Thomas Morton
35 min readJul 30, 2021

Originally published as “Finding My Mount Analogue” in Mountain Gazette issue 194, October 2021

“Without the wasps, a large number of plants which play an important part in holding the terrain in place” No period. These are the last words René Daumal wrote of his last book, Mount Analogue: A Novel of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Adventures in Mountain Climbing. He died before he could finish the sentence, his lungs filling with blood through a hole bored by tuberculosis.

This happened in spring of 1944, just a few months before my grandpa would ride the hull of a Sherman tank through the streets of liberated Paris. Not that that would have necessarily helped Daumal — the Germans who held the terrain of his city in place didn’t give him TB; most people think he brought it on himself by fooling around with inhalants in his late teens — but I don’t know, maybe it would have been a little nicer drowning to death on his own blood without all those Nazis around? Just a thought.

And maybe he would have completed a few more chapters of Mount Analogue, or the whole story, or at least that sentence. It’s definitely not a tidy stopping point. There’s usually an implicit finger quote around unfinished works; the author may not have been around to sign off on the final edit or jacket art, but otherwise they got all the words down before croaking. This ain’t one of those cases. Daumal’s biographers are uniformly diligent in describing his death — clarifying that he didn’t just scrawl the word “place” then fwomp over on his desk like we’re all picturing. Even wikipedia takes the equivocal tack of saying he “worked on [the book] until the day of his death” to avoid saying he died while writing it. But come on, we’re all adults here, that’s just not the kind of place you leave off a sentence.

I got into Mount Analogue shortly after my 36th birthday, the same age Daumal was at his death wouldn’t you know it. I say got into rather than just read because the book had an outsize effect on my life — certainly outsize for a 95-page novel about mountain climbing that cuts out before any mountains get climbed. I was already having a weirdly mountainous sorta year. I’d retreated to the Catskills to lick my wounds following the one-two punch of getting fired then dumped in the same week, and I’d started a mountain-themed band called Mountain Mountain with a friend who’d come upstate to keep me company/sane for the first few months on my own. We’d gotten the idea for the band after trying to visit the remains of an old plane crash at the top of a nearby mountain but having our quest stymied by slopes encased in inch-thick ice. For some reason mountains abounded.

When my ex came up to collect some of her things, she brought a copy of Mount Analogue. I knew the book by reputation: dude died in the middle of writing it, also filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky cited it as the source material for his art-house classic The Holy Mountain. Beyond that, though, nada. We read the first chapter aloud to each other in bed (some break-up, I know) then decided we should start a monthly book club out of her business space in Manhattan and make Mount Analogue the club’s first book (really some break-up, I know).

There’s an in-built flaw to every book club that’s ever met: Nobody reads the goddamn book. To avoid this perennial frustration, our book club would read the book out loud at each meeting, a chapter at a time. This isn’t really germane to the story I’m telling, I just wanted to throw it in so that other book clubs can learn from our example. It also solves the problem of having to listen to the one person who did read the book blather on about it for the entirety of the meeting.

The main idea of Mount Analogue is the allegorical nature of mountains and mountain-climbing, that’s the “symbolically authentic” part of the subtitle. The “non-Euclidean” part is I think more of a joke, or maybe it was something Daumal was planning to get into later on, not sure. The book’s plot, which is a little trickier to summarize than I would’ve guessed, is that the narrator has written an article postulating the existence of a single mountain that is the real-life source of every mythological mountain across the whole of human culture: the Greek Mount Olympus, the Hebrew Mount Sinai, the Hindu Mount Meru, and so on. This is Mount Analogue. The narrator meets a strange rock-climbing instructor and polymath named Pierre Sogol who claims to have calculated the location of this legendary mountain, whose “solitary summit reaches the sphere of eternity” and “must be inaccessible to ordinary human approaches, but its base accessible to human beings as nature has made them.” They put together an expedition and set out to climb it.

Actually that summary wasn’t so hard — weirdos seek impossible mountain — but it’s kinda giving short shrift to the titular mount, the mountain that stands for all other mountains that stand for things. The metaphorically real-life mountain responsible for all the metaphorical mountains in real life. Mountain-climbing is such a tidy analogy for life or human endeavor or whatever you want to make out of it; there’s a reason for its proliferation across cultures and continents and millennia as, according to Mount Analogue’s narrator’s article, “the way by which man can raise himself to the divine and by which the divine reveals itself to man.”

“The patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament beheld the Lord face to face in high places. For Moses it was Mount Sinai and Mount Nebo; in the New Testament it is the Mount of Olives and Golgotha. I went so far as to discover this ancient symbol of the mountain in the pyra­midal constructions of Egypt and Chaldea. Turning to the Aryans, I recalled those obscure legends of the Vedas in which the Soma — the ‘nectar’ which is the ‘seed of immortality’ — is said to reside in its luminous and subtle form ‘within the mountain’. In India, the Himalayas are the dwelling place of Siva, of his spouse ‘the Daughter of the Mountain’ and of the ‘Mothers’ of all worlds, just as in Greece the king of the gods held court on Mount Olympus.”

