He blinked to shift his focus for a fraction of a second from the straight road ahead to the generic green sign. McCook 56. Holdrege 80. Minden105. Kearny 150. For the first time on his drive, he did not recognize a single city or town that was listed. He exhaled and felt the tension in his shoulders lift. His tongue relaxed its grip on the roof of his mouth, his jaw relaxed, and for the first time since he got on his motorcycle, he started to slow down. The number of miles next to the towns on that green sign signified little with a full tank of gas, the sun on his back, and no destination other than the road. There were times when he wanted to drive on forever, to become one of those guys on a motorcycle who rides to live and lives to ride. That was not today. He just needed a little escape, a chance to recalibrate, to get lost for a day, or six.
“Trail,” the sign read. He took a left to continue down an aged, windy road. The parking lot was empty. Perfect. The whir of the motor settled and stopped with the click of the keys. He heard nothing but his breath; the soft cushion of his helmet muffled the rest of the sounds around him, though there were few. He circled his neck a few times in either direction after removing the protective black helmet. He relished in this moment. His head felt weightless, almost nonexistent without the helmet’s three pounds. Arms raised overhead, fingers interlaced and palms to the sky, he stretched and spiraled his spine, creating space between each pair of ribs that hugged and protected his lungs and heart. He left his helmet on the seat of his bike, slipped the keys into his pocket, and walked into the woods.
Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out
Like a welcomed season.
Autumn swept the forest floor with gusts of wind, displacing leaves of orange, yellow, and brown from where they initially landed. Like cleaning house for a long-expected house guest, the forest prepared itself for the cold winter months to arrive. The breeze carried on it sugary smells of freshly fallen leaves, moss, dew, sap, and earth.
Walt stopped to watch and listen. He too felt this time of transition-leaving one season and moving onto the next. He thought he would feel old after retiring from his thirty years teaching, but he found the opposite. A sense of freedom rushed in like the cool, crisp air around him.
Though he had never been here, he felt overcome by a sense of familiarity, like he was returning to something. The something was not this particular trail on the side of this particular road, no. What felt familiar was the situation. Both feet planted on the ground, hands in pockets, eyes to the sky, cool breeze, rustling leaves, deep breath. As the gusts got stronger, he let his eyes close and felt the wind around him, imagining the air trying to hold onto him in a tight embrace. He lifted both his arms out to his sides and tilted his head toward the sun.
Walt shifted his weight from side to side before standing motionless, eyes closed, feeling his body’s weight pour into the ground. Cool air rushed into his lungs with every breath in- a gesture of receiving. Every exhale offered an opportunity to let go, to loosen his mind’s tight grip on reality, time, relationships, money, judgments, and expectations. He felt the corners of his mouth soften and his neck relax. Hands floated up to his head to run fingers through thin, white hair that felt like the leaves around him, brittle and losing its original hew. He imagined being picked up by the wind, twirling and spinning upward before landing back on the ground, or maybe landing on someone’s porch, on the jacket of a runner, in a bird’s nest.
Change rooms in your mind for a day
All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart
The light around him shifted from a soft, warm orange to a cool gray and Walt realized he was tired, as if someone had flicked a switch inside. He imagined turning the lights off in his classroom each day at six o’clock. One more deep full breath in to remember, and an exhale to let go. No one was expecting him anywhere. He smiled inwardly and walked toward his bike, feeling a little taller than he did when he walked into the woods.
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
(Poem is called All the Hemispheres by Hafiz)
Adventures in the Familiar (Final Nonfiction Piece)
“I didn’t start hiking the Long Trail in order to finish it.” he lifted the ½ gallon of Monument Farms chocolate milk by the handle, put it straight to his mouth, guzzled for about six seconds, and exhaled. Pure bliss. He continued as if nothing had happened.
As happy as I was to have my big brother back in town, I needed to know why he cut his 22-day Long Trail journey short. When I asked about his early return, the response was concise and honest.
“It’s not like I really had anything to prove, ya know? I just needed to do a little soul searching…” He turned his back and opened the refrigerator again, probably expecting to see something he had missed only seconds earlier. No luck. He closed the door and turned to face me across the kitchen counter.
