High Points: Lessons learned from Mount Spokane

Each time I've climbed Mount Spokane, I've been surprised. Behind a tree, there's the miracle of snow in June. Every rise in elevation reveals a pantheon of mountains which hide lakes and valleys in turn. The summit a few hundred yards away requires a coiling half-mile of trails that imperceptibly rises until you find yourself at the summit.

The first time I climbed the mountain was a cloudy, drizzly day. I didn't know then just how taxing walking straight up a 40-degree slope was. Through the mist I saw what seemed to be the mountaintop. Brimming with purpose, I walked up the slope to discover yet another curve of the road. Then, I'd catch my breath and continue pressing on against the rain.

I'm not used to spending an hour at a time walking uphill. At home in Illinois, the flat prairie-grass horizon will always be about three miles away. The landscape feels like a walkable ocean; it's you, the sky and flowering prairie punctuated by fleets of trees. You know exactly what the next mile holds, and it certainly isn't hills.

On Mount Spokane, you can mistake a road for a mountaintop or a mountaintop for a road. When a landscape has corners and edges, a little grove of trees can hide thousands of feet of rock. Up high, everything is at once hidden and revealed.

Along with this tendency to surprise, Mount Spokane has little neutral ground. You must switch between walking uphill and downhill, double effort or effortlessness. There's no casual flatland ambling. Climbing mountains tends to make you think in terms of investment. Every downhill stretch will cost you effort later and every uphill stretch will yield you a downhill. It's a landscape that shows you your decisions matter.

These decisions even change the way you see the world. In Washington, the horizon's location depends on where you stand. Valleys divide the world into easily examined pieces. Mountains render the horizon inexhaustible on a clear day and unfathomable on a foggy one. Depending on where you are, the same 10 miles can be entirely unknown or entirely visible. If you want a good view, you must work to get there.

I love the expanse of the mountains. The endless contrast of hiddenness and height, effort and ease never ceases to amaze and teach me. Most often, the experiences that we love most are those we do not expect. Mountaintops are places where you can see and love the unexpected. ♦

Jackson Elliott recently completed his internship at the Inlander and returned to Illinois to complete his masters degree at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.

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