Home Mountains (And the Gullies That Get Us There)

Many of you live in places where you can reach your home mountain simply by stepping out the door and boarding a trail. But my home mountain is 100 miles to my west, and here by the Atlantic Ocean, I must often invent my vert. Perhaps some of you too must do the same.

Here’s one solution—look to the waters! Not the flat ponds and supposedly level sea, but the streams and brooks that flow sinuously looking for those prone waters. There, along the brook and riverbeds, even in the flatlands, you can find miniature mountains, or at least slopes that would be mountainous.

Every hill or mountain that we run is born partially of water, or its kindred, ice. It’s just that often, as we near water’s flat-faced ocean source, the land levels too. That’s not true along the exalted, young coasts of some of our continents, with their volcanoes and quakes, but east and south of the ground-down molars that are the Appalachians in the United States, and along the barely perceptible rise of the Great Plains, life near the water can be a flat proposition. Except along the insistent gouges of streams working always down to join the mother-ocean.

Take, for example, my neighborhood stream, the aptly named Mere Brook. Where we live together is around 80 feet above the nearby sea, and our trail-rich forest is so flat that, when the area’s college decided to construct playing fields a few hundred yards to our north, they needed only to remove the trees and doze in the leftover root holes. No filling and contour shuffling needed on this plain of long-ago glacial outwash.

But right next to those playing fields, day and night, Mere Brook noses through its gully, which drops some 25 to 30 feet below the surrounding level lands. The brook begins a mere mile west of where I meet it daily, and it ends three miles downstream in a series of S-curves going to mud at the sea. So it’s a small critter. And, officially, Mere Brook is “an urban impaired stream,” meaning it carries news of us and our residue toward the holding sea 24-7. But in the green-filtered light falling through large trees—pines and hemlocks and oaks and beeches—it shows a thin sheet of transparent water over clean sand. In its short run, it is beautiful.

Like all beauty, Mere Brook attracts attention. A couple of linked trails descend to it; one follows its vale for a few hundred yards before downed trees and general bogginess intrude. But it is the path down to and up from the brook that I frequent. There, I can conjure mountains. Seen in profile, mountains often look like vigorous electrocardiography, some heart of earth beating hard. They are the opposite of flatlining. I can make the brook mimic this earth-heart in miniature.

Just today, after a level, near-to-sea ramble yesterday, I thought, I need some vert, or at least the illusion of it.

And so I sought out the Parallel Gully and the Sine Curve Gully. Yes, those are my names, but their slopes are born of water’s chisel. The Parallel begins where a little tributary aims at Mere Brook, and as I run it, I begin with a 15-foot climb on a pine needle-strewn path; the track then runs for 50 yards parallel to the brook before dropping 20 feet to meet it. There, I tag a tree and turn to repeat—up, along, down; say it again and again.

“Repeat,” repetitive, aaargh… but there is also an alt-route pathway for a little variety. Halfway along the Parallel Gully, I can turn sharp left and drop 25 feet to a very bottom; immediately on the other side, the land runs up 20 more feet. At the top, I turn and go back down, then up. I am, it feels, a clunky-looking skier trapped in his uneven half-pipe. But in 30- and 40-foot chunks, the vert adds up, first to a hill, then even to a little mountain. Five times along the Parallel; five more rim to rim along the Sine… and on.

Well, perhaps I’ve just redefined your version of purgatory, but once into my reps and their short, toe-stubbing climbs and their canters down, I often reach a small joy. Here I am, I think, slogging up and down my molehills because I am aimed at real mountains.

Taking my Gully Vert Home

On a hot summer day, I leave the coast. Even 10 miles inland the land wrinkles; then 30 miles deeper, it heaves up. By the time I drive up the rising dirt road to the house near its end, I’ve had recurring sightings of my home mountain as I draw nearer, a sort of flip book of its granite dome growing larger with each thumbed page. This is the mountain that recurs in every range I visit. Now, in the dusk with the west light slanting across its face, I must look up. Tomorrow, I will go there.

I open the door, step out into the cool morning, and walk to the dirt driveway’s end. Then, as many of you do, I turn and set out on foot for the mountain, knowing all the stored little gullies-vert will get me there.

Coda (Another Reason We Go Out)

October running in the gully: it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit, wind’s in the north carrying with it a needled drizzle. Few others are out and about. It’s a perfect afternoon to go up and down along the gully. I begin 50 feet north of what I now call mayhem-corner on the Bowdoin fields’ trail; it’s the new, post-microburst entrance to the gully. Even that mostly clear route deviates to go around an uprooting whose stamp of now-vertical root ground is as tall as I am. Down then the 25 feet to where Mere Brook winds through a weave of trees and ferns and all that falls and washes its way.

A hundred feet ahead I spot surprise—there’s a figure, hood up, in a red parka; he is staring at the brook, unmoving. Perhaps the quiet, gray weather has attracted a yogi. As I draw near, I see what he’s watching. It’s a young, black lab elbows deep in the creek, intent, it seems, on its current. His ears are up, his tail wags steadily, he watches; the lab is dialed into something. I stop to watch too. A minute passes. “What’s he after?” I ask. “Fish,” says his red-jacketed companion. “Hasn’t caught one yet, but it’s not for lack of trying.”

