The fourth in an eight-part series in which the author travels the length of Vermont, his home state, via various modes of locomotion.
We’d skied nearly three hundred miles of rock, dirt, leaves, moss, ice, crust, apples, slush, logs, lakes, creeks, roads, railways, fairways, snowmobile highways, stubble corn, corn snow, groomed snow, crap snow, coyote-scat-stained snow, and easy white rolling trail. We’d suffered, enjoyed, and generally endured “the length of Vermont on skis,” as The Catamount Trail Guidebook puts it. Twenty days. The longest cross-country ski trail in the country. We were doing it! We’d almost done it! And then the Mummy, obstinate little Tutankhamun that he is, just flat-out refused to move.
Stuck. Cuss. Ugh!
Not that this was anything new. A plastic sled weighted down with a humanoid, tarp-wrapped, sixty-pound lump of camp gear and supplies doesn’t exactly skip and prance from the Massachusetts line to Jay Pass, fourteen trail-miles shy of the Canadian border. That’s where we were, climbing through thigh-deep drifts into the fibrillating heart of a two-day blizzard, the first legitimate dump of a weirdly mild winter. Stinging needles of snow flew into our eyes. The wind chiseled at our nostrils. Though I could barely hear it above the raw, whirling din, my hip flexors sang a song of pain and grief. It was miserable, exhausting, utterly wild, and real. It was, in a word, perfect.
Ross Scatchard, my partner and tent-mate on the journey (and my tromping buddy since preschool days) is a scientific anomaly, a unique hybrid of human and draft animal. And boy was he ever drawing on his mixed genetics during that last big push, planting his poles, leaning into the slope, struggling against the body harness that tethered him to the recalcitrant Mummy. I was a hundred feet ahead, wearing a fat backpack, breaking a path through the powder for the fifth straight hour. Ahead of me I could just make out a flattish area where the trail kinked and became steeper—a good place to rest and wait, maybe vomit if I felt inspired.
That’s when the pink helmet appeared. It was glossy, like an odd little Barbie spaceship floating amidst the storm. A French Canadian woman with a blonde ponytail? She came shooshing down out of the glades and stopped right in front of me. A man appeared at her side. They smiled at one another. I figured they were just out for a brief backcountry jaunt, their car probably parked atop the pass, flush with cookies and hot cocoa.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day?” Pink Helmet said. I nodded yes and managed something about how hard the next portion of trail appeared. She looked at me through her goggles. She smelled like fruity soap. “You have to earn it,” she said, casually, as if it held no great and complicated truth. And then, perhaps thinking I hadn’t heard her over the shrieking gusts and clattering tree branches, she said it again: “You have to earn it.”
My face was accumulating rime; vomiting now seemed imminent.
Behind me, Ross was on the move, and behind him, the track we’d established—the symbol of our effort and achievement—was disappearing beneath the blowing snow. Squinting against the storm, I sensed all that we had passed through, all the land and weather and ups and downs and days and nights. I sensed the futility of exertion and the absurdity of the universe. I thought of Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, condemned to push a boulder up a mountain only to have the boulder roll back down to the bottom every time. I thought of him trading his boulder for a sled, and his mountain for the length of Vermont, and then setting out, with a Cuss and an Ugh, not for the first time, not for the last, not exactly dead on his feet, not exactly alive on them either.
I turned back to Pink Helmet. She was smiling at her man-friend. Yes, I thought. You are so right. You have to earn it.
But earn what? A blew a snot-rocket directly into my neck warmer. It froze.
There are many good reasons to nibble at the Catamount Trail rather than bite the whole thing off in a single, gluttonous expedition, as Ross and I did. Avoiding existential questioning—Why am I doing this? What is being earned? What happens if my face freezes off?—is only the tip of the ski pole, as it were. There’s also the joy of trading the Mummy for a fannypack, the joy of matching an easier or harder or wilder section of trail to your mood on a given day, and, most significant, the joy of staying at home when the conditions, for lack of a more mature phrase, totally suck.
Which leads directly to Ross’s and my interest in an immersive, end-to-end ski tour: we wanted to feel, in a very direct, embodied way, all that winter in Vermont has to offer, hardships included. Neither of us had ever snow-camped for more than a few nights in a row. Neither of us had ever really lived, animal style, in this most challenging and rewarding of seasons. You might say that our Catamount Trail expedition was an attempt to come close to the soul of winter, to bring our souls into alignment with this broader, elemental soul, to become cold like the ground, or light like a snowflake, or steady like the track of a moose, or dark like the forest beneath the night of spinning stars. Maybe it was communion we were hoping to earn. Maybe this is what we earned. Or maybe I’m just rambling and all that happened was a long backyard ski.
