Hiked On October 4, 2022 (via Cross Rivendell Trail)
It is the first hike of October and the foliage situation is improving. Right now--at least on Mount Cube--it is all about orange and yellow with a few touches of red. When it isn't raining, the temperature is just about perfect. I am going to have to switch out from my summer pack to my regular pack this week. The number of layers I use in a day out is increasing. There is a gentle smell in the air of wetness and rot. It is a beautiful time for a sabbath walk.
Also, there are fewer people out on the trails. Vacation is over and the peak season of outdoor activity is behind us now. In fact, it turns out that if you hike this mountain early in the morning on a Tuesday in October, you can have the place to yourself. I have never been so alone on a mountain. There were no cars at the trailhead. I saw nobody at the intersections with other trails. That was fine by me.
Still, it felt a bit strange. When I hike by myself I am rarely alone. There are people around even if I don't see them or talk to them. On the days with rain and fog at the top--most recently Katahdin and Black (Benton)--there are still some hardy types. On Black it was just a couple people. On Katahdin there were plenty. I chose the mountain and the day with isolation in mind. In fact, I considered the Webster-Jackson loop--which would have been populated even on a weekday--and rejected the idea. Cube guaranteed silent-time with nature. I just didn't realize how much silent-time...
For people who hike a great deal, seeking isolation is frequently part (or all) of the goal. It isn't all fun outings. We want to be anonymous for our own reasons. The trauma of the plague, at least, has given many folks the drive to get away. Each individual, though, has a motivation unique to them. They can be dark reasons or not, but they are still present in our hearts somewhere, possibly not yet fully realized.
The mountains don't care who you are, after all. They can be good spots to work things out. There is positive power in sitting with only the vastness for company. Many times, no one will even bother you.
I seem to be drawn to isolation myself, lately. There are times in one's life when a person wants to change things even if they are pretty social during everyday life. During this sabbatical season the fall in the air has prompted a desire to fade from view a bit. Anonymity is appealing. When someone is unknown, they can change how they dress, look, and act if that is what is desired. Time away helps with that.
Time in a relatively undisturbed ecosystem--which is constantly emerging and reinventing itself--helps, too. For a moment we can slip into creation's rhythms and see ourselves as non-static beings. We are able to escape Society's wish to cast us permanently in our current outward role. In the wild we do not have to play the part of good or bad, strong or weak, foolish or wise that has been our assignment through the passing of years. We are observed, judged, and graded in life. These pressures strive to mold us. Sometimes they do so in inauthentic ways.
Many of the people I meet out in the forest are seeking out the liminal space in offers. On the trail we are reminded that all is in flux; that there is death, life, and possibility in every new step. We do not have to be who we have become. We do not need to carry those burdens.
That said, I didn't meet any of those adventurous changing people on Mount Cube. I was that alone.
Now practically speaking, on this particular walk, there were disadvantages to this isolation. First, I hadn't counted on being so tired at the beginning. My knees remembered the Katahdin hike differently from how my mind remembered it. It wasn't all about the beauty of the day or the companionship of the AT hikers. It was mostly pain, apparently. This creakiness came in part from having so few distractions. It takes a while to ease out of drive-mode into walk-mode. I could have used a person or two to facilitate the transition. Also, it isn't always great to be alone with your thoughts. One can have trouble settling down and putting aside whatever negative emotions have built up just from being alive and around people.
The advantages, though, outweighed the burdens. The day was postcard-worthy. There was a mild breeze by mountain standards and the views were back. I encountered a couple view points on the way up; places where the rock ledges had overwhelmed any attempt the trees made to expand there. Then--as often happens--there was a scramble over exposed rock to the first of two peaks.
The Cube's south peak is on the 52 With-A-View list. A wide valley can be seen with Smarts Mountain--only 4 miles away--dominating the landscape. The site of at least two plane crashes, it, too is on my list.
After spending some time there I progressed along a few hundred yards of the AT, which passed just below the peak, itself. This led to a side trail that brought me, eventually, to the north peak. The course here was relatively flat and narrow. The trees pressed close in in a way that made this part of the journey feel like exploring a room or a hallway. I don't know how else to describe the phenomenon. It happens occasionally close to the top of a mountain or along a ridge where the contours of the terrain and the tight network of plants break the wind. In those places it feels like all you would need is a roof to live there forever.
The north peak had its own views. Moosilauke, Black (Benton), and Blueberry mountain were easy to identify. The first was noticeable for its size and the others for their ledges. Again, a valley stretched out between them and me. In this case the trees had given it an orange tint that was mesmerizing. I sat at the viewpoint for a while and then started back.
One of the problems with hiking alone is that there is only one brain to rely on when you get turned around. For this reason I took a bearing from the trailhead to make sure I could stumble down to the logging road where I left my car if need be. In this case it was more about retracing my steps along broad ledges that resist signs of foot traffic.
Eventually I made back to the entrance of the tight corridor of trees and returned to South Peak. There I sat for a while. If you read my Watatic post you know I am trying to do more of that. My companion in this instance was a smallish tree situated near the same sort of 19th and early 20th century graffiti that graces many popular mountains in Massachusetts; old names of visitors carved deeply into ledge rock. At this point it was easy to remember that aloneness is not the same as loneliness, that we aren't really alone anyway, and that our thoughts--or non-thoughts--can be good companions.
I pointed my feet toward the car. Trails always look a little different heading in the other direction. I noticed small paths to secret campsites along with some glimpses through the trees that I had previously missed. The challenge of the end of the hike is that--in the returning--all the pressures of life return as well. It starts with figuring out a route home and then cascades from there. Mindfulness can keep these worries at bay for a while, but not forever.
About a fifth of a mile from the trailhead I encountered two women heading up. I said hello and kept on moving. It was like a shift change. It was their turn to have Mount Cube to themselves.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.