Lessons from a Mountain

This mountain looms so large over my whole life. There are objects that do the same for you. Perhaps it is the kitchen by the window, where she stood and worked, or the shed, smelling of wood chips, paint thinners and machinery. Perhaps a stretch of beach, or that space in the yard at dusk. A chapel or a hospital. The smell of a book or the sound of a respirator. It’s a place that brings sadness and happiness to your heart in equal measure.

For me this mountain was the physical manifestation of a father’s love. It was seemingly always in the backdrop of what we did, just there, the way I imagine the faithful feel the presence of God, resilient, ageless and ever present. And despite all the sadness the world may bring, the mountain’s enduring presence will serve as a comfort and reminder of what there was, and what there shall always be.

Okay, take a slow shallow breath and come with me.

 47°45’59.88“N,  15°48’16.71″E – 2076m

On the summit the sky seems close, as though you could jump and brush your fingers into cold gray cotton candy. Impossibly black, rolling quickly across in striations and tentacles, yet suffusing the ground with a quavering neutral light. At your feet the tiny mountain grasses cloak the hill in rich shining green strands. Kneel down to tie your shoe and you realise that every square inch is spattered with tiny flowers, as bright as acrylic paint straight from the tube, seemingly every colour. The longer you look, the more you are drawn into the intricate details until you feel that you might be seeing into the spaces between molecules.

schneeberg summit

The mountain is not green and grey. You world is not just eat, sleep and work. It just depends how closely you are willing to observe the things around you. Don’t think your life is ordinary, look closely and worship the myriad little joys and challenges, because common is not the same as ordinary.

 47°45’39.43″N,  15°50’2.92″E – 1799m

He told me a story once, about being trapped in one of the Gasthof’s up here where it dumped so much snow that they were trapped for a few days. How they sang and danced and drank between taking turns to dig their way out from an upstairs window. And when he poked his head out that second day and saw nothing but sparkling white crystals and a sky so blue it made his eyes ache. How the taste of the clean air filled his lungs, and he breathed so deeply it seemed to scour his lungs, as though the air could take away hurt and sadness. He and two friends plowed their way down the Mieseltal walk that day, through waist deep drifts and down to the village, leaving the others (those less inclined to struggle through the snow) to drink, eat and dance their way through another day before they could leave.

gasthof am schneeberg.jpg

Walking down a mountain through silent snow with friends is not better than sitting in a warm hotel drinking and dancing, eating and sleeping. But you deserve to experience both of these things at some time in your life. Don’t let your habit stop you seeing the stars, feeling the touch of cold river water or the taste of the new and unfamiliar.

 47°45’19.54″N,  15°50’18.01″E – 1666m

The descent now moves into the tree zone. The path is littered with egg like stones that make you skitter and slide. The trees here are stunted, little pines bearing tight clusters of cones, and gather just at head height so you have the impression of feeling much younger than you are – a memory of impossibly tall grass, of pushing your body into a little space, under the bed, into a little hedge, of being small and stealthy. The view is amazing from here, but you can’t look as you walk – all your attention is needed to ensure you watch the slippery loose trail as it winds down the mountain

train down

It is important to look at where you are going. But to never stop and see the bigger picture would be to waste your time on the journey.

 47°45’15.00″N,   15°51’22.99″E, 1334m

It was right here that I got lost the first time, as a teenager. You can either cross the tracks and walk down the Mieseltal, a sharp steep winding descent through the deep forest to Schneeberfdörfl, or follow the rail tracks along the steady ridge down into Puchberg. I didn’t see the trail on my own that day as a 15 year old, and with my uncle already far ahead and the Old Man out of sight behind me walked the wrong way and ended up only realising my mistake much later. By the time the Old man found me in the car I had found the way to Schneebergdörfl and was nearly there.So to take the Mieseltal descent is a special thing. It winds so steeply that you can almost touch the feet of someone on the next level up sometimes. The woods here are deep and old – to your left the mountain sweeps across, impossibly massive. Little streams criss cross the track and if you are lucky you might see a fire salamander in the cool dark. The sign at the top tells you that it is only 1 hour to Puchberg – it’s actually closer to 3, even walking fast. And bizarrely that same sign, telling you that Puchberg is 1 hour away is to found another three times, making you doubt your navigational skills and sanity.

two ways
Looking Back: The Mieseltal path turns off to the right in the dark trees

Robert Frost told me that the path you choose makes all the difference. For a long time it seemed that the Miseltal was the path I should have taken. Yet both paths led me off the mountain. Sometimes a different path has the same destination and it is only the journey that is distinct. If you had seen them one last time, called the day before they passed instead of being too busy, how much would have changed? Would you have simply chosen less regret? If you had been there at the end, they still would have left you. If you had said ‘I love you’ one more time, you still would have wanted them to hear you say it again. Both paths were beautiful in their own right.

 47°46’5.16″N,  15°51’37.00″E, 786m

Where does a mountain end? I’m not sure I can tell you. But here the path is broad and level, and on either side stretches a field of shimmering green grass that climbs up to the forested slopes behind you.  Ahead the hamlet sits nestled in the fields, the gravel scrunches underfoot, little wild strawberries glow in the grassy verge like rubies. A mountain never leaves you even when you have left it behind you.

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