autumn at Mt. Rainier, autumn color, death of a parent, goodbye to a loved one, hiking at Mt. Rainier, inukshuk, marmots, Mt. Rainier National Park, Paradise, scattering ashes, Skyline Trail, Sunrise, wild huckleberries
I traveled to Paradise yesterday to release some of my mother’s ashes into the vastness at my favorite spot in my favorite place on the planet.
I leave the house at o’dark thirty under the light of the waning but still nearly full harvest moon. I’m determined, on this last planned hike of the season, to stand in the alpine glow. I arrive at US 12 a half hour later as the coffee kiosk open light clicks on. Thick fog in Mossyrock presses me against the white line to stay on the road in the dark; I lose the line briefly—and the edge of the road—at an intersection, swerving back on track when the line returns and breathing again when I pop out of the shroud.
I’m on track for sunrise when I pass through the Park’s closed entrance gate in the dark. As I maneuver the 40 minutes of tree-lined winding road, the sky lightens; by the time I approach the top, the mountain is beginning to glow.
Arriving to a nearly empty parking lot, but for a few other hearty souls there for the same reason I am, I put my leggings on under my hiking pants—knowing at noon it will be hot here so close to the sun, but right now it’s frigid—lace on my boots, put the pouch of Mama’s ashes in my pocket, and head toward Edith Creek.
I’m going up the Golden Gate trail, but I don’t think I can get to the top before the sun slides above the ridge. Both it and the mountain will be hidden much of the way up, so I settle in to wait. For the next 25 minutes I watch the moon fade in the increasing light, the glow on Herself, the throng of old man on the mountain waiting expectantly as their silver heads become luminous in the growing light, reminding me of my mother’s hair, silver, like mine, as long as I can remember.
I chose too perfect a day for a gloriously colorful sunrise, there are no clouds to turn pink or gold. When the sun finally slips up, it is not a spectacle; still I am glad to be here to greet it with the mountain and these grey-headed adorers. Later I realize if I had gotten to the top, there might have been some color; but that was an hour up and with an earlier rising, both for the sun and for me.
I unexpectedly encounter multiple risings as I climb and the sun comes up over closer dark ridges, the anemone and spider webs lighting up as the beams reach them.
The color over the valley I’m leaving behind as I climb higher and higher up the switchbacking trail is glorious. Mama would have loved this. I pick up a heart rock.
I pop over the top onto the ridge and there it all is, this special place. Red and orange, gold and green. The Tatoosh, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, the multitude of “lesser” peaks. Rainier behind me. God, I love this place. However I search—and fall in love with—other trails, the lesser-hiked side of Paradise Skyline will always be my one true love.
I know right where I want to send Mama’s ashes into the beyond, but I hike a little farther down the trail to be sure, then back up where I sit on a rock to eat a granola bar. I save a bit of dark chocolate for Mama and peanuts for my father to send with the ashes. Tears fill my eyes as a sit, waiting for completeness, and my mind drifts to the past.
My family came often to Paradise when I was a child, and I have vivid memories of lying on my stomach to drink of the clear ice cold creeks (back when that was considered safe), hiking up the Alta Vista, the other end of Skyline, or one of the other trails above the Inn; skiing one year; the iconic photo of my father and his three daughters; picnic lunches with the “camp robber” grey jays that land on the table at the Paradise Picnic Area; the ice caves that once existed. But I wonder, not for the first time, if Mama was ever here, on this side of Paradise. Did I ask her? I’m not sure. If I did, she didn’t remember, and now I will never know.
She’s here now, and I stand to send her off. Pouring the handful of ashes into my palm, adding the crumbled chocolate and peanuts, I tell her I love her and miss her. With an arcing wave of my arm, I open my palm and release her. Some of the ash settles into the heather at my feet, around the heart rock; and a cloud of sun-sparkled silver floats into the air. I stand, mesmerized. I’m not prepared for how long it holds together, stretching out as it drifts past the trees and over the valley, and my tears roll again.
When I can no longer see the cloud, I sink back onto the rock and sob.
Rising finally, I take a last look. A chipmunk is sitting silently in the heather a few yards away, watching me. I move closer, it doesn’t move. We watch each other for five minutes, a yard apart, until it sits up on it haunches then dives into the bush and disappears, “Goodbye,” I whisper, and head down the trail.
I saw no one as I sat on the rock, but now I meet several hikers coming up. I hike down to the creek, crossing the expanse on rocks, and up the other side. I’m watching for marmots, disappointed that I haven’t seen any when this is the time of year they are actively preparing for the long winter. It’s then I realize I didn’t build an inukshuk and I’m devastated. I convince myself there weren’t any rocks where I left the ashes, and besides, Mama was already there. Back at the top of the next ridge, at the intersection of the Paradise Glacier trail, I find a field of rocks and build my cairn. It tumbles after I snap a few photos.
I’m rebuilding it when a volunteer park worker comes upon me and tells me it’s against regulations to build cairns in the Park. I had no idea. People think it’s the trail, they fall on hikers (he has seen them with huge rocks and ten feet tall), builders go too close to precipices to build them and one person died when he fell off. And besides I’m in a no-step zone. I’m mortified by the latter. I never walk on the meadows, but this is nothing but rock and sand; though I did step over the rock border.
He is kind enough to keep chatting, helping the exchange not ruin my day. He asks me if I’ve ever hiked the Paradise Glacier trail. I tell him I have, pointing up to the hill where I turned around last year, not telling him I climbed to the top on a “social” trail that may or may not have been off limits. He tells me that trail leads to where the ice caves used to be.
I’m speechless. My mother has been here. I had let myself be embarrassed by him; now I want to hug him.
We walk back up to the Stevens-Van Trump memorial bench where he’s left the flagged stakes he’s been collecting, that he put out when the snow melted to keep people out of no-walk zones, that he says don’t do any good. A marmot scurries up. The volunteer tells me he’s been watching this group all summer. He points out the massive pile of dirt in front of their den entrance near the trail and we watch them for several minutes as they arrive with mouthfuls of vegetation, pose for photos, scurry into the den and pop back out, nearly running over our feet as they lumber across the trail for more gathering.
If I hadn’t built that illegal inukshuk…
I finish my hike. Now that the sun is high overhead the huckleberry bushes set the slopes on fire amid the golden grasses as the mountain ash glows orange.
Back in the overflowing parking lot, I shed some layers of clothes and drive to the picnic area to eat my lunch with the grey jays.