Saturday, September 22, 2012

Miner's Ridge

“I have spent my life trying to understand why this rock and this ache go together, why a granite peak is more dramatic half dressed in clouds…why sunlight under fog is better than the sum of its parts, why my best days and my worst days are always the same day, why (often) leaving seems like the only solution to loving.”-Pam Houston, Contents May Have Shifted

Miner's Ridge lookout with Glacier Peak in the background, September 2012

In 2003 my family went skiing in Winter Park, Colorado.  I don’t remember the names of any of the runs where we skied.  I don’t remember a single meal we ate.  I couldn’t give you details about our accommodations.  What I remember is taking the lift up to the top of the mountain with my friend Eric and skiing off the lift to a place where nothing but the thick cover of clouds crested above us.  Instead of skiing down, Eric and I collapsed into a heap of powder, which felt soft around our bundled-up bodies.  Snow cradled my legs and shoulders.  Cold reddened my cheeks.  I spread my arms wide, snow-angel style.  Eric and I lay there for minutes, watching our breath swirl in clouds around our bodies before I leaned to look at him.  “Can’t we just live here?” I asked.  We silenced.  I tried to hold onto that moment.  That moment: of being buried in powder on the top of the mountain--wanting to stay--even as I knew that within the next five minutes we would start skiing down toward lower lifts, our families, and hot chocolate at the mountain’s base.

In one of my favorite Stuart Dybek stories, “Paper Lantern,” a man and a woman watch a building burn along a river in Chicago.  The man snaps a photo of the woman at the exact moment the flames burst forward, capturing the glow of the blaze on her face.  Later, when the woman remembers the photo, she says to the man, “[Most] of the moments in our lives go out of existence before we’re conscious of having lived them.  It’s only a relatively few moments that we get to keep and carry with us for the rest of our lives.  Those moments are our lives.  Or maybe it’s more like those moments are the dots in what we call our lives of the lines we draw between them, connecting them into imaginary pictures of ourselves.”  She tells the man if she hadn’t met him, she wouldn’t have been on a bridge watching a fire and notes, “Maybe that’s what falling in love means: the power to create for each other the moments by which we define ourselves.”

For me, the moment on the mountain with Eric was not a moment of falling in love with a person but a moment of falling in love with a landscape, one of many moments scattered throughout my childhood and adolescence when I knew I wanted to move west.  I grew up in Metro-Detroit and didn’t see my first mountain at until age ten in Missoula, Montana.  On the flight to Missoula I saw silhouettes of the Rockies but it wasn’t until morning when Dad opened the hotel mini-blinds that I first saw a mountain in full form: rising from the earth cloaked in prairie grass and fir trees, less pointy and snow-covered than the peaks I’d seen in pictures.  The same day, hiking up to the “M” shaped out of gravel in the foothills above the University of Missoula, I tripped and fell.  My parents had to ask the hotel we’d already check out of to let us use the pool shower to wash my scraped up arms and legs, and my skinned back, knees, and palms with soap and warm water.  Mom sprayed canned peroxide on the places on my back where rocks pocked the skin raw.  Even bloodied and battered, I knew I wanted to move back to a place like Missoula.  I pictured myself serving coffee in the diner where we ate breakfast or gardening in the bungalows that lined the neighborhoods near the university.  Later, when we drove north to stay at a ranch in the Mission Mountains, I imagined doing farm-work or baking bread for tourists.  I wanted to be a University of Missoula college student, a ranch hand, a cook, or a cowboy.

In August of 2011, during my first move to Washington, I stopped in Missoula.  I stayed at Hutchins Hostel: a backpackers’ boardinghouse owned by a man who studied environmental science at University of Missoula with a vegetable garden in front and chickens in back.  I placed my duffel on the bottom bunk of a cedar bed, slipped on sandals and a backpack and hiked toward the same “M”-marked foothill I’d fallen on as a child.  I hiked switchbacks in the August heat, sun beating down on my un-shaded body as I moved high above the city.  I crouched in the thistles and looked out at the river and the stadium, the library, and the city center.  I felt myself growing surer of my steps as I moved up and then down the trail.  When I reached the trail’s bottom, I picnicked on the university campus, eating tomatoes and goat cheese on whole wheat pita bread I’d made back in Michigan.  There I was: a foot taller and fifteen years older than I’d been my first trip to Missoula, my car packed with clothes and backpacking gear, mason jars, prayer flags, and paperback books, ready to move to a state cut by mountains, streaked by rivers, and bordered by Pacific Coast.
Missoula, Montana, Summer 2011
I saw Glacier Peak for the first time in June of 2011, on a hike to Cloudy Pass.  I was traveling with friends who knew Railroad Creek Valley well enough to find a path through snow which started at the Lyman Lake Switchbacks, four miles from the top of the trail.  We skidded out onto an ice-covered Lyman Lake and passed fir trees blanketed by ten foot snowdrifts.  At first we moved uphill in a line, testing the slipperiness of the snow, but as we neared the top, we scurried and slid, sledding on our snowshoes when the trail sloped down.  We picnicked at the pass, angling our bodies so we could see Glacier Peak, sprawling above the rest of the Cascades.  Unlike the other Cascade composite volcanoes you can’t see Glacier Peak from any major metropolitan area.  Despite the fact Glacier Peak lies only seventy miles northeast of Seattle, its smaller summit (at 10, 541 it’s still 4,000 feet shorter than Rainier) and its place in the center of the Cascades make it a mountain best seen from trails and valleys you can only hike to.  I’d never seen a mountain so sprawling and remote, and after I finished my sandwich I strapped my snowshoes back on to scramble up the trails above the pass for a better view.  Despite my wet socks and the glare of the sun beating on the mountain snow, I couldn’t sit still in the presence of that peak. 

