Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. -John Muir
I spent about 12 hours over the last week or so going through the pictures I took in 2019. I believe the tally is about 10,000 pictures, give or take. I’m deeply lamenting that Google stopped automatically syncing drive and photos, since now backing up my collection requires actual effort. But at the end of each year, I create a “Best of” album that I use for creating calendars, making physical prints (so that some hacker can’t erase my children’s childhoods), and as the background scenes for my screensaver at work.
I’m always struck at how the photographs work. In the moment, my kids start groaning when I take my camera out. There’s a fake-feeling when you arrange them artistically and cajole them to smile. When it’s just me, sometimes I wonder if I’m really seeing things when I have my phone out, or if I’m just postponing the seeing to some later date which may or may not ever come. The moments that surround those pictures have all sorts of feelings: annoyance, exhaustion, aggravation, anger, humor, relaxation, exasperation. But by the time I’ve picked my favorite photos, the entire year looks beautiful, joyful, peaceful and full of familial bonding.
This transformation of life from banal aggravation to beautiful memories is a miracle of modern alchemy. The best part is that, as you pull out your memories along with these pictures, they start to conform to what the photos say. It was a great day. We all had fun. We get along wonderfully. We spend most of our time doing meaningful things together as a family. Memories are not the truth of what happened, or of what we felt at that time. They are changed by, and even created by, what we do with them after they are first born. I work hard to make those memories largely lovely (although I do save a few less beautiful ones for authenticity’s sake, and because given enough time they usually become funny).
During this marathon session of photographic goodness, I couldn’t help noticing something about my year. There were a LOT more mountain scenes than in past years. My memories of those moments don’t include aching knee-muscles (impossible to photograph) or the pounding heat on Chocorua. But they instead evoke moments of peace, majesty, and a bigger and more lovely world. I’ve recently begun hiking a lot with an old friend who is the same kind of crazy I am about hiking mountains. On grim, cold days we sometimes text each other pictures of where we wish we were. With his not-so-great example, I was recently talked into doing my first ever winter hike, which required a massive re-kitting for appropriate gear. (OK, by talked into, I mean I said “Hey, want to go hiking on Wednesday?” and he said, “Sure!”.)
It was a beautifully soul-clearing hike, starting in the dark of the morning before dawn. We climbed to beat the weather, due in at some uncertain time of the afternoon (the forecasts were wildly inconsistent). The skies at times darkened ominously and scarves of white clouds wrapped themselves tightly around the necks of Lafayette and Lincoln, across the valley. But there were glorious moments, too. A perfect boulder, covered in pebbly ice. A southern exposure with bright moss shining through the white snow. The expanse of Lonesome Lake perfect below us. The sound of bitter winds whipping above our heads, with short summit-pines protecting us from the greatest heat-stealing wrath of winter’s icy breath.
As Boston braces for our first real snow of the winter on Monday, the experienced yankee might feel a mild claustrophobia setting in, as the world begins its process of shrinking to the size of the shoveled path. But perhaps this year will be different. Perhaps this year, I’ll be able to brave snow and ice, and meet my mountains again before spring.