Essay by Lou Bendrick
Geography – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine
THE THING I DON’T LIKE about house guests is the fact that they’re nosy and ask meddlesome questions. Questions about geography, for instance.
“What’s that mountain?,” they’ll ask, pointing to the snow-capped behemoth outside my kitchen window.
“That,” I’ll say stammering, wracking my brain, “is…Big Pointy.”
They look dubious, but they always press on. “And that one, the one next to it?”
“That there,” I’ll say, pneumonic devices failing, “is … Mount Peak.”
They will make notes, get giddy with faux knowledge. “And the one behind it with all the snow, what’s that?”
“That,” I’ll say, more comfortable with my lies, “we simply call Ed.”
I don’t know why I can’t remember the names of mountains. It’s either a mental block or the result of too many whiffs of non-stick cooking spray. It’s not a good quality to have when you’re the resident of a mountain community. Here, peak baggers add the conquest of 14,000-foot peaks (“fourteeners”) to their to-do lists between “change kitty litter” and “haircut.” Here, you name your dogs after the summits you’ve bagged. Holler “Here, Denali!” in this town and you’d better have biscuits — several wolf-like dogs are sure to come running.
I climbed a fourteener once, and for the life of me I can’t remember which one it was. For me, no matter how spectacular the view, the crumbly summit of a peak is not the best part of a hike. I like the middle parts of mountains, the parts with meadows, soft trails, thick aspen groves and wildflowers. Wildflowers such as Purple Watchamacallits, Yellow Thingyboos and Those Red Spiky Things.
There is an old story (probably untrue or a spoof) about the late Jackie O. The story goes that Jackie, then Kennedy, was giving a White House tour in her little pastel twinset with matching pillbox hat. Apparently she either got tired of questions about the various historic paintings in the White House, or was a lousy docent, because one day she cruised the hallways pointing out the obvious.
“Yeeeeees,” she allegedly cooed to the crowd in her breathy way. “And that’s a painting, and that’s a painting, and that’s a painting.”
Or perhaps Jackie, like me, was just sick of the arrogance implied by affixing labels to everything beautiful in this crazy, crazy world. Maybe Jackie, like me, felt trapped by her largely verbal reality, a reality that vainly seeks to quantify the divine with words, only to fail again and again! Oh, this mortal coil!
Okay. Nobody smarter than a chicken is buying that theory.
But, oh, Jackie, I feel for you.
Yeeeeees. And that’s a mountain, and that’s a mountain, and that’s a mountain.
Another thing I don’t like about house guests is that they’re clever. They read.
“Hey,” they’ll say testily, clutching their guidebook. “You were wrong about those peaks.” They’ll give me the correct name of the peaks (to be misfiled in my soft, gray cranial hard drive) and then give some hard facts that sound as if they came straight from an SAT reading comprehension passage: “The peak was formed when tilted layers of Mesozoic-Era rock were beveled flat by erosion, then overlaid with a purplish horizontal layer of conglomerate. Above this, tuff, deposited by a volcanic phase ….”
“That’s incredible,” I’ll tell the house guest, steering her away from the good Scotch. “Now why don’t you just go down to the Wet River and do some fishing. You might catch yourself some Multi-colored Trout or see a White-Headed Eagle.”
Lou Bendrick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She lives in Telluride, Colorado.