>This is the account of my solo backpack trip around Mt. Rainier Sept 1-12, 1990. I will be posting one journal entry each day.
September 12. I am going home.
I hope I am ready.
Eleven miles today and I recall the tortured eleven miles of my second day. Fog muffles sound; the wind does not stir; dew beads on every leaf. My boots are soon soaked. I notice small things now, particularly the profusion of beargrass. I recall baskets I’ve made with cedarbark and dried beargrass; between my fingers the long, narrow leaves are rigid and rough.
I am a bit sad. I do not wish to leave. But I am not a marmot who can hibernate until the snow melts. Nor am I a deer or a hawk or a pipit. I do not belong here any longer. I have accomplished my purpose.
“The hero/ine learns to live in two worlds. This is perhaps the most important teaching of the Vision Quest. One world is sacred, spiritual, eternal. The other world is mortal, material, and subject to change.”
The wet six-mile descent to Mowich River is made in three easy hours. I cross a Jökulhlaups washout, unsure of the trail, and climb uphill through misty forest. I sing. Loudly. “Val-er-eee, val-er-ah, val-er-ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaa. Beneath God’s clear blue sky.”
It is a significant moment when I come into the clearing at Mowich Lake, twelve days from the time I left it. I let out an Indian yell. I did it. Tim is not expected until eight, so I have five hours for lunch. The ranger has closed up shop and left hikers’ food caches on the porch. I hope a bear doesn’t get the Alabama guy’s stuff in the cardboard box. Aw, there’s no danger: it’s freeze-dried. Garbage would taste better.
The day is exactly as it was when I began this journey. Foggy.
“The willingness to be a channel of vision takes great courage and endurance and is not lightly assumed. There will be times when you stumble and fall. Then you will want to crawl away to the sacred mountains. These are times of the greatest potential, when you are looking the dragons square in the eye. Only you know what you have hidden away, growing steadily and surely with its magical roots in your subsoil. As you grow, the vision grows. There is no other way.”
I’ve crossed a hundred creeks, counted a million stars, named all the glaciers, wore feathers in my hair. I’ve been to the Garden of Eden and I was created first. And only. I am part of the cosmic consciousness, knowing that I am in God and God is in me, and I am connected to everything else in the universe. I have had the most profound spiritual experience of my life.
I know that I am an original blessing, not an original sin. I know that I am a co-creator with God and his created. I am an artist. A woman. A mother.
And now I go home.
Tim, Cindy and Ryan McIntyre
20 years ago
>This is the account of my solo backpack trip around Mt. Rainier Sept 1-12, 1990. I will be posting one journal entry each day.
September 11. Eight miles to Golden Lakes.
It is an easy three miles to the North Puyallup River. Corydalis and ferns are plentiful. Here, as in the rest of the park woodlands, is a complete collection of mushrooms and fungi: big beige boletes (edible), fluted cups, retracted anemones, huge orange shelf fungi, Bilbo Baggins toadstools, black leafy things, inky caps, tiny orange umbrella cities, Pillsbury Doughboy pop-ups that break forest duff and jump onto the trail.
An orb spider has ingeniously hung her web high between two trees, anchoring it on the webs of other, more conventional sisters. Sidelit bugs shoot around it like fireworks, but score no direct hit.
A woodland squirrel is displeased with me for the mere fact of my existence. He chitters like a squeeze toy and signs off with rapid staccato, jerking his body out of sight like a wind-up at Pike Place Market.
By early afternoon I enter the silver forest of Sunset Park. This area burned in the 1930s and is now a paradise of bleached trunks, beargrass, and huckleberries. These are my favorite, tall bushes with jumbo black berries that I don’t have to stoop to reach. I wish to see a bear. The sun is warm and the glaciers are farther now.
I am at Golden Lakes camp before I know it. No one is at the ranger cabin but I make a log entry and read about Jökulhlaups and giardia. I abandon thoughts of cross-country camp when the fog comes in suddenly. Soon it is a whiteout. And it’s damp. I gather my things under a tarp and haul out the plastic that is my substitute tent. Its rope is being used to keep food from the mice, so I drape the plastic over the sleeping bag. Soon the world is as wet as if it had rained.
>This is the account of my solo backpack trip around Mt. Rainier Sept 1-12, 1990. I will be posting one journal entry each day.
September 10. Tim’s birthday.
I have camp huckleberries in my oatmeal and discover empty plastic bags in the pack. In the place of cashews are mouse turds. The raisins are gone. AND SO ARE MY CHOCOLATE TEDDY GRAHAMS! Evil little bastards. How could they do this to me? I repair the hole they chewed in my Jansport, feeling betrayed. Then I laugh.
I am anxious to leave this place. The trail to Klapatche Park appears to have been neglected for years. I slog through cow parsnips with their huge maple-like leaves and seed-heavy umbels. I had told my mother the Wonderland Trail was a well-maintained, adequately signed, heavily traveled loop. I even took her to Sunrise and showed her a sign, beautifully made and quite confident looking. It seemed to indicate a Disneyland attraction ahead. I check my compass.
