There are some places on earth that, once seen, never leave our memories. Places which, when they come to mind, fill us with certain emotions, even certain physical responses, like no other place can do.
The top of Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island is one of those places.
Mt. constitution, at 2,400 feet, is the highest point in the San Juan Islands. The San Juan archipelago, made up of approximately 200 islands at low tide (many of which are quite tiny), is located in the northern part of Puget Sound in Washington State and Orcas Island is the largest island of the group…though it only beats out San Juan Island by about 2 square miles, I believe. San Juan County is made up of 175 square miles of land and almost 450 square miles of ocean. I find this fact rather humorous!
The mountain, residing within Moran State Park, is climbable by the intrepid hiker. My husband qualifies as intrepid. I qualify as timid. Suffice it to say, I have never hiked it. Fortunately, for people like me – or people with the handy excuse of children – it also is easily drivable. Though, to be sure, the drive is full of hairpin turns, narrow climbing roads, and deer, one of which kindly stood by the side of the road for us to pass and even posed for a photo. Albeit a rear-end shot.
This road is one of the things which stands out in my memory of the mountain. Ever since I was a wee girl I have not been able to think of ascending Mt. Constitution without a small lurch of my tummy. Back-seat riders beware!
The drive is also full of distracting views, making the job of driving one that is best shared with another brave soul – one to drive up and one to drive down, thus giving both of you the chance to fully enjoy the view. There is only one pull-over spot on the entire drive and it’s only big enough for about 3 cars, max.
HOWEVER…when you reach the summit, all the tummy flutters will be rewarded with a breathtaking sight. A 360 degree view awaits. From Mount Rainier in the south, past Mt. Baker to the north and all the other smaller mountains of the Cascade mountain range between, around to British Columbia, Canada and all the islands your heart could desire: all are there – on a clear day, anyway – just waiting for you to gasp at their beauty.
Which is what I literally did last month as I walked up the small path from the parking lot to the top of the mountain. Yes, I grew up here, yes, I’ve seen it all before, but I hadn’t seen it in winter for, well, perhaps, ever, and the sun shone on the snow which covered Mt. Baker and it was stunning.
My daughter and I were holding hands as we walked up the rise to the summit and I said, with wonder and joy, “Oh, Lucy, look!”
And she, being four, said, “What? I don’t see anything.”
Which burst my bubble, but only a little.
It was chilly up there – ten degrees colder than at the base of the mountain – which made it about 32 degrees and the trees had frost on their windward sides; the sides which are all stunted and funny from the constant blowing of the wind against them. The branches on the other side of the trees, of course, are all stretched-out as if groping for something they can never quite reach.
We walked to the low stone wall marking the edge of safety, and just stared. Well, I did. Lucy stomped in the ice-covered mud puddles while the other two kids climbed the watch-tower (more about that in a minute) and my husband set up the tri-pod.
I was seeing the exact view I grew up with on the northern end of Orcas, only from twenty-four hundred feet higher. There were Matia and Sucia islands, and little Puffin, too. There were Clark and Barnes, and Lummi, with the mainland in the distance. And Mount Baker, of course, grand and majestic and heavenly to my prairie-accustomed eyes.
Yes, I got verklempt. How could I not, seeing such a sight? I stood and drank it in, filling my soul with sustenance for the long prairie winters, the mountains that are nothing but illusion on the flat horizon of my Minnesota neighborhood.
I thought of my mother’s words, said often while growing up, “The mountain is out!” This was the cue for everyone to rush into the living room and gaze upon Mt. Baker from the two-story-high windows, to where it rose above the islands to the north. Sometimes we even saw Baker steaming – it is a volcano after all – and that was especially exciting.
I was not given long to dwell on the splendors of the view. Soon I joined the kids in climbing up the tower that stands at the top of the mountain. This tower was built in the mid-1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp. It was originally a fire-watch tower, but in the 1960’s the designated fire-watching person was unable to do his or her job due to the huge numbers of tourists who loved to climb the tower for the wonderful view (it adds 45 more feet to your vantage point). At the top of the tower, above the trees, you truly can take in all 360 degrees of the view.
When I was small, on Orcas, we had only Canadian television channels, and there was a program I loved called The Friendly Giant and he lived in a tall tower. To me, this tower on Mt. Constitution WAS the Friendly Giant’s tower and I loved it. So, along with the memory of tummy lurches and stunning beauty, comes the reminder of a small girl’s imagination, only adding to the lure of this place.
The tower has a few tiny rooms which tell about Robert Moran who donated the land for the 5,200 square acre park. To me, as a child, the rooms – especially the one which is perpetually locked – were secret rooms, where princesses were held (somehow the Friendly Giant analogy broke down once I got inside) and I would shudder deliciously as I peered through the iron-barred windows, always seeking – but never finding – the hapless royalty.
At the top of the tower, if the wind doesn’t force you down in a hurry, there are a few places to stand and gape and take photos. In the summer there isn’t much room to hang around, crowded as it is likely to be with visitors, but it’s definitely worth the climb up the stone steps.
I have stored these visions for my return to reality. Squirreled them away for future reference, when I can sit and, rather than seeing snow falling outside my window, I can envision waves crashing on tide-pool strewn shores, and glowing mountains greeting each day with their silent – and solemn – majesty.
Yes, I love my life – I love Minnesota and I am not complaining. It’s just that there are things that an island girl needs to maintain her sanity.
Sporadic visits to Mt. Constitution being chief among those things.