My dad hiked the presidential traverse with old-man strength, slow and unceasing. I gather that’s what it takes to get through a life. I took to the range with youthful fits and starts, a joyful sprint ahead and then suddenly doubtful that we would ever make it across the mountains, eager to stop and set up camp. The presidential traverse is a 23 mile hike crossing ten New Hampshire peaks, nine named after presidents and one, Mount Clay, strangely named instead for a 19th century Senator. Dad and I were only 100 meters up Clay’s flank when it started to rain, and I could still see behind us the last lodge, pine and weathered with spiced cider inside. I suggested turning back, though I knew he wouldn’t agree.
From the saddle between Mount Jefferson and Mount Clay we had watched the clouds gather through the morning, us two scrambling across exposed rocks above tree line. With no trunks for blazes, we instead followed cairns, stacks of rocks with the top rock painted white. As the rain began on Clay, the white rocks in the distance glistened like plastic grocery bags then faded as if blowing away, and there went our only guides. We slid into our raincoats and rain pants, bowed our heads against the rising wind, and picked our way up across the slippery rocks. Thunder rumbled. Dad said: let’s just get over the peak and down the other side, and then we’ll be set up for our Mount Washington ascent in the afternoon.
We rose up Mount Clay in the rain, and Washington came into view, king mountain of the Northeast. Its majesty was shrouded in deep purple clouds, today the home of a dark lord, tomorrow perhaps vanquished by the sun. We could hike this mountain a million times and witness a million tales unfold. This day, just as we crested the peak of Mount Clay, a bolt of lightening, full-bodied with a textbook zig-zag, hit the near side of dark Mount Washington, the sword of light centered immediately in front of us as if placed for our viewing pleasure.
I turned around and yelled 10 meters down the rocks to where my dad was coming up behind, we can’t continue forward. It was pouring now and tree line was a 20-minute hike below. We scrambled down the rocks to a patch of krumholtz, dug out our tarp, trying to avoid soaking the rest of our belongings, crawled together into a small gap in the hedge, and pulled the tarp over us. Then we waited, protected only by the knarled arms of the alpine bush.
I don’t know how much time passed under the tarp; I could smell the plastic, hear the daggers of rain on the outside, could feel my dad’s body pressed against my side as we both hugged our knees. When I dared open my eyes, I could only see a few specs of wet dirt on a patch of blue, but no matter what I did I could feel the crushing immensity of the world outside. The intervals of thunder and lightening inched closer together, and the roar of the storm rose to where each strike I felt a sensation of explosion within my own body. The single most basic, common piece of backpacking advice is to stay below tree line in a lightening storm, and yet here we were, Dad. In the time between the strikes, I did nothing but consider the possibility that the next strike would land on us. It seemed as possible as it was impossible.
The minutes ticked and eventually I thought, though maybe imagined, that the clashes of thunder softened ever so slightly. After eternity had come and gone, my dad finally said, seems like we’re past the worst of it. The rain still pattered on our tarp, morphing into a friendly tapping sound as the storm stampeded further and further from our hiding place.
We unsheathed ourselves from the tarp and emerged from the stubby branches of the krumholtz onto the sopping ground, the rain slowing to a drizzle and then just a gray sky. Behind us in the bush was a dry brown circle that the tarp had held sacred. We flicked our hands and boots to release a spray of droplets, unzipped the many zippers requisite on all camping apparel, and laid our rain gear over the branches of the krumholtz that had protected us through the storm. I suppose, based on its greyed, stunted branches, that the plant had seen much worse. But me, I never had.
Then, in front of us, again as if choreographed for viewing from our very spot, a ray of sun dissolved a southeasterly swath of the gray sky, illuminating two great oceans of mist, which appeared from nothing and rose from the valleys on either side of the mountain range. On our left and right, the bodies of mist swirled and expanded, rose and converged toward the center, like immense hands lifting for a prayer. The mists approached one another over the saddle, channeling through the mountain pass from which we had just come, rising up and fanning across the face of Mount Jefferson in a lacy arc. I watched silently, singularly, as the thin layers of mist caressed the mountain, moving across it in opposite directions, the eddies and streams of tiny droplets reacting to the invisible strokes of heat and wind, lit seemingly from the inside by a new sun, creating before me an artwork seen only once, ever, by me and my father.
Had it been up to me, I would have stayed in the lodge.
As suddenly as it had come, the mist dissolved, and we emerged from our stupor to realize that it was a sunny day and our rain gear was nearly dry.
Thanks to Phil Kaye for the 5 for 5 and feedback.
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