Sunday, October 11, 2015

John Keats (yes, that John Keats): Mountaineer

Say you’re going to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK that rises 4,409 feet from sea level. Imagine the gear you’d take: probably carabineers, ice ax, helmet, crampons, mountain boots, and trekking poles—for starters.

Now imagine you’re John Keats. What did this London born-and-bred poet bring to the task? An old coat, a large tartan wrap, fur hat, walking stick, a guide with whiskey, and Charles Brown, a good friend who advised him to buy a knapsack. In it he carried three volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, pens, paper, and ink—so he could write a sonnet when he got to the top. Of Course.

In the summer of 1818 Keats and Brown began a walking tour of northern England and Scotland that ended for Keats in the Highlands after the difficult ascent and even more treacherous descent of Ben Nevis. What drove this aspiring English Romantic poet? On a physical and psychological quest, Keats turned from books to experience, from reading to walking some of the most challenging and sublime terrain in Great Britain, if not the world. 

In Letter 71, June 25- 27, he wrote his brother Tom of viewing the mountains in the Lake Country. “I have an amazing partiality for mountains in the clouds.” He continues: “The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever.” 

By July 18 – 22 in Letter 79 from Inverary he wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey of his aspirations and sense of accomplishment. “I should not have consented to myself these four Months tramping in the highlands but that I thought it would give me more experience, rub off more Prejudice, use (me) to more hardship, identify finer scenes [sic] load me with grander Mountains, and strengthen more my reach in Poetry, than would stopping at home among Books even thought I should reach Homer. By this time I am comparatively a mountaineer.” [emphasis added]

The psychological aspect of his quest becomes apparent in the oft-referenced Letter 64 to John Hamilton Reynolds in which he explains his concept of the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought” wherein lies  the “sharpening [of] one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing one’s nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression—whereby this Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a mist,” deep within a “Mystery.”

Keats pressed on, walking twenty miles or more a day to Ben Nevis, often enduring wretched weather, foul lodging, and a sickening diet of eggs and oatcakes. In August he wrote to Tom that Nevis is “the highest Mountain in Great Britain—On that account I will never ascend another in this empire—Skiddaw is nothing to it either in height or in difficulty” (Letter 81). Starting at five o’clock in the morning, Keats, Brown, and guide made three difficult ascents through cloud and mist, over and around crags, pausing at chasms up to 1500 feet deep to toss stones to their cloud- covered depths. They clambered over loose stones, large and small, often using all hands and feet, plus sticks, to achieve their goal.  

And what did he do when he reached the top? He wrote a sonnet—even though he was suffering from a dangerous cold and ulcerated throat—the illness that would force the poet to abandon his travels with Brown and head home to Hampstead Heath.

Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud
   Upon the top of Nevis, blind in Mist!
 I look into the Chasms and a shroud
    Vaprous doth hide them; just so much I wist
 Mankind do know of Hell: I look o'erhead,
    And there is sullen Mist; even so much
 Mankind can tell of Heaven: Mist is spread
    Before the Earth beneath me—even such
 Even so vague is Man's sight of himself.
    Here are the craggy Stones beneath my feet;
 Thus much I know, that a poor witless elf,
    I tread on them; that all my eye doth meet
 Is Mist and Crag—not only on this height
 But in the world of thought and mental might—
            (included in Letter 81)

Keats would be the last to claim this piece met his high standards for a sonnet. After all, his mentors were Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. However, it demonstrates the he was true to his calling and that the physical and mental quest had coalesced. Keats climbed—and crawled—his way through a world of “Mist and Crag” that embodied his inner mystery. What courage it took to persevere. Keats had been to the mountain top and thence renewed his quest to write poetry worthy of his mentors. He succeeded beyond his fondest dreams. Here’s to a true mountaineer.

(All the referenced letters were published in Letters of John Keats, ed. Frederick Page, Oxford Univ. Press, Amen House, London, E.C. 4, 1954.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Mountaineers Always Free!

Mountaineers Always Free!
Many states in the US tout the wild pure beauty their mountains to naturalists and tourists. Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and West Virginia have been called “The Switzerland of America.”

