Land in the Sky: Seeking Direction

Late last fall, David Rothenberg and I spent a day on Mount Greylock. It’s the highest peak in Massachusetts and has many literary associations. For instance, Henry Thoreau climbed it in 1844 and wrote up an account. He ascended the nearly 3,500 foot mountain—in those days called “Saddle-back”—via a long valley called “the Bellows”. He described his route as “a road for the pilgrim to enter upon who would climb to the gates of heaven.” David and I—neither of us a pilgrim—drove our cars up the auto road. We arranged to rendezvous at 8:00 a.m. in the big parking lot just below the summit.

I arrived first and had the place to myself. No other cars were in the lot. A dusting of snow had fallen overnight and prettied things up. The clouds, though, were still thick and swirling, the wind bitter, so I made straight for the historic summit lodge. As it turned out, this was the last day of operation for the season. They were preparing to shut the place down for winter. The only item still being served in the restaurant was coffee—very expensive, very bad coffee. I bought a cup and took it with me back out to the parking lot to wait for David. The coffee turned out to be tepid, so without thinking I poured it out on the parking lot macadam. I immediately felt like a litterbug. Before I got too deep into gratuitous environmental guilt, David arrived.

Neither of us brought along a map or knew where we were going, but we figured we could ask somebody along the way for directions. Neither of us had any food, but that too, we reckoned, could be bummed along the way. We cast one last look back toward the big empty parking lot, still mostly obscured by swirling clouds, and plunged down a path that turned out to be the Appalachian Trail. We were heading north. At this elevation the trees—maples, birches, and spruce—were all stunted. Soon enough the clouds parted and we had an expansive vista toward the valley below. It was like standing in the middle of a Hudson River School painting. In the distance we could see the converted factory buildings that now house the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The clouds closed back upon us and we continued our descent.

At some point we took a wrong turn and lost the Appalachian Trail and wound up on some other trail that had no name. Not that we had any idea where the Appalachian Trail would have led us, other than toward Mount Katahdin way off in Maine, but at least that path had a name.

As we continued on our journey, we lost a lot of elevation. We were in tall forest now. The bare, wet trees took on a sinister quality. At any moment the ghost of Virgil might appear, but instead we came upon a substantial man sitting eating his lunch on a boulder next to the path. I can’t remember now what all he was wearing, except for the penny loafers. I had never before seen anybody wearing penny loafers on a trail. A conversation ensued between the man on the boulder and us. It went like this.

Us: Does this path go anywhere?

Him: I think so.

Us: Have you been there?

Him: Yes

Us: Is it far?

Him: Not that far.

Us: What’s to see when you get there?

Him: Difficult to say.

Us: Well, thanks for the info!

He offered us no food and we were too embarrassed to ask for any. So we continued down the path and arrived at the place described by the man—either that or someplace just like it. We enjoyed our visit and retraced our route back up the mountain without further incident.

By the time we arrived at the parking lot, the clouds had departed and the snow had melted. The parking lot was full of shining cars and crowded with happy people out for a Sunday afternoon jaunt. As we emerged from the trail onto the parking lot, a black Jaguar pulled up close by. Three freshly-dressed holiday-makers—a man and two women—climbed out. They looked like they were looking for something pleasant to do, perhaps take a walk somewhere. They turned to us for direction.