Fall2017Fiction

The Old Scout – Nikki Andrews

See them rocks up the river there, right where it curves? That’s the kinda place where you might find a nice trout pool. But you notice what’s different about ‘em? You got it. No moss or lichen, no water stains like all the others. And the edges are sharp and clean, not rounded by the water. So they ain’t been there all that long. They weren’t even there twenty years ago. I could show you pictures.

Some folk says those rocks first showed up back in ’11, when we had all the floodin’ from the hurricane. The Ammonoosuc here, the Saco, all the rivers was over their banks. Lots of washouts and such. Lots of damage to rivers and roads from the water, and lots of rocks got moved. So they say these guys just broke off bigger rocks and ended up here.

I ain’t so sure. If it happened that way, there’d be a smoothed face on at least a couple of ‘em. Once the water went down, I checked ‘em out. I was up here fishin’ and I just waded up and took a look. Fishin’ was really good back then. The water was sweet and clean and cold, just right for salmon and trout. The State used to keep this river stocked, back when they had money and time for it.

So anyways, I checked out those boulders. And what I found is, it ain’t the same kind of rock. Oh, it’s granite, all right, but it didn’t come from right around here. That’s pure Mt. Washington granite, from seven miles away. I found the place where it come from, matched it up edge to edge with these rocks here. Perfect fit. I’d show you, but it ain’t there no more.

Not since Washington erupted.

‘Course nobody ever figured that big ole hunk of granite would blow up like that. Old, old mountains, these are. Some of the oldest in the world. And steady, they told us. Ain’t no volcanoes in New Hampshire, not for millions of years. There were hints, though, if you looked hard enough.

The old native peoples, the Abenaki and others, they called the mountain Agiocochook, meaning roughly “Home of the Great Spirit.” They considered it holy, and they watched it very carefully. There’s an old tale about the times when those little ponds called the Lakes of the Clouds boiled. Yep, they said the water boiled, as if the spirits were cooking fish. How they could tell I dunno, since they never climbed the mountain out of reverence. I can respect that; it’s an awesome place. Anyway, the scientists think maybe what the Indians saw was mist, when warm air blew over the cold water like you can see on any lake. And maybe that’s what it was.

Then there’s the stories ‘bout what we call Tuckerman’s Ravine, where the daredevils like to ski in the spring. The native people never built their villages near the mouth of the ravine, even though it was a good place to hunt, because of something they called “hot breath.” It’s true that warm winds sometimes blow up the ravine, ‘specially in the spring, but these tales talk about warm winds coming down it, with a stink in the air. Sometimes it’s spring in the tales, but sometimes fall and summer, too. There’s nobody left now who ever felt the “hot breath,” but all the different tribes have tales about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something to it. I mean, there’s all those caves and weird sounds in there, and if one person talks about seein’ or hearin’ somethin’, nobody else can ever find it again.

Well, the scientists pooh-poohed all that and talked about air currents and sun-warmed rocks and microclimates and even hoaxes, but none of ‘em could explain it when one frigid day in February ’19, all the snow and ice in the ravine melted before lunch. Swept away a slew of hikers, too. Three of them, their hair turned white, made it out alive, complaining about their lungs hurting, and said they left behind another two who just plain couldn’t breathe and died for lack of air. There was so much water and mud, it was days before rescuers could get in. They only found seven bodies, out of forty-three missing.

That was one hint they couldn’t ignore. So some started lookin’ harder. One geologist, name of Diane Caine–and of course they just had to call her Hurry–she took a look at the shakes. Not earthquakes, really. See, everyone knew Mt. Washington sorta quivered during really big storms. I mean, worst weather in the world up there, right? Even stone gets nervous when the winds get up over 200 mph. Well, turns out nobody ever checked all the records for quivers, only when it stormed, and Hurry found all kinds of tremors, even when it was calm. Which didn’t happen a lot, for sure, but there were nice days on the summit now and then. Anyway, she put in more sensitive seismographs and found traces that didn’t match the old ones. Tiny, tiny tremors, but almost all the time. And the worryin’ thing was, they were movin’ up.

 

People went crazy. Some locals sold off their land and moved away. Speculators moved in. New Agers came to bless the mountain, end-timers preached fire and brimstone. You name it. USGS set out more markers, and drones flew around taking measurements. Funny thing, though–tourism numbers didn’t change much. You got more folks wanting to stay closer to the mountain, so a few hotels and restaurants and campgrounds opened up along the 302 between Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch, which had been dying the slow death for years. And you got other people stayin’ away from the higher ground along the eastern flanks of old Agiocochook, so the same sorts of businesses closed around the Presidentials and Pinkham Notch. It’s like the general public, plain old people, wanted to see the mountain, but knew where it would be safe. Or less dangerous, as it turned out.