My laundry dries on the back of my pack. It is a challenge to keep upwind of the damp wool socks that smell like mouse turds.
Finally I achieve the ridge with its huckleberries and views. Mount Adams looks like Tahoma’s twin, and Mount St. Helens – which erupted a decade earlier – smokes serenely. Hills to the west appear to be clearcut right up to the park border. It is obscenity. The Puget Sound basin is under clouds and I wonder if my friends know what good weather I’m having. The half moon is low in the sky.
I must be the only person on the park’s entire West Side. For the first time, I am lonesome. I know I am soon to enter the final phase of the vision quest, reincorporation. I must return to my world. I must share what I’ve learned. I must be a whole person for the benefit of the people.
But I know its dangers. The clutter of life will hammer the silence into shards, and my inner peace will be tested. I fear another descent into darkness; I am afraid uncertainty will return. I question whether my peace is illusion that will evaporate with little provocation.
Steven Foster says of returning home, “No one seems to speak your language. You come back, a stranger with a vision. This reincorporation can precipitate a crisis. The true power of the Vision Quest cannot be measured except in terms of the process of reincorporation. You can either let the flame die, or you can decide to begin the vision quest of your life and seek the places where there is fuel to feed your fire. You realize that the only way to communicate the experience is not to talk about the vision, but to live it. Truly, the quest has just begun.”
By mid-morning I am at St. Andrews Lake, a huge green bowl. I find a spot off the path and take my bath; I am less shy about it now. I cook soup, wash my clothes and, knocking off spatters of pipit poop, lay them on rocks to dry. The little birds dote along shore, probably getting caddisfly larvae out of their submarine tubes of cemented twigs and tiny pebbles. A pipit interrupts her foraging and begins to bathe. What inner calling of this creature made it decide, at this moment, to clean itself?
It is idyllic here but I grow lonelier. My friend had given me a prayer before I left. It ends this way. “Through the transforming power of My love which is made perfect in weakness, you shall become perfectly beautiful. You shall become perfectly beautiful in a uniquely irreplaceable way, which neither you nor I will work out alone, for We shall work it out together.”
I am alone. And I am not alone.
I have drunk from the Cosmic River. It has taken my flimsy raft where it needed to go. It has brought me to people who have been the source of my greatest anguish and my deepest joy. It is a mystical, life-affirming, creative body, and we need only empty ourselves so it can fill us. So few know of it. I grieve for those who don’t.
I do not merely complete a circle around this mountain. I travel a spiral, for I return on a higher plane, with greater understanding, a fresher perspective, a deeper love born of intense pain. Yes, my life has had flashes of divine illumination. I remember them now, for I had once felt this way.
It is time to move on. Slash burn haze obliterates the pristine, and I am indignant at the insult to my fellow creatures. Tahoma and I commiserate over our sad state of affairs. A mile and handfuls of huckleberries later, I see Aurora Lake has dried to a grass-choked puddle. A decade ago I photographed it with a sunset reflection of Tahoma. Now it is dead.
I choose my campsite and go back to St. Andrews Lake for a fresher source of water than the small tarn nearby. There are red critters in there, like the kind I used to feed my tropical fish. I decide to boil the water in camp.
For the first time in 28 hours, I see two-leggeds. A mother-daughter pair, and I am strangely happy that I will not spend the night alone. I pick huckleberries for Tim and Ryan and watch deer play on the dry lakebed. The fawn bursts headlong into the woods then back out again. The ground vibrates as if it is hollow. Mother is oblivious to the antics, and when the baby quiets they touch noses for a long time. I think of my son and me.
September 9. A grouse wakes me, clucking her pleasure at being alive. I can eat huckleberries without leaving my sleeping bag. No one knows I’m here.
By 8:30 in the morning it is warm and still. The meadows are a-hum with bee noise. I watch a bumblebee crawl deep into the narrow indigo gentian. In the process of obtaining food for herself and the next generation, she fertilizes the source of her food so that the flower, too, will bear progeny. However, in doing so, the bee is for a moment vulnerable. Deep inside the blossom, backside exposed, she cannot see her enemy. She risks her life to live. Mitakuye oyasin!
We insulate ourselves from life, fearing the risks. We avoid plunging headlong into the flower, into the depths. My parents did not understand my need to do this “stupid” thing. My mother wrote me and said for my son’s sake I shouldn’t do this. I tell her it is for my son that I must do it. To risk is to grow, and failure is a lesson learned, not proof that I shouldn’t have tried.
I watch the bee. There is harmony in what she does. Do we plan for regeneration of that which we take from nature? We dig, cultivate, harvest, cut, burn, and deposit our waste in Mother Earth. We know it is almost too late to save her, yet we still do it. We do not know enough to respect the rest of creation. We are too busy making money, too busy using up the world.
To each person of strong body, I say “Come. Be alone here for 12 days and nights, and learn what respect means.”
There are sweet huckleberry smells here, mature odors, scents of life and living. Soon the ripeness of decay will permeate these meadows. Snow will follow and will seal away life until July. This is a harsh world. I am privileged to see it at its most fruitful.
