فصل 18

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فصل 18

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On the afternoon of April 12, 1934, Salvatore Pagliuca, a meteorologist at the summit weather observatory on Mount Washington, had an experience no one else has had before or since.

Mount Washington sometimes gets a little gusty, to put it mildly, and this was a particularly breezy day. In the previous twenty-four hours the wind speed had not fallen below 107 miles an hour, and often gusted much higher. When it came time for Pagliuca to take the afternoon readings, the wind was so strong that he tied a rope around his waist and had two colleagues take hold of the other end. As it was, the men had difficulty just getting the weather station door open and needed all their strength to keep Pagliuca from becoming a kind of human kite. How he managed to reach his weather instruments and take readings is not known, nor are his words when he finally tumbled back in, though “Jeeeeeeeemf!” would seem an apt possibility.

What is certain is that Pagliuca had just experienced a surface wind speed of 231 miles an hour. Nothing approaching that velocity has ever been recorded elsewhere.

In The Worst Weather on Earth: A History of the Mt. Washington Observatory, William Lowell Putnam dryly notes: “There may be worse weather, from time to time, at some forbidding place on Planet Earth, but it has yet to be reliably recorded.” Among the Mount Washington weather station’s many other records are: most weather instruments destroyed, most wind in twenty-four hours (nearly 3,100 miles of it), and lowest windchill (a combination of 100-mph winds and a temperature of –47°F, a severity unmatched even in Antarctica).

Washington owes its curiously extreme weather not so much to height or latitude, though both are factors, as to its position at the precise point where high altitude weather systems from Canada and the Great Lakes pile into moist, comparatively warm air from the Atlantic or southern United States. In consequence, it receives 246 inches of snow a year and snowpacks of twenty feet. In one memorable storm in 1969, 98 inches of snow (that’s eight feet) fell on the summit in three days. Wind is a particular feature; on average it blows at hurricane force (over 75 mph) on two winter days in three and on 40 percent of days overall. Because of the length and bitterness of its winters, the average mean annual temperature at the summit is a meager 27°F. The summer average is 52°Fa good 25 degrees lower than at its base. It is a brutal mountain, and yet people go up there–or at least try to–even in winter.In Into the Mountains, Maggie Stier and Ron McAdow record how two University of New Hampshire students, Derek Tinkham and Jeremy Haas, decided to hike the entire Presidential Range– seven summits, including Washington, all named for U.S. presidentsin January 1994. Although they were experienced winter hikers and were well equipped, they couldn’t have imagined what they were letting themselves in for. On their second night, the winds rose to ninety miles an hour and the temperature plummeted to –32°F. I have experienced –25°F in calm conditions and can tell you that even well wrapped and with the benefit of residual heat from indoors it becomes distinctly uncomfortable within a couple of minutes. Somehow the two survived the night, but the next day Haas announced he could go no farther. Tinkham helped him into a sleeping bag, then stumbled on to the weather observatory a little over two miles away. He just made it, though he was gravely frostbitten. His friend was found the next day, “half out of his sleeping bag and frozen solid.”

Scores of others have perished in far less taxing conditions on Washington. One of the earliest and most famous deaths was that of a young woman named Lizzie Bourne who in 1855, not long after Mount Washington began to attract tourists, decided to amble up in the company of two male companions on a summery September afternoon. As you will have guessed already, the weather turned, and they found themselves lost in fog.

Somehow they got separated. The men made it after nightfall to a hotel on the summit.

Lizzie was found the next day just 150 feet from the front door, but quite dead.

Altogether, 122 people have lost their lives on Washington. Until recently, when it was overtaken by Mount Denali in Alaska, it was the most murderous mountain in North America. So when the fearless Dr. Abdu and I pulled up at its base a few days later for the second of our grand ascents, I had brought enough backup clothes to cross the Arctic–waterproofs, woollen sweater, jacket, gloves, spare trousers, and long underwear.

Never again would I be chilled at height.