Sure, I made money, guiding tours like I always did. It got so I had to turn people away. It all made me sad, somehow. People should come to the White Mountains for the beauty, the peace, the scenery. They oughta take time to think on nature and their place in it. Fishin’s good for that. But they came looking for a spectacle, and most of ‘em went away disappointed. ‘Cause the spectacle didn’t happen, not for a few years.

The tremors settled down and sometimes disappeared for months. Tourism changed again, though there was still enough business for the new places between the Notches. The USGS ran out of money for the seismographs and the drones, so nobody checked the readouts anymore, or not often. Once in a while some geologist would come along and service them, and Hurry used to visit every year on her vacations from teaching at some fancy school down in the flatlands. She’d come fishin’ with me. She wa’n’t no good at it, but she liked the rivers. We’d end up sittin’ on a rock, and she’d ask me about all the changes I’d see every year. I’ll tell you this, Hurry was worried about that mountain. Said she didn’t like lookin’ at it too long. Didn’t trust it.

 

It got to be 2026, and I got a itch to go see the Lakes of the Clouds again. One business that fell off was the tourist buses to the summit of Mt. Washington. The cog railway still ran, but not so often. Hikers still visited, though, and I tagged along with three couples I knew from years past. Experienced folks, knew their limits and played it smart on the trails. We set out good and early on the Crawford Path, spent a night just below treeline, and figured we’d summit the next day.

I didn’t sleep too good, even though I had good gear and it wasn’t all that cold. Even in August, you could get snow up there. It wasn’t the weather, though. Something didn’t smell normal. The air’s usually clean and fresh up on the mountain, but sometimes, when the winds are just right, smog and haze’ll sneak in. It didn’t smell quite like that, though. Nobody said anything, but I think we were all uneasy. I sure was. We just shouldered our packs and trudged on.

It can get weird up there above the trees. It’s beautiful in its own way, with all the rocks glitterin’ with mica and the tough, tiny plants hangin’ on where you wouldn’t think anything could grow. But weird. The sun was hot but the wind was cold, and even in August I was glad of my hat and gloves. A cold wind like that can really parch a fellah, but I was stingy with my water. It’s a precious commodity at 6,288 feet.

We skirted around Mt. Monroe and had about another mile and a half to Washington. The Lakes of the Clouds hikers’ hut, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, comes into view just before you meet up with the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, but you see the bigger of the two Lakes first. ’Cept we didn’t see the Lake, and we sure didn’t walk past it. It wasn’t there. It was completely dry. Just a bit of burnt, brown algae on the rocks where it shoulda been. The little lake, when we got there, that was dry, too. I walked out onto the lakebed and found not a drop of water. That uneasy smell was stronger, and the rocks were more than just warm; they were hot.

Never had my blood run cold before. My head and feet didn’t feel attached to my body, my mouth got dry, and I ain’t ashamed to say my bowels went loose. My friends all looked like I felt.

I worked up some spit and croaked, “I never saw this before.”

We scrambled over to the hut, which is usually pretty busy that time of year. Nobody was around, but there was a handmade sign on the door. “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. DANGER. ALL HIKERS RETURN TO BASE IMMEDIATELY. LAST TRAIN AND VAN WILL LEAVE OBSERVATORY 4PM.”

They were closing the observatory? It never closed. Only scientists would stay up there in the winter, but it never closed. We just stared at each other. A puff of smoke trickled up from the middle of the rocks a hundred feet away. It smelled awful.

Scared as I was, I knew what was happening. We had to move.

 

We left behind sleeping bags, food, cameras, bad-weather gear, trash, and empty water bottles. Only took a map, a first aid kit, water, and a compass. A mile and a half over that terrain and at that altitude is pushin’ it, but we made it in time. Just. The last cog train was leavin’ to the west, with folks standin’ in the aisles and hangin’ on between the cars. Two vans, also packed fuller than usual, headed down the east side. Maybe five scientists were left, including Hurry Caine, and the seven of us hikers pitched in to help them pack every bit of equipment we could into the final van and a work truck. Nobody said anything but what they needed to, and ten minutes later we were on our way.

Hurry kept her head turned back until we couldn’t see the observatory any more, and she wasn’t the only one with tears rolling down her cheeks. Those van drivers always seemed like Mario Andretti to me, going faster when I would’ve put my foot on the brakes, but for once I didn’t complain. We stopped a couple times to push  rocks off the road, and all the way down we could see stones falling off those little cairns the tourists like to build. We drove through foul-smelling clouds twice, and it just kept getting warmer and warmer. Drones flew everywhere, and a huge black helicopter beat a fast, straight line up the mountain.

Even when we reached the valley, we didn’t stop. Cops and army guys directed cars will-nilly into both lanes going north and both going south, away from the mountain. Traffic was heavy, especially in the small towns. White faces, tears, swearing, but everybody kept moving. If a car broke down, and some did, it got pushed along until it found a place to pull over. I give people credit–all the stranded stragglers got picked up eventually.