But mountains are also actual things, physical things you or someone can conceivably climb, and it’s not for nothing that in laying out the criteria for the ultimate symbolic mountain, the article mentions that all previous claimants to the title have been stripped of their symbolic power by virtue of someone climbing them. There’s the rub. Climbing the mountain’s the important thing, not having climbed it.

Which sounds dumb-downable to your basic “it’s about the journey, maaan,” but with a book where the quest for the non-allegorical mountain that represents all allegorical mountains is the central allegory, you kinda cling to whatever roots you can dumb down.

My little capsule plot also glosses over the real meat of the book, which is a slapdash pile-on of ideas and theories and philosophies running the gamut from legitimate, or at least plausible for the 1940s, to dubious to full-blown horseshit.

The article that kicks off the quest, for instance, is perfectly in keeping with contemporaneous trends in anthropology and other then-cutting-edge schools of cultural analysis. Thirty years earlier Scottish anthropologist James Frazer had essentially created the field of comparative religion by cataloguing all the symbolic elements that recur in myths and faiths worldwide throughout human history. His big book of signs, The Golden Bough, ignited a frenzy in the liberal arts to tease out some sort of universal basis or rule from all the wildly differing configurations of society and culture across the planet. Fellow anthropologists like Robert Hertz sought the connecting thread between funeral rites in the jungles of Borneo with those back home in Paris, while sociological memory men like Emile Durkheim and Walter Benjamin laid the groundwork for Critical Theory by treating everything from billboards ads and other ephemera to religious and financial institutions as cultural expressions of potentially equal significance.

This is the era of physicists working on the unified field theory that would explain all the workings of the material world as well as political and economic ideologies that strove to formulate a similarly comprehensive plan to govern all of humanity. An actual article positing that the various mountains of ancient mythology share an uncanny preponderance of traits suggestive of a common origin would have been right at home next to Robert Herz’s Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death in an academic journal. Even shaving that down to all mythological mountains do have a single ancestral origin which may still exist probably would have found a taker in the publishing world of the 30s and 40s.

A few pages later, however, Daumal has his alpinist teacher Sogol prove the existence of Mount Analogue via a spiel jumbling together jargon from various discredited schools of geology and math, then has his characters sail to the mountain’s shore through a portal in an optical forcefield opened by the setting of the sun. Here’s a choice clip of Sogol’s spiel:

‘A mass of heavy materials like Mount Analogue and its substructure would have to produce perceptible irregularities in the earth’s motion — more extensive than the minor devia­tions observed to date. However this mass exists. There­fore this invisible anomaly of the earth’s surface must be compensated by some other anomaly. Now, we’re lucky enough that the other anomaly is visible; so visible even that it has been obvious to geologists and geo­graphers for a long time. It is simply the bizarre appor­tioning of dry land and sea, which divides our globe more or less into a “hemisphere of land masses” and a “hemi­sphere of oceans”.’

He took a globe from the bookshelf and placed it on the table.

‘I calculated as follows. First I draw this parallel — between 50 and 52 of north latitude; it is the one which traverses the longest stretch of dry land. It runs across the southern part of Canada and then across the entire Eurasian continent from southern England to the island of Sakhalin. Now I draw in the meridian which crosses the longest stretch of dry land. It is located between 20 and 28 of east longitude, and runs through the Old World approximately from Spitzbergen to South Africa. I leave this margin of 8 degrees because one can count the Mediterranean either as a true ocean or as a simple maritime pocket within the continent. According to certain traditions this meridian should pass exactly through the Great Pyramids of Cheops. The junction of the two lines, as you can see, takes place somewhere in eastern Poland, or in the Ukraine, or in White Russia, within the quadrilateral formed by Warsaw, Crakow, Minsk, and Kiev.’

Daumal included hand-drawn illustrations of this planispheric rectangulation and a couple of the other bogus theories to give the quackery an added bit of oomph.

Sitting and listening to someone read aloud for an hour is kind of a rare act these days if you aren’t a kindergarten student. There’s something to be said for it as a meditative practice, less so as an alternative to actually reading. When you zone out with a book and realize your eyes have just been absently scanning letters for however many paragraphs, you can jog back to the last sentence you consciously recognize and start again from there. Ditto an audiobook or podcast. There’s no ten-seconds-back button at a live reading — whatever’s being said when you glaze over might as well have been whale song when and if your attention resumes. It wasn’t uncommon for one or two book clubbers to conk out and lightly snore through part or most of a meeting. Not a bad count out of 15 to 20, comparable to the number of dozers at your average after-work yoga class.

It’s strange to think that for most of human history hearing someone talk was the way nearly all information, including stories, was learned. As Marshal McLuhan liked to say, the printing press really did a number on our ears. I remember reading his book on the shift from oral to written culture, The Gutenberg Galaxy, and trying to imagine what words must have felt like before print when they were just sounds instead of molecules of mental letters. Try it yourself sometime, it’s a head trip.

