When I emerged from the darkness of the forest and saw the glaciated face of Mt. Rainier looming over the sunlit meadow, I started laughing.
My friend Nick raised a questioning eyebrow. I tried to choke out an explanation but couldn’t get it past the giggles. I hunched over my trekking poles and thumbed the tears out of my eyes, and tried to keep my laughter from transforming into sobs.
At the edge of the meadow, more forest, rich and verdant. At the edge of the mountain, the firmament, blue and righteous in the late afternoon. Everything crisp, every blade of meadow grass vibrating with chlorophyll; grasshoppers describing chaotic arcs in the liminal space between earth and sky.
Mountains are holy places in every culture that has mountains, and this is the reason. But such intense experiences are also rarer than we’d like, I think. How easily we are numbed to the fantastic, how quickly the sublime becomes ponderous. But in that instance in the meadow below Mt. Rainier – only a day into a hike around the Wonderland Trail – I was uniquely primed for a powerful moment.
I’ll admit to having just a dash of THC dancing around my synapsis at the time. How much that changes how you view my experience likely depends on how you feel about recreational drug use. If it helps your comfort level (hi, Mom!), I’m no Hunter S. Thompson.
The edible I’d chomped down a few hours before was so moderately dosed that it would be hard-pressed to do much of anything to a sprightly 150-pound person, which I am assuredly not. And in any case, these days, I’m in such a rough place mentally that a low-grade feeling of well-being gets me up to just below where most people with normal brain chemistry live the bulk of their lives.
So no, I’m convinced it wasn’t the pot. Instead, what left me open to – let’s call it an edification – was the sum of my experiences over the last eight months, year, five years.
Trauma can sandpaper away protective callouses just as effectively as chemicals.
My son Alistair was born breathless.
He came out blue and silent and limp on February 4th, 2022, a day after my 37th birthday. A C-section after four days of intense labor.
It just happens that way sometimes, the doctors tell me. Sometimes the babies just don’t breathe.
He was whisked to a cart festooned with tubes and softly whirring machinery and quickly surrounded by a team of specialists. On the operating table a few feet away, the medical professionals elbow-deep in my wife’s abdomen struggled to halt her suddenly prodigious bleeding. Everyone was talking at once. My head was on a swivel.
Wife, son. Son, wife. Wife, son. Son, wife.
Latex and fluorescent lights and blood. Blue tiles, yellowing drop ceiling. Sweat and adrenaline. Frantic tones.
Death hovers over us always but to walk through our lives in full awareness of it is madness, unsustainable. We must forget about it to carry on.
We are so wounded when we remember – are forced to remember – our fragility.
That first day on the Wonderland Trail was the culmination of three years of effort. Permits for the trail are awarded via lottery – a lottery Nick and I won on our first try in 2020. With three days to go before hitting the trail, we canceled our trip because of wildfires in Washington State. The AQI in Mt. Rainier National Park was in the 400s.
We went instead on a gnarly 120-mile loop through The Great Smoky Mountains and there found the upper limits of Nick’s willingness to be rained on (six consecutive days).
In 2021 we applied again for the lottery, but this time our luck failed. We tackled the Collegiate Loop in Colorado, and there found the upper limit of Nick’s willingness to sleep on the ground (eleven consecutive nights).
But the fates smiled on us in 2022, and so on September 24, we set out from the Longmire Wilderness Information Center and began trekking clockwise around Mt. Rainier. We climbed and descended, working our way over the first of the many volcanic ridges that radiate like spokes from the mountain.
Gradually we outpaced the day hikers haunting the trails nearest the parking lot. The woods around us grew quiet. The air was was cool, the forest floor deeply shaded, the tree limbs draped in shroud-like moss.
I felt weak, bloated, and uncomfortable in my too-tight backpacking clothes. My kit was ultralight, but my mid-section was not. My knees ached, and my waist belt dug into my gut. That’s what happens when you are creeping up on 40, and you burn cortisol and eat and drink your feelings for eight solid months.
I’d managed to maintain a nominal training regimen in 2022, but all the kettlebell swings in the world aren’t going to outpace a stress diet of Pabst Blue Ribbon, pizza, and Double-Stuffed Oreos.
A “family-sized” pack of cookies, ay Nabisco? Challenge accepted.
But I live at 6,500 feet, and Nick lives at sea level, which means despite my halfhearted jogs and nightly gin-and-tonics and Nick’s daily HIIT workouts and rigorous salad-eating, we were more or less hiking at the same pace at 5000 feet. Mother nature is known for many things but being fair is not one of them.
Just past Devil’s Dream camp, we emerged from the forest and caught our first glimpse of Rainier towering over the meadow. This is where I had my holy breakdown. The power of that moment stayed with me for the rest of the day as we made our way over Emerald Ridge, with the amusingly named Gobbler’s Knob Lookout just out of sight to the west.
We pitched our shelters at South Puyallup River camp. It had been a big day with a late start, and I was tired. But sleep eluded me. I lay awake long into the night, listening to the firs sway and thinking about my family.