Why Mountains

I lived the first 24 years of my life far removed from any mountains. I grew up in central New York, not far from the Adirondack Mountains, but far enough that we hardly ever went there. The immediate area around my childhood home is one of the flattest places I have ever seen.

The first time I saw “real” mountains was when I was 19 or 20. I remember driving across the Plains for what felt like forever. It seemed impossible that anything other than more flat grassland and corn fields was ever going to exist. I knew that if I just kept driving west, mountains would form on the horizon. Eventually, I started to see some low clouds in the distance. At least this was something to change up the monotony. As the clouds began to thicken I remember worrying that I may be driving into a late summer thunderstorm, or even worse, a tornado. As I got close enough I could make out that I was in fact seeing the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and not clouds. Tornado avoided, mountains discovered.

From this point forward, I have spent nearly my entire life in close proximity to mountains. When I am not near mountains, I feel anxious and uncomfortable. Flat land in every direction makes me feel, for lack of a better analogy, one dimensional. In Juneau, Alaska, where I have spent the majority of my time in the past seven years, there is an infamous lack of sun. Juneau is one of the rainiest and cloudiest places in North America. I used to think that the lack of sun in Juneau had a significant negative impact on my mood, but over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t the lack of sun, but rather the lack of seeing the nearby mountains when the clouds are low, hovering around sea level. I really figured this out last summer when we had the cloudiest and wettest May through July that anyone there could remember.

Sometimes the clouds would move down low for four straight days, but then on the fifth day the clouds would move back up to 5,000-plus feet. Suddenly, the mountaintops were open and visible for the first time in days and my entire being would soften and spring to life. To my surprise, though, it seemed like so many other people in town were in a dreary mood, and were still waiting for the sun to come back. Almost like they didn’t even notice that the clouds had moved up 5,000 feet. Clouds are clouds whether they’re blocking the sun a few hundred feet above you or a few thousand feet above you, right? Yes, in some cases, but not if they are also blocking the mountains that surround you in every direction.

I’ve thought often about exactly why mountains bring me such comfort and make me feel so at home. Although much of this is still a mystery to me, I have been able to come to some small understanding of my affinity for mountains.

I think a large part of it has to do with the typical solitude and lack of large population that tends to go hand-in-hand with mountainous terrain. I have always been a small town kind of person, and in general the higher you go up into mountains, the smaller and smaller the towns get, and the more calm and laid back the culture tends to become. Certainly, there’s something more than this, though, as a small town in a flat place doesn’t appeal to me nearly as much as a large city in or near the mountains. I would much rather spend significant time in Salt Lake City than in Corning, New York (as a random example).

The other major reason why I think I like being in the mountains so much is a little more abstract, and a little harder to explain. But, in short, I think that when I move vertically (as compared to the vast majority of movement in life which is horizontal), I get a better view of my life and the world that surrounds me. Obviously, when you climb to the top of a mountain you have a great view of the land surrounding you, but I also feel like going into the mountains gives me a better understanding and a better view of life in general.

It’s hard to say exactly why I feel this way, but I think it does have to do with this idea of seeing things from different angles. Very few people regularly travel more than a mile in the vertical direction, whereas nearly everyone travels this far horizontally every day. I think there is a lot to learn and a lot to discover in horizontal travel, but for some reason (perhaps only because of the novelty), there seems to be so much more to discover and so much more to learn from traveling vertically. Life just feels different when you ascend 3,000 feet up a mountain. In that moment everything seems easier to understand, and everything looks just a little (sometimes a lot) more beautiful.

I’m sure I’ll spend plenty of time in my future away from mountains, but I can’t imagine ever feeling clear and comfortable in my life unless I maintain some relationship with them. I used to think that I would probably only be a runner when I was relatively young and could do it at a highly competitive level, but now that I think of my running primarily as a way to explore mountainous terrain, I suspect I will be a “runner” (as long as we can define running as going into the mountains on foot, even if the terrain forces you to be walking much of the time) for as long as my body allows, because in almost all cases running is my favorite way to interact with the mountains.

Call for Comments
I’d love to hear other mountain lovers’ thoughts. What is it that draws you to mountains? Do you agree that you see life a little differently, a little more clearly, when traveling vertically, as compared to horizontally? Do you ever feel a little “off” when you aren’t in or near mountains? Meanwhile, I’m off to go for a little run up into the mountains, excited to see what I’ll discover today.