Years ago, my photograph appeared in Seattle Weekly as part of a spoof on mountain climbing. I posed in a parking lot in SoDo with an ice ax, standing in front of a building with a picture of Mount Rainier painted on the wall. Let's just say I am not exactly the embodiment of physical conditioning, but I do have a beard. Days later, a clerk at my local QFC recognized me. "Aren't you a famous mountaineer?" she asked.
It"s not hard in Seattle to be mistaken for one, even if you're not up to anything as strenuous as a StairMaster. The basic assumption is that everyone here is outdoorsy and dressed for it. In Seattle, people wear parkas and hiking boots to the opera, which is a way of saying we're not slaves to civilization and we're prepared to conduct a mountain rescue at a moment's notice.
Seattle is defined by its closeness to nature, but what nature is that? Mountains. If you climb to the top of any local tower, you see water, greenery, and sprawl, but what defines the view from here are two enclosing mountain ranges and a giant volcano.
The Cascades, to the east, are the wall that separates us from the rest of the world. On one side is America, on the other, Ecotopia. It's East and West, us and them. We're divided and defined.
To the west, the Olympics give us a sense of wildness and edge. These mountains weren't even explored until the 1880s, after Stanley had probed "darkest" Africa. They seem to place us in a veritable land of imagination, the northwest corner of Middle Earth, perhaps.
Reigning over all is Mount Rainier, an earth goddess's mother breast nurturing us, when it isn't threatening to blow us to kingdom come. Since the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, it is impossible to look at Rainier (and Mount Baker) the same way. These are not benevolent bookends. We now realize the violent forces that shaped them are still at work. And it's likely the most exercise many of us will get in relation to Rainier is running from her the day she decides to blow, another good reason to wear Vibram and North Face at all times.
Still, Rainier is the backdrop for our dreams, identity, and hallucinations. We project like mad on its great white flanks. It was at Mount Rainier, for example, that the first UFOs were sighted, in 1947, when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold described seeing disks skipping through the sky and said they were like "saucers." Some believe an alien race lives inside the crater. Coming back to earth, Seattle's architecture has often been described as a challenge to the mountain. Can we build cathedrals or skyscrapers as impressive as Rainier? I found a reference in a 1962 newspaper that described mountains as "nature's Space Needles." We worship Rainier, but compete with it, too.
Seattle's heroes used to be mountain climbers, like the Whittaker twins, Jim and Lou. When Jim Whittaker led the first successful American expedition up Mount Everest in 1963, he was as much a New Frontier icon as John Glenn orbiting the Earth.
Whether or not you climb or hike or are a member of The Mountaineers, to live in Seattle is basically to live at base camp. No other American city is so hemmed in by such close and spectacular scenery. The peaks are part of our lives, though I sometimes feel guilty for not having scaled them, or for knowing only a few of their names.
However, I came to feel a little better about being a climbing slacker after reading what John Muir had to say upon topping Mount Rainier in 1888. "The view we enjoyed from the summit could hardly be surpassed in sublimity and grandeur; but one feels far from home so high in the sky, so much so that one is inclined to guess that, apart from the acquisition of knowledge and the exhilaration of climbing, more pleasure is to be found at the foot of the mountains than on their tops."
I'll take his word for it and remain a happy mountain looker.
This essay first appeared in the May issue of "Seattle Magazine."