Washington, the highest peak north of the Smokies and east of the Rockies at a solidly respectable 6,288 feet, gets few clear days, and this was a clear day, so the crowds were out in force. I counted over seventy cars at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center lot at 8:10 in the morning when we arrived, and more pouring in every minute. Mount Washington is the most popular summit in the White Mountains, and the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, our chosen route, is the most popular trail up. Some 60,000 hikers a year take to the Tuckerman route, though a good many of them get a lift to the top of the mountain and walk down, so the figures are perhaps a trifle skewed. In any case, it was no more than moderately busy on a good, hot, blue-skied, gorgeously promising morning in late July.

The walk up was much easier than I had dared hope. Even now, I could not quite get used to the novelty of walking big hills without a large pack. It makes such a difference. I won’t say we bounded up, but considering that we had almost 4,500 feet of climb in a little over three miles, we walked at a pretty steady clip. It took us two hours and forty minutes (Bill’s hiking guide to the White Mountains suggested a walking time of four hours and fifteen minutes), so we were pretty proud.

There may be more demanding and exciting summits to reach along the Appalachian Trail than Mount Washington but none can be more startling. You labor up the last steep stretch of rocky slope to what is after all a considerable eminence and pop your head over the edge, and there you are greeted by, of all things, a vast, terraced parking lot, full ofautomobiles gleaming hotly in the sun. Beyond stands a scattered complex of buildings among which move crowds of people in shorts and baseball caps. It has the air of a world’s fair bizarrely transferred to a mountaintop. You get so used along the AT to sharing summits with only a few other people, all of whom have worked as hard as you to get there, that this was positively dazzling. On Washington, visitors can arrive by car on a winding toll road or on a cog railway from the other side, and hundreds of peoplehundreds and hundreds of them, it seemed–had availed themselves of these options.

They were everywhere, basking in the sunshine, draped over the railings on the viewing terraces, wandering between various shops and food places. I felt for some minutes like a visitor from another planet. I loved it. It was a nightmare, of course, and a desecration of the highest mountain in the northeast, but I was delighted it existed in one place. It made the rest of the trail seem perfect.

The epicenter of activity was a monstrously ugly concrete building, the Summit Information Center, with big windows, broad viewing platforms, and an exceedingly lively cafeteria. Just inside the door was a large list of all the people who had died on the mountain and the causes, beginning with one Frederick Strickland of Bridlington, Yorkshire, who lost his way while hiking in an October storm in 1849, and ran on through a quite breathtaking array of mishaps before concluding with the deaths of two hikers in an avalanche just three months earlier. Already six people had died on Washington’s slopes in 1996, with the year barely half over–quite a sobering statistic–and there was plenty of room on the board for more.

In the basement was a small museum with displays on Washington’s climate, geology, and distinctive plant life, but what particularly captivated me was a comical short video called “Breakfast of Champions,” which I presume the meteorologists had made for their own amusement. It was filmed with a fixed camera on one of the summit terraces and showed a man sitting at a table, as if at an open-air restaurant, during one of its famous blows. While the man holds down the table with his arms, a waiter approaches against the wind with great and obvious difficulty, like someone wingwalking at 30,000 feet. He tries to pour the customer a bowl of cereal, and it all flies horizontally from the box. Then he adds milk, but this goes the same way (mostly over the customer–a particularly gratifying moment). Then the bowl flies away and the silverware, as I recall, and then the table starts to go, and then the film ends. It was so good I watched it twice, then went off to find Bill so he could see it. I couldn’t spot him in the restless throngs, so I went outside on to the viewing platform and watched the cog railway train chuffing up the mountain, pouring out clouds of black smoke as it went. It stopped at the summit station and hundreds of more happy tourists tumbled off.

Tourism goes back a long way on Mount Washington. As early as 1852 there was a restaurant at the summit and the proprietors were serving about a hundred meals a day.

