Sep 22 2016

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On the Trail with John

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view-from-prospect-rockFor six years I made excuses before getting back on the trail with my old hiking buddy, John. It’s shameful, really. No one is that busy. But at long last we met in Manchester, shuttled cars, then set foot together on the white-blazed AT/LT, headed north.

John is section hiking the Appalachian Trail. He has done 70% of it so far. Six years ago, I did a 40-mile stretch in central Vermont with him, then shuttled him south so that he could do another section alone. This time I joined John for 19 miles, between Kelly Stand Road and Route 30. I didn’t think my flabby body couldn’t handle more than that. I set aside 3 days from my allegedly busy life to do it.

We went up over Stratton Mountain first thing, tracing the same route that I had hiked with my grandkids a month earlier. A steady rain kept us cool and John let me set the pace. As a result, we got up and over the mountain with little difficulty.

We talked our way through the first day and into the next. We talked and talked. Six years is a long time. We had a lot of catching up to do.

After spending a night at Stratton Pond Shelter, I was feeling pretty spry for a 60-year-old. I suggested that we push it all the way to Route 30 the second day instead of going just to Spruce Peak Shelter. That way he could get in a full day’s hike the third day. John thought it best that we go as far as Spruce Peak Shelter before making that decision. I agreed.

Our traverse through the dripping forest was a trip down memory lane for me. We skirted the edge of Lye Brook Wilderness where I’d spent some time alone some years back. Then we stopped for lunch at Prospect Rock. I had stopped there 21 years earlier while thru-hiking the Long Trail. This time John and I cooled out while watching clouds gather slowly over Manchester below. A pleasant break, indeed.

Sure enough, I was still feeling strong when we reached Spruce Peak Shelter early in the afternoon. With only 3 miles left, we went for it, popping out on Route 30 with plenty of time for a 2-hour drive south into Massachusetts. We parked my car at Dalton then hiked half a mile south on the AT to Kay Wood Shelter. There we stayed for the night. In the morning we retraced our steps back to my car where John picked up a 5-day supply of food before continuing north all the way to his car on Kelly Stand Road.

That was two days ago. Since then John has been hiking over Mt. Greylock and I have returned to my busy-ness. John and I have been having outdoor adventures together since we were Boy Scouts back in Ohio. We’re not done yet. Next year, I’ll join him on another tramp along the AT. No excuses. I’ve got my priorities straight now… and a year to get myself in shape so that I can stay on the trail with him longer.

 

 

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Sep 16 2016

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The Quarry

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Version 2Judy and I didn’t actually see the quarry until our house was well under construction. We had heard about it before our builder even broke ground back in February, but we didn’t think it was that big a deal. We were mistaken.

The folks who own the quarry kept telling us that we should check it out. When finally we got around to doing that, we were pretty impressed. It is much bigger and more beautiful than expected, with a shallow end that’s ideal for launching boats. We were encouraged to use the quarry so, when the grandkids came to visit shortly after we moved into our new house, that’s what we did. They loved it, of course. They kayaked, swam and fished there on several occasions. I think they would have camped out there if we had let them.

In the middle of the summer, I went swimming there for the first time. My dog Matika accompanied me. The hot sun warmed the surface, but a few feet down the water was cold. Another pleasant surprise.

A few weeks later Judy and I kayaked the quarry at sundown, breaking the glassy surface of the water with our paddles while making long, lazy circles upon it. A kingfisher called out then swooped low over the water. Then all was quiet. That’s when we realized just how charming the place really is.

It’s only half a mile away from our house. We go past the quarry while walking a two-mile loop around the area. The owners have told us repeatedly that we can use it any time, and I suppose we will in the years to come. But it still doesn’t quite feel real to us. It’s like having a small park steps from one’s door. More than we bargained for when we moved here, that’s for sure.

 

 

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Sep 08 2016

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First Color

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early-fall-colorI can’t believe it’s that time of year already. I look up while running my errands and there it is: a sugar maple starting to turn. Busy with moving, renovating the old place, and cultivating my book business, summer went by even faster than normal. Now here it is autumn.

