Oct 15 2019

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When the Foliage Peaks

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The setting sun illuminates the treetops and suddenly the sugar maples in my backyard are a fiery orange. If I were looking at a picture of these woods, I’d assume it had been photo-shopped. But I’m seeing this with my own eyes.

It’s a hallucination of color – the kind of thing that folks in the big cities to the south drive hundreds of miles to see. I just happened to step outside at just the right moment in the day, in the middle of the foliage season here in northern Vermont. We’re getting towards the end of the season, actually. The trees here in the Champlain Valley are the last to turn, a week or so after the foliage peaks in the higher elevations. That’s one of the things about fall color that makes it so elusive. It happens at different times in different places. Chasing it can drive a person crazy.

But here I am, standing in my backyard, still coughing after a week in bed with the flu, thinking that I’d missed my chance to get out and really enjoy the color. Here I am surrounded by peak foliage that’s completely illuminated. It’s a lucky break to be sure. And one that brightens my outlook while I am sandwiched between sickness and grief after the recent loss of both of my parents.

I have stepped into the light. Once again I am reminded how beautiful the natural world is, how absolutely phenomenal its most commonplace occurrences can be. It is good to be alive.

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Oct 03 2019

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Life Goes On

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Today I went for a walk for the first time since returning home from Ohio. I went back to Ohio to help my sister move my suddenly incapacitated, 90-year-old father into a nursing home. He died before that happened.

I went for a walk right after doing a round of writing and a little work on my book biz. I’m back into my routine now – writing, publishing, bookselling, and occasionally going for a long walk or day hike. Back into the daily routine, as if being there in the hospital room the moment my father died ten days ago was nothing out of the ordinary. The hard truth of the matter is this: life goes on.

I walked through local woods where the trees are just now turning. The autumnal season is well underway. There are splashes of gold and orange in the trees, fiery red sumac, purple asters in full bloom, a touch of rust and brown here and there, yet still plenty of green. Cool temps beneath an overcast sky. The high-pitched trill of crickets. I passed the nearby quarry where a couple dozen Canada geese have landed. One of them honked alarm at my approach. Soon they will continue their long journey south for the winter as they do every year. Life goes on.

The world keeps spinning and nature goes about its business despite the loss we experience at any given time. Nature is eternal. Individual life forms come and go, yet nature lives on. It’s a very simple truth really. But there are times, like now, when I find that hard to grasp, and even harder to accept.

My father lived a long, full life. He was independent and ambulatory up until the very end. I should be so lucky, the dementia he suffered notwithstanding. We weren’t that close in later years. That much said, I will still miss him, as I do my mother and my dog Matika who also died this year. It’s a lot of loss to deal with all at once, but I’m getting back to my affairs now, as all living things do. I grieve but I’m still alive and well. The seasons change, nature persists, and I will roll with it until my last day comes.

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Sep 06 2019

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A Great Day in the Mountains

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Early morning. With temps in the 50s and a clear sky in the forecast, I set my work aside for a day and head for the Adirondacks. A grin breaks across my face as I enter an empty parking lot at the Owls Head Lookout trailhead. Looks like I have the trail all to myself – until other hikers get out of bed, anyhow.

After signing into the register, I hike up a trail easing gradually uphill. Morning shadows dominate the surrounding forest until the sun shines straight ahead. A blue jay calls out, otherwise all’s quiet. I hear the faint sound of rushing water and soon cross a bridge over Slide Brook. From there the trail weaves in and out of a feeder stream as it steadily climbs towards a junction. From the junction it’s a short, steep climb to the top of Owls Head. I arrive with energy to spare.

Owls Head Lookout is located in Giant Mountain Wilderness. Giant Mountain peeks at me from behind a ridge that leads to it. Rocky Peak Ridge to the left of Giant is in full view. Farther left, the forested landscape breaks away like a choppy green sea frozen in time. To the right is Knob Lock Mountain, and farther right is Hurricane Mountain. In other words, it’s wild country in every direction as far as I can see, with stunted birches directly behind me and a 500-foot drop immediately in front.

I gulp down water between bites of an energy bar, quite comfortable in a wool shirt despite a light breeze. I’m not a big one for bagging peaks, but I must admit that sitting on top of the world like this feels pretty damned good. It’s especially nice because there’s no one else around. I linger for the better part of an hour before heading down.

My right ankle, still weak from a big hike in June, complains a little while I descend. I ignore it, leaning into a heavy walking stick as necessary. I’m all smiles and whistling by the time I encounter a pair of hikers and their two dogs at Slide Brook. I greet them while walking past, then finish my hike. Five and a half miles round trip. An eleven hundred foot ascent. No bugs. Just about as good as a day hike can get.

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Aug 15 2019

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Focus on the Adirondacks

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Have returned home from another 2-day tour of the Adirondacks, similar to last month’s trip. Visited several bookstores to promote my old Northville/Placid hiking narrative, The Allure of Deep Woods, along with my latest book, The Great Wild Silence. Tuesday evening I schmoozed with a couple dozen writers and even more readers during Authors Night at Hoss’s Country Store in Long Lake. That was fun. But just being in the Adirondacks again is what really made the trip worthwhile. How I love that wild country!

