Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mountain Meditations

I love hiking with friends and family, but sometimes I just have to get out there alone.  When a free 60 degree sunny day presented itself, and Bill was away at a conference, I headed to one of my go-to places, Alander Mountain in the southern Berkshires.  Not only is Alander a great little mountain (5 mile hike round trip with 800 feet elevation gain), but the drive is pretty too. I know all the back roads.

A friend of mine once told me, "As soon as I get in the car to go somewhere nice, or on the train, I start finding solutions to my problems." I didn't have any problems that I was looking for solutions to, but my mind was a jumble of emails, telephone conversations, and in-person interactions.  Going to a quiet place in the woods seemed like the perfect getaway.

I had been on a Sierra Club state-wide Energy Committee conference call the night before, which addressed disturbing gas drilling and nuclear concerns. I had talked recently about current environmental topics with Jackie, a friend and environmental educator.  She had asked wistfully, "What can we do to stay optimistic?"  I stumbled on the question, but today, I knew what might work for me. 

Alander Mt. is in the Mount Washington State Forest, just over an hour from home in Western Massachusetts. The trail begins across a meadow with a pond in the distance on the left and a Cape Cod style house behind stone walls on the right--a fitting New England scene.  In minutes the trail descends to a lively brook.  There had been a bridge here before Hurricane Irene, but I did a little rock-hopping and got across easily. 

From here the trail rises gradually on an old farm road, the woods riddled with tumble-down stone walls.

I thought of the emails and personal interactions I had had over the past few days.  Some had accomplished tasks, or been pleasant conversations, others had seemed less than satisfactory.  An internal dialogue of "what I should have said," went through my mind.

Small streams with tiny waterfalls ran on either side of the hill as the trail climbed.  This early in March not a leaf was on the trees, and a few patches of ice remained on the ground. Sunshine beamed unbroken by foliage.

I walked slowly.  I had no reason to hurry. The air had the humidity of a warm Spring day; there was no sense in raising a sweat. I took time to soak in the aromas of pine and hemlock, and the sounds of babbling streams.  As the trail rose, mountain laurel edged the path, its leaves dark green all winter.  In a couple of months, laurel blossoms would brighten the woods with pink and white.

Just below the summit, I stopped by the cabin built here for hikers to use.  Damp and unappealing, it never looked preferable to me to camping in a tent. 

 Still, I went inside and looked around.  Someone had been here very recently, even leaving a few graham crackers that mice had not yet found. 

(a few leftovers for the next campers)

 Maybe a wood fire would make the cabin cozier than I gave it credit for.

The trail took a turn for the last 1/4 mile to the summit, through blueberry bushes that offer a boon harvest in July.  Reaching the open ridge, I admired views to the south and west towards Connecticut and more of the Berkshires.

(view towards Connecticut)

Opposite, behind a row of bushes, another view opens to the town of Copake below and to the Catskills beyond the Hudson Valley.  I like both sides, but I chose to have my lunch on the Catskill side.  A thick haze made the mountains barely visible, but I knew they were there and that they were still snow-covered.

Looking down on the village of Copake with my binoculars, I could see a cluster of houses and a church along the main street.  A truck went by on the road far below.  How many generations had seen this view almost the same as I was seeing it today?  My environmental mind thought of the old Iroquois premise that we should look seven generations ahead whenever we make decisions.  This land where I was sitting had been saved by forethinking preservationists.
(Catskills barely visible in the distance)

I lingered at the summit with the warmth of the sun on my head, the wind at my back, and the earth beneath my feet. Standing on exposed rock, I closed my eyes and soaked in these natural energies.

A hiker came from the other direction, the first person I had seen all day.  He walked quickly with ear buds on.  As he passed me, we remarked on the beautiful day.  I stayed a few minutes longer and then headed back down the path.

It was still early in the day and I had put all of my earlier mental conversations behind me.  Now, I looked for animal tracks, listened for birds or running water, and searched the woods for moss-covered stone walls, as the sun created deep shadows across the trail. 

Often I hum or whistle on the trail.  I do this at home, too.  I am rarely completely quiet, but today I thought of a Co-op friend whose husband was spending three weeks on a silent retreat.  A few of us had said, "He can't talk for three weeks!"  Our friend responded, "he gets to not talk for three weeks," making us understand that his weeks of silence were a privilege rather than a chore.  Right now, on this trail, I felt privileged to make only the sounds of my footsteps on stones and leaves.

Eventually, I was again low enough on the mountain that I could hear the trickle of little streams.  I sat down by one of them and listened to its gentle voice.  My elderly next-door neighbor had once bought a small bowl of rocks for inside the house that made this sound when it was plugged in and a continuous gurgle of water tumbled over the stones.  An electrified stream wouldn't work for me; I would have to be content with carrying this in my memory.

I remembered myths where gods, goddesses, fairies, saints, or ancestors, came out of the earth through hillside springs like this. No wonder the musical sounds of water almost seemed to speak from beyond. I sat in the dappled sunlight and listened. 

One time my friend, Maggie, said to me, "But you can't always be in antiquity. You have to apply those universal thoughts to today." I supposed she was right, but I liked hanging out with the early Native Americans and ancient Celts here in the woods.

I passed a strong lively stream.  The little ones had gathered up and made a more significant brook and a more urgent sound.  Once more I sat down in the leaves and listened.  This time, I thought of John Muir and John Burroughs, naturalists of nearly a century ago who changed the country's views on conservation and preservation.  They sat in places like this and wrote poetry or essays. And I couldn't forget Thoreau.  He walked all over these mountains absorbing nature and applying it to his life.

And coming up to almost the present day, my mind wandered to my favorite Adirondack author, Anne LaBastille.  She soaked in the water, mountains, and forests just a few decades ago and declared that we all needed to look for the spirit of Thoreau amidst the spectres of the modern age.
Finally, I decided to walk on out of the woods.  A Buddhist prayer popped into my mind and I winged it out in generic fashion to all the people who had been passing through my mind: May they be happy; may they be peaceful; may they be free from suffering.  I certainly was relaxed, peaceful, and full of early Spring.

 The car was hot.  I took off my boots and socks and put on my Birkenstocks.  Tossing my long sleeved shirt on the back seat, I opened the car windows, got in, and drove away.  I turned on a CD and Mendelssohn's festive 5th Symphony accompanied me on my drive back through the countryside.


  1. I feel more full of peace just from reading this, you make it all so vivid. Thanks.

  2. Gorgeous....thanks for having me tag along! I felt like I was right there with you!

  3. I was so happy for you; sad for me...I spend my days now all in my mind and am thankful that I could smell every step you described from my memories. There is time for antiquity..I spend most of my days in England now. Keep writing for us. You are better than Thoreau. M

  4. Oh that sounds amazing! So jealous!