‘Like a Ten-Story Mona Lisa’

Grizzly Peak in 2020. John Darling photo
January 13, 2022

‘She is a given, like your mother’

Editor’s note: John Darling lived in Ashland from 1971 until he died at age 77 in January 2021. A US Marine Corps journalist, he went on to write for the Oregonian, Mail Tribune, Daily Tidings, and United Press International, among others, along with stints as a news anchor at KOBI, executive assistant to the Oregon Senate President and press secretary of campaigns for Oregon governor and U.S. Senate. He wrote for 50 years about Ashland, including this lightly edited excerpt from his collection “The Divine Addiction: Essays Out of Oregon” about Grizzly Peak, where his ashes were spread last summer. We share it in Ashland.news because we think Darling had a connection with the people and places of Ashland our readers will find worth reading.

By John Darling

I was an adult when I saw my first mountain. I’d seen pictures of them, but it was like seeing something fabled and far off — the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal.

In the ’50s classrooms of flat Michigan, I would look out the windows much of the day. I think I was looking for mountains, there over the drug store, but all I could see were the cumulus empires abuilding, then stratifying, then blowing away south, then building again.

The clouds of the Midwest prepared me for mountains. They had ridges, summits and long canyons. They caught the sun — bright on one side, steel blue on the shadow side. They showed me centuries of mountain-building in just minutes. I wanted to reach them, to stride their ridges and gullies, so I became fascinated with biplanes, which would someday carry me there with my head sticking out in the wind, and it wouldn’t be the ’50s anymore and there would be no class.

Then I came Out West. They flew me out through the night on a Super Constellation and when we landed in Bakersfield, I walked out onto the tarmac facing three years of military service, rosy-fingered dawn and mountains. “I’m home,” I thought. The mountains lay silhouetted black against the rising pinks, oranges and blues. A warm wind blew off them. They seemed to exhale the desert wind. A huge room, nay, a suburb, a bioregion of my imagination woke up. My IQ jumped 15 points. “I will never leave here, the West,” I whispered.

John Darling in 1999

When I found Ashland, or rather, when she chose me, it was The Mountain — Grizzly Peak — who spoke in my favor. We recognized each other. It was like when you meet the Right Person. You see it happening, now, all those years of delicious everyday touching, of looking on the changing, welcome face of my beloved, of hearing her voice in summer. And the smell. The wind coming off her hair. All you have to do is say the beautiful word — yes. And I did.

“I’m home,” I whispered, again, as I stepped out of that VW bus with my longhaired friends. It was 1971 and there was a working man’s clothing store in the Plaza, homes in the low five-figures, Nixon in the White House and adventure in the blood. “I’m not leaving,” I said to my friends.

I built a tepee with the door facing her, this long, sleek, muscled, cunning, slow-talking bear of a mountain, this ursine mass looming 4,000 feet above Ashland, laying there stretched out all the way to Medford, with her young sleeping about her and her ears pricked up at the south end, where the sun comes cracking over the ridge in summer.

Thousands of scrubby, burned-over, garden-variety mountains surround us, but then there’s Her, She, the big one, the good one, the beautiful one, the one standing baldly, perpetually over our shoulder like a 10-story Mona Lisa, with the same half-smile, but much prettier, like a Taj Mahal (but alive!), like a holy Stonehenge put up by the race of giants who preceded us.

From the local legend-keeper Marjorie O’Hara, I learned she was named Grizzly after some early white hunters who got torn up by grizzlies they were trying to shoot up there. Good! And she was called Grizzly by the Natives, so one of their descendants told me. It was the mountain that took the hunters, though. She’s Mother Bear, the grizzly spirit, and that was what she had to say about men coming up there to kill grizzlies. She’s the local diety — Ursula (ursa = bear), in the same sense the Greco-Roman-Celtic world had “the gods” plus the local divinity who protected them, gave them “home” and held the spirit of place.

We’ve had a good relationship. I speak to her and check her moods often. I’ve watched the shadows swoop surreal over her sweet swells and valleys in the late summer evenings. I’ve drunk in the moon bulging full like a lava lamp over her metamorphic flanks, which are sea-born and much older than the volcanic Cascades that grew up around her. I’ve stood on her summit, watching Shasta, Red Buttes, Mt. Pitt and this tiny town of Ashland, which looks like a streak of lichen splashed across the Siskiyou foothills. I’ve watched her give up her trees to lightning in the night. I’ve thanked her often. I’ve put her in the background of our wedding and all the outdoor pictures of our children. A stone from her summit sits on my altar.

She is never mentioned in the tourist brochures, but she is the central fact and feature of Ashland. She is a given, like your mother. She is the energy, the feel, the atmosphere that drew in the millers, shopkeepers and Chautauqua ladies, the college and Angus Bowmer’s dramatic imaginings and, later, the skiers, swans and real estate agents. When a listing says “views,” they mean Grizzly. You rarely hear people mention her, but she’s the only feature here that gets looked at by everyone, every day, several times a day, sometimes for just a moment at a traffic light, and in that moment, the mind empties of business and she touches you.

Books by John E. Darling are available at Amazon.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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