I have an bad English teacher confession to make: as a student, I never cared much for the transcendentalists, traditional or modern. Walden Pond and Tinker Creek seemed like bizarre and pointless exercises. Yeah, the seasons change. Bugs eat frogs. Frogs eat bugs. Moths fly into flames. Birds fly north and south again. It snows. I just didn’t get the obsession with nature.
You see, as a child in the rural Pacific Northwest, I grew up with a view of snow-capped Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters out my bedroom window, cows grazing in my family’s pasture, a bald eagle’s nest in the scraggly tree in the yard, and a salmon-bearing creek less than a 5 minute walk through the field. On mellow summer days, I occupied myself by catching field mice and toads, reading in the crook of the apple tree in our field, and hiding in the tall grass by our barn with the spiders, impossibly fat with pregnancy as the summer waned. I didn’t get the transcendentalists because I didn’t have to become one with nature. Without me even noticing, nature had become one with me.
In my early 20s, I lived in the concrete confines of Phoenix’s city center and a master-planned suburb with uncannily green manicured lawns in the midst of the desert. I felt entirely unconnected with the natural world, and I finally started understanding the impulse John Muir describes in his book Our National Parks:
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
Mt. Ellinor, the southernmost peak in the Olympic Mountains, is the kind of hike that underscores Muir’s sentiments. It’s truly breathtaking. There are two access points: a higher trail head and a lower trail head, which extends the hike by about a mile and a half. You need a day-use permit to park at the higher trail head, which also features surprisingly clean restroom facilities.
Chris and I decided to hike from the lower trailhead, which makes for a 6 mile hike overall. The first two miles meander through the woods. The sweet aroma of decomposition emanates from every fallen limb and ladders of fungi hang rakishly from the shady side of the trees.
After a couple of steeper switchbacks, the trail spit us out at the treeline where bug spray is an absolute necessity. Horseflies and hornets are not my idea of fun with nature. I doused myself with so much Deet that bugs repelled from me like they were bouncing off a cartoon bubble.
When we hiked in Hawaii this summer, we got used to boulder-scrambling, so Chris and I were pretty excited about this leg of the hike. It wasn’t until we got over all the boulders that we realized that there was a very civilized path just to the left of this frame that bypassed the boulders. Oops.
We have no pictures of the next little leg of the hike for a very good reason: we were trying not to keel over and die. It’s the kind of grade that doesn’t look too steep, but when you start hiking it, your quads start informing you that they find it rather steep. The only good news about bit is that you’re almost to the summit.
And what a summit it is! From up here, we were greeted by 360 degree views of the Olympic Mountains, Lake Cushman, Hood Canal, and Mt. Rainier. The visibility was so great that we could even catch a glimpse of Seattle, almost 50 miles away.
I’m always thrilled on a hike when I see wildlife, even if it’s a simple as a Stellar’s jay, garter snake, or a chipmunk. Mt. Ellinor, however, has mountain goats! We came upon this guy on our way down, but he was way more interested in licking salt off the rocks (why does that make me want a margarita?) than he was in us. Good thing, as I’ve heard they can be pretty aggressive.
It’s easy to take nature for granted, but there is something soothing, something invigorating, something purely visceral about remembering how small I am against the massive backdrop of the natural world.
Maybe the transcendentalists were on to something after all.