I will never forget the moment I saw Mount Ranier for the first time. Claire and I had just entered Mount Rainier National Park by car and were heading toward Paradise Inn where we would pick up a trail and begin our hike up the mountain. We were surrounded by a series of mountains, driving on a narrow winding road, so I kept my eyes fastened on the pavement, lest we drop over the edge and end our vacation early. Like an annoying child on a long vacation, I kept asking, “Do you see it yet?” There were several mountains to choose from. Then I heard a gasp, as the words fell from Claire’s lips, “There it is.” Somehow, it had emerged from my right, and I still couldn’t see it with trees and hills blocking my view. Then I said something that, in retrospect, was one of the most lamebrained things I’ve ever said: “Is it still there?”
“Duh, yeah!” she respond in laughter, as if this massive mountain towering 14,400 feet above sea level might suddenly disappear. Of course, I was trying to determine if it was still in my line of sight while I kept the car on the road. When suddenly the road turned, the view opened, and there it was, the most massive convulsion of an ancient volcano I had ever seen. I was speechless, in awe.
John Muir, the driving force for the creation of national parks in America, had a similar thought when he first saw Mount Rainer 135 years earlier on August 8, 1888. He wrote, “I looked back and saw such a view as I had never seen before. Oh, if I had the power to describe it.” If this man of mystical imagination and literary genius, was powerless to describe it, how could I ever possibly do it. I simply couldn’t.
What I can convey is the feeling of awe I experienced. The word awesome has absolutely lost its meaning in America’s vapid world of tweets and social media posts. People describe their quite ordinary day as “awesome” or identify a meal they had as awesome. It has been untethered from the original idea of “holy” and “sacred beyond description.” I was in awe, in the actual meaning of the word.
Beyond this feeling of awe, I instinctively was drawn to the Hebrew story of Moses coming to Mount Horeb (or Sinai) for the first time. He experienced the “Holy Other” in the burning bush that didn’t burn up. He was speechless, but still heard the God of Abraham say, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex 3:5). Moses was seeing something he had never seen before. He heard a voice he had never heard before. He was standing in a place eliciting a feeling of sacred awe, compelling him to respond in humble and vulnerable submission.
Later, Moses would return to this mountain with his people to receive the 10 Commandments written by the finger of God. God had carved into the granite of his creation, the decrees that would govern his people. And somehow, upon receiving them, Moses was changed. And the people below, terrified at this awesome revelation were changed also.
There is something holy about Mount Rainier. The native populations who lived under its pervasive shadow for centuries prior to the John Muir, understood its holiness. They called it Mount Tahoma, meaning “the mother of all waters.” The thick blanket of snow that covers the ridge, giving birth to 400 lakes and 400 streams, creating 3000 acres of marshlands justifies the etymology coming from these ancient stewards of the land. It is a mother of all waters as far as the eye can see.
Moving just off the rocky ledge of Skyline Trail at the 7000 foot altitude, I thought about these indigenous people who were standing on this holy ground about the same time Moses was standing on the holy ground of Mt. Horeb. They had to know in their gut they were in the presence of a sacred spirit they couldn’t define or control. They could only dare give It a name. Great Spirit is the name we know best. Moses too, was given a name, descriptive of the God he was experiencing on his mountain, “The One Who Is.” This “One Who Is,” we Christians now name as our trinitarian God. This is the God who created all things and for some mysterious reason--which I find harder and harder to grasp--invites us to be caretakers of this vast, awesome earth. These days, I’m feeling more and more in awe of the God who created Mount Rainier and want to do little more than take off my shoes and stay as long as I can.