The Price of Looking to the Sky

We take to the mountains because something is different up there.  The air is crisp, civilization slogs and slaves below you, and you’re theoretically closer to whatever higher power you subscribe to.  However, this feeling proved elusive a few weeks ago.

We awoke early, 2:30 to be exact.  My roommate and I drove to meet a few members of his church group.  We piled into a sturdy SUV and headed for Grey’s Peak, one of the “14ers” so many Coloradans covet.  I gradually awakened as the 1994 Toyota Landcruiser groaned with each elevation increase.

We hit the trail at dawn.  The group fell into a rhythm and eventually broke into smaller clusters.  I began walking with one of the faster group members.  Quickly, I was swept up by his desire to reach the top.  Soon a great distance between us and the larger group formed.

At first glance, it seemed advantageous to be ahead pushing the pace.  We felt good that we were likely to have ample time to summit not just Grey’s Peak, but Torrey’s as well.

At last, we reached the top and took a breather.  The view was expansive and would have been breathtaking in most circumstances.  However, I couldn’t forget the choice we made to break from the group.  A choice that undoubtedly was beneficial in regards to the goal of making both summits before the notorious afternoon storms and murderous lightning bolts emerged.  Still, something felt missing.

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What had I sacrificed in pursuit of this goal?  Why did this feel different that the majesty and freedom I have felt atop much more modest peaks?

I had missed nature’s subtleties.  I hadn’t stopped to feel the cool mountain air on my skin and hadn’t gathered the fresh smell of alpine trees in my nose.  I hadn’t stopped to fear escalating winds or even to ponder how much longer we had to go.

Reaching a goal does not guarantee satisfaction.  Perhaps the feeling of satisfaction is simple sum of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations experienced in pursuit of that goal.  If the only experience is dogged persistence and focus, the achievement is empty.

This phenomenon does not just occur atop mountains.  Recently, a social experiment was staged in a DC metro station.  A world-renowned violinist volunteered to play a free set littered with beautiful, albeit somewhat obscure, compositions in the middle of a busy station.  Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post noted that, “Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100.”¹  The entertainment value of this man’s work was not a question.

Despite this, Bell was shocked to watch as, “1,097 people passed by.  Almost all of them were on the way to work…”.¹  However, a segment of the population noted Bell’s brilliance.  Weingarten noted that, “Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch.  And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”¹  Somewhere along the way these adults became blind to beauty.

After being informed of what they had missed, many pedestrians asked when he would be playing again.  They were informed that this was a one-time experience.

Fortunately, we had a descent to look forward to.  I saw what I had missed.  The flowers, the green hillsides, the blue skies, the radiant sunshine.  Unfortunately, life does not always offer us simple redemption.

“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Perhaps the path matters more than the goal itself.  We must remain aware or our great capacity to become blind to a rich and varied world.

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¹Weingarten, Gene. “Pearls Before Breakfast.” Washington Post 8 April 2007: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html&gt;

The Ghost of Everett Ruess

As has become tradition, I awoke before 4 AM and headed for the mountains in search of solitude that only a sunrise hike can offer.  I arrived happily caffeinated and ready to plunge into a sea of trails crisscrossing Mt. Greylock, a purple monster that lords over the small Massachusetts burg of Williamstown.

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I was granted the solitude I sought, encountering zero people for the first five or six miles.  Once again, I found myself in love with the challenge and silence of the mountains.  I came across several large animal droppings.  The first was a large pile of pellets indicating a large deer or moose.  Innocuous enough, I thought.  A mile further down the trail, a more human-shaped turd appeared.  From what I’d read, this indicated a big cat or coyote had been here.

For several miles, each rustling twig, each broken branch raised my blood pressure.  I clutched a rock and scanned the dense foliage.  What was supposed to be a loving nature walk, briefly morphed into the mental exercise of destroying a rabid mountain lion.

After a few miles of haunted stillness, I crossed a road.  This overt sign of society reminded me that humans are more menacing than all the cats and bears within the quiet forest.  When I reached the other side of the road, I came across a chilling sign.

A 31-year-old man had gone missing, leaving only a note saying that he wished to disappear “forever into the wilderness and to remain out of contact with humanity.”  The sign proceeded to detail his extensive mental issues and spelled out strategies if you encountered the man.

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My heart hurt, knowing that this man had been afflicted with a familiar heartbreak and love of nature.

“When I go, I leave no trace.”- Everett Ruess

People disappear into the wilderness each year, but none in as dramatic fashion as Everett Ruess.  Everett was an artist and poet, a manic-depressive capable of the highest highs and lowest lows.  He was a male with a gift for the aesthetic and the written word.  Unsurprisingly, he struggled to find a niche within the industrial 1930s.

Out in the wild and free of judgment and oppressing convention, he roamed and wrote a series of beautiful letters and poems.

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He boldly declared love for the lonely canyons and dancing tumbleweed of the Southwest.  He dreamt lucid dreams.  His poems were treacherous and vivid.  Everett was unafraid of the travails of love.  But if you listen closely, you can hear heartbroken murmurs, quiet as a rustle of leaves.

He was in love with the land.  But, like any love, his love required great sacrifice.  His sacrifices ultimately led to irrevocable estrangement with society.  His letters and poems became dark and he intimated that he might never wish to return.  Of course, this was before large-scale depressive medication and hyper-fast telecommunication, so his internal wounds were left to fester.

