You would think that, having grown up in the mountains, I would know what a mountain looks like. But one thing this journey has taught me is that mountains, while they are all recognizable for being the same land formation, have more forms and shapes and constructs than should be described by a single word.
The mountains in my hometown are small and rounded, and they are closely grouped together. The foothills of the Appalachians are almost more reminiscent of tight-knit, smoothed-over hills than mountains, though they do rise out of the ground with a certain sense of majesty that you might expect from a mountain. Still, the valleys have never quite felt like a “valley” to me – more like a dip in the landscape than a basin to collect the rain and the roads and the people. But those are the mountains I grew up with.
As you travel through New Mexico, the closest thing to a mountain is a plateau – short hills with the top sheared off like a man aiming for that vintage flat-top look. On the other hand, there is a more distinct sense of what a valley is – a deep and long depression in the land, cut through by a distant river. The sides of the plateaus are composed of a hundred thousand colors, all yellows and reds and blues and purples and whites.
The air in the plateaus has a strange quality which many of us wouldn’t recognize at first: it is clean. There is no smog, of course, because the cities are few and far between. But there is also no humidity or fog, and thus little moisture to thicken the air. Because of the clear air, the colors are deep and rich, especially at sunset, and the details pop out in vivid clarity, even at great distances. I understand why so many artists, especially painters, move to this incredible state. Taking National Geographic-worthy photos is all too easy in New Mexico.
As you get further west into Arizona and even California, the mountains change again. It’s as if a heavy piece of cloth has been draped over a series of incongruous objects, so that the folds of the cloth swoop down and into the ground, leaving the driver to navigate his or her way through the valleys, in-between the unknown objects. I keep waiting for a magician to pull up the cloth and yell, “surprise! It’s actually a ceramic donkey!”
These mountains are odd because they seem to rise out of nothing – the plains are flat, but somehow, there is a mountain in front of you. The valleys feel like a continuation of the flat plateau you’ve been driving since Texas, with a growth of mountains now looming overhead. I drove a hundred miles, and the elevation stayed at 5000 ft (there were signs!), and when it changed, the elevation even dropped – but still, somehow, I was driving through the mountains.
In California, as I drove north, the Mountains snuck up on me; at first, it just seemed like there was a gray haze on the horizon, but suddenly they were distinct shapes, with peaks and valleys and clouds sitting on top.
Still, the terrain was composed of gently rolling hills (I’ve never understood that phrase until now), spotted with the numerous cows and the occasional barn. The colors were so bright and intense and varied that I’m not sure artists will ever be able to fully capture or name the individual colors in those hills. Some fields were the bright yellow-green which happens to photographs when you increase the contrast too high on computers; other fields were almost teal or aqua-blue in color, subtly muted by shadow. And the shadows themselves were a deep blue or purple, standing out starkly against the bright colors of the hills. Finally, the hills were dotted with trees which only grew on the very top of the hill, as if a child who didn’t yet understand perspective had drawn them into existence. It was all surreal.
As I approached the mountains near Angels Camp, they never seemed to get closer, but the rolling hills gradually increased in size, until suddenly the roads were curving around the steep mountainsides. In Angels Camp, the houses are built into the sides of mountains in such a way that reminds me a little of the way hobbits live in the hills in Lord of the Rings – as if the land is supported by the house, and the house is supported by the land, and to take either away would cause the other to collapse.
In Angels Camp, the houses and town are situated between tightly-packed mountains, but the town lacks the feeling of being situated in a valley, similar to the valley-less feel of the mountains of North Georgia. However, it is not to be confused with the tightly-packed mountains of North Georgia, for these California mountains are steep and winding, whereas the southern Appalachians are nearly smooth and rounded. Instead, it is more like the valleys are far below us, and we are perched between the shoulder blades of tightly-packed mountains, in the cracks and crevices between the peaks.
I could write pages and pages on my impressions of the mountains (and hills and plateaus) as they change across the southern stretch of the United States – but I would have as many impressions as there are individual mountains, and I’m honestly not quite sure what the word “mountain” means anymore.