Have you ever been snowshoeing? I haven’t before I came to Western Washington, and I don’t know how much of a pastime it is in Germany, if so at all. We still don’t have snowshoes of our own, but as we go only once or twice a year, we find it good enough to rent them.
Our destination on this past Presidential Day was Mt. Rainier, and we had decided on a lower tour, as the road further up to Paradise was icy and we’d have had to chain up. So, we ended up in the picturesque ranger station hamlet of Longmire, rented our snowshoes at the log house General Store, and crossed the road to tie them on. It’s a little tricky to get it right, and you have to pull the bindings really tight, otherwise you’ll slip out or they will come undone of their own account.
It was snowing, and Longmire was as good as empty. Access to the Trail of the Shadows, a 0.7-mile loop, was very easy, as somebody had carved one. There was nobody besides us on this trail which during summer is usually absolutely overcrowded. We started clockwise, which soon led us away from the road and into the woods. A creek coming off the mire in the center of the loop was murmuring softly, having broken its path through a thick layer of snow and passing underneath a log bridge. In spring, this is a place where skunk cabbage blossoms. Now it was a stern and majestic contrast of different shades of whites and browns, with playful patterns of deer prints in the snow.
The name “Longmire”, by the way, doesn’t derive from the long mire in the center of the loop trail and of which you catch a glimpse every once in a while, but from the person who found and bought the place in 1890, John Longmire. He established the Longmire Medical Springs Resort after his arrival, and customers came thronging to the gentle valley that affords a fantastic view of the mountain summit on clear days.
The trail continued mostly level, and every once in a while, I stopped to listen to the birds tentatively rehearsing first spring songs. The air was crisp, the swamp looked almost warm with its golden and muddy hues.
About halfway, we came across a square structure of rocks, fringing a well that once probably ran more profusely. Of course, it could also have been a matter of temperature slowing it down to a trickle. What struck the eye most was the rusty color of it all; apparently somebody had stepped into and out of the basin, as some russet footprints betrayed. This well has been called “Iron Mike”, and indeed it contains water that has geothermally been heated, in the course of which it dissolves iron from the ground. Therefore, the rusty color when it appears on the surface and oxidizes.
Only a few steps further, we came across a log cabin replica of the original one in this place, another reminder that this once was a spa. The cabin belonged to the staff. Not a big structure and very rustic indeed. John Longmire’s son, Ecaine, who kept running the business after his father’s death until 1915, had built it. After Ecaine’s death the grounds were sold to what had been decreed Mt. Rainier National Park in 1899.
The woods began to open and permitted better views of the snowy swamp meadow now. No water fowl, no birds. Just the untouched quiet of the snow field with an open area of sluggish brown water and the rising frozen forest behind. A few hundred yards after the wooden cabin we ran into the last witness to the olden times when rich East Coast Americans sent their offspring on the Grand Tour to Europe, often with a stop-over at the elegant Roman thermal spa in Baden-Baden. There couldn’t be more of a contrast in appearance than the small well-like structure in Longmire with its steaming low water table covering algae and fallen leaves, the Soda Springs. And yet they attracted ever so many tourists from the West Coast back then. All alone on that snowy day, the sound of the bubbles rising made me feel the magic this place must have held back in the day when something as hot water from a tap must have been an absolutely exotic thought.
Another few steps closer to the swamp, a look across the peaceful meadow. Clouds kept the summit hidden from the view that day. We didn’t have our fill strolling through the snow yet, and there are a few paths in Longmire that you might want to try out and that might be more physically demanding. But there is probably none more romantic and apt to make your mind wander to the Mountain’s great history than this short Trail of the Shadows on a lonely, cold winter day.