Priya explains all the fuss about mountains
A revelatory trip to the Green Mountains and plant of the week
I’ve spent much more time around mountains since marrying Priya. Over the years, I had developed an idea of myself as someone who likes grasslands, wetlands, the forests along Midwestern rivers, and the beach (as a treat.) I figured there are plenty of people who speak up for mountains being interesting, and my interests tend towards the kinds of landscapes that shaped my imagination growing up in eastern Missouri, which decidedly did not include mountains. Nothing against them, just as I’ve never held malice toward cauliflower or James Taylor—just not my thing. I guess the way that climbing a mountain imposes a certain linear narrative on your hike—the climb up, the victorious few minutes on the summit, and the stumbling back downhill—seemed at odds with the kind of wandering around lowland habitats that I was drawn to.
Although Priya also grew up in the Midwest, she has a somewhat less hobbit-like imagination than me and is significantly bolder in planning outdoor trips. Several years ago when we were living in Omaha, she brought me along on a trip to Colorado with some of her med school classmates. We both experienced the terror of learning how to downhill ski on a certified Rocky Mountain. We hiked on a trail into spruce woods and snow-capped peaks. I began to admit why people might find these things appealing, but didn’t develop any mountain fever beyond that point.
More recently, Priya led us on a couple of weekend trips to Acadia National Park in which we climbed trails angled ruthlessly straight up the peaks of Mt. Desert Island. The hikes gave me sore thighs and a little more insight into what people find magical about reaching a certain altitude. In Acadia, for example, mountains like Cadillac are high enough to have their own weather, their own microclimates. The forests of broadleaf trees and white pines in the valleys give way to bare granite and short, windblown pitch pines clinging to stone. The grasses and wildflowers of little mountain glades have ancestral ties to lower-altitude grasslands. Conditions can change from clear and sweeping views to dangerous gusts and cloud in a matter of minutes.
I’m sure I knew all of these things about mountain ecosystems in that prosy sense of having once read about them in a biology textbook describing the world’s biomes, but I didn’t know them from close range the way I know the sound of a blackbird trilling in a marsh or how a grassland fills up with dew on a summer morning. Acadia at least taught me the basics of mountains-as-places.
Last weekend, Priya and I spent three days in Vermont, the first time I’ve so much as driven into the state. She had the idea of staying in the heart of the Green Mountains, somewhere near to Burlington and to trailheads into the hills. She picked Stowe, a town probably best known for its skiing season but which turns out to be lively in late August, too. In the shadow of Mt. Mansfield, the highest point in the state, the town has a bike trail running along a creek that connects the different parts of town (specifically, it connected the place we were staying to a brewery or two) and to a mountain biking trail that we gave an unskilled but, arguably, brave attempt.
On our last day in Vermont, we hiked up Stowe Pinnacle—not quite the highest point in the area but a considerable vantage point over the valley. The weather changed as we ascended from partly sunny to fog. Having reached a meadow halfway up, long ribbons of low cloud shrouded the ridge extending into the horizon.
As we followed switchbacks and rock scrambles into the higher reaches, fog seeped into the forest. Vireos and warblers danced in the upper branches of trees, the mist muting their colors.
At the summit, stunted pines growing in the granite cracks stood in a sea of pure fog. We couldn’t see further than a hundred yards or so. From the valley, it probably looked like the mountain had a narrow cap of cloud, but from where we stood, it looked like the whole world was in fog.
On the way back down, we saw a flash of movement to the side of the trail: a male black-throated blue warbler. Appalachian slopes are where the species goes to breed. The idea of the mountain as a dwelling place, at least for the summer, challenges both standard conquest-oriented mountain climbing as well as my sense in mountains as unwelcoming places. Plenty of species thrive on the peculiar conditions of mountains, making them as rewarding a place to wander as a prairie or beach dunes.
On a section of steep granite ledges, we passed a group that included a man with a guitar on his back and a beer in one hand, the other hand for the rocks. Clearly, the group intended to spend some quality time on the summit.
Driving home, I began to think about reaching the upper altitudes. I thought of the White Mountains around Lincoln, New Hampshire, just a little over two hours away from us. I thought of the more distant Mt. Katahdin in Maine, standing high over lakes and plains. All of this in the Northeast, a place where, generalizing hastily, I might entirely skip over the mountains and just think of the few larger cities along the coast and little towns where people stay in B&Bs and go “leaf peeping.”
The Appalachians, though famously ancient and worn down, still have an edge—just as the Missouri River, though engineered and channelized, can flood and devastate its floodplain in an instant. They’re by turns charming and terrifying. The more modest peaks of the Green and White Mountains look great on an autumn postcard. Mt. Washington in northern New Hampshire, on the other hand, holds the record for the highest wind speeds on the planet—231 miles per hour—and keeps search-and-rescue crews busy. The fact that all this is in the same small region as Walden Pond is something my brain struggles to reconcile.
All of this is to say, I have to give Priya lots of credit for leading me to reconsider mountains and why they might be worth our time. My natural imagination would be narrower without her influence. I still have a fondness for the lowlands and flatlands, but maybe that appreciation becomes more interesting with a fuller understanding of where they stand in relation to the highlands.
The night we got back to Providence, I started drowsily planning a hike up Franconia Ridge and Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire, above the tree line where peregrines nest, close-cropped grass over granite, the view extending dozens of miles in every direction.
Plant of the week: Ghost pipe
I’ve seen more ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora) this year than I ever have. Though it’s related to blueberries, cranberries and heaths, it has a very different lifestyle. Rather than making its own sugars, it pulls carbon-containing compounds from fungi which are themselves drawing nutrients from tree roots: a three-organism tango that produces an odd flower. Without the need for photosynthesis, it can live in the darkest corners of an old-growth forest.
While its petals can appear pinkish, I usually see it looking translucent white with black tips. It produces something that is technically a fruit, though fit only for vampire children, I’m sure. Ghost pipe is found throughout forested areas in North America and relies on bumblebees for pollination. Imagine the bumblebee that goes from a nice healthy-looking sunflower to this pale, leafless goth in the woods.
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Possum Notes is a weekly newsletter about wildlife and landscapes around where I live. It’s produced on occupied Wampanoag and Narragansett land.