Step One: Be spontaneous! Leaving for a three night camping trip at 7:00pm with no planning whatsoever COULD leave you stranded in a broken car without service in the middle of a pitch-black, bear-infested forest. It could also just as easily be the start of... Well, no. Wait. It’s exactly what I just said. Uhm. Guys? There’s something coming out of the woods.
Okay, rewind. That wasn’t the beginning of the journey, and if you want to tell a story right, you can’t just skip the buildup! I lied. The trip wasn’t completely spur-of-the-moment. Wednesday night I texted a friend in Southern Oregon about meeting at Mt. Rainier to camp. Having just bought a pristine 4runner off Craigslist, he agreed and we decided to meet at a campground at 1:00pm, Friday. It would be a 2.5 hour drive for me.... And an 8+ hour drive for him. Remember that last bit, it’s important later on.
I had Friday through Sunday off, so I figured I’d change my oil, flush the coolant and pack up Thursday evening after work. Should be plenty of time, I just had one window washing job, and I was working with my fastest guy. Two things happened Thursday morning that would have been fine on their own, but together spelled disaster.
One, my friend decided to head north Thursday afternoon, in the hopes of arriving at Ohanapecosh campground around 7:00pm that night. With just one easy job for the day, I said I’d leave late afternoon as soon as I finished packing and doing some basic maintenance. Maybe hit the gym too. As long as I left by 5:00pm everything would be fine!
The second minor setback became apparent as I drove up to the house that was labeled “small” in my client list. There may have been a slight clerical error.
As I contemplated turning around and swearing off custom homes forever, I recalled the last time I’d done this house. It had not been fun. Three hundred panes of glass, plus thirty deck rails and about twenty skylights. I previously wrote a small piece about it if you’re interested.
Making matters worse, because it was “such a small home” I had agreed to clean the windows on the homeowner’s boat at my normal per-pane rate when we scheduled the job over the phone. When it rains, it pours. Giving my partner and I the keys to the boat and house, the reigns were given to the poors in a poetic handoff that I definitely didn’t just spend ten minutes coming up with.
Knowing that I would have to work as quickly as I’d ever worked in my life to get to the campsite on time, I immediately set up a camera and tried a few shots to really show off the scale of the massive front door. I like to think that my dedication to always being as efficient as possible stoked the fire in my employee’s heart, leading him to give one hundred and ten percent. #nowastedtime
With the help of a ladder I made short work of a tall door, and soon finished the front of the home. My partner and I tackled the lake side of the house, but that’s a tale for another time. The last few windows on the sides were quite a pane (sic). There’s one particular section that’s three stories high, with tall jagged rocks below. No way to set a ladder up from the ground, and even if I could pole something from three stories below, I wouldn’t be able to get the window looking good enough for company standards. Lakeside house plus hot summer and mild winter before that means spider webs are covering the windows to the point of translucency. So for six windows I had to use a ladder like a plank and set it between a y-branch of a tall tree and a stone protrusion below the window. Which means climbing three stories up a tree, while carrying a twenty foot ladder. Did I mention all the spiderwebs? Containing—wait for it—spiders? Fun stuff.
Somewhat sketchy, but nothing too crazy. As with all things the more time you spend doing it the better you become. I’ve spent a lot of time building a reputation for being able to finish the most difficult jobs offered in the greater Seattle area and at this point seeing something difficult is more exciting than anything else. Fun fact: A third of my new clients are referrals from other window washing companies—both small and large—that declined jobs due to difficulty.
Finished the entire job at 4:00pm and sped home at [redacted] mph. Chirped the rear tires around a corner and felt my heart rate spike higher than my rpm when I saw a cop car on the side of the road nearby. Empty. Thank God for small miracles. The lifter tick that had been growing louder every day for the past week reminded me that I still had an oil change to get around to. Home at last, I admitted to myself that my plans were in tatters and I would have to cut some trip-prep out in order to save time.
Carefully packed meals and snacks for three days turned into “order a pizza and stuff the box in my car” along with some protein bars and a can of kidney beans. Doing laundry and packing clothing that could see me through temperature swings from 80°F to 20°F became “what am I wearing now? Okay that should work. I think there’s a sweater in my car. Oh! Swimtrunks in the hamper. Those are probably clean...” and most egregious of all, an oil change was cut in favor of bringing a quart of oil in the trunk.
5:30pm. I get a text from my friend I’m meeting, saying he’s in Portland. I send him a picture of the Mt. Rainier National Park map, with our meeting point highlighted. He’s never been in the area, so I do everything I can to make sure we’ll be able to find each other in spite of there being zero cell coverage for tens of miles surrounding our campsite. Moderately hopeful, I tell him to text me when he hits Tacoma so we could have a last chance to finalize meet up times.
