On Christmas break during my last year of law school in 1970, I felt pretty good, with one semester to go before I might take on the world and become a practicing attorney.
I borrowed my mother’s old gray Rambler and drove to the nearby Cherry Hill Mall in South Jersey for some last-minute shopping. I chanced to walk into an art gallery, wondering what mall art might look like. High up on a wall was a painting that took my breath away.
As a poor boy from Philadelphia, which is a world-class, cultured city with museums aplenty, I always saw art as something you looked at on someone else’s wall, usually in one of those museums. I didn’t know anyone who actually owned art.
Charlie, a perky art store saleslady, was knowledgeable and not much older than I was at the time. She saw my reaction and looked up to see what had caused it. It was a snowcapped mountain, its white fields flowing down to the tallest of conifers and a verdant valley beyond, then a shimmering lake surrounded by lush vegetation. The image was presented in a large, three-by-four-foot frame.
My brain was still in the art-belongs-to-someone-else mode, and I could only admire it. Yet this one was for sale! Could I wrap my brain around the idea? I could feel my synapses firing off, charging into new cranial territory.
The price, $395!
In 1970, this was a huge amount of money for a poor law student. Purchasing it was out of the question, financially and psychologically. Who in my circle of friends and family would have even considered it? But there was something else.
Two summers before, I had a life-changing experience. After the first year of law school, my favorite dorm counselee at Villanova University called me to say that he and his uncle would be driving across the United States, and back, on a three-week trip. I was invited. Having never been west of the Mississippi River, and hardly ever west of the Susquehanna, I decided to take the plunge.
For the first time, I saw our grand land in person. The St. Louis Arch, endless fields of corn and wheat, and the prairie rising slowly to the Rockies. We spent a full day in Rocky Mountain National Park, two hours from Denver. It began before daybreak with the goal of climbing a challenging mountain, Hallett Peak, at 12,713 feet. The summit had to be achieved by noon in order to avoid the threat of thunderstorms at the top, a perilous possibility. But the morning sky turned a brilliant blue. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this citified boy walking in such a place.
We spent hours hiking—up Flattop Mountain to Hallett Peak, down across the Tyndall Glacier, past Shark’s Tooth, then luxuriating in the billowing grasses around Dream Lake. I didn’t want the day to end.
Astonishingly, now, nearly two years later, this was the exact scene of the painting in the gallery—my Hallett Peak!
But what could I do about it?
I reviewed my finances. I had made the final payment for my last year of law school, and with no loans. As a dorm counselor, my room and board was covered, and I still had some money tucked away from the last summer’s legal research job. But could I afford to buy this massive oil painting? It seemed crazy.
It didn’t fit into the car, my dorm was no place for it, and it would hardly fit on a wall in my parents’ modest split-level house, if they would even let me hang it there. But did it matter if I didn’t have a place to put it? It was all too much.
I lowered my chin, gave thanks to Charlie, and ambled out of the store.
When I got up the next morning, I wanted to visit the painting once more. The old Rambler chugged to the mall, but when I entered the gallery, there was a huge expanse of empty space where the mountain had been. I was devastated and turned to Charlie.
Only a few minutes after I had left the day before, a man had come into the store and bought it with a snap decision. It had hung there for several months, but only the two of us expressed any real interest. Now, it was gone.
I felt drained, but those synapses were firing off again. I was learning a lesson I had not known was there to learn. It is more than, “He who hesitates….” It was a life lesson. Take a step back to see a larger perspective. I had come to a demarcation—end of education, beginning of whatever comes next. I was standing at that line, hovering over it, one foot raised and ready to cross to the other side. But I hadn’t done it, and the opportunity had been right there.
I imagined Hallett Peak on a wall I did not yet own and could hardly picture, but this is why it’s called “the future.” You don’t know what it will bring, what opportunities will come. Right then I felt dismal. A unique painting, which recalled a singular experience for me, was on someone else’s wall. He was older, perhaps wiser, and had made a decision, while I had not.
The weeks passed at school, and soon it was the Easter break. In South Jersey again, the old Rambler rumbled under me and back to the mall. I wasn’t looking for art, just living.
