Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Something Hidden

Wonderland Trail
Mystic Lake Camp to Sunrise

Today is the first day that the sky has officially deviated from the weather forecast I bought my airline tickets for. They were cheap tickets, but with rain today the official vision for what the trip should have been is out the window. The official vision had me, in a mental image that is distinctly svelter than usual, struggling up a verdant slope to see, consciousness clobbering in its immensity, The Mountain. I would face down the Evil Me and beat him until his soul came out his urethra. I would have great overpourings of emotion and catharsis, etc, etc, etc.

That official version is of the same sort of offal that comes from the mouths of people that fantasize about war but have not spent more than thirty seconds with an actual veteran. It's gym offal. Tough guy crap. It's the same sort of offal I tell myself that makes me walk in a box for a few minutes a day before I truck myself off to another torture box where I can point at glowing boxes on a screen for money, moving less than two hundred feet in a ten hour stretch. Gym time has nothing to do with being here, on the mountain, no more so than ten seconds on a rifle range can tell you about 1943 Stalingrad.

On the mountain there is no existential animus. There is no lost maiden, or a skulking ruiner to thwart. There are the sweating trees, my heaving lungs. Marmots waddling across the heath. Stupid youtube songs about the Soviet Union and Tetris. Protein bars. My personal cloud of vaporized water, the molecules smashed into the air by the kinetic energy of my skin. Each and every one of these things is more beautiful, ipso facto, than the phenomenon of the mountain itself, which I have memorized from every possible angle. I hadn't actually seen it very often. It might not even be there. It might be more powerful yet if it were not.

Sometimes I hope I never seen my mountain*, and with that thought another lock turns in the door to happiness. The mountain is in my heart. It can not be claimed or bought or laid off or divorced. The only thing it can do in my heart is be loved, loved more each tomorrow than it is today.

*So long as it's not just a model made by the Washington Commerce Committee.
"Yah, what yah think would make people come to our godforsaken state, eh?"
"Why don't we build a model of a great honkin mountin, dochaknow. Make pretty videos of it like that hobbit guy did with New Zealand. Then people could come up from places like Florida where they don't have any great honkin mountins".
"To see the big honkin mountin, donchaknow"

I am reasonably sure Mt. Rainier is not just a fiberglass model.

Wet Down

Wonderland Trail
Ipsut Creek Camp to Mystic Lake

I stayed late at Ipsut Camp this morning, waiting to see if the rain that had increased over the night would let up for the day's climb. It was a solid four thousand to Mystic Camp, but more importantly, I'd be staying at that elevation, and Mystic Camp is surrounded on three sides with glaciers. I didn't want to be wet there. I met a nice couple at Ipsut who were also heading up to Mystic that day. Also, I was delaying because the bathroom at Ipsut was so gloriously warm and dry. I wish I could say it was the first time I considered sleeping in a bathroom. It wasn't the first time and it certainly wasn't the last. It was a nice bathroom. The rain steadily increased throughout the day.

Ipsut was simultaneously homey and spooky. Picnic tables, car parking areas, blank informational boards telling you about nothing at all. I heard trail crews working in the hillsides and realized that Rainier NP is a backpacker's park. The floods had nibbled away at the auto access, but the park service was in absolutely no great hurry to restore the car camp services. Contrast this with the reconstruction of the WT after those same floods. More than seventy percent of the WT was utterly destroyed. Looking at the glacial basins it's not hard to see why; it looks like a unidirectional Nagasaki. The WT, though, was ready for business in a couple of month's time. Not so Ipsut Camp.

This sounds bitter, but it's really not. I understand what the NPS is doing. Backpackers just don't cause the same sort of mass obnoxiousness as Bubba McLubbitz from Pabstown, with his feeding the wildlife and chucking empties at marmots. It's just that my grandparents raised my parents car camping, and my parents raised me car camping, until some weird combination of brain chemistry and circumstance led me to this. If I had spawn at the normal time in the human life cycle I probably would have reverted to car camping as well and given my pack to some college student. The car camp, though, is the gateway. It's how this starts, this, the greatest thing in the world. It's a window into the freedom every kid fawns at when his parents irritate him. If only I could get out of this car and into those hills! They'd never find me there! When you get older you realize what a double-edged statement that is. Without car campgrounds, though, the opportunity for that type of growth may never occur.

So I had to leave my cozy bathroom sometime. Rain and wind. Four thousand feet. I broke one of my taboos and plugged in my mp3 player until it shorted out. It got me past four thousand feet. Carbon glacier is just barely visible in this mist and rain, an enormous gray-white back, like a nightmare Moby Dick. I climb past it. Is this mist or steam from my body. Steam, rain, both. Clearing Moraine Park I am beginning to not feel very well. I throw up a protein bar I ate at Carbon River bridge. Super Chocolate Chunk. I don't stop. It is only the mid forties, but the wet and the wind make this feel far worse than the eleven degrees I hiked through in the Carters that September four years ago. There are flowers up here that are like four foot wands with pom poms on the ends. The pom poms are wilted in the rain and the whole plant looks rather ridiculous, like a plant version of the marmot. Perhaps ridiculousness is a survival strategy up here.

