When you’re close to them, mountains take up, make up, everything you see. And what sky there is, is a measure of the mountain, a reminder that nothing exists apart from undying stone. Mountains are like the tall buildings of New York. They don't scrape the sky as much as they break it. The sky is eternity and mountains consume pretentious infinity. And though people who choose to live among the mountains may not know it in exactly such terms, they live there for that reason.
Despite the roar mountains make, they say nothing(ness). The people who live among them learn this second language. I don’t know if it’s because they know something that the rest of us do not or if it’s that they instinctively, jealously, guard some secret knowledge mountains hold. But the day after I first glimpsed the old astronaut in the bookstore, that’s what I seemed to be up against, this nothing of the mountains.
That same afternoon, sitting at the Floradora bar, eating lunch, I did what I tend to do when traveling alone. I struck up a conversation with a fellow one barstool gap down from me. He was a tanned gentleman, maybe seventy or eighty years old, and it turned out he drove mountain excursion vehicles: four-wheel drive trucks with tourists bouncing on open benches in the back. Said that he used to work for the C.I.A. That could have been bullshit, but I believed him. He wasn’t what we think of today when we think of ex-C.I.A.: jacked Blackwater dickweeds in tight Polo shirts proud to live in open-carry states. No, this guy was a country gentleman type. I liked him.
After the usual complaints about how the afternoon monsoons ruined the hiking, I said to this fellow, “Hey, here’s something you might know about: I think I ran into that astronaut, Bo Cunningham. He lives here, doesn’t he…?”
The fellow folded his napkin and dropped it on what remained of his coleslaw. Then he grinned as if I’d asked about a talking bear. “There are no astronauts around here.”
“Really?” I asked. “Because the woman at the bookstore said this guy I saw was Bo Cunningham, the astronaut.”
“I think she’s from Chicago.”
“Well, she was pretty sure. And then I saw him in the library.”
“Those astronauts travel pretty quick, I guess.” He dropped off his barstool and patted my shoulder as he started for the door. “You on the two o’clock tour? Goes up to the pass?”
“Take the tour sometime, Mr. Dodson. It’s very informative.”
The way he said it, you would have thought he was inviting me to dinner.
Later, I got freaked out because I went into Jagged Edge to get some new trekking poles and when I asked the guy at the counter if he had ever heard of Bo Cunningham, he said, “Nah, Bo Cunningham doesn’t live anywhere around here.”
That didn’t answer my question because that’s not what I had asked.
Taking my new poles, I walked in the direction of the gondola and stared up at the mountain. It took up almost all my view. A few tiny figures etched their way down the Telluride Trail. Other than that, the mountain was inscrutable.
That’s the other thing about the skyscrapers of New York. Like mountains, they make you look up. But their real power is in how they focus your attention on the street, on the chatter of activity at their foundations. Nothing is happening at the top of a skyscraper. Love is at ground level, hiding in plain sight.
(c) Mark Dodson