While winter slept stubbornly through the early days of December, my friend and I spent our Saturday scraping the icy slopes of Sugarbush.
We arrived late in the morning and found the elements at the base of the mountain caught in a fierce war.
The muddy earth and wilting meadows were battling snowfield troops down the slopes from their wintery kingdom.
Despite the fake snow blowing from cannons, the woods and far edges of the lower trails clung to the earthen fall palettes, refusing to allow skiers more than a few icy routes down to the lift.
Before we set out, we hobbled down the iron steps to pick up our ski passes, clinging to the handrail as our early season legs tripped along.
After a brief wait among the few hungry enough for those scarce early winter tracks, we climbed back up the gauntlet of stairs and rode our first lift to the peak.
The contrast in climate between elevations can be magnificent, especially during the first weeks of winter. In minutes, the stubborn grassland and rushing streams gave way to a sheet of white coating the trees and wooded glades.
All the energy and warmth of the base is locked in an icy cast of winter placidity. We pushed off the lift only halfway to the summit, already in a different world.
Our skis’ worn edges struggled to find purchase in the ice on the first few turns. As we moved through the groups of skiers, we found that the best snow lined the trail’s edges in thin strips.
After a few decent runs we turned our attention to the summit hidden above us beyond the rolling clouds.
The Heaven’s Gate lift brought us closer to winter; each foot of elevation added a new layer of drift to the trees and trails below.
As we rounded the peak, we were transported to a spot above the clouds. Each fir tree lining the crystalline hills was coated in its own shell, drooping under the heavy ice.
Before adventuring down the more promising summit trails, I shed my skis and clambered to the top of the lift to rest and look around.
In the warmer months when snowless slopes call for hiking, I have to work for every inch of altitude. Hiking demands an appreciation for the mountain views; every rock, root and stream I pass is a milestone in my climb. I feel a certain intimacy with the rock beneath my feet.
Each time the trees part and give way to the rolling hills and adjoining peaks, I have no choice but to stop and look. In winter, as I sat there on the summit, I made the resolution to sit and reflect every mountain day, regardless of the season.
Later in the afternoon, our unconditioned legs wobbled. We watched others filter into the lodge to spend their paychecks on fries, but we unclipped our skis and took to the woods instead.
We walked off-trail to a spot among the trees. With a stacked pile of birch tinder and dead twigs, we fired up a wood-burning stove and cooked a mountain feast.
Every meal tastes better on the mountain, and this one was no different.
As we ate, we discussed our adventures so far, planned a few more runs and basked in the glowing contentment that always follows a day in the clouds.
The snow was sparse, the day was short, but the reward of just getting out was unmistakable.
My friends and I departed on a Friday afternoon during the peak of summer, leaving behind our homes and any concerns for the time of day.
We’d entered into a losing race with the setting sun, united by our common western destination, winding through those vibrant green New Hampshire mountains without a look back. 2,297 miles, 35 hours and six questionably hygienic gas station bathrooms later we arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I was raised in the excessive familiarity of an isolated New England town, a town boasting a thriving tourist scene and more ski resorts than people of color.
Although my family certainly traveled, we tended to limit our excursions to the east coast, exploring Maine and New Hampshire tirelessly, yet content with gleaning knowledge of the distant “West” through National Geographic photographs.
I think this was the root motivation for the trip – the idea of the vast unknown and the unfamiliarity that accompanies it. My friends and I had never ventured more than five or so hours from our homes, limiting ourselves to day trips and overnight hikes in the seemingly limitless White Mountain wilderness.
We’d had romanticized talks of “pilgrimages” out West. We had daydreamed of dropping everything and exploring the Pacific Crest Trail or the boundless beauty of Yellowstone. We’d had visions of camping under the stars, living off hand caught fish, and spending our days wrapped in the arms of mother nature.
While it wasn’t possible to fully realize our fantasies so soon, this past summer I was able to take that initial exploratory step.
For the first leg of the journey I was fortunate enough to have the help of one of those old friends, Ian Lubkin, who was on his way to New Mexico to study at Albuquerque University. With his dog Alta as our third amigo, we piled the sum collection of our belongings into his blue Subaru Outback and headed on our way.
