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Backpacker Magazine – June 2001

The Mountain Knows

When our firstborn son left us, the word "burial" was never uttered.

by: Tom Shealey

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The ashes of a cremated infant barely fill the palm of an adult's hand. Like the cinders in a cold campfire, they are soft to the touch, almost delicate, and when scattered on the mountain wind, they drift like a faint gray cloud, carrying with them thoughts of a life that will never be fulfilled.

When our firstborn son left us, the word "burial" was never uttered. We knew what we had to do. We took him high into the Blue Ridge Mountains where North and South Carolina join, and set his spirit free to forever wander the land we love so much.

In the days that followed, we wrestled with previously unfathomable sorrow, searched for something to blame, and were haunted by unanswerable questions. Our house was unfamiliar, our jobs meaningless, our lives as we'd known them gone. Again, we knew what we had to do. We headed for the Rocky Mountains.

Through the ages, people have been drawn to mountains like iron filings to a magnet. To some, mountains are sanctuaries steeped in the sacred. Mt. Sinai in Egypt, Olympus in Greece, and Fuji in Japan attract pilgrims seeking spiritual enlightenment and answers to hard questions others cannot address, answers unattainable in the day-to-day chaos down below.

Still others view mountains as a symbol of supreme effort. To reach a summit requires extraordinary physical and mental stamina, going beyond what's considered normal human capability. At the same time, the mountain must be approached with respect and caution. Make a slight misjudgment and you fall; ignore the weather and you freeze to death, even in the dead of summer. Because of the ease with which mountains can turn on you, many cultures have long viewed them as dangerous haunts of malevolent gods and demons, and places of holy terror.

We carried our demons with us in the 2 months we spent in places like Rocky Mountains National Park, Yellowstone, and the Tetons. Because it was autumn and peak tourism season was over, we had the places to ourselves. We sat in camp in Yellowstone and for the first time in weeks, we felt our leaden hearts soar at the sound of elk bugling, then reveled as a grand bull led his harem within a few yards of us. In the Tetons, we made sure camp was set up and coffee brewed before sunset, so we could relax and watch the mountains blaze gold and orange as the sun faded. It was then that we learned how light can change the mood of a mountain, and of those who watch.

One day, somewhere in Rocky Mountain National Park, on the side of a mountain with a name I don't remember, I stared at the rivers and forests and valleys below. When you're down there surrounded by it all, you can feel closed-in and small, able to see only what's obvious and in front of your face. But when you're up high with a bird's-eye perspective, the pieces fit neatly together, interlocking like a magical puzzle: River cleanly divides forest, forest runs thick and green up the mountain's flank, then gives way to rock stretching toward the clouds. The pinnacle is a meeting place between heaven and Earth, the realms of spirit and matter.

I realized then what I was doing in the mountains: I was searching for a ladder, trying to ascend and reach the little one I'd heard crying so many nights.

Staring out at the vastness, I knew solace would not come quickly or easily, nor would I be able to climb high enough. So I sat and gazed at the horizon. With such a clean, unobstructed view, the horizon looks like a true destination that should be on a map, a place you can reach if you hike long and far enough. But no matter how determined your quest, you'll never reach that point where sky and earth join. It's always just out of reach, like the answer to the question everyone asks when faced with a life-altering event: "Why me?"


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