But only West Virginia is named “The Mountain State.” Why?

According to the West Virginia page on the website, West Virginia boasts “the highest mean altitude east of the Mississippi River” and features the “largest single natural scenic and outdoor recreational area in the eastern United States; the Allegheny Highlands.”
Forests cover over “eighty percent” of West Virginia; that means “over 110,000 square miles of hardwood forest, wind-swept mountains and photo-perfect valley landscapes.”

Free though these Mountaineers may be in spirit, while longing for those country roads to take them home, true freedom means being able to earn a living and enjoy mobility.

That got me wondering what made the most dramatic impact on West Virginian’s quality of material life: rural electrification or highway development.

One brought electric light, appliances, and machinery into rural homes and farms.

The other allowed ordinary citizens access to the world outside their hollows or county seats—and easier access to markets and jobs.

The push for more electricity and safe, paved roads heated up in the 1930s.

According to the 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture, in 1935 the government had questioned “50,000 rural West Virginians” and discovered “a large market eager for electricity.” However, by June 30, 1939, only 15% of farms had electricity (Beall, Robert, “Rural Electrification,” p. 802.). Commercial power companies acted to fill this need—and promote expanded electric service. In 1940 at WVU’s Jackson Mill 4-H Camp they built a large facility to demonstrate the ways and means of “farm electrification.” (Long, Scot E. "Rural Electrification." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 October 2010. Web. 08 July 2015). Since then it has been used to educate the public on the history of this movement. I have visited this building many times and always came away amazed. Today, several regional electric associations/cooperatives and two major power companies, the Appalachian Power Company and Allegheny Power provide electricity throughout the state. (Long, Scot E. "Rural Electrification." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 October 2010. Web. 08 July 2015).
Imagine mountaineers without access to modern refrigeration, milking machines, electric pumps, and all the electronic gadgets and wonders that we all take for granted today.

But what about the roads?

Tom Wolfe referenced the state’s highways when describing a weary Las Vegas gambler who had eyes “like two poached eggs engraved with a road map of West Virginia.” ( “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1963, 1965, found in eBook (eISBN9781429961035: April 2011), p.14.)

Wolfe (and the old gambler) obviously needed to find a quiet country road.  

By the end of the 20th century, the West Virginia Division of Highways had “more than 4,800 employees” that implemented “the planning, engineering, construction, and maintenance of more than 35,000 miles of state highways, 549 miles of interstate highways, 1,818 miles of national highways, 6,800 bridges, five national byways, 14 scenic byways, and eight backways [sic].”  ( Peyton, Billy Joe "Highway Development." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 26 July 2012. Web. 08 July 2015.)  

Thirty-seven thousand miles running up, down, and around the “I can’t look” curves covering 27,500 (unforested) sq mi plus 110,000 sq mi of forested mountains—arguably the most challenging terrain in the nation! Just ask anyone who has driven in the Mountain State to nominate a likely country road as a candidate for white-knuckle driving and passionate appeals to their deity of choice. Check out to see what some have posted.  

Always Free? Yep, just hit one of those roads and let your heart sing.

Friday, May 22, 2015

What are mountains good for?

