by Derek Davis –

What is a mountain, anyway?

We live up on the side of a hill. I wouldn’t call it a mountain. We look across at something higher, which I wouldn’t call a mountain either. But when I was a kid, I would have thought these were the ultimate mountains.

So have I gotten disillusioned, even cynical? I don’t think so. Just more realistic. I’m bigger, so mountains (or hills) seem smaller. But that doesn’t mean I like them any less. In fact, I like them more. That’s why I’m here, in the Endless Mountains, not in the city.

When I was a kid, I spent most of the school year waiting for the summer, to drive through the mountains. We’d do the Skyline Drive of Virginia and its extension, the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the summers. And we’d take our own blessed time getting there.

From age ten or so I was official navigator. I’d trace the map and point out the tortuous off-routes into nowhere, and my father, bless him, would follow them. I think it was a release for him too. My ridiculously indulgent parents would stop at every last overlook to let me out of the car to peer down into the shimmering valleys.

Not a City Person

As I grew up, inertia kept me in the city – never mind which one – and I was never happy there. No matter where I went for a walk, the sidewalks cracked, the trash drifted, and the broken glass glittered like an accusation. Every day, I wanted to be somewhere else.

This went on too long – way too long. Then my wife and I came into a small inheritance. We didn’t think about it much – except to stare with quiet amazement – until that fall in the late ’90s when we decided one day to go look at the leaves. An aside: I still love to kick at and jump into piles of leaves. I’m the sort of guy who gives tidy neighborhoods a sense of horror. And I’m glad.

That day, we said, “Let’s go up to the Poconos and see the fall foliage.” But halfway up the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it occurred to me that every other disgruntled urbanite would be doing the same. The Poconos would be packed solid with people like us – the ones we were trying to escape. So I recurred to my childhood role as the navigator. I pulled out the map and said, “Where is there nothing?” That “where” turned out to be Sullivan County.

We drove up Rte. 42 from I-80, and roughly half a mile inside the county line spotted a real estate sign. Suddenly, we knew where to put that inheritance. Two weeks later, we were back again, looking at a place invisible from any road, and with no road visible to us from our new home.

Where I Belong

One of the things that’s most amazed me since we moved up here is our acceptance by the people. This isn’t “eye-yup” Maine where you’re viewed like something the cat dragged in and still an outsider 20 years later. People wave when they have no idea who you are. I do the same now. For the first time in my life I feel at home, as though I’d been living in limbo until now and suddenly found the land from which I’d been exiled.

Does this sound extreme and unrealistic? Of course it does. But every bit of it is true. I used to tell people that when I came back to these north Pennsylvania woods, it smelled different: I knew where I was and that “I’d Come Home.”

The Smell of the Forest

They didn’t believe me. But you know, it’s true. I found out later, reading an article in Science News, that there’s a slice through north central Pennsylvania and down into West Virginia that has more tree species than any other place in the contiguous U.S. I think of it as a kind of Garden of Eden, a holdout where Mother Nature just relaxed and did what comes naturally.

As for me, a type A over-the-hill wacko, I’m kind of relaxed now too. On my mountain. Or hillside. Or whatever it is.

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