I love the mountains. Motoring up Allegheny slopes, humping Appalachian ridges, pitching camp in the Smokies—no other terrain so reliably restores my peace.
I read somewhere that medieval travelers averted their gaze from the Alps. Such displays of planetary asymmetry represented a flaw in what they were commanded to regard as the best of all possible worlds, a temptation to see God’s work as slapdash or inept.
I don’t get it. How could anyone could fail to recognize the mad miracle of all those snow-domed, cloud-splitting stacks of mineral and majesty?
My gratitude for mountains soared in the summer of 2000. I was terrifically depressed and lonely after a breakup. A heat wave baked my South Philly hood, the infernal temps tamping my mood even lower. Anhedonia and dumb inertia had me laid out on the sheets like a golem. Mud in the skull and lead in every limb.
Running was off the table since I’d busted my metatarsals hiking the Alleghenies the previous month, and had one of those CAM walkers locked on my foot. My bed was like a magic carpet with its mojo washed out—I’d ride it for hours and get nowhere, but I still couldn’t seem to disembark.
Then it happened. A vision, clear as an Ozark dawn, of leathery, spindle-shanked old Daisy May Moses a-clogging toward me out of the clouds, trailed by her sage son-in-law Jed Clampett. And they was a-yodelin’ and a-hollerin’ at me. “Git your ass outta that thar cognitive bramble patch, son! Head fer them honkin’ hills!” It was all blinding light, geriatric chutzpah and shotgun decibels of pure hillbilly inspiration.
Okay, maybe I’m embellishing a bit. But this sudden yearning for the mountains was more desire than I’d felt in a week for anything other than oblivion, and bound to seem mystical compared with a death wish. Subtle seismic ripples coaxed me from ninety miles north—why let all those eons of tectonic drift and clash go to waste? Even in my hobbled, half-zombified state, at least I could drive.
I clomped down from my third-floor walkup, took the helm of the old Toyota and was out of the boiling concrete jungle in twenty minutes, tearing north on the turnpike, going where the climate suited my clothes.
Up past Allentown the first big escarpment loomed. The shadow of a neighboring ridge rose across it like a graph line charting my jacked-up spirits. I’d popped Lou Reed’s New Sensations in the tape deck and listened as he sang about taking his GPZ motorbike for a spin in this same area:
I rode to Pennsylvania near the Delaware Gap
Sometimes I got lost and had to check the map
I stopped at a roadside diner for a burger and a Coke
There were some country folk and some hunters inside
Somebody got themselves married and somebody died
I went to the jukebox and played a hillbilly song
They was arguing ’bout football as I waved and went outside
And I headed for the mountains feeling warm inside
I love that GPZ so much you know that I could kiss her
The mountains do it for me every time. The long climbs that make your car engine chug like a steam locomotive, the flashing vistas of the next sawtooth range before you knife around the switchback, the ear-popping altitude as you brush the clouds—nothing like these high-feather phenomena to dovetail geography and mood.
One cool thing you see in the mountains is the runaway truck ramp, a lane that splits off from the descending side of a steep mountain road and angles up a ridge. Paved with deep sand or gravel, these escape routes help big-rig truckers avert tragedy when their brakes fail. Civil engineers consider truck accident rates, the length and grade of the slope, traffic volume and other factors when determining where and how to construct these ramps.
Imagine you’re piloting one of those eighteen-wheelers down a steep mountain pass and the rig gets away from you. The brakes are shot. You’re going too fast to downshift. You can just make out a bend at the grade’s bottom, an angle negotiable for normal speeds but lethal at your current velocity. And there’s traffic you’ll hit before that bend, if those drivers don’t accelerate right quick.
Terrifying, huh? And similar in some ways to depression.
You know what it’s like. You’re wheeling breezily along but then, suddenly or not, here comes this declension. You feel the sick drop in your gut. The grade’s way closer to vertical than your rig can manage. The valley of the shadow of death yawns down there, dark and jonesing for you.
The trailer you’re hauling is loaded with 80,000 pounds of anguish. You try to downshift and gravity just laughs. The steering wheel’s juddering like a jackhammer. Momentum has turned your brake pads to blackberry jam. You tear past hope after hope of recovery, straight down the swallowing gorge.
What you need at that point is a runaway depression ramp.
You can design these for yourself, learning by trial and error what best checks and vectors your rocketing descent. Be your own psycho-existential engineer, or consult a friend or therapist.
Don’t wait till you’re depressed and try to throw down these ramps on the fly—you might lack the energy then. Prep for headlong ruin while you’re in bright-eyed fettle. Go to work laying a bunch of these rescue lanes splicing off from the pikes of your temperamental Rockies and Alps and Ozarks.
You can play around with each ramp’s angle of elevation, find the upswing quotient that works for you. Test out the paving materials, the Jersey sands or Mississippi riverbed gravel that best slows your hurtling, brakeless melancholy.
I have great memories of that day I lit out of sizzling South Philly and climbed north with Lou Reed on the stereo and a busted foot on the gas. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was laying the foundation of what would become an oft-traveled runaway depression ramp. Since then I’ve day-tripped to the Pennsylvania peaks many times to ape my way up out of bottomless dejection.
I’ve tricked out my mental and behavioral topography with a lot of these saving off-ramps. A walk, a run, dinner out with my wife—these are some other ways I jerk my attentional steering wheel right just enough to avoid that plunge toward the abyss. Here are other gambits you might try:
- Get something done that you can do fast, something you’ve been putting off. Even if it’s a ten-minute task, it can lighten your despair and give you the sense that the day hasn’t been a total loss.
- Give yourself a temporary dispensation. Sometimes when the Big D gets really bad, I’ll give myself a day or an afternoon to lie in bed and do nothing, on the condition that it’s one day only. Think of it as giving the blue devil his due. But the deal is he can’t rob more of my life from me than that. Somehow, this trick usually works. I almost always honor the commitment to rise and, if not shine, at least flicker and flounder through the next day.
- Help someone else in a small, quick way. Spend an hour at a soup kitchen or animal shelter. If you can’t get yourself out of the house, make an online donation, however modest, to a cause you believe in. Even if I do nothing else the whole day, offering a small gift to a good charity makes me feel I’ve added some value to the world.
- Sit down to a table heaped with comfort food. Spinach fettucine slathered with tomato-basil sauce, for instance.
- Watch a favorite film. The Godfather, Fargo, The Seventh Seal, Young Frankenstein and Groundhog Day usually work for me. And great TV like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Simpsons, etc.
It’s always scary when you start rolling down that declivity, picking up depressive speed. But you don’t have to turn your gaze away from the peaks, and you don’t always have to jackknife into the valley either. Plan ahead and you’ll know that you’ve got those ramps waiting, that you’ve hacked the alpine geometry of your moods, invested the sweat and sand of your soul, and shored up those saving lanes.
Depending on how you build them, sometimes those ramps can do more than just halt your despair. Sometimes they can take you riding on light to new and stunning summits.