Please enjoy this encore post on Jason Denzel’s magical road trip, originally published August 2016.
Greetings witches, wizards, and muggles! (Or, No-Maj’s, if you prefer) With the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, along with early buzz for the upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I’ve recently felt Potter fever consuming me again. Hyping my excitement even more is the fact that my 11 and 8 year old boys are enjoying the books for the first time, which makes everything new and special again in its own way.
So when I flew across the country, from California to Massachusetts, to conduct some business for the company I work for, I knew I had to take an afternoon off and check out the summit of Mount Greylock, the supposed location of Ilvermorny, the magical American school modeled after Hogwarts. What follows is an account of my road trip across the state of Massachusetts, culminating at the peak of the state’s highest mountain. What I found there was, well… unexpected.
First, let’s talk a little about Ilvermorny. Everything we know about the school so far can be found in a delightful essay written by J.K. Rowling. It details how the school was founded by Isolt Sayre, an Irish witch who fled her abusive aunt by sailing to the New World aboard the Mayflower. Today, Ilvermorny supposedly exists as a granite castle, hidden from No-Maj’s (the American term for muggles) atop Mt. Greylock, a mountain in northwestern Massachusetts that rises a modest 3,489 feet above sea level yet still manages to be the state’s highest point. (You can read more about Ilvermorny here on Tor.com.) Interestingly, my research into Mt. Greylock revealed that there’s a well-maintained road leading right to the summit where, for a mere 5 dollars (in No-Maj money) you can park your car. Convenient, eh?
So on the chosen day of my road trip, I left work a bit early in order to arrive before sunset. Google Maps indicated that it would take just shy of 3 hours to drive along Route 2, which includes a part of the Mohawk Trail. The thing about Mt. Greylock is that it’s not really near anything. Which is probably just what the witches and wizards of Ilvermorny want, right?
I love good road trips, and this one didn’t disappoint. On the way there I posted some Twitter updates:
My excitement built as I wound through a handful of charming New England towns. Like many out-of-the-way locations in the eastern states, these places embraced and celebrated their national history. I found frequent landmarks noting battles and other significant historical events. But nowhere on those winding roads did I see any sign of pukwudgies or wampuses, the native magical creatures of the region.
I did, however, almost run over an animagus.
As I was driving the final ascent to Mt. Greylock, a fat porcupine waddled onto the road in front of my car, causing me to brake hard. After I’d come to a complete stop he looked over his shoulder and gave me a look that seemed to say, “Watch where yer goin’!” (For the record, I was driving well within the posted speed limit). He continued to eye me as I rolled past him up the mountain, and I couldn’t help but notice just how human his annoyed expression seemed.
I didn’t find a granite castle atop the summit of Mt. Greylock. Instead, I found a spectacular view, a granite memorial tower that was currently closed for renovations, and a friendly lodge serving dinner.
In my experience, the summit of any mountain holds a special, almost mystical aura around it. With Mt. Greylock, I sensed it most in the quiet paths that meandered around the memorial tower. Scattered throughout these paths were a handful of boulders engraved with poems. This one in particular stood out to me:
“Till Greylock thunders
to the setting sun,
The sword has rescued
what the ploughshare won.”
–Oliver Wendell Holmes
I spent some time pondering why J.K. Rowling chose this particular mountain as Ilvermorny’s home. Perhaps it had to do with Mt. Greylock’s reputed association with several American literary works. Herman Melville is said to have completed his draft of Moby Dick from a room with a window that gazed onto the mountain. Seen at a distance, Mt. Greylock looks much like a certain leviathan rolling onto its back above the waves. I’m told, too, that the site is related to works from Hawthorne and Thoreau. Whatever her motivation, Rowling certainly added her name to Greylock’s invisible Mt Rushmore of writers inspired by its summit. More than likely, when history has its final say, her story will overshadow the others.
As sunset approached I made my way over to the lodge and discovered a common room packed with people. Apparently I’d stumbled upon dinner time. Unlike a normal restaurant, where you could just sit and order from a menu, the innkeepers served a single meal at a designated time. I inquired about joining and soon found myself seated at table with an odd assortment of people staying at the Inn. Clockwise to my left was a writer who’d published multiple books about sidewalks, then a friendly Canadian hiker currently tackling the Appalachian Trail (which ran directly over Mt. Greylock), then one of the lodge’s innkeepers, then a young woman helping to oversee repairs on the memorial tower, a boarding school teacher from Connecticut, his artist wife, their artist son, and the son’s girlfriend, an optometrist who grew up just a short way from my hometown.
I knew, of course, that they were secretly wizards. I mean, come on. Who else would be interested in sidewalks except for a wizard fascinated by muggles studies?
On this particular evening, one’s supper choices consisted of short ribs or a stuffed bell pepper. Conversation was a bit awkward at first, but it quickly became more friendly and animated once the wine began to flow. At one point I asked the innkeeper, Tom, if he’d seen a surge in tourists since J.K. Rowling revealed Ilvermorny’s location. He poked at his food and eyed me with a familiar, prickly look. “Where’d you hear about that?” he asked. Soon after, Tom excused himself to chase down a tiny mouse that we found scuttling across the common room floor.
The sun eased itself into the western horizon, and Mt. Greylock became engulfed in fog and darkness. From outside, next to the war memorial, the Big Dipper blazed above the lodge. I took that opportunity to reflect upon my journey. In a practical sense, I knew I wouldn’t find a mighty castle resting atop the mountain. I hadn’t expected to find any fantastical creatures, or marauding students carrying wands. But what I did find was something equally magical.
True magic—the sort that powerful wizards like Dumbledore understand—comes not from the end of a wand, but from a place rooted in our hearts. It is not to be found in a castle, but rather in cozy lodges filled with friendly strangers. I’ve hiked a decent number of summits (and, I confess, driven to the top of a few as well), but this trip will stand out for me because of the unexpected experience I enjoyed. I’d started my day in a cubicle, and had expected to drive alone to a quiet mountain. Instead, by evening time, I was sharing a glass of wine with a fascinating and diverse collection of people. That, to me, is where real magic lies. I like to think that Isolt Sayre would’ve approved.
As I descended Mt. Greylock, leaving Ilvermorny behind unseen—but not unfelt—I passed my porcupine friend that I’d seen on the way up.
This time, he winked at me.
Jason Denzel is a member of House Thunderbird. His debut novel Mystic, is the first in a fantasy series from Tor Books about a young woman who goes on a
road trip journey to apprentice herself to a teacher living in the woods. He’s also the founder of the Wheel of Time fan community Dragonmount. Follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.