The first sign of it came last month while I was hiking in the mountains with my grandsons. Hobblebush leaves were turning reddish-brown then – a sure sign of what was coming. Wood asters, one of the last wildflowers to bloom during the growing season, appeared in my back yard as well. And the crickets have been noticeably noisy for a while now.  Yeah, there has been plenty of warning. Still… I can’t quite wrap my brain around it.

Autumn in Vermont is always something special – there’s no doubt about that. I look forward to the crisp cool days, bug-less hikes, and the kaleidoscope of color. I’m returning to my literary work, too, after a four-month intellectual drought. But those of us who live here in the North Country are always a little sad to see summer fade away. The growing season is short in these parts. We never seem to get enough of it.

That said, I’m enjoying these last few barefoot days and consuming as much fresh produce as I can. The trees are turning but it takes a month or so for Mother Nature to change her seasonal garb. No sense getting ahead of ourselves. The present is all that really matters.

 

 

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Aug 26 2016

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Sunrise at Stratton Pond

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Sunrise Stratton PondA loon cried out as predawn light filtered into the tent. Hearing it, Hunter sat up for a moment. Mason heard it as well but he just rolled over. I went out to investigate, leaving the tent as quietly as possible. Our hike over Stratton Mountain the day before had been a tough one so I thought it best that my grandsons sleep a little longer.

The air was still. Insects dappled the glassy surface of Stratton Pond. No sound. The loon was long gone. Out of habit, I went to put on my heavy wool shirt but set it aside instead. No need. I was perfectly comfortable in a t-shirt.

The sun peeked over the ridge rising towards the mountain, promising another beautiful day. I heard the boys stirring inside the tent. When they came out I put them to work fetching water for tea, dropping the food bag slung in the trees, and making orange juice from the powder on hand. I fired up the camp stove.

We sat on foam pads drinking juice and tea, and eating bagels. A chipmunk chattered. A bird meep-meeped nearby. “That’s a nuthatch,” I told the boys, then I shut up so they could enjoy the deep woods silence that followed.

This was their first bona fide trip into the wild.  Oh sure, we’d been hiking and camping before, and had even backpacked to a “remote” camp site in a state park, but this was different. Several miles from the nearest road, they were encountering Nature in all its glory. The look in their morning eyes said it all. I reveled in their quiet astonishment.

An hour or so later, we broke camp. The boys were eager to hike again. They enjoyed the easy walk along the shoreline and the relatively flat Stratton Pond Trail that followed. It seemed to me like we were coming out too soon, but they got a good dose of it – a couple days in the woods they wouldn’t easily forget. I was quite pleased with myself for having arranged it.

 

 

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Aug 16 2016

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Wild Blackberries

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blackberriesIt’s late summer and the blackberries are ripening. A few steps from our new house they grow wild. I discovered them a few weeks ago.

They grow along the pathways between our house and the nearby quarry – a good place for a short walk. Wide pathways riddle the local woods. And where sunlight strikes, blackberry bushes magically appear.

From green to red these berries ripen. When they get that deep purplish hue, they’re ready to be picked. I can hardly resist. Their plumpness is alluring. Pop a couple in your mouth and you know what happiness tastes like. Sweet, yes, but with a zing to them that all wild fruit seems to have.

My wife Judy has gone through several pints of them. She went a-picking with me once but is happy enough just eating them at home. I, on the other hand, like picking blackberries more than eating them. It feeds my compulsion.

Don’t get me wrong. I eat plenty of blackberries as I pick them, popping one in my mouth for every two or three that goes in my container. That seems like a good ratio.

Between picking and eating, I grow lighthearted, almost giddy. Wearing only shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops, I am scratched by the thorny blackberry bushes and take plenty of bug bites, but I don’t care. I sweat in the sunlight breaking into the humid woods, but I don’t care. Picking becomes my raison d’être. I pick therefore I am.

Picking and eating, picking and eating… It’s a simple countryside pleasure that keeps me connected to the earth, making me glad to be alive. The world is going to hell in a hand basket, or so I hear. But while I’m a-picking, none of that matters.

