In eighth-grade earth science we learned all about mountains.
Sitting on top of the molten core of the Earth, continent-sized tectonic plates drift imperceptibly due to currents in the magma beneath them.
When these colossal forces of nature collide and struggle against each other, neither able to force the other back into the magma below, they crush together and bend upwards toward the sky.
Through millions of years of weathering and erosion, a mountain – as we see it today – forms.
However, no textbook, lecture, or canned “classroom experiment” can adequately describe the feeling of standing at the base of one of these massive monuments to geology, seeing the summit, wreathed in wisps of cloud, and preparing to pit one’s will against nature to reach that goal.
The summer before my freshman year, I faced such a task. The whole week, my Scout troop and I had been backpacking in the Seven Devils Mountains – with no car or boat or support vehicle. We carried all our supplies and gear on our backs.
Situated in Idaho near the Snake River, across from the northeastern tip of Oregon, this wild collection of high peaks and frigid mountain lakes lies untamed and unforgiving. Steep inclines, long days, endless mileage, bitterly cold water, thin mountain air and dehydrated food combined to wear us down physically and mentally as the five-day, 60-plus-mile ordeal wore on. Then we came to the base of She-Devil.
Triumphantly piercing the sky at over 9,300 feet, She-Devil stands as a brazen challenge to any individual brave or foolish enough to attempt a scramble up its sheer faces. We were both.
Steaming and sweating, we ascended boulder fields covered in snow, despite the late summer sun beating down. Reaching the last set of ridges leading up to the peak, danger abounded. Narrow ledges provided unsure footing, and one step on a wobbly stone could have easily sent a careless hiker to certain demise on the harsh rocks far below. With a little luck and some help from each other, we all safely arrived at the summit.
Rock-bestrewn and barely large enough to fit our group, the tip of the mountain provided little in the way of restful seats, but what it lacked in comfort, it made up for in majesty.
As we sat and gazed at the thousands of miles surrounding us, silence fell over the group – not giggle-ridden classroom “silence,” but a deep, profound silence. It seemed as if the height of our perch and the crisp, cold air blocked all noise from below and within, leaving us isolated, alone with our thoughts, able to peer into the depths of our souls and see just how we felt.
Even now as I ponder the experience, my breath grows short and I can see the sprawling landscape. I can remember the feeling of peace and wisdom I felt. After signing the summit log and taking some pictures, we descended back into the clamor of life almost reluctantly and – at least in my case – changed.
The world we live in feeds us a constant stream of sound: From a friend’s voice, to music on the radio, to a scolding parent, to a talkative sibling, to a commercial on television, noise bombards us. We even inflict it upon ourselves, from those who sing loudly in the shower, to those who perpetually bear music-blaring headphones.
Genuine silence seems forgotten. Yet, how do we honor the valiant slain soldiers of our country, or the tragic loss of friends and family? With a moment of silence, an undeniably powerful experience.
On the fierce pinnacle of She-Devil, I learned the irrefutable potency of silence in affecting attitudes, giving perspective and transforming personalities.
Underneath us and around us, the forces of nature move along methodically. Apart from the occasional thunderstorm, earthquake or other natural disaster, the vast majority of geological time marches on in peace. Plates shift, breezes blow, currents flow. Waves endlessly lap the shore, rivers carve deep valleys, winds shift endless mounds of dirt and sand and mountains form, all without our notice.
Yet, despite the monumental significance of these events, to what soundtrack is this glorious drama of nature set to?
All it took was a tussle with a Devil to figure it out.