Three Days in Wonderland
by Marlene Farrell
Three days can feel like the blink of an eye. Insubstantial.
Three days fill up more space and elongate time when running (and hiking) around Mount Rainier like I did in August 2023.
The Wonderland Trail: 95 miles, almost 25,000 feet of vertical. With good friends.
It began months before, when Andrew invited Emerson and me to join the supported run around Mount Rainier that he’d been planning with his Seattle friend, Betsy. We both accepted this gift, though I had to place caveats on myself. My running form in early spring was a shuffle. I dedicated myself to the drills given to me by a personal trainer. These drills helped me open up my hips so I could pick my feet up and be less likely to stumble. I added a steady diet of track workouts and trail runs and increased trail run elevation gain. Maybe, I thought, I was ready.
As the date loomed closer, we had gear discussions and purchases. I needed to be self-sufficient for ten plus hours per day in the mountains. I opted for a lightweight and breathable system—a vest and running band made by Naked Sports Innovations. Despite minimal weight, they could hold my 1.5 liters of water in soft flasks, all the calories I needed, plus clothing layers, phone, a small Sawyer water filter and a small first aid kit. No complaints; this system worked great. Each person had a slightly different system and food choices but we were intentional about having our essentials, number of calories and water resupplying schedule roughly match.
Ninety-five miles is a journey. We began and ended at Longmire, following the typical course of runners before us—clockwise with stops at Mowich Lake and White River. That first day I was giddy in the dark of dawn, downing coffee, knowing the miles would be a portal to the extraordinary.
The first ascent was 2,400 feet, followed by a plunging descent and then four more climbs. We traveled through forests of stately firs, through misty meadows, across rushing rivers on bridges—log hewn or creaky suspension style. The veil of clouds lifted for one quick glimpse of Mount Rainier. With the mountain mostly obscured, my eyes focused on the trail, rugged but with kempt edges so that every field of heather, flowers and rock felt like a wild garden. We talked, and our efforts eased as we swapped stories and relived past adventures.
With every step, I was delighting in the power to move, my health awakened with each breath of mountain air, thoughts of my family who supported me, my friends whose presence pulled me along, and this precious time for my mind to settle, for the whirlwind of life to go elsewhere for a while.
Some hearty souls complete the Wonderland Trail nonstop and self-supported. We had the fortune of a support crew extraordinaire—Shanda, Andrew’s wife, plus their two daughters and Betsy’s daughters—and, honestly, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Shanda and these teens fed our hearts, minds and souls, aka spoiled us. We climbed the last ascent to Mowich Lake campground to our crew cheering for us, the tents set up, sleeping bags fluffed, sleeping pads blown up, and food and beverages at the ready. And they were eager for the details of our day that we might forget if it weren’t for an audience. They had their own adventures—bushwhacking and skinny dipping included—so we could all revel in how wilderness provides and is the best teacher for learning about ourselves.
Day two was destined to be awesome. Sure, I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag and I was about to put in a hard eight-hour day after a ten-hour day, but my legs felt fresh and the skies had cleared. We were starting high and going higher into Spray Park. The mountain was a stunning fortress of dark rock crowned in snow. Our eyes turned to it when we weren’t studying the trail. Rainier became a fifth companion, aloof and ancient. Yet vitalizing—to be in the presence of Rainier was one of the reasons I’d come.
Funny how the freshness in my legs wore off halfway up the first steep climb. And my heart and lungs seemed to be working overtime. I felt drained of the superhuman zeal that powered me the first day. The continually shifting views of Mount Rainier, the unfolding vistas in other directions, the verdant meadows in which meandered hobbit paths, the glimpse of a bear, the power of the Carbon River gushing from the Carbon Glacier, and the smiles, laughs and awe of my friends—I could see it all but couldn’t register much beyond my humble need to place one foot in front of the other.
Still, we reached the White River camp with hours of daylight to spare. Shedding sweaty clothes, lounging in Crazy Creeks, a nap for me, recounting our day over good fare—it was a formula for recovery, but I still worried. My friends were so stalwart and cheerful. The day three weather could deteriorate, and I didn’t want to hold anyone back. After poring over the map and options for short cuts, it was clear there were none.
Andrew, Emerson, and Betsy believed in me. And so, I did too. Mindfulness brought a day that was blissful and flowy. Not like the first day knowing so much lay ahead, but with a growing certitude that I was right where I needed to be. The trails were smoother, the ups and downs more gradual, the views more extraordinary—Panhandle Gap, Indian Bar, Box Canyon. The clouds that threatened storms brought only a brief shower and also moments of sun sparkled mist amplifying the Elysian Wonderland of our alpine surroundings.
We descended the final miles, rejoining the thrum of humanity near Paradise, and we slowly roused from the dream that had been our journey.
A few times, years ago, I stood atop Mount Rainier. On the summit, all is distant. There’s a fleeting juxtaposition of earth and sky. Traveling the Wonderland Trail, which traverses the cardinal and lesser directions around the axis of Rainier, moved me in a different way. There’s no destination; we orbit the mountain, pulled up its flanks and deflected away. We aren’t seeking disconnection, dominance, attainment. We’re finding connection, humility and a numinous fulfillment—not something obvious in the photos, but a way of seeing and being that stays with me for a long time after.