I love hiking above treeline. But perhaps more than that, I love hiking above cloudline.
Here in New England, getting above the clouds is a rare gift. It’s not that our clouds never come in low and heavy; they do, and often. In fact, our clouds are monstrously unpredictable, sometimes building up to unreachable heights, sometimes collapsing damp and tired in the valleys, sometimes racing by far above as trailing wisps or untidy cannonballs.
But our peaks are comparatively low, so it takes a special sort of day to get above the clouds. It takes a day when the clouds are wet and heavy, weighed down by exhaustion from a storm the day before, and with brilliant sun and wind at their backs. Then, if you’re lucky, and you don’t mind climbing through the mist, you may find yourself in an inverted sky.
Above the cloudline, the world is a starkly different place. You feel a little at sea, but the ocean all around you is white and dazzling. Somewhere, at the bottom of the cotton foam, are all the roads and cars and people, but they fade from mind as easily as they faded from view. The air is cold and crisp, and the wind is driving fast and strong. If you had a sail, you could fly.
And somehow, in this mysterious upper world, there are rocks flying along with you. The peaks and ridges that breach above the cloudline are more like icebergs than mountains. Snow and wispy air go streaming from their tops, and white waves break over their feet. For a moment, you think they might overturn and drift away on the swell.
To travel from peak to peak, from floating island to floating island, is to wade through the shallows of this cloudy sea. In the cols, the waves splash over you and spill into the opposite valley. On the peaks, the winds remind you that you are but a few steps from being inundated. The crunch of ice and snow on the rock-strewn ridges might easily be shelly sand, left briefly above the tide line.
Cast up on this lofty archipelago, it’s easy to imagine a world larger and stranger and more magical than we mundanely allow. And perhaps it is—so many of the forces in human society are bent on making the world a regular, predictable, crowded place: on replacing its wildness with civility. We reject the mysteries inherent in a wild world and replace them instead with our own presumptions. Above the clouds, these practices seem small and short-sighted, or even insignificant.
Above cloudline, I step from civilization into wilderness. But too, I understand wilderness better. The cloudlines in New England are usually unreachable by foot, and glorious days like these melt away like spring snow.
Above cloudline, I am reminded that wilderness is about time as much as space—it can be as stoic as a mountain, but it can also be as fleeting as mist.
Climb a summit on a day like this, and the entire human world drops over the horizon.
Image Credits: My Own