Many people love beaches, my wife foremost among them. I have to admit, beaches are nice, when they are secluded and solar heated.
But Mountains! Mountains are where beaches are born.
Somewhere near the head of a stream, water seeps slowly into a flaw. Winter cold freezes the mixture of oxygen and hydrogen into an expanding wedge that forces a boulder to crack into two pieces, then more, until the stream grows larger and the boulder pieces smaller.
Eventually, the pieces become small enough, and water mines soil and smaller rocks from under the bigger ones, and they begin tumbling down the mountainside, pushed along by the flow, rubbing against each other, wearing and breaking into ever smaller stones, then pebbles, then grains of granite and silicone until, after several years or a thousand, they arrive at ocean’s edge.
A short distance from my home is a place where a collision of two tectonic plates pushed and folded the basalt and granite into an Afro-coifed face of an old man, seeming to laugh at me when I hike near him because he was there when I arrived on the planet, and likely will be there when my great-grandkids depart.
Over the intervening eons, the plates have drawn apart, the new chasms filled with a swirling solution of water, salt and other chemicals that laps against the worn down rocks-become-sand. Human bodies walk and lie on them, grinding them even smaller, and ocean waves sweep them up or down the coast or out to sea.
For all their poetic immenseness, mountains are nearly invisible, unless you climb them. Mountains are mostly for climbing. Near where I live is a fairly high peak – for here – named Pole Steeple, steep enough to let an aging climber realize how much time he’s spent on flatter turf.
But size is relative. I was accompanied one day by two 12-year-olds, my granddaughter and her Best Friend Forever. Granddaughter also has spent too much time at sea level and thought the climb, about 1,000 feet in seven-tenths of a mile, a mite strenuous. Her BFF, who had spent her earlier years in the Rockies of Montana, laughed and announced that a real mountain would be about 14,000 feet.
I drove a Jeep at nearly 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. After more than an hour, I stopped to look down at where I’d started, then gazed upward at a stone needle, nearly as high above me as the road I’d left was below.
After another hour of Zs and Ws and four-wheel-drive over chipped-off rocks and boulders, I made another stopping point, where I looked down at that pointed peak. Granddaughter’s BFF was correct.
But whether it’s 1,400 feet or 14,000, whether climbed by Jeep or foot, a mountain, when you stand on it, touches someplace deep in the soul.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I drove Kuboske’s Jeep out of Ouray, Colo., to within a couple hundred feet of Engineer Pass. In early May, the snow up there still was deep enough that when we stopped in a bulldozer-carved canyon, I could stand on the Jeep’s roof and barely see over the edge.
Mountain snows and constant wind have worn more of that peak away – but I doubt if, without some fairly sophisticated instrumentation, I could notice. The artist wielding that brush and chisel is very patient, and has nothing but time to complete the design.
Mountains make terrific fences, I’ve learned. When I lived in Maine, in the lee of the White Mountains, we knew if a storm came from the west it would go over us, to dump sometimes three feet or more snow on the big town that lay two hours east of us by the regular highway.
But if the storm came in from the south, around the bottom of the mountains, and up the coast, picking up fury and moisture along the way, we knew we were in for some serious shoveling.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan threatened where I by-then lived in Adams County, Pennsylvania. Remnants of the storm created tornados in Caledonia State Park, a few miles west of here. Television news and weather folks 50 miles and two counties to the east broadcast warnings that our county was about to be picked up and blown clear to Kansas.
But the South Mountains made fibbers of the prognosticators. I have some beautiful pictures of the damage to trees in the park, but on this side of the mountains – nothing.
On the opposite side of the world are more mountains, some rising more than five miles above the sea that once covered the now-snowbound peaks. We know of the ocean from the fossils of sea creatures preserved within the frozen repositories.
That’s the thing with mountains. They took so long to make, it sometimes seems they’ve never not been there.
And it’ll take at least as long to replace them.
Photo by John Messeder
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