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Monday, November 5, 2012

To Climb a Mountain


          I’m thinking this morning of the extraordinary tension between distance and perspective, and I’m reminded of the series of paradoxes you encounter when climbing toward the summit of a mountain. I’ve never climbed the rarefied heights of the Himalayas or the peaks of the American west and have only scaled the foothills of the Adirondacks and the Appalachians in the northeast. Yet I have climbed the slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain in Ireland’s County Leitrim, Knocknarea outside Sligo Town, and Tents Mountain in County Cavan.

            A mountain reveals itself in layers as you climb. Just as you are about to reach what appears to be the summit, another incline yet to be overtaken comes tauntingly into view. And so on you trod, thrusting yourself forward as if pushing into a wind.

            The view from the summit is always worth the trek. From the top of Cuilcagh, a mere 2,182 feet above sea level, the view sweeps an astounding panorama of the valleys of Leitrim, Cavan, and Fermanagh below, and on into Sligo to the west and Donegal to the north. The smaller Knocknarea, at 1,073 feet, is capped by Queen Maeve’s legendary burial cairn at the summit. It overlooks Sligo Bay to the north and the little seaside village of Strandhill to the west. On a clear day the 360 degree view is stunning. If the clouds hang low or a haze obscures the valley, wait a while, as they say in Ireland. The weather truly is that changeable, and usually before long a blaze of sunshine washes over the landscape.

            We climbed Tents Mountain in Cavan, my son Liam and I, following the long slow roads through tracts of bog where his grandfather had "won the turf" as late as 1972. Wanting to see what views of the landscape the mountain would yield, we lugged the camera equipment up the slopes. It was a fine clear summer day. Well before the summit, we felt the first drops of rain and turned to see the dark clouds sweeping in behind us. We paused at a large concrete slab atop the water supply that trickles down to the valley. The limestone slopes of the mountain were devoid of any trees, sprouting only the occasional small brush. As the rain began to lash, we did the only sensible thing. We covered the camera bag, the tripod, and ourselves with our jackets, and—caps pulled over our eyes—lay down on the concrete bed for a nap.

            When the rains had passed we awoke to the utter solitude of the mountain, what Jack Kerouac once called “the reassuring rapturous rush of silence.” Then, lifting our caps from our eyes, we looked about. For just a fleeting second or two we felt disoriented, that sense of not knowing where you are when you awake. Our eyes swept the horizon, scanning patches of sunlight on the slopes, shadows of clouds on the valley below. How insignificant we and our petty cares seemed amid the sweeping majesty of it all, how humbling the moment.


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Publications

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  • "Climbing Cuilcagh Mountain," LEITRIM GUARDIAN Magazine, County Leitrim, Ireland, 1990 Annual
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  • "The Other Ireland," CARA Magazine (Dublin), Nov.-Dec. 1982
  • "Through a Glass Darkly," The Distorted Image of the Irish in America," SUNDAY Magazine (Gannett Suburban Newspapers), White Plains, NY, March 18, 1979