Anna Cerf

Proceeding with Ciara

Just when I thought we had lost him, Doug comes up behind me to within inches from my ear and kindly lets us know, with spit flying from his mouth, that “the SECOND we get to the bottom,” he is calling the cops.  I half expect Ciara to throw back some strange yet oddly funny retort before I realize that, for the first time all month, she is not by my side.  Instead, Thomas and I keep snowboarding towards the base — with our tails between our legs — where our third comrade is supposed to be waiting with our getaway car.  Until then, though, Doug would remain by our side, skiing next to our two snowboards, threatening us with trespassing fines, arrest, and revoked season passes.

Mad River Glen, probably the oldest and definitely the most pretentious ski area in Vermont, is one of three ski areas in the US that does not allow snowboarders.  According to its website, Mad River continues to enforce its snowboard ban to “preserve the area’s unique character.”  Despite the ban, or rather, encouraged by the ban, the occasional snowboarder will get dropped off at Appalachian Gap and hike a mile or two up the Long Trail, ending at the top of Mad River’s double chair.  Once at the top of the chairlift, the snowboarder is poised to “poach” the mountain on one piece of fiberglass instead of two.  This hike, two weeks into jterm, is my first on the Long Trail all winter.  Somehow, less than a month ago, my expectation had been that, along with my trusty companion Ciara, I would hike the entire Long Trail during jterm.  Oh, how plans do change.

Today, for the first and last time all jterm, Ciara is not by my side.  I’d have loved for her to have been there with me to throw sass at Doug, whose name we learned from his self-important “Mad River Shareholder” jacket, or to literally run off the mountain with me as we piled into the car our friend had waiting for us at the bottom.  This day, like every so far this jterm, had not gone according to plan.  Ciara hadn’t found a car to come meet us last night, I had slept in, she’d ended up at Mount Ellen, and I had dragged along other friends.  But like pretty much every other day this jterm, it became one for the books.

Instead of wanting to spend my jterm in the Cartography lab as I had for my previous two, I knew I wanted something different for my last before I graduate.  I hadn’t put much thought into which class I would actually end up taking until, one night while sitting in Davis Library, Ciara and I stumbled upon an answer.  I no longer remember what the exact circumstances were, but if I were to guess, it was sometime between two and five a.m. and we were making little progress on whichever essay or test we were supposed to be working on.  As was so often the case, chances are we were trading funny Youtube videos, rewatching clips of our favorite comedian, and exploring strange corners of the internet when we found our class.

Within about twenty minutes of learning that a class called “Adventure Writing” was a legitimate option for j-term, Ciara and I had landed on a plan for an adventure, emailed the professor, and confidently begun to spread the word that we planned to hike the Long Trail over the course of January.  After receiving the email that confirmed our spot in the class, we did preliminary research which began – and ended – with a google search of just how long the Long Trail was.

We were expecting it to be a bit shorter than 272 miles.  We did not expect the length to be an issue, though, until we tried figuring out the per diem.  How many days could we hike?  Counting the days without class from the beginning of j-term to the end left us with 13.  Thirteen!?  Maybe we would need to put in a couple more long days than expected.  I’d run a half marathon once; if I could run thirteen miles – on pavement, after training, carrying nothing – exactly once, I could surely walk 21 miles through snow every free day of j-term.  Ground would be easy to cover with the single most entertaining human being on earth by my side, Ciara Staveley O’Carroll.

Ciara, a young lassie a year and a half behind me at Middlebury, had come to be one of the people I spent the most time with at school.  Since meeting her on some other late night in the library the fall before I went abroad, I had convinced her to do all sorts of activities that solidified our friendship.  Wait… convinced is definitely not the right word.  There is no “convincing” Ciara.  Suggest anything to her, anything in the world, and she is game.  Go disrupt the swim and dive meet by taking your own dive in the middle!  Check.  Come to the world gymnastics championships in Montreal!  Sure.  Get strangers at the music festival to share their bag of wine!  Not a problem.  Send a boy you went on a date with a Survey Monkey survey asking him how it went!  Why not.  The list goes on.

I often find myself as the one with adventurous or wild ideas, ones that I often would not even do myself, that I articulate to Ciara, who is immediately down for it.  I hypothesize; Ciara acts.  When I landed on the idea of doing the Long Trail for jterm, Ciara was, predictably, enthusiastic.  In theory, though, I would also have to do the hike with her.  Knowing that Ciara would probably not care for any of the logistical preparation, I had decided to look into our plan a bit more deeply.  When winter break rolled around a few weeks before our adventure was set to begin, I began to dig into a bit of research.

