Saint Mary Peak, Bitterroot Mountains Montana
Whether it’s directed at people, places, experiences, or foods, when it comes to love at first taste, I’m a big fan of going back for seconds. Once is never enough. Like a single bite of a most delicious bacon wrapped date, once gets our palate wet. It’s a taste that develops a craving and gives us something to dream about. What it doesn’t do is satisfy our hunger.
So when the need to not only know, but to become intimately familiar with begins to consume us, we must return to wherever or whatever first captured our imaginations, because one cannot really know something after enjoying just a single pure moment of sheer bliss together. There always remains more pleasure to be enjoyed.
There is some logic (and science) behind this madness. Mystery and novel experiences are known to spur a series of chemical reactions that not only make us feel good, but that also make us fall in love. Experiencing something for the first time or finding excitement in the unknown triggers what scientists refer to as the reptilian core of the brain (i.e. the ventral tegmental area or the VTA), causing it to shoot dopamine to other brain regions. Dopamine, which is also released during orgasm, is not only associated with feelings of pleasure, but also with romantic love. It’s the reason why people often accidentally fall in love when they’re having casual sex. It’s also the reason why my casual love affair with Montana developed into a full blown romantic obsession. She tickles my VTA, and after several years of orgasmic adventures together, I couldn’t help but return to nestle in her daunting, dopamine filled embrace. It was pure science because the VTA, where dopamine is produced, is part of the brain’s reward system. Associated with wanting, motivation, focus and craving, the VTA is the same region that becomes active when we feel the rush of cocaine (or Montana), and it operates way below our cognitive processes and emotions.
New and exhilarating is excitingly delicious. It literally gets our juices flowing. Whether it’s a duck confit like we’ve never tasted or the summit of a peak we’ve never ascended, these moments of novelty heighten our nervous systems and appeal to our inner being sending strong happy signals of reward throughout our brains. The excitement and emotional arousal that comes with them encodes these moments firmly into our memory banks, making them ever more salient in our minds.
Typically associated with things like happiness, joy, overcoming obstacles, pleasure, and exhilaration, these experiences are tied to the feelings we crave, and like an addiction the only way to recreate them is to go back for more. To re-experience this first feel of heightened arousal for a second time and to go a little deeper is something that keeps us coming back to the places, foods, people and experiences that spurred the process in the first place.
Of course, like a fateful first line of Cocaine, the second time is always different. We know what to expect. Perhaps we’re going to take a little more. Take too much, however, and the fairytale dissipates. We start to develop what researchers call a tolerance. The third, fourth, fifth, thirty fifth, and hundredth time you do something tends to result in a lessened reward far from the feeling you got on your very first try. The second time, however, is almost as good and sometimes even better. The second time is when we have some idea of what we’re in for and we know what we’re doing. We’re even more excited than we were the first time because we are not only looking forward to what’s ahead, but also re-experiencing the thoughts, memories and feelings from our initial foray.
So it was for me with Saint Mary Peak in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. When my German sister from the Eastern Block Evelyn and I first ascended it two years ago in the early days of July 2012, Evelyn was heading off to Italy for graduate school and this hike was one of many on our farewell adventures together, but something about it made it stick. A few weeks prior I had left Montana to meet Evelyn in San Francisco. Thus, we had just returned to the Promised Land following an awesome friend and fun filled road trip around Santa Cruz, Carmel, Big Sur, San Francisco, Arcata (a.k.a the Weed Capital of America), and Crater Lake, Oregon. Aside from our upcoming trip to Glacier National Park, this hike was one of our last precious days together, and in addition to still riding the wave of our recent adventures, knowing that it would be a few years before we saw each other again heightened its emotional salience.
It was July 3rd, just before what was about to turn into one of Montana’s smokier fire seasons. David, my longtime travel romance with whom we were staying had just moved to the Bitterroot Valley into a home in Stevensville (i.e. Montana’s first community), which boasted a full frontal of the Bitterroot Mountains and Saint Mary Peak. Following a few days of staring at her captivating glory from the front porch, Evelyn and I decided to mount her. Despite it being a hot day during an exceptionally hot, dry summer, there was still snow on the ground at the upper parts of the trail and the warm sunny day quickly turned to freezing windstorm as we made our way above tree line.
Summiting at 9,351 feet in elevation, we experienced the most intense windchill I’ve witnessed to date.
The views, however, were magnificent. To the east we could see the seemingly endless stretch of ranch towns lining Interstate 93 and behind them the rolling hills of the Sapphire Range (i.e. the sedimentary skin that slid off the Bitterroot mountains some 70 million years ago).
To the west were the Heavenly Twins and a stretch of peaks that line the massive 1,340,502 acre expanse of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. One of the ten original wilderness areas first designated by the United States Congress in the Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964, the Selway-Bitterroot is the third largest wilderness in the lower 48 states.
While the 360 degree scenery took our breath away, the surprisingly brutal winds prevented us from venturing near the ledges or spending too much time perusing our surroundings. Needless to say, our thin shells were no match for the cold and we proceeded to head down for cover long before we got our fill.
Saint Mary definitely wet our appetites and like an addiction that’s constantly prodding at the back of your mind she had been in my thoughts since that fateful July afternoon. Hence, when David, who typically hikes and skis this area only during snow season, suggested we hike it to catch summer views, I eagerly obliged. Knowing all to well the rush of dopamine reward that awaited me, my stoke to return was high and rising.
Hiking back to a spot I had first explored with my best friend whom I haven’t seen since she left Montana two years ago, was like shampoo and conditioner. In addition to being a rewarding experience in itself, the hike also re-ignited a wave of happy, emotionally stirring memories that tickled my ventral tegmental area (VTA) into releasing oodles of dopamine through my already elated Montana-high brain.
Since we began our ascent around 8:30 in the morning, the temperature on trail was perfectly balmy with a light breeze. To my delight the weather on the summit remained warm with no hint of the sorts of winds we experienced two years ago. We had lunch and gave ourselves ample time to breathe in the scenery. There was a light haze in the air from some nearby fire and the eastern views of the towns and the Sapphire range were mildly obstructed, almost ephemeral.
The Bitterroot range to the west was colorful, teeming with life and surprisingly different from the cool, blue, snow-covered range that Evelyn and I had previously witnessed. I found peace up there. My craving for a second chance to sit with these glacier-carved jagged peaks had been satisfied and I drank them in while basking in the soothing comfort of memory, novelty, and the circle of life that surrounded me.
I can’t say that the second time was better, but it was longer, warmer, deeper, and perhaps in some ways more meaningful than the first. Having fiddled with it in my mind for so long helped me find a greater appreciation for the opportunity to re-visit this sacred space. Knowing now that the moments lived in this place would stay with me forever, I took the time to really absorb it.
Eternally changing, these lands would never look or feel the same as they had on the two occasions that I visited them, but they would always provide me with a sense of comforting familiarity and happy memories accompanied by the unending novelty of life in the wilderness.