January 1st, 2016

What we miss along the way

On a recent trip to Colorado to visit our daughter, I found myself obsessed by the desire to see the Rockies covered with snow. I had a particular view in mind, probably an amalgam of what I had seen in documentaries about climbing Mt. Everest, a scene from the movie, “Lost Horizon” and my ever active imagination.

In my mind’s eye, I am standing on the top of a mountain or at least sitting in my car at a scenic overlook, looking out on layers of mountain tops receding into the distance, each layer smaller and fainter than the one before, with high peaks poking here and there above the rest.

The sky is bright blue and the white mountains dazzle the eye with reflected sunlight. If there are clouds at all, they are thin, wispy, and below the level of the highest peaks. I chased this vision for most of the week we were there and, when I came as close as I was going to get, realized what I had missed along the way.

My experience is not unique and stories of people looking for the perfect instance of whatever they value seem to be everywhere. Surfers look for the perfect wave, stargazers seek the perfect sky and mystics quest after perfect union with God or existence itself.

The anatomy of desire has long been a foundational topic of psychological inquiry and every day, mental hospitals and clinics are filled with people for whom illness and circumstance have joined to deprive them of what they need or want most of all.

Abraham Maslow represented human needs in a pyramid whose base is formed by the physiological needs for food, shelter and clothing. Safety and security come next with love and belonging following close behind.

It is only when a person feels that he is physically and psychologically safe and loved, that he can focus on satisfying his needs for building self-esteem and actualizing himself by cultivating a sense of purpose, meaning, and developing his potential.

I am pretty sure that I didn’t need or even want a mountain view for any of these reasons though the punster in me can’t hold back a comment about looking for a peak experience. There were plenty along the way though each one goaded me on to look for something more spectacular and closer to my idealized mental image.

We landed in Denver after dark and just ahead of what was advertised to be the season’s first major snowstorm. My daughter was sure I would get the wish I had been expressing since we made our airline reservations weeks earlier.

Do you think there will be snow in the mountains? Will we see some snow covered peaks? As much as I wanted that experience, I didn’t need it on the hour-long drive from the airport at night on an unfamiliar road in a rental car. The snow held off until the early morning hours when I awoke to the sound of a storm rattling the windows of our hotel room. Waves of falling snow passed in front of the streetlights while, on the ground, white tornadoes skittered across the parking lot. It was all over as quickly as it started and by morning there was hardly more than a frosting about two inches thick.

We were pointed west on the drive from our hotel into the town center, directly into the front range of the Rockies. A relatively low but sheer wall of white speckled rock spanned the horizon. Just when I thought my wish to see snow on the mountains had been fulfilled, I caught a glimpse of a truly massive, solidly white peak rising above the rest. I was later to learn that this was Long’s Peak, piercing the clouds at 14,259 feet, the northernmost of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners.”

For the next five days, the mountain would be my constant companion. When I was not actively looking for the best vantage points from which to see it better, I was catching tantalizing glimpses of its towering white bulk suddenly emerging with an unexpected rise in the road and just as quickly slipping below the closer, lower mountains when the road dipped.

When I couldn’t see the mountain at all, I was discussing with my family the best use of our limited time to accomplish what each of us wanted to do in a way that would bring me closer to my goal.

On our next to last day in Colorado, we met a forest ranger who suggested a route to the best view of Long’s Peak from conservation land on the outskirts of a mountain town 35 miles farther away and nearly 4,000 feet higher than our present elevation.

Climbing the last 1,500 feet on foot, we passed through stands of evergreens and aspen, encountered deer that did not even startle at our passing, and found ourselves enveloped by a profound silence under a blue dome of cloudless sky.

What we passed along the way was every bit as beautiful in its own way as the majestic view that we found at the end of the trail – every bit as beautiful but muted by the chatter of a restless heart and the prattle of useless words.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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