Sixty-five: count the years. They unfurl unceremoniously but steady as the Columbia River tide. As a young man, I climbed most of the Cascade Mountains: Hood, Baker, Rainier, Adams and St. Helens, that perfect snow-peaked mountain before the eruption. And a handful of others. A decade ago, young muscles responded well. If not the most agile climber, I was propelled by determination and a love for high-country landscape.
Later, the knees gave me fits, and that is their present-day status. I hadnt climbed Saddle Mountain in years. Until this June, that is, now as a pre-65 sort of challenge. A challenge that might demonstrate my beyond-middle-age ability to climb to the 3,300 foot summit and not have my knees lock up on descent. To be honest, I didnt know what to expect.
After considering a solo adventure, I was pleased when Jim Tweedy invited himself along. That was strengthened by Bernie Gerkens, a 67-year-old courier du bois, a resourceful, agile athlete of a man with a tall, lanky frame and plenty of old-world grit. The three amigos were at it again.
We arrived at the parking lot below Saddle Mountain at 10 a.m., moving from coastal overcast to blue bird weather, a rare, still, windless day in mid-June. Earlier spring weather must have favored a smattering of sunshine, because the mountainside was now littered with wildflowers. Choose your color (red, yellow, blue, lavender, magenta and white, or a conundrum of all the above). Choose your flower. As knowledge goes, I know my share. But compared to a professional botanist Kathy Sayce comes to mind Im green behind the ears. Still, I recognized a half-dozen ferns, Solomon Seal, Wild Iris, Columbine, Paint Brush, Oregon grape, Cow Parsnip, Huckleberry and Salmon Berry. A dozen mosses cushioned the world, dangling green webs wet with something as strong as contact glue.
Color jumped out like a Jackson Pollack paining, lavish colors hugging the steep cliffs or dotting the trail like a migration of monarch butterflies. Through the foliage, sun mots fell across the forest floor, illuminating the wildflowers as if they had been impacted by tiny gnomes with paintbrushes.
I was breathing hard. So was Jim, but not as badly. He had been training. Bernie brought up the rear, neither huffing nor puffing. A most considerate man, he simply laid back, a tailgater dispatched to carry us along, going as fast as the slowest person in this case, me!
As the trail rose, the evergreens thinned. Lithe Tree Swallows rose and fell like kite tails. Yellow and orange butterflies swooned. Morning turned to noon. The steep trail ran from switchback to switchback. Along the way, Jim and I chatted. I had promised to remain silent, a personal quest, I suppose, but couldnt resist the temptation of Jims natural interest in comparative religions. Jim is a minister with an inquisitive mind. The conversation remained rich. Higher and higher we climbed. If my muscles protested, they were overruled by the marvels of this natural landscape. The world smelled sweet with evergreen, damp flora and thick fertile fern. We trudged upward. The sun rose higher and higher in the pearl-blue sky.
Two hours up, and we stood at the summit. Two ravens rose above the steep igneous rock, cawing and cavorting like miscreant teenagers. They were so close I could hear the crackle of wind on wing, catch the dark obsidian glint in their eyes.
After a repast, we headed down. Oddly, going down hurt worse. My knees protested the rocky trail, the unevenness of the terrain, and the loose scree. I didnt give a darn. I had come back to the mountain, and the mountain had allowed me passage.
Of course this was not Mt. Ranier. Indeed Saddle Mountain rests some 11,000 feet below the great Northwest peak. Still, from the summit we could make out a half-dozen white-capped peaks. We could follow the Cascade trail as it moved south into southern Oregon. Above, the sky twinkled like a poster girls bright eyes.
Annually, thousands of trekkers come to this park, the mountain that shadows our own river city. I was grateful for the day, for my two friends, and for the jewel in the crown: this small lovely peak with wildflowers strewn about like star dust.