Olympia is comfortably nestled at the southern tip of the Puget sound about halfway between the Cascade mountain range and Olympic mountain range. The interior Olympic National Park is a whopping 870,275 acres. Near the center towers the glaciated Mt. Olympus, the summit, cold and lonely, is set at 7,969 feet. This claustrophobic cluster of mountains offer a wide range of ecosystems. Abrupt transitions are marked by different elevations. As one trudges upward bask in the comfort and mystery among gargantuan trees: Sitka spruce, western red cedar, Douglas fir. The trunks of these ancient behemoths can swell to 15 feet in diameter and their tops scrape the sky, tease the gods, 300 feet tall. This is the Humid Transition Zone. Between 1,500 and 4,500 feet is the Canadian zone where the moss covered tree giants yield to the smaller, but more weather resilient species of Pacific silver fir, western hemlock, white pine, along with enduring, but markedly shrunken western reds and Doug firs. Timberline, where the air is too thin for trees to grow, is found within the Hudsonian Zone at about 6,000 feet. Above timberline the scene opens up. Range of sight is increased as one wades among the alpine flowers that will bloom briefly between mid and late summer. Witness shooting star, bluebell, larkspur, phlox, lupine, goldenrod, columbine, daisy, glacier lily and others.
Obviously there is plenty good reason to wander about the Olympic mountains. I like to honor those reasons often. However this past weekend my soaked body and I wandered around the lesser advertised Cascade range. While national parks offer huge acreage of protected land, they remain compliant with industry and so tend to be over-priced, over-paved, over-marked, over-serviced, and over-stomped. Gift shops, golf courses, and RVs lurk about the fringes of national parks.
Between I-90 and highway 2 stretches the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, about a third the size of the Olympic national park. It’s a bit of a drive, hour forty-five, from Olympia to the Bare Mountain trailhead #1037. This is mostly because one must drive down 23 miles of old unmaintained forest service road, FR5700, before reaching the trailhead.
The trail is remote, the buzz of the freeway absent, the loneliness complete. The Evergreen State College and its many surrounding undisturbed wilderness areas have made me a bit of a mountain hermit. This past Spring quarter was dominated by intense reading of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra along with a bicycle sojourn down the west coast; these two endeavors both recommend extreme solitude and an intimacy with the natural world.
It was a wet June day on Bare Mountain. A well worth it day. I waded through meadows of thimbleberry and salmonberry, felt humbled by the enormity of the surrounding cliffs. Each dark gray crag that bulged out from below a cul-de-sac of mountaintops was divisively segmented by silver angel-air, snow-melt waterfalls that tumbled down 100-foot drops. I gasped at the sight and laughed at the quickened pace of my heart.
Alone in the drizzle I walked and gawked. Dark-eyed juncos fluttered around me, I glimpsed a solitary Chickadee. At the top of the ridge I was blessed to briefly gaze at the paradise lakes, frozen white ovals with electric blue rings along the edges. The rain fell harder and my clothes got very wet. I felt alive again, my body seemed to enjoy the chill, glad to be put to a test.
The importance of wilderness has always been difficult for many writers and advocates to articulate. Some use science and the decline of biodiversity as their leverage. Others seem to consider nature a living museum, something justified in its beauty for human recreation alone. I don’t claim to know why, exactly, to the point of ending the debate once and for all–why wilderness must be let alone. But I know that it is good, healthy for people. Not just the forest or its inhabitants, but people too. Everyone in the world deserves to be on top of a mountain, alone and frightened by the looming thunderheads. Everyone should sweat, panic, and suspect a following cougar on their trail–only to discover a loafing rabbit emerge from the bushes. Legs should move, eyes should dart, hands should grasp boulders, and the stomach should crave only the most raw and basic nourishment.