Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Hunt for Mt. Rainier

Last night, since I didn’t stay out to watch the sun set, I was able to make and eat dinner relatively early, which allowed me to finish my writing early, which allowed me to go to bed early. By 11, I was in-tent with the flashlight off. What followed was some of the best sleep I’ve gotten on this entire trip. With a fleece jacket on, the temperature inside was perfect (I’d assume it was probably around 45 last night). I remembered to orient the sleeping bag the right way this time, so that my head wasn’t constantly rubbing against the pockets where I kept my wallet and other toys. I had a good 10 hours before I needed to be up. To top it all off, after my adventure gathering firewood, there was no way my blood sugar was going to go high on me in the middle of the night.

Speaking of that adventure, it occurs to me that I neglected to mention it yesterday. Since I’m camping in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and not Mt. Rainier National Park, I’m allowed – nay, required – to gather my own firewood. This has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I get more of an authentic camping experience like the ones I had as a Boy Scout, where the entire afternoon was spent wandering the wilderness looking for, cutting, and chopping wood for the night’s fire. (I’m not sure why we needed so much wood, though.) On the other hand, now I have to go out and find, cut, chop, and haul back my own firewood. With my hatchet and saw in hand, I was bounding over 5-foot diameter logs and scaling steep hillsides. When I finally had an armload of wood, enough for a 3-4 hour fire, I was ready to get back to campsite B-1. That’s when I realized I would now need to do all that bounding and scaling once again, in reverse, carrying a hatchet, a handsaw, and a cord of wood. Suffice to say the return journey involved lots of throwing of the wood over said giant logs, followed by then throwing myself, and then retrieving it all to do again. By the time I got back to my beloved B-1, I was hot enough that if I wasn’t going to use this fire to cook dinner, I would have been warm enough without it.

So that probably had something to do with the great sleep I got last night, too.

Anyway, on to today.

I didn’t feel like cooking this morning, so I had a couple of cereal boxes (the only food left from that first trip to Costco), loaded up with all my stuff, put on what’s become my adventure “uniform,” and was off to the Sunrise area for another round of hide-and-seek with the park’s namesake.

After yesterday’s adventures, I came extra prepared this time. I packed an extra pair of socks in case of snow, a pair of hiking boots in case of said snow soaking my sneakers, and long pants so I wouldn’t look like a tool walking around in said snow in shorts. Wanna guess how much snow I hiked over today? Wrong. Not zero – about a 5-foot section of trail. Oh well, better to be prepared than to be miserable.

On the way to Sunrise, on the east side of the park, where moisture from the Pacific is blocked by the mountain, I saw that I had more clouds to deal with. At first, I wasn’t worried, because the forecast at Paradise yesterday had said that today would be “partly sunny” while today would be “partly cloudy.” Regardless of the actual definitions of those shady terms, I took that to mean that there would definitely be relatively more sun today, which is to say some sun to speak of. Along the way, the clouds seemed to be burning off, which triggered my foot to hit the gas harder, hoping that if this mountain did come into view, I wouldn’t miss it while pulling into a turnout. Moments later, the clouds would return, and I’d start thinking that today was going to be another washout and that I’d never see this mountain, and that the last 2 days would have been a complete waste of time. Finally, just before reaching Sunrise, the thick fog from yesterday returned. That was it. I knew I wouldn’t be seeing any stratovolcanoes today. But just then, when the fog was at its thickest, it suddenly disappeared, leaving the mammoth white summit staring right at me.

The gig was up. I had captured my pursued.

Sunrise was above the clouds that had plagued me yesterday, so I had unobstructed views the entire time I was there. As for the mountain itself, it was not the perfectly conical mass of gray, dotted with white that I had pictured. For a few hours I couldn’t figure out this summit that was mostly treeless and snow-covered was reminding me of, and then I realized: Denali. From the pictures I’ve seen, one of the most striking features of Mt. McKinley is that, since it’s so high, the snowline starts very near the bottom, and the top 7/8 of the mountain is snow-capped. From my eastern vantage point, this is exactly how Mt. Rainier was appearing.

At Sunrise, like Paradise, there were 2 hikes that I wanted to do. However, I was in the newspaper that there would be a nature walk with a ranger on one of those trails (it didn’t say which one). So I decided to go on the one I thought less likely to be that one.

The Silver Forest / Emmons Vista trail is 2 miles long, relatively flat (at least it feels that way on the slight downhill path out), and passes through wildflower meadows (doesn’t everything here?) with “spectacular” mountain views (I’d heard that one before). This really was a pleasant morning hike. With Mt. Rainier to my right and slightly behind me, I decided that I’d focus on the other things in front of me on the way out and take all my Mt. Rainier pictures on the way back. In practice, this meant that, aside from the strange Truffula tree-looking plants and the circling bald eagle, I got to save my camera battery for the trip back.