The lab ignores all this, keeps his focus. I note that his rope lead is looped onto a streamside tree. Now he repositions, turns upstream, furrows his brow, restarts his tail, watches, his focus unbroken. The transparent water slides over its sands; some yellowing ferns glow in the gray light. I watch for another minute in silence. The dog never wavers. “This is it,” his posture says. It; there’s nothing else.

May I know ‘it’ like this dog.

Note, I find this irresistible: all these gully-verts make my mountain travel possible—Gully-verts Travels. You wish I’d resisted; so do I. I apologize.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How well do you know your home terrain? Can you describe the place where you trail run most frequently?
  • Does your home terrain offer you enough respite from real life and preparatory steps for your adventure life?
  • What does love of one’s home place mean to you? Can and do you come to love your little, local natural places?

In the author’s home gully. All photos: Sandy Stott

Mount Cardigan, the author’s ‘home mountain.’

A quartz vein on Mount Cardigan.

Sandy Stott

lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com.

There are 8 comments

  1. Ryan

    Even though I live somewhat close to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a trip down 77 is not always feasible during the work week. Getting to unpaved trails near my home is not exactly easy, but I have become very familiar with a system of metro parks in Cleveland that is composed mostly of paved all purpose trails. Vert and dirt is not a daily option for me but over the past decade I’ve become very familiar with my surroundings and there’s definitely something very enjoyable/powerful about that. In the space of a 12 mile loop from the front door of my house I can experience urban traffic, suburban quietude, Lake Erie views, a medium/large river occupied year round by fly fisherman, heron, and a multitude of fellow runners passed along the way. In this time I’ve been able to build relationships with fellow runners (even if that only involves a familiar passing wave) and get REALLY familiar with my surroundings. Running somewhere long enough to see the change and evolution has been a great experience, but, I’m definitely envious of those able to get out to more rustic locales.

    Great article!

    1. Sandy

      Thanks, Ryan…your exploration of metro parks and their varied pockets says to me how lucky we are to both have parks and to be able to go to and through them on foot. So much and so many live there.

  2. Henry Bickerstaff

    Living in NW Oklahoma the nearest trails are 90 miles away. My trails are the County roads laid out in square miles and my hills are a 1.1 mile out and back in the cemetery with three ups and three downs with each up being about .15 mile. Even though I can be 10 miles from town and still see it there is beauty in the flatness, winter wheat, the cattle grazing, the morning sun reflecting off endless roads and the stillness of not seeing a vehicle for hours. My Dad would say home is wherever you hang your hat, likewise, beauty can be found wherever you run even in desolate places, it is not obvious but you simply have to look.

    1. Sandy

      Thanks, Henry. Your grid reminds me of my parallel gully repeats — sameness, but at some point/s along the way, uplift too. You must run also under remarkable skies.

  3. Leah

    While “home” for me is the rugged South West of England, with its rolling hills and dramatic clifftops, I’ve been living in my adopted city of Birmingham since coming here for university some 11 years ago and have had to learn to find the green spaces here in that time. One of the genuine joys I have of running here is discovering and exploring our little urban greenways – cycle trails, footpaths and interconnecting waterways which criss-cross the entire Midlands region in almost unbroken corridors of green hidden between the redbrick. We do have hills, although the local ones aren’t anywhere near as dramatic as the nearby Malverns, but there is a lot to be said for the regular day-to-day runs along those green paths. A left turn here to go through an unexpected woodland trail of maybe half a mile, complete with carved wooden wildlife sculptures; a right turn there to drop down to Sarehole Mill (the inspiration for Tolkein’s Hobbiton and the Shire); over the little iron foobridge towards Woodgate to say hello to the horses; taking a different canal bridge up from the water and arriving at the Harborne Walkway, complete with tunnels beneath the major roads that are like little portals into another world as you run through quiet woodland; venturing out towards the Clent Hills and their standing stone circle… Or, striking out further afield along the national canal and footpath network to Stratford-upon-Avon, or out to the depths of the rural Black Country.
    It’s in finding these little pockets and threads of my home countryside that has helped me find calm through all manner of life’s ups and downs, and being able to keep that curious mindset normally reserved for the trails means that small adventure is never too far away until I can get out into wilder country.
    And best of all, one of the more recent joys of it all has been introducing friends to these routes (especially one very close friend who is just starting out on the journey to his first marathon), and delighting in them all over again as they enthuse about how you’d never even know you were in a city.
    So, in some ways there’s a bit of a dual trail citizenship here – on the one hand the moors and the cliffs and the wild sea, and on the other quiet park footpaths and waterways hidden between industry and suburbs. I know one certainly helps me miss the other a lot less keenly.

  4. Ric Moxley

    “Every hill or mountain that we run is born partially of water, or its kindred, ice” — Spoken like a true east-of-the-Mississippi kind of guy. ;-) But seriously – thanks for the article. Good insights. And a good reminder for those of us who do in fact have a trail and amounts in our backyards to never take them for granted.

    1. Sandy

      Well, yes, Ric, we out here are water-centered; water keeps shaping and reshaping our lives. That it also gets us ready for visits to your terrain is a gift. Thanks, for your note.

  5. Sandy

    I like the “dual citizenship” you describe, Leah…part of it including The Shire, no less. That all these local paths link gradually into networks that can carry us a long way is one of the more hopeful parts of a running life. Thanks for your descriptions and bringing Birmingham alive in my mind.

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