Archive for July, 2011

View from Pisgah

View from Pisgah

It might be true that I climbed Mount Pisgah in part because the name made me giggle, but Pisgah is not funny. Pisgah is a serious hill in the Blue Ridge Mountains of  North Carolina that gets to be called a mountain because it is taller than everything else around it. The hike up Pisgah is very nice. You pass a lot of people in flip flops who would look out of place on a real mountain. And if you hike past them with a backpack as I did, they will stare at you as if you were some sort of strange nerd. Because hiking Pisgah with outdoor equipment is like taking a tent and survival gear to the cinema in case a storm blows in while you are watching Harry Potter and the Chamber Pot of Pisgah. Or something like that.

Path to Pisgah

Path to Pisgah

The Mount Pisgah in North Carolina is named after the biblical mountain from which Moses first saw the Promised Land. In both places one should have an expansive view over promising territory. Moses in his excitement might even have marked this territory as his, but the Old Testament is silent on that Pisgah’s etymology.

When I climbed Mount Pisgah, I passed flip floppers who scoffed at me. I passed cigarette smokers who coughed at me. And at last I reached the summit where I could look around and see an impenetrable fog in all directions. I thought of all the times I had climbed for hours and hours in the towering Cascades, daring avalanches and crossing dangerous terrain just to have this exact same view. White cloudy foreverness. Moses doubted and struggled, but at last he saw the Promised Land stretched out before him. Whereas when I was on Pisgah, people just peered into the fog and said, “Wait, is that Greenville down there?”


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For my first trip to the Ozarks, I made sure to pack the essentials for hiking in 106 degree weather: mosquito repellant, sun tan lotion, and a book about the Siberian Arctic. If you can’t keep cool, you can at least submerse yourself in freezing literature.

What I did not bring was a map because St. Louis has its own REI, so I could pick a map up on my way from the airport. Trouble is, the REI in St. Louis doesn’t actually sell maps of the Missouri backwoods. It sells running clothes and dog toys and bags of smoked salmon from Anacortes, Washington. I settled for the salmon and moved on to the Whole Foods next door where I found Washington wine and Bing cherries–also from Washington. If I got lost, I would have comfort food.

My freezing book, In the Land of White Death, had everything you could ask for in a true-life tale of survival. A bunch of guys slogging for months across unstable pack ice, drowning and starving and hallucinating about hot places like the Ozarks in July. On the plane ride from Seattle to St. Louis, after years of looking at this book on my shelf at home, I finally had a chance to read it.

The drive down to Mount Bell was interesting. Once in the Ozarks, I found quintessential backcountry things to photograph, like a drive-through window for cigarettes with an enticing “Cheap Smokes” sign; a tremendously oversized American flag completely enveloping its undersized staff like some sort of Christo exhibition; and a John Deere baseball cap on the side of the road with rolling hills in the distance. I took these pictures so I could remember my trip to the Ozarks. And at the Mark Twain National Forest Potosi Ranger Station, I even found a brochure with enough topographic lines to serve as a map. I was ready to join the rest of the backpackers heading to the state’s best summit.

Except that in July, no one climbs Mount Bell. Something about the 106 degree heat, humidity, and biting bugs keeps people away. So I had the mountain to myself, which was just fine with me.

Because of the heat, I waited until late afternoon to leave the trailhead, arriving at the summit shortly before sunset. This is not your narrow, jagged Cascade summit. On the top of Mount Bell, you can wander through the low forest and over broad reddish boulders to get a view in almost any direction. I found a good campsite on the edge of a cliff looking east. Set out my gear. Wandered about the summit. Enjoyed my salmon and cherries and wine as the sun dropped into a bank of western clouds. And I spent some time with my book, In the Land of White Death.

It was 1912. There was a ship of unlucky Russians stranded ice-bound above 71 degrees north, waiting to die. But a few brave souls dared to walk across hundreds of miles of shifting slabs of frozen ocean, dragging heavy tents and makeshift kayaks behind them in an attempt to reach the Franz Josef Archipelago before another winter set in. After weeks of near starvation they began to find game to hunt. The author reveled:

Seal brains fried in seal oil also taste very good. The front flippers, well baked, are reminiscent of calves’ feet.

For some reason, this passage struck me as particularly beautiful. I set the book down and searched through my things to find a pencil. Ever since my first reading of Moby Dick more than twenty years ago, I have kept an index of beautiful phrases and their corresponding page numbers in the back of every book I read. In this case, I decided to simply write “Eating Seals 49.” 

So you can imagine my surprise and horror when I discovered a penciled note already inside the back cover that read: Eating Seals 49.

There was only one logical conclusion. I had already read this book. I had been struck by the exact same passage, and left the exact same note in the back. Yet I had no memory of reading the book. It was as if my future self had come to visit in a time machine and left graffiti on my wall. Not funny.

And then the sun was gone from the Ozarks. From darkness the moon came out to illuminate the canopy of treetops below me, and the canopy itself seemed to float above the black world below it. And across this dim canopy a thousand fireflies began to flash like lightning in an upside-down storm. Or was it more like synapses misfiring in the ever-darkening brain? I looked out across this spectacular flashing world with an idle camera in one hand, knowing that the camera could not capture its beauty. And I wondered if I would remember this moment in the hot and humid Ozarks, and this feeling. Or if I would one day look back at my photographs and remember only a drive-through window for cigarettes, and a flag so heavy it had never known how to fly in the wind.

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