“When I told one of the random dudes on the trail about how I came on the Long Trail to find myself and gave him my whole shpeel, he looked at me and said, ‘That’s bullshit, man. The only things you end up thinkin’ about when you’re hikin’ are food and chicks.’ I couldn’t really argue.”
Wyatt had a smile permanently engrained on his young face to accompany his permanently hungry stomach. At 23 years old, he stood 6’2. Head usually covered with shoulder-length, curly, brown locks, my brother looked different with a newly buzzed head. He had left his girlfriend, dog, job, and house behind in Missoula, Montana. He drove to the east coast to hike the Long Trail with the intention of awakening a part of himself he thought was lost.
“I figured it out,” he said. “I’m back in love with Maggie. I don’t need any more extreme solo adventures to convince myself that I need her. Every step I took on the trail after that just seemed…” He let out a laugh, “Sorry, it’s just so cheesy. Every step I took on the trail after that just seemed like a step in the wrong direction. I found what I was lookin’ for. I’m leavin’ to drive back to Missoula tomorrow…” He paused, sighed, and opened the refrigerator one more time only to close it quickly afterward, finding nothing.
“Wanna jam?” Wyatt walked over to the crackling fireplace, grabbed my mom’s guitar, and fastened the strap around his shoulder, pointing to the ukulele on the couch with raised, expectant eyebrows.
An image of my day-planner popped into my head with a list of meetings, emails, readings, and guest-lectures taking place the following week. In bold, blue ink at the top of the page was written, “ADVENTURE!!” I had to come up with an adventure to go on for a creative writing class titled Get Outdoors: Environmental and Adventure Writing in the Digital Age. My classmates were being paired with local hunters and experts, exploring Addison County, getting out of their comfort zones. I saw a challenge in trying to find an adventure, to find something new, undiscovered, or unfamiliar in my hometown.
I thought of my own story, my life in Middlebury as a college student, daughter, sister, babysitter, high-schooler, new driver, dining hall employee, yoga instructor, dancer… My head reeled trying to adjust the lens through which I view this small Vermont town where I have lived for ten years. Perhaps I was in need of a little soul-searching, a quest, a chance to better articulate to myself and others the intricate web of connections I feel to this place… not to conquer or accomplish something huge like a backpacking hike or wilderness expedition from start to finish, but rather a consistent return to the outdoors to find something, a part of myself that I have been trying hard to identify.
“Definitely,” I said as I hopped off the stool in the kitchen and grabbed the uke. “Let’s play.”
I turn the steering wheel from left to right to left and listen to loose items in the backseat of the car roll on the seats and onto the floor. The sky is all one color – a whitish-grey that makes the reds, yellows, and oranges sing a little louder. Black arrows on yellow signs function to warn drivers of sharp turns ahead, but my muscles anticipate the curves of the road and my body shifts back and forth in the seat, like being rocked in a cradle.
I remember the first time I drove on this road in a 1989 Chevy Suburban. My dad sat in the front seat, gaze locked the road ahead as his fifteen-year old daughter, a brand new driver, maneuvered the tank over frost heaves and around patches of ice. Knuckles white, I kept well below the speed limit, carefully calculating the angle of each sharp turn along the way.
After ten years in this town and many-a-trip up and over the Middlebury Gap, the bends in this road are now engrained in my muscle memory. I turn the music up. My foot on the gas and my hands on the steering wheel move in slow rhythm with the familiar curvature of route 125.
A few miles past Ripton’s mercantile store and gas station, I lean to the right and turn onto Goshen Road. My breath slows, I feel my jaw relax, and tension leaves my neck and shoulders. I haven’t even gotten out of the car yet and I already feel a sense of calm as the pavement disappears and the road turns to gravel. The thick, solid sheet of clouds lays like a blanket over the empty lot as I pull in, turn the engine off, and exhale. Mine is the only car in the parking lot of the Spirit in Nature Trails. I turn my phone off without checking the time, lock the doors out of habit, tighten my scarf, settle my hands in the deep pockets of my thick carhartts, and take a walk past the first sign on the trail that reads, “Come into this.”
