Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 26, 2015

A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy … If You Can See It

We travelers journey far to seek high mountains, vast oceans and remote forest valleys. It’s not always easy to express what we expect or hope to gain: some sense of oneness with the greater world, an awareness of things greater than ourselves, or perhaps the blessed silence that must descend beyond the reach of Fox News. Often, a stunning view is an inherent part of the reward.

There’s a potential problem with making scenery the goal. Tall mountains, craggy seashores and remote fastnesses are prone to extreme weather, including clouds, fog, rain, mist, snow, sleet and weather only the locals have precise terms to describe. Sporting goods stores are stocked with specialized, highly technical (and usually expensive) “foul weather gear” for said fog, rain, mist, snow, etc. Be prepared.

Nearly 30 years ago I was on the Big Island, Hawaii, for a project. The crew had one day at leisure before the work started. Six of us decided to drive to see Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We crammed into a compact rent-a-mobile and started driving: 3 hours. I considered it worth the drive: I’d always wanted to see an erupting volcano. The road wound along the coast then started climbing into the park past stretches of black lava and even steaming fumaroles. The weather, though, closed in and visibility steadily decreased to nearly nothing. We could barely see the sign for the turnoff to the crater through the murk. We got out of the car, walked to the railings and looked. I know I must have been AT the volcano, because I was pressed against a railing where numerous signs warned me of a variety of forms of imminent death that awaited me beyond that point, but the sign and railing were all that I could see. I could see my hand before my face, but nothing much beyond that. If I’d wanted to look at my hand, I could’ve stayed in Ohio. I have no photos of me with the vast volcano erupting before me. There was only cloud, fog and mist. There was nothing for it but to turn around and drive 3 hours back the way we came.

Has this ever happened to you?

A few years ago, Dad and I traveled through Washington state. Our principal targets were Washington’s three national parks. We reached them all: North Cascades, Mt. Rainier and Olympic. We saw stunning mountains, forests, bald eagles, the craggy northwesternmost point of the lower U.S. at Cape Flattery, the Columbia River, Yakima Gorge, and … I’ve written about that trip. START HERE and then click forward for the series. However, as we approached Mt. Rainier from the east — one of the most striking and memorable peaks in North America — and summited Chinook pass from which we should have been looking directly at the peak, we saw this, instead (click any photo for larger image):

Chinook Pass Brad Nixon 7515 (640x434)

Late Fall, high altitude … check. The view once we reached the visitor’s center on the mountain itself was no better. We were there. We couldn’t see the mountain.

More recently, The Counselor and I toured a large swath of Oregon late one July and early August. Our first major stop was Crater Lake.

Before we cut to the photo, let me repeat that timing: late July.

Below is The Counselor standing at an overlook on the very brink of one of the world’s most memorable vistas: an enormous lake, the deepest in the United States, enclosed in the crater formed by a massive volcanic eruption about 7,700 years ago.

Crater Lake Brad Nixon 1676 (640x525)

We got the full treatment at Crater Lake on that midsummer day: wind, rain, snow, temperature hovering near freezing. Check.

There are clear — if somewhat pat — lessons here. Successful travel isn’t a straightforward process of connecting dots on a map, with the dots representing the goals, and everything in between of little consequence. All those moments in transit can be just as significant, if one pays attention. That’s a common theme here at Under Western Skies: the extraordinary often appears at the most ordinary moments for the receptive traveler. Look at everything, don’t simply wait for those marquee moments, or you’ll be disappointed.

Dad, The Counselor and I did see lots of other things on those fogged-out days, and I have the photos and journal entries and — best — memories to prove it.

I also have good news, vista-wise.

Once The Boss and I had driven 20 or thirty miles to the west, we looked back. There was Rainier, appearing all the more majestic for its mantle of clouds:

Mount Rainier Brad Nixon 7602 (640x436)

The Counselor and I did see most of Crater Lake, wreathed in mists, whipped by wind and snow, on a memorable summer day:

Crater Lake Brad Nixon 1666 (640x461)

As for Kilauea, I haven’t been back, so that’s at least one that got away: so far.

One should — perhaps most of all — remember the company; traveling is sharing, whether someone is there with you or whether you’re going to tell someone about what you experienced later. I was in those places with them, and now you’re part of the circle, too.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2017


  1. Great article and pix. Have such unanticipated events happened to me? Oui!

    My wife and I went on a trip to Italy and France in 2000 with a certain Counselor and her Blogger friend, whom you may know. Part of the plan was to enjoy the sunny and temperate French Riviera in the spring. When we arrived in Nice, we were greeted by torrential downpours. To get a picture: think of being under the Niagara Falls. Even the locals apologized to us for the inclement weather! We decided to just hang out in a small café on the Cours Saleya with our croissants and café au lait that morning, while we watched sheets of rain cascade down the awnings in the market square.

    A couple of days later, when we THOUGHT the weather had finally cleared, we ventured over to nearby legendary Antibes. You know, where The Lost Generation liked to gather because it was so WONDERFUL? Always great weather, right? Wrong again! Bitter COLD and gale force winds. Waves crashing violently against the ramparts supposedly built to protect the village, but the ramparts having a hard time doing so. Since tanning ourselves on the beach was not going to work out (sun is usually recommended for this exercise), we decamped and thawed out in a local bistro and had some mussels washed down with white wine. I think we all agreed that the mussels were a bit on the rubbery side. At least the fish soup warmed us up a bit.

    So, you are quite right: it’s the unexpected travel events, shared with great friends, that make all the difference and become part of our memories that are treasured forever.

    A votre santé, mon ami!


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