Imagine a volcano. Now cover it with a half a dozen glaciers. Then blow the lid off the top. And place it, and many other mountains, amidst ancient forests, Alpine meadows, and dazzling wild flowers. This, my friends, is Mt. Rainier. A powerfully imposing yet wonderfully inviting volcano just 30 miles outside of Seattle in Washington State, USA.
But see, the thing is, I feel a bit cheated. I traveled all the way around the world in search of myself and the beauty of the world, only to end up gobsmacked, awed, and surer of myself in my own country's backyard. That wasn't what was supposed to happen. I was supposed to 'find the meaning of life' at the top of Machu Picchu; I was supposed to 'find myself' in the foothills of a Tibetan monastery.
Yet as I found myself driving into the park on a warm fall day I couldn't keep from smiling and coo-ing. Seriously, look at these trees. How could you not? And I found after almost four days of camping and no internet (!) my smile never faded and I started to realize I few things that framed my experience.
Fake it till you make it can really get you through a lot, even setting up a basecamp.
Okay so aside my camping at age seven, the other two times I've camped have been in New York City, on a roof and in an apartment. Both times, I have set up alone, or with help, a tent in under an hour, perhaps even under 30 minutes. So when I cavalierly decided I could hike + camp at Mt. Rainier I cavalierly rung up REI and rented whatever equipment the REI pro suggested.
REI: "Are you setting up a basecamp or backpacking?"
Me: Basecamp, definitely. (Absolutely no idea.)
REI: "How is your cold tolerance? I think a 35° will do you fine.
Me: Oh, yeah, that's perfect. (Absolutely no idea.)
So, perhaps, it' not a surprise that it took me nearly two hours to set up my tent. Maybe you know how to simultaneously stand at two ends of a tent and somehow raise the exoskeleton without getting whacked in the face by a flying pole. Maybe you understand how you're supposed to use sixteen stakes when you only have twelve holes and your instructions give no instructions. But if you don't, just keep on hammering away with a massive rock and twisting metal and until your tent eventually stands up and seems decent enough to call home.
Embrace the life you sense at sunrise and sunset.
Here's the thing with trying to catch sunrise in the summer at 46° latitude (NYC is 40° for reference) -- the sun rises too damn early. But, if one morning you happen to make it into your car at 4.45am with barely anything more than hiking boots and boxers on, just go. The sun won't wait for you, and neither will the moon.
Sunrises have fast become my most favorite parts of day. I've often liked sunsets -- who doesn't enjoy those blazing pink clouds? -- but I've rarely arisen early enough for sunrises in the summer, and the winter ones have always seemed so dreary at 8am.
Yet this trip, and even after, I've found myself desperate to catch the softness of the morning at sunrise. The golden hues themselves will treat you to a show, but that's not it. There's a gentleness in the air, in the creatures, in the humans. Some of my favorite moments around the world have been sharing the sunrise with strangers.
We are so small and so young.
Getting out of the city and into nature is the 2x4 to the head to remind me of humanity's smallness. I need only look up to see trees towering 200+ feet over my head, some with bases wider than I am tall, and some as old as one thousand years. I need only look down to see rock polished by glacial ice over thousands of years.
Much of my sabbatical involved asking questions about this one life I've been gifted and pondering deeply the nature of The Eternal. Nothing feels so sacred as this Earth, and nothing has made me feel so profoundly small, young, yet lucky to be alive and able, as walking this Earth.
My own two feet will get me there. (And when they won't, a nice Jewish couple from New York will.)
Do you see the little speck off on the top of the hill on right in the photo above? It's hard to notice, and it looks like all the green blobs, so you're forgiven if you can't quite make it out. That, is a fire look out post from the 1960s, called the Mount Fremont Lookout Post. It's about an hour and a half, to two-hour walk from the Sunrise side of Mt. Rainier. The walk itself isn't too hard, but at some point after you've been walking for a while you come to this sweeping vista as in the photo above. And you realize just how much you really are on the side of a mountain walking deeper into a mountain range in the hopes of finding a lookout point, itself on the edge of the mountain. And you start to think, "how am I going to get there?"
This thought came upon me a lot in the mountains, and in the cities, around the world. I averaged 20,000 steps or maybe 7-10 miles a day. I shed pounds and gained muscle and confidence as I trekked along.
And this thought also came upon on my second day in the park. After trekking for miles and hours longer than I had originally intended, I realizedI needed to either hoof it back to walk the eerily lonesome trek before complete dark, or, get a lift. I had read that hitch-hiking within the park was common, but, after trying twice to unsuccessfully flag down rangers, I decided to approach the only young couple who seemed like New Yorkers. Yup, nailed it. Sarah and Levy (names changed) offered me food, drink, and a lift at nearly 60 mph back to my campsite. If your own two feet are barking, trust me, find the New Yorkers. They'll get you.