Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gonna Climb Me a Mountain

Rua and I near the top of Lookout Mountain. 
Lookout Mountain isn't intimidating. It doesn't loom over the City of Spearfish like a citadel. True, it's 4,452 feet high, but that's only 800 feet above the city. It's a knobby little knoll in the scheme of things, but it does play its part as eye candy every day. It sits back from I-90 and it dominates the skyline when I drive down the hill into town. It exposes sunrises, reflects the fires of sunsets, and defines the backdrop of the region toward the northeast. It's an easy climb, and it's been tempting me to do just that ever since I've lived in Spearfish.

I've lived here for almost four years, and it has become embarrassing to admit that I hadn't climbed it. It's been one of those thoughts that's crossed my mind every time I see it. "I have to climb Lookout Mountain," is generally the unspoken statement in my head, followed by, "I can't believe I haven't done it. It's there. It's probably not hard. The view would be gorgeous."

The meadows beside the paths are stunning during the autumn.
I've climbed many mountains. I've found myself on the peaks of many of the White Mountains, including Mt. Washington. I've hiked up several Maine mountains, including the tallest, Mt. Katahdin. I've even crossed the knee-knocking, awe-inspiring, rocky path called the  Knife's Edge between the Pamola and Baxter peaks on Katahdin. I did that during a year when I had hiked a lot, including down in the Grand Canyon and up again, when my balance and my confidence overcame my fear of heights. Could I do it now? No. My knees and my balance are less than stellar, these days.

But I could climb Lookout Mountain, and a couple of Sundays ago, I did. It was the last day of the year when snow wouldn't be an issue. Bob and I started out in the afternoon, with Rua. A front was moving in. We didn't know that the front was actually winter arriving early, complete with sub-zero temps. But that afternoon was perfect for the climb up Lookout Mountain.

Actually, Lookout Mountain has been conquered, a lot. In fact, it was being conquered that day by bikers, by a family with a baby in a backpack accompanied by dog, a couple of college students, and us. If one reads the description of the hike, one knows that it's a haven for mountain bikers, families, and people like me, who feel guilty just admiring it from a distance. It isn't tough to climb. You just have to do it.

The path (there are hundreds) we took up was steep, actually, and scored deep into the red earth by mountain bikers. We stopped, many times, to catch our singular breaths and collectively admire how far we had come. Spearfish spread itself below us. The cold wind shepherding the steely autumn clouds out for the season was sweet and sassy. We climbed further. Stopped to breathe. Climbed more. Wondered if it would rain and decided we didn't care.

A boulder at the top of Lookout Mountain. Remained unclimbed. Small dog with delusions of grandeur in tow. 
The lack of trees is one reason I like hiking in the West. In the East, thick groves of pine, spruce, and fir trees often crowd a trail for miles, leaving little room for views. But in the West, one can rise above a tree line in short order, and views abound. A service road for cattle and/or for the electrical lines that cross the hills leading to Lookout Mountain was an easy way to rise, for a short time.

The closer I get to the top of a mountain, the more I want to get there. I'm drawn to the peak, to the sky, to the wind, to the act of climbing a mountain. Even if the mountain is small, I find it hard to stop for anyone. That Sunday climb was no exception. Bob had led us for most of the way, but about five sixths of the way up, Bob decided to stay in a high mountain meadow and admire the spread of prairie and landmarks a few hundred feet below the top of Lookout Mountain. That was fine with me. I headed for the top, dog trotting after me.

The grasses along the path were varied and incredibly beautiful. Browns, reds, green, and gold, silvered, violet and orange, just magic. Rua and I wound our way through groves of small pines and up along a path with an close edge that made me slightly uncomfortable, but we kept going. We passed the family with the baby and the dog. We had a short conversation, passed by, and Rua and I were alone.

More grasses. Beautiful.
I scooted Rua up over a rocky, rooted path, and then climbed up after her. Several large boulders sat above us, but I didn't tackle them to make the exact top of the mountain. Having a small dog with a big spirit along made me aware that she might try to follow me, and I was conscious of her safety. We sat for a minute in our little spot, and looked down over Spearfish. I ate a granola bar and had some water, and she ate her supper.

The view from the top of Lookout Mountain.
We climbed down to meet Bob, and descended, which is always harder for me. I use a walking stick these days to coddle my left knee. The day was late, and I wanted the comfort of a warm house and a Sunday night supper.

When I see Lookout Mountain now, I no longer feel guilty for not having climbed it. I can picture the climb, the view, the top, and I feel as if we've come to an understanding. I know you, Lookout Mountain, I say to it, and you know me back.

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