I wish to wash my hair, but not in these turbid pools. It would be profane to disturb the tadpoles with chemicals. I will wash it later, in a running stream that will cleanse itself in a few moments of roiling passion.
A helicopter delivers supplies to the ranger station, a rude but necessary intrusion. Two Army Reserve Chinooks come and go all afternoon, removing spent fuel tanks and debris, bringing staples and firewood logs.
A gray hawk circles me. Does God marvel at her, too? Yes, because I see her. God is in me and I am in Him. Or Her. Whoever. God needs us, too. I understand better now.
At 1:30 I leave the meadows and cross an endless suspension bridge over the raging Tahoma Creek. I think of the Jökulhlaups – glacial outbursts that frequently tear through here, moving boulders and uprooting trees. This phenomenon is the reason the park’s West Side Road has been closed, leaving me in greater isolation.
I trudge upward through the forest, and at the top of Emerald Ridge I walk alongside the Tahoma Glacier. It is sheathed in a rough skin of rock the color of raw umber, and pieces continually roll off. The noise is, at times, disturbing. I stay here awhile, knowing it will be the last sun before my descent into the forest.
I read Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing.” He says the Native Americans define cosmic wisdom as this: that the people may live. “Living implies beauty, freedom of choice, giving birth, discipline, celebration. Living is not the same as going shopping or buying, nor is it the same as making a nest in which to escape the sufferings of one another. Living has something to do with Eros, love of life, and with the love of others’ lives, others’ right to Eros and dignity.”
Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux, tells about the ritual of the sweat lodge, a rite of purification and prayer. Within a womb of willow branches and blankets, the Indian people gather to pray. Water is poured over hot stones and steam brings forth impurities from the body.
When the central altar is constructed, where the heated rocks will be placed, there is prayer. “O Grandfather and Father Wakan-Tanka, maker of all that is, who always has been, behold me! And you, Grandmother and Mother Earth…we have come from You, we are a part of You, and we know that our bodies will return to You…I think of Wakan-Tanka, with whom our spirits become as one. By purifying myself in this way, I wish to make myself worthy of you, that my people may live!”
The ritual of the sweat lodge, inipi, is like a vision quest. There is separation from the real world, a return to the womb and its darkness, a cry for help (“We wish to live again. Help us!”), and rebirth into the Light.
I reach the South Puyallup Camp and find it as dark and dismal as its reputation. Nearby on a damp cliff are stripes of columnar basalt, honed as if by a carpenter’s plane, evenly serrated and stacked. Some of the columns lie shattered in the ferns, reminiscent of Greek ruins.
I realize with dread that I will be alone in this godforsaken place. The closest person is the ranger at Indian Henry’s, four miles, two ridges, and a suspension bridge away. I set my sleeping bag on a ledge over the river, with barely room to stretch my legs. Evil spirits are about, and I hunker in my sleeping bag wondering if a bear will get my food. I tell God I don’t like it here, that I am just a bit afraid, but I know “She’ll be all right.”
The rush of the impatient Puyallup River is a cacophony of uninvited sounds: truck engines, people conversing, laughter, bears, the hollow thud of walking on forest duff, clatter of pots. It does not make for a restful night.
I am near the birthplace of the river that flows through Tacoma. My son’s school, Riverside, is on the agricultural floodplain of this river. Two glaciers spawn the Puyallup, one bearing its name, this one, and Tahoma. At its terminus in Tacoma’s industrial area, Puyallup tribal fishermen set up gillnets to take salmon coming in from Commencement Bay. The Puyallup drainage was once their home; their reservation had been swindled, stolen and coerced into the small remaining plots. The tribe recently made history when it received a multi-million dollar settlement, including $20,000 per capita payments to its members, to relinquish claims to disputed lands.
I spend an uneasy night beside this significant river.
> This is the account of my solo backpack trip around Mt. Rainier Sept 1-12, 1990. I will be posting one journal entry each day.
September 8. Tim and Ryan wait for me at Box Canyon, with five days’ food for the final leg. I hop a ride to Longmire, skipping 13 miles of the trail that parallels the Stevens Canyon Road. I have heard it is a long, boring stretch, devoid of wilderness qualities. The road trip was always part of the plan; I am still completing the circle. My family is with me for this segment, and it is appropriate for they have a place on the hoop of my journey.
We go to Paradise, above the fog. With binoculars I see Camp Muir, 10,000 feet. It looks like a precarious placement of dark brown buildings. Did I REALLY walk up there six weeks ago? At the Visitor’s Center I have a half-raw hamburger (real food, nonetheless), then we drive down to Longmire and I say goodbye at the Rampart Ridge trail.
It is cloudy here. The trail seems steeper than the killer one to Mystic Lake. God, it’s awful. Hikers fall out like canaries in a gas-filled coal mine. Then the trail descends to Kautz Creek, site of a devastating mudflow from the Kautz Glacier more than 40 years ago. In its wake were dead trees and a re-arranged landscape. Such glacial outbursts happen without warning. I cross with a touch of anxiety.
