Experiencing the Days of Awe in Wonderland

A 93-mile loop around Mount Rainier brings you back to where you started. Or does it?

I’m pleased to welcome guest writer Greg Scruggs this week. Greg wrote for Jewish in Seattle, and this essay was slated to run in our last High Holiday issue, which was killed due to Covid. I’m so happy to be able to share it here!

When the month of Elul started, I wanted to find some kind of daily meditation or practice that would get me into the spirit of the new year and its themes of repentence, return, and reflection. I didn’t find anything that spoke to me, and truthfully, I didn’t have the time to invest in much study or research. (Do not tell yourself you’ll have time for study later, Pirke Avot tells us, but the sages weren’t working mothers! Nor did they, er, have Instagram.) Rereading Greg’s piece, however, got me thinking about the risks and journeys that have become those pivotal growth moments in my life, moments where I realized I would be OK with just the stuff on my back and with myself. Being alone and OK with ourselves: this is a hard thing! The Jewish aspects of communal prayer and family can make us lose sight of our individuality. The self is bound up with the group. But there we are, at the end of the day, with just our sorry selves. What does it really mean to grow?

On that note, I leave you with this guest post and a hearty shana tova. May you have a sweet New Year and be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Emily


Days of Awe

By Gregory Gutterman Scruggs

Hayom hayom hayom, my pack is very heavy on my back. Amen.”

With the Rosh Hashanah liturgy fresh in my mind, I invented trail ditties to pass the miles as I shouldered my laden overnight pack on day one of a six-day, 93-mile loop around Mt. Rainier, the fabled Wonderland Trail. Just one day prior, I was at Madrona Beach for tashlich. Mt. Rainier, or Tahoma to the Coast Salish people, shimmered across Lake Washington through a cloud layer.

In traditional God-fearing Judaism, these are the so-called Days of Awe, when the almighty is deciding who shall live and who shall die in the year to come. In more contemporary practice, these High Holidays are an opportunity to cast off anything you wish to leave behind from the prior year.

Days of Awe. Sometimes, surrounded by a familiar community and enveloped by traditional melodies I’ve heard since childhood, I find some version of that awe inside as we pray on the High Holidays. But too often amidst the clatter of daily life, those eight days in between are mundane. Just another week.

So two years ago, I honored that tradition in a different way and made a leg-straining, foot-aching, shoulder-screaming effort to seek that awe in the place where I know best how to find it: the mountains.

Back at the lake at tashlich, my rabbi shared Psalm 27, which is customarily recited every day of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah. He was unaware of my hiking plan, but in a moment of rabbinic intuition he lingered on the perfect verse: “One thing have I asked of God, one goal do I pursue: to dwell in The Eternal’s house throughout my days, to know the bliss of The Sublime, to visit in God’s temple. Truly, in a day of trouble, I am nestled in God’s shelter, hidden in the recess of God’s tent. God sets me high upon a rock.”

I tossed six stones, one for each day of the hike. As ripples radiated in the glassy lake, I thought over my route and what I expected of this entirely unfamiliar terrain. I was ready to know the bliss of The Sublime. I was ready to visit in God’s temple and sit high upon a rock.

But I was nervous. Although I consider myself competent and accomplished in the mountains, long-distance backpacking is not a regular part of my outdoor repertoire. Until the Wonderland Trail, I’d never spent more than two consecutive nights out in a tent in the backcountry, much less attempted nearly 100 miles, most of it by myself.

For the rest of the summer, whenever the mountain was out as I lazed at the lake, the idea of looping Rainier on foot kept calling me. To hike is arguably the most primal of outdoor pursuits. Just one foot in front of the other like humans have done since time immemorial. As Rosh Hashanah approached on September 30, the idea came into focus. An early snowstorm had left anywhere from a dusting to several inches above timberline. It was going to be unseasonably cold, but other than a weak front passing through on days three and four, the forecast looked favorable. So I went for it.

Seizing on the Days of Awe as my excuse to hike the Wonderland Trail felt unconventional at first. Jews don’t have any Camino de Santiago-style pilgrimage routes. Cultural stereotypes of American Jews don’t feature many role models tackling the great outdoors. But as I kept up a brisk pace to keep to my aggressive schedule, I had plenty of time to reflect. The Jewish tradition is ripe with stories of human-powered travel, admittedly with some divine intervention along the way. Noah built his own ark to ride out the flood. Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. After the exodus from Egypt, the Jews wandered the desert for 40 years. You can consider that as a hardship, or view it as a four-decade long backpacking trip. Put it that way, and my six days on the Wonderland Trail was bupkis.

My Wonderland hike was a constant encounter with the classical Sublime, and I came away with a deep, abiding appreciation of Mt. Rainier. The old-growth trees of a temperate rainforest feeling like the lungs of the Earth. The meditative trickle of streams checkered with rocks coated in moss so green it looked electric. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes sprouting in the damp understory. Stoic wooden patrol cabins, closed for the season, with a sugary white coat foreshadowing the long winter to come. Alpine lakes reflecting up-close-and-personal views of the mountain from angles I had never seen before. Suspension bridges over rushing rivers pouring off the towering glaciers above.

But also the Sublime of solitude. I traveled a snowy 18 miles up and over Panhandle Gap, all without seeing a soul. (Try that in the peak season.) The Sublime of sharing. My cousin, recently retired, joined me for one segment on his first backpacking trip in a decade. The Sublime of history. Before my hike, I read an account of The Mountaineers’ 1915 around-the-mountain tour that pioneered the Wonderland route. Afterwards, I reread it, names like Klapatche Park and Ohanapecosh now conjuring specific places in my mind. The Sublime of reunion, as I emerged from the darkness by headlamp into an eerily empty White River Campground where my wife was waiting with home-cooked food, a cold beer, and Shabbat candles on a Friday night.

The Sublime of return. The elegance of a loop is that you finish where you started. The linearity of a thru-hike from point A to point B is definitive: you started here, you finished there. The loop is more ambiguous. If I am back where I started, where did I really go? The familiarity of Mowich Lake upon arrival on the final day allows me to measure myself. Who was I when I left this place six days ago? Who am I now that I return?

Return. It’s one of the themes of the High Holidays, as we return to familiar prayers and rituals at the same place on the calendar to mark the turning of the year, to enter the Days of Awe.

Our tradition says that God created the world in six days. And on the seventh day, He rested. As for me, I hiked the Wonderland Trail in six days. And on the seventh day, I rested.

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