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Echo of a giant

I have no business writing about a mountain that does not exist, although at one time I thought it did. I saw it many years ago from the Santa Fe line which ran a passenger train to Las Cruces along the Rio Grande Valley: an enormous peak that loomed on the eastern horizon, quite separated from the other mountain ranges. Later, when I looked at a state map, there it was, over twelve thousand feet high, rising for no explainable reason from the salt desert.

The southern part of New Mexico is tossed and tumbled with mountains. It is easy to misplace or mislay one, and on every subsequent trip south I looked for it in vain. Nor could I find it on any other map. It began to acquire a legendary quality, a mountain that was, but was no more, as if someone had said to yonder mountain, ''Remove,'' and it did just that.

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It was a fascinating idea to play with. If uprooted, what sort of gigantic hole might it leave in the earth? And does a mountain have roots, granite tendrils anchored deep? Was it cast into the sea, in one of those far-down trenches? Might Coronado and his men have glimpsed it below Gran Quivira, seeing that snow-covered top as symbolic of some great treasure? As Hemingway's leopard was searching for an intangible in the snows of Kilimanjaro, my mind still tries to find meaning in a mountain that never was.

But I did see a mountain that day. It is possible that I had sighted Sierra Blanca, which lies farther south, viewed from an angle I cannot now approximate, with the passenger service gone. Or was it a mountain that exists merely to be viewed from a train, and if one were to hop a freight, there it would be? I can't quite surrender the mountain's being, however mythical. Something about its aloneness in that great plain stays with me, a single survivor from a Himalayan race, with the special quality some peaks possess, from Ararat to Taos Mountain to the other five of the world's sacred mountains; or Mt. Zion with its own reality.

What affirms the mountain's authority for me - even in its imaginary status - is its having appeared on a map, if only once. It had a name, which unfortunately I cannot now remember; a white mark to indicate the snow; the listing of its altitude. If at that location there is only a low escarpment, the mountain still survives in its own manner. The echoes of it persist, like the resonances of music - Sullivan's lost chord, or the mind-haunting cadences of Hovaness's mysterious mountain, for example - recollections of times and places to which we cannot return. And I think of the hill of Eden out of which poured four rivers from subterranean fountains, the thirst for which disquiets us even yet.