Saturday, March 3, 2012

(9th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Gone but not Forgotten"

Song: The Last Time
Album: Out of Our Heads (US version)
Released: July, 1965

I can still conjure up an image of the place as if I were there just yesterday.  When you spend hundreds of hours at a naturally impressive and seemingly clandestine location, as a crew of us did over many years, it’s not too difficult to get instant recall.   Such was the case with “The Mountain” of my youth:  A mere fifteen minute walk from home, yet for all intents and purposes, a world away.  It’s been gone for decades now, and I’ll talk about how that all came about in short order; including a brief period of time when we knew its days were numbered. 

First, let me try to bring it back.

The approach was from the west along an old logging road, a handful of downed trees and large well-placed boulders impeding progress and revealing this passage as having seen more useful days.  Looming up ahead was our destination, The Mountain, a sizable expanse of rocky outcrop with a number of intriguing features, including the Inner Bowl.  This bowl was where we would spend most of our time, and the far side of it was visible at several vantage points along the logging road.  As you got closer though, you lost view of it, as the road angled slightly to the right backside of the bowl. 

Here a trailhead began its ascent.  This was a fairly steep, narrow, scraggly path consisting of both stretches of loose stone and smooth, solid rock.  You had to be careful hiking up it on wet and icy days, although there were two small trees for support at several critical junctures (one of which broke off at its roots after years of overuse).  Most of this entry trail was concealed from the Inner Bowl, but about half way up it, you could cut off to the left around a knob and sneak your way inside the bowl via a long thin ridge line.   Not everyone dared this route, but good friend Bruce would walk it as if he were strolling through the park.  More often however we would all stick to the main trail all the way to the top.

Ahhh, The Summit.  Now, I’ve hiked up many a geologically-designated mountain in my day and in the process gained a feel for what to expect when emerging onto higher ground:  That transition from a sheltered canopy to an exposed one.  Amazingly, this relatively low-lying crest had the feel of one of those true summits:  The pitch pines and scrub oaks were scraggly and stunted, with a windblown look to them.  Tucked inside this grove of trees was a small clearing with an old abandoned fire pit in the middle (which we would use in the latter years of our journeys there), and on the far side of this clearing was a final vertical heave of outcrop, jutting just high enough to declare itself The Pinnacle (though no official benchmark by the USGS to distinguish it as such).  Here, along with a few other locations in the general area of The Summit, were far ranging views in most directions.  Looking back, I believe we were instinctively correct in dubbing this grand place “The Mountain” (despite good friend John’s attempts to keep our grasp on reality in check by regularly reminding us it was just a hill). 

Following the trail a tad further, it then looped back from The Summit grove to the upper ridge of the Inner Bowl, the heart of The Mountain.  There was not much space between the tree line and the cliff edge, but there were a few ledges to step out onto.  One of these overhanging ledges hovered over a mid-upper level ridge, which itself was above the long thin ridge line mentioned earlier.  This mid-upper level ridge was where I would spend countless hours with good friend Phil during our middle-school years, chipping ceaselessly away at the granite with any number of tools from crowbar to hammer, grooving out a wider and wider platform for us to hang out on (and making a cave beneath the overhang above us in the process).   Several more ridges scattered about the bowl would be occupied by Fred, Joe, Bruce, Jeff (aka “the Piz”), and occasionally other friends; they themselves also chipping away with an assortment of tools.  Together, I suppose we were unknowingly creating our own version of Mount Rushmore, or at the very least we were excavating; exposing rock (and fossils?... quite often we were convinced) that had not seen the light of day since at least the last ice age. 

The bottom of the Inner Bowl was littered with rubble, including one very large boulder that we would use to prop targets on top of, picking them off with rocks thrown from our ledges (these targets included glass bottles which we would collect at a reliable party location for driving-age teens on the way).  Bruce was always an extremely accurate hurler, but we all had our fair share of highlight-reel moments.  We would take turns to go down to the bottom to set more targets up.  

