Running Clouds: Two Tales

[Editor’s Note: The iRunFar team extends a big congratulations to contributor Sandy Stott for the upcoming release of his book, Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, next week, on April 3!]

I’ve lived whole days in clouds; my mountain habit has ensured this thickset time. That clouds inhabit different levels of the sky is an easy and pleasing truth—sometimes getting to their otherworld is often a simple matter of a few steps. A November 2017 run on Connecticut’s Sleeping Giant began just below cloudline; after the trail’s first climb, I was in that gray, near world.

Cloud-running is perfect in many ways. Chief among them is the way it concentrates attention on the immediate, the trail puzzle to be solved and the near at hand. No distracting vistas, no call of the faraway (which you may or may not reach). What does appear when you are in cloud seems to materialize, a magic trick of sudden presence.

Take, for example, the three deer I saw in a thin-treed glade atop today’s Giant ridge: I was chuffing up a steep pitch chocked full of ankle-twister rocks, and, so I was locked in to my climb. As I crested that rise, I looked up to the question that recurs: where am I?

There they were; here we were—the four of us, 10 feet apart. Aside from one precautionary flare of a white tail, we all stood stilled. Their obsidian eyes shone even in the cloud’s half-light; I huffed and steamed in place.

I must have been the same quick gathering of molecules to them that they were to me. All along the cold, drizzly trail in the clouds, nothing, nothing… and then so much something. What to do in that something’s presence?

Nothing much seemed the answer. We milled about for over a minute. The deer returned to grazing, casting the occasional sideways glance at me. I watched, seeing a twitch of thigh muscle, a shiver rippling up, a little lift of tail. And, furless, I began to cool. Time to break up our browsing party of four.

I turned, returned to the angled stones and ramps of ledge, slipped back into the absorbing project of motion. Was I a little lighter, surer of hoof? Infused with a bit of the deer’s light grace?

Perhaps. I didn’t catch a toe until I began to think again.

Cloud-running can seem like being inside another intelligence, weather’s mind… in a windless cloud it feels like being thought into existence. Better sometimes, I think, to be in that mind and out of my own.

Running from Clouds

Then there are the other clouds, streamers hurried on by the many-handed wind. Clouds are, of course, as varied as the days they cross, and a cloud-runner presses up into those varied days. If you time your mountain runs to only clear days, then you don’t get much time running mountains.

Recall the quick current of wind-strained cloud in a storm, the way it gets flung forward, flurries past; the way it loops and tumbles down the backside of a ridge it’s just hurried up; it moves with the tumbled curves of an acrobat. These are wind-shoved clouds; this is kited air. Though sometimes they also carry the sorts of sentences that set you running… for safety.

In a summer west some decades ago, I learned it’s best to reserve morning’s hours for trail time. One lesson sufficed. My tutors were a trail and a cloud, which grew from scenic backdrop to a whole sky-world in a hurry. None of this was on my mind though, when I rose in the dark and drove out and up from Santa Fe, New Mexico, intent on the trail to and from Wheeler Peak. Careful study of my topo map offered a pleasing prospect: somewhere around seven or so miles with 4,000 or so feet of gain (and then a subsequent, equal loss, I assumed), with the way-nosing slant to the contours instead of head-butting them straight on. That sort of head-to-head approach is very Yankee, I learned.

I found the trailhead and got off in the mid-morning light, rising through the pine scent, warming in body and spirit. Is there a better way to begin a day?

And I kept on, passing a few other foot-pilgrims, nodding happily, reveling in the easy western footing. For a New Englander, a White Mountain runner used to the we-don’t-pick-up-our-backyard jumble of our late glacier’s leavings, this switchbacked path felt close to being borne aloft. Much of that floating feeling stemmed, I think, from foot-rhythm easily found; no boulders, no tantrum of flung rocks forced me into large, stride-killing steps or leaps. “Steady on, steady on,” I hummed mantra-like, and on I rose through the morning.

The last half mile to the peak presented the little excitement of a thin, rocky ridge between modest dropoffs that asked that I give up my mantra-climbing and pay attention to each step. How perfect, I thought as I settled into a seat on the little summit plateau. Water, a couple of trail-bars, elevation (elation, really), faint breeze, mild temperatures. I could live here, I thought. Or, bending to my mountain habit, nap.

I fell asleep pillowed by a stone, facing west. I think I dreamed—these years later, images still return: sky-backed birds wheeling, a parent cloud leaning close.

What returns with real force is awakening: VOICE, I hear a voice. I sat up abruptly, scanning first the approach-ridge for the speaker. Rock, air, absence. Voice again; now unmistakable—low, guttural, cloud mumbling. To my west, what had been a scenic backdrop of distant cloud-mountains had morphed into a closer bank of darkness with jowls.

Mountain-runners nod. Yes, our old summer friend and familiar drummer, the thunder-cloud. Each of us has her or his electric story, the time when we lived for too many ticks inside its kettle drum of sound and seared air.

I scrabbled my shoes on and set off, quick-footing along the exposed ridge, which ran parallel to the oncoming cloud. This first half mile, I recalled, would be the worst; it was one ongoing highpoint before the trail tipped over its northern edge and began to descend. There, I might appear smaller, less attractive, but up here, I was unmistakable to any eye aloft.

And I did feel seen. Spoken to. On I ran. Down and down, chastened and chased, the cloud in seeming pursuit.

Once down in the woods, soaked by the sluice of rain and happy, I thought back to my climb. Even as I’d begun in half-light as I drove up from town, I could see that I’d been late to the trail, that as the day became itself, I’d end up courting electric attention. I recalled then the walkers and runners I’d passed on my way up—all of them had been headed down.

The height of your mountains doesn’t seem to matter. Clouds come to each of them; there they wait for us. A common disparagement has it that the clueless among us have our “heads in the clouds.” After years up there, I see it the other way around.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you make of cloud running and the way it so changes and makes close the world through which you run?
  • Do you have your own cloud-running story, whether it’s a story about a thunder cloud, or a soupy fog through which you had to find your way, or something else?
Cloud Running 1

Photo: Sandy Stott

Sandy Stott

lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at [email protected]

There are 4 comments

  1. Doug

    Thanks for writing that piece, Sandy! Everyone talks about the big views they love, but the truth for me is that I think I feel more at home in a cloud. It’s cozy (except when it’s not), reminds you to focus on matters closer to home and not have your thoughts on that next ridge… the next half hour… the trailhead down there– which invariably leads to, “what time?” and what comes next. There is a sense of intimacy with the mountain environment when the door closes on those big views. And every now and then, when you climb out and the undercast is then at your feet, it’s hard not to shake your head at the wonder of it all.

    1. Sandy Stott

      Thanks, Doug. Good thoughts about being present in clouds and not thinking of the next ridge. To today’s trail.

      Sandy

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