MOUNTAINS AS A RELATIVE MEASURE

by Jnana Hodson

As I listen, I realize the locals don’t consider the surrounding ridges to be mountains. Although these “foothills” or just plain “hills” are as tall as Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies, shorn of trees, to speak of “mountains” signifies that one must drive away into forest. The time comes to hike in unfamiliar high country.

I drive west, into a mountain pass, and park at the trail head.

Climbing through clouds on Sheep Lake Trail, I identify snow lilies, phlox, two whistling marmots I mistake for groundhogs, and a ptarmigan. In these topless mountains, snow and rocks glimmer atop jagged white threads that twist, plunge, and roar over miles. In this clarity I recount a friend’s determination to perceive the important task to perform each day — a focus she achieved in the sunset of her young death. Go on.

The next outing, I follow another friend’s favorite trail. My valley of orchards and meadows stretches behind in a twilight of small-city lights and barren blue ridges. In golden splay dusk, I learn to fear glaciers atop volcanic spines and in their grooved depths, too. So much depends on which way you turn. Clouds, one moment pink, shift into slate-blue. Think of a great-uncle’s farm in Ohio flatlands when green-wood ringed the fields and autos were novelties; and how, when the United Brethren in Christ build their new sanctuary, one tree furnishes enough lumber for all the pews. Such timber is long gone from most of the Midwest, and nearly gone here, as well.

Strangely, adjusting to such disorientation can allow one to see more than the landscape with fresh eyes. I begin reckoning my birthplace afresh, too. I perceive a native poetry now vanished: in flat terrain they coined Sweet Potato Ridge Road when they became sensitive to what had been called Nigger Pike, after work crews that came out from the workhouse jail in the city; Diamond Mill Road was made of limestone gravel flecked with quartz or mica, but named for the distillery beside the rails. What could be in those rural lanes I had sped along on the way to the farm to cause their ghosts to arise out here? I think, too, of the hayloft I had delighted climbing in, even though the old folks feared I’d fall through and be trampled by cattle; more ominously, some shed rafters I walked like a high-wire artist had hogs rummaging below, with razor snouts and teeth and a latent taste for blood. That farm acreage is scarcely like these Western orchards or open ranges, yet something echoes. It’s earth and air. Sunshine and clouds. My days in the mountains are airy conifers. I could be a pioneer, in spirit, at least. My ancestors settled those Ohio tracts. Another line, a bit earlier, settled North Carolina Piedmont. Here, I find unspoiled corners.

Perhaps bears do drink beer. Rocks, leap from mountaintops into oceans. Naked breasts, swell from snowmelt pool to sky.

Against this wall, between his desert and the frigid sea current, I declare my vast ignorance: left to myself, I’d likely starve, soon sicken of berries, and have never caught fish properly or gutted a rabbit. Somehow, I wait to be fed. Thus, one point of my Dedicated Laborious Quest involves learning to be wholly myself — embracing flaws as well as talents, as I search out my own boundaries.

Away from the office and encircled by an ever-renewing earth — even an apparently lifeless desert that restores his sanity and a brand of insanity, too — you may find that every trail you follow brings you closer to your own attainment, your emerging sense of place and mission within the universe. As for looniness — ah, loco! — you soon appreciate how all are in some way at least un poco, indeed.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

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