The return portion of this out-and-back trail felt like a scene from the Sound of Music, which is weird because I’ve never seen that movie. Maybe it was the rolling hilly meadows with jagged alpine peaks in the background. Or maybe it was that Julie Andrews was here today and was singing (Ok, I made that part up). This was what I had envisioned this park to look like.

As I was returning to the parking lot, I saw a ranger come past me on the Silver Forest / Emmons Vista trail with a large group following behind her. Looks like I chose the wrong trail if I wanted to go on that walk later. Instead, I had lunch sitting on the Horse With No Name’s tailgate. It’s funny that when I was in elementary school, my mother would pack me a lunch consisting of a sandwich, bag of chips or something similar, 2 cookies, and an apple. I grew to hate this lunch and eventually stopped eating most of it. Today, with 2 Tupperware crates of food and a giant cooler at my disposal, I chose for my lunch a sandwich, a bag of Sun Chips, a package of mini Chips Ahoy, and an apple. And it was great! It must be that I’m just better at making it than she was.

Even though my plan for the day had read simply, “Sunrise,” after lunch I had pretty much exhausted the area. Since the weather was so much better today, I decided to head back towards Paradise and give some of the vistas I’d passed yesterday another try. From the south side, Mt. Rainier started looking less like Denali and more like the volcano I had anticipated.

Then, as I approached Paradise, once again the fog started rolling in.

Just before Reflection Lakes, I watched the mountain disappear in front of me. Nevertheless, I thought that maybe Paradise, like Sunrise, would be above the clouds, so I decided to drive up and see what I could see. What could I see there? Nothing. Maybe Paradise is one of those ironic names given to places to attract tourism, like Greenland, which isn’t green at all.

On the way down, I decided to stop at Reflection Lakes one more time, because if the mountain was out there, it would be worth the time. As I pulled over, I noticed a surprisingly large crowd for an apparent view of a lake and some fog. Stepping out of the car, I noticed the fox.

At least people said it was a fox. It looked more like a small wolf to me. I’m making the executive decision that any fox that could eat Gordo in one bite is a wolf, not a fox. This one wandered around the turnout for awhile before retreating to the snowy hillside across the street. So I guess the Paradise stop wasn’t a total waste of time.

A few turnouts after the fox, I came across a great view of the mountain. The oblique rays of the late afternoon sun were casting a golden light onto it from the side and the fog from the west was creeping in underneath the summit (but never obscuring my view of it). I decided this would be a decent place to wait for the sun to set. There was one problem, though – it was only 5:30. The sun was scheduled to set today at 8:34. Hmm.

So I decided to start writing this post (I know, this is starting to get really meta). It was also in this period that I discovered that the personal hotspot feature on the iPhone works even without 3G!!! If you’ve been reading carefully, you know that I almost never allow myself to use exclamation points, so this must be a really special occasion. I’d been under the impression that, in order for the phone to route internet service from Verizon to my computer, it needed 3G. Apparently that’s not the case. So, you may see more updates in the near future from campsites and other off-the-beaten-path locations.

Anyway, About 90 minutes before sunset, the clouds finally won the battle with the mountain, and obscured the summit. That’s one way to put it. I guess you could also say that since the air was getting colder, it was able to hold less moisture, so more of it was able to condense into clouds at lower elevations. But you could also say the clouds won the battle. Either way, at this point I decided to move on and hope there might be a better vantage point down the road.

There wasn’t. Thus ended my evening.

On another note, yesterday was apparently economic Armageddon for the United States. From what I was able to gather from the spotty satellite radio reception, Rachel Maddow was trying to tell me that Standard & Poors downgraded our credit rating to Just-Slightly-Below-Awesome. Since this was all she was talking about for the half hour I was listening, I take it it must be big news. As with any big breaking news story that I find out about presumably before others around me, my first instinct is to tell everyone about this big important thing that’s just happened. So yesterday, sitting in the parking lot at the Grove of the Patriarchs trailhead, I looked around to see who I could tell. It quickly occurred to me that, between the Oregonian family with 2 teenage children, the Indian family of grown children escorting their elderly parents, the thirtysomething group of Germans having a picnic, none of the people around me would care that the US credit rating was downgraded.

People talk all the time about how part of the tranquility in national parks comes from being “off the grid,” without internet access, phone service, or even electrical outlets. For me, the sense of being “out there” doesn’t come from those things, they just help enable it. For me, the real “off the grid” feeling comes from everyone and everything around me being completely detached from the rest of the world and being present in that place and time. Even if there is occasional 3G in the area, we all have better things to do than to use it obsessively. True, I’ve been seeking out the “comforts” of the electrified world in order to write and publish this blog, but even that’s more a part of being off the grid than being on it.

Take this afternoon, for example. I was sitting in my car, all plugged in, while out the window I watched the fog roll in over Mt. Rainier. As I sat writing this post, I was able to reflect on what I was seeing and what I had seen in this totally off-the-grid place. Yes, I probably got some strange looks from other visitors when they saw what I was doing, but, as Ken Burns taught me, this is my park. I can experience it however I want.

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