There Used to be Mountains

There used to be mountains in my life. This didn’t matter to me in the way it matters to most people living in the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t need the mountains as an escape, something to scale, accomplish. They were ornamental to me, decorations dotting my horizon when I looked beyond the city limits, the halfway mark between the small town I grew up in and the city where I came of age.

Cascade Mountains, Washington.

Cascade Mountains, Washington.

When things exist on the outskirts of your life, you take them for granted. When I lived in Portland during graduate school, I made a promise to myself that whenever I crossed the Willamette on my commute from my home on the east side to campus on the west side I would look up from whatever book I was reading and take in the river and the parade of bridges–all uniquely their own. It was like a superstition, like looking at the water brought me good luck in that way that holding your breath when you drive through a tunnel does.

It’s easy to passively absorb our surroundings, lose the wonder we first felt at the site of a landmark, a towering skyscraper. When I jog through my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I’m still caught off guard to look up from the pavement and see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. New York is full of wonder, a place we have seen captured in so many movies and TV shows that we feel we know it already. And yet, looking up at the brick townhouses as I walk to work in the West Village, I am dumbstruck to find myself really living here, a real place, not a setting in a fictional story.

And yet. And yet there is something missing. I’ve lived here for almost six months. Until now, I thought I was a person without place, not connected to my hometown with the kind of pride that keeps people where they grew up or convinced I needed to stay in one place and put down roots. I thought of myself as an expat; my favorite word is “wanderlust.” And yet. One morning on my way to work I looked up from the N train as it crossed the Manhattan Bridge and I realized what was missing from my scenery. In the distance, when you look past the jumble of Manhattan, the island swelling with buildings, there is nothing on the horizon. What is my horizon without mountains?

Buildings, New York

Buildings, New York.

Mountains offer a sense of familiarity, consistency. They are certainty in the face of uncontrollable circumstances. They offer the kind of comfort people find in God, or their fathers. There is so much in nature, and even more in humankind, that is ephemeral, malleable, broken: bridges collapse, so do relationships. I’ve been thinking about mountains lately in the way I’ve been thinking about death: both represent permanence.

I used to think I didn’t need a setting of my own because the characters I created still live in the Pacific Northwest. But there has to be a reason I keep returning to Portland, Seattle, and Yakima in my writing–I’m writing my way home. There used to be mountains in my life and for the first time I miss them.

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