by John Wickham
As a child I was perplexed why mountain climbers would return empty-handed. They always ascended as if hunting for something lost or left behind. Then venturing up with my parents to Camels Hump in Vermont, I too looked around. But the journey down lasted 30 years until I climbed back for the meaning of the summit.
Still a youth, my descent from the mountain began with a emotional detour. I weathered internal, opposing forces. While discovering the passion of the guitar and composing, I was playing war with friends as soldier-boys. As a young adult I pursued both vocations, music and the Army. But lurking in the underworld were the disharmony and battles for my soul. Psychic-combat left no victors, only a downward trail into fog and darkness.
My last Army duty was at Fort Carson, Colorado. The Post sits like an armpit wedged between the Great Plains and the jutting Rocky Mountains. Fierce lightning storms would often park there in the Summer. It was then I felt a magnetic tug upwards to misty peaks that seemed to pierce through into sunlight.
After the Army and a law degree in my pocket, I stopped to legally heal fellow veterans. And yet the soul lured me back to the forested Colorado peaks to write its ethereal music. Turning in the cusp of my journey, I asked whether the mountains could uplift the spirit to heal the split.
In the past, traditional prescriptions of culture and religion left me like gnarled driftwood. I scanned the myriad colors of the rainbow for answers for that peak, unifying experience—from the vision quest of Lakota holy man Black Elk, or a latter-day Moses with an ear to burning sagebrushes, or the meditative walking of Zen’s Kinhin, or even the Taoist’s sauntering to calm the mind’s noise.
I left no modern stone unturned. I explored the Romantic’s sublime tensions, then to England’s nature mystic, Richard Jefferies. I agreed when Jefferies wrote — “there is yet something to be found….more subtle than electricity…[but] it must be dragged forth by might of thought.” But America’s nature mystic, Henry Thoreau, made a grueling ascent up a terrifying Mt. Ktaadn. He left feeling scolded by the peak, as if it was an “insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on humanity.”
I trailed other Naturalists who led to the hopeful science of biophilia that asks to restore a healthy emotional attachment to wildness. I pawed through eco-psychology to experience an emotional “uprush” from our buried, ancestral “ecological unconscious.” I dug into Jungian psychoanalysis to explain the universal power of the mythic mount in all cultures— the symbolism of leaving below a fragile, cluttered ego to transcend into a higher state— even for a glimpse— to reunify with God, godliness, or one’s true Self. But it was not until I left by the wayside these dry books and climbed once more, did I awaken into sunlight.
In the Autumn of 2006 I hiked up Buckeye Gulch Trail near Leadville, Colorado. At first I used the botanist’s eye on the white, poisonous “ghost-berries.” I learned that Native American elders once warned children to respect but not eat the shiny twin berries as they were the ancestors of the delicious maroon-red Saskatoon berries. I saw cottony tuffs of willow catkins tossed and carried by the wind. I laughed at Shaggy Ink Cap mushrooms that resembled a crowded party of balding dwarfs. Suddenly I looked down across the trail to tracks of a mountain lion’s forepaws— claws retracted, with prints the size of my spread-out hand. But the tracks appeared eroded and trailing away after hoof prints of a deer or elk herd. I had pepper spray and air-horn, but felt better picking up a heavy branch to carry, nicknaming it ‘Neanderthal Club.’
After an exhausting climb I burst through the tree line to enter a grassy meadow that traversed a ridge. At the same moment the wind ceased leaving such stillness and calm that I could hear my pounding heart as it syncopated with every step forward. After ten or so minutes into the meadow I was oddly prompted to glance down at my Neanderthal Club. I noticed it was not my arm nor hand holding the stick—a shiver ran through me. I stopped and turned to gaze at the vista of the surrounding peaks and setting sun. I was overcome with a strange sense of supreme self-confidence. At that moment an unknown force within compelled me to speak out loud “I belong…I should never leave.” Fear dropped away. I raised the club over my head towards the sun and uttered a rapturous yell. No longer was I a stranger to the desolate wilderness, to this alien landscape. I am nature raw, yet keenly aware, filled with an intense focus touching into my roots. No longer was I the 21st century man, a soldier, a lawyer, a music composer. They dissolved away.
I sat in my meadow as an amber sun descended perfectly between two 14-eener mountain peaks. In a flash the symbolism struck me that Nature’s energy lay in the balancing ‘middle’ of two opposing titans. Like the composer and the lawyer, wild passion and cold logic, repressed unconscious and the conscious mind, the dying and re-emerging, the Taoist yin and yang? I had been trapped in the conventional mind set with a compulsion to grind down conflicting energies and talents into a funnel to spit out an unchanging, fixed Western persona. That trail would leave a misshapen and artificial form—a “virtual self.” But creation and self-flourishing emerge from an unforced, continual interaction between two forces that follow cycles naturally to accommodate change. They were never battling armies bleeding my soul, but interdependent and complementary. They were never encouraged to flow and ebb into each other like a swinging pendulum. To awaken is to nurture an utter openness to a path avoiding extremes, like the setting sun returning to its middle. That’s the place “I belong” and endeavor not to leave.
As I retraced my meadow trail, I recalled Winnie the Pooh stories read to my young twin boys. The series ended with “Pooh and friends walking on, thinking of This and That, and by-and-by they came to an enchanted place on the very top of the Forest.” In the center among a circle of trees was a floor not coarse or fouled but grassy, quiet and smooth. Sitting there they could “see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky, and whatever there was all the world over, was with them in that place, Galleons Lap.”
John Wickham lives in Evergreen Colorado, where he is a civil rights attorney, and occasional film-TV composer in the Western/Native American genre.
Since 1998 his published work has included essays in Indian Country Today and Mountain Gazette (Frisco CO), a feature article in American Indian Quarterly (Winter 2003) and OP-Eds in Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News. His writings explore Western attitudes towards Nature and offer resolution for the resultant ill effects on Self and the environment.