I entered the gallery and could not stop myself from looking up to where the mountain had been four months before. I wondered what had replaced it, or if its spot was still empty, so irreplaceable it was in my mind.
Then a shock almost knocked me over. The mountain—my mountain—was back up on the wall!
Charlie was already walking toward me. She’d had no way to reach me to tell me what had happened.
The purchaser had returned with the painting the very next day, not long after I had left the store. It had been too large for the space over his fireplace between the mantel and ceiling, so it had been on display back in the gallery ever since.
Now my synapses didn’t need new paths in my brain to fire off in an uncharted direction. I had made this decision too late, four months ago, and pulled out my checkbook. The painting’s size, and where to hang it, didn’t matter. I would find a way to make it work.
It ended up boxed and tied to the roof of the Rambler. The short stairs in my parents’ split-level did afford enough wall space to hang it, just barely.
For the years through the first part of my FBI career, I would see the painting only when visiting my parents, who, I am happy to say, loved it. A piece of modern art might have given them angst, but this scene drew you in so you could almost feel yourself breathing its mountain air—even standing in flat South Jersey.
It wasn’t until 1979, when I bought a house with a broad stairway and a high brick wall, that the mountain finally found a place in a home of my own.
I have stood and admired it, at some time during almost every day, for over 40 years. Reflecting on my initial indecision about buying it, I had been too hesitant and wanted more facts, better finances, and a sure way to cart it home. I was even concerned about what others would think. All of that brought about a poor result—taking no action. Hindsight gave me the perspective to realize this. I would not make the same mistake again.
I have carried this art lesson with me throughout my life and made some great decisions, only some about buying art. When you have an I-have-been-here-before moment, you know the answer. While others dither, you act quickly and with determination. You will succeed more often than not. That is the lesson from the mountain. I reflect on it every time I look at my beautiful painting, high up on the wall of my cathedral ceiling.
Now, I come to the right conclusion the first time.
The following essay was originally written on Aug. 16, 1969, at the age of 22, the day after the climb up to Hallett Peak, a year and a half before the painting was purchased.
This day was marked by grandeur, which before was unimaginable to me.
Ascending the Colorado mountain took more breath than I felt I could inhale. Finally, achieving its apex brought exhilaration I had not known.
A mountain to be climbed is not the conquering of nature. Conquering to utter defeat would be the felling of a virgin forest to stump and bare soil. That is not the feeling I held.
To have mounted that peak was to stand atop what nature had achieved, which it took millions of years to gather, mold, and form.
I looked out and observed all that existed in my reachable world, evolving and swirling before my feet.
The climb up had shown the ruggedness of the earth’s exterior, while the summit began a path down to Shangri-La.
Snowfields are 12,000 feet up, 30 feet thick, and hundreds of yards wide and long. The sweet breath of spring brings melting snow that tunnels beneath this frozen hulk. It hollows out a path through the summer and steadily forms tributaries, replenishing rivers below.
The valley comes into clearer view while hiking down through scattered clouds, then past flowering meadows with butterflies flitting and warblers warbling. Nearby, a brook babbles, happy for the annual thaw. Around and over boulders of gray and banks of green it flows, to soothe a weary climbing heart and mind—and lungs as well!
With the valley air, you catch your breath, the better to perceive the wonders around you.
You reach the shore of a crystal lake, and it invites you to rest awhile. You find comfort on the thickest mattress of wild grass upon the earth.
I slept for half an hour, the sun’s glorious rays healing my mind from weary into comprehending bliss.
Ancient logs still lie from when the mountain lion and its prey ran free, while towering trees stand proud in their own posterity.
It is nature’s collaboration—extraordinary sights, sounds, and fragrances—synthesized to bring the ultimate sensations of both peacefulness and elation.
I will, I must, return to this valley—if only in my mind.
Some pieces of art move me so that I am compelled to write about them—what they look like, but more often, how I see the scene in its own history. This is what the series “Taking You There” is about.
Wayne A. Barnes was an FBI agent for 29 years working counterintelligence. He had many undercover assignments, including as a member of the Black Panthers. His first spy stories were from debriefing Soviet KGB defectors. He now investigates privately in South Florida.