A Life Between Mountains

Our home sits at the base of Sal Mountain.  We reside in her morning shadow, which means the sun doesn’t hit our place directly until nearly eleven a.m. during the shortest winter days.  This makes an already cold place, a bit colder.  This also means that she provides us no shade from the hot afternoon sun in the summer months.  The inverse of this would, of course, be preferred.  Maybe as a consolation, she often shields us from the worst spring and summer thunderstorms.  We watch them approach from the southwest, only to roll over her back diverted away from us.  Thanks to her, we get to take in the beauty without feeling the wrath of many of these squalls. In this way she feels motherly to us, as she also seems maternal to other mountains. As her spine continues to the southeast it gradually grows into one of Idaho’s great ranges. 

Sal is a unique mountain; really a colossal ridge with incrementally rising prominent humps of earth separated by shallow saddles.  Her contours are visibly softer than those of most her neighbors.  This is central Idaho, where the land predominantly resembles the bellows of an accordion pushed closely together.  Straight up and down country, deep drainages separated by steep slopes and sharp ridgelines.  From the valley below us Sal is mostly notable for her contrast to this norm.  Her top in particular looks almost gentle, somewhat rounded.  The next trait of Sal’s you would likely notice is that she seems to be mostly composed of a massive pile of loose black rocks.  You can see these expansive stretches of stones from miles away.  There are of course sage brush slopes at her feet, and where those give way to the loose rock the grade steepens considerably all the way to her ridgeline.  Sal burned about twenty years ago, the site of which from town was described to us by a long time local as a ‘torch in the sky.’  Twenty years is a good chunk of a lifetime to humans, but in the life of a mountain it is a blink so dead burned trees still dot much of her surface.  There are also dense pockets of timber that the blaze spared, and of course now adolescent conifers working to make their stand atop her loose rock base.  Sal’s timber ranges the full spectrum of the life of trees, even the afterlife. 

Twenty years is a good chunk of a lifetime to humans, but in the life of a mountain it is a blink

Unlike Sal’s eastern slopes our side of the mountain has no roads, and nearly no trails of any type, above the elevation of our property.  It is largely untouched by humans, save a couple small, long ago abandoned mines and associated crumbling shacks about a thousand feet above us.  To get to Sal’s main ridgeline from our side requires a long grueling day afoot on her rather unforgiving landscape.  Stepping atop loose rock on slopes steep enough you often have at least one hand on rock as well.  Bushwacking through willows and crawling through a gauntlet of downed burned trees.  The mentorship camp we held last summer wore Sal’s name, as will a couple of retreats we plan to host this summer.  The rationale for such being somewhat location driven, but more so because I find a journey up Sal’s west side akin to most significant challenges in life, much tougher than it looks from the bottom.

She knows when we can’t see it, we are away, and when we do again see it we are almost home.

One of Merriam’s first looks up at Sal mountain

There are three highway routes for us to return when we have traveled away.  From all three, the marker of when we are almost home is when we put eyes on Sal Mountain.  At this point one of us inevitably tells our daughter within seconds, ‘I see Sal!’  These words of course bring great comfort to a child enduring way too many hours car seat bound.  On the latest of such trips Sora drew Merriam a map before we left.  This map encompassed the journey from our home to Seattle and back.  On it were marked the three key mountain passes we had to get over, along with the main towns and rivers.  Our starting and ending point on this map was marked by Sal Mountain; not by Salmon, not by the Salmon River, and certainly not by a blue-gray house with white trim.  She is not yet three, but Merriam knows our home lies at the foot of Sal Mountain.  She knows when we can’t see it, we are away, and when we do again see it we are almost home.  She knows Sal as the place we venture out from, and always return to when done adventuring. 

