by Melissa Knapp, Hiker and Friend of the Fund
For most people who know me well, it comes as no surprise that I have an advanced case of wanderlust, and would rather be traveling than any other activity. Journeying to far-flung ports and little hamlets is always my first choice. But for those days without that option, most of my excursions consist of day trips to the mountains and forests a few hours from home.
Opportunities abound to go to trails within the Snoqualmie corridor, heading east out of Seattle on I-90. The hikes vary from wheelchair accessible to advanced challenging scrambles where you take life and limb into your hand and footholds. I normally choose a trail somewhere on the sliding scale between those two extremes.
While a young college student, I became involved with a school rock climbing club where we spent several evenings a week and every weekend climbing the rock bluffs of eastern Washington. The thrill of stepping off a cliff into the air, rappelling down while relying on a partner to belay and break the descent, is an experience close to flying. Our club training culminated in a climb during the spring up Mount Hood in Oregon. Afterwards, the boy I was seeing at the time decided to drop out of school so that he could train harder in order to climb Mount McKinley. He was a more experienced climber than I and this was a turning point—either I could follow, or stay in school. I chose school. The amount of time devoted to rock climbing on a weekly basis was more than I could spare from my studies. It was not a sport I picked up again, though these days on hikes where I observe someone on a cliff face, the thrill of climbing and rappelling in that former lifetime revisits me for a momentary thrill.
Now, while spending more time on trails, I’ve hiked past lakes and waterfalls, and stood on the ramparts of a fire lookout tower, all the while gasping at the spectacle of “The Mountain.” How lucky we are to have such a majestic and personal display so close to our homes. Because Mount Rainier is our mountain, in our midst, with a colossal display more prominent than any other city in the United States can claim.
I’m in awe of the exuberant displays of wildflowers in mountain meadows. I marvel at the flowers’ determination to survive and burst forth with such abundant joy for a very brief display, before dying back to preserve seed to sow itself in the fragile soil under the snow, repeating the extravaganza the following year. These presentations make my heart sing to be a witness to such abundance and glory. I can feel the tug to explore more of the trails and their secrets in our three Washington National Parks — Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades.
When friends ask me what it is about hiking that I like so much, my answer is usually superficial, to keep the conversation flowing. I don’t tell them about the feeling of quiet, the slowing down of the spirit as the heartbeat elevates due to the increased exertion of the feet, the thighs protesting, the arms planting the poles with each step. Or do I tell them of the bird calls welcoming me to the trail, of which only a few species can I identify by bird name. On a recent hike on a trail just east of Snoqualmie Pass, unseen birds emitted a sharp, even click-click-click sound, softer than a woodpecker, and unfamiliar to me. The size or color of the bird was unseen, but the greeting was welcomed. There is still time for me to become better informed about these creatures, but for now the songs break the stillness while trudging along with pack on my back. I feel accepted as a fellow soul in their territory.
When hearing the wind in the evergreens and the rustle of the leaves on the deciduous trees, it always brings me back to a book titled, The Bell of Kamela by Lillian Budd, given to me for high marks in the 5th grade. I no longer remember the tale of the pioneer family with a girl named Melissa, but the first line of the story, “Gently the breeze blew, swaying the tops of trees, making them sing,” returns to me on the trail when I hear the chorus in the treetops.
I don’t tell friends about the feeling of the wet mist covering my face when hiking in the early morning fog. The ethereal envelopment that swirls around and coats the leaves and the morning spider webs with diamonds of dew, purely for my awe, wonder and enjoyment, I am sure. Or, the feeling of a heavy downpour drumming its beat on my hat and rain gear, all the while as I’m wondering which of us—myself or the force of the wild rain–will hold out the longest. I don’t want to break the spell of nature’s enchantment by answering questions about water and clothing required to keep me dry. There is magic out there that can’t be explained with mere words.
Then there is the danger, much diminished at this stage of my life, having abandoned the invincible foolishness of my youth. But it is still there when hiking a narrow ledge with sheer drop to what would be an assured death, or the crossing of a roaring spring stream on a single log, knowing that a slip would produce a drenching, or worse, be swept off to my next life. These days, I choose the danger level with care, usually electing a lower notch on the sliding scale. Instead, there is the thrill of getting to the day’s destination of promontory, peak, waterfall, lake or field and being able to return under my own power to my vehicle at the trailhead, worn and spent, full of exhilaration and peace.
What I can’t convey in a general conversation to people about hiking is that it is personal. When boots hit the trail, it doesn’t take long for the endorphins to start coursing through my veins and the stress of the times reduce to a slight murmur. Or, as John Muir is credited with saying, “…cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” When entering the forests with all their treasures of magnificent trees and views, and tiny treasures of flowers, fungus and fauna, I feel as if I’ve entered the most magnificent cathedral on the planet. Every single time the magic returns to soothe my soul.
Afterwards — at hike’s end with sore muscles, sometimes blistered feet or drenched clothing — there is still the feeling of tremendous satisfaction and gratitude for those who came before us and had the foresight to set aside these lands of stunning beauty for all of us. And to think that this magical travel can happen so close to home.