Why We Climb Mountains (The View in 1843)

The world has changed—and it hasn’t. Here’s a statement about the value of climbing the Catskills made by Park Benjamin in 1843, which I found in Picturesque Ulster.

“’Tis pleasant for awhile to leave the heated pavements and the garbaged atmosphere of the ever bustling, noisy city; to bid adieu to the continued rattling of all the various vehicles that the worried horses are destined to drag in merciless labor to and fro the city’s length; to shun the charcoal vender’s unearthly guttural, the cries of newspaper urchins more varied in tone than the gamut itself; to flee from patients, clients, patrons, and all the constant, never varying avocations that tend to harass and perplex the lives of toiling citizens, and perch one’s self upon some mountainous elevation where nature’s calmness changes the current of our thoughts, and turns them from the real and artificial miseries of humanity.

“On such a spot we can enjoy an inward elevation, partaking of the beauty and serenity of the scene, and indulge the mind in instructive reflections upon the past, the present and the future. It would seem that the great Creator of the universe had built up this mighty eminence that man might know his power, and feeling his own insignificance despise and shun the vanities and hollow-heartedness of life. Here the belief is taught that there is but one religion and one great family of mankind. Station yourself upon that projecting rock that hangs in such terrific altitude over the immense space beneath, but attempt not to give utterance to your feelings. Language could not express them.

“Have you ever stood upon a vessel’s deck, lashed to her for security, amid the howling tempest’s rage, the wind driving her into the sea’s deep chasms, and suspending her on the lofty pinnacle of the waves, the lightning flashes brightening the surrounding hollows and showing by its vivid glares the perils of your situation? Have you ever known the mightiness of the tempest’s angry mood at such a moment, and felt how utterly inadequate is speech? If so, then stand upon this high-poised rock and learn that it is not the awfully sublime alone that seals the lips, but that nature in her calmest mood can subdue the mind to silence.

“The checkered scene below lies like the lowliest meadow, in variegated patchwork. Hills have disappeared. Here and there apparently within a narrow lane a mite is seen. It is the vehicle of some sturdy farmer, drawn by his well-fed span, measuring with rapid pace the broad highway leading to the distant village, whose diminished spires decorate the landscape. Observe that quite stream attenuated to a brook, one bound would carry you to its opposite bank, where it what it seems, and by that bound you would leap the Hudson. See that tiny cloud—smaller than the puff just issuing from your Havana—as it rises from the river’s surface. That speck beneath it is speeding on its way with a velocity that gladdens its living freight of anxious travelers, and yet to the eye it moves not. Those far off mountains, rising from the horizon in varied obscure shapes and heights, belong to other States. The fleeting clouds in graceful movement pass beneath you, dragging their lengthened shadows over the colored plain, until nature’s curtain, being drawn, shuts out the view. And now the whole becomes one vast fictitious sea, placing you in feeling near the ocean level, and relieving for a moment the nervous throbs the dizzy heights occasioned. Soon the clouds disperse, and separating in changing form, the quiet region underneath lies again before you in all its beautiful and glorious sublimity. Such is nature’s tableau.

“Why was creation formed with features so imposing, but for man’s great benefit, that he might learn the power and majesty of the Omnipotent? Come, then, ye multitude of uneducated mortals, and from this great book store your minds with deep reflections leading to wisdom and happiness.”

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