A spark, like the arc of fire as steel strikes flint, fell with each postcard. It was the summer of 1961 and the postman brought a card nearly each day. I tried to meet him on the steps.
Glossy spectachrome, some with scalloped edges, some sheer. Photos of the our national parks. The badlands, great buffalo, the solemn faces of Mt. Rushmore, the Devil’s Tower.
My grandparents were on the American Grand Tour, the great road trip of their lifetime. Grandpa Ellis had been preparing for weeks, carefully building cabinets to fit into the back of the turquoise station wagon, each with its purpose, crafting a kitchen on the tailgate. I watched him fit the canvas tent into the side door, pack a satchel full of highlighted maps. Everything had a place, including a box of cigars and a few fifths of Old Overholt rye whiskey.
Two days after the retirement party from “The Overland”–the Willy’s automotive plant where he had spent his adult life bolting together jeeps and wagons–they were free, sprung from the trap, rolling west from Toledo’s steel and smoke across the flat farms sprouting new corn. Window rolled down, arm on the door, smiling face biting an unlit cigar.
Then the cards started coming. Mom numbered them with a magic marker, tapped them together, a cascading chronicle falling down the front of the fridge.
Next came Yellowstone–geysers and waterfalls and bears!–the shark-tooth range of the Tetons tearing at an impossibly blue sky. The falling sparks had now ignited some small wad of tinder in my heart. A tendril of smoke rose telling me there was an awesome world out there. Grandpa and Grandma were sitting in their webbed folding chairs marveling at it. I was on the step, impatiently throwing a baseball into my gloved hand.
49 years later
My daughter Heather is driving, her dog Echo and I are passengers. They’re taking me to see their favorite part of the world, North Cascades National Park near their home in Washington state.
We’re headed up the Nooksack River road. I’m particularly eager to see Mt. Shuksan. Its faded likeness is on every fourth check I write. The great volcanic cone of Mt. Baker flashes into view as I crouch down to peer out the window. (A Ford Focus just doesn’t have the headroom of a 1960 DeSoto.)
We wind up toward Mt. Baker ski area, Heather expertly guiding me to Picture Lake where, yes, the picture in my checkbook was taken. I marvel. Shuksan is amazing. Heather shows it off as if it’s her mountain, as if she owns it. And well she does.
Grandma and Grandpa didn’t make it to the North Cascades. It wasn’t declared a national park until 1988. Sadly this riot of mountains wasn’t in their guidebook.
I snap pictures. It’s a glorious day of blue sky with sailing puffs of cloud. The mountain did what mountains do well. It filled us with awe. Can something simultaneously impress our smallness yet make us feel large?
Back on the road…
Howard and Helen (and yes, they did later have a boat named “How & Hel”) motored on to Glacier and the “Going to the Sun Road“, then down to the towering redwoods and that greatest of natural temples, Yosemite. I think they were tiring out as they pulled into the south rim of the Grand Canyon, doors slamming as they stretched and hobbled to peer into the immensity. Maybe a mind can only hold so much wonder in a single summer….
Their cards continued to come out of the postman’s leather mail bag. Their assembly reached the floor and we began a new chain from the top.
What a country this “America the Beautiful” I sang about in music class proudly standing next to cute Jane Chapman. And it is “MY Country ‘tis of thee”, to which we pledged allegiance each morning, for which our dads had fought. The land of the free, home of the brave and the Detroit Tigers. “From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters…”
This little flicker of a flame, ignited by my Grandparent’s cards, kept alive by trips to the north woods, burst into an unquenchable fire at 19 when I rode a bus into Yosemite Valley. The wonder of wild mountains and deserts became a place to nurture sanity in a crazy world.
One of the things that pleases me most is to see it burn in the hearts of each of my grown children, all able now to do some wild things better than their old man.
And down the trail…
Heather and I have shouldered backpacks now for a four day walk into the heart of these North Cascades. From the highway we’ve been tempted by views of peaks upon peaks, glaciers holding on to summit ledges, cascades pouring from the ice, making a run to the river.
Our goal is the Sahle Glacier, the highest campsite in the park where we can pitch our tents at the glacier‘s toe and watch the sun set and rise over it all. Before that though we hope to hike into Horseshoe Basin, a vast remote amphitheater with waterfalls streaming off its rim.
The thick forest cloaks us with silence as we walk in from the hot pavement, entering a hushed and secret world. We follow the well worn trail, Bridge Creek flowing below. Breaking in our feet and legs, we’re taking it easy, moving down hill. Our first camp is creekside, in a glade of towering western cedars that stand about like wise old giants, protective.