Up again, past Devil’s Dream camp, in the gloom (minimum impact, say the rangers, for their assignment of campsites.) I soon ascend into the mystery of fog and sunbeams until I reach Indian Henry’s.
There, in the meadows, the sun is hard and clean. Tahoma shows another facet, sharp, unrecognizable. The ranger cabin is positioned as the artist would have it, and the lady ranger cooks dinner on her porch. I tell her I want the most profoundly spiritual place to spend the night, and she directs me to the trail toward Pyramid Peak, where I will see many such places.
The sun lowers and I stop at Mirror Lakes. I expect a Kodak sign “Take Picture Here.” I am tired, hungry, but I am being called. I go closer to Tahoma, and the meadows get better. On the other side of Copper Mountain, just before sunset, I ascend to a flat bench overlooking the valley. The glaciers turn mauve as I cook dinner. I am wearing everything I brought.
A slight breeze is at my back; I have a feeling of being unprotected. From what? Animals, perhaps. The wind. My luck’s been too good; there’s surely a bear in this script. I move my sleeping bag into the conifers and still have a view of the moonlit mountain.
I wait for God to speak.
Yet I know I’ve already been spoken to. I know what I feel. God speaks in that “still, small voice.” I have come to trust it. And to trust the world, knowing much is beyond my control however much I wish to direct it, knowing bad things happen to good people, and good things happen more frequently than we give credit. I feel strong now.
This journey would have had a different outcome were it not for what Matthew Fox calls the via Negativa, the darkness, being emptied. “Facing the darkness, admitting the pain, allowing the pain to be pain, is never easy. This is why courage – big-heartedness – is the most essential virtue on the spiritual journey. But if we fail to let pain be pain, it will haunt us in nightmarish ways. We will become pain’s victims instead of the healers we might become.”
More: “Pain helps us understand other people in pain. There is no way to let go of pain without first embracing it and loving it – not as pain but as a sister and brother…. Liberation, he says, “begins at the point where pain is acknowledged and allowed to be pain.”
The noises of the night are magnified when one sleeps alone. The whistle of air through nostrils, the rub of eyelashes on nylon, the rustle of the sleeping bag as shoulders move with breathing. These noises are a bear in the underbrush. My heartbeat is a herd of elk.
September 7. A goat bleats mournfully from the hill behind me. I have heard it for the last two hours. Finally I see it, a baby, and he calls for his mother. The herd is below and he scampers off to join them. Is that why the she-goat visited my camp last night? Was she looking for her baby? I feel somehow responsible, for I am an intruder here.
After breakfast (sardines) gray clouds suddenly come in. I pick my way down the rock gully and make it to the shelter before the raindrops. Thunder rolls tenuously, and the shower seems half-hearted. I don my poncho and go out to pick huckleberries for Tim and Ryan. Everyone else has left; again I am alone. Finally the storm comes, a little salvo just to let me know my place in the scheme of things. I will later learn that Tim is working on the 15th floor of the First Interstate building in Tacoma, looking at Tahoma and thinking of me, when suddenly a mass of clouds roils up to the mountain like an explosion. It is cause for concern on his part. But the storm is brief, and when the sun comes out I wash my hair and bathe. My head goes numb from the icy water. An hour later the clouds return and it drizzles for awhile.
I find the logbook in the shelter and read about mishaps, wonderment, awe. There was a hailstorm, baseball-sized, two weeks earlier. I would have been here then, had not my parents flown in unexpectedly from Texas. I am glad they saved me from the summer’s worst two weeks of weather. It was also the last time I saw my father before he died of cancer. Someone writes in the log that he feels insignificant in a place like this. I know what he means. As for me, I feel somehow very significant. I know I am blessed, even chosen. I have been granted a great gift. I am being taught by my brothers and sisters, two-leggeds, wingeds, crawling things, four-leggeds, the plants, rocks. Tahoma. The Mountain that Was God; Breast of Milk-white Waters.
I make my entry into the book. It takes awhile; I have much to say.
After lunch I am on the trail again. It is seven miles to Nickel Creek, mostly downhill. I like to allow an hour for each mile, but I suspect I’ll make it to camp sooner. The climb out of Indian Bar is stunning. A different mood prevails; it is overcast, the rain is slacking. At the top of Cowlitz Divide, 800 feet above Indian Bar, I see Tahoma catching the clouds. Her chartreuse skirt is flocked with yellow hellebore and lavender herds of lupine. Ribbons of brown rivers and lake mendings are stitched randomly, precisely. To use N. Scott Momaday’s words, “It was beautiful all around.” It is a place I do not wish to leave.
I have seen four backpackers this morning, all men. I have not seen a solo woman on this trail. Descending Cowlitz Divide, I scarf huckleberries here and there. It is a fast descent through the forest, and I am lost in thought, content with the day. It has been perfect. I reach the Nickel Creek shelter by 5:30, and exchange trail chatter with the three people eating dinner there. I hear more about the beloved Ranger Randy of Mystic Lake and add another lucky star to my pack, that I didn’t meet this guy.
