I have always been drawn towards mountains. Towards the highest peaks, whether the highest in the world or the highest in their individual landscapes. Some people are pulled towards the ocean, towards cities, or towards the interiors of their own homes; I escape to the mountains, to the remote coolness.
A part of my fascination with mountains stems from their remoteness. A mountain is unaffected by the mundane perplexities of daily life that go on around it. Cities are built at its foothills, fires burn through its forests, hikers attempt to scale its sides, yet the mountain remains steadfast. The thousands of little pricks that bombard it daily are largely ignored. Mountains do not bow down to anyone or anything. Clouds must part around a mountain peak; the stone will not budge even for the lofty lightness of condensed water vapour. The sun’s rays may be blocked from sight if it dips behind a mountain. No matter what goes on around it, a mountain is firm, aloof, and stands apart from the rest.
Another aspect of mountains that attracts me to them is the life they harbour even at the most treacherous points. Mountains exemplify the old saying that life always finds a way. From the snow leopard and the markhor, which dance a dangerous duet on the oxygen-poor cliffs of the Himalayan snow peaks, to the worker ants that burrow into the rocky folds of the Appalachians, life has always teemed in mountains. And what is particularly amazing to me is the diversity of this mountain ecology. Lichens and fungi sprout from cracks in wet rocks, and rhododendron bushes form dense mountain jungles where wolves and bears feast. People are very much a part of mountain life too. Herders, shepherds, the occasional farmer, avid birders and zoologists – when the mountain opens its arms to life, it welcomes life in all forms. All it requests in return is humility, and respect.
People are drawn to mountains for different reasons – mostly to fill some niche within their souls that they find lacking. Mountain climbers, those ambitious men and women who work long and hard to scale the highest peaks in the world, are among those who return to the mountains again and again. Some approach their peak of choice with pride, brimming with youthful energy and a lack of respect for the task at hand. It is easy to be emboldened when standing safely at the foothills of a snow-clad mountain range, able to breathe freely without fear of death. But these proud souls are the first to fall during the ascent. The impatience, the inability to connect with their surroundings, and their disconnect from the act of climbing is what – in nearly all cases – brings them helpless to their knees. This is completely in opposition to the holy men who renounce all material wealth to live out their final days lost on a mountain’s slopes. They give up their ego, their human fallacies, and succumb to the healing power of the peaks until they become one with nature, as all of us are wont to become one day.
I have a deep-seeded respect for mountains, ever since childhood. Growing up, I learned to respect the lush greenness of the Western Ghats, the monsoon mountains of my birthplace. I watched developers blast through mountains in favour of glass-walled offices and retail malls, and was filled with a sickness in the pit of my stomach. My mother and I hiked around various peaks at various times as I grew older – Mt. Ranier in Seattle-Tacoma, Mt. St. Helens in Oregon, Bear Mountain in New York, Matheran in the Ghats, the Nilgiri slopes of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the Appalachians, the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada. These experiences shaped my love for mountains. They are my refuge.
In 2014, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Himalayas as a part of a field course for my university. At last, I was amongst the greatest peaks in the world – the source of countless civilizations and the birthplace of fertile valleys watered by mountain rivers. Living 8,000 feet in the air was breath-taking. I ran with the birds. I trekked for entire days through valleys deep, where black bears ambled through rhododendron bushes in search of juicy berries, where leopards stole village dogs and screamed in the night, where monkeys ambushed travellers armed with fresh fruit, where Himalayan tahr and domestic goats alike bleated plaintively in the high cold wind and hopped from ledge to precarious ledge. Yes, life in the mountains was freeing. I shed my fears, my inhibitions, my prior understanding of the world, and let the chilly air cleanse me anew. I climbed trees and plucked sweet mountain berries to quench my thirst, battling thrushes and sparrows in my quest for the fruit. I picked my way along rocky ledges that overlooked fields of marijuana and grazing cattle. I sat on the banks of the raging white waters of the Ganges and the Yamuna, two of India’s greatest rivers, and watched as life sprung up where the waters lapped the shore. I witnessed the birth of an underground river, and encountered fire licking its way up the deodar forests on a silent, warm night. There is magic in mountains, a magic that seeps its way into your soul. It feeds you, makes you realize how simple life should be. Gone are your attachments to material goods, to past wounds, to future fears. A mountain simply exists in the present. It stands firm, rooted, unshakable. The human mind, I firmly believe, should strive to be like a mountain. There will be hope for the human race if we emulate these natural wonders more than we aspire to be like celebrities or fictional characters.
I have spread my wings and flown away from the safety of the mountains, but I return to them time and time again. I spent a day last fall in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, safe in the arms of peaks that gleam with spirit and tenacity. I was escaping the soul-sucking atmosphere of the city, of buildings and concrete walls, and the mountains welcomed me back into their embrace. The trees whispered balmy platitudes to me, and the wind played games with my hair. The mountains spoke to me, treated me as their own. In the mountains, I can breathe. I can relax, and simply exist without expectations or desires. In the mountains, I fly like a falcon, fast and fierce. And, like the falcon, I will always return to rest in their solid presence. I am a girl from the mountains, to the end of my days.