Thunderstorm Junction is a well-known convergence of trails in the Northern Presidentials, marked by a great cairn. It is also the name of a hiking club from Connecticuit that makes a biennial visit to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Once there the groups leader, Peter Boucher, dons a crisp white shirt, pressed trousers, a bowtie, and wingtips. The group of friends, family, and friends-of-friends uncorks wine from real bottles, and socializes through dinner. Afterwards, they stack the dining room tables and the three-piece “Please and Thank You String Band" tunes up for a square dance.
Bill Walach is the mandolin player, and calls the dances. On my way down to the hut on the Crawford Path I passed him, his Father-Time beard blowing in the wind, and his intstrument case poking out of his pack. I recognized him from my own summers at Lakes hosting the group. “You look like the fiddle player” I said to him, mistakenly. “Oh no,” Bill yelled over the wind, “I PLAY THE MANDOLIN!” And play the band does; sea shanties, Irish ballads jigs and reels. During the square dances everyone dances with everyone and the floor of the hut bounces with the thump of hiking boots. The band kept playing and the dancers stomping until after 11pm. It is a great event.
As the band packed up I did too. All summer I had been intending to take a walk across the Northern Presidentials at night. I had been envisioning a stroll under a full moon with the city lights and porch lights of Maine and Vermont in the distance. As I left Lakes I realized my expectations would need some adjustment. It was cold, in the low 30’s, and a wind was blowing from the northwest in 40’s and gusting into over 60mph. The Presidentials were entirely in the clouds, and so the only illumination was the cone of light coming from my headlamp.
After 4 seasons at Lakes I can hike the Crawford Path as one of those ponys at the fair can walk in a circle. However, the route to Madison only follows the Crawford Path for a mile. Over the other 5.8 miles I frequently found myself almost losing the trail in the freezing fog. Just when I though I had lost it I would spot another cairn with a white quartz stone on the top, or a path through the felsenmeer that boots had worn the lichen from. Where the Westside meets the Gulfside Trail I could smell the creasote of the Cog Railway ties on the wind. As I hiked around Mt. Clay and scoffed at the idea that this should be called “Mt. Reagan” the clouds lifted. I could see the solitary house lights in the small towns to the west, and the moving headlights of long-haul trucks on Route 2. I could also see the bulk of Mt. Jefferson looming in the light of the moon. It looked Himalayan in its bulk. Then the clouds came back down and another gust of wind almost blew me over. I pulled my hood back on and plodded on.
For every moment that I thought “What a dumb idea this hike was” as I stumbled, lost the trail, or the feeling in my fingers, I had another moment where the clouds lifted and the waxing moon came out. Traveling alone through the night high in the mountains is sublimely beautiful. The landscape has no color, no detail, and becomes elemental. Shape, line and shadow. There are no other people. It is desolate and beautiful. The peaks tower and the ravines plunge to depths you can’t see.
Passing the giant cairn at Thunderstorm Juntion the icy mist lifted and became clouds flying on the wind above the summits. I walked down through the krummholz waving in the wind and in the back door of Madison. The hut was warm and the pilot lights glowed under the stove burners. It was just after 2:00. Compared to the wind across the rock on the ridge even the snoring from the bunkrooms sounded soft. David Kaplan heard me bumping around the kitchen and came padding out to see who it was. Satisfied that it was not another hut stealing the Madison wall decorations, or another benighted day-hiker needing a blanket (there were six already sleeping on the dining room floor) he went back to bed. I soon unrolled my sleeping bag also, and caught a few hours of sleep before breakfast, and Sunday chores.