I am not a nature-worshipper, I do not seek God in wild places. Truth to tell, I am not overly concerned with where God is or isn’t, but rather where I feel the least anxious, and, consequently, the most free. Those are the places that I tend to wander. For me, the mountains are where anxiety reaches its nadir. The mountains, in this sense, represent ultimate freedom.
All this to say... I think that I found God in the mountains last Sunday (a fine day to find most gods). To be precise, I think that I found God’s residence in the mountains. To be even more precise, I think I stumbled upon God's summer home high in the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. God was not home, but the place was immaculate.
My hiking partner - also called Brian - and I had camped near a lovely series of cascades in search of some rich early fall landscape photography. This little drainage was idyllic: late-season alders and huckleberries gone red and yellow blanketing the barren slopes of a pair of lofty subalpine summits, the creek cutting a path in a set of five quick waterfalls. Under cool overcast skies that teased rain we photographed the falls for several hours. Stubborn and not overly creative, I spent the better part of two hours on a single composition (image at top of this post). The framing included yellow leaves in the foreground, the falls in the middle and the sharp 2,000-foot rise of an avalanche chute anchoring the background.
Committed as I was to the shot, my eyes - and imagination - were drawn to the avalanche chute opposite the falls. What was just over ridge? Having looked at a topo map of the mountain [its name omitted to preserve the spirit of exploration] earlier in the day, I had a general sense of what lay beyond the visible ridgeline: a couple of false summits that guarded the true summit a mile or so further. This particular summit - sheer, craggy and especially lofty for the Great Burn - had occupied my imagination since I first laid eyes on it from the Stateline Trail. There was something about its hulking size and barren subalpine slopes that gave it the look of a mountain much larger and significantly more imposing than any of its neighbors.
Clicking away at the falls, the camera seemed a fine excuse to remain in place and observe the approach to the mountain sanctuary above. Lord willing, on the morrow, Brian and I would wander up that avalanche chute until mountain became sky.
The next morning found us slowly - very slowly - breaking camp. Hurried, we were not. A cloudless sky with mild temperatures portended a perfect fall day. Although the delight of a steady ascent to unknown vistas beckoned, so too did the restorative movement of coffee-sipping adjacent a babbling creek call. By noon the job was done: the coffee was drank, camp was broke and packs were packed. We hoisted our weighted packs to our shoulders and retraced the 1/4 mile of trail back to the base of the avalanche chute.
The chute rose 2,000 feet in 3/4 mile, a fairly steep slope. The initial ascent included a fine mix of alder-thrashing, game-trail-tracking, rock-walking and subalpine-stepping. In spite of being weighed down by our packs, the ascent was a delight. Each 100-feet of upward movement yielded new and compelling views. 1,000-feet up the vegetation transitioned to the slick, thin, ground covering beargrass and the slope steepened ever so slightly. The beargrass made the walking marginally trickier, but no less enjoyable. Up and up we went. The valley dropped away below and, above, that fabled transition of mountain and sky neared.
…A funny thing happens to me when I close in on a ridgecrest or summit. An instinct that resides deep within my mammalian brain takes over. I must go! I must see! The world, once expansive, falls away and the singular focus of reaching the top becomes all consuming. This is flow. This is when anxiety, for a moment, ceases to exists. A smile takes over and my breathing shifts to a mantric exhale of ‘high-er, high-er, high-er’…
Click, the gear shifted, the final 200-feet to the ridge was clear. The target was a small saddle between two rock-outcroppings. My pace quickened and everything fell away. My job, worries about trying to be a photographer, health concerns, poof, gone! The mountain, that moment, was everything. Nothing else mattered. Within a few minutes, I was there, a mere step away from the mystery, the distinct edge of mountain and sky.
I took the step, the landscape beyond the ridge was revealed. A large cirque spread out below my feet. It was idyllic. The bowl was filled with all of the features of a mountain lover’s dreams. There was a small waterfall set below a tarn with subalpine meadows interspered between boulder fields. The 1,000-foot wall, on which I was standing, of the mountain encircled this veritable Garden of Eden. Indeed, this seemed a place fit for God. Surely this must be a summer residence of the divine and, likely, the winter residence of wolverines. It was that exquisite and wild.
The view immediately spurred two thoughts: wow, this is one of the most beautiful hanging valleys I have ever seen; and, how in the hell is this not a designated Wilderness? The first thought precipitated the second. I have had the immense joy of traipsing around a dozen of Montana's Wilderness areas. All of those places possessed that special quality of nature as the dominant force. Their wildness, their lack of human imprint, is at once inspiring and humbling. The rawness of these places fills my cup. And there, standing on the edge of God's summer home in the Great Burn, my cup overrunneth. I was reminded of how wild places reconnect me with the most stripped down version of myself. The trappings of modernity - communication devices, social media, etc. - are absent. Anxiety dissolves. This is the feeling of freedom. How fortunate we are to have places where mountains meet sky and the idea of God persists.