In 1853, a small stone hotel called Tip-Top House was built atop the mountain and was a huge and immediate success. Then in 1869 a local entrepreneur named Sylvester March built the cog railway, the first in the world. Everyone thought he was mad and that even if he succeeded in building the railway, which was doubtful, there wouldn’t be any demand for it. In fact, as the disgorging throngs below me demonstrated now, people haven’t tired of it yet.Five years after the railway opened the old Tip-Top was succeeded by a much grander Summit House Hotel, and that was followed by a forty-foot-tower with a multicolored searchlight, which could be seen all over New England and far out to sea. By late in the century a daily newspaper was being published on the summit as a summer novelty and American Express had opened a branch office.

Meanwhile back at ground level, things were also booming. The modern tourist industry, in the sense of people traveling en masse to a congenial spot and finding lots of diversions awaiting them when they got there, is essentially a White Mountains invention.

Massive hotels, with up to 250 rooms, sprang up in every glen. Built in a jaunty domestic style, like cottages blown up to the scale of hospitals or sanitoria, these were exceedingly ornate and elaborate structures, among the largest and most complicated ever built of wood, with wandering rooflines robustly punctuated with towers and turrets and every other mark of architectural busyness the Victorian mind could devise. They had winter gardens and salons, dining rooms that could seat 200, and porches like the promenade decks of ocean liners from which guests could drink in the wholesome air and survey nature’s craggy splendor.

The finer hotels were very fine indeed. The Profile House at Franconia Notch had its own private railway line to Bethlehem Junction eight miles away; its grounds held twentyone cottages, each with up to twelve bedrooms. The Maplewood had its own casino.

Guests at the Crawford House could choose among nine daily newspapers from New York and Boston, shipped in specially. Whatever was new and exciting–elevators, gas lighting, swimming pools, golf courses–the White Mountain hotels were in the vanguard. By the 1890s, there were 200 hotels scattered through the White Mountains. There has never been a collection of hotels of comparable grandeur anywhere, certainly not in a mountain setting. Now, however, they are virtually all gone.

In 1902, the grandest of them all, the Mount Washington Hotel, opened at Bretton Woods, in an open, meadowy setting against the backdrop of the Presidential Range. Built in a commanding style described optimistically by the architect as “Spanish Renaissance,”

it was the pinnacle of grace and opulence, with 2,600 acres of cultivated grounds, 235 guest rooms, and every detail of finery that heaps of money could buy. For the plasterwork alone, the developers brought in 250 Italian artisans. But already it was something of an anachronism.

Fashion was moving on. American vacationers were discovering the seaside. The White Mountain hotels were a little too dull, a little too remote and expensive, for modern tastes. Worse, they had begun to attract the wrong sort of people–parvenus from Boston and New York. Finally, and above all, there was the automobile. The hotels were built on the assumption that visitors would come for two weeks at least, but the car gave them a fickle mobility. In the 1924 edition of New England Highways and Byways from a Motor Car, the author gushed about the unrivaled splendor of the White Mountains–the tumbling cataracts of Franconia, the alabaster might of Washington, the secret charm of little towns like Lincoln and Bethlehem–and strongly encouraged visitors to give the mountains a full day and night. America was entering the age not just of the automobile but of the retarded attention span.

One by one the hotels closed down, became derelict, or, more often, burned to the ground (often, miraculously, almost the only thing to survive was the insurance policy),and their grounds slowly returned to forest. Once one could have seen perhaps twenty large hotels from the summit. Today there is just one, the Mount Washington, still imposing and festive with its perky red roof but inescapably forlorn in its solitary grandeur. (And even it has staggered along the edge of bankruptcy from time to time.) Elsewhere across the spacious valley far below, where once had proudly stood the Fabyan, the Mount Pleasant, the Crawford House, and many others, today there were only forest, highways, and motels.

From beginning to end the great age of the resort hotels in the White Mountains lasted just fifty years. Once again, I offer you the Appalachian Trail as a symbol of venerability.

And with that in mind, I went off to find my friend Bill and complete our walk.

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