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.
I almost bailed on this hike when I realized there’s a 2100 foot elevation increase in just 4.5 miles, but I’m not a quitter. I can do it. (No way, though, am I doing the second part of the hike after the meadow, the Panhandle Gap. Another 900 foot gain in a mile and a half. Besides, it’s rocks and I’m more a meadow girl.) I’d put it off two days though, hoping both the wildfire haze and my summer head cold fog would improve.
Hoping to beat the haze at Rainier, and just maybe catch the sunrise, I set my alarm for 4:15, just in case this is the one day I’m not already awake. It isn’t. I get up at 4 and am out the door at 4:30. Downside: my coffee kiosk doesn’t open until 5:30. I stop at the one at Jackson Prairie and wait seven minutes for its 5:00 opening.
I’m a full hour too early for the coffee shop in Packwood with the killer trail bars I was counting on for breakfast. Granola bar it is. The Summerland trailhead, another new hike, is on the “other” side of the mountain. The dark sky begins turning pink on the way up Highway 12 and by the time I’m on the road to the trailhead, the mountain is glowing. Civil twilight, my friend calls it. It’s always been my favorite time of day, it’s why I rise early; but I never knew the name for it. It’s the space between stories: the dying night and the risen day.
There are plenty of parking spots at the trailhead. Knowing the trail is in the forest, I decide to buzz on up the last ten miles of road and see if I can catch the sunrise at Sunrise. I stop just short at the view point in the center of the hairpin curve and step out into the nippy acrid air. I’ve missed it; maybe by the seven minutes at the coffee kiosk?
There are more cars when I get back to the trailhead, and though the day will be full of people, I see almost no one on the trail. It’s one of the most beautiful forest hikes I’ve been in. A wide easy trail, multiple creek crossings, the continuous sound of Fryingpan Creek (more a river) as it tumbles ever downward, occasional views of the palisades cliffs and mountains make me glad to be alive and strong and here today. And, a surprise, though there are no level spots to speak of, the incline is gentle nearly the whole way.
I break into the meadow at 10:00. There is Herself, smoke free, flanked by her constant companion on this side: Little Tahoma. The meadows here are hilly, like Paradise; so different from the Grand Park plateau where I was last week (here).
Also unlike Grand Park, it’s not far to the other side of the meadow. Most of it is “fragile meadow” protected and there’s only one trail that skirts the edge. I get to where the rocks begin, and decide to go on a bit and then a bit more. I wish I could get a visual on Panhandle Gap, but I have no idea where it is. (Turns out, it isn’t visible from where I stood.)
I gasp as an impossibly blue pond. It’s a meltwater pond, I learn later from a friend, and ice cold. So much for its call to come for a swim. I see where the Gap is now, there is a line of people silhouetted against the blue sky. The trail gets steeper and rockier. I stumble many times, failing to plant my pole before I put weight on it. I lose the trail several times, quickly spotting my mistake and turning back.
What am I doing? My hiking friend loves this trail, but it is suddenly clear where we differ in hike choices. My passion is the meadows—in its changing seasons—hers is walking the broken pieces of ancient rocks. She likes to be on the mountain, I like to be in them. I’m reminded of my mother, who grew up at the foot of the gentle Appalachian Mountains, then lived 70 years in view of these rugged monoliths. “You can embrace those old mountains,” she said, “and they love you back. These mountains are grand and beautiful; but they couldn’t care less if you like them or not.” (Perhaps I paraphrased that a bit.) The meadows are the space between the stories: my mother’s friendly forests and the wild rocky crumbling mountain.
I almost turn back several times. I want to be in the meadow, not abusing my body in this barrenness. I know I can do it; if I don’t reach the summit, it’s because I don’t want to. If I do, it’s only to prove that I can. And I want to know what’s on the other side. Sometimes curiosity trumps common sense. I told myself when I started, I would go until 12:00. It’s 11:40. I start moving again. I arrive at 12:00 straight up.
And on the other side? Meadows! And a hazy skyline of layered foothills and the cap of Mt. Adams, the rest of her obscured in smoke. I wonder what else is hidden. I stop to talk to a couple from southern Illinois who are on day 11 of the Wonderland Trail, almost finished. They tell me it was clear earlier. Did I miss it by the 30 minutes I took looking for the sunrise at Sunrise?
Another hiker joins the conversation, pointing out the plum of smoke in the distance. He was told it’s been burning since April and they are “letting it burn.” What does that mean? I know fire makes healthier forests, but is anyone watching it? Have they done a back burn to keep it from spreading? I have questions.*
I head down a ways into the meadow and eat my lunch, dreading the trip back down through the rocks. Wondering if I stay here long enough if the smoke will clear. Or maybe it will spread to engulf Herself. I’ve been watching the webcams and it seems to come and go. I’m concerned about my camping trip near Mt. Adams next week. There is a fire not far away and I’m guessing it is what’s causing the smoke I’m looking at.
I get back to the blue pond. The sun is straight overhead, casting a shadow of the bare rock mountains onto the snow field at its base, the remaining vee of white snow reflecting in the pond. Spirit fills me. Like Stonehenge on the winter solstice, a moment in time. I feel Mama’s presence, as a stand with the Holy for several minutes. I would have missed this had I not done the hard work of climbing to the top.
I exchange photo ops with a sister hiker then make a cairn to show Mama the way, just before I reenter the meadow, though clearly she is already here. I stop and soak my weary feet in the frigid monkeyflower-adorned creek before I head back across the meadow and down the trail.
Next week I’m camping and the following week is my swan song hike to Paradise. Autumn is beginning to show in this meadow; in two weeks the Sitka mountain ash and huckleberries should be glowing in orange and red before the snows begin. Summer and autumn in the mountains is the quick breath of space in the story of these wild places where winter reigns. I’ll take some of Mama’s ashes with me and say goodbye. She will always be there on my annual Skyline hike; but then she is there on every hike already.
* My favorite forester tells me fires are never unmonitored and when they let these naturally caused (lightening strike) fires burn, they always have a plan. Unlike human-caused fires (which they never let burn), lightening strikes generally occur where there are rocky outcroppings and other natural features that help keep it contained. (The Miriam fire, near White Pass, the one I’m guessing is causing the smoke in the photo and is near to my campground, was a probable lightening strike in early August. I read there are multiple strategies being employed, depending on proximity to populated areas for one thing. They hope to have it fully contained by the end of the month.) Interesting stuff.
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).