When the Dalai Lama came to Middlebury College in 1997 to be the keynote speaker in an interfaith symposium on “Spirit and Nature: Why the Environment is a Religious Issue,” his teachings inspired a group of people in Addison County to raise awareness about our responsibilities to uphold the health of our planet. A mixture of environmentalists and spiritual leaders in the community wanted to improve our stewardship to the Earth by creating an interfaith trail system relating different faiths and religious traditions to nature. They began collaborating and searching for land to build trails that all stem from one central point, each decorated and dotted with quotations and excerpts from religious texts of different origins. From this collaboration sprung the Spirit in Nature Trails.
Fifteen years later, I discover the Spirit in Nature Trails for myself and the Dalia Lama returns to Middlebury to share his wisdom with the community. Coincidental? Symbolic? A little of both.
What is it about coming out into the woods and being outside, alone with no agenda, that brings me such contentment? I see leaves change color and fall to the forest floor, covered with a thick, soft bed of pine needles – a sign of the changing seasons. I smell the air getting cooler, thinner. I feel spacious and full at the same time. I feel part of a whole. Each of my footsteps makes an imprint on the floor below, the sound and vibrations sending a message to surrounding animals that they have a visitor. The refreshing multitude of sights and smells around me are reminders of change, cycles, of connections, and relationships.
In Middlebury, I am often reminded of the close relationships and connections that exist in a tight community. In this way, the forest and the town share elements of dependency, of feeling like part of a whole. Being at small liberal arts school like Middlebury, I start to feel like I exist in a bubble that lives within another bubble. The intimate feeling of fullness and contentment that I find in the outdoors seem to be replaced by feelings of claustrophobia and a desire to escape.
In a search for balance and a quest for that peaceful shoulder-soothing exhale, I travel to the Spirit in Nature Trails to walk the paths laid in the foothills of the Green Mountains lined with quotations and short readings from various faiths.
Each of the thirteen paths is between half a mile and one mile in length. There is one longer path (1.5 miles) called the Interfaith Peace path that encircles the trails around the outside. In the heart of the 70 acres lies a sixty-foot diameter clearing called the sacred circle, where the Friends Path, the Unitarian Universalists Path, the Buddhist Path, the Pagan Path, and the Interfaith Peace Path all meet. Inside the circle of natural wooden benches is a fire-pit. Even though I have only been here twice before, I suddenly feel a comfort and familiarity that sets my heart at ease. I feel as if these paths have existed as long as the white pines that tower over them. I haven’t even left yet, and I cannot wait to come back.
I knew how to get to apartment 202. Carol, Reg’s wife, had given me incredibly detailed directions and informed me that their last name, Spooner, was written on a plaque outside the door. “Go right in the front entrance, up the stairs, take one left, and you’re there!” Great.
The automatic glass doors slide open and I walk into the lobby of the retirement community in Middlebury called Eastview. It smells like… well it smells like the entryway of most hotels, hospitals, and assisted living establishments – new furniture, potpourri, the computers at a front desk, pinesol, and a recently mopped floor. I see Reg Spooner standing at the bottom of the steps. Reg is tall, about six inches taller than me. His button-up shirt is a pastel purple, like a deep violet aged well. He has a full head of thick, white hair, hearing aids, and wire-rimmed glasses that magnify his already large round eyes. His firm handshake, hearty laugh, and bright blue eyes convey to me that he and his wife live at the Lodge more for convenience than necessity. As I follow Reg up the steps from the lobby, I notice he is wearing only socks, no shoes. Why not? This place is home after all.
As we walk down the hallway, I am reminded of my first year in a college dorm. Reg gives a wave and a head-nod to every elderly individual that we pass, and I am greeted by smiles. He seems to know everyone, and he’s proud of it.
I’ve heard numerous folks at assisted living establishments say, “It’s so nice to see a young face like yours in the halls.” I wonder to myself if the roles were reversed, would seeing an individual around the age of 70 in the hallway of a Gifford or Coffrin dorm bring the same smiles from college students surrounded by similar-aged, similar-dressed people.
