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Slide Mountain High

I grew up in Titusville, Pennsylvania, a town of some 7000 kindly souls, located a hop and a skip south of Erie in the famous Buffalo snow belt. Much has changed in the region since I left town five decades ago, but the snow continues. One weather website currently lists Erie as the second snowiest city in the United States, trailing only Billings, Montana, and edging out such contenders for the crown as Anchorage, Rochester, and Buffalo itself. [i] Just two weeks ago, Erie drew national attention when it recorded 58 inches of snow—2 inches short of five feet—on Christmas day and the day following. [ii]

The Titusville I remember jitterbugged in blizzards from November till spring. If you were an adult, dealing with adult matters such as clearing your driveway of snow every other freakin’ day, or keeping your house warm, winter was not necessarily a good thing. Neighbors known to be perky and warm-hearted in summer grew morose and snarly as the days grew short. A Scandinavian pall hung over them. They cursed and growled. Several were known to take a drink.

For kids, the opposite was true. Snow closed school. Snow was sleds and toboggans and skis. Snow could be packed into snowballs, stacked into forts, rolled into snowmen. At its best, snow arrived softly, slowly. Gazing out a window from a warm room into a cold snowfall, you grew wistful and speculative. Floating down, piling up—snow was like a meandering thought that eluded explanation but promised some kind of a reward if you just stuck with it. Snowfall encouraged speculation. It settled the heart.

On a day following a storm the forests feathering the hills surrounding the town stood peaceful and deep in snow. A velvety blue sky hummed an easygoing Gene Autry tune. The cold air sparkled like the top of a Coke.

In my twenties I taught math in New York City private schools. Some winter weekends my friend David Hertz and I drove one or two station wagons full of kids to the Catskills, where we tackled those gently ferocious peaks on snowshoes. It happens that in my spare time I was attempting, with a spectacular lack of success, to be a songwriter. After an adventure on Slide Mountain, the Catskills’ highest peak, I penned a masterpiece that, with a contemporaneous John Denver hint in mind, I titled “Slide Mountain High.”

Slide Mountain High

I remember a day, said I gotta get away, in the winter of ’74,

Forgot my cares, jumped down the stairs, went strollin’ through the door.

The car looked sweet, I put in another seat, had room for ten or eleven.

Hopped in, made a grin, then I took it for a spin: corner Broadway and 77.

Well, the sun was coming up, and the wind made me feel a little cool,

But it really wasn’t that, somethin’ else made me feel like a fool.

There were twenty-nine kids who were waiting for me there at the school!

So I piled ‘em in the car and told ‘em to behave,

And I still found room for brother Dave.

Over spring breaks I moved on to New Hampshire’s storied White Mountains—Adams, Cannon, the Kinsmans, a four-day traverse of the Franconia Ridge. One March, David and I, along with our friend Jim Brody, traveled to the Adirondacks, where we got blown off Mount Marcy, New York’s highest point, just a snowball’s toss short of the summit.

* * *

I quit teaching and went west in 1975. In California and points north I climbed year round, but winter was best. Mount Lassen in December, Shasta’s Whitney glacier in January, Yosemite’s Mount Clark in February, dismal failure on the Sierra’s Mount Darwin in March. To be honest,

dismal failure was the outcome of these crazed adventures more often than not. Here, check out my friends Art Calkins and Bill Thielen as we made our way to Mokulumne Peak in the northern Sierra, a peak we never even saw, let alone climbed.

But success or failure, it didn’t really matter. After all, climbing isn’t about reaching the top. It’s about trying to reach the top. The process, not the summit, is what counts—the working together with your friend, the cold, the jokes, the grief, the elation, the danger and fear, the exhaustion at the end of the day. The fever to do it all again as soon as possible. Success is measured by honest, grateful engagement in life, and maybe learning a thing or two about yourself along the way. In a way, climbing took me back to Titusville, to gazing out a window from a warm room into a cold snowfall, and growing wistful and speculative. Snow and cold and fear were like meandering thoughts that eluded explanation, but that promised some kind of a reward if you just stuck with them. They encouraged speculation. They settled the heart.

