The Mountain Knows

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

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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?”

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.