‘You do feel their pull when you look at them from a distance.’ Alan Rossi on the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Alan Rossi, author of Mountain Road, Late at Night, tells us about the stunning mountain landscapes which inspired his debut novel.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are part of the Appalachian Mountain Range in the eastern United States, and the setting of Alan Rossi’s remarkable debut novel Mountain Road, Late at Night. The novel is centred on the impact of a tragic car accident in which a couple lose their lives, leaving behind their four-year-old son Jack. Nicholas and April have kept their families at a distance, building a life in the Blue Ridge Mountains where they live in a remote cabin. But following the accident, the couple’s grieving relatives are forced to decide who will care for their little boy.
Alan lives within view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and visits often, for hiking weekends and meditation retreats, and the beauty of the region inspired the setting of his novel. Here, Alan tells us about his personal connection to this stunning part of the world and how it influenced his novel.
The Blue Ridge Mountains stretch from the Northern part of Georgia, through the Western part of South Carolina, up into North Carolina, continuing into East Tennessee and Virginia – they’re actually a part of the Appalachian Mountain range. From my doorstep, you can see them. The part of South Carolina where I live is called the Piedmont, the foot of the mountain: you look up the interstate, and you see them, rolling in what appears to be a blue haze. This is a photo of a line of the Blue Ridge in winter. You can see the line better now because the trees are bare.
People in the area talk about how the mountains call to them. The phrase is on T-shirts and hats: ‘the mountains are calling’. And while it might seem a cliché or a way to sell a T-shirt, you do feel their pull when you look at them from a distance. You want to go into them, go up, see what the mystery is all about. This was taken from the top of a mountain called Looking Glass Rock, in North Carolina. Elevation: 4,000 feet above sea level.
Though covered in green deciduous trees – varieties of oaks and maples and the wonderful, powerful tulip tree (sometimes called a tulip poplar or yellow poplar); birches and the American beech; and conifers such as longleaf pines and loblolly pines – the mountains themselves often appear blue. They are old, old mountains, rounded by time on a scale we can’t really imagine, though we might be able to name it. “Nature” is insufficient as a descriptor. When you view the mountains, when you hike up them, when you allow yourself to be quiet among them, you know you are in the presence of a powerful living thing, graceful and wild. Here, a rainstorm forms on the western side of Looking Glass Rock, while in the previous pictures, on the eastern side, the skies are clear. If you look into the distance of the photo, you’ll see the grey-blue effect from the rain.
This was taken on a hike in the fall. The leaves are all down, winter nearly present, but it was a bright, warm day, in the sixties. This is a view of one of the many waterfalls in this region of the Blue Ridge.
A photo of the cabin that I based the cabin in the novel on. Every year, I spend three or four days in silent meditation here, a form of meditation known as Shikantaza. Practitioners stay at this small cabin (owned by a practitioner, and generously shared with this small group once a year) and then walk a half-mile up the mountain to the Zendo (meditation hall), which is an old converted barn with a tin roof. Cast-iron stoves warm the hall in colder months. We sit in silent meditation for seven or eight hours a day. One of the teachers once said to us: “You think you’re sitting in nature, but you’re not. Where are you sitting?”
In this photo, you can see the stream running down from the mountain and alongside the property. Much of what you see here has shown up in other forms in Mountain Road, Late at Night. Sitting quietly in meditation for hours at a time, my body screaming to get up, my mind often also screaming to get up, I eventually sank in. Maybe into what Shohaku Okumura calls “immeasurable reality.” Boundless and limitless, immeasurable reality. Zazen is called the gate of ease and joy, and sitting in that place, a place beyond concepts, beyond right and wrong, another space emerged. Along with a sense of spaciousness. We’re all in it and held by it. These photos remind me of it.
In the novel, there are these lines from Dogen: “Because the blue mountains are walking they are constant. Their walk is swifter than the wind; yet those in the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. To be ‘in the mountains’ is a flower opening ‘within the world.’ Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear this truth. They who doubt that the mountains are walking do not yet understand their own walking.” In Zen, we say, “sit like a mountain, clouds drifting by” we say, “gaze at the wall as if gazing at the distant mountains,” we say, “let body and mind drop away.” Drop away into what? the practitioner thinks. The mountains have their own answer, and they ask us to answer in our own way, too.