Nick and I met in Kindergarten and bonded over the fact that we both were named Nick and our moms were both named Patty. Clearly, fate, as understood by the five-year-old mind, had drawn us together. We played soccer together, built countless LEGO castles together, snuck into our first R-rated movie together (we saw Hollow Man starring Kevin Bacon—not our finest decision). He was there, egging me on, when I kissed a girl for the first time; he was also there, playing the messenger for that girl, when she dumped me a few months later. I stood by him when he made an impossible, full-cul-de-sac basketball shot on the first try to impress a girl he liked from down the street. We had a duet as leads in the high school musical our senior year (which invariably had the Pattys in tears each night we performed it). We lived together for two years before I got married and our biggest fight in that entire period came when he cheated in a Madden game and cost me a touchdown. When I came down with the swine flu he bought me Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and sat by me, unafraid of my germs, keeping me company for days until I recovered. He was at my side when I got married and I’ll be at his when he does.
Nick makes fun of me because, when I was in elementary school, I threw a tantrum in the mall when my mother tried to buy me imitation Adidas Sambas at Olympia Sports. I rip on Nick because, also in elementary school, he once cried and stomped his way up to his bedroom because his mom told him he’d have to give me a turn playing Ninja Turtles on the Nintendo. He gets on me for being a hipster, even though he once claimed Shipyard Brewing Company “did it wrong” after taking a sip of their Pumpkin Ale. He makes fun of me because I’m late to everything (I am).
Growing up in central Massachusetts, friendships between guys form and develop along a fine line of antagonism and take-a-bullet-for-you devotion. Slander flies with nary a hint of hurt feelings because, when fists fly, there is no question who has whose back. That’s why, when Kelly and I decided to move to Seattle, one of the hardest decisions we had to make was to leave Nick. The American Dream tells us to do what’s best for ourselves, take risks and set off to chase our dreams, but it fails to mention that in doing so we leave behind those we love dearly. Even the best communicators struggle to stay in touch and foster any semblance of intimate depth from across the country and I’m a terrible communicator. So when Nicky told me he was flying out for a long weekend to check out the city and the West Coast, I busted out my maps and started poring over trails, looking for the best views of the biggest, most spectacular mountains. I thought if I could show him what makes the Pacific Northwest so incredible, he’d better understand why I felt the need to pull up my roots and come out here. Besides, we’d been planning an epic photo excursion to shoot timelapse sequences for some time and what better place to give it a go than the Washington Cascades?
We settled on Paradise, an area on the south side of Mount Rainier where access to high-alpine trails is as easy as driving up a winding mountain road, and where we stood a chance of breaking out above the perpetual cloud cover hovering around the mountain’s base. And let’s face it: Rainier is the crown jewel of PNW peaks. I was going to show Nick the best of the best, the glacial behemoth that stands as a beacon to the rest of the country of the Northwest’s natural superiority.
We loaded my Jeep with tripods, multiple camera bodies and lens kits, filter packs, intervalometers, and assorted other photography-related goodies. We also packed snowshoes and crampons, ice axes, layers of winter gear, sleeping pads and trekking poles so we’d be prepared to contend with the yards of snow that linger in Paradise well into mid-summer. Fully prepared, we drove south under lead skies, hoping to eke out a glimpse of any of the mountain ranges on our way to the Mountain, fingers crossed that the blanket of clouds and fog would dissipate in the afternoon sun.
The road to Mt. Rainier National Park cuts through relatively flat farmland and small towns for several miles before the terrain begins to fold up, anticipating the Cascade Range to the east. Then it begins to wind and the forest grows denser and more coniferous as you approach the entrance to the park, where logged second and third growth morphs into stands of goliath old-growth smothered in verdant mosses. Even on a bright day little sunshine penetrates the canopy; on this foggy morning, the forest took on a twilight hue, the vegetation absorbing and stifling any solar rays. Intermittently, the Nisqually River emerged to our right, a lithe ribbon of glacier-green water carving its way through a mile-wide channel filled with boulders and deadfall, tossed helter-skelter in the violence of countless floods from spring rains and snowmelt.
