Mountains, hiking and camping

Mountains fire our imaginations, impress us, humble us, challenge us. They are complex, as forests are. They do not yield their secrets easily. I have hiked in mountains and camped in some of them, and I suppose in the back of my mind I was always hoping to discover something.

My home state, Virginia, is rich in mountains. They are not awesome. Their peaks rise to a maximum of only 5,729 feet above sea level, and that is reached gradually, not abruptly. Their cliffs are not extraordinary, not like the north face of Switzerland’s Eiger, below which I have hiked with respectful humility on the mountain’s flanks.

The mountains of Virginia are green and lush, shapely and sensual, blue in the distance, intensely alive in every square foot. Trees cloak them, and waters trickle beneath their leaves and rocks and form streams farther downslope and rivers below the feet of the mountains to find their way to the Atlantic. Sometimes you hear water gurgling between rocks without being able to see it, because the water has eroded its way between and beneath the rocks while moss and leaves and twigs and weeds have gradually accumulated atop the rocks to hide the water. You hear the trees creaking. You encounter deer and black bear, and maybe pheasants and wild turkeys and always the wind-riding buzzards. You expect deer to be timid, but it takes a few meetings to get used to the fact that black bears commonly are timid, too.

Once, only once, I encountered a bobcat, a rare sight because they are so wary of humans. I was walking silently and alone, my footsteps muffled by pine needles cushioning the trail as I rounded a curve. The bobcat was much bigger than I expected, seemingly the size of a mountain lion, but that impression must have been caused by my surprise. In any case it definitely had a bobbed tail, and there are no mountain lions in Virginia or elsewhere in the Appalachians. It vanished quickly into the woods.

I have camped alone and with others. It is hard for me to fall asleep in such circumstances, and usually I lie awake well past midnight when I camp out. I listen to the wind in the trees. The stars wheel overhead so bright and crowded that I cannot pick out the constellations amid the multitudinous points of light. Occasionally there is a shooting star. Once I camped in a grassy area above the edge of a steep slope that faced toward the Shenandoah Valley, and deer came out at night to graze on the grass after my fire had died out. They moved slowly, their bodies in dark silhouette against the distant twinkling lights of towns in the valley. The towns were down near Harrisonburg, but I was up on the edge of heaven.

I camped once on Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia, and I heard the strangest thing. I was trying to go to sleep without a tent on a beautiful night, with the top of a cliff just beyond my feet and a swell of smooth rock behind my head. Lying there awake late, I heard animals start to make noises of struggle beyond that swell of rock. They were fighting or mating, I do not know which. They sounded big. I do not know what animals they were. I did not dare raise myself up and look over the rock swell for fear of being seen or heard and attacked. There would have been no place for me to retreat unless I wanted to jump down the cliff, possibly to my death. So I lay there and listened, and after a while the fighting or mating ended.

The mountains in the western United States are more impressive and less friendly. They are much higher, of course, and at their altitude there might be snow in summer. I hiked over snow in late June in Rocky Mountain National Park, where I walked from Bear Lake to Black Lake. The next day I hiked up Flattop Mountain, at the top of which I was rewarded with knowing that I had reached the Continental Divide. I was there in June. A thunderstorm shook the air as I walked back down. In winter, I have read, the winds tearing across the top of the mountain there often reach hurricane force.

Mountains create their own weather partly because they channel the flowing air. Just as you can make water shoot out of a hose faster and farther by constricting the nozzle, so mountains make the winds pick up speed by constricting the space through which the air moves. The mountains force the air up and over, and the air often races over. Moisture carried upward often will cool and condense to form cloud as it rises. This gives some peaks chronic cloud cover. The moisture becomes visible as it forms rising tendrils of wispy clouds, then it becomes invisible again as it dissipates on the other side of the ridge, leaving the top of the mountain with a cloud cap that seems to be holding in place even though its content is ever changing.

In Glacier National Park, I hiked with a friend amid mountains that rise with remarkable abruptness from the valleys. It is as if the mountains were designed for dramatic effect, without gradual climbing slopes at their feet. We hiked in grizzly bear country without seeing any grizzlies, which may be just as well. The park adjoins Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, and when we drove north to Waterton we stopped along the way at an overlook on a ridge running north-south. The wind from the west rose up the ridge. Two bald eagles, maybe a mated pair, came riding up the wind. They were circling around each other in an incredibly graceful swirling dance as they rode the rising air current up and over the ridge. We groundlings watched in awe. They were poetry. They were perfect.

I hiked in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Taos in New Mexico after a snowfall one October. There was an average of maybe five inches of snow on the ground, enough to deter most hikers, leaving the Mount Wheeler trail to me and about ten other people. I hiked mostly alone. The sky was very clear and blue. In some places the snow was swept into drifts, but none that barred the trail. I made it up to the central spine of the range, where you can see mountains to the west beyond Taos and the Rio Grande, and you can see open plains eastward to the curving edge of the earth. I hiked a little higher, until I was above the tree line. Beyond that the snow seemed too deep for me to go all the way to the peak of Mount Wheeler. So I turned back, feeling fulfilled.

Europeans make mountain hiking more pleasant, more like a picnic jaunt. Cable cars take you up to the heights, and in some cases cog-wheel trains take you up. In the French Alps near Mont Blanc, little restaurants are built on the mountainsides. It is a delightful surprise when you first encounter one. I hiked along a mountainside trail, the slopes below falling far down to the town of Chamonix in the remote distance, and then I came to a mountainside establishment with an outdoor deck where I drank a beer and some people sipped wine or had a bite to eat. The Mer de Glace glacier filled the bottom of a narrow valley below. What a way to experience nature. It is not at all a wilderness experience. Europeans have tamed nature to a greater extent than Americans have. For Europeans, nature is there to enjoy, not to challenge or endure.

Switzerland has the most dramatically beautiful scenery that I have seen. Grindelwald is in a perfect location for hiking. The Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau stand above the valley of Grindelwald. They are three of the many mountains of the Bernese Oberland. I hiked on the lower slopes of the Eiger on a trail that had very few other people that day. I rode a cable car up long green slopes (skiing slopes in winter) to hike northward from Grindelwald. On that trail I reached the top of a low peak, the Faulhorn, from which I could see the incredible masses of the Bernese Oberland to the south and a pair of Switzerland’s larger lakes, Thuner See and Brienzer See, way down below to the north. The mountains seemed to go on forever in all directions, although lower and lower to the north.

From the Faulhorn, the trail led west. The melodious clinking sounds of cowbells and sheep bells rose up from green slopes below. It was an incredibly lovely sound, making the mountains seem more welcoming, making me want to stay there, to live there. It was the sound of timeless patterns of living—taking the livestock up to the high pastures in summer, back down to the valleys and barns in winter. The clinking sounds carried a long way. At times I could not see the cows or sheep at all, just hear their bells from beyond the shoulder of some deeper slope.

At one point on that trail west of the Faulhorn I encountered a sheep that nervously watched me approach and then finally hurried off the path to let me pass, because of course I am a very frightening figure. To a sheep, anyway. By contrast, I recall an irate chipmunk that angrily chewed me out, chittering and chittering, because I was passing too close to its nest in Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I did not seem to frighten that little guy. Our mountains may not be very high in Virginia, and they may not be dramatic in their softly rounded hazy distances, but their secrets are protected by fierce chipmunks.

November 2012

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