I’ve been going through some old photos lately, and have found myself drawn to a particular set of images. They’re the ones depicting mountain scenes, but those in which the mountains and the clouds mix in ways that bring together a sense of mystery and foreboding.
There was one hike I did about four years ago when the summer monsoons were on full blast, bringing rain and storms daily, often from morning until sunset. It was hard finding a day to go out when the weather gave me a window where a summit hike was even possible.
But it worked out on that day, even for the briefest amount of time. The hike was short, just a few miles round trip, and the summit was a minor one, a mountain simply called Cupid that tops out at 13,117 feet in Colorado’s Front Range.
On that day, heavy clouds were moving in, at times covering the sky. Only occasionally did any blue peek through.
At those altitudes, the clouds themselves don’t hover very high over the mountains. Sometimes they even pass below.
The more I thought about it, the more I could appreciate these places where the elements of earth and sky meet, and sometimes intermingle.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience this a few times. Lucky in that I was able to take it in and not suffer from the dreary and sometimes dangerous aspects of storms. There’s a sweet spot here, one in which the skies are painted gray and white, but the fury of the atmosphere is mercifully held at bay. In those times, the mountains become otherworldly, even ethereal.
I understand why ancient people felt that it was in the mountains that the gods lived. Most people never ventured that high. The inaccessibility of the heights and the sorcerous dance of the mists above seemingly drew wonder and fear.
Moses went up Sinai to see God and receive the Ten Commandments. The ancient Greeks looked toward Mount Olympus and its lofty heights as the home of their deities. In the Himalayas, the mountains themselves are seen as gods.
The mountains and their massive bulk, their imposing ramparts, and in some cases, fiery calderas only fuel dreams of the supernatural.
These days, we’ve climbed these peaks and have seen that there are no divine palaces on their summits. Zeus cannot be found. We’ve prayed to the mountains and consistent to their nature, they’ve answered with stony silence.
But that doesn’t mean their misty heights can’t inspire awe.
Years before that Cupid hike, I was up on Missouri Mountain in Colorado on a day in which the weather looked dicey. Clouds swirled all around, but for some reason, the rains and snows never came. I hiked up the mountain’s northwest ridge, then walked toward its summit in a cloud bank, the trail disappearing into a gray haze. It was otherworldly.
Once on its summit, I looked around. The surrounding mountains were in the midst of the same dance, like a giant ballroom of clouds writhing and floating around the high peaks, steely spirits at times graceful, and other times more urgent in their movements, depending on the nature of the winds. Below me, were miles of alpine tundra, willows and forests.
Everyone reacts differently, but to me, I felt close to God. Intimately, and maybe dangerously close.
I’ve felt that a few times, times when hiking the Loveland Pass peaks, times when I’ve wandered in the Smokies, times when I’ve watched the sun rise over a cloud inversion in Rocky Mountain National Park. And yes, that day on Missouri Mountain, on my own, with nothing but me, my thoughts, and the dance of God whirling around me in the grandest scale.
It’s where heaven and earth meet, a window into another world beyond our own. Only rarely does this opportunity rise for me. It’s an honor just to be there.