I leave to meet my husband at Box Canyon, a mile down the trail. Fog comes in while I wait, and at eight it is too dark to stay. I head back up, without a flashlight. There was a time I would have been terrified to do this. But I had embraced the darkness a year earlier, with the Huichol teacher on the Nisqually River, at the base of this very mountain. And in spring, I walked along Crescent Lake in shadows so deep I could not see my shoes. I stayed on the trail by feel alone. Now I hear loud crashing noises and I think “elk.” I hope elk, anyway.
I cross the bridge over Nickel Creek and grope around in the shelter for my flashlight. I tie up my food, for I’ve heard of the harassments of shelter mice. They scamper about all night, whizzing past my head like my frisky cat when she wants out.
September 6. Summerland. On Tahoma’s east side.
I wake just as the sun opens the day and the moon sets behind the peak. Fellow campers lend me binoculars to see mountain climbers resting below the summit. So I did see headlamps in the morning’s wee hours.
The hike to Panhandle Gap feels different. The light is weaker. There are no goats. At the Gap I take a self-portrait with Mount Adams as a backdrop. It is only four more miles to Indian Bar and from here it’s a leisurely descent through wide open meadows. A hawk screams below and I wonder why she announces her presence to potential prey. Watching her soar, I have the feeling I’ve done that before. I know what it’s like to fly.
I think of the Cosmic Christ and what Matthew Fox says of him. This Catholic theologian was silenced by the Vatican recently, presumably for his unorthodoxy. Like most prophets, he must endure censure of the religious bureaucrats who need control of the hearts and souls of others. It is a dangerous thing to set someone free.
The Cosmic Christ is Cosmic Wisdom, he says, and “is by no means a Christian invention.” There is a path to this cosmic wisdom, the “awakening of heart knowledge and of entering the darkness that is called mysticism.” The result is metanoia, change of heart. It creates compassion and justice, healing and celebration. It is deeply ecumenical. Creation theology says that we mustn’t delay the experience of heaven in anticipation of rewards in the afterlife. We are called to enjoy heaven here. Joy, in the gift of creation and the gifts of ourselves and our loved ones, is our birthright. Oh, what damage St. Augustine has done to us with his notion that we are born tainted with original sin. The inner child grieves to know it is a blot on creation. Matthew Fox says we come into this world as an original blessing! This is a revelation to me.
Indian Bar. Did the Indians come here to gather huckleberries? I wonder about their influence here. I remember the tale of the Indian Sluiskin who tried to persuade General Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump not to climb the summit of Tahoma, for fear of the evil Tamanawas (spirits) that belched fire and caused avalanches. The climbers spent a nauseating night in the sulfurous summit steam caves, and when they returned the Indian mistook them for ghosts.
Native peoples have traditionally been connected to creation. They affirmed these connections with ritual, singing, drumming, ceremony. I wonder about the Yakimas and Klikitats and Nisquallies who may have walked these meadows. What did they feel here? What ceremonies affirmed their relationship to the Great Mystery?
This is the first place I have encountered huckleberries, low-growing bushes with powder-blue fruit at the peak of ripeness. I have been told there are over a dozen varieties of huckleberries. I see four kinds on this trail, and my favorite is the tall bush with large black fruit. My hands are purple from the harvest; I have never had huckleberries so perfect. My usual autumn hikes are three to four weeks later, when the leaves are stunningly crimson, but the fruit is mushy.
It is warm and the insects go about the business of living. I pick up a sluggish grasshopper in my path and see “it” is a mating pair. Winter is just weeks away, and grasshoppers are making babies!
The stone shelter at Indian Bar has the most picturesque setting of any in the park. The river bar is broad and many-channeled; mountain goats graze the slope; snowy ridges sweep around me and obscure the summit. The meadows are thick with the last flowers and seed heads; two weeks earlier it would have been riotous color. Bear sign is everywhere, huckleberry blue, but no one sees a bear here.
Four couples are in camp this afternoon. A lady from Seattle bathes across the river. I seek the “comfort station,” and I half expect hot water, mirrors and piped-in music. But that funny Ranger Randy was at work: there is only a box with a seat and a view.
There has been a lenticular cloud above Tahoma all day, and one shaped over Mount Adams to the east. These shaven, disk-like clouds mean rain or snow. Cirrus thicken to partial overcast but we are optimistic. As long as the caps don’t settle onto the peaks there will be no storm. We hope. But from here we cannot see the summit, and we take the sunset’s thinning clouds to be a good omen. I visit the other travelers, then head off cross-country to my power spot.
I find a goat track up a mountain, high above the shelter. I unwisely choose a steep course; I need my hands to make it up. On top, a ring of campfire rocks is overgrown with partridge foot. It is likely no human has been here in years. Tahoma’s summit is visible and I know the spirit guides have led me to this place. The goats will come at dusk; their tracks are everywhere. If it rains I will not make it down to the shelter because I cannot follow this trail in the dark. I will have to make a pup tent with my tarp if it does. I sleep with one eye on the sky.
