Mount Black (Benton)
HIKED ON; September 21, 2022
Anyone who has ever made their hobby or passion into a job will know that it changes the relationship. I first did this with preaching. I have always been a performer. When I was in high school I was a theater kid. Somewhere in the back of my mind has always been the thought that I was most myself holding forth on stage and at the lunch table back in my senior and junior years. Now I am a pastor and there are lots of different parts of that job that have nothing to do with performance. Still, when I am in the pulpit I am happy. It is where I should be.
However, this type of performance is a job now. I have to take all kinds of things into account when preparing my worship services. I think about the people I see in church every week. How are they doing? What are they thinking about? I think about the seasons of the town and of the church. Are the kids in school? Is there a holiday or liturgical element I need to think about like water gathering, baptism, or communion?
Now it is sabbatical and I find that I am being rather businesslike in my approach to hiking as well. What is my schedule of mountains? What does each require? How is my body feeling, not for this one hike but for the next and the next? What do I hope to get out if it? Gone for now are the days of spontaneously hitting the trail, understanding that I can take all the time in the world until I do it again. This temporary change in relationship isn't bad...but it is different.
This was something of a pragmatic hike. I chose "Black of Benton" for a number of reasons. Partly it was because it is beyond the area I plan on exploring closely in October. The geographical diversity seemed desirable for right now. Partly it was because I wanted a moderate hike. I haven't climbed anything other than a flight of stairs since Mount Washington and need to stay in shape for larger hikes coming up. I also must make sure I don't injure myself. Black Mountain--a 52WAV mountain--fits the bill with an out-and-back trail of just under four miles and an elevation gain of just over 1,600 feet. I can be challenged and still recover in time for the next one.
Finally, there is an apple picking place just a few miles away. Not all outdoor time needs to be strenuous! My plan was to get a good workout with a full day pack, catch some views, and eat some apples without straining or pulling anything that would inhibit the next battery of hikes.
Another result of the temporary relationship change is that each hike feels a little bit like an appointment and obligation. There are days--I assume we have all had them--that contain an abundance of entropy. This was one of those days. Careening out of the parsonage at 5am I managed to lock myself out. Later, with that sorted, my car let me know that I was losing tire pressure. When I was figuring out what to do about that, I discovered that one of my water bottles had leaked all over my bag, my dry layers, and the maps and guidebooks I brought in the car with me. Somehow, though, I managed to hit the trailhead at 8:30, only an hour after my target time. I am not sure I would have persevered to that point if I didn't feel some responsibility. Apparently I have a schedule to keep.
This "hiking like its work" element had invaded my psyche. I have to admit that on this day in Benton I started way too fast. Maybe some of the stress of the morning influenced my mood. In any case it took me a while to figure out the office mentality I had brought to the trail. I specifically chose this mountain because it would be challenging but not exhausting. Yet there I was 30 minutes in...trucking right along and wearing myself out.
A socked-in scenic overlook--the views never really materialized--helped to slow me down. I waited for a minute to see if the clouds would blow away and then I turned around to see the remarkable stand of trees I was about to walk through. In the pause I was able to refocus.
If you are a mountain, you get to be called "Black" for one of two reasons. Either somebody with that surname lived on or near you for a while in the 18th or 19th century, or the trees that grow upon you are among the many varieties of dark-shaded conifers that grace our landscape. This Black Mountain--like most--falls into the latter category. Black mountain is full of tall old trees that from afar give it a gloomy appearance. On a rainy day in September, though, to be in among those dark trees is downright mystical. This slowed me down. How could I be missing the scene around me? Still, there was that feeling of work. The hike was still partly a task. I told people I was going to climb a bunch of mountains, after all.
One thing that I do in overly-businesslike situations is to actually add a fun and perhaps frivolous task that I can rationalize into being part of the project at hand. Enter photography. I had always wanted to do more with pictures. I was also a photographer in high school. I dressed all in black and did extensive studies of local gravestones. In my senior year I could be found either in the darkroom or near the stage. Just like hiking regularly, taking pictures slipped onto the back burner with the rise of work and children. To slow myself down on Black mountain I decided to try to figure out what capabilities my cellphone camera has. I always meant to, but there was the perpetual issue of something else going on.
To take a good picture--or even a "just okay" picture--one needs to slow down and observe the context. This is what I did. The 19th century nature writer John Burroughs tells us that "There is nothing in which people differ more than in their powers of observation. Some are only half alive to what is going on around them. Others, again, are keenly alive; their intelligence, their powers of recognition, are in full force in eye and ear at all times."*
Observation is one of the key steps to creation and creativity. That can be a sermon or a story we are making. It can be a picture, or a sabbath walk, or any number of other creations. Burroughs--writing in a shack in the middle of his vineyard--made a practice of observation. We should too. Sometimes I need to trick myself into thinking it is part of work...albeit a happy part. Maybe we all need to find ways to think of it as part of our being.
In the end I had a great time noticing the striations on the rocks and the emerging fall colors. At the top of the mountain I set a timer for 40 minutes to sit and experience the space I was in. After about 20 minutes a very chatty woman and her dog came up off the trail. We sat their talking and--unsuccessfully--waiting for the clouds to part for about 40 minutes. Then we hiked down.
I left my new friend to go check out the old lime kilns at the foot of the mountain. Limestone is relatively rare in New Hampshire but this operation was quite large. They would heat the stone in these massive structures and the resulting lime would be used in agriculture and construction. The kilns were built in 1838 and 1842, operated for 50 years, and then were restored as a WPA project.
I would have stayed longer there if it weren't for the presence of friendly-but-barely-controlled dog. It was full-fantasy mode. After a few more pictures I went back to the car and life...or whatever.
I did go apple-picking. That, however is a different post...
* Burroughs may be worth checking out. This quote is from his essay "The Art of Seeing Things"
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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.