Being a Disabled Hiker Isn’t Always Easy. In Mt. Rainier’s Paradise, I Found My Flow.
At one of the most beautiful parks in the northwest, this hiker went outside on their own terms.
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I have a rule for my outdoor trips: never visit a place like it is a tourist attraction. A visit to a national park isn’t a bucket list item; checking off a bucket list can create both a sense of obligation and entitlement around travel, and such lists are predicated on the expectation that your body will remain in the physical state that it is until death, which is never true and leaves out many disabled folks. You should never take nature for granted.
This rule arises from my experience as a disabled person. I have to be very intentional about my trips: It takes incredible amounts of planning and energy to go for a hike, and even then, I often arrive at my destination only to realize that it is not as accessible as I thought and have to shift my plans.
That’s what happened on my first visit to Mount Rainier National Park. I was recovering from a disability-related injury that left me unable to walk for several months. I was also recently out of an abusive marriage and desperate for the solace that time in nature provides. Mount Rainier, affectionately referred to locally as “the mountain,” rises 14,411 feet over the landscape of Puget Sound, orienting everyone who lives here, including me. Every time I looked at the mountain, it transfixed me.
I began planning my trip by doing research into the history of the place now known as Mount Rainier National Park. Researching a place really enhances my experience, extending the trip and the inspiration I get from it. It also helps me learn how to be a respectful guest on the lands. In Twulshootseed, the Native language spoken by many tribes that live near Puget Sound, the mountain is called təqʷuʔməʔ, pronounced “Taquoma.” Speakers of another dialect pronounce it “Tahoma.” One translation is “Mother of All Waters”, representing the five major Pacific Northwest rivers that originate from the mountain’s 25 glaciers.
I then started pouring over the National Park Service website, trail guides, and blog posts. I love the national parks because they are generally more accessible than other places, but it can still be a challenge to find good information about the trails. After calling the park, I still didn’t have a great sense of how I would fare on any given trail. I decided that heading to Paradise, one of the most popular destinations in the park with stunning views of the mountain from wildflower-filled meadows, would offer the best chance of some easy trails. If all else failed, it would at least be a beautiful drive.
There is no one right way for water to flow, and there is no one right way for my body to be, either.
When the day came, I packed up my ten essentials plus everything else my body needs—extra electrolytes and water, sport bandages, ice packs, my braces, and trekking poles—packed a picnic, and headed out.
The parking area at Paradise was overflowing when I arrived, and unfortunately the few disabled parking spots were already taken. I parked further down the road, wondering how I would walk back up the hill to access the easier trails without tiring myself out. As I stood at my car, comparing the map and my surroundings, I heard the sound of running water and spotted a trailhead across the road. A small waterfall beside it caught my attention, and I crossed the road to sit near it while I decided what to do next.
I knew nothing about the trail in front of me, but after consulting the map I noticed that it connected with the main trails at Paradise. (Reading maps is an essential skill for everyone, but it’s doubly important for disabled hikers like me, who often have to change our plans or find a different route at the last minute.) I would have to go uphill either way, but taking the trail might be a more enjoyable and safer route than the road, and the elevation change appeared to be similar. I decided to go for it.
The trail soon met up with the Paradise River, following the snowfed rapids upward. I took my time to enjoy the way it flowed around perfect sunning boulders, stopping to watch all the little eddies around the rocks. These swirls of water did not seem to mind the sudden change in plans either, moving in circles against the current. I dipped my fingers into the icy water and felt my own resistance as the water easily shifted around them. There is no one right way for water to flow, and there is no one right way for my body to be, either.
The trail started to climb, gaining 500 feet in ½ mile. Gaining elevation at 5,000-plus feet is not something I can do easily; every painful step was a triumph, but I wondered if I would even be able to catch a glimpse of Tahoma. I paused every few feet to catch my breath and drink water while taking photos of the subalpine parkland. I hiked slowly up the wide flank of the mountain, and eventually the landscape opened up to reveal the graceful rises and folds of the Cascades filling the horizon. The hillside all around me glowed like living fire in the bright sun of late summer, with grassy meadows shining gold and patches of flame-red huckleberry shrubs. Lingering wildflowers dotted the meadow with more sparks of color. I shielded my eyes against the sun. As I curved around the next rise, there she was: the Mother of Waters. My first glimpse of the volcano’s white crown took my breath away. The mountain seemed near enough to touch, but I knew that was a mirage; I had much further to go.
At the ¾ mile mark I arrived at a creek that required crossing on lots of loose rocks. I stopped and looked at the peak of the trail still high above me, the valley and ridges stretching out before me. As the sun warmed my skin, it wasn’t only the exertion taking my breath away. But I knew I couldn’t make it any further. I also knew what I had hiked already was enough. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was also enough. This might not have been the victory I set out for, but it was a victory nonetheless.
I sat there for a while to rest and take in the view, feeling proud of myself for trying and for making it that far, before heading back down the trail. I did end up going for a wonderful drive, traveling through the park and stopping at every overlook I came to. By evening, the crowds cleared out and I returned to Paradise to watch the face of Tahoma change as the sun dipped below the peaks and the sky deepened to midnight blue around it.