A break in the January rain came one day in the guise of sunshine on a Saturday morning. Mount Baker winked at Kingston across the still waters of Puget Sound, a sure sign to take my hiking boots a little bit further than the trails now well canvased around Kingston and Poulsbo. I set my sights on Cresecent Lake, on the northern edge of Olympic National Park. In a nifty two-seater, manual shift car, I rolled across 104 West over the Hood Canal Bridge, and from there roamed over its smoothly paved cut through North Kitsap county. The 35 miles to Port Angeles takes about just that long in minutes, the 60 mph forcing a redistribution of my thoughts, a slowing down of their pace, gliding through the pine covered hills and isolated farms, wineries and tackle shops. Shortly after turning right onto US Hwy 101 West, the road curves gently around Discovery Bay, offering a pit stop to the left with a general store advertising fishing supplies, food supplies, boat fuel, an espresso and a porta-pottie out in its gravel parking lot. Around the bay and further north, 101 East cradles under Sequim, a city between the Straight of Juan de Fuca to the north and the Olympic Mountains to the south. Sequim, as noted by guideboooks, is located in one of the driest areas in Western Washington. Caused by their height, the snow-capped Olympic Mountains halt the flow of wet, heavily laden, oceanic air, interrupting its current northward, forcing it to spill its legendary rain up against the mountains on the southern side, creating deep, lush, moss-covered rain forests. The remaining, tapped-out, dry air slips past the summits of these rock giants, and graces the expanse from Sequim to Port Angeles with a haven for the drenched and wet-weary Wasingtonians to frolic around without rain gear. This dry climate, known as a “rain shadow” induces the growth of a yearly plethora of lavender flowers – fields upon fields of scented purple in the entire month of June and into July. One year a while back I visited The Sequim yearly lavender festival to participate in the celebration of harvested lavender, from flowers to edibles, to household products and pet supplies, all infused with lavender scent and oils. If you get a sunny day, the yellow will compliment the purple fields vividly.
In the winter, though, only enticing thoughts of the summer surface as US 101 takes me onward, past RV sales offices and motor home camp grounds, hotels from the 50s and Olympic National Park visitor information spots. Soon enough, I imagine buying a small conversion van, or attending the upcoming RV show, and my day dreaming takes me and said new van to the far corners of Nova Scotia and down through the Louisiana Bayou. But then Port Angeles appears, a port town with the feel of lunch-pail, maritime men working transportation industries to move the goods that have arrived from sea onward over land. Port Angeles likely attends to its economic life, as its independent stores and pubs, its cafes and bakeries are lit and open, sidewalks sharing space with pedestrians and wares. US 101 goes right through its heart, and the five stop lights pulse the traffic through at regular beats. A gateway city to the Olympic National Forest, and its iconic Hurricane Ridge, Port Angeles welcomes its visitors with clearly posted markers for national park information, directions, access, day pass and registration for backpackers. US 101, sliding along this east/west stretch of road keeping the mountains to my left and peripheral vision, now turns sharply south at Lincoln Street, dead ahead into the mountains, standing formidable. Dwarfed by their command, the car inches towards them, and the deep green, rugged pyramids loom forward, flooding the windshield with captivating allure, pulling me straight into the national park and its ancient wilderness.
On this stretch of the road, headlights corner the shadows that now grow along the base of the mountain curves, then suddenly disappear within intermittent sun streaks; fog that settles low will force reducing speed, bringing visitors into a perceptibaly cooler and darker terrain. 10 miles out from Crescent Lake the roads become narrower, tighter; still at sea level with the lake on the right, the weight and steep grade of the mountains on the left, almost a 90 degree angle from the road, shrinks self-perception, and minimizes a self-made, augmented reality which left untethered and untempered can grow to an imagined, unrealistic proportion. Ego subdued, I recognize the turn off to my destination: Storm King Lodge and Trail and Marymere Falls Trail.
Bathrooms Closed shouted an orange lit, construction sign generated by a current federal government shut down, but it hasn’t stopped people from climbing. Parking spaces were not plentiful, but luckily on this mild winter day, an open space lay waiting. I emerged into the cool, damp air of pine and earth. At first, the path leads along the lake to one’s left and past a ranger station on one’s right. A small foot tunnel takes the wanderer under US 101 and into the forest proper. Here large, moss-covered pines tower since centuries, some having fallen decades ago and left to lie in a restful, compostable pose. A few Western Red Cedars, bark stripped, show off their light auburn, rust-colored wood, polished as smooth as any varnish could do, with the help from decades of a temperate zone that prevents the temperature from escalating too high in the summer and dropping too low in the winter. Before the path splits into the Storm King Trail to the left, the unmistakable sound of rushing water grows in crescendo to one’s right, an ever present sound that cannot hide between the thick, dense growth. I opt for the strenuous choice today, veering left and up, a two-mile one way to its summit over intensely graded switchbacks of roots, rocks and gravel.
