Yes, I know that Mt. Rainier is a national park and, under duress, I will share it with America and the rest of the mountain-loving world. The problem is – or I guess it’s not a problem at all – that most times when we venture into the park, the crowds are light and we can end up on roads and paths and in spaces where we’re the only two people around. Just us and a waterfall rushing toward a creek below.
Add to this the fact that every visit to Mt. Rainier National Park is a religious experience to me. The mountains and valleys and acres of trees inside the park are my synagogue, my chapel, my spot to connect with the divine. There’s no place I’ve been with fresher, cleaner air, which seems to fill my lungs while simultaneously cleansing my spirit.
This past Saturday, we woke up early with the goal of heading to Rainier. I packed a picnic lunch, filled up our Hydro Flasks with lemony ice water, loaded up the Cruze, and took off. After getting through Tacoma traffic with only a modicum of swearing (you pretty much have to swear while driving through Tacoma – it might be state law), we made our way through Buckley and Enumclaw along Highway 410, which is my favorite entrance into the park. Past the White River we went, and when we hit Greenwater, which is the last town before the northeast entrance to the park, I realized how crowded it was. The little town, mainly there for outdoor equipment and cabin rentals, was bustling. Along the highway toward the park entrance, beneath the tall evergreens towering over the road and whose tips nearly meet above the center line, our car became one in a long caravan of traffic.
“This isn’t normal,” I said to Tim. And then added, “Well, maybe it is normal.” We don’t usually go to Rainier on a Saturday in the summer. We tend to be Spring and Fall visitors, except for when Sunrise is open, which is only a few months a year due to the elevation and snow pack. And Sunrise was our destination that day.
We, and the band of merry strangers around us that had formed this long caravan, entered the park and started the climb. We stopped for some pictures at the scenic overlook and I took a few minutes with my Canon to zoom in on some icy, blue glaciers.
“I wonder how long?” Tim mused.
“Ehh,” I responded. “We’re still 14 miles from Sunrise. I bet we’ll make it pretty close before the traffic slows down.”
Approximately two seconds later, I rounded a curve and saw the dead stop of traffic in front of me. Nothing was moving, except for the occasional car in front of us that had given up and was in the process of turning around.
“We can do this,” I confidently said as I slowed the car to a stop behind the one in front of us.
So we sat.
14 miles from our destination. In the middle of the most beautiful place on earth.
My patience didn’t last more than 15 minutes before we, too, were turning around.
“Let’s head to Chinook Pass,” I said. “Plenty to see up there!”
We drove the switchback, hairpin turns that lead up to Chinook Pass, marveling at creation as it spilled around us, icy mountain peaks, trees, bare rock walls – everything that makes this national park breathtaking. As we approached Chinook Pass, we ended up in another caravan of slow moving cars. Imagine my surprise when we arrived and the area looked like a mall parking lot during the holiday season.
No parking spaces to be had.
As we drove past, defeated and just trying to find a place to turn around before we ended up on the other side of the Cascades in Yakima, we couldn’t get over the number of people on the trails. Mountains, evergreens, wildflowers, and more people than I’d ever seen there.
It was, at that exact moment, that I realized that I had come to think of Rainier as mine. With this transcendentally beautiful place in my backyard these past two years, I’ve become used to seeing this glacier-covered volcano. So used to her grandeur, in fact, that it failed to register in my brain that other people want to visit Rainier, too.
As we drove back down the mountain on Highway 410 toward the exit to the park, I was disheartened. Nearly three hours from our home now, I hadn’t even gotten to enjoy much of the park. I barely even got to get out of the car. I was sad, and mad at all the tourists and visitors. Who were they, and why where they there? In my park?
The fact is, living here in the Pacific Northwest has spoiled me. I’m still very much a tourist myself and never fail to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us every minute of the day. I still grin like an idiot every time I see a seal or a sea lion on one of my ferry trips. I still love to watch for moon jellyfish while staring down at the water. I still suck in a breath every single time I come down the hill just a 1/4 mile from my house and see the Olympic mountains stretched out in front of me.
Despite all of this beauty and opportunity, I have still started to take it for granted. I forget that people actually have to take real vacations and venture thousands of miles from home to appreciate what is just part of my regular life. I have become spoiled and even entitled.
To all of the tourists that I was angry at last Saturday, I’m sorry. I realize now that Mt. Rainier isn’t mine. The place isn’t some secret hideaway that I happened to discover during an off-road exploration. I’m happy that people come from all corners of the world to gaze upon the icy peak of Rainier. I’m happy that the love of nature keeps national parks thriving and going. I’m overjoyed that people, myself included, will put their phones down long enough to appreciate the world that’s right in front of them.
But I hate sharing. Rainier is a place so sacred to me that I cannot explain it. I can’t put into words why my eyes fill with tears nearly every time I see this gorgeous mountain. It’s spiritual, it’s powerful, and it surpasses regular language.
I will admit that Rainier is collectively ours and not mine… but I’m going to find ways to reclaim some of it as my own. If that means leaving my house at 4:30am on a Tuesday morning so that I’m at Sunrise by 7, so be it.
I need those moments where there aren’t many other people around. I need to breathe. And think. And pray. And appreciate. As I said, Rainier is my holy space, and that, specifically, I won’t share.