Following their footsteps
Some came for adventure. Others wanted to challenge their bodies and their minds. But each of the 65 people who set out July 2 to bike and hike past snowcapped peaks and crystalline lakes of the Mountains to Sound Greenway had one thing in common: They were retracing the path of those who made the journey some 20 years earlier.
In 1990, dozens of people hiked more than 70 miles from Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle in an effort to raise awareness of the natural beauty east of the city.
They saw the need. To Seattle’s west is water, and development had already claimed much of the natural area to the north and south. Those on the march knew land to the east would be the next to go unless they could figure out a way to protect it.
To gain the funding, political support and commitment a long-term solution would require, they had to forge a new path. The year following their journey, trekkers collaborated with leaders of local communities and environmental groups like the Issaquah Alps Trails Club to form the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.
Since then, by acquiring land and forming partnerships with other landowners, Mountains to Sound has successfully preserved more than 200,000 acres of forests, parks and other natural areas. East along the I-90 corridor, they created a Greenway, 1.5 million acres reserved for wild lands, sustainable farming and forestry practices, and recreation.
Those who organized the original march joined those of us seeing it for the very first time on a nine-day, 130-mile trek to honor this precious resource and bring together its supporters.
When I arrived at Kiwanis Park in Ellensburg, adjacent to the John Wayne Pioneer trailhead, the enthusiasm for the coming days was palpable. When we all set out the next morning on bicycles, horse-drawn wagons and mules, we were bright-eyed and invincible. Then the wind came, and it came hard. As it turns out, 26 miles on a bike, railing against 35 mph winds can make for a challenging start to your journey.
Still, trekkers smiled and laughed at water breaks. We talked like friends with strangers we’d just met, and we pushed on toward distant mountains. That night at the retired Cle Elum train depot, trekkers young and old danced together in the grass and prepared for the next 100 miles.
That was the remarkable thing: No one ever complained. We were all here because we want somewhere to breathe fresh air and stretch our legs, and because we all believe that Greater Seattle is special for retaining what other cities have lost. With Ellensburg only two hours away by car, we got nine days of recreation through dense evergreen forests, expansive meadows and glacial lakes. We are wealthy for this reason, and because these trails and rivers and mountains hold something special for each of us.
By Day 4 we found ourselves deep inside those “far-off” mountains on Ellensburg’s horizon. The 2.3-mile tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass had been closed for the past two years, and the Greenway trekkers were the first to ride through at its long-awaited reopening. I’ll admit it: The first few minutes felt terrifying. It was pitch black all around, save for headlamps that lit tiny sections of road ahead and the slowly growing light at the end of the tunnel. But it was a thrill; we zipped through unharmed and met daylight again to the cheers of this diverse and supportive community-in-the-making.
After 18 more miles down the mountain, we dismounted our bikes and changed our shoes; it was time for the hike on to the Seattle waterfront to begin.
The five-day hiking section brought a spectacular escape from city life. The climb up Rattlesnake Mountain to Snoqualmie Point offered panoramic views from Mt. Baker to the Rainier Valley. Even when we camped in ballparks and football fields, it only took a few moments each morning for the sounds of nature to drown out the noise of the interstate. From these spots, we climbed up and around the Issaquah Alps — Tiger, Squawk and Cougar Mountains — through forests and into Greenway communities.
As endearing as these day hikes were, nights along the trek offered a different kind of entertainment. There was apple crisp with backcountry horsemen, campfire songs at Crystal Springs, and star walks with a Boeing astronomer at Rattlesnake Lake. Special guests, including “Father of the Greenway” Jim Ellis, previous and current Congressman Jim McDermott and former Sen. Slade Gorton, joined us on the trail and spoke at community dinners. There were long conversations about our jobs back home, problems in our cities, travels around the world and what brought us to the Greenway. Trekkers always found the energy to dance along to live music, and strangers turned to friends through barbeque and square dancing.
Looking ahead, Mountains to Sound is gearing up to build on these and other benefits of the Greenway. Supporters are currently seeking to designate it as a National Heritage Area to recognize its importance. Other ongoing projects for the Trust include continued land acquisition and connecting regional trails. But the most vital goal lies at the heart of its mission: to get people out there. After all, the Greenway is not just a pretty thing to look at; we have to use it, live it, swim in its lakes and walk on its trails.
After nine days and 130 miles, I realized something that a group of people 20 years ago already knew: The Greenway doesn’t just connect Central and Western Washington. It connects politicos from both sides of the aisle, hippies to cowboys, generations who worshipped Bob Dylan to those who consider themselves Lady Gaga’s “little monsters.” The Greenway connects us to the land, to our history and to each other.