On a bitter winter morning in February 2015, rattled by hurricane winds and wind chills in the minus digits, I drove back to Lock Haven from Williamsburg, Va., where I had taken my daughter and two of her friends to the President’s Day soccer tournament.
We had driven to Williamsburg after school and work on Friday the 13th. Leaving Lock Haven late in the evening, I dreaded the congested traffic on the beltway outside of D.C. Sure enough, instead of the six-hour drive, we reached Williamsburg in seven and a half hours, crawling our way out of the Friday evening and weekend traffic from D.C. to the suburbs and beyond on 95 South.
The girls were hungry and tired as the sun went down around us. They had to be up early the next morning to play in the tournament.
Though it was not snowing in Williamsburg, it was bitterly cold. The girls played their games in the freezing wind chills, their bodies slightly warmed by the game and the thermal soccer gear.
The parents watching from the sidelines huddled in the backbreaking wind. Our central PA girls played two games the first day; they were set to play two more games on Sunday.
Saturday evening, after the games, our group of players, parents and siblings from Lock Haven–we were about three or four families–decided to eat dinner in the town of Williamsburg. Valentine’s Day–Feb. 14–was a bad day to go out for an impromptu supper, we soon found out. Every place we checked had an hour to two hour wait time. Since the kids were hungry and tired, we got sandwiches to go from Subway and the grocery store deli. We came back to the hotel and ate our supper in the warmth of the hotel lobby watching winter storms Neptune and Octavia hammer the northeast on the television.
The soccer association canceled the Sunday games the next morning due to extreme and dangerous wind chills.
Violent weather comes with its own freezing silence as we packed our things quickly, checked out of the hotel, and locked ourselves inside the warmth and safety of our cars for our trip back to Lock Haven.
The bitter wind whipped and cracked my face as I stopped to fill gas. Piles of dry, brittle black leaves blew around in the bleak grey morning in big swirling balls as if it were Halloween.
My Volkswagen Passat shook in the wind from side to side as if inside a pressure chamber. It was another long drive back to Lock Haven in not yet 48 hours.
I did not want to be stuck in the traffic outside of D.C. on such a bad day. One of the parents had recommended an alternate route to Lock Haven through West Virginia completely bypassing D.C. Girls, we are going back via West Virginia, I announced. Almost heaven, West Virginia, I said. That is where we are going.
Getting on 17 North and the connected highways west and north, we drove through some of the most beautiful, high, desolate mountain roads in Virginia and West Virginia before pointing ourselves towards Pennsylvania on 81 North. The route was magnificent in an unearthly way. We entered the high, open, pristine mountain roads with the imposing ranges on one side and a steep drop on the other. I felt an uncanny fear as I glanced to my right and saw another empty, long, snowy brown highway far down below me resting like a snake in the morning sun.
Wind in the mountains was not chaotic like wind in the city. In a tightly wound vortex, it shoved and shook the Volkswagen as we moved slowly forward. In the Western Ghats in India, wind funnels out of the hairpin curves of mountain passes similarly. All you can do is to drive slowly and carefully. Or buy a Lamborghini low to the ground.
Except for the occasional 16-wheeler or a truck with bumper stickers of hunters, rifles and deer, there was little traffic on the highway. It felt like we were the only travelers on the mountain roads for long stretches of that drive. Mountains do not have borders and we passed green mountains, brown mountains, black mountains, and green mountains again. We passed rivers and creeks.
We saw the exits for national parks. The land was all sky, open sky, and nothing but tall mountains on every side, snowy peaks here, vaporous ranges there, black summits wrapped in clouds glowing with slivers of midmorning sunshine.
There we were, right in the middle of that infinite vastness of earth folded over and over, pure matter rising for all to see, its immensity and eminence, the home of the deer and the bear, of birds, ferns, beetles, slugs, newts, moss and orchids.
The way our car moved against that capacious and silent solitude of the mountains exemplified something of our transient presence to us, our impermanence as a species even.
What are we to the mountains other than a car driving past?
We didn’t stop except for gas in one of the little towns somewhere in West Virginia or near the Maryland border. Early in the afternoon, it started to snow on the interstate. We must be getting close to Pennsylvania, we said.
We were. Suddenly when we least expected it, we saw the signs for 99 North and 220 North. 99 North! 220 North! We chanted in one voice.
Our excitement was palpable. The girls took out their phones and took pictures. Keep your eyes peeled for the “Pennsylvania Welcomes You” sign, I told the girls.
We surfaced in Pennsylvania and 220 North somewhere near Bedford and Fulton counties. We entered Pennsylvania into a gentle snowfall. We joined the caravan of 16-wheelers, trucks and cars sliding carefully along route 220 North. The state forests and farms along the highway were readily whitening in the snow, the miles rolling sweetly open in front of us.
Mountains do not lose their altitude or their solitude, or so we think. But we were moving forward nestled inside the mountains that we knew and lived in. Meandering roads appeared to vanish into the sky on top of the “broccoli mountains” of 220 North, as my daughter used to call them when she was a child. Ploughed roads and shoveled sidewalks domesticate the mountains. So much life happens on the side of mountains.
You can live on a mountain and never see it for one.
Farther north on route 220, near the state border, in one of the most geographically distinct and beautiful regions of rural Pennsylvania, the mountains are sliced, diced and gouged by and for the gas industry.
The clawed and excavated red earth face of the mountain looks down upon gas paraphernalia, and earth moving equipment amid lush farms, pastures, dairy farms, grazing cattle, quarries and woodlands. We should look back at that mountain face.
Perhaps the cardinal direction “north” is another term for what mountains do for us.
Mountains teach us the value of looking down, of reflection, of going forward by going inward.
The immensity and solitude of mountains are unequaled by anything in this world.
They reflect the natural power of mountains to direct us to look downward and inward into ourselves.
When we look up at the mountain, we look down into ourselves.
Look at the mountain.
Think. You will see the grandeur.
You will see the ruin. Never again will you mistake the one for the other.
Gayatri Devi lives in Lock Haven.