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The Mountains

( Originally Published 1908 )

He knew the mountains, who said, " I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help" ; knew them in some intimate, spiritual way, for his words imply a noble association and companionship. Wordsworth understood them in this way, but not as the mountaineer knows them. They are ethereal dream-mountains the poet sees, rather than a dual rock and soil.

On the horizon the mountains wrap themselves in mysterious light and color and seem invested with certain qualities which they lose near at hand, as a cloud, so beautiful an objet floating in the heavens, is but a fog bank once we are enveloped in it. Distance does actually lend enchantment. The range beyond has always some attraction this one lacks. In truth, mountains are illusory objects, and, to the most matter-of-fact point of view, are something more than rock. That marvelous purple of the distant hills, assumed as an imperial robe, slips away as we approach, and we find them dressed in plain brown home-spun. Never do we as much as touch the hem of that royal mantle.

A symbol of the unchangeable, they are none the less marvelously sensitive to the play of light, and thus appear to vary with the conditions of the atmosphere. There are days when they seem to approach, and times again when they recede and become distant and nebulous. This magic-play of light proceeded from their birth, and goes on forever, the unceasing illusion, the beautiful witchery.

From the violet shadows of their bases they rise through a stratum of ethereal blue to emerge glistening white. Now they are savage and defiant in their somber shadows, ramparts and battlements; again, opalescent, lying like cumulous clouds on the horizon. What a vast bulk is yonder spur, massy and ponderous in this light, but tomorrow it may appear immaterial as thistle-down and to hang suspended in the ambient air. In the morning the crags and cliffs stand out naked and dazzling on the great rock mass of the peak ; yet before night every detail may be obliterated and the mountain appear a lowering mass, dull and grim.

It is with mountains somewhat as it is with people there must be perspective if they are to appear all serene and beautiful. In the distant chain the details are lost, and we receive a single distinct impression of serenity, as though they stood there a type of the fixed and eternal. But in among them there are everywhere signs of convulsion, everywhere evidence of change and decay. It is in the distance, then, that the poet loves them best, as a beautiful vision, which lures and beckons him. It is to these he lifts his eyes, from these he receives his inspiration, for they are ethereal and opalescent and play upon his fancy, provoking him to subtle thoughts of the Ideal, rose-colored as themselves.

They who do not live where they can see the mountains miss somewhat in their lives, as do they who never hear the sea. It would seem as though one or the other were essential to a normal human environment, providing that changeful beauty which forever stimulates the imagination. We necessarily lift up our eyes to the mountains with some corresponding elevation of thought. Again, from those desolate heaps of granite we receive the suggestion of something immutable and permanent delusion though it may be. Whatever convulsions they may have known were birth throes and growing pains. Venerable beyond human conception, their life is measured, not in years, nor yet in centuries, but in epochs and eons of time; and out of this inconceivable antiquity, with its tumultuous youth, has come repose at last -- a serene old age.

One readily understands in the mountains how the old myths of the gods and giants arose. Why should not the gods have dwelt on Olympus and here in the Rockies as well? What place more fitting? A setting, stern and heroic, and not altogether hospitable to the puny race of man. There are places of such sublimity and desolation, you. feel you have looked in upon Olympus when the gods were away, and that any moment they may return with their thunderbolts. Wandering alone in these regions is like an excursion into legendary lore and one would better wander alone, for in our deepest moments the mountains are company enough.

One companion you may have should have, in the mountains a horse, a kindly and sociable animal, who knows your foibles as you know his, and is willing to humor them. He must be a trail-horse, sure-footed and not finicky about fording mountain streams. If you do not come into some renewed sense of freedom, if the solitude does not speak to you, if you do not become better acquainted with yourself, it is because you really have not surrendered to the genius of the hills but have come preoccupied with other and lesser things. Thoreau did not so greatly exaggerate when he said one must make his will and settle his affairs before he was ready to walk.

One does not tire of sauntering through the mountains. They seem always to invite. Mystery lurks in the ravines. There is no sound but the distant tinkle of a cow-bell, which is pleasant music. Over the ranges and the velvet folds of the mesa the lights and shadows play like a passing smile.

Though the ideal eludes on a nearer view, we nevertheless derive some larger sense of freedom from personal contact with the range. The foot must know the trail ; and this association yields that which no road can ever give a good understanding with the mountain itself. As far as the eye can see, neither fence, nor house, nor road ; only the somber forest, the naked ledge. While this tramping over trails hardens the muscles, it toughens also the sinews of the mind. One has mountain thoughts as well as mountain air. The single drop of aboriginal blood tingles in the veins, while the tendency is strong to revert to the wild and to a more rude and savage life. There is experienced some furtive desire, as of a wild animal, to scurry away into these grim ravines, or to leap from crag to crag with the bighorn, presumably a sort of mountain madness, which is dispelled on the descent to the village.

