From 4000 Feet, Hugh and Jeanne Joudry Have Kept Watch Over Vermont's Stratton Mountain for Decades | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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From 4000 Feet, Hugh and Jeanne Joudry Have Kept Watch Over Vermont's Stratton Mountain for Decades

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Hugh and Jeanne Joudry
  • Hugh and Jeanne Joudry

When Hugh and Jeanne Joudry first ascended Stratton Mountain 45 years ago, “We had no idea what we were doing,” Jeanne recently recalled.

Back then, Jeanne was 23 years old and fresh out of art school; she and Hugh, a 29-year-old math teacher, had signed up to spend the summer of 1968 working as fire lookouts atop the southern Vermont mountain.

Accompanied by the late Junior Harwood, a longtime forest-fire supervisor for the State of Vermont, the couple reached Stratton’s north peak by chairlift on a clear May day. They then hiked three-quarters of a mile to its south peak, beyond the boundaries of the resort.

There, in a clearing, stood a 1934 Aermotor fire tower, its wooden cab held aloft by 55 feet of steel. Twenty-five yards beyond it, they found a one-room cabin, built in 1929, which they would call home for the next six months.

The way the Joudrys tell it, Harwood appeared skeptical that they’d last the season.

“He said it would be a tough style. Maybe couples couldn’t handle it who were accustomed to conveniences,” Hugh said in a conversation this past September.

Sure enough, as soon as they arrived a hailstorm rolled in from the west and quickly turned to snow. After lighting a fire in the cabin’s stove with magazine scraps and kerosene, Harwood turned to leave.

“He said, ‘Learn the territory. See you!’” Jeanne recalled.

Forty-five years later, the Joudrys remain ensconced in their mountain Mecca. Except for a 16-year break, part of which they spent in the wilds of New York City, they have lived every summer since in that dense patch of conifers 4000 feet above the sea.

In that time, their responsibilities have shifted to meet the needs of the forest’s owners and visitors. Instead of watching for blazes on paper-company land, they now serve as caretakers for the Green Mountain Club, greeting hikers and keeping a close eye on the tower and cabin.

At the start of the Joudrys’ tenure, neither the Long Trail nor the Appalachian Trail crossed the mountain’s summit, so they seldom saw more than a handful of people a month.

“There were great days of endless silence,” Jeanne said.

These days, both trails pass by their cabin door, and the nearby resort operates a summer gondola that sends yet more visitors their way. On some sunny summer days, they’re inundated.

“It seems to me that it’s always a kind of live theater,” said Hugh, a sculptor and occasional playwright. “I don’t know who’s going to show up. It’s always exciting — and we’re always on.”

“We’ve gotta be!” Jeanne interjected.

“We’ve gotta be and we are,” Hugh said.

In their time on the mountain, the Joudrys have become living legends.

“They’re Stratton Mountain characters and fixtures,” says Dave Hardy, the Green Mountain Club’s director of trail programs, in a phone interview. “There’s probably very little they haven’t seen in their time.”

Says Green Mountain Club president Jean Haigh, “These folks are permanent. Their roots are on top of Stratton Mountain.”

Now 69 and 75, respectively, Jeanne and Hugh show little sign of slowing down. Every week, after a trip to the valley below, they hike their supplies in from the north peak gondola. When visitors to the summit are scarce, they take to the woods to maintain eight miles of trail. And when a curious soul climbs the fire tower to enjoy its endless views, they amble up its 61 stairs to give a guided tour.

Says Hardy, who has come to rely on Hugh and Jeanne, “Stratton summit is their job until they tell me they can’t do it.”

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Above: The Joudrys' one-room cabin on Stratton Mountain. Photo by Paul Heintz.

A charged place

On a Saturday in late September, I hiked four miles north along the leaf-littered Appalachian Trail to pay the Joudrys an overnight visit. By the time I’d pitched my tent in a patch of woods near the tower, the autumn sun was preparing to set behind a shoulder of Mt. Equinox.

