Once in a while, in the late afternoon or early evening, we get a wild hair and go up Foss. Going up Foss is a very old ritual that long predates my arrival in these parts. In a small knapsack, we bring a cold liter bottle of hard cider and a bag of roasted cashews, and water and a treat for Dingo.
We all get into the car and drive several miles back through the woods on dirt roads, through the tiny mountain hamlet of Eaton with its clean lake and 19th century town hall, past the turnoff to the Snowvillage Inn, where we had a long, decadent dinner last weekend with Brendan’s grandmother (“an orgy,” she pronounced it, and she wasn’t kidding) and then we head upward.
Foss Mountain Road has a few isolated houses with old barns and a working llama farm. The road is so steep, the car occasionally tips and jolts upward as the engine strains to heave us over the hump to the next flat spot. It’s rutted from frost and snowmelt, as grooved and corrugated as a dry streambed in places. We jounce slowly up through dense woods for a good long time. When we come to the tiny turnoff, we park and get out of the car and hike up through a big, scrubby blueberry field that leads us to a narrow path through a small birch wood. This path is studded with boulders and slick with fallen leaves and wet from an underground spring, so we have to tread carefully and occasionally grab a branch or walk on higher ground. Above the wood, we hit the huge granite outcropping and scramble up it to the top.
The summit of Foss affords a 360 degree view of the White Mountains and their valleys and lakes and woods. It could be 1802 up there, or even earlier. There are three or four houses visible in valleys far below, but no roads, no traffic sounds, no other signs of civilization. Once in a while you hear a distant hunter’s shotgun. Otherwise, it’s pristine and silent up there on that granite roof, just the wind rustling in the blueberry shrubs, the giant rushing peace of wilderness, the imperceptible ticking of sunlight on the rocks.
Every time we go up Foss, it’s a different landscape, depending on the season, the weather, the mood of the place. Sometimes on a hot, sunny summer evening there’s a small crowd up there, kids picking the ripe blueberries, running in a pack down the paths through the meadow, dogs forming their own pack and milling around, drinking from rain pools in the rocks and sniffing one another, adults gawping at the view, mostly silently, sometimes with quiet talk.
The other evening, Brendan and Dingo and I were the only ones there. It was a chilly, lowering sort of day, with a brisk fresh breeze and thick low clouds. When we got to the top, we were quiet for a moment, in frank awe. The land had a blue tinge, a strange cast, almost like an old photograph of itself. Suddenly, a sunbeam slipped through the clouds and lit the slope below Mt. Washington with a powerful shaft that made a distant lake shine like mica.
It felt like being in a giant cathedral, a reverent hush, an indrawn breath, mystical and strange.
We sat on our usual outcropping and opened the backpack and popped the cork out of the hard cider and had a swig each.
“I’ve never seen it this beautiful here,” I said finally.
“Me neither,” said Brendan, who’s been going up Foss for 30 years.
Dingo lay at my side, not saying anything.
The cider we bring up Foss is made from local apples, similar to the apples that grow on the old, gnarled little trees in the orchard around the farmhouse, sour, flavorful, tiny things that look like weird stones. The dry, deep, tart taste of that cider always reminds me of Foss; or rather, that’s the only place we ever drink it.
It’s part of a ritual Brendan had, growing up, with his childhood friend Colie, who was one year older and whom he knew all his life and played in the woods with as a kid, came of age with, remained friends with into adulthood. Colie died suddenly in a car accident in December 2010. Whenever I drink cider on Foss with Brendan, we toast to Colie.
The mountains were layered one after another back to the horizon all around us in every direction, in shades of grey and blue and grey-blue and dark blue, like a roiling, turbulent, wild sea in a storm. Mt. Washington turned into a massive giant wave about to send our little craft up its towering flank. We both saw it and shivered together in that pleasurable make-believe fear.
The wind died down. The sun stayed hidden. The granite we sat on felt warmer than I’d expected it would. It was dry up there – no rain pools in the rock for Dingo to lap at.
A flock of nine little birds, tits or pipits maybe, starlings, the tiny kind whose silhouettes look a bit like Piper Cubs, lifted all at once out of the brown, dry meadow just below us. They hurled themselves into the air high, high above our heads and, in a game of follow-the-leader, flew in a big circle, swooping and soaring around us, and coming to ground again, back where they’d started. A moment later, they performed the whole airshow again.
After that, it was time to go. We hiked down to the car, nosed it down the vertical road, headed home slowly with the windows open to let the fresh cool air stream in.
Back at home, we mooched around the fridge and cupboards a bit aimlessly, without much excitement, and then we took ourselves out to an inn just across the state line in Maine. We sat in their basement pub and ordered a bottle of pinot noir and a couple of burgers made with local organic beef and gluten-free buns.
The wine was just fine, but the meat tasted too clean, too wholesome; it had no funky tang, no gamey whiff. They might have butchered a healthy young animal just that afternoon and ground its most tender bits less than one minute before molding them into burgers.
“I like a little noble rot taste in my burger,” I muttered, salting mine and adding lots of ketchup.
“I like a lot of noble rot taste in my burger,” said Brendan, doing the same.
That night, I had strange dreams, dark and ominous, but I slept more deeply than I had in a very long time.