Dear ERTHAWARE Sojourners,
There are in life rare moments of such startling clarity that it leaves one drop-jaw breathless.
As many of you know, I prefer foul weather photography that accentuates the play of light and shadow and the sensuous reveal and hiddenness of topography that gives drama and experiential depth to a scene. I despise the always sunny tourist brochures suggesting effortless human consumption in crowd pleasing conditions and that belies the history, complexity and struggle of nature.
Of course I would never begrudge tourists such sunny benign bliss should they happen upon it. I like it too. But this wild country in the outer northwest corner of the 48 States that host’s our small planet’s greatest temperate zone rain-forest and glacial ice thicker than the Seattle Space Needle is tall, does not exist because our weather is like the Mojave Desert or elysian tourist brochures. I would not wish it otherwise. The experience of this natural wonder in depth does not befit climate cowards seeking maximal stimulation in demanded comfort. There are commercial tourist theme parks for such escapes.
However, the last week of September Marie and Lynn kicked Dennis and me out for a day to rid us old codgers of unspent testosterone from youth – or is it the daily Omega3 fish-oil, full spectrum vitamin B tablets, a high fiber organic diet for bowel-cleansing movements, and a steady consumption of wild mushrooms that keep us hopping? Lord knows. But at a mile above sea level as we turned the corner onto our favorite gravel mountain road we were met with air so crisp and clear as to defy description. The whole panorama of valleys, canyons, and glacier cloaked peaks stood out in such sharp Technicolor clarity that it almost hurt to look at them.
The previous two months, with unrelenting sunshine in the high country, a forest fire in the Duckabush Valley, and the growing reality that seven million people now make their home around the Salish Sea (formerly known as Puget Sound and the Georgia Straits), the haze factor had built up. But now, a few days of rain and snowfall, dropping temperatures and strong winds had cleared the air. Stunning!
We stopped the Pudgemobile at the edge of a 4000’ (1220 meter) steep drop into the Lillian Canyon, unloaded our camera gear and clicked away looking west across the Elwha Valley and the Baily Range to the Mount Olympus massif (see picture above). This one mountain on our peninsula has more glacial ice in volume than the whole Rocky Mountain Range in the United States put together – that is from Glacier National Park Montana through Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico to the border. In 1969 Dennis, Bob Gunning and I circled this mountain without trails, did days of ankle busting side-hilling, scrambling scree-hell slopes, traversing narrow ridges, wandering across remote mosquito infected basins. Then with rope and crampons and ice axe we negotiated major crevassed glaciers and climbed the three highest summits from the very remote upper Queets Basin (in the picture above you can see those 3 distinct highest peaks).
We gained another thousand feet driving on this gravel road, parked at the end and hiked to a high tundra plateau that gave us a commanding view in all directions. To the east-southeast we could look across the deep Grand, Cameron, and Graywolf Valleys to Mount Deception, the second highest peak in the Olympic Mountains, and directly to its south, rugged Mount Mystery. A fresh dusting of snow from the night before lightened their volcanic basalt rock and made the grimy Deception Glacier pure white. The intervening ridges are sedimentary sandstone and shale that have been raised, bent and tilted in convoluted ways by the earth’s crustal pressures of colliding ocean and continental plates. Through the increasing accuracy of radiometric dating, the study of magnetic orientation in basalt and the scientific awareness of how such rocks form, this whole scene existed as a relatively flat ocean floor about 65 million years ago.