“As to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon.  I have not tired of the wilderness… I prefer the saddle to the street car, and the star-sprinkled sky to the roof, the obscure and difficult leading into the unknown…”- Everett Ruess

Then, 80 years ago, Everett disappeared without a trace into the vast desert of Utah.  Some conjecture that he was killed by bandits or Indians, some are convinced of suicide, and others suggest he took refuge with a wandering Indian tribe.

“In my mind I conjured up a thousand forgotten cities, left behind by the years; sheer grey mountains; mile upon mile of bare, unfriendly desert; cold lakes unrippled by any breeze, with depths unfathomable; jungles filled with deadly snakes, immense butterflies, brilliant colors, fever, and death.  I swam in the blue seas, and in coral-tinted waters.  Through insufferable heat and incessant flooding downpours I plodded forward….These are the things I saw and the experiences I lived through that night long past.  Now it is night again–the night before I go.” – Everett Ruess- I Go To Make My Destiny, 1932

What’s not debated is that Everett was a disturbed, yet brilliant young man.  A headstrong vagabond, he wished to discover a philosophy that would liberate him from the stifling confines of an industrial society that, in his mind, had lost its soul, its direction.

Everett was lost in that philosophical pursuit.  His inexplicable disappearance leaves many questions.

Did Everett reach the union with nature he aspired to?  Did he find everlasting happiness on the banks of an undying desert stream?  Did he find love in the breathtaking space and emptiness of the desert?

His quest was seemingly logical.  Unable to find perfection in a complex, chaotic urban ecosystem, he sought perfection in an unspoiled land.  Everett was betting that complete contentment was there for the taking.  However, history has repeatedly found us incapable of finding contentment.

Artists, poets, and musicians like Everett are saints destined to die at the altar of an elusive understanding of our volatile human souls.

“Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary;

    That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;

Footsore, thirty, sick with strange diseases;

    Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept my dream!” – Everett Ruess “Wilderness Song”

What should we really fear?

I wonder what our chief fear should be when we’re all alone and the wind whistles through the trees atop a mountain.  Should our primary fear be savage predators or the seductive beauty of nature we seek?

Are jaw-dropping mountaintop views, the murmur of a rushing creek, and the still of a desert morning temptations too great for some?  Or is temptation being used too pejoratively?  Perhaps it’s a noble pursuit to become one with the land that birthed you.

But how dangerous is this idea?  How demented and disenchanting is this proposition?

The temptation is to give yourself to the trees, the air and the twigs.  The risk is tireless devotion to a cold, beautiful, and distant lover.  A risk that most only recognize in the seedy corners of bars or in the lust of youth.

Perhaps nature, beautiful and eternally young, lurks.  Perhaps nature waits for us to hurdle ourselves into its mysteries.  Perhaps it lies waiting for us to offer ourselves as martyrs against the injustices people have enacted on the massive organic edifice on which we sit.  Perhaps it relishes us prematurely leaving a world of understandable, loving fellow humans only to be crushed by its uncaring jaws.

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Truth is that everyone who runs from this cold world is bound to collide with the conclusion that the sweeping plains of the West or the shady, dense forests of New England are just as cold and heartless as the world they seem to spurn.

Wilderness is stubborn.  Wilderness will breathe and persist long after our feeble attempts to understand or capture it have ceased.

Our only hope is to find joy in our humanity and our shared misunderstanding of all that is greater than us.

Life lessons from Bear Mountain, CT

“So you’re sort of going through a mid-life crisis too, huh?”  I paused for a second, peering out over the picturesque Connecticut Valley from my perch atop Bear Mountain, and casually responded, “Yep, ahead of schedule too.”  Sarah had gotten divorced four years earlier, spurring a “mid-life crisis” that took her to the summit of 5, count em 5, 14 thousand foot peaks in Colorado and the entire Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail (53 miles) in a day.  Quite literally, a monumental life-shift had taken her to heights she’d never seen before.

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A weighty chance encounter at the peak of Bear Mountain, CT

This epic chance encounter, happening so metaphorically on a rock overlooking the whole state, had me thinking the entire way down.  The term “mid-life crisis” had been thrown my way more than a few times.  Typically, I would dismiss it or lay out the painstaking logic that led me from accountant in Houston to teacher in Hartford.  Similar to a modern-day scarlet letter, admitting to such a thing would be tantamount to agreeing that my recent life decisions were a result of immaturity or,even worse, insecurity.  The sight of this fit, ambitious 30-something helped me realize that mid-life crisis is an overly broad term.  How could a balding, disgruntled businessman buying red sports cars he can’t afford be equivalent to this woman fiercely dedicated to a mission of personal growth and exploration?

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Not all highs are created equal

Mid-life crisis, used in the traditional sense, implies a rapid, unsustainable euphoric high followed by a slow and steady descent down to the lowlands from which you came.  But what do we call a successful reassessment of what matters in life?  A period of sustainable personal growth?  The present use of the term, through the use of the undeniably negative word “crisis”, implies a lack of control and a negative outcome.  “Mid-life opportunity” more positively and accurately frames the situation.  It assumes neither success nor failure while still acknowledging an important juncture in an adult’s life.  Shiny red sports cars and marital infidelity or an empowering burst of personal growth, the choice is ours.

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Back to the lowlands or to previously unseen heights?