It took me ten years and a couple of weeks to come back here. I last walked on the Summerland trail at Mount Rainier National Park in September 2002. This was on a week day, and my Civic was the only car in the parking area when I arrived at about 8am. Roughly three miles in, one crosses a one-log bridge with a sideways-leaning railing. After walking about a quarter of a mile on the other side, I saw a small black bear on the trail, doing who knows what, thirty feet or so away from me. While I waited for him to move away, I took a picture that didn’t turn out because I was not holding the camera still. Then, much closer to me, at about half that distance, the bushes rustled and a much bigger bear emerged, looked at me, and started moving in my direction. I panicked and ran, my heart beating in my ears. My memory insists that I flew down the steep, rocky trail at cheetah-like speed until I got back to the bridge.
Since then, I’ve not been back to the Summerland trail. It’s one of the most popular in this National Park, which millions of people visit. The crowd-free periods, after the thaws in late spring until summer takes off, and from fall until it snows again, are quite brief, and there are only so many weekends. From Seattle, it takes about two to two-and-a-half hours to get there, much of it on tedious freeways and suburban roads. But yesterday, I had a Saturday to myself and decided to go.
I got to the White River entrance on the Park’s east side in under two hours without even speeding—there wasn’t much traffic yet. I paid a $15 entrance fee, which allows me to return for seven days. Considering how breathtakingly amazing and lovely the place is, this is a good deal, even if one only visits once. When I used the restroom close to the entrance, I realized how chilly it was. I was delighted—at this point, I find Seattle’s endless warm temperatures and cloudless blue skies depressing.
After crossing Frying Pan Creek, one parks across from the trailhead, about three miles’ distance from the Park entrance. I was glad that some other people were already there and had set out before I did. Maybe the bears would understand that it was better for them and us not to meet. The trail to Summerland is about 4.2 miles one way, ascending with almost every step. Most of the gentle, first three miles take you through forest. Lots of tall evergreens, some fallen trees, small shrubs, and unusually few mushrooms, because it’s been so awfully dry the last few months. I enjoyed feeling cold until I forgot about it as I was climbing. The sun blanched the tops of the trees, but rarely came down to my level.
However, as soon as you cross that bridge, the scenery changes. The trail rises more drastically. You face dramatic views of the mountain, glaciers, and outlying formations. Tall trees eventually give way to shrubs and clusters of shorter trees. Before, in the forest, smells were dry, dusty, and clean. Here, it smelled like being in a huge wine cave, sweet and pleasurably rotten. I took my time to appreciate mossy rocks, patches of frost on ground shrubs, icicles dangling off rocks, and small blue flowers.
Eventually, after a hike of about two hours, I got to Summerland, a large subalpine meadow. Signs ask you to stay on the trails and not ruin the land any further, but some hikers merrily took off for their picnics right in the middle of it. But there weren’t enough of them to spoil the experience. Here, one feels close to the mountain’s strange, quiet life. Hues of blue and green on the rocks, together with the warm greens, yellows, and oranges of the vegetation, make the place look playful. The moon was still in the sky. Patches of clear ice covered rocks. Small ice formations lingered along creek beds and in other shady spots. After a break, I continued for another mile or so, until the trail got too squirrelly for me and the ice patches were too large to navigate comfortably.
The way down took me much longer. For one thing, I was sad to leave. Also, the trail was bone dry, with lots of treacherous, rolling rubble, and I had to pay attention, which always slows me down. My walking stick saved me from falling many times. On the return hike, I finally heard a few birds. Other than them, the only wildlife I saw was a few insects and some chipmunks. A woman explained to a group of teenage girls, “Many of the chipmunks carry the plague. You must avoid them at all costs.” But no bears. No little bear, no big bear. I was happy about that.
I had much time to reflect on then and now. In 2002, I was 49, living off my stock options and drawing unemployment after having been laid off at Veritas Software, which was eventually bought by Symantec. In 2012, I’m doing freelance work after having been laid off at the small marketing company where I spent most of the time in between the two Summerland hikes. In 2002, I used email and regularly visited some of the same news sites I still go to today, but social media was not in the picture. Back then, I weighed a bit more. But now my knees are getting creaky and I can feel twinges of arthritis in my hands and feet. In 2002, our neighborhood was much more troubled than today, and we were going to have a home invasion in early 2003. Today, different people live across the alley; trouble still abounds but crime seems more under control. There were certain things I didn’t know in 2002—for example, that my heritage is part Jewish. Or that the wars that had just gotten started would still go on now, with no realistic end in sight, no matter what official verbiage suggests.
Today, more so than ten years ago, I wonder how much time I still have to go on walking the Earth. Will I get back to Summerland anytime soon?