Schooling flatlanders in the mountain ‘hi’


— Traditional Northwest native greeting

I saw two bald eagles circling above Mercer Island as I drove through on the freeway Saturday. While always a welcome sight and a joy, this would not normally be worth writing home about. After all, they live there and I have seen them before. Mercer Island’s original nesting pair of eagles are locally famous, not least because the 300-year-old Douglas fir tree they live in long marked the center, legally among bipeds and unbeknownst to the raptors, of a zone in which no heavy construction might take place (lest their habitat be jeopardized) and also the center of a controversy about the existence of that protected zone, which represented a class A bummer for the people who wished to develop the property the tree stands on.*

Plummeting into the fog wall.

Rattlesnake Lake.

But it happens that these were not the only raptors I saw that day, indeed not even the only eagles I saw that day. The blue skies where I was on Saturday were cut by the graceful arcs and swift vectors of quite a few red-tailed hawks and at least two larger, dark-colored birds that I was told were golden eagles.

That the skies were blue was actually the most noteworthy fact of the day. I and my friend Scott had decided to get one just-us-guys-without-the-kids hike in this year come hell or high water. We were expecting high water that day in the form of more of the clouds and rain that had been dogging the northwest all week. On the way over to Scott’s house in Snoqualmie, in fact, I was not surprised when I entered a fog-bank that seemed to promise that I would not see the sun again that day. Scott and I knew we would not likely get another weekend day this year when both of us could leave our wives and young children to go scampering in the hills, so we decided to take whatever weather we were dealt. But when we pulled into the parking lot at Rattlesnake Lake the last patches of morning fog were drifting away on a slight Octoberish breeze from the south and the sun lit the lake and the flanks of Rattlesnake Mountain, the hike we chose because we are aging and out of shape and weren’t interested in killing ourselves.

In this photo from lake level, the foremost ledge looks higher than the back two but it is actually lower.

Rattlesnake Ledge is an outcropping of rock — one of three, actually — that juts from the eastern end of the mountain of the same name and affords hikers what I have always accounted a bargain vista. For a small investment of time and effort you can look out on a panorama that almost seems like the Pacific Northwest showing off. It’s almost hammy. The jagged peaks of the Cascade Range, often capped with snow, rise directly before you, and in the middle distance is a valley that you never see from any highways with an unbelievably large lake in it, whence comes the drinking water we townies take for granted. This is Chester Morse Lake. Directly below — almost you could toss a buffalo nickel into it, it seems — lies Rattlesnake Lake with its ancient treestumps breaking its surface, stumps so big around you could park a Volkswagen on them. To the right is an expanse of primeval forest stretching away as far as you can see to the south, where lies the old town of Ravensdale.

It has clouded up a little, but ace trailbuster Scott is ready to press on upward. Mt. Si looms behind.

Off to the left, brooding over the towns of North Bend and Snoqualmie, is the imposing mass of Mt. Si, named for Josiah Merritt, a legendary settler often referred to as “Uncle Si”. His cabin long ago sank into decay and was reclaimed by the moss and duff of the forest below his mountain, but I — among relatively few alive — know where it was; at least I did. I haven’t driven that road in many years, and development is so rife out in the Snoqualmie Valley that now I might not recognize the turn in the road, or the patch of woods if it still stands.

When Angela saw this she said it looked like I was Photoshop'd in, like I wasn't really there. I'm here to tell ya, I was really there. Chester Morse Lake is in the high background, Rattlesnake in the low.

When I was younger and hiked a lot I used to drive out to North Bend and scramble up to Rattlesnake Ledge and sit on the rock outcropping there like a desperado, thinking about life, praying sometimes, sometimes writing. There were never many people there, one or two other hikers at most. The trail at that time was not well delineated, but in parts was an organic network of nearly vertical dear tracks, and it was shorter then, too, making a fairly direct ascent to the left and up the ledge’s southern shoulder, which was mostly bare of trees. It only took me about 35 minutes.

Scott and I took our time this day, enjoying the rare freedom of being out and about without our kids (don’t get us wrong, we love being with our families, yadda yadda, & cet.) and involving ourselves in the kind of deep conversation that often happens between old friends on a hike. I have known Scott for more than twenty years. The trail is now longer, having had several of its switchbacks lengthened it seems to me, which makes it also less steep, and it circumvents the ledge’s once-bare shoulder for a gentler last leg (do I confuse body part metaphors? Very well, etc.). Though we were an hour getting to the ledge (joggers and people walking dogs passed us), it seemed like no time at all.

No quiet meditation here today.

The rock outcropping was crowded with people munching the sandwiches they’d brought and tipping back water bottles, fingering almonds out of plastic bags, taking pictures of each other with their phones. I think that years ago, the ledge was relatively far from large populations, and those who lived in the Upper Snoqualmie Valley were people who had always lived and worked there and would not be climbing up Rattlesnake every weekend. But now the upper valley is populated by hundreds or thousands of young families new to the delights of their natural surroundings, and for these people Rattlesnake is an amazing view just a few minutes’ drive from their homes. And with a trail that has been “civilized”, it’s no wonder the rock looked like the checkout line at REI.

