Wilderness Ranger Ryan Lawrence spends his time thinking (mixed with a bit of hiking) in the North Cascades:
I want to be more of a naturalist, because I’m in a place and at a time in my life where more knowledge makes a fuller experience. I’ve heard it been said that this is the age of the autodidact, mainly due to YouTube and its kin. I can teach myself, right? But what if I’m really not that good of a teacher, or a student? Throw in self-delusion, take out self-discipline, and you’ve got the making of a disaster. Or incredible comedy. The internet is notorious for presenting projects and procedures as simple, laid-out lists, easy-as-pumpkin-pie, but there’s galaxies of internet memory dedicated to self-tought fails (my favorite involve melted crayons). It’s as if you’re your own pirate, cutlass pressed into your own spine, compelling yourself to walk the plank, sharks below ready to chomp on your overestimated ability to learn Italian, your naivete that changing the valve cover gasket on your Volvo is a “quick fix”, your Pinterest dream of a crocheted beanie.
Don’t get me wrong, YouTube et als. has its uses, and without being overly ambitious I’ve picked up many a knot, camera trick, and ratatouille recipe (I have a really good one if you want it, lmk). But how many hours have I burned by taking the wrong path to a hairy fat guy lip-syncing Britney Spears? Or someone lancing a boil while “Bridge Over Troubled Water” plays in the background? I probably could’ve saved more time by doing it the old-fashioned way, you know, like asking someone or going to the library. But hey, at least now I can say that I’ve seen a orangutan drinking its own pee. Guess I can mark that off the bucket list. Yay internet.
I’m trying to learn as much as I can about Washington while I’m in Washington, about its geological history, who settled it, its state vegetable (the Walla Walla Sweet Onion). But mostly I want to know exactly what I’m looking at when I’m on the trail, in the wilderness. For better and worse, I can’t access the internet, so I need some type of information repository, a field guide. I can identify things that can kill me (Grizzly, dead fir falling toward my head, boredom, etc.) but that’s about it. I want to know about everything else, what that thing is, what it’s made of, why it’s there, why it’s just so. The things that can enrich me.
Like the way things smell. It bothers me that I have no idea where these mountain scents come from. Some I’ve pinned down, like Domino’s Meat Lover’s Pizza (my imagination) and a strange bouquet of body odor, Deet, and Clif Bar breath (me). Others remain a puzzle, and they’re quite specific: wet dog, onions sauteed in butter, Duncan Hines strawberry icing (the kind I used to pilfer as a kid, spoonfuls at a time, then smooth out the top in a childish attempt to conceal my crime).
My neighbor, Terry, recommended the field guide Cascade-Olympic Natural History by Daniel Matthews. Terry’s the image of summer cool, usually with shades and a cold Sierra Nevada, and she has one of the sweetest-faced dogs I’ve ever seen, Stella (I’m certain that that dog could rehabilitate the most hardened criminal). She gives really good intel about the land and the people, and I trust her opinion. But when she returned from her house with the book and laid it in my hands, I immediately dismissed it. Too heavy.
“That book’s got a lot of good stuff in it. Things I’ve never seen before in a field guide,” she said. There better be a hidden flask of cognac in it, is what I thought but didn’t say. That book’s so heavy that when I thumbed through its leaden mass of pages, my thumb sweated. There wasn’t even that many pictures in it.
Later, while I was in the library, her words echoed and I checked out a copy. No burden in having it around the house. Mr. Matthews’s back jacket bio tells that “for five years he lived in an isolated cabin in the Cascades, writing much of this book by lamp light and wood heat.” I thought this was promising, as some great things have came out of this arrangement, including Walden Pond and a stand-out Bon Iver album (although the naysayers will invariably bring up the Unibomber).
One of the first sentences I flipped to involved David Douglas, who the Douglas Fir was named for: “While out walking alone with Billy, his faithful Scotty dog, he fell into a pit trap for feral bulls, and was gored and trampled.” I was hooked.
His style, which I admire, is erudite but funny; it’s thorough yet lively.
On the Oregon-Grape: Gourmands may gag, but those with a penchant for wild plant foods still smack their lips.
On mating bald eagles, and also a description of a relationship I was in once: The male dive-bombs the female in midair, she rolls over to meet him, they lock talons and plummet earthward, breaking out of their embrace at the last possible instant.
On deer flies: On a hot July day in a North Cascades basin, the only respite may be nightfall, your fastest stride, or rain — none of which are what you had in mind for this otherwise fine afternoon.
On pumice: More often than not, magma reach the surface bearing a gaseous component that expands, sometimes explosively, as it is released from subterranean pressure, blasting globs of glassy froth sky-high — a little like a well-shaken bottle of warm Guinness.
On cougars, and why I sometimes feel like I’m being watched: They commonly follow solitary hikers in our mountains, unseen, for days.
Great information (especially that last bit), and I could go on. Often I take in Mr. Matthews’s chatty advice under the light of headlamp, and just as frequently I seek his counsel in a meadow under midday sun. I’ve definitely made room for him in my backpack — his book’s as indispensable as duct tape.
One of my favorite discoveries, and one Mr. Matthews helped me put a name to, is the Towhead Baby. What a whimsical flower, and I love how they lean together in little groups, clique-like, their shaggy heads outlined by sunrays. They remind me of Cousin It from the Addams Family, but blonde.
You’ve got to get up pretty high to see them, but I promise you they’ll put a smile on your face. They were everywhere in the meadows along Ice Creek (which leads to the otherworldly Ice Lakes), and I almost expected them to start swaying to the tune of Sesame Street.
Each day I’m here my affection grows for the North Cascades. When you love something, you want to know why it’s the way it is, how it came to be (at least I do). So I have to give credit to Mr. Matthews (by way of Terry) for helping me to understand a land that’s enchanted me, and for reminding me that weight is relative to worth. As a bonus my calves and quads are going to be jacked.