Eventually we emerged from the thicker lowland forests and the fog and low clouds started to burn off, just as we’d hoped. We began seeing glimpses of the massive glaciers above, juxtaposed in stark relief against black cliffs and granite spires too steep for snow to stick to. The forest then turned to meadows and cliffs and the sawtooth Tatoosh Range appeared through the clouds to the south, clad in ivory snowpack. Snowbanks along the road grew deeper until they created a tunnel for us to drive through, twice as high as the Jeep, leading us around bend after bend until, at last, a wood-sided building with a steep aluminum roof greeted us: we’d arrived at Paradise at last.
Being a warm day with the promise of afternoon sunshine, the parking lot was chock-full of bustling tourists and hikers, some with skis and split-boards strapped to their backs, no-doubt setting off for, or returning from, a trek up to Muir Snowfield at 10,000 feet, and the inevitable, thrilling descent to their cars. Others wore flip-flops and posed for selfies in slushy snowbanks or skidded down the meadows’ broad slopes on plastic sleds, in clear defiance of the signs prohibiting sledding anywhere in Paradise. We quickly checked our batteries, stuffed our packs, strapped on our snowshoes and set out along a circuitous route circumventing the crowds and packs of hikers.
Snowshoeing can be the easiest and most pleasant way to traverse deep snows, but when sunshine melts the top layers into a slushy mess, they get heavier with each step, accumulating that slush on top of their membranes. With this slush factor and our elevation near 6,000 feet, it wasn’t long until we were dogging it. And to add another wrinkle, we found ourselves in the middle of a giant meadow with the only views to be found at the tops of several bluffs, each guarded by precarious cornices, getting less stable with each minute in the hot sun. As we paused to assess our route, the silence was filled with the thunderous crack of Nisqually Glacier calving, hurling huge chunks of ice and rock hundreds of feet down the mountainside into the valley below. The ground practically shook with the cacophony.
We chose the least perilous hillock and found a route up from the south along a ridge line with enough clearance between its cornice and the dense spruce trees on its western slope to safely, albeit carefully, traverse to an excellent viewpoint above the main trail. There, we set up shop for the afternoon, ripping off shot after shot, setting timers for timelapse, switching sides of the ridge between Rainier and the Tatoosh and Mt. Adams to the south, depending on which was clear and which was hidden behind passing clouds. We watched dozens of hikers, climbers, skiers and snowboarders come down in the lengthening shadows of the afternoon and we layered up as the sun finally sank behind Rainier, inviting a chilly breeze. We kept shooting silhouetted peaks in front of a fiery orange sky and watched as valley fog rolled up and over the lower summits. Eventually, oranges and reds gave way to the silvery purple and deep blue of twilight, the passersby thinned to a trickle and then stopped altogether, so we packed up our gear and headed down toward the parking lot, clicking away as we went.
We arrived to an empty lot and pulled away, the last car to leave for the night, descending into the gloomy forest, where Nick immediately pulled out his cell phone and opened the camera app in case Sasquatch ran across the road. We each held our breath a few times as a tawny blur leapt into the bushes ahead of our approaching headlights. Deer. Talk of Bigfoot led to a discussion about conspiracy theories and how we both love them, in spite of our generous skepticism about many of the more popular ones: the JFK assassination and the second shooter theory, the moon landing and Stanley Kubrick, Roswell and UFOs crashing. It brought back memories of dozens of nights we’d spent driving back from a hockey game or camping trip in New Hampshire or even just a night out at a bar in Boston, where each time I learned something new about what was going on in his head, where we got down to brass tacks and opened up about the real stuff that was happening in our lives. It sounds corny, but I loved that even a year after I’d left him, we were back at the beginning as if nothing had happened, no time had passed. It’s the mark of a true friend: there’s no readjustment period, no awkward reunion, just a headlong jump back into the thick of things. Nick told me later that it was one of the best days of his life. I couldn’t agree more. When I thought about each of the “best days” of my life, I realized Nick was there for almost all of them.