I was raised mostly in Crested Butte—nine high valleys open up into town—how do I describe this place? For one must really go there to feel it.
If you do, go up out the Slate River to the headwaters, where the high peaks of Paradise Divide swallow into the greater Maroon Bell Mountains, 9,000 feet high above the sea, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
See how the water is cold, and curves outward onto the embankment where beavers are nesting? Breathe in the clean, healing air. See how the bowl of Red Lady winks unto the town that sits under six inches of mist in shallow morning?
Look for the local people, so content and conversational. Meet the poets and artists in the coffee shop, or in the alleys and the wild ones skiing the far desolate peaks.
It was through eyelids partly frozen that I saw. It was this place I grew to love, and play and it shaped me, like nothing else.
For mountain people are a strange and wonderful people. Their songs are the haunting, beautiful ones, and their stories are the simple and deep natured ones that throw you softly into the mystery. And mountains, high slopes of wildflowers, quiet snowfields; those places are true teachers and churches.
I was afforded the privilege of experiencing childhood in a wild place where the seasons pierced, and resonated the earth, sky and my growing body. Place permeated my senses, and as such I fell deeply and uncontrollably into a drunken love with the Gunnison Valley.
I imagine many of my friends and my own experiences were akin to those of a child living in any ancient, indigenous, deeply spiritual village style upbringing. There was a spiritual intactness in the hearts of those who nurtured me.
Upon graduating high school and leaving those mountains in 2012, I have come to see mountain people, whether Christian, Atheist, probably Buddhist, maybe Pagan, as spiritually thirsty people.
And it seems that any community is made of a common love of the spirit of the Place. I grew up in a community where people not only got along all the time, but shared the experience of love for the land.
The need to get up high is an age-old need. The ethnographer Martin Prechtel discusses how nomadic people would always make pilgrimages to the headwaters of the rivers they moved along. The residue of this head-water spirituality remains in places like Nepal, Tibet, and the Altai, where the high mountains are revered in such a way traditionalists are reluctant to go up there, or if they do, they come bearing offerings to the residing Spirits.
A friend of mine told of riding in a car from Denver, Colorado to Gunnison, Colorado with a Tibetan. They had to stop at the 11,300 ft. summit of the windy Monarch Pass and make elaborate offerings, as to not offend the spirits of the place. Any study into nomadic people, particularly Indo-Europeans, will reveal that this cosmology is in the blood of the mostly white folks who today populate the mountains of North America.
Any dirt-bag climber, ski-bum, or river-rat could probably figure out why the headwaters are revered as sacred. They are the source and creation-place for the life of all the beings from the scree-stepping mountain goats to the humans to the fish on the valley floor.
However, to these “indigenous” mountain people, and to some mountain Americans, the high peaks were not the pretty backdrop for their phantasmal existence, but real beings to whom they owed everything, including the joy of living in such beautiful scenery.
It seems to me that their reverence of the mountains was instrumental in forming the mountain communities so many Americans are nostalgic for. Living in a place full of people leaving for Nepal, either to find Shangri-La or a new peak to summit, or sometimes both, I saw firsthand the incessant need to scrape together a sense of being at home in the mountains.
It was through my experience though as a young child that I learned I lived in a mountain community—I didn’t need a Sherpa or a Shaman to tell me that. I did, however, need the magic glint of love in the eye of my father or his friends when they came back from a back country ski.
What made me feel at home growing up was that everyone else, or at least most people, felt a profound love and respect for the mountains surrounding them.
Communities, it seems, cannot be concocted or created, but are a result of a common love of a place. The deeper the love of the place, the deeper the community.
It is easy to forget about the headwaters as the snow melts and the trails are made soft for our footsteps; I hope to remember that I’d best not assume my welcome in those high places, nor assume I am powerful enough to protect them, but to ask for their mercy and love.
I will never feel as I did when a child, unless I bow at the foot of the mountain and only go to the top—not to feel a sense of accomplishment, but to sing the praises of the Elks, the Bridgers, the Flatirons, the Sierras or the Karakorum. It seems the closest thing to the love poured by the Spirit of the Headwaters is that of a human tear refracting the mountain’s face when the clouds part.
Spirits of the Headwaters
Ten thousand charms of human beings
are blessed at the hands of mountain people
eye watering pilgrims at the headwaters
of river valley home.
Jack Miller is a native of Crested Butte, CO.
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