March 20, 2015

A boy and his mountains

When I was a boy, white Christmas was distant concept. Yet it was always close at hand.

I grew up in at the very northern peak of California’s Central Valley. My hometown of Redding is known by travellers far and wide as “that unbelievably hot place where we stopped for gas before driving to Oregon.”
Mount Lassen from Redding

That position at the tip of the valley means that hot air (of which California has no shortage) rises up the valley floor on summer days until it is trapped by a ring of Cascade Mountains. And there it stays. Mercury above 100-degrees at midnight is common in August.

That same fluke of geography gives Redding a ringside seat to a winter it doesn’t have to put up with. “Hot” in Redding may be a term from hell, but “cold” in Redding is Missouri shirtsleeve weather. It snows once in a long while, but seldom enough for a kid to make money with a shovel.

But the snow was always there – on those mountains that a hug Redding like a protective mom. Each morning when I slogged out to catch the bus, I looked east to see what Mount Lassen was wearing. She was usually dressed in her winter whites, but I hoped against hope that this morning she would switch into the mantle of fiery lava made her the center of a volcanic national park.

Shasta Bally, to the west, was shorter and less likely to be snowbound, but loomed close as the guardian of the Trinity Alps. If I could see between the hell-I-ain’t-giving-up-no-leaves live oak trees out back, the eerie specter of Mount Shasta stood out all alone on the northern horizon.

I didn’t realize how much this snowy huddle of mountains meant to me until, as an adult, I moved to Dallas. In that part of Texas, people get nose bleeds at the peak of freeway overpasses. It was so flat that we bundled up the kids and drove to Oklahoma just to see some hills that pretend to be mountains.

Oklahoma, for God’s sake. You don’t admit that in Texas even if you are a foreigner.

We don’t have mountains here in mid Missouri, but the crinkle of tall hills in Columbia so disturbs your sight line that it is easy to pretend there are real peaks out there somewhere. And when the snow is measured by the foot, you don’t wish aloud for mountain roads.

Still, the Redding kid in me still wants to look east in morning to greet my craggy protector. I was never a mountain man, but I will forever be the boy under the mountain.