Sunday, July 31, 2011

"I Want to See Mountains Again Gandalf, Mountains!"

So says Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of Peter Jackson's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (which may yet be enough to force this old, DVD-clutching curmudgeon to stump up for an HDTV and Blu-Ray player).

At this point in the film, Bilbo has just celebrated his 111th birthday and is preparing for one final trip. He has loved his lifetime in the Shire, with its streams, rolling hills, and villages full of friends, but he yearns for the grandeur and majesty that only the peaks can provide.

I recently acquired a glorious panorama of mountains in Norway, taken by my old friend, Antony Spencer. I'd previously thought that if given free reign in his expansive gallery, I'd probably plump for a shot of a seaside sunset, or maybe a pic of my beloved Stourhead Gardens in the heart of what my childhood friends and I call our Shire. But  when I stumbled across a photo of this white expanse (see the first photo in Antony's gallery), there was something about the peacefulness of the landscape, the stillness of the frozen lake, and the sheer scope of the topography that drew me to it at a soul level. And now when I walk through my home's entry hall and see it, I sometimes imagine myself seated in the small red cabin that sticks out in the great white expanse, with just a heating lamp and an old typewriter, picking away on my next book.

For all such pondering, I couldn't fully appreciate the reality of a mountain view until recently, as I had never been in real mountains. Then I was lucky enough to spend a week with my wife, sons and mother in law in Estes Park, Colorado. The cabin we stayed in had unobstructed, three-sided views of the Rockies. Going from the flat, drab Kansas landscape, as devoid of topographic variation as is possible, to thousands of feet of snow-capped peaks rising above the clouds is as big a contradiction for the eyes as I have yet witnessed.

As fate would have it, the weather decided to be atypically hot between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., even getting into the nineties on two days. Very Kansas-y, except the thermometer was pushing triple digits back home, and the fact that before and after that time slot, it felt like autumn outside. Is there a better start to the day than clasping a cup of hot coffee on a chilly patio, inhaling the sweet vapors of pine trees while gazing at the dawn shadows slowly shifting on the peaks, and the pink-hued clouds above?

The trip only got better once we ventured up into Rocky Mountain National Park. As my wife and I have young kids (4 and soon to be 2) we couldn't do any intense hikes, but that didn't matter - every turn, every parking area afforded a new and spectacular vista. On the short walk around Bear Lake the boys took great pleasure in throwing pebbles (or "rocks," as Harry called them) into the shimmering water. Simple pleasure for innocent hearts. The pebble throwing was a little more exciting at the tree-lined, white-peak fronting Sprague Lake, where a two-year-old moose was splashing around in the water. The park ranger on duty told us to give it some space, as "it charged a group of visitors earlier and that didn't go so well." We certainly did as we were told!

Later in the week we climbed up to Alberta Falls, the waterfall cascading down sharp boulders and spray blowing up into the air and our faces. The sheer drop off of the path reminded me of my fragility in what is essentially a wilderness (certainly compared to Kansas suburbia). That feeling of insignificance is healthy and welcome, though it increased the alertness of the risk manager side of me (not least due to the presence of small people who have no self-preservation instincts).

I could go on for a few hundred words, but in summary, let's just say that I now understand Bilbo's longing for mountains. The vastness, the permanence, the jaw-dropping views - I think of them often now that I am at home on the flat prairie. My soul felt at home in Estes, a sense of belonging that I have not experienced before. What more could one want than a family and an endless mountain playground to explore with them? And there is a definite connection between natural beauty and inspired creativity - the words of my book have flowed uninhibited since returning. Hopefully I won't have to wait until my 111th birthday to return!

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