The Pianist of Paradise Inn
It’s bewildering to Bill Powell that he stayed at the University of Florida for 20 years as the accompanying pianist for student recitals. His gypsy-esque spirit usually whisks him away on a new adventure before hitting decade marks.
The Virginia native was searching online for European cruise ship gigs at his Gainesville home when he came across a pianist position at Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park. He applied, and some days later got a call from human resources offering him the job.
“The West I knew nothing about,” he said. “Certainly not Mount Rainier.”
But that was that. For the past nine years, Powell, 71, has packed his 30-foot Airstream with classical CDs, clothes to get him through the summer and fall, meal fixings for the voyage, a generator, and a set of tools, and off he goes. From May to October, he and a friend set up a temporary homestead at the Longmire campground, and he takes a shuttle up to Paradise Inn seven days a week to play the piano for guests during the afternoons and Sunday brunch.
His buttery keystrokes on the unmarked piano nestled into a handcrafted frame create a peaceful ambience at the lodge. Some of the most requested songs, including The Way You Look Tonight, La Vie En Rose, and The Music of the Night, are recorded on a CD available at the gift shop. On his website, pianomeditations.com, former guests of the Inn have left comments about his music — a woman named Lillian wrote that his CDs are the only thing that’s soothed her broken heart after her husband passed away. He reads them during the winter months when he’s back in Florida as a sweet reminder of his work.
“My favorite part is probably getting there that first week (in May), because I forget everything, and it’s like starting over again,” he said. “I’m getting used to the place, the schedule, the piano, the people. I think that’s my favorite part — getting back into the swing of things. And, of course, seeing the mountain for the first time as we drive in.”
The whole experience working there is incredible, he said, which is why three months into his first summer, he called the music professor at the University of Florida and told her to find a new pianist; he wouldn’t be returning. During his off months, he picks up freelance piano jobs and works on projects around the house. Now that he’s had a taste of seasonal work, he wants more.
“I’m hooked,” he said. “I want to see all the national parks, and I want to work at all of them.” — SRM
The Ecosystem of Seasonal Workers
Seasonal work at a national park is a kind of escape hatch. You can show up with $20 in your pocket and are provided a place to sleep and meals to eat. Six years ago, that’s where 27-year-old Liz Tierney, originally from Virginia, found herself.
“I was like 21, and I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “Rent was so expensive, and I kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be a way to live that’s not in my parents’ basement, like a lot of my friends were doing.’”
When she accepted a position as a front desk manager at Paradise Inn, she meant to stay for six months, but ultimately worked at the park system for five years, spending three of those years as the general manager of National Park Inn.
“I think the cool thing about working seasonally is you just meet all these people that, unlike any other job, you automatically have so much in common with,” she said. “You’re an adventurous person, you’re usually active, and you like hiking. There’s all this stuff (in) common. Everyone is new, and it has this summer camp vibe where you make friends for life.”
The National Park Service has this sitcom-like ecosystem of seasonal workers, not unlike the cliques of a high school lunchroom.
There are the college kids who pick up work during summer break. There’s the “older and bolders” — retired folks who come up with their RVs for the full season. A big chunk of people are in a transitional period in life, like Tierney, and are typically between 25 and 40, going from park to park doing seasonal work. Then there are the “J-1s”, she said. Groups of 20-somethings from around the world are sponsored to spend the summer working at a park on a J-1 visa. During Tierney’s first summer, there were a handful of people from Turkey; the next year they were from Senegal; and the year after that, from Asia.
“Everyone gets along, but it’s funny: Everyone also goes back to their groups,” she said. “All the retired people hang out in their RVs and have cook-outs. The J-1s were always going into town and going shopping. Sometimes they’d be there the whole summer and never go on one hike. And then there were always people going out on camping trips, and of course, people in their 20s partying.”
