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01/08/02 12:00AM By Ruth Page

What is it about soaring mountains that captures our hearts? If you're alone in the quiet, looking up at the high hills, their beauty is an arrow to the soul. People have felt this way for millennia - remember the line in the Bible that says, "I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my strength"?

Yes, that's just how you feel. Renewed. When you go into the Adirondacks, or the Green Mountains, or the White Mountains, looking up at them IS an inspiration. Why? What's so special about mountains? They're just big wrinkles in the planet's crust, caused by its bony plates grinding into each other; or else they result from massive belching of fire and lava from deep in Earth's bowels, where rocks can boil and leap, where lava can spurt or seep. Volcano flows, of course, can ooze slowly for years, but that relentless spread profoundly alters and reinvigorates the ancient planetary surface.

One part of a mountain's attraction is its invitation to you to climb to its top and see the world from on high. It's not like looking out of an airplane window that reduces all below to the status of toys. Climb a mountain, scramble over its rocks, enjoy its handsome trees, turn and look afar from your perch, if heights do not bother you. All is still of recognizable relative size, softened and made lovely by distance. No matter how high you are above the meadow, foothill or lake from which you started, the view enchants. The air is clean and fresh, the sparkling rivers seem pristine, crowded roads are often veiled by trees, AND you've accomplished something physically rewarding.

Ansel Adams, whose superb black and white photographs and intimate understanding of nature came from spending years exploring its deeps and heights, is a kindred spirit. He shows on a printed page what you feel inwardly. I find immersing myself in a book of his photographs is a worthy substitute for getting to Yosemite or the Sierra Nevada myself. Look long and carefully, and Adams stirs again that sense of awe in the presence of great mountains.

But huge mountains are not essential. I've climbed a couple in northern Vermont that are too big to be called hills, but make pretty modest mountains. Here in New England we can climb any mountain that's handy, and look down at the silver lake below, or the farms spread like a vast tessellated floor, and the rest of the world falls away. We feel renewed.

I had a "mountain" experience on a huge sand-dune once. Our son lived in Arizona, and I stopped to see him at the end of a business conference out there. It was so hot, so perfectly still when I left the air-conditioned airport building, I could hardly breathe. Bob met me, and I thought we'd head right for his air-conditioned home. He reminded me (as all south-westerners do) that "you won't mind it here, it's dry heat," grappled my suitcase into the trunk, and off we went.

Not to his home. Bob's the silent type: wordless, he drove us out into a spot where he could leave the car, and head on foot into the desert. I followed. It was pure desert: sandhills, saguaro cactus, and hot sun. I didn't even see any animal tracks, though here and there I'd spot some creature's hidey-hole. At last Bob climbed the grandfather of dunes and plunked himself down at the top. I plunked down beside him. Neither of us spoke into that silence. The majestic saguaros that can live 200 years, and don't bloom until age 50 or 75, were wonderful to see. The rest was sand and silence. After a half hour or so, Bob got up, I got up, and we went back to civilization. I felt as if I'd been far away. When we got to town, the traffic and noise were a shock. Bob had given me a vacation.

When I fly above the desert on trips west, and see how the towns are growing into great cities, eating up wildlands, I hope we'll be careful to see that much of the broad desert is saved. Mountains, forests, rivers and sea, desert and meadow, all have their own beauties; let's protect all we can of this marvelous evolution of which we're a part.

This is Ruth Page, just reminiscing.

--Ruth Page is a writer, former editor of a weekly newspaper and a national gardening magazine.
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