 

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Aug 08 2016

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Brief Sojourn in the Catskills

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Catskill campI don’t like to mix business with pleasure. It’s hard to stay focused that way. But I made an exception last week when I headed south of Albany, New York to hunt for books for a couple days. Instead of car camping between book sales per usual, I parked my car at a trailhead Thursday afternoon, changed into hiking clothes, and slipped into the Catskill Mountains for the night.

I didn’t go far. A mile into the woods, I tagged a small stream and followed it back to a high, dry spot. A patch of wood ferns called my name. I pitched my tarp in the middle of them. Then I made a nice place to sit against a tree. Home sweet home.

Mine was a modest dinner: a cup of juice reconstituted from powder, an energy bar and a carrot. Lord knows I’d consumed plenty of calories on the road – mostly junk food. No campfire. I kept things simple. Didn’t want to smell like wood smoke while book hunting the next day. Yeah, business and pleasure don’t mix well. Not really.

A barred owl hooted while I was scribbling in my field journal. I hear them at home, now that Judy and I have moved to a wooded place in the country, but it’s different hearing them in the mountains. Alone in the wild, I felt closer to that creature.

I slept well that night despite having a rock for a pillow. The forest was cool and calming after a hot, crazy day on the road. Funny how I feel more comfortable in the woods than anywhere else. A lot people think it’s dangerous in the wild – bears, the prospect of getting lost, etc. – but I find the opposite to be true. I never feel as threatened alone in the wild as I do moving among my own kind. Few places are as dangerous as a busy highway.

Thirteen hours. That’s all the downtime I got. Enough to get me by. I broke camp in a hurry, eager to begin another so-called workday. I’d hiked out to the car and changed back into street clothes a half hour later. By mid-morning I was working another book sale, chasing the dollar. Yet a touch of the wild stayed with me. The people book hunting around me never knew the difference, of course.

 

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Jul 28 2016

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In Cool Woods

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the cool forestAnother hot day. It has been that kind of summer. Before going over to my old house to do some more renovation work, I slip into a pocket of local woods for a short, relatively cool hike. I know my dog Matika will appreciate it. They call these dog days, but this certainly isn’t her favorite season.

The forest is shady for the most part even though sunlight filters through the canopy. The bright hues of fresh springtime verdure have given way to a more mature midsummer green. The trail looks moist because of a recent rain. I am not deceived by it. I know that down deep the earth is still dusty. Thunderstorms are numerous this summer, yes, but we haven’t seen an all-day soaking rain for quite some time.

Hot and dry. I resist the urge to jump to environmental conclusions, hoping that August and September will be a little cooler and wetter overall. I plan on doing some serious hiking at that time, after finishing up the renovation. Lord knows I’m overdue for it.

But for now these woods will have to do. A few deer flies follow me as I amble up the trail. Aside from their buzz and the occasional songbird, all is quiet. Matika sniffs around, wondering where the squirrels are. My mind clings to work-related matters until I catch a whiff of forest decay. Then I entertain faraway thoughts. Yeah, a serious hike very soon – one to make me forget all the nonsense in these lowlands that passes for civilization. That’s what I really need.

 

 

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Jul 17 2016

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Before the Rain

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Preston Bk in JulyMy wife wants me out of the house while window shades are being installed. That’s all the excuse I need to drop everything. Never mind that thunderstorms are in the forecast for this afternoon. As soon as I finish doing the bare minimum work for my business, I grab my fly rod, load my dog Matika into the car, and head for the hills.

By midday I am bushwhacking downhill to a favorite brook. A tremendous sense of relief sweeps over me as I tramp through the woods. This is my first excursion into open country in months.

The stream is low, even for midsummer. We need rain. That said, I hope the dark clouds gathering overhead hold off long enough for me to make a few casts. After that, it doesn’t matter.

The stream is beautiful. Crystal clear water finds its way down a rocky streambed surrounded by lush green vegetation. I have walked this brook or ones like it a thousand times yet they never fail to charm me. The rush of flowing water, the cool shade, and that earthy smell – I’m a real sucker for this kind of wildness.

