A Lifelong Love Affair
At a certain age, I think everyone ends up being from somewhere else. You were born downstate, or you're going to college on the opposite coast. We have one foot wherever we are now, and one where we used to be. Right now, my right foot is here, at Interlochen Arts Academy, but my left foot is still firmly planted in Sisters, Oregon, a small town in the middle of the Beaver State.
Sisters is known for one rodeo, one quilt show, one music festival, and three ancient volcanoes, the Three Sisters. The Three Sisters are about fifteen miles from the town they have named, rooted in the Cascade range, and lodged firmly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about them, no matter how I try.
I have been thinking about the Sisters because I miss them.
I miss the mountains because I love them.
I love the way their peaks disappear into the clouds. I love the way they change with the seasons. In the summer they are a bare red brown from the cinder rock but in the winter they are great white things with jagged slashes of black breaking through the blanket of snow. I love the Sunday tradition of parking your car on the edge of Mackenzie Highway to stare in awe at the three peaks. People come in their Sunday best or well loved hiking gear and take a moment to enjoy the mountains.
People gaze at the mountains and climb them. Some even get the mountains tattooed onto their skin because they cannot bear the thought of leaving home without a piece of the Sisters. It is the cultural norm to be in a life long love affair with those three mountains peaks and nothing shows a person’s devotion to the mountains like summiting all three peaks over the weekend, or hiking through the wilderness on a family outing, or spending a lovely spring day doing trail maintenance with hundreds of other lovers. This love is taught from an early age. We learn from our parents, our community, our teachers. Nothing teaches mountain love like the Sisters’ school district.
When I was in third grade I spent a whole day sitting in a forest learning about the trees that grew on the slopes of the Cascade Range. I still press my nose between the puzzle bark of evergreens and remember the “Tree Lady” telling us how to identify pines by their smell.
Retrospectively, the Tree Lady and all she taught me is a fond memory, but that was not the reality of the situation.
The reality is that I was irritated by the whole event. I was forced to ride my bike in a pack of twenty other third graders on a cold, damp April afternoon. I hated biking. And I didn’t really care about the trees or their ecological significance. As a child, I had a violent, negative reaction to the Sisters custom of adoring the mountains. That was for most people, but not me. I couldn’t wait to grown up so I could go to college and get away from those mountains and the people who loved them.
I was so determined to rebel against the culture I was being raised in, but I couldn’t escape the pride Sisters has in their mountains.
In fifth grade I visited my grandma, who lives in the shadow of Montana’s Bridger Range. I stood on the porch and looked at those mountains and said simply, “Those aren't real mountains.” I didn’t think anything of my statement. It seemed obvious enough to me. The Cascades were mountains. The Bridgers, not so much. My grandmother looked at me, askance. “Those are real mountains,” she insisted. “They’re almost 10,000 feet.”
I shrugged and dropped the matter, but we both knew I wasn’t convinced. The winter of that same year my grandma sent me pictures of her mountains covered in snow and even then I didn't believe they were real mountains.
I didn’t know it then, but the Three Sisters had already begun to sink their hooks in me. I knew that there was something sacred about the Sisters, something that I wouldn’t find anywhere else. There is something intoxicating about the Three Sisters, and not even my childish rebellion could blind me to their power.
When I was 12, I went to Outdoor School, a staple of Oregonian education. Kids across the state spend three days in nature, studying water turbidity and soil pH. I learned about Blue Lake, which is nestled in the Cascade foothills. Ten years ago, Blue Lake was the sight of a massive forest fire caused by an irresponsible camper. I remember looking across acres of spindly, dead trees and being told that it was my duty to camp responsibly so the mountain forests could stay safe.
Outdoor School was not the first time I was told to camp responsibly. In Sisters we are stewards of the land. Our teachers tell us that the Cascades are our mountains. We must take care of them to ensure the continued health of the Three Sisters and the surrounding wilderness.
I had shrugged off the call to action many times. I was, after all, determined to leave Sisters as soon as I could. Why did I care what happened to those mountains? But something about Outdoor School stuck with me. Standing on a ridge, staring out across Blue Lake and the old burn, the mountains began to worm their way into my heart.
