I experience something sacred while hiking alone. The clearest incident happened after a divorce while I was living in Colorado. Feeling the need to be alone, I backpacked to Brownʼs Pass and stayed there for three nights. Overlooking a glacial valley, seeing life all around me, my own life felt utterly insignificant, yet somehow worthy. Plans fell into place, but plans were only the surface of the transformation. Living more fully in my mortality, in my doubts and imperfections, I also became part of the broader story of life on this planet.
Retired now, sharing my life with a wonderful woman, I live in the gentler mountains and hills of New Mexico. When hiking along trials, I often feel called to bushwhack to particular ridges or peaks. There I frequently discover a sacred circle constructed of stone. The stones speak for who put them in place:
Here I am of the earth and of the heavens.
Here I am utterly alone and fully connected.
Here I know that I will die, and here I know that I will live.
Any place that opens one to reality is a holy place, and it is not different at all from any other place on the planet. Some find holy places in valleys, caves, coasts, and prairies; since ancient times, however, many have found that high places elicit such awareness. I think of the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia; of Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have encountered the Holy; and of the original Psalm 24, which asked the question Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? and answered that only one with pure hands and a clean heart can do so. The psalm's answer does not ring true. Each of us, whether we call ourselves religious or not, seeks the moment or the place in which we come face to face with reality, with our utter insignificance and with our inexorable worth. In this series of photographs, hills, mesas, and mountains are juxtaposed with people who ascend their own hills.
Portraits (10½ x 10½ inches) and panoramas (36 inches wide, 10 or 11 inches high ) are printed on Palo Duro SemiGloss Rag, a thick, 100% rag, semi-rigid paper that produces sensuous blacks and grays. Smaller landscapes (18 inches wide, of various heights) are printed on Arctic Polar Satin, a bright, more traditional photographic paper with a broad gamut. Both papers allow me to print at high resolution (720 pixels per inch) without the glare of glossy paper.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been....But there is no one but us. There never has been. —Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm