Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Looking for the Mountain

When I moved to Connecticut three years ago, I explored the area around my town and described some of my travels to new acquaintances. When I told one neighbor that I had gone to the town of Avon, she said, “So you drove over the mountain.” Puzzled, I replied that I didn’t recall seeing any mountain. “I love mountains,” I told her. “I’ll be sure to look for it next time.” She gave me a quizzical look.

Several weeks later, I was talking to another acquaintance about how to get somewhere in Canton, and she told me to “drive over Avon Mountain.” I asked her how I would do that, and she told me to take Route 44, which was the route I had previously taken to Avon. So again I got in my car and drove to Avon and then to Canton—and I still didn’t see any mountain.

Finally, when “the mountain” came up in a conversation a third time, I didn’t let it pass. I asked my interlocutor where, precisely, this mountain was. “You go right over it on Route 44,” she told me. “No,” I told her. “I’ve driven on Route 44, and I didn’t see any mountain.” Then she began to describe the grade going up over a rise, the runaway truck ramp on the downhill side, the treacherousness of the road, and I realized that our definitions of “mountain” were severely misaligned.

“That,” I maintained, “is no mountain.”

Later, I learned that the area referred to as Avon Mountain where Route 44 connects Avon and West Hartford is actually part of another mountain, Talcott Mountain, which at under 1,000 feet also doesn’t qualify as a mountain in my lexicon.

Last week, I was talking with a woman in the library while the kids played in the toy kitchen area. My friend described to me her trip to the town where I grew up in Southern California. She once flew out there from Connecticut to attend her cousin’s wedding. When she arrived, she was in awe of the mountains. She remarked to her cousin that the mountains where so tall. “Those aren’t mountains,” her cousin replied. “Those are hills.”

For several days, she kept looking at and remarking on the mountains, and her cousin kept correcting her. “Those are hills,” her cousin kept saying. “You just wait and see.” The mountains that my friend was seeing were covered in brown grasses and chaparral, and they looked tall to her. In fact, the tallest peak in the hills near my childhood home is over 3,000 feet.

Finally, one day the smog cleared out, revealing the true mountains—the blue snow-capped splendors on the horizon. “Those,” her cousin told her, “are mountains.” And my friend was in awe. “Those,” she repeated to me, “are mountains.”

“I know them well,” I said. “Both the mountains and the hills.” And then I told her my story about driving all over Avon Mountain looking for the mountain and being unable to see it. She laughed, and we began to talk about how our internalized landscapes—our very definitions of words like mountain and forest and river—affect our ability to see and name new landscapes. But then the children ran up with wooden pizza and pretend tea for us to enjoy, and we never finished our conversation.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how our intimacy with the landscapes of our childhood sometimes makes us blind to new landscapes, or at least unwilling to see the wonder in a place that we do not yet call home. Since then, I’ve been thinking about our personal definitions of words related to landscape and how those meanings are formed. Since then, I’ve been thinking about mountains.

What does your mountain look like?

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