(This is a piece I recently wrote that reflects a bit more on the spiritual and philosophical side of wellness…and the things that we all must do to renew and refresh our souls.)
I came up with a one-word title for this post because the word “why” seemed to be a proper starting point. As in “why do we do these things?” Why do we go to wonderful places and “wander”? As a self-professed “mountain adventurer”, I needed to reflect on why I “go to the mountains”. And also, why do I live in the mountains and recreate there, as opposed to the seashore, the desert, the tropics? These are questions I will attempt to answer.
You see, I’m sort of supposed to be the “how” guy. My professional work has revolved in working with and teaching people how to prepare to do something. How do you plan, train, taper, peak, recover…and all that stuff. Great stuff really, but I can’t quite get to “how” until I get past “why”.
While every geographic region has its qualities, I go to the mountains because, for me, there is just a little more. A little more something. A little more majesty, a little more mystique, a little more magnetism. I feel a sense of fit and belonging in the mountains more than any other place…maybe even more than in the civilized world. I don’t go to the mountains to achieve mastery or conquest, or even to seek those things. I go because I am a student of the mountains and the secrets they reveal to me over a lifetime are but a few of the many they hold, giving up those charms only to those who are humble, patient and observant. Above all else, one must be respectful of the mountains. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t quote the movie “Jeremiah Johnson”. In a scene where grizzled old mountain veteran “Bear Claw” Chris Lapp is advising young Jeremiah, he says “You can’t cheat the mountain, Pilgrim. The Mountain has got its own ways”. Go into the mountains with hubris, and you can learn nothing, be tested severely, or die. This is true in any environ, but for me, the mountains have an awe-inspiring grandeur that is so tangible, so palpable.
And so it is with the mountain’s creatures. Not just living beings but walking, breathing, sensing representations of the living mountains and all their wind, sky, sun, and water. The mountains are at once pulsating and still through their vibrant, though sometimes harsh flow of life, death, seasons, platitudes, and fury. And this is reflected in the shape of mountain creatures and in their behavioral patterns.
The method with which one goes to the mountains matters not. It matters not whether you go to climb, hike, ski, bike, run, hunt, fish, or not to do at all but just to be. It matters not whether you are in the forested foothills, on the slopes, or at the summit. You’ve probably found how best to get your mountain “fix”. This would be the fix that makes right our existence, and gives us maybe not an answer, but eradicates the need to perpetually question.
I go to the mountains seeking adventure and enlightenment, but I also seek the elk. The mighty wapiti (a Shawnee word for “white-rump”), for me, represents the spirit of the mountains to the fullest extent. Once abundant on the plains, the elk have retreated to the mountains where their preference for solitude and their lack of tolerance for virtually any disturbance can be best suited. The elk “fit” the mountains like the mountains “fit” them. There are no degrees of separation. Such words as rugged, strong, enduring, and majestic apply equally to elk and mountains.
To hunt the elk is to do something that is so pure, yet so challenging, and so hard to describe. Those who have experienced it need no explanation, yet words alone are an injustice to attempt to describe the hunt for those not fortunate enough to have had the experience. It is a gathering up of all things primal in the human soul, to take up the bow or rifle, and hunt the elk in its home, the mountains. To get in touch with the smell of the earth, the direction of the breeze, and to separate the sound of a pine cone being dropped to the forest floor by a squirrel, from the snap of a twig under a not-too distant elk’s hoof, is to be alive in all the senses to the maximum. To get tired, wet, thirsty, hungry, dirty, and to do it all gladly, knowing that this pursuit is worthwhile no matter what the outcome, is a state of peace that only the elk and mountains can provide for me.
The elk, and the mountains, must always be honored. We must never take up the chase without purity of the spirit, and both the animal and its home must be treated reverently. Harvesting a great animal is not the end, nor even the focal point. It is only one part of a never-ending continuum. And there will be suffering. No part of the elk will be wasted, and heavy pack loads will make us question our intentions, yet be thankful for the conditioning and preparation we undertook. The care for the meat, the hide, the antlers, the ivories (elk have vestigial canine teeth known as ivories) will be done fastidiously. And the harvest will be shared, nourishing our families, our friends, our “clan”. To journey into the mountains, and to pursue the elk, is to take nothing for granted, and to appreciate every breath and every step. That is why I go to the mountains.