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Book Review: Walking To Vermont


Published April 7, 2004 at 1:10 p.m.

A few of Christopher Wren's friends were skeptical about his retirement plans. It wasn't that they doubted the wisdom of his decision to take up full-time residence at his second home in Fairlee, Vermont, after a 28-year career at The New York Times. What gave them pause was the way in which Wren intended to kick off the golden years: He was going to walk all the way to Vermont from his newspaper's offices in Times Square.

Conceptually, at least, the plan seemed logical enough. Having served as Times bureau chief in half a dozen cities on four continents, Wren wasn't about to rein in the wanderlust that had led him to cover guerrilla wars in East Africa, to interview cocaine barons in Colombia and to camp alongside U.S. Special Forces in rat-infested tunnels in Vietnam.

"I no longer needed to chase deadline news," Wren writes in Walking to Vermont, "but there had to be better times ahead than falling back on golf and gated retirement communities."

OK, the spirit was still willing, but what about Wren's 65-year-old flesh? It ached frequently and bruised easily, he recounts, telling of moleskins applied to blistered toes, an arthritic ankle wrenched on a slippery rock and antibiotics administered intravenously to combat a suspected case of Lyme disease. By journey's end, though, Wren feels fit and trim. Once the grime has been washed away, he discovers he's almost 20 pounds slimmer and "had stumbled upon the secret of how utterly irrelevant chronological age is."

Upon completing Wren's account -- or, actually, long before the last page -- most readers will also have been persuaded that walking 400 miles over five weeks into retirement makes perfect sense. Although Wren chose to go solo most of the way, he proves a convivial companion as we saunter with him through Harlem, dodge "really gross" SUVs on shoulder-free suburban speedways, and slap at vampire mosquitoes inside musty shelters along the Appalachian Trail.

But Walking to Vermont is much more than a field guide for getting from there to here. A witty raconteur, Wren intersperses the chronicle of his epic schlep with amusing bits of trail lore and reminiscences of exotic experiences as a foreign correspondent. Snippets of local and personal history are included, too. Wren doesn't say much about his pre-Times life, but the occasional rendez-vous with fellow Dartmouth alums and his nostalgic stopover at the Trinity-Pawling prep school give hints of an aristocratic upbringing.

The book's tone, however, is charmingly self-effacing rather than self-congratulatory. If Wren grows preachy at times, perhaps it's because he was under the influence of Henry David Thoreau; Walden was the only book he brought along in his 50-pound backpack. A couple of Wren's own dictums have that high-falutin Thoreauvian quality. "True beauty is most appropriately celebrated with reverence," we are instructed at one point.

Stylistically, Wren sets a brisk yet graceful pace. In a trailside lean-to, he observes sacks of food suspended from nylon cords "like wind chimes for the deaf."

Wren's choice of "Super-Tortoise" as a trail name may have been apt in regard to his daily mileage count, but it certainly doesn't apply to the speed of this read. Only rarely does the book bog down in dispensable details such as, "Bill ordered a Cobb salad; I ate some chicken salad rolled up in a flour tortilla."

The former Times man should also have been more diligent in his fact-checking. Is that Salisbury, Connecticut, inn where he stayed the White Hart or the White Stag? Both names are given in the space of a few pages. And as a long-time resident of the Upper West Side, Wren should also know that it's the local, not the express, train that stops at West 86th Street.

In general, though, we follow happily along as the author leads us "through four geographical zones of attitude," roughly corresponding with the states of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont: "Go away. Don't bother me. Hello. And: How can I help you?"

Vermont's the right place for someone of Wren's sensibility. During the first segment of his journey, he rails against a culture of ostentatious affluence that has defaced the environment and commodified human relations. Wren depicts the suburban landscape as alternately alienating and menacing. The simple act of walking has become a cause for suspicion and a threat to the walker's survival. Traffic literally drives Wren to the Appalachian Trail -- in Pawling, New York -- and he stays on it all the way to Vermont.

He is walking toward "the progressively contrarian mindset of the state where I wanted to retire." As examples of Vermont's endearing orneriness, Wren doesn't offer anything unfamiliar. He cites the early abolition of slavery, the years as an independent republic, the high rate of enlistment in the Union Army, the banning of billboards and the sanctioning of civil unions. Still, it's clear that Wren has cared enough to learn some Vermont history during his global gallivanting, and in the years when he and his family drove to Fairlee for weekends from their Manhattan apartment. What's more, he keeps referring to Vermont as "home."

The book's focus, however, is the journey, not the destination. More than a few of Wren's readers may be inspired by his narrative to set off on their own hikes from hill to dale and from memory to aspiration.

Wren suggests there's little to fear and lots to marvel at. Long-distance hikers know they count on the occasional bit of "trail magic," such as a cold Coors left glistening on a fence post, or the appearance of chocolate-chip cookies baked and left by "trail angels."

Super-Tortoise encounters plenty of friendly eccentrics along the way, such as Old Rabbit, Flash, Gatorman, Buzzard, Bad Moon and Storyteller -- each of whom has adopted a temporary persona regardless of whether he's hiking the full Georgia-Maine route or completing a shorter portion.

Toward the end of the trip, Wren changed his own trail name to Hack, a typically self-deprecating reference to his former profession. But as Walking to Vermont shows, Wren is anything but a hack. And an afterword to the book indicates that he's also anything but retired.

Since his trek -- which apparently took place in the summer of 2002 -- Wren hasn't exactly been sitting on the porch in Vermont. He spent an autumn teaching at Princeton, a spring participating in local workshops for editors in Central Asia, a summer copyediting at The International Herald Tribune in Paris, and a winter assisting independent newspapers in Russia.

"Retirement has let me keep doing what I love, when and where I choose," Wren writes. May all our retirement years be so productive.