#52 – UTSUKUSHI-GA-HARA
Some hundred metres below me, through a gap in the trees I stared down upon my last ice-cream stop before Matsumoto. A Legoland-esque, pointy roofed roadhouse fronted by a circle of bitumen and otherwise lost in a tumultuous sea of hill country. The top of Utsukushi-ga-hara was some three hours away. It was just after three. I’d wandered the trails and roads over and off Kiri-ga-mine for the best part of ten hours, I could be there before dusk if I pushed on, but deferred and set my mind on laying up somewhere before that.
Emerging from the woods the panorama across Utsukushi-ga-hara opened up to reveal a broad, treeless expanse of high ground that plunged into the forests off a rugged escarpment of grey rock along its Western edge. In the distance I spied the high point, crowned by a ghastly huddle of antennae, vanishing and reappearing as cloud swept by on an unflinchingly strong wind. I’d heard there was a hotel over there somewhere too, just to add to the ambience. Ignoring the atrocities marring the summit, ably aided by the windswept cloud, I felt as if I was wandering a lost wilderness, miles from anywhere. Then a tour bus, white shell reflecting in the dropping sun emerged from the shifting cloud at an extremity of the panorama. At a barbed wire fence I spied the unmistakeable sight of cow pats. I’d strolled into cattle pasture at 2000 metres.
I pitched the tent in a strengthening gale.
‘This’ll be a nice little test of the tent before I hit the Alps,’ I thought as I belted the pegs into soft earth and simultaneously hoping I wouldn’t end up sailing off the escarpment to my doom in the middle of the night.
Battered by the elements the little dome held firm, better than ever before. The cacophony of rippling fabric rose to crescendo after crescendo, the gusts whistling overhead outside as the night grew longer. Sleep remained elusive. At some point before dawn, emerging from a fitful half sleep I noticed the tempest had abated. The winds had run out of puff. Deer squeaked in the forests below the escarpment. Other than their forlorn peals, the world was at last enveloped in an air of calm. I unzipped the tent and shone my headlamp light out into the night. Whiteout. A thick, impenetrable fog had descended on the land.
Finally, I succumbed to deep sleep.
By five the world was still cloaked in its blanket of thick, mountain mist. I dressed in the cool air and breakfasted and broke camp in the half light. Back inside the fence line, I followed a cattle track that I assumed doubled as the path toward the summit. Dew soaked the earth. A startled stag deer skittled out of the fog and through loose fence wires toward the escarpment. I stepped onto a sealed roadway and I followed it. Sleepy eyed bovines cast uninterested glances at me as I appeared out of the misty realm before them. As the road gently rose, a low, humming drone filled the air. The hotel appeared first, the droning, I surmised was a gale force wind, howling through the metal latticework of the antennae. A grim faced cook popped out from a side entrance of the hotel and lit up a cigarette, freshly pressed white apron and matching hat standing tall. Down at ground level we were sheltered from the winds careening overhead. No acknowledgement passed between us and I wandered out behind the hotel and found the summit marker and a small shrine with some stone guardians with a peculiar look more akin to grandma’s garden gnomes than anything else. The large flat faced stone marking the summit crawled with hundreds of docile, orange centipedes of two or three inches in length.
With an unhealthy reputation rivalling that of Kiri-ga-mine I was glad to have experienced Utsukushi with the majority of her blemishes hidden from view. A seemingly rare glimpse into the past.
The trail leading to Matsumoto dropped off the highpoint and over the escarpment’s edge. By the time I’d made it down to the road at the bottom of the mountain, the mists had vanished and the day turned out to be an all too rare (as of late) blue skied beauty.
I snacked at an empty cattle yard and stared back up at the imposing crags overhead. It was soon time to turn tail, get into Matsumoto and back to Kiyosato for the remainder of my kit. Swallowed by the folds of Utsukushi’s foothills, another road walk ensued, this time a two hour march into the outskirts of Matsumoto. My thumb, as it had been since departing Kiyosato, proved uncannily useless when it came to hitching a ride, so I walked until I came to a City Bus stop and a vending machine amidst the straw brown of harvested rice fields. There I sat down, knocked back a Coke and waited for a ride into town.
Four mountains in four days. Things were looking good.