Gospels, as well as children’s, folk, and pop songs, sing the praises of mountains. Just think of  “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Mountains of Morne,” and “Rocky Mountain High.” The list could go on until our voices falter in pleased exhaustion. Obviously people love to sing about their mountain. What about wolves?
    Ah, when it comes to wolves, questions tumble from one’s brain. Are mountains good for wolves? Are wolves good for mountains? And do they sing about their mountains?
    At one time wolves were widely distributed all over Asia, Europe, and North America. In North America native populations found creative, beneficial ways to cooperate with wolves and so maintain a balanced ecology. Wolves weren’t confined to isolated sanctuaries, today so often found in mountains, like the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho or Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, or zoos in urban areas. But once official and unofficial programs of extermination drove the wolf from the lower 48 states of the USA, no mountain was safe for the wolf. Today, a very few wolves find that with a lot of help from their friends mountains are good for them—if they don’t mind being fenced, or shot at, or poisoned—no matter how much their friends work to keep them safe. In truth, many do not welcome the reintroduction of wolves, even if they are fenced or electronically monitored.
    But are wolves good for the mountains? In R. R. Carroll’s The Big Lost: a Novel, two biologists comment on the benevolent effect of wolves on the mountain environment in Central Idaho. A missing swath of trees between mature timbers and newer growth gives evidence of the extinction of wolves in the 1930s. As one commented, “When man took one of the prime predators out of the environment the balance that nature had for thousands of years created between plants and animals was suddenly thrown away” (p. 154, 4T2 Brand, LLC, Neosho, Missouri, 2011). As a result the elk grazed on young trees until they were gone. Of course that affected the bird population, diminished, and the bug population, greatly increased, and the other wildlife that depended upon a healthy growth of trees and underbrush. Eventually the streams and fish were compromised. Newer growth and the return of a balanced ecology corresponded to the gradual return of the wolf about sixty years later. The biologists were happy about that, not so the cattle ranchers.
    But do wolves sing about their mountain homes? Jamie and Jim Dutcher who lived with,
studied, and recorded the wolves of the Sawtooth Mountains, later renamed the Wolves of the Nez Perce, verify that wolves have a rich vocal vocabulary (The Hidden Life of Wolves, Living with Wolves, and The Sawtooth Wolves). But what wolves “say” in their calls is a matter of debate. It seems readers are left with Sonsie’s songs in Eye of the Wulf, as one conjecture that wolves, indeed, love their mountains. Someday we may find out if those songs are more truth than fantasy—if wolves allow us the privilege of understanding their songs.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Why Mountains Make Us Sing

Mountains are a home you swear you’ll never leave—even as you pull up stakes—then swear you must get back to.
    Name it Spirit of Place or Genius Loci, as the Romans called it, the reality behind the call of the mountains lives in your heart and soul. It haunts your dreams and sweetens your memories. 
    For some the mountain is the source of holy visions; the Spirit or Genius may be taken literally. The famous Oglala Lakota holy man known as Black Elk recalled a childhood vision: “Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all [Harney Peak], and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. Pocket Books, 1932, 1959, 1972.

    John Muir, the Scots-American and premier naturalist taught: “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.” Muir, John. Our National Parks. Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1901. As found on Sierra Club’s “Quotations from John Muir,” selected by Harold Wood. 

And this is why the mountains make us sing.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mountain Roads, Part Two: Follow your Bliss

