Mountains of the Moon
Searching for the source
This fall I was rowing a boat on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. At about mile 76 I floated into a geologic marvel of granite that is known as the Idaho Batholith. To be precise, I was witnessing the tippy top of the Idaho Batholith, which extends 30 miles below the surface and covers an area of 9,700 square miles.
From the vantage of a guy in a boat, enormous peppery grey granite walls rise above the riverbed, forming sheer cliffs in most spots. The walls soar towards the sky, blocking out much of it beyond the river corridor.
The story of how those walls got there is a long one: one hundred million years long. That’s when two tectonic plates, the Pacific Plate moving east and the North American Plate moving west, collided. The denser Pacific Plate slid underneath the North American Plate. As the Pacific Plate dove down, it encountered molten earth below. The leading edge of the plate understandably became molten, too, and ever so slowly began to rise toward the surface. And so began the tortured birth of the Rocky Mountains.
When molten materials cool slowly—and by slowly, I mean over 50 million years or so—they will settle into a crystalline, perfectly ordered, structure. Granite has many types and forms, but it is largely molten silicon dioxide (aka sand) that has cooled slowly. Take that same molten silicon dioxide and cool it quickly—in minutes or seconds—and you get a non-crystalline, or amorphous, material, also known as glass.
As I rowed through this massive corridor of granite silence—a silence that calms even the most restless of souls—I happened to glance to my right. There was a break in the granite cliffs, a slot canyon that opened onto a whole other world. As far as I could see were forbiddingly steep rocky spires, a gauzy mist hanging over sparse trees perched among the cliffs. The sun was on it; the place looked magical, like a fantastical kingdom of another era. I desperately wanted to go there, to hike into the mist and see what was there, and beyond there. Of course, the journey to this land of Oz would go on forever. The Frank Church Wilderness covers 2.3 million acres. A guy could follow an impulse like that for days, long after he’d run out of water and food.
But the glimpse of that faraway place stayed with me. It was so remote, so alluring. Had a human ever stepped foot there before? It’s possible Native Americans had, but the probability was low. Over the course of human history and the general scheme of populations, not that many Native Americans had been in the area. One would think that those that were there would have stuck by the river—that’s where food, water, safety is.
Candice Millard’s book, “River of the Gods,” traces the efforts by Richard Burton and Jonathan Speke to find the source of the Nile—the longest river in the world, 4,160 miles long—which in the mid-19th century confounded European explorers. A mystical range called the Mountains of the Moon was thought to be the wellspring, but it was all conjecture and imagination at play.
The expeditions to find the source were exercises in human carnage. There were desertions, violent attacks from local populations, rampant debilitating diseases, crossings of endless bogs among dangerous animals, delay upon delay, and plenty of death along the way. For some, namely Speke, it was a risk worth taking for the fame and possible fortune, neither of which he really attained despite having been credited for ultimately identifying the source. For others—Burton—it represented adventure, curiosity, understanding of the unknown, an opportunity to see what’s just over the next mountain.
I wonder if that drive to wade into the unknown, stronger in some than others, is fundamental to being human. The instinctual fight to exist in the world—to eat, breathe, survive—is common to all animals. To wonder about things beyond us is not.
In the writing world, writers are always wondering what to write about. Even nonprofessional writers, those faced with the task of writing a condolence or an essay for a college application are consumed by the question. The question looms so large for some that it paralyzes the mind and the pen.
There is a tired old adage that admonishes young writers: Write what you know.
When I was beginning to write—I suppose that was essentially in high school—the expression made a certain amount of sense but seemed a little flat as a rallying cry. Later, in graduate school, I studied fiction writing. It was a small program of five fiction writers who studied alongside five poets pursuing the same degree. The beauty of that arrangement was there was a lot of overlap—social and intellectual—among the fiction writers and the poets, as well as with the professors from each discipline. At one of our many gatherings—we were more social than intellectual—someone lobbed the “eternal” question at Rita Dove, a poet and one of our favorite professors. Very undramatically, as if she were telling us how to tie our shoes, she said: “Write out of what you know into what you don’t know.”
And, for once, it all made sense. That was the goal: to get to the point of wading into the waters of the unknown. That was where you learned things, where the writing had a chance of being interesting to someone else. Even if it wasn’t interesting to someone else, it was a way to sort out one’s life, to actually learn something about the world and what you were doing there.
Writer’s block—an affliction of wanting to know the outcome before the outcome—is in a way emblematic of bigger social woes. So often—I’m as guilty as anyone—we try to know and control the outcome of all that we do. We crave certainty, a guaranteed (happy) resolution. Who doesn’t have the impulse to—pick your cliché—helicopter, snowplow, or tiger parent if it can guarantee happiness for a child? But try as we might, the world doesn’t usually conform to our designs. Happiness emerges not from the plan but from the cracks in the plan. Put more bluntly, controlling every detail of our existence sucks the joy and wonder right out of it.
Clearly there is a balance to be found. But to make a sweeping generalization—the best kind—I would say we too often err on the side of predictability. If you write what you know, why bother to write it? If you live only what you know, well, to put a dull point on it, you’ll get bored, which is a death of sorts.
I still regret a bit not pulling over and walking up that slot canyon. I’ve rowed by it a hundred times and never noticed it nor thought about it. But the times you do notice things like that is exactly the time you should pursue them. Who knows when or if you’ll ever be back, or even if you do return, will you have the compulsion to explore it then? Almost by definition, it’s never going to be a convenient time.
Still, the inescapable fact is that time, the final arbiter, is always running, running, running. And with that fact lingers the equally inescapable quandary: Do I wander this way or that?