Malcolm Middleton is singing about a box and a knife in arguably one of the most depressing songs I’ve ever heard. Fog hangs in clouds around the car windows, thick as smoke, and it’s fingers crossed as we snake and wind around curves barely visible fifteen feet ahead. Steep drop-offs below and nothingness beyond are all that can be seen from the passenger’s side where I sit. My fear of dying in a fiery blaze at the base of Mt. Rainier is palpable. Next to me my boyfriend is trying to reassure me that there have probably been only about a dozen cars that have driven into the depths below within the last 50 years, so I have nothing to worry about.
I’d always been told Mt. Rainier creates its own weather, but took that as an overstatement. However, driving from Paradise Inn at 5,400 feet in elevation to Sunrise point at 6,400 feet, we experienced rain, rain and fog, blue skies, more rain and fog, and finally foggy fog, which occurs when the outside air seems to be compressing your vehicle down to the size of a Tonka Truck. Everything around feels heavy, damp, and steeped in gloom, which is why we’re listening to a soundtrack composed mostly of Neil Young. To play KC and the Sunshine Band would be blasphemous, too severe of a juxtaposition between what we’re hearing and what we’re witnessing, and it’s never my intention to offend the rain.
Two days ago we arrived in similarly downcast conditions, hiking when the peak wasn’t visible. A shame really, but mountains are much more than the height of their tallest tip. Babbling brooks can be found on the Trail of Shadows, and I do mean babbling. Soda springs along the trail contain a high level of sodium carbonate, causing the water to bubble.
Over a century ago the Rainier National Park Company claimed drinking from the springs had medicinal purpose, and even advertised about the healing waters in the local Tacoma newspaper. These claims were false of course, and now a sign above the springs warns against consuming the water. I did venture to dip a finger in though, and was a bit disturbed by the slimy feel of it. The residue left felt like I had just plunged my index finger into a bucket of frogs.
Girls with Brittish accents lead the way on the next trail. They’re fabulous. One’s wearing patterned knee high socks over patterned leggings and another sports an argyle sweater and rainbow curls. They are accompanied by a young man named Charlie who’s dressed like a grandfather and has a thousand dollar camera dangling from his neck.
Shouting each others names they all but skip down the muddy trail, shrieking when they lean on wet posts while they have their photographs taken. Around us deer graze in packs and fog is caught in trees like spiderwebs. The spectacular views of the Nisqually Vista Loop are concealed by the weather but this pack doesn’t seem to give a damn. With their mood spreading unto us I spend most of the hike being grateful for the way water is cradled on leaves.
Sun peeks out for only a few hours, but it’s enough time to journey through the Grove of the Patriarchs. Water still pools on the ground and the air feels so crisp that I have that “fall is here” feeling which I wait all year for. Some trees in the grove are over 1,000 years old and tower over their peers, deservedly earning the title “patriarch.” Most of my attention is focused on details though. Moss extends outwards, knitting its way across trunks, and bark cracks, swirls, knots, and paints with vivid colors and deep grooves. It’s amazing that these trees are over 300 feet tall, but the complexity of each inch is truly astounding. Along the path I come across a sign explaining trail etiquette and urging visitors to remain on track, it ends by explaining:
I’ve since doled the last line out to friends as relationship advice, so I’ll take this moment to thank ye wise olde sign-maker.
Sunrise comes last. It’s the highest point that can be reached by vehicle, a seemingly endless series of up’s. Here the falling rain rests gently on sleeves and eyeglasses. At the trailhead a volunteer guide tells us to keep an eye out for a mountain goat that’s roaming around the hillside. Minutes later we’re hunting around for tufts of white fur in search of this ever elusive creature. We are captain Ahab, Sunrise is our sea. We are voyagers.
Our guide still stood at the foot of the trail when we finished. “Did you see it?” he asked, when we told him no he presented us with a pair of binoculars. He points our friend out under a rock wall; even through rain streaked lenses it’s still a victory. In an unknown land everything already feels like make believe. Lend yourself to the illusion and white whales may just present themselves.
The writer and her boyfriend traveled to Mt. Rainier in September of 2014.