The Woman Who Drew a Line Around Mount Rainier with Her Body
Artist Mimi Allin Takes a Very Strange Hike
The smells on the ground at Mount Rainier include french fries, vinegar, dresser drawers, and basements. Mimi Allin knows them all because she has been throwing herself down and getting back up—smashing her nose into the earth—all around the base of Mount Rainier for the last three months. It has been a slow, repeated regimen of collapsing-to-earth-and-rising-again in the name of art: a project Allin calls Tahoma Kora.
"Tahoma" is a Native name for Mount Rainier, which refers to an English rear admiral (Peter Rainier), "who was said to be portly," Allin says. (Captain George Vancouver coined the new name in 1792, describing "the round snowy mountain" so as to make it sound portly, too.)
Allin's own body is lean, dirty, and smelly. It's her last day on the mountain: September 20. She is hunched over in a chair in Paradise Inn's lobby, writing her daily log, a lengthy document she'll share with her 52 patrons from Kickstarter—each of whom gave her a donation to cover expenses (she stashed caches of food around the mountain) and a mantra to chant for each day. (The log reads right page to left page because, this year, Allin taught herself to write left-handed. Also recently: She was "Corporate Poet" at Seattle architecture firm NBBJ, and she lived for three months in Seattle's tent city to create a blog called Song of Tent City. She usually lives on a boat.)
Later that day, out on the mountain preparing to prostrate along Reflection Lake, Allin's mantra is "The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth." She ties on her leather apron—it used to have names written all over it, but they've worn off—over a grubby black-and-white-striped shirt. She's got hockey pads on her legs. With her unkempt dangly hair, rounded eyeglasses, and scattered cuts and bruises, she looks a cross between student, metalworker, and monk.
The "kora" in Tahoma Kora refers to a pilgrimage in Tibetan Buddhism. To wash away a lifetime of sins, Tibetan monks prostrate—fall to the knees, lower all the way to prone position, stretch out flat on the ground with arms forward like a flying superhero, push back up to kneeling and then standing, take three large steps, and repeat—for 32 miles around the base of the sacred Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Allin, a Seattle artist and poet, planned to circumambulate Rainier this way, drawing a line around it. On Kickstarter she shared her calculations: She aimed to prostrate 93 miles along all kinds of paths: roads with cars, trails with bears (one came barreling down the path at her one evening, a light-brown flash of fur that made her scream and jump off the trail), back-country snow tunnels where she wouldn't see anyone for hours, front-country falling-rock zones.
But the authorities would not give her a permit to remain inside Mount Rainier National Park for three months. The logistics became nightmarish. Having to hike many miles just to get to a starting point each day, she grew exhausted. She was able to prostrate only 36 miles total (in addition to 271 miles hiked and 50 miles biked) over the course of 67 days (other days were spent back in Seattle, resting). She covered all sides of the mountain. She did draw a line around it—just a dotted one.
Allin was a park ranger at Rainier in 2005 and has climbed the mountain six times. In her log, she writes like a naturalist and a seeker. She's tracking frogs and foxes and spontaneously falling trees, as well as her own awareness: noticing how much time she spends thinking about what's going to happen or what has already taken place, versus the earth right under her (smudgy) nose; gauging her response to the presence of people or animals; acknowledging her fear, and her embarrassment about being afraid. Most of the time, she's alone in the woods. There are nights spent in a tent with a candle, haunted by noises; her tent is anonymously vandalized and blessed when she's away from it.
What's all this for?
"Look, we can fly to India or Tibet, and be in those places that we think are sacred or that we want to connect to, but how did that happen? People created that," she says. "I can look out my window right here, see the sacred, and go out. We can live potentially really meaningful lives just by doing things differently."
There's art-historical precedent. English artist Richard Long in 1967 took a short walk in a field, impressing a line on the earth with his feet (rather than drawing one on paper using his hand)—another way to make landscape art. In Seattle, artists have led a band of 40 people in a 40-mile walk that lasts three days only to culminate in a half-hour return drive, making everyone aware of how mutable scale can be.
A piece called When Faith Moves Mountains, by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, is the tragicomic version of Tahoma Kora. Alÿs enlisted 500 volunteers, gave them shovels, and they moved a sand dune four inches—or so it's said. One of Allin's favorite mantras was given to her by a Real Change vendor who stands outside the Ballard post office: "I'm gonna move this mountain." The day Allin chanted that one, the ground was slightly wet under a fine mist, so that the top layer of soil lifted off and went with her each step of the way.
This story has been updated since its original publication.