Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 19, 2011

First There is a Mountain …

There’s an ancient storytelling tradition regarding a traveler in the wilderness — in other versions a questing knight — who encounters an enchanted castle. Seeking shelter in the wasteland, the knight rides around the castle in search of the entrance, but finds none: The enchantment makes the castle spin so that its entry is always on the side opposite the seeker. This was already such a common tradition in quest stories by the 14th Century that the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight could assume that his readers were familiar with it when Gawain approaches the wilderness keep of Bertilak (alias the Green Knight).

On our recent trip to Washington, Dad and I encountered our own real-life version of this story, which actually suggests how such a legend could have originated. We were in search of Mount Rainier. Rainier is not hard to find: a behemoth of a mountain that looms on the southwestern horizon of any view from Seattle, Tacoma or anywhere within a hundred miles of the peak. At 14,411 feet, it’s often visible when one flies into Sea-Tac airport, as in this photo, shot one late October.

Mount Rainier Brad Nixon 7239 (640x359)

First, there is a mountain.

Like all of the significant peaks of the Cascade Range, Rainier is a volcano, and, should it ever erupt, as did its sister mountain, St. Helens, a few miles to the south, the potential damage in the populated zones of the Northwest would be indescribable.

To visit Mt. Rainier and stand on its slopes was one objective of our trip to Washington.

Mount Rainier National Park is a quadrangle of mostly wilderness area, accessible from each of its corners, but — like all three of Washington’s national parks — much of it is reachable only by foot. We approached the park from the southeast corner, driving in from Ellensburg in the valley of the Yakima River. It’s a thriving town, and, like many of the eastern Washington cities, sports a classic 1880s downtown. Founded relatively late, its brick construction insulated Ellensburg from the fate of early frontier towns (including San Francisco): fire.

Ellensburg WA Brad Nixon 7459 (640x437)

From Ellensburg, we descended through the Yakima River gorge which, if it weren’t located so close to many other natural wonders, would be better-known as a place of stunning beauty. It is, however, well-known to trout fishermen.

Yakima River Brad Nixon 7487 (640x480)

Turning northwest on Route 12, we ascended through the picturesque valley of the Naches River up the dry slopes of the eastern Cascades, lined by the beautiful colors of the turning leaves of the autumn hardwoods.

Washington autumn Brad Nixon 7496 (640x475)

Turning west on Route 410, we climbed steadily toward Chinook Pass. Once we reached about 4,000 feet, the mild autumn day became early winter. Broad turnoffs along the highway indicating that in clearer weather there were spectacular vistas of the eastern face of Rainier and the surrounding mountains. In these conditions, though, we had only obscured glimpses of the peaks that loomed overhead.

Chinook Pass Brad Nixon 7512 (640x451)

At the very top of the pass, we should have been looking directly at the shoulders of Rainier, just a few miles away. This was all we saw:

Chinook Pass Brad Nixon 7515 (640x434)

Then there is no mountain.

It was not quite the end of October, but winter had fallen on the Cascades, and clouds and snow shrouded Rainier — just a few miles in front of us — from our view.

The mountains are immune to us. They care not if we are so close, but cloak themselves in winter as they wish.

We descended into the valley, only to find that the southeastern entrance to the park had been closed since early September. That meant a making a long detour westward to Elbe, and then doubling back east, up toward the mountain. We had some beautiful looks into the deep forest and the rivers that rush down from the glaciers on Rainier’s summit, and climbed up onto the shoulders of the mountain.

The river valleys that flow down from the glaciers on Rainier are huge gorges that, when the rivers are fed by melting snow, can be roaring cataracts. In this cold, season, with the ice no longer melting rapidly, they are rocky swaths of clear land hemmed in by cedars.

Nisqually River Brad Nixon 7567 (640x480)

Nisqually River

We reached the visitors’ center on the south face of Rainier, about 5,000 feet elevation. Although we were standing on the mountain itself, we were floating in a sea of fog and cloud, with the peak of the mountain nowhere to be seen. To the south, the Tatoosh range was swathed in clouds.

Tatoosh Range Brad Nixon 7550 (640x480)

We struck the valley road and left Rainier unconquered, unsighted. Then, maybe an hour later and many miles away, we looked back. There. Still shrouded in clouds at its lower levels, Rainier revealed itself.

Mount Rainier Brad Nixon 7602 (640x436)

A Buddhist koan asserts, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” The pop singer Donovan made a hit song out of that line. Perhaps Dad and I were repeating some epic action that goes to the beginning of human consciousness: seeing something clearly from afar, only to lose sight of it as we drew closer, and then withdrawing to see it again. The consolation of philosophy — for me, at least — is little comfort for our disappointment after a long trip. As I said in the initial post from this journey, seasoned travelers must deal with surprises, and not all of them will be happy ones.

Many of the world’s societies have regarded mountains as gods, or the homes of gods. Like the gods, mountains are indifferent to lesser beings. They tolerate a universe of infinite irony, and they only reveal themselves when they wish.

This is the fourth entry in a series of articles about a trip I recently made with my dad to the national parks and wild places of Washington state. To start at the first in the series, CLICK HERE, or use the navigation at the bottom of the web page to move forward and back.

© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017



  1. Sort of like, “Can’t see the mountain for the trees” I guess. Thanks for the wonderful photos and description of your travels. I just noticed on a recent trip through the Maryland Sideling Pass, which I had previously traveled through from east to west, that when travelling west to east there is an entirely different view of the rock formations cut into the mountain. Now I want to return for a closer look from that vantage point. It never ends.


  2. Thanks so much for the great photos and nice tie ins to literature, philosophy, and the myths and legends of olde. Your article made me think of Rothko’s paintings. I look at them; but they are not revealed to me. Apparently, their mysteries are revealed to others. But they continue escape me.


    • Rothko. That charlatan. I was painting this weekend: test color patches for some redecorating. I painted a big square of yellow. Next to it, I painted a big square of green. If I was Mark Rothko, someone would buy that wall for ten million dollars and put it in a museum. Don’t get me started on Rothko.


      • Sounds like you already are started on Rothko! 🙂 Funny, I was doing painting this weekend, too. Call it “color field” painting – a la those artists of the late ’40’s – early ’50’s. In my case, I was painting two dining room walls. Painted them a medium blue-green. Shows off the 3 Gauguins I have hanging in there a lot better than the white walls I had before.


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