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Seven Lengths of Vermont

Catamount Trail: Earning something hard to name


We’d skied over nearly 300 miles of rock, dirt, leaves, moss, ice, crust, apples, slush, logs, lakes, creeks, roads, railways, fairways, snowmobile highways, stubble corn, corn snow, groomed snow crap snow, coyote-scat-stained snow and easy, white rolling trail. We’d suffered, enjoyed and generally endured “the length of Vermont on skis,” as The Catamount Trail Guidebook puts it. Twenty days on the longest cross-country ski trail in the country — we were doing it! We’d almost done it! And then the Mummy, obstinate little Tutankhamun that he is, just flat-out refused to move.

Stuck. Cuss. Ugh!

But this was nothing new. A plastic sled weighted down with a humanoid, tarp-wrapped, 60-pound lump of camp gear and supplies doesn’t exactly skip and prance from the Massachusetts line to Jay Pass, 14 trail-miles shy of the Canadian border. That’s where we were, climbing through thigh-deep drifts up into the fibrillating heart of a two-day blizzard, the first legitimate “dump” of this weirdly mild winter. Stinging needles of snow flew into our eyes. The wind chiseled at our nostrils. Though I could barely hear it above the raw, whirling din, my hip flexors were singing a song of pain and grief. It was miserable, exhausting, utterly wild and real. It was, in a word, perfect.

Cuss. Ugh! Ross Scatchard, my partner and tentmate on this journey — and my tromping buddy since preschool days — is a scientific anomaly, a unique hybrid of human and draft animal. He was really drawing on his mixed genetics during that last big push, planting his poles, leaning into the slope, struggling against the body harness that tethered him to the recalcitrant Mummy. I was a hundred feet ahead, wearing a fat backpack, breaking a path through the powder for the fifth straight hour. I was approaching a sort of flat pad where the trail kinked and became steeper, thinking it would be a good place to rest and wait for Ross, and maybe vomit if I felt inspired.

That’s when the pink helmet appeared. It was glossy, like an odd little Barbie spaceship floating amid the storm. A French Canadian woman with a blond ponytail? She came shooshing down out of the glades and stopped right on my flattish pad. A man appeared at her side, and they smiled at one another. I figured they were just out for a brief backcountry jaunt, their car probably parked atop the pass, full of cookies and hot cocoa. I slogged towards them.

“Isn’t it a beautiful day?” Pink Helmet said. I nodded yes and managed something about how hard the next portion of trail appeared. She looked at me through her goggles. “You have to earn it,” she said, casually, as if it held no great and complicated truth. If it hadn’t been for the helmet, I do believe she would have said it with a flip of her blond bangs: “You have to earn it.” My face was accumulating rime; vomiting now seemed imminent.

Behind me, Ross was on the move again, and behind him, the track we’d established — the symbol of our effort and achievement — was disappearing beneath the blowing snow. Squinting against the storm, I sensed all that we had passed through, all the land and weather and ups and downs and days and nights. I sensed the futility of exertion and the absurdity of the universe. I thought of Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, condemned to push a boulder up a mountain only to have the boulder roll back down to the bottom once he reaches the top. I thought of him trading his boulder for a sled, and his mountain for the length of Vermont, and then setting out, with a Cuss and an Ugh, not for the first time, and not for the last.

I turned back to Pink Helmet but didn’t say anything.

Yes. You are so right. But earn what?

There are many reasons to nibble at the Catamount Trail rather than bite the whole thing off in a single, gluttonous expedition, as Ross and I did. Avoiding the existential questions — Why am I doing this? What is being earned? What happens if my face freezes off? — is only the tip of the ski pole, as it were. There’s also the joy of trading the Mummy for a fanny pack, the joy of choosing an easier or harder or more remote section of trail, depending on your mood on a given day, and, most significant, the joy of staying at home when the conditions totally suck.

Which leads directly to Ross’ and my interest in an immersive, end-to-end ski tour: We wanted to feel, in a very direct, embodied way, all that winter in Vermont has to offer, hardships included. Neither of us had ever snow-camped for more than a few nights in a row. Neither of us had ever really “lived” — animal style — in this most challenging and rewarding of seasons. You might say that our Catamount Trail expedition was an attempt to come close to the soul of winter, to bring our souls into alignment with this broader, elemental soul, to become cold like the ground, or light like a snowflake, or steady like the track of a moose or dark like the forest beneath the night of stars. Maybe it was communion we were hoping to earn. Maybe this is what we earned. Or maybe I’m just dribbling bad poetry and all that happened was a long backyard ski.

Whatever the motivations, on the morning of February 6 we drove south to Bennington, then up and over the mountains to Readsboro, where the trail begins. On the way, we dropped a box of food at the Inn at Long Trail, on Route 4 just north of Killington, estimating it would take a week to ski back to it. Looking out the car window at the brown hills, the brown forest floor of beech leaves, the brown, muddy trailhead where the Catamount Trail crosses the road near the inn, I confess I felt a bit upset. We were at 2000 feet, considerably higher than many other sections of the trail, and there wasn’t any snow.

I reminded myself that expectations could only hurt us — that radical acceptance would be the name of our encounter with the season — but it made little difference to my feet; they were scared of hiking 300 miles in stiff, plastic ski boots, and I was scared for them.

