I grew up under the watch of a massive mountain. Namely, under the Sandia range, Spanish for watermelon, named for the deep radiant pink transformation they undergo each night, when the sun sinks low in the sky.
Those mountains were there as I played, learned, and lived for nearly the first two decades of my life. They’re still the first thing I look for when I get off the plane in Albuquerque, their massive rocks and cliffs nestling the city to the east.
Now, every time I return home, and also most other places I go, I find that the mountain is in me. The grand, sprawling Southwestern sky is, too, the view that races out from one’s small self to just about forever along the horizon. Here the tinge of the atmosphere glows a crisp, clear blue, and the light pierces golden white. Some days, from on top of the mountain, I have contemplated how much closer I have climbed to the curvature of the earth itself. The sky complements the mountain in its space and scale.
This feeling of space and scale crouches in my breast, or lingers like a taste in the back of my throat as I wander to other places and witness other views. Growing up in New Mexico, I realize now, gave me an early and continuous exposure to outdoor grandness. Growing up in the shadow of this mountain taught me what it feels like to be large and small at the same time. I am always looking for similar size, similar feats of everyday color and harshness and beauty, wherever I go. I admit I am always comparing.
Growing up, I always knew which direction was east. The mountain was always there, in the east, marking the compass with which I directed my days. I never felt lost or turned around with it there. In other places, I still get dizzy amidst the trees and rolling hills. I feel as if I have lost my bearings and therefore lost some elemental sense of direction. I can’t see the horizon in these new places, I can barely see the sky, all I see is gnarled branches that go on and on. Within this tangle of vegetation, I feel like I've lost a part of myself. In my hometown, I look up, and there the mountain is, huge and watching the sun sweep over the horizon.
In this way the mountain marks time, too. It is green in the summer, frosty and snow-capped in the winter, always tinged with the purple-gray of cliffs and stone outcroppings. Its color changes throughout the day: navy blue and purple in the morning, as the dawn breaks over its peaks and splashes across the sky, often illuminating dozens of hot-air balloons floating in the early, crisp midair. Then varying shades of blue-purple-gray-green during the day, accentuated sometimes by billowing clouds and their shadows. And then at night: Sandia, watermelon, deep radiant glowing pink. It turns a pink that belongs on a Navajo tapestry, that rivals the sky and sunset in its brilliance. These colors dance across the mountain face just for a moment – then the mountain turns a dark purple again and retreats into the night.
As I go through my days in Albuquerque, the mountain draws my eye. My gaze roves over its contours and its texture, taking in its steadiness but also its ever-changing fascination. It is too much to take in at once, not just its colors but also its cliffs and canyons and foothills. I have learned from hands-on experience just how much exists up there, cacti and piñon pines and juniper trees and wildflowers. It is reassuring, ever-present on the eastern horizon, but also complex and deep and in many ways unknown.
In short, growing up beneath a mountain like this gives one an ongoing dose of perspective. Driving about in the city, or taking a walk, I look up and there it is, near but also far-off, formidable. And I have felt far-off from civilization, too, when I have hiked up to its crest. Several times, early in the morning, I have set off to hike from its foothills to its tallest peak. This is an ascent of nearly 5,000 feet from the valley elevation of my home, and on the very top I find myself breathing hard, gasping for air in its thin 10,000-foot altitude. A small peak this is, compared to the other mountains in the north, the high Rocky Mountain ranges of Colorado and Wyoming, but these Sandias are my mountains, the watchmen of my home, and they too hold their height right over the edge of city living. As I sit on the top of the mountain, the dusty horizon of the desert sprawls out to the west, and Albuquerque suddenly rests at my feet, rows and rows of city streets running down to the green strip of Rio Grande River. Shortly after the river, civilization stops and transforms into volcanoes, endless desert, more mountains in the distance. I am witnessing the entire city right here, and it simultaneously feels like it is all mine to grasp and like its everyday humming is too small to matter. From up here, I can see and contemplate. I am as large as the hundred-mile radius of this spectacular view, and I can sit and inhale it all, but from a distance. However, I, too, am small; no one at the bottom can see me here as I sit, alone or with a friend, on top of the mountain.
This mountain-perspective is the kind of perspective I also get from sitting at a window seat in a plane, gazing down at the land as we take off, marveling at the tinker-toy scale of houses and streets, watching civilization and its problems shrink as the plane banks and soars upward. My own thoughts and contemplations, in turn, crystallize and become more solid. Except that when I sit on top of a mountain like this, the rocks are stable beneath my feet. There is no thrumming of the plane’s engines, no stomach-lifting feeling of flight. I am solid, rooted, within this view. It took tremendous geological force to thrust the rocks up like this, and indeed they are ever shifting, but for now they are still. Sometimes the wind blasts and howls, indeed sometimes I have been at the top of the mountain when there is snow and a blizzard isolates me in a white sheet from the city below, but other times I have sat in stillness, feeling the rocks beneath my feet, some wildflowers blooming up from between their cracks. Butterflies flutter, hawks soar. Balloons and sometimes paragliders drift in the distance.
This remove, this perspective, but also this vivid stirring of life all anchor me to this mountain. Always, in Albuquerque and in other similar places, it is possible to live one’s own mundane life with this sense of sweeping geology and also intimate, wild detail. The mountain itself becomes mundane, if one stays here long enough, since, after all, it is always there. But once one leaves and comes back, or once one looks up and sees a new slant of light across its stone face, the mountain again arrests with its presence. It somehow seems to see everything, at once imposing and personal. And, I wonder, how can I have gone so long without seeing it like this?