I come to Mystic Camp. It's deserted. All the people who made reservations have cancelled them. I hang the food bag and throw up the tent in the rain. More of my stuff is wetter than I'd like. It's very bad. I try and get warm inside a damp down bag. It's lost all of its insulating power and is holding a range of joules somewhere between jack and squat. I give up trying to keep anything dry and put on the polypro on my wet skin, then rain gear, all socks, gloves, sleeping bag. Tent's turning into a sauna from my body. I went up too fast, it's three PM. I fall asleep for three hours and wake up roasty toasty. Burning. I make my way out of the tent and to my hanging food bag. Somehow I manage to eat a Super Chocolate Chunk. Not sure how I could do that after tossing one up earlier but that's the hunger for you. Then a bagel. Then a wedge of cheese, some nuts. Jerky. Did I eat another bagel? I don't know. Everything is delicious. I'm feeling pretty good. Actually I feel fantastic, like I just did shots of some exotic vodka made from nougat and angel tears. I go back to my sodden tent and wet bag and fall asleep again, rain knocking condensation off the inside of the tent onto my face. I stuff my head in the hood of the rain jacket and snore very loudly.

Late, late that night, after eight, the couple comes in. I talk to them in the morning. They are getting out at Sunrise, my next camp and last food cache. They're done with wet and cold. They invite me with them- they can get me as far as Steve's Canyon. I'd have to hitch from there, but I tentatively agree. The bag is wet. It's a down bag. A wet down bag is worse than nothing, at best it's uncomfortable, but it can be (and has been) a death sentence. I wasn't coming down from the heights until this thing was almost through, after Summerland, two nights away, and I was not going to spend another night above five thousand with a wet down bag.

The Nature of Man

Wonderland Trail
Golden Lakes to Ipsut Creek Camp

Ten miles around and down the South Mowich basin, then four thousand feet up to Mowich Lake and my first food cache, then down Ipsut Pass to the camp. Longest day yet, sixteen miles. When I imagined food caching on the WT, I have to admit I was coming at it from a somewhat spoiled Easterner's perspective. I imagined rosy-cheeked rangers inside heated offices, handing out the buckets we mailed so lovingly weeks before. "Here ye go, mi'lad", they'd say. "Be careful out there!". It turned out to be a bit of a search in the rain around a car campground. I found a side trail on the east side of the lake that led to a patrol cabin that looked like a bomb had gone off in it. In front was a plain metal box. Clumsy chilled fingers explored the edges of the box, lifting. Locked. A sign on the other side of the box. FOOD CACHE. Latches to deter bears. They're stuck and my arms are weak. Lever it with the pole, gently, don't break your trekking pole for god's sake. It clicked, I got my first food drop, and the rain broke. It was a happy time. The food shortage had finally ended. Would the rain?

I climbed around the lake and met my first daytrippers. Mowich has road access, which means it was also the first place I was tempted to get off the mountain. Some car campers offered a ride to Carbon River ranger station. Logistics more than anything else kept me from saying yes; getting from Carbon back to the car at Longmire would be a four hour drive even if I had a car, and I don't know how easy hitching is out here. Besides, "it's going to clear up tomorrow". I'd keep going. I wouldn't be taking the scenic route through Spray Park, though, because it's not going to be that scenic since it's above the five thousand foot cloud deck.

Ipsut Pass, just beyond Mowich Lake, was genuinely impressive. It's as if someone went to Tuck's Ravine on Mt. Washington NH and put trees all over it. The trail just drops down a grand and a half in a couple of miles, then another two thousand in another couple of miles. One older lady hiker I met earlier near Pyramid Creek scoffed at this section. "I don't know why they make that the route then spend all their time making Spray so pretty. If they want people to go through Spray they should just tell them to go through Spray". I'm of a different opinion, as this is the best view I've had in days, since it's entirely under the deck. Ipsut camp should be nice, also, as it's an old car camp abandoned after the 2006 floods. Should have a toilet with a roof. I am living the high life here, people.

The lesson for the day was, "stop fretting". I spend, and I'm pretty sure most people spend, too much of themselves worrying about how they feel about something, how they are supposed to feel, and whether they should feel anything. Feelings are rubbish. It's this doing that matters. Striving, moving. Don't fall! It's the heart of the world. So, I say to the internal worrywart. What about me? I hike. What about you?