5:45pm. I was late, with a dreadful feeling that I’d forgotten something important. I received a text from a different friend saying she wanted to go on a hike! Well.... What the hell. Ten minutes later both her and another girl were in on the Mt. Rainier adventure. They were carpooling, and meeting us at the opposite end of the park from the campsite, Friday afternoon. Again, no service on the mountain, and now it was four people hoping to find each other, and I was the only one with a map. Things were getting complicated.
6:30pm. With the sun already setting, I filled up the tank and hoped on 405, headed south. After less than ten miles I found myself in bumper to bumper traffic worried that I’d be late, and throw the weekend plans into disarray for everyone. As a friendly reminder that things can in fact always get worse, the check engine light popped up for the first time in the two years I’ve owned my Miata. Perfect. Fucking. Timing. I SHOULD have exited the freeway and taken the back roads home. My Miata had been an absolute trooper and put up with nearly constant abuse over the past 50k miles with zero issues, but at the end of the day the engine has around 330,000 miles on it and it was a miracle that it was still chugging along. The very real possibility of having my car stop working while I’m on the freeway in rush hour traffic is the kind of thing that wakes me up at night in a cold sweat, but there was one thing that made me keep going.
Eight and a half hours. That’s how long my friend had driven—almost nonstop—to see my Miata, show off his new rig, and explore some of Washington State’s most beautiful landscapes. Maybe I wouldn’t make it, but I realized I’d rather blow my engine in the middle of nowhere than go home and have to send that text, “hey man, I’m really sorry but... ”
Over the next thirty miles my practically bare tires and loud exhaust deafened me to the point that I wouldn’t have noticed a siren going off next to me, so in an attempt to stave off permanent hearing damage I pulled over on a country road and attempted to troubleshoot the check engine light. Cursing my 95's lack of an OBDII port I opened the hood only to see baked on streams of oil where it had ran down the engine from the headgasket.
Flashlight in mouth I cleaned everything up as best as I could in the hopes of pinpointing exactly where the leaks were coming from. No such luck. I removed the dipstick... I only had about two quarts of oil according to the reading. At this point I was worried my newly lowered car had a small crack in its oil pan as well as the leaks topside, because losing three quarts of oil in slightly over a month... is somewhat worrying.
Okay. Don’t panic. Assess the situation, and evaluate your options. I’d brought a jack, jackstand, quart of oil, lug nut wrench, duct tape, and a tiny bottle of high-temp racing fluid for my radiator. Oil gauge was a dummy unit, so that wouldn’t help me. Water gauge was useless, because the sensor stopped working a year ago. How can I limp this car another forty miles without it truly dying on me?
I didn’t really come up with much. I stuffed duct tape around where I thought the oil was leaking from, put my quart of oil in the engine, and topped of the radiator overflow tank just to be safe. Started the car and.... No check engine light! No lifter tick! No unhappy engine sounds!
I was quite late at this point. 8:00pm, and my friend had just texted me saying he was in Tacoma. Only another forty-five minutes until he arrived. I was still an hour and a half away. I told him to wait at the campsite for half an hour, and if I didn’t make it by then to turn around and drive until he had service again.
Despite the tenuous condition of my engine, I flew through the last few small towns, and into Mt. Rainier National Park from the northern entrance. On a flat stretch of pavement—thick forest on either side—I heard an unholy shrieking from under the hood. The cabin lights started to dim and my headlights flickered ominously. No. Not now. I was so close! I slowed down, but it only got worse. Pulling over on the side, I turned the car off and checked my phone. Zero signal. Just like it had been for the last twenty miles. Remember that pizza I’d stuffed in the passenger side footwell before leaving originally? As I sat in the convertible—top down—I imagined hundreds of ravenous bears locking in on my location via the pepperoni aroma wafting from my Mazda. So this is how it ends. In my next life, I’m going vegetarian. Here’s a quick picture to show you exactly what I saw when I looked out of the windshield.
The Miata had other plans. After at least ten failed attempts at starting the car, I did something I hope to never do again. In darkness, with nothing but the stars to see by, I muscled my car onto the narrow road and attempted a push start. There’s a very unique terror found in piloting a non-powered automobile down a road you can’t see, in utter silence. I knew there was a drop-off on my left side and a wall of trees on my right, but without enough juice to power the headlights I was relying solely on my recollection of the last time I’d driven down the road. Pushing from the driver side, I hopped into the seat, shifted into 2nd and started mashing the clutch with my right foot while simultaneously pushing off against the road with my left. My foot slid along gravel. The road had turned without my consent, and I’d continued straight, piloting my car into the runoff right before the cliff face. Unease gave way to panic.