Until this past weekend, I’d never hiked past the point in Cloudy Pass where we’d scrambled that day.  I’d never taken the hiker’s cutoff down the steep slopes behind Cloudy, crossing the county line into the Darrington ranger district.  I’d stuck to hikes I could do in a day and stayed in or above Railroad Creek Valley. 
Miner's Ridge fire watch tower, shortly after sunrise
We started our 38-mile (roundtrip) trek to Miner's Ridge last Saturday at 8:30 am.  Sally, Scott, Seth, and I met in front of the Holden Village Hike Haus and started on the trail toward Hart Lake, Lyman Lake, Cloudy Pass, and Image Lake.  We wrestled our packs onto our backs and re-adjusted our waist straps.  We joked about camping in the village or at the ball field right next to the wilderness area to spare our backs, shoulders, and hamstrings the (almost) forty miles of hiking with a pack.  It took us till lunch to reach Cloudy Pass where we ate sandwiches and oranges on boulders that overlooked Lyman Lake.  We whistled at marmots.  We chatted with hunters when they passed us dressed in blaze orange, hauling their backpacks and rifles. 

We descended down the hiker’s cut-off after eating, dropping hundreds of feet on a rocky trail which snaked between boulders square enough to roll your ankle or bruise your foot if you stepped wrong. We caught glimpses of new mountains, mountains whose names I didn't yet know, as we walked through sub-alpine forests which smelled crisper than lowland woods. After miles of curving through trees and moving up and down slopes, we came out in a field with full view of Glacier Peak. The openness of of the grassland punctuated the craggy cliffs and glacial fields above us.

"It’s so pretty,” I said, then stopped, “that’s not the right word.” 

Scott called it “sublime”--the kind of pretty that makes you terrified, a beauty which takes your breath away then makes you laugh.

When we hiked toward Image Lake and Miners Ridge, Sally, Scott, Seth, and I sometimes silenced.  Sometimes we laughed or swore or jumped up-and-down.  Once or twice, I sank to my knees, stooping to take in the land all around me.  I imagined how glaciers scraped the mountains into chiseled rock and snow rising above fields lush with late summer flowers.

As we pressed forward, we got nuzzled by horses that grazed in mountain grass.  We laughed as their noses brushed our cheeks and their necks jostled our backpacks.  Every corner I turned, I wanted to stay.  Sally and I wanted to sit, to roll down the hillside with our arms spread wide, to linger for photos and conversation and dinner but Scott, who had hiked to Miner’s Ridge before, pushed us forward, “It gets better.”

We picnicked by Image Lake, a small pool of clear water surrounded by mountain summits, eating homemade granola and peanut butter sandwiches and dark chocolate my friend Liz sent from Ashland, Oregon.  We watched the early evening sun streak the foothills gold and saw the first reflections of nightfall in the lake-water.

Miner’s Ridge is almost exactly a mile from Image Lake.  We hiked switchbacks that ended on a thin strip of land surrounded by mountains.  We dropped our backpacks and unrolled our sleeping bags below a historic fire lookout tower.  From where we set up camp we could see Glacier Peak’s snow-covered summit looming above the rest of the Cascades.  We could point out trails and lakes and landmarks as if we were standing on the top of a topography map. 

Sally, Scott, Seth, and I climbed the fire watch tower where we met a volunteer ranger named George, who slept in a room at the top of the tower with windowed walls and a wood-burning stove.  We took pictures from the tower’s balcony.  We made small talk with George about hiking and conservation and fire-watching while we stared at Glacier’s Peak’s glacial fields.  Later, we climbed the tower again to see the sun set.  We watched the sky go from blue to gold to pink as the sun dipped below the mountain.  The colors beamed off the rock and snow.  The winnowing light shadowed the valley.  I thought of a line from Pam Houston's memoir Contents May Have Shifted:  “If I die tonight it will be with every single thing unfinished (like, I suppose, any other night), and yet, what a gift to die on the verge of tears.”  That is what I thought, sitting on the Miner’s Ridge fire lookout watching the sun set on Glacier Peak.  That is what I thought, lying in my sleeping bag with scrubby mountain vegetation below me and stars blanketing the sky above me.  That is what I thought, the next morning when I woke at 5:15 to the first rays of sun kissing the cliff-tops.  What a gift.  What a gift. What a gift.
Miner's Ridge, September 2012

1 comment:

  1. Hey Rachael - another lovely post about your adventures. This one makes me want to go hiking with you again (though perhaps not a 38-mile hike to begin with!). I miss you and I look forward to hearing more. You should get a brief letter soon!