When she was a girl she built a treehouse in the giant maple. She wanted to be high up, above the earth. There she lay on the wooden platform, looking up into the green leaves. She carved her name on a limb and watched as, over the years, the tree fattened around her initials, finally absorbing them.
This was in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, in far upstate New York, where on summer mornings she walked down the road to see the sun rise over the fields. When she grew older she chose a college in Vermont, in the Green Mountains, because it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. She wanted to live there, those silent mountains rising around her, turning themselves to flame in the fall.
All her life she has loved to hike. Up the mountains and then down, but not before standing on the summit and looking down at the rivers and valleys and towns below. No sound but the wind, whooshing about her.
She used to call her sister Oatie with her location, in a haphazard, human GPS-ish way, before starting up the trail.
“It’s me,” she would say. “I’m at the base of such and such mountain. If you don’t hear from me in eight or nine hours, you can start to worry.”
The rhythm of an upward hike through greenery, twigs and leaves snapping underfoot, trail winding steeply ahead, calms her like nothing else, soothes her highstrung nature and sets her mind free. Some of her best conversations take place in the mountains, back and forth between her mind and some invisible presence.
Wide open treeless spaces scared her, and had scared her as long as she could remember. Giant parking lots, shimmering with heat under the sun. Wide flat treeless land. A photo of a Kansas horizon, flat land stretching forever, could make her turn away, inwardly shudder.
Mountains were like shoulders, shrugging their way up from the vast living body of the earth. Sheltering. Someone like her could live in a valley among mountains and feel herself hidden and safe, while knowing that anytime she wanted she could strike out for the summit and be standing above what felt like the entire world.
She wanted always to live among mountains.
But she moved far away, to Minneapolis. At first, she refused to believe that she was living so far from mountains. She charted a hills course through the city, and when people came to visit she would drive them or bike with them on her personal Hills of Minneapolis course.
“See?” she would say, zipping up Dupont just above the Walker Art Center. “This is a hill!”
“See?” she would say, zipping down 54th by Penn. “This is a hill too!”
She didn’t leave the city much. When she did, she avoided those wide flat lands, those lands that wild winds sometimes came writhing through, snatching up cars and houses and flinging them about at maniacal will. Snow that drifted forever, covering up roads and fences.
“Nowhere to hide,” she tried to explain to a midwestern friend once. “Nowhere to take shelter.”
Nowhere her thoughts could smooth themselves out, be free of her clutching mind.
“But the plains are beautiful,” the friend said. “Endless and rolling, like the ocean.”
She could not see it. She wanted those mountains back. Sometimes she subdued a sense of panic. The plains are not beautiful, she would think. They scare me. Get me out of here.
Now she wonders if she ever gave them a chance, back then. She has lived on the plains for more than twenty years now, and it’s only recently that she has begun to see them, really see them. She charts the change to a road trip she took a couple of years ago, following Route 12 from Minneapolis to Montana. She looked forward to Montana – the mountain part of it – but thought of the drive out as something mostly to be gotten through. Flatness to be endured, in order to get to the good part.
But, a couple of hundred miles west of the city, something changed. She looked out and saw not emptiness, treelessness, but a land of silent majesty as profound as the particular kind of stillness she sought at the summit of a mountain.
Her sense of this land shifted from what it lacked – lack of trees, lack of mountains, lack of shelter – to what it held, which was fullness. Soil that could grow anything. Miles of prairie with grasses taller than her, undulating in the wind.
If mountains are the shoulders of the earth, then the plains are its belly and breasts, its long, curving flanks. Had she turned away from these plains for so long because all she could see was what they weren’t?
She imagined herself on top of a mountain, looking down at the earth spreading itself to the horizon, and she felt her own self changing, widening out, able finally to encompass both the mountain and the plains.