But there was more to our ascent of Doubletop that July—a discovery that would intrigue and fascinate us for years to come. For as I stepped onto the summit, I saw a gray rectangular plaque affixed to a large granite boulder on the side of the trail. A six-pointed star with rays extending outward crowned the inscription. Beneath the words was a sculpted oil lamp, the eternal flame clearly evident. The plaque faced south, and the sun, having risen high in the morning sky, illuminated its face, throwing the letters into sharp relief. It read:
JUNE 10, 1872--APRIL 25, 1926
HIS ASHES WERE GIVEN TO THE WINDS
AT THIS PLACE AUGUST 20, 1926, AT
SUNSET, BY HIS WIFE.
And beneath this the words:
LOVE ONLY IS ETERNAL
I called Nat over and we gazed at the memorial, wondering who this man was and, even more so, who the remarkable woman was who scattered her husband’s ashes to the winds as the sun set over the mountaintops and daylight began to fade.
Many years later, by means of an internet search, I began to unfold the story of their lives.
Keppele Hall was a Princeton graduate who became a successful electrical engineer. He married Fanny Southard Hay in 1896 in Trenton, New Jersey. The Halls lived briefly in Maine – where they retained ties over the years—before moving to Ohio, eventually settling in Cleveland.
Fanny Hay Hall was a community organizer, a peace activist, and a progressive and liberal woman of faith. She was a member of the Ohio delegation that marched in the 1912 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. She was the first American woman to serve as foreman of a grand jury.
The Halls moved to New York City in 1926 where Keppele died suddenly of complications due to the flu. He was fifty-three years old. Fanny continued her activism until late in life, turning her attention to women’s prison reform. She died in Brattleboro, Vermont, in June, 1968, at the age of ninety-four.
In 1926, the year of her husband’s death and the scattering of his ashes on that windy mountain summit in Maine, Fanny was fifty-four. The trail to the south summit of Doubletop from the Kidney Pond Camps—the camps then being privately owned—is just over four miles. The lower part of the route, due to the occasional confluence of stream and trail, is often wet and muddy. Higher up, the trail climbs a steep, timbered slope to the summit. The Appalachian Mountain Club estimates that the hiking time from pond to summit via this trail—somewhat different than the one Fanny would have used—is three hours, twenty minutes. Even with today’s lightweight, high-tech clothing and gear, that’s a moderately challenging climb for a fifty-four year old.
But imagine walking the trail in 1926, carrying your loved one’s ashes in your rucksack. We may wonder: was she alone? If not, who accompanied her? And what was said as she gave her husband’s ashes to the winds? Or was the call of a raven cruising the mountain slopes, and the rushing of the wind on the summit, sound enough for such a solemn occasion as this? We’ll never know.
The walk down the mountain and back to the camps was through the woods at dusk, in the fast waning light; perhaps a Swainson’s or Hermit thrush serenaded her on the way. Cabin lamplight in the dark, and a sumptuous dinner—such as only the old wilderness camps could have provided—would have welcomed her on her arrival back at the pond.
On that strikingly beautiful July day in 1991, Nat and I lingered on the mountain. After lunch, we made our leisurely way back down the north side of Doubletop to our lean-to at Nesowadnehunk Campground. Libations liberally dispensed followed and a meal, perhaps not as splendid as that which awaited Fanny at Kidney Pond Camps, but delicious nonetheless.
The Zen tradition of Buddhism calls it the great matter of life and death. What is it? A woman standing on a mountain summit giving her beloved’s ashes to the winds. Two friends standing arm in arm smiling at the camera. Just this.
For the Native Americans of the Penobscot tribe, the Katahdin wilderness is a sacred place where the Spirit roams freely and powerfully and where mother earth reaches out toward the sky.
For all people, mountains embody a mystery beyond our control, just out of reach. “Mountains have a special power to evoke the sacred as the unknown. Their deep valleys and high places conceal what lies hidden within and beyond them, luring us to venture ever deeper into a realm of enticing mystery. Mountains seem to beckon us, holding out the promise of something on the ineffable edge of awareness.”
As she gave her husband’s ashes to the mountain winds, perhaps Fanny had sensed herself standing at the ineffable edge of a great mystery. As she walked back down into the lowlands, perhaps she did so with a renewed commitment to participate fully in life, to honor the one life she had been given, and to serve others at the edges, the margins, of society.
(to be continued)