits. Nothing here for hikers. I move on to the Historic Timberline Lodge.
It’s interesting. Most mountain lodges with which I am familiar boast a massive room with a Paul Bunyon sized fireplace. This one is a hobbit warren.
I finally locate a trail map. The “trails” run horizontally through the dirt just behind the lodge. I can see them in their entirety from the parking lot. Maybe there is hiking on another side of the mountain, but thanks to the previously mentioned (in an earlier post) unhelpful ranger and no good websites, I don’t know where they are. (When I head for home a couple of days later, I take the back part of the Mt. Hood Scenic Loop and see one trail head sign and more than a dozen sno-park signs.)
I’m back in the car 30 minutes after my arrival, thinking I will try Mt. Hood Meadows that I passed on the way here. It sounds promising. It also sounds like it could be a horse race track. I Google it. (Oregon apparently has better AT&T coverage than Washington does, a perk I’m not entirely pleased by.) I’m close: Mt. Hood Meadows is one of Oregon’s largest ski resorts. And it closed in May for the summer in spite of having one of the best snow packs in history. Why? “Ski fatigue.” Though Timberline remains open for the diehards, it seems most Northwesterners want to hike and play in the water in the summer. Duh.
On my way back to the campground, I turn down the road to Little Crater Lake, which I had opted out of continuing to on the PCT yesterday. Turns out it’s a Tiny Pond, not much bigger than the potholes in the road to get there. But is is deep startlingly blue hole, as clear as a just-polished bar glass. The submerged ghost trees are eerie. I’ll let you read its story.
Once again, I’m ready to be back at my lake with the ducks and a book, and the lunch I took with me. Mt. Hood: been there, done that.
Not My Mountain, the Second Day
Since the mountain is hidden behind a smoky veil, I decide to hike a few of the 13 miles around the lake, saving my trip to Timberland Lodge—on the actual mountain—for the next day, when the smoke is supposed to clear. I want to hike the part that is the Pacific Crest Trail. (I also want to sit in my tent and work on a writing project.)
I drive a mile and a half up the road, rather than take the trail that goes through my campground and two others. In the parking lot near one end of the lake, I don knee straps, bunion guards, ankle support (newly added for my rolling right ankle, it worked great!), grab my trekking poles (which I don’t use) and set off to fall in love with these unfamiliar mountains.
As I step onto the PCT, its history shoots through my feet to my heart. I feel the spirits of the thousands of other adventurers who have hiked some portion or all of the trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. I am one with Cheryl Strayed (who lives in Portland), sans ill-fitting boots and 75 pound pack, who wrote about her adventure on the PCT in “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”
The trail is mostly flat after a few switch backs from the lake up a talus slope to the PCT section. It’s pleasant, if not monotonous; no breathtaking vistas. There’s a section of winter blow-down that, I’m sorry Oregonians, but it kind of made me laugh. Pickup sticks compared to the mighty giants that thunder to the ground in my mountains.
The trail splits at one of the other corners of the lake, one fork continuing on the PCT, the other going on around the lake. It’s my turn around point.
It’s an easy hike, but when I finish, as always, I thank my body for its strength and my circumstances that provide the opportunity to follow my bliss. It won’t always be like this; it could all change in a flash or in a slow decline until one day I realize it’s done. Getting old might be hell, but for now I am loving every minute.
But these are still not my mountains.
I first became aware that I was a mountain snob when my family of origin traveled to Tennessee to camp in my mother’s beloved Smoky Mountains.
“When will we be there?” my disdainful sisters and I teased as we drove through the Park. “These are just hills!” we mocked.
We were growing up in the shadow of mountains in the Cascade range capped with snow year round, the tops of which were unattainable by mere mortals such as ourselves. Even the Olympics, with no year-round snow-covered major peaks, holds a rugged reputation and old growth forest. In the Smokies, on the other hand, you can hike to the top of Mt. LeConte (and we did), and drive to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee (and we did). (Later, one of my partners—I forget which one now—would call me provincial. “The Pacific Northwest has bigger mountains, bigger trees, bigger slugs,” I bragged. Neither partner was from the western half of the country, I might add.)
