We humans tend to establish some pretty ego-centric associations when we're young. Images, events, moments in time that are lifelong touchstones.... For me, Mt. Rainier is just such an image/place/source of energy and inspiration. I'm sure I must share my "ownership" with approximately a gazillion other people, but in my own mind, it will always be mine.
When I was nine, we moved out of downtown Renton to three and a half acres about five miles East of Kent, WA. If you look at a map of the area, you can see that gets you up out of the valley and into trees and foothills. Our property had trees to the west, but the house itself was situated on a cleared rise that gave us a magnificent view of the Cascade Mountains in general, and Mount Rainier in particular. My bedroom was in the southeast corner of the house. Every morning, I awoke to the sight of Mount Rainier outside my window. (Oh, all right, we're talking Washington. Sometimes I couldn't actually see it!)
A thousand times, I watched it turn pink, or palest blue, or gold and then fade into
nothingness. Sometimes it disappeared altogether. Cloud-cover, so They said, but
sometimes, the sky was blue overhead and still, the mountain wasn't there. And yet like
the sun in an eclipse, it always came back. Maybe it wasn't cloud cover. Maybe the
Mountain truly did disappear. Afterall, sometimes it was definitely floating above the
clouds, like some magnificent floating castle of fable. Suffice to say, in my own mind, if
there is true magic in the world and if that magic has only one source, that source has to
be Mount Rainier.
For those who have read my books ... the landscape is no accident, and, yes, when you think of Khoratum, you can very legitimately insert an image of Mount Rainier.
This summer, I returned to the Seattle area to visit my family, and when my first day
there proved bright and beautiful, my brother, Allen (Chip), took me for a truly special
visit to "my mountain", with a little help from his Beechcraft Sundowner. These
pictures were all taken with my Minolta X-700, barely aimed (I was simultaneously running
the still camera in one hand and the video cam in the other --- I leave the out-takes of
this gymnastic event to your imagination) , and just the standard issue 49mm lens. (I
needed my wide angle, not my telephoto!) The fact they are in focus is a minor miracle.
I've got a pile of pictures, but these will hopefully convey a taste of the magic in the skies that day. The first is our initial approach, coming in from the north. Actually, this view is My Mountain: I know every ridge and glacier, and while those distinctive features have official names on official maps, only I know their real names ... and I'm not telling. We then skirted around toward the East, and Mount Tahoma, Rainier's little "bud" off to the left of the first picture.
At this point, we entered a different world ... a whole new side of Mt Rainier, wild and beautiful ... and not my mountain at all! This was the Rainier of photographs, and each rock was beautiful and exciting, but lacking that intimate familiarity of the north face. As we came around the south side, we saw ultimate, irrevocable proof that this was not My Mountain: black specks and curious white patterns that were either mountain climbers and tracks from an intrepid, lone skier, or the strangest batch of BigFoot trace ever recorded!
Leaving Rainier behind, we headed south toward Mount St. Helens. As with Rainier, I have some rather personal history with this pile of hot-headed dirt and rock. When I was young, Mt. St. Helens was that rather pretty, but boring mountain toward the south ... so elegantly regular, hikers had been known to go up one face on a foggy day and come down the wrong side! For someone whose idea of volcanic beauty was the rugged Rainier, she really didn't interest me much.
This interest level changed abruptly on May 18, 1980. I was slinging donuts at a Daylight Donuts in Pullman WA that morning, three hundred plus miles downwind from St. Helens. I heard the blast ... thought it was a sonic boom ... until the radio announced St. Helens had erupted. Over the next few hours, various disaster scenarios came down the airwaves --- the simple fact was no one knew what to expect.
We closed at noon on Sundays, and by that time, the sky was already getting dark. I
knew the campus radio station had determined to stay on the air, and since no one knew if
it would be safe to be outside over the next few hours, I gathered the leftover donuts and
ran them up to the radio station as radio-jockey-fodder, then hightailed it home to my
Within an hour, the sky was black. By late-afternoon, the ash had begun to fall, and you couldn't see the streetlights on the far side of the street. One of my favorite profs from college lived up the street; I used to take care of his cat when he went out of town. Sometime during those first hours, I received a call from him --- one of those "I need to hear a human voice" type calls, and in humor, but with an all too understandable quiver in his voice he made the query: "Do you think we'll ever see the sun again?"
Frankly, there were times that night that my brain said, "Of course," but my gut wasn't at all certain. I just wanted to go to ground in my "cave" and wait for the shaman to sing the sky clear ... or something. The next morning, it got light, but the whole world had turned grey. Definitely one of those primal experiences I'll never forget.
And yet, for all I heard it blow, for all I've been scrubbing St. Helens ash out of the microscopic whorls and ridges of my knick-knacks ever since, I'd never actually seen the crater, except at some distance and along commercial airliner routing. Chip and I rounded the crater three times, then followed the North fork of the Toutle river valley toward Tacoma and home.
The Moon and Mars have nothing on this area. It's a truly alien world at the moment.
The land is recovering steadily, but the rows of matchstick trees are still very evident
and the lakes are lined with dead trees. And yet, this is the stuff of which the entire
northwest is composed. Within a few more years ... maybe a decade or two ... less than a
geologic heartbeat, the area will again reflect the rich forested beauty of the
surrounding mountains. Amazing.