TWENTY-ONE YEARS ago, I published an essay in Architectural Digest full of personal Seattle landmarks. Among them were the Hoge Building, site of the first house built in the city, where my father worked as a criminal attorney; Smith Tower, where my paternal grandfather ran the elevator (before that, he sold cigars at Keiter and Birnbaum’s in the Savoy Hotel on Second Avenue); the vestiges of my maternal grandparents’ secondhand clothing store in Pioneer Square; the ghost of the drugstore and fountain my aunt and uncle operated at Fourth and Seneca (now a Starbucks); and the niche on Seneca between First and Second where my great-grandfather and namesake, David Taylor, was in business as Taylor The Tailor.
I also sought to pinpoint in Architectural Digest the childhood feelings evoked for me by the Pacific Science Center’s neo-Gothic arches, the facade of what is now the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, the coaxial paths and rose gardens surrounding Drumheller Fountain, and the austerity of the federal courthouse downtown — all before confessing that, for me as a child, “The entire city paled in comparison with the mountains surrounding it,” and that from them Seattle’s skyline appeared to me “more trivial than anything on the landscape.”
I by no means wish to minimize the depth of feeling I have for Seattle by pointing out that the city once paled for me beside mountains or seemed inessential to me from their heights. I do want to say, though, that our mountains draw me to them, and have for as long as I can remember, and that what I feel for them has driven me to write poetry after decades of writing prose, as a form of expression better suited to their call.
Here, setting out, booted, burdened,
let’s suffer not to ask
about our end,
and do what we came to do:
My uncle Henry Shain was an avid hiker and climber. Enthusiastic but not sentimental or romantic in his view of the natural world, he ranged far and wide in the Olympics and Cascades. Six-feet-four, lanky but broad-shouldered, Henry literally dragged me up Mount Dickerman when I was small. On his advice, I held on to his pack while he made a direct ascent in snow, and in this way we summited.
Eventually, I walked coming-of-age trails in the Central Cascades with Henry. We made off-trail forays in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness before it was the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Years later, we traversed the Bailey Range together through the heart of the Olympics. At that point, Henry was 76 and spent a lot of time bent over, with his pack facing the sky and his hands on his knees, halted and working to slow down his breathing. He didn’t want to quit. It all meant too much to him. He lies now beneath a grave marker in North Seattle inscribed with the words: “He loved the mountains.”
At the crux we’ll have to take light’s measure
with neither guides nor verses.
We’ll turn our childhood compasses back
and read our self-made futures.
From the playground behind my junior high school — now Eckstein Middle School — I could see, on a clear day, the Olympics and Cascades. I felt drawn toward both ranges but couldn’t get to either often enough. Then someone told me that Boy Scout Troop 173 camped once a month, year-round, and I joined.
Troop 173 was divided, in military fashion, into “patrols” of a few boys each, so it was fellow patrol members I camped with. My patrol leader at one point was named Don Harder. You can Google “Don Harder climber” if you want details, but suffice it to say that at an early age, he was already an experienced and skilled technical rock climber.
Don goaded and derided me with amicable fervor. He was in the Scouts for no other reason than to hike and camp, and so was I. We also had in common a friend, Marc Emerson, who’d died on Castle Rock, near Leavenworth, at 16. Marc’s father had been part of the 1963 Everest expedition, which was composed significantly of Western Washingtonians. I had no idea at the time what a local heyday it was, and was anyway innocent of high-alpine ambition and of interest in rock walls. I just wanted to roam, and did, with other people who desired the freedom of the hills.
Caveat emptor — rain falls here.
We’ll critique ourselves in current terms.
We’ll walk beneath a shroud, a pall.
We’ll lose ourselves in drapes of moss …
The day after taking my last high school final, I got a ride from my sister to Randle, south of Mount Rainier, where I went to work for the U.S. Forest Service on a brush-disposal crew. The clear-cutting of timber was then reaching a zenith. Logging trucks barreled out of the mountains recklessly; the mills ran three shifts, glowing at night; and choker setters took home $8 an hour, or three times what I was paid. A lot of Randlelites were flush enough to eat at Tall Timber or at the Mount Adams Cafe, or to buy gear at Yard Birds in Centralia.
Randle was unincorporated and nebulous. It had no center other than Fischer’s Market, a grocery store not far from the bridge across the Cowlitz River. We summer USFS employees bought food and sundries there, refrigerated cases of beer in a stream and slept in a bunkhouse. The guy bunking to my left began each day by starting up the turntable under his cot and playing Led Zeppelin. Most of us rose then, but some refused to stir for another quarter-hour, having closed down the Big Bottom Tavern the night before and staggered in darkness up Silverbrook Road to drink more in the bunkhouse.
No matter. By 7:45, all were on the clock. Sometimes we piled brush in partial cuts, but mostly we ran fire suppression against sizable slash burns. These blazes were usually started at dusk, when fuel moisture felt prime and the wind had died down. If all went well, we stood around and watched a monstrous conflagration, but far too often a bad burning strategy meant flames jumped the line, leaving us to scramble in smoke-filled woods — and in a welter of wee-hour shouting and confusion — to lay out a new fire line and hold it.
I spent four summers stationed in Randle, which meant proximity to Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, and daily dwelling in high country. At the end of my third summer, I climbed Adams via its northwest ridge, overnighting on its summit; at the end of my fourth, I walked the Pacific Crest Trail through the Goat Rocks.
Old snow today is akin to a tray
that carries evidence of winter.
Ravaged, stained, dimpled, traipsed,
it shrinks in shade as if to say
it isn’t done with living
In 1983, I got a job teaching English at Olympic College and another teaching composition in the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education on the base in Bremerton. These work circumstances oriented me toward the Olympic Range, about which I became both studious and romantic. I wanted to go up every river valley there, and over every pass.
