The Wonderland Trail

Morf Morford


© Copyright 2024 by Morf Morford

Photo courtesy of the author.
   Photo courtesy of the author

The Wonderland Trail is a trail that goes around, at approximately mid-point, (most of the time) Mount Rainier.

It is about 93 miles long and traverses glaciers, rivers, crevasses, wetlands and, of course, stunning alpine views. And it is on an active volcano.

Mount Rainier is about 370 square miles, the source of five major rivers and has multiple microclimates.

I’ve been caught in a major thunderstorm on a cloudless sunny day in the lowlands.

Encounters with creatures, forces of nature and one’s own limitations could leave wounds, memories and mysteries that could easily last a lifetime.

Among many other signs of the mountain’s scale, in 1946 a plane with 32 US Marines crashed on the westside of the mountain. The bodies and most of the plane were never recovered.  Click here for details.  

There are those who race through, and seek to “conquer” the trail in record-setting time.

I have no interest in rushing through such an experience. I’d far rather, as John Muir and Henry Thoreau both put it, “saunter” through a terrain that, though I see it almost every day in the distance, fascinates me even though it holds little to no regard for human concerns or values. Or even survival.

To “saunter”, after all, means to take the journey slowly, taking the time to notice, appreciate, even cultivate, the unexpected wonders that one encounters in the wild.

From a luscious breeze through a grove of ancient coniferous trees, to a knowing glance from well-camouflaged forest resident, the wilderness holds surprises, and of course occasional (sometimes life-threatening) hazards, that one never encounters on, or near, a suburban sidewalk.

It’s been years since I’ve been on extended parts of that trail, but too far back in time I passed through (before adverse, meaning life-threatening, weather stopped any paltry human attempts to cross through it) most of the trail at one time.

The entire trail usually takes about ten days to cross, with several of those days including elevation gains (and sometimes drops) of 5, even 6 thousand feet.

These elevation swings, along with the passing of the day, and, of course, the passing of the season, can bring one into conditions one learns to (at least to some degree) be prepared for.

Even at the height of summer, snow and ice are likely to be encountered at those altitudes. The year-round snow is stunning and beautiful, but a hot day at those heights (due to melting snow) could cause major flooding in the valley below – without a drop of local rain.

There is nothing like an abrupt alpine thunderstorm, many miles from even the crudest shelter, recently fallen trees covering a trail or a washed out (or entirely missing) bridge across a raging stream or an encounter with hungry bears freshly emerging from hibernation, even a twisted ankle, to remind one of one’s all too fragile mortality.

I don’t remember the exact site, but on one of our first days of attempting the entire trail, we rounded a cliffside path and, came upon an alpine ravine. But this was no standard alpine gap between peaks.

We were at, or just above the tree-line, which is about 8,000 feet above sea level, so-named because, at least in the Pacific Northwest, trees, among other things, do not grow above that altitude.

In other words, from that point, looking up, one only sees largely barren rock faces exposed to endless wind, and seemingly endless time.

In short, seasons, years, even decades or centuries, pass over those stones with virtually no visible impact, as in the usual sprouting or bearing of leaves.

Those few trees or scrub-like vegetation near that line are stunted or severely twisted by extreme (and constant) wind and unrelenting fierce weather.

And every sound, from the scritch of tiny (or not so tiny) mammals to the sqrack of unearthly looking (and sounding) birds echoed from stony faces, through the thin alpine air and again from sometimes distant similar stone cliffsides.

One realization that leaps out at that altitude is that this mountain, perhaps every mountain, is in fact a single massive rock – with its fractured fragments scattered (or in a furious, toxic fumic lava flow) across the surrounding terrain – for thousands of miles in every direction.

In the distance, through stunningly clear in the alpine air, we could see, across the valley, the other peak, perhaps 6 or 8 miles away.

The valley itself was a steep drop of several thousand feet.

The valley, at minimum, was wide and deep enough to entirely swallow a good-sized city.

The slightest alpine hiccup could encase a thousand years of hard-won civilization in seconds.

As we took in the immensity of bare and open space, rock, wind and the distant trickle of multiple waterfalls, time itself seemed like the most obtuse abstraction. In fact, confronted by all these facets of “reality” - stone and wind, water and mass defined by space, or perhaps the other way around, human concerns – of time, tradition or even, to a large degree social propriety – seemed as irrelevant and absurd as broken child’s toy long out-grown and discarded.

As we stared in silent wonder, we noticed a shimmering peripheral movement toward the valley floor. From our height, the movement could have still been a thousand or two feet above the valley floor.

We watched a tiny ink-blot black fleck circle thousands of feet below us.

As we observed this dark creature soar in the late morning sun, we noticed its white head and tail feathers. It was a bald eagle.

Not everyone gets to see a bald eagle in free flight coasting across the air currents only it can read, but to look down on an eagle in flight, is certainly one of nature’s wonders reserved for those who can both step out, and, even on the edge of a dizzying cliff-face, take note of a shimmering fleck in the distance.

We were nowhere near a summit, but this was, by any definition, a “mountain top” experience.

Mt. Rainier is an active volcano. Its slightest eruption could mean near instant death for millions of humans, erasure of many major cities and loss of entire eco-systems and species.

In that moment, on that ledge, my life, even human concerns and accomplishments, seemed to evaporate like mists across a fall morning.

Cities suddenly seemed frail and vulnerable, money and status seemed absurd and arbitrary, and human lust for power (over what?) just seemed pathetic and embarrassing.

The only thing that seemed to matter was space and mass, and like that eagle, and the wind and the rock and every living thing, the sheer shimmering exuberance of existence.

I found myself found/lost, embraced, maybe even absorbed into the being, the now, the forever, the immediate.

I found myself, with my companions, mechanically taking the next step and slipping back into that schedule and hiking (if not living) pace that seemed so important the day before, and perhaps, one day, will be as important, or at least recognizable, to me again.

Not too many hours later, we found ourselves on the trail crossing the bottom of a similar valley. This time we saw a flickering shadow ahead, alongside and behind us. It was another eagle siting, but thanks to the blazing sun overhead, its shadow was all we could see.

As we saw the shadow flit into the distance, we could not help coming to the conclusion that, if we had been a few sizes smaller, or if that eagle had been hungry enough, that flickering shadow could have been the very last thing we would see.

I lost – and found – something immeasurable that day. I still can’t say what it was, but every once in a while, I turn some corner, or look at a cloud, or into a child’s eyes, I recognize a reflection in the intimate distance that reminds me of a place larger, closer and more immense than our senses can register.

Mountains are places of dramatic endings – and sometimes dramatic, or even slowly smoldering and volcanic beginnings.

Not many of us are born there, though a few die there. But some of us, if we are fortunate, find a glimpse of life or reality far beyond human explanation or understanding we never could have expected in those intimate, yet vast spaces.

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