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Seven Lengths of Vermont

The Long Trail: A 273-mile animal


Published November 30, 2011 at 11:25 a.m.

Leath Tonino was born and raised in the Champlain Valley. When he was 16, he hiked the entire Long Trail over 22 days. He later left the state to attend college in Colorado; one summer back home, he built a small raft and rowed, sailed and drifted the length of Lake Champlain. This fall, Tonino walked the length of the Long Trail again — 10 years after the first hike. And he came up with an intriguing idea: “Seven Lengths of Vermont,” each a different outdoor adventure in which he experiences the natural sights, sounds, smells, seasons and people over a year in his beloved state.

Tonino is not just an outdoorsman; he’s a writer — one with an abiding respect for nature and a passion for what he describes as “Vermont’s endless complexity.” And so his mission is to capture in words and images those Seven Lengths, with the ultimate goal of compiling them in a book. Along the way, Tonino wants to share his adventures with the readers of Seven Days. Here’s how he describes his plan:

Over the course of a year I will travel the length of Vermont, from Massachusetts to Québec, or vice versa, seven times. Each expedition will engage a different part of the state via a different route and a different mode of locomotion. Sometimes I’ll be alone, sometimes with friends. Sometimes I’ll be an athlete, sometimes a naturalist, sometimes a pilgrim. Vermont is multifaceted and so is our ability to encounter it.

The Seven Lengths of Vermont is a grand, sprawling experiment in local exploration, an immersion into the wildly familiar. It’s a way of checking in — as any good neighbor should — with the community that surrounds us.

What follows are journal excerpts of Tonino’s first “Length” — the Long Trail.



Day 1

It’s hard to say much about the Long Trail because you can never say enough. You drive up to the Canadian border on a gray, windy morning in early October with a backpack full of food and a guidebook in your pocket. You walk for three weeks through a rain of colored leaves — 273 miles of root, rock and black mud grabbing at your boots. You climb mountains, drink from springs, watch moths and stars. Weather washes over you like thoughts, and your thoughts become like weather. Sometimes you are happy, sometimes sad, sometimes bored. When you reach Massachusetts, it’s snowing.

What summary could ever do justice to an experience so rich and varied? The Long Trail reminds me of Aristotle’s idea of “an animal a thousand miles long”: We can focus on little pieces of the animal at any given time, but never on the whole thing at once. Similarly, we can talk about those little pieces we’ve encountered — the summit of Mansfield, the Clarendon Gorge — but it’s hard to get your mind around the whole experience.

The Long Trail is huge, powerful. It’s a beast whose back I’ve walked. Last month I completed my second through-hike of the trail. Southbound. Twenty days. A week of rain, a week of sun, a week of cold. And there I go already, reducing the “animal” 273 miles long to direction, duration and a meteorological report. It is hard not to describe my hike this way, yet it also seems unfair.

As I sit at my desk, countless images come back to me, each a little anecdote linked to a precise moment in time and point on the map. The images coat the surfaces of my thoughts like birch leaves papering over a puddle. I search for some theme or design that will turn the leaves into a coherent story, but find nothing. And so they just sit there on the puddle, layered, beautiful and random. For example…

Day 2

I’ve climbed up out of the hardwoods onto a narrow ridge that climbs higher still, into the mist. This is the spruce-fir zone, all inky green and needled and wetter than a bog. My face is turned down to the trail, as it has been for hours and will be for hours more. The footwork is tricky, mesmerizing. I feel drugged with repetition: step after step, breath after breath. In my ears there’s only the beat of my walking. The world has closed in around my focus.

Whum-whump-whump-whump-whump. A ruffed grouse, still in tawny summer plumage, fires out from the drooping ferns less than a yard to my right. The noise of the grouse’s beating wings — so much louder than anything else in this subdued forest — breaks through my hypnosis, stopping me in my tracks. For a second I’m terrified, like I’ve woken, disoriented, from a deep dream. I look around. The grouse is gone, but my awareness is up. Other birds are appearing through the trees: bluejays, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets. Have they been here the whole time? Was I that oblivious? One chickadee comes in close, almost landing on me, and then the shining eyes and delicate feathers dissolve back into the woods. A raven croaks somewhere out of sight. I’m growing cold, standing here waiting, and hoping, for more.

Day 5

A cold wind is blowing and leaves are flying everywhere — mostly yellows and oranges and unnamed shades that blend the two. I feel like an ant on some abstract expressionist’s canvas, the artist hidden up in the day’s overcast sky, flinging darts of pigment down around me. I make no effort to dodge them. Rather, I hike hard, straight into the wind, leaves catching against my body, hanging there for a moment before falling away. At times I enjoy the funny feeling that I am a tree and this shedding of leaves is proper to me, an ancient ceremony by which I prepare myself for winter. At other times I go mindless, lost in that droning meditation of the trail. Step-step. Breath-breath.

And then … shuffle-shuffle-shuffle. Beneath me the canvas has changed. I’ve stepped from a brown-gold pattern into an ankle-deep pool of magenta. The artist has laid it on particularly thick here, adding bright green moss and cream-colored mushrooms for a flourish. I’m startled, as I was by the grouse, but this time it’s more like waking into a dream. This color! Unreal! I look up into the canopy. One tree, directly above me, stands out from the rest. A leaf falls, a blotch of magenta growing and growing. It hits my smiling face, and I shed it, good tree — or ant? — that I am.

