Almost as soon as our car left Vancouver in British Columbia, the road ahead of us rose into scenic blue mountains layered in snow fields. So far, everything was in its place. But as we drove northeast over the next nine hours, the mountains morphed into something different entirely. The smooth slopes slipped, roughed, cracked into chaotic slivers and senseless drops. Snow settled into the irregular troughs. By the time we pulled into Banff in Alberta, I had learned to trace the threadlike waterfalls that dropped down the sheer mountainsides. And a few days later, as I found myself cresting the road of Glacier National Park in Montana, I walked on the same jagged crunch of those mountains.
Those mountains were some of the most beautifully savage shapes I have seen. I didn’t like them one bit. They seemed irrelevant, like what I saw was only a projection of beauty hypothesized. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the image held in my eyes was completely disconnected from the air that I breathed or the ground that crunched beneath my shoes. Even when I climbed to the top of Sulphur Mountain in Banff, my stomach dropped the second I stepped over a stray root and into the cold panorama of a snow-peaked horizon.
It took me half a day to locate my unease, after I had taken the gondola down from Sulphur Mountain and driven west to Lake Louise. The water of the lake was a brilliant, seductive blue beneath the sharp edge of a glacier—the perfect setting for an impromptu picnic. But I didn’t really understand the beauty of the lake until I had pushed off into the empty water, until the iciness of the water quivered through my fingers and stung the line of my scalp. The glacier became soft, homelike, as it rounded into the ripples that spread out from my hands. It was then that the mountain became my own, that the air and the ice mingled within my own body.
In Glacier National Park, I learned to look at the distance through beauty that I could touch. The June wildflowers that lined the trail to St. Mary’s waterfall set the snowfields in brilliant blue and yellow. The water of St. Mary Lake glinted atop the gleam of red and green stones. Straddling the continental divide, I smiled at the small raindrops that divided into oceans between my toes—at my right foot, the Atlantic and Gulf, and at my left, the Pacific.
What we call sight is simply a rush of light molded by the curve of our retina. What we call touch is merely the explosion of nerve cells beneath our skin. But behind each retina and every brush of skin lives a mind and a memory, and it is there that beauty is born. Each mind sees that beauty in a different place. Some find it on the top of a glacial ridge, some trace it in the patterns of leaves upon a river, some catch it in the arc of sun within a breaking wave. For some eyes, beauty begins in an expansive vista and then works its way inward. For others, the curve of a blossom forms the base of a mountain.
To be the best traveler that you can be, you first have to learn where to look to find beauty. Build yourself a home within that beauty, and then work your way outwards to the deserts, the chaparral, or the sky. Once you find that base, the earth is your home. The mountains bend into ripples on a lake. The stones in the lake hold the secrets of the ancient glacier above. Then, all you have to do is to look up.