My Family and the Mountain

Mount Rainier has been our escape, our church and the place we find our best selves

The author's daughter on a hike at Rainier. Credit: Jonathan Shipley
The author's daughter on a hike to Fremont Lookout at Mount Rainier | Photo credit: Jonathan Shipley

If someone asked me today, “What is your favorite memory of Mount Rainier?” I’d ask, “How much time do you have?” If someone told me, “The end of the world is tomorrow” I’d reply “I’d better to get heaven then,” and ribbon through the woods in my car to the shadow of that rocky god I call Rainier. If someone asked about my childhood, I’d talk about groves of patriarchs, trees tall, silted rivers, meadows painted with the Indian paintbrush.

I was not a feral child growing up. No, the mountain was not my mother. Moss was not my cradle. But it was at Mount Rainier that I found the myself most like myself. The me I wanted to be, there in the subalpine.

I had no idea, of course, as a child wandering along a crystalline lake, hoping to see a bear lope across the grass, that I’d have a daughter, decades later, wandering this same lake with me, hoping as I did, that something spectacular was around the next bend in the trail. I had no idea, of course, as a child walking with my own dad, that the hike itself was spectacular. I wanted to see a bear, but it wasn't until much later that I realized that seeing a bear is meek compared to the shared love of nature with your father, the shared love of an experience with that someone you love.

It was John Muir who said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks.” Now, I quote Muir to my kid sometimes. Theodore Roosevelt, too. I don’t think she understands either. But maybe she will one day, maybe at my age wandering along the same crystalline lake.

I was a kid growing up in Olympia. We were a poor family living off my dad’s teacher salary. We could not afford trips to Disneyland or fancy hotels on the coast. We didn’t eat out. We didn't take airplane rides. But my parents could afford a tank of gas, a cooler filled with food and a campsite. The closest, most beautiful place near Olympia that any of us could think of was Mount Rainier. Look out most any house window in West Olympia, and you’d see it. A snow-capped beacon asking us to come.

We came. I don’t remember how many times. In less than two hours you could leave the humdrum of day-to-day life and be in a forest where life seemed to spring eternal. Two hours to leave another rerun of Three’s Company on the TV screen to be face to face with a marmot amidst the scree. Two hours to leave a cramped house of eight to be in a house of God. All those challenges of growing up a poor kid in Olympia evaporated near a waterfall by an eternal mountain.

My father will be gone one day. A father myself now, I fear my death in only that it will affect my daughter. Just let me live long enough, I tell myself. Just enough to see that she knows who she is and where she stands in the world. In the meantime — kid, pack your bag, let’s go camping up at Paradise.

The author with his daughter, at Rainier | Photo credit: Jonathan Shipley

When my daughter was born I was at the age my dad was when I was born, but he had five kids already. I cannot imagine such a thing. How challenging it must have been to keep one’s identity amidst the maelstrom of parenting six children. And it took its toll. I don’t remember my dad ever telling me, “I love you.” I do with my kid now, several times a day. She says it back. It’s a present we open for the other each and every day.

This isn’t to say my dad didn’t, or doesn’t, love me. He took me to Mount Rainier, after all. I realize now that this much have been his escape. Instead of kids clawing for his attention, he found ravens cawing in the wind. Instead of washing the car, he washed off the grit of his life in the glacier streams. Instead of another day slogging at work, he wandered over logs and rocks to a view of the mountain.

I tell myself that Rainier is his love letter to me. We’d go sometimes, just the two of us. I don’t know how I got that lucky — no rival siblings, just me and my dad. We’d go to Cougar Rock campground up the road from the small village of Longmire and we’d put the tent trailer together, light a fire and eat dinner from it, and then watch the sparks rise into the sky. In the morning, before sky dawned, we’d start hiking up to a fire lookout — like Gobbler’s Knob — a long, strenuous switchback-laden heave up through a forest and cliff faces until you're at breathtaking view of Rainier. It feels, up there, like you could leap from the rock you’re standing on onto the summit of the mountain itself. Maybe that’s why dad liked fire lookouts so much — you could look out beyond your own life.