Inside their white clapboard cabin — no bigger than Thoreau’s — I found Hugh and Jeanne entertaining Jeanne’s cousin, Anne, who was visiting from Buffalo.

White-haired and wrinkled, Hugh has the build of a fire hydrant and, in Jeanne’s eyes, bears a passing resemblance to John Gotti Jr. He sat in a rocking chair that was crammed into the cabin beside a desk, a bunk bed and a woodstove. Every corner was packed with books, cans of food, plastic bins and Jeanne’s dark, brooding paintings.

Across from Hugh sat his wife, whose coal-black hair contrasts with her red, kindly cheeks. Her voice is deep and lyrical, and her loose-fitting skirts and sweaters give her a bohemian air.

Our conversation quickly turned to a pair of Stratton Mountain epiphanies that led to the establishment of America’s first great recreational hiking trails in the early 20th century.

“On Stratton we had what could be called a mythical moment,” Hugh said, leaning forward in his chair, wearing a white sweater, a jacket and a serious expression. “A mythical moment means you’ve kind of changed the course of history.”

Legend has it that on a misty day on Stratton in 1909, Vermont Academy assistant headmaster James P. Taylor conceived of a “long trail” that would link the peaks between Massachusetts and Canada “to make the Vermont mountains play a larger role in the life of the people.”

Twelve years later, when planner and conservationist Benton MacKaye proposed an even longer trail, tracing the Appalachians from Georgia to Maine, he credited the idea to a spiritual moment he had had years earlier while climbing a tree on Stratton’s south peak to take in the view.

“I felt as if atop the world, with a sort of ‘planetary feeling,’” MacKaye recalled in a 1964 speech. “Would a footpath someday reach [far-southern peaks] from where I was then perched?”

On top of Stratton Mountain, Hugh said, both Taylor and MacKaye achieved a certain “cosmic consciousness, in which you feel the harmony of the universe.”

Conversations with the Joudrys inevitably return to the spiritual energy they sense in their surroundings. Glastenbury Mountain, 15 miles to the south, is polluted by negative energy and “tinged with myth and superstition,” they claimed. Their own mountain, they said, is harmonically aligned.

Hugh, ever the math teacher, expressed it in geometric terms. The Abenaki name for Stratton Mountain, he said, means “where the mountains pile up” — and when he looks at Stratton’s peaks from the south, he sees a pair of waves growing in amplitude.

“In the landscape itself there’s this different kind of harmonic,” he said. “To me it looks very harmonized, like the two waves are resonating and they’re building on each other.”

As we talked, Hugh offered me a glass of wine, and Jeanne cooked a meal of fried polenta and pasta sauce on a double-burner propane camp stove. Outside, darkness had descended on the mountain.

“You think of things up here, and the answer will come walking up the trail,” Jeanne said. “It’s happened numerous times.”

“Why don’t you give a particular example?” Hugh interjected, as he often does.

“Well, there are the prosaic things and then the magical things,” Jeanne said.

Once, shortly after they read about Tibetan Buddhism, a group of monks came walking up the trail. Another time, when the lock on their cabin door malfunctioned, a hiker approached them and asked what was the matter.

“He said, ‘I’m a locksmith. I’ll take care of that,’” Jeanne recalled. “It happens quite a bit up here.”

“The mountain is a charged place,” Hugh said. “These are some of the manifestations of its energy.”

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Above: The Joudrys in the fire tower, 1970s. Photo courtesy of Jeanne and Hugh Joudry

Alpine ambassadors

I first heard the legend of the Joudrys from my friends Hannah Harwood and John Doyle, who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in the summer of 2010.

After 1629 miles of hiking, they reached Stratton on a sunny day at the end of June. As Hannah waited for John to catch up, she got to talking with the Joudrys, who, they all soon realized, had been hired decades earlier by Hannah’s great-uncle, Junior Harwood. Though Junior had doubted their fortitude at first, he and the Joudrys had grown close during the years he served as their boss.

