By Laura Haley
The drive up the steep winding hills is giving me a headache. I know we have to be close to the base, but it’s hard to tell through the leafy trees. So far, the road isn’t too busy with cars. I’m with my outdoorsy friends, the ones from home who are as adventure-seeking as I am. We’ve been thinking about this hike for weeks. We’ve always wanted to see the west coast, so I proposed the idea of seeking out a National Park. Needless to say, we couldn’t contain our excitement. We have been trying to guess what the mountain will be like; I imagine the base to be lined with yellow wildflowers, bright green bushes, and deserted dusty brown trails.
After what feels like forever, we arrive at an almost overflowing parking lot. The stones of the gravel lot shake our small rental car. To the left is a cabin for tourists, placed in front of the massive mountains capped in white. I look towards what seems to be hundreds of paths ahead and notice the sea of people trenching their way up the lush mountainside. Most of the hikers have massive packs slung over their backs, braided hair, huge boots, walking sticks, and expensive sunglasses.
I feel my heart sink into my stomach. It seems obvious now, but I wasn’t expecting to see so many people. At least not so many professionals. Maybe I’m not cut out for this?
I swing open the trunk of the car and grab my backpack which is now embarrassingly small compared to the rest of what seem to be experts ahead. It is only now that I realize how qualified my friends look for this hike. One of them double knots her hiking boots while the other applies sunscreen. “Wow,” I say to a friend with SPF 30, “I thought we were only packing lunch.” The look she gives me suggests I’ve missed some sort of memo. Reluctantly, I place what few supplies I have into my bag.
What have I gotten myself into?
I remind myself of all the weeks of planning we’ve endured as I take in the utter beauty of the park. I knew I would be excited to see the mountain, but I wasn’t expecting to feel this way. It’s summer, but the protruding rocks towards the summit are engulfed in snow. The cap of the mountain isn’t pointy but rather smooth, almost plateauing at some points. The trees that line the paths are tall and skinny pines, impeccably green. Although there are only a few wildflowers and no green bushes, there are a plethora of trails.
I am overwhelmed with the mountain’s charm and the amount of options we have for hiking. We can pick from miles of dusty trails or miles of paved smooth path. My excitement pushes the headache away, I just want to start the climb as soon as possible.
I realize I don’t even know what time it is, maybe we should have left earlier? Randomly, we decide on a path and begin our hike. My friends stop to examine a ‘you are here’ map at the bottom of the path. I can tell they are in it for the long haul. I read the description of our hike ahead, will I be able to handle this?
The start is slow and steady, not too intense. Ahead I notice how quickly the path steepens.
It isn’t long before the change in altitude is obvious. The sun is so bright and there aren’t any clouds in the sky, but I still feel chilly. I start to doubt my attire, maybe shorts were a bad idea? Although the paths aren’t particularly steep, the change in air pressure and temperature is startling. I didn’t expect it to be this instant.
While we continue climbing, still within hour one, I notice the serenity of the park. The birds are chirping wildly and there is a sweet scent of pine leaves in the air. The slight breeze blows a few stray leaves across the path.
There is beginning to be a little distance between me and my friends. They are turning out to be much faster hikers than I realized. I shout for them to slow down but the sound of the leaves whipping through the air makes it impossible for them to hear. They barely notice I’m not there.
It’s hour two and I’m beginning to feel the effects of this rugged terrain. The branches poking out of the earth are becoming harder to step over and the path seems to never flatten out. My friends ahead trudge along. They are close but not close enough to hear me trying to catch my breath. Either I’m catching up to them or they’re slowing down. I’d love to believe I’ve picked up momentum, but my gut tells me it’s the latter.
It’s June and the flowers that surprisingly grow up here are in full bloom. The sun is shining, the sky is a perfect blue, and I’ve decided that this is officially the most beautiful place on Earth.
Hour three has set in and I notice the ache in my feet. I feel even more chilly and the once soothing breeze is becoming annoying. The air feels so thin I’m afraid it will soon cease to exist.
As we continue, I’m thankful for the sandwich I so unwillingly packed this morning. I get my friends attention and we decide to break on one of the benches along the route. It’s quickly evident that sitting down was the wrong choice; I begin to feel the full body tiredness hit me. My friend with the double knotted boots winces as she sits, she says it’s her knee that’s bothering her. The other pulls out her map to see how much farther we have. Her face immediately falls. It’s becoming evident that exhaustion is winning, over all of us.
I try to suppress these feelings and look up to take in the surroundings of the national park. The dirt trails below are packed with stones and hikers. I’m having a hard time watching as more experienced hikers climb past us. The way they move is effortless and they don’t even question the changing altitude, temperature, or the incline that only gets steeper. They are further reinforcing the idea that we’re not capable of this endeavor. By the looks on their faces I can tell my friends are feeling the same way.
Hour four has arrived and we manage to muster up the courage to continue. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I wasn’t anticipating this to be so grueling. At this point I’m convinced oxygen no longer exists. My fingers have gone white from the chilled air and my legs are numb from the temperature and the path’s perpetual incline. I’ve fallen into pace with my friends, their body language dragging, I can tell each step hurts more than the last.
I think I realize it before everyone else.
It’s becoming clear we are unprepared to reach the top.
I reluctantly stop my friends mid stride to tell them what I was thinking. Despite the backpacks filled with gear, the boots, the research, even the sunscreen, it is apparent our efforts are not enough for this height of an adventure.
We pause in the middle of a trail to take in the views, specifically the pine trees, staples of this region. The sun glistens on the lake below which is bluer than the sky. The green grass is so lush it resembles a carpet. The mountain peaks in the distance are colored grey and black; so beautiful they look as though they’ve been painted.
I take in the reality that I won’t make it to the top of Mount Rainier. The path ahead seems to stretch so long and far, I can’t even imagine where it ends. I’m disappointed. I also feel foolish in thinking I could have conquered this hike. I should have realized that in the parking lot when I noticed the sea of experts and their pounds of gear.
My friends remind me not to be so upset, that we can do it again, and that I wasn’t the weak link. I attempt to squash the letdown I feel and take in the views. The wildflowers are even more colorful from up here. Where we’ve stopped, I can really appreciate the mountain. Its grey sloping ridges are filled with snow even at this time of year. Its plateau top has more divots up close and the mountain itself is extremely wide. The sun glistens, casting shadows on the mountain, showing off its rough terrain. In the other direction the mountains surrounding appear in various pointy humps, almost resembling a camel’s back. They are colored a mix of greys and blacks and it’s clear the sides are coated in green pine trees.
It’s not every day the views are this grand.
As we make our descent on the paved paths down the side of the mountain, I promise myself I’ll be back. I know I have to reach the top someday and the views are too beautiful not to return.