Last year, back from the unreal planet of Hawaii, I planned to take some jobless time to explore North Cascades National Park: take a sleeping bag, a towel, peanut butter and granola bars and sustain myself along the mountain trails like a space explorer tethered to my capsule. Buying a house and getting a job ate up free time, and it was a cold August. This year has been the brightest and driest on record. It’s a good time to get out and get gone again.
An email titled Must See Hikes Before You Die interrupts my plan, redirecting it north. Yellow Aster Butte is on my map and in my book; the book gives it five stars and describes it as “terrif” and “gawk-inducing”. The trail wanders through valleys and trees, up some snow-melty streams, through alpine meadows and then some final straight up to the ultimate view, the book says. The map labels it clearly at the end of a Forest Service road: a modest wandering Y. It’s even more north than the North Cascades, in the Mount Baker wilderness. The car already has blankets and soup aplenty.
Weathermen expect sun and temps as high as 90, but the drizzle starts on the freeway and only hesitates on the thin state road. The ranger station is typical Northwest modesty in nature’s splendor:
A woman ranger hardly larger than a doll says this is just marine stuff, it’ll clear out at the end. Her eyes are sharp and somewhere else, like a girl who knows horses. A stack of Woody Owl coloring books is off to the side and my flash of childhood delight prevents my more rational mind from picking one up.
She’s right, right as the sun which peeks out as the road ascends. The turn is where the book says, a man on a backhoe waving me around to the dust, gravel, switchbacks. Somehow I am never afraid on these unguarded marginal roads. I never look over the side and fear the gravel crumbling away and sliding down.
The prototypical latrine sits at the trailhead, this one in a sizable Cold War bunker. I hear people but cannot see them: older, comparing notes and now versus then. The path heads straight up through a cathedral of trees and dust.
Warmth no heavier than down wafts through the trees, a sensation separate from the sun’s heat, the light pushing with perceptible force. Trees rise up with the mountain’s flank, then fall back to scrubby, waxy bushes. A whole family troops down, the girls running ahead of the boys. I am trying to be here, to see, but my mind is in the uncomfortable transition between human-world and this other unthinking place. The forest and mountain are big, then small, then big again.
The forest falls behind to the delicate sub-alpine meadows. I realize it is always dry here–the snow runs off so quickly and rain is hardly more than a mist. Up is more subtle now, giving way to rocks and snow. Snow in August makes a generous pocket of clean cold.
A stream runs under the snow here, chuckling and smacking. This is where the water comes from and drops of it form from the inverted teeth of snow drooping between the rocks. Where the path goes is an open guess, but flat rocks have been walked on and I scramble up where the guy with the dog went ten minutes before. The true path is off to the left a few steps. Everyone going this way must go off the path, and all get back on.
After so much walking the beginning never happened and the end is a forgotten abstraction. Breath is important, and water, and the internal check of whether food is a good idea. Things spin a little. Pictures to capture what you aren’t fully being with now distract and occupy. It’s important we have these. In the old days, they were important enough to put in a box under the bed, where they would be safe from something.
Meadows are fragile and not to be walked on, so I walk on stone as much as possible to a little ledge. I sit and look out at this. It’s hard to look at, my eyes going down for some reason–fatigue, brightness, something about the scale and openness that is hard to stand. It is hard to be quiet when it is quiet but there are others who are not entirely quiet. They laugh behind me and I hear the dogs panting, the quick quadrapuntal crunch of their paws and then the longer bipedal strides. Nobody seems to be looking much. There are so many hikers that plunge straight ahead looking only at their feet.
I am more tired than I realize but there is still trail, around a pond and through soft sunset meadows. I feel well, if not strong, and curious about what else there is to see. In the light, the meadows look like movie sets.
Golden light is blurred by smoke from the eastern fires. Dust puffs up from invisible mushrooms, but it is only dust. I have boots on not knowing the trail. If this was the one time my luck ran out and I got cut or hurt, I decided I didn’t want to deal with trail first aid and hobbling back to the car this distance from home. So I don’t know what the dust feels like, how cool or warm it is, but I can guess it is that exceedingly fine, summer air soft, the mountain’s cool deep and strong just beneath.
The trail winds around the butte, though walking it is no different than not realizing the Earth is curved. A discernible lip separates me from up here and down there, where there is a drop down to “the tarns”: numerous cold pools on a blank chitinous surface, shadows, voices and tents. People move as if they have mass and with the right timing–they are not toylike, but neither are they real. One guy, near naked, walks very slowly into a clear pool.