After chipping away at The Mountain off and on for a few years and hurling the rocks below, we had pretty much doubled the amount of debris at the bottom.  This new debris included one particularly humongous chunk-o-pried-out ledge which took out a 20-foot tree on its way down, where it rested permanently next to the other large boulder and soon got used as a backup for more target-practice items.

Back to the trail which, after continuing beyond the top of the Inner Bowl, approached the most distinctive feature on the entire escarpment:  An almost square ledge which had the appearance of “Frankenstein’s Head”.  This feature jutted out just beyond the Inner Bowl, perfectly defining the bowl:  Hidden entry trail on the southwest side to the right and Frankenstein’s Head on the northeast side to the left (looking up).  Franks Head gave the entire location a Wild Wild West feel about it.  And it was the one part of The Mountain you really could not climb without rope and carabiners.  God know we tried though, and I believe Bruce (again) figured it out once or twice. 

Just beyond Frankenstein’s Head was a nice stretch of climbing rock where you could practice your finger and toe holds, getting really good at it with repetition.  There was an area to rest and regroup which was tucked in the middle of that vertical challenge.  I believe some of this zone survives to this day.  After this stretch, the exposed rock petered out, to the great woods beyond.   We ultimately discovered that woods in equally intense fashion, but that’s a story for another time.

This was a world all to our selves.  On the rare occasion when we were visited by strangers, they would usually get the hint that they may be intruding.  The hint was delivered not so much by us as by our dogs, Nicky and Whiskers, who maintained constant vigilance on The Summit.  Inevitably, folks would either turn around or saunter on by (and if they had read “Lord of the Flies” at any time in their lives, they may have sauntered a bit quicker).

Many great times were had on The Mountain, be they related to climbing, chipping, exploring, hurling, hiking, chilling, biking, or later, midnight fire stoking.  It was a magical place; a natural fun house.  What we did not realize in our earliest years there, though, but which would become more obvious to us over time, was that this land was actually owned by someone, deed and all. That entity was the Franklin Lumber Company, and their developed piece of property was adjacent, through a small patch of woods beyond the trailhead on the southwest side.  Unbeknown to us, they were apparently becoming increasingly aware of our activities and increasingly interested in this piece of land for their own uses.

I believe it was Bruce who first got wind of the lumber company’s initial wave of encroachment onto The Mountain:  The more gradually sloping hillside leading up to it from the east had been stripped bare of trees.  Our world was still fully intact, but the space between this wonderland and the real world next door had narrowed considerably.  And rumor that this was just a first step was now turning into inevitability:  For reasons that have never been fully explained to me, the Franklin Lumber Company was intent on wiping out The Mountain.  Perhaps it was a liability issue.  Perhaps others who came later had squandered the privilege of enjoying this land as there were reports of theft and vandalism in the lumber yard.

Squatters Rights were not in the cards.  Each visit now had the feel of being the last:

“Well, this could be the last time
This could be the last time
May be the last time
I don’t know”

The Last Time ( ) was a song I never really appreciated until I saw it played live.  The guitars are crude in the studio version (understanding this was 1965 and a great production for a Rock and Roll album was rare then), but what I really needed was a connection with the song on a different plane than where the simple lyrics can draw you.  All good songs have the potential for multiple meanings, and hearing The Last Time played live by a band that was well past the expected expiration date of any band did this for me.  I’m absolutely certain this was the case for most all who would benefit from hearing The Rolling Stones play it in large stadiums during the 90s and 00s, including the band members themselves.  You could not but help being drawn into the serendipity. Yes, this could be The Last Time.  Enjoy the moment.  Sing it loud and in unison.

The Franklin Lumber Company did indeed plow The Mountain asunder, actually managing to get their heavy equipment on top of The Summit from behind, wiping it and the entire Inner Bowl out.  The one saving grace was being able to see this coming and the last few times we went down to The Mountain, we savored those moments, much like savoring the moment at those Stones shows.  I can think of at least a dozen other situations in my life where “This could be the last time” played out in my mind as it was happening. 

Hopefully, for any potentially fleeting situation, we have the luxury to ponder these thoughts while still in that moment.

- Pete

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