On that first night we left home with only one final destination in mind and no obligations in between. We cruised through the first few hours comfortably, passing familiar New England territory, bubbling with a freedom-fueled energy, as if our newfound independence would sustain us for weeks to come.
Conversation and laughter flowed freely that night as our motley trio left first New Hampshire behind, then Massachusetts, before pushing deep into the winding rural roads and thickly-wooded hills of upstate New York.
We weren’t sure where we stopped for the night, and it didn’t matter much. As the gas gauge crept low and the clock edged into the early morning hours, we pulled off into an abandoned field, the swaying grass standing nearly as tall as the car itself.
Once we cut the engine and surrendered ourselves to the natural world, a kind of surreal realization of our situation settled in: we were doing it.
We pulled a tent from my 45-pound all-inclusive hiking pack, unrolled our sleeping pads and bags and made ourselves at home with the crickets and the distant giggles of an enthusiastic creek. We gathered a few twigs and fell into our dinnertime camping routine, resulting in a “feast” of ham, potatoes and toast.
We rose with the sun, prepared some farm eggs, and, with the help of Alta, packed up our things back into our miniature makeshift RV.
Saturday was spent in the car. We continued through New York, stopping only at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, the famed birthplace of the buffalo wing. From here we drove nearly straight through the night, stopping every few hours to walk Alta and alternate behind the wheel.
Surprisingly, this wasn’t the unbearable gauntlet we’d been bracing ourselves for. Up until this point we both had limited long-drive experience, and we’d braced ourselves for the pain and boredom of those 4-5 hour family vacation treks, each minute agonizing, without a second unnoticed or uncounted.
Instead we fell into a routine not far from enjoyable, napping off and on, our attention shifting from music to books and inevitably back to the unrelenting stretches of highway laid out before us.
As we passed through Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky and eventually Texas, the color gradually drained from the scenery flying by. The tall pines were the first to go, leaving only their distant shrub-like cousins and occasional oak towering over the livestock fields.
For miles on end our only company was scattered cattle and thundering semi trucks emblazoned with massive brand names, advertising to the empty fields.
Soon after the sun rose we entered the desert zone, passing through Amarillo, Texas, the gas prices declining with our latitude.
Before noon, New Mexico swallowed us, and all greenery with us, leaving only bleak high desert plains stretching on for miles uninterrupted. Although we were running on little food and even less sleep, it was the excitement of the destination that pushed us those last few hours into the sandy city of Albuquerque.
Rather than rising magnificently, it seemed to almost grudgingly emerge from the plains, the few ranches sprinkled about morphing into a cohesive civilization built with the ingredients of asphalt, billboards and oppressive heat.
The city was no exception to the bleak Southwestern palette, each and every building created with a severely limited spectrum of browns and grays.
For the next eight days Albuquerque was my home. These were filled with desert hikes, canyons, camping, swimming, dog walks, sunsets, laughter and new friends, each of which could be a story of their own.
The following Tuesday I gathered my limited belongings and carefully traced out a cardboard sign: “LA or West: (probably not an axe murderer).” I planned to hitchhike, a kind of surrender to the flow of the highway and the spirit of the American adventure.
I spent the following seven hours stranded on highway curbs and rest stop entrances, presenting my sign and upturned thumb, doing my best to convince passersby that the straggly 19-year-old with a ratty Hawaiian shirt and even rattier mustache would be good company for the next few hours of their road trip.
While I did receive several ride offers to Mexico and one gentleman who attempted to recruit me to rob a bank (promising plenty of “guns and scary masks” in his truck), the kind-hearted family or truck driver never pulled to the side to take me under their wing.
As dusk settled in and my crude sign was lost to the swallowing darkness, I decided to dig into my shallow bank account to buy a one-way Greyhound Bus ticket to Los Angeles.
The Albuquerque bus station was an adventure of its own, inhabited by diverse and fascinating specimens: a young father and son with only the clothes on their backs sharing a seat in the corner, a large older woman with a shopping cart and colorful pajamas sprawled over a three-seat kingdom, and a collection of nearly identical latino men dressed in tank tops and army shorts, engrossed in an ‘80s crime drama unfolding on a small pixelated television.