To our relief, the southern section of the state had a base of about four inches of snow and, according to plan (Nature’s, not ours), it was the worst snow you could ever imagine skiing. Crusty. Icy. Bulletproof. Hooray! Those first days were warm, some more than 50 degrees, and the snow kept melting and refreezing into a smooth, shining sheet whose lexicon did not include the word “traction.” Your typical (sane) day-trip skier would have turned around in disgust.

We, on the other hand, felt blessed. Furthermore, we felt blessed when fording a bridgeless creek and a stepping-stone appeared in just the right place. And we felt blessed on each short, skiable section of downhill (the alternative, if it was too steep or the severity of a potential crash was too high, was to dismount and walk). We even felt blessed to find the perfect type of moss to use in lieu of toilet paper. Lowering your standards is not a praised and cherished practice in our culture, but let me tell you, it’s empowering. I highly recommend it.

That first eight-day push passed in a dreamy blur. The alarm would go off at 5:20 a.m. and we’d boil up a Thermos of spruce tea (made from the tree’s needles) and a pot of oat-butter soup (made from the pounds of Costco butter that comprised the Mummy’s left foot). Pulling on yesterday’s crusty long johns is never easy, and neither is breaking camp, but these chores pass, as does the first climb of the day, and the second and the third. So do a frozen reservoir on the left, a frozen waterfall on the right, a conversation, a quiet thought, an abandoned ski resort, a logging operation, a condominium complex, an old stone wall.

Vermont — a dreamy blur, indeed! The skis slide, grind, edge in, stick, float, break. We hitchhike into Ludlow to get my binding fixed. A bald eagle releases a spray of white feces against the sky’s unbroken blue. A young family feeds us a six-dish Cuban dinner. Friends and acquaintances. Hemlock and black cherry. Bobcat, ermine, kinglet. We pause beside a beaver pond (because I toppled over despite skiing on totally flat ground), and Ross points to scratches on a pine tree’s trunk. “Black bear,” he says. “Climbed it last spring.”

Each morning the sun showers down through the weave of leafless branches. Each afternoon we devour Shelburne Farms cheddar and Dakin Farms summer sausage. Each evening a bonfire warms our bare feet, dries our socks, mesmerizes us with its glowing, crumbling architecture. And the greatest blessing of them all, the dreamiest of dreamy blurs, finds us every night: deep sleep.

The second week of our trip, from Route 4 to the Winooski River, was like the first, but of course completely different. Things got easier that second week. The existing snow softened, and once or twice a millimeter of new snow fell (standards, remember?). Having traveled 150 miles, we finally saw our first skier and first snowmobiler. We met a 98-year-old man near Lefferts Pond. “Last year I snowshoed 103 days out here. This year, maybe six,” he said. We walked with him for an hour on a gravelly trail, skis over our shoulders, asking questions, listening, absorbing his wisdom and zest. How can such an old man be so fit, so happy, so sharp, so centered? He told us that he’d never stopped “getting out,” that it was a priority, and that it had to be.

When the snow reappeared, we skied north to the Blueberry Hill Inn cross-country center, the Natural Turnpike, Lincoln Gap, the Sugarbush Golf Course, Huntington Gap, the flanks of Camel’s Hump, Honey Hollow Road. We skied into more mornings, more lunches, more fires and more dreams.

The third week? Oh, you can imagine it. Or maybe you can’t. It’s just Vermont out there. The word “splendiferous” comes to mind. And the Catamount Trail? It’s a line through the mountains and fields. In 1984, three young guys decided to ski the length of their state. They were looking to broaden their perspective, deepen their sense of place and, I’d like to think, edge up to the soul of winter, maybe tap it on the shoulder and say hello.

The Catamount Trail is one of a kind. An experience, a tour, a cross section. Human communities. Plant communities. Constellations of paw prints surrounding the comet trails left by our skis. Sometimes the trail is covered in rotting apples, sometimes drifted in with thigh-deep powder. If you ski the whole thing in one big go, as Ross and I did, you reach Canada. And then what? You go home. But you’re already at home, perhaps more than ever before. You’re at home in the land, the weather, the ever-shifting season. When taken together these things form the home of your life, and so many other lives. Then you drive a few hours and sleep in a real bed. That’s how it ends.

And so what? So you got inside winter and looked back out through its own frosty eyes. The storm is still raging, your hip flexors still singing. You’re standing at the big, clear-cut swath that marks the end of the United States and the end of the trail. It’s dark. Jay Pass and Pink Helmet are distant memories. You try to take some photos but your trigger finger is numb. The universe is the bubble of light coming from your headlamp. It’s a universe torn by snow, and it is absurd. So what has been earned? Something — that’s for sure — but something hard to name.

Let’s just put it this way. I called Ross the day after we got off the trail. He wasn’t home. He was up at Stowe with his girlfriend, out for an afternoon of cross-country skiing. Less than 12 hours ago we’d skied for 12 straight hours, and before that we’d skied for three consecutive weeks. I hung up the phone and thought of Sisyphus and that 98-year-old man. I pictured Ross up there on the Stowe trails, maybe even back on a section of the Catamount Trail, skiing free and easy, unencumbered by a Mummy, but otherwise just the same.

Insane, I thought. You go and go and go, and all you earn is the desire to go more, which is not desire but love. An abiding love of getting out there, of going, going, grabbing your boulder, pushing hard, chasing it back down the hill to start all over again.

Ross can keep his skiing, I thought. I’m through with all that. I grabbed my ice skates and headed to the creek.