Here to return to
A WEEK ON MOUNT WASHINGTON
I WENT up Mount Washington in the afternoon of August 22d, and came down again in the afternoon of the 29th. Ten years before I had spent a week there, in early July, and had not visited the place since. In some respects, of course, the summit is badly damaged (I have heard it spoken of as utterly ruined) by the presence of the hotel and other buildings, not to mention the railway trains, with their daily freight of bustling lunch-box tourists. Still the railway and the hotel are indisputable conveniences; I should hardly have stayed there so long without them; and in this imperfect world we must not expect to find all the good things in one basket.
As for the tourists, one need walk but a few steps to be rid of them. As a class they are not enterprising pedestrians. In fifteen minutes you may find yourself where human beings are as far away, practically, as if you were among the highest Andes or on the famous “peak in Darien.” There you may sit on a boulder, or recline on a mat of prostrate willow, and imagine yourself the only man in the world; gazing at the prospect, listening to the mountain silence (there is none like it), or eating alpine blueberries, as lonely as any hermit’s heart could wish. All this you may do, and then return to the most obliging of hosts, the best of good dinners, and a comfortable bed.
By the time you have been there two days, moreover, you will have begun to enjoy the hotel, not only for its physical comforts, but as an interesting miniature world. The manager and the clerk, the waiters and the bellboys, the editors and the printers, the night watchman and the train conductor, will all have become your friends, almost your blood relations, — such intimate good feeling does a joint seclusion induce, — and at any minute of the day in may come a group of strangers of the most engagingly picturesque sort; having no more the appearance of salesladies or women of fashion, shopkeepers or bankers’ clerks, than of college students and professors. They are men and women. They have put off the fine clothes and the smug appearance which society exacts of its members; they look not the least in the world as if they had just come out of a bandbox; their negligée costumes bear no resemblance to the dainty, immaculate rig of the tennis court or the golf links.
They are “roughing it” in earnest. For at least eight or ten hours, possibly for as many days, they have ceased to be concerned about the cut of their garments or the smoothness of their hair. Of some of them the aspect is fairly disreputable. It is a solemn fact that you may here see gentlemen with rents in their trousers and a week’s beard on their faces. And ten to one they will brazen it out without apology.
The dapper clerk and the prosperous merchant and his wife, who have ridden up in the train with their good clothes and their company faces on, may stare if they will. It is nothing to the campers and walkers. They are not on parade, and do not mind being smiled at. A pretty college girl will walk about the office, alpenstock in hand, with her hair tied in a careless knot, her skirts well above the tops of her scratched and dusty boots, her face brown and her sleeves tucked up, and seem quite as much at ease as if she were in full evening dress with the drawing-room lights blazing upon her alabaster shoulders, her laces, and her diamonds. It is heroism (or heroinism) of a kind worth seeing.
You are still enjoying the spectacle when two men enter the door, one with a botanical box slung over his shoulder. It is as if he had given you the Masonic grip, and you hardly wait for him to cross the sill before you make up to him with a question. By which route has he come, and what luck has he met with? Over the Crawford path, he answers, and though the season is pretty late, and Alpine plants are mostly out of bloom, he has found some interesting things.
Two or three of them he cannot name, and he opens the box. His special puzzle is a tiny, upright-growing plant, thickly set with roundish, crinkled leaves, and bearing a few blossoms so exceedingly small as almost to defy a common pocket-lens. Do you know what it is? Yes, to your own surprise, you remember, or seem to remember, and you run upstairs to bring down a Gray’s Manual. The plant is Euphrasia (eye-bright), an Alpine variety. It was pointed out to you ten years ago, near the same Crawford path, by the man who knew the Mount Washington flora better than any one else. You recall the time as if it had been yesterday. Your companion dropped suddenly upon his knees, eyes to the ground. “What are you looking for?” you asked; and he answered “Euphrasia.” It is good to see it again. You find it for yourself the next day, it may be, in the Alpine Garden.
And this other plant, stiffly matted and long past flowering? Your new acquaintance supposes it to be Diapensia; and for that you need no book. And this third one, with its rusty leaves, is the Lapland azalea. You remember the day you saw it first — in middle June — when all by yourself you were making your first ascent of the mountain, walking alternately over snowbanks and beds of flowers. So far as the lovely blossoms are concerned, you have never seen it since.
