A Day on the Mountain
— Mr. Bradford Torrey, discoursing in his happiest vein of the charms of An Old Road (Atlantic Monthly, November, 1887), allowed himself a gentle fling at the Byronic affectations or professional mountaineer’s conceit of those persons who cannot be content to hold familiar intercourse with Nature along the beaten paths, but must be ever scrambling through trackless woods or keeping tally of the miles they traverse. I have my own favorite wood paths, and Mr. Torrey ’s delightful essay brought them all to mind, with their border of But the forest has also its spell; at the risk of treachery to my cherished Wordsworthian traditions, and of classification in the Byronic category, I must confess to “ a pleasure in the pathless woods,” and a passionate delight in the exercise of tramping. To start off on a clear August morning, with all the hours till sunset lying before one like a shining river, that dances and ripples, and curves away round the hill to a fairy-land of the unknown; and to return at night with the hours rolled up and stored back in one’s heart, with a delicious fatigue through all one’s bones, and a physical content which is almost equal to the mental gain of having made one’s peace with the universe, — that is a day’s pleasure as rounded and complete as the Alpha of dawn and the Omega of slumber can make it.
That hide like gentle nuns from human eye
To lift adoring perfumes to the sky.”
I passed one such day in wandering over a shaggy New Hampshire mountain, which lay stretched at length like some uncouth animal, with its lower ridges, for the most part densely wooded, extended like broad, rough paws. I went on and on, with that restlessness which comes to one with the breath of the mountains, when motion seems a prime condition of enjoyment, and there is a synthetic pleasure in passing beautiful scenes with a mere glance, and obliterating details in the stark impression of loneliness and freedom. I came upon a little woodland dell between two ridges, wide and shallow, with sharply defined walls ; on one side a steep wooded ascent, and on the other a perpendicular ledge of rock, covered with mosses and waving ferns. It was a spot where shade and silence were held as in a vessel. The trees were old and apart ; there was no underbrush; the ground showed mossy dimples in which one would naturally look for a spring, but no spring gathered in its bosom the moisture of the dell, or interrupted with its tinkle the perfect silence. The ravine itself, in its transparent freshness and coolness, was like a hidden forest pool. The only living thing I saw there was a shy, olive-backed thrush, who appeared for an instant, and flew noiselessly away, accentuating, as it were, by his vanishing the absence of life.
From the greenness and cloistered loveliness of the little dell it was a transition almost as abrupt as sceneshifting which brought me, after a short climb, to an open summit of granite, with a bright vein of quartz running across it, and a large white bowlder perched like a cairn upon the highest point. The sun shone brilliantly on the bare rock ; the wind blew with a gusto, as it blows on high peaks, and two hawks, circling in the air at the bend of the little mountain, strengthened the impression which it gave of heights and austerity. On one side the outlook was over undulations of forest; on the other was a view which was not unlike the ideal landscape in the first section of a school geography: a river starting from a background of mountains, and advancing through a valley sprinkled with trees and farmhouses, past a town, under a bridge, and round a little island. At one point, where it widened to a circle, the river had suddenly caught the sun’s glance, and flashed back its rays like a mirror. Near by to the northward, across a wooded ravine, rose the massive forehead of old Shaggy-Top, a rounded granite cliff, with a mane of fuzzy pine-trees ; not a path anywhere, — only tangles of scrub pine and larger forest.
I planned an attack, and struck into the woods. Half-way up the cliff I found the fragrant fern, said to be always a denizen of the damp recesses under waterfalls, growing high and dry in the blaze of a hot sun and in the lee of a projecting rock, its odor, faintly suggestive of mignonette, as sweet as in the moist haunts where it is usually found. And farther up, in the scant soil of a narrow ledge, was a little colony of delicate blue harebells, a flower which I had not seen in the valley below, and did not see again during the entire summer. From whence had its seeds been tossed to that high window-garden ?
In the woods at the top of the mountain the ground was carpeted with deep, soft moss, of a light green hue, on which the leaves of the wood sorrel made everywhere a delicate starry pattern. The moss covered many a pitfall, where the roots of the trees had decayed and left deep hollows ; but the feet move to a new measure in the woods, and take account of such dangers as quickly as the eyes. There is a curious, almost invented aspect about that high mountain vegetation : we hardly feel that we have a right to it in New England. And away in the heart of the woods, in a slight depression of the mountain-top,
I found a little lake, lying tranquilly amid its marsh, with red-tinged pitcher plants in profusion, and thick, low bushes of a grayish-green tint, which gave a sort of minor tone to the landscape. That was Dream Lake, and very soft and dreamy it looked in the afternoon light. A hare started from the marsh grass and ran; there were tracks in the soft black earth which I tried to identify as deer tracks. The marsh had a look of secrecy deeper than the mystery of the woods.
I chose as my homeward guide the brook which flowed from the lake, knowing that it was sure to go down, and pretty certain to seek the direction of the river. And down it went, merrily, in little falls and rapids ; then, slackening its pace, it loitered and dallied in a sombre ravine. The sun had gone behind the western ridge, along which I trudged for some distance, walking of necessity on one side of my heels, and trying, by hugging the slope, to cut off some of the windings of the brook, which was always within hearing. I rejoined it at last, and suddenly my companion took a short leap, then a longer one. Scrambling and sliding down the steep bank, I gained a ledge of rock which projected across the stream, and found myself midway down a cascade, where a slender stream of water poured over a precipice which slanted abruptly above and below me. Close by, a feathery birch stood out from the rock, and, looking under its plumes, I could see the familiar mountains and the familiar road, perhaps a mile off by an air-line. A mile more of level road, restful and pleasant after the roughnesses of forest and brookside, was to end my long, happy tramp.