Of course the ability of an audience to follow a spoken story rests heavily on who’s reading. My ex auditioned and forcibly rehearsed the rotating readers of Mount Analogue for each meeting. Long prior to our breakup, second or third date I wanna say, she’d gang-pressed me into coming to a monthly poetry club she ran out of an artists’ studio in Queens. I know, poetry club, I shared your sense of dread at those words. To my relief it was somehow good. First, as with all clubs, her poetry club served as a thin pretext to hang out with friends and get raucously drunk. But even the poetry part was good?! She’d managed to either curate or hedgetrim down a clatch of poetry nerds who knew their shit, knew to avoid reading their own stuff unless it was indisputably worthwhile, and, most importantly, never read in “poetry voice.” The book club, under her direction, would apply the same exacting standards to fiction.

Oh, but fiction ain’t poetry. Poems are short, to start with, or should be. And good poetry hits your ears like good song lyrics and etches its little phrases onto your memory banks to decipher somewhere down the road. A story read aloud, however, has to make sense immediately and continuously on the first listen, which as I learned, means the reader has to understand it as they’re saying it. You can tell when they don’t, because the sentences break down into a bunch of disconnected words. Same way as when someone gives the ol’ phonetic treatment to an unfamiliar word and it devolves into the sounds of its syllables. This is enough to ask for most prose, save maybe Hemingway, but it really puts your mettle to the test when the author keeps peppering his descriptions and dialogue with references to arcane disciplines of study and you can’t always be sure which ones are legit and which ones he’s pulling out of his ass.

Some people did that thing where you laugh just to show you got the joke or reference, like dudes who took a date to a Woody Allen movie, and sometimes you’d hear a soft “Hmmm.” from someone like they were nodding thoughtfully at a mathematical proposition that was 100% bananas. All in all I feel like most of us kept up with the plot well enough to chat about it cogently after the reading. Then again, thinking back, I can’t help but notice the most active participants were always those who brought their own copy to follow along.

Mount Analogue and Daumal himself get lumped in with the Surrealism movement of 20s and 30s Paris. “The great unfinished Surrealist masterpiece” is how the book is usually marketed; either that or “The book that inspired Jodorowsky’s Surrealist masterpiece The Holy Mountain” if they’re after the art-film crowd. Often it’s both.

This is an honest enough use of historical shorthand — Daumal was acquainted with André Breton and some of the other major Surrealists, his writing indulges in plenty of weirdnesses that would meet the rudimentary definition of “surreal” if not “Surrealism” — if it gets some kid to pick it up because they liked Holy Mountain or went to a Dali exhibit somewhere, no foul there. It’s not like they’re being tricked.

I doubt Daumal, however, would be too chuffed with being known posthumously as one of the lesser-read Surrealists. His acquaintance with Breton involved publishing a letter to him in which Daumal basically called his movement a bunch of fame-whores. The literary magazine he ran it in as editor, Le Grand Jeu, referred to itself as the flagship publication of the “Simplists” — a literary micro-scene comprising pretty much just him and his buddies at the Jeu. Daumal was also a big fan of Alfred Jarry, who wrote the play Ubu Roi and founded his own tiny movement called Pataphysics some 30 years earlier, and he went out of his way to stamp the prefix pata- somewhere in the title or subtitle of many of his writings. Daumal did, I mean, not Jarry. Well, actually Jarry did that too — whatever, they both did.

So, what René Daumal would properly have you call him is a Pataphysical Simplist or some other arrangement of nonsense words. Not that I’m trying to hold you to this pedantry, I just see it as a good reminder of how skewed the actual experience of our lives can become as they pass into history. I’m sure in 20 years someone will write about Williamsburg Brooklyn in the early 2000s and smush all the scenes and subcultures and cliques and collectives under the single heading “hipsters.” And I’m equally sure most of the people who would’ve responded to that slur ten years ago with a brisk “fuck you, buddy” will be like “Sure, of course, the Hipster Movement.”

This is just what happens with time. Old beefs and feuds lose steam; major distinctions fade into minor footnotes and finally from general awareness; fashions and terminology and social dynamics get flattened out into decades and then ages for ease of remembering. I mean, god knows that the very fame-whoring of the Surrealists that put Daumal off is why we still know them, and maybe even him, these-a-days.

The book club drew together an odd melange of Daumal fans, general reading enthusiasts, lovers of the surreal (read: drug users), and a handful of East Village rowdies drawn in from the foot traffic outside the space (also drug users). It also drew me down from the mountains I’d been hermiting in, where remote work was proving hard to come by, socializing even harder, and dating an unmitigated disaster. I’d long cultivated the daydream of fucking off to a cabin somewhere to write for a protracted while, unencumbered by the world, which I recognize is a pretty common fantasy among guys, particularly the indoor sorts. Now I was doing exactly that, and I quickly discovered why we don’t have a massive canon of “cabin novels” in contemporary lit.

Taking to the hills after a decade and a half living in the city and on the road is a fine way to give your mind some breathing room and rekindle your creative energy. If you have someone with you. This can be a lover, a friend or two, a partner in crime, I don’t have a brother but I suspect it could be a brother.

There just needs to be at least one other human person to regularly interact with in the flesh. It’s become fashionable lately to bag on Henry Thoreau for going to visit his aunt every day when he was supposed to be living on his lonesome at Walden Pond, but I certainly don’t begrudge him that or bailing to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house to finish his book.

