Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Trying to be there

It was, as usual, a busy week on Mt. Marcy.  Superlatives tend to garner the most attention – as the high-est, the tall-est, the top of the state attracts the larg-est, most determined crowds. Each week, hundreds of people trek to the summit, cheer, and snap a photograph or three to memorialize their accomplishment. (Upon discovering that they have 4G service up on the peak, some of those with smartphones also immediately post their photos to facebook. Sigh.)

I try to at least chat with everyone—to say hello and ensure that they know to walk on rock surfaces (not vegetation or soils). Given the opportunity, I prefer to start real conversations—to share and/or engender a sense of appreciation for this place. (And by “place” I mean all of it: ranges and ridges; valleys and passes; rivers and streams and lakes; bogs. And all of the wild life therein.)  I want to hear hikers’ stories—what brings them to Mt. Marcy? Have they been to the Adirondacks before? Hiking all 46, or hitting state high points? Had they planned to “do” the peak, or “get” it, or are they just out to enjoy their day?

Skyscape over Skylight

Mainly, I wonder what it is that people expect to find and/or learn (if anything) by climbing a mountain. What can wild places teach us? What do we actually observe and absorb among and atop the high peaks? [How] are we shaped by the wind and the rock, the rain and the sun and the sandwort? (Ever, ever, those questions asked by Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams: “How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in?  How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it?  How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?”)
Sometimes, when people ask “Wow, do you ever get tired of the view,” instead of replying “Never! It always changes,” I want to tell them “I don’t get much time to enjoy it.” Hiker after hiker, question after question (photograph after photograph)—three then four days of chatting for seven, eight hours straight and I begin to question myself—what am I doing or getting; what am I seeing, feeling, absorbing, becoming on these peaks?

Pause. Breathe.

Sun halo!

There are always moments of beauty, signs of grace. Just when I’m least suspecting, something comes to take me out of myself.  (Annie Dillard, Piilgrim at Tinker Creek: “[B]eauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”)

Usually it’s clouds. Mist swirling up from a valley; cirrus wisping overhead; thunderstorms building, building, breaking—my mind is on and in the sky.  

Clouds over MacIntyre range

Sometimes it’s ravens.  The ravens—there are three of them, one pair and one larger lonely female—like to swoop in at about 2 or 2:15 on sunny afternoons. (I presume they’re playing on the thermals, and/or showing off for the hiker crowd.) True to form, last Sunday, they craawed a few warning craws then popped up from Panther Gorge. “Oooh,” everyone admired their skill and size and shiny black feathers; “craaaw,” the ravens exclaimed with self-delight.  After a few unnecessary (but admirable!) aerobatics, they alit on an outcrop below the summit and preened for photographs.  (I tried to roll my eyes at their antics, but couldn’t help but be awed by their intelligence and humor. I respect their wildness and envy their freedom. Imitate their calls. Eat their crowberries and covet their feathers. Ravens.)


That should have been enough for me; I need to learn not to expect much less ask for more.  But an hour or two after the ravens had given a farewell croak and flown off (presumably to check out the crowd on Algonquin), I was once again feeling tired, edgy, lost.  Four o’clock sharp and I was ready to get off that summit.  Boots laced up, pack strapped on, I made a last-minute decision to slip off the back side of the mountain and follow the longer, less-traveled trail down.

Usually, the first mile—which drops straight down the mountain’s exposed southeast face—is one of my favorite stretches in the High Peaks.  (I love the steep rock, as well as the clear views over to Skylight and across to Haystack.)  It wasn’t enough to awe or even placate me last Sunday, though; I don’t even remember hiking down into the trees or turning at the Four Corners junction. 
Then came Lake Tear of the Clouds—another one of my usual favorites. (Some people sneer that it should be called “Pond” or “Swamp” rather than “Lake,” but I’ve always considered it a quiet little gem, nestled high in the mountains. High-est, to throw in another superlative: highest body of water in the state, and highest source of the Hudson River. I love knowing that the calm, cool water I see there will, in a couple of weeks, be roiling past Manhattan.)  I barely even paused there, though—just pointed it out to a group of hikers, then hurried on my way down Feldspar Brook.

Down, down, rock-hopping, hurrying, always hurrying.  Turned right at the Feldspar lean-to and onto a trail I only traveled once last summer. I remembered it as being wet, muddy, and steep (then again, everything last year was wet, muddy, and steep), so was pleasantly surprised to find that the bog bridges were not, in fact, floating and that the ascent was, by comparison, gradual. Had I paused to appreciate the surroundings, I would be better able to describe the slides on Mt. Colden or the forested slopes of Gray Peak.  Still hurrying, though. Up, up, now, atop rocks and over logs, how far to Lake Arnold?
Last year, my whole purpose for taking this trail was to see the sundew (tiny, bright orange, carnivorous bog plants) blooming at Lake Arnold.  Last year, too, I had been hurrying—hurrying to be down in time for dinner. Hurrying, in such a rush that I’d somehow hustled right on past the slight turn for the lake without ever seeing it. (!!) This year, I was ready for it—I timed myself and paid attention to the terrain (wouldn’t the lake be in the flat area at the crest of the trail?) Sure enough, I found a sign for the lake (tucked back and facing in the other direction—aha! No wonder I’d missed it!)(Though how on earth had I not seen the water through the trees to the left of the trail?) and turned to follow.

Aah. Inhale.
Lake Arnold is but a large, marshy pool at the base of Mt. Colden’s forested slopes. Nothing remarkable. A few lily pads, a few little brown birds flapping on the far shore. No loon. No mist. Breeze rippling and ridging the water so not even a reflection. 

Ahh. Exhale.

I didn't take a picture of Lake Arnold. Somehow, it would have seemed profane to do so. Instead, Boreas Pond as seen from Mt. Marcy

Something about it—the wider view, after miles of forest; or the pause after an hour of hiking. The silence. The solitude—something about it resonated, reverberated, soothed whatever ache or filled whatever emptiness I’d been feeling.  Although I was barely there two minutes (had to hurry! Dinner! Darkness!), it was (one last set of superlatives—forgive me!) the best time, the highest point of the week.  Having been there to see it, I am happy to know, now, that that little mountain lake is there, always rippling with beauty and grace.

Back on the shore of Heart Lake

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