"Is the Sky not a lot like God? The Sky is at once a certain something that you can see from anywhere in the Universe and also something you can see right here on Earth. It is eternal, neither born nor able to die, and infinite with no borders to speak of, and then again it is something so close and familiar that we think we know all about it." - Manosij Majumdar
It was late afternoon when I started the drive home. From Amherst, Massachusetts to Derby, Vermont, north along the Connecticut River past the towns of Brattleboro, Springfield, Hanover, to St. Johnsbury, and then away from the river continuing north to within miles of the Quebec border.
The valley carved by the Connecticut is not nearly so grand as the famous gorges of the West, or even the Palisades along the Hudson. But in May, the trees and fields are the freshest of green, and apple and wild cherry blossoms provide perfect accents.
The hills are gentle, dotted with small farms. Fences surround pastures and even from miles away you can see the black and white holsteins standing around munching their hay and the first green grasses. Everywhere I looked was like a Grandma Moses painting, beautiful and primitive.
The oldest villages have houses dated in the late 1700's, but as I go farther north, the dates tell the story of migration. At the end of my road, the oldest houses, and the oldest gravestones will date to the 1820's.
From any point I could see a church steeple, white and directed upward toward the God and heaven these people knew and depended upon for survival and comfort through harsh times. The spirituality of the settlers was visibly displayed in their white churches, but the spirits of the river people were much older and less visible. God, to the European settlers was a loving and forgiving being. Was the God that watched over the Path of Life so loving?
Along the highway I saw panoramic vistas of the River. Occasionally the small hydroelectric dams would hold back the water, creating flat ponds whose mirror-like reflections captured the light clouds and blue sky. Occasionally bridges would stretch across the water. I was traveling against the Path of Life, following the migration of my ancestors, and I couldn't help wonder how much had changed.
Near Thetford, a deer jumped into the road ahead, and then jumped off to the other side, disappearing into the brush. A short-tailed hawk stepped off its perch in the bare branches of a dead elm, soaring and searching. And then an Owl, seldom seen in the daylight, swooped down into a field to snatch an unseen morsel. I found my brain racing, and my history and that of the Hamonassetts, and Dr. Green and John Stanton were all beginning to feel intertwined in some way that I couldn't fathom.
In one week I would have a chance to explore further, working side by side with Dr. Green, and this felt to me very important.
A week later we were on a ridge below the summit of Mt. Cabot when I had my first glimmer of a spiritual awakening. I was looking through the view finder of Dr. Greene’s infrared camera, trying to pick out distinctive features in the landscape. She was hunched over an aerial infrared photograph of the area with a magnifier, describing features, “There should be two roughly parallel rocky ledges about 150 meters apart.” She stood up and the wind tossed her hair into her face. She was sweating and we had kept peeling off layers of clothing as we had climbed the mountain and the warm spring sun had climbed the sky. It was now mid afternoon and the sun slowly tilted to the west. I turned from the camera and the world below us framed Nibii.
There was something intense and primitive in her eyes. I knew she was totally engaged with the technical problem of obtaining the last photographic image of the day. She made an arresting sight, standing there on the edge of the world in a sweaty tee-shirt and hiking shorts. I suddenly felt like I had never seen her before and my mind did a double take. Who was this creature?
I’m not going to say that I had a vision. What I experienced was more like some kind of suddenly recovered memory. It was not like déjà vu, there was no sensation of having experienced this before. Somehow, something unlocked inside me and I began to see the world in a new way. Somehow, Nibii was at the center of the change. I’m not sure how long I stood there staring at her before I realized she was waiting for me to move so she could look through the camera. We switched off, and she used the camera while I examined the photograph again.
I suddenly felt dizzy and could not concentrate on the blurry photograph. I began to mentally review our trip together, from when we had met at Beegee's Restaurant in Groveton to that moment. I could sense how she had effortlessly slipped me from my reality into hers. But what was this strange world she inhabited?
I said, “I’m useless. The shadows are all wrong. My brain can’t make the translation.” The photograph was from a Forest Service survey and over a decade old. Some of the once stubby but living trees were now dead skeletons, killed by acid rain or fire or insect infestation. The photograph had been taken at a different time of day, in a different season and from a different angle than what we had where we stood.
She ignored me and kept examining the landscape, years of practice allowing her brain to function like an image processor and match what she saw to what the photography showed. Finally Nibii said, “I see it now. This is fine.” She got the last image and started packing the expensive camera into its case. I had learned why she had been glad to invite me along. I was sure that she could never have carried all this equipment herself, but I thought it would be impolite to ask what extra equipment she has been able to bring because I was with her. In any case, she seemed to use it all with an easy expertise. Once we had left her car at the trail head, everything had seemed easy for her, even though she carried as much weight as I did.
I put on my backpack and turned my back to her so she could tie on a last few items including the tripod. I handed her my ice ax. “Tie this on, too, I’m not going to use it on the way down.”
We had not really needed the ice axes. There were still expanses of slushy spring snow in the ravines, but the axes were not needed for us to get around. I tuned and caught sight of Nibii looking wistfully up towards the summit. I suppose she would have gone on up if I had not been along, but she could easily judge that I would be happier if we started back to camp now. I had thought myself in good shape, but from the amount of time I had spent watching her disappearing down the trail in front of me, it was clear that I slowed her down. She pointed down slope. “Remember where we ate lunch?” She was pointing to a promontory on the ridge due north of the summit. “I’ll meet you there.”
I was surprised that she wanted to separate. I asked, “Where are you going?”
