Looking Back

Sunset

Last night, as I made my way to Butler Lodge, I experienced a sense of self and awe at the world around me like never before. After a sunny afternoon working on Mt. Mansfield, my shoulders and back already hurting from the day’s burn, I appreciated the black spruce and balsam fir shielding me from the powerful golden rays.

The scent of these alpine trees is my favorite. For me, it inspires and replenishes. The trail, cut through alpine territory, led me atop rocks and roots reminding me of the trees that once stood where the soles of my boots landed. Two snowshoe hares appeared, large and grayish brown, they stopped to investigate my presence then continued on. Birds called to one another, possibly announcing my arrival. Soon, more light emerged ahead of me. The clearing led me to a series of blazes painted on large boulders. Had it not been for my footsteps and the thousands of others, what life would be flourishing here? Would blue clintonia berries peek out between oval leaves? Maybe map lichen and rock tripe would paint the gray surface of these boulders. Perhaps red mountain cranberries would mingle with white sandwort and blue hedyotis flowers. Without a doubt, a symphony of color and life would arise here.

Unfortunately, I did not have a camera to capture the moment but took this shot the following week when the clouds mysteriously parted for several hours.

In the distance, I heard a jingling. As I moved toward the sound, I was unaware of the silence with which I moved. I greatly startled a man backpacking with his son and two dogs. One of the dogs wore a red collar with a golden bell. We converged at a breathtaking lookout. While still making sense of all that my eyes could reach, I offered to take a picture of the family as the father fumbled with his camera aimed at the son. After the photo I continued down to yet another beautiful expanse opening before my eyes.

Suddenly, I began to tremble, my heart beating fast and loud like a drum. I could hardly coordinate planting my foot firmly on the ground, drawn to the curves of the blue green mountains spreading across the horizon. I began to cry. Last year, as I made my way up this very trail, a hurricane took charge and I saw only far enough to move several feet ahead. Having completed the Long Tail, I marveled at the many beautiful vistas I was graced with along the way. Looking back, I was truly fortunate to have experienced so many cloudless lookouts and summits. But this one was a first. From deep within, my memories of the Trail were summoned to be reunited with this moment, to be completed with this view. The longer I gazed ahead, the more aware I grew of the startling beauty all around me, the more I trembled in its awe, the more I cried. A life without such moments would be hardly worth living.

Within the first few pages of Wilderness Ethics, I felt I found a friend who understands that feeling. As Laura and Guy Waterman talked about their experience of white out on top of Mt. Washington and the over blazing of trails, I recalled my frequent longing for a Long Trail blaze during my month long journey on the 272 mile path. There were times of frustration and once, a complete turnaround that resulted in dramatic loss of elevation only to be backtracked and descended again. Deep down, I was grateful it wasn’t always easy. Watermans’ ideas are some of the most radical I have come across when discussing backcountry ethics and while I did not nod at every chapter, I agree that difficulty and risk are an inherent characteristic of wilderness.

What if there were no blazes, no side trails, no roads, no resupply towns, no shelters and no caretakers? What if it was 1912? How heavy would my load be? Would I carry a rifle to feed myself? Who would I encounter? Who would encounter me?

I wrote all this contemplation of wilderness from a rocking chair at Taft Lodge overlooking the Worcester Range. Homes, lodges and red barns dotted the valley in the distance.

“Hello,” said the wind.

I turned my head.

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