Commuting mornings from my cottage below
the mountain, I’ve been ignoring the mountain,
the hills, trees, sky, and clouds—the glorious
has become mundane—so I join a program
for interpreters. We open the mountain’s firetower—
no longer for locating fires, but for unimpeded
views of surrounding mountains and valleys.
The mountain trail is steep. We encourage
hikers who bound, shuffle, or jog to the top,
stop every few minutes for their asthma inhalers,
carry old or blind dogs up the trail or the steps
of the tower, or guide young children.
In the wrong shoes—high heels, rubber
flip-flops, leather-soled wing tips—still
they reach the top.
When I wear my interpreter’s shirt, tan
with a flag on the sleeve, people think
I’m a forest ranger. In the photo a friend took,
I’m a poster boy for the NRA or something
worse. It’s not just the uniform, but the mustache,
baseball cap, set of the jaw. I don’t know
where I learned that set of the jaw.
No need to go up a mountain, so we’re proud
of ourselves for doing it. No one builds
taller than mountains; all we do is fly
precarious craft over them. Dwarfed ordinarily
by buildings, trucks, even the trees of the lowlands,
at last we climb above everything.
When the tree fell, its huge roots held
tons of stones. That’s how we grow in these mountains,
with less soil than rock: our roots fit
where they can between the stones.
A girl holds a bouquet of wildflowers
she’s picked. “Please don’t pick any more,”
I say. “The mountain needs them more
than you.” If I weren’t in my uniform,
I wouldn’t say that.
The trail’s too popular for surprises: critters
keep out of sight—you’ll see only a hawk,
some chipmunks, maybe a snake. No surprises
but perspective—worries about your job,
loves, attractiveness, repair of your roof,
letters you need to write, music you need
to listen to, grass seed you neglected to sow—
all are diminished at 3,000 feet.
The last time I wore a uniform in nature
was boy scout camp. I learned nothing about nature,
but a counselor, taking an interest in me,
taught me to swim. After the crowd left the lake,
he stayed with me, encouraging me over my fear,
till I stroked and moved in deep water.
When a healer said to visualize a place
that felt really positive, I saw this mountaintop.
He guided me as I climbed through the mist
to the brightness above.
A huge patient rattlesnake shares
the mountaintop with us,
warming on the bare rock
or waiting in the scrub.
With so few seasons to watch, each we miss
is a tragedy. Inside where we waste the hours
is dark and close. Listen: the end of our span
is nothing. The death of a mountain,
now that would be a terrible thing.
I write on my report for the day: “Provided
first aid,” then add to be honest: “Hiker
requested band-aid for blistered heel.”
We can’t do much to a mountain—desecrate
its surface with houses and cell towers,
gouge it with mines and roads, but it prevails.
What we do to one another, bad or good,
doesn’t matter. The few of us crawl across—
men, insects, rodents, snakes—
builders, gougers, sojourners—we feel
on top of the world an hour or two,
then descend where we belong.
We encourage a man to climb the tower.
“It’s worth it,” we tell him. His young son
is waiting at the top. It’s high—over 60
feet—and in the sharp wind the steps
feel insubstantial. We urge him on—
he conquers his fear and makes his way
slowly to the cheering boy.
(Overlook Mountain, July-September 2003)