I had never spent time fully alone before. There’s a hard limit to how long you can sequester yourself from all contact and still have a functional brain. I’m guessing it varies a good amount from person to person and situation to situation, but I learned mine quick and it’s about five days. Past that things start to get really hairy really hastily. There’s a reason being put in solitary confinement is the worst punishment you can be given in prison and also a reason why people who’ve been put in solitary confinement too long do things like kill themselves. Another thing you may have noticed — not too many books out there with “Written in Solitary Confinement” in a starburst on their cover.

When the COVID outbreak suddenly forced everyone inside back in March, I joked that I’d already had a year’s head start. The first time I told that to someone I said I’d had a year’s “practice” instead of “head start,” but then I realized that all the time I’d spent by myself hadn’t made me any better at being by myself. If anything, it made me worse, or at least more attuned to how bad it can get, which is worse.

The effects of isolation creep up on you, in my experience. The first few days feel normal, might be normal, the next couple a little lonely or a little boring or a little stressful depending on what you’re up to. Then at some point you cross the line and whatever you were feeling a little the day before becomes a whole lot. Days blur and shoot by. Anything you do you do too much of, be it sleep or stay up or read or watch movies. Writing either falls by the wayside or happens but produces reams of useless verbiage. I don’t think I ever once recognized it as it was happening — how would I? the part of me I’d have to use is the part that’s misfiring, classic crazy-person conundrum — it was always after the fact, usually when someone would point out that I was talking way too fast to be sober or that nothing I was describing made sense.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about the physical presence of others that acts as such a major check on our psyche. I mean, our whole identity is constructed from social interactions according to the last century of psychology and critical theory, but who’da thunk a week alone could turn things so haywire. Maybe it’s as simple as having someone to tell you “You’re acting a little crazy” when you’re acting a little crazy. I do know that it has to be a person, the cat won’t cut it.

Once I’d passed the five-day mark enough times to understand what it did to me, I developed a routine to break up the stretches of isolation. Every few days I’d go into town to get coffee and see people if they were around, then every other week I’d come down to the city for book club and spend a few days socializing. That fixed it. The book club’s regular attendees gelled into something like a high school clique, everyone hanging out with each other in their free time, a couple folks sleeping together, group-texts at all hours, movie and music recs.

The night after he read Mount Analogue’s fourth chapter, my ex’s previous ex mentioned that he’d been listening to the Echo & the Bunnymen album Porcupine recently and obsessing over the song “My White Devil,”

“The song’s about the English playwright John Webster; it starts off, ‘John Webster was, one of the best there was, he was the author of two major tragedies,’ and so on, he names the plays — Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil — but then he goes into the chorus, and I looked up the lyrics for the first time and they’re written in such a way that they sound like grammatically correct sentences and phrases, but they don’t make any sense. ‘Make on the when, I will be then, change in the nether, chance in forever’.”

By some chance, I’d just been listening to the next track on that album on the train down. It’s the one that goes, “Am I the half of half that’s half, or am I the half that’s whole. Got to be one with all my halves, is my worthy earthly goal” and then “when I came apart, I wasn’t made of sand.”

I feel like I already should have mentioned the fact that René Daumal was an avid mountain climber, not just some snooty Parisian nerd who thought it’d make a nice metaphor. Actually everything in the book, from the rock climbing to the pseudoscientific hokum to the unified decoding of all mythology, stemmed from his interests.

He grew up by the Ardennes mountains, where my grandpa would get caught in the Battle of the Bulge the Christmas after his death, and where the sound of the German artillery raining shells on Paris would scare him awake the World War before that. Whether it was the guns or something else, Daumal developed a deep fear of sleep due to its presumed likeness with death. I had the same problem as a kid until I learned to leave the radio on by my bed to crowd out my thoughts as I gave in to slumber. Daumal approached it differently. Using chemical fixing agents from his bug-collecting hobby, he knocked himself out, as he put it, “in order to study just how consciousness disappears and what power I have over it.” Naturally, teenagers the world over huff things to see what they do, and devise other ways to pass out when they can’t get their hands on anything. I feel compelled to add, though, that the contemplation of non-existence is a crucial step toward attaining enlightenment in Buddhism and that mystical vapors have been used to induced altered states of mind in initiatory rites and other religious practices since the cave days.

Decades later, Daumal wrote an article about his high-school inhalants phase called “A Fundamental Experiment,” in which he described the buzz he achieved as the single most significant experience of his life. This was, pretty crucially, after he had moved to Paris, founded Le Grand Jeu, met and married his wife, taught himself Sanskrit, and made the acquaintance of the inspiration for Mount Analogue’s Professor Sogol, Alexandre de Salzmann, a polymathic disciple of the period’s premier mystical philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff. The synthetic snooze-job had transported him to a world distinct from waking life and opened him up to all the other milestones to come, although its most “important” lesson to him was “that in the new state of being, I perceived and understood perfectly the ordinary state of being, the latter being contained within the former, as waking consciousness contains our unconscious dreams, and not the reverse. This last irreversible relation proves the superiority (in the scale of reality or consciousness) of the first state over the second.”

