Thirty years ago, when I was nineteen, I set out with my brother to hike around the base of Mt. Rainier in Washington State. All through high school I had been backpacking and mountaineering in the Cascades. I was pretty experienced in the outdoors for a nineteen year old, but I had never done anything like this before, especially without an adult. I did not consider my brother an adult which is odd because he was twenty two. He was the unspoken trip leader, but really, we were both still kids. We did all the planning ourselves, packed all of our food including a food drop which we would be able to collect at the halfway point. We needed my Dad to drive us to the start of the hike because we did not have a car of our own, which he willingly did. He even drove us all the way around to the north side of the mountain so we could make our food drop which took several extra hours.
Back in 1986 the Wonderland Trail was a well kept secret. We were able to walk up and get permits for the whole route with no trouble at all. In fact, we barely saw a soul on the trip and had every campsite to ourselves. I still have the hand written itinerary my brother wrote out for us.
Dad left us in the parking lot at Paradise on Mt. Rainier and dove away with the plan that he would pick us up ten days and 100 miles later in the same spot. We set out on foot, much later in the day than we had planned, and quickly realized that we could not make it to our first campsite before night fall. Somehow we made up the mileage the next day so that we were back on schedule and camping in the designated camp sites. I remember very little about those first three days except that we had white gas leak into some of our food so our food tasted and smelled like fuel and some of it was not edible and other parts of it we had to eat anyway. I also remember that the freeze dried food wasn’t making my gut happy, and I remember that it was cold. We had not planned for it to be cold. September is supposed to be a beautiful month for backpacking. I remember Greg telling me he had only brought one pair of socks. Oops.
Looking back at the few photos I have of this trip, I see that I was wearing a long sleeved cotton shirt. That alone is pretty telling. We were not prepared for adversity.
We were pretty bummed when it got cloudy and windy. Hiking in the cold wasn’t nearly as much fun as we had planned. As we passed through Fryingpan Gap, the high point of the trail on day two, I was wearing every single warm layer I had with me. This seemed a bit concerning. On day four, we passed the toe of the Winthrop glacier, and it started to hail and thunder. It was the loudest thunder I have ever heard. I could feel it rumbling my chest. Hail turned into rain. We made it to Mystic Lake, our designated camp for that night and went straight to the ranger station, which was slightly off the main trail, hoping there would be someone there. There wasn’t. The door was locked. We were really cold and demoralized. We decided to sleep on the porch of the ranger station instead of setting up our huge four person tent in the rain. As dusk crept in, we started to hear a high pitched, cackling sound. It sounded like dogs yapping. We were city kids, and although we had seen our share of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, we were not well versed in all the sounds of wild animals. Greg said it sounded like hyenas and that hyenas tend to hunt in packs and they might come and surround us. I don’t think he was trying to scare me. I think he was truly scared. It sounded like they were getting closer. We got the snow shovels down from their storage hooks and kept them near us for self defense. We were too afraid to make dinner. Greg considered breaking the windows of the ranger station, but thankfully he didn’t do that. Once I saw how scared Greg was, I became much more scared myself. He was my older brother. He was in charge. He wasn’t supposed to get scared. This just wasn’t in the plan at all. It was a long night.
The morning dawned clear, bright and sunny with several inches of snow on the ground. I don’t think we even bothered to make tea in the morning. We packed up and got back on the trail and practically ran back to Sunrise, the nearest place with road access and a phone. We called my Dad who jumped in the car immediately and came to rescue us. He was quite proud of how quickly he got to us from our home in Portland.
So that was it. We went home with our tails between our legs and never even collected our food drop. Eventually, we confirmed that hyenas do not live in North America and that we had probably been hearing coyotes, and soon we went back to our respective universities. The Wonderland has continued to work on me, though. It has been in the back of my mind as a place where I have unfinished business.
I started thinking seriously about the Wonderland Trail again a couple of years ago. As my kids have gotten older and my son has shown an interest in doing rather intense and difficult things in the outdoors, it started to seem like a real possibility. The opportunity opened up this summer, thirty years after my first attempt.
In mid August of 2016, I set out with my fourteen year old son to hike around the base of Mt. Rainier. We did all the planning and packing and multiple trips to REI together. We drove from Missoula to the White River ranger station and slept in the car in order to be the first in line to get permits. Despite the popularity of this trail and the high demand for permits, we were able to get an itinerary of backcountry campsites that would get us around the mountain in ten days. We made our food drop at Longmire (much easier!), and started our hike at White River the following day.
It is hard to describe just how good it felt to be starting down the trail of a long dreamed of trip carrying everything on our backs that we would need for ten days, except for the extra food which we would pick up on day six. We were excited, happy, peaceful, content.
Ian was the perfect companion. He was eager and enthusiastic, capable and competent. We talked, we hiked in silence, we marveled at the scenery and how lucky we were to be doing this, we cheered each other on. Ian has a hunger for mountains that echos my own love of mountains which was just beginning to awaken when I was his age. We each had good days and better days, but basically we had no bad days. We had no bad weather and no real adversity. You could say that it was an uneventful trip, yet it was a trip neither of us will ever forget.
I was hiking through the playground of my youth. The Cascades were actually more than just a playground for me. In a very real way, I was formed there. I think something in my DNA stands up and takes notice when I go back to the Cascades, the way being in an MRI machine makes all the water molecules align. Something deep within me knows that I am home. Every step I took contained both the present moment and a memory.
My feet knew the feeling of the trail beneath my boots. My hips and shoulders recognized and accepted the weight of the backpack. My hands knew how to set up the tent and work the stove. My legs knew how to place my boots on the patches of steep summer snow. My body remembered this from long ago even though each moment was alive with newness.
My nineteen year old self was there hiking down the trail with me and yet there I was, hiking down the trail with my fourteen year old son. I felt entirely embodied in the present and also aware of the history I carried with me and perhaps more importantly, the history I was making. This too would become a memory written into the neurons of my body-mind and of Ian’s.
I felt proud of Ian on so many levels. He carried more than his share of the weight, he literally never complained, he participated in the work of setting up and breaking down camp, he kept track of the itinerary and the map reading, he pulled himself out of a funk when he was getting mauled by mosquitos. But most of all, I enjoyed being with him. I delighted in his enthusiasm. I shared in his awe, and I felt deep satisfaction in his growing wonderment and connection to the wilderness experience.
The Wonderland Trail is all up and down, rather like life. There are very few level places. There is a total of 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss over the almost 100 miles. Every day includes at least one big climb and one big descent. It is easy to assume that the climbs would be hard and the descents would be easy, but that turned out not to be the case. We quickly learned not to prefer one over the other and just hike each mile as we came to it. On our fourth day, we went slightly out of our way to make a stop at the Mystic Lake ranger station, which was again unoccupied and locked. We decided not to get the shovels down for the photo.
I have no way of knowing what effect this trip will have on Ian long term, but I suspect it will be formative for him in some important ways. For me, I feel a sense of completion of something I had left unfinished, a sense of reconnecting to my essence, my core, a rediscovery of what I once knew with absolute certainty. I am part of this wilderness and this wildness is part of me.
I found some important loose threads from my past and wove them into the tapestry of my present.
Our only disappointment on this trip was that the mileage seemed to add up to only 97.5 or so. We felt that they should have added onto the Wonderland Trail to make it an even 100 miles. To make up for this, when we were done with the Wonderland, we got in the car and drove south to Mt. Adams and climbed it.