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A Love Letter to Mt Rainier

Washington National Parks Narrative Insider Guides
by Brynn Utela Mar 27, 2016

IN MY EARLY TWENTIES, I spent two winters in Tahoe taking gaper money in exchange for flaccid burgers and less-than-mediocre quesadillas. My name badge cheekily read “Brynn — Earth,” a misguided attempt to deflect conversations about where “home” was when I wasn’t a snow-bum bunking up with 11 housemates in a staff-house in Truckee.

The truth is that there were too many homes to count in my then-young-adult life, and dozens more in the decade that followed. Too many cities, states, and countries that held me in passing. Some stays were more protracted than others, some tugged at the soft corner of my heart, but no place enveloped me or tore me from my transience; no home had yet been home enough to define me.

But in my late twenties, I found the easiest way to describe where I was from. Rather than a town, city, state, or country, I most identified with Mount Rainier.

My history with the mountain is woven through with my loved ones’ relationships to the mountain. My father climbed Rainier three times in the late 60s and early 70s, and was part of a climbing group and glacier rescue club from the University of Washington. My parents climbed the mountain together in 1974, when my mother was just a few years younger than I am now.

They enjoyed skiing at Paradise when a single rope tow ran 750’ straight up the hill, across the meadow above the parking lot, enjoying runs over snow-buried heather, torpid marmots, and elven alpine trees, before somebody decided that skiing on pristine meadows wasn’t ideal for natural preservation, and lift operations unsuitable to turn sufficient profit.

My parents hiked 20 miles round-trip to Mystic Lake, camped on the hillside above the crystal waters, and decided to be cremated and sprinkled there.

My mom carried my brother in utero to the park, snowshoeing with my father and friends from Narada Falls to Reflection Lake. They camped out on the frozen lake when rules against were not yet established, my mom with a child growing in her belly, the stamp of their ancient leather boots atop billowing snow, atop ice, atop ancient waters. They built an igloo (one of many of their time) — carved blocks of ice, stacked and curved in a show of ingenuity and fool-hardiness, and slept inside to show the success of their work.

I, too, first entered the park swathed in my mother’s womb, while she trekked her way to and through the heaven-on-earth colors and vibrancy of Van Trump Park, full of awe in the presence of the mountain’s face seemingly inches away; a surreal backdrop to the equally unbelievable fairy-land of flowered meadows.

As a family, we camped at Cougar Rock every summer, playing tag on igneous rocks, birthed tens of thousands of years prior, to provide a base for shrieks and laughter, and then a resting place for young bodies to squirm into stillness; rear-ends wiggling into moss, striped socks smudged with lichen, twigs in hair, before laying still and staring up at the strong, waving arms of old-growth Douglas Fir, Hemlock, and Cedar.

As kids camping in that forested home away from home, we’d spend hours building “dams” across the tiny rivulets that meandered away from their great mother, the Nisqually River, doing our best to prolong the water’s return to the rushing torrent of the parental flow. We’d throw rocks off the log bridge that was terrifying to a child, hiding our fear with nervous laughter and the exuberant throw or two of a stone, squealing at the “plop” of the rock in the water, and the subsequent crashing sounds as the rocks re-adjusted their positions in the current. We sat on hewn logs, eager and chilled in the darkening evening as interpretive park rangers shared slideshows on hibernating bears, subduction zones, and receding glaciers.

It was at Cougar Rock that I watched a chipmunk scurrying across a fallen conifer, eager, curious, determined… and I realized with absolute certainty that these wide-eyed creatures, striped from nose to tail, are my spirit animal.

Fast-forward to me in my late teens, deciding that I, too would be cremated and sprinkled on that mountain. Me, 24-years-old, deciding that I would dedicate my entire calf to a tattoo of Mount Rainier, from the Northwest perspective, and myself as a little girl, staring at the closest thing I have to God in this world, from within the branches of an evergreen tree. Me at 27, attempting to climb the mountain with friends, camped on a sliver of rock at Shurman Base Camp, surrounded on three sides by heavily crevassed glaciers, 9,600 feet above the sea and a few hundred feet above the clouds, meeting my future partner for the first time.

Me at 33, going on seven years with my partner, living in Ashford, the 300-person town five miles from the park entrance on the southwest corner of the park. Living, quite literally, on the road to Paradise, in a valley carved by the Nisqually Glacier during the last ice age, the valley still suckling from the teat of the glacier via the proud and forceful Nisqually River, as she makes her way to her third incarnation in the Puget Sound.

This place has my heart. As temporal as my homes have been, as temporal my heart, Rainier is my grounding, my permanence, the center of my storm. I let Seattle go well over a decade ago, knowing that occasional visits for family, shows, and happy hours with friends will suffice, and that my heart lays in the foothills of my mountain; a sense of ownership shared by hundreds of thousands of peoples who have populated her flanks and fed from her waters for centuries.

We are a product of our experiences. In my world travels, I fell in love with violent sunsets over craggy rocks in Laos; my heart beat fast as I rode through the sandy magnificence of carved temples and palaces in Jordan; my eyes opened as I strolled through the vibrant spectrum of rainforests of Costa Rica; my mouth gaped at the fauna in the shrublands of Botswana; my body felt open and relaxed as I let the white sand beaches and turquoise water of Caribbean islands envelop my feet. I carry these places deep within me, undoubtedly.

But the most awe-inspiring place is Paradise in full bloom; the Scarlett Paintbrush against an azure sky, lemon-yellow Broadleaf Arnica contrasting against their own verdant blades, the lacey tongues of Gray’s Lovage at once delicate and hardy.

I inhale deeper with my feet planted on the mountain, the sweetness of fir-needles mingled with sweet nectar, of recent precipitation and damp earth. This abundant reality caused the eminent John Muir to proclaim Paradise “… the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings,” a quote now engraved in stone steps that leads wonderers and wanderers to a meadow that feeds souls and nourishes spirits; the periwinkle and ivory volcano framed by subalpine noble firs and Pacific silver firs, stunted and twisted in their daily-unfolding masterpiece of life at the margins between the wild and human.

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