We’re home. Or the place where home first was, and for a long time. Things have changed so much that my Dad got lost when he entered what was supposed to the one familiar highway. Parts of the town are still recognisable, but in the way that someone you met once a long time ago is. It’s the passing of time and it hits hard. Like Roland of the Dark Tower says: “The world has moved on.”
But more about this place in a day or two when I’ve had a chance to meet old friends and explore old haunts – or what’s left of them. What I want to write about is the drive down here.
It has been five years since the last time we came here and even then we were simply passing through. I don’t know why I had forgotten how ridiculously beautiful the view is all the way. It changes with every hour into something new and captivating.
We were up all night doing last minute packing (as usual) and when we finally left, I was so tired I thought I’d fall asleep before we were even out of our little driveway. But by the time I’d actually found space in our way-overloaded car to curl up (that’s how overloaded it was) comfortably, there it was – all that eye candy. It was too distracting and every time I’d be dozing off, something would pass by that would jolt me wide awake and have me staring out the window, eyes wide and mouth open at the visual feast.
It began with the hills. Not far away horizon stuff – this is up-close and personal scenery where you can see the individual trees lining the bald stone heads like week-old fuzz; where craggy surfaces rise out of bases smothered in the greenest foliage you can imagine. Then, just when you begin to wonder at how desolate and uninhabitable the place is, you spot the smallest of houses clinging half-way up the slope, like a stubborn parasite – proof that nothing deters Man when he wants to sink in his roots somewhere.
Seeing the peaks of the hills was somehow more fantastic than seeing a huge mountain would be. These were things that I could imagine climbing to the top off and then waving down at the people in the car from. I can remember my earliest memories being of this urgent desire to one day have the liberty to simply stop the car, and walk to the mountain. Just like that, on a whim. It helps me understand those people who talk about ‘conquering’ mountains.
And the shapes! It’s like a whimsical Hand was at work behind the entire landscape. A Masterpiece inspired by a Thought borne of a Smile. There were soft, undulating series of mounds in that particular shade of brown-green that appears when you cover a pile of rich, red earth with a carpet of soft, fresh moss. And there were hills that sat on the land like bits of soft cheese with slices hewn out of them as if a giant hand had hacked off a hunk and taken it up to a giant mouth somewhere far above.
But perhaps the piece de resistance was a cluster of tiny hillocks that looked innocent enough until you passed them by and looked back over your shoulder only to see that at their center, it looked like Mother Earth had puckered her lips after tasting something extremely bitter – perhaps too much of the chemicals we pour down her throat?
It was like we were travelling across a child-sized version of the world with mini-mountains and tidbit hills.
The cottages and huts and views-between-hills would put any self-respecting English countryside to shame. I couldn’t help thinking that this, here, was the way the earth was meant to be inhabited. Did we have to lose all this natural glory to become ‘civilized’? Have we progressed by destroying this amazing landscape and replacing it with the stone blocks we call homes and concrete pavements we call gardens?
Dividing the land like unspoken boundaries were dry riverbeds. Empty crevices that were strangely filled with rocks! I always thought a river bed would be flat and sandy, but these looked more like abandoned quarries. And again, the temptation to stop was so strong! To get down, roll up my trouser cuffs and simply follow these strange paths to where ever they would lead me, with the banks rising up on either side like protective walls and the rushing sounds of ghost water filling my ears. Sounds carried into the present from a past long forgotten by everyone except the rocks that must long for the feel of that liquid flowing over their dry faces.
And then slowly, the weather changed – from blue spring skies to grey winter ones. On one side, the greens darkened, hinting at the ominous nature of all this wildness; the ancient, sometimes malevolent, power that lay hidden beneath the youthful, innocent lands. And on the other side was a wall of grey, with the kind of flat blankness that only serves to confirm that it is hiding secrets – more mountains perhaps? Or a surprise valley? Maybe the shores of an unknown sea? Or an alien spaceship? Whatever it was, it remained silent and elusive behind that curtain, never once peeping out. But I could feel its eyes following us across the entire stretch of road, silently, patiently and slightly condescending at how flawed human vision is, that we sometimes cannot see what is directly in front of our nose.
The climate however made no difference to the children. And they were scattered across the countryside peeping from between the blades of grass, like brightly hued flowers. I thought I should feel sorry for them, restricted to this life with no knowledge of books or video games or fashion or other things that city children their age take for granted. I thought it was enslavement for a child to be expected to handle dozens of large, brutish animals all day, every day.
But with every herd we passed, it became harder not to envy these pint-sized shepherds their simple lives. What was there to pity in their simple functional dress, in their total lack of design and the bounce in their step as they waved and whooped with infectious enthusiasm at the cars passing by.
Who can tell who has the better life?
And then, like the icing on the cake, she appeared. One minute, she was a pale shadow and the next she was just…there, that final, majestic pile of rock, welcoming you as you drove towards the little town adorning her feet. I used to think that referring to a mountain as a ‘she’ was a male ego thing.
But this mountain is infinitely feminine with every angular curve, slope and sweep. When she first came into sight, she had her head in the clouds – literally – and as I stared and stared (and stared some more), it began to seem to me that she had bared her soul to anyone who wished to read her tale, conveniently allowing them to adapt it and make it – and thus, her – their own.
To me she is a creature of myths, some ethereal beauty who was married to Land in ancient times when the ties of honour were binding for life, and so she remains a loyal wife. But her heart belonged to another – her soul mate – who dwells high up in the heavens. Land clings desperately to her, but he never quite manages to bring her down to his level.
Her True Love on the other hand knows he possesses her as completely as she does him. His confidence is displayed in the almost casual gifts he sends her to remind her of his affection: now a crown of clouds, now a feathery caress of mist, now a veil of sparkling snow. But each makes her glow in the way only a woman well-cherished can.
She is a paradigm of the unattainable, and that is why Man is so bewitched by her, so eager to climb to her highest peak. But even when they finally reach there, if they stood still and listened they would hear her laughter in the wind, gently chiding, maybe even mocking them. For if Land could not conquer this spirit, then how does a mere man to believe he has?
And just as she finished telling me this tale, I looked away and saw that we had arrived.