Once again, I spent the night in a shelter at John Dillon Park, falling asleep to the call of loons then awakening to them in the morning. The second day, after one last stop at The Book Nook – a new bookstore in Saranac Lake – I climbed Baker Mountain. It’s located right on the edge of town. Only a mile to the summit, though rather steep towards the end. On top I enjoyed a nice view of the High Peaks with Saranac Lake sprawling below.

I’m shifting my focus. After hiking the Cohos Trail through New Hampshire’s White Mountains and beyond, I’m now looking west. Oh sure, I’ll continue visiting familiar places in the Green Mountains right here in Vermont, but what I crave is wide open country, new wild lands to explore during the years to come. I’ve only tramped though half of the Wilderness Areas and Wild Forests inside the Blue Line. I’d like to spend time in them all. With that goal in mind, I have picked up two more maps of the Adirondacks – part of a set of six canvassing the entire park. I now have five.

Six million acres and most of it wild country. The Adirondack Park is roughly the same size at Vermont. Forests, mountains, streams, lakes, ponds and bogs. And a thin network of roads and tourist towns to boot. Plenty to keep me busy during the next decade or so. Looking forward to it.

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Aug 11 2019

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Monarch in the Goldenrod

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Last week the mountains were calling me so I dropped everything and drove over an hour to a favorite valley where I bushwhacked along a trout stream for the afternoon. That happens more often than not. But this morning I was in a different mood, feeling an urge to walk through sun-drenched fields. So I headed for the nearby Rail Trail.

Blue sky, mild temps, and poplar leaves quaking in a gentle breeze. A tricolored blackbird sang out. Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, birdsfoot trefoil, and clover lined the gravel trail. Sometimes it feels good walking with no goal or purpose in mind, especially on a summer day.

Suddenly I was missing my old dog, Matika. She and I walked this particular section of the Rail Trail together many times. It’s conveniently located right on the edge of town. Just then it dawned to me that I was walking here for the first time since she died. Ah, well… life goes on.

Cornfields and distant hills reminiscent of my childhood in Ohio. Maybe that’s why I like to hike across open ground like this every once in a while. I love the shady forests that blanket three-quarters of Vermont. But occasionally I hunger for sunlight.

A good distance from the car, I stopped to look around. That’s when I spotted a monarch butterfly fluttering across a large patch of goldenrod just starting to bloom. The charm of late summer in a nutshell, I thought. Then I smiled into the sky before turning around and walking back the way I came. Sometimes if feels good just to be alive.

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Jul 29 2019

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A Short Midday Hike

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The good thing about being self-employed is that you can take a break whenever you want. But actually doing so isn’t as easy as one might think. My little book biz makes demands. I’ve been working hard at it ever since I came off the Cohos Trail a little over a month ago. All the same, at noon today I felt the urge to pull on my hike boots and make a beeline for a patch of nearby woods right after dropping off the day’s shipping at the post office. So that’s what I did.

Midday, high summer. Okay, maybe not the best time to go hiking. With temps in the upper 80s and the humidity through the roof, the forest would be a sauna. But I needed to stretch my legs while traipsing through the woods, if only for a short while. And I was prepared to sweat. Sometimes you just have to go for it.

The hike wasn’t as sweaty as expected. The shady woods diffused some of the heat, and an occasional gust of wind made the humidity quite tolerable. I meandered along the trail happy to be back in my element again, if only for an hour or so. Had the woods all to myself, of course. That was a bonus. And the bugs were nothing like they were a month ago. Is there really such a thing as a bad time to go for a hike? Thoreau would have said no.

While walking through the sultry forest, I thought about my hike on the Cohos Trail last month. Told myself that I really should start writing about that outing while my memories of it are fresh. But I’d rather be hiking. Funny how it goes. Hiking and writing about hiking are two different things. Ah, well… I do as much of both as I can. I’ll be able to do both in August, now that my book biz has been squared away. It all works out.

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Jul 19 2019

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Civilized Camping

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Six years ago I discovered John Dillon Park tucked away in the Adirondacks, just north of Long Lake. Earlier this week I spent a night there again, while out promoting my most recent book, The Great Wild Silence. The place was even nicer than I remembered it being.

John Dillon Park is an unusual phenomenon, owned by International Paper, run by the students at Paul Smith’s College, and open to the public. The entrance to it off Route 30 is easy to miss, and the two-mile unimproved dirt road back to the Welcome Center is a little rough. But all nine shelters are well kept and easily accessible. Only one site can be driven to, but the five- or ten-minute walk to the others along a gravel path is nearly effortless.

“Making the natural landscape of the Adirondacks accessible to everyone,” is the principle behind the place, and both the paths and shelters are handicap accessible. Compost toilets, bear-proof food storage boxes, and bins full of firewood next to a metal fire ring – this is camping at its most civilized, I’d say. Roughing it, yes, but not by much.

I stayed in a shelter overlooking Grampus Lake, listening to a loon calling out at midnight and awakening to a chorus of songbirds in the morning. Only one other shelter was occupied and the air was perfectly still so I enjoyed the deep forest silence while I slept that night. Appropriate accommodations when one considers what I was doing on that trip.