I passed the cup and everybody paid up, headed north without a care.

We were ridin’ along, we were singin’ a song, we had Ringo on the air.

Seemed funny to rock, it was only eight o’clock, and my head began to spin,

My gut said what so I gave it a donut, sure didn’t want to grow thin!

Took a look at the map and said, I think this is where we ought-a go.

But I wondered what we’re doin’ there, drivin’ in the ice and the snow,

And I had to admit to myself that I really didn’t know.

Went down a dirt road and over a bridge,

Said, I think there’s women on the top of that ridge.

Slide, Slide Mountain High,

Where the women are hot as the Fourth of July.

Slide, Slide Mountain High,

Where the pine trees grow till they’re rubbin’ the sky.

If you ask me why that mountain always makes me cry

I’ll tell you, My oh my,

I’m gonna be there till the day I happen to die.

Bury me there on top‘a Slide Mountain high.

* * *

I’ve lived in Carson City for more than twenty years. Easterners accustomed to tiny states where everyone suffers the same climate sometimes assume that since Las Vegas, Nevada, a city they know something about, is baking under 115-degree temperatures, Carson City, Nevada, must be doing so as well. Actually, I’m 420 miles north of Las Vegas, about the same distance that Boston is from Washington, D.C. Carson City County includes a large chunk of Lake Tahoe. The highest point in the county is Snow Valley Peak at 9,218 feet. Last winter, eight of the nation’s ten snowiest ski areas were located at Lake Tahoe, with Sugar Bowl, Number 2, checking in with a combined snowfall of 795 inches–a little over 66 feet. [iii] In about an hour I can drive from Carson City to Donner Memorial State Park, and there contemplate the melancholy spot where 171 years ago, thirty-nine of the eighty-seven members of the Donner Party perished. A commemorative statue at the park is twenty-two feet tall, the depth of the snow when the surviving members of the party were rescued. [iv]

We do get snow.

We’d come so far, we got outa the car and went runnin’ through the trees.

First thing you know we all fell in the snow and everybody started to freeze.

It wasn’t very nice, we were slippin’ on the ice, I spent half the time on my seat,

We stopped and we dropped when we got to the top. Hurry up and grab a bite to eat!

Well, it got so cold my Cheez Whiz started to deform,

And the clouds rolled in so I figured we’d get hit by a storm.

But the worst part was, no women waitin’ there to keep me warm.

So we all realized that we had no class,

And we got back down by slidin’ on our ass.

* * *

This year in Carson City, it’s different. It’s snowing in Florida. [v] It’s snowing in Corpus Christi, for crying out loud! [vi] Whiteout, below-zero conditions hold from Maine to Virginia. [vii] But Carson City: nothing. Today is January 5 and the temperature is 50 degrees. I half expect to see a flock of robins in my backyard, trolling for worms.

So for now, for me, there’s no stopping by woods on a snowy evening. There’s no gazing out a window from a warm room into a cold snowfall, and growing wistful and speculative.­­ That will change soon enough. For now, I’ll be patient. I’ll listen to Billie Holiday singing “I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and then for something completely different Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds doing their really weird “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow” (“But they haven't put their mittens on, and there's fifteen feet of pure white snow”), and Anne Murray chirping “Snowbird” half a lifetime ago, and maybe, if there’s time before the deluge begins (may it begin soon), Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica, the haunting music that Vaughan Williams wrote for the epic 1947 film “Scott of the Antarctic.”

And spend a little time with snowy art...

...and maybe dip into James Joyce’s The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

And through it all, for historical and recreational and spiritual reasons, I’ll thank God for the beauty...and wonder...and memory (for before long, it may be only that) of snow.

Slide, Slide Mountain High,

Where the women are hot as the Fourth of July.

Slide, Slide Mountain High,

Where the pine trees grow till they’re rubbin’ the sky.

If you ask me why that mountain always makes me cry

I’ll tell you, My oh my,

I’m gonna be there till the day I happen to die.

Bury me there on top’a Slide Mountain high.

Bury me there on top’a Slide Mountain high.

* * *








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