The Song of the Mountain

An Essay about Mt. Hood

I have become a slave. You may have too, but perhaps have not noticed it. In fact our whole society is tightly bound; we are possessed by our possessions. My masters are not sentient beings, but are small collections of plastic, wires, glass and microchips, with tiny half-bitten apples engraved upon them. They fit in the palm of my hand, beeping, buzzing, and pulling at my attention. I live in a world of social media, a world full of texts, tweets, updates, and apps. In my temperature-controlled environment, bathed in artificial light, I tend to forget the feeling of grass between my toes and the sensation of snow as it melts against my skin. I find it hard to distinguish real life from my own virtual reality. I cannot escape this swirling vortex of technology, and often find myself glued to a screen, my eyes sore and vision blurred by the harsh bright glare. But when I find myself too wrapped up in this artificial world, I am reminded there is a place where I can take refuge from all the clamor of life, and the buzz of my phone. I find my solace there, far away from any power grid, surrounded by the soft hues of nature. Mt. Hood is my place of escape, my place of liberation; for when I experience its profound beauty and explore its snow covered forests, I feel like these 21st century chains of mine are broken— and I am finally free.

On a typical trip to Mt. Hood, we leave our home in Brownsmead, OR long before the sun climbs over the horizon. The journey to Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort takes a little more than two and a half hours, so at five in the morning my family loads our gear into our most snow-worthy transportation, a four-wheel drive Toyota Sequoia, and departs by six. The trip is not at all a boring one. My dad, Mike, puts on our favorite music: Bluegrass. My younger sister Grace and I sip steaming coffee and howl along to Bill Monroe’s high lonesome sound as we wind slowly towards the mountain. Nothing makes a road trip better than the bitter, acidic sensation of coffee waking up my taste buds, and ringing banjos and haunting harmonies waking up my ears. Bluegrass originated in the Appalachian Mountains, and even though we are in the Cascades, I can still sense a connection between the music and our mountainous surroundings.

As we approach Government Camp I crane my neck through my passenger window, watching for the first signs of snow. It starts first as a dirty grey slush, a gravel covered streak half melted on the roadside, but as we gain elevation it starts to whiten, and soon covers the ground. Its depth grows, first a foot of snow, then two or three. I can never tell exactly when it happens, but in an instant we are whisked away to a different world. I seem to have blinked my sleepy eyes, only to open them in the most amazing snow globe you’ll ever see. The branches of the enormous evergreens bend beneath their load of heavy “cascade cement” as we skiers call the local snow. It is everywhere, and is of the purest kind, draping the earth like clean white sheets. It fills the road, the whole world, and even tries to fill the air as the wind carries it across the highway. The orange twelve-foot poles to mark the snow depth are almost completely buried, and the guardrail is nowhere to be found. Like flowing sand tiny drifts of snow seep onto the road, and Dad drives carefully to not get stuck in one. The rays of the golden fiery sun burst through the trees, and I catch a glimpse of the mountain above us, a flickering image, appearing and disappearing as we work our way towards it. We drive onward, through countless masterpieces of nature, until we round a bend, and there before us, its jagged peak framed in a glowing sapphire sky, is Mt. Hood, in all its glory.

We pull into the parking lot about eight-fifty, not bad, and we give a rousing cheer when we pass under the arch emblazoned with the resort logo. The parking lot hasn’t been snowplowed since early this morning, which has given Mother Nature ample time to fill it back about six inches high. Only a few cars sit at the front of the lodge, and their respective tire tracks crisscross over the open field of snow. When I open my door I feel the sting of the frigid air on my skin, and it burns my lungs as I step out in the snow. The air has a slight tinge of rotten eggs, carried down from the sulfur spewing volcanic vents at the top of the mountain. My tennis shoe clad feet tingle in my socks, for already as we work to unload the car, the snow’s cold wet fingers have reached inside them. The ski lifts open at nine, so we hurriedly put on our gear, unload our skis, and walk to the lifts, like awkward astronauts in our clunky ski boots.

Mt. Hood is now towering high above us, pyramid shaped, just what a mountain should look like. Little patches of white fog obscure the peak. A few thousand feet below the desolate peak the tree line begins, first as small ice encased shrubs, and then expands into a rolling forest of tall dark fir trees. The Mt. Hood Express, the resort’s main ski lift, climbs straight up the middle of this forest, and disappears over the large hill called “Show-off”, a black diamond run directly underneath the lift. If you crash trying to impress the lift riders on this run, expect hoots of laughter from above. As the lift steadily hums on our ride up, I see many of my favorite runs from a bird’s perspective. To the right, near the top is Powder Keg, a tree bordered chute that begins with a small cliff. Many times there I have clenched my teeth and clumsily fallen through the air, my knees buckling beneath me as I land and ski away, adrenaline and exhilaration coursing through my veins. Straight down the mountainside is “The Face”, wide and steep, and as we float above it I recall tucking my body like a racer, pointing my skis straight down the hill, and holding on tight as I fly down the hill. These are all great runs, but as we reach the top of the lift, I have only one in particular place on my mind.

The ground swoops up to place us back on earth as we dismount the chairlift. Dad, Grace and I without speaking already know where we will go— left, towards the warming hut and then another sharper left onto “Ridge Run”. I feel the ground move under my skis as we take the first small hill, and Grace shouts, “Race you to Four Bowl!” then takes off as fast as she can go, her dark blue and white jacket flapping like a flag in the wind. I spout some near unintelligible cry of “Not fair, I wasn’t ready,” but quickly get over it as I tuck in and dive bomb down the hill. Though I try, I can’t catch her. As we reach the bottom we careen around the Ridge Run turn-off, and in an instant we are on a narrow trail, over looking a wide valley, with signs marking the black diamond runs where you can plunge off the ridge’s edge. We pass by the first three signs, then at the fourth we dig in the edges of our skis and come to a screeching halt. As Dad and I come to a stop behind Grace I skid hard to the left, and my skis send a shower of snow high in the air at her. She sends a snowball in retort, and it smashes into my face, and a shock runs through my body as the chilly slush breaks into a million pieces on my face. The snow laden trees ring with our laughter. No earthly possession, or piece of technology can replicate what I feel at that moment.

At Four Bowl we split up, for we all love different runs, and Dad’s deep voice booms, “See you at the bottom!” as I ski on, passing underneath the tall Four Bowl sign. I turn off the edge, and Four Bowl’s steep precipitous slope opens wide before me. I can hear the skiers glide above me on the ridge, but there is no one but me down below. As I take my first careful turns I hear the soft swish of my edges cutting deep into the snow, and I carve wide tracks down the tree-covered hill, my mind at ease, and my spirit free. As I near the bottom of the hill, the high Spruce trees envelop me, and I take a narrow trail into a small canyon, to my “secret spot.” Through this narrow gulch a mountain stream gurgles and sings joyfully down the mountainside, sometimes covered in snow, and then cascading into view, splashing on its rocky bed. I stop here, by the stream, surrounded by God’s towering forest cathedral. I take a deep breath, and a smile crawls across my face. Here, as I listen to the song of the mountain, my soul is set free.

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