“Are you sure this is a road?” Samantha asked as the black basalt paving gave way to dark, red dirt, and the deep-green grass seemed to grow closer and closer to our rental car.

“It’s supposed to be the fastest way,” I answered. “According to Google Maps...”

Then I realized I’d lost the cell signal and my iPhone was navigating blind. We were trying to get to the guide house for an ascent up Mt. Pico on the eponymous island in the Azores.

“Look at this mist—I can hardly see!” Samantha exclaimed. A fast-moving gray mist, like fog only faster, grayer, somewhat denser began to envelop us. The air was wet, sopping wet, like a dense rain, only it wasn’t raining. The wipers worked overtime and at the highest speed, yet still couldn’t keep up with the dampness. A faint musty smell—salt air, sea-salted mist—made its way into the car when I opened the window to try to see the road.

“Sh*t!” my wife shouted. Samantha doesn’t swear much. She slammed on the brake. “Is that a cow?!” Indeed, it was a cow: black and white and seemingly a foot taller than our sporty little blue Renault rental, loomed in front of us—in the middle of the road, shrouded in mist.

“That cow needs milking,” I said, trying to see the humor in the situation. The cow’s udders were heavily laden, practically dragging on the ground. She wasn’t in any hurry, either.

The cow moved off the road a bit and Samantha inched the car forward, slowly, trying to make her way around the business end of the cow.

#

A little over 160 years before us, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, these days probably best known for co-editing the first two volumes of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, ascended Mt. Pico and wrote about it in his journals. He came to the Azores for six months in 1855-56 to alleviate his first wife’s chronic illness.

Higginson’s ascent of Pico started out auspiciously enough. “It was very warm & Pico was cloudless before us, which was more than we had dared expect,” he wrote. But then, “Two-thirds of the way were steep regular crags of black lava rock...& the furious wind...made it the hardest work I ever did.”

Climbing farther, he noticed “the clouds had collected below us, & wherever we looked down, it was at a glorious spectacle—a vast horizon of perfectly level white cloud, a vast floor, concealing everything below it, except where to the North as tract of ocean was lifted up to a seeming level with the cloud...”

#

“Oh my god, there’s more!” Samantha exclaimed. First one, then five, six, seven—materializing out of the mist—a herd of overburdened milk cows surrounding our vehicle, clogging the “road” with their bovine forms. The scent of salt air muddled with the smells of the cows gassing, dropping steaming fresh cow patties, and redolent, nitrogen-rich cow piss as we drove through little mounds and puddles.

“I don’t think we’re going to make the hike up Pico today,” I offered.

“No sh*t,” Samantha said, and we both laughed, not just at the irony of the scene before us but also at our predicament. We’d been down this road before, led astray by Google Maps, and caught in a place that forced us to turn around.

That was early in our relationship, our first international trip together, to Sicily. We were making our way around the island before heading to a friend’s wedding in Palermo. As we left Taormina, Google Maps had us heading over a mountain pass not unlike this one, which, according to the app, seemed to connect to the autostrada on the other side of the mountain. At that time, too, the paved road gave way to dirt and encroaching grass. We felt like we’d stumbled into a cutting-room floor scene from one of the Godfather movies as the road disappeared, and we expected a gang of mafioso to ambush us at any minute.

Only here, on Pico Island, the mafioso wore the black and white of Holsteins. While not menacing, they made it impossible for us to go any farther and almost equally difficult to turn around. Samantha put the car in reverse, then inched forward a bit, then back in reverse and forward again, turning a “K-turn” into an “X-turn.” Then we heard a scraping sound and felt the car lift a bit as the front passenger-side wheel spun freely. We were up on a small lava rock. Samantha stepped hard on the gas pedal, but the tires spun—one freely in the air, the others deeper into mud.

“Wait,” I cautioned. “Don’t step on the gas. We’re stuck. Let me see if I can get us off this rock.” Stepping out of the car, I could see the trouble. The triangular bit of lava rock jutting out from the earth had got caught on the undercarriage just a few inches from the tire. We needed to rock the car a bit to allow the tire to grip the rock, then back off onto flat ground, all the while not digging the rear tires deeper into the muck. I stepped to the front bumper and braced myself to push.

“Okay, slowly engage the gas with the car in reverse,” I said. Samantha did as I instructed while I pushed the lightweight Renault, lifting it slightly to dislodge it from the tip of the lava. The tire gripped, the car moved, then came crashing down with a large scraping sound.