A chilly breeze blew off the lake below, and after taking some nourishment we decided to explore the trail that continued up the spine of the mountain, a trail that, surprisingly to myself, I had never before taken. We stopped a few minutes later at a second rock outcropping, from which vantage point I took a photo of the first.

View of the first ledge from the second.

Then we continued further upwards to the third, a veritable aerie atop a sheer cliff, whence I snapped a shot of both the first and second ledges.

View of the first and second ledges from the third.

It was here at the third ledge that we saw the many hawks spiraling far below, yet very high still above the trees, and espied the large dark birds that a fellow hiker identified as golden eagles. I feel blessed when I see large birds like eagles and hawks and ospreys. I am probably a birdwatcher and just don’t know it. We spent about an hour up there, long enough on an autumn day to see the feel of the light change from morning light to afternoon light. The sun had emerged again from the morning clouds while we were at the third ledge and it stayed out for the rest of the day.

On the way down the trail, we passed many many people who were on their way up to the first ledge. Observing the protocol that has been an unwritten rule around here for as long as I can remember, Scott and I said “hi” to every individual hiker we encountered and to at least one person in each group (I usually hit the first and the last if they’re densely clustered, each one if they’re spread out). Less than half of them seemed to be expecting a salutation, and although most returned it, a lot of them seemed a little thrown and some even seemed annoyed, and there were a few who didn’t even look at us but trundled past us without a pause in their intergroup chatter.

This narrow gray bird is nor hawk nor eagle, but it held still long enough for me to photograph it. I have no idea what it is. A jay?

This garred me greet. I have been hiking these hills for decades, and when I was coming up (or going down, badda boom!) you always said hi whenever you encountered another hiker. You didn’t ask yourself whether you wanted to, or whether the approaching forms looked like they might be the kind of people you would want to hang out and play Scrabble with. You just said hi. It was a courtesy, and more than that, it is simple acknowledgement that you are on a mountain, or at least in the woods, and that it is these people who will share water or rope or a jacket with you or haul you out if you get into trouble. It’s a pledge of montane solidarity.

Scott and I took the challenge of educating the steady stream of people by example, greeting every hiker we met, whether they acknowledged us — or even noticed us — or not. We met our match in the guy who passed us talking on his cell phone a few paces ahead of a woman and young boy, whom he seemed to have forgotten about and who trudged solemnly along in silence. I didn’t know whom to feel sorrier for, them or him. In the end, him, because he seemed to be under the delusion that he was communing with the outdoors and with his family, while they at least knew their reality and were able to absorb their surroundings. She looked up and smiled when we said hi.

Another one of my happy place photos. I'll go there in my mind when it's still raining next June.

I thought about the lousy statistics we were reeling in. With so many people passing you the other way on the trail, maybe people didn’t feel the same bond of fellowship as when they only encountered very few souls. Maybe it seemed silly to them to say hi so many times in a row. But I think, too, that I’m just getting older and finding myself increasingly out of step with a culture that values only electronic connections, not spontaneous in-person ones. I would say “their loss”, but it’s mine too, because I have a [n/perhaps romantic] idea that people on trails in my beloved Pacific Northwest are ipso facto cool people, the kind of people I would at the least want to exchange a smile and a word with. I can be ignored on any old sidewalk in downtown Seattle.

I wonder if the amount of time we spend watching faces on screens desensitizes us over time to our innate attraction to real faces that are actually nearby. I wonder if we are in fact beginning to see the entire world, wherever we go, as pixels.

*I don’t know how the story of the Eagle Tree ended because I can find nothing besides an application from 2007 for permission to build a walkway in the wooded area where the eagles have built three nests since 1994, and a website for “Friends of the 300 Year Old Eagle Tree” that has not been updated since 2008 and whose last entry suggests that the “friends” were losing the battle against the developers.


11 Responses to “Schooling flatlanders in the mountain ‘hi’”

  1. 1 kiwidutch October 13, 2011 at 09:40

    LOL “flatlandsers” is one of the nicknames for the Dutch .. and (obviously) we have no mountains at all so I was curious when I saw the title.
    If we ever get local to this place we would LOVE a hike/ walk up here… FABULOUS views! Brilliant brilliant photos!
    Himself loves long long long hikes. like you, with small kids it ain’t happening any time soon but the mountains out there will keep and when the kids are bigger they might even tag along for some of the trips.
    Longer hikes for Himself will happen as soon as I’m mobile again, and at least off the sticks.

    • 2 Matt October 13, 2011 at 13:44

      It seems like you’ve been “on the sticks” for quite a while, and yet it doesn’t seem to have slowed down your adventuring! I hope you’re walking on your own again soon.