Carol opens the door before we even knock. She must have been listening for us from inside the small apartment. I take off my shoes after being greeted by a warm, friendly hug. Carol had made chocolate chip cookies for our meeting. Her dark plum-colored blouse matched the purple of her husband’s button-up. I wonder if they coordinated. I had mentioned they would be on camera. I smile.
Carol and Reginald Spooner, both in their seventies, were married at the Spirit in Nature Trails thirteen years ago. They were two of the main figures in a group of individuals who formed the trails in 1997. Ever since then, the development and maintenance of the trails have been the Spooners’ responsibility. Groups of all shapes, sizes, and numbers volunteer to rebuild paths, move stones, and offer assistance for any other job that needs attention, but they go through the Spooners first.
Reg tells a story about a group of high school students whose teacher, after a visit to the Spirit in Nature Trails, had them sit in the sacred circle and write poetry. Reg’s face lights up as he imitates one of the high schoolers from Mt. Abe. I can tell from watching Carol that this is one of her favorite stories.
“’Poetry?! I can’t stand poetry. I’d rather write a rap.’ We saved this young man’s piece for last,” Reg says, “He got everyone bangin’ and clappin’ their hands, and let me tell you – he wrote some of the most beautiful words I had ever heard about that place. I’ll never forget it.”
Carol’s favorite part of being so closely involved with SpIN is getting to share her experiences with others, like this group of students from Mt. Abe. Her memory of the names of groups and individuals who had come to the trails since their creation is impressive.
“I never come up here alone,” she says, “I really like to come up here with Reggie. Or I come up with friends or groups to talk and chat and follow them when they walk. I like to try and notice things on the path I’ve never seen before.” Reg nods.
I remember the start of the semester. I co-led an orientation trip for first-years that was centered around mindfulness and contemplative practice. At the beginning of our two-day trip, we traveled to the Spirit in Nature Trails to meet Carol and Reg and to help with trail maintenance. Afterward, we all split up and chose a path that we wanted to walk down, agreeing to meet up in the sacred circle. Carol and I walked on the Children’s Path with a few others.
“I love to see what other people notice when they walk on the trails. I especially like the Children’s Path because I try and imagine what it is like for them.” She pointed to one of the laminated signs attached about three feet up at the base of a tree. “We put these signs lower down than the others so that the children can see them a little easier. They each teach a lesson about something in the forest. This one’s about moss!”
In our meeting, Carol notes that her involvement with the Spirit in Nature trails has opened her eyes in a spiritual sense. She loves finding similarities in the traditions whose quotations line the trails, but she also admires what makes them unique.
“There’s a certain normalcy about being outside in nature,” Reg reflects, “At any time of year, you expect to see certain things- leaves falling from the trees, some water on the ground early in the morning, a few critters here and there, on a cloudy day maybe you’d expect some rain. But every time I’m up there, something surprises me, and that’s what I think keeps me coming back – the little surprises.”
Born and raised in rural Vermont, Reg has no problem being outside alone. Most of the time he has spent at Spirit in Nature has been alone, clearing trees, moving wooden boards for makeshift bridges, and walking the paths to make sure they are clean and safe.
“No two paths are the same,” he says, “I’ve said that from the very beginning. I’ve walked all the paths probably a hundred times each, and it’s never the same.”
Reg tells stories of encounters with snakes, bears, bluebirds, and deer on his many trips up to the paths he has seen in place for over a decade. He and Carol sit next to each other at their square dining room table looking out a large window to the east. I have a similar view out my window at the college overlooking the Green Mountains. I learn that Reg’s favorite time of day to be outside is dawn. We both enjoy watching the sun rise early in the morning, especially at this time of year.
Carol and Reg Spooner have been intimately involved with the Spirit in Nature Trails almost as long as I have been alive, which helps me see my personal connections to Middlebury from a different perspective. Sure, this is a small town, a small college, a small state, but the size of my surroundings isn’t what provokes my unease. I sit in front of a couple who has returned to the same patch of land and walked the same trails for fourteen years. They find comfort in the familiarity, the “normalcy” in nature that evokes a sense of home. What keeps them coming back, though, are the little surprises, the unexpected occurrences and happenings that nobody has the capacity to predict – a tree falling in such a way to create a natural teeter totter, a three-foot snake saying hello on a hot afternoon, a group of high-schoolers beat-boxing and rapping in the woods. The key is not to focus on the level consistency of what’s familiar, but to notice subtle changes and allow myself to be surprised each and every day, like the Spooners.
