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A Yankee Notebook

July 22, 2013


EDEN, VT – Close to the center of Devils Gulch there is the slightly scattered and lightly bleached skeleton of a young bull moose. (with apologies to Ernest Hemingway)

Smack in the middle of a July heat wave from Hell, I’m in Eden. The maples and beeches, in full green leaf, provide at least a bit of relief from the furnace of the apocalyptic sun, but the deer flies are pretty thick, and keep us hopping. I see that one managed to drill me on my right forearm a few minutes ago; a rivulet of blood runs down from the hole she left. I can’t help but smile when I reflect that the first thing she did when she scissored through my skin was dribble into my arm a little of her saliva, which contains an anticoagulant. My blood already contains a prescribed anticoagulant. She must have thought she’d hit the Spindletop gusher.

The Town of Eden lies quietly (about 1150 citizens) in Lamoille County in north-central Vermont, about 30 miles from the Canadian border. The Long Trail passes through here, though it’s used less at this latitude than where it follows the ridge of the Green Mountains. In 1781 the infant State of Vermont – then still the Vermont Republic – granted the land to the near-mythical Seth Warner and the men of his regiment in recognition of their service in the Revolution.

Hilly, rocky, and a long way from anywhere else, the land was of little value for farming. The person who named it Eden obviously had a strong sense of irony. He also knew his Bible; the Gihon River, which drains the town of Eden and joins the Lamoille at Johnson, is one of the rivers that flows from the Garden of Eden in Genesis. It’s also possible, I suppose, that an early settler, steeped in Scripture and wandering the forest, came upon this ravine and, awed by its huge tumbled boulders and thick coat of moss everywhere, relegated it to Satan.

Gulch is a uniquely American word, derived, as are so many Americanisms, from Anglo-Saxon Middle English. It once meant “ to swallow greedily.” It’s much more common in the West – Helena, Montana, for instance, was originally Last Chance Gulch – and a not unusual way to get rid of people you didn’t like was “dry-gulching,” shooting them from the cliffs as they passed through. Along with ravine, canyon, gorge, and gully, it can carry sinister implications. During prescientific days, when calamitous natural events were usually attributed to unhappiness among the gods, clefts in the earth were often invested with gloom, mystery, and danger.

One of the first books I read as a child was The Bears of Blue River, by Charles Major. The protagonist, a frontier lad named Balser Brent, kills several bears, one in just about each chapter. Naturally, he was my hero. The bear that really captivated me – still does, when I consider how vividly I recall it almost 75 years later – was the so-called Fire Bear, which glowed at night, terrorizing the settlers, and caused the death, within three months, of anyone who saw it. Balser, armed with a mystical charm, tracks it to The Black Gully: “The conformation of the rocks composing its precipitous sides was grotesque in the extreme; and the overhanging trees, thickly covered with vines, cast so deep a shadow upon the ravine that even at midday its dark recesses bore a cast of gloom like that of night untimely fallen.” Naturally, Balser manages to kill the Fire Bear, at night when it’s glowing fiercely, but at the climax of the hunt loses his friend Polly, whose torch ignites natural gas rising from the floor of the Black Gully. The bear is later found to have made his bed in the gully in bioluminescent fungi – foxfire – which accounts for his eerie appearance. I was delighted, back in 1996, to find a paperback reprint edition of the original, which can still raise the hair on the back of my neck when I hear the cry of poor Polly riding down the winter wind.

It’s a pretty easy two-mile hike in here on the Long Trail from Vermont Route 118, a few miles northwest of the junction at Eden. The crew and I are walking with Jennifer Roberts, author of a new Appalachian Mountain Club guidebook, Best Day Hikes in Vermont, along with her sister and nephew. The book describes 60 hikes. Jen’s done ‘em all, from Haystack Mountain on the Massachusetts border to Brousseau Mountain up in Norton. I’ve tried a few – it would take more years than I have left to go through the whole book – and have found her descriptions accurate. She throws in little tidbits to liven things up: the now-defunct general store in Norton, for instance, built smack on the border with a door at each end, so Canadians and Yanks alike could shop there.

You enter Devils Gulch by climbing a wooden scaling ladder and slipping beneath a huge tabular boulder leaning up against the cliff. The rock here is metamorphic schist, with an almost-vertical cleavage plane. After the gulch was formed, probably by a combination of glacier and stream, the overhanging side began collapsing, leaving the gully floor a jumble of huge boulders. Halfway through, clambering over and threading through obstructions, we came upon the skeleton – not large; antler nubs on the skull. It evoked a number of questions and somber scenarios.

Beyond the Gulch and at the end of a gradual, steady climb, we arrived at a Green Mountain Club shelter with a lookout to Belvidere Mountain and its shuttered asbestos mine. I remember climbing Belvidere in February of 1989 with veterans of the original Tenth Mountain Division, who in February of 1945 captured Mount Belvedere in Italy in a costly battle. All of them around 70 years old, they struggled in the deep snow; but at least, as one observed, there were no Germans shooting at them.

We hiked back through the Gulch and past the somber skeleton, with Hemingway’s epilogue humming in my mind: No one has explained what the moose was seeking in that gulch.

Photo by Willem lange