The first sign that perhaps we were not perfectly conditioned to complete the entire trail was the fact that there seemed to be exactly one instance online of anyone having done the entire trail in winter before.  The result was an article written by a couple who had planned to hike the trail in 2012 after having “read almost every winter camping book in print,” contacting experts, buying GPSs and SPOT emergency devices, and collecting winter gear.  The couple reported that the unanimous advice was: “Don’t try this.”

While the couple did complete the trail after a number of semi-serious mishaps including losing the trail for multiple days, the last line of the article was an ominous Editor’s note: The Green Mountain Club recommends against attempting a winter hike of the Long Trail because of the inherent dangers involved.  Further research revealed that the Long Trail is white-blazed, which seemed relatively useless given the color of snow.  Adding insult to injury, these blazes were supposedly often painted on rocks underfoot instead of on trees lining the path.  The weather at the time at home in upstate New York, similar to that in Vermont, provided further cause for worry.  I checked the weather forecast at Sugarbush, over whose peak we would theoretically traverse, and found that it was -70 with wind chill.  I shuddered imagining similar temperatures on more desolate peaks that did not feature ski resorts.  At home, thousands of feet lower than those summits, temperatures were hardly better; my house’s pipes froze in protest and my parents left to drive South amidst worries that our dog was constipated given her refusal to go outside.

Unfortunately, I could not voice my concern to Ciara until j-term started.  She was off on an unknown trip to a country whose name I could not remember doing something I also could not remember.  While away, she had no means of communication; I would have to wait until the first day of j-term to discuss alternative options.  Most days I ignored the fact that she wouldn’t respond and sent her any number of pictures, funny quotes from family members, or simple “I MISS YOU COME HOME” texts.  While not missing her, though, I spent my afternoons pondering possible alternatives that would both satisfy Ciara’s need for the insane and be possible.  Should we hike just the highest peaks in Vermont?  Maybe we could do something over in the Adirondacks.  Hitchhike somewhere?  Cross country ski?  Sled?

Ciara arrived back on campus hours before our first class started.  In a last-minute attempt to seem put together and committed, we met up for lunch to strategize.  What was our idea?  Were we doing a bucket list or hiking or some of both or neither?  Would our professor mind that we were clearly coming into the class blind and unprepared for what lay ahead?

No, he most definitely would not.  Before our class even had the chance to share our individual adventures, he had told us that the motto for the class would be “proceed as the way opens.”  While Ciara and I were no doubt unprepared, we could sure as hell proceed where the way opened.  We’d been doing it our entire friendship, and it sounded like a pretty near perfect way for us to find adventures.  Walking out of class that day we hadn’t quite defined our adventure; in sum, we wanted to do some fun things we wouldn’t have otherwise done.  First though, as an homage to our now-abandoned plan of hiking the Long Trail, we wanted to hike Mount Mansfield.

The Long Trail traverses over Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont at 4,395’.  In warmer months, Mount Mansfield is not a cause for concern.  I had hiked it a number of times in summer and fall weather.  The trail is only a couple of miles each direction and takes about an hour to get up.  I figured that it would be a little harder in winter, especially given the amount of powder that had blanketed Vermont since Christmas.  However, only when we began to drive to the trailhead the day after our first class did I start to think that we were maybe not adequately prepared.

We left campus after a long, lazy breakfast in Atwater as we were wont to do.  Over the course of the hour-and-a-half drive north, the list of items we had forgotten grew significantly.  We had about a cup of water, no food, and few layers.  We had forgotten to find snowshoes or borrow microspikes.  We had no map and had forgotten to tell anyone where we were going.  Our camera was near dead and the car was almost out of gas.  It was only a few hours until sunset, and we had forgotten headlamps.  As we got closer to the trailhead, my mind filled with more doubt.

In many situations, I rely on others’ judgment to keep me safe.  I enjoy being the risk-taker knowing that my friends will be there to prevent me from doing anything outright dangerous.  With Ciara, though, I usually play the role of mother.  There is nothing too dangerous for her; there’s nothing she would prevent me from doing.  Without others around, I realize that if anyone will keep me safe, it’s myself.  Ciara is many things, but careful is not one of them.  I had started out the morning certain that we would hike Mansfield without issue that day.  However, by the time we reached the trailhead, I wasn’t quite sure.

