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A Yankee Notebook

August 6, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I think it important to maintain a positive attitude toward whatever’s coming next in your life. Zoroaster expressed it as, “Accept with a good grace what you cannot avoid.” That’s far too passive. Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” George W. Bush famously challenged, “Bring it on!” Vermonters purse their lips, put on their work gloves, and say, “Let’s get ‘er done.” For all nine years of my undergraduate career I was constantly faced with choices between, for example, a semester of Optical Crystallography or Advanced Invertebrate Paleontology, and a cross-country trip to the Tetons, the Wind Rivers, or the volcanoes of Mexico. I always chose correctly.

That practice stood me in good stead when I had a chance to swap my Beetle convertible for an old Jaguar roadster; became an Outward Bound instructor and discovered that the quicker you jump into cold water, the less it’s going to hurt; and when I met the woman who twelve weeks later would become my wife. There’s no point in dithering. Your response must be, “Are you kidding? Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear...” You know how that one goes. The answer is, “Yes!”

So I was delighted when my friend John called from Hanover and asked if I’d like to go flying with him again. We’d been once before, on a flight much abbreviated by time constraints; but on this occasion John said we’d have at least a couple of hours, late one afternoon. We’d miss our regular supper hour, but who cared? John flew into our rendezvous at Knapp Airport in Berlin, Vermont. He gassed up the Cessna, checked for water in the new fuel, and off we went.

John’s a physician at DHMC. As his passenger, I find my inference of his meticulous attention to detail particularly comforting. Because there’s no news in pleasant flights; we laymen read only of calamities, and probably focus on them more than we should. As John cleared the airport over the radio and announced his destination as Ticonderoga, I couldn’t help but think of two other Hitchcock doctors, Ralph Miller and Bob Quinn, who crashed in the Pemigewasset Wilderness in February 1959 and who weren’t found for over two months. When John pointed out the little black door-latch lever that I should pull up before an inadvertent landing, “so that the door can be opened from the outside,” I paid careful attention, and even rehearsed the move.

Flying in a small plane, you’re aware of the history of the land beneath, starting even as far back as geological history. If you’re into it, the first thing you notice as you climb above the State Capitol is the Winooski River, flowing west toward the Green Mountains. We were headed on a course that took us south of Camels Hump, so we didn’t see the low gap in the mountains north of it where the river flows through. The Winooski is an antecedent river – it flowed west before the mountains were formed, and as they rose, used the new energy provided by the uplift to cut its valley more vigorously. The result is the only practical gap anywhere in the Green Mountain chain. When the Vermont legislature, back in horse-and-buggy days, got tired of holding its sessions on one side of the mountains one year, and the other the next, Montpelier became a logical choice.

We passed over the surprisingly well-defined ridge and path of the Long Trail, delighted that it never became the Blue Ridge Parkway of the North. The mountains descended slowly to the lake plain, once for a short time (geologically) the bottom of an inland sea. Presently, there were the Ticonderoga ferry (“In business since Mozart was a boy”) and the famous star-shaped fort, a marvel of construction in its day. But it appears no one perceived that two high hills nearby could ever mount cannons commanding the fort. Whoops! The waterfall-rich little La Chute River that drains Lake George and once powered the mills of early Ticonderoga flattens into a green swamp as it reaches Lake Champlain. This was the start of the ancient portage between the lakes.

John did a touch-and-go at the Ticonderoga airport, and we lifted north along the lake. This was my home country – the new Crown Point bridge; Bulwagga Bay, site of a huge town of ice shanties in season; the Boquet River, flowing past the abandoned ark of the shool where I once taught, then down to the 1777 British campsite at its mouth; our first house, that I built in my spare time in 1964; the river bank across from Burgoyne’s campsite where the American militia, having retrieved their weapons from the local armory, peppered raiding British bateaus in 1814.

Farther north, two more rivers run to the lake. The Ausable, exhausted by eroding Adirondack granite and Ausable Chasm, ends in a swampy tangle of oxbows and meanders; the Saranac, part of the new Northern Forest Canoe Trail, plunges toward the lake in a series of rapids. Valcour Island lay offshore, where Benedict Arnold’s American fleet tangled with the British in 1776, lost badly, but delayed the enemy advance by a full, crucial year.

The air space of the Burlington Airport is controlled. John checked in to inform the tower that we were skirting its edge. It was a quiet evening: nothing anywhere near us but a huge Hercules C-130 that we couldn’t spot. Then a lazy right turn toward home, the sun behind us now and the view much improved. The bare, gray ridge of Mount Mansfield loomed to our left – Head, Chin, Nose, whatever; I still can’t tell ‘em from each other. The altimeter wound slowly down, Interstate 89 and the Winooski snaked beneath us, and soon John was talking to the guy on the radio at the airport. We swung into line with the runway – on canoe trips, this is the moment, when letting down toward the water, we think, “Here we go. Where’d I pack my bug dope?” – and we settled like a landing gull. John taxied almost up to my waiting truck. We bade each other farewell, and he took off, leaving behind a very happy amateur historian and passenger.

Photo by Willem lange