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Courtesy Jeff Simmons
Rick Shortt (left) on a hike over High Rocks in Wythe County with Tommy Bell (right) and Jeff Simmons (photographer).
Saturday, April 13, 2013
God bless the seers like Rick Shortt.
This printer, blogger and foot-traveler — whose street address is in Wytheville but whose "backyard" ranges over myriad near and far peaks and creeks — has done more true "seeing" of Southwest Virginia than any person I'm aware of but Wilburn Waters .
Who knows if Wilburn, the legendary wild man of Grayson County for whom Wilburn Ridge is named, rambled quite so many mountains as Rick does, or loved them quite so fiercely? It doesn't matter. This kind of vision and love of place is an unseen mystery that human measurements and comparisons can't access.
Rick loves to navigate such places inaccessible to most of us — whether made so by rock-face, dark rhododendron thickets, saw-your-socks-off briars, or the blockade of our usual oblivion.
It's about seeing — close-up as well as the vast, pale-blue mountain distances that blur into infinity. Out of the yearning to help others see, likewise, the majestic loveliness of these nearby, overlooked, undervalued places, Rick has created a blog of his foot-travels.
Hence, you too can glimpse your own Virginia/West Virginia/Kentucky/Tennessee/North Carolina backyard (the mountains don't stop at state boundary lines) through Rick's eyes at peaksandpaths.blogspot.com . "Blog Archive" will lead you up and down many nearby mountains you might never otherwise know.
"My idea of fun," Rick told me, "is oftentimes pushing myself as hard as I can up a steep, rocky trail with lots of hands-on scrambling over rocks, with dramatic views all the way and just a hint of danger, just enough that a little caution and sure-footedness is in order."
This kind of awake, all-fours-embrace of a mountain, clasping it close from bottom to bluff while inhaling the face-flanking mosses and dry lichens, humus and limestone — is what John Muir found an enzyme to awareness. By the time one reached a summit, the entire consciousness was like a wide-open eye of receptivity.
This has been Rick's experience. "Especially when it is so awesome that I can't stop giggling and exclaiming how awesome it is. When everywhere you look is just jaw-dropping amazing. When I get to the top, I like to just sit there, sometimes for hours, just looking all around, trying to identify all the peaks I can see."
My first awareness of this man-of-the-mountains rambler came via our mutual friend, the late Sam Slemp . Sam and I were hiking one dusky suppertime up to High Rocks in the Big Survey of Wythe County.
"You know, the dogs and I came up here last Friday before sunset," Sam told me with wonder as we climbed, "and when we got to the top, there was Rickey Shortt, sitting in a chair! Still as a stone, just gazing out into the mountains."
"Really?" I pictured with awe some refreshing crazy person, exiling himself from our age of rush-rush and expedience, hauling an armchair up the trail to plunk down for a long, quiet weekend on nature's front porch.
"Yeah, that was me," Rick recently admitted. But it was the kind of squashable chair you tote in a pack, he noted, not heavy furniture meant for permanence.
The new old
Our mountain porches are ancient. A human lifetime is not.
Yet some part of a human is ancient indeed. Earlier people called it "the soul."
It's my sense that these long-enduring mountains are like magnets to that unseen part of ourselves. We recognize in them something of our ancient, eternal nature — far more vast, deep and high than the passing identities and roles we maintain in Flatland.
Mountains give us a view into the real. They awaken the inner eye, which the domesticated surfaces of life glaze over with "the familiar."
And familiarity — even with mountains rising vaguely in a blue backdrop of one's daily downtown or interstate or parking plaza — can breed the contempt that allows for mistreatment and degradation-type land use. Whatever becomes familiar and taken for granted is not truly "seen."
The German sage Hegel said, "The familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known."
John O'Donohue , the Irish philosopher-poet, reinforced this.
"We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade" that "enables us to tame, control and ultimately forget the mystery," he wrote.
"We make our peace with the surface and stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks."
But the unknown and the ancient eternal, O'Donohue asserted, are never far from home. In fact, "the eternal is at home — within you."
Sometimes it just takes a mountain ramble, a quiet gaze from an old stone — to realize.
Liza Field's column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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