I have a little button on my backpack: “I Heart Mountains” it says, with a beautiful vista of my Appalachian home, blue and gray ridges fading into the horizon. I spent countless weeks of my childhood summers in the mountains of West Virginia, fishing, hiking, playing camp games with other summer campers. The soft rolling slopes of Appalachia with her ancient green forests 300 million years old, speak to me wherever I am. I believe I have a deep-rooted Appalachian Soul.
I believe in climbing mountains. The big ones on the horizon, the huge monsters of rock that pulled Americans westward with slogans such as “Pike’s Peak or Bust.” I myself have climbed a few of the really tall ones, planted my small mental flag on the peaks of maybe eight or nine, and have stood on ranges around the world, from the American Rockies to the Peruvian Andes, the foothills of the Himalaya in Central Asia, to the glaciers of the Southern Alps in New Zealand. Each has its own challenges, its own history, and its own paths to the top. But it is the Appalachian song that plays in my heart.
The view from the top can be breathtaking but I believe in the serenity to be found at the top of a mountain. Those few moments when you can swear you can see the ocean, so far below, so many thousands of miles away. But this is not why I climb.
I believe in climbing mountains. I think that the climb itself is worth much more that the respite you get at the summit. So often, you approach a peak only to have to give up the climb, due to rain or lightning, to circumstances beyond your control. So you head back down, and resolve that one day you will try again.
But it’s not only physical mountains that we climb. During my year in Iraq in the US Army, the men of my unit climbed up a steep slope of impossible missions every day and every night. I don’t know if we ever reached the top of that peak, but we got better, got closer, on most days. Looking back, I am not even sure that we had a peak to reach even if we could have. And I guess that is one of the keys to what I believe.
Back home in West Virginia, we have a different climb ahead of us, not up the mountains we have so effectively neutralized, but up out of the cycle of poverty and economic malaise that has engulfed us for the better part of a century. Out of a past mired in violence and misunderstanding. I believe not in a city on a hill, but a people on a mountainside, struggling ever upward, eyes to the sky, and hands reaching back down to help those below.
And I believe that being from West Virginia, our nation’s Mountain State, we know how to climb.
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