Old Speck in October was warm at the bottom, cool on the way up, and frosted on top. Out of our camping cohort of three, one had been to the summit before. He convinced us the long way was worth it: a fair trade of a few extra miles for two lookout points overseeing mountains and valleys draped in the orange and yellow leaves of Fall in Maine. A fair trade indeed, we all agreed.
We set out for many miles of steep climbing over wet rocks and soggy leaves. Hiking through the late morning and afternoon we reached the old fire tower on the top of the mountain just at the onset of dusk. The tower silently rested on the summit like a crown of rusted steal and weathered wood, twenty-five feet tall and over 4,000 feet in the air. With wind whipping and fog on the horizon we climbed the tower with our aching legs to survey the massive kingdom of western New England below. Visible in all directions, innumerable valleys and peaks were awash with the beautiful colors of the season of death broken only by the resilient and undying dark greens of northern pine. Without a single person around us, those October colors were all ours for the all too brief passage of dusk to sunset.
We were kings on top of the fire tower but mere peasants of the mountain as the sky grew dark. We hobbled a camp together with a fire of birch bark and wet wood. The laughable little fire grew just enough to warm a couple cans of beans but proved inadequate in warming our shivering shoulders and aching hands. We turned in early as the western peaks swallowed the sun for a long night of short sleep. Temperatures dipped below freezing and gust after gust of wind kept our tired bodies in a rotating cycle of partial sleep and restlessness. Fall turns to winter much faster at 4,000 feet, we learned that night.
We awoke groggy, feeling dead but still alive. An icy cloud had rolled in overnight, hovering over the peak and stealing our views from yesterday. The ambiguous grey wall of moisture obscured the orange and yellow valleys. The fire tower was rendered useless, no longer a crown but a reminder that steel and engineering means nothing to Mother Nature. Packing our bags with cold and stinging hands, the frigid mood was lifted by a sudden and curious presence of rabbits and birds in our campsite. The tiny creatures hopped and flew around us as if we were one of their own. As the black, white, and grey birds ate cashews from our palms we briefly forgave ourselves for not bringing proper gloves.
After breakfast with the birds we began our decent. Sunday hikers both jealous and judgmental of our night at the top crowded our way down. "It was 30 degrees this morning when we parked at the bottom," one told us: "you must have been cold up there last night." It was, we proudly confirmed. Dropping altitude with every step, we descended from the foggy frost-covered pines into the humid yellows and oranges below the summit. The moss grew thicker and the hikers more numerous as we reached the car. Everyone on that mountain knew it was cold, but only we knew about the birds. While hiking in the season of death, I think we'd all trade numb hands just for a chance to feed the birds.
text- Sam Shupe
photo- Sam Shupe