It is a powerful feeling to be alone at night, with stars and darkness for company. I want to feel the entirety of the night, the passage of stars and tread of the moon, to see Tahoma change from a flat, minty blue monolith to a sharply delineated sculpture of ice chips, to watch the thin clouds and wonder what they portend. Alone under such a sky, there is the sense that Somebody wants to talk to me and I’d best be ready.
The moon rises behind the eastern crags, full and with its praying Indian. The Indian is hard to see without binoculars. He sits with bent head, as if in the sweat lodge, feathers arching over. He fills the whole visage of the moon.
Finally I sleep. Precisely at midnight I awaken with a yell. A she-goat gallops through camp, then stops, silhouetted in moonlight. Her bleats are the sound of grass stretched between the fingers and blown like a whistle. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I whisper, more to soothe my own nerves than hers. As I speak she trots directly toward me. Alarmed, I wave my arms and say, louder, “I’m here. Yes, I’m really here.” She stops, turns, and runs away. I do not know why she came toward me. I should have kept still; perhaps she had something to say to me.
To an Indian, her visitation might have been significant. Traditionally, Native peoples would seek spirit guides on a vision quest. There would be a sign: a peculiar visit by an animal, a thunderstorm, a sudden wind. The spirit guide could be an eagle or bear, a beetle or rock. A Plains Indian would seek out a mountaintop for this experience, “crying for a vision.” (Hanblecheyapi in Sioux.) A Northwest Salish quester might spend the night in a graveyard or beside a lake known for its malevolent spirits. Somehow, somewhere, a sign would come. Power would be bestowed. Hunter. Warrior. Healer. Artist.
I wonder what the mountain goat means?
I am awake more than I am asleep tonight. The moon travels slowly. Wind changes from east to south; fish scale clouds fill the sky. At dawn the moon has a ring. Something is coming.
September 5. Ryan’s first day of kindergarten.
I walk a mile to the Fryingpan Creek trail and mosey through old growth forest. Neatly shattered cones pockmark the trail, like the Wicked Witch melted and shingled. The fragments are the color of new wood, and I am mystified until I see a heavy cone the size of a small bomb. I believe it to be either Pacific silver fir or grand fir. I pry out a seed and bite it. A sweet, orangey flavor permeates my mouth and trickles down my throat with a turpentine aftertaste. Not a bad breath mint, actually.
After awhile I am in the meadow below Summerland. False hellebore are dead; everywhere in the park they are dying. In spring they are graceful broad-leaved groupings, robed fairies; now they are yellow and full of holes. But for some plants summer still reigns; bees and butterflies attest to that. Pearly everlastings are a bitch in heat to bees. Asters and lupine are drying up; other things have long gone to seed or berry. I like hitting seed vases of avalanche lilies; missiles fly out with aplomb. Lupines rattle like snakes when my ski pole brushes them.
I lunch in a glade before the final switchback to Summerland and notice a doe and fawn resting across the trail. We have a staring contest; she wins.
The camps at Summerland are the best on the Wonderland Trail, and I do not feel compelled to go cross-country. I am, typically, the last in camp. But they leave me the best spot: the most wide-open place, the sunniest, warmest, with the best view of Tahoma. How can I be so consistently lucky?
Here is something new: an experimental solar latrine with canvas walls and a trowel, with instructions for a scoop of peat after each dump. Admirable.
The meadows are wide open here. Little Tahoma, a prominent sub-peak visible from Seattle but not Tacoma, dominates the views. I hike, sans pack, to Panhandle Gap. Gentians abound, purple and yellow monkeyflower decorate streambanks. Higher up it is all moraine stubble, and it is a challenge to find the rock cairns marking the trail. Katydids do a mid-air dance, wings making a pattern of clicks, presumably to find a mate. I walk around the glacier of Meany Crest and the meltpools below it.
The sun is warm and nourishing. I am part of all creation, yet respectful of the forces that turn a wonderland into a fierce battle for survival. I know beyond doubt that I am fortunate. I have the best weather imaginable. I am strong now, feeling my woman power, knowing I can trust what I feel and what I know in that way beyond knowing. I feel it in my whole body, and in my hands. Healing power through my hands. I am healing myself.
I reach the Gap, elevation 6750, and gaze into new country. Mount Adams is partially obscured by clouds, and the panorama is wide open, green, sunny. I read Matthew Fox, about the 21 characteristics of a mystic. “Mysticism takes us into the darkness of pain and doubt,” he writes. “Some allow the darkness to penetrate them and others resist and deny it.” I think of someone I know, whose own “dark night of the soul” put her three times in mental hospitals for suicide attempts. She resisted treatment, failed to embrace the pain, and came out of it unchanged. She did not learn her lessons; she does not love. It is a good lesson for me.
I head back to camp. A herd of mountain goats crosses my path; five babies at least. Before I am back I count 26 goats in all. The moon rises just past sunset, and again I am in the gaze of Tahoma as I sleep.
September 4. Another perfect sunrise.
