These Haunted Mountains That I Love

Many of my blog posts tend toward the melancholy.  The themes have often been about loss, grief, aloneness and death.  That’s the way my mind works.  I stare at the rain.  I walk through the fog.  I wander old and forgotten cemeteries, reading the names, dates and wondering about lives lived a century ago.  It’s not depression (I’ve done that), it’s a sense of what was here once and is now gone forever.  The following post follows the rules my mind sets for me when I sit down at my MAC.

I live in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.  We moved here over a year ago after buying a house on a lake in 2000.  I’m living a dream…a lifelong dream to be here full-time.  I climbed my first mountain when I was five years old.  That was followed by years of family camping at the State campsites like Golden Beach.  When my family dynamics changed and my three brothers began to grow up and go our separate ways, I headed for the High Peaks and began to summit the Forty-Six.  When my backpacking friends began to lose interest I moved onto wilderness canoeing.  I travelled onto Alaska and worked for the USGS.  I lived on glaciers thousands of years old, but the Adirondacks always called me back.  The smell of the balsam, the sand beaches and the blue-green crystals of the Opalescent River.  No other place was like it.

The protagonist in this tale, you need to know at this point, was not my father as one would expect.  Rather, it was my older brother, Chris.  He showed me the canoe waterways and the routes to Marcy.  He was my mentor and my backwoods guide.  He taught me many things but one briefly spoken comment lives with me to this day and can darken the brightest shimmering sunlight.  “The Adirondacks,” he said, almost off-handedly, “was all about death.”

These days I live the life I thought I always wanted.  At last count, we have a 1920’s antique canoe, two other canoes, five kayaks, snowshoes, X-country skis and four bicycles.  What’s not to be content about?  To be here every day of the year…watch the seasons change and feel the peace.  But amidst all this, something is missing.

These lakes, mountains, streams and trails are harboring a ghost.  They are truly haunted.  I can barely walk out beyond the light of the campfire when I can feel “it” following me.  So, I sit and stare out the window at the rain and nap and lose myself in finding ways to avoid confronting the spirit that can make me weep.

Chris and I stood on many mountaintops in the fog, rain and total darkness.  Once we got lost coming off the back side of Colden and, by all rules of nature, should not have survived the sub-zero night without a flashlight.

He owned an antique guide boat that he bought in the 1950’s somewhere at a camp on the upper reaches of Raquette Lake.  He paid perhaps $50 for it.  My mother thought he was nuts to give his money away on something that was old and disused.  A person could see sunlight through the planking.  It became a family joke as we waited and watched him slowly and lovingly restore the craft at his place underwood the apple tree in our backyard.  It took about twenty-five years since he was only able to work on it during college and graduate school breaks.  The result?  I was with him as we made a slow and easy tour of Long Pond when a camper stopped washing his pans and came down to the shore to have a closer look. (This was years before the Guide Boat Renaissance).  The poor fellow, wiped the drool from his lips and jokingly (?) offered his wife in exchange for the boat.

I sat in the “swells” seat on one trip through Slang Pond when a sudden lightening storm-swept over us.  Chris calmly pulled the boat under some evergreens and held onto a branch while the violent bolts struck around us and the rain water began to deepen at the boats bottom.  All the while, he just grinned at me, enjoying every clap of thunder and drop of cold precipitation.

I was lost with him in the woods at Long Pond.  That would be bad enough but for the fact that it was pitch dark at the time.

I remember sitting at a campfire one evening when we spoke of how we’d like to die.  I said I saw myself, sitting alongside the trail with my water bottle and Kelty pack beside me.  A mountain peak, Haystack perhaps was our goal.  The path rose gently ahead of us but melted into a bright light that was golden and blinding.  It was then, I told Chris, that the legendary DEC ranger, Clint West “Keeper of Marcy’s Door” would wander out of the bright light, take his ranger hat off and wipe his brow.  I calmly watched him stride up to me.  I knew in my mind that he had passed away in 1953.   Clint stopped and said: “There’s a lot of trail work to be done up yonder, Pat.  “Come on,”  he said gently and with serene comfort, “Let’s go.”  I shouldered my pack and went off with him…into the light.  In my story, I remember looking back at Chris and waving a final good-bye.  I looked back at him again and saw a certain sadness creep into eyes.  He waved back and then turned and looked back down the trail we had just hiked.  Chris listened with a smile.  Then he said simply that he’d like to pass on by having a massive coronary while under his guide boat, on a long portage.  Interestingly, that was not how he “walked on.”  Me?  I’m still looking for that light up ahead on the trail.

I can assure you, these few bits are but the surface of a deep pool of memory.  But those stories are for another time.

So, here I am.  Owning all the accoutrements of outdoor adventure and unable to find the peace these mountains once promised me.

I can’t drive a back road, turn a corner on a trail, circle an island for a campsite or stare into the deep cold waters of the lakes without the ghost of Chris standing there, just out of reach. I have trouble looking up at a cumulus-heavy sky and not feel or see him.

Because he’s everywhere, and not just in my imagination but also in the molecules that make the raindrops and silt of the rivers. And, someday far into the future, perhaps a part of him will lodge among those blue-green crystals of the Opalescent River.

                   non semper erit aestas

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