>Ninety Miles Around Tahoma – a Quest for Meaning – Sept 1

August 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm (Uncategorized)


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.

Spray Falls in the fog – Hand-painted BW photograph

September 1, 1990. Spray Park backcountry. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington state.

There is no noise in the fog, none save the white sound of an invisible stream.

My tent faces Tahoma – Mount Rainier. I had seen Ptarmigan Ridge momentarily, before the fog settled, but I see nothing except my meadow and dewey flowers. It is the first day of September, and for the first time in my life, I am spending the night alone in the wilderness.


My parents had been baffled. My husband Tim initially refused to allow it. I stopped telling family that I was going on the 90-mile Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Alone.

Why? They had all asked.

It is necessary, I said. I must do this to live.

I am here on a vision quest. I am 35 years old, and I have entered a place I didn’t ask to be, a place I know I must embrace before I can leave it. It is a mid-life thing. That’s what the books say. The Native Americans have a saying when they pray in the sweat lodge. “Mitakuye Oyasin. All my relations.” On this first day of a 12-day journey, I realize I am going into the wilderness not just for me, but for all my relations. I go seeking wholeness. Renewal. Indeed, I seek Life itself. My family, my friends, deserve no less of me.

It is the result of a several-year-long spiritual quest. I would say this trip is the culmination of the search, but I know the path is never-ending. It moves, spirals, allows growth. This is merely a high point, one that comes at great price.

It is an act of desperation. But it is not foolhardy. I’ve hiked and backed for 14 years. Tahoma has always been a place of power for me. My photographs of the dormant volcano are featured in my two coffee-table books, on postcards, posters, calendars, numerous publications. It is only appropriate that it be the place of my own Searching.

Indian people traditionally went on vision quests as adolescents. It was a rite of passage, an entry into another phase of life. For contemporary people, the vision quest often comes in adulthood. It is a symbolic enactment of death and rebirth, an ancient ritual deep in the collective consciousness of humankind, a necessary journey for those who are called. It is an immersion into the very source of life, the Great Mystery. Aloneness is required, and we fear it. We leave behind the shells that insulate us from nature; our roles, rank, wealth, responsibilities. We are, in comparison, naked and helpless.

So on the first day of September, 1990, I say goodbye to Tim and my five-year-old son Ryan and bounce along with high spirits, great determination, and a 65-pound pack. I am to rely only on myself, my wits, the little house I’ve packed with me, and a friend’s words, the words of his Chippewa grandfather, that whatever happens, “She’ll be all right.”

I begin in the northwest corner of the park, at Mowich Lake. It is a cloudy Labor Day weekend, and the trail to Spray Park is crowded. People express concern that I should do this thing alone. I smile, and continue my steady pace through ancient forest. In three miles I emerge into open meadowland.

The fog is definite; there is no promise of sun. The ranger on the trail predicts (in terms of lenticular caps and meterological jargon) that it will rain. I am not dismayed. Fog aids the interior journey, the sorting-out time, the time of letting-be. The sub-alpine meadow is serene in the fog. This is the stillest time there is. Revelations come suddenly, and small things become visible. Gentians the color of indigo ink pots cluster in tight groups like crocus, distinct from dewey lupine and paintbrush. Butterflies do not go about in a fog. Nor do bees or mosquitoes. Fog is a perfect beginning.

I depart from the trail, using compass to mark the return route. Tim and I have been here before with Ryan, when he was a 7-month old baby. I want to find our spot again. After a half hour of careful walking, I see Ptarmigan Ridge and a flat glade. The place calls to me. I will stay here tonight.

Before the tent is up, the fog has hidden the ridge at Tahoma’s base. I want to heat water for dinner, and supremely confident in my abilities, I screw in the fuel canister without bothering to read instructions. It sputters out of my hands like a loosened balloon, fuming propane and collecting ice crystals. Well, I can laugh about this. I’ve got another one.

I’m careful this time, for I have no more fuel. Fortunately, Top Shelf lasagna does not require boiling water to be edible, so I heat it just enough to save gas. A hard roll and chunk of semi-sweet chocolate top off the meal. It is getting dark. I take out my Huichol Indian rattle and sing the two Huichol songs I know. “Mother Earth, I give you my life. Great Spirit, I want to live.” In Huichol I sing them. To the Four Directions I sing them. Then I go inside the tent. The nylon is like a skin between me and the Great Mystery, but it is cold and wet and I need it.

This is an important night. I have entered the realm of the vision. My path here has been most unconventional.

Steven Foster authored “The Book of the Vision Quest,” about the traditional quest for meaning in a contemporary culture. He calls the vision quest a “heroic passage” where “separated, alone, given over to the Great Mother, the hero/ine enters the fearful darkness and confronts the naked self, the apparitions and shadows of the mortal state of being. Here the solitary battles against the inevitable monsters must be fought. “The hero/ine does not court fear; but fear must be faced. The treasure of the quest cannot be found without enduring the despair of ever finding it. The trials of the heroic passage exist because strength and courage exist, but these traits are found only in combination with vulnerability and fear.”

I have a lot to say in my journal tonight. I use up two sets of batteries. It is eleven p.m. when I shut off the light, and I feel vulnerable. Dark shapes blend into dark ground; the rush of the stream hides animal noises. There is no one around for miles. I know this. No one. The animals won’t hurt me. I know this. I hear the voice of my friend. “She’ll be all right.”

I don’t sleep well. Sometime during the night the fog lifts and the moon shines into my eyes. I awaken with a suffocating panic. What the hell am I doing here? But it goes as quickly as it has come. I know it’s okay to be afraid. I come here to meet my fears. I come to grow strong in spirit, mind and body. I come to face the dark and light within. “She’ll be all right.”


  1. Kim Libby said,

    >Lovely and brave…

  2. Patti said,

    >Wow. I look forward to the rest of the journey.

  3. lulu said,

    >me too….this is amazing.

  4. Mt. Rainier | Cindy McIntyre's Blog said,

    […] I came to Tacoma to get married when I was 20 years old. I left 18 years later when the marriage ended. But while I lived there, Mt. Rainier (Tahoma, to the Native peoples, which meant The Mountain That Was God) was a common hangout. We hiked and backpacked there, and when I was 35 I backpacked the Wonderland Trail solo. (Read about those adventures starting here.) […]

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