Matika sniffs around as I ply the water with nearly invisible line and tiny fly. When I pull an eight-inch brook trout from its hiding place, she dances around me, chomping at the creature flipping about desperately in my hands. I release it into nearby shallows so that Matika can give chase. She doesn’t stand a chance. The brookie torpedoes out of sight in seconds.

Dripping sweat and menaced by biting insects, I hobble over rocks and around fallen trees for another hour or two, maintaining a low profile to keep from spooking the fish. I catch and release a couple more brookies despite the less-than-ideal fishing conditions. When finally thunder rumbles in the distance, I splash cold water into my face then leave the brook.

The uphill scramble to a dirt track is hard. The amble down the road is easy. I reach my car right before the first raindrops fall. It’s raining by the time the wheels touch pavement. On the highway it’s a downpour. All the way home, I marvel at how lucky I’ve been.

 

 

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Jul 07 2016

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Hiking with Grandkids

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Kids on Stowe PinnacleAt long last, I stopped working long enough to go for a half decent hike. I had the perfect reason to do so. Five of my grandkids came to visit last week and they were ready for action. We went swimming and boating at a local quarry. We went fishing. And when the opportunity arose, we hiked up Stowe Pinnacle for a great view of the valley.

My dog Matika went with us, of course. Grandma Judy stayed in the trailhead parking lot and knitted. She’s not a big one for bagging peaks. I fashioned a hiking stick for Johnny, who stayed close to me during the hike, asking all sorts of questions about the natural world. The others charged ahead.

The eldest boy, Hunter, stopped the gang every once in a while, making sure to keep Grandpa in sight the entire time. I was carrying a rucksack full of water bottles, rain jackets and other accoutrements. That’s my excuse for bringing up the rear. Fact is, all the kids play sports and are in good shape. And Grandpa, well, he’s not as strong a hiker as he used to be.

We started early in the morning. T-storms had been forecast for that afternoon. Tight window. I wanted to get everyone up and down the mountain before the rain came.

The forest was still wet and humid from rain the day before. I kept warning my young hikers about the dangers of a wet trail, but they seemed more interested in the red efts underfoot.

On top I gathered them all for an obligatory snapshot. Then we drank water and ate snacks while enjoying the view. We didn’t linger. A squall crossed the valley just to the south of us. I thought it best to get off the mountain right away.

We felt a few raindrops on the way down but the predicted storm didn’t arrive until we were eating lunch back at the cabin a couple hours later. Nearly everyone slipped and fell once. No one was any worse for it though. Kids are resilient. I was exhausted from the hike yet happy to have done it with them. One doesn’t get a chance to create memories like that every day.

Next year we’ll do Camel’s Hump.

 

 

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Jun 26 2016

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Daisies

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daisiesDaisies. Such ubiquitous wildflowers. You find them in clearings in the woods, open fields, or anywhere there is ample sunlight. Summer is in full swing when they start to bloom, so is it any surprise that so many of us associate them with happiness?

There are domesticated varieties, of course. I planted some daisy mums in front of my old place years ago and they took over my garden. Pretty, yes. Dainty, no. Give them half a chance and they’ll grow just about anywhere.

The other day as I was weed-whacking the drainage ditch in my front lawn, I noticed that a patch of daisies had taken root there. I steered clear of them. I let them do their thing, adding a little floral delight to the greenery.

Like so many other wildflowers, daisies gravitate to marginal areas. The other day I found them growing near the entrance to a nearby woodlot where I like to walk. Their carousel of bright white petals is an endless smile. They strike me as nature’s welcome mat – ambient to say the least.

My wife prefers daisies to roses. My kind of gal. Roses are aromatic and elegant, no doubt, but daisies shout a different kind of beauty into the world – a beauty accessible to everyone and not easily diminished.

We are well into the growing season now and this humble wildflower is everywhere. The simple, earthy pleasures of this time of year are manifest in daisies. I’m no mindless optimist, nor do I readily engage in frivolity, but the world seems less dour to me whenever daisies are in full bloom. One look at them and my soul takes flight. Silly me.

 

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