I have always been a mountain person. I was born in Montana, raised at the foot of the Rockies in Colorado and went to college in Idaho, just a short drive from Bogus Basin ski area. When our young family moved to Wisconsin for my first call in a church we realized that we didn’t fit very well. We chalked up it up to different social norms and cultural expectations. But looking back at it I wonder how much of it was the absence of mountains.
I remember when we were driving up to Milwaukee for some shopping and ahead of me I saw a sign that alerted us to an upcoming ski area. Cross country skiing is a big sport back there, but this sign had stick figure skiers pointed down in the middle of a couple of squiggly lines that were meant to signify a mountain.
My jaw dropped.
The highest thing I had seen in Wisconsin was an antenna on a fifth story apartment building. But the sign kept its promise and a mile later another sign with the same picture greeted us but this time with an arrow pointing to the left. I quickly went from a gaping open mouth to an exaggerated shaking of my head while zinging out in rapid fire succession, “No! No! No! No!”
Right next to the sign that pointed us to the winter playground was another sign pointing the same direction that said, “County landfill.” These Wisconsinites had covered an old landfill with dirt, had installed a rope tow up to the top of the mound of trash and when the snow had covered enough of the pile with the fluffy white stuff they called it a ski area. Stunning!
I grew up skiing at Arapahoe Basin in Colorado that takes one up above timberline to nearly 11,000 feet and in Vail with their overpriced lift tickets and celebrity residents. Those were ski areas! I suppose that this mound of dirt in Wisconsin was technically a ski area, but getting the words to fall out of my mouth was nothing less than painful.
Like I said, I have always been a mountain person. But I don’t think I really knew that until one September day in 2011. I was seven weeks into my 4,000-mile cycling pilgrimage through the West. I had already crossed three major mountain ranges including the Cascades in Oregon and the Rockies twice, once in Montana and once in Colorado. I was nearing the foot of the Sierras after having spent more than one full week crossing the Nevada desert and nearly crushing me psychologically. I had rested for two days in Gardnerville, Nevada before tackling the final mountain range before cycling to the Pacific coast on my way back to Portland.
The first few miles paralleled the base of the Sierras as I pedaled along farms with a few cattle, horses, sheep and goats. Eventually the road veered to the right and I was greeted with an increasingly steep road that was snaking its way through a pine-covered forest and alongside a rushing snow-fed stream.
I had only pedaled a few strokes when I suddenly exhaled out loud, “I am home. I am home.” My body relaxed. My breathing settled in and I began cranking hard to power my way over the 8,573 foot Kit Carson pass that would point to the Central Valley of California. It was an odd moment. I was at the foot of a major mountain pass where I knew I was going to have to dig deep yet I relaxed as the road began to snake its way up into the stratosphere.
I know now that the mountains and my body and soul belong together. I really confirmed that during my two-year stint in the bucolic little village of Yachats on the Oregon coast. The truth is I had it really good there. Yachats sometimes shows up on the “Top Ten Best Places to Visit in the World” lists. It truly is a magical place. During my second year there I arranged to house sit for a family in exchange for watching over their property while it was for sale. This was a large modern house with picture windows that covered the entire span of the ocean-facing walls. The house was probably forty vertical feet above the ocean and every night I went to sleep with the sound of the waves rhythmically caressing me and the moist ocean air blowing through my window and across my face. And I was enjoying this rent free!
Like I said, I had it really good! But given the option between an ocean front home and a cabin in the woods I would choose the latter every time. The ocean was magical. But I know I belong in the mountains.
So to the mountains I go again!
In September I will leave on another one of my magical adventures–this time to Nepal and Tibet where I and handful of other crazy cyclists will make an ascent in the Himalayas to a spot near Everest Base Camp. Four years ago I made a list of all the possible pilgrimages I might want to tackle. I ended up choosing the route to Rumi’s Tomb in Konya, but the Everest Base Camp ascent was high on my list. I vowed it would be near the top next time the itch to travel overwhelmed me.
But there is more to this.
I have been a student of religious literature for nearly four decades now. One of the things that shows up consistently is that many of the epiphanies and revelations of religious literature happen on mountains. Moses is given the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Jesus is transfigured before the disciples’ eyes on a mountain. Jesus even preaches a “sermon on the mount” as if his teachings were more likely to take root in the thin air of a mountain than in the bustling commotion of a marketplace.
I know that my very first “mystical” experience–where I suddenly got lost in the scenery and couldn’t find the line between the observer and the observed–happened on the top of a mountain after cranking my way up it on two wheels. Still to this day the mountains touch me in a place that no other landscape can. When I am in the mountains my lungs expand, my breathing deepens, and my soul exclaims, “You’re home, Brian. You’re home.”
As I have done in the past I will invite you into this journey. I am currently pouring over both sacred and secular literature where mountains play a significant and often transformative role. While in Nepal and Tibet I will be living with those texts in my mind and my heart while my legs carry me up the mountains. I will blog as often as Wifi is available in that remote place.
Next blog will be a reflection on John Denver’s song, Rocky Mountain High. “He was born in the summer of his 27th year…”
See you at the top!