Incidentally, one of the fixers Daumal used in his experiments to gain mastery over sleep, carbon tetrachloride, is extremely toxic to the liver and usually gets the credit for wearing down the tissue of his lungs and allowing the tuberculosis that killed him to initially take root. Then again some folks also blame his TB on smoking, so they could just be tsking him from their high horse. People love blaming other people’s problems on drugs.

There’s a triangular sorta thought pattern that connects death and writing in my head:

I worry about not having written something worthwhile by the time I die.

I worry about dying before I have a chance to write down things I want to (these are slightly different).

And I worry what’ll happen to all the crap I wrote after I die.

The last one isn’t about my legacy or whatever — I don’t mean the writing I’ve gotten published. I hardly ever think about those pieces once they’re done. What I worry about is a physical mass of matter I haul with me wherever I live.

I’ve carried a notebook on me ever since my 9th-grade English teacher Ms Pickart told me I should always carry a notebook on me. That’s been 21 years, which has filled enough notebooks to fill a standard Ikea shopping bag. Most are Moleskine-size to fit in my pocket, a mix of actual Moleskines I swiped from the food court at LaGuardia and no-name knockoffs I collected from stationery shops in different countries, although there’s a few ledger-size ones and spiral notebooks that would live on my desk. These aren’t journals, I should point out. I don’t start writing in one then move onto the next when I fill it. They’re definitely not dated and organized.

Generally, whichever one’s handy when I’m leaving the house is the one that goes in my pocket for wherever I’m going and however long I’m gone. Over time a wee bit of a system has emerged, but it’s pretty occult to anyone but myself.

For instance, there’s a thick red one I tend to keep thoughts about the media in for whatever reason. There’s a regular old black one I kept for a couple years when I was traveling heavily for work; its spine is chewed up and its pages bookmarked with odds and ends from around the world — pressed poppy flowers from an opium farm in Mexico, an imprint of the red puja dot I was given on my forehead at the temple of Kali in Kolkata. There’s a blocky paisley one that’s all about my dad’s death.

These are easy enough to keep straight, but then there’s a stack of nearly identical saddle-stitched paperback numbers that cover 15-odd years of daily jottings with absolutely no attempt at rhyme or reason. These are the ones that make the whole operation look like a mess, all crammed in between the perfect-bound, semi-color-coded Moleskines like hastily-shelved magazines or comic books. Opening them’s even worse. Occasionally you’ll hit a patch of reasonably legible paragraphs, but the usual page is littered in every direction with numbers, names, book titles, notes for video edits, to-do lists from 2011 with like one item crossed off — garbage in other words. If the shelf itself didn’t already mark me as an irredeemable hoarder, the contents leave no question about it.

Now, I use these notebooks pretty much daily for work and, to be honest, I can navigate their scatter-brained pizza pie of chaos fairly well when I need to find something. I also adore the act of writing, of finding somewhere to sit and press the scrambled din of crowded, overlapping thoughts into a single line of ink. This isn’t a brag — I’m not saying what I write in any of these notebooks is any good, just that I like doing it. It’s my favored form of meditation, the only reliable way I know of falling out of time.

They only really bum me out when I have to move them, and I’m like why do I hang onto 15lbs of 15-year-old notes?, and also when I think about what to do with them after I’m dead. On paper, I’m of Kafka’s disposition — burn em, who cares, I’m gone. But something sentimental and probably narcissistic in me quietly hopes they’ll be given the post-Kafka treatment, that some friend will feel compelled to comb through them and find something of worth.

The colored ones, I mean, not the scattered little paperbacks. I mostly think of them as objects. Stapled wads of paper covered with penmarks. They remind me of a particularly lousy old joke I think I first heard at a cub scout camp. An old man’s whittling a stick and some guy asks him what he’s making. “Shavings.”

When René Daumal’s wife came home from the hospital a widow, his desk was the same cluttered mess he’d left it. The manuscript for the first maybe third of Mount Analogue was there, culminating in that cliffhanger about the plants whose roots hold the cliffs together, but so were a scrambled assortment of notes relating to the project. He’d described the plot as he envisaged it at least a few chapters down the road to friends — while the main characters ascend Mount Analogue and learn more about its nature, he was going to have a second group of would-be mountaineers sail up in a battleship and try to blast their way through its optical force-field, which is cute — but this wasn’t what his jottings were about.

The notes comprised a loose collection of aphoristic rock-climbing advice like:

“Never halt on a shifting slope. Even if you think you have a firm foothold, as you take time to catch your breath and have a look at the sky, the ground will settle little by little under your weight, the gravel will begin to slip imperceptibly, and suddenly it will drop away under you and launch you like a ship. The mountain is always watching for a chance to give you a spill.”

and straight-up note-notes, such as:

The value of danger:

temerity → suicide.

Short of it, no satisfaction.

What is danger?

What is prudence?

What is a mountain?

I don’t know if this is how you write, or everyone writes, but I immediately recognized them as the same hodgepodge of full/partial sentences and unaffiliated words and symbols I scrawl in my notebooks or litter at the bottom of the document I’m working on for potential inclusion. For instance, right now, if I scroll down to the bottom of this page, past the later paragraphs I’ve already completed and the buffer region of empty lines that keep accumulating every time I hit enter, it currently says

-The point of mountain climbing

-When prompted, although sometimes when not, mountain climbers will often ascribe an extraneous purpose to their undertaking.

