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.
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.
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.