We are half way up Mount Washington — the Cog Railway car chugging uphill at a tremendous three miles an hour — but Little Bean is disappointed for an entirely peculiar reason.
“Daddy,” she says, craning her neck to try to get an idea of the weather up top, “there’s no clouds.”
Mount Washington, as you all likely know, is out of the clouds only 60-some days of the year. Tourists and hikers and drivers plan their visitation schedules around the weather, carefully plotting to arrive on a perfectly clear day. The views are everything, those long glorious landscapes over the Northern Presidentials, perhaps a chance to see the ocean even.
Not my daughter. She’d been up Mount Washington enough times now to no longer be impressed. She is after the micro experience.
She wants to be in a cloud. As she explained as we were planning out trip, “I want to be surrounded, Daddy, I want to eat a cloud.”
I thought of Twain’s quote about clouds being pure and delicious because they exist in the same air as angels breathe.
At the time, I thought the odds of her attaining this goal were pretty high. But now, as our train rounds that final steep curve and we began to gather our things, it appears Mount Washington will trick us again. It seems the mountain has nothing but fabulous weather in mind for us.
We chat amicable with our new friend, brakeman Tom Eyman, who keeps my daughter and the rest of the tourists occupied with tales from the mountain. Little Bean rattles off questions like a six-year-old "Jeopardy!" host and Tom holds his own against the onslaught. Soon, we’re stepping off the train onto the busy summit, and Little Bean wanders around for a bit, a stiff wind blowing, but not blowing clouds.
We go up and pose for a photo near the summit sign, then we head out onto the observation deck, but we have an appointment to keep with Patrick Hummel, the state park manager who promised to meet us and give us a tour of the facilities. And if we were lucky, a meeting with Nimbus.
Nimbus is the new fluffy gray kitten that began work as Observatory Mascot a couple months ago. The cat has big paws to fill, taking over for one of the most popular summit mascots that ever lived atop the mountain, Marty, a Maine coon that had been up top for 12 years. Uma met Marty a couple years ago, but was now focused on Nimbus mainly because the new cat resembled her own cat, Lavendar.
“Maybe they’re sisters, Daddy,” she says.
This is a curious thing about the mountain, a mascot. Since the observatory was formed in 1932, cats have lived up there with the observers, sometimes up to ten or fifteen at a time, serving mainly as hunters to keep the mice and rodents away from the food. In the past few decades, though, there’s been only one living creature at a time calling Mount Washington its home.
And my daughter has come here to eat clouds and pet Nimbus.
She’s lucky that her old man has some connections in these parts. Back when I was writing my book on Mount Washington, “The White Mountain,” I made friends with some observatory and state higher ups. The observatory section of the living quarters, however, is still in a state of quarantine operation but Patrick is able to take us down to the state residence, below the visitor center and my daughter follows eagerly.
All this must take place during the course of one hour, that’s how much time we have until our train heads back down. But we’re not having any luck.
The residence is fairly small; a common kitchen and living room area, an office for Patrick and a couple bunk rooms. My daughter dutifully goes from room to room, calling, “Nimbus, Nimbus, where are you?” She checks under the beds, kitchen table, behind the chairs and we even peeks into the store room. Finally, left with no other tricks, Patrick hands Little Bean a container of snacks which she shakes like a rattle, a last desperate plea to rouse the new mascot from his slumber.
But all is quiet, and our time has come.
Patrick looks at me over Uma’s head and gives me one of those shrugs that says, well, we tried.
I now expect the worst. We’ve failed in our two primary missions on an adventure that took weeks to arrange. I get down to eye level with my daughter, and in a quiet voice say, “I’m sorry, baby, but Nimbus might be sleeping or off someplace else and I don’t think we’re going to get to see him this time. I know this has meant so much to-“
“Ok,” she says.
“Ok, let’s go. I want to check out that huge puddle by the train.”
That’s it. We’re done, she’s decided. We tried. He wasn’t here. There are other cool things to do. I shake Patrick’s hand, and he looks as relived as I feel. And on the way out as the door closes behind us, Little Bean shouts, “Daddy, it’s Nimbus!”
There on the door is a funny Nimbus poster, the cat’s furry face starting down at us. We take a picture, the closest we came that day to finding Nimbus, the mysterious Mount Washington mascot.
We assume a lot about our children, often layering expectation upon expectation over their developing characters. But they can surprise us, sometimes, by suddenly being adults, by taking things in stride and by accepting something they can’t change or control and making the best of a situation. It happens.
And I wonder, as I watch my daughter climb those stairs, perfectly happy with the journey, completely content to be there above the clouds instead of in one, whether I’m the one that hoped for a meltdown as some sort of illustration that she was still a child, still a baby. Instead, out came a composed little girl.
“Daddy, can we jump in the puddle while we wait for the train?” she asks.
“Can we peel an orange and sneak eat it on the train on the way down?”
“Can we get some ice cream later?”
“That sounds wonderful.”
And she smiles, up there in that lofty, holy place, and I know now to not take her for granted. I know now to check my own assumptions. And I know now that finding a new cat is often the most important thing in the world. But not always.