Rachel Bennett

Mountain Spirits

In Uncategorized on October 24, 2011 at 21:52

‘We can bring a picnic,’ I exclaimed, as if it were an original, breathtaking idea to bring food on a hike. The prospect of eating a meal in the glories of a mountain wilderness, you see, tends to fill me with inordinate glee. ‘Oh, oh, yes,’ I continued, squirming with excitement, ‘we must bring a flask of whiskey.’ My boyfriend (a.k.a. The Texan) looked mildly alarmed. ‘Lets go buy some now,’ I suggested. The Texan’s expression deepened and tinged with doubt as I grabbed his arm and began maneuvering towards the liquor store across the street. It was the look of a man quietly reassessing the sagacity of his love.

I should point out that I am not an alcoholic. There is a big difference, as I explained to The Texan, between slurping whiskey and gingers in front of the TV and enjoying a warming nip from your flask on the summit of a mountain.  The latter might take place at midday, but it does not count as daytime drinking in the pejorative sense. Also, unlike a brawny glass of Old Crow and Schweppes, a hip flask is elegant, rather romantic, and decidedly appropriate for a chilly autumn hike. Furthermore, a little liquor might be useful on a mountain; might even be thought of as a precautionary measure.  What if we got lost or injured? I demanded, making my case as we left the store with a bottle of bourbon. It would get dark and freezing; then you’d really appreciate a tipple.

Hip flasks (again, unlike Old Crow and Schweppes) have a long and notable history. They first appeared in the 18th century and were common among the rich, who could afford the expensive silver and ornate engravings. It was said that silver did not spoil the flavor of the spirits it held, unlike other cheaper metals. Even so, flasks grew in popularity and were soon fashioned from more affordable pewter. In the United States, these sleek, hip-hugging containers became popular during prohibition, when all aids to covert boozing were in high demand. And they stayed in fashion during WWII when they proved convenient for soldiers in the field.

I find much to admire in hip flasks. Delicate or tough, ornate or functional, they are interesting and often beautiful. My brother has one that belonged to our grandfather. It is small and sturdy, a burnished silvery-gold metal displays his initials and a band of leather encircles its width. It is a weighty flask. I also like the air of determined independence—rebellion almost—that a flask exudes. Not only the shape itself, which was designed to be carried easily and fit sleigh against the body, but the dark interior too is a mystery. No one but the flask’s wearer knows what’s inside. It is made to conceal.

*     *     *

The day looked promising as we left the Mount Pilchuck trailhead and began climbing through heavy woods, a soft sun filtering through the branches. But as we clambered above the tree line a dense mist descended and obscured the surrounding expanse of mountains, a breath-taking view on a clear day. It was a short sharp hike, three miles and about 2,500 feet, and we were tired and hungry by the time we summited the peak. Settling on a cold patch of rock we ate sandwiches, teeth chattering and enveloped in a thick, damp fog. Any meal after a climb is satisfying, but this was not the most idyllic picnic. And although I am not sure The Texan was convinced—taking the proffered flask with a slight shake of the head but drinking anyway—I for one was glad of a warming swig of Bulleit Bourbon. A little fire and then honey; a little kindling for my feet on the trail home.

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