On The Mountain

By Janet Buttenweiser

1. July [1981] Mount Rainier. First viewed through the cross-hatch of my mother’s camera lens. During a visit to Seattle we’d driven 54 miles southeast to the national park. My parents posed in the visitor’s center parking lot; I took my first 35-millimeter shot. How little I knew. That at age 24 I’d move to Seattle with Matt, my future husband, and make a friend named Beth. That 14 years later Beth would die and her family would scatter her ashes a mile above the spot where I clicked my mother’s shutter. Back then, I didn’t understand the role Rainer plays in Seattleites’ lives. The backdrop to our city, it dangles from an invisible chain, a locket containing shards of memories, hopes, failures. Many days, clouds obscure our view of “The Mountain.” In its visible moments, our gazes linger. I watch from my deck as the setting sun pinkens the glaciers, the summit’s tip transforms into a watercolor, then fades until it’s indistinguishable from the night sky.

2. August [1996] We left Seattle early, four friends in a car on our way to Burroughs Mountain. If there’s a trail between earth and heaven, Beth read aloud from the guide book, this is it. We laughed. Heaven did not interest us. We just wanted to spend the day outside. Mid-morning, we set out on the flora-void trail. Rainier’s snowy hat served as a backdrop, increasing in size and height as we climbed upwards. Beth and I walked at the back of the group, chattering between gulps of crisp air. “But, I digress,” she would say at the end of a tangent, then weave back to her original point. We never would have predicted the tumor in the language center of her brain, forcing her to struggle through a simple sentence. It was equally impossible to imagine our friendship existing on any other plane than the one on which we ascended the trail together.

3. September [1999] I waited in the exam room. I’d done a lot of waiting by then: for test results to determine I had Crohn’s Disease, to pick up prescriptions of steroids in oral and suppository form. I sought a second opinion and prepared for surgery to remove the real problem: a tumor nestled between tailbone and colon. Not Crohn’s. Floor-to-ceiling windows revealed downtown Seattle at the foreground, Elliot Bay in the middle distance, and Rainier at the back. In pre-operative steroid withdrawal, I could barely sit up. My doctor entered the room, where I slumped against the postcard backdrop. “You don’t look too good,” he said. “Let’s get you fixed up.”

4. October [2002] When we reached the lake on the Naches Peak trail, John sat down. “Snack time?” I asked. He nodded. Simon circled back to join us. “I didn’t like hiking when I was 11 either,” I said. “It gets better.” The boys were the youngest of 5 children in an Eritrean family I befriended. They fed me injera bread and taught me pre-teen slang; I took them into the mountains. I pulled a sleeve of Oreos from my pack and handed them to John. He stuffed 3 in his mouth. “Did I say I hated hiking?” he said in a cookie-muffled voice. “I love hiking.”

5. November [2003] In the fertility clinic lobby, I lowered the outdated People magazine onto my injection-bruised thigh. I could see down the corridor to The Baby Wall. I desperately wanted to contribute a photograph. Images decorated the lobby walls, depicting vacation spots the patients couldn’t visit because the treatments depleted our every resource. In one picture a palm tree dangled over turquoise water. A rainforest showcased its wares in a riot of greens. Rainier at sunset, a lenticular cloud perched on top. A glass-smooth lake reflected an M formed out of the trees at Rainier’s base. M for Motherhood. M for Maybe someday.

6. December [2004] “The Mountain is out,” Matt said as we walked from the parking lot to the edge of Lake Washington. We sat on a bench, positioned to maximize exposure to the sun. The previous spring my tumor had returned. By December I’d gotten used to my re-configured intestines and the colostomy pouch adhered to my abdomen. Native Americans knew Rainier as Tahoma, meaning “mother of waters.” Snowmelt from the mountain’s 26 glaciers feeds dozens of rivers, flowing for miles before entering the sea. The sun’s rays touched Rainier’s summit, descended Mowich Glacier, and rocketed north to shimmer across the lake. They lit the volcanic rock under my feet before reaching up to my face.