For starters, “trailhead” was not actually the trailhead.  The road was plowed until a point; at that point, a snow wall prevented cars from going any further.  Google maps told us it was another mile and a half to where we would have otherwise parked.  That didn’t seem too difficult until we started trying to walk.  The snow went up to our knees in parts, and while there was evidence that some skiers had been on the path before, there were no footprints.  We would have to make our own trail, which meant sinking into the snow with each step.  It took us about an hour to reach the actual trailhead; by that time, I was doing the math in my head of just how much we would have to pick up the pace in order to be down with daylight to spare.  In Ciara’s head, I imagine, were thoughts of what songs we would sing at Karaoke night or what kind of beer we would buy on the way home.

Within about half an hour on the real trail, I had made us turn around.  The weather wasn’t looking great, it was getting late, we weren’t prepared, and I knew that if anyone was going to turn us around, it would have to be me.  Ciara, who is endlessly competitive and has never decided to not do something out of a concern for safety, was clearly not expecting to turn around.  Whatever she decides to do, she does full of stoke.  I felt I had somehow deflated the project or taken energy out of it by cutting our very first adventure short.  I felt that I was the motherly wet blanket; I could tell that she didn’t quite understand my concern.  However, to her credit, she put up no protest and willingly, albeit unhappily, turned around.

By the time we passed the trailhead on our way back to the car, though, we were back to our normal selves, singing and talking about the strangest of things that cross our mind.   The way hadn’t opened for us to the summit.  It had felt like it closed right in front of us.  However, that was the only time it would all month.  Our very first adventure was the only one that hadn’t felt like an enormous success.  From that point forward, the way opened for us wherever we ventured.  Within an hour of returning to the car, we had another adventure planned.

On our way back to Burlington to see one of our friends, we began to play the game “sweet and sour.”  The game, popular with third-graders on school busses, has the following rules: you wave to whomever you pass in their cars.  If they wave back, they are deemed “sweet.”  If not, they are “sour.”  Our maturity levels place us perfectly within the range to play.  The very first car that we pass, on i-89 heading north, would end up opening a very fun “way” for us to proceed through.  In the silver pickup happened to be one of my childhood friends, Luke.  We waved, not expecting to see someone I know, and were delighted with the friendly, familiar face.  Luke called me, motioning out his car window for me to pick up my phone.  Ciara put him on speaker phone and we screamed our hellos.

We ended up following Luke back to his apartment in Burlington near the UVM campus where he works as a lab technician in the mortuary.  He and Ciara become fast friends — Ciara has never not become fast friends with anyone she has ever met — and we headed to grab a cheap, late lunch at the cafe in UVM’s hospital.  As we walked to campus, we described our jterm class.  Luke, a seasoned outdoorsman, suggested that we come to a ski-mountaineering race, also known as “ski-mo,” to watch.  Ciara, in character, immediately replied that we would not only come, we would race.  Never mind the fact that I hadn’t skied since the fourth grade.  Apparently, we were going to race.  Serendipity had brought us to our next adventure.

The race fell on the following Tuesday evening.  Not only did the race take place on skis, devices on which I was certainly not comfortable, but it also happened at night.  Adding to the difficulty was the fact that this race was both uphill and downhill.  That meant that, in order to go downhill, I needed to tire myself out on an uphill to make it a certainty that my technique would be even worse.  Miraculously, though, we did make it down the mountain in one piece (each).  Exhausted and full of stoke, we left the race riding a high that contrasted greatly with the disappointment of leaving Mansfield without having done the deed.  We had no doubt, after that race, that together we could not only tackle anything, but have an incredible time.

Upon returning to Middlebury after the race, we went to our favorite weekly event to celebrate.  Karaoke night at Two Brothers’ in town has become a staple of our relationship.  While we love nights spent there with all of our friends, the bar gets crowded quickly and the queue for opportunities at the mic have ballooned by the time we usually get there.  The best nights are the ones were Ciara and I basically take over Two Brothers’ entire downstairs bar.  At this point, we are friends with every Two Brothers employee working Karaoke Night.  Chauncy works the technology, projecting lyrics onto the screen for patrons to read off of.  Hannah organizes the song list and makes sure drunk and/or impatient college students don’t erase each others’ songs hoping for a chance to sing earlier.  Laura works the bar while Aram handles the door.  We originally went because we loved to belt out old Miley Cyrus jams.  Now, we go to hang out with those who work there.  And to laugh at terrible singers (ourselves included).  That night after the race was one of those empty nights that turn out to be the most fun.  We stayed until closing, as is the norm, laughing through every song we butchered.