-Yuchiro Murai, Japanese daredevil ____ The Man Who Skied Down Everest ____

-The Naked and the Dead

These are the things I think I’m writing about, or trying to write about. Phrases and sentences that descend fully-formed into my head while I’m taking a piss or making some coffee or pacing the room and send me scrambling back to the desk to get them down on paper before the genius lifts. Ideas — possibly even great ideas — that will surely illuminate the entire point of the piece once they’ve been given the correct words. Occasionally they make it in. The pithy phrase finds a home at the end of the paragraph; the two words then a long underscore then the third word become an actual sentence that makes sense. More often than not, the last thing I do before saving a piece to send to an editor is go down and highlight all the stragglers then click backspace.

Daumal’s widow decided to leave his stragglers be. The majority are practical suggestions for mountain climbers. Take care of your shoes, mark your trail for the descent, watch your footing, don’t freak out if you slip. They quickly unfurl into tidy little axioms for regular, non-alpine living, the same way the general principles of any sport or activity can if you say them in the right way. Shoes are like your material needs, don’t run into the same obstacle twice, “the last step depends on the first,” dwelling on mistakes will lead to more. Basic French horse sense.

But they’re first and foremost — before good rules to live by — good rules to climb by. Even in the grandiose, abstract realm of jot notes, Daumal’s attention never leaves the physical necessities of mountaineering for more extravagant thoughts and points. Mount Analogue the book is a symbolic, allegorical story about people ascending Mount Analogue the symbolic, allegorical mountain, that is nevertheless an analog mountain requiring the same nuts-and-bolts gear and techniques you need to go up any mountain, or steep hill for that matter. In undertaking a mystical journey to the home of the gods, Daumal’s characters get no more mystical than fudging the laws of optics and plate tectonics a little bit. Mostly they discuss the trip’s logistics.

This isn’t an accidental consequence of a narrative that got cut off before it could get into the symbolic stuff, not from a guy who believed that any higher state of human consciousness had to be contained within our base state. Or who more punchily wrote, “we must first become human before seeking anything superior.”

When prompted, although sometimes when not, most mountain climbers will ascribe an extraneous purpose to their endeavor. Yuchiro Murai, for instance, the Japanese daredevil whose attempt at being the first man to ski down Mount Everest was documented in The Man Who Skied Down Everest, claimed he did so for “the joy of forgetting yourself, of becoming one with the mountains, to soar with the winds, laugh with the gods.” You know the talk. There’s always something being proven to oneself, or demonstrated to someone nonspecific, or something “overcome” that isn’t the terrain between the base and the summit. Some point that isn’t actually climbing the mountain, but is somehow proven or accomplished by doing exactly that.

The mountains of mythology are usually just this type of end to a means. Moses sandal’d his way up Sinai so he could get the rules to Judaism from a flaming bush. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, climbed Mount Kunlun so he could steal the Peaches of Immortality from Xi Wangmu. The guy in the one-panel comic hauls his ass up Mount Wiseman to ask guy up top what the meaning of life is. It’s way too easy to see Mount Analogue heading in this direction based on its reference points, that Sogol and the gang are supposed to eventually reach the summit and get something there you can’t get anywhere else, like enlightenment or a magic fruit or a huddle with the gods.

The winter leading into my year on my own, I started keeping a new notebook. This wasn’t just another paperback jot pad to keep on me, but a proper hardbound Moleskine with bookmark ribbon, little elastic band on the cover, the works. It was white, and I decided I needed to dedicate it to something worthy of a “White Book.”

In the summer of 2012 I’d been preparing to film a doc in Kyrgyzstan. As I boned up on the former Soviet Republic, I stumbled onto a factoid I’d learned years earlier but never fully committed to memory, that genetic research had traced the historical origin of the Bubonic Plague to a site in the middle of the country, Lake Issyk-Kul. I pressed the producer I was working with to leave enough room in our schedule to make a pitstop there.

Issyk-Kul didn’t disappoint. From its northern shore the lake stretched out into an indistinct horizon crowned with shadowy mountains that didn’t seem to meet the earth. It looked like Tolkien’s Mordor. With classic Russian irony, the Soviets had chosen to make the birthplace of the Black Death a backwater health resort. Dismal gray lego sets of staggered concrete blocs lined the lake’s glassy water, interspersed with clusters of immobile umbrellas and the occasional bandstand. The remnants of this effort gave the beach a gloomy cast, evocative of an apocalypse long gone by.

While I was soaking up the drear, an enormous column of enormous buzzards crossed the sky in a single-file line. I’d never seen anything like it — it stretched unbroken from east to west, horizon to horizon. I asked our Kyrgyz translator if this was normal bird behavior in these parts and she said, “No, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Two years later, maybe three, I paddled an inflated raft into the middle of a crater lake blown out of the earth by an atomic bomb. This was in Kazakhstan, the biggest of the -stans, and for that reason the easiest to keep straight in 9th-grade geography.

