White Mountain

November 10, 2006 at 5:43 pm (Borjes Society)

By Ed Mathisson

I went hiking earlier this week and ran into Old Trolmong who has been living on the road to White Mountain. I thought he had died some time ago and was surprised to find him alive and about. Discovering I had a flask on me, he invited me in, and we shared a drink. We got to talking about the mountain and he told me the story of how it got its name.

He told me that one of the old settlers came down from the North, from where they have real mountains with snow on their peaks. One night in winter during a storm he got lost in the bluffs when he was out drinking and stumbled onto a mountain even higher than the ones he knew in the old country, so he told his wife when he came home in a daze three days later. He took to be with a fever, became delirious and started say all sorts of wild things about the mountain which he called White Mountain. Apparently this is some mountain in the North that reaches all the way to heaven. His wife brought the preacher and the elders in to reason with him, but he would have none of it. I have seen what I have seen, he said. Too much Habanero Tequilla they thought, shaking their heads as he worsened and died. After this the bluffs began to go by the name White Mountain, and people avoided them.

Old Trolmong went out to talk of his wanderings in the bluff and some of the things he had seen there. Finally, he bid me adieu, and I continued on my way. It had been many years since I had climbed all the way to the top. It’s the best view around – you can see the river and the creek, the grove and the town, pretty much the whole township.

That evening back at home, I lit a warm fire and with a glass of port in hand sat down to examine the XIth volume of Grunwald’s Geography of the Interior Ranges and found the following account:

WHITE MOUNTAIN

In the deep North, there is a mountain that soars so high, that it touches the formless heavens. This mountain is a destination for those who weary of deserts, savannah, and forests. It is notoriously difficult to find. Surrounded by clouds, it is rare to catch more than just a glimpse of it. Still, its existence is well established – in fact, over the years, certain villages at the base of the mountain have sustained themselves in service to the tourists who come hoping for just such a glimpse.

These villages have, in fact, grown quite prosperous in the services they provide and in other ventures such as producing travel guides that tell of past expeditions that allegedly reached the peak. Other villages, not content to simply amuse sightseers, outfit the more committed with the equipment and training necessary to actually ascend the mountain oneself. However, climbing the mountain is considered quite dangerous. Numerous deaths have been attributed to accidents and snow madness is a frequent occurrence. This has led to a view held by some that the mountain is haunted by spirits, not all of a beneficent nature. In fact, a whole genre of guide books has developed along these lines as well.

Yet, ascending the mountain confers certain magical benefits, not the least of which is that those who reach its summit are said to live forever in the company of the gods. Writers of guidebooks often stumble over themselves as they vie for the most ethereal and evocative description of the many delights of such an existence. Some of these stories are no doubt based on the reports of those who have partially ascended the mountain and then returned. Unfortunately the accounts of such ascent are sometimes so fantastic that it is not clear who in fact has really ascended the mountain and who having studied the literature of the guidebooks simply imagined such an ascent.

Due to this confusion, an entire school has developed that holds the opinion that the mountain itself is simply a dream, one developed by villagers as a pleasant and clever way to sustain a living. The villagers themselves have contributed in no small part to such opinions by the way they themselves have elaborated certain stories, especially those that encourage belief in mystical guides who can magically carry one to the top of the mountain without any effort on the part of the seeker.

Of course the proper way to invoke such guides is itself a matter of some dispute, and this and other issues have led the villages into numerous trade wars among themselves. Even to this day they often disparage each other while at the same time secretly borrowing whatever new technique or innovation their competitors discover that becomes popular.

It is well known, but not always believed, that one of the great dangers of attempting to ascend this mountain without proper preparation is that one may fall into deep crevices that reach into the very depths of the earth, where great fires burn without ceasing, or great rivers of ice churn and toss. The fear of these crevices is a great stimulant to the business of the villagers who at times have spent more of their energies in explaining and guiding people away from these crevices than in preparing people for ascent itself. The existence of such crevices is also commonly cited as a reason why a reliable guide is necessary. Such beliefs in fact are so strongly ingrained in certain villages that any individual attempt to ascend the mountains without the use of an approved guide is considered reckless and a sign of impiety toward the summit itself.