Some Wilder Heaven

Wonderland Trail
South Puyallup Creek to Golden Lakes

Coming into South Puyallup yesterday was, for the eastern hiker, a Brobdingnagian experience. Everything was three times as large as its eastern counterpart. The mountain, three times as high. Glaciers. Gorges three thousand feet deep, as a rule, and not the exception (the only three thousand foot gorge I recall on the AT was Webster Cliffs in NH). I woke up in South Puyallup and packed up for Golden Lakes, anticipating more head-blowing-off wonder.

Clouds began rolling in by about ten, however, which set the tone for much of the rest of the trip. Not so much with the views. Quite a lot with the spooky menace. This was going to be a conditions endurance contest. I had an oldish down sleeping bag with no waterproofing, some crappy Dri-Ducks, and polypro long johns. Gloves, extra pair dry socks, sock liners, and hubris. The gaps I filled in with duct tape. Standard hiking wear is a capilene shirt, shorts that don't dry out nearly fast enough and a pair of underarmour to prevent "macho he-man inner thigh rash". In short, not enough clothes. I fell to relying on the old Appalachian Trail technique of not stopping. The problem on the WT is that you have to stop, unless you're a Seattlite Fitness Leprechaun, which I am not. When you stop, when you're wet and it's forty degrees out and windy you have half an hour before your hands start shaking too much to be usable. I didn't stop. By the time I got to my campsite I was not feeling hungry at all, which is good, because I underpacked this leg of the trip. I set up the tent as fast as I could and got out of wet things and into polypro longjohns and rain gear. Still cold.

Golden Lakes, though, rippled under clouds, the rain canted off into a wind-blown mist. A thoughtful young man told me about pathfinding across the Rockies in Idaho, and a trio of apparently immortal old ladies burst into a perfect harmony, some Nordic song of wandering and redemption. The young man said the ladies do six mile days for most of a month, just wandering the mountain. They sound like angels of a wilder heaven. I'm not feeling hungry but I'm not feeling terribly cold anymore either.


As a post-script, thank goodness for my Meathead Brand Protein Colossal bars. I would never eat them off trail because they're like five hundred calories apiece, but if you did the math I think the majority of my calories came from these things, and on cold days they were all I would eat. Sort of like Snickers bars for AT hikers in Maine. I also noticed that I didn't have the calf and thigh soreness I should have had after all those big climbs. Either the weight room time is helping or the increased protein intake. Beats the hell out of snickers anyway. At these temps you can barely bite into chocolate.

Only the kind hurts kill

Wonderland Trail
Longmire to South Puyallup Creek Campsite via Pyramid Creek

Yesterday was a baby day. Three point five miles from Longmire over Rampart Ridge to Pyramid Creek campsite, which incidentally lay closer to Pearl Creek than Pyramid. No sooner had I gotten my tent up at Pyramid than I was beset by insects. When the weather is fair on the Wonderland Trail, you have to contend with the insects. Otherwise you get the freezing rain. I took my food bag and hustled to Pearl Creek to spend a very relaxed afternoon.

When you listen to falling water for a long time it sounds like all kinds of things- a goth-industrial club, laughing girls, your dead father. There is this damn "History of the Soviet Union Told Through Tetris" song that would not leave my head. Then the techno again. There is a reason that these mountain streams always have demigods living in them, in the old tales. They talk to you, and the act of auditory perception can not shake it. If it weren't for science I would think there were spirits there too.

The next day I set out for South Puyallup via Indian Henry's Hunting Ground, and the patrol shack that sat on the site. This was the second day of good weather I was to have on the trip, but I was preoccupied because I had inadvertently swapped my first food drop with my second. My first leg is a bit longer than the second, so I was going to be hungry.

This is not usually a problem on the first days of hiking trips, because I am so wiped that I can't bear the thought of food. It helps drop those first ten or twenty pounds right off. For whatever reason, though, the WT was making me hungry. Probably because it wasn't bestially hot like most places. Also, every day was like climbing Katahdin twice. That will put a fire in your belly.

So I lazily sliced pepperoni with my dollar knife from Wal-Mart. Wow, this knife sucks, I remember thinking as the knife rolled right over pepperoni and down three quarters of an inch into my thumb. Gosh darn it. For the love of Ueshiba I managed to inject myself with raw pepperoni on the second day and pump out a fair amount of the red stuff besides. The last time I saw that much of my insides on my outsides it was on an interstate and I wasn't very conscious because I just kissed a concrete sidewall at seventy miles per hour. Various bits of wilderness survival lore started swimming around in my brain and making me do almost sensible-seeming things. It's not spurting. You can use your water bag to generate a pretty high pressure stream, irrigate the wound, clean all the pizza topping out of there. Don't put peroxide or betadyne inside the wound, it denatures the tissue and necroses for sure. Dry it out, wrap it in gauze, duct tape the flesh flap down hard. Secure with more duct tape. Finish lunch and move on. Oh, and duct tape your heels back together, the skin's coming off. I feel like I should have spoken the previous paragraph in a gravelly SOCOM sort of voice, but this was a sandwich mishap, not another damned bear fight. The phrase "sandwich mishap" immediately robs any situation of whatever testosterone it might have once possessed.