I am on the northeast side of the mountain, and the descent into the parklands of Sunrise is one of ecstasy. I am captivated by the rolling meadows, crossed with streams and boulders and flowers and smells of life. I see the fire lookout on Mount Fremont and wonder if I am being watched. On a clear day, like today, the Space Needle can be seen from there. It is not difficult to see Mount Baker and Glacier Peak to the north.
After an hour I stop and eat a roll with peanut butter. This has been my pattern. First, two packets of instant oatmeal (peaches ‘n cream type), then peanut butter an hour later. As always, I drink water. Lots of water colored with little iodine tablets. It occurs to me that maybe I’m not putting enough of the buggers in. I fear that between the warm tadpole feces water and insufficient iodine and turbid lake water and debris-filled streams that I’m definitely a candidate for giardiasis. Oh well. More little pills for that.
At least my food stays fresh. I eat fiber bars and health food conglomerations, cashews, sardines. I had kippered snacks in Cajun sauce once and the empty can stunk up my pack. Cous-Cous soup with semolina wheat granules or Nissan Cup O’Noodles make up lunch. Dinner is Top Shelf: glazed chicken, chicken Acapulco, sweet and sour chicken, BBQ ribs (make Sylvester the Cat noises here), spaghetti, lasagna, beef roast.
Sunrise Lodge is just a couple of miles away. I ditch the cursed Jansport at the crossroad to Second Burroughs Mountain, and I feel like I’m floating. It’s nothing at all to make this steep ascent with only my camera and water bottle. The sun soaks into my bones; the wind is cool. I wave to whoever is in the fire lookout on the next ridge and I go up, up, farther up than the down I have just come. I can nearly touch the Winthrop Glacier. The nearby Emmons gives birth to the White River, a thin, bright etching of foil far, impossibly far below. I will be down there within hours.
Standing on Second Burroughs, at the trip’s highest point of 7400 feet elevation, I am at the gates of Heaven. I have seen five people since dawn. I masticate jerky and look down on the slope at Skyscraper Mountain, where I spend the night. It occurs to me that climbing the summit of a mountain is a typically male thing, to be on top of something. The woman’s way is to admire intimately, to observe from all sides, to experience the soul of the other in this way.
I failed my summit attempt six weeks earlier because I could not do it the macho way. Two of us women stayed behind at Camp Muir as the party went up by headlamp at 2 a.m. We got up again to watch the sunrise and count volcanoes: Adams, St. Helens, Hood, Jefferson. We congratulated ourselves for making it this far, the 10,000 foot level, and validated our decisions to stay behind. But we wished the unspoken: that we had tried harder. Our party returned eleven hours later. Some reached the summit on their knees. Two got left behind in sleeping bags on glaciers, to be picked up on the descent. There had been little time for pictures. No time to drink in the beauty, the splendid sunrise, the awesome achievement. Hell, the guides wanted to clock out of Paradise by five.
So I did it the woman’s way. I walked around it. And I admired Tahoma as I would a beautiful sculpture, a Venus de Milo. For Tahoma is indeed female. One of the Indian names for her means “breast of milk white waters.” Another means “the mountain that was God.”
So God’s a woman.
Tahoma, the breast, gives life to dozens of rivers and creeks, hundreds of streams. It nourishes the entire Puget Sound basin, this one lone nipple piercing the clouds. Her sisters, too: Adams (Pahto, son of the Great Spirit), St. Helens (Lah-we-lat-lah, person from whom great smoke comes), Baker (Koma Kulshan, white steep mountain), Glacier Peak. All birthing, continually creating.
From a jetliner, these are merely white bumps on rippled fabric. From the perspective of a creature on its skin, a mountain is a living being. Especially these – Cascade volcanoes. And so I have to think of myself, merely an ant, a creature foreign to the landscape yet not entirely out of place. Who am I to think myself insignificant? Who am I to think my life touches no one? I have only to look at the glaciers, and the hawks and chipmunks, marmots and flowers, butterflies, pikas, the ants. We are all related. Mitakuye oyasin. “No man is an island, entire of itself…” How easily we forget our place.
Matthew Fox says “The mystic (which is in every person) is keen on the experience of the Divine and will not settle for theory alone or knowing about the Divine.” How can one not experience the Divine in a place such as this?
I came down from Burroughs Mountain, again waving at whoever is in the Mount Fremont lookout. I heft my painfully heavy pack another mile-and-a-half to Sunrise Lodge and gobble a pitiful hamburger as if it were a gourmet meal. I write two cards as I eat, bum stamps to mail them with, get a permit to continue the trip, wash hair and socks, and slurp a vanilla ice cream cone on the steep trail to White River Campground. The White River looks to be days below. But an hour and a half later I meet the river.
This is a car camp and I wait for Tim to come with food and clean clothes. When he does I ditch the tent, five pounds of Canon F-1 and the telephoto lens, the Huichol rattle, and extra clothes. Good weather is predicted for the next three days and there are shelters at the next three camps.
It seems safe here. But the mountain has the final say.
In 1963 an enormous avalanche fell off Little Tahoma Peak onto the Emmons Glacier. The barrage of rocks and ice careened four miles into this river valley, coming to rest a mere half mile from here. Some of the boulders it brought are as large as buildings. Some scientists believe volcanic heat had something to do with it. Had the avalanche occurred in summer, many hikers may have been killed.
