They remember the presence of the mountains. I live in Denver, on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and the mountains have ingrained themselves into my psych like some kind of invisible shadow. I can always orient myself to that sensation, as if the air has more pressure that way. I can do it indoors, and (mostly, barring weird circumstances) in the night. And, I recently learned, I can do it on the other side of the world. I think I need to have a contiguous series of reference points to keep my subconscious straight. If I do, then I can go to the countryside in India and still feel this looming presence in the empty air that’s my memory of the Rocky Mountains.
That way's west.
I take this for granted. I shouldn’t, but I take it for granted that this feature of the landscape helped wire my brain. Just by being there, the mountains did something to my personality, and I just wave my hand about it like,
“Mountains? Psh. Ain’t no thing.”
It is, though. There’s no silence louder than the silence of standing on top of a mountain, standing on the result of these wrinkles caused by the pressure of the Earth on itself, bending itself off true and changing the weather. Your chest aches from the thin, cold air. They just sit there—irregularities in the landscape that reach from your toes to the jagged, too-high horizon—and yet the groaning ground itself seems aware of the awful beauty.
It ain’t no thing, though. They’re just mountains.
I visited the foothills of the Himalayas. And I figured, hey, I’ve seen mountains before. What’s more mountains? Mountains are all just piles of stuff. Sure, they’re twice as tall, but they won’t look twice as tall, I figured. Mountains are just mountains, I figured.
It’s not the same.
It felt eerie.
The Rocky Mountains are big and you can’t escape them. They dominate the city.
The Himalayas are twice as tall, and they look like it. It just felt so strange to level my gaze at the point in the sky where my mountains end—where Mount Evans and Pikes Peak stop and give way to sky—to look that high, and then look that much higher again before finding the big empty. I kept listening for them. My brain refused to believe that something could disrupt the landscape that much without shaking the air into a growl as wide as the sky.
I am used to mountains, and that just weirded me out.
I don’t know, lasers and geysers. We think of ourselves as masters of this planet we live on. Yet this planet, just by having these bumps and riddles in it, worked a fundamental scratch into my crevices, just by its passive enormousness. I love mountains. I love standing next to them or in among them and listening to how much bigger they are than I am. They remind me I ain’t as big a deal as I sometimes worry that I am—that I be small and timid. There might be a lesson to learn there.
Oliver Blakemore is a guest writer from Denver whose palpable relationship with mountains and words we're lucky to have. Share the last time you have done a mountain hike or a road trip. And...do you miss it? We hope to experience the Spanish Pyrenees with you...