Rainier Chautauqua

Reflections on the Mountain, people and places of the Pacific Northwest

September 14, 2011

Three days after the annihlation at the World Trade Center. I come to Rainier for prayer on steep slopes. Driving out on Highway 164, skirting through the morning rush hour past Auburn. Sunrise is blood red, warning of what’s ahead.

I hike out of Sunrise to second Burroughs Mountain. The stillness in this cathredal on this cloudless day is overwhelming. Only a few other penitents on the trail. The contrail plumes from aircraft heading to Seattle, normally seen in the skies above Rainier, are gone. On any other day the pilot would be intoning into his microphone that to the left of the aircraft you will see Mt. Rainier, the highest peak in Washington State, as he guides the plane toward a final landing approach to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. But the skies are silent and I can only hear my ski poles make a clinking sound on the slate stones as I head up the trail, and, far away, the pulse of the White River as it flows from the mouth of the Emmons Glacier on its way toward the Puyallup River and ultimately into Puget Sound. 

Burroughs Mountain trail

The glaciers are greatly receded on this warm, cloudless September morning. I hike up to second Burroughs and find a small plastic American flag at the stone rest point, a semicircle stone bench pointed toward the Mountain. The flag flaps listlessly in a slight breeze, and the Mountain bears a silent testimony of the horror that has befallen us, and perhaps the horrors to come. 

On this day of sorrow the Mountain is appropriate to the occasion. It is ragged and torn, the glaciers dirtied by the summer dust and grime and debris of its rocky flanks, ashen and the same color of the World Trade Center debris. The glaciers, usually a bright white from seasonal snow and pale blue when their ice is exposed, are torn, tired, heavily crevassed, succumbing to the ravages of global warming and unusual seasonal drought. 

But higher above the Mountain is white, snow capped, and shines clearer and more beautiful under a cobalt September sky. I eat lunch with a park volunteer at the rest point, sharing some of our thoughts but mostly staring silently at the flag and the Mountain, trying to comprehend what has happened on the other side of the country. The silence echoes collective mourning across the country on this day. 

I hike onward for third Burroughs Mountain. The trail winds down into a saddle and then back upward. This area of Rainier is strangely dry and mostly barren. It lies in a rain shadow of the Mountain above the treeline. Pumice and scree slopes reveal a moonscape, with only a few small plants interspersed among the pumice. From a distance it reminds me of the brown hills of my birthplace in the south central Washington desert, incongruously at the foot of the most glaciated mountain in the continental U.S. 

The last 20 years have taken a toll. I no longer hike with the energy of an 18 year old and it shows. What I lack in energy I make up for in steady pacing. I count a step for each victim. It is a long way. 

I stop at the ridgeline. The Winthrop Glacier shimmers below. Here too the glacier is heavily crevassed and worn. I gather my breath, drink some water, and gaze at the Mountain. Questions about what has happened and what is to come flutter through my consciousness like the papers blown out of the World Trade Center, floating to earthly realities. What will happen to our four year old child? Will we be gassed by a terrorist bomb in Seattle? Will we launch a war that will kill more innocents? What will become of our civil liberties if we fight fire with fire? Will we no longer trust any stranger in our midst? Close our borders? Become bellicose and strike with impunity, launching cruise missiles like a blinded giant? Reducing countries already in rubble to a finer grain of sand?  What will my daughter see in her lifetime?

President Bush says we will stamp out evil, sounding suspiciously like someone who has been reading too many Batman comic books. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, there is a bit of evil in all of us. It is a condition of our humanity. We would do well to look into our own hearts in asking why.  

Rainier Chautauqua

Reflections on the Mountain, people and places of the Pacific Northwest


I have known Rainier since I was 15 or so, or to put it more succinctly, 40 plus years. My first trip was with Bob G., a high school friend. My mom and dad took us up to Rainier so Bob and I could go camping with his parent’s camping gear. Mom was very worried on the way up until we got to White River Campground. Seeing the numerous campsites, drinking water stations, restrooms and what can only be described as a very-un-wilderness setting, she relaxed and actually laughed with relief. For me, seeing my folks pull away and leaving us there at the campground, was freedom.

Bob and I spent several days camping, hitchhiking up to Sunrise, and generally messing around, including an unfortunate knife throwing session that tore a hole in his mom’s tent. It was a wonderful experience.

Later, while working as a banquet waiter at the Hanford House in Richland, I met Ken, who became a lifelong friend made strong through our experiences at Rainier. We began hiking in earnest as a break from the tedium of banquets and Richland. In looking back I am amazed at how much ground we covered on the Mountain and environs.

Others joined in the pilgrimage to this most sacred of places, with many enjoyable hikes, evenings around the campfire, and a few adventures as well. Rainier, a uniquely special place of reflection. Many times upon entering the Park I have breathed in the sweet incense of old growth fir, listened to the incantations of cascading waters, gazed upon the glaciated alter, and expressed thanks.

Cascading water, essence of Rainier

As the years course on their inevitable trajectory, the campfire of friendships may be diminishing, coals glowing brightly in memory but no longer with the energy and intensity of earlier fires. The convocation seems to be wearing thin, as it were. It calls to mind the words of Raymond Carver, a poet and author also from local environs.

Excerpt from Prosser, by Raymond Carver

But everything is forgotten, nearly everything
and sooner rather than later, please God –
fathers, friends, they pass
into your life and out again, a few women stay
a while, then go, and the fields
turn their backs, disappear in the rain.
Everything goes, but Prosser.
Pink Mountain Heather

And yet in 2021, a year following a year of horror and tragedy for so many, we find ourselves planning a new trip to Ohanapecosh. The Mountain remains but she suffers from climate change, crying tears flowing down from her rapidly melting glaciers. I return to Rainier with my daughter to visit with old friends, capture the breath of her forest and see those diminishing glaciers under cloudless too warm skies. I look forward to companionships, wherever they may be found; they are most enjoyed at Rainier.

Here I dedicate some memories and more recent observations in honor of Rainier, and to those friends, family and acquaintances I have been so fortunate to have spent time with on the Mountain. The period spans 1982 to present. I touch on some special places and some heartfelt themes that the Mountain has taught me.

And what is this thing called Chautauqua? For me I first learned it from the wonderful philosopher Robert Persig and his construct of life, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He introduced the term to me, in my simple construct, a convening of friends around a passion. In his life, a motorcycle trip and more. In mine, a mountain sojourn, and more. So I share this simple concept, a gathering of people around the Mountain, together.

Thank you my beloved wife Susan, precious daughter Claire, my mother and father, Ken, Dan, David, Andrew, Rick, Dave, Scott, Mick, Bob and others I’m sure I’ve missed.

Most of these recollections directly speak to my love of the Mountain and what it taught me and continues to teach me today. I do however veer off this trail in pursuit of other interests and musings. I hope you enjoy.

White River