In all villages, it is common that those who in their youth aspired to ascend this mountain over time find themselves spending the rest of their life engaging in the comfortable provision of services to other villagers and in the general discussion of mountain lore that is so perennially popular. Naturally enough, one who spends a great deal of time in the villages will on occasion see the mountain itself and that coupled with an incessant preoccupation with mountain discussion will lead them to producing books themselves, which often are merely compilations, commentaries and summaries of other books. In fact it is a rare village that does not now have both large libraries of such literature and stores which do an excellent trade in selling these books of this type along with supplies for expeditions, postcards of the mountain, t-shirts and small statues of past mountain climbers, music that makes one think of mountains, and so forth.

Indeed, life in the mountain villages has become so refined and accommodations improved so much from earlier days and it is now possible for the tourist to visit these villages on a frequent basis and without actually seeing the mountain itself, which appears to have become even more distantly embedded in clouds, return refreshed to the flatlands with certain souvenirs that evoke a fine mountain feeling and at some later point write a short, popular book on the subject.

Strangely enough, those who have actually encountered the mountain are the most reticent to talk about it. It is sometimes possible with the aid of wine or bourbon to pry out from them certain details, but for the most part they keep to themselves what they have discovered. Thus it is, that the most prized genre of guide books are those that purport to reveal just those mysteries that have never been written down or widely discussed. Most of these books are of course quite worthless but occasionally there will be a fragment of dialogue or a piece of description that proves useful.

Such fragments tend to suggest that the mountain may be altogether different than has been imagined, and perhaps that is why those who have encountered the mountain first hand find themselves at a loss to describe their experience. Reports of these experiences have given rise to a school of opinion that asserts that the mountain, while real exists only in the climber’s mind, and that everything, including the villages is simply a mirror image of one of the mountain’s innumerable faces. Precisely because everything other than the mountain is simply a mirror, so many different reflections have arisen.

This school further believes that because of its invisibility that it is impossible to ascend the mountain directly, but that by a careful and informed study of the mirrors it is possible to ascend the mountain indirectly on the steps of the images that the mountain has itself generated. This staircase of reflections is said to be the most difficult of all possible ascents because of the fragility of the images. Here, there are no books or guides, because books and guides are themselves simply images. And yet others say that ascending the staircase of reflections is the easiest of paths since the mirrors are everywhere and ascent can be initiated at any moment and any place.

These opinions of course have had little impact on the villages themselves. At this point the economic life of the villages has become so intertwined with the promotion of various tangible representations and vividly rendered descriptions that suggestions of the mountain being invisible or only indirectly apprehended are almost incomprehensible. Also since villages pride themselves on their long lineages and the reliability of their approach schools that lack such credentials are held in little regard.

This is particularly true of those who believe the mountain is invisible and omnipresent, as they, having little inclination to create a replica of something that is in plain view have dispersed themselves over existing villages such that it is difficult to even discover who they are. This lack of visibility of course is precisely what members of this school desire since it permits them to explore the various facets of the mountain reflected in appearance without drawing attention to themselves.

I sat the book on the table next to me and poured myself another glass of Port. Just then something occurred to me, and I reached for the current edition of Jason Plutarch’s Lives of Eminent Stranger Creek Residents. I was right – Old Trolmong has been dead for ten years. I shook my head. Then I reached for a notebook and tried to remember what he had said.

 

1 Comment

  1. Normal Thompson said,

    Dear Ed Mathisson,

    Reading your account reminded me of what Dôgen said in Mountains and Waters Sutra.

    Because green mountains walk, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not realize or understand it. ‘In the mountains’ means the blossoming of the entire world. People outside the mountains do not realize or understand the mountains walking. Those without eyes to see mountains cannot realize, understand, see, or hear this as it is.

    White mountain, like the green mountains, is a walking mountain, I think. As Dogen writes later, “a mountain always practices in every place.”

    In Appreciation,

    – N. Thompson

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