“So they, of course, dug out their photo album and showed me photos of him and the hut, which was really neat to me,” says Hannah, who now lives in Bakersfield. “They took me in and gave me coffee and chocolate cookies and crackers and cheese. We talked for two full hours before John caught up.”

By the time most northbound thru-hikers reach Vermont, they’re moving swiftly and have little interest in slowing down for conversation. But, like the Bermuda Triangle, the Joudrys have a way of sucking in wayward travelers and steering them off course.

“They were so interesting and engaging,” Hannah says, that when she and John finally pulled themselves away, they had to hike into the evening to reach their destination. “I definitely just wanted to stay there for a long time.”

By the following July, when I reached Stratton’s summit three-quarters of the way through my own AT thru-hike, I had long since forgotten about the Joudrys. But after I struck up a conversation with Jeanne on a stone bench outside their cabin in July 2011, my memory was jogged.

I had planned to hike three more miles that day to Stratton Pond Shelter, but I found myself captivated by the Joudrys and their endless fount of stories. Hugh climbed with me up the tower and pointed out Greylock to the south, Equinox to the west, Killington to the north and Mt. Washington way off in the distance to the northeast.

Among the Joudrys’ primary responsibilities is to keep hikers from camping on the mountain’s fragile summit, but they’re simply too friendly to enforce the rule. By the time night fell, they had invited me and a family of backpackers to pitch our tents nearby. The next morning, they served us a breakfast of coffee, bread and cheese before sending us on our way down the trail.

Ours was not a unique experience.

“There’s a kindness that emanates from them that’s really unique,” Haigh says. “They’re really intellectuals who chose a different lifestyle. I haven’t met anyone who’s done the LT or the AT who didn’t feel welcomed when they came up Stratton.”

Bill Garrison, a U.S. Forest Service technician who has worked with the Joudrys for years, says, “One thing that always struck me is the fact that they make a tremendous attempt to talk to everybody who comes across the summit … They’re great ambassadors.”

Whether it’s rowdy thru-hikers, rampaging moose or clueless resort visitors, Hardy says, “They’re very mellow and relaxed and able to roll with whatever they see on the trail, whatever the hour of the day.”

The Joudrys are conscious and conscientious about the role they play in the lives of those who hike by their door.

“I’m aware of what the smallest piece of conversation means,” Hugh said. “It’s disproportional to what it normally means because people are on a trajectory. They’re on a trek.”

And, as in my case, the impression they leave on those long-distance hikers lasts.

“This year a hiker came back after 10 years to express gratitude that we helped him put a piece of lens in his glasses,” Hugh said. “It was a cold, wet day, and we had them in for soup. People will remember a cup of tea five years later.”

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Above: From left, Junior Harwood, Al Sands and Hugh Joudry. Photo courtesy of Jeanne and Hugh Joudry

Priceless days

I woke up Sunday morning to a majestic view of the valleys below — and to a breakfast of coffee and pancakes cooked up on the Joudrys’ Coleman stove. As Jeanne plied me with pancakes, they recalled their first tour of duty on the mountain.

Back then, they lived in Buffalo in the off-season. Jeanne worked as a graphic designer and Hugh as a substitute teacher. But they wouldn’t stay off the mountain for long. Owing to the elevated threat of fire in those days, their seasons at Stratton extended from April 20 through November 4.

“The cinders would be flying out of the trains, and Junior would call me up and say, ‘You’ve gotta get back here! We’re having brush fires,’” Hugh recalled.

“Snow would be up over the door,” Jeanne said. “You’d have to dig the door out and then dig a channel to the tower.”

“And to the privy. And to the firewood,” Hugh added.

“We’d bring a frozen turkey and five pounds of potatoes,” Jeanne said. “Maybe some bread. Maybe some rice.”

In those days, the Joudrys spent hours at a time sitting in the tower, “sort of reading the landscape,” Jeanne went on.

