The prophet John Muir

“I must drift about these love-monument mountains, glad to be a servant of servants in so holy a wilderness.” John Muir – “My First Summer in the Sierra”

My friends, I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love. This is the literary equivalent of texting your bestie from the bathroom at a date to tell her that you have found *the one*. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without really getting to know this man who is so very perfect for me.

My heart-throb

In a desultory fashion, I saw his book when I was up at Mt. Rainier buying All The Mt. Rainier Things. And I now own no fewer than two t-shirts that say “The mountains are calling and I must go” citing him and Rainier in the same breath. So before I headed off backpacking with my son I downloaded his “Nature Writings” – which start with his autobiography. His life starts out both hard and common. He speaks of the beatings, the fighting, the memorization that mark his childhood. To modern ears it sounds beyond brutal and brutalizing. In his teenage years, his father abandons him down a well for the better part of a day for days on end (where he nearly dies), and his growth is stunted by the heavy constant labors of plowing and toiling in fields. But somehow he wakes up hours early every day and invents (without the internet, or even many books) devices whose purpose I can’t even understand, never mind whose workings.

Somehow, from that drudgery and brutality, is born an open-hearted poet.

This man speaks to me in a way I thought only Tolkien could. He is a co-religionist in every sense. Like me, he was a Presbyterian, although raised in a much more stern and unforgiving religious environment. But he seems to find God in the same places I do – in the mountains and streams and forests. His love of nature is a worshipful reflection of a God whom he never seems to be able to see as nearly as cold and unkind and punishing as his father apparently did. While is story of his youth makes you want to pity him, you can’t. Because through the 16 hour days, the frozen feet, the stunted growth he’s always noticing the beauty and the loveliness of the world and people around him.

Me and the mountain that most often picks up the phone to call me

I’ve just started on his “My First Summer in the Sierra” and oh! How he speaks of the mountains! It’s like hearing someone praise your own beloved, but in words better than you could find. It’s like hearing a prophet speak of your faith, or finding a poet whose words express your heart’s great secrets. I thought that in reading Muir I’d have to put on my “reading 19th century white dude” filter (well-honed to note and then pass by mysogyny, colonialism, racism, and a belief that not only were the spoils of the Americas limitless they were the rightful property of white folks). I’ve been astonished to meet among the pages of these mountain praises the thoughts of a man who generally seems to see all other humans as of equal worth – a man who also understands the gift and limitation of nature’s bounty. Even as he leads sheep to fatten on alpine meadows, he laments the impact of mankind and our beasts on the world, “Only the sky will then be safe, though hid from view by dust and smoke, incense of a bad sacrifice.” (p. 208) One begins to understand by whose hand, and why and how, these marvels were set aside for us in the first place.

My reading has just begun. I start to wish that I had a lovely copy of his works – a Riverside Muir as you would. It seems almost sacrilegious to read his works on the most quintessentially modern Kindle. I feel like I should find a grove in which to encounter his texts as sacred witness to God’s most glorious creations.

Chocorua from White Lake in November

There should be some great conclusion here – some wrapped up discovery. Instead there’s just a hopefulness – that his other writings refresh and inspire my heart so. The astonishing awakening of the morality and decency of those from whom we expected a more “of their era” myopia – and perhaps a similar inspiration to be better than our own era demands. The rising heart of someone who has discovered a whole body of work that seems designed to inspire them, and of which they’ve barely sipped. I can see my future self slowly meting out writings in moments of either great reflection or great need, to feed a famished soul.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”

Mt. Chocorua at sunset

Muir, John. John Muir: Nature Writings (LOA #92): The Story of My Boyhood and Youth / My First Summer in the Sierra / The Mountains of California / Stickeen / essays (Library of America) Library of America. Kindle Edition.

White Mountain Hotel: historic without history

White Mountain Hotel - taking in fading light. Not in black and white.
White Mountain Hotel – taken in fading light. Not in black and white.

I will never ski again. This is not a mournful expression, but a promise to myself to ease my anxiety even looking at the slopes. Skiing, which I have only done once, and only for half a run, cost me great pain and brought me no pleasure. But I am raising New Englanders, and we love the mountains of New Hampshire, so… here I am, close to the shadow of Chocorua, in the snow.

For the second year we are staying at the
White Mountain Hotel
. It’s a grand old inn, nestled between a state park containing a truly impressive thousand foot granite cliff, and a state park containing a picturesque mountain lake. It has a gazebo, a pool heated to 90+ degrees where my children swim in the driving snow, a grand entryway with a roaring fireplace, and an elegant dining room with an unparalleled view of the mountains around Conway.

It is charming, comfortable and soothes my heart with the glimpses of mountain majesty through every window. From the warm couch in my comfortable room, I’ve all day watched a line of cold-looking people wait their turn in 17 degree weather to scale White Horse Ledge. That sounds hard enough in good weather!

This grand hotel is also just that level of worn that makes you think of ghosts. I polled through the histories of the region, to see if I could find the provenance of this grand old lady on the hill. It has the feel of history to it. One book I found (thank you Google Books!) had descriptions of hotels and I wondered if it might be this one, under a different name.