Right before I started high school, I summited South Sister, the easiest of the three Sisters. A group of about twenty teens and I drove out to the trailhead at ten PM and started our trek up the mountain with the light of the full moon as our guide. There were five adults with us, my mom among them. My best friend and I climbed through a forest of switchbacks and then came to a stop in a meadow painted blue by the moon. We lay on our backs and looked at the night sky, which the moonlight had washed free of stars. The grass poked through our shirts and we shivered as the sweat dried on our skin.
We continued to make our way towards the peak, laughing and telling stories and drifting from one cluster of friends to the other. My mom told us about her first marriage. We began to scramble up the cinder cone just as the sky was lightening. Everything was quiet, save the labored breaths of me and the boy I was climbing with. We didn’t talk during the whole twelve mile hike. But we always nodded at each other in the school hallways after that.
I reached the peak just as the sun rose over the curve of the earth. I sat on a rock as the wind pulled my hair free from its braid and watched sunlight spill into the foggy pockets of forest and pool in the low places. The whole sky was orange and the sunlight turned the peaks of the neighboring mountains to gold.
I had never summited a mountain before. I didn’t know what it felt like to stand 4,900 feet above the sea or how much it hurt your knees to sprint down from the peak. That midnight climb was the first time I loved the Sisters the way they are intended to be loved. My legs were sore for three days, but I would take sore legs almost any day if it meant seeing Central Oregon from the top of a mountain.
I didn’t go back to the mountains until my mom took me and my two best friend backpacking in the Three Sisters Wilderness a year later. We swam in mountain runoff pools and camped in old moraines and when we hiked out we climbed down gigantic boulders that sat pressed against a glacier. The glacier was a massive pack of snow and ice, still at least fifty yards long in the middle of August. I crouched under the monstrosity of summer snow and watched water drip from the ice and run down black basalt rocks. My mom took a picture of me laughing with a twenty pound pack on my back and my knees turned red from cinder dust.
I had spent most of my life fighting against the Cascades and the almost supernatural pull they have on the hearts of Sisters’ residents. But somewhere that rebellion had faded away, maybe washed downstream by glacial melt. My determination to abandon Sisters and its mountains was gone. I was falling in love.
My junior year I took Interdisciplinary Environmental Expeditions, a class unique to Sisters High School. In the fall, I spent a weekend hiking and camping on Middle Sister for a grade. When I rattled off the characteristics of flora found only at that mountain’s elevation, I got a percentage for science. Creating a poem that encapsulated the wild beauty of my camp meant English credits on my transcript. For tens of miles I carried twenty pounds on my back and ticked off the required physical education hours.
And I remember looking up at the stars one night with blisters burning on my heels and thinking, “These are my mountains.”
As a kid I had never thought I would belong in Sisters. I was born in the wrong family, the wrong town. I had believed my real home was somewhere else, but I had never assumed it was without mountains. Until I was thirteen I truly believed that if I found purple mountains, I would be home. In my mind those mountains were somewhere on the East coast, Virginia perhaps. Maybe they were hiding out in Scotland, my ancestral home. It never occurred to me that they could be the mountains that I had woken up to every morning for twelve years.
The summer before I left home for a school 2,500 miles away, my mountains turned purple. I had just finished a pick-up soccer game and was standing barefoot in the middle of my school’s soccer field. I walked over to the far goal and corralled three balls, jogging slowly, kicking the balls in front of me. Halfway down the field, I stopped and turned to look at my mountains, which loomed behind the school. My heart thudded hollowly in my chest. The setting sun had turned the lava rock purple. One of the balls rolled away from me but I didn’t care. I was staring at those three mountains which were finally, two weeks before I left, purple.
SIANNA FLOWERS is a senior at Interlochen Arts Academy. Before she went to school in northern Michigan she lived in a forest in central Oregon. Again and again she finds herself writing about wild women and the people that love them for reasons that are not always clear. If she is not arguing about politics she is gushing over high fantasy novels. She has had several articles published in her hometown's newspaper, The Nugget, along with a poem in the Torches 'n' Pitchforks student magazine. She received an honorable mention from Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for a critical essay.
Discussion of Process:
"This essay was originally inspired by Ander Monson's "I Have Been Thinking About Snow." It has since undergone heavy revisions but this is the first draft."