When we got off the plane, finally, and through the immigration line (with a child still suffering from motion sickness, which expedited things), and stumbled up the escalator to the Sea-Tac terminal where we picked up our luggage for the second time, my father was waiting with a giant smile and hugs. The kids were still trying to decide which language to speak; Le Petit was making a good effort with hesitant English, and Mademoiselle was mostly choosing not to speak at all. We found restrooms, then the car in the parking garage, and headed on the back roads down to Olympia. I-5 traffic, my dad explained.
We'd followed the sun from Paris to Seattle but it was hot and brilliant and didn't seem to be holding our unnatural pursuit against us. I noted sleepily to myself that the douglas fir encircling backyards and parking lots now looked exotic: you never see a douglas fir in the Paris region and rarely in France. Maybe in the Morvan in Burgundy or the darker places of the Massif Central, and there they're expats, like me.
Then there was a break in the trees. Le Petit and my husband saw it first.
"There it is! Look! Mount Rainier."
On some clear days in Seattle, the mountain appears out of nowhere, white glaciers silk-screened on the blue of the sky. The white isn't anchored to anything, the blue surrounds it entirely, and you have to take it on faith that the mountain is anchored to foothills and to the rest of the Earth. On other clear days the mountain is missing entirely. In my family we say "the mountain is out," as if it were the moon or the stars. I love how that makes it sound celestial, when it is in fact a place you can get in your car and drive to in a few hours. And if you drive there, to Mount Rainier National Park, you may choose to stop at Sunrise or Paradise: what better place names for a floating peak? The mountain ducked out of view again, and the kids drifted in and out of sleep; we were soon in Olympia.
My favorite view of Mount Rainier is from I-5, at the long bend the freeway takes after crossing the Nisqually River. When I was around Mademoiselle's age, my parents already worked in Seattle and Olympia respectively and we spent a lot of time driving between the two cities. I decided that the Nisqually River was my sister and Mount Rainier my brother, and would announce it every time we crossed the freeway's twin steel trestle bridges. When I share this anecdote with my children now at my father's insistence, they just stare, and I don't know if they're having doubts about their understanding of the story in English or of their mother's sanity. And after all, unlike me, they're not only children. Why invent siblings?
This summer, after a week's acclimatization in the sun on the back deck and shoreline at the house in Olympia, we went backpacking near Mount Rainier. We camped at Sheep Lake, a gem of a mountain lake with alpine forest, meadows of wildflowers, frolicking marmots, and... no view of any significant mountains. You have to hike an hour up to Sourdough Gap to see first Mount Baker and then Mount Rainier itself. They can be remarkably discreet, those volcanoes.
This year I started watercolor painting, and decided to keep a illustrated travel journal of our trip to Seattle. I began on the morning after we arrived with a couple of less-than-satisfactory views of East Bay (I blame the jetlag), then moved on in the following days to shorebirds. I worked mostly from photographs my husband and Le Petit enthusiastically supplied. I managed a convincing marmot, a spritely nuthatch. I rendered a realistic enough sunset over the Sound. Then, a few days before we left for France, I painted Mount Rainier.
When Le Petit looked at in the morning, his jaw dropped. It looked like it was silk-screened on the blue sky. I thought it would be impossible to paint a recognizable mountain, especially my mountain, but it turns out that I'm a better geological portrait painter than I thought. I painted another view for my father, with a ridge lined with tiny fir trees in the foreground. Brushstroke by brushstroke, it was a declaration of love for home.
I couldn't sleep on the plane. I couldn't watch movies either. Somewhere over Iceland, I gave up trying to focus on my Kindle, and instead took out some sketching paper and colored pencils, found a half-decent shot from the camping trip on my telephone, and proceeded to draw Mount Rainier again. When I showed it to my husband two seats down I could see his Oh of impressed surprise.
Back home in Versailles, I loaded three weeks of virtual film on our computer and set up my paint. The first time the sky was too dark: it turns out the precise blue of the sky is more complicated than you'd think, and something gets lost between the pixels on the screen and the agonizing choice between aquamarine and cadmium. The second try was better, and choosing the same picture I'd used on the plane, I painted the sweep of a wooded meadow up to a ridge above Crystal Lake, a short hike over from Sheep Lake. Mount Rainier peers from above, reigning over firs which look a bit like feather dusters if I'm entirely honest with myself. I'm taking a watercolor class this year; clearly I've got some technique yet to learn.
Now three weeks have passed and I'm wrapped up again in my life in France, homesickness mostly at bay. The kids are back in school as of last week, my project at work has restarted full-steam and behind schedule. I keep telling myself that some weekend soon I'll take my paints over to the park at the Chateau. For the moment, the last portrait of Mount Rainier is sitting in our entryway, between a lighthouse on Belle Ile in Brittany and a forest clearing in the Aveyron.
The mountain is out in Versailles.