Up the mountain with Edward Abbey – I

Posted by Ken Campbell October 10, 2010 0 Comment 841 views


It is a two-hour drive from my house to the mountain. From Tacoma, east through the cookie-cutter suburbs and bedroom towns, past the farmer’s fields and the gravel pits, through the country, or what passes for country, in these gray and frantic, post-industrial days. Through the sleepy shires of Buckley and Greenwater, tiny burgs waiting for the first snows of winter to bring the traffic of day-skiers, who will pump crisp city money into the coffers of the local service businesses.

After Greenwater, we come to the park entrance, pass through, and continue on to the White River campground. Here we park the car and begin our mission on foot, the way God intended, as Abbey, and presumably God, would say.

I have come, along with three friends, to climb Mt. Rainier. Although I have spent many hours in the mountains, this is my first attempt of this particular peak; the story is much the same with Dustin. Tony, by virtue of the fact that he has stood on this summit seven times already, is our appointed leader, without discussion. The fourth member of our party rides in a waterproof bag in my backpack, nestled between long johns and freeze-dried pasta. I have brought my tired copy of Desert Solitaire, with torn cover and dirty, dog-eared pages, to give me the chance to get reacquainted with Edward Abbey, that sour-ass curmudgeon, the old friend that I never met, other than through the written word.

Born Edward Paul Abbey in 1927, his body of work includes The Monkey Wrench Gang and The Journey Home, along with others. Several of his books have become standards of the environmental movement, probably none so much as Desert Solitaire. He has been an influence of mine, a sort of spiritual canary in my personal coal mine, for many years now, but I haven’t read his work as much lately. He died some years back, before we had the chance to drink together. It is time to get back in touch.

We complete the final packing process in the parking lot and set out on the trail. Through thick growth of fir and spruce, along the north side of the White River, which at this point is more of a wide stream, growling and crashing over rock on its downward journey to the distant sound. Our planned route will take us up the east side of the mountain, the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier route, to the summit. It should be a fairly speedy venture, a couple days up, one day back down. Then, back to the grind. Back to reality. Too short a time, really, to let the atmosphere of the high mountain wilderness soak into our souls sufficiently, where it is needed to refresh our spirits.

I do my hiking in the back of the group, as is my custom. Years of guiding hikes, climbs and kayak tours have conditioned me to bring up the rear, where I can be certain I can account for everyone. Tony and Dustin do not need my care and concern, but my choice is made subconsciously, automatically. Being the last in line has other advantages as well. Not having to have a conversation, if you don’t want one, is a luxury that is not afforded any other position in the procession. I don’t feel much like talking when I walk; I’m too busy thinking. “Of conventional things,” as Abbey might say. “The women I have known and loved, my superior children (superior to their father), the children of my mind and notebooks, both those born and those still paring fetal fingernails in the limbo of creation.” At the back of the line, it is easier to hear other sounds that are lost up front, even if those sounds are internal.

We only go a short distance the first afternoon. A quick three miles to Glacier Basin campground, where we pitch our tents under the sub-alpine fir and mountain hemlock. Our plan is to eat a good dinner, get a solid night’s sleep, and begin the actual climbing in the morning. We talk around the stove as we cook our pasta and our beans, of life’s details back home, jobs and pay, bills and obligations. How odd, that we are having such difficulty shaking the chains of civilization, even in this wild and remote setting. “The world is older and bigger than we are,” Abbey pipes up. “This is a hard truth for some folks to swallow.” This is true. When the weight of the world seems so substantial and the tentacles of the beast we call society cling so tightly to our throats, it is difficult to see past our small problems to the wonder of our true dwelling place. “Wilderness begins in the human mind,” Abbey continues, and, believing his words, I allow my mind to conceive of wilderness.

I can hear the skittering of deer mice in the underbrush as the sky darkens. To the shadowy west lies the impressive bulk of the mountain, brooding and judgmental, the way all mountains are, as if assessing the frail humans intent on ascending its flanks. I wonder how we measure up.

I try, like some old philosopher, to think like a mountain, but I am not equal to the challenge. The camp robbers fly off to their beds as the three of us boil water for a final cup of tea, soon to do the same. The river gurgles contentedly. Background music, nature’s soundtrack, piped in from behind a brushy stand of mixed evergreens.

The hot tea warms our spirits as well as our bellies. This is how it should be, we congratulate ourselves, the way life was meant to be lived. As if we know anything. “To the intelligent man or woman, life appears infinitely mysterious. But the stupid have an answer for every question.”

Yeah. Okay, Ed. Go to bed.

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