I live on (let the reader understand). So, on we go, merrily as we can, gratefully as we must.
My parents started taking my sister and me, and eventually my little brother, to visit “the mountain” when we were very small. Mount Rainier is a two or three hours drive to the south of Seattle. One of my earliest car memories — no doubt a pastiche cobbled from many journeys there — is of Jeni and I inventing a song that went “Mount Rainier is coming out to play! Mount Rainier is coming out today!” and singing it over and over as Dad piloted the old station wagon up the winding, sunbright road that hugged the shoulders of the mountain on the way to Paradise Lodge, or more rarely, Sunrise on the more remote north side. It was more of a tuneless cheer, really, and another one like it went “Waterfall! Waterfall! I see a waterfall!”, which we trumpeted each time the car passed one of those sudden splashing cascades that come down to meet the road’s inner edge.
I remember picnicking somewhere on the way to Paradise, at sturdy wooden tables next to a parking lot. The tight curve and stone bridge at Christine Falls told us we were nearing our destination. We might stop at Narada Falls, too, where Paradise Creek tumbles over a stubborn installment of ancient granodiorite, having eroded away the younger andesite to form the ravine.
And finally, the old lodge with its amazing high-ceilinged interior of polished logs and its gift-shop full of trinkets, mugs, and Indian-reminiscent wares. My folks once bought me a little wood-shafted spear there with a rubber tip and some colorful feathers. The lodge was always so dark inside because it was so blasted bright outside. Across the broad parking lot — blisteringly hot and yet caressed by often icy breezes — was the swank visitor’s center, the old circular one with its second-floor observation deck and interpretive center for combining an understanding of Rainier’s fourteen living glaciers with stunning views of three or four of them (Kautz, Wilson, Nisqually,…), right outside the big windows.
I remember being there at times when snow still lay 15 feet thick around the parking lot, when you had to enter the visitor center and the Lodge — and more importantly, the pointed chalet-style bathrooms — under the snow through a tunnel that looked like a large section of corrugated tubing. We were also there many times when only little patches of snow remained in shady north-side dells here and there and the meadows were full of brightly-colored flowers — flowers I didn’t pay much attention to then but now know to have been lupines and daisies and Indian paintbrush and avalanche lily, among others. When they were not covered in snow, we hiked up the trails that led steeply from the lodge up among the clumps of alpine fir along the ridges, to where the views of the glaciers were even more impressive. When family members came from the East Coast, we took them to Mount Rainier. It seemed to me that we went there a lot. There is, I’ve just now thought of it, a photograph somewhere, an old black and white one with the white border, that shows myself and my sister Jeni — this was before Ben was born — with a kneeling young woman in a bright blouse and dark shorts. I used to look at the picture and think the woman was our mother, because it looks just like her. But it is Aunt Cindy, Lucinda May, my mom’s younger sister, who died of cancer only a year or two later. I don’t really distinctly remember her visit, but there we are, posing in front of the buildings at Longmire, which is a smaller lodge within Mount Rainier National Park. There’s another picture, one of my favorites from the old family album, of my dad and brother Ben standing in a patch of snow on a steep hillside. Ben is a toddler. Dad in baggy pants and a dark short-sleeved shirt is standing over Ben protectively, while Ben is patting a ball of snow he has just picked up, a look of delight on his face. I think it was his first experience of the stuff.
When I grew up I forgot about the mountain. Like everyone else in the Puget Sound area I saw it almost every day as I moved through my life, and I visited there a couple of times with friends in college, but mostly it became a thing of my past life. I also lost touch with my sister a little bit, since she had kids in her twenties and I was busy doing single things. As their children grew she and my brother-in-law Randy introduced them to the old rock and continued the family tradition of visiting it frequently. I never knew this. My sister and I hardly ever had a chance to converse in our adult lives. But after she died last year and our family drew together more closely than we ever had before, I started to understand that Jeni had instilled in my nieces and nephews a love and reverence for the mountain that approaches the spiritual relationship that the indigenous tribes have with it. To her daughters and her son, it is the spot on the earth that signifies “home”. As married adults, they now have their own memories of family trips to Mt. Rainier and they go there whenever they can.
Last summer it occurred to me that Mara was eight years old and we had never taken her to the mountain, which seemed nothing short of a dereliction of duty on my part. Seeing the mountain as a hazy white hump between hills and buildings is not the same as standing on its flanks, as craning your neck to see its crisp white summit. I resolved that we would go in October, but the calendar got away from us and it didn’t happen.
This year, I started planning for a visit in June, but the snow hung on through June and so the weekend we had set aside to go it would have been basically a long trip to a wet parking lot surrounded by 15-foot dirty bulldozed heaps of snow. We rescheduled and finally got to go last weekend, the first weekend in August.
The girls loved it. We all did. The Jetson’s-style visitor center I knew as a kid is gone, torn down and replaced by a new, smaller, steep-roofed woodsy one that more matches the style of the lodge buildings. Fine by me. Everything else about the place was the same: the wildflowers and low-growing blueberry bushes, the steep trails (mostly paved now), the views across the valley to the Tatoosh Range of peaks, the honeyed stillness, the smell of subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa, if memory from my nurseryman days serves), the signs urging us to please not wander off the paved trails because the alpine meadows are delicate, and the big mountain itself, so vivid, so permanent, so unyielding, forbidding and inviting all at once. A volcano, as it happens. An active volcano that could go off at any time, like its sister Mount St. Helens did in 1980 a few valleys to the south and west, and lay waste all the cities and villages in the area.
I was glad that my daughters got to experience it. To them, for now, it is just a day trip to this big ice-cream cone of a mountain they’ve seen in the distance for as long as they can remember. But the sights and sounds and smells will have made an initial impression, that first layer of mental sediment that will someday be a thick stratum of mountain memories that they will not know the beginning of. It was today, girls, this very day. A single day. We were all there together. I taught you the songs (cheers), and you sang them with innocent glee. My sister was there, too, I’m sure, either because part of her has always been there or because I took her with me in my old broken heart.