Driving Time, Stress and Mountains

Some Rights Reserved by wili_hybrid at Flickr

Reading old journals reminds me how full of twists and turns a recovery road can be. Along the way, I have encountered strong presences that restore a sense of balance – when I have let them. For years, though, I could not let them work within me for more than a few moments. I’ve edited a few journal entries that show the struggle. I was partly aware of the possibility of change, partly convinced I could not break the cycle I was in.


Stress has a lot to do with depression, we’re told, and time has a lot to do with stress. And it’s true, my life is timed, and time runs out before I’ve done enough. Enough to prove my value, enough to quell the sharp-edged voice talking me toward nothingness, enough to win a race I mindlessly run. That’s all the stuff of stress. But I see another side to it. Staying within time is a protection as well. The sequence carries me from place to place, job to job and builds a structure to guide and shelter me, stressful and exhausting though it is. “Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back wherein he keeps alms for oblivion.” It can be a prison, time, but its walls shut out thought and feeling that carry me in dangerous directions. So there is tension and stress inside those walls, but fear of something worse on the outside. Can that change? Can I step outside this beating time without becoming lost?

I drive south on the Interstate from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, shooting up one long ascent to a view of the nearby mountain ranges. Suddenly vision shifts and slows my car speed to a different scale of motion. Now it’s not mph on a highway, it’s a measure of motion passing one distant peak after another. I streak by cars in the next lanes but crawl slowly away from the vast masses of the Sangre de Christo toward the looming giant turtle shape of the Sandias. I have to turn from that distraction, as time reminds me what’s ahead. The next hour is like a few moments of urgent flight as I speed toward an appointment in Albuquerque where I’m giving a talk to Indian Pueblo leaders about negotiation and water rights. I am all purpose and business, running over what I’m trying to communicate, worrying about being late, wondering about the moods and preoccupations of the Pueblo governors, program directors and attorneys I’ll probably see there. All the while, though, part of me remains awed as I slowly pass the southern edge of the Jemez just across the Rio Grande Valley, stare some 50 miles off at sprawling Mount Taylor, catch the glinting snow across the broad back of the approaching Sandias. Those giants move in a scale of time and space that makes little of the human clashes about “managing” this grandeur. Yet it is the fights over human management of the forests, waters and wild places that pull me from valley to valley across the Southwest. Those fights arrive with deadlines, urgencies, a force of unnatural change. I move to their timing.

There is an older route between these cities I’ve also taken, though now it stops dead in many places or turns to dirt. That route heads out of Albuquerque’s old downtown north to one traditional village after another. First, it takes you through quiet farming villages, settled under Spanish land grants, then through Indian Pueblos, though these communities try to keep the tourist traffic confined to certain routes. There is a different pace that’s part of these cultures, one timed more to seasonal changes, the flows of streams, the care of crops, the demands of ceremonial life and religious belief. Yet those are not my worlds, and they offer no permanent stopping place for someone bulleting from crisis to crisis.

And the meeting in Albuquerque has a similar result. The Pueblo leaders listen to the assembled technicians of management, but in the end have a simple answer. We have our certainties. The rest of you just come and go. They have no time that includes us.


Months later, another timed trip – but this one takes me farther away from cities and freeways. I’m visiting an Indian reservation in northern Montana, stopping by a rural school to talk to the principal. The big country and sky all around me disappear as I step inside the wide building and sit with this tribal member in his one-window office. He keeps gazing out that window as he tells us what the school needs. This is all about money, proposals, deadlines, and I have a lot of questions about how things work there, budgeting, transportation, planning – scheduling. Soon he gets up and walks me through the classroom corridor out a side door and across the unplanted grounds. He picks a spot and stands quietly for a moment. He points out a mountain I had seen when driving in, but I hadn’t paid it much attention except to note that the school was directly facing it. As the principal stares , I can see how close and immediate this huge rounded form appears. It’s probably twenty miles away but seems to hover right in front of us, and somehow draws me in, as soon as I can stop thinking about other things and let it work on me.