The engine started with a roar that drove the maddening silence back, eclipsed only by the heaven-sent luminescence blazing forth from the headlights in an explosive burst, sending the darkness reeling, tail between its legs. I slammed the pedal on the now power-assisted brakes. One more foot forward and best case scenario I would have plunged twenty feet down and crashed into an unyielding pine tree. Worst case? No use thinking about it.
At 10:00pm, Thursday night, I arrived at the entrance to the campsite, met my friend and proceeded to set up our area. Tent went up, then hammocks, and finally stories were swapped over a few beers and some still-warm pizza. We passed out around midnight, leaving our respective vehicles to get to know each other through the rest of the early morning.
Two peas in a pod. Both of them had had their fair share of harrowing adventures in their twenty-two years of life. Neither one of them had any plans of slowing down and taking things easy any time soon. Not young, but young at heart. Playful, with a helluva lot of spirit.
Breakfast was cold beans and hot tea, courtesy of the single burner stove I’d brought. No campfire, due to the state-wide burn ban. Now, this is a federal park, so the people inside do not legally have to comply with a state-issued campfire ban. That said, there are still wildfires raging unchecked as close as fifty miles away. There are roads blocked off by National Guard in humvees. Firefighters have been called in from all over the state to help combat the flames. If we decided to mosey on over to the gift-shop and buy a bundle of wood and some kindling, we would have been contributing to the problem. I talked to a few rangers about the ban, and they’re rightfully furious that a legal loophole allows park-goers the freedom of starting fires at a time like this. One of them said “can I lie to you? I’d love to tell everyone that there’s a burn ban in the park... Unfortunately I could lose my job if I did that. Just be safe, be smart. If you love this land, treat it right.”
Our next course was going to be pizza, but someone else got to it first. Sad face.
This is a bear box. You’re supposed to put all food and smelly items (deodorant, shampoo, etc.) into it in the hopes of keeping the large bear population from coming into camp. We did this, stuffing it full with a cooler, large lunch bag, beers, pizza box and because I’m jalop af, the empty oil container that had helped me reach my destination. Either the mouse was already there, or this bear box is a lot less impenetrable than it should be. Oh well. I’ll take mice over grizzlies any day.
We left camp at 8:00am, heading off to explore. Everyone always says photos don’t do “such-and-such” justice but with Rainier... Man. Digital images can’t even begin to showcase the majesty of the glaciated peak. Driving around a bend, the mountain popped up between the evergreens. A little bit closer and it towered above them. The view is absolutely stunning in person. We were about 4000ft above sea level at this point. The peak? 14,000ft.
Not long after, we came across a gorgeous lake nestled in the woods. According to the map this was Louise Lake. About a mile hike through the forest and we stepped out into a fine-sand beach that was completely untouched by footprints. The lake was no more than 5ft deep at any point, and was chrystal clear. My friend showed off his former pitching skills, managing to skip multiple rocks at least ten skips. My best was two bounces.
Channeling every ounce of artistic vision I could muster into my fingertip, I left a sand drawing on the beach for future explorers to find. A quick power-dab on top of it left a protective coating of pure Swag™ to prevent the elements from washing it away.
When we woke up it had been about 35°F, now it was almost 60°. We hiked back up to the perfectly running Miata (go figure) and I let my friend take the wheel for a while. It was.... Slightly terrifying if I’m being honest. It’s not a powerful car by any means, but at this point with the work I’ve done it’s so precise that if you’re not expecting it you’ll wind up in a ditch because you treated your scalpel like a framing hammer. Case in point, another friend of mine took it on a short drive in a big city and bumped a curb on a 25mph right turn because he “didn’t expect it to turn in so quickly!” and that was before the suspension and chassis work.
Everything went fine this time. After I was confidant we weren’t about to die I told my friend to hit the redline as we were driving alongside the bottom of a cliff face. The exhaust which had droned so terribly on the highway came to life with vicious glee. A sub-bass chainsaw accompanied by a weapon-like echoing chorus, what you’d be forgiven for thinking was a V8 snarled and beat at the bars of it’s cage as it’s aural cacophony bounced against the jagged rocks. Shifting into 3rd, he went for the red zone again, getting to the peak right as we went through a tunnel in the mountain-side. The first cars we passed that day were a Ferrari Testarossa, Porsche GT3 and two Astons parked at a lookout twenty feet beyond the tunnel. A group of guys were gathered around the Porsche, zoned in on the tunnel. They looked surprised to see a Miata shoot out at no more than 75mph, but grins broke out on their faces and thumbs up were directed our way. It was a fantastic moment. Another twenty minutes of my buddy enthusiastically canyon carving and I mentioned that he could stop by anytime and autox the car once I got new rubber on it. My friend walked away wanting a Miata and I got to try out the passenger seat for the first time since swapping in the Brides.
