Van Go: Big Mountains and Bigfoot
Story and photos by Julie Snyder
“Keep an eye out for Bigfoot,” said my husband, Joe, as Van Go rolled through the lush old-growth forest in Mount Rainier National Park. We spent three days exploring southwestern Washington’s Sasquatch Country, but the fabled large, hairy creature played hard to get.
At least the living version. Shortly after exiting Interstate 5 at Woodland in favor of rural roads, we spotted a pair of wooden Sasquatch likenesses holding up an enormous sign that proclaimed “Bigfoot Luvs” the current resident of the White House.
“Best not talk politics around the campfire,” I suggested as additional yard signage along the road made it clear that Bigfoot wasn’t alone in his political leanings.
Another day, another travel adventure in our newly acquired Eurovan Camper.
Signs and traffic both dwindled as we entered the foothills of Mount St. Helens, the 8,366–foot volcano considered the second most dangerous in the country by the United States Geological Service. Forty years have passed since a major eruption squashed 135 miles of forest, killed 57 people, and spewed 1.4 billion cubic yards of ash and gas fifteen miles into the stratosphere. A more recent four-year chain of minor seismic surges ended in 2008.
That morning, the cloud-shrouded mountain looked harmless. We followed forest roads lined with fuchsia foxglove and lavender larkspur around its south and east perimeters. Swathes of clear-cut mountainsides and rumbling logging trucks occasionally intruded on our tranquility, a reminder that even nature is called on to work for a living.
Descending from forest to farmland fringed by knobby hills, we turned west on Route 12. A handful of one-mini-market towns and Christmas tree farms led to Taidnapam Park on Riffe Lake. We lunched in the company of a weathered fisherman whose bushy beard gave Joe’s pandemic facial hair a run for its money.
National Park campgrounds were still closed, so we had booked a site at Ike Kinswa State Park, about 45 miles from the southwest Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. We hit the jackpot. Our campsite, a half-moon carved out of the Douglas fir forest, was steps away from Mayfield Lake. We popped our top, took a stroll to check out our neighbors, then settled in next to the campfire, and toasted each other for the decision to buy a camper van.
Most sites were occupied, but trees served as privacy screens. Our soundtrack was a pleasant blend of children’s chatter, the burr of motorboats, and birdsong. All went quiet at 9:30 p.m. as if the camp host had turned the lights out.
With darkness came the big test to camping harmony—sleeping in the 43-inch–wide bed. We’re accustomed to the vastness of a California King, so we were skeptical about a good night’s sleep on significantly narrower real estate.
The well-cushioned, sufficiently long bed was cozy at first. Then claustrophobic. Then cozy again, once we unzipped the covers of the pop-top’s screened windows. With a technique we named “synchronized spooning,” our skepticism was banished.
After an alfresco breakfast from our well-stocked mini-fridge, we pointed Van Go in the direction of Mount Rainier. On the way, the Rabbit Hole thrift shop in Morton filled our CD void with Frank Sinatra and Neil Diamond (sadly, no Grateful Dead to be had). The optimistic young shop owner said that business in the town of 1,200 was beginning to pick up post-pandemic, though we encountered far fewer visitors than we expected.
Mount Rainier soars 14,410 feet above sea level, the highest peak in the Cascade Range, the most glaciated in the lower 48, and the third most dangerous American volcano. We were blessed with a temperate sunny day to savor the corridor of green that corkscrewed upward through ancient forest and past gushing waterfalls to the subalpine meadows surrounding Paradise. Sadly for wildflower fanciers, the meadows were still buried beneath at least 12 feet of snow.
Renowned not only for its flower fields but also for its spectacular views, Paradise is a tourist magnet and home to the park’s main visitor center (open just for basic information at the time of our visit.) We strained to spot Camp Muir, a high-altitude refuge for climbers that sits about half-way to the summit.
“I climbed to Camp Muir when I was young and foolish,” volunteered my old and wise husband. “I was still in the Army and based at Fort Lewis. As I recall, we hiked with a hangover, and it wasn’t pretty.”
What was pretty was the Paradise panorama—the blunt, snow-capped nose of Rainier contrasted with the jagged, icy teeth of the Tatoosh Range to the south. As one might imagine, the sporting opportunities around Mount Rainier are boundless in all seasons. We sampled several short interpretative trails to take in glacier views but conceded that the 93-mile Wonderland Trail circumnavigating the mountain would have to wait for our next lifetime.
Leaving the National Park behind, we reveled in our first restaurant meal in three months on the outdoor patio of Basecamp Bar & Grill in nearby Ashford. Boy, that burger was tasty. Wandering across the road to Ashford Creek Gallery, we discovered beautiful pottery, art, and photography by local artists along with a wealth of collectible climbing books. Joe and the proprietor promptly launched into an exchange of climbing war stories and shared climber community connections.
Back in our comfy camp, we chilled over a dinner of cold chicken, potato salad, and red wine (we weren’t ready to fire up Van Go’s stovetop beyond boiling water for our nifty manual K-cup coffee press). Afterward, warmed by the campfire, I finally read Pico Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness.” The thin volume, in which Iyer advocates the virtues of going Nowhere—“choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward”—had been languishing on my bookshelf for years, waiting for me to stop moving. And for that evening I did.
During my early morning campground stroll on our final morning, I marveled at the variety of camping conveyances. Single tents pitched next to cars. Tent cities replete with canopy-covered dining areas. Monstrous RVs with super-size televisions.
Ours was the only camper van. Circling back to our site, vacant, but for two chairs next to the firepit, I was thankful for the simplicity of our camping life and the peaceful adventure it afforded us.
As we were leaving, a VW Westfalia van pulled into a site across from ours. We shared a nod of camaraderie with the driver and continued on our way, looking forward to meandering the back roads home in Van Go.
Postscript: We learned that a Sasquatch sighting had been reported as recently as January when a suspicious silhouette was captured on a Washington State Department of Transportation webcam. But the only “Bigfoot” sighting on our trip was my husband’s size 16s.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.