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.