Sunday, August 10, 2008

Maria Cantwell

Did you realize that there is a phone number any U.S. Senator can call to get public information on the fly? We plebs have 411, but they have something better. Something tailored. Something that addresses their senatorial needs. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell mentioned this number to me, and shared a cool story about another "famed" senator using it to locate his favorite authors after reading their books. So the story goes, Senator XY would finish a novel and then call the author to say how much he liked their work. Now wouldn't that be cool? Who wouldn't appreciate a phone call from a U.S. senator saying, "Hey, I dug your _____(insert book,record, video, speech, etc.) and thought I'd just tell you." Of course, Maria (or Patty Murray for that matter) hasn't called me yet (nudge, hint, wink) about my book on Mount Rainier. But then again, I'm still waiting for that conciliatory call from John McCain since I aced him out of the 4th place spot on the Men's Journal Tough Guy list (scroll to #5 where he resides)!

Silliness aside, bumping around Camp Muir with Maria Cantwell last summer was definitely a memorable experience. Perhaps because she is such a power broker in the federal government? Or maybe it's because she is rich (by NPS ranger standards - not by Bill Gates standards)? Or maybe it's because she has blue eyes and feminine charm? Who really knows (probably the latter of those three), but I do know that we climbing rangers were quite impressed with her acerbic wit and extremely cool, down to earth demeanor...

This adventure started with a chance encounter at Camp Muir and a few weeks later, I was having breakfast in Seattle with "Maria." There were a number of telling moments that day. For instance, I knew we were off to a good start when she declared, "Just make sure that we have GOOD coffee." In climbing ranger world, "Good coffee," IS an important standard that should be seriously respected! Clearly, Maria was exhibiting good taste and stature.

And since she didn't have a closet full of climbing gear for her upcoming climb, I soon found myself cruising through REI with Maria in tow. While at the rental encounter, another telling moment presented itself. As soon as she tried on a pair of plastic boots, Maria stated, "No way." I mean really, "NO WAY!" Then I realized, who REALLY wants to wear some clunky oversized marshmallow-colored double-liner boots anyway? They were awkward, uncomfortable and terribly unstylish. Soon enough, Maria was modeling a light blue pair of La Sportiva boots that, incidentally, matched her jacket (and eyes) perfectly. Tres chic...

Panache aside, we didn't discuss politics or the National Park Service (that much). We did discuss ways to improve those stinky toilets at Camp Muir (something anyone could agree upon) and the construction debris from the ongoing (and terribly slow) Camp Muir rehabilitation. Otherwise, most of the talk centered on how long and arduous it would be to reach the summit... practical stuff any smart and stylish politician would note!

Speaking of smarts, Maria remained practical throughout the trip. Many of her comments, thoughts, and questions were often unvarnished, and in some regards, innocent and raw. When discussing what it took to climb mountains, I detected some uncertainty surrounding the entire logic behind "pursuing summits." Perhaps in her thinking, why would anyone really want to do this? And if you take away the personal and emotional justifications we climbers craft for ourselves, it is easy to wonder why someone would spend so much money to suffer in the cold, while potentially risking death. Especially since along the way, you're not going to get good coffee, and you'll surely endure little sleep and hard exercise, while working towards something that probably doesn't "really" matter...

But "matter", climbing does, and there were a number of moving moments during those three days with Maria Cantwell on Mount Rainier that told me she clearly "got it." For one, Maria definitely enjoyed being an anonymous citizen helping visitors at Camp Muir. A few folks stopped by and probably didn't even realize who they were talking to. But she also took the time to check out (i.e. nap on) the roof of the ranger station and read magazines. There we were at 10,000 feet on Mount Rainier, with a U.S. senator comfortably letting her hair down with climbers, skiers, day hikers, and coffee-swilling rangers....pretty cool, huh?

And as Rainier often does, its magnificence spoke through her voice. When our party left Ingraham Flats towards the summit, I could hear Maria open up with enthusiasm as her eyes scanned the glacial landscape, "I can't believe such a wild place exists so close. Thank you so much for taking me here; it's REALLY beautiful." Her tone told the story: she was awesomely struck by the raw beauty of Mount Rainier's landscape; I had heard the reverence before and understood its impact.

And for reasons beyond reason, a U.S. senator was completely thankful to be "rest-stepping" up the Emmons Glacier towards a cold windy knoll called "Columbia Crest," moved by the same simplicity and desire that motivates others in the mountains: the land, the people, the beauty, the challenge, the solace.

As for Maria the politician... A little search engine sleuthing revealed many stories, including this piece in the Seattle Times that seemed to capture some of her personal qualities, including a knack for hard work and a "can do" attitude. Maria would quip that there is more to her that anyone could glean on a three day mountain trip. True, but her unending energy and sensible logic were apparent to the rest of the climbing rope.

And when another rope mate started having difficulty with the pace, Maria understood that our team would need to turn around... But that was ok, because she could come back. And though we didn't reach Columbia Crest, I suspect she'll have few problems reaching it this year. That is, if she sets her mind to it and takes a chance. So Maria... How about it... Do we get to see you again on Mount Rainier?