The thumb was on my mind for the rest of the day because it was dripping a bit, but it was always gnawing on the back of my brain for the rest of the trip. When at night I changed the dressing I studiously sniffed the awful thing, checking for the maggoty odor that would send me off trail and into a walk-in clinic. I'm actually pretty amazed it's healing up as well as it did, given the fact that after the fourth it rained for a week, making it impossible to keep the wound dry. But I would be damned if I got put off the Wonderland Trail by my lunch. "Hey, what got you?" "Hypothermia" "'Bout you?" "Blizzard" "And?" "Pepperoni. A pepperoni bagel to you, mister!"

Crossing the cable bridge over Tahoma Creek (Pull y'all up! Ha ha, just kidding, it's pronounced pew-all-up) made my knees go wobbly for thirty minutes. It's a hundred foot span over a hundred and change foot drop, with a particularly uncivilized looking glacial creek thundering below. You can look at it through the bridge's floor, made of loose slats, as the bridge sways up and down, right and left in the freezing wind

(All winds on glacial creeks are freezing because the giant mountain chills the air until it is so cold it flows downhill like water, rushing through drainages like the Tahoma. See "katabatic wind".)

Your hands throb and some blood drips on slats, some falls between the slats down into the torrent below, and you reflect for a moment on whether or not the fall would hurt dramatically. Then marvel on how it is the kindest hurts in life that kill. The cruel ones flense you against the mountainside, against your loved ones, against the rock of the interstate. Like the spirits in the waters, they are speaking also, but what they are saying I am not sure I can accept.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Earth Made God

The attitude of Seattlites regarding the mountain is unmistakeable. He's feeling grump today,they might say. Look at him showing off. Or when the tip peeks out of the cloud they might say he is feeling shy. In all ways and forms Rainier is a demigod of sorts in this area and like all gods he has a very nice makiroll named after him. Rainier is earth made God. The MT. Rainier roll is delicious, though.

It becomes more and more apparent why this is so as you drive closer. At fifteen miles the mountain makes up much of the sky. I had to concentrate to stay on the road.

Today had been a very lazy day. Three and a half miles to pyramid creek from longmire. I am feeling fairly strong but I underpacked on food for this leg. Not much of a problem as I am carrying Aaron decent amount of food in my belly. Some of the bagels have molded which is another pinch in the larder.

The rangers also very nicely agreed to split up a twenty mile day from sunrise to nickel creek. Now it only sunrise to summerland then summerland to nickel. Hooray.

Well it is time to turn in. The new shires contrail tent is very cozy the sleeping mat is full and the bag is fluffy. The privy is without walls however meaning that precautionary calls of POTTY CHECK will echo throughout the night.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Steve and Jen agreed to take me in and generally cart me around before and after my hike on the 93 mile Wonderland trail. I shall make them musaman tofu and other good things in exchange. They are also showing me Seattle. It's gorgeous. There's the Boeing plant with its possibilities and the air with its magical low humidity and salt tang. There is Rainier ominous and huge though it is seventy miles away. Tomorrow I go there and start walking at its feet. It is one giant huge thing. At this distance you could barely make out katahdin, but then again miss k is one third the size.

Jen reminded me that Seattle is wearing its party dress when visitors are about, however, just like Florida in January. It's not always like this but seems to like acting this way when out of towners drop by. This time of year it puts on its nice things and sidles up to you while putting rufies in your drink. Then when you wake up it's December and Seattle is in a paisley nightgown with a bent cigarette clamped between frosty seadamp lips. "HI THERE SAILOR" she growls cancerously, as you grip sheets in horror and wonder if you can remember what the sun looks like. So it's good to remember that every place can have its good sides and down sides.

The people here are pretty awesome though. I lost track of times when I thought I Steve would get run over as a pedestrian, but traffic stopped as if by magic, or even by traffic law. It is a strange sight for a visitor from the savage south. I feel like I should be carrying a super soaker loaded with sausage gravy so I could hose down vegans with it. HOW YA'LL DOIN'?

Probably won't get a chance to post again for at least a week, either from Sunrise or when I get back to Jen and Steve's, when the walk is done.


I actually met the real Ms Seattle while walking to get mexican food from a place near Saltwater Park. From across the road, a bulbous humanoid in a mumu intoned, "Do ya wanna DO IT?!". I laughed. She started belting out Broadway songs. Belted them out pretty well, actually. Think of a genetic melange of Steve Perry and Ethel Merman. As my host identified, "Ah. Not so much street walker as street crazy person". I wish Sarasota street crazies sang Broadway tunes. It would beat the current habit of swinging around lampposts with their winkies out.