It’s a completely unique and amazing experience that shaped her early adulthood. It was transformative in a way she didn’t expect. She was there to escape the pressure of settling into a career, but instead, it helped develop her professional skills.
“Seasonal work is out there, and it’s really cool and amazing,” she said. “I think more people should know it’s an option when you’re not sure what (they) want to do. There are so many places. I’m going to be in Alaska this summer. The seasonal bug hasn’t left me yet. I love it.” — SRM
Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa
A Sherpa of Mount Rainier
An American flag ripples in the wind, gripped by two corners. Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa holds it above his head with a wind-burned smile and his face chapped from the summit up Mount Rainier. That photo is about eight years old now, but the sight of it still brings a prideful grin to his face. In 2011, after waiting 10 years, Sherpa had gained his United States citizenship.
Lhakpa Gelu is a familiar fixture in mountain culture. He holds the fastest records for climbing Mount Everest from the base camp to the summit: 10 hours, 56 minutes, and 46 seconds — a record he’s taken all the way to the Supreme Court to defend. And he worked as a guide with Alpine Ascents International, escorting climbers to the summit of Mount Rainier for nine years, summiting 94 times.
After the 2017 season ended, he retired from guide work, and is happy to simply serve and talk to his customers at Wildberry restaurant in Ashford. He and his wife, Fulamu, bought it in 2016, and she’s the executive chef, serving traditional Himalayan Sherpa food eaten to give climbers strength.
The life they worked so hard for has to come fruition. Lhakpa Gelu was born in a poor village of the Jubing Kharikhola district of Nepal, where he walked two hours uphill to attend school through the fourth grade — the highest education offered in the area. His family was too financially fragile to send him to another school, so he started working as a porter, carrying the baggage of people trekking up mountains. At 21, he became a mountain guide. Years later, to lift his wife and children out of poverty, he started traveling to the United States for guide jobs, and in 2005, he and Fulamu were granted green cards and moved to Utah.
Two years later, a friend of his, Lance Bunker, the cousin of Utah’s governor, sponsored his three teenaged children to move to the United States, and he got to see his oldest son graduate high school, the first in his family to do so.
“I’m so excited when my son (graduated) high school,” he said. “That’s my job. I feel very excited.”
He and his family moved to Washington shortly after taking a position as a guide for Mount Rainier, and two of his children went off to college. Though the pace of his life has slowed slightly, a love for mountaineering and the outdoors will always remain a major part of him.
“Sometimes you feel too many things in the town and city,” he said. “Headache with the traffic. Sometimes when you go to the outdoors for a couple days, you feel fresh. Even when we work at the restaurant (we’re open seven days a week), and you need to go get out for a few hours and walk … it feels so good.”
His other passion is his foundation, Lhakpa Gelu Foundation, established in 2010 to raise money for Nepalese children to pursue school. Over the years, he’s sent funds for supplies and uniforms.
“In Nepal, without uniforms, children aren’t allowed to go to school,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest problems with the government in Nepal. There are a lot of people who can’t afford it.”
He would have loved to attend school longer as a child, he said, so it’s important to him to provide that opportunity to future generations. — SRM
A Movement to Restore the Mountain’s Name
If anyone has a right to rename the mountain most of us call Rainier, it’s the Puyallup Tribe. A prominent member of the Puyallup tribe, whose ancestors have been living in the presence of the majestic mountain for centuries, is Robert Satiacum. Satiacum refuses to call the mountain by the name explorer George Vancouver gave it in honor of his friend Rear Admiral Peter Rainier in the late 1700s.
“We don’t use the name (Rainier) in my house,” Satiacum explained. “If someone says that name in my house, it’s a dollar in the swear jar.”
In early 2010, Satiacum began a movement to restore the name of the mountain — which he considers a sacred and spiritual place — to its original indigenous name. The indigenous name is not Tahoma, as it’s often mistaken, he said. There is no “M” in the Puyallup’s language, so the name Tahoma was always just a misinterpretation of the name Tacobeh, which is the Salish name for the mountain, he said.
