From the Desk of O. Alan Weltzien #FindYourPark
This year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary and as the National Park Foundation said, “the Centennial is more than a birthday. We want people everywhere to embrace the opportunities to explore, learn, be inspired or simply have fun in their 407 national parks….” UNP asked its authors to write about their favorite National Park to contribute to the #FindYourPark campaign on social media.
The following contribution comes from O. Alan Weltzien, author of Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes (Nebraska, 2016).
I usually fail when asked about my favorite author or composer or rocker or beer or river or city. When asked, though, about my favorite national park, I dodge less. Mount Rainier National Park (MRNP) rises to the top of my list just as Mt. Rainier rises to the literal top of the Pacific Northwest—and beyond.
I grew up just east of Seattle with MRNP the closest national park to my family, and like other Puget Sounders, my parents hauled us to the Park for picnics and visits with out-of-state friends. I think my folks and other natives regarded the Big One as part of their birthright, and were eager to show it off to visitors to the region.
MRNP, the nation’s fifth national park (1899) and the first dedicated to a volcano, remains the Evergreen State’s number one tourist attraction.
The Park unsurprisingly centers on “The Mountain,” as a Park centennial documentary (KCTS, Seattle) calls it, as though Rainier’s bulk and height eclipse other Cascadian volcanoes and peaks. Rainier, the most glaciated and steepest mountain (as determined by “prominence”) in the lower forty-eight states, looms like the biggest vanilla sundae ever seen. It’s just too big, too much, and for many of us, even if we’re mediocre climbers or don’t climb at all, it pulls our eyes if not heartstrings like a giant white, blue-flecked flame. Only when you’re hiking on the Wonderland Trail (ninety miles) that girdles the volcano, or climbing it, do you begin to grasp, and gasp over, its size.
For Rainier reveals endless facets according to light and wind and season and geographical position. It’s never the same mountain.
While Yakama and Nisqually hunted and berry-picked on the southeast and southwest (and west) flanks, respectively, of Tahoma, the preferred native name, they generally kept their distance below treeline. By the late nineteenth century, though, Rainier attracted acolytes including first-generation climbers. That crowd and more casual visitors have grown in number ever since so that, before the twentieth century’s end, as more than one journalist lamented, it’s crowded at the top, in parking lots or on the two standard (climbing) routes.
Rainier teases our spirit. A beacon and lodestar for western Washingtonians, it insinuates itself into their psyches just as it endlessly lends itself to product branding and other modes of marketing. It attracts its fair share of poets and painters and religious seekers, yet it ultimately defies, I believe, representation in language or image. It remains itself in its endlessly variable faces.
I have walked sections of the Wonderland Trail but never all of it. Almost all of MRNP (ninety-seven percent) is managed as wilderness, yet many of its visitors confine themselves to the commercial corridor between the southwest entrance, Longmire, and Paradise—historically, the busiest thin slice of the Park and access to the most popular climbing route.
This Park captures an extreme diversity of trees and plants, given the number of vegetation zones below its twenty-six glaciers. The northwest (Carbon River) and southeast (Ohanepecosh) corners of the Park contain its lowest elevations. The latter includes a trail on a river island that features old growth trees—the kinds of thick giants that force us to creak our necks and lower our voices. These trees, like the volcano beyond them, instill our awe.
Rainier makes its own weather, though generally speaking, the east side, from Sunrise to Stevens Canyon, remains drier than the west. While places like Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground (southwest) or peaks in the Tatoosh Range just south reveal more than a few hikers, other spots feel more remote. Many longtime visitors steadfastly champion their favorite trails or drainage or lake or subpeak, unsurprisingly.
I have written about Rainier and MRNP before, and the cover of my second poetry book, The Snowpeaks (2013) features an original acrylic painting of Mt. Rainier. Like many others I have worshipped it all my life and have been trying, in writer Bruce Barcott’s phrase, to take its measure. One result of my obsession is my new book, Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes (2016), in which Mt. Rainier plays a lead role.
For decades I’ve lived too far away from MRNP for easy monthly or seasonal access. When I scan my past, though, I recall almost every backpack or day hike, every drainage, every new set of vistas as though it presents endless new versions of itself. Each hike in the Park or just beyond its boundaries reminds one of the intimate connections between the “arctic island” above treeline and the vegetation zones below that depend upon it. One of the Nisqually names for Rainier, Ta-co-bet, translates as “nourishing breasts.”
The condition of awe includes, historically, a healthy dose of terror. So many are drawn to MRNP even as knowledge of lahars, for example, becomes more widespread. Current geological thinking about Rainier stresses its dangers, and given the tens of thousands who live on or near historical floodplains or lahar flows, volcanologists rate Rainier as one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the continent.
Many of us, though, feel instinctively lured by volcanoes. I know I’ve been obsessed with mountains since childhood, and volcanoes pose a special case—and special lure. Some have explained the attraction because of volcanoes’ tangible connection to the earth’s interior. At least one scholar and friend, John Calderazzo, has proposed an intimate analogy between volcanoes and our psyches (i.e. his title, Rising Fire: Volcanoes and Our Inner Lives, 2004).
I know I can never have enough of Mt. Rainier or the Park that’s supported it the past 117 years. The conclusion of poet Denise Levertov’s triptych about Rainier, “Three Ways of Looking at a Mountain,” captures some of Rainier’s lure: “This mountain’s power / lies in the open secret of its remote / apparition, silvery low-relief / coming and going moonlike at the horizon, / always loftier, lonelier, than I ever remember.” (1992) I will always come to The Mountain.