Old Stuff Series: For Love, a Mountain
Originally published (yes, published, in the Western Washington University library!), circa 1995 as part of my master’s thesis for English / Creative Nonfiction.
For Love, a Mountain
Ye look aloft when ye long for exaltation:
and I look downward when I am exalted.
Who among you can at the same time laugh and
be exalted? He who climbeth on the highest mountains laugheth
at all tragic plays and tragic realities.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
I once sat on the top of a mountain on the eve of what was supposed to be my wedding day. I’d been hiking for six hours, the last two by flashlight in the dark, to get to that spot I’d never seen before, way below snowline but high nonetheless. I left early in the morning from Seattle seeking to just get away from the friends who would surely call to see how I was doing, and I went to the mountain hoping a list of commandments would suddenly appear, magically engraved in my clear and empty, alpine-air-filled mind, and lead me to a place where I would find another love. After setting up my tent I sat there sipping a beer, my legs sticking out onto the cold, rocky ground. Because I felt somehow under-emotional about the wedding that almost was, I decided to listen to a disc of wedding songs on my Walkman: “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and Pachelbel’s “Canon.” I suppose I was testing myself to see if the pain was, in fact, over, but my answer didn’t come from inside me; it came from the mountain, or nature, or some sort of equally godly spirit: at the beginning of “Canon” I closed my eyes and saw and heard the string quartet we’d already picked out and paid for. When they reached the point in the piece where, the next day my ex-fiancee might have been walking down the aisle to become my wife, I heard, not babies crying and cameras clicking, but rather the barely audible scratching of hoofs on nearby gravel. I removed my headphones and picked up my flashlight, and when I shone it towards the sound I stared into the yellow-glowing eyes of a four-point buck that had walked into the circle of my camp. After a brief stare-down he chose to ignore me, and began chomping the frozen grass. I knew I would be okay. My spirit felt renewed, somehow, by a chance encounter with a creature that didn’t really care, and in the morning I returned to the city to be with my friends and face the condolences.
I suppose I went to that place high up in the Cascade range because of a prejudice that great things happen on mountaintops. Surely my encounter with the buck wasn’t an exception. It is also on the tops of mountains that the world’s observatories chart the red shift of stars trillions of miles away in hopes of finding where the earth and the universe began. Other scientists (of a sort) have gone to the mountains for divine instruction: Moses was called to Sinai for The Law. Practitioners of Vedanta philosophy meditate to the South-Facing Form: an image of a man who sits high in the Himalayan mountains looking southward over the Indian mainland. He is an imaginary, representative Nature Form meditating upon the infinite, and he resides in the Himalayas because Nature is the Vedanta’s “window into the infinite.”
On April 30, 1792, Captain George Vancouver pulled into north Puget Sound and said to his third lieutenant something to the effect of: “Baker! I’m gonna name that mountain after you, old chap.” Until that time, however, Mount Baker was called by the natives of the area Koma Kulshan, meaning “white, steep mountain.” I snowboard as often as I can at the resort that hugs the northeast ridge of that mountain. It’s a sort of self-serving worship for the old volcano, but by some evil trick of the ski area designers you cannot see the top of the mountain you are skiing on. There’s a walk I take almost every day to work, though, and each time I get to a certain opening in the trees I’m rewarded with an incredible view of the very tip of that fabulously white and amazingly steep mountain. There’s a certain curve in the freeway near Seattle that, on a clear day, unfolds to grant an equally majestic view of Mount Rainier (nee Tacoma – “the mountain that was God”). On one particular morning a couple years ago I was driving with my (then) girlfriend down to a marina on Puget Sound where we were to rent a sailboat on which, later that day, I would propose. As we rounded that curve and saw the mountain we each let out an “ahhh” that was sickening, in retrospect, for its harmonic cuteness, but it’s as apt a description of the beauty as there could possibly be.
