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A Yankee Notebook

April 21, 2014


MONTPELIER, VT – Turning east from our driveway in East Montpelier, we top a hill in a few hundred yards to a horizon full of little mountains. There’s a pretty good-sized fire tower on top of one of them – Spruce Mountain – that was transplanted there from a hill in St. Albans during the Second World War. If you know it’s there, you can peer at the spot where it’s supposed to be until you get a few photoreceptors lined up just right, and there it is. The mountain itself is shaped like a miniature Fujiyama, and seems to invite pilgrimage.

I spent a couple of weeks in Kansas once, on the way to the Rockies, and found the experience unsettling. Besides painting a barn and repairing a stock tank windmill for gas money, my buddy Sam and I ran daily to keep in shape for the climbing ahead of us. It was depressing to set out on a ten-mile out-and-back run and be able to see the turnaround point from the start. You can see why the state a few years ago voted to teach Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution; out there, the earth really does appear flat. I have determined never to wear ruby slippers or click them together, lest I be magically transported to the endless fields of milo and corn.

I also spent a few years in central Ohio pursuing a bachelor’s degree. There were a few hills there. At least that’s what they called them. But because the area was what geologists call a “dissected peneplain,” all the hills went not up, but down, into valleys and depressions (there’s that word again) formed by streams cutting into the underlying sedimentary rocks.

Far better to live where the hills and mountains pull our eyes upward, and our feet itch to take an uphill trail; where the landscape, in the absence of real mountains, at least lies before our eyes like a blanket with several cats sleeping under it. New Hampshire and Vermont between the White and Green Mountains are perfect examples of that.

When our late and much-lamented dog Tucker was still with us, she and I climbed everything in the Connecticut Valley between Mount Moosilauke and Mount Ascutney. Moose Mountain in Etna was our running trail; the sight of that bushy waving tail ahead of me infuses many wonderful memories. Now that she’s gone, the external impetus to get out and get going has gone with her. It takes longer to pack a lunch and mix up some electrolyte replacement without someone watching from the floor beside me or running between my knees whining, “Come on! Come on! Let’s go!” Still, I get out now and then, to the hills of Hubbard Park in Montpelier, Hunger Mountain, Mount Cube, or even Moosilauke. But I go nowadays when I know I won’t be alone, just in case.

Which was the case with last week’s hike up Spruce Mountain. It’s only just a bit over 3000 feet high, a scoured, resistant survivor of the last glacial age, but its winter coat of snow was still obvious. I was sure a lot of it – especially underfoot on the trail – was hard ice. And as almost always when our TV crew plans an outing, a storm was predicted for the night before our planned ascent. Ever the gloomy Cassandra, I predicted disaster, and was as always ignored. A good thing, too: In spite of a few inches of snow and a cold, slippery early morning on the road, the day turned out sunny, almost still, and a little bit below freezing, ideal hiking weather. It turned out also that the storm had started out as rain, gluing the snow behind it to the base of ice, so that with microspikes and crampons we were in great shape.

We were hiking with Scott Ellis, a young Cardigan Mountain School teacher who’s become a maven of a piece of new technology called a GoPro. It’s an amazingly small video camera: not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes, light, waterproof and shockproof, and still shooting excellent detail. The producer on our shoot, Phil Vaughn, would be running Boston next Monday with a GoPro on his forehead. Scott takes his with him on canoe and camping trips. On this hike, he had it fastened to the head of a walking staff he’d made from a wooden canoe paddle, which permits him to shoot from many angles all around him. He can hold it overhead and get a bird’s-eye view of himself hiking, or behind to watch himself retreating. On canoe trips he wears it on his head and shoots straight ahead in a rapid, or lashes the staff crosswise, so that by tipping the canoe while it’s moving, he can get underwater shots. His web site, GuideYouOutdoors, features videos of several of his adventures with another outdoors enthusiast and alumnus of the Appalachian Trail, Austin Borg, formerly of the Ohana Camps in Fairlee.

Scott’s quite personable and bright; so between the distractions of breaking through the ice over the numerous watercourses and the game of verbal badminton we played as we hiked, it seemed like almost no time before we were climbing through the tunnel of spruces just before the false summit. Then there came a clearing I remembered, and the last ridge, where there’s open air on both sides, and before we knew it, the steel legs of the fire tower loomed above the forest.

The foundation of a long-ago ranger’s cabin lies a few yards away from the tower. I’ve never been able to figure out how he got his water. The tower itself is described by some acrophobic hikers as “rickety,” “scary,” and “shaking in the wind.” It’s a big one, all right, but solid as a rock, and featuring the 360º view such towers are supposed to have. We sat on a log in the sun beneath it, ate our lunches, and chatted for a while with the cameras rolling. Then the three of them stayed behind to film some more while I started back down. Descending is much more perilous than climbing for old guys, especially on ice. I go very slowly, digging in the creepers solidly and not moving a foot in a bad spot without first planting both carbide-tipped poles. It worked; the only time I fell was when I sat on a rock to retie a shoe and toppled over sideways.

Photo by Willem lange