Sunset Pavilion
Sunset Pavilion
(The History of the White Mountains: From the First Settlement of Upper Coos and Pequaket by Lucy Crawford, 1883)

My favorite line there is from another ad, which speaks of “the beautiful views of weird Chocorua”. Mount Chocorua haunts me. I once tried to climb it and failed, and have been thwarted in climbing it ever since. (It’s too long and risky to go alone. My children cannot yet tackle it. And I can’t go with my husband because who would watch the children? And so I watch it and it taunts me in its loveliness. Someday!)

Chocorua is the peak to the right in this picture of White Lake
Chocorua is the peak to the right in this picture of White Lake

I began to wonder why the hotel didn’t boast of it’s history anywhere I could see. Where was the “built in 18XX”, or the faded picture on the wall to give it that great sense of gravitas that so rightly belonged to it? Although I scanned the histories and advertisements, I found nothing that boasted of this spot between cliff and lake. I pondered the scandal that might cause them to try to blot out all prior histories. A murder perhaps? Was this hotel featured in some haunting book? Like, oh, The Shining?

Finally, I looked up specifically when this hotel was built. 1990. So much for that romantic fancy! And so much for my quiet afternoon – time to pick up my skiiers!

My snow bunnies
My snow bunnies

Short but mean: thoughts on the White Mountains

Mt. Chocorua as seen from White Lake State Park
Mt. Chocorua as seen from White Lake State Park (last year!)

I’m a mountain girl. I always have been. For most of my life I’ve lived within 100 miles of the sea. For the last 15 years, I’ve lived within 10 miles. Entire years have been strung together when I haven’t once gone to a beach or gazed over the crashing waves. Back in my dorm room, in college, where other people had pictures of their dogs or their high school friends, my wall was plastered with Mt. Rainier.

Mt. Rainier is 14,411 feet tall. If you ask me what the proper height for a real mountain would be, I’d venture that between 14 and 15 thousand feet is just about right. Anything you can drive to the top of can categorically not be a mountain. This was, at least, my opinion for years. But it has mysteriously come to pass that I am living in New England, and have lo these fifteen years. And while I might make condescending noises about the so called “mountains” that top out at a piffulous five thousand feet (barely a hill!), my sons are New Englanders and my weekends for the forseeable future will be spent in New England.

For three summers, now, we have camped at White Lake State Park, which is a lovely combination of rustic and convenient. We have driven over the Kankamangus on our “Car Walks” in foul and fair weather. And I’ve been lured, I confess, to thinking about hiking those trails branching off appealingly to the sides of the road.

This weekend, a strange collection of events made it possible for my beloved husband and I go camping up there, BY OURSELVES. After the 4th of July trip, replete with great whining, we were wondering whether we actually LIKED camping. (In retrospect, camping is less fun with a massively swollen knee and several torn ligaments – FYI.) The answer by the way is yes – we do like camping!

Yesterday after a leisurely and late morning, we went to the ranger station for the White Mountain National Forest for advice on trails and to buy a parking pass. The advice was greatly needed, since Irene had actually closed the Kankamangus. The ranger pointed us to a moderate 4 – 6 hour hike, which was exactly what we’d asked for.

Little did we know he was a maniac. The route in question was originally intended to summit Mt. Chocorua by way of Champney Falls. It gained roughly 3000 feet over the course of 3 miles. Much of the trail looked like this:

Our heroine, winded, less than half way up.
Our heroine, winded, less than half way up.

Other sections of the trail were steep and had bad footing.

Sadly, good sense caused us to turn back .6 of a mile short of the summit of Mt. Chocorua. (There were thundrous looking clouds overhead and I was concerned regarding whether we had enough daylight to safely navigate our way down.) But altogether, it was a splendid hike. I’m delighted to report that my knee, shredded as it is, endured remarkably and gave me hardly any trouble the entire hike. It was a lovely farewell to mobility for me.

Of course, drying my foot in the shower that night (see also: civilized campground) I managed to activate my torn meniscus and I am once again limping and moaning, but that’s not the fault of the Champney Falls trail!

I have backpacked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier – much of it more than once (and sans ACL, by the way). I have hoisted 40 pound packs over 7000 foot high glacier-ridden saddles between great mountains. I have watched eagles soar beneath my feet and clouds break on the shores of alpine meadows like waves. This trail was as mean as any I have known, and I have known many.

Over time I have come to realize that these tame, worn-down, solid, glacier-riven granite mountains of my adopted home are, perhaps, shorter than their younger Western siblings. You may be able to drive your station wagon to the top of Mt. Washington. Coming down from the Kankamangus, you may have your choice of (bad) burgers and beer to slake your hunger and thirst. But for all that, these are no less mountains. Their trails are no less treacherous and difficult. Indeed, perhaps they are more so. My beloved Cascades flaunt their glory and majesty. The White Mountains are crafty and guilesome in their old age, revealing their splendour more in their rainment than in their bodies. But, grudgingly, I am coming to respect them. Perhaps even to like them.

We’ll see how this goes.

Mt. Chocorua

Here are some more pictures of the summer