Trees and Mountains

It is a stunning, perfect late June morning, a Thursday.  I climb early, 6:30, before heading out of town to climb Camel’s Hump.  Both girls are away, and this is my free day this week, and one of my few free days this year, to climb a mountain.  My gear is in the car, lunch and bananas and protein bars packed, hiking boots stowed away, and a bag of clothes to change into afterwards.  I will be heading straight on to Rochester afterwards to meet Kim  in the early evening so we can go to Claire’s Village Harmony concert there.  She has been away for a week and half, and they have just begun their New England tour.  Emme is still at gymnastics camp up in South Hero on Lake Champlain–tomorrow afternoon we will pick her up and head to another Village Harmony performance up in Greensboro, in the Northeast Kingdom.

But for now I enjoy the particular exultation of being in a tree early on a summer morning.  The freshness of the day is incomparable.  And soon I am in the car, heading north, Ken and Brad Kolodner’s album Otter Creek playing, as it always is when I head off to hike.  It is my mountain music.  Something about it captures the energy and open sense of possibility that greets the beginning of a mountain journey.

And climbing the tree this morning, en route to climbing a mountain, reminds me that, in a way, this is what my daily ascent of the tree is for me: a symbolic mountain climb.  It is about exploration and ascent. It is a tiny quest and a tiny adventure.  It is about leaving the familiar world behind for a new perspective–even if only forty feet above the ground.  It is about immersing oneself in the glory of the natural world, laying oneself open to its mystery and its beauty.

It is climbing a mountain in miniature.

I have thought about this in the tree before, about the ways in which being up there is like climbing a mountain, writ small.  This was in part what inspired me to start climbing the tree in the first place: I have no mountain to climb every day, nor time to climb it.

Today, while climbing the mountain, I ponder the ways it is simply an expansion, an enlargement, of climbing the tree.  It is climbing a tree higher, and longer, and in greater depth.

As I turn onto the Dean Trail from the Monroe Trail and circle around Camel’s Hump until I meet the Long Trail where it approaches the summit from the south–as I rise slowly up the flank of the mountain and at last break above the tree line and turn to see the magnificent bowl of the world laid out behind and below me–I think, this is not different in essence from being in my tree.

And holding to the thread of this is what keeps climbing the same tree every day profoundly meaningful.  I don’t get to see immense cloud-shadows slide across the rumpled landscape, or massive outcroppings of rock tower above me, and then drop off below me, but it is a kind of intimate version of that, scaled down in size and, especially, in time: three minutes up and down at the end of a busy day.  A day that, alas, will not admit a mountain–but can nonetheless contain its essence, a kind of mountain-thread running through it: a tree.

I leap from rock to rock across the summit of the mountain when I have finished lunch.  It is not unlike leaping from branch to branch in my tree.  I examine clumps of Diapensia, small white alpine flowers that grow in tufts from cracks in the rocks.  They are not unlike the moss growing from crevices in the bark of the tree, but in slightly larger clumps, and with flowers.

I spend about an hour and a half on the summit, alternately eating, musing on the landscape below, watching fellow hikers, and venturing off again to explore the mountain top–more rock-leaping and more clumps of Diapensia.  When I first reached the top it was empty but for the young man who was the caretaker for the day; when I finally sling my backpack over my shoulder to go down there are three dozen people and a couple of dogs.

On the way from Camel’s Hump to Rochester I stop at Warren Falls and wade in to rinse off the heat and exertion of the day.  It is exhilarating to stand waist deep and then drop below the surface, standing again to emerge streaming with ice-cold water.  I sit in the sun on the water-sculpted rocks to drip dry and watch teenagers line up to jump from cliffs down into the bowl of the river below.

The Village Harmony concert is superb: a mixture of Lithuanian, Latin American, South African, and traditional American music.  The singers are radiant and the music is exuberant.  It’s like being on top of a mountain all over again.