Day 8

Fat Carl is grilling me a steak on the fire pit. Barry is handing me the Polish blackberry brandy. Evil Pete is adjusting the volume on some portable speakers that pipe out an incessant stream of bad classic rock. Schmitty chops more wood. The fellow in the flannel shirt is quiet as a stump. And there’s old, gray-bearded Randy, sitting snuggled up in the back of the log shelter, overseeing it all. He’s yelling jokes, dirty words and old stories, talking with the big gestures of his shaky hands.

This is Connecticut Guys Weekend, a 20-year tradition, and tonight I’m joining these middle-aged professionals for a little fun. Hiking after dark, feeling a bit creeped out, I pictured the shelter ahead of me as an eerie, lonely place. I resolved myself to an unavoidable encounter with ghosts. Then I rounded a knob and saw the fire. Then the propane lanterns. And then I heard “Dream Weaver.” What the hell?

It would be easy to judge this sloppy scene as an unwanted intrusion — normal, noisy, technological life butting in on the sacred, quiet realm of the trail. It would be easy to say that this is a deviation from what the Long Trail really is. But that would be wrong. Here we are. Here is a kielbasa to follow up my steak, and here is pumpkin cheesecake to wash it all down. Sit back. Enjoy the company. Pray for a good song. Drift off into a full-bellied trance of laughter and creaking trees and hooting owls. Cadge another beer off Randy.

Day 11

This is the fifth caterpillar of the afternoon, and it’s just like the others: fuzzy, white with black dots and black spikes of hair, incredibly small, incredibly slow. It’s working its way across the trail, through tunnels of curled leaves and along the airy edges of crisscrossed twigs. I get down on my hands and knees to better appreciate the microtopography and the effort fueling this tiny journey. Soon, through the miracle of sustained focus, my fate is tied to that of the caterpillar: No, go left. No, not over that leaf! The leaf tips under our weight, flipping us back to the ground. No worries. We right ourselves and keep going, unperturbed and incredibly slow.

Day 14

Killington is socked in and my sweat is cooling fast. There is no view to be had from this, the second-highest point in the state. I prepare to leave, lacing my boots tight for what will surely be a sketchy descent. And then, in the corner of my eye, like a hallucination in faint rose tones, a valley swirls out of the gray. The fabric of the sky is coming apart, a hundred miles of countryside appearing through the morphing gaps. The wind is bashing my eyes, making me cry. I blink away the tears to see more clearly, and the clouds fall back in on themselves. The view is gone. Maybe it never existed to begin with. Oh, sweet frustrating world of shifting frames!

Day 17

He’s probably 75 years old, hiking solo. He says his name is Dean, says he spent all yesterday sitting by a mountain pond. “Too great to pass up. I didn’t hike a mile. What’s the hurry, anyway?” he says. Dean is a small man with a towering pack. White hair. Smiles a lot. “I’m out here for the experiences,” he says. “That’s all I want.”

We part ways; he north, me south. It hits me about 20 steps down the trail that Dean is my hero. That man is Vermont’s answer to the ancient Japanese mountain sage. Later that afternoon, when I reach the pond he’d spoken of, I take the longest lunch of my life.

Day 20

I rise at dawn, intent on finishing the trail and hitching a ride home. It’s raining, or maybe the rain has stopped and the trees are dripping — I can’t tell. I’m looking out from the cave of my hood, down at the ground. After this many miles, my boots know what to do, as if they have minds of their own. I’m looking out, but I’m not looking at anything.

The dap-dap-dap on my hood is steady — this must certainly be rain. Or is it? The sound is shifting, lightening, getting brushier. It is an infinitesimal shift, audible only to somebody who has been out in the woods for weeks, whose ears have been trained by a million small sounds. Whish-whish-whish.Before my eyes can register what’s happening out there beyond the protection of my raincoat, my ears make the call: This is no rain! This is snow!

I hike for hours, up into a white forest, into a storm of loose, wet flakes the size of nickels. It’s my last day on the Long Trail. First snow of the year.

This is the Long Trail, my personal Long Trail. It’s an unruly mess, but what else could it be? If the Long Trail didn’t promise to overwhelm us with a diverse array of experiences — from the social to the ecological to the spiritual — then why bother putting in the effort in the first place? If the Long Trail wasn’t an animal 273 miles long, then you could just read about it and call it good. But you can’t do that. You have to get out and encounter it for yourself, whether on a short day hike or a full-fledged, end-to-end expedition. You have to make it your Long Trail. I promise: It will do most of the work for you.

Sitting here at my desk, thinking back, I walk again the wooded spine of my home. I hike from memory to memory, camping a while at some, stopping for a short snack break at others. I dip a tin cup into one memory. I strain my ears into the song of another. At the ledge of a third I drop my pack and stare out across valleys of red barns and faded meadows. The Green Mountains are gray-purple, leafless, at peace beneath an empty sky. Autumn is behind me. Canada seems very far away.