Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Modern romance

"Don't hold on.
Go, get strong.
Well don't you know,
there is no modern romance."
— "Modern Romance," Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Tuesday morning rose misty and warm, with flecks of sunlight burning through the cracks in a disintegrating ceiling of clouds. I packed up my Camelbak the way I did back in July, with just a light shell and gloves, extra socks, my GPS, and water. I held my camera in my hands, wavering on whether or not I should stuff it in the outer pocket. Maybe, maybe just this once, I thought, I should leave it behind. Maybe this one will be a quiet trek. I won't tell anyone, and I won't have any evidence I was there. It will be a secret.

I stuffed my camera in the pack, just in case, and set out into the promising morning with the same sense of irresistible anticipation and cautious reserve I have been feeling recently in other areas of my life. I thought again about leaving the camera behind. Already, some of my friends have been hinting that I have a problem. That I spend too much time in the mountains. That I have only just emerged from a very long, committed thing (a-hem ... the Tour Divide), and in my drive to get back out there, and the overzealous way I am going about it, I may be setting myself up for a long fall.

"It's not so much about being tired," my friend said as I told her about my Sheep Mountain trek and how I've been feeling a little under the weather ever since, but can't seem to stop as long as the actual weather is nice. "What do you even think about when you're out there alone, just out in the woods with the bears and wolves, for like seven hours all the time? Aren't you scared? Don't you go crazy?"

And all I could think of the answer is, "I don't know. I think about everything, I guess. That's really the only time I have to think." But why has it been so hard for me to decipher what "everything" actually is? All of the time I've spent stomping through the mountains lately, I've had a lot of time to sift through the pieces of my life, to look for ways I can fit them together in a puzzle that makes the most sense and makes me the most happy. And all I seem to have found is a flight of ideas surrounded by exhilaration in the high country, transforming flawlessly to fear when I am back in the low country. The ideas feel something like love up high, something like insanity down low, and the pieces stay scattered. As I come down, I cling to appreciation for the "regular" life I have, and the new friendships I've found, and mountains.

"Time, time is gone.
It stops stops who it wants.
Well i was wrong ...
it never lasts ...
there is no ...
this is no modern romance."

So I thought about keeping it a secret that I was heading up Thunder Mountain on a tranquil Tuesday morning. After all, I can hardly complain about achy muscles if I am the one who keeps pounding them into the ground. It could just be me and the mountain, a quiet October morning, where instead of gathering and analyzing the pieces of my life, I could just scatter them in the gentle breeze. But as I worked my way up the mountainside, hands clasped around the exposed roots of 100-foot-tall Sitka spruce trees that filtered flecks of sunlight down their moss-coated trunks, exhilaration started to take over again. Confidence swelled, and in those perfect photogenic moments, I believe I could do it, all of it: living the dream, the cabin, the writing, the trips to Nigeria and Banff, the skiing, the winter bike touring, the freedom, the unhindered freedom. There are so many chances out there waiting to be taken, so many feelings ready to be exposed.

Clouds floated along the edges of the ridge, which looked more like a rolling, Midwestern prairie than a mountain top. I like this world because it is so close, but so different than mine. I love this world because it is mine. Every time I'm really tempted to mix things up, all I need to do is come up here and realize that I actually have it pretty good. Still, the empty spaces remain. Some of my married, parenting friends have expressed envy at my freewheeling, single-girl lifestyle, which on its margins must appear to be all fun and hottie potential, with no room for dull responsibility. And, of course, I look at the margins of their lives and I want what they have - partnership and love. Why would anyone want more? Why do people always think they want more?

But up in the mountains, above the confusion and contradiction, it's easy to condense what I know about life and love. I know life is short and hard. I know love is long and abstract. I know I want to experience both to the very edges, the very heights of my abilities, because I know, in the end, they're all I have. But I know fear is powerful and pain is unbearable, and those two things will battle life and love, always. And as the battle rages on, I know it will be difficult to fight when there is so much I do not know. If I am brutally honest with myself, I know that right now there are just two things about life and love that I actually do know:

I know I love mountains. And I know they do not love me back.


  1. I think this is your best. post. ever. Maybe it is bc I am struggling, one of those people always wanting/wondering is there more? I have a wonderful husband, love living in the area I do, a job I like quite a bit and I pretty much define the majority of my work...but this happiness? Is this all there is ? Is there something wrong with me in that I feel a need to move professionally? "What if the hokey pokey is REALLY what it is all about"?

  2. Jill,

    You need to live the life you feel you are called to live. Many won't understand, most out of envy, some just out of ignorance of what this life truly brings to us while we are living it as called to!

    Awesome post today (and lately as well!)

    And those mountains love you as much as they love, probably even more!

  3. I think it's awesome that you're doing the hiking thing. You know your window is short, the scenery superb and ped is the superior mode for getting up there and out there.

    This Daumal quote has great meaning for me and I think you live by it:
    You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.
    - Rene Daumal

  4. Some people are afraid to be alone with their thoughts and some are not.

  5. Life goes by in stages, and we live life most fully when we learn to appreciate each stage for what it brings. In my life, I've tended to constantly yearn for the next stage, only to look back and realize the joys I didn't fully explore in the stages past.

