By Merisa Sherman
It happened on a bluebird day in March, as we were descending from the summit of Mt. Washington. We watched as an old mountaineer stepped out of the clouds below, diligently following the rocky, snow covered trail. He walked slowly, the long wooden handle of his mountaineering axe serving more like a cane than a safety device. His long down coat was so worn and faded, it seemed as if he had borrowed it from a museum instead of pulling it from his own closet. For a moment, we felt as though we were watching a ghost ascend the trail, but then a most beautiful thing happened.
Arriving at the top of Lion’s Head, a rocky landing that overlooks the Tuckerman Ravine, the old mountaineer stopped. We watched as he turned his attention from the trail and turned instead toward the valley below. Still convinced he might be a ghost and not wanting to disturb him, we paused in our descent. For what might have been an hour, he stood silently staring outward before we heard a harrowing sound echo through the mountains.
The old mountaineer was yodeling. It wasn’t a cheery yodel, like you hear from Goofy as he tumbles down a cliff or at an après ski party in the Swiss Alps, but a sorrowful, harrowing yodel that breaks your heart. I felt a tear roll down my face and had to sit down from the impact of the sound. The BF grabbed my hand and our golden retriever, Vespi, came to snuggle between us as we sat, spellbound, and listened to the old mountaineer’s song.
As he passed us, it was like looking at a ghost. His faded clothes, his heavy, wooden gear and his old hemp rope were signs of decades ago and he himself seemed to only exist in black and white. Had we stepped back in time or had he come forward? Or had time cease to exist on the ridgeline of this old mountain? We honestly couldn’t tell what was happening or when we were. Our modern equipment felt almost soulless when compared to the stories that resided within his one wooden axe.
We were, quite simply, awed.
Until recently, the old mountaineer and his wife had climbed these mountains together their whole lives. Now, he climbs them alone — but always with her. No matter how many years it had been since they had hiked together, he always felt her presence while he climbed these particular mountains. And so he would hike. And sing a song to her. His yodel would be picked up by the wind and carried to where it needed to be. His song of love would intertwine with her spirit, floating in the winds of the mountains.
We continued our descent, feeling otherworldly but still following the well placed cairns that were almost buried by the snow. As we approached the landing at Lion’s Head, Vespi surprised us by breaking away from our little group and jogging ahead. We paused in our hike to watch our little golden retriever stand in the exact spot that the old mountaineer had vacated an hour ago.
Vespi always loved to stand in silence atop mountains and feel the winds swirl around her. She would sit quietly for hours, allowing the smells and sounds from miles away rise up and overtake her. I always believed she was surrounding herself with wisdom, as she listened to what the mountain wanted to teach her. She was always attentive but not once, in all our adventures, had she ever made a single noise.
Until this moment.
Suddenly, she let out a long, wolf like howl that echoed the sorrowful yodel of the old mountaineer. We heard her voice, full of awe and reverence, as she sang into the mountain winds. We had never heard her howl before and over the next five years of her life, we would never hear her howl again. There was something about this one spot in this one moment that inspired her to combine her voice with the wind. I’ve never wanted to understand a dog so much in my entire life as I did in that moment.
But in some ways, I think I am learning. Vespi always had a deeper understanding of the mountains, and she knew them from such a different viewpoint that I often followed her lead in the woods. I allowed myself to be taught how to see and explore the mountains from the viewpoint of a dog, albeit a wise and experienced one. And, in her honor, every year I recommit myself to the basic principles that she taught me. So, as we begin 2021 and leave this horrendous year behind us, I encourage you all to howl into the wind, seek adventure in the every day … and, as Vespi showed me, may you find the spirit of the mountains within you.