Last Sunday we left our home at 65 feet above sea level to go hiking near Mount Rainier. It was Michael’s birthday, actually the day before, and he just wanted to “get away”.
We headed out of the fog belt early, or so we thought. By the time we had reached the gate of the park our hopes of seeing the mountain were pretty slim. Even the ranger who greeted us as we entered said, “You won’t see the mountain today.” We decided to drive up to the trailhead at Sunrise anyway. At times we were totally encased in clouds. Yet when we reached Sunrise and the lodge at 6385 feet, the day broke all its dreary promises and showed us blue skies and a magnificent view of the north side of Mount Rainier.
The clouds had not really broke, they lurched and eddied below us in the valley. We had risen above them. The lodge had already closed for the season and the normal crowds were absent from the parking lots and trails at Sunrise. We planned only a small hike, but it kept expanding as we enter this incredible landscape. Humbled hikers coming down, dumbfounded by the beauty said simple things like; “ Great view.”; “It’s worth the trip.”; or “It’s beautiful up there.”
We hiked through the alpine meadows and clusters of alpine firs(Abies lasciocarpa). Up on to the tundra covered lava flow of Burroughs Mountain.
Though I knew it was beautiful up there I also could not stop seeing the beauty all around. I would have been just as happy, or so I say now, if the mountain had not shown itself and our view had been limited to the statuesque heights of the white barked pines (Pinus albicaulis), to the flushes of huckleberries, blueberries and mountain ash turning fiery hues. I would have been happy with lichen speckled rocks, seed heads and chipmunks. Yet the shear mass of the volcano drew us on. I stopped as often as possible, though, to take snap shots along the way. The details were so engrossing. I love the details. “God’s in the details,” it's sais. But who said? Descartes? Henry Ford?
Michael was getting a bit perturbed with me stopping to snap at a wild flower, a picturesque view, or a portrait of him. “Why can’t a hike just be a hike?” he harumphed. I told him, “Don’t stop for me; I’ll catch up.” But he has some inbred politeness, akin to my inbred acquisitiveness, which makes him stop and wait. Which makes me hurry up, feeling like the “ol’ ball and chain” again. I understand that a goal is set, but I’m a dallier. I like to botanize, take a photo, watch a bird through the binoculars.
Why am I so unsatisfied with the 2 lenses God gave me? I have excellent eye site, at least at a distance, reading glasses are a necessity though. Why do I need to capture with the little lens of my camera, my little ineffectual camera in the face of such grandeur, any of this? Why must I zoom ahead of my steps with the binoculars? Go beyond where I am to over there, way over there, to catch some detail I could catch with the bare eye? When at my feet the detail is rich and rewarding?
I even questioned my eyes and their exquisite lenses, 52 year old lenses still penetrating the visual world with acuity and speed. Soaring miles across the landscape, or hunkering down into saxifrages clutching at rocks. Here I was in front of this sprawling view of the mountain and all I could do was see it. I wondered about an internal lens, a way of perception beyond seeing. Or a way of seeing beyond perception. I am only speculating here, but I imagine that lens is what some people call the soul. This huge polished convex existence I call me, facing the world, both absorbing and reflecting it.
Then a clutter of alpine birds skittered over the pumice strewn moonscape of Burroughs Mountain and I went for my binoculars as a hunter would a gun. The birds didn’t pause very long, the binoculars were useless. If I would have watched them with my eyes what sort of flighty dance would I have seen? What wealth of detail is required by the casual observer? If I had stopped opened some magical internal lens of my imaginings, what would I have seen? The swirl of the cosmos wrapped in gray feathers? Or just birds being birds?
Michael had already reached the summit, “ the very end of the world” as he called it. I had to catch up. My questions became as cumbersome as cameras and binoculars, and my ever acquisitive eyes.
At 7400 feet I joined him for an apple on a rock above a gaping white sea of clouds below and the incomprehensible mountain above. The mountain rumbled with avalanches. I was covered with awe like a blanket, like blindness though I could see.
I could see.
The winds shifted and the clouds began moving up the flanks of the mountain. As we hiked down the clouds swaddled the trail. Forced us back into the human scale world of conifers rocks, and alpine perennials. The flowering was over, yet the spectacle of regeneration plumed the alpine meadows with seeds. I stopped again and again as I tend to do. Maybe Michael was getting tired, he stopped more too. Maybe he was beginning to enjoy the little pauses these stops prompted. Maybe he was beginning to appreciate a chance to dally as much as I appreciate him driving us on.
And driving us home through some of the densest fogs I’ve seen.