Turning, the trail confronts with what the book describes as a trailblazer who didn’t believe in switchbacks.
The camera hardly captures how steep and high this feels. Look closer: at the top, a tiny ant man is picking his way down with poles, measuring each step. I am out of energy, pushing myself on the way I would in college–just one more chapter, just one more page. I feel I am entering a space without anything underneath it. Sound flies away, but not completely. There is something in the color in the light.
I stand there and breathe and wait for him. When the incline fades he moves much faster and tears past me with a vigorous but single nod. It’s worth it, right? Oh, yes. Got the place to yourself.
Ascent’s trial is easy to recognize. Plenty of air to breathe, hardly an incline among what these mountains offer, but still. Each lift of a leg makes it feel solid-core rubbery, inside the skin a mass of compressed flakes no different from a bouncy ball sawed open. I don’t remember my mental patter; maybe it stopped. I remember the sense of lifting, pushing off inside the boots abrasive with the trail’s fine grit, how better it would feel without them, the slippage with each step on the fine graphite dust.
When the heaving stops, you are at the top.
Light is muted, the voices of the valley people clear but from a fantastic distance. No wind blows. As I step the crunch is amplified, each grain creasing against every other, down and down. I am happy to breathe and not be climbing. I keep turning and feeling at the edge of something, of about to fall over. I take the pack off and am grateful but no more stable. In all directions there is a suction.
Here the world is different. Higher, yes, but not in distance, not in place at all. The difference is texture. Membranes are permeable. I hear the people and know they are speaking words but words have nothing to do with this.
Fires across the mountains have made the sky blurry and indistinct, and both obscured and smoothed the light. There is a specular quality, warming it without brilliance. It is very, very different.
I am tired in a new way, energized in a new way. I want to sit and rest but keep pacing the mountaintop. Something at the edges draws me, and though I look out the pull is more down. Everything is going on as the mountains all stand still. Mountains are a confluence.
The light does something to time, connects it, makes it looser. I feel like it is 1997: I have just moved here, all the mountains are new, this is the breakthrough escape. In the same dimensionless space it is 1976: dusk is coming at our new Ohio house and my parents have bought a takeout pizza for dinner, the first pizza I remember. It is cheese and I like it. The TV is our old Zenith which I think weighs a million pounds but sits securely on its rickety metal tube stand with the clear plastic wheels. An episode of Space: 1999 is on. The sky is the dusty, pinkish haze I see now from a mountaintop in 2012. The time is also 1986: it is dark, not that late, not that cold, and Matt and I are out in the deserted country street looking upwards at the dim smudge of Halley’s Comet.
This is all happening at once, meaning nothing is happening but something is opened, or nearby, or still. I feel delight and expectation: possibility exists. I begin to figure out how long I lived in Texas versus how long in Washington and conclude I’ve still lived longer in Texas, but this doesn’t depress me as it once would have. I feel heavier with the climb’s exertion but as light as I did running in the fields far beyond our house in Ontario. It was late fall then too, but without snow, and the coat made it hard to run. That was 1977 and is now.
This might be clearer if I’d written sooner.
New York did not feel real but coming back is far less so. I miss my cat. I would have done more but they said there was nothing else. I feel broke. I feel exhausted. I feel like I should keep hiking upwards but the trail only goes down.
I sit for a long time. I check my math on the Texas versus Washington durations a few times. Dusk seems to accelerate. If I could hold the play of light and shadow, would I? I don’t know. Everything changes, has to come and go. This would be a good place to read the Tao and eat some Pop-Tarts. I don’t have either.
I am not crazy. Something important that was not an event happened on this mountaintop and I want to tell you what it is, but there is a gulf in words I don’t think I can overcome. I no longer beat myself up about this. The pictures don’t look right, don’t capture what it was like to stand there and feel like a Friday in the seventh grade, like getting off a plane, like accepting your mortal incompetence as okay. It is the light is all: that dusk light so like other dusks that I remember. This is important somehow, but doesn’t worry me. Something tantamount and epochal is here. I can’t hold on to it because I have it already. I hope you understand. It’s the best I can do.
Descending, the light is gentle, without opposition. Air lifts and ascends back to the stars. The Moon is bright and large and always smaller in photographs. I feel in no place and this is no trouble. The snow glows from within.
How long was I up there? I don’t know. It could always have been longer. The light won’t last. Heading back into the trees I realize it will be pitch black before I get back. I have a light, the same mini aluminum flashlight I bought in Hawaii, a year ago. It’s in my pack, the batteries good, and I realize it’s not so much having a light but realizing it’s there.
The guidebook was right. You can see a long way.