A walk in the valley

I had intended to stay off the hilltops. My hamstrings were sore, and tropical storm Ernesto hovering to the south was making all my joints stiff. When I got to the Blue Hills, I avoided the steep climb up Hancock Hill and sauntered along the gentle grades of Wolcott Path, a gravel fire road that winds through the valley between Hancock and Hemenway Hills on the one side, and Houghton and Great Blue Hills on the other.

The sun occasionally shone brightly enough through the cloud cover that the trees cast shadows on the road. My muscles complained, and I slowed down even further, admiring the lowlands filled with bracken stretching on either side of the road. An intense smell of bracken, the smell of late summer, filled the air. A trail bore off to the right; the map showed it was fairly level; I turned off to follow it.

The woods were lovely, bright, and still. I hadn’t seen another person since I left that parking lot, and even the birds were quiet, except for some chickadees here and there. I turned right, and right again. The trail I chose wound upwards less gently than before, up to the low broad top of a hill, rocky and grassy with scrubby oak trees and a view of Great Blue Hill. I turned away from the view and followed the narrowest trail I could find down again into a valley.

The trail turned abruptly about halfway down the hill, and skirted a drop-off that appeared to grow steeper and steeper. I followed a small path to the edge of the drop-off: I was standing at the top of a rock face some thirty or forty feet above a small stream bed with a little thread of brown water babbling down it. The path dropped down to the stream, and I looked back up at the rock, heaved up I guess in some distant past when the strata had been nearly molten. Now it was impossibly picturesque, shaded by hemlocks and pines.

I thought about skirting the base of the next hill, but when I found the barely-visible trail to its summit, I couldn’t resist following it upwards. There wasn’t much to follow: a few places where the lichen on the rocks had been worn off leading to a narrow treadway still visible in the grass-covered ground between the rocks. In the next rocky stretch, I lost the trail, so followed the ridge line towards the summit. Then I saw a smear of black and gray paint on a rock. I looked closely, and saw the black and gray paint covered old orange paint. Had someone deliberately tried to paint out the blazes? Another smear of black paint, followed by a small cairn. Branches and bushes had grown over the trail.

Suddenly the faint trail emerged into an open area, exposed bedrock with grass and small plants growing in the hollows. I looked behind me, and there was Boston Harbor with the empty horizon line of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. I climbed higher, followed the open rock away from the trail, and found a place to sit and look. The towers of Boston were off to the left, looking somehow ominous today. Beyond them, I thought I could see the hills of the Middlesex Fells. A few white dots on the waters of Boston Harbor: I wasn’t sure they were boats until one disappeared behind one of the islands. Chimney Swifts soared idly overhead. I walked further along the rock and noticed a small plant at my feet. I got down on my knees to look at it: red buds carried on much-ramified, almost leafless branches of a plant that wasn’t more than a few inches high, growing out of cracks in the rock. A few of the red buds were just opening up into yellow flowers that were perhaps an eighth of an inch. It was Pineweed (Hypericum gentianoides) just beginning to bloom.

When I looked up again, the Chimney Swifts were gone. A moment later, I saw why: a Red Hawk floated by, not too far above me but high above the valley. The hawk flexed its wings and tail, riding the air currents; I could see its head moving back and forth, scanning the trees below it.

The trail continued up past a small sheltering oak tree. I say it was sheltering, although it had few enough leaves that it couldn’t have sheltered much under it; but the shape of its bent trunk and curving branches somehow reassured me and made me feel sheltered, for no reason at all. Beyond that tree, I lost the view until I emerged onto the main trail.

A small pond glistened darkly in the trees in front of me, and the trees had already begun to lose the deep green of midsummer; Great Blue Hill loomed off to the west; gray clouds mounted high into the sky beyond Great Blue Hill. To the south, towards where we live, the land was flat, and a line of gray-white cumulus clouds hung low on the horizon.

It was all almost too beautiful to bear. Abraham Maslow popularized the phrase “peak experiences,” meaning those moments in life when when you achieve sometimes unbearable clarity. Later in his life, Maslow wrote that he wished he had not concentrated so much on peak experiences, and I think he felt responsible to some extent for the excesses of the drug culture of the late 1960’s, with young people indiscriminately seeking “peak experiences” from hallucinogens and other more destructive drugs. So later on, Maslow defined “plateau experiences” as those times that fill your soul with wonder and awe but that extend beyond the momentary to fill hours; and he said the plateaus could be as intense as the peaks. The paradigmatic plateau experience is the mother who nestles quietly with her baby, lost in the baby’s smell and sound and new being; an experience far more intense than a hallucination from a drug, because it is real and because in some sense it never really ends. I headed back down a gentle path into a valley, having had enough of summits just then, even the low broad summits of the Blue Hills; I felt I needed a valley experience just then, not a peak experience.

But that gentle, downward-trending road was just as heart-achingly beautiful as the summit of the little hill I was coming down. The path followed an old woods road. The land had obviously been clear of trees not too long ago; it was now covered with coppice and small trees. Among the thickets of saplings, and the more open spaces under the larger trees, I saw a great slope covered with shattered rocks the size of my head; a small rocky ridge rose up into almost open sky on the other side, and the path wound around to the bottom of that ridge, which was covered with huge shattered rocks and slabs. In one area, the rocks appeared to have scales: loosely hanging dingy brownish-gray scales, lichen of a type I hadn’t seen before. I followed that path back down to the fire road from which I had originally diverged, passed the little road that had tempted me onto that detour, and kept walking.

Eventually I came to a small field that opened up in the woods. I stood quietly on its edge, admiring the huge gnarled oak that towered amid the goldenrod and yellowing late summer grass, comparing the openness of the field with the openness of the hilltops. Something snorted; startled, I turned, and two deer took fright, showed their white tails, and leapt into the trees. I could hear them crashing away through the brush.

The fire road intersected the paved road to the summit of Great Blue Hill, so I went almost to the observation tower at the summit, but there were too many people there. I had seen no one all afternoon, until I started up Great Blue Hill. Instead, I cut over to the head of the ski slope, and looked west from there. The course of the highways below me were marked out by the huge roofs of corporate and manufacturing buildings, gray and beige expanses sticking out of the tree cover, covering acres. Further off, three or four church steeples marked an old town center. Away off to the west stood Mt. Wachusett; beyond it to the north, a line of hills led up to the distant peak of Mt. Monadnock; and I knew that even farther north, hidden behind Mondanock, lay the White Mountains.

The walk back to the car was short and uneventful; but tonight I think I will dream of mountains.