“If something’s wrong, I still notice those things. Anything that’s off. You always had to make sure you were right when you called it in — that it was smoke and not low-hanging clouds,” she said. “Still, to this day, anything changes in the landscape, I notice.”

“A smudge in the landscape,” Hugh echoed.

“You just know,” Jeanne said. “You look.”

After 11 years on the mountain, the Joudrys gave up the gig in 1979 and moved full-time to Brattleboro and Putney. In 1987, they made the spontaneous decision to move to New York City, where Jeanne worked as a designer for Dover Books and Hugh continued to teach. But after several years in the city, they found themselves fleeing on the weekends to New York’s Bear Mountain, where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Hudson River.

“We would drive up to Bear Mountain and sleep with our heads on the trail,” Jeanne recalled. “I said, you know, ‘Why are we doing this?’”

Hugh interjected, “So I said to her, ‘Jeanne, we’ve got to go back.’”

In 1985, International Paper sold the mountain and its surrounding woodlands to the Nature Conservancy. With funding secured by Sen. Patrick Leahy, the federal government purchased Stratton in 1989 and added it to the Green Mountain National Forest. Around that time, the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail were rerouted over the mountain, and the Green Mountain Club assumed responsibility for maintaining the cabin and the fire tower.

When the Joudrys called in 1995 to say they were interested in returning to Stratton, Hardy says, “We did not hesitate to hire them for the job.”

Nowadays, they live on the mountain from June through Columbus Day and spend the rest of the year in nearby West Wardsboro.

As she served us pancake after pancake, Jeanne recalled her trepidation about returning to the paradise that remained untrammeled in her head.

“We had such a good time the first time. We actually said, ‘If we go back a second time, will it be as good as the first?’” she recalled. “Of course it has been. But it’s, you know, it’s different.”

Another lifetime

After our breakfast, the first visitors of the day were a couple from Chicago — southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers with the trail names of “Philos” and “Sophia.” As they sat down in a clearing not far from the fire tower, Hugh set about grilling them on their hometowns, their professional lives and what they’d seen on the trail.

One by one, other backpackers emerged from the woods and joined the huddle. With an audience now, Hugh held forth on the mountain and its energy — and various mathematical concepts he’d been pondering. Jeanne, meanwhile, brought Philos and Sophia a stack of leftover pancakes, saying, “They’re good with something on top.”

Two couples who had known Hugh and Jeanne for years hiked up the trail simply to say hi. Both pairs seemed far more interested in visiting their old friends than in the mountain or the tower.

As soon as the gondola started running at 10 a.m., the mountaintop was crowded with people. Wearing sneakers and daypacks, they were out for a spell before a game of tennis or a yoga class.

These were a different sort from the bedraggled thru-hikers with big beards and bulging calf muscles who hiked up from below.

“I’ve encountered people who’ve never been in the forest before who are clutching rocks in their hands walking over the summit trail, just in case something should happen,” Jeanne had said the night before, describing their visitors from the resort. “People always say — they get very casual and say — ‘Whadaya got here?’”

“Well, at 10 we have the bear,” Hugh joked. “At 11 we’ve got the moose.”

“What’ve we got?” Jeanne said. “We’ve got it all!”

Now, as the summit filled with visitors, Hugh did his best to enforce the tower’s four-person capacity limit, to little avail.

“We had our training in New York City,” he said jokingly. “In Times Square.”

One resort guest — a tall, bleached-blond woman — approached the Joudrys’ cabin and looked quizzically at Hugh.

“You don’t live there, do you?” she said.

“We do,” Hugh said. “At least until October.”

And, 45 years after first summiting the mountain, neither Jeanne nor Hugh plans to change that. Hugh said he’ll never get tired of the endless view from atop the tower.

“It’s always changing,” he said. “It’s like this great artist is making a landscape, and he’s making amendments every day. It’s never the same. Never, never. It’s always slightly different.”

Hugh paused for a moment.

“I could spend another lifetime etching every detail, every fir needle, and it would be fine,” he said.

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