Just like we did in Nevada, the Soviets picked this dry, desolate expanse of open country to test their nuclear weapons, in a cordoned off area called the Semipalatisnk Polygon. And they did so more or less just like we did, starting with air-burst detonations to measure the effects of the blast-wave and radioactive firestorm on model buildings and animals chained to stakes, staged at various intervals along the radius of destruction. As open-air testing fell out of vogue thanks to the growth of the nuclear disarmament movement at the end of the 50s, both sides moved underground, exploding bombs in tunnels dug into the Yucca Flats in America and the Dagelan Mountains in the Soviet Union.

The lake I rafted in was from a weird interim phase between the atmospheric and subterranean tests when someone had a bright idea to try and sweeten up public opinion about nuclear weapons by using them for something other than disintegrating sheep and houses. Their idea was to turn the destructive potential of an atomic blast into a constructive force for heavy earth-moving projects: razing mountains, making artificial lakes and rivers, damming or un-damming waterways, that sort of thing. So they tried it for a couple years — by they I mean both the US and the USSR — and found that, yes, technically, you can move a lot of dirt around by blowing it up with a nuclear bomb. The catch is that said dirt comes back to the ground irradiated to high hell along with the entire surrounding area. Not the kind of place most people want to get their drinking water from, turns out.

I’d come to Kazakhstan with a small film crew and the help of a British ex-pat named Anthony Butts who’d gone to Oxford for nuclear physics. I’d wanted to make a doc in the Polygon for ages and Butts had done just that the year before, an hour-long independently-financed number called After the Apocalypse focused on the lingering effects of the nuclear test-site on the population that surrounded it. We hired him as a fixer for our 15- to 20-minute news piece in the hope that what we shot would work as a supplement to his story rather than a shitty retread of its best parts, and might net him some new viewers. He knew, among other Kazakhs, a horse rancher whose property abutted the Polygon a short walk from the atomic crater lake.

It looked exactly the way a kid would draw it. A perfectly circular mound of displaced soil in the middle of an otherwise flat and completely featureless plain, like someone popped an Earth-sized zit. As I gave a spiel to the camera in the inflatable raft, flocks of birds criss-crossed the sky above the crater in seemingly random directions, like something had caused their internal compass to fritz out. I asked Butts what he made of them, and he said “No clue.”

After two weeks shuttling around the Polygon and its periphery, cataloguing the generations of human misery the Soviet nuclear-testing program had unleashed upon the Kazakhs then left them to deal with when the USSR broke up, we spent a night in the country’s former capital Almaty to wait for our flight home.

Almaty’s a really old town. It was the first place on earth you could get apples. Yes, as in the fruit. They’re the guys who originally cultivated the domestic apple. Actually they might have been the first guys to cultivate anything. That’s a pretty solid claim for a city. What’s your town got, Cincinnati Chili? Cool, we created horticulture. Have an apple.

As I digested the trip on the way to the airport, my mind drew a supple link between the unusual bird formations I’d seen in each of the K-stans. It also struck me as pretty wild that the birthplace of plague was right next door to the birthplace of fruit, give or take a 5-hour drive.

I made a note in one of my 20-odd identical notebooks to reread the first book of Genesis when I got home, then got distracted by the fact that Kazakhstan’s national airline is named SCAT and promptly forgot about it.

The day I started writing in my White Book, something happened that jogged my memory about the -stans. The Surrealists had a term for an otherwise random-seeming encounter or occurrence that would go on to prove super-fortuitous to the folks involved, almost like fate. They called it “the objective chance.” Daumal’s narrator in Mount Analogue writing an article that catches Pierre Sogol’s eye and leads to their friendship and quest is a pretty good textbook example.

What happened to me was I went to two garage sales one morning. At the first one I found an old ginormous world atlas made by National Geographic in the 80s, like big as a flatscreen. At the second one I found a little metal pencil box with some compasses and other orienteering gizmos in it.

When I got home I set to futzing around with my new crap. I opened the atlas to a map of the Soviet Union and took out one of those distance-measuring dealies that look like the pokey arm of a compass but there are two of them hinged together. You know what I’m talking about? Those things. As I walked the doodad around the page on its points, I recognized the little thumbnail of blue right in the middle of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic as my old summertime obsession Lake Issyk-Kul. And there, not a centimeter above it, barely enough space to touch both it and the lake with the pincers folded together, was Almaty.

There was a third participant in my objective chance, that was a hard drive I’d busted out the night before to find some old photos. The ones I was looking for weren’t on it, but what were were all the pictures I had taken in Kazakhstan, in and around the Semipalatinsk Polygon and in Almaty. I’d gone down a rabbit hole with them, revisiting that strange desolate landscape and marveling anew at its unearthly features. Hulking tube-shaped clouds that rolled through the sky like sandworms. Sunlight bent into weird unnatural-seeming squiggles. That circular lake.

I’d only taken a photo of one thing in Almaty (well, technically two if you count the SCAT Airways coffee cup I snapped of while we were on the tarmac), the Altan Adam, a statue of an ancient warrior in golden armor on top of a giant column. That name had been rattling around my brain since looking it up, and as I pressed my thumb- and fingernail together to gauge the distance from his home in Almaty to the nearest bank of Lake Issyk-Kul, its last two syllables clicked. Adam.

