I’ve always imagined that if God ever took an earthly form it would be that of a mountain. They’re massive, immovable, intimidating, but no less fascinating and intriguing. It takes a lot to escape a mountain. If you’re not living in their shadow, they’re living in your mind.
It's the mountains that brought me to UM Western. Their beautiful majesty towering over the campus from every direction captured my heart when I first visited in June 2015. They drew me in, calling me to look at them every chance I had, climb them, go to them the way a child runs to its mother. They were comforting to me in a way, something sure and unmovable, Godly and all seeing, I liked them. I loved them. I wanted to live in their shadow.
My love for mountains started probably at birth if not very soon after. I’m a New Mexican tried and true, complete with the Zia sun symbol tattooed on my foot and a love for chili that no one else seems to understand. Spending my childhood in Albuquerque, I lived in the shadow of two beautiful mountains, the Jemez and the Sandias: both of which, I have nothing but fond memories for. My family and I used to get our Christmas trees on the Jemez. Pay five dollars to the forest service and we could cut down any tree we wanted. One year, my little foot fell through a cattle guard and my dad had to lift me out from where I was up to my shoulders in snow. Another year, we found the tracks of a coyote chasing a rabbit. We followed them for awhile hoping to catch sight of one or the other (looking back, my parents must have been out of their minds to let their three and four-year old daughter go chasing after a coyote) but we never found them. The best memory, however, was the lodge way down the mountain that we would stop at after every tree cutting expedition. The bear skin rug hanging on the wall always freaked me out, but the hot chocolate was delicious, and the warmth after an hour or so in the cold mountain air was heavenly.
But as much as I love the Jemez, it’s the Sandia mountains that hold an extra special place in my heart and what I credit with sparking my love for the geologic phenomena. You see, growing up, I was lucky enough the have them right outside my bedroom window. The Sandia’s would be the first thing I’d see when I woke up in the morning. They were the last thing I said goodnight to when I went to sleep at night. The most amazing thing about the Sandias is that they famously turn watermelon pink at sunset ( from which they got their name) on a nightly basis, and I had a front row seat. Now imagine that. The joy that would give a little girl, to see the big hunk of rock outside her bedroom window turn abnormally and wonderfully pink every single night as long as she could remember. If the rest of my childhood was a nightmare (which it wasn’t), I would still call it wonderful for that reason and that alone.
But so the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. In 2004, my family moved from my New Mexico home to Minnesota. If there are two states more different than New Mexico and Minnesota, I haven’t been to them yet. Where New Mexico is a desert, Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, drips with water. New Mexico’s mild winters were in sharp contrast to Minnesota’s bitter cold. New Mexico was yellow, brown, orange, and pink. Minnesota is green and blue. New Mexico has culture, we embrace our history, good and bad, our ancestors and welcome others. Minnesota is closed-minded; they don’t care. Twelve years living there and I can still tell you more about the Navajo, then I can about the Ojibwe or Dakota. Most devastating, where New Mexico has the mountains I love so much, Minnesota is flat as a pancake.
Twelve years I longed for the mountains. I thought about them all the time. Especially at night when my younger self would have watched them turn pink with wonder in my eyes. I missed them the way people miss their deceased dogs, but to me, it was the same. I wanted the mountains back, I wanted to be back in their shadow.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that this fact directly played into my college choices. I’ve known from the time I was ten that I was not under any circumstances going to college in Minnesota and over the years the I’ve stuck so strongly to that that when push came to shove and it came time to start looking at schools, I refused to tour any in the state. I knew I wanted to go out west again, where I was from, and where I could see the mountains. Nevertheless, my parent’s were surprised when I asked to go out and tour a small school, three states away in Montana. I was surprised when they agreed. I actually knew nothing about the mountains when I came out here the first time. It was Western’s geology program that drew me in initially, but needless to say, I was starstruck when I arrived and found the mountains in all directions. It was everything a geology nerd/ mountain, fangirl could ask for. If memory serves me correctly, I actually got teary eyed when we drove past the Beaverhead and I saw Dillon and all her majesty for the first time.
From that moment on, I, more or less, knew I’d end up here at Western. I played it off and looked at other schools, but in my heart, I knew. This is where I belonged. No where else I looked gave me the same amazement that I found at Western, nowhere else had mountains. So here I am, a thousand miles from home, all alone, in unfamiliar territory I’m not accustomed to. I don’t know anyone. And yet I’m fine. I know I’m right where I belong. I’m back in the shadow of the mountains.