    I really enjoy your pictures. I love mountains and spend way too much time gazing at your pictures...the way the mountain ranges dam up the clouds until they spill through the gaps like a waterfall, the interplay of colors, and the crispness of the snow. I've gotten to the point that now I can relate some of the views to others, realizing that this one was taken just around the mountainside from that one, or it's the same view but at a higher elevetion, etc. PLEASE keep packing the camera!

  6. That it one of the best closing sentences I've ever read, and so very true.

    You are not the only one who finds solace in solitude and confusion back on planet earth. There are others of us out here who's lives seem like so much magic and fairy dust to our friends and to ourselves just seem tiring and complicated except when we are on the road.

    Thanks for sharing your life with us - the mountains may not love you, but your readers can't wait to see what you find up on the next ridge.

  7. Thank you for a beautiful post...and the pictures.

  8. What an excellent post. I agree that it's the best that I've read so far. Keep the camera and take those pictures. Back in the day when I was doing serious backpacking I never minded carrying the camera and all the film (kind of dates me)because I knew the scenery was going to be beautiful. Now the tripod, well..... But the photos are great as you have a good eye and can frame them nicely. But as I always say, when you're in the mountains can you take a bad shot?

  9. yes they do, just not in a socially recognized way. It almost goes back to native ways... having a reverence for the land which is given back by your solace up there.

  10. One day I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in one shot. The overall lesson I learned was that the canyon doesn't care...

  11. A truly thought provoking post which causes me to reflect on my own life. Typically when I read your posts as one the first things I do when I bring up my computer at work and ease into my work day, - I get caught up at the beautiful scenery; read about the adventure and get a sense that my life is slipping away and I need to spend more time in the wild. As is, I spend as much time in the mountains as my work life allows and gear my social life around outdoor adventures. Yet I always feel I need to get out there more.

    We all choose our own paths, whether it's adventures in the mountains or nurturing a family. In each path chosen a fellow traveler's companionship multiplies the joys and sorrows along the journey. May we all come across and welcome those who are traveling the same paths as our own. I end an overly wordy comment with a quote -

    "You are worried about seeing him spend his early years in doing nothing. What! Is it nothing to be happy? Nothing to skip, play, and run around all day long? Never in his life will he be so busy again." ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1762

  12. Fantastic post!

    Please never: leave your camera at home or lose your sense of adventure and wonder.

  13. beautifully said and so honest.

  14. First of all, just because you spend a few weeks hiking doesn't mean you're becoming a hermit.

    Secondly, Why do you have to do one or be the other? Sometimes in life we have to choose black or white, sometimes the gray area can be confusing or dangerous; but most often, we just need some balance in our lives.

    I think as long as we are trying to be better people, and trying to help other people we can call that a life well lived.

  15. You've got the desire, fitness and fearlessness to continually go up into the mountains, taking advantage of good/reasonable weather while it lasts and before the snow covers all of those beautiful colors. No wonder you are up there so much. Being a person who really likes my own time to do what I like to do and doesn't mind being alone with my own thoughts I can appreciate and respect how you spend your spare time. Keep on doing it, obviously it's doing your soul some good and the photos are great.

  16. How can you be so sure the mountains do not love you? Are they not always there waiting for you to come?

  17. Great last sentence, and I believe, so true. Great post. How do you do it?

  18. Whoa. Incredible post, incredible pictures. That last sentence brought tears to my eyes.

  19. What a brave, open and honest post, Jill.

    I suspect life is different things to different people, but the fact that you are so aware of the battle to define and decide your own path through it means you're probably doing it right.

    And you write so beautifully that we are all entranced.

    (And the photos are pretty good too!!)

    Whatever path you take from here, if you approach it with the passion and lively intelligence you show us here regularly, it will be a wonderful life.

  20. they do love you back - just silently.

    p.s. not that i'm old enough to truly put my two cents in - but so far in my experience love is short and hard, and life is long and abstract

    p.p.s. i'm still on a mother f'n boat though ;-)

    xxoo jen

  21. Don't overthink, do it, whatever it is you wish to do, whenever..

    Don't talk yourself out of anything...

    Never regret what you've done, are doing, or about to do..

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, your writing is amazing.

    I'm envious....

    ....but at the same time I'm strangely motivated to take on challenges I would never have attempted before..

    Thanks Jill..I feel young again..

  22. Jill,

    I think we have all moments like these. Norman Maclean, "I am haunted by water."

    I also think we all have these times in our lives, times that challenge who we think we are, what we think we know about ourselves, how we have defined ourselves, or how others have defined us. Is there an answer, I don't know.

    Does this happen just once in a person's life, I don't know that, either. But it is a struggle to maintain ones identity in the face of these challenges.

    And it never gets any easier.

  23. They must love you because I have the same camera and the mountains never strike such come hither poses for me

    Great post - great pics

  24. whoa - getting kind of dramatic on the whole life/love/mountains thing. Since you're fond of quoting songs, how about this one - "You're taking it all too hard". Life is for living, (some) people are for loving and the mountains are for playing. Ease up, don't take things so seriously, and for philosophy I recommend googling Mr. Natural on the meaning of life. He has a very Zen like attitude.

  25. So glad I read your blog today. I totally identify with all of it. Tale care

  26. Your comment "I know I love mountains. And I know they do not love me back" is an interesting variation of Lou Whittaker's famous quote "Just because you love the mountains doesn't mean the montains love you"

  27. Brilliant last two paragraphs, Jill.


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