She pointed towards the part of the mountain she had just photographed, “If you want to get back to camp before dark, you should head back now. I’m going to go look into this ravine. I’ll catch up.”
I looked at the gash in the side of the mountain we had just photographed. She had explained to me that she was looking for stone shelters, hollows or caves that might mark a station on the Path of Life. There was some anomaly in the aerial photograph of this ravine that had attracted her attention. I had the feeling that this particular little ravine was the main reason for this entire “scouting trip”. I was tired and thirsty and had a blister on my left foot, but I did not want to quit, not after getting this close to our reason for making the journey. I said, “If we go down the ravine we’ll be on more snow and make better time.”
She grinned at me. “How do you think I was planning to catch up to you? Come on.”
I could tell she was pleased that I did not take the easy way down. We climbed up another fifteen minutes over patches of slush and glacier-polished stone, then descended into the ravine. We could now hear cascading snow melt. As I carefully worked my way down the jumble of granite slabs and boulders that filled the upper part of the ravine, Nibii scrambled around like a goat. I called to her, “What are you looking for?”
She came over to me and we paused to stick our water bottles into a small water fall. She replied, “I’m looking for cave entrances, petroglyphs, trail markers.”
I shook my head and looked at the chaos around us. “Who would put a trail here rather than on the ridge line?”
She shrugged, “Some people do not look for the easiest way to climb a mountain. There was one rule for the high trails of a Path of Life: find the spirit of the mountain.” She pointed to the little ice melt stream at our feet. “This is the life of the mountain flowing to the sea. This was the whole metaphor for life origins in the River Culture.” She put the cap on her water bottle and stowed it in a side pocket of her pack. She looked at me to judge if I had any idea what she was talking about. Years of teaching had taught her how to know from a blank or puzzled stare if a student needed more information. “Today we seek the earliest signal from the Big Bang. Ten thousand years ago this was as close as people could get to creation.”
The sun was sliding below the rim of the little gorge we were in and her words combined with the shadow, a moment of inactivity and a gulp of the ice cold water sent a shiver up my spine. I tried to picture being here in the ancient times she spoke of. I asked, “Weren’t there glaciers on these mountains ten thousand years ago?”
Nibii replied, “It has been very hard to find data indicating that alpine glaciers persisted for significant times after the continental ice sheet retreated. The “last gasp” of the ice age was about 10-11,000 years ago, and after that, it seems like the glaciers were just gone, even from these high mountains.” She nodded towards the summit of Mt. Cabot.
I said, “So people could have stood here 10,000 years ago.”
“As far as we know.” We were in full shadow now. Nibii turned down slope and said, “Okay, there is a nice snow field below this boulder pile. Let’s have some fun!”
I felt out of control and like I was flying, but there was no way I could keep up with Nibii as we skipped and ran down the steep, slush-covered slope. Finally the stretch of mostly open slope ended at a stand of trees and I stopped to catch my breath. Nibii was hardly breathing any deeper than normal. She had a grin from ear to ear and she asked, “Well, did that make the climb worth while?”
I replied, “That wasn’t very safe was it?” The rapid descent had been exhilarating and spiced with a series of icy crevices, jagged rock outcrops, and stubby tree spikes ready for impaling.
She looked at me like I was crazy, “Would you really trade something like that for a bit of safety?”
I replied, “No, but I doubt you could carry me out of here if I broke my leg.”
We were on a little promontory at about 1,000 meters elevation. She stood with her fists on her hips looking out towards the Connecticut river. “This would not be a bad place to die.”
Fifteen minutes of bush whacking brought us back to the trail and we were able to make it back to our camp site in the falling darkness. After a hasty dinner we crawled into our sleeping bags and I reminded Nibii of the last I had heard her saying the previous night. We had spent the previous day reaching our base camp below the summit of Mt Cabot and then she had started to share the stories she had heard from her father, including a most interesting tale involving three "sisters". (optional story fork, you can read Nibii's telling of "The Three Sisters").
“There are cave petroglyphs in America that have been dated as maybe 20,000 years old. There are sites twice that old in Europe,” Nibbii said, relating the oral legends passed down through her family.
Listening to Nibii telling the ancient legends gave me some insight into her world. I realized that her trips to the mountains were attempts to make an important archeological discovery that would link the modern world back to something important from the past that had been lost. I realized that it was possible that there had been one particular sacred mountain in New England and that Nibii hoped to discover which mountain it was. “So you have given up on the Green Mountains and are starting to explore the White Mountains?” I asked.
Nibii launched into a long account of how she had spent a decade searching the mountains of Vermont along the Path of Life. Legend held many clues that made her suspect that the Mountain Spirit was specifically associated with one mountain in Vermont. “It is not uncommon for a people to have one sacred mountain.”
I suggested, “Maybe this is a different culture. Why can’t all of the mountains be sacred?”
Nibii muttered, “Oh, they are.”
I asked, “So, which mountain do you think is the most likely candidate?”
Nibii replied without hesitation, “Mt. Mansfield. There are many clues that point to that conclusion. That’s what came out of my dissertation research and it was all published over a decade ago. But it never worked out. I spent five years searching every square meter of Mt. Mansfield.”
That was the last either of us spoke that night. I soon slipped into sleep.
Would I trade those six months I had with her for the life of Nibii? I’m glad I was never offered that choice, for who can say if any choice I might have made could have lengthened her life? Maybe if I had spoken the magic word that night, it would have sent us on the run to the cave and would have prevented me from getting to know her during that glorious summer. Maybe. What if. Futility.