Sixteen Miles To The Promise Land

I don’t visit mountains with frequency. I haven’t stood with my arms outstretched in years. This is a problem.

I was eight-years-old when I first saw a mountain. My father drove my brother, my cousin Bruce, and me across the great Midwestern plains to the edge of the Rockies in a brown Oldsmobile station wagon. I wore a straw cowboy hat and a big brass belt buckle that said Ben. My brother wore Coke-bottle prescription glasses, a mouth full of braces, and a black cowboy hat. We were a sight, standing there at a rest stop along Interstate 80 with the great blue and gray moutains edging from the horizon behind us. I borrowed Bruce’s blue-tinted sunglasses, put one hand on my hip, the other around my brother’s shoulder, and smiled. One mile high and rising …

I rode a gondola into the Alps when I was sixteen-years-old. One minute I was standing on the edge of Lake Lucerne in Vans and a flimsy Polo windbreaker, the next I was bracing myself against the snow-strewn wind. I had never breathed fresher air or gazed on a bluer sky.

I drove from Pennsylvania to San Diego and back — 8553 miles — when I was 19-years-old. I paused at every range along the way: the Rockies, Bighorns, Tetons, San Juans, Sangre de Cristos. My photo album is chocked full of self-timer photos of me on the edge of some thin trail, a vast, tree-filled valley at my back, with my arms outstretched. And I am always smiling.

I spent my junior year at college staring at a photo of Mt. Ajax, a 14, 0000 foot snow-capped peak that bookends Telluride, Colorado’s box canyon, pledging to summit it by year’s end. That May, with $500 in my pocket and a sleeping bag, tent, mountain bike and acoustic guitar in my NIssan Sentra, I headed west. A week later, I called my mother from a gas station on the edge of town. I’d been camping outside of town for three days searching in vain for work and a place to stay. A thunderstorm was blowing in. I was choking back tears.

I summitted Mt. Ajax in August. My friend Suzi captured the moment. It’s framed on a shelf in my apartment. There I am, a goateed, crunchy granola in a yellow raincaot, grey fleece and blue mirrored sunglasses (again!) with — surprise — my arms outstretched.

If life were a Creed video, I would be Scott Stapp, and the move would be his patented “Jesus pose.” But life isn’t a video, and I have no Stapp-ish delusions. Instead, I think, the true heart recognizes the arms outstretched as an attempt to embrace it all, to take it all in. For later, when you might need it.

I’ve taken in a lot of mountains vistas. I’ve lost a lot of breath in the thin air. And I’ve gained a lot of perspective. I spent four nights fasting in the high desert of Utah after college seeking some sense of what I should do with myslef. And I spent three nights fasting in the San Jauns just prior to accepting my job at the MTV.

It’s quiet in the mountains. The light is brighter. I can hear me. And, mysteriously, there’s not a whole lot of “You’re an idiot” or “I give up” there. Or if there is, I don’t remember, because it’s been forever since I stood on a mountain and said to myself, ‘Some days last longer than others. But this day moved too fast.’

Clearly I’m due.

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