Does it happen to you that you return to a childhood place, and everything that once seemed so huge, and high, and wide, and mighty seems all of a sudden so much smaller, lower, narrower, and less imposing? Because you have grown up and have experienced more. And you are, literally, standing taller than back when.
Every winter, when I’m listening to the snow forecasts on the radio, I remember my early childhood days. Every once in a while, even the lowlands around my German hometown, Stuttgart, had snow. The ponds would freeze, and, though not monitored, a lot of them turned into skating rinks. I didn’t have skates, but one Christmas a beautiful wooden sled had stood under the Christmas tree. And, indeed, we had one big steep hill in the neighboring suburb that was the destination of anybody who owned a toboggan, a sled, or whatever to slide downhill.
As we didn’t have a car (most people didn’t then), we walked all the way to that hill. Or rather, my father had me sit on the sled and pulled it the full mile to our sledding destination. I’ll never forget the hilarity of sitting in front of him, the wind pushing hard into my face, and the sled flying down the hill, finally ending on the frozen surface of the pond beneath. I have no clue how often we went downhill within one such outing. But the experience lasted for a long time. And I admire my father for pulling me, and later my brother and me all the way home again. I call that stamina!
In my early thirties, I returned to the place, now living in another nearby suburb. I was aghast to find that the steep hill with the mighty church on top and giant lake below had shrunk so much. Had it really been worth pulling a sled all the way to this little molehill?
Of course, in the meantime, we had gotten a car. We had first gone to the Swabian Alb with our sled. That is a low mountain range with pretty much of a snow guarantee in winter – at least back in my childhood and youth it was.
The ultimate experience was, of course, when we went to the Zugspitze one year, Germany’s highest Alpine mountain. With a little over 9,700 feet, it was one of the foremost skiing areas in the German Alps. We took a steam train up to the Schneeferner House; there is actually an underground station below the lodge with its store, restaurants, and a viewing platform of the skiing area below. From there, you can take a gondola to the summit. The funniest sight I remember from back then was that the mountaineering summit with its unique summit cross is actually 9 feet below the actual summit. Why would anybody want to climb there when you could get conveniently lifted even higher, I asked myself. Another gondola with only two masts between the summit and the valley destination by the Eibsee, a gorgeously blue lake, took us down again. Now, THAT was a mountain!
Of course, I knew that the mountains in the United States must be even more impressive – to judge from the movies we watched every once in a while. I had no idea that I would end up in the lowlands close by one of its highest mountains one day. And though Mt. Rainier ranks only at number 17 in the nation, I couldn’t imagine any more impressive and majestic mountain than it. When “the Mountain” is out in its white splendor, it can be seen from hundreds of miles away. Sometimes it seems to be incredibly close; the next moment it hides away behind a hilltop, and is gone entirely. Only to turn up where and when you least expect it, almost as if teasing you. It never gets boring to look for Mt. Rainier. Or for a glimpse of Mt. Baker across the Sound. Or, when on “The Mountain”, for one of Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, or Mt. Hood. The Zugspitze has shrunk in comparison.
I know there are higher mountains in the world. It’s not likely I will ever see them, and I don’t feel the urge. It’s not always about size. It’s about what memories you connect with a building, a monument, a mountain. In that sense, my sledding mountain of yore is still ranking high and as the number one of carefree childhood days. Just as Mt. Rainier has stolen my heart with its majestic beauty and its playful attitude.