The beauty of mountain landscape was all I wanted to talk about. The photographs from two trips to Mount Rainier, one last week and one on June 30th, were almost ready to publish. I love being high up in the mountains. I’m very thankful I can go there regularly and I enjoy sharing photos of these “wanderings.”
But my mind is clouded with the knowledge that three nights ago, 59 people were killed when a man whose mind I cannot fathom, opened fire on an outdoor concert in Las Vegas. Posting about trips to the mountains as if nothing had happened doesn’t feel right.
As America debates the wisdom of laws that allowed this man to legally buy weapons that made it only too easy for him to kill and maim hundreds of people, the second amendment comes up once again. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
I wonder, where do we draw the line at defining arms? The perpetrator couldn’t buy a missile – we seem to agree on that limit – but in Nevada he could legally buy assault weapons, large capacity magazines, and equipment to turn his guns into fully automatic weapons with the ability to kill dozens of people with one squeeze of the trigger. Now, 59 innocent people are dead and 489 are injured.
I don’t expect America to ban guns – I’m not naive. But lines can be drawn. Will tighter laws that outlaw the sale or possession of military-style assault weapons prevent every mass shooting? No, but we can start somewhere, can’t we? Lives do not have to be wasted this way. So many innocent people died, and the waves of people who were and will be affected by those deaths ripple out farther than we might think.
I believe millions of people are discouraged by this event and other acts of violence around the world. It’s not a good feeling. So instead of running the text I originally wrote alongside the photos, I’m going to post the images by themselves, in the hope that if you’ve been discouraged by recent events, public or private, you might find a bit of respite in seeing an uninterrupted stream of photographs from high places. (The original text is at the bottom).
It’s about 110 miles from my house to Paradise.
Paradise, Mount Rainier that is. On that long drive to Mt. Rainier National Park we pass through cities, suburbs and deep forests, but the critical distance traveled is in elevation. To go from 400 feet to over 5400 feet (1646m) above sea level completely changes your perspective – geographically, environmentally, emotionally and spiritually. To raise ourselves above our ordinary surroundings is why we go. Arriving at this pristine place where the busy world drops away, our perspective widens, and we touch the infinite.
The winding two lane road up to Paradise is kept clear of snow all year, but even in late June, huge piles of snow lingered up at the visitors center. I had been eager to see Paradise in the snow, and we could have traipsed around on rented snowshoes, but I was content just to sit on a log, watching as a couple threw snowballs at one another, peering at trail markers half-buried in snow, and listening to the pleasant gurgle of icy water pouring down the steps and across the parking lot. It’s hard to describe, but there is something about the atmosphere on a mountain that feels pure, relaxing, and energizing. That day we stopped at Longmire, too. It’s several thousand feet lower so butterflies and bright Spring flowers replaced the snow of Paradise. What a difference the elevation makes!
We returned to the mountain on August 16th for a hike at Sunrise, on the other side of the mountain from Paradise; the hike is described in a recent post. Last week we went back again. A trail I’d hiked two years ago, the Naches Peak Loop, had been closed for weeks this summer because of smoke from wildfires in the area. After some rain the smoke cleared enough for the pass and trails to reopen, giving us a window of time to enjoy the hike before the weather turns cold. The menu of spectacular hikes on and around Mt. Rainier is long and varied; I’m sure we’ll never exhaust it!
At 14,410 feet (4392m), Rainier’s perennially snow-covered summit is typically climbed in two days. That’s one hike we don’t plan to attempt. Rainier isn’t among the grandest or toughest climbs, but it’s not a walk in the park, and it challenges even an experienced climber’s mountaineering, crevasse, and glacier skills. Not everyone makes it. Many turn back, some perish on the summit bid, and others lose their lives on or off the hundreds of trails that trace the mountain’s rugged contours.
The current list of people who died on Mount Rainier tops out at 421 (record keeping began in 1897). Towards the bottom you’ll find the name Karen Sykes. A locally respected 70-year-old nature writer and an experienced hiker, Karen died on Rainier three years ago. She and a friend split up during a hike on the east side of the mountain. She didn’t return at the agreed upon time, he was unable to locate her, and rescue operations were called in.
Three days after Karen disappeared on the mountain I was on the way to Ohanapecosh, an old-growth forest of towering trees in the southeast corner of the park. We noticed rescue and recovery vehicles that day and I wondered what was up. I didn’t put two and two together until later that week, when I heard about Karen on the news. It had taken search teams three days to find her; they were bringing her out when we drove past. She had been photographing alpine flowers for an upcoming book. She and I had exchanged comments on our Flickr pages and I had hoped to meet her someday, but that was not to be.
Karen surely would have been able to identify the wildflowers gone to seed that I struggled with last week on the Naches Peak Loop. She would have reveled in the fall color, too. I enjoyed seeing the fluffy-headed Western pasqueflower (Anenome occidentalis) – or Hippie-on-a-stick in local parlance – scattered throughout the alpine meadows. Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) still sported papery white flowers, but many stems were already flattened to the ground. False Hellbore (Veratrum viride) leaves were decomposing artfully, and every single Beargrass flower stem was nibbled clean, probably by deer. The intense purples and reds of Huckleberries turning color seemed to promise a few berries to savor, but the fruits were long gone.
We were charmed by the diminutive Townsend’s chipmunks along the trail but we heard a cautionary tale from a fellow hiker. A chipmunk had chewed the mouthpiece off her friend’s Hydrapak (a backpack water carrier with a tube to sip from). The woman put the pack down for a few minutes, turned her back, and the chipmunk went to work.
We watched in delight as two ravens soared together, owning the sky as they twisted and turned in tandem within inches of each other. An older couple pointed out a coyote laying in the sun in a meadow far below the trail. We’re used to seeing coyotes on their feet, looking alert, but this one seemed delightfully lazy and content. The big wildlife score of the day was a Mountain goat browsing its way up Naches Peak while a small crowd watched from below. The shaggy white goat picked its way across the talus and rock, climbed to the very top and disappeared. Without binoculars we had to concentrate and squint to follow the goat’s progress but that was fine. He’s a little white speck in the photograph above.
Back in late June at Paradise, the flowers had barely begun pushing up, but at Longmire (elev. 2700′) beautiful specimens of Prince’s Pine, Pink Mountain heather and Avalanche lilies (Chimaphila umbellata, Phyllodoce empetriformis, Erythronium montanum) were in full bloom. The lilies are the first flowers to penetrate the snow; a few were out around the parking lot at Paradise, too. I liked the way the alders leaned out precariously from the edges of giant rocks at Longmire. The rocks support fascinating communities of living things to investigate. There are more pretty lichen-spattered rocks on the Naches Peak Loop, many with Subalpine and Douglas fir trees growing in the cracks.
Though we hiked Naches Peak on a weekday, many people were out on the trails, including a gentleman who appeared to be in his 80’s with a trekking pole, a camera, a backpack and two tiny dogs on leashes (how did he keep all that straight?). A family stopped at one of the picturesque shallow ponds of the trail for snacks, and the kids stripped to their underwear to splash in the pond.
Halfway through the hike we noticed another snow-covered mountain, Mt. Adams. It rose far off to the southwest above ranks of blue-on-blue mountain tops that grew paler and paler in the distance. We were inspired and content to be in a stunningly beautiful place, breathing clear, cool air, enjoying the gorgeous fall color, glimpsing wildlife and gazing across distant mountain views. At times we experienced a profound silence, the type of wilderness silence that seems to ring, until it’s interrupted by the deep croak of a raven.