If you seek a heart-in-your-mouth one-track mountain road to brave, go to Wester Ross on the coast of the North West Scottish Highlands. John Muir’s heart would sing at Wester Ross’ wilderness beauty. As a bonus, it boasts Bealach na Ba, the Pass of the Cattle, Scotland’s third highest public road, an eleven plus mile (17.8 km) stretch, that traverses the Applecross Mountains. From Applecross at sea level, lying across from the Isles of Raasay and Skye, it swiftly ascends to 2,053.80 ft (626 m). In what feels like rollercoaster-worthy inclines of up to 20% and hairpin switch backs it links remote coastal villages to Lochs Kishorn and Carron. 
    No guidebook can prepare a tourist for the bliss and terror of driving this pass for the first time. In fact, a road sign warns off neophyte drivers. I checked with locals. A barmaid at my hotel in Gairloch assured me “no problem, love.” However, folks at a café in Shieldaig told me to approach Applecross via the coastal road.  For an American brand new to managing a car engineered for the UK and driving from the “passenger” seat, the thrill is amped to white knuckle intensity. The kick to the adrenaline and blood pressure is not recommended for calm driving on “one of the most challenging drives in Scotland,” according to Dangerous Roads: The World’s Most Spectacular Roads  (
    But, after all, as the mountaineers say, we do it because it is there.
    I started out from Applecross on a clear, brisk day in late October. After passing the charming Flower Tunnel café with its glorious display of hanging flower pots—and darn good coffee—I ventured on to the pass. At first the single lane road seemed no worse (if obviously narrower) than many curvy roads in Appalachia. At home I drove a VW, but in Scotland I had rented a Renault, a four-door beauty, much larger than my cozy Bug. Within minutes the climb got serious enough to wonder what those ancient cattle drovers did when they encountered an oncoming herd. I appreciated the lay-bys, so helpful, especially if no other vehicle forces the decision—who pulls over? Mountain roads demand that drivers know the rules—and pay attention.
    My Lord, I thought, the brutal beauty of the in your face mountain sides, their bones jutting through brown bracken: finally a true example of “awesome.” What a road!
    I hadn’t foreseen what I encountered next. After rounding a notorious bend and starting downhill on one of the steepest grades, I passed the lay-by on my right at a spot where no rocky ground or stone fence buffered the edge. The land dropped off, how precipitously I had no idea. Nor did I care until a car approached me from below on the same, and only, lane.  
    Being no fool (ah, pride), I gave the up climbing driver the right of way. Unfortunately, I backed into the lay-by. If I had used my wits (long scattered to the wind), I would have gone far enough up the track to pull into the lay-by face forward—instead of worrying that my rear tire would slip over the edge and cause the car to tumble into the abyss. The other driver passed and waved, oblivious to my trembling grip on the steering wheel. Back on the road, newly alive to the stark beauty of the mountains and gasp out loud views of the lochs, I continued to the villages of Kishorn and Lochcarron.
    The return trip, reversing the ups and downs and meet-yourself-coming turns, offered the greatest bonuses of all. The ever changeable mountain weather provided showers that the setting sun turned to bevies of rainbows. And, oh, the sight of the Isles of Raasay and Skye: cobalt mountains floating in the shimmering sea, topped by backlit mist and cloud.
    But don’t take my word for it. Look for yourself online or book a trip.
    The enduring lesson of Wester Ross, to quote Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
    The life-long lesson of the Bealach na Ba is that nature made a place one must respect, a place that invites the spirit to transcend the mundane—but you must obey the rules of the road. Look and listen. Think and live.
    Oh yes, and follow your bliss; it will take you, spirit renewed, to a home away from home.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mountain Roads, Part One
Where would you go, adventurer?
    A daily commute in West Virginia on, you hope, a paved two lane road or, if necessary, a wide-ish dirt road? Or a trek to some hideaway in the Smokies from Maggie Valley, North Carolina, to Walland, Tennessee. Maybe a lovely Sunday drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Skyline Drive? If you have a mind for far-flung driving, how about attempting the Scottish Highlands?
    Those used to mountain driving know even familiar routes promise surprises, even catastrophe. All part of the fun, you say. Quite right, especially if your cell phone is charged and you can grab a tower to transmit your emergency call. So what can happen as you’re driving a road that twists up from Route 2 at the Ohio River to a mishmash of connecting roads that make their way around, over, and through the hills to Wheeling, WV?
    It’s night. You’re singing along to your favorite song. You round the sharp bend where the road was blasted through pure rock, not mere shale, mud, and gravel. And yikes! A massive boulder covers the entire left lane and half your right. From experience you know not to turn that bend at lawful speed limit. You hit the brakes.
    Around the formidable obstruction walk five men in coveralls, jackets, and various headgear, some looking official. Even in your headlights’ glare, it’s hard to tell if they are local law enforcement or WVDOT. Some wave flashlights while others, hands on hips, nod their heads and confirm, yes, by God, there is a huge chunk of rock—twice as tall as they are—making a mess of the road. It seems they got to the site minutes before you blundered on the scene. You wait for someone to wave you on . . . or tell you to (horrors) back up.
    Now this rock slide nowhere matches the 1997 or 2009 mountain come-downs on Interstate 40 near Ashville, NC, and the Tennessee border, closing the road for months, forcing long detours on other mountain roads. Drivers ground their teeth and paid the extra price in time and gas. No. This is just another adventure on a West Virginia country road like any John Denver celebrated in song. And, after all, you are only miles from home. In daylight this snag, one of many to be expected in this neck of the woods, will be no big deal to the locals and the DOT, but you would like to get home.
    As one of the men shuffles toward your VW, you roll down the window. “How’s the road ahead, sir?” It’s always good to show respect. 
He leans into your window, his face a mask of authority. “One of the men will lead you around. The road is stable in your lane until you get about twenty yards on where it gave way above the creek. You’ll have to go into the left for a spell. Go slow.”
    “Yes, sir,” you say. “Thanks.”
    Luckily, that mishmash allows for numerous connectors to anywhere you want to go—just in case. That’s the lesson of mountain roads. If you have the time, you have alternatives. A good lesson.