Center stage out our west facing living room window is Monkey Mountain.  His name is unofficial, simply a nickname given by locals.  I knew him for almost a year before I ever heard this name.  One summer evening, driving home I found our neighbor pulled over roadside and gazing westward.  When I inquired as to his reason for taking pause just a mile from his house, he replied with a directional nod “just wanted to catch sunset over Monkey Mountain.”  As I turned my head toward the target of his nod, no further communication was necessary for me to grasp the root of this nickname.  The rocky skyline of his summit immediately looked just like the silhouette of an ape’s face gazing skyward.  I suppose ‘monkey’ won out over ‘ape’ for the comfort and convenience of alliteration.  I immediately felt silly for needing to hear his name to realize the uncanny resemblance, and now I can never unrealize it.  I look at that mountain multiple times every day and now as soon as my eyes meet his peak, I feel like this part of the earth might just be a giant ape long ago gone to rest. 

From our angle Monkey Mountain resembles a near perfect triangle, with the entirety of his southern and northern ridgelines rising at almost matching angles all the way from their respective creek bottoms to his rather unique summit.  He is diminutive compared to Sal, but his sharply cut features give him a distinction far greater than his physical stature should warrant.  I have been on Monkey Mountain often; snowshoeing, hiking, hunting, and running.  He has an inviting and picturesque upper bowl that faces our home.  Within a few weeks of moving here, I spent a near perfect evening in that bowl waiting for a mule deer buck to emerge just before dark.  The fact that the buck never emerged is the only reason I apply ‘near’ in my description of those hours.  The October air was crisp and still, the sky a mesmerizing blend of pink and orange that reflected upon the land made the greens and grays of vegetation and rock seem almost purple.  Only the chirpy, casual post-rut language of nearby elk occasionally broke the silence.  When the sky fell dark, I hiked down to my pickup, my headlamp catching a tip of a nice four point shed antler on the way.  From that evening I have returned to the contours of Monkey Mountain often. 

Only the chirpy, casual post-rut language of nearby elk occasionally broke the silence.

Heeding an early call toward Monkey Mountain

As curious as I have become with this triangular chunk of earth, I have come to realize the crux of my fascination is not rooted in Monkey Mountain but rather what lies beyond him.  If you went another twenty-five miles as the crow flies beyond his crest you would find yourself entering the largest contiguous expanse of American Wilderness outside of Alaska.  The Frank Church Wilderness occupies much of the heart of Idaho.  Though I can’t quite put eyes on a peak or tree within its bounds from our front deck, I can rest my eyes on Monkey Mountain’s rather unique crown and know it is there, just beyond him.  When I sit on that deck on a summer evening, or gaze out from our living room on another frigid winter morning, I am called to visit these wild places.  Though Monkey Mountain is an afterthought in the rugged expanse surrounding him, he is the first potentially wild place I see when I look westward.  And every time I set eyes on him; I want to be back in that upper bowl on a fall evening.  I want to start there and then keep going, over his crest and along the ridge that follows, onward into the real wild.  He calls us outward; he is our beacon for all that lies out there to be explored and experienced.

I want to start there and then keep going, over his crest and along the ridge that follows, onward into the real wild. 

We can all benefit from two great forces in life; one that calls us outward, and one that calls us back home.  One that challenges us to travel near or far, to learn new things, to get out of our comfort zones.  And then one that calls us back to the warmth of fire, food, and family for reprieve. There is a balance to be found between these two that can seem endlessly challenging to get right. This quest for balance should not be confused with seeking any sort of fifty-fifty split.  The right balance certainly differs for all of us, and changes for each throughout our lives as well.  I would say I rarely feel like I have the balance spot on, and that is just fine.  I think this is because the balance lies in imbalance, between experiencing moments that feel very skewed in one direction.  It lies in feeling both such moments consistently.  I recall a short trip a couple of years ago where I did venture out beyond Monkey Mountain to the edge of that great Wilderness.  I set basecamp next to a lake that wore a mesmerizing mirror image of the surrounding granite and sky on its surface and spent a few glorious days venturing afoot into ‘The Frank.’  Reflecting on that trip now I can still feel the giddiness I had on the drive out, and the distinct anticipation that also marked my drive back home.  Monkey Mountain called me out, and I listened.  When Sal Mountain called me back, I listened again.  There is no balance in sitting still between these forces, only stagnation.  The balance lies in heeding each of their calls.  This is a life between mountains and is a good life.