I was naked and you clothed me…
Where I flew in New England, the nearest hill begins three miles east of the airport and runs nearly straight ten miles south. Only two formal trails lead through dense canopy forest to the top, a short one to the little peak at our end and a very long one to the highest at the other, aptly named Hunger Mountain.
I knew that stony outcrop above the krumholz intimately after soaring close around, and below it hundreds of times over the years, but had never once been there on foot. (Same as several landmarks here in the San Gabriels, I must confess…) This was to be my final autumn back east, so a ceremonial pilgrimage to Hunger Mountain seemed almost a solemn duty, and I made a point of going just as the storybook leaves were beginning to fall. Late Indian summer after an early frost.
Deep in the woods it was humid as usual, with adiabatic cooling offset by the swell of body heat as I climbed. Soon, my shirt was soaked in sweat but I dared not take it off for fear of mosquitoes. Best I could do right then was daydream of refreshment in the breeze on top, and continue marching.
Anyone who’s summited a mountain by way of thick forest knows the feeling. You trudge hypnotically one step after the next, watching shards of sky up ahead. Time and again you think you’re almost there, but no, not yet. Only after it seems you’ll never make it do those shards grow together into big ragged scraps, the trail widens, and long anticipation is rewarded by expanding views with a contented glow of accomplishment.
While each mountaintop is unique for lots of reasons, big or small, they all possess degrees of a certain ‘island in the sky’ magic. There’s a subtle yet distinct change in the atmosphere as that quiet symphony of the land and its creatures yields to a very different hollow roar in the free air above it all, auditory signatures of every highway, mill and town, swarming softly together from all directions in a vast dimensionless SIGH.
Of course ambient wind often drowns that out. This time though, emerging from trees at the rocky top the SIGH bore a peculiar sense of incipience, as if something were about to happen. The promised breeze was utterly absent and, eerily, it was warmer, even out in the open than down at the trailhead…
What’s up with that? No idea.
What to do about it? No doubt!
Dripping sweat, I looked close all around and shouted loud as I could. SIGH…
Okay then, as the only human within earshot, it became imperative that I don my birthday suit forthwith, and lay it all out on the highest flat rock.
Ah yes! Satisfying as it gets IMO, despite those still unrelenting mosquitoes — and a growing rumble of Hunger, in this case more than fitting.
So… That’s all it took to conger the only mountaintop dust devil I’ve ever been actually part of. Not dust so much as a prickly whirlwind of twigs and sticks and old brown leaves from the year before, sandblasting my birthday suit and vacuuming up all that balmy air. I grasped for my shirt as it took flight, but too late and it got away. Mayday! Mayday! Frantically, I grabbed my jeans and held tight, eyes on the trajectory of that shirt in hopes of… Nah. Oh it did drift back to earth, so far down the wrong side of the mountain my hide would be a tattered mass of bug bites before I ever found which tree it swung in the top of.
Meanwhile an instant wind swept in from all sides, several degrees cooler, even before the sweat had dried. No describing what a spectacle I must have been during that minute or so, you’ll have more fun imagining it for yourself…
Got the jeans back on before they could blow away, then as I was tying my shoes the wind as quickly settled to something like normal, and a lilt of human voices began drifting up from the woods below. As somebody once wrote, timing, sometimes, is everything.
We all had a laugh about how I lost my shirt, though by then it wasn’t so funny, for me anyway. Certainly someone had a spare garment in their backpack, but I was too proud to say anything. Fortunately these hikers were smarter better than that. One woman volunteered a rain slicker printed with hearts and flowers, apologizing for its girlyness. I said I’d gladly accept such a generous loan, but not the apology, which (in 1994) brought another, more awkward laugh.
When I asked where to leave the slicker in the parking lot below she waved that off. “It was always too small for me anyway.”
Well it was way too small for me, but did keep some of the mosquitoes off, and going down was not as sweaty as coming up. Back at the bottom, only one vehicle was parked there besides my own, so I gratefully ran both sleeves of the slicker down over the car’s arial to keep it there until my benefactor returned. Thank goodness for… goodness.
That final season wasn’t over yet and I had several opportunities to soar again over Hunger Mountain. Each remaining flyby, I searched and searched over the back side for a plaid rag flapping in a tree. Not for any logical reason, I just couldn’t not look.
One thing for sure, if I ever go there again, I’ll make a point of keeping my shirt on — and as a prudecaution, my pants too.