Whatever the motivations, one bright morning in early February we drove south to Bennington, then up and over the mountains to Readsboro, where the trail begins. On the way, we dropped a box of food at an inn on Route 4, just north of Killington, estimating it would take a week to ski back to it. Looking out the car window at the brown slopes, the brown forest floor of beech leaves, the brown, muddy trailhead where the Catamount Trail crossed the road near the inn, I confess I felt a bit upset. We were at 2,000 feet, considerably higher than many other sections of the trail, and there wasn’t any snow. I reminded myself that expectations could only hurt us—that radical acceptance would be the name of our encounter with the land—but it made little difference: my feet were scared of hiking three hundred miles in stiff, plastic ski boots, and I was scared for them.
To our relief, the southern section of the state had a base of about four inches, and, big surprise, it was the worst snow you could ever imagine—crusty, icy, bulletproof, hooray! Those first days were warm, up in the fifties, and the snow kept melting and refreezing into a smooth, shining sheet whose lexicon did not include the word “traction.” Your typical daytrip skier would have turned around in disgust. We, on the other hand, felt blessed. Furthermore, we felt blessed when fording a bridgeless creek and a stepping-stone appeared in just the right place. And we felt blessed on each short, skiable section of downhill (the alternative, if it was too steep or if the severity of a potential crash was too high, was dismounting and having to walk). We even felt blessed to find the perfect type of moss to use in lieu of toilet paper. Lowering your standards is not a praised and cherished practice in our culture, but let me tell you, it’s empowering. I highly recommend it.
That first eight-day push passed in a dreamy blur. The alarm would buzz at 5:20 a.m. and we’d boil up a Thermos of spruce tea (made from the tree’s needles) and a pot of oat-butter soup (made from the pounds of butter that comprised the Mummy’s left foot). Pulling on crusty long johns was never easy, nor was breaking camp, but those chores passed, as did the first climb of the day, and the second, and the third. As did a frozen reservoir on the left, a frozen waterfall on the right, a conversation, a quiet thought, an abandoned ski resort, a logging operation, a condominium complex, an old tumbled wall of rounded stones.
Vermont—a dreamy blur, indeed! The skis slid, stuck, edged, floated, broke. We hitchhiked into a village to get my binding fixed. A bald eagle released a spray of whitewash against the sky’s unbroken blue. A young family fed us a six-dish Cuban dinner. Friends and acquaintances; hemlock and black cherry; bobcat, ermine, and kinglet. We paused beside a beaver pond in remote woods (because I’d toppled over despite skiing on totally flat ground), and Ross pointed to scratches on a pine tree’s trunk. “Black bear,” he said. “Climbed it last spring.”
Each morning the sun showered down through the weave of leafless branches. Each afternoon we devoured sharp cheddar cheese, summer sausage, tortillas. Each evening a bonfire warmed our bare feet, dried our socks, mesmerized us with its glowing, crumbling architecture. And the greatest blessing of them all, the dreamiest of dreamy blurs, found us every night: deep sleep.
The second week of our trip, the middle chunk of the state, was like the first, but of course completely different. Things got easier. The existing snow softened. Once or twice a millimeter of new snow fell (standards, remember?). Having traveled 150 miles, we finally saw our first skier and first snowmobiler. We met an eighty-nine-year-old man near a place called Lefferts Pond. “Last year I snowshoed 103 days out here,” he said. “This year, maybe six.” We walked with him for an hour on a gravelly trail, skis over our shoulders, asking questions, listening, absorbing his wisdom and zest. How can such an old man be so fit, so happy, so sharp, so centered? He told us that he’d never stopped “getting out,” that it was a priority, that it has to be.
The third week? Oh, you can imagine it. Or maybe you can’t. It’s just Vermont out there, just the endless, infinite, irreducible glory of one corner of our endless, infinite, irreducible earth. And the Catamount Trail? Just a line through the mountains and fields, nothing more, nothing less.
It was dark. The storm was still raging, my hip flexors still singing and groaning and moaning and wailing in pain. We were standing at the big, clear-cut swath that marks the end of the United States and the end of the trail. Jay Pass and Pink Helmet were distant memories. I tried to take some photos but my trigger finger was numb. The universe was the bubble of light coming from my headlamp. It was a universe torn by snow, and yes, it was absurd.
So what happened, what changed, what was earned? Something—that’s for damn sure—but something hard to name.
Let’s just put it this way: I called Ross the day after we got off the trail. He wasn’t at his house. He was up at Stowe with his girlfriend, out for an afternoon of cross-country skiing. Less than twelve hours ago we’d skied for twelve straight hours, and before that we’d skied for three consecutive weeks. Three hundred miles. The length of Vermont on skis. I hung up the phone and thought of Sisyphus and that eighty-nine-year-old man. I pictured Ross up there on the Stowe trails, maybe even back on a section of the Catamount Trail, skiing free and easy, unencumbered by a Mummy, but otherwise just the same.
Insane, I thought. You go and go and go, and all you earn is the desire to go more, which is not desire but love, an abiding love of getting out there, of going, of grabbing your boulder, pushing hard, chasing it back down the hill to start all over again in the home that holds your life.
I reminded myself that Ross is a freak, a mule-man, a genetic weirdo; if he had his way he’d probably ski straight on through to Labrador.
For me, no thanks. I grabbed my ice skates and headed to the creek, hoping for good ice.
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.