“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey
The mountains are my mentors, and my most trusted advisers. They constantly challenge me, forcing me to think, to learn, to explore, and to grow in unanticipated ways. When I take a wrong turn, or stumble and fall, they patiently wait for me to regain my footing and continue my journey. They demand respect, and through their silence, force me to gain confidence in myself and in my own voice. When I get to the peak, they proudly share their beauty and understanding, all the while reminding me of the vastness of the world, and the infinite possibilities awaiting me as my journeys continue.
The mountains of the Appalachian (2013) and Pacific Crest (2014) Trails have been my most recent mentors, but long before those mountains, I had the privilege of having a different Mountain as a mentor: David Mountain. Like many mountains, I have to admit that I was intimidated the first time that I met him. I was a Ph.D candidate studying the mechanics of hearing and I was in his office asking him (one of big names in the field) to be on my thesis committee. He had slightly disheveled curly white hair, and a white beard and mustache to match, but it was the intensity of his gaze that made the biggest impression on me. When I sat down and proposed my thesis he fixed me with that gaze and just waited… the quiet intensity of his gaze cut right to the heart of things, and made me squirm… he didn’t say anything, he just waited as I explained my project, my thoughts, and my ideas… his gaze never wavered, his expression never changed… It was incredibly nerve wracking! As I gained confidence, however, his intense gaze was broken more and more frequently by his smile, a smile that had the same intensity as his gaze and was just as memorable. It was a smile that lit up the entire room. I successfully convinced him to be on my qualifying exam committee and thesis committee and have been proud to consider him one of my mentors ever since. He challenged my assumptions, and forced me to think, learn, and grow, both as an engineer and as a person.
As with any journey, my scientific journey was fraught with unforeseen challenges, challenges that at times seemed insurmountable… it was in these moments that I would turn to Mountain for counsel… He didn’t hand me the answers. Instead, he reminded me that we were explorers in uncharted territory, and that the unforeseen was part of what made the journey so incredible, so worthwhile, and so beautiful. After I finished my dissertation I wrote thank yous to the people that had advised and supported me on my epic scientific endeavor. For David Mountain, I thanked him for reminding me that “complications and unexpected outcomes often lead to the most interesting results.”
The idea that “complications and unexpected outcomes often lead to the most interesting results” is relevant not just to my scientific journey, but also to my thru-hikes… The most amazing experiences I had on the trail were not things that I could have predicted, they were the result of complications, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Earlier this week I learned that my mentor, David C. Mountain, Ph.D., had passed away. It was impossible for me to envision the scientific landscape that I had grown up in without Mountain there, in the middle of it, with his steadfast gaze, his brilliant insights, and his heartwarming smile. As I struggled to wrap my head around the news I decided to go for a hike… I hiked into and above the clouds… Standing there on top of the mountain with the vastness of the world spread out around me my thoughts wandered… they wandered to Sir Isaac Newton’s cannonball thought experiment in which he envisioned a very tall mountain with an imaginary cannon at it’s summit launching things into orbit, things that would keep circling and moving long after the cannon and mountain were gone if only they had enough velocity… It made me think about the robot that landed on a comet earlier this week… It made me think about humanity and the way that ideas propagate through time… It made me smile, and I launched into a thought experiment of my own… envisioning David Mountain there, at the top of Newton’s imaginary mountain, adding more and more gunpowder to the proverbial cannon, giving his friends, family, colleagues, and ideas the extra boost that they needed get into orbit… We are the cannonballs, still moving forward on our journeys, even after the Mountain is gone.
My sincere condolences to David’s family. He was an amazing person and he will be missed. His funeral will be held at the Conte Funeral Home at 193 High Street in Newburyport on Saturday afternoon (11/15) with visitation hours from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. For more information about David Mountain’s life and scientific contributions see this article in Boston University’s BME news.