I started this piece this a while back but thought I'd share it or, more aptly, find a reason to finish it. Yes, I can write purty stuff, too. I don't think there's one mention of poo, garbage, or liquor in the whole story. (But that doesn't mean you shouldn't read it.) SAS, this one's for you.
Riding on the Metro North train this week I was struck by a memory. Between my turning-of-pages, interspersed with dull glances out the window on new Harlem construction, it interceded—it found a small place of emptiness, or openness, and moved in full-blown. The memory was a small moment. But it began like this:
I was 21 years old, and back for my first summer in many years to the camp and love of my youth, Cragged Mountain Farm. I had been sent out on my first hike of the season with a cabin of 12-year-old girls, and the mountain chosen was South Baldface. We hiked up the first half-mile or so and found Emerald Pond, an ice-cold, deep beauty of a swimming hole, positioned just beneath a high rock. One after another, we leapt from the rock and speared the water, and we each emerged gasping and heart-stopped with cold and shock. We flailed to the side, screaming, and the woods were curtained with high, female sounds. By the time we’d clambered up wet leaves and twigs to the top, our skin was hot and stinging and we were ready to jump again.
Our trip leader, Kate, had neglected to pack the ingredients for our awaited hot dinner, and so we dined on peanut butter and bread in a dripping rain under the shelter, two miles up. I was young and strong, and volunteered that evening to trek back almost the entire way with a pack full of empty water bottles so I could fill them at the spring below. These would hold us for the next leg of our journey.
Someone came with me; I believe it was Mandy. We went down slowly through the dark, dripping, and silent woods, filled our bottles in the tugging ice-cold current, and loaded them into our packs. Then we darted back up through the gloom and emerged at the first break of light, where the trees became stunted by wind and bold, bare rock shone above. We spent the night in a three-sided shelter, snug in bags, and I told the girls stories to frighten them—the same preposterous stories that I’d been told as a child, and which seemed to terrify a few of the foolhardy nonetheless. Someone later said she’d woken in the night and had seen a bear tearing at a well-gnawed tree that tilted near the campsite. No one quite believed this, either.
The next day we shouldered our packs and went higher. The rock was bare, and we had to use our hands to haul and grip. Eventually the land was devoid of trees, and was just scrubby krumholz clinging to open ledges. That, and loose rocks that threatened to turn ankles. The path wound ever upward, to the summit of South Baldface—an aptly-named expanse of windswept rock. We went down again, and over. I think it was North Badlface next, and my pack was suddenly heavy and cumbersome. My knees hurt. I kept digging in, winding around the summit, searching for handholds. My gaze was fixed at a two-foot distance, as I was fearful of a misstep.
On the way up, I stopped. I turned, and unexpectedly gazed down into a great void and expanse. The hills were blue and effortlessly, endlessly quiet. There was a small thread of wind through the pines, and the great gulf of valley and green seemed to capture it and take it in, like a hollow bowl. I too, felt concave and open, and the wind tucked into my ribs and smoothed me out finer. My breath came up short and pounding into the hollow of my throat and I cried, but quietly, for children were watching. I mouthed a salty, silent grace of some kind for this land; perhaps it was a simple and trite “god” or “lord,” or perhaps it was something finer and more worthy. But I can’t say. It was one of those moments that we swear is unforgettable, but it is forgotten day after day in the drone of office fluorescence. It is forgotten upon waking, and upon sleep. It is forgotten every time we make a piece of toast, or put the car in reverse and check to see that the neighbor’s marigolds are well out of harm’s way, or tidy up the children’s blocks and train tracks in the small and thoughtless offices of love. But were I to be threatened with a loss of life, I would remember this.
This, and all the other mountains and deep hollows and streams and rivers, and the places in the woods where guitar music was the only sound for miles, as if our small bands of humanity were hurtling through the blackness of space. After that first experience of the mountains, there were so many more. On some mountains the wind tore through the small holes in my frame pack and made a high, lonely whistle. On many of the high places you could hear a white-throated sparrow keen “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” On the summits we ate stale pita bread with greasy circles of pepperoni (no condiments, thank you), and called it good, while wrapped in the fleece and wool we’d brought for just such an occasion. The stars at night were terrifying in their multitude. Who reserved this land for our salvation, and what if they should revoke their gift?
