Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 26 – IT’S OVER

As I drove in the New Hampshire present, 34 years later, I had this increasing sense of danger – like in the woods in Hobbema paintings that could put me in a trance at the Frick or the Met. I understood what art historians, who saw these 17th century Dutch paintings as nice pictures of nice summer days, could not see, and so could not understand why the artist had fled his art. I knew in this time of internal and external investigation how dangerous the Hobbema woods were, how close he came to being lost in horror.

But I also remembered how in bright days in the White Mountains I had become a popular figure. Moving with ease among these kids, some new and some I had known all of my life, kids so much like the boarding school kids of winter who despised me, and would ostracize me if we had met in a context other than a White Mountains summer.

One day in the course of hiking the Presidential Range our summer gang had stopped for the night at the Lake of the Clouds Appalachian Mountain Club building called a “hut” at the timberline two-thirds of the way up Mt. Washington – happily rustic dormitories, a happily rustic central room with a pot belly stove next to a rustic kitchen with another wood burning stove for cooking robust meals made from goods carried all the way up here by college boys, Ivy League if they were smart enough and often when they weren’t. This hut, one in a chain through the ranges of the White Mountains, this one up where only foot-high scrub pine could grow, beside the very small, clear Lake of the Clouds. The summit was in sight from the lake. So too was the treeless sweep of the presidential range, which we would traverse tomorrow. Our whole crowd had come up together, meaning I was here with my friends. My friends. This summer crowd. This summer world where no one ever knew how deeply unpopular and despised I so often had been in the winters of my now nearly 16 years.

Before dinner Harry Bowden, who was some sort of cousin, and I pulled off a feat that everyone admired. We raced up from the Lake of the Clouds to the summit, made this hour and a half lap in 45 minutes, nearly running up the steep and jagged rock path. The summit had a radio relay station, a year-round weather station, and also a restaurant and souvenir store for the common tourists who came up by the cog railway or the auto road. Harry and I would not look at them, for we were of the mountaineer part of the scene. Also, we were from families rooted in formidable White Mountains summer places, and we were pulling off this feat. I was usually fascinated by souvenir stores, but would not enter this one. We ran all the way down to the hut carrying a full case of Coca Cola and orange soda. We left the case in the ice-cold, shallow little lake.

A dozen of my close friends, I thought they were my close friends – the gang we had created – were along on this three-day hike, kids and a few intrepid parents. We took up half the space at the long dining table, a huge meal from goods brought up on the college boys’ backs – and we were in awe of one of them Don Grout, older brother of Ruthie, Kitty's closest cousin. Ruthie along and also Ruthie's little sister Janet, old enough for the climb but not quite old enough for full membership in the gang which meant being 15 or 16 – and all the others, Jimmy and Rufus and Esther, once sort of my girlfriend until I found a girl at our sister school from whom I learned how to seriously neck. I, and Alice and George, and Carl, who also went to Holderness, and gorgeous Mickie McKnight, whose family had come all the way from Grosse Point to buy one of our family’s summer houses, and her little brother Donny and my twin brother Peter (who did not seem to dominate these days, though he was always along) and Connie and Darla, Lou and Keen, Ann and Eve – all here just above the timberline (all except Kitty who had gone off with her parents and her brother Louis to Boothbay Harbor) – all here, the gang that I was a part of, the gang that had taken me as its leader. Great platters of beef and carrots and potatoes – tin plates and tin cups like a summer camp but this was the big world, and we washed it all down with the soda Harry and I had bought in the contemptible tourist store at the summit.

It was in the middle of the meal that I had a sense everything was all over. I was back to where I'd been before it began . Maybe there was this marvelous summer gang, but somehow they had caught on and I was no longer the leader, no longer even a real member. Nothing was said, but at dinner I had suddenly felt as sealed off as I had been before this phase of my life had begun. No one had a word to say to me, I was trapped in my hollow head. I could hear and see them talking, to each other but not to me. Whatever I had done or not done – I couldn't think what – it must have been too stupid.

I wandered off alone after dinner. No one said goodbye. I wandered over to a horseshoes pit beside the little lake. I was aware of how huge the sky was up here, saw infinite lesser rocky summits of the Presidential Range, saw steam from the 19th Century engine of the cog railway, saw the complex antennae way up on the summit, breathed thin air that was filled with nostalgia here in the real mountains.

It was getting cold and the sky was going into orange and then gray. I picked up two horseshoes, hardly paying attention, threw them towards the far pit, one right after the other, and both jangled on the stake. Then I went to the pit where they had landed and threw them back to the first pit and missed this time by several inches. I threw them again and again with mixed success, and then I saw little Janet was there at the far pit watching. I threw them. She threw them all the way back even though she was a little girl. We were playing a game of horseshoes. She didn't know it was all over. And although in the scheme of things she was too young to count, she was someone. Maybe the others didn't know it was over either, but at most I could expect a conditional reprieve.

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