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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 power of mountains is both great and subtle. They are the highest, most dramatic features of the landscape, so it makes sense that they arouse undeniable feelings in us. The sight of a peak piercing the clouds; a range, its base wrapped in fog, seeming to float like a dreamscape; moonlight glancing off a snowy face, ice crystals glistening like diamonds in the night-mountains are pure examples of transcendent beauty, places of unimaginable splendor, lands of possibility and hopes and dreams.

And all this goodness is the result of cataclysmic events: the breaking apart of the land, stresses mighty enough to move continents, fiery flows of white-hot molten rock, eruptions that send ash into the sky and darken days. Traumatic episodes shape our world and shake our lives. How we respond determines whether we'll forever stand on bedrock or crumble into dust.

Eventually, we left the mountains and headed home, feeling-hoping-that the healing had begun. But a month later, grief again ruled. One day, while sitting in a field, exhausted from all the emotional jousting, a voice told me the suffering would end if I'd simply lie back. I was tempted, because then I'd finally make it to where my son waited, to the place the mountains couldn't reach.

At the weakest moment in my life, I found the energy to stand when everything in me wanted to lie down. Like mountaineers who get temptingly close to the summit only to be forced back down by dangerous conditions, I knew there would be another day, and I had to live for that moment. Those months in the mountains had yielded bedrock after all, and it was time to start building a new life on that rock-hard foundation.

Today, we have two teenage sons, both enamored with the high country. I don't get them into the mountains as much as I'd like, but the seed has been planted in them. I know from experience that that's all it takes to breed a lifelong fascination with, and respect for, all things mountainous.

And even though my aging body won't let me go as high as I once did, I still venture into the hills whenever I can, for there I'm reminded of how delicate life is, how bad times can turn good, and that a child can live forever on the mountain wind.

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