“Stop! Okay, stop!” I shouted. I was sure there’d be some serious damage below. We were paranoid about damaging rental cars on the Azores, having witnessed unsuspecting renters get tagged with hefty fees. We always took photos of existing damage on cars we rented before we took the keys, so we could prove the dents and scratches were there before we drove—especially on the wheel rims, they love to get tourists on scratched wheel rims.

Finally, several attempts later—the “K-turn/X-turn” now become an “XX-turn”—we got the car turned around and facing down the mountain pass. The cows in the rearview mirror seemed to watch us as we drove away, no doubt joking with each other about “Humanos estúpidos” and “Pessoas loucas.”

The misty fog began to give way as we made our way back down the dirt road until it rejoined the basalt macadam. I heard Samantha give a sigh of relief.

“With this mist,” I offered. “It doesn’t seem like a good day to hike a mountain anyway. We probably wouldn’t have much of a view.”

#

“As we got still higher,” Higginson wrote. “There were slabs of lava, a sort of fragmentary pavement, with sometimes a ‘Mysterio,’ & sometimes a slide of disintegrated lava,” and, finally, he found himself at the edge of the Caldeira, a crater fifty feet deep and half a mile around, the false summit. “Stranger yet,” he wrote. “On our right rose far above our heads a bare black narrow needle like peak, perhaps 150 feet high, which was the goal of our pilgrimage.”

This was Pico Pequeno or Piquinho, the tip of the tallest mountain in all of Portugal at 7,713 feet above sea level.

Climbing “over rocks & cinders, it was perfectly practicable, but for the gale which seemed doubled,” Higginson relayed. He felt like he was “standing in a gale of wind on the apex of a steeple or the mainmast of a frigate.” Before departing, he “glanced over the other side, & it looked so warm & sheltered that I climbed over & found an Italian climate: the sun shone warm & vapor curled up from between the stones...” He saw the open ocean off to the East, and the island of São Jorge, but not Terceira, “only the great flow of white level cloud over all the world.”

One can usually see Pico from the nearby islands of Faial, Terceira, and São Jorge, and even from as far away as Graciosa, nearly 43 miles away. You could also see it from our Airbnb when it wasn’t obscured by clouds.

We got back and I logged onto my computer.

“Hi. We are waiting for you in the mountain house!” read our guide’s email waiting in my inbox.

“Sorry! We relied on Google Maps for directions to Casa da Montanha and ended up on the wrong side of the mountain with some cows,” I replied.

“I have a guide that is going to leave from the mountain house at 9:45,” he responded. “If you want, you can come with him. Please let me know.” We were about 40 minutes from Casa da Montanha. We might just make it.

“What do you think?” I asked Samantha. She glared at me with the look of someone who had narrowly escaped death, which seemed a bit exaggerated.

“To be honest,” Samantha answered. “I didn’t really want to do this hike. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to make it up there and just didn’t want to tell you because you seemed set on it.”

“Thank you for the offer,” I wrote. “But I’m afraid my wife was too rattled by the drive we just made—and she was already nervous about the climb, so I think it’s best we do not do it today.”

Later, we drove up to Casa da Montanha to see what we missed. We took some photos of the fog-enshrouded mountain and called it a day. I told myself we wouldn’t have seen much with all that fog. It would have been a difficult summit, and all we would see was Higginson’s endless flat, white cloud.

#

Higginson’s ascent ended with him “pocketing the lichens & mosses which grew there,” back when you could collect such things. Reflecting in his journal, he noted,

Three things we had at Pico which no American mountain could have given. 1. The ascent of the whole literal height of the mountain fr. the level of the sea. 2. The aspect of the sea seen in gaps of the cloud that covered all else. 3. The vapor which made the central heat a reality to us.

My own ascent of Pico would have to wait for another time.

About the Author

Scott Edward Anderson

Scott Edward Anderson is an award-winning poet, memoirist, essayist, and translator. Author of Wine-Dark Sea: New & Selected Poems & Translations (2022), Azorean Suite/Suite Açoriana (2020), the Nautilus Award-winning Dwelling: an ecopoem (2018), and two books of non-fiction, including Falling Up: A Memoir of Second Chances (2019) and Walks in Nature’s Empire (1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at Millay Arts and received the Letras Levadas/PEN Açores Award, the Nebraska Review Award, and the Larry Aldrich Emerging Poets Award, selected by Thomas Lux. He is currently the Poet Laureate of the Ryan Observatory at Muddy Run and divides his time between the Berkshires and his ancestral island of São Miguel in the Azores. You can find him on social media @greenskeptic and through his website scottedwardanderson.com.

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