September 5, 2013 by Ray Yanek
I think, sometimes, about the mountains.
Once, a long time ago now, I had the privilege of journeying to the top of the Stanserhorn in Switzerland. I took that trip 18 years ago, but I remember the view from the top of the summit as if I were just there yesterday.
I don’t know where the photos are that I took from the summit. Tucked away somewhere, probably, in a corner of a closet or the attic. I don’t look for them. One day when the images in my head begin to fade, that’s when I’ll stumble across them by the magic we call chance.
I did though, find this image of the view from the top of the Stanserhorn on the web. This is the view that I remember.
The view that sticks with me.
That haunts me.
I started teaching soon after that trip to the top of the mountain, and over the last 18 years I’ve told the story of my trip over and over and over. I’ve used it as a model or as an example for a host of different assignments and projects, most of which I can’t remember. I would recount the cool breezes that rustled the emerald grasses on the bottom slope of the mountain. I would explain how jealous I felt as I watched lovers on the grass share a bottle of wine and laugh as they pointed out to the alpine lakes scattered around the mountains. I would tell them about the trolley that clacked its way up the through the fields and then over the rocks further up the mountain.
But it’s when I try to describe the view and how I stood there stone-still and staring at the distant peaks floating in that sea of mist and cloud that I mentally leave my classroom.
I get lost in the memories of colors, of the blues and whites muted and made surreal by the mist. I relive the awe I felt, and the vertigo the vastness of the expanse brought swirling to my head.
Beauty kept me from moving; but so did a little bit of terror.
Maybe that’s why the memory sticks with me. Maybe it was in Switzerland where I caught my first glimpse of the sublime.
Years later after standing on that mountaintop, I found this painting by Caspar David Friedrich titled “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”. I fell in love with it. My wife eventually bought me a print of the painting and had it placed in a beautiful frame. It hangs, now, under a light over the desk in my office.
Earlier this week, I found myself telling the Stanserhorn story to yet another class. The students were to describe a place they had traveled too and then discuss how the place had taught them something about themselves.
I didn’t tell them about the sublimity that I felt. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was something I didn’t think they would understand, or something I simply wanted to keep for myself. I told them instead about how small being on top of that mountain made me feel and that I came to understand that I wasn’t really as ‘big’ as I thought I was.
I did tell them though, that my example was a grandiose one and that the places that changed them could be everyday locations, a place as simple as their own home, or their grandfather’s farm.
You can find large meaning in small things, I told them.
In everyday things.
It struck me that I should take my own advice sometimes. If I remembered that beauty can be found in everyday things, perhaps I wouldn’t find myself searching through the mists or wandering through the fogs so often.
Maybe I could focus more on daily life then on mountaintops a world a way.