The Mountain

 

“From the muses of Helicon, let us begin our singing, that haunt Helicon’s great and holy mountain, and dance on their soft feet round the violet-dark spring….”

—Hesiod, “Theogony”

 

THE MOUNTAIN is nothing but itself. It does not speak. It has no message, and yet it is the great metaphor maker. It reflects what the traveler brings to it: a getaway, quiet majesty, a challenge, security, or danger. It is all these things or none of them, and the traveler sees whichever he looks for in it. For millennia people have come to high mountains and sat at their feet or scaled their peaks, hoping to return with the answer to a question.

Six days a week, from Tuesday through Sunday, Paul Tobit drove a sightseeing bus on the winding roads at the base of Mount Rainier in Washington. People often asked him if he got tired of the view. He never did. The mountain was vast enough to provide endless material for wonder and contemplation. There was the sheer majesty of the towering peak, the way it changed with the seasons and the weather, the sense of danger and foreboding that came with its snow cap, where the oxygen was thin and adventurers risked life and limb for the chance to say they reached the summit.

“Magnificent in its symbiosis.” Those were the words Paul usually used on his tours to describe Rainier. Up on the mountain, everything is interconnected. The logs fall and they turn into mulch, which becomes soil for new trees. There’s an algae up there that grows in a wispy hanging vine. It somehow draws from the tree without choking it. To Paul, it was evidence of the hand of God.

The philosopher Edmund Burke described two different responses to natural beauty in his treatise On the Sublime and Beautiful: one originates in love, the other in fear. Fields full of flowers, meadows and ponds covered in lilies are comforting; they give people a sense of harmony and security. They are pretty, but they are not sublime. To be sublime, a landscape has to evoke not only beauty but terror—a sense of something so great, so enormous, with a life span so long that we can scarcely comprehend it. It renders us weak and insignificant in comparison.

Mount Rainier is sublime. Even the most arrogant man would have to be humbled in its presence. It reminds us that the world is much bigger than we are, that there are still places that we cannot blast, or sell, or pave, or control. Is it any wonder that Jesus, who “went up to the mountain to pray,” came down with the message that “the meek shall inherit the earth” and delivered the sermon “on the mount”?

Paul enjoyed his job. There was no gossip, no politics, no deadlines or performance reviews. He found both solitude and company on the side of the mountain. The tourists who filed onto his bus each day were always in a good mood—you don’t take a sightseeing tour to be miserable and grumpy. The groups bonded quickly over their shared temporary interest in snapping photos of nature. After a pleasant day together, they parted ways without any messy breakups or accusations.

People take vacation snaps in a futile attempt to capture the mountain and the moment so they can take them home to flat states like Indiana and Kansas. There is something in our DNA that makes us want to hold onto the transitory. Photographs give us the pleasing illusion that we can. Yet the image never quite evokes the experience…. “The picture doesn’t do it justice. You had to be there.”

People also take photographs so they will not feel lonely. They take them for the absent friends they wish were there to share the view. There are few things more melancholy than looking out on a truly sublime landscape and realizing you are experiencing it all alone. This was something Paul knew quite well.

The ritual of being a tour guide appealed to him. What was for the tourists a singular experience was for Paul a repeating experience. Each day he would unlock the bus, jot notes in a couple of logs, and fill the gas tank. At 10:00 a.m., the visitors started to file in with their passes and take their seats. Some privacy-loving folks went straight for the back. The ones who liked to ask questions sat near the front. In the middle were the social ones who hoped to meet their new neighbors during the ride.

Paul rounded a familiar curve in the road and heard the expected sighs and murmurs as the tourists saw a spectacular view for the first time. He had developed an act of sorts over the course of two years. He knew what guests always asked, and he told them before they had the chance. He knew what jokes and lines made people laugh. He had his share of inspirational and thought-provoking observations too. And if that wasn’t the group’s mood, he could ply them with trivia and hold a contest, awarding a T-shirt to the winner. At the end of the day, his pocket was always stuffed with more than his share of tips. He would never become rich on his mountain proceeds, of course, but he had everything he needed—regular meals, a small cabin with a spectacular view, and time to gaze at the mountain and reflect on life.

Throughout his tours, Paul liked to make references to burning out on his old job. Inevitably, toward the end of the tour, someone would ask what his old job had been. He loved their reactions when he said, “A minister.”