I went back to South Baldface. I went back several times. My friend Grace and I made camp at Emerald Pool, and I walked her dog along the edge so she could lap for water. On that trip, the dog scrabbled on the high, slick stones and whined and turned back, so I went to the summit alone with a group of strangers who brought a pack guitar. We sat on the rocks and sang, and now I wonder where they are, and who they were. I went back down and we slept in the tent by the pool, and the dog—a Japanese Akida, long dead now—kept guard in a fierce, tense manner, whisking ribbons of drool from her black lips in the night. Sometime the next morning, Grace bathed and I went off alone and leaned against a rock and dreamed clean thoughts into the pages of a small, ungainly journal I had brought. I thought, as I have so many times before and since, that I could stay in that place and be nothing, nothing at all, forever. And that was good.
How do I define this? I was made, and unmade, and made again in the soft afternoon light that slanted through needles and leaves and warmed the rock against which I sat. I carried a stick for many years; a memento from a trip during which my knee had swelled big as a grapefruit, and a kind and fearsomely tall stranger had sawed his walking stick down to size and presented it to me. (It now sits in my basement, next to my husband’s little-used skis and a rust-encrusted water pipe.) I thought about the dead a lot on those trips, and those of us who would no longer be, and where our spirits would end up if we believed in such things. I thought about those who honored the dead. I thought: Let me remember the Great Gulf upon the hour of my death, and I’ll wind up thanking someone, anyone, for the life I’ve had.
It’s been so long since I’ve felt the keen itch of the woods in fall, or the hum of the blue hills on the horizon, that were once so painful to me on winter city streets. I think, perhaps, I have given them up to knowing they exist without me. Or I have just turned from that gulf into the silent hillside, inspecting the rain-dazzled ferns and sodden earth. The silence of that place eludes me. Everywhere I stand, I hear the beating and crush of trucks and cars, and I wish I could think of the metallic ocean of noise as love—as in, a drive to return home to what is silent and best in the heart. I hear a truck revving past the light at the corner, hrmmm, hrrmmm, fiercer now, like a fat old woman striving to get up the stairs, one grunt at a time. Is that love, trying to get home? I think of sitting by the waters of Allagash Lake, while the moon rose higher and tricked the lake waters into believing in daylight, and made a path to possibilities on the far shore. And the water slapped at the stones and made an errant twig bob in the current, and one could think clearly again for the first time in years.
If we forget these places we have lost ourselves. Yes, there are ugly places in the north as well. Small ice-cream shacks by the roadside, with crappy and weathered signs and a wan, pimpled cashier with a tired, shy smile. When you come in steaming from the wilderness with twigs and forest detritus from your hair, and your socks are hot inside your boots, she seems like a burst of civilization. She seems friendly, and right at home. You feel proud. The ice cream is cold and good. You bring paper sacks of soda back to the van, and toss them like manna to the kids. It is, then, the reason for coming back down to sea level.
There are abandoned mills, their windows boarded, and smokestacks in Berlin spewing something unwanted into the air, and outlet stores for the dowdiest of females. There are places in towns where you wouldn’t want to live, not when there is New York beckoning. You’d rather live in an apartment, many flights up, where your feet don't touch the earth. You'd rather be part of The Life, and you refuse to go unnamed.
Now I have a little garden, and I dig and pick at it under the wide sky and the hovering buildings. There are quiet patches in the back garden when I can feel the sun's warmth and watch Vs of geese head south. (Why are they leaving so early? A magnetic shift in the poles, possible at any moment?) I have a job and a life that I can't leave. What would I do up there? You can't live your days on the mountainside, and the winters by Allagash Lake are cold and lonely. The night would swallow you whole. Here, bright lights beckon and the warmth of the friends with whom you've shared these places keeps you going. You laugh over dinner, and then you go back to work. The subway is hot and fetid, and the people crush in, and sometimes you long to be clean again, and bright, and forgotten to everything that thinks it knows you now.