I was flying to San Diego last Christmas to visit some friends, and as the plane passed over the humongous suburb that is the entire stretch from Los Angeles to San Diego I noticed that nearly all the hills had been flat-topped and black-topped. They had become views for people unwilling or unable to leave their cars and climb. A home in a hilltop neighborhood with sidewalks and grassy swingset parks is “beautiful” to many, but to many others the beauty is destroyed. These people were not living on mountains, certainly, but what man-made gods had taken these majestic hills and transformed them into private mesas for the wealthy? Bulldozers, graders, and excavators made by companies like Hyundai and Caterpillar collectively move over one-hundred-thousand million cubic meters of soil each year. I’ve always been amazed, whenever I see Bob Ross on his PBS show “The Joy of Painting,” how he can create an incredible mountain on canvas with three thick brush-strokes of burnt umber and a couple knife-swipes of liquid white. It is just as amazing, and somewhat depressing, that these machines can destroy the real thing almost as quickly as Bob Ross can create them in his mind and on his canvas.
Man destroys the mountains; nature slowly builds and eventually destroys them again. On a bright, sunny, Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, I was in my mother’s huge backyard garden on the pretense of helping her pull weeds. What I was really doing, though, was picking sweet pea pods and eating them right there in the rows. I remember at one point taking a break from the peas to tangle myself in the blackberry bushes against the fence. I stood on a ladder in the middle of those bushes seeking the sweetest, juiciest berries at the top, and as if in a nuclear dream I looked towards the house to see a black mushroom cloud rising very slowly, from a very great distance, over the roof. It was the morning of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. I ran inside to the television to see what had happened, and for the next two weeks I watched as the Toutle river carried mud and debris down to the lowlands. My mom made me wear a cotton mask to school for the next few days despite the fact that we only received a trace of the mountain’s dusty breath. On one particular morning, after a night of more abundant ash-fall than others, I took off that mask as soon as I rounded the corner out of my mother’s sight and used it to scoop up some keepsake ash, which I still have hidden away somewhere, still scooped inside the mask, in a box or drawer at my parent’s house. I never saw the mountain in real life before it blew, but the photographs of what it was before, and the desolation I saw after, keep me always on guard for beautiful sights that may someday be just mud and tangles of evergreen trunks, and I appreciate those sights all the more.
When I returned to civilization on my wedding-day-that-wasn’t last summer, I tried to explain to a friend how it felt to be the only human being on top of a mountain, to see every single light or lighted object in the sky, and to wake to a panorama that wasn’t there when you arrived in darkness the night before. I couldn’t make him see what I saw. Instead, my friend, knowing my love of the outdoors isn’t limited to the quiet of the mountains but also includes the solitude and power of the sea, asked whether I could really escape from memories of my ex by sailing around the world or becoming a hermit in the mountains. It was probably one of the more difficult questions I’d ever been asked, since I’m not sure I could pick just the mountains or just the sea. In seeking to fill the void left by my ex fiancée, however, I had taken to the element most opposed from my memories of her: the mountains. After all, I proposed on a boat. But then I consider the last Christmas we shared together, when she skied and I snowboarded at a local ski area. It was one of the better times I have spent in the mountains, but because I know now that even then she was falling out of love, the time and memory seems somehow despoiled and false. Now, whenever I see a car go by with both skis and snowboard on the roof-rack, I think: “It’ll never work. They’re just too different, and it’s difficult to ride the chairlift together.”
It’s been almost a year now since the breakup of that relationship. It’s been a year filled with six or seven different blind dates and a couple that I actually worked for myself. I’ve taken dates to restaurants, to movies, to concerts. I went with one to a haunted house and with another, because she had just recently separated from her husband of five years, we just sat in a bar and tried to define “love.” The first date I went on with my newest girlfriend, though, we went to Mount Baker where she skied and I snowboarded. I discovered on that day, while riding a chairlift with my date, my snowboard and her skis awkwardly clanging and chipping against each other, what I would tell my friend in answer to his question about my desire to hide in nature from the memories I was afraid to confront. I would tell him that human relationships have no place in a discussion of nature; Nature is just too big to be weighed down by our relatively paltry troubles, and maybe that’s why people have gone to Her for thousands of years to meditate, pray, and heal. She is a facilitator, but She is not a healer, and I made that realization on a day I was having the time of my life talking and snuggling with my date, my new girlfriend, on a chairlift. It was snowing hard; it was foggy; my goggles were all steamed-up; and we never, once, saw the top of the mountain.