Seven Lengths of Vermont: A Coyote’s Introduction

The first in an eight-part series in which the author travels the length of Vermont, his home state, via various modes of locomotion.

A coyote ran out from the fog of my tiredness, crossing Interstate 80 and the headlight beams with the flickering speed of a ghost, a dream, or more likely, a hallucination. This was somewhere in Indiana, sometime before dawn. I’d been driving for forty-eight hours, all the way from San Francisco, pausing only for gas stations and a sunrise nap at a Nebraska rest area. I’d seen some sights to be sure: basin after range after basin after range, Salt Lake City’s neon night, pure cold darkness in Wyoming, splashes of roadkill, fish-like schools of big rigs, wind turbines rising from Iowa corn. But now a specter-coyote? This was too damn much. I took the next exit, parked out back of a Holiday Inn, and fell asleep in my seat, just another Vermonter headed home after eight years bumming around the West.

Morning brought gauzy gray skies, pinging rain, and me—where else?—still behind the wheel, back on the dangerous, efficient, mind-numbing freeway, that great homogenizer of the American landscape, or at least our experience of the American landscape. Why rush 3,000 miles across the country in a single manic burst, neglecting hundreds of fascinating cultural and natural waypoints en route? Why subject myself to the achy boring torture of three days and nights solitary confinement in a 1993 two-door, four-speed Toyota Tercel?

The answer seemed obvious enough at the time, even more obvious once I’d passed Cleveland, crested a ridge beside Lake Eerie, and entered Upstate New York’s already brilliant foliage-show: I was shooting to reach Vermont before the leaves changed. I was trying to witness the turning of the season in my home state, and trying to align a personal turning—a turning of my life back toward Vermont—with that greater cycle’s unpredictable schedule.

It’s an odd phrase—a personal turning—and really more of a project anyway. Like all good projects, I’ve given mine a name; I call it Seven Lengths of Vermont. It’s a project that I’m eager to share with readers through a series of essays, the first of which you’re reading right now. Here’s the plan: Over the course of one year I’ll travel the length of Vermont, from Massachusetts to Quebec, or vice versa, seven times via seven different routes and seven different styles of locomotion. Each expedition will embrace its own idiosyncrasy and thus rejoice in a new Vermont, every time. My hope is that by the end of the year, having journeyed a few thousand miles back and forth through the human and more-than-human communities that comprise my home state, I’ll be able to draw together in my mind all these disparate lengths, seeing them, if only for an instant, as parts of a great unified whole.

Vermont, after all, is infinitely complex; you hike its mountains, row its lakes, drive to work or stroll the path to the barn, and each outing presents you with something new, your sense of place expanding through an endless series of nuanced iterations. Like a cloud, like the surface of a river, you can never pin Vermont down, for it is always moving, always morphing, always different than it was the last time you checked in. The seasons change. The ground beneath your feet shifts. Something you knew becomes something you could never have imagined.

This is my Seven Lengths of Vermont project, a sprawling experiment in local exploration and learning, an immersion into the wildly familiar. Or, if you prefer, an immersion into the big backyard.

And so we return to the Toyota Tercel, for it was the above mission statement, or some version of it, that ran through my head like a mantra during the final hours of that transcontinental slog. Night again. I crossed from New York into Vermont with a whoop and a little wriggle of excitement. Soon I would slow down, dig in, atone for the sinful obliviousness the long freeway had bred in me. A strange and exhausting width of the United States was nearly completed, a new adventure nearly begun. I hung a left onto Route 22A and headed north, sticking my head out the window every ten minutes or so to breathe in the familiar smells of Addison County’s dirt and cows and rain. The leaves were just turning on the trees; I could tell this, even in the darkness.

By the time I hit the little hamlet of Bridport the thrill of return had worn off and the foggy tiredness was back. Then, in a coincidence that seemed too improbable to be one, a coyote flickered up in the headlights, a fleeting glimpse of bounding tawny-gray. Adrenaline surged forth from some ancient gland, pouring down into my foot and the break pedal; the scream of tires on pavement roused me more immediately and violently than any alarm ever had.

The coyote was gone. My heart was blasting in my chest. I was awake and alert in the land of my birth, ready to observe what I could. A glimpse. Seven glimpses. What fun!

Leath Tonino was born and raised in Vermont. In addition to working as a writer, he’s shoveled snow in Antarctica, tracked hawks in Arizona, and planted blueberries in New Jersey. This series first appeared in the Burlington, Vermont newspaper Seven Days.