There are no mountains.

That’s the first thing I notice around here at The Mountain Workshops, the absence of mountains.

Hills, sure. Ridges, you bet. One could even argue there are crags, escarpments or even bluffs. But mountain may be pushing it a bit. Not that I’m one to talk. Coming from the decidedly flat suburbs of Detroit, our biggest “mountains” are converted garbage dumps that developers covered with dirt and ski lifts then waited for snow.

But the term Mountain Workshops adds a sense of majesty, purple and above fruited plains. That sort of thing.

Driving into Somerset, Kentucky, the lovely rolling hills almost tricked me into believing mountains were just around the corner. Instead, a Walmart caught my eye. I’ve been coming down here to the Bluegrass State for quite some time. An enormous group of journalists invade a different small town each year. Photographers, videographers, editors, writers and a tremendous support staff document the area and pull together a book, website, gallery and multimedia show. All of this is done in less than a week. Sleep tends to take a backseat for the 170 odd participants. Emphasis on odd. We’re like Burning Man without the nudity … generally speaking.

Each town we swoop into tends to not really understand what we’re doing, but they always love the results once we leave. At least that’s what they tell us. If you can imagine a week in which everything you did might show up in a book, perhaps you’d be a bit apprehensive too. There have been weeks in my past where, well, let’s just leave it at that.

A wonderful component of these workshops is the family atmosphere it breeds. I honestly can’t count how many facebook friends I’ve made here. But it rivals the number of high school and college folks on my list. I also can’t count the number of hugs I’ve received from people genuinely happy to see me back here, after that lousy leukemia kept me on the sidelines.

So the lack of actual, physical mountains at The Mountain Workshops means absolutely nothing to me. It could just as easily be held at the ocean or in an enchanted forest for all I care, as long as there’s caffeine. What matters is a sense of community – both the kind engendered when a bunch of journalists get together, and our connection to a different town each year. Community is where it’s at. Whether it’s a real brick and mortar establishment or a loosely knit compendium of interesting people, I’m so terribly thankful that I’m part of this one each fall.

Our families are understanding as we pack up and head to a place no one has ever heard of before, including us. It’s tough to explain the allure of 14-hour days, (if we’re slacking it, that is). Something, though, makes them understand our enthusiasm as we head off and our weariness as we drag our sorry butts home. Our spouses and kids and employers see the explosion of creativity that accompanies our return from our old Kentucky home.

There’s something more. We do this for free. And the students actually pay for the experience. Our time down here is about giving back. It’s easy to go about our business on a weekly or yearly basis without paying things forward or backward or sideways. Giving students an adrenaline shot in the arm always feels fantastic. Covering an entire town from border to border makes them feel special too, rightly so.

But most importantly, the powerful opiate dose we experience as we help others is unmatched by anything we’ve ever felt before. That’s where a supposed charitable act on our part gets flipped around and zooms right back at us. Doing cool things for others makes us feel unbelievably good about ourselves.

And that’s a mountain worth climbing.