He sat for a moment half-dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound. He loved mountains, or so he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire.
Merry’s observation of mountains sums up the way I feel about them. I grew up visiting the Smoky Mountains every year, reveling in the ferny slopes, the dense tree canopy, the waterfalls springing from every crack in the moss-covered cliffs. My family always camped in the national park, and my siblings and I splashed around in the nearest stream, our feet numb in the ice water. The hikes we took there are some of the fondest memories of my childhood.
For all the fun, however, the mountains scared me. Living in the Midwest, it was hard to imagine a stretch of undeveloped land so huge that you could get lost in it and never find your way out. One day, my dad swept his hand to encompass an endless blanket of trees below our vantage point, and he warned us, “This isn’t like the forests back home, where you might get lost for a little while. There are millions upon millions of acres out there.” My siblings nodded soberly, but I’m sure I was the only one who had unsettled dreams for years afterwards in which I floated over the rolling wooded mountains as Dad’s voice echoed the words “millions upon millions of acres…” until I awoke in a feverish sweat.
The interplay of sky and ground always fascinated and unnerved me. Heaven and earth keep a respectful distance in the Midwest, but in the Smokies they were always pressing on each other. I’d be surrounded by the chill mist of a cloud one minute, wet sunlight the next. At evening, the mountains tore through the clouds in a clash of fiery colors, and the stars always seemed impossibly near and bright.
One time (fortunately when I was in my early teens, and not young enough to be scarred for life), our family was camping high up in the Smokies when I awoke in the dead of night to a horrible roar of flapping fabric. Rain drove down on the tent’s fly as wind slammed against the thin canvas. White flashes of lightning sparked through the air, trees screamed as the storm ripped into them, and then thunder exploded right over our heads, nearer than the treetops, nearer than I had ever heard thunder before. Fear, cold and liquid, throbbed against my muscles as I sank deeper into my sleeping bag, trembling almost as much as the tent. A shattering crack shook the ground. I yanked my bag over my head, still half asleep, filled with terror of the night, and began praying feverishly. The mountains had sent us a storm, to tear us from our sleep and cast us wheeling into the sky, above the canopy of trees, floating. Millions upon millions of acres…
The next morning, sunshine poured down on our tent, which had miraculously held together. A slender but full-grown tree had cracked in half and fallen on the empty adjacent campsite. We had survived the night.
I’ve always known the Ocean was dangerous, in the way that it doesn’t care whether or not it kills you. But I have always felt the Mountains have some brooding resentment of our kind. Men who experience the wonder of the mountains must also risk the wrath of these ancient gods of stone.