Sunday, August 22, 2010

Communing with nature—along with everybody else

Summer is galloping by like a sun-dappled horse cavorting in a morning meadow. Look! How exhilarating! It’s gone. Well, not quite yet, but with a last flick of a shiny tail it all too soon will be.

Visits to writers’ homes haven’t worked out as I had planned, though I have encountered other environs that served as inspiration. And so, a “post card” of a writers’ landscape instead of a house tour.

“What is it but a faint blue cloud, a mist that may vanish? But what is it, on the other hand, to one who has traveled to it day after day, has threaded the forest and climbed the hills that are between this and that, has tasted the raspberries or the blueberries that grow on it, and the springs that gush from it, has been wearied with climbing its rocky sides, felt the coolness of its summit, and been lost in the clouds there?”

The answer to Henry David Thoreau’s inquiries (from his journal) was my destination on an August Saturday when three friends—Kelly, Erika and Jen—and I headed to New Hampshire’s Grand Monadnock. Now Monadnock has the distinction of being the most climbed mountain in the US (and second on the planet: Mount Fuji is number one). And sure, we pick a weekend day in high summer to go. So we had to expect to be stumbling over other contributors to the nature-loving throng.

It wasn’t as bad as all that, at least as we started up the trail. Perhaps because we hadn’t gone in the main entrance of the state park. We chose the approach toward the old Halfway House and from there up the White Arrow trail, one of the oldest trails on the mountain and the most direct route to the summit. The first section, the Halfway House trail started off nearly parallel to the old toll road that is closed to general car traffic but open to hikers. We had our trail pretty much to ourselves, but we were close enough to the road to hear the occasional voices of other hikers.

Not that we were doing any sort of silent walking meditation. Far from it. Our outbursts of laughter bounced off rocks and trees and probably startled birds and small animals.

The day was a perfect one for hiking, not too hot or humid, which meant it was an unusual day for this summer. The New England landscape was lifelong familiar to me, but I was seeing it with new eyes after having hiked in the red sandstone canyons of Utah a few weeks earlier. The earth’s contours under my feet this day were shaped by glaciers, and glacial erratics (boulders left behind as glacier trash) hulked among the trees. Chipmunks and garter snakes, each striped like racecars, appeared and disappeared among the leafy undergrowth.

I had wanted to come up these trails because I liked the romantic notion that we would be walking in the footsteps of the Transcendentalist Hiking Club. All right, there was no such organization, but those nature-loving folk from Concord visited Monadnock on some of their outings.

As we traipsed along in our shorts and t-shirts with hiking boots or sneakers, I pictured Louisa May Alcott and her sisters making their way up the mountain in long skirts. I hoped they could at least hike them up, so they weren’t tripping on the hems. And I hoped their mother managed to beg off the outing and stay home with her feet up. Poor woman spent so much time doing the heavy lifting so her husband The Philosopher could think his big thoughts, but she probably had to come along and lug the picnic basket and water jugs.

Emerging from the tree cover into the meadow where the Halfway House used to stand, we got our first view of the surrounding country. It’s the first of uncountable times that Kelly enthused, “That’s fricking beautiful!” (If Louisa May Alcott had included a trip to Mount Monadnock in Little Women, Jo would have exclaimed, “Christopher Columbus! That’s beautiful!”) Generations of visitors have exclaimed in the vernacular of their day over this same view. The Halfway House was a hotel that ran from 1860 until it burned in 1954.

If “halfway” is accurate, it’s a measure of distance rather than time. It was just after noon when we took a break here, and we decided to press on and have lunch at the summit. This portion of the hike, the White Arrow trail unfolded along a rocky trail below the tree line, then climbed above the trees across the granite shoulders of the mountain. On one of the granite outcrops we finally saw the summit.

We could see the outlines of people up there seemingly lined up like birds perched on a rooftop. We decided to have our picnic where were are and brave the crowds after lunch.

I discovered in excerpts from Thoreau’s journals that he avoided the trails in order to avoid the crowds, which apparently were present on Monadnock even then. He couldn’t avoid all signs of them; he mentions “the newspaper and egg-shell left by visitors.” We stumbled across a similar trail of pistachio shells, but for the most part people are good about not leaving signs of their passing.

Lunch with a “fricking beautiful view” consisted of provisions we purchased at a wonderful market in Peterborough—I happily devoured a sandwich of ham, Brie and pear followed by some (very) dark chocolate. And we capped off lunch with a toast to our outing, wondering if Ralph Waldo Emerson et al had anything as good as Bailey’s on their jaunts. (Thoreau only mentions tea.) I read bits and pieces of Emerson’s poem, “Monadnoc”  as we ate. Speaking as the mountain, Emerson wrote:

            “On the summit as I stood,
            O’er the wide floor of plain and flood,
            Seemed to me the towering hill
            Was not altogether still,
            But a quiet sense conveyed;
            If I err not, thus it said:

            “Many feet in summer seek
            Betimes my far-appearing peak…”

Summiting was satisfying in the way that getting to the top or end or furthermost point of anything generally is, but it was strange too. There were dozens of people there. Some were enjoying the view and picking out landmarks, some took pictures, some chatted about other hikes on other days or in other places. Others sat and ate or napped or chatted (or sent texts) on their cell phones. The atmosphere was like that of many other gathering places—the waiting area by an airport gate, for instance—and felt odd at the top of a mountain.

Again, from "Monadnoc":

            “Through all time
            I hear the approaching feet
            Along the flinty pathway beat
            Of him that cometh and shall come—”

And so many came and still come, but Emerson’s mountain doesn’t mention anything about cell phones.