He tells us a brief story: One day, I was sitting in my office and got to looking at that mountain. And pretty soon I got up to go outside and get a better look. I walked to this spot about here and stood like this. Cal, the janitor, was working outside. He saw me and came on over, and he started looking too. Then a couple of teachers who were on a break came out, and we’re all just looking. Pretty soon, the kindergarten teacher comes out, along with her class of little kids, and they stand quietly too. None of those kids are saying a word. You can see that all those classroom windows look out this way, and it wasn’t long before, one by one, they all came outside. So we had the whole school watching the mountain. Nobody said anything. I don’t know how long that lasted, but after a while we gradually went back inside.

He keeps staring at the mountain as he tells me that story, and when he’s finished he keeps looking that way. And so do I. For some reason, I can’t take my eyes off this immense shadowed presence. I don’t know why. It just feels good, calming, overwhelmingly peaceful, and so close it looks like I can touch it.

It isn’t long, though, before I have to leave and drive as fast as I can to catch a plane in Great Falls.

5 Responses to “Driving Time, Stress and Mountains”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Anon for now says:

    Ahhh, the Mendicino Coast — a potentially meditative place indeed.

    John, I wasn’t disagreeing with you. I didn’t write well. Please forgive the pompous sound of this try: One can learn, from observing cultures one cannot join, what kinds of spiritual outlooks and practices resonate with one’s own Self, then find other ways to bring them into one’s own life. (I doubt I’m saying something new to you.)

    You are on the path. I’m pleased for you.

    And, I’ve not “gotten further” than you have; in fact, I’ve lost a lot of ground over the last ten years and I’m beginning to think that my depressive symptoms are my deeper Self (or God or Spirit or Life Process, or whatever you want to call it) telling me to pay attention again. It may turn out that your path takes less time/effort than mine has. One never knows what’s right around the next bend. 🙂

    Have you read the Tao Te Ching? My favorite edition is translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, published in 1972 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House.

  2. JohnD says:

    I’ve been away for a while on the Mendocino coast, and I’m behind on responding to comments.

    Stephany – You have a reaction much like mine to the mountains, but I haven’t throught of it quite that way – of seeing the past, present, future all at once. They do collapse for me into a timelessness – perhaps that is what is so absorbing. I’ve wondered if you can see Mt. Rainier where you live. It is a staggering presence – as are those of the other giant spirit mountains of the Cascades. They are like suns to my small world.

    Anon for Now – I meant by that part you quote quite specifically that the cultures of those Indian and Hispano pueblos are not ones I can ever be a part of – though I can become familiar with what they’re like. I agree completely that it is possible to make a life in which natural rhythms and spiritual awareness become part of who you are. Finding a way to live spiritually is becoming central to my recovery – the thing that gives me the most hope. You have probably gotten farther than I have on that path. I hope we can share more about it.

    Dreambuilders – I know that choice is always there. What I’m trying to do is pull out all the stumbling blocks I seem to have put in my own path. Thanks for your encouraging advice.

    John D

  3. Anon for now says:

    John D blogs, “…timed more to seasonal changes, the flows of streams, the care of crops, the demands of ceremonial life and religious belief. Yet those are not my worlds….”

    John, it’s my experience that one can bring these aspects into one’s life. Every people (ethnic group) had an earth-based spirituality before the arrival of religions that insist they are the only way. We can each find one of these older ways that feels like home, whether a specific path or an eclectic mix of several. Or, explore the mystic side of a modern-day religion.

    Attending and/or creating ritual, keeping track of the moon’s phases and the seasons – and the tides if one is near them — and other such practices allow us to reconnect with a way of looking at the passage of time that is as natural as that peaceful mountain.

    Do that, and soon you will understand that it is simply your choice to get back on the treadmill, and not a necessity.

    I wish you the peace of that mountain.

  4. You can always choose to step outside the confones of what you think you know. each phase of life offers lessons and wisdom you can gain.

  5. stephany says:

    It’s an anchor directly to the soul. That’s why no one spoke out loud. The one thing you can stand and look at and see the past, the present and the future all at once….and that is a reassurance. Those mountains, I feel anyway, have a spirit in them. I’ve felt it myself. So, this is why, when depressed, or confused about life, I look “to the hills where I get my strength”.

By clicking the Submit button below you agree to follow the Commenting Guidelines