In a future Mountain Musings take a heart-in-your mouth trip on the Bealach-nam-Bo or Bealach na Ba’ (pass of the cattle), thought to be the highest public road in the British Isles on the west coast of the Highlands across from the Isle of Skye.

Monday, March 9, 2015

When Mountains Make Us Sing

When Mountains Make Us Sing

Family, friends, and neighbors are often spread far and wide in the mountains. Any visit is special, especially when the visitor is welcome.

One of the happiest childhood songs is “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” For a snappy tune carried on a rocking, hand clapping rhythm it ranks right up there with “I Been Working on the Railroad.” And while we know Dinah has a banjo-playing friend in the kitchen, obviously the one keeping Dinah from blowing her horn, we don’t have a clue about just who is coming round that mountain.

She is well anticipated for her visit is announced multiple times before the second verse paints a grand picture. She must be rich, what with those six white horses she’s driving. Six. White. Horses. Pulling a carriage? A stage coach? A buckboard? No matter. She’s driving them and they shine in the sunlight, tails flying, nostrils flaring. 

No wonder everyone all comes out to greet her. What a sight. You can just imagine the dust those rolling wheels and twenty-four massive hooves stir up. And while we’re at it, if those roads she drives over are typical—rutted and stone studded—she must be the most amazing driver with well nigh supernatural horses. As you sit there clapping your hands and stamping your feet (for who could forbear?), know that they are flying to keep up with your singing.

Surely they will have a feast, for aren’t we told the old red rooster is to be sacrificed for such a joyous occasion? That killing the rooster is a hard patch to sing, but ah, the reward—all those gathered to greet her are to smack their lips on chicken and dumplings. Now what could be finer? If you haven’t yet had some of that fabled fried/baked/roasted/fricasseed/stewed chicken, head for your favorite chicken emporium. If you’re ever in Charlotte, VA, in Albemarle County, do stop at Michie Tavern for the best old time fried chicken you’ll ever taste. First bite: your eyes will roll back in your head.

Now the shouting of “Hallelujah” when she comes may be a carryover from the old gospel song upon “She’ll Be Coming” is said to be based, but I’ll bet it’s the chicken.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Why a Mountain?

Why a mountain? If you have been to one, lived on one, or left one behind, you know the answer.  So all these mountains you hear tell about, are they for real?
Some mountains have their roots in this world. Their images haunt our photos, guidebooks, or even songs: Kilimanjaro, McKinley, and Machu Picchu.  

Some rise above their physical reality and live in our imaginations because of a great story: Heidi’s Swiss Alps where she lives with her grandfather and helps Peter the goatherd and his grandmother; King Arthur’s Mount Snowden in Wales; the Virginian’s Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

Some are Biblical: from Psalm 121 KJV: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help”; Noah’s Mount Ararat; or Moses’ Mount Sinai.

Some are fantastical: Tolkien’s Mount Doom or the Misty Mountains mythical
or mythical: Mount Olympus.

No matter where or when, without or within, mountains have an ineffable quality to make us believe in the possibility of both/and and give up a dependence on a narrower field of either/or.
Mountains demand transcendence. Mountains create myths and miracles—and multiple realities.
Mountains kill. Mountains heal.
Mountains teach us who we are. Mountains make us sing.

And sometimes we kill mountains. Just ask any who have seen the monstrous bulldozers that have invaded the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. (See Richard B. Drake, A History of Appalachia, University of KY Press, 2003 or go to:

For me, some mountains—the Scottish Highlands and the Appalachians in USA— cross the barriers of time and space to cohabit two realities. They exist as physical realities and in my memory of lived experience.