The movement has included spending $20,000 of his own money, mostly on event costs. He hosted “A Day of 1,000 Drums” at Tacoma’s Portland Avenue Park in 2010. The event led to the Alliance to Restore Native Names, which aimed to rally at the local then federal level. To restore the name, the Washington State Board on Geographic Names must approve the change. It makes its decision in part based on input from the community. So a large part of Satiacum’s activism has been trying to raise awareness.
The ancient name that Satiacum and many others prefer is T’Swaq. Pronounced Tee-Sh-Wok, the rough translation is “the sky wiper” or “touches the sky.” Native people living in what is now the Pierce County area were sometimes referred to as the Swaq people, because they lived in the shadow of the sacred being.
Long ago, according to ancient Salish legend, humans used to walk hunched over. The sky was too low and didn’t leave room for people to stand upright. The holy people got together, and decided the sky needed to be raised. So, they took their holy staffs, and stacked one on top of the other, until they raised the sky to where it is today. The sky was placed on top of all the mountains to rest. Because T’Swaq is the tallest mountain in the Cascade range, it’s shouldering the heaviest weight. Where the clouds and the summits touch are holy places, where no human belongs, which is why most native people know not to summit mountains, Satiacum explained.
Naming these sacred places after humans, Satiacum believes, is what makes humans feel entitled to desecrate them with trash, pollution, and clear cutting. This entitlement and disregard for the land are what he thinks leads to the shrinking of their glaciers, which provides life-giving water to plants, animals, and humans.
Satiacum said that reclaiming the name of such a holy and majestic place, with such significance to his people’s culture and way of life, would help Native people reclaim their identity and start a movement.
“In all those years looking at the mountain, I’d think to myself, ‘There’s got to be some way, somehow to rally these (native) people around something,’” he said. “What is it that could move us from victims to victors? Never forget where we come from, or what was put upon us, but let’s move forward. And I thought, if we took the largest landscape, the largest peak in the lower 48, and you righted that wrong, that would make indigenous people here say, ‘If we can do that, what else?’ That would create a huge domino effect.”
Satiacum has some advice for those who visit the sacred space during tourist season: “Act and behave like God is watching you. Like God is there with you. When you come and visit any of the surrounding areas, and especially T’Swaq, be a caregiver, not a caretaker. We’ve gone to the mountain one too many times just to get and to take.” — EM
Escaping to the forested trails and blooming meadows of Mount Rainier National Park feels like taking a step back in time. Few likely consider the many staff members, like historical landscape architect Saylor Moss, working to preserve its rustic integrity.
That kind of anonymity is exactly what Moss and other staff hope for: that their hard work and dedication will blend into the beautiful backdrop of the park, helping to make each visitor’s experience as seamless and memorable as possible.
As an expert on exactly how elements of the park can be altered, Moss’ role is essential, because most of the developed areas at the park are a part of the Mount Rainier National Historic Landmark District.
“It’s a bit confusing,” Moss said, “But because of this distinction, we’re legally bound to treat almost everything in the park in a certain way. When we make changes or additions to anything that falls within or is visible from the Landmark District, I’m consulted to make sure that the work respects the integrity of the historical character of the landscape.”
Even the smallest details — from the scenic, winding roads to the visual setup of the campsites — are considered carefully by Moss when they need to be updated, improved, or rehabilitated. Many alterations take better safety into account, but staff otherwise tries to keep everything more or less in its original state. That’s why places like the Paradise parking lot, which would be more convenient if it were expanded into the surrounding meadow, are not altered: Moss recognizes not only that such an expansion would change the historic size of the parking lot — which embodies a certain intimacy and quaintness — but also such a change has the potential to create environmental concerns. Thinking critically about implications like these is a large part of Moss’ job.