I jumped back into the driver’s seat and blasted off towards Paradise, a centrally located section of the park named so because of the stunning views of wildflower fields leading up to Mt. Rainier. This was where we were meeting the women, and with no communication since the day before, we thought it would be best to arrive early in the hopes of spotting them as they drove to the the parking lot. This section of the park was filled with cars, as it has a somewhat famous rustic resort about 6000ft high. It took awhile to even find a parking spot, and unfortunately it was nowhere near the entrance so my car wouldn’t be easily visible to the friends who were hoping to use it as a meeting point. Walking around, I heard someone scream my name.... Yep. That’s the greeting I was expecting! I crouched down, knowing that a full-speed flying hug was quickly approaching, but unsure as to which direction. A slight widening of my foot placement, arms lowered, lower back tense. I was as ready as I’d ever be.
A 350Z convertible pulled up next to us and at long last the full group was united! Introductions were made and we headed up a trail for a short .4 mile hike. Which somehow turned into over five miles and a thousand feet of elevation gained, because we kept going further and further. Funny how that works...
We were so sore after the second hour that the first patch of snow we came across was as inviting as an oasis in a desert. At this point we were 6600ft up, the temperature was back down to near freezing and it was about 7:00pm.
As the sun started to set we continued along the path, for all things follow the beam and our ka-tet would reach the Dark Tower if ka willed it, no matter that the world had moved on—I mean we continued along our path because at this point it was more about the journey than any particular destination.
Eventually we turned around and went back down the mountain. We reached the parking lot and grabbed some snacks, chatting for awhile. Sitting down with with my back to the yata while surrounded by good friends both new and old. We watched the last rays of light hide behind the white-tipped mountains, and I’m just now realizing that that short period was the highlight of my summer. Moments like those are just pure happiness, unspoiled by any negativity. Eventually the Z took off, taking its humans with it.
My friend and I drove off not long after, returning to our campsite for the night. Fast forward to the next day, and we’re off, this time taking the 4runner. What an awesome rig. The ride is pretty rough on pavement, but between the solid packaging, heated leather seats and breeze flowing in from the moonroof and exiting via the rolled down rear glass, it was as good of an adventure vehicle as I can imagine.
We headed to Sunrise, a northern section of the park named for... Well, beautiful sunrises I would imagine. We wanted to do one more hike, but due to a lake incident earlier in the morning my only dry clothes were a tank top and swimming trunks. As the highest point you could access via car, Sunrise was very, very cold. Luckily there was a gift-shop, so with a quick swipe of my debit card (vacation money returns to your account as soon as you return home) I had the bare minimum level of gear needed to survive the hike. I also had the kind of style that fashion bloggers can only dream about. Twenty minutes of hiking and I’d already received two compliments on my palm tree shorts, and three for my Rainier-bear high socks. Nice.
My friend couldn’t compete, so he started drinking in an attempt to drown his sorrows... High elevations make even a 5% cider hit you a bit harder than usual. When that cider is a delicious pineapple/apple mix, it’s so good you just want to drink forever. I know, trust me, I do. But we have a lookout post to reach so save the brews, bro!
An hour later we sat down and enjoyed what felt like the first restful period in years.
The views from the top were incredible. We were above the treeline, and in every direction could see tiny lakes dotting the rugged hills. Looking to the south revealed Rainier’s tallest peak dwarfing the other peaks. There were multiple herds of goats, a few marmots, and two chipmunks that absolutely loved us. I had no food, but if I did I would have been hard pressed not to share a bit with my new furry friends.
Generally speaking, I hate the word “epic” and how it’s used today. However I’m making a rare exception because there’s nothing that says epic like a glaciated volcanic mountain, millions of years old, standing tall above every single point in the continental US. The mountain was epic, the trip was epic, and the sheer audacity of setting all of this up last minute somehow added to the overall experience. As I sit at home typing this—waiting for the inevitable kinja glitch to erase every word—I can’t help but think that for a brief moment I considered turning around before I’d even started, spending the extended weekend at home, alone with only my thoughts for company. Instead I got to combine multiple passions into one fantastic trip, and spend time with some of my favorite people on the planet.
The next few weeks will be spent taking care of an over-worked and under-mainteded Miata, but I have zero doubt that I made the right choice in pushing on, and the two of us will be back in no time ready for the next adventure.