Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mount Rainier is really big

After I got back from Japan, I had a week or so to move out of my house and try to get my head together. Then I threw some clothes and a bicycle in my truck and went to Mount Rainier. I had somehow scored a job working for the park service for two months.
I ran for those two months. After so long being unscheduled and alone, I launched into work and friends with gusto – and fell immediately into the welcoming arms of the community. I came on about three months after everyone else, but they welcomed me into their potlucks, parties, and conversations without hesitation. Work was long, and on top of my new social life, a hurried romance soon filled in the rest of my time. On weekends, blessed three day weekends, the frenzied momentum from the week launched me into the woods.

The woods
Mount Rainier is surrounded by deep moist woods. Mushrooms everywhere – Big orange lobster mushrooms pushing up through the carpet of moss, little brown mushrooms on stumps, wrinkled purple caps popping out from under leaves. My first weekend there, I hiked a day out through those woods and camped next to a place called Mosquito flats. And aptly named – mosquitoes in my eyes, on my hands, everywhere. I got like 20 mosquito bites on my butt when I used the pit toilet. Searching for solitude a few weeks later, I rode by bike into the park to scramble up a scree-field at the base of Mt. Wow. I found a flat rock like a patio balanced on the tip of a buttress, reaching out towards Mt. Rainier. Mountain goat hair matted the top, and cougar poop squatted on the edge. A little river twisted through the valley below me and gave way behind it to rumpled hills and rock faces and above everything, towering, the mountain.
I climbed Rainier with two buddies. We started after work on an overtime Saturday, and made it to Camp Muir – 10,000 feet – with just enough time for a nap. An hour and a half. Ooh. But you have to get up and down the mountain before the ice turns to slush in the sun. So my alarm went off at one thirty and we went for it. Cramp-ons, rope, skirting the dark depths of crevasses. We threaded our way through broken ice fields, scrambled up crumbling buttresses, and switchbacked ourselves up 45 degree ice. As we pushed and puffed up the last couple thousand feet to the summit, the sun slid over the horizon and shot a burning red glow under the clouds and onto the glacier fields spreading below us. When we finally made it to the top, I was too tired to realize where I was. I couldn’t even work up the motivation to take a picture, so I took a nap and wandered around the crater a little, resting on a steaming patch of dirt – it’s a volcano, dang. Half an hour of huddling out of the wind, and we headed back over the edge of the crater, and down. When we were below the crevasses, we untied and separated. I came down the mountain slipping and falling in the slush, cursing and muttering, burned by the high sun. Exhausted. Crushingly exhausted, and questioning why the hell I would put myself through such an ordeal. The next day it started to make sense though. Maybe I just forget about discomfort that quickly. The sunrise under the clouds, the stars above them, and pounding myself up that thing as hard as I could and doing it. I love it.

The work
I caught the carpool every morning at 6:30 so we could drive through the dawn, up the river to the office. Our crew, nine of us, would kick around cracking jokes, wandering into the kitchen to get coffee and schmooze with the flood crew until the morning meeting. Almost all of us were in gray-green park service uniforms (everybody thought we were rangers), and almost all of us hated them. I actually liked wearing the thing, maybe I just like feeling official or something.
After a quick meeting, we drove out to different work sites around the park – we worked on roadsides and in muddy planting beds, pulling weeds in some places and putting in native plants in others. The hard days – rain, cold, mud, mosquitoes – primed me to love the good ones. Sun and friends and views of the mountain that slammed a new understanding of bigness into me. Some days bears would wander close to us, hoping for a handout. We were joined by marmots and pika, ptarmigan, and once a cascade fox. Even though we worked in the front country, I developed a connection with the park, like now we’re part of each other. It sounds kind of mystical and froofy, and maybe it is, but it comes from day after long day of numb fingers and digging in mud and rocks. Working on hands and knees and wishing PLEASE GOD is it lunch time yet?!
Work filled my days, but really I was consumed by romance, by the people, and by the woods. Mostly romance. So there I was, giddy with new love, exploring the park, and hanging out with some of my new favorite people.

Those two months raced by and shot me out the other side spinning. Money in my pocket, filled with love, no plans for the rest of my life, starting right then. Nothing to do but go to Vegas.

Old Rainier

Pictures from the big giant mountain! It's very big.

This is the mountain from on top of Pinnacle peak.

Here's the view the other way from on top of Pinnacle. That's Mt. St. Helens in the background.

Can you spot the mountain?

Oh my god! There's two!

Sunset on the way up to camp Muir.

Turns out big mountains like this have big crevasses, like this.

Yup, that's me.

Sunrise. The guy I'm tied to is the inestimable Travis. The little peak there is little Tahoma.

The mountain from High Rock Lookout. Also, check out that spine!

There it is again, I just can't get enough!

Like I said.


Me and Ms. Sarah. We spent a lot of time together, and it was awesome.

Japan addendum

A hike near Furano, and one of my best birthdays EVER!

More of that wonderful hike, and Yukie, a wonderful friend.

Yukie again! We went to the ocean, and it was wet.

That's all. Sort of a retrospective update I guess. I spent a lot of time with Yukie in the middle of my bike trip. We hiked, ate, sang, and laughed. I played mandolin for her, and we hung out at my camp site. This led to a lot of mosquito bites. A LOT. So many. But I was happy enough that the itching didn't matter.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The final countdown.