My bus left 2 a.m., and I’d arrived at the station 5 hours prior. As we entered the morning hours and the bus to LA was the final ticket left to board, the group grew, and the smell with it.
We finally boarded, the veteran driver grudgingly checking each ticket as if he had a personal vendetta against each and every paying customer. The following 17 and a half hours were some of the most grueling of my life.
We drove through a sleepless night, the air conditioning struggling as if clogged by the tangible stench hanging in the stagnant air. The sun rose with the temperature, the bus reading an exterior temp of 110 degrees, the interior not far behind.
Brief desert stops interrupted the rest of the journey, each mile adding another drop of sweat to my shirt.
When we eventually rolled into the Los Angeles station, the first half of my journey ended. From here I jumped to San Francisco, Northern California, Chicago and finally back home, colorful stories to be saved for another day.
All in all, there is no universal moral to extract from this story, no motivational pitch or grandiose inspirational message to concluded here. Rather, I hope that this serves as evidence, if nothing else, that sometimes “winging it” works out just fine.
Sometimes just going for it produces the best memories and most powerful experiences, even if your idea of “it” isn’t fully articulated at the onset.
Not everyone can drop everything and head across the country (I certainly I wouldn’t have made it more than a few miles without the generosity of friends and sufficient savings) but regardless I hope more people will expand their definitions of what is feasible, and ask themselves “why not?”
As I near the start of my senior year, every so often I stop to look around this little college town in that starry-eyed way I did as a first-year: in awe of mountains, water and vast open spaces in every direction. It’s the kind of feeling that draws so many students here and leaves so many missing their once-temporary home in the dog days after graduation.
Living in Burlington and going to UVM, there is an undeniably strong connection between community and the outdoors. This weekend, I saw newly moved in first-years walking out of Outdoor Gear Exchange with new gear for their first fall season, and last week I saw the first TREK groups pouring into the Outing Club house together.
For someone like me who grew up in a city with only the occasional field or rolling hill to romp around, coming to UVM is like entering a vast wonderland of natural beauty unfolding all around you, all the time, waiting to be explored. During my first year at school, though, I found myself shying away from those adventures I had been so excited to embark on when I first came to campus. The new friends, schedules, work and general intimidation by the intensity of outdoor options kept me away from the woods for too long.
A long winter and a summer away from Vermont passed until I decided to take another shot at prioritizing time outside. In the fall of my sophomore year, I tried my luck getting into the Outing Club’s WILD outdoor leadership program and failed, as did many of my close friends. We spent hours complaining about the missed chances and the competition of it all, wondering why we were left behind when the outdoors is supposed to be all-inclusive.
That weekend, we decided to start our own outing club. October had come and a blanket of orange and red confetti stretched out across the Champlain Valley as my two best friends and I drove south to the Green Mountain National Forest, just east of Middlebury. We took our time reveling in the cold fall morning, got coffee and cookies for the road and when we arrived at the trailhead, were greeted with a quiet mountain breeze bringing the season’s first snow.
We marched up through the Breadloaf wilderness for a couple miles until we reached the Long Trail and the Skylight Pond shelter just beyond. Waiting for the heavy snow to stop, we snooped around the shelter, reading old entries from hikes past. One of our favorites was from a Boy Scout group years ago that read: “We came as boys, left as renegades.”
A little soggy and fairly cold, but with high spirits, we tramped down the mountain. Halfway to the end, we ran into the WILD group setting out on their first overnight trek. We said hey to familiar faces, wished them luck and headed back to the car for the drive home and a night with our friends back in Burlington.
Since that day, we’ve left few Saturdays un-hiked, un-skied and un-explored. We’ve tackled a handful of the Adirondacks’ high peaks, revisited Breadloaf many times anddriven countless miles of country road in sun, rain and fog just to get that breath of fresh air. I don’t want to be cynical about the clubs, the gear heads and the competition, but the best way to get outside is on your own terms. Don’t wait to make the cut, don’t wait for instructions, just get out there.
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