May 27, 2009

Challenging the Mountain

2009 1515 page31 cap LOVE MOUNTAINS. I WAS BORN AND RAISED IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST, surrounded by the peaks of the Cascades, and later by the Teton Range in northern Montana. I love breathing in the smell of pine and fir that lingers in the crisp, thin air; feasting my eyes on fragrant wild roses, gleaming dogwood, and fiery Indian paintbrush; savoring the huckleberries that can be found only at high elevations.
As I approached my first year of high school my family moved to Kansas. My sister and I, however, did not adjust well to the “flat country.” We could no longer look forward to long, scenic drives on Sabbath afternoons along winding mountain roads, or the thrill of snow skiing and sledding in the coming winter months.
We begged our parents to let us go back west to Mount Ellis Academy, an Adventist boarding high school nestled in the Rocky Mountains near Bozeman, Montana. They relented, and my sister and I happily boarded a bus headed for Montana, leaving flat Kansas in the whirlwind of our speedy departure.
2009 1515 page31We arrived at the academy in time for the annual climb up Mount Ellis, the peak after which the school is named. Nearly everyone attempted the climb, with the first to the top maintaining a sort of hero status for the rest of the year. The others were happy just to have made it.
I was among those who enjoyed looking at the mountains, driving through them, and taking short strolls; but the challenge of that hike was very intimidating to me. I watched the other students whiz by me, knowing I could never be first. Not even second or third. About halfway to the top I turned around and went back down, not because I was particularly tired, but because I just didn’t think I could make it. At that moment, the Kansas flatland seemed much more inviting than a rocky mountain I was sure I couldn’t conquer.
I have found that life has often challenged me with mountains I was sure were insurmountable. In those moments I would long for the flatlands. As a Christian, I had been well versed in the teaching that faith can move mountains. And while I believe this teaching is true and valid, I began to wonder if there were times when, instead of moving a mountain, God wanted me to climb it instead.
Recently, at middle age, I conquered my intimidation of high altitudes and steep climbs, and hiked to the top of McCullough Peak, the highest peak in my local area. The altitude doesn’t compare to a Rocky Mountain peak, but for me it signified a change in my attitude.
Whenever a mountain (real or spiritual) would block my path, the first thing I’d try to do is move it by waving God’s “magic wand” and repeating the “spell”—“faith can move mountains.” I wanted life to be flat, easy, unchallenging. And when I couldn’t find an easy way around, when my path wasn’t just magically (or divinely) cleared away, I’d whine about how God wasn’t listening. What I didn’t realize is how invigorating it can be to stand at the top of a mountain, muscles throbbing, lungs breathing deeply, looking out on the panorama of an entire valley floor. The air is crisp and clean. There is complete silence except for the sound of birds or other creatures.
While I stood at the top of McCullough Peak, I thought of the health benefits I’d gained from months of hiking preparing for the climb: stronger muscles, lowered heart rate, lowered blood pressure, increased circulation. But more important, I have gained personal strength and confidence in my abilities because I challenged myself to do something I didn’t think I could accomplish.
I can’t imagine a life without mountains. Yes, climbing to the peak is work; but the physical and spiritual benefits—and the view—are definitely worth it. 
Christianna Kelsey has since conquered another mountain by completing her college degree. Career plans in Florida may require vacations to her beloved Northwest.