7. January [2008] The stretch of Interstate between Longview and Seattle represents the physical path Matt and I traveled to adopt our son. We drove it to attend Caleb’s birth, and again to meet his birthmother for lunch. At 7 months, Caleb’s smile and laugh were identical to hers. I hadn’t realized that laughter was genetic. Returning home we passed Nisqually, where a sign in the distance read "Mount Rainier." All we could see was a Texaco. In the backseat I resisted the urge to wake Caleb and talk to him, my captive audience. Instead I watched the light change on the rises of his cheeks as the day blued into dusk.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

8. February [2011] Matt and I had the Alta Vista trail to ourselves, the wind and the crunch of our snowshoes the only noises in the world. We crested a rise and there it was, The Dance Floor. I walked alone to the cedar where Beth’s ashes were scattered. It was 6 weeks past her birthday. She was born on the winter solstice, and died 38 years later, during the summer solstice. The word solstice comes from the latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because on those days the seasonal movement of the sun stops before reversing direction. Despite the wind, the Dance Floor was still, a silence that extended beyond the clouds collecting at the horizon. I stood by the tree. I’d envisioned sharing anecdotes in a strong voice punctuated with laughter. Instead, I stood silent. I inhaled deeply, blowing all my breath out at once. “Happy Belated Birthday.”

9. March [2012] I saw Rainier through the airplane window on my way to a triathlon in Hawaii. From that distance I could not see the steel-blue underside of the glaciers. Wherever you are is called Here, David Wagoner writes in his poem "Lost." And you must treat it as a powerful stranger. With grief, perhaps the trick is to invite it in. Maybe being acquainted with grief means finding comfort in the fearful. We might get lost. Eventually, though, we find our way.

10. April [2012] Helen dragged chalk across our sidewalk while Caleb maneuvered the garden shears to make a bouquet. Together we sliced daffodils and lilacs. With two young children, serenity is rare. Hiking at Rainier the previous summer, I felt distracted by Helen’s weight in the baby pack, by Matt’s struggle to keep Caleb out of the creek. I forgot to notice the meadows dotted with broadleaf lupine, Indian paintbrush, mountain arnica. In my garden, time slowed for a moment. “Is it May yet, Mama?” Caleb asked. “A few more weeks,” I said. “Should we make May Day baskets this year?” He nodded. “How many more sleeps until May Day?” Helen asked, her way of calculating time. “Twelve,” I said. “Twelve more sleeps and then we will gather flowers.”

11. May [2013] If the death of a loved one leaves an immeasurable hole, the rawness of recent loss creating a scooped-out place inside of us, then Rainier is grief’s opposite, rising out of plained farmland, its summit so high it often disappears into the clouds.

12. June [2013] I took my first steps on randonee skis in Glacier Basin. “I’m skiing!” I said to my friend Ryan, a backcountry ski veteran. I asked him what it means to be on the mountain as opposed to alongside it. “We’re on the mountain,” Ryan said, then tilted his head to consider. “When we get to the glacier, we will be on it.” “Where is the glacier?” “Above this snowfield.” We ascended for awhile. I stopped. “I’m done climbing,” I said. “You made it to the Inter Glacier,” Ryan said. “You’re on the mountain.” I removed my skins, and Ryan helped me adjust my bindings to ski down the trail. Just over the ridge was Burroughs Mountain, where I took my first Rainier hike with Beth on the “trail between earth and heaven.” Despite our desire to avoid thoughts of the afterlife, during our lunch stop we agreed that the guidebook was right. We’d left earth for someplace celestial. It was otherworldly, this swath of trail that formed a ladder to the ice-encrusted mountaintop. We lingered, the mountain a giant beacon, beckoning. We gathered our things in silence, not wanting to leave, knowing it was time. We turned to one another, then toward the mountain. We began our descent.


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Janet Buttenwieser’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Under the Sun, Potomac Review, The Pinch, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her memoir, GUTS, was a finalist for the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and will be published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, was a finalist for Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest, and won honorable mention in The Atlantic Student Writing contest. Visit her at janetbuttenwieser.com