My Uncle Henry had bequeathed me certain worn topographic maps, to which, once situated across the Sound, I took a magnifying glass in search of passable off-trail Olympic contours. I had what I thought was an advantage in this arena, because Henry had introduced me to Robert L. Wood, whose “Olympic Mountains Trail Guide” (along with “Climber’s Guide to the Olympic Mountains,” later retitled “Olympic Mountains: A Climbing Guide”) was sine qua non then for Olympics obsessives. At times, I besieged Wood by telephone with my off-trail imaginings, about which he was unequivocally negative, probably in part with a view toward liability. He would stay silent while I went on at length, letting me say what I had to say in full, at which point he would answer, “No; it can’t be done,” before launching his own, more sober soliloquy, one composed of multiple perils and replete with impassable cliff faces or miles of old-growth tree fall.
Wood was correct in tone and spirit. My friends and I had no idea what we were doing. Years afterward, I looked at maps and read route descriptions with an interest in determining just how idiotic we’d been. Sure enough, we’d had no business fooling around on Garfield Mountain freestyle or scaling certain cliffs on Mount Anderson without protection. More often, though, we were restless and kept moving, as if there were indeed a destination — increasingly off-trail, increasingly in new terrain — crossing multiple and far-flung ranges on longish and overloaded expeditions.
The first-person narrator of my novel “The Other,” set largely in the Olympics and Cascades, says something I ought to say at this juncture so as to put things in current context: “Since those days, I’ve become a trail hiker, someone who takes no chances in the woods but goes to them frequently, in all weathers.” I remain avid, but am more than content now to tread familiar trails, where the beauty of change is forever in evidence: ribbons of backwater reorienting from year to year, the scouring of cutbanks proceeding by inches, new rock fall, fresh avalanche scars. I don’t see these things as mere consolations. They aren’t hued in the gold tint of passing years. The beauty of change is as thrilling to me now as new terrain was thrilling to me then. I’m post-turn around time, and have turned homeward to walk among previously unnoted mysteries.
And in the end we’ll have to leave this river
until its rush is indistinguishable
from wind in leaves and needles
even if we’re poised to listen,
even if we’re patient, even if what we hear’s familiar.
“Turn around time” is an alpinist’s notion — that preplanned moment when, no matter what, it’s time to reverse course and head back. The principle acknowledges an unstoppable coming darkness and the prospect of tragic outcomes spurred by hubris; it mitigates against both; it commits to the prudent; it speaks against enticement; it wells up in the pit of the stomach when a summit makes its siren call. All this to say that it’s fundamentally rational. Many narratives of fatality compel it. Still, it takes some learning.
I was 13 or 14 when, while ascending an exposed mountain face in the Cascades, Henry warned me that going down was going to be harder than coming up. He’d figured this in, he added, while establishing a turn around time for us that, to me, seemed too early. I didn’t believe descending would be harder, but it was.
A little later, another veteran alpinist told me that, as a matter of principle, he sometimes stopped short of summits before turn around time as preparation for eventualities he couldn’t evade. I didn’t understand that, but afterward stopped short myself under similar circumstances.
“Falling uphill results in your face falling several feet before contacting the slope, whereas falling downhill, your face will not contact the slope until it falls past your feet, hence a longer, more violent fall,” someone wrote in a climber’s forum. Followed by, “We fall most often on the downclimb because we shoot our wad on the way up and save nothing for the downclimb. I hear this everywhere (books, online, salty old bastards), and it makes sense.”
A mountaineer named David Sharp topped Everest in 2006, downclimbed some distance, then stopped to rest. Dozens of climbers passed Sharp while he froze to death. Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 had stood beside Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Everest — its first confirmed climbers — was then 86. Fifty-three years had passed since, like Sharp, he’d topped Everest. In the interim, Hillary had built a cottage on a southern shore. His wife and daughter died. He became a philanthropist. He tramped and read novels. When Hillary heard about what happened to Sharp, he told a reporter that he found it horrifying. Specifically, the people who wanted to summit so bad that they lifted their hats, said good morning and passed on by.
It’s a good idea to turn around in life, and to do it, of course, before it’s too late.
We might end in limbo.
We might free-fall snow-blind
with our lives painted on our glasses.
Let’s close a circle in this world, then:
there’s a late slant of light to get home in.
The beauty of our mountains speaks going out and coming back and, for me at least, is deepened in both directions by a personal embrace, by a sense of home and place, and by a yearning for its preservation. This latter is partly why I write of it — hoping that in approaching such beauty in words, its precariousness and preciousness might be illuminated.
The Zen poets of old, on the other hand, were never heading home or away, not familiar or estranged. They were mountain shadows; they disappeared into fog and reemerged on distant slopes. That’s one way to love this world — without possessions or possessiveness, without identity or identification — but one not possible, here, for me. I’m situated and fixed and, for better or worse, in love with this particular ripple in the fabric — although, paradoxically, I’m also just passing through while staying in place. Places exist in both time and space, and while mountains appear solid, they’re far from eternal (“He who doubts that mountains walk,” wrote Dōgen, “does not yet understand his own walking.”).
Even so, there’s a reason why, when asked to provide an author photo for my book “Turn Around Time: A Walking Poem for the Pacific Northwest,” I submitted one in which, on a local summit, I’m holding my grandson — he’s of the sixth generation of my family to dwell in Western Washington — with a look of dumbfounded happiness on my face. And a reason why, on a recent hike in the Cascades, in view of mountains and falling water, I was moved to tears when the same grandson, now 4, exclaimed, to his father and grandfather, “This place is beautiful, everyone!”