Every summer I try to climb a mountain. Some years it is questionable that what I have climbed can actually be called a “mountain” but most years I do get to some sort of high place that has a “Mount” in front of it or “Mountain” behind it. I am what my college roommate Keith McCafferty likes to call an “oh wow, the mountain” kind of guy. While most the people in my area of the East Coast like to flock to the beach for R&R, I would much prefer the rugged terrain of the wooded high places. There is something about mountains that inspires, challenges, and renews me. This a throwback to a legacy of mountain-top experiences – the Ten Commandments were delivered on Mt. Sinai; Jesus was transfigured on a mountain; the Dalai Lama first ruled in the mountain country of Tibet; even my high school song hero, John Denver, sang about a “Rocky Mountain High”. One of my favorite passages from the Bible is Psalm 121 which says “I look to the hills, where does my help come from, it comes for the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Yes, there is something about mountains that energizes and refreshes me.
For me hiking in the mountains calls to something deep in my spirit. First, there is the physical task of
climbing over rocks and roots to get to an outcropping where I can see the valleys below and the hills beyond. Second, there is the mental challenge of fighting the urge to quit, when the physical challenge becomes too much. A few years ago I was climbing a steep boulder field on an ascent to Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and I thought I couldn’t go any further; it seemed too difficult, but I pushed on thru and made it to the summit. Finally, there is the spiritual clarity that comes when you realize that it is just you and nature going at it in some sort of primordial way; it as if the Spirit of the mountain connects with my inner being. I can understand why so often the Native American vision quest occurs in a high and remote place; you meet yourself in a way that is not possible many other places.
So this summer, while on vacation in Maine, I decided to tackle Ragged Mountain, a small outcropping on a ridge outside of Rockport, ME; not exactly the Rockies or the Alps or Mt. Kathadin, but a sometimes steep 2.5 mile climb that beckoned to me. I like to go with others if I can, but this year I had no takers, so this was a solo trek. After about a 30 minute drive from the Maine shore where we had been staying, I came to the trailhead, and entered into a tree-covered path that led over a stream and eventually began to climb at a fairly steep incline. Fortunately, the ascent was not too long or arduous and I made the five mile round trip in about 3 hours (with time for some good views and lunch on the peak). I did not see any other person or wild life but was treated by wild blueberries near the summit. To top it off it was a perfect day for hiking: temperature in the 70’s, low humidity, and partly cloudy; warm enough to work up a sweat, but not wear you out.
While most think of the ascent as the challenging part of a mountain hike, for me it is the trek down that I have always found most difficult. I have twisted more ankles and gotten blisters on toes more often on the descent than the climb up. That was definitely the case on this time. My weak ankles (having sprained each about 20 times over the course of several decades) and pre-arthritic knees, made each step down more painful than all the steps going up. Furthermore, for some reason, I find following the path down more difficult than going up, so I am always indebted to the markers and cairns that my way; without them I might get hopelessly lost. My old roommate, Keith, sees them as an unnecessary crutch, but crutch or not, I would still be wandering in the wilderness were it not for those markers. Despite these mental and physical challenges , I made it down safe and sound; it was a day well spent and my spirit was revived.
Each year the climb gets a little more difficult, particularly the descent, but each summer I set out again to find my mountain. If the opportunity presents itself I may go find a mountain again this summer or fall, and certainly again next year. There is just something about the mountains that draws me on.
Bill Bryson chronicled his attempt to hike the Appalachian trail in A Walk in the Woods
. For Bryson, like me, it was what happened along the journey that was more significant than the destination itself. While reaching a summit is rewarding, the blessing comes in the process of climbing. Several years ago while hiking around Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I met a 70+ old woman hiking that rugged terrain. I decided then and there, I wanted to still be hiking the mountains when I got to be her age. I am a lot closer to that point today than I was back then, and God-willing I still be able to walk the hills, and continue to be renewed by their unique calling to my spirit.