The last hill

On this waning autumn afternoon the northern Maine landscape is tart, compelling, shadowed here and there by puffs of fair-weather cumulus, remnants of summer. Here, a dozen miles west of Waldoboro, I once spent my summers from the age of 12 to 14 at one of those Indian-named boys' camps - more years ago than I like to think about.

I stand on the rise near what was once the baseball diamond. To my right is the black oak, several hundred years old, beside which we used to hold our Saturday night campfires. How many times on heat-heavy August days have I stood on this rise looking out over the wooded landscape toward the Camden hills? For me it was always a magical prospect, the austere countryside stretching away with the sharp definition of an 18th-century aquatint across hill and woodland to Mt. Battie outlined against the horizon. At our campfire evenings, when we gathered around the great oak just after sunset, Mount Battie without losing its definition would take on a blue luminosity.

Over the years a ragged second-growth of aspen and birch and speckled alder, at the far edge of the baseball diamond, has blotted out that view. Now there is nothing to see beneath the crystalline sky but the uneven tops of second-growth trees. Already the sky has begun to take on the steelier tints of winter. Even Mt. Battie has disappeared.

On sultry afternoons, when the air quivered in the cool and fading light of early evening, I used to stand here by the old oak and look out across an interlude of scrub and swamp from which, several miles away, a hill emerged. As a hill it was insignificant enough. Below its bare summit an abandoned pasture lay dotted with ground juniper and outcroppings of granite. Yet something about that hill drew me, beckoned to me, across the miles. I could not bear to take my eyes from it. I knew only that before summer ended I must go to it, make my way over the pasture, up and up past shrub and granite until I stood on the very summit. It was something I had to do. I could not explain why. I did not even ask myself.

Not that it was easy to get away from camp. Morning and afternoon, our activities were recorded in a counselor's notebook. We had to be swimming or rowing or playing tennis or baseball or practicing a track event or going off on nature walks or making some gadget in the carpentry shop - just so long as we did something. But to do nothing, to climb a hill for no reason, that was outside the rules, against the ''camp spirit.''

Saturday afternoons, with their influx of parents and visitors, brought a certain relaxation, less accountability. On one such blue and vivid afternoon I slipped away to get to my hill. From the great oak, I could see its summit ahead of me, unknown, inviting. Inconspicuously, I edged along the baseball field, then slipped into the underbrush.

It was hard going, hard to keep a sense of direction in such a tangle of vine and thicket. I stumbled over rotten logs, stepped into anthills. Marsh hillocks gave way under my feet, dead branches snagged me, prickly seeds worked into my wet sneakers. The air was stagnant. With mosquitoes droning and hover-flies circling and darting, I plodded on, losing myself and losing track of time.

I must have been struggling on for at least an hour. Suddenly I came to a clearing, an open grove of ash and maple, and as the sunlight filtered through the leaves, I saw in front of me a cluster of ornate diminutive houses. Brightly painted in a variety of colors, trimmed with scrollwork and cusps and scalloped shingles, with narrow, high-pitched roofs, each was no more than an arm's length from the next, and all were empty. There was no sign of any living being.

To me, emerging from the wood, the sunlit grove was like something out of Grimm, as if this odd little village had been put under a spell and had been asleep for 100 years. A yellow house in front of me with a blue-latticed front porch could have been waiting for Hansel and Gretel. So quiet the grove was, so still the air, that even the aspen leaves hung limp. Blue and green dragonflies , poised in the air, added to the enchantment. Far off, I could hear the wich-wich-wich of a yellow warbler and a locust's somnolent buzz. Otherwise silence.

I went up on the porch of a pink-trimmed house and peered through the single window. What I saw was prosaic enough - a room with a couple of chairs, a table, a couch, a kerosene lamp. A ladder led upstairs to a sleeping loft. The grove was a mystery. Why were those little houses there? Why were they empty and yet at the same time cared for? Who owned them? It was eerie to see these miniatures huddled together against all that space. I half expected some guardian to come rushing out and ask me what I was doing there.

I suppose my enchanted village was some sort of camp meeting ground, used a few weeks each summer. I never did find out. On that afternoon I did not linger. The sun's rays were already slanting, the shadows longer, and my hill still lay ahead of me. Again I plunged into the underbrush, breaking through at last to a rutted road scored with puddles. But at the first turning I reached the foot of the hill, my hill, open and placed in the lengthened sunshine. Its thin meadow grass had turned brown, a stone wall that once enclosed the pasture had fallen apart, and velvety mullein leaves were thrusting up between the boulders. Up I went, over a granite ledge and across the meadow, trampling down hardhack and meadowsweet in my hurry to get to the top.

At last, under the sky's bowl, I stood at the crest breathless, the hill solid, tangible under my feet. So often I had seen it elusive in the distance. Now I was there. Yet even as I reached my goal, it began to slip away from me. Straight ahead, beyond more miles of woodland, I could see another hill, somewhat higher, somewhat longer, cows grazing placidly on its cleared slope, a summit fringed with green. Mysterious, full of promise, it was a hill I should never reach. Yet, in my old longing, that was where I wished I might be, on that farther hill. But even as I looked at it, I sensed that beyond there would be another hill, and beyond that yet another, beyond Mt. Battie, beyond Maine, beyond the miles. Even if I kept going round the world there would always be another hill. And I knew then, suddenly and overwhelmingly, that one could never reach the last hill.

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