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THE NORTHERN PEAKS
Some Fascinations of the Gulfside Trail in Stormy Weather
The summit of Mount Washington sits on so high buttresses of the lesser spurs and cols of the Presidential Range that it is not always easy to recognize its true height. From the south, east and west it is a mountain sitting upon mountains, gaining in grandeur indeed thereby but losing in individuality. To realize the mountain itself I like to look at it from the summit of Madison, the northernmost of the northern peaks. There you see the long, majestic upward sweep of the Chandler Ridge, swelling to the rock-burst of the Nelson Crag, and beyond that, higher yet and farther withdrawn, the very summit, immeasurably distant and lofty, across the mighty depths of the Great Gulf. Here is the real mountain and the whole of it laid out for the eye from the beginnings in the low valley of the Peabody River to the corrugated pinnacle which is the crest. It takes the gulf to make us realize the mountain, and great as the gulf is it is forgotten in the mighty creature that rears its head into the clouds beyond it. From Madison the mountain has more than individuality. It has personality. It is as if some great god of Chaos had crushed an image of immensity out of new-formed stone. To look long at this from the northernmost peak is to realize its personality more and more. If some day, sitting on the pinnacled jumble of broken rock which is Madison summit, I see the mighty one shiver and wake and hear him speak, I shall be terrified, without doubt, but not surprised.
Clouds on the Northern Peaks, Mount Adams seen from Mount Washington summit
When August comes to the Northern Peaks I like to come too, by way of the Gulfside Trail which leaves the carriage road a little below the summit of Washington and skirts the head wall of the Great Gulf. Here in early August, just off the carriage road, I am sure to find the mountain harebells nodding friendly to me in the breeze, their wonderful violet-blue corollas flecking the bare slopes with a beauty that is as dear as it is unassuming. It is easy to stride by these and not see them, so much they seem but shadow flecks of the sky above, yet once seen no one can go by without stopping for at least a time to worship their brave loveliness. Flowers of intense individuality are the harebells, with each group having, oftentimes, characteristics peculiarly its own. It seems always to me that these of the high summits of the Presidential Range are of a deeper, richer blue than any others. This may be because of the atmosphere in which I see them. They and the mountain goldenrod, the Spiræa latifolia and the little dwarf rattlesnake-root with its nodding, yellowish, composite flowers, have come in to take the places of the spring blooms that opened in these high gardens with July. Down at the sea level the seasons have three months each. Up here July is spring, August is summer, and the autumn has flown from the hilltops before the last days of September have passed.
Of the spring flowers that have lingered beyond the limits of their season are the beautiful little mountain sandwort, whose clumps still bloom white in favored spots, though most of the others hold seed pods only, and the three-toothed cinquefoil with its blossoms so like those of a small running blackberry that it is easy to mistake it for a stray from the pastures far below. The mountain avens, too, has what seems a belated crop of its yellow, buttercup-like blooms in a few places, though Over the most of its area brown seed heads only nod on the tall blossom stalks. Such are the flowers of the Presidential Range high plateaus in earliest August, and though the harebells are to me the most beautiful and most striking, individually, the mountain goldenrod outdoes all others in profusion of color, its golden sprays swarming up from the Great Gulf to the trail about its head and garlanding the rocks toward the summit with feathery bloom that lures the lowland butterflies to climb trails of their own as far as it goes and to soar over the very summit in search of more of it. As a background for these flowers grows the mountain spear-grass, which is so much like the June grass of our lowland fields, its feathery blooms making a soft purple mist in many places. On the very summit of Washington this is abundant, disputing the scant soil with the sandwort, the two the most Alpine of all New England plants. Rapidly indeed do all these plant dwellers in Alpine heights hasten through their love and labor of the summer season, for with October comes the winter which will put them all to sleep until the end of the following June.
The human sojourner in this region needs as well to hasten wisely with an eye on the weather. My early August trip began at the Halfway House and strolled on up the mountain in very pleasant morning sunshine. On the col between Washington and Clay the sun had hazed and the cool sea odor of the southeast wind bade me cut short my worship of harebells and mountain goldenrod. Yet so clear was the air that every detail of the bottom of the Gulf stood out to the eye, and Spaulding Lake, a quarter mile below me and a mile distant, looked so near that it seemed as if with a jump and perhaps two flops of even clumsy wings I might light in it. Where the path swings round the east side of Jefferson I began to get glimpses of the mountains far to southeastward, and as I stood above Ding-maul Rock and looked straight down Jefferson Ravine I could see the haze behind the southeast wind shutting off these as well as the sun. The great hills no longer sat solidly on the earth beneath. Instead a soft blue dust of turquoise gems flowed up from the valleys and lifted them from their foundations till they floated gently zenithward through an increasing sea of this same semi-opaque blue. Always the distant mountains are ethereal. Tramp them as much as you may, get the scars of their granite ledges on yourself, as you surely will if you climb them, get to know their every crag and ravine if you can; and when it is all done and you look at the mountain only a few miles away, it takes itself gently from the realm of facts and becomes to your eye but the filmy substance of a dream, a picture painted on the sky and thence hung on the walls of memory forever. So these mountains to the southeast of Jefferson —Meader, Baldface and Eastman first, Imp and Moriah, the Carters and even Wildcat — lifted and swam in this blue sea of dreams that the southeast wind brought up with it, quivered and vanished into forgetfulness, and beyond where their summits had disappeared I saw the long blue-gray levels of stratus clouds standing out against the lesser gray of the storm blink and rising slowly and evenly toward the zenith.
"Where the path swings round the east side of Jefferson"
Slowly, with majestic sureness a storm was marching up from the south. No unconsidered assault of the heights was this, no raid by the white cavalry of thunderstorm, but a forward march of a great army of investment, bent on complete conquest of the range. So slow was its coming and so sure its promise that no mountain climber need rush to safety. Each could proceed with the same dignity as the storm, having ample time to beat a safe retreat. By noon no animal life was visible on the high levels. The juncos have nests innumerable in tiny, sheltered caverns under overhanging rocks. The mother birds were snuggled deep in these on the brown-spotted eggs. Butterflies and bumblebees had been busy all the morning in the goldenrod, and a host of other insects, coleoptera, diptera, hymenoptera, honey seekers and pollen eaters. Now all had vanished save here and there a bumblebee that still clung, drunk with nectar, in the yellow tangle of bloom. The wind that had been so gentle blew cold on these and swished eerily through the sedges on the borders of the little pool over on the side of Sam Adams, known as Storm Lake. Very different was this swish of the wind in the sedges from its soft song in the mists of the mountain spear-grass. Very different was the feel of it as it blew out of the smooth gray arch of sky where had been those level lines of stratus clouds. It had blown these to the zenith and over, and the following mists had shut off the Carter Range entirely, and even as I watched from the Peabody spring on the southwest slope of Sam Adams they shut off the farther ridge of the Great Gulf and came over the close tangled tops of the dwarf spruces with the swish of rain. Even then as I tramped along the northerly slopes of Adams and John Quincy Adams I could see the fields of Randolph laid out in checker-board pattern and the lower slopes of the Crescent Range farther to the north, but as I came down the final pitch to the stone hut on Madison a gust growled ominously over the Parapet and a rush of rain shut the visible world within a narrow circle of which I was glad to make the cosy shelter of the hut the centre.
The Madison hut is built of stone, cemented together, and is tucked so well into the hillside that one may step from the rocks in the rear to the roof. Certainly its walls are storm proof, but for thirty hours the wind did its best to tear the roof off it while the rain filled every gully with a rushing torrent, and the caretaker and I did our best to make merry within the safe shelter of the walls. The clouds that had been so high came down with the rain and made the world an opaque mass of solid white. It was not so much like a mist as like a cheese through which the wind in some miraculous fashion blew at a tremendous rate. From mid-afternoon of one day until mid-forenoon of the next there was no change in this white opacity which blocked the very door and hid objects completely though only a few feet away, and through it the wind roared in varying cadences and the drumming rain fell steadily. Then came occasional tiny rifts in this white cheese in which the world was smothered. It lifted a little from the mountain side beneath and left fluffy streamers of mist trailing down. By noon it had shown the summit of John Quincy once, then shut down as if it were a lid operated by a stiff spring. Late in the afternoon, thirty hours after the murk had immured us in the hut, the wind had lulled, swung to the west, and was shredding the clouds to tatters, through which I climbed to the peak of Madison.
Cataract of clouds pouring over the Northern Peaks into the Great Gulf, seen from the summit of Mount Washington
Again the great gods of chaos were crushing an image of immensity out of new formed stone. Out of the void of cloud I saw it come, piece by piece, the artificers adding to and withdrawing from their structure as the result pleased or displeased them. Once they swept the mountain away entirely leaving only the formless gray of chaos,. then as if with a sudden access of skill and inspiration swept the whole grandly into being, and the low sun shot his rays through the débris of their previous failures and gilded the final structure. Through the long miles below me came the voice of the Great Gulf. Down its sheer declivities ten thousand streams were splashing to reach the swollen flood in the channels of the west branch of the Peabody. Each lisped its consonant or its vowel, and as they met and mingled in syllables and sped on the river took them and built them into words and phrases, an oration whose sonorous uproar came from the deep diaphragm of the mighty space out of which, for all I know, the mountains themselves were born. Down its distant, narrow ravine I could see the Chandler River leap from its source high on the Nelson Crag, to its junction with the west branch, a continuous line of white cataract, roaring full from brink to brink. Few little rivers of any mountains fall so swiftly through so deep and straight a ravine and few indeed have a mountain top three miles away that gives an unobstructed view of their flood fury from source to mouth.
A little aftermath of the storm, blown back on the ever freshening north wind, sent me down the cone again to further refuge in the hut, and it was not until the next morning that I could retrace my steps over the gulf side trail to Washington. Again I started with a clear sky, but by the time I had made the miles to the east side of Jefferson the high summits were altars whereon the little gods of storms were at work. They caught the saturated air that rose from all ravines, laid it across the upper slopes and, hammering it with the brisk north wind, beat white puffs of mist out of it with every stroke. These streamed from the peaks and were caught and tangled on them and in one another till all distances vanished and I walked in a narrowing world where mist creatures played and danced lightly to the tinkle of water that still fell from all heights. More and more little clouds the little gods hammered out on the slopes and ever fresher blew the north wind that swirled them together after it had beaten them out. The vanishing distance took with it the peaks above and the Gulf below, and the world that had been so great became very small indeed, a half circle of rocks but a few rods in circumference bisected by a trail and the whole packed in cotton wool.
In the lower parts of the trail between Jefferson and Clay this packing was thinnest. Probably at yet lower levels it was clear and these were clouds that floated above. But this thinness was not sufficient to give the traveller any landmark. His only hold on the earth was that tiny circle of rock that ever changed yet was ever the same as he went on, and the trail itself. As this rose along the west slope of Clay and swung along the levels toward the head wall of the Gulf the packing became more dense, and I walked in Chaos itself, thankful that the trail is here so well marked that one does not need to see from monument to monument, but may follow the way foot by foot without fear of wandering. A little lift came in this density just at the head wall of the Gulf. To the south just for a moment loomed ghostly blobs of deeper gray that I knew were the water tanks of the railroad, not a stone's toss away. To the north was the ravine. On this spot I had stood two mornings before and marvelled at the seeming nearness of the little lake a mile away. The rim of the head wall showed ghostly gray, but there was no Gulf. All the world, above, below and beyond, was but a mass of cotton wool so solidly packed that it seemed as if I might walk out onto that space where the Gulf should be and not fall through it.
Further on the trail was harder to find and the little diminution in the density ceased. The little gods of storms were doing well at their practice. No drop of rain fell, but where the north wind blew this white mass of mist against me it condensed within the pores of all garments and filled them with moisture. The last landmarks of the trail vanished and the white clouds blew in and tangled my feet like a flapping garment as I stepped upon the carriage road and turned mechanically to the right, hardly able to distinguish by sight the roadside from the rocks that wall it in. Even the great barns where they stable the stage horses were invisible as I walked between them, but I found the plank staircase which leads up to the stage office and found that and a good fire and a jolly crowd inside. My trip over the northern peaks had been one of such varied adventure that it was to be preferred to one made under fair skies and on a windless day. Yet this tramp in the clouds was to be had that day on the high summits alone. At the base of these and even up to the head walls of the ravines during a good part of the time the air had been clear. It was just the little weather gods making medicine with the saturated air from the ravines and the cold steel hammer of the north wind.