A Guide to Mountain Metal

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The moun­tain seems no more a soul­less thing,
But rather as a shape of ancient fear,
In dark­ness and the winds of Chaos born
Amid the lord­less heav­ens’ thun­der­ing–
A Pres­ence crouched, enor­mous and aus­tere,
Before whose feet the mighty waters mourn.
– George Sterling

Death metal and gore. Thrash metal and politics. Black metal and mysticism. Folk metal and nature. Within the great compendium of heavy metal each subgenre houses within itself a particular lyrical conceit or set of concepts. True, there is room for variation, but it’s remarkable how evenly divided the lines tend to be. As new styles of playing emerge, new subgenres form, quite often with a fixation on a particular topic. If one were to leaf through the library of House Metal, one would likely find some obscure microgenre for any particular interest. It is curious, then, that mountain metal truly has no distinct style to call its own.

True, there have been a number of albums with lyrics penned in deference to the rugged outdoors, but these works range in style from death to black to sludge and everything in between. Perhaps this lack of uniformity is due less to the skill or imagination of metal musicians and more to the permanence and grandeur of the mountains themselves. How do you capture the essence of something of such preposterous scale? How do you write an ode to something immortal and immutable?

Still, metal artists have attempted to pay tribute to the rocks and hills, and some have succeeded. These albums, though not of uniform style, tend to mimic certain truths about the mountains themselves, proclaiming those moments of glory and terror in startlingly similar ways. It is these broad strokes, and the strange call of the wild they resound that I have felt echoing in my own heart all my life, that separates these works from the pretenders.


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“You ask me why I dwell in the green moun­tain; I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care. As the peach-blossom flows down stream and is gone into the unknown, I have a world apart that is not among men.” – Li Bai

Though I was born in Texas, I grew up in Colorado, right at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain. My early childhood was spent largely wandering through the trees and scrabbling up rocks when I was not in school. Every boulder was a giant, every tree a watchtower, and every dark thicket a fortress. I spent my afternoons in the green wood swinging sticks and throwing pine cones; after all, the mountains were full of danger, both real and imaginary. One could never be to careful. I grew to equally respect and fear the lofty peaks and dark pines. Mystery and permanence surrounded me, and the oppressive sound of nature was overwhelming, reminding me, even in my naivete, that I was but a visitor to a place far more ancient and powerful.

As strange as it may sound, the first song I ever felt captured the same atmosphere that I grew to know intimately in my youth was “Of Wolf and Man” by Metallica. That staccato riff that kicks off the whole track before the pounding drums answer the call like a pack member howling in return sets the perfect tone. There’s a mystery that Metallica’s songwriting, albeit simple, taps into on this track. The song pulses and heaves with the breath of the earth. Hetfield howls and snarls. Perhaps we are missing on “the meaning of life”, something lost amid the concrete and steel of our modern world.


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“What are men to rocks and mountains?” – Jane Austen

As I matured, I was able to spend less carefree days wandering about in the mountains. My trips into the heart of the earth were relegated largely to weekend camping trips or summer hiking treks. I never lost the respect and grim adoration I held for the mountains, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sleeping in the hills, hiking over peak after peak, and generally trying to avoid exhaustion or serious injury led me to have a deeper admiration for the grim reality of mortality. The mountains are pitiless; it seemed every few months I would hear of someone else plunging to his death off the face of a cliff or dying from exposure while hiking a peak or being struck by lightning because she was ill-prepared for the all-too-frequent summer storms that erupted across the Rocky Mountains. Yet for all that danger, the mountains are always fair. Life and death remain in balance.

It wouldn’t be long into my metal-listening tenure that I encountered the same sort of primal grandeur and decadent savagery found on “Of Wold and Man” in a new album. However, Blood Mountain by Mastodon, the next record that captured this ethos, offered something far greater than the primal lust conjured by Metallica. There is a tangible size and weight to the songs on this album that perfectly evoke the spirit of the wilderness. The mountains are greater, stronger, wiser, and more enduring than you will ever be. The progressive touches married to the rugged and chaotic riffs and drumming on Blood Mountain reflect the deathly beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Indeed, the progressive spirit of embracing a higher, almost spiritual calling while still reveling in the savage bestiality of the genre, is likely the unifying trait for each of these mountain metal albums. A snow storm raging across the peaks is breathtaking in its majesty just as it is fatal in its strength. By seamlessly transitioning from chilling passages to burly riffs to sung moments of utter grandeur, Mastodon perfectly encapsulated what I had felt and known all my life. It didn’t hurt that the lyrics themselves, as we will see for all of these albums, extol the virtues of enduring the hardship of the natural world while marveling at its beauty.


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“The great mountains of the world are a great remedy if men but did know it against our modern discontent and ambitions. In the hills is wisdom’s fount. They are deep in time.” – E. R. Eddison

As I transitioned into adulthood, the mountains again took a commanding role in my life. Now, though, they represented solace and escape. When the troubles of life seemed to loom too tall, I sought a place stronger and taller, a place of stone that I wished would house my heart. One of my favorite spots became a ridge overlooking all of Colorado Springs. From this spot, I would sit at dusk and watch the toils of man twinkle like distant lanterns on the horizon. There was truth and wisdom in that spot, I was sure. If I could just tune my heart to hear it, surely I could find the answer to whatever riddle troubled my sleep. Surely, a few precious moments of loneliness to think and feel through the dark would grant me peace. For all their imposing might, the mountains cradled me with a tenderness only found in the natural world, a goodness only dreamed of in the philosophy of Thoreau.

I found this transcendental solace in Himsa‘s majestic swansong Summon in Thunder. The winding, churning riffs reverberated with the cracks and moans of the shifting earth, but the ingenious melodic lead lines that danced and weaved through the air like snow flakes on an autumn morn beckoned to me that there was an escape, a place to find myself, a fortress where no trial could penetrate. Each song on Summon in Thunder, much like the mountains themselves, acted as a bulwark of the natural world against the machinations of man. And, as John Pettibone bellowed in “Big Timber” over the arpeggiated interplay between guitar lines swirling like the night wind, I had found my place to turn. Again, unusual song lengths, unconventional structures, and a melding of the severe with the sublime became the epitome of the mountains in their heterogeneous splendor.


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“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world, For I would ride with you upon the wind, Run on the top of the dishevelled tide, And dance upon the mountains like a flame.” – W. B. Yeats

As I fully entered adulthood past my depression and with a more even, tempered outlook on life as one who has passed through a crucible, I came to see the mountains of my home city not as imposing giants or imprisoning walls, but as the arms of a dearly loved friend. Returning to Colorado after nearly taking my own life was like waking from torturous dreams with a fever finally broken. Now, I could sit and reflect in silence with my old friends the hills and dales beside me, knowing that all was right. For the first time, I had hope again, so it is of little surprise to me that many of my most important life events from this point onward took place in the heart of the mountains. The first time my would-be wife ever texted me, I was snowmobiling on top of a mountain with my father. When I proposed to her, we were hiking through a canyon near my home here in West Texas, in the closest environ to a mountain I could find. My wife and I have since shared a number of special moments in the mountains, both in Colorado and New Mexico, and my old friends have been ever present with their stalwart, stony support.

This same primordial and heartfelt emotion can be found echoing off the crags and cliffs sculpted by Enslaved on their majestic album RIITIIR. When Grutle Kjellson sings of finding the source in the roots of the mountain, it’s obvious that he too sees the immutable companionship chiseled into the stones themselves, ever beckoning to man to return home to a simpler, purer way of life. Though Enslaved play a distinctly different style of metal than Himsa or Mastodon, they too inject their songs with a sense of scale and grandeur born through the delicate balance of melody and brutality, the two intertwined together in the mountains in that ancient passion play. In fact, scope is easily one of the most important tools used by all of these artists. Listening to each album is like observing a panoramic of an entire mountain range; there is far too much color, detail, and content for one observer to take in all at once.


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“Great things are done when men and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street.” – William Blake

Life has a way of coming full circle. I believe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by the symbol of the ouroboros, a cycle as old and as immovable as the mountains themselves. Just as I did when I was a boy, I find myself looking to the mountains as a place of adventure and excitement, but there is another hope intermingled in that feverishness. Now I can look forward to adventures with my little family. I hope, someday when I have a son of my own, that I can help find his own voice and his own adventure as he climbs his own mountains. I hope that he can appreciate this part of our world as much as I do. I look to the mountains, and I see a hope for the future.

This feeling of excitement, of unbridled potential and infinite possibility in the face of harsh adversity is embodied in Turbid North‘s recent opus Eyes Alive. On standout track “Bring Home the Motherlode”, one can feel the tension and excitement as huge, booming riffs like thunderclouds break against the jagged peaks of percussion, only to be drowned in the shining light of the hopeful vocals. It is a truly momentous track, one that tells a truly epic tale of the risk and reward that comes from facing challenge head-on. There is an adventurousness found on every album listed here. Despite the ancient strength of the mountains, we face these primal stewards of a pre-human Earth with daring and respect, and we learn much of ourselves and our place in the world through the struggle.


Perhaps there is little that truly binds all of these albums, and a few others, notably by artists like Goat the Head and Gojira, into a distinct subgenre. Perhaps, the link between these albums is more personal, more primal, like a secret accessible only to those who allow themselves to feel the rhythm of the wilds. True, all of these bands craft massive, engaging stories of man striving for some ideal, for some solace, for some truth, for some wisdom, for some reward. These stories are told through melodies staring down grim brutality, the two forming a symbiosis that is both hardy and immemorial. Each of these bands lingers in this delicate place of tension, and in the act of telling these stories, each rises to heights loftier than can be grasped by human reason, to places only the daring will ever see.

I’m certain you have your own tales to tell.

(All photos VIA the author)

 

  • Stanley
    • CyberneticOrganism

      Mountains >>>>>

      • Stanley

        Tall as a mountain
        I’m gonna tear through the sky

    • Boss the Albatross Ross

      Damn, you got to it before i could!

      HAIL!

      • Stanley

        I used to have Sign on the Hammer on vinyl but I was playing darts in my bedroom one day, threw a dart, hit the wire, bounced out and put an inch long deep scratch into Thor (The Powerhead).

        • Boss the Albatross Ross

          What the fuuuucccckkkkk!?!?!?!? That sucks bad.

          • Stanley

            Yes. I guess Thor is not that tough after all.

          • Abe-y Metal

            At least he was slain with steel, or in this case most likely aluminum alloy, darts.

          • Stanley

            Tungsten or GTFO.

          • Abe-y Metal

            Who’s Tungsten?

          • Stanley

            74W

          • Abe-y Metal

            Is this some kind of Dungeons And Dragons reference?

        • ┼yree

          *Cringes*

          • Stanley

            Cos Manowar. I gotcha.

          • ┼yree

            More so for the ruined piece of wax. But, sure.

          • Boss the Albatross Ross

            Tyree, what do you think about Manowar? I’m curious.

          • ┼yree

            Well, it’s extremely swole. I’ll give it that.

          • Boss the Albatross Ross

            Haha, alright.

  • ┼yree

    Come down with fire, and lift your spirit higher.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9nfVrusSMg

    • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

      The On Stage version is much better. More intense and faster, because Cozy Powell was a beast.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQydv8l2hlY

      • ┼yree

        Goddamn, so much faster. Killer!

    • PostBlackenedWhaleGaze

      I’M THE MAN ON THE SILVER MOOOUNNNTAAAAINNN

  • Stanley

    Did any one have a Spectrum computer back in the day and play Manic Miner? This tune drove me to distraction.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLp_Hh6DKWc

    • CyberneticOrganism
    • Dubs

      Never played that game, but that song is really powerful. I think I like the Savatage version (“Prelude to Madness”) best.

      • Stanley

        I’ve not heard the Savatage version, but I can easily see how a metal band would try to cover this. It’s pretty heavy.

        • Dubs
          • PostBlackenedWhaleGaze

            Madness reigns…

          • Abe-y Metal

            I just posted the video for the song all the way at the top. Apparently it’s rare and stuff (most likely because it’s hilariously bad and ummmmmmmmmm. gnome-y. Awesome song though).

  • Dagon
    • Boss the Albatross Ross

      Excellent picks Dr Dagon. You posted before i could get to it.

  • ┼yree
    • Lacertilian

      That guitar in the intro has always sounded like a air raid warning horn echoing over a battle-stricken city with no survivors, to me.
      Chilling.

      • ┼yree

        Yeah, so much atmosphere.

  • Dagon

    I like how you approached this. I appreciate music that’s cinematic and evocative of different scenery.

    Maybe oceans could be the next topic? Maybe even space.

  • CyberneticOrganism

    Great writing, Dubz. All metal heads out to the mountains eventually.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DjnTkDAF0E

    • PostBlackenedWhaleGaze

      Favorite Moonsorrow album.

      • CyberneticOrganism

        Same. Fucking perfect album.

        • Abe-y Metal

          As if they’ve ever really released any less than excellent CDs. They’re a band that constantly tops themselves.

    • ┼yree
  • Your writing is absolutely killer, W. Very beautiful.

    Fine work.

    GL

    • Dubs

      Thanks, mate.

      • But seriously, the work is outstanding. I cannot imagine the time it took to fine tune this piece.

        I am truly lost for words. Which is saying something!

        • Dubs

          You’re going to make me blush.

  • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

    If I was ever on a mountain, anything black would be a killer choice. As would this one…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2gJiBcWk2U

    • CyberneticOrganism

      But you LIVE on Fuck Mountain

      • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

        This is true.

    • Dagon

      There are no mountains near me, just forest and rivers. I kinda wish there were. Hiking sounds like a good activity and I like the scenery.

    • Boss the Albatross Ross

      Killer record!

    • Lacertilian

      Summoning JJD here

  • tigeraid

    Thank you for having the balls to post anything Metallica post-Justice.

    • Dubs

      It isn’t all great, but I don’t think every single song sucks.

    • Super Nintendo Chalmers

      “It should have been Lars.”

      Or something equally distasteful.

  • tigeraid
    • tigeraid

      Mountains BE My Throne. Fucking youtube.

  • Boss the Albatross Ross

    This was an excellent read W. I enjoyed the introspective aspect very much, and it was well articulated. A lot of time was spent on this and it was phenomenal. The pictures are gorgeous and the music is perfect. Thank you.

    • Dubs

      Shucks!

  • Super Nintendo Chalmers

    This is about 30 mins from my house. The only song hat I know that captures the Northern Rockies would be “Black Lake Nidstang”.

    • Dubs

      I ALMOST included Agalloch on this list. One of my favorite memories of that album is driving around a lake in a canyon with my wife and looking at Christmas lights while listening to Marrow of the Spirit.

      • Super Nintendo Chalmers

        As cliche as it is, Cascadian metal really captures and evokes the atmosphere of being in the Rockies. I would go with any of them, but BLN captures it with that epic vocal delivery at the 7:23 min mark.

        “In the black temples of the earth, I am, I am the silence within the tomb.”

  • BobLoblaw

    Loved this write up man. Music connects so easily to nostalgic visceral memories. I cant listen to Contradictions Collapse and None without almost reliving a 7+ hour hike when i was 15 that i listened to it on loop (pre mp3) right after i bought it. Formative.

    • Dubs

      Where was the hike?

      • BobLoblaw

        Newport news campground in VA. Spent the entire day walking around and taking pictures on my disposable cameras. KVLT.

        • BobLoblaw

          KVLT/POOR

        • Dubs

          I remember using disposable cameras on trips.

        • Abe-y Metal

          Oh, shit, that’s where I live! Never knew there were hiking trails around here.

          • BobLoblaw

            There are some decent access points around warwick blvd.

          • Abe-y Metal

            I think I know where you’re talking about. Up around Denbigh?

          • BobLoblaw

            If i remember correctly. Not too far from the elementary or middle school.

          • Abe-y Metal

            There’s a few trails up by the train tracks by my place, but not sure if those are legit or even legal, considering all the no trespassing signs around. Might have to check this out sometime, especially if it shortens my commute.

    • Boss the Albatross Ross

      That sounds excellent.

  • The wife and I went to Colorado in 2012. We spent the entire day hanging out and fishing this tiny “river”. Here is a photo I snapped. It was pretty much the most ideal, excellent day I think I have ever experienced. (RFI)

    • Super Nintendo Chalmers

      That’s not a river. That’s spring run off.

      Huehuehue.

      • It is the beginning of “Fall River”. But yes, I echo that sentiment, more of a creek than anything. Still had trout, though!

    • CyberneticOrganism

      Being out in a place like that, you can completely understand those people who walk off into the wilderness to escape humanity.

  • Boss the Albatross Ross

    Summoning’s music, to me, produces images of bleak, cold mountaintops. Partially due to there album covers and lyrical content, but the atmosphere they create often has the vast openness witnessed and felt at a mountain’s peak.
    https://youtu.be/4JgLFdNSwks

  • Maik Beninton™
  • PostBlackenedWhaleGaze

    Allow me to add to the list…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iW1jxJ6ISks

  • Dubs

    Bonus non-metal round. Wasn’t a fan of the movies, but I loved this song.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJwyW9ngLNg

  • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

    We haven’t much of mountains here. But there’s this one place that comes close. For a couple of years it’s been my retreat from the world. I go there to be, to listen to music, and to other things on occasion. Mix up my playlist a lot, though Viikate is on constant rotation.
    There’s no place that feels as good as it does.

  • Dubs

    Took my wife and nephew hiking yesterday and snapped this pic.

  • ┼yree

    I’ve been over the Allegheny Mountains too many times to count during the winter time to get to Pittsburgh. That trip is pure torment and stress. All I can think about is turning my car into on coming traffic when I hit Ebensburg. Ebensburg is a hell hole where winter trolls live and everything is shit. If Hell was made of snow it would be Ebensburg. I’d call the Allegheny Mountains in the winter time here negative memories.

  • I went on a long ass hike years ago that took a whole day and into the evening to complete. My body was ill prepared for this excursion and my legs felt like jello right after. I learned what a fat out of shape bum I was that day.

    • BobLoblaw

      It happens.

      • it does and it was foolish of me to think that I hold up over 9 hours of pretty rough terrain.

  • JWEG
  • As much as I love Ohio, I kinda wish I lived out west. Damn it would be so nice…. Damn.

  • This song is about mountains.
    http://youtu.be/NZuWdS1Nt9Y

  • JWEG
  • Eliza

    That was so beautiful! Anyway, speaking as somebody who has the vast majority of her lifetime living in the plains, the mountains have a special, mystic atmosphere surrounding them. I confirmed this when I went to the mountains myself the previous summer. I felt inspired.

    • Boss the Albatross Ross

      That’s a cool perspective on the subject.

      • Eliza

        Thanks. I haven’t gone to mountains in the winter though, I bet that’s a whole different experience.

        • Dubs

          It can be pretty terrifying. I’ve driven through more blizzards than I care to remember.

          • Eliza

            And there is the reason I’ve never went to the mountains in winter. However, the view must be something beautiful to witness.

          • Boss the Albatross Ross

            I’ve been to a spot that normally doesnt get snow but had it a few years back. It wasnt much and it was already warming up, but seeing all of the residual snow still basically there was pretty awesome.

          • Eliza

            I’m so jealous!

          • more beer

            I get this view everyday. It is beautiful.

          • Boss the Albatross Ross

            Colorado is amazing. I took a summer trip there several years ago, definitely would not mind going back. Beautiful scenery.

          • more beer

            It really is.

          • Eliza

            Be thankful for that. I get this every day: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a61f1dbd304a14aa9b18582b0db17791bd7101edfbf8a380b9c6f858f0bcff8b.jpg By far, not the worst thing ever, but it doesn’t compare.

          • Boss the Albatross Ross

            Transylvania?

          • Eliza

            Yes https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c5e4f56429c6f0f974544ab7b29697edb35e61ffc19cfa8d932e43c04ba3cd66.jpg . Arad, the city I live in is located in the west of Transylvania.

          • Boss the Albatross Ross

            That’s really cool! I’ve always wanted to visit eastern Europe.

            Glad to hear Clutch has fans there as well!

          • Eliza

            I think Romania is a beautiful country to visit as a tourist. And thanks to the Internet, a band can have fans everywhere in the world.

          • more beer

            I am. But I have lived in plenty of places with no view.

          • Eliza

            Then you know how I feel.

          • more beer

            Yes without a doubt.

          • KJM, Shake Zula

            Green Mountains in Vermont, used to go there every Christmas.

          • more beer

            The Rocky Mountains. That is all.

          • Eliza

            And now you don’t?

          • KJM, Shake Zula

            That was a very long time ago. Christmas is a low key party holiday for me now.

          • Eliza

            So, like a family gathering? It’s like that for me as well.

          • KJM, Shake Zula

            The people we visited haven’t lived there since the mid 80s.

          • Eliza

            Oh, I see. Do you at least get snow on Christmas?

          • KJM, Shake Zula

            Oh yes. We got so much last Winter that it made international news headlines. I live in the Boston area, Northeastern US.

          • Eliza

            Too much of anything is bad, snow especially.

          • KJM, Shake Zula

            We won’t have any snow ON Christmas but when January hits, we’ll get clobbered with it.

          • Eliza

            Where I live, I doesn’t snow every winter, but when it does, it’s just the right amount.

  • Abe-y Metal

    I’ve been to the Smokey Mountains, and hail from the tallest, mightiest mountains of Chicago. And this was secretly taped by Savatage in Gorak’s cave.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAukGWuVyEo

  • Lacertilian

    This feature is excellent. Great read.
    This album is one I would add to the Mountain theme, I have a tale associated with mountains and this opus. Maybe another time.
    https://tempelofficial.bandcamp.com/album/on-the-steps-of-the-temple

    • there’s a track on there called “Mountain”.

      • Lacertilian

        Indeed.
        It be where the temple resides.

  • Waynecro

    This is a really thoughtful and nicely written piece, W. Awesome work!

  • Abe-y Metal
  • Waynecro
  • Old Man Doom

    Fuck yeah, W.! You have encapsulated everything I love about Mountain Metal in this post. Mastodon, Turbid North, Enslaved. Fuck Yeah. And thank you for the personal anecdotes. This was a great read.

    When I die, I want to have a sky burial atop the Big Bear peak of the Pacific Crest trail while a mixtape of Turbid North and Mastodon’s Blood Mountain plays on repeat.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N44EPM4Mw0o

  • Count_Breznak
  • Count_Breznak
  • Mountains are the fucking best. I chose to go to college in them because I love them so much.

  • CT-12

    John from Himsa is a super fucking nice dude

  • J.R.™

    I am reminded immediately of The Sword’s “Arcane Montane”, or at least the first verse where the ancient honorable mountain spirits are hailed and revered. (The second verse finds the speaker beckoning them to bring him women, a little less noble message) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJvTpiIdK78

    and of course, Slice the Cake’s crusher “Stone and Silver i, the Mountains of Man”. A scathing rebuke of man’s inflated self importance. This album cant come out fast enough. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mF7pAgs8i6c#t=00

  • Th’load&th’road

    Dang ye Dubs, mountain talk pulling me outta my silence (been a rough last few months). Grew up foothills of the blue ridge in VA, surrounded by bluegrass songs all about mountains. Fulfilled lifelong dream on a month long 8000 mile motorcycle ride to the Rockies (Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona,Washington, Oregon, Cali, Arizona) and it became my life just wanting to stay in the big ranges out west. Wound up needing to stay on east coast for family reasons and just got back out to wyo, Utah, and Idaho this week and shed tears just feeling at home again!! My mom passed in March and two of my best memories was taking her on her last hike in the blue ridge at home, and taking her through AZ and Utah and Colorado on a trucking trip years ago. Mountains have the power to humble and inspire awe like nothing else. Check out “Don’t open the wounds (armspread skywide on a mountain again)” by Woods of Ypres for lyrical impact. Thanks for a beautifully written post Doc.

    • Dubs

      Thanks, man. Thanks for sharing your own memories! Woods of Ypres are great for exploring the mountains too!