To the heights

Dear Dr. Todd:

We are not there yet. May never be. Because as you taught us, “the heights” is not our destination. It is our direction, our way forward. It is the path we travel. The heights is not a place, we now know, but a plane, a higher plane, an elevated state, more spiritual than material. It is an arc bending upward, a call from above, a summoning. And we’ve been hearing it, following it, pursuing it for 125 years now. So many of us. In that time, we have come to realize that we are still on our way and always will be. This is a good thing. We know, from periods of success and through episodes of failure, that it is not about getting there. It’s about pressing on, with our eyes lifted and our feet moving assuredly across the ground before us. However steep or rocky or slippery that ground may be. Onward. And upward.

We have learned from you and from others who have embarked upon this journey before us that the road to the top is not straight. Cannot be. There will be obstacles along the way. Winds will blow, rains fall. There will be occasions when we slip and fall back. We understand how the upward climb on a steep trail must tack into the face of the mountain like a sailboat must tack into the face of the wind. The precise angles and vectors of ascent are an alchemy synthesized from the hard facts of physics, the improvisations of our own imaginations, and the insistence of a steely will.

We know the path will never be well worn. It is, rather, like Robert Frost’s road not taken, the “less traveled” path in the poem he published in a collection called Mountain Interval in 1920. That was right about the time you stood on a crooked path in the brush, in the interval between the Olympics and the Cascades and at the foot of our own great Mountain, imagining the stately architecture and beautiful landscape that would someday, somehow, rise there. Did you take some inspiration from the poet on that day? A man of faith, you might have had the psalmist in mind, too, lifting up your eyes unto the hills.

You were well read, I know, and may also have been thinking of Thoreau climbing Mount Katahdin in 1846. His account of that ascent came to mind when I climbed Mount Monadnock in 1978, unaware then that this university was rising some 3,000 miles to the west. In the midst of my journey, I recalled Thoreau wondering if Pamola, the angry spirit of Katahdin, would allow him to attain the summit. He made his way up, breathless, scrambling among a tumble of immense boulders, “a giant’s stairway,” he wrote, watching the clouds swirl and thicken, then break to reveal an orange sky and then close again, dawn swallowed by darkness. In such a place, Thoreau imagined, Atlas once stood. Here was the raw material of the valleys, a place of the gods, not yet prepared for their human children.

You must have felt that way at times, Dr. Todd, as you strived to make a glorious college of brick and stone, of soul and sinew, of mind and spirit, out of those desolate 40 acres of mud and brush at what is now 15th and Alder. I have sometimes felt that way, nearly a century later. Many of us have, who also stood on the path you made, took the trail you opened for us. We have all been driven by dreams, armed with plans, and drawn by hope and great expectations.

Through it, all of us—students, faculty, staff—have taken our inspiration not from the mountains that surround us but from The Mountain that rises above us. When it shows itself, at least. And, perhaps even more, when it withdraws from view. It is no less there, holds no less power, when invisible. Tahoma, as the native peoples call it, can mean “place of unseen powers” and also “where the waters begin.” Our towering firs are its silent sentries, gesturing toward the summit. Seen and unseen, The Mountain is always there for us, always will be. Our guardian and guide, calling us to its heights as it catches our breath in an instant of sudden surprise and revelation. Here we hear what John Muir heard: “The Song of God, sounding on forever.”

We have learned from you and from those who followed you that even if the path is not straight, it is distinct. And we do not travel it alone. The way, we know, is precipitous and our progress never as swift as we would wish. But the vision that inspired you inspires us, too. The call just as clear. We are still on our way. Still getting there. One hundred and twenty-five years is the time we have traveled that singular and sinuous trail you walked upon. But the distance we have come together is harder to measure. Cannot be measured. A more critical calculation is the path of the ascent still ahead. We know the direction. Our footing is secure, and our eyes are lifted up. We promise to keep on keeping on. And we thank you for pointing the way.