My father is a quiet, stoic man, who lives largely in his thoughts. In the early 1970s, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service, fighting forest fires. One of those fires brought him to Oregon. He loved the trees from the moment he saw them. He went home to the South, packed up the trailer, and my parents moved to the Pacific Northwest.
In Oregon, we lived in the woods, outside of Eugene, in a house owned by the paper mill that employed my father. There, I learned the difference between a Dogwood, and a Douglas Fir, and a Poplar, which grows fast and makes good paper. I learned that I could eat tree fungus. I learned to love the trees.
The mill laid my father off in 1982. A lot of mills were closing, and mill jobs were scarce. In 1985 my dad finally got a job with an inventory service, counting store merchandise at night, and we moved to Seattle.
It took me a long time to adjust to the city. Those who know me now will find that laughable, because I’m nothing if not an urban snob. But as a child, I loved the tactile experience of the forest, the softness of moss, the roughness of barks that chip, and the smoothness of barks that peel off like strips of skin. I loved the quiet, the absence of other children, and the animals going about their business.
I first visited Mount Rainier with my father in 1987. I was 10, and for the first time, I saw my father fall in love. He loves his children fiercely, and he loves my mother with loyalty, but without passion. He loves that mountain like a young hero of Greek myth loves the object of his desires.
I love her too, in that way that little boys love the women whom their fathers love. Every year, growing up, we spent a week there in the fall, camping, hiking, visiting the trees, and reveling in the violent glory of the mountain. We made friends with the foxes, and the bears, the deer, the Canadian Jays, and the ground squirrels.
Mount Rainier is the second highest mountain in the continuous United States. It’s 14,410 feet high, and an active volcano. The Wonderland Trail, 93 miles of wilderness, encircles the mountain. Over the years, my father became more and more preoccupied with the trail. It became his Siren.
My father has realized very few, if any, of his dreams. I wanted him to have the mountain. In 2004, I bought us the gear that we needed, and flew home from the Northeast to hike the trail with my father. His heart had failed three years prior, so hiking at high elevations was a bad idea. But he wanted nothing more than he wanted to conquer the mountain, and my mother begged me to make sure that he lived through the experience.
He spent six months planning the hike. I gave him a lot of advice on lightweight backpacking, all of which he ignored. Because of his heart condition, we planned to take it slowly. Most people hike the Wonderland Trail in approximately ten days; we planned to take sixteen.
It was raining when we began the hike, and it kept raining. Halfway through the first day, when my father couldn’t breathe, I commandeered his pack and dissected it. He’d brought leather moccasins, flannel shirts, and other unnecessarily heavy items. I put them in my pack and we continued, slowly.
My father’s breathing problems, an effect of his heart failure, meant that he could only hike a couple of hundred feet at a time before resting. The days were long, and it kept steadily raining. On the fourth day, he was walking in front of me, on a narrow strip of muddy trail, with a steep drop to the left, and his foot slipped. We both thought it was over, and to this day, I don’t know how he managed to twist himself enough to land on the trail. He should have gone over the cliff. That night, as we lay in our tent, for the first time, I gave my father an order. I told him that when we reached our resupply point, on the sixth day, that our hike would be over.
As it turned out, the twisting that he’d done to avoid going over the cliff hurt my dad’s back. On day five, he could barely walk. I hiked out alone, found the nearest person to help me, and sent the Rangers to bring my father off the mountain.
Our relationship has never been the same. My family is a pack. At the end of the day, the strongest person is in charge. The next year, back on the mountain, on a sunny day, sitting at an overlook, my father told me, for the first time, that he was proud of me; he was proud of me for carrying his load, for taking charge, and for dealing with his emergency. He was also ashamed of his weakness. Unlike my mother, he doesn’t care about my degrees, whether or not I have friends, or how much money I make. He’s proud of my strength, my independence, and my protectiveness. Those are the same things that have always made me proud of him.
I still love that mountain. It’s enormity, and the violence that it can do, are the closest that I can feel to something larger than myself. I think often about finishing the Wonderland Trail. A big part of me wants to realize my father’s dream. Yet as much as I loved spending time with him on the mountain, in truth, I don’t love hiking, and I abhor camping. I have my own mountains to conquer, and my own dreams to realize. But I still take the people I love to Mount Rainier. I try to show them what it means to me, this thing my father loves, this thing that inspired passion in him, when all else failed. To me the mountain represents dreams unrealized, the passing of torches, and God. And if nothing else, the mountain is home to so very many beautiful trees.