Sunday, June 19, 2016

Breathing Spaces: Mt. Rainier National Park

Above: Mt. Rainier National Park at Paradise is a winter wonderland this week. In celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, master storyteller and author Terry Tempest Williams spoke on Tuesday at Paradise Inn about her new book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. She calls our national parks,“breathing spaces.”

By Janine Gates



The official National Weather Service bulletin posted earlier this week at the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center services desk at Mt. Rainier National Park is clear.

Despite these warnings, unprepared visitors arrived this week thinking they would see alpine flowers, all because the calendar marks this coming week as the beginning of summer.

Dressed in shorts and flimsy footwear, they soon turn back when they realize that the snow indeed continues the farther they go up the 14,411 foot mountain. The weather changes by the minute. 

Tuesday evening, snow is falling as predicted.

Inside Paradise Inn, the fire roars, pops, and crackles in one of the historic, massive fireplaces while pianist William Powell plays romantic pieces, as he has for seven seasons, May through October.

The music fills the Inn while folks from all over the United States and the world relax, often with their favorite beverage, sitting deep in cozy chairs and couches, reading books, chatting quietly, or playing games.

Above: The original parts of the Inn were finished in 1917, built without nails from dead standing timber of Alaska yellow cedar harvested near Narada Falls. It took a little less than a year to build. It is designated as a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Cellphone reception is non-existent or sporadic at the Inn. Thankfully, one has to get some elevation and climb the mountain to send a message or check email, so making new friends, without the isolating distraction of electronic devices, is easy.

I went to Mt. Rainier this week for a few days of much needed rest, relaxation, reflection, and rejuvenation. I met individuals from Ft. Meyers, Florida to Olympia, Washington and everywhere in between.

The faces of individuals, families, and staff became familiar as we traipsed past each other in pajamas and robes and serious mountain gear, going to and from our rooms, the dining hall, the gift shop or the mountain. It became a little village.

A man from the San Francisco Bay area of Walnut Creek, California sat down in front of the fire one morning with a new book called, Jesus Called, He Wants His Church Back: What Christians and The American Church are Missing by Ray Johnston.

The catchy title provided the impetus for a friendly, brief discussion.  

Earlier, I had sat down in front of the fireplace near a man and a woman who were sharing some cinnamon rolls.

The simple, inclusive question of, “Where are you from?” lead to finding out that the woman was from Michigan, here to summit the mountain on her third try.

The man said, “Olympia.”

Quickly drilling down to the Eastside, “near Ralph’s Thriftway,” to specific streets, it turned out, absurdly, that we live less than 10 houses away from each other. We listed off our mutual neighbors who bridged the gap between our homes and gladly exchanged contact information. 

Above: Crevasse and sky on Mt. Rainier.

Breathing Spaces

What is the relevancy of our national park system in the 21st century?

Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916, creating the National Park Service under the U.S. Department of the Interior.  It manages 59 parks and 84 million acres, 78 national monuments and 407 other sites. The first national park was Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

The spiritual and recreational need for designated wilderness and our parks is increasing despite the pressures of population growth, development, usage, and budget shortfalls. 

Mt. Rainier National Park is not immune to these pressures inside and outside its borders.

Created in 1899, the park had 563 recreation visitors in 1904, the first year of recordkeeping. In 2015, there were 1,237,231. Centennial or not, that number will likely be topped in 2016.

The meaning and definition of wilderness has been debated for years but is defined by law as an undeveloped landscape retaining its primeval character. 

Development regulations in national parks vary, with some allowing ski lifts and mining. While real estate development pressures just outside Mt. Rainier’s borders continue, the park has improved the internal conditions seen by past development.

Rope tows and skiing in the Paradise area lasted from the 1930s until the 1970s, nearly 300 cabins and a nine hole golf course were built in 1931, and car camping was allowed in the 1960s in the Paradise meadows. All these are gone and the areas are still being restored.

On Tuesday evening, Mt. Rainier National Park Superintendent Randy King introduced master storyteller and author Terry Tempest Williams, who was speaking as the first in a series of speakers at the park to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service system.

“It’s a different June today, but it is Paradise,” he laughed.

Several inches of snow was dumped on Mt. Rainier and access roads, as promised, making it look like a mid-winter wonderland instead of the week before summer. But everyone knows that the mountain makes its own weather, and King said it was not unusual.

Terry Tempest Williams, the author of the environmental classic Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, and When Women Were Birds, An Unspoken Hunger, The Open Space of Democracy, and many more, continues to eloquently share her life experiences and latest research in her new book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks.