We wake in the stillness, back on the trail, crossing streams that to my eye, trained by the Rockies, are rivers. Nature’s pace is seeping in, calming our fidgets. Conversation and silence are equally comfortable.
At the junction of the Stehekin River we begin going upstream, following the course of a road washed out and abandoned to boots just a few years ago. Juicy and delicious, thimble berries beg for picking. At Park Creek we set out camp, wash some clothes. It’s sunny and hot. Tomorrow is the first of the big days.
Hot turns to hotter. 95 degrees in the shade. There is no predicting mother nature. She loves to surprise. After staking out tents we head up to our first goal, the great Horseshoe. Two days of walking have opened us up to better take it in. (Compared to my grandparent’s trip what a luxury it is to see these parks year by year by year!)
Climbing a narrow path, often stepping around flowing rivulets, deep in brush and flowers, we look up to find ourselves entering the amphitheater. It’s a perfectly round half circle of cliff walls, crested by a terrace of snow, topped by a tiara of sharp peaks. We count 13 cascades plunging down these walls in a rush of spray, all submerging under a long, wide snowfield.
It’s weird to be tromping on this snow knowing there are rivers flowing beneath us. To cool down I rub the snow into my hair, face and beneath my shirt.
We’re awestruck, thunderstruck, dumbstruck, turning all around to catch the 360 degree views, walking on to the ends of the snow field, standing in the mist of waterfalls as they drop by and beneath us.
We’re all alone.
What a great country! Anywhere else this place would be gated, kept for the private pleasure of the rich. Or commercialized with a hotel, t-shirt stands, thimbleberry snow cones and signs that say “keep away from anything that might hurt you if you are just stupid enough but might also cause you to sue us for not prohibiting it”. But this is our democracy and on this day in July Heather and I have it to ourselves. And anyone with a will to walk can come here, too.
And did I say it was hot? That night, back in camp I prayed that if it didn’t hurt anybody else, could it please cool off.
We woke to low clouds cloaking the peaks. As we walked up stream the clouds moved, lifting and lowering, creating a hide and seek of mountainous proportions. Beautiful.
And then the hail came. Pelting us as we dodged under the great trees, then mixing with heavy rain. By the time we got jackets on we were damp. Rains buffeted. Heather’s legs were soaked. It had dropped 45 degrees since this time yesterday. When one prays, specificity is a good thing. I didn’t say how cool I would like it to be.
We hurried down to a flat place where I could pitch a tent. We huddled inside, Heather getting into a sleeping bag. Hot tea helped. We shared our digital pictures, talked about fun and funny times. We found we were laughing ourselves silly.
The rain stopped. We packed up and went on to Cascade Pass, watching hoary marmots scurry up and down. From the pass we were to take our side trail, climbing 1500 feet up the Sahle Arm to the toe of the glacier and to the top of the world. We were to spend the night and see the stars and moonlight on the ice.
It was to be the highlight of the trip. But we were ensconced in cloud. There was no sign of it lifting. The trail disappeared into the mist. And did I say it was cold? And mention the people up there last night? They huddled on their pads clutching their knees while lightening flashed all around them. Touching the ground caused their hair to stand on end.
Wisdom sent us packing down to a car.
Disappointment gives promise for next year
I have it on good authority, though, that the Sahle Arm is still there. And even the glacier. It calls. As do the national parks I haven’t been to yet, like Crater Lake, and Mt. Ranier and Redwoods, and then there is Big Bend in Texas and Glacier Bay and Denali in Alaska, and how have I lived this long without going to Zion in Utah. The parks remind me there is always more.
The power of awe. Humbling, yet exhilarating. Wonder beyond speech. I’m smiling just thinking about it, now pondering trips for next summer. You, too?
Can I fan the flame that glows in your heart? I wonder to whom we can pass the torch, the torch of love for the natural world that gives us more than existence. TV puts our kids into a trance. Video games into a hyperbolic fantasy. Sports, however valuable, into competition. Our wildlands fire life itself.
If you go….
North Cascades National Park is about 100 miles northeast of Seattle. The park offers fine lodges, simple motels and inns, car camping and backcountry sites. Planning information is on the park website at: www.nps.gov/nocal/. Information about the region and the remarkable Cascades Loop drive which winds through and around the southern side of the park is found by calling (509) 662-3888 and requesting a free travel guide or by going to: www.CascadeLoop.com/.