Serving as our first Pilgrim in Residence, Ryan Moore is taking us outdoors and inviting us into his own sacred journeys in a series of three posts. You can read my introduction of him and the first post in this series here. -Lacy
Mount Rainier is perhaps the single most numinous bit of the earth I have ever laid eyes on.
Less than 55 miles from the sea, its visible rise is one of the highest in the world. On a clear day it can be seen from Oregon to Canada. Rainier is often shrouded by clouds, much of its face covered in snow and ice; the elements veiling its mysterious face. When the clouds do clear it is always a shock to behold. How can one peak of rock, snow, and ice create such endless amounts of ever-changing beauty? Rainier is of this earth, yet simultaneously it is a doorway into another reality entirely.
From its impossibly pure white summit the earth falls away for 8,000 feet, spiraling out into ridge after ridge. Colored by melting glaciers, milky-grey rivers flow from its sides, spreading out like fingers, rushing back toward the land of everyday human existence. We are constantly within earshot of the holy. Do you hear its call? Or have you grown numb to the beauty of these wild places, dulled by busyness and the cares of this world?
Last summer I walked around that mountain. I’ve never known such beauty. Or such constant pain. Simon Weil says there are two things that pierce the human heart: beauty and affliction. I found both of these in abundance on my walk around Rainier. The combination broke me. It opened up some deep spring of longing within I hope never is shut.
“There are two things that pierce the human heart:
beauty and affliction.”
-Simon Weil (paraphrased)
The variety of scenery on Mount Rainier is staggering. It is encircled by fragrant meadows and deep fir-lined canyons, while massive glaciers pour off its flanks. On a previous trip to Mount Rainier I met a day-hiker carrying a panoramic photo of the meadow we were standing in. The photograph was from the height of wildflower season, showing the entire meadow covered in a blanket of purple flowers, with Rainier rising up behind. From that moment I began plotting my return.
Beauty I was prepared for, but not for the pain. I was well acquainted with the typical sorts of sufferings backpacking involves; mosquito bites, sleeping on hard ground, tired feet, etc. This time however, I was destined for an amount of suffering well beyond the usual backpacking annoyances.
Within miles of starting a large blister formed on my heel. A day later a mysterious ache in my left hip developed. Each weight-bearing step sent a shooting, dull pain from my hip down my quad. Soon my other hip began doing the same. Needless to say, this made the mountain passes filled with wildflowers slightly more daunting than usual and me somewhat less enthusiastic about climbing them than I otherwise would have been.
At this point I was deep in one of the most rugged mountain environments imaginable, over 20 miles from the closest trailhead. The Wonderland Trail rises and falls 22,000 feet over the course of 93 miles as it travels around Mount Rainier. Out of the thousands who hike the trail every year, only about 250 people complete it in its entirety. Even under ideal conditions this is a demanding walk. And now here I was trying to do it injured. And because permits to hike the trail are extremely hard to get, my only option was to take an itinerary that was far faster than recommended.
I was attempting to hike in five and a half days what most people do in 10-12 days. Someone has said every good adventure involves at least one point where you wish you weren’t on it. Three days in I had found this point. This trip was quickly beginning to look more and more like foolishness rather than courage. Stranded there miles from civilization, deep in the heart of a mountain wilderness, these follies were now unchangeable. All I could do was keep walking.
Phil Cousineau, in his classic The Art of Pilgrimage, writes that “[A pilgrim] is a wayfarer who longs to endure a difficult journey to reach the sacred center of his or her world.” I was indeed searching for something core within me. And though I did not fully realize it at the time, the demanding nature of this journey was vital to my quest. A leisurely walk around the neighborhood park just would not do. I longed to be tested. I longed for a challenge that would tap every reserve I had, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
“[A pilgrim] is a wayfarer who longs to endure a difficult
journey to reach the sacred center of his or her world.”
I would get my wish.
The story’s not over. Read the next installment here.
Have you ever been surprised by pain when you were only expecting to experience beauty? Have you ever been in the midst of a difficult journey, wishing it was finished? Did your outlook change at the journey’s end?