Who can hear the wild song of the ouzel and not feel an answering thrill ? Perched upon a rock in the midst of the rapids, he is the incarnation of all that is untamed, a wild spirit of the mountain stream, as free as a rain-drop or a sunbeam. How solitary he is, a lone little bird, flitting from rock to rock through the desolate gorge, like some spirit in a Stygian world. Yet he sings continually as he takes his solitary way along the stream, and bursts of melody, so eery and sylvan as to fire the imagination, come to the ear, sounding above the roar of the torrent. Like Orpheus, he seeks in the nether world of that wild gorge for his Eurydice, now dashing through the rapids, now peering into some pool, as if to discover her fond image in its depths, and calling ever to lure her thence from that dark retreat up into the world of light and love. This bird, more than all others, embodies the wild. In him the spirit of the mountain finds a voice.

Here we make the acquaintance of the rocks as no where else. One discovers their individuality and comes to feel that even they may be companionable. They have much to say if only one can hear it; but like the aged, their conversation is all of the past. The foibles of their youth are still to be traced in faulting and non-conformity. How tumultuous was that youth ; how serene their. old age ! Stratified or volcanic, each tells its own story. The sandstone cliffs speak of the sea, which preceded them, and of which they are the sediment merely. Upon that shore no human eye ever looked, and yet it is registered here, as the ruins of Mitla record a race unknown to history. The cliff is a chapter in a biography written before the advent of man. Long after the sea had disappeared, some convulsions upheaved the strata and threw them on end. Here and there in the canons glimpses are to be had of the granite or porphyry which underlies the sandstone the very corner-stone of the hills. It is as though one had come upon the most ancient papyrus of the world or unearthed the first Babylonian inscription.

It seems incredible the stream should have sawed its way through so many feet of rock and produced the canon. Day and night it eats its way inward, like a saw cutting to the heart of a forest tree. But see what the rain will do so gentle a thing as the falling rain. Together they have hewn the cliffs, which are like vast rock tombs with their Egyptian massiveness. A filmy cloud floats down the gorge, trailing along the edge of the precipices, an intangible and shadowy form, spirit-like and ethereal, receiving the rays of the setting sun and becoming golden and then rose-colored, and dissolving away at last into the invisible. This fugitive, shadowy thing, this bit of mist, is the mountain sculptor.

The rocks were the prototype of the temple, as was the forest of the Gothic cathedral, the date-palm of the Byzantine dome. But there worships here only the canon-wren. He is the high priest who lifts up his voice in these rock temples a sweet utterance delivered with the usual abandon of the wrens.

Above the cliffs, on the precipitous slopes, is the impress of still another agent. The ledge, smoothed as by a plane, and the scattered boulders amidst the, dead timber and small aspens, give it an appearance of extreme desolation. Here, where now the Indian paint-brush glows in summer, the glacier crept snail-like down the mountain, from its cradle in some cirque above the forest. Timber-line is the frontier, the boundary between the verdant world and the land of snow and ice.

It was the glaciers which in the days of their strength chiseled the lake basins every one, and began the great canons on which the streams have been at work ever since. At the same time they laid out the moraines, like so many parks, where the pines and the spruce have planted themselves. They did the rough work and prepared the great rock masses for the finer work of the rain and frost and wind as the stone-cutter precedes the sculptor.

These lakes in many cases became the glacial meadows of today, which are like jewels set in the vast matrix of rock. Out of elemental changes, terrible in their immensity, came some of the most charming of all wild gardens, as a rainbow follows a thunder-storm. These serene and altogether beautiful aspects of Nature were the outcome of tumult and passion earthquakes, avalanches, lava-flows, glaciers, and now these idyllic meadows, beloved of bees and blossoms.

There is a certain canon hereabout which is closed abruptly at one end by a precipice, over which descends a considerable stream. This fall is a thing of beauty, and so holds the eye that few think of scaling the cliffs to see what may be beyond. But, as it happens, there lies above, and sundered from the world beneath, one of the most delightful little valleys in the Rockies a long, narrow defile, flanked by perpendicular cliffs of pink and red and buff sandstone.

All day the black-headed grosbeak sings in the aspens, dropping from one reverie into another. You may hear the voice of the green-tailed towhee, and the canon-wren singing from his rock temple. The stream winds along the floor of the little valley, which is some eight thousand feet above the sea, now through quaking aspens and now under spruce, and its voice is as the murmuring of pines. This is the haunt of the shooting-star and the Alpine mertensia, delicate and exquisite blossoms, wooed by fugitive sunbeams and by the floating mist ; which dwell in a subdued and tempered light amidst the Alpine silence, as in some floral cloister. Such are the rare and beautiful places of earth, which the mountain barriers defend and the clouds veil, as if they cherished here the last vestige of the fading youth and innocence of the old world.

There are days when the clouds shut down upon the little valley, veiling it from mortal eyes. The cliffs and buttes seem to float in air ; the trail becomes a path to the clouds. You have only to go up on some ridge, and the pinnacles, looming in the fog, appear to be forlorn rocks in mid-ocean. It is the isolation again of the sea and of the desert.

At such times one receives impressions from the mountains which bring to mind the ocean, as if these retained memories as they still bear traces of the waters which gave them birth. This relation, once so intimate, is now sundered and only to be inferred. Where is the ancient sea which mothered the Rockies? The desert is its vast bed, now unoccupied. It vanished forever, leaving its impress upon the mountains. And now this sea-child is in its dotage, and it too dwindles and wanes century by century. But the fog still recalls the mother-sea, and out of the forgotten past conjures up little waves to dance upon a primordial beach.

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