Over the course of the month, Ciara and I seemed to have unbelievable moments any time we tried.  The first weekend, we decided to go to our friend’s house and use her Arctic Cat in the huge backyard.  We had originally planned to simply drive around in the jumbo-sized ATV.  On our way, though, I made a half-serious comment wondering if it would be possible to get dragged behind the cat on a snowboard or skis.  Before I had even had time to wonder for myself, Ciara had texted another friend asking them to bring us rope.  As always, Ciara budgets no time for making decisions; the answer is always “yes.”

Like any experience that Ciara is a part of, ski-dragging was a huge success.  This pattern continued through the month.  After Mansfield, each experience topped the previous.  The ski-mo race was one thing, but the thrill of the Arctic Cat was otherworldly.  Sure, the Arctic Cat was great, but that paled in comparison to sunset atop Camels Hump.  

Our last official adventure of the month, but definitely not our last altogether, was a late-afternoon hike up Camels Hump to catch the sunset from the third-highest point in Vermont.  The day followed a pattern that I had been accustomed with since meeting Ciara.  I had a plan.  I presented said plan to Ciara, who immediately agrees to do it.  We pick a time to meet and I give her a list of things to bring.  Ciara shows up late; usually so late that I worry we will not be able to accomplish the plan.  Every time, though, we pull it off.

The first memorable instance of this pattern was last year when, over the summer, I got Ciara and my boyfriend to get tickets with me to go to the gymnastics world championships in Montreal.  I did gymnastics as a kid, competing at three national championships, and have continued to follow the sport since my retirement.  The fact that worlds was so close was, to me, a huge deal.  I wanted to see every minute.

To Ciara and my boyfriend, though, the event was more of a fun drive up north with perhaps a bit of spectating.  Our different motivations exacerbated our logistical capabilities; it should have come as no surprise that Ciara would be late for everything.  We left Middlebury later than I had hoped, we took forever to get across the border, and no one cares to navigate for me as I drive, rushing to make the event.  In the end, though, we make it, and my annoyance at Ciara disappears the second we enter the arena (and Ciara heads to buy us $12 Bud Lights).

The day of the Camels Hump sunset hike followed the same pattern.  The sun was going to set at 4:50.  I had told Ciara to meet me in the parking lot at 3pm, knowing that she would probably show up late.  I wanted to be on the trail at 3:25 at the latest.  At 3:40, though, I was still sitting in my car in the parking lot wondering if Ciara was going to show up.  I had no cellphone service and therefore have no way of knowing if she had bailed.  Sure enough, though, she drove up at 3:45 enthusiastic and oblivious to the time.  She got out of her car, clearly amped for the hike.  Her excitement must have clouded her memory or judgment because she had forgotten to bring shoes.  I quickly put a pair of my own shoes on her, along with the microspikes I brought for her knowing she would forget hers.   I finished her off with the extra headlamp I suspected she would need and we set off up the mountain.  On the hike up, we booked it, eager to catch the sunset in time.  In my mind, I was already cursing her for making us late and making us miss the sunset.

Around 4:35, we were still hiking up with no end in sight.  The sky had already turned bright orange; we could tell that there was an incredible sunset obscured by the trees.   We picked up the already fast pace and made it to a trail intersection.  We saw an arrow pointing to the summit, along with a line telling us that it was .3 miles to the peak.  We practically started running, and within a couple of minutes, we broke out of the treeline and were gifted with one of the most vivid sunsets of my life.

Soon after reaching treeline, we hit the summit.  We arrived just in time to enjoy the peak colors of the sun leaving the sky.  As I watched the sun disappear behind the Adirondacks, my Ciara-induced stress disappeared, too.  I had never been able to stay bothered with her for long; as always, spending time with her brings about unreal experiences that, despite our divergent personalities, we never fail to create.  We took in the view, hugging and laughing as the enormous sky began to darken around us.  Before we descended, we vow to never stop doing what we have always done.  We vow to keep creating fun wherever we see an opening, to always proceed where the way opens.