Never did I dream that one day I would move to the East coast, where for 36 years the Appalachians were the only mountains in my life; and for most of those years, I would have to drive great distances to get even there. I learned to love those mountains as my mother did, though it was a gentle affection, not head-over-heels rapture.
I cut my teeth and learned to walk at Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens; but since I moved back to the PNW five years ago, I have camped at Mt. Baker and Mt. Adams, and in the Olympics. I have hiked at all those places and more, and loved every trail.
I decided it was time to stretch my legs beyond the Washington border. In late spring, I made a reservation at Hoodview Campground on Timothy Lake, near Mt. Hood—yep, all the way to Oregon—the last of the well-known mountains within a day’s drive of home.
I had visions of Takhlakh Lake, the remote Mt. Adams lake I fell flat out in love with on one of my first camping trips after my pilgrimage home, and returned to for a day trip in autumn. Mt. Adams reflected in the water, the morning mist, the moonrise behind the mountain, fishing osprey and soaring eagles. I was so enamored with the lake, for five days I left it only for the two hikes I could get to without getting in the car. Next time I’ll go a little farther afield, I promised myself. But I’ve been foiled in attempts to return by (1) the only rainy week of the summer, (2) fires in the area, and (3 and 4) last summer and this, a washed out road—unless I go all the way south to the Columbia and then back north from the other end of the road, reverse and repeat to get home.
So, last week, as August marched dry-eyed into September, I packed my camping gear and headed south in a drought. “It’s just a giant tittie,” an online writer-hiker-photographer friend said of Mt. Hood. I tried to keep an open mind, determined to shed my label of provincial.
Not My Mountain, the First Day
Once I get to the lake—which is two or three times the size of Takhlakh and, despite the long drive to get here and the fact that it’s the first day of school in Oregon, is hopping with activity—there is so much smoke in the air from wildfires to the east, I have no idea where to look for the mountain. Smoke fills my nose and burns my eyes, and blots out the blue sky and the sun. There is a ban on campfires, and it’s too hot for one anyway.
I set up camp, then take a nap before I fix dinner, which I had planned to cook in the coals. When I take my plate to my chair on the lakeshore, I find the wind must have shifted and the mountain is visible. I’m startled. I’m startled by how unimposing and unimpressive it is. My friend’s description of its shape is spot on—Lady Gaga type—but the “giant” is a stretch. I knew it wasn’t a big mountain—I’ve seen it from a distance, of course—but somehow I thought close up it would be, well, bigger. And it isn’t where I expected it to be: front and center in the V of the foothills. This lake isn’t situated right, I catch myself thinking; or the mountain isn’t; like someone messed up the design.
I’m up early the first morning to watch the sun come up, after lying on my airbed in the dark listening to a distant owl hooting and a band of coyotes yapping. There’s no color in the sky, and I can barely make out the mountain—and only at all because I know where to look—but I wait patiently with the ducks that swim back and forth in front of me.
Suddenly, there is the deep crimson ball, sliding up from behind the trees. It’s a color only achieved when there is smoke in the atmosphere. And it is breathtaking. Its wavy reflection stretches across the lake, not for the mountain, but straight for my chair, as if begging me to dance, or maybe pointing a smiting finger at me for wishing I were at a different lake by a different mountain, turned golden by the rising sun, where fish leap and ospreys plummet from the sky, hoping to catch one.
A man standing at the end of the nearby dock lifts his bass recorder and accompanies the dawning day; but, as if afraid to disturb those who are still asleep in their tents deep in the trees and missing what will surely be the best moments of the day, sounds only a phrase or two. The deep, haunting notes are a perfect accompaniment.
I am complete.