Boots, Roots and Shoots: Mountains in the Mind
(a short essay on seeking home in the higher lands)
Walking with hurried steps to elementary school in my hillside hometown of Edmonds, north of Seattle, I would balance my books through a forest of streets: Elm, Fir, Pine, Hemlock, Spruce, Cedar, Walnut, Alder, Maple (someone must have noticed that “sTREEts” have branches too). Climbing the steps to the heavy school doors, loud blasts from a ferry and freight train drew my eyes to the waterfront. As the ferry glided into dock amidst startled shrieks of seagulls, and the train rumbled into the station, my glance skipped like a stone across Puget Sound to rest on the snowy summits and rainy ridges of the Olympics.
This schoolboy scene is a black and white image from my nature-saturated youth: forests and ferryboats; horns and seagulls; saltwater, rainwater and mountains.
A bit older, driving up and over the Edmonds hills to the family church and higher up to high school, another scene opened up to frame my vision and my life: the Cascade mountains standing solid and silent in the East.
Olympics to the West. Cascades to the East. Mount Rainier to the South. Mount Baker to the North. Mountains filled with ice and fire, ice-cold rivers filled with fish, beneath higher mountains of clouds that seemed to be filled with green dripping over the land drop by drop.
Sauntering south, discovering the green in another land of high places and water, I lived and worked near the foggy and soggy San Francisco Bay. Seminary; ministry; chaplaincy; shelter directing; senior housing management. Filling the mind with mountains of ideas and the heart with both hell and healing. More salt in the blood; more fresh air in the lungs. By boot or by snowshoe even the shortest explorations into the Sierra Nevada “Range of Light” offered more heaven than I had ever imagined.
The misty and murky river of time brought me and my boots East. The wilds of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee now seem to call me (back?) to something still smoky in my head.
Here in the Southern Appalachians we call them “blue” and “smoky,” mystified by quiet coves and dark hollers. Every winding road to a windy ridge-top or bald-patch can be a story in itself, a history in each turn and tumbling waterfall. With the curious thought, “You never know what’s ahead,” swirling in mind, wonder drives you on. Wandering footpath or parkway, a bootless black bear or root-looking snake, with the backdrop of a booming thunderstorm, awakens your senses, knocking the saunterer senseless in the dangerous delight of highland life.
Our religious histories are marked by mysteries and mountains, often one and the same. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Muhammad slipped on their sacred sandals and went up. They climbed with packs-full of curiosity and expectation, making ascents to make sense, if possible, out of the lostness of the lowlands. They were ascending to find something or meet someone—descending to tell a tale, leaving legends like trailmarkers. What did they find? What did they see, hear or feel up there? No one really knows. No one else climbed up to get a look, so it’s all rather cloudy, smoky, cerulean.
Does it make it more real to imagine a fire-red mountain laurel on Clingman, a thundering voice in flashes of lightning on Roan, or quiet whispers in the balsam up the AT? “Write!” hears one hiker on Humpback Rocks; “Recite!” breathes a stranger on Shining Rock.
All these stories season like salt, century after century, flowing like rivers in human veins and consciousness. For some, salve for salvation; for others, salt on our wounds.
Now, we climb too. Not prophets or sages (most of us) but mountaineers or “sightseers” not always sure what sights we’re really seeing. Our expectations may be lower; our curiosity a little higher, if not too distracted by glowing screens and selfies. Our selves get in the way and so do our beliefs. Who has the time, the interest, the stillness, to see or hear or feel something greater than us? Like Nature, like the All, god or not.
Can we hear the ferry horn or train whistle? Can we hear the bird or the breeze? Can we hear our own heartbeat, or do we need to tell someone else’s story from some long ago and lost Alp, Arabia or Appalachia?
I returned to the Northwest for a spell, hunkering down in a small one-room cabin on an island in the Sound, where I could see Olympics and Cascades, where I could hear those ferries and trains, seagulls and eagles, passing orcas and whales too. Yet, it wasn’t the same. I had left the island of my childhood for other rains and rivers, forests and mountain ranges. I was rooted to those memories, but memories are withered roots with no tendrils or virescent shoots.
Mountains grow; at least they change, in big or small ways, day by day, season by season (might be why we sense a kinship to them). Their shoots are rivers, like veins across the landscape.
Wherever there are mountains I’ll lace up my boots, because I have roots, if not home. Walking out into the elementary school of the wild, the unpaved streets have no name but trees and the only blasts are the bellowing elk, screeching owls and lonely cries of coyotes in the night.
“Oh the mind, mind has mountains” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. And so it does.