Next morning your botanist bids you good-by; he is going down by the way of Tuckerman’s Ravine; and at noon, after some indolent, happy hours on the carriage-road and in the Alpine Garden, you are again in the hotel office when half a dozen campers from the northern peaks make their appearance. Dusty, travel-stained, disheveled, they bring the freedom of the hills with them and fill the place with their breeziness. Some of the “transients” clustered about the stove smile at a sight so unconventional, but the manager, the clerk, and the bellboys are better informed. They have seen the leader of the party before, and in a minute the word is passed round. This is Mr.___, who came up the mountain with his son a year ago on the day of that dreadful storm, when two later adventurers upon the same path perished by the way, and he himself, old mountaineer that he was, with another life hanging upon his own, had more than once been all but ready to say, “It can’t be done.”
Your traveling companion has seen him here before, though she was not present on that memorable occasion, and presently you are being introduced to him and his friends — a metropolitan clergyman, a university professor, and a younger man, with whose excellent work in your own line you are already acquainted.
Anon the company breaks up, — the pedestrians are off for an afternoon excursion, — and you step out upon the platform to look about you. Against the railing are two men, one of them with what seems to be a “collecting gun” in his hand. “An ornithologist,” you say to yourself, and at the word you begin edging toward him. A remark or two about the weather and you ask him point-blank if he is collecting birds. No, he answers, his weapon is a rifle, and he shows you the cartridge. He has brought it along to shoot squirrels with. You wonder why any one should think it worth while to carry a gun over the nine miles of the Crawford path for so trifling a use; but that is none of your business, and just then the other man speaks up to say that his companion is a botanist, while he himself is a “bird man.” This is interesting (the second ornithologist within an hour), and you set about comparing notes. Did he hear anything of the Bicknell thrushes and the Hudsonian chickadees on his way up? No, he missed them both on this trip, though he has met them elsewhere in the mountains. You drop an innocent remark about the thrushes, and he says, “Are you Mr. So-and-So?” There is no denying it, and when he pronounces his own name it proves to be familiar; and a good talk follows. Then he starts down into the Alpine Garden, — you charging him to be sure to eat some of the delicious cespitose blueberries on the descent, — and ten minutes afterward he turns up again at your elbow. He has left his friend, and has hurried back to tell you of a sharp-shinned hawk that he has just seen. You may put the name into your Mount Washington bird list, if you will.
So the days pass — no day without a new acquaintance. If you and one of the local editors start down the trail to the Lakes of the Clouds after a Sunday-morning breakfast, you find yourselves going along with three Baltimore gentlemen, who have walked up from the Crawford House the day before (“Well, we arrive!” you remember to have heard the leader exclaim, as his foot struck the hotel platform), and are now on their return.
They introduce one another to you and your companion, — Dr. This, Dr. That, and Dr. The Other, — and you pick your way downward over the boulders in Indian file, talking as you go. After a while you and the oldest of the Baltimoreans find yourselves falling a little behind the rest, and the conversation grows more and more friendly. He has come to New Hampshire, as he does every year, for the best of all tonics, a dose of mountain climbing. He has been somewhat overworked of late, especially with a long task of proof-reading. A new edition of his treatise on chemistry is passing through the press, and the moment the last sheets were corrected he broke away northward; and here he is, walking over high places, where he loves to be. “I am an old man,” he says; but his strength is not abated. Far be the day! At the lakeside hands are shaken and good-bys said. You will most likely never see each other again, but one of you, at least, keeps a bright memory.
It is a strange place, the Summit House. Twice a day, as on the seashore, the tide rises and falls. But the evening flood is a small affair. The crowd comes at noon. It registers its name, eats its luncheon, writes a postal-card, buys a souvenir, asks a question or two, more or less pertinent (“Can you tell me where the Tip-Over House is?” one good woman said — for the rarified air plays queer pranks with its victims), possibly looks at the prospect, probably snaps a camera, and then takes the after-dinner train for the base. Evening passengers make a longer stay. They cannot do otherwise. For them the sunset and the sunrise are the great events. One would think that such phenomena were never to be witnessed in the low country. They watch the clouds, or more likely the cloud, and go to sleep with one ear open for the sunrise bell.
So much for the larger number of Summit House guests, the respectable majority. A few, two in twenty, perhaps, arrive on foot; and these are the good ones — the salt of the mountain, so to speak. This time I was not one of them, but I had no thought of denying the superiority of their privilege.