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Three hours south of Montreal by car is Black Mountain, the tallest of the Adirondack Mountains overlooking Lake George. I arrived there yesterday at 10 a.m., parked at the trailhead and embarked on the Black Mountain trail loop, a walk of seven miles. The initial climb through the woods gets steeper and steeper until you burst into the blazing light of a midsummer day and you can see the enormity of the landscape stretching into the distance. The lake is 2000 feet fellow, etched with the white trails of boats, whose movement at first glance is imperceptible; further afield, you see the mountains of Vermont – each successive ridge turned ever more shadowy by the haze of humidity.
At the peak of Black Mountain, a hundred or more dragonflies are dancing on gentle eddies of wind. There is a now disused fire ranger’s tower, adding about another 20 feet to the mountain. It looks like an oil derrick. Did that tiny grey cabin made of wood at one time serve as the ranger’s living quarters? Beside the tower is a much newer addition – a wind turbine. As the breeze ebbs and flows, the turbine’s blades make either a loud slapping sound or turn quiet and sometimes even stop silent.
On the way down there are a few ponds – Black Mountain Pond, Round Pond, and Lapland Pond – as well as patches of marsh, a couple of old wooden bridges, and the reassuring plastic trail markers hammered into the trees at regular intervals. At one point those markers ran out; I spent about 20 minutes by one of the ponds wondering where on earth my trail was supposed to go next. Fortunately there were two young men fishing from a boat in the pond who were able to tell me I’d made the wrong turn about a quarter mile previously and I’d need to go back there and take a different trail. I did this and found the rest of the way unaided.
A particular highlight of the descent was an encounter with a lizard. He/she was merely an inch and a half in length, ambling along as if on a Sunday stroll. My presence was, happily, no cause for alarm. The lizard stopped for a breather and we contemplated each other’s respective existences for a couple of minutes.
By two in the afternoon I had returned to my car. Many more hikers were parked there than in the morning and I didn’t envy them because they’d picked the hottest time for the climb. It must have been over 30 degrees, and very humid. During my walk I had drunk one and a half litres of water – everything I had – and could easily have drunk more.
I took zero photos. Had my camera but the batteries were dead. Typical me. I don’t care. It was pretty much unforgettable with or without photos.
Over here there is a short article about American psychologist and philosopher William James’ wanderings in the Adirondacks over a century ago. He tackled Mount Marcy, which is 5,343 feet to Black Mountain’s 2,646 feet. At the time, James was reportedly seeking a brief reprieve from academic life. He was about to deliver a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh, with which, according to the article “he hoped to cement his reputation — and that of American philosophy — and demonstrate his belief that the psychological and philosophical study of religion should focus on the direct personal experience of numinousness…”
That night, after summiting Mount Marcy, he could not sleep, and he went outdoors and looked at the stars and the moon, and had – you know – one of those moments that only Nature can provide. After that “he understood spiritual reality not as a concept, or as something privileged, but as an unexceptional property of human consciousness and a fact of life.”
I’ve not read a single page of William James (but I sure like The Turn of the Screw by his equally famous brother, Henry!), nevertheless, this is one of those nuggets of revelation that stands out like an epigram to me, from which in my quintessentially pretentious way I can find all sorts of meanings for my own life.
Whenever I spend months and months – even years now – living apart from any sort of experience of the sublime, something troubling is going on in the soul, but I find I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is until I’m there again, on Black Mountain, experiencing things that are not just sublime but surprising (who knew there’d be a small swarm of dragonflies; who knew lizards don’t always run away) and I become aware that no matter what I’ve learned over the years, my mind still labours in predictable ways, and its labours become burdensome to me. Only that assault on my senses (and I mean assault non-violently) achieved by Nature can wrench me out of the trap of my own self.
What if the spiritual really were “unexceptional” and a “fact of life”? What if it were just as important and as central to my existence as breakfast cereal, my apartment, and a day in the office? Leftists like me have a highly ambivalent relationship with spirituality – despising the bigotry and cruelty seen too often in dogma, and equally reviling New Age mysticism, and hugging trees and similar bullshit – and so often spirituality seems like something to phase out of life altogether, or to just be indifferent about. But what if I could be seeking something that is not some affirmation of myself – “I am one with the tree, hence a more advanced being” – nor a prescribed moral code, per se – but rather the oxygen of outside forces? I knew in my soul yesterday that I needed to go up Black Mountain alone; I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Talking and reading and writing – which I do all my goddam life! – are sometimes so tiresome. You find yourself predicting your own next sentence sometimes. And the Metro is predictable, even when it breaks down, and the city streets in their grid constantly corral us left and right. All of these things are well and good – we need them – but speaking only personally here, I still end up feeling trapped. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the countryside. Whatever spirituality is, surely there is an aspect to it that resides only at the tops of mountains or in the vastness of oceans, and defies comprehension. And that is exactly what is so freeing. At the top of Black Mountain, here is something I do not have to understand, I do not have to solve; I do not even have to converse with it.
No wonder there is a fellow who chose to be buried there. A wooden sign tells passersby that Black Mountain is where his heart belongs.