I sleep tonight on a picnic table.
September 3. At dawn I crawl from my tent and nearly jump out of my skin. Behind me is the tarn, and behind it in Widelux 3-D Cinemascope is Tahoma and the Willis Wall. The Carbon Glacier has been up my spine all night. Sun tints the snow pink and a lenticular cap hovers over the summit like a UFO. Tahoma is so close I cannot enclose it and its reflection in the tadpole tarn with my 28mm wide angle lens. I remember I accidentally drank that water last night, unboiled. What exotic germs, I wonder, incubate in tadpole feces?
I bathe with warmed tadpole water from my cooking pot. The sun is a miracle. My camp is soon sucked up into bags and pouches and I salute Tahoma before I descend to the valley. Tahoma disappears behind a ridge and at Mystic Lake is nearly obscured. Another gloomy tree camp, and I hear from its denizens about Ranger Randy, bed-checker and bad-direction-giver extraordinaire. Wonder if he missed me last night?
There is a washout just past Mystic Lake, and I slog for 45 minutes through mud, over trees, under trees, around trees. My ski pole walking sticks rescue me on this greasy slope. Finally I emerge and find myself in sunlight at the toe of the Winthrop Glacier. On the other side I enter forest again and glimpse the high moraine wall that parallels the trail. Another steep climb, and by god that pack is heavier than the day I started. I have to take a nap.
I do not fast on my vision quest. Usually seekers will find a place of power and they will stay there for three or four days and nights with only water for sustenance. I cannot fast on a trip such as this. Yet I have many of the same feelings a fast induces: “weakness, intensity, vacancy, fertility, openness, heaviness, lightness, disorientation, harmony and spiritual awareness.”
I sleep for an hour and a half. Then I force myself into my pack harness (I cannot lift it; I develop a rather amusing method of hoisting it onto my back, much like lifting a dead man onto one’s shoulders.) I slog upward. I am supposed to be in Berkeley Park tonight, in the northeast, below in a valley. The forest opens to a yellow grassy slope that ends in a ridgetop. I am nearly dead, and I cut across and collapse behind a small spruce. Two Clark’s nutcrackers frolic and an elk bugles to his harem. It is a primordial sound.
I check the map and determine I am at 6740 feet, at the base of Skyscraper Mountain. I drag myself to the cliff edge and to the north I see the enormous flat expanse of Grand Park, gold in the late afternoon light. Below are green meadows of Berkeley Park and Sunrise, and beyond are waves of Cascade peaks, blue and clean.
I rest, eat, write. Cumulus clouds flow over my ridge, around Burroughs Mountain where I will be tomorrow. This will be a good place to be scared out of my wits by a thunderstorm. Perversely, I WANT to be scared out of my wits. I want a rollicking storm with maximum effects. I also want snow sometime before this trip is over. I want to see a bear.
I do not set my tent tonight. The wind is from the east, gentle, and the sky mostly clear. I begin to read Matthew Fox’s The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. “A mountaintop is not just about beauty but also about its counterpart, terror. Lightning strikes mountaintops; great storms gather there; and clouds often shroud it. Immense silence and aloneness can be tasted at mountaintops.”
I read until the type blends into blots, then I use a flashlight. Rough clouds to the east are aflame; the moon rises. In the faded light I see a herd of elk coming down the far ridge. I am in their path. I hope they don’t step on me as I sleep. The call of the bull is resonant and throaty. He is king here; I am an intruder. I realize there is nobody around for miles.
Tahoma’s glaciers are silver and close. My wool hat is on and I am warm in my down bag, except where wind blows my cheek. The moon crests the hill and it is nearly full. There is no skin now between me and the Great Mystery.
I’m supposed to be in Berkeley Park, down in the valley. It is the place where angels gather. But God is up here, and I am with Him tonight. I have become very thankful on this journey. I have laughed a lot, smiled, too, cried some. I have thanked God numerous times for the perfection of this day. Even the exhaustion, the touch of altitude sickness, aching hips and swollen knees are perfect. They made me camp here, didn’t they? I take delight in all that I see, all that I am.
Steven Foster says, “Can it be that Death assumes the mask of an unrequited longing to be filled?” If I die here, it will be a good place. A good day. My mother can say “I told you so.” But it will be good. I will die whole.
I miss no one, though I think of them. I am at peace with the moment. I am one with the place.
Long, hard moonshadows ribbon the slope. Tahoma looks as if she will fall on me. Clouds cling here and there, afraid to be on their own. Let go, I tell them. Simply let go. It will be terrifying. But you must. You cannot go to other places if you do not.
It is not easy to sleep on a slope. It is not easy to sleep exposed to the stars and the stares of animals. Alone. There is a primordial trickle of horror that something out there wants to eat you.
I think I am awake more than I am asleep. I watch the moon traverse the field of stars, see the Big Dipper grow huge and set; Orion’s Belt comes up near dawn.