      • 3 kiwidutch October 14, 2011 at 08:35

        The adventures are all retro, and come from the some 10 000 photos I have on my hard drive (and I wondered why the old laptop died?) The sticks will stay until after Christmas some time but we are working hard in regular physio appointments and there IS progress. (ie my foot is starting to bend in places it *should* bend in these days… weight bearing/walking on it is still an issue that we aren’t up to yet but that’s getting better too)
        I’m doing LOTS of exercises and work pays for a taxi to get me to work part-time around medical appointments so life is busy.

  2. 4 kiwidutch October 13, 2011 at 09:54

    I’ve also grown up with the rule that you greet every other walker you see off the beaten track… *and* the wave in the car to say thanks for letting me into the queue, waiting for me to get into the parking space, or stopping to give me priority on a one-way bridge.
    It’s courtesy and good human being acknowledgement and yes, I find it rude when people don’t do it. (which like you said is happening more and more often, does parents not teach their kids manners any more?)
    My kids attended a birthday craft workshop and were the only ones who went to the people giving the class afterwards and said “Thank you, we had fun doing this”. The people remarked when Himself went to pick them up that we should be proud of our kids manners because they almost never hear kids saying Thank You afterwards any more.
    That’s not just criminal that this should be the case, that’s a very very sad indication of how impersonal our world is becoming…

    • 5 Matt October 13, 2011 at 13:47

      You get what I’m sayin’, then. I guess the only thing to do is like the saying I’ve heard: “be the change you wish to see in the world.” I say hi.

  3. 6 Kip October 15, 2011 at 06:29

    A usual, some fantastic photos! I rather miss the fog. I, too, know the every other rule, and while I have not been on a trail in quite a while, when I was, folks in this, the southeastern part of the Pacific Northwest follow the rule quite well: Hikers, mountain bikers and horse folk all. It also depends on the location I have found. The more popular the trail, the less friendly the folk. I am rather sad for the family of the man on the phone. Yes, he thought he was actually enjoying nature in all it’s glory, but his family thought they were enjoying a great and memorable family outing. Ami’s comment on the issue was something akin to “That wouldn’t happen with US Mister!”

    • 7 Matt October 15, 2011 at 19:16

      LOL, good for Ami. I think you’re right about trail popularity and friendliness quotient. There’s an inverse relationship there, sure. Maybe I’ll become a mossback and start grousing that non-natives should go back whence they came. But then, there are just an awful lot of us natives here now too!

  4. 8 aplscruf October 21, 2011 at 20:30

    Hi! I’ve been a busy bee, but wanted to respond to this one. I too, grew up in the PNW and hiked many a trail in the Cascades. That was certainly the unwritten law back in the day, to share a hello/hi/howareya. I noticed on a recent hike to the Big 4 Ice Caves that there were more cell phones out and more looks in the other direction.
    BUT, when we were in Alabama/Gulf Coast this past summer, we were pleasantly surprised by how friendly the people were. Lots of: “How y’all doin?” We would self-consciously look down in an elevator, but people would walk on and greet us. It was a pleasant change, and we embraced it and added a few “How y’all doin’s” ourselves.

    • 9 Matt October 23, 2011 at 09:31

      That’s a beautiful little story and it warms my heart, how you opened up at the invitation of another culture. My family moved to North Carolina for a year when I was a kid, and I remember the sweet and unhurried dialect. I don’t remember the difference between my Seattleness and their Southernness because at twelve I was still open and gregarious myself. The “leave-me-alone-if-I-wanted-to-talk-to-people-I’d-host-a-deck-party” ethos of my PNW culture hadn’t yet inscribed itself on me. Got a pretty good grip on me NOW though.

  5. 10 Jana October 24, 2011 at 20:17

    BEAUTIFUL!! I’ve never done that hike and I keep saying my family will!

    I’m a crossing guard between 8:30-9:00 AM Monday-through-Friday. I wave at all cars whether or not they have kids heading to the school I work at or not
    1. because I can barely see inside the tinted windows of most cars, especially with the flat light we so often have in these-here-parts and a couple kids early on asked me why I never waved back since they don’t realize they can see out far better than I can see in and
    2. I also noticed it slowed people down if someone was waving at them. BONUS!

    However, I’ve caught myself waving at random cars just while walking around town – I’ve actually slapped my wrist down because it’s just weird to wave at strangers when you’re not wearing a neon colored vest and toting a neon colored flag! I’m trying to remember to just smile and say, “hi” without raising my arm!

    • 11 Matt October 24, 2011 at 21:12

      Jana, I got a good larf out of this, especially your statement “…it’s just weird to wave at strangers when you’re not wearing a neon colored vest and toting a neon colored flag”.. I don’t know, that just struck me as hilarious. And the waving at cars in your civvies…beautiful, and why not? I think you should let the arm wave.

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