Niseko retrospective! I went rafting. Then I fell out of the raft. The guide, in the red, in the back, is a good friend of mine. Her name is Yukie.

Farm cat

Mandolin Fingers

Farm-lad on the drums

Yotei from the farm

Completely Hilarious South Korean Girl

Big wooden stuff in Kyoto

Me and Ms. Ashley! Under a weirdly non-Japanese aquaduct in Kyoto.

This is the Zen rock garden that everybody freaks out about.

Parade time! Look at all that culture!

Lanterns. There were people dancing under them, but I couldn't get a good picture, and the guy yelled at me when I stood on some other guy's ladder.

These are, yes, temples.

Some of them were painted different colors.

A warning that applies to all of Kyoto.

Me 'n Ashley went on a hike, and it was awesome.

The sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji. Dang.

There were a lot of people on Mt. Fuji.

It looked nice up there.

More clouds from Fuji.

This is the top of Mt. Fuji. The buildings are souvenir shops.

Me on Mt. Fuji. Dang.

Aoba and I. On Mt. Fuji.

The clouds of Tokyo.

My last days in the Orient.

I'm back! And I'm bludgeoned. This culture, my culture, is weird and overwhelming. It's foreign, it's strange and offensive, it's familiar and fun. It's everything all at once. Exhausting, but I see things that I didn't see before.

Anyway, before I got back I was in Japan. I had a good last few weeks, wrapping up and spinning down from the heady climax of Taisetsuzan.

After I last wrote, I took a train south to a farm in Niseko.


Goats, chickens, cats, dogs, buckwheat. The farm was prolific. Plants spilled out of fields just as tools, fertilizer, and pots spilled out of sheds. The farm was running too fast for itself, and the Japanese tendency towards cleanliness and rigid organization was devoured by the chaotic tendencies of nature and neglect. I spent a week there. It was surrounded by forest, fields of corn, and on one side, the mass of Yotei-zan.

I slept in a tent in a greenhouse, ate and relaxed in the unfinished house, and worked in the sun. I weeded. I planted. I laughed with the other volunteer, a South Korean girl (anyong Jayhee). I discovered that the sweaty work of putting hay away for the winter is deeply satisfying. Also that working just to keep busy is the opposite. In those last few weeks of the trip my desire to study language and culture fell away. My dictionary migrated to the bottom of my pack.

I climbed Yotei-zan again. I started in the afternoon, so I had to run up and down. I forgot to bring food for the climb, so I bought a sports drink out of one of the ever present vending machines on the way to the trail-head. It turned out to be low-calorie.

Then I left Hokkaido.


The ferry dropped me off in a little port city after dark. Despite my best efforts, I didn't make it to Kyoto until the central station was hollow and quiet and the subways had stopped. I walked around, backpacks and mandolin hanging off of my skinny self, looking for a capsule hotel, but everyone said, oh no, none of those around here, not in Kyoto. I slept at the station. Camping mat on a bench, I conked out for four or five hours.

The next five days I got to stay with my friend Ashley. She was out from Montana to study the very large beetles they have in Japan. It was a relief to be with someone that I know, to dispense with the small talk and repetitive introductions that become so familiar when traveling. We took in temples, we wandered the city, we drank beer. Kyoto is a beautiful city, though hot. Very hot, and very humid - I often drank more than a gallon of water a day. I also ate ice cream like it was my job.

Kyoto is packed with old temples, which are pretty cool, though many are clogged with tourists. And actually, they weren't any cooler than the ones I saw on Shodoshima. I got to see a Zen rock garden that reputedly perfectly represents nature and promotes enlightenment using only fifteen rocks set in raked gravel. I didn't like it very much. One of my favorite parts about Kyoto is that it's surrounded by forest, so you can ride your bike or take a bus to the edge of the city and hike into the cool shade of the Japanese Cypress.

I took a bus to Tokyo. My last days in Japan I was tired. I was done with Japanese and Japanese culture. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, but I was ready to get on the plane.

In Tokyo I stayed with Mimi and her daughter Aoba again. In fact I climbed Mt. Fuji with Aoba, which she didn't like very much. We climbed at night to see the sunrise, and it was a long climb in the cold. She was pretty surprised. The mountain was big, the sunrise was beautiful, and there were so many tourists that we had to wait in line for 45 minutes to climb the last quarter mile to the 12000' summit. At the top there was only the suffocating feeling of being pressed into a crowd, and a barrage of souvenir shops. We got off as soon as we could.

And then I flew home.

And now I'm going to work at Mount Rainier national park.

And after that I don't know what I'm gonna do. Anyone want to give me a job?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Taisetsuzan national park, BLAZAM!

One of the many informative trail-side signs

There was mountains, and snow, and big places without anything.

Everything was blooming. For those interested I have about three hundred thousand million pictures of blooming plants.

Thar be bars in these thar hills

It got foggy.

It's so easy to take nice pictures of ferns. So I did.

This is what I looked like while I was hiking.

And this is what I looked like on top of a rocky peak.

There are mountains here.

This hole in the mountain was created by EXPLODING HOT LAVA.

A picture of me.

Out of the park, onto a bike, and all the swarthier for it.

Twilight falls, and it's my last night sleeping out with the Captain. Ahhhh, sad.

Just before I unloaded the Captain for the last time. Oh the times we had.