When I was younger, my favorite books were always about sea voyages and shipwrecks. I enjoyed reading stories about people who were stranded on remote islands, or stuck on life rafts, and then rescued. I also read all of the major accounts of solo voyages around the world, and I think one of the reasons why I was so fascinated by these stories is that my father had an old wooden boat, a seaworthy 32 footer, and every once in a while we would take it out into the Atlantic, just off the coast of Point Pleasant, and fish for fluke or bluefish. We would go out through the Manasquan Inlet in fairly calm waters, and then suddenly be lifted up by the waves, and pitched down again as soon as we hit the open ocean. It was an experience that made me dream of taking to the seas myself, but all I could do was read about the adventures of other people, and imagine myself out there with them.
Later in life, I ended up living in the small town of Dorset, Vermont, located in a valley between two mountains running east and west. Being in a rural area, surrounded by trees was something different, but it also brought back a lot of memories from my childhood. I spent a lot of time playing in the woods when I was growing up, and as soon as I was settled down in Vermont, I began to think about climbing a few of the mountains around Dorset. I bought myself a small “day pack,” and filled it with things I might need on a typical hike, and hung it on a hook near the back door.
There is an old farmhouse on the road to Dorset that serves as an inn for tourists. A carriage house sits on the side of a hill at the end of the parking lot, and a mountain rises a 1000 feet above it. That is where I lived. I spent most of my time climbing the mountain behind me simply because it was so convenient. It levels off at the top, and runs back toward Manchester for a mile or so before it abruptly ends at the edge of a very steep ravine. Across from the ravine is a hilltop known as “Owl’s Head.” It is a scruffy looking thing, populated with cedar pines, and was named because it has that ruffled feather look you might expect to see on the head of an owl. From the road, it looks like a dark mass of shrubs against the otherwise green background of mountains that surround it.
One December day, I decided to climb Owl’s Head. We had a few inches of snow on the ground, and it started to come down again just as I walked out the door, but I was not concerned about the weather. I knew the terrain, dressed warmly, and was prepared for whatever conditions I might run into.
I entered the woods above the carriage house and followed the narrow rocky trail up the side of the mountain. The snow began to pick up, and by the time I reached the top, I was beginning to feel the strain of slipping and sliding down the hill. Knowing how far I had to go to reach the ravine, I decided against the idea of crossing it, and thought my best hope was to simply get a glimpse of Owl’s Head before heading home again.
When I reached the top of the mountain, the snow was coming down very heavy, and despite pulling my hood over my head and partially covering my face with a scarf, I had to keep wiping it away from my eyes in order to see where I was going. I noticed then that the wind had picked up, and the sky had turned an ominous grey. What seemed like a brief flurry when I left the house was becoming a full-blown winter storm. I leaned forward and kept going.
I came to the last line of trees, and could hear the wind howling up through the ravine. It was the first sign that I was approaching a steep drop, and would have to be very careful of my footing. I got as close as I could, grabbed a tree, and peered out over the edge. I was not prepared for what was in front of me. The dome of Owl’s Head was much bigger and darker than I expected, magnified by the veil of mist that filled the open space between us, and the wind was so intense that it was roaring through the jagged ravine with a deep, thundering sound, and blowing a steady stream of snow past me at an upward angle. The base of Owl’s Head was shrouded in fog, so that only the head was visible, and I could see the cedars along the top whipping back and forth like blades of grass. Somewhere below me, a tree cracked and fell to the ground. It scared me for a moment, but I looked down and leaned out a little more, wanting to take it all in, and my fear gave way to a feeling of exhilaration and awe. I was witnessing nature’s power in a way that I could only have imagined or vicariously experienced in the pages of a book. I was in no hurry to get home again, but the darkening sky and the realization that I would now have to make my way back through an extra layer of deep snow made me think twice about staying longer.
It has been a long time since I read anything about going out to sea, and the little “voyages” with my father are something I will never forget. My taste for adventure is still strong, but there comes a time in everyone’s life when only a good book can satisfy that. The old pack hangs in a closet somewhere, filled with nothing more than memories.
When I remember the way Owl’s Head looked that day, I think about picking up a copy of Sir Edmund Hilary’s conquest of Mount Everest. I know my little adventure is nothing in comparison, but I imagine there were times when even Sir Edmund had to wipe the snow from his eyes, and just keep going.