Life in the Vast Lane

Alone on a mountain, immersed in a crowd


Please indulge me as I present a most unusual view of Thurston County. Shown in the photo, it's a view from 40 miles away, about 2,500 feet high on a mountain in the Olympics. 

I was there in early December, just before the recent snow dump, a time when you could still drive the forest road winding up Mt. Ellinor's eastern shoulder without getting stuck in winter's white wonder.

Mt. Ellinor tops out at 5,920 feet and the road is never plowed.

My friend, George Stenberg, called out for me to stop so he could take the picture. As George pulled out his tripod and set up for his exposure, I got out of the car and did what I do for a living now: I turned around and around, working to take in the entire scene with all my senses.

I inhaled piney mountain air, and puffed it back into my hands. 'I watched a little brown sparrow flit at the road's edge among the lower branches of a small Douglas fir, up and down in search of seeds. I heard a distant jet I couldn't see, and a moment later, down in the valley, another car climbing toward us.

It was a few degrees above freezing. No wind to speak of, but high clouds crawled by, playing peek-a-boo with the wintry sun. A necklace of fog circled Lake Cushman below, clinging to the ridge, trailing tiny puffs that curled up in lazy wisps.

In the photo above the fog, can you see the thin silver strip of Hood Canal? Beyond that lies Shelton, then Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater. Had there been better visibility, Mt. Rainier, one of George's favorite subjects, would have completed the photo.

Regarding visibility, the same could be said for Mt. Ellinor, looking back from Olympia the opposite way.

In the early 1990s, when I lived in an apartment on Olympia's west side, I loved looking west to the southern peaks of the Olympic Mountain Range. You had a great view from Budd Bay over the marina when walking along East Bay Drive. The Olympics felt immense, yet close, making sense of the "gateway" term often used to describe Thurston County.

My love of the Olympics eventually drew me to moving nearer them, but not before I had a seminal moment where both Lacey and Mt. Ellinor combined to create a most magical night.

It's a mall world

Readers in their 40s and older may recall that Lacey was once home to the area's principal shopping mall, the South Sound Shopping Center. The Center, which opened in 1966, stood across Sleater Kinney Road from what was to be a Fred Meyer grocery store.

In the 1980s and '90s, the area was not fully developed between the mall and Fred Meyer. The Starbucks and other smaller stores that now hug Sleater Kinney were not there. In their place were scattered berms of grass.

For years, every third of July was marked by a fairly boisterous Independence Day fireworks show, with rockets launching from the South Sound Center to burst over Interstate 5. Crowds gathered on those berms, bringing picnic meals, sodas, lawn chairs, blankets, even baby cribs. As skies darkened, the anticipation would build. Children ran by, waving sparklers, and the air carried a firecracker smell.

I remember being in the crowd there, sitting on the grass for a few of those celebrations. It was easygoing, joyous fun, a bit like being in the back of a pickup at a drive-in movie show. Even the adults would ham it up, joining the kids with exaggerated "ooohs" and "aaahs" when a rocket rippled color across the sky.      

(Blume Realty played a major role in the development of this area, but I am not sure if it was Bob Blume, the mall tenants, City of Lacey, or a combination of two or three who paid for the fireworks . . .  Consider this a trivia question and email me the answer if you know.)

Above the bursts

Now back to Mt. Ellinor. On a different July 3rd –I'm guessing 1996 or 1997––I found myself on top of the proud mountain, enjoying a late afternoon view. I had climbed alone and was still relishing the joy of my second summit.

After driving down from the upper trailhead, I veered my Honda onto a lower, seldom used logging road that hugged the sheer cliffs of the mountain's eastern face. Suddenly I hit the brakes, mesmerized by a gorgeous, tall waterfall tumbling into a pocket-sized grotto. It roared right outside my window.

The falls beckoned me to get out and explore. Like a long white ponytail, they poured 70 feet straight down into a bubbly, partially hidden pool. I walked the road leading past them, now toward a series of wide, flat shelves perfect for camping. How come I hadn't known about this place? Charred circles within rings of small rocks told me others had spent nights here. Each bend in the road seemed blessed with another rocky perch, another campfire ring with a breathtaking 3,000-foot view.

In the east, Mt. Rainier loomed like a giant white capped wave. I sat on a log, lingering there, watching the massive mountain slowly blush orange-pink as the sun angled lower. I stayed there as the horizon edged pink, then slipped into shadow.   

That's when the first burst caught my eye. Somewhere out toward Tacoma  a firework rocket puffed in the sky.

A few minutes later another exploded nearby over Union, then another, with its bang distant and delayed.

I had a good hour before any of the big, professional fireworks shows would begin, so I set about building a small fire, only I failed because I did not have enough paper and kindling. Sitting in the dark I told myself this better be worth it if I have to drive down the mountain at night.

Soon enough Lakewood or Tacoma shot off a good display, and Lacey definitely launched a good one, too. I could not see individual bursts from this distance, but the whole area glowed with shifting colors that reflected off columns of smoke towering over the display.

It stayed very quiet up there. I honestly don't remember if I could hear Lacey's grand finale or not. I remember the night air getting cold on my bare arms and a very peculiar, bittersweet feeling as I stood up and walked back to my car. 

I knew I had witnessed something very special, as if a gift of Nature and chance had been dropped in my lap. How often does one watch every fireworks show from Seattle to Centralia?

At the same time, echoing my sense of being alone on the mountain, I also wondered how many others would have enjoyed the same view? This particular Independence Day was not about the "ooohs" and "aaahs" of the crowd, but rather a quiet, solitary salute from far, far away.

Mark Woytowich is a writer, photographer, video producer and author of "Where Waterfalls and Wild Things Are." He travels to support his addiction to adventure. Reach him at his website,, or by email at



2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • DHanig

    Lovely prose. Thank you!

    Thursday, January 6 Report this

  • jhender

    More of this, please!

    Friday, January 7 Report this