Somewhere near the head of a stream, water seeps slowly into a flaw in the granite. Winter cold freezes the mixture of oxygen and hydrogen into an expanding wedge that forces the boulder to crack in two pieces, then more. Gradually, over several winters, the stream grows larger and the boulder pieces smaller.
Eventually, the pieces become small enough, and water scours soil and smaller rocks from under the bigger ones, and they begin tumbling down the mountainside, pushed along by the flowing molecules of gases turned liquid. The ever-smalling pieces of previously molten minerals grind into ever smaller stones, then pebbles, then grains of once melted silicone and quartz and feldspars until, after several years or a thousand, they arrive at the ocean’s edge.
A short distance from my home is a place where a collision of two tectonic plates pushed and folded basalt and granite into an Afro-coifed face of an old man who seems to laugh at me when I wander near him. Mere humans can tell each other we own the ground we walk on, but the old man was there when I arrived on the planet and likely will be there when my great-grandkids depart.
Over the intervening eons, the plates have drawn apart, making new chasms to be filled with a swirling solution of water, salt and other chemicals that laps against the sand. Human bodies walk and lie on them, grinding them even smaller, and ocean waves sweep them up or down the coast or out to sea.
For all their poetic immenseness, mountains attract little attention, unless one climbs them. Near where I live is a fairly high peak – for here – named Pole Steeple, steep enough to make an aging climber realize how much time he’s spent on flatter glades.
But size is relative. I have driven a Jeep in the Colorado Rockies at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. After more than an hour, I stopped to look down at where I’d started, then gazed upward at a stone needle, nearly as high above me as the road I’d left was below.
After another hour of zig-zagging over randomly-sized chunks of 80-million-year-old rock broken from the uplifted North American plate like pieces chipped off the edge of a quarter-pound chocolate bar, I looked down at that pointed peak. I still was not at the top of my piece of mountain.
But whether it’s 1,400 feet or 14,000, whether climbed by Jeep or foot, a mountain, when you stand on it, touches someplace deep in the soul. It is a piece of art, constantly carved as though the artist cannot decide what it should be.
The Rockies are new material, relative to the nearly 500-million-year-old Appalachians. The latter are thought to have once been as tall as the Alps, pushed up by volcanic action and by North America crashing into Africa long before the first humans walked the land.
They were not always so tall. Their once proud peaks carry proof they once were lower than the sea; in several places not far from where I live are tubes made by sea worms digging through the submerged sand. The tubes are visible in the cliffs at Pole Steeple and in the rubble of some parking lots in other parts of Michaux State Forest.
That is the thing with mountains. They took so long to make, and then longer to tear down, it sometimes seems they have never not been there, waiting for humans to come along and scrape them away to expose layers of minerals made valuable by human imagination.
And still, the old man laughs.