“If the gods lived somewhere, it’s probably here.”
Debris from airplane crashes, a border-crossing with armed guards, roads that are in such an enigmatic state making you wonder whether they were roads of the past, or of the future — these are some things that make up the boundaries of Goma, a small city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a stone’s throw away from Rwanda.
None of its boundaries are as interesting as the one in the North of Goma. A lava lake on its foothills, billowing smoke and fire to let everyone know that it’s still active, Mt. Nyiragongo stands oblivious to what’s happening around it. Wars, UN intervention, airplane raids, raids by local militia — Nyiragongo has seen it all. What are we humans, but fleeting glimpses, in the lives of the mountains? The people of Goma, who are no strangers to gunshots, and the sight of army tanks, have lived through multiple eruptions of this volcano; the most recent of which was in 1977. Look 9000 miles to the west, and in the relative comforts of the Pacific Northwest, living among people who look at gunshots and army tanks through a tinted glass, you can find a calm and composed Mt. Rainier.
On a good day, by which I mean on a day when the clouds are forgiving, you can see Mt. Rainier from most places in Seattle. When I first moved to Seattle for the summer in 2015, Mt. Rainier was the first thing I saw of Washington. Visible from the windows of my airplane, it was as if the mountain was calling out to me — “come see what you’ve been missing.”
In the year and half since, I’ve visited the park a dozen times, I’ve looked at the mountain over a hundred times with an ever increasing admiration. I also moved to Seattle for good.
Rainier invades your life. If you’re in Seattle or the vicinity, it is always on your mind; like the girl you have a crush on, wearing different shades, showing just how many things about Rainier are beautiful. Are you taking a walk to Kerry Park at sunset? Rainier is right there, purple and pink competing with the Space Needle, asking you “watchu lookin’ at?” You avoid Kerry Park, and go to Olympic Sculpture Park instead? Rainier is right there, donning a brilliant shade of red-orange, slowly turning into pink as the sun sets. After having moved downtown, I can’t even look out my window without seeing Rainier blush at sunset.
There are articles every few months warning people that Rainier might erupt any year now and the entire west coast seems to be in a constant state of earthquake paranoia. Setting all these aside, one cannot help but enjoy the mountains at every opportunity.
It isn’t just Rainier. My favorite hike this season was in Mt. Baker when I went snowshoeing all by myself — a foolish idea in retrospect. The weather was projected to get worse but I’d driven for four hours nearly all the way to the Canadian border up north. I wasn’t going to go back without doing the 2 hour hike. I was on the slopes of Baker but I couldn’t see the mountain. That was the state of visibility on the day. However, I did manage to climb as far as I could. Only now, descending was a problem. The snowshoe trail isn’t a maintained trail in the Mt. Baker area. It is backcountry and the trail is essentially you following the footprints of the person who went ahead of you.
A blizzard had started, and there was no trail thanks to snow filling up at a pace faster than people were making footprints. It was an amusing 45 minute detour where I was following what I thought were footprints of people, dogs, and the occasional dog poop. There were points at which I was thankful for having brought hiking poles with me because I was stuck in snow that was well above my knee. I’m not tall but I’m not short either. Let’s just say that you couldn’t have guessed whether or not I had my pants on. I was wading through a good 2–3 feet of snow, and I managed to keep myself distracted from the reality which was that I was lost. It was quite a while before which I could spot the ski trails that were close by, and I managed to descend without taking my eyes off the ski trails. It was silly, what I did, but now I have a story to tell.
When you’re up there, you don’t think about the small things — that looming deadline or the student loan, that break up or the identity crisis, taxes or the fact that you should take out the trash when you get home — you’re one with the mountain and it calms you down. The mountains are there to tell you that they’ve seen it all and no problem is new or one of a kind. The mountains are there to tell you it’s going to be alright, and it doesn’t matter even if it isn’t. They’re there to tell you to live in the moment and become one with it.
It was the 4th of July 2016. As the entire nation was preparing to light the sky on fire with beautiful pyrotechnics, several thousand people across the country were preparing to be propelled from wherever they wanted to be, to wherever they had to be the next day — from family, a friend, a loved one’s arms, to work, school, a different family. The long weekend had come to an end.
It was Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Outside security checkpoint-2. I was among the several hundreds giving and receiving hugs, kissing amidst tears. Goodbyes are hard. I remember standing there, till I was doubly sure my hand wave was no longer visible; walking back slowly, trying to capture every detail of this moment. I was turning back every couple of seconds as if someone from the airline would come out and say “we’re not flying today, go spend time with the people you love” and I can go back to where I was, just a few moments back. Goodbyes are hard.
The next time a goodbye was that hard, the next time I walked backwards without being able to take my eyes off the moment, was when I watched the sun set over the mountains at Mount Rainier National Park, almost four months later, in October. This time, there were no tears.