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A Lifetime of Mountains

  • 5 min read

The mountain looms over me. It has always been there. It will always be there. I am surrounded by mountains. On Fridays, a few friends and I will scale one or two around us, getting in a good long walk. It’s somewhat safe and I find my mind wandering to other times and other mountains. 

I grew up in Mississippi and did not really travel much. Memphis was the “big city”. The rolling hills around North Mississippi were not mountains by any means, but there is a state park in the northeast corner with a few larger hills and some cliffs and from my first visit as a teen I was hooked. I was drawn to the rock faces and boulders. I wanted to go there all the time but couldn’t. The few times I did were special. The sound of the river below was music to my ears. I walked the trails and imagined what living there was like before Europeans arrived; tribal fires with fish or deer cooking beneath the cliff’s overhangs. I was always sad on the drive home because I wanted more time amongst the ancient rocks and crags. 

Time passes quickly. I found myself living in Panama for many years. Mountains overlooked our base. One was much larger and greener than all the rest and every time I stepped outside the barracks, I looked to the mountain. How long had it been there? How did the jungle covered dome form beside the Pacific Ocean? In the dry season, it burned, the night sky glowing in its reflection. I found the scene mesmerizing. 

PT runs took us up other hills around the base. One was called Radar Hill because of the Air Force apparatus on top. The stairs to the radar, almost always wet and covered with a slick layer of slime as the jungle attempted to reclaim the hill, seemed to go straight up. We called it the stairway to heaven. The runs up Radar Hill rippled through my whole body. My legs felt like fire had been lit inside my bones. My feet felt like cinder blocks slathered in mud. In those days I could run like Forest Gump but two or three laps up Radar left me heaving for oxygen as if I were wrapped in a wet blanket of air. At the top I’d turn around for the next lap but I’d always take a moment to look into the void below the hill towering over the area. To a small town boy it felt as if I could see to the ends of the earth. I’d be quickly brought back to the present by my team leader telling me to get my ass off the hill. Back down the slimy stairs we’d go. The young paratrooper running those stairs had no idea what the future held. The naïve kid who loved the view of the high ground hadn’t seen anything yet.

During another tour in Panama, we trained in Chile. The Andes Mountains were serious. We trained with the Chilean Mountain Regiment, men who really knew their stuff. We practiced climbing techniques. We learned to ski. OK, some guys learned to ski. I learned to fall down in order to not die. In a week I went from never skiing to wearing rucks while cross country skiing. We dug snow caves at the base of the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen. I wanted to climb every one of them. There was always another mountain to go after reaching the top of one. 

I was in the Q-Course on 9/11.  I deployed to Afghanistan for the first of many trips there just after graduating. The beauty of the Hindu Kush takes my breath away. As I type this, I can walk out my door and see a white line of mountains that seem to stretch into eternity. The awe at those peaks has never left me even after all these years, but the high ground naivety is gone. I know the dangers hidden on those peaks. I’ve humped up enough of these hills only to reach the top and be shot at to know that it’s a risk wrapped beauty. This does not dampen my awe or my need to see the summit. If anything, it strengthens it. I want to own the high ground. He who owns the top has a firmer grasp upon his own fate. 

Yesterday was Friday. I’m usually grumpy when I get up on Friday because I know what’s coming. As our small group stepped off for PT, I looked up. There was our mountain looming over us. I took short and steady steps as the gravel crunched under my boots on the increasingly steep trail. My mind wandered through time to other mountains in other places. Each one was a challenge in its own way. Each was a challenge requiring an enduring spirit to reach the top; a barrier to be broken by small and steady steps until the world stretches out below you. You can’t simply get through it. You must feel it. The burning lungs. The aching legs. The tight back of an old man. Step by steady step. 

We all face mountains throughout our lives. Some are small and others are Everest. Whether it be financial, health related, joblessness, or the loss of loved one, millions of people around the world are at the bottom of their mountain looking up and thinking “I can’t do this”. They’ve never faced that rock before. I’m telling you that you don’t have a choice. Quitting is not an option. The mountain that looked so beautiful is now a daunting task, full of fear and filling you with doubt. Just take a step; one step on that rocky trail leading up that mountain. Use that step to take another. No matter your mountain, they are all the same, a piece of this earth that isn’t always easy to get over but is surmountable. The only way is to keep stepping, keep breathing. If you slip a few feet, it’s ok. Don’t quit. Never stop. You can make it up. When all seems set against you on your walk, remember that even Everest has been conquered many times over. If you need to reach out a hand and ask for help, do it. We all need help from time to time. Just keep going! Never give up and you will reach the top and see the world from a different perspective as it stretches out below you. Now look up. There’s another mountain in front of you. 

Do it again. 

Breathe in.

Breathe out. 


- Jim Thompson