Sunday, May 18, 2008

HIlls, Mountains, and Cairns

I grew up in Washington State. Western Washington. In the Puget Sound area. Sandwiched between the Cascade Range and Puget Sound. With the Olympic Peninsula and its Olympic Range on the horizon to the West.

One of my most vivid memories of Tacoma is the hills. The city streets seem to go straight up. And then up some more. At each cross street, the hill levels for a moment to cross the perpendicular road, and then up some more.

The backyard I first remember in that area was only slightly hilly. The back lawn was quite flat, as I recall. Beyond the lawn was a little patch of woods that grew on the hillside toward the back of our property. And if you climbed the trail up the hill, hidden away behind the woods, the ground leveled off and there we had our garden. All along one side of our yard were the back yards of the houses that faced the street perpendicular to ours. I think there were three houses, maybe four, along our property line. Each house was perhaps 10 feet higher than the last as one went along that street.

After we moved from that house we lived in the valley of a very hilly area. Between our road and the next main road a mile to the west were several large hills. Large as in, perhaps 30 feet up and then down maybe 20 feet; then up another 10 and down 20; and then back up 10. Of course, I am just guessing, but I did scan a topographical map to see if I was in the ball park. I don't think I'm exaggerating. At any rate, we had hills.

Always along the horizons, when we got up a hill far enough to see a horizon that is, were mountains. The crowning topographical feature of the area is Mount Rainier.

Each morning we drove from our town, Puyallup, to Faith Lutheran School in Tacoma, along Hwy 512. And in the afternoon we drove back home along the same route. There is spot along 512, if I remember correctly it is near where Portland Ave intersects. For that 100 yards or so all the hills and valleys line up to give a person a most magnificent view of Mount Rainier. From this particular view Rainier seems close enough to touch.

I have a friend, Carrie R. who is originally from the Midwest. When she first moved to Tacoma, the weather was overcast for several days. Carrie said that when the weather finally cleared and she got her first view of The Mountain, she almost drove off the road. She was so startled. It was amazing to someone who hadn't before scene peaks such as the many along the Cascade Range.

This view of Mount Rainier is looking from Puget Sound across the Tacoma skyline. It is somewhat different than my favorite along 512, but it captures the "reach out and touch it" aspect pretty well. This image is from a public domain collection at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory. They have a nice photo collection of all the various volcanic peaks along the Cascades.

Now pan forward 30 years. I am now living in arguably one of the flattest places on earth. Our friend, Steve, the first time he was here thought that the area of Kansas in which he had spent a number of years was probably flatter. I think that was the southwest corner of Kansas, but I am not sure. After he vacationed there a few years later he had this to say, "I was mistaken. Your part of Minnesota is probably the flattest area on earth. Even Kansas seems hilly in comparison."

When we first moved here it was the middle of winter. Cold. Snow-covered. I am sorry to all you locals for whom this is home. But to my eyes it seemed really desolate. There is nothing on the horizon. No hills. In the winter, nothing green. Seemingly, nothing alive on this entire prairie but the other poor lonely souls hunkered in, waiting for spring.

Our nearest neighbors are a mile away. With binoculars I could look in their living room windows. Don't worry, Muriel, we have never tried. But I guess my point is that we can see everyone. Just looking out our north windows we can see the home sites of seven fellow church members, our neighbors, the folks we first got to know when we moved in. And three or four home sites of non-members, whom we therefore don't know as well, but are still neighbors. All these neighbors.

But the nearest ones a mile away. Juell and Annabell or Chris and Alan are probably each 2 1/2 miles north of us, as the crow flies. We can easily see their places. Darrow and Shirley are not much closer as the crow flies. But counting driving distance, they are probably the furthest of the neighbors we can see. All these neighbors. Just down the road. And yet separated by the barren tundra all winter long.

I am so glad we have cars these days. I often think of how it was 100 years ago when a person had to either walk or saddle a horse. I just can't imagine having everyone within easy view and yet being mostly cut off from them for 4-6 months each winter. That is desolate!

Now I have been here six and a half years. I no longer feel quite so overwhelmed by the openness or the winter time barrenness. But add to that one more thing that I found ironic when Spring did finally come that first year. The soil here is very rocky. The farmers in New England also have stony soil. I am told in New England they use these rocks to build beautiful stone fences along their property lines.

But here! Here, they pile them up so that when spring comes and the snow melts what do we see? Piles of stone in the middle of the fields. Big piles, little piles. Some along the edges of the fields, some in the middle. And what do they remind me of? The cairns that Celts use to mark graves. Yes, I know, on the British Isles cairns are also used for landmarks and to memorialize something important that occurred at the spot of the cairn.

But, alas, the thing that I thought of that first spring was that I had been transported to some medieval Celtic hillside (minus the hills, of course) and that each of those little piles marked the grave of some poor unfortunate who did not make it through the winter. The ground was frozen so they had to just pile the rocks on top, I guess.

I am reminded of that impression each spring as the rock piles become visible with the melting snows. But now instead of thinking of rustic tombs, I wonder if there are any good rocks in there for my flower bed.

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