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)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: