Let’s start with this: mountain people do not curse the weather. They have slept out in the rain and know that the weather will change. They know that just to be around—under any sort of sky—is good luck enough.
Mountain people have crooked grins and broken hearts and dirt under their fingernails. They are unimpressed with shiny cars, botoxed smiles, or the latest lies delivered from Washington. They know that the best things in life are not things.
Mountain people know what they like and do not accept substitutes. They prefer books to TV, banjos to golf clubs, and right now to “sometime in the future.” They have affinities for cast-iron skillets, steel-grey skies, and bulletproof prose.
They may write poems – mostly bad ones, but occasionally a poem so brilliant you will need to look away. When you do, there will probably be a mountain in your mind’s eye, a mountain that has taught you something you could not have learned any other way.
Mountain people are not sure what they’ll be when they grow up, though it will certainly not be president. They are less likely than flatlanders to have health insurance, retirement plans and annuities (what IS an annuity, anyway?). If they have children, mountain people are pretty sure their children will “be OK.” Whatever that means.
Mountain people are frugal. Some will even leave the baggage tags on their backpacks from one Greyhound trip to the next, even if it’s two years later, because they don’t want to waste the paper. Mountain people are also spendthrifts. They will dock their scruffy trucks in the casino parking lot, walk in, and cheerfully lose all they have. Along the way, they’ll out-tip the high rollers. The panhandler who asks a mountain person for a buck could get a twenty. Hey, everybody needs a good day once in awhile.
Mountain people are sentimental – their cabins are full of special rocks, dusty feathers, and old love letters. Mountain people are practical – the cabin will also have a set of socket wrenches, at least one roll of duct tape, and a window that opens onto something beautiful.
Mountain people tend to laugh a little too loud. Sometimes they will laugh with tears in their eyes, saying things like “Sure I’m depressed, but I don’t let it get me down” or “I’m only happy when I’m miserable.” When mountain people are in trouble, they call other mountain people. It may be two in morning. They may say “Nothing needs to be fixed. I just need to hear somebody on the other end of the line.”
A mountain person will stay on the other end of the line. If asked, a mountain person will quite literally give you the shirt off his back. If you really need a shirt, you probably won’t have to ask.
When a mountain person is bent over by what hurts, he will lean on beauty like an old man leans on his cane.
My friends are mostly mountain people, though some may have never scaled an actual mountain. (As the great Yosemite climber Doug Robinson once put it, in true mountaineering, no climbing is required.)
People who move to the West from somewhere flat might be mountain people, or they might not. Some at least want to be mountain people, which is a start. Wannabe isn’t a dirty word, not if you wannabe righteous.
But to succeed, a wannabe will have to give up some things. Mountain people by necessity go light. Mountains are problematic for those who want security and certainty, because the only certainties a mountain will offer are gravity and erosion, heart-piercing storms and rose-colored visions.
Mountain people may also happen to be desert people, or even river people. That’s because mountain people know that deserts and rivers and mountains are three faces of the same god. They know this to be true, even if there is no god.