Now, I try and take my daughter up to Rainier at least once a year. We’ve done it most all her life. At Cougar Rock, there’s a river across the way that you can hear in your tent as you go to sleep. Every time we are there she likes to go by the riverside and poke around in the rocks, collecting them, stacking them, sculpting them, hearing the dark boulders move beneath the current of the river.

Fire lookout at Rainier. Photo credit: Jonathan Shipley
Fire lookout at Rainier | Photo credit: Jonathan Shipley

Memories have bonded me and my daughter on the mountain’s flanks. The time we saw all those foxes — along the river, in the campground, the mother fox feeding her babies a cracked open turtle (my daughter swears that it was a turtle and I cannot refute it). The time we hiked up to a saddle between two peaks and saw a mountain goat and her baby not ten yards from us before scampering up into the rockface. The time at Longmire when we saw the smallest faun either of us had ever seen. It was scared of us and tried to hide by simply laying right down in front of us on the trail and not moving. All those babies shared between us — me and my baby.

There was the time we burned her underpants for fun over an open fire using hot dog forks. Such laughter! Once we saw a bear clomping in the gloom; she was proud to have seen it first. One winter, we were the only humans around, wind and snow drifting around us. 

My dad doesn’t know about these memories. There hasn’t been a memory made yet of all of us on that mountain at the same time. Though that place is our church, we seem to go to different services. The hymns me and my daughter sing there, my dad is not familiar with. The hymns he might sing up there are foreign to me. 

But it’s still our shared altar singing in its own way, “Shipleys — come home.” And we do. The rivers continue to run. The trees continue to reach up. The sun shines on another son and his dad wandering by a lake saying nothing at all to the other. Their journey in the woods and up along the ridgelines spells out the words "I LOVE YOU" in the silence of rock and wind and bird song.

If you go... our favorite spots at Rainier

Swinging bridge at Ohanepecosh River | Photo credits: TheGirlsNY, flickr CC

Cougar Rock area

Cougar Rock campground: On the southwest side of Mount Rainier National Park, Cougar Rock is convenient to the Paradise area. With 173 campsites (some reservable, some first-come, first-serve), an amphitheater for evening programs, and within striking distance of many of the park’s main attractions, it’s one of the more popular campgrounds.

Trail of the Shadows: This one-mile roundtrip hike is great for little kids. It loops through forests and wetlands where it provides lessons about the human history of the park, including an old log cabin erected in 1888.

Pinnacle Peak: A 2.5 miles roundtrip hike. Though a climb, it’s short and offers commanding views of Mount Rainier and Paradise and, on clear days, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. Look for marmots scampering along this trail as well as mountain goats.

Gobblers Knob: An 11-mile roundtrip hike. Do you want one of the most commanding views of Mount Rainier from a fire lookout far away from other visitors? Gobblers Knob is the place.

Ohanepecosh area

Ohanapecosh campground: On the southeast side of Mount Rainier National Park, Ohanapecosh is surrounded by old-growth forest and a beautiful snow-fed river. There is also a visitor center and amphitheater at the campground, which has 188 sites. Like Cougar Rock, it's open seasonally and has some reservable sites.

Grove of the Patriarchs: A 1.5 mile round-trip hike. Walk through an ancient forest and cross a suspension bridge over the Ohanapecosh River!

Silver Falls loop: Three miles round-trip. One of the most picturesque rivers in the park, the Ohanapecosh River gives hikers the chance to see Silver Falls, a sparkling cascade.

Shriner Peak: The hike to Shriner Peak, 8.5 miles round-trip, is one of the loneliest trails at Mount Rainier. It's long, steep and exposed, but offers stunning views and a fire lookout on top.

White River area

White River campground: Located in the northeastern section of Mount Rainier National Park, White River campground is an ideal gateway to the backcountry. Check availability — it’s closed during the winter seasons. There are 112 sites available.

Silver Forest: A 2.4-mile round-trip hike where you stroll along a broad pathway within a silver forest (stands of tree skeletons remaining after wildfires) enjoy great views of Rainier and the long river of the Emmons Glacier flowing off.

Emmons Moraine: This 3-mile round-trip hike crosses the White River and offers views of Rainier’s largest glacier.

Fremont Lookout: This longer hike, 5.6 miles round-trip, to Mount Fremont is a good one for bigger kids, with Incredible views from a lookout built in 1934. Be on the watch for mountain goats or black bears.

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