Another World

High mountains hold a mystery and an attraction for me. Part of the reason would be the difficulty of reaching places like that, where I grew up in Southern California. The nearby mountains topped out at about four thousand feet, not high enough to outgrow the low scrub brush that covered them, too low even to rise above the brown haze of smog from the city that obscured the view. The Sierra Nevada mountains, the “high Sierras” we called them, stretched above timberline into bare granite slopes that could only be reached on foot. Getting to those places challenged our limits, out-of-shape young hikers that we were.

On one backpacking trip in 1961, we hiked across trackless slopes to an altitude of 12,600 feet, resting at a pass called Alpine Col. I remember my muddled, oxygen-starved state as we sat there, viewing the deep waters of nearby Goethe Lake and distant mountain peaks rendered blue in the high-altitude air. That pass had almost mystical significance in my mind, feeling like another world to me: a realm with unimpeded vision of the surroundings, with crystal clear air that imparted a heightened consciousness in ways I was never able to define. I couldn’t reach that level without tremendous struggle and effort, making it stand out in my memory.

In 2018 I drove through Rocky Mountain National Park, amazed by the road that reached 12,183 feet above sea level, offering a view of the surrounding mountains that could only be attained with great effort in California. Again I felt the mystical properties of the place, set apart by an unmistakable difference in its light and the feeling of the air.

Other tourists who drove there would have noted the unmatched clarity of the view and the astounding valleys, cliffs, and peaks, but they wouldn’t associate it with mountainous landscapes only seen on foot. What they saw couldn’t fail to impress them, but they lacked context to understand how spectacular it really was.

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