I jogged upstairs to my bookshelf and pulled out my bible. Halfway back to where I had the atlas out on the dinner table, it occurred to me that both Kazakh- and Kyrgyzstan were, at least nominally, Muslim countries, and further that I’d never read the Islamic version of Genesis. So I doubled back and grabbed a copy of the Quran. Just to round things out and make it feel like I was doing some proper analysis, I snagged a book about Shiva in the Hindu tradition (close enough, right?), my copy of The Golden Bough, an encyclopedia of world mythology, and an old coffee-table book from a previous yard sale about archeology in the Far East. I cracked them all open around the map and began bouncing from volume to volume, mentally cross-referencing all the correspondences.

Had anyone been around to question this frantic pantomime of “research,” I would have guilelessly told them, “I just found the Garden of Eden.” Since nobody was, I told it to my new notebook. My White Book.

As the weekend passed, the pages rapidly filled. Using my books in tandem with Wikipedia, I went down a web of wormholes accumulating evidence for the location of the historical antecedent to the mythological Eden in the region encompassing present-day Kyrgyzstan. The Greeks had called the area Bactria, though it was also part of Scythia, and it swelled from the banks of the Polytimetus or “very precious” River. In the Zoroastrian Avesta it is known as Sogdiana, possible site of Airyanem Vaejah, “the birthplace of the Aryans,” and the river is Zeravshan, “spreader of gold.” The Romans, however, knew it as Transoxiana, home of Zarinnea, the golden queen of the Sacae, whose girls trained in archery like Diana Omnivaga. And the Sacae capital Sighnaq lay on the shores of the Jaxartes river, which flows from the Tian Shan mountains, “The Mountains of Heaven,” and was called Seyhun by the Rashidun caliphate during the early Muslim conquest, one of the four rivers of Jennah, the Muslim Paradise.

Despite all these promising associations, the area had been forsaken by modern archeologists as barren steppe land with no record suggesting any sort of significance in the ancient past. THAT IS, until Soviet archeologist Viktor Sarianidi discovered the buried city of Gonur Depe while excavating the Black Sand desert in the 1970s and identified it as the capital of a lost Bronze Age civilization he labeled the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex.

I scribbled name after name into the notebook, traced the letters and orthography of the different ancient alphabets, and kept tables of numbers that recur in different mythologies and traditions (49 took up several pages). The reading took me on a seemingly limitless number of tangents, from the migratory patterns of early nomadic cultures, to the hypothetical origin of the Indo-European language family, to the sacrificial rites for the Turkic sky god Tengri — whose four-rune name in the original Proto-Turkic script just happen to look uncannily similar to the four Hebrew letters of the Judaic tetragrammaton, the “hidden name of god.” I regularly woke up to a computer screen with 40+ open browser tabs.

However far afield the digressions led me — to Norse Hell, to Zulu swallowing legends, to the highways at whose intersection Robert Johnson met the devil and which elements’ atomic numbers they corresponded to (Plutonium and Promethium, how’s that for auspicious?) — they somehow always seemed to link back to the mountains surrounding Almaty and Lake Issyk-Kul, the Tian Shan, legendary home of Xi Wangmu, Queen Mother of the West, and Tengri the sky god. The various mythological tales connected to the area all overlapped in spooky ways: The Taoist Queen Mother of the West’s Peaches of Immortality resemble not only the Biblical Fruit of the Tree of Life but also the Golden Apples of the Garden of the Hesperides, located at the far east of the known Greek world. Lake Issyk-Kul boasts a legendary sunken kingdom, not unlike Atlantis, that was governed by a king who grew donkey ears and was fixated on gold, not unlike Midas. Oh yeah, and Almaty’s freaking name means “Mount Apple.” What more do you need to hear?

I felt like I was onto something. Not the actual Garden of Eden from the Bible, mind you — I wasn’t that far gone — but something like a personal Mount Analogue, the ancestral root of Eden and all the other myths. The account of Eden in the Book of Genesis had always read to me like a parable about the agricultural revolution and its effect on people. Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and suddenly they have to work the earth and are susceptible to death and disease. The same story plays out with Xi Wangmu’s Peaches of Immortality; when they’re stolen she unleashes plague onto the world. Ditto Pandora’s Box, humans take something important from the gods and the gods punish humans by creating disease. You begin domesticating plants and animals from their wild state and suddenly the natural microbiome is disrupted and genetic issues crop up. You farm a region with no provision for recharging the soil and, not so much suddenly as eventually, once fertile land turns to desert. “Be careful what you wish for” is the lesson they use the Midas myth to teach children, but a slightly more succinct version could apply to all these tales: “Consequences.”

Here was a locus for all these traditional tales from a substantial variety of cultures and it just happened to be centered on the two precise spots where genetic research has traced the beginning of both human-cultivated fruit and human infection with the Bubonic Plague. This is big shit, right? This is big shit, I’d tell myself as I drew a copy of a palm tree design I’d found on a Bactrian-Margiana door hinge that looked like it was surrounded by walking sperm cells