Long story short, everybody was runnin’ away. Later I heard tell some stayed in their homes. Dumb move. Weeks later, when the powers that be figured the mountain was settlin’ down again, they let people come back a few at a time to gather up what they could in a day. So sad. I don’t know where they all went. Some to Maine, I suppose, and some west and south. Never thought I’d see refugees like that in New Hampshire.

Me, I had a cabin west of Franconia Notch. Safe enough, they said, so I stayed. The tremors died down, but they never stopped, and the Lakes stayed dry. There was smoke on the mountain most of the time, and it was tough, nobody knowin’ what was comin’ or if they’d ever see their homes again. The government monitored the seismographs and sent more drones, hopin’ to figure out what old Agiocochook was gonna do next.

There was a huge no-go zone around the mountain, but I been hiking that land since I could toddle and knew some paths not on the maps. I made me a comfortable bivouac on one of the Twin Mountains, with a good view of Washington, and hauled in food, telescope, and cameras, and some other equipment Hurry let me use. I might have been the only one to see it, the moment it happened.

It was early November by then, and gettin’ cold at night. Maybe that’s what kept me awake, but I think it was some sort of premonition. For four weeks after the evacuation, things were quiet enough to let people come back for a day. Then the tremors started again, with more smoke and gas. There was maybe ten miles between me and the mountain, and sometimes I thought I saw tremors in my coffee cup. On the night of the 8-9th, I was sure of it. I could feel them in my feet. The forest was dead silent, not even a breeze in the pine needles. Come to think on it, I hadn’t heard a bird or a coyote for days.

I happened to be looking in the ‘scope, and the camera was runnin’ steady, streamin’ onto the web. The moon was near to full, shinin’ on the early snow on Monroe, Franklin, Pierce, and Jackson, but any that fell on Washington melted soon as it landed. Washington stood up tall and solid against a clear sky, and my heart ached at how beautiful it was.

And then…it wasn’t. The sound of it nearly knocked me over, just about the time I realized what it was. Mt. Washington exploded. A great dark cloud climbed and kept climbing, and lightning flashed. I caught glimpses of rocks leapin’ into the sky, and didn’t realize until days later how goddam big they were. Smoke and ash poured out, straight up and spreadin’ wide but mostly eastward, away from my camp. No doubt about it, the ground shook now. Hell, the air shook. Closer to the blast, millions of trees fell over; on Twin Mountain, they bent and swayed and cracked, but none fell on me. I got the camera goin’ again, wiped some blood off my face where a flyin’ branch hit me, and went back to watching.

It was heart-breaking and terrifying and beautiful, all mixed up. Before the smoke blotted out the mountain, I saw hellish shapes and patterns in the clouds of ash, a power as holy and as wicked as anything I ever saw. I wanted to kneel before it, worship it, and yet I cursed it with every sinew in my body at the same time. I loved that mountain, respected and cherished it, lived my whole life in its shadow. And I thought I’d never see it again.

 

But I did, days later when the clouds finally cleared. It was a stump, a broken tooth, shorter by nearly 1300 feet, no longer the grand old man. Tuckerman and Huntingdon Ravines were gone, same as most of the Gulf of Slides. Pinkham Notch was mostly filled in. The rivers were clogged with ash and dust and dead fish. The busy town of Jackson would take years to recover; it still ain’t what it used to be.

Franconia Notch was mostly untouched, ‘cept for a lot of rock slides. Crawford Notch, steeper and narrower, was closed for years while they cleared the slides and rebuilt the road. Two days after the blast, I slogged my way back to civilization, following the river part of the way. It was still warm.

Agiocochook, Mt. Washington, rumbled off and on for a few years, and it let loose another blast five years after the first. That’s when the place where them rocks in the river came from was destroyed. It’s been quiet now fifteen years and more. No more tremors. All the other White Mountains show no sign of blowing up. But we’re keeping an eye on them, you bet.

People still come, maybe more than ever. But they’re different now. Sure, they laugh and hike and picnic and have a good time, just like they always did. But there’s a look in their eyes that didn’t used to be there. When I was a kid they called it the fear of God. I call it respect for somethin’ way bigger than us puny critters, somethin’ that don’t even see us.

Thirty years on, I still walk the mountains, but not like I used to. I’m gettin’ old, and I always was cranky. And I still love this land. I still love this land.

You go on now. See if you can find a fish. And take a look at them rocks.

 


 

Author Bio: Author of several published short stories and one cozy mystery novel, plus dozens in the back of her drawer, Nikki Andrews has been telling tales since childhood. She works as an editor for two independent publishers, and is a member of Talespinners and The New Hampshire Writers Project. When not writing, Andrews is a hiker, knitter, river monitor, and generally far too busy to call herself retired. She lives in NH with my husband, assorted wildlife, and a cat.

The author: zlis@iastate.edu