She changed lanes to slide past the Honda that had apparently decided it was going to take it easy today. We were in no rush — my flight wasn’t for another two and a half hours — but I didn’t mind because being in the left lane meant that I was ever so slightly closer to the majestic view that was flying by my window. The seemingly never-ending mountain range, in all their snow-covered glory, stretched out before me as far as the eye could see.
As a proud resident of one the largest cities in the country, my love of these landscapes can seem a bit strange. But then again, perhaps the key is in the lack of frequent exposure. Yes, it’s true: mountain vistas, especially when sprinkled with a soft-white winter blanket, can be a sight for anyone’s sore eyes, but this felt more to me than just another pretty view. Maybe it was the clouds, so perfectly uniform, that looked like I could reach out and touch them. Maybe it was the light, and how it bounced perfectly off of those clouds to paint the purest array of colors I had ever seen.
There was so much clarity in those whites and blues — it was as if mother nature had just freshly painted the canvas and hadn’t allowed anyone else to touch it yet. I saw such conviction, such surety in those colors, that it made me believe in things again.
The car just ahead of ours dropped some snow on the road from its back windshield as it sped up. I wondered for a moment if she would mistake my silence as rudeness or boredom. When the blocks of snow met the asphalt, they broke apart and disappeared quickly onto the asphalt rushing by. The thought disappeared just as quickly. The beauty unfolding outside the window would be gone from my sight in mere hours. I just hoped that she understood my fascination with the view that, for her, was simply an everyday vista.
The distance between me and the foot of the mountains were certainly far enough for my mind to simply ignore what lay in between. Yet for some reason I pried my eyes away from the majesty and considered instead the life that asserted itself between the highway and the rising landscape. The houses that appeared as no more than simple black boxes, the occasional baseball fields or stadiums, the industrial warehouses, the parking lots — they were all splayed out every which way upon the western soil. The startling uniformity in elevation gave a sense that these structures were simply painted on a single canvas stretching out into the distance.
Even in this tedium of an aggressively flat landscape, my eyes found something of note. One of the first things you learn in photography is that the foreground is just as important as the landscape in the background — it gives a much needed sense of scale. Those dots of life, weaving a one-layer pattern of snow covered rooftops and criss-crossing roads, gave scale to the sheer presence of the mountains behind. The dominating yet protective shadow of these granite ridges were so perfectly placed against the fragility of human presence below. Without it, the rising rock formations would have been nothing more than just that: rocks.
As I took it all in, the imposing grays seemed to peek out from behind the whites and the blues to remind me that this was all just temporary. As if to say, “with the seasons, this view will also come and go — and when it comes back around it will never be exactly the way you see it now.” And at that moment, I knew that this sight was unique. Those snow clouds, the sunlight, the blue of the sky beyond — I somehow knew for certain that I wouldn’t see it the same way again.
The false quiet created by the cacophony of highway driving sheltered us from distractions. Her driving was easy and she seemed relaxed. I wondered if I’d get a chance to explain all this to someone. If I even could. To many of my friends, mountains were just hiking locations and photo opportunities. I wasn’t sure if I could make anyone else see what I saw and feel what I felt. Maybe it was meant to be that way. It wasn’t as if I could find some grand meaning from all these communities rushing past at 80 miles per hour. It was just me, my thoughts, and whatever mother nature decided to put in front of me. It was an incredibly lonely perspective.
I knew I would be putting this view behind me when my flight departed later that afternoon, and it filled me with a strong sense of yearning. It wasn’t quite sadness or pain, and it wasn’t quite a longing for something past either. It was more this untenable ball of desire, for so many things all at once, and at the same time for nothing at all. It was a concentrated mash of wants and needs and other pulsating feelings that I didn’t have names for. To take action, to savor everything, to become something. To write. To dream. To wonder. It was a collection of emotions that I had come to know as “leaving.”
It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t want to leave, though any Midwestern city boy like me would have been sad to put those mountains behind him. But I knew I could always come back, and while I wouldn’t stumble upon this exact sight again, a new majesty would be waiting when I returned. No, it wasn’t the act of leaving itself, but these feelings always nagged me most when I was leaving.
As I saw the fog grow and intermingle with the clouds above I thought about the pervasiveness of it all. The gray afternoon mist seemed to slowly turn the jagged peaks into impressionist imitations of itself. It moved and seeped through the whole of the view, covering both natural and man-made objects without discrimination. My bag of desires felt much like that. Amorphous and hard to grasp, but universal and all-consuming.
Things I wanted to build. With my hands, with my mind. Places I wanted to go. People I wanted to meet. To be. To love. Words I wanted to hear. From others. Lives I wanted to live. It was all these things, and more. Yet the thought of it felt so indescribably pointless.
Before I knew it, we were nothing but a ship racing along a sea of nothingness. The fog encompassed all things. It was simply us, the highway railing, and mist as far as the eye could see. Every once in a while, a building would peak out. A window, or a rooftop here and there. If you blinked, you missed it. They were mere hints of themselves. A few bold convention centers or highway advertisements would peak out defiantly above the fog, to naively assume that this story would end with a triumph of human presence over nature and weather. The mountain peaks, much further away, would also appear — for longer stretches of time, though not by much. Both would eventually disappear back into the gray. It was like this for many wordless minutes.
I took my eyes away from the window and glanced in the rear-view mirror to find her eyes studying mine. She beat me to the smile, but I wasn’t far behind. She opened her mouth to ask, but I already knew what the question would be.
So I told her everything.