A white and orange spotted cat brushes my leg and meows. For the first time in about an hour, I turn my head from Carol and Reg and realize that our time is up.
“Have a cookie,” Carol says as I start putting the camera away. The older someone gets, the better their cookies. It’s gone in three bites. Reg encourages me to take two more. I thank them for their time, and they thank me for mine. I forget until I walk out the door of their apartment that I am in an assisted living establishment next to Porter Hospital. As I walk outside, I look over to the Green Mountains, a view I have taken in time and time again. I think back to something Reg said inside as I drive to drop the car off at my parents’ house. “I’ve walked all the paths probably a hundred times each, and it’s never the same.”
I never really understood the true meaning of taking something for granted until I moved away from Yellowstone National Park at twelve. Living in the Park offered so many fantastic opportunities outside. Not only did I learn and grow from my siblings and peers, I learned and grew from my environment, especially the wildlife. Walks to school were delayed by herds of buffalo and elk in the yard. From a very early age, I thought that field trips to see the geyser basins of Old Faithful or listen to a ranger discuss the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem or hear a naturalist’s opinion about the reintroduction of the wolf within the boundaries of Yellowstone were typical. I didn’t realize how unique it was to walk to school passing a herd of elk, hearing a few coyotes howl, and looking at the incredible Absorka Mountains at the same time.
Because this was all I knew as home, I took the unique and wild nature of that place for granted. Having spent my entire life in Gardiner, there was no comparison to a life somewhere else that made me want to leave. Home was on a mountaintop, up a tree, the spines of a pinecone, the smell of sagebrush, geysers, hikes in the woods, and the winding Yellowstone River.
Phone reads “Call Ended. Big Brother. 3 min 45 sec. Perched comfortably atop a kitchen stool at my parents’ house, I grab the counter and spin myself counterclockwise. One, two, three turns before I slow to a stop. I push again and start to feel a little dizzy. Wyatt’s voice pops back into my head.
“Feelin’ weird? Just go outside. Honestly it’s that simple. Just… go outside and walk for an hour or three days or ten! I promise you’ll feel better.”
I keep spinning. A crisp breeze snakes in through the window and out the front door. The sun shines bright, but it feels somehow thinner than it did days before. I shudder slightly. I am home alone, passing the time by spiraling around and around and around in circles. I see my living room and kitchen whiz by. Pictures, shopping lists, and invitations on the refrigerator catch my eye. I feel lucky to have met Carol and Reg Spooner. Their voices now constantly remind me to see my surroundings in a new way, as if I’m seeing something for the first time. The drier beeps three times, letting me know that my laundry is finished. Time to drive thirty seconds down Weybridge Street and go back to college. I decide to take a detour.
This time, I only spend twenty minutes Spirit in Nature. Rather than walking one of the trails, I head toward the open circle where they all converge, taking a seat on one of the wooden planks. I lay down to stare up at the vibrant, blue sky. The warmth and the moisture of my breath create clouds – a mini atmosphere above my head. The tops of the white pine trees create a circular frame, almost like the lens of a camera. I close one eye and then the other, and the frame is distorted. Deep breath in, full breath out. I think about Carol and Reg getting married here, the stories they shared about the different groups traveling through and individuals who stumble on the trails by mistake. I am part of a colorful lineage now, of travelers and soul-searchers, activists, spiritual leaders, school groups, troubled teens performing community service, families, dogs, trees, rocks, and frogs. This has turned into sort of a home base for me – a place where I can practice seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, practice being in the same place but recognizing where and how it has changed, recognizing where and how I have changed.
I feel the comfort of home that surrounds me daily, but that comfort has the tendency to shift suddenly to a suffocation, igniting in me a yearning to break free, to surprise myself, pack up, and just drive away, but I don’t. I return to Middlebury, to home, to college, to track my relationship to this place I have called home for ten years in an effort to untangle and reweave the dense web of connections I have to this area.