Posted by: davepidgeon | June 17, 2009

False summits

Vermont's Mount Mansfield features lengthy hikes above timberline.

Vermont's Mount Mansfield features lengthy hikes above timberline.

Sweaty and fatigued but nonetheless motivated, I emerged above timberline into a cool and cloudy environment. The path cut between two large boulders, and coming down was a group of teenagers. “Hey,” I called to them as they approached. “How much farther to the summit?”

“It’s right there,” one of the boys said, pointing to a nearby rock outcrop. I thanked them, and in my excitement pushed on for the short distance, reaching the rock outcrop. I dropped my canvas backpack onto the stone, and I fell myself in exhausted triumph. I had for an entire summer as a 24-year-old eager to become a “serious hiker” trained to walk up Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak at 4,393 feet. I wanted to get to the top the first time I spied a photo of the elongated ridge that looks like a man’s face, to stand above green New England like a young king and prove to myself I was capable. And after an uncounted number of miles jogging the Pennsylvania countryside with this Vermont icon burned into my conscious, I had made it.
Below in all its pastoral glory was the northern Vermont countryside, rural and wild and green, stretched out like a friendly palm holding farms and mountains and forests beneath a gray cloudy canopy.
But just as I sat down with my leather-bound journal to begin recording my experience, of the calf-busting trail relentlessly climbing up out of Underhill State Park to this summit, I heard voices. Two women hikers came around a bend in the trail, and instead of coming from below, they seemed to hiking down from above. No way. I was at the summit. Yet, as I turned, I saw the hikers and that the clouds had lifted just slightly to reveal more mountain above my head. 
“Excuse me,” I asked the hikers. “How far to the summit?”
“You’re not far,” one said, pointing uphill to what appeared to be a cone in the landscape. “It’s right there.”
No hesitation. I gathered my stuff and jammed it into my pack, and hoisting it back on my shoulders, I immediately rushed on uphill, mostly pissed at the teenagers who appeared to be playing a joke on me. 
My anger subsided quickly. I found myself in the strangest environment. Everywhere was the smell of sweet Christmas rising up from the everygreen shrubs, and the rocky, treeless landscape rising up was accented by tiny white and purple flowers, the latter known as Diapensia lapponica. I felt I had entered into the most unexpected idyll location I’d ever seen in my life. For a kid from Pennsylvania used to walking forever in perpetual tunnels formed by trees with the occasional vista, this alpine tundra was mysterious and enchanting.


The famous arctic tundra of Mount Mansfield rolls toward its summit.

The famous arctic tundra of Mount Mansfield rolls toward its summit.

I pressed on to the cone where the women had pointed. The sight of it was hampered by the thick cloud. But in a few minutes I had reached it. I tossed my pack down. I wanted to let out a Whitman-esque “YAWP!” across the Yankee valley below, more grand at this height than the rock outcrop that I falsely believed was the summit. I smiled. I put my hands on my hips. I turned out to take my journal out of the backpack.
Then I saw it. The clouds lifted just a little further. The mountain wall rose even further above my head. “Son of a … ” I blurted out in tired but good-humored frustration. More mountain remained to be hiked. The summit apparently existed in the foggy canopy above, but I felt okay. I’d found a new landscape to explore, and I felt like a child exploring on his own the woods around his boyhood home for the first time. I placed the backpack back on my shoulders, and set out, again, promising not to stop until there was no more mountain above my head.


Standing at the summit of Mount Mansfield in Vermont.

Standing at the summit of Mount Mansfield in Vermont.


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