As any summit hike will do, its paths will start out at a mild grade and inevitably thrill you by its relative easy incline. But mountain bases are wide and gradual; the top halves are steep and challenging. For the first half an hour, the path was gracious in its introductions. Several plateaus leveled out, making walking lighter and breathing wider, and the vistas, emerging after breaks in momemtum, when simply standing still and looking around cleansed the visual palet, promised a return for the investment. Higher up, the trails become steeper, fallen logs require stepping over, roots become steps, and gravel and rock the tread.
Stop to look around. Moss climb up the Sitka Spruce, lichen flourish over fallen Red Cedar and the great Western Hemlock, the national tree of Washington State, stands proudly reaching for the sky.
An inate pull is keeping me going, step by lumbering step. The summit beckons in its pinnacle, one-pointed glory. Unlike a continuously sea-level trail, or a loop that brings you trustingly back, a hike to a summit is many things at once. It can challenge in its difficulty, forcing a hiker to best themselves. It can entice, with keeping its mountain top view a mystery until the very end, the prize for the persevering souls. It can offer a riddle through its winding scales, a mesmerizing maze of zen meditation. Metaphorically, we’ve trained ourselves to reach heights. To soar. To accomplish the high rungs of success. To climb the proverbial ladder. And so with little more than miles for measurement, the explorer goes forth, feeding his need for discovery, watering his thirst for adventure, supplying his desire for wonder.
“You’re almost there,” a fellow explorer tells me as we pass at a bend, his stepping aside to let me keep a steady, upward momentum. That’s nice of him to say. It’s what you tell someone to keep them going on an arduous task, or trip, or senior year. And yet, this statement holds so much value. Where ever “there” may be for any number of us explorers, we’re always almost there. We’ve almost solved a problem, almost achieved an idea, almost feel whole, almost released and almost accepted the Now. And once we get “there” – to a summit, to a scenic view, to a height that let’s us feel on top, something happens to our psyches that creates a balance, an exhale, a finish, and a resolve.
Towards the latter third of the ascent, the gaze tends more upward than downward, measuring the “till we’re there yet” syndrome. Sky shows itself more forgivingly now, edges of outlines beyond branches become less hazy, and the scope of a tree’s height is not lost against even higher trees. These are clues to a certain evocation. The feet now accustomed, relatively, to place and plant, the legs now knowing to protect the knee by keeping a slight bend in them, the eyes darting from soft pine and rock ground to hillside, to fallen and standing beauty, from greens and browns upward to blues and whites and occasional slices of yellow streams, which, able to reach the branches now, and with such immediate intensity, heat the cool moisture off the verdant splendor, sending plumes of spiraling condensation off of the trunks in whose path the sun crosses.
Higher still; then unexpectedly but gratefully, like bumping into a ripe avocado in the hardness of winter, a first summit opens up on the left. Below, 1500 feet below, lies Lake Crescent’s mirror of water, smooth as blue glass, reflecting the sky from above. The hills and mountains that protect it sear a path upward, dwarfing 200 foot pines and relocating oversized egos. A stable rock serves as a seat to this scene, and on this January day, only silence and sight were the company of travelers and contemplators alike.
To what do we owe these summits we reach? They can be a place where we dump out our mental trash, release our own vistas of overworked thoughts and reworked tribulations, fighting their duos in a mind-numbing series of several seasons in length. This scene here, looking out to this earth-made determination in the form of rock and fauna to surivive centuries and millennia, puts weak resolves to shame. And up in a summit, this awareness is illumminated. The worrries lift like condensation from bark and branch. The awakened strength shoots down like the surrounding trees rooting down to the earth and grabs the land, digging deep and reconnecting to a hidden life force. The heart may pump with more vitality, sending out pulses of presence to the vast expanse. A connection, a vibration, a wave is received via every inhale, and a whole, quintessential joy bursts forth via every exhale. One’s validity and contribution to harmonize this natural balance is an essential part of this scene, living impervious to the quarrels of man-made life below.
I climb on. The trail from here on is more rock than root, and soon curves around the mountain side to face the sun, suddenly ushering in a whole new climate: facing south, the moss has retreated, the air has transposed to arid and warm, and the light has cast out the shadows on which lichen, ferns and undergrowth depend. The light is greater; its spread is wider. Branches reach laterally. Here, then, is the second vista, one that faces the mountains to the south, a complete symmetry of peaks and valleys, four in a row, fronting the higher and now capped mountains behind them. I sit by a sign that announces the “end of the maintained trail,” and deduce that only mountain goats or the mountain outfitters need continue. But that’s alright. I feel a joy that I can’t find down below. I feel a peace that’s urged me on. I lift my face to the sun, and smile.