I headed out from Spokane early Wednesday morning with the goal of getting to my mom's house in Mount Vernon (about 65 miles north of Seattle) by the end of the day. I drove all morning long, watching the scenery slowly transform from vast stretches of flat farmland to the swooping slopes of tree covered hillsides. By early afternoon I was driving through the Cascade mountains thoroughly enjoying the scenery, yearning for a good place to stop and stretch my legs a bit. On a hunch, I pulled over at a rest area, the sign for which mentioned something about the Iron Goat blah blah blah. I had no idea what it was when I stopped, but after I'd taken a few moments to look around, I realized what I'd stumbled upon was a really fascinating historic trail through gorgeous mountain scenery and the trail head was conveniently located directly adjacent to the parking lot where I'd just parked the car!
The Pacific northwest was finally connected to the rest of the United States via railway by the Great Northern Railway when they completed the engineering feat of connecting the line over Stevens Pass in the Cascade mountains in 1893. Due to the extreme altitude of the Stevens Pass, the rail lines were frequently obstructed in the winter by heavy snowfall and avalanche. At the end of February 1910, the tiny depot town of Wellington near Stevens Pass was besieged by a nine day blizzard, trapping two different trains (a passenger train and a mail train) on the tracks at the depot while an army of men with shovels attempted to clear the tracks. On the 10th day, a huge avalanche broke loose from the top of Windy Mountain above and a wall of snow swept both trains, full of passengers, into Tye creek far, far below. Almost 100 lives were lost and the last body wasn't recovered until well into July of that year.
To address the tragedy, the Great Northern decided to build a series of ginormous snow sheds on the side of the mountain where the trains could pull in and be protected from extrememe weather and avalanches. To make sheds large enough for two trains to park side by side, huge tunnels were carved through the stone and deep concrete footings were poured to reinforce the crumbling mountainside. The sheds were used for about 15 years until the Wellington depot was closed when the second Cascade Tunnel came into use in 1929.
Barely 100 years later, all that remains of a town, railroad tracks and several train sized snow sheds are concrete footings and an assortment of inviting, but extremely dangerous tunnels which are literally disintegrating. And herein lies a good part of what seemed so magical to me about the trail. The trail leads you slowly up the side of Windy mountain, snaking through groves of moss covered trees and forests of ferns, past numerous streams of freshly melted snow, and it thruthfully feels like you're in the middle of a vast wilderness. And then you seemingly stumble upon the stark architectural ruins of an enormous tunnel, decaying as the elements slowly overcome it, and it feels a lot like discovering a lost civilization in the Cascade jungle. That I hadn't seen a single other person the entire afternoon only added to my own splendid illusion.
I really really enjoyed walking through the forest. In addition to the gorgeous mossy stream beds I crossed with pleasing regularity, there were all sorts of wonderful plants beginning to poke their heads up from the forest floor. Racous gangs of fern curlicues unfurling from their fiddlehead shapes covered the floor of the forest in tandem with a pink flowering berry vine that I couldn't identify. There was also a virtual carpet of purple bleeding hearts in bloom, and I had the pleasure of discovering, every so often, a random wildflower with which I was completely unfamiliar.
One of the most impressive things about the trail is that it was completely built and is now entirely maintained, by volunteers. The Iron Goat is a really long trail and it passes through some pretty difficult territory to tame, but on the part of the trail I covered, the path was really well maintained and easy to traverse. My admiration for the trailmakers soared as I completed the last leg of my journey: the precipitous decline from Windy point back down to the trail head. It seemed to be a short cut when you looked at it on a map, but the magnitude of descdending 700 vertical feet in less than a mile hadn't really sunk into my brain adequately. Yeah, yeah, the sign warned you it was steep, but until you do the math with your feet, it just doesn't seem real! My knees held up beautifully, but they were feeling a bit stiff by the time I reached the bottom.
I spent much more time on my walk than I'd planned. In a gesture as old as the invention of families, I called my mom when I was about halfway down the shortcut and was able to get out "I'm afraid I'll be a little late..." before the signal gave out. It was kind of cool to still be able to be out playing too late on a summer evening and need to check in with my mom.
It wasn't but a couple of hours after I crawled back into the Caddie a deeply satisfied member of the universe that I reached Mount Vernon just in time for supper.