Li: The view from the top of the mountain

Last weekend, I decided to take a break.

Specifically, after spending the early part of the weekend recounting my life story thousands of times at job and fellowship interviews across the Northeast, I chose to indulge myself with the lovely New England foliage and pay a visit to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. The trip added a few hundred miles to my already packed travel schedule, but I did not wish to let that portfolio with a big golden Yale logo define my senior year. This was my attempt.

The journey to the summit, up a long and winding road on a sunny afternoon, was a pleasant ride. The colorful leaves, a perfect mixture of green and orange and burning red, swept from the mountaintop down to the valley and left me speechless.

And the view of the far horizon on the summit! Stretching a visibility of almost 100 miles on the 6,000-foot summit, it was indeed a breathtaking one. Like Nazca land drawings when viewed from afar, the ski trails on neighboring mountains revealed themselves from the peak. All the while sunlight blinked on the spires of local churches, scattered in little valley towns lazily bathing in the sun.

It got better when the ruthless wind god decided to take a break, too; for just a few seconds, the summit sank into a motionless tranquility. Gigantic shadows of the clouds and the mountain cast themselves upon the landscape and effortlessly roamed over the ridges and valleys like silky waves merging imperceptibly into the distant horizon.

But it only lasted a few seconds. Before I could take my hands out of my pockets, the furious northern wind raged again (at an astonishing speed of 65 mph), unleashing its merciless icy slings upon poor spectators until they began frantically seeking shelter inside their heated SUVs. In a blink of an eye, the mist had shrouded the summit entirely. Sunshine was blown away, and the gorgeous view was gone.

It’s not too hard to get to the top, but you can’t stay there for long.

We drive up with our fuel-powered machines, take pictures, toast with a glass of bourbon and promptly leave. And with good reason. Few could bear the mountain’s dangerously erratic temper. Nor can one find a place big and comfy enough to entertain friends with extravagant meals as one can at Fabyan’s, a warm, hospitable restaurant at the base of the mountain.

Nor is there anything at the top, really — except for the fleeting moments of the views of the far horizon. No giant pine trees to soften the wind. No singing birds or running moose to amuse the crowds. Only high-elevation plants crawled along the rocks, and even they stayed as close to the ground as possible. To survive, they’ve learned to bow down, rather than to stand up.

At its core, the top is a lonely and hostile place.

But as I waited in a long line of cars for my descent, I couldn’t help but think of those who came here long before I did. The poets — among them Walt Whitman — who praised the beauty and vigor of New England. The statesmen who engineered the Bretton Woods system and devised the birth of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The first generation of Ivy League-educated Chinese students, who a century ago wrote essays detailing their stagecoach trips to Mount Washington (now required reading in most Chinese schools) before returning to China to establish the country’s first sociology and anthropology departments.

How long had they chosen to stay on the dreary and damp summit? Did they capture a good glimpse of the mingling lines and colors of the landscape, in between the periods of fogs and mists, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves. Did they wish it could last forever?

And when they gazed upon the vast expanse of time and space both behind and before them, did they lament their own fleeting moments of glory? Did they know they would be forced to descend and recede into history?

The Native Americans who settled long before the Europeans arrived named the mountain Agiocochook, or “home of the Great Spirit.” I do not know exactly what kind of Great Spirit the Native Americans were talking about, but, to me, the experience on the summit — as I made my own way to the top — was both exhilarating and terrifying.

Could that be what they felt, too?

Robert Li is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.

Comments

  • Wenbo Li

    Beautiful scenery, even better prose.

  • Y’09

    Sic transit gloria mundi!