March 26, 2012

The Big Gray Man

Most people would agree that there exists a clear boundary between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the everyday world and the realm of magic and monsters. As much we may want to rush out and cross that border, we find we must wait until it somehow overtakes us. Sometimes, however, the border between the natural and the supernatural is shrouded in shadow and fog.

John is an avid outdoorsman and hiker. In the early summer of 1995, he set out for a hike up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the northeast. John had made the hike many times in the past, but he had no idea that this would be the last time he would ever set foot on the mountain.

“Washington is a rugged hike but that’s not really where the danger is,” John explains. “The weather can turn on you without any warning.”

Many hikers, unprepared for freezing temperatures in the middle of summer, have succumbed to hypothermia. And the mountain’s strong winds, some of the highest ever recorded, have been known to simply push the unwary off the slopes and to their doom.

But John had been up the slope before and knew what to expect. Rain, wind, and fog weren’t so much a function of the weather as they were natural features of the mountain.

“You have to respect the mountain,” John tells me. “Or it might just shove you off.”

John started up the slope in bright spring weather. Quickly, however, the mountain showed its true colors and the fog and mist closed in.

“I was making good time. I was getting close to the summit,” John recalls, “when I saw another hiker ahead.”

The fog obscured his features, but John could see the outline of another hiker on the path above him. He appeared to be standing still, possibly resting. John figured he would have some company up the slope.

But, as John looked up from the uneven terrain, the hiker was gone. “At that elevation, there aren’t trees and not many shrubs,” John tells me. “There just wasn’t any place to go.”

John reached the spot where he had seen the fellow hiker but saw no sign of life. He looked past the rocks and grass to the dizzy void of mist. John was alone.

He continued his ascent. In the rigid stillness of the mountain, John forgot about the strange figure. Then he heard the footsteps.

“I was walking and I realized I was hearing someone else walking, too,” John remembers. “They were taking a step every time I took a step and stopping when I did.”

It seemed that someone was shadowing John’s footsteps. Every step of John’s was echoed by another that seemed to follow behind him.

John stopped to survey the slope. Down the mountain, the fog hung thickly. Nothing stirred among the scrub and boulders.

Then, at the corner of John’s vision, a figure suddenly moved, sprinting from a large rock. When John looked in that direction, however, he saw nothing. 

“The glimpse of it I got,” John recalls, “was something big and gray and ... well, hairy, I guess, like an ape.”

John shook off the fear that had begun to close around him. He knew that hikers had sometimes had strange experiences when the weather turned or they had overexerted themselves. The brain had lots of tricks and it liked to play them.

John remembered the shadows he had jumped at and the strange nighttime howls he had heard when he hiked part of the Appalachian Trail. Most hard-core hikers had stories like that to tell, stories about the strange things one only saw alone in the wilderness.

John played over in his mind the events of those far-off days when he was a much stronger hiker and he could go all day without rest. John heard a crunch directly behind him.

He turned so quickly he nearly lost his balance and fell. There was nothing behind him but a wall of fog. If he had fallen, would he have been swallowed up inside it?

A quick decision and John decided he was going to make the summit; there was plenty of daytime left and only his fear to face there.

John climbed and, as he did, he heard a distant coughing howl followed by menacing laughter that seemed to originate right in front of him.

In the fog to his side, a hairy figure sidled up the slope. “I knew if I looked, it would just disappear or hide or whatever,” John recalls. “So, I just kept going. I think it wanted me to stop and look.”

John was convinced that he was in a struggle, if not for his life, then for his self-respect. The only way to win was to reach the top. The howls and laughter followed him the rest of the way up.

“There it was, the summit, right in front of me,” John tells me. “And there it was, too. That damn thing was right there.”

There at the top of Mt. Washington, in the eddies of soupy fog, stood a man-like figure ten feet tall, eyes alight in angry red. Although its gaunt frame was covered in dirty hair and almost lost in the mist, its regal stance seemed suited more to a gray king than a shaggy beast.

John stopped and waited; he was too exhausted now to resist whatever was about to happen. He doubled over to rest his arms on his knees and, when he looked up, he was alone. The big gray man was gone.

“I had won the fight,” John tells me. “Or at least that’s what I thought.”

John rested at Washington’s summit before the journey down. He looked out across the fog and contemplated what he had been witness to. Had it been a living creature or his own mind he had bested? Then the laughter returned.

It dawned on John that he had misread the situation on the mountain. Maybe the figure he had seen was not an animal, not an apparition, not his imagination. Maybe it was a trap.

“As I was went as fast as I could down the mountain, I was turning it all over in my mind,” John remembers. “It wasn’t a monster following me, it was the fog all around me!”

John believes that the thick fog that smothers Mt. Washington is alive with some kind of intelligence, some malevolent force with the ability to produce auditory and visual phantoms. Is it powerful enough to lure hikers close to precarious cliffs? Is it strong enough to push them off?

Before Mt. Washington was Mt. Washington, Native Americans called it Agiocochook, the Home of the Great Spirit. The harsh weather that constantly pounds the range was taken as a sign that this was a place where gods and spirits walked; humans were not welcome and, if they ignored the warning, they came at their peril.

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