In The Hour of Land, Tempest Williams weaves her personal stories and experiences about 12 national parks - some were new to her, while others were old friends, like Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

She said she approached each park profiled in her book with a beginner’s eye, even those that are like her “second skin,” like Grand Teton. Not a year of her life has gone by, she said, without her being at the park.

She spent five years researching for the book, and calls our national parks “breathing spaces.” Her voice warm and soothing, Tempest Williams read passages and invited the audience to discuss their thoughts about and experiences within our national parks.

Mt. Rainier National Park is not featured. Indeed, this was her first visit to the park and Tempest Williams said she was overwhelmed by its magnificence and sense of scale. 

“Whether we see the mountain or not, its presence is felt,” said Tempest Williams.

She told the story of seeing, outside her cabin, a doe and her two little fawns “the size of chihuahuas,” looking as though they had just been born. 

She wants to come back.

Tempest Williams said that when she set out to write the book, she thought it would be joyous, easy, and not complicated. A celebration of love.

“…(The book) is joyous, and it is a celebration, and it is about love – we’re here because of love – but what I didn’t realize is how complicated our national parks are ….and how much I didn’t know....It’s been an exercise in humility, as there is so much more I don’t know. My authority is one of love, and I come to you as a storyteller.”

Above: Grand Teton National Park, 2014. “Our national parks are memory palaces where our personal histories reside....What are we searching for and what do we find?” writes Terry Tempest Williams in her new book, The Hour of Land.

Our national parks have special meaning to Tempest Williams for many reasons. She described her first memory at Canyonlands National Park in Utah and met her husband, Brooke, who was a park ranger, at Zion National Park.

Reading excerpts from her stories, she spoke of the many animals that live in our parks.

“We are not the only species who live, love, and breathe our parks….and I’ll tell you right now, my heart is being broken. The national parks are underfunded and overcrowded. Forty of our parks are threatened by oil and gas development, 12 have development already inside of their boundaries, and 30 more are pending. What do we want our public lands to become?” she asked.

Listening to the stories told to her during her book signing opportunity, she said she heard stories of love.

One couple was celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary and had spent their honeymoon here. One man is on a quest to visit all national parks. So far, he has visited 52. One young man said he was a ranger in Arches National Park.

Another couple in the audience, Bill and Mary Jane Brockman, of Centralia, has a long, personal history with Mt. Rainier National Park, and of volunteering for the park service. It too is a story of love.

Mary Jane Brockman, 88, an early member of The Mountaineers, said she first summited Mt. Rainier when she was 17 years old. She was amazed that her mother allowed her to do so. She recounted her vivid memory of that first summit.

“There’s a sound of the mountain that’s’s so vast. It’s silence,” said Mary Jane.

Bill Brockman, 89, was on that same climb and they have been together ever since. 

He and Mary Jane spent the first ten years of their marriage working together in the parks, the first one at the Walnut Creek National Monument in Arizona, the last one at Glacier National Park in Montana. They worked it out so they worked northern parks in summer and southern parks in winter.

Above: The Longmire Museum in Mt. Rainier National Park

Bill Brockman’s father was C. Frank Brockman, one of the first original naturalists for the national park system. He became Mt. Rainier’s chief park naturalist in 1928 and finished out his career at Yosemite and the College of Forestry at the University of Washington. 

The elder Brockman also saved the Longmire Museum, which served as the park’s headquarters from 1916-1928, from demolition and created many of the exhibits that are still in use today.  

Born in Spokane, Bill Brockman came to the park as a two year old and lived as a child in the 1920s in the building that is now the Guide Services building and dormitory for staff. The family then settled in several places at Longmire from1933 until his father was transferred to Yosemite in 1943.

Bill Brockman joined the Navy in 1944, and later became a high school biology teacher. He and his wife operated a ski school for 35 years in Snoqualmie, with 70 instructors at one time, serving hundreds of students. He was a board member of The Mountaineers and REI.

The Brockman's continue to contribute to the park by sharing their experiences, knowledge and stories.

Tempest Williams asked each of us to think about how we can contribute to our parks.

“The national parks are made up of many stories. Think about what you can do to contribute to make sure our national parks continue. Visit them with an open heart to remember what it means to be human….”

Above: The Nisqually River from Mt. Rainier, in June 2014. There are 25 major glaciers on Mount Rainier that support several major river systems, including the Nisqually. The rivers and their tributaries drain down the flanks of the mountain directly to Puget Sound. 

Editor's Clarifications, June 21: The name of the national monument the Brockman's started volunteering at was the Walnut Creek National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona. Also, the Brockman's did not own the ski school at Snoqualmie, but operated it. For more information, see Mary Jane Brockman's comment under this story.