GREAT BARRINGTON -- It was Aug. 5, 1850, when Nathaniel Hawthorne met fellow author Herman Melville on a hike up Monument Mountain.
Along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and several others, they brought a wagon loaded with picnic food and champagne to keep the conversation lively. Perched on a ridge, they began to read William Cullen Bryant's ''Monument Mountain," the story of a young Indian maiden who plunged to her death from the rocky pinnacle when she was forbidden by her Mohican tribe to marry her beloved. When it started to rain, the literary party took to shelter and drink in a recess on the west side of the mountain.
Today, one can easily follow in Hawthorne and Melville's footsteps up the 1,735-foot peak. Four miles north of Great Barrington off Route 7, the mountain is now part of the Trustees of Reservations. Park your car in the lot and you will soon veer right on a carriage-path trail. The hike is one of the easiest in the Berkshires -- a gradual climb of less than 45 minutes on a well-trodden path through woods of hemlocks, oaks, beech, white pines, red maples, and birches. At a fork, head left to a large boulder that commemorates the donation of the park to the Trustees of Reservations in 1899. Here, the trail crawls over rocky ledges to the summit.
On a clear day, vistas of Mount Everett, the Catamount ski area, and the Catskills surround you.
Hawthorne said that Monument Mountain resembles ''a headless sphinx, wrapt in a rich Persian shawl." His fecund imagination obviously inspired Melville. A few days after the hike, Melville stopped by Hawthorne's red shanty at Lenox (which still stands on the grounds of Tanglewood) for more champagne, heated discussion, and a walk around Stockbridge Bowl. They became fast friends. Every time Melville came to visit, someone in the Hawthorne family shouted, ''Here comes Typee!" (a reference to Melville's first novel, based on the four months he spent with cannibals in the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific). He would often tell the Hawthorne children hair-raising tales of his adventures there.
Several months later, Melville moved into Arrowhead, a house in Pittsfield that looks out onto Mount Greylock. He came to Pittsfield to work on a farm so he could support himself while he wrote. The huge barn in the back often sheltered the two men, who reclined on the hay, deep in conversation. Motivated by his continuous talks with Hawthorne and the view of Greylock in winter, which reminded him of a whale, Melville completed the 600-plus pages of ''Moby-Dick" in less than a year.
Meanwhile, Hawthorne wrote and published another work, ''The House of the Seven Gables." Both novels were published in 1851.
Unfortunately, the intense bond that Melville and Hawthorne formed on their walk up Monument Mountain would last only a little more than a year. In November 1851, the Hawthornes moved to West Newton. Melville and Hawthorne would meet once more, in 1856, in Liverpool, where Hawthorne was working as consul for his friend President Franklin Pierce. However, the friendship Melville and Hawthorne developed in this short time would become one of the most significant relationships in American letters.
Contact Newton-based Stephen Jermanok at farandaway@com cast.net.