One of the things I value most about Adirondack wilderness is how evocative it is in its intimate spaces. Where other wilderness areas might be most affecting in their scenery, their grand vistas or their iconic imagery, the Adirondack forest itself, in its dense, primeval nature, generates equally strong emotions. The vast and trackless stretches of uneven terrain and close-held woods, unremarkable by any common standards of majesty or wonder, possess as much power as any wild place I’ve ever visited. To venture into the Forest Preserve is to experience an unmistakable immersion that activates ancient echoes of the primitive selves we all harbor, institutional memories lodged deep in our genetic code.
Of all the sensations the Adirondack wilderness evokes, the strongest and most valued to me is loneliness. It may seem odd to value loneliness so highly. If I were forced to live with it on a daily basis I have no doubt it would lose its appeal. But in this era of social bombardment a little loneliness is good for the soul. Indeed it always has been. Loneliness invites a distinct form of reflection replete with significance about one’s place in the world, about one’s values and priorities. It requires, in the absence of civilized companionship, that we instead connect with Nature and with our internal lives, indeed with those deep, primeval echoes that, more to me than religion or the supernatural, define mystery.
This effect is greater in certain places than in others. Our own Lost Brook Tract is a case in point. It is a remote area in its entirety, but not equally so. The eastern side, defined by our summit ridge, has the brook, the vistas and the grand trees; it is the marquee half. But it is the western side, specifically the high slope we call the Western Ridge, which most powerfully evokes loneliness. It is, consequently, one of my favorite places in the world.
I confess that I have little understanding of what it is about the Western Ridge that gives it this effect. I have plenty of ideas about the raw materials that go into the mix but minimal sense of how and why they fashion such emotions more powerfully than do other remote places. That is as it should be; like many mysteries of life I’d rather not know.
For certain one of these raw materials is wind. Facing southwest as it does, rising more than a thousand feet above a large bowl and bracketed by taller summits on either side, the Western Ridge is perpetually inhabited by a prevailing breeze that sweeps upward from well below and far away. The sound of it pushing through the canopy is unmistakable to anyone who has hiked in high places. Our ridge is more than three and a half thousand feet in elevation, lofty enough to produce that unforgettable mountain air sensation which makes you feel that all the remainder of the earth lies in an amphitheater beneath you.
High mountain wind, with its unique feel and sound, has a way of communicating expanses that transcends the actual distance you can see. The Western Ridge is covered in a balsam and birch forest that obscures the view, which even if revealed would not be very far, as larger ridges face you only a few thousand feet away. Yet the sound of that constant breeze is a carrier wave that tells you of innumerable unseen valleys and peaks beyond. I have learned that such wind doesn’t lie: the nearest road from Lost Brook Tract in that direction is more than thirty miles distant. In between there is nothing but wilderness, the immensity of which you can sense in that rarefied air. It is impossible to not feel insignificant and alone in a place like that.
The quality of the light on the Western Ridge is another raw material. It seems capable only of coming from an angle, if its direction can be determined at all. In the afternoon it filters through the low canopy from the same distant places whispered about by the wind, carrying the same call. In midday it seems diffuse, uncertain. In the morning, blocked by the very ground upon which you stand, it is shrouded, unequal to the task of fully vanquishing darkness from the cold rock and the thick stands of dark conifers.
There is a corner post on the Western ridge, one of two lot corners of historical significance that demarcate Lost Brook Tract. The first person to mark this corner (and given its location, likely the first person ever to see it) was Surveyor and Judge John Richards, in 1812, more than two centuries ago. His witness marks survived a hundred and thirty five years of obscurity before the line was finally resurveyed in 1948. Even this was more than a decade before I was born. From that time forward no one of record visited the corner until we located it two years ago.
There is no substantive human presence in this spot, only a handful of blaze marks, a pile of stones and a pipe. Yet when I come upon it from the sweeping arc of the Western Ridge, having been vested with mantles of longing and existential loneliness, profoundly aware of a deep and uncertain pang in me that asks things of my primitive self I have not the wherewithal to understand, I find comfort in it, a sense of communion most of all with John Richards in his lonesome toil, a connection that defies the span of time between us.
Yet, comforted by this human touchstone, why is the urge so strong in me to turn back and find myself on the Western Ridge again?