“When you come to Mount Rainier National Park, there’s a certain feel,” Moss said. “It’s different from the outside world, and that’s because we try to reflect a certain time period through the rustic and naturalistic landscape architecture that both convey a classic, woodsy park feeling.” This ambience — which is the same today as it was 50 years ago — is carefully maintained by staff.
Mount Rainier was the destination of Moss’ first field school after she earned a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon. She immediately fell in love with the park, and after a 5½-year hiatus spent in Washington, D.C., Moss — a West Coaster at heart — returned to Washington state and found her place at Mount Rainier. This is her sixth summer as historic landscape architect, a position that allows her to interact with people from many disciplines across the park. These encounters — and the stunning scenery, of course — are her favorite parts of the job. — ZB
Hiking the Wonderland Trail
When Diane Ussery’s 11-year-old son, Dylan, was diagnosed with leukemia for the second time, she tried to lift his spirts by getting rooms at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital with a view of Mount Rainier. It was during that time he mused of one day hiking the famed Wonderland Trail.
The Wonderland Trail is a 93-mile hiking route encircling Mount Rainier, and features more than 20,000 feet of elevation gains; its highest point is 6,750 feet. It’s strenuous, to say the least.
Five years later, once Dylan had recovered, he and Ussery started planning. The group — including two friends — applied for a permit (only a certain number of hikers are allowed on the Wonderland Trail each year) and set out to finish the hike in nine days. Ussery is an avid hiker, but she had never undertaken anything quite so intense.
Hikers generally complete the trail in seven to 10 days, but depending on the number of miles backpacked per day, the journey can take more time or less. One man, Gary Robbins, ran the entire route in just under 19 hours.
As the length of the trail suggests, a lot of preparation is required. “It’s very physically demanding, so we did a lot of training hikes. A lot of training hikes with heavy packs,” Ussery said. Hikers have to carry their tents, clothing, food (mostly freeze-dried), water filters, and other gear on their backs.
“We started at Fryingpan Creek,” she said, referring to one of the Wonderland’s starting points on the northeast side of Mount Rainier. Prior to the hike, Ussery dropped off food rations to ranger stations along the way, so that the group had to carry only about three days’ of food at a time.
The journey started with a bit of a rough patch — miserable weather. “The hardest part was probably the first day; just how it went down,” Ussery said. “We get (to the campsite), and it’s dark when we pitch our tent. We’re like, ‘What are we doing?’ We went from hiking 9 miles (the first day) to hiking 15 miles. It’s cold, and it’s wet.”
After a couple days of hiking in the rain, the weather broke. “By the last day, it was gorgeous and sunny and warm,” Ussery said.
The group hiked an average of 12 to 13 miles per day, counter-clockwise around Mount Rainier. “There’s some days where it’s really easy and some days where’s it’s really hard,” Ussery said. “We went up the steeper parts rather than down them.”
Despite the difficulty of the trip, Ussery treasures the experience. “My favorite part was having my son with me,” she said. “Just getting to experience that with him.” — KA
Keep in mind when you visit:
Do: Keep your dog on leash, but don’t take him with you on the trail. A good rule of thumb: Furry friends should go only where your car can go.
Don’t: Bring marijuana. Though it may be legal in Washington state, it isn’t in national parks — possession or use can be punished with a fine up to $5,000 for individuals, or $10,000 for organizations.
Do: Leave your drone at home, even when you know it would get the coolest pictures. Drones are prohibited because they are seen as a disruption to the wildlife, and are considered capable of interfering with public safety.
Don’t: Feed or hunt any wildlife. If you give animals their space, they’ll give you yours.
Do: Check trail conditions and weather before heading out. Both are available online, at hotels and visitor centers, and all ranger stations in the park.
Don’t: Expect to have cell service or internet access within the park or surrounding areas. Plan accordingly.
Do: Head to nps.gov for a complete list of Mount Rainier National Park’s laws and policies — it’s important to know them before you go!