I’d recommend the place to anyone young or old who wants a taste of the wild but doesn’t have the wherewithal to go backpacking. There are carts available in the parking lot for hauling in your stuff. Camping out doesn’t get much easier than that, short of car camping. And it’s free. All you have to do is reserve a shelter in advance.

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Jul 08 2019

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After a Big Hike

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Two weeks have gone by since my big hike on the Cohos Trail. All my sores and bug bites have healed now, and my joints aren’t bothering me any more. I’m well rested, well fed, and back into my work routine. I’ve been enjoying all the comforts of life here in the developed lowlands: fresh food, cold beer, soft chairs to sit in, being clean, and always having a dry place to sleep at night. And, most of all, the pleasant company of my wife Judy. There’s a lot to be said for civilized living. Yet I’m feeling the urge to get back in the woods again, hiking somewhere, anywhere. Effortless walks around the neighborhood aren’t quite enough.

As time goes by, I think less and less about all the hardships of the trail, and find myself recalling those precious moments in the wild: awakening to a chorus of forest songbirds, drawing water from a clear stream flowing around moss-covered rocks, and tramping down a narrow trail cutting through birches and ferns. The mind filters experiences before storing them away as memories. Yes, I also recall the bloodsucking bugs, the unpleasant boggy stretches, and that terrible last-mile exhaustion of the longer hiking days. But somehow those memories aren’t such a big deal any more. The highs seem to carry more weight than the lows.

Truth is, every extended solitary hike I do rocks my world in a way that doesn’t immediately make sense to me. Two weeks after my big hike, I’m still feeling a little off balance. It takes time to process an immersion in the wild – time enough to contrast and compare it to my regular routine, I suppose. Time for the mental journey to emerge from the physical one. Time for thoughts and feelings to resurface with a careful rereading of my field journal, or while looking at photos, or while simply reflecting upon a memory coming out of nowhere.

In due time, I’ll figure out what exactly happened to me on the Cohos Trail. Only then will I be able to write about it. But that won’t take place until I have a chance to get back in the woods again. After all, wild thoughts and feelings are best processed in wild places. My armchair reflections don’t quite cut it.

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Jun 26 2019

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On the Cohos Trail

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Back home now after nine days on the Cohos Trail – a relatively new trail in northern New Hampshire that runs for 170 miles, from the heart of the White Mountains to the Canadian border. I tramped 62 miles of it, starting in Jefferson and finishing in the rather dramatic Dixville Notch. It was quite the undertaking for an old hiker like me.

“Old” is a relative term, of course. At 63, I’m a young old with plenty of hikes still ahead of me. But when I strap on a backpack, 40 pounds or more, then take on a rugged trail winding through mountainous country for days on end, I soon realize that I’m not the hiking machine I once was. The joints, for one thing, aren’t what they used to be.

The bugs were even more menacing than they usually are this time of year. A rainy spring created ideal conditions for them to multiply. I used a whole bottle of DEET. Black flies, mosquitoes, ticks and deer flies – yeah, I had plenty of company on this trip.

The Cohos Trail isn’t a well-beaten path like the Appalachian Trail. I was hoping to escape the crowd that swarms all over Presidential Range of the White Mountains just to the south. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I saw no one for 3 days while hiking through the Nash Stream Forest. Long stretches of deep woods solitude are just about guaranteed on the CT. I reveled in it, taking 2 days to just hang out at shelters and groove on the natural world.

Indeed, the CT cuts through some wild and beautiful country: over mountains, through northern hardwood and boreal forests, across streams, meadows and bogs, and around ponds. The trail itself is sometimes a woods road and other times a barely discernible path. I recommend it to anyone craving Northeast wildness. But keep your eye peeled for those yellow blazes and a map handy. This isn’t a trail for daydreamers.

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Jun 12 2019

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A Glorious Time of Year

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After an unusually cool rainy spring, the past few days have come as a welcome reprieve. Finally we’re getting into sunshine with temps shooting into the 80s. That’s high summer by Vermont standards, but who’s knocking it? Put those flannel shirts away!

Green vegetation wherever you look, and a dreamy breeze. Add to that wildflowers blooming in fallow fields along with lilies, irises and other showy flowers in cultivated places and, well, it’s a glorious time of year. “Days of heaven,” I like to call it, when just walking around the neighborhood, lounging on the porch, or sitting at an open-window cafe is enough to make a person feel good about the world.

At this latitude, roughly 45 degrees, the days are delightfully long this time of year. Factor in the lingering twilight and it’s hard to stay awake for it all. People like me, who suffer through the dark days around the Winter Solstice, are energized by the approaching Summer Solstice. I become absurdly upbeat as a consequence of it. Every day, it seems, is a good day.

Soon I’ll be on the trail again, hiking for days on end as if nothing else matters. Oh sure, the bloodsucking bugs are out but I don’t care. Their bites are a small price to pay for the wonder and beauty of The Northern Forest in June. Like I said, I’m absurdly upbeat this time of year. And these long, magnificent days are too precious to waste.


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