Climbing Mount Deception and Mount Olympus over 40 years ago are iconic in my personal history of wilderness scrambling – a pretty minor achievement in the annals of mountaineering, but for a city boy, monumental. After a youth spent in the greater New York City area, it was in 1968 on Mount Deception that Dennis taught me how to tie onto a climbing rope, use an ice axe for stability, cutting steps in steep snow, belaying other climbers, and accomplishing a self-arrest during a fall. It was on the Mount Olympus traverse in 1969 I learned how to survive for many days with self-sufficiency beyond the conveniences of modernity. I would later stretch out those 10 days to weeks on other adventures. For example, in 1990 Lynn and I would spend several months in the midst of two civil wars in Asia with a single adaptable set of clothes, two zip together sleeping bags, a one burner stove and some black-market cash to bargain with locals for produce. At the same time we nursed a deep gash in Lynn’s leg for 8 weeks from a street-dog bite; and, with cannon and gun fire in the distance, weekly walked a back trail to a small Hindu clinic in little more than a shed that had a rabies vaccine – the only available source in that region. (Between the Tibetan Buddhist refugees and later the diminutive Hindu hill people, we were afforded such gentle kindness.)
Certainly, I am thankful for modern conveniences and am not a retrograde romantic Luddite. But these early wilderness experiences in the remote Olympic backcountry beyond trails taught me that the relationship between survival contentedness and accumulated stuff is not commensurate. In fact I would say that this understanding is a profound psychological/spiritual lesson. It is only in the letting go, whether by intention or forced circumstances, of our false dependencies to which we clutch for life meaning and satisfaction that we truly enter the possibilities of discovering who we are, and who we are in a non-manipulative or non-acquisitive relationship to the world around us, and ultimately to the cosmic foundation of all Being. Could this be one of the forgotten messages of the Christmas story, a young couple who birth and embrace divinity in conditions of extreme limitation. On the other hand we affluent moderns have largely remade Xmass into a celebration of trite consumption and hoarding and spendy ecclesial spectaculars.
In this journey to “no-thing” we begin to allow the “All” to embrace us as we risk opening our inner being. Throughout history the great masters of abandonment, acceptance and interpenetrating union have taught and lived this reality. (This is far different from those absurd rigorous movements in almost all controlling traditions who through a mandated warped asceticism deny a happy, whole humanness). Rather, I speak about those still-points of Gift that as we let go begin to fill and surround us with startling clarity and insight. It is a custom-fit journey without overbearing cultic dictation or legislation or oppressive demands for conformity. There are no Boy Scout badges of achievement or military bars of rank or degrees of sainthood attached to this journey. It is born and experimented with in closeted humility without pretension or odious public masks of status or piety.
Thus, in this journey to freedom from false attachments, suddenly, insignificant things of little value in the rabid global economies of self-defining possessions or the media rage of social climbing or the sacred obsessions with judgmental devotion and correctness take on new meaning and worth. The universe becomes delightfully crazy with curiosity and wonder.
Back to our hike last week: As we strolled through that barren tundra plateau I became fascinated by the first dustings of snow clinging to the dried stiff sedges ready to be snapped or flattened by the fierce storms of Winter.
The morning sun would soon melt these flakes, but for a few moments in this dry rust-brown landscape I was delighted by jewels more precious than the royal collection in the Tower of London – crystalized water, a wondrous necessity of life.
We soon left the Grand Valley trail and wandered downhill. This was the whole reason for our journey this day. It has become an annual pilgrimage – the autumn colors of the dwarf tundra blueberry plants (vaccinium deliciosum and v. caespitosum) – acres of meadows turning such flaming scarlet that who would believe us if we took a photo. In the past I have received emails accusing me of doctoring pictures of this phenomena. Time and again Dennis and I commented to each other, unless they’re here no one will believe this.
A cold pre-Winter wind whistled around us chilling our bones. The air was snapping clear. I took our self portrait (I with the brown leather hat, Dennis with the blue windbreaker). We rarely meet anyone on this annual pilgrimage. There are no manmade shrines to establish a holy site or obvious guideposts to tell the way. Years ago in our off trail wanderings we stumbled upon this place and consecrated it to our memory. Once again we sat in silence, yes, silence….for who can speak in such beauty….but everything was speaking to us.
On the journey,
Hugs from Lynn and me
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Mount Olympus on the Map