I drive the winding roads through the flaming leaves towards Lincoln, Vermont. The car drifts around the final bend. The Green Mountains surround me. On the right the river rushes. The robot voice tells me my turn is ten feet ahead. Turning the wheel sharply to the right, I pull in to a small dirt patch on the side of the road. This dirt patch is the driveway. I park behind John’s big black truck. Looking across the river I search for what I have been hearing so much about. The tram.
I anticipated this day for weeks. Throughout campus from professors and athletes, I heard stories about John and his crazy house. He is the head squash coach, an extreme hiker and is in the process of building his “dream house”. Yet, no matter whom I talked to the subject always returned to the Tram.
I want to know the man behind the tram, so this Fall, I am building a lean to with John. What does it take to build a lean-to and even larger, a house? Does John really have to cross the river by tram every single time? How can someone hike across the country, but also spend months inside a gym playing squash? Only John has the answers to these questions. My goals are to be a part of his building process, spend my fall months outside and really get to know a true Vermonter.
On the far side of the river, the tram sways gently in the wind. It looks nothing like I expected. Coming from Vail and being a ski racer, I expect to see a legit chair lift, but instead it is more Vermont esc. A strong thick cable connects from a tree on my side of the river to a large tree on the other side. Hanging off of the cable is a homemade swing except its longer and wider. Honestly, it looks a little dangerous. John walks down the bank towards the tram. He gives a big wave and carefully sits on the tram. I watch as he glides over the river. I can feel his excitement all the way.
He smiles and laughs, “Okay Mary, Hi! So this is the tram. What do you think? Let’s go across and I’ll show you the property.” John talks a million words per second and yet his speech slows as he patiently explains to me the best way to sit on the tram. He pushes off the wood planks and we are off. The wind hits my face as we glide over the river. The water striking the rocks masks the sound of the cars. I can’t help but smile. I’ve been waiting over a year to find an adventure in Vermont. I love everything about the outdoors, yet I struggle to find people who love it as much as I do. John is the first to show me that someone can be a part of the Middlebury community and love to spend more time outside than in.
He stands behind me and steadies us as we approach the wood platform. I carefully step off of the tram and brace myself from falling on the slick wood. Once on safe ground, my concentration breaks and I notice the lady walking towards me. She smiles softly and John introduces her as his fiancé, Lolly. She has big brown eyes and beautiful silver and black hair. She says hello in a calm and soothing voice. Turning calmly towards John, she smiles and takes his hand. They walk hand in hand three feet ahead of me up the short hillside.
I follow John and Lolly on a leaf-covered path through a short forest of two hundred foot Red Maple trees. John wears khaki Carhartts stained with mud from previous projects. His short dirty blond hair sticks out the sides of his small black beanie. He smiles. Both him and Lolly wear black rain boots. The thick mud sticks to the bottom of my gym shoes. I wish I brought a pair of rain boots. We turn the corner and exit the forest. I smile and my mouth stays open. In the distance, beyond a short-grassed green field sits a small faded wood cabin and barn. Smoke rises from the chimney matching the color of the sky. Not far from the cabin two massive piles of wood sandwich a small green tractor. We meander through the field as he gives me the low down on his house.
“So I bought this house about a year ago,” John grins. “I have a million ideas!”
It only took hearing a few of John’s idea to realize he is building his dream house or a house that any athletic, nature loving, builder would enjoy. It isn’t even my house and yet I am excited. My inner creativity yearns to help him.
Using his arms to point to different aspects, John explains, “The property spans eleven acres into the woods. We back right up on to national forest land, so we have our own oasis.” “It’s perfect!” His smile widens.
We walk along the edge of the property that overlooks the river. In front of us, John points to a field recently cleared for his tennis courts. It doesn’t exactly look like a tennis court, but it could definitely fit one. At the moment it looks more like an enormous fire pit.
“I cut down all of the trees,” John says proudly. “Until last year I hadn’t ever used a chain saw, but now I climb up into the trees to cut down unwanted branches.” This seems pretty extreme and dangerous to me, yet John enjoys every moment of it. Lolly shakes her head. She knows that John is extreme. He lives for all of the thrills that life has to offer.
A long detailed stonewall surrounds his property. I later learn that he built it by hand only using a wheelbarrow. It must have taken him months to find and position all of those stones, but it was just like John to complete that daunting task. The stacked stones molded together creating a camouflage of grays. Each stone fit perfectly on top of the previous. Situated in the middle of the wall, an arch with a sign on it reads, “beach,” just another one of John’s creative touches.
We walk down a set of stone steps, which just happen to be John’s first project on the property. A wooded area spans across the land in front of us. I can see the reflection of the house in the small pond on the left and hear the river that raps around to the right. John walks two steps ahead of me. We walk to the riverbank. Two Adirondack chairs sit on the edge. It’s a perfect spot for a summer afternoon of relaxing and reading. An elephant size boulder pools the water into a large deep swimming hole. It’s an oasis. John turns around to catch my attention.
“We are thinking of putting the lean-to right over there.” He points to a lean-to sized break in the trees. “That way we can enjoy the rush of the river while we sleep. I am even thinking of having a camp up here. Probably half hiking, half squash camp.” For living in two completely different worlds John sure does a great job of connecting the two. Each fall his squash team spends a weekend hiking. The trip turns out to be a difficult but important bonding experience. John fosters the team dynamics through a combination of his favorite activities. He helps his team and me recognize that hard work can actually make you stronger.
My arms ache, but I can’t stop smiling. I pull the sharp straight edge across the wood. My tool cuts through the durable bark deep into the sweet smelling soft white wood. The tree seeps the aromas of Christmas. Each pull I take is calming and satisfying. I close my eyes. I am a wood worker creating a masterpiece. The dull October sun warms my face while I listen to the rain filled river’s current in the distance. I hear John’s voice in the background.
“Oh… we could put this log here. Ya, that looks awesome.” His energy is contagious.
“Mary, Mary. Are they level?” I stop my peeling to look at the gashes John just made in the wood. They are all different sizes and widths, but somehow the log is sitting level (or as level as it is going to be).
Tilting my head, I look at the logs. “I think you should go a little bit deeper on the last one.”
John smiles, pulls to start the chain saw, closes his eyes and begins cutting. The sawdust flies at his eyes, but he still doesn’t find the need to wear goggles. The log’s gash is now twice as deep, maybe even too deep. With a smirk on his face John stops the chainsaw.
“I never measure anything,” he laughs.
John and I spend many Wednesdays and Sundays this fall building something called a lean-to. Before John suggested the project, incredible that it might sound, I had never heard of one. On the east coast, apparently, along the Appalachian mountain trail and the Adirondack state park, hikers often escape the rain and sleep in lean-tos, usually about eighteen by ten and able to protect only six or eight comfortably. I hadn’t heard of a lean-to because hikers build them to protect themselves from inclement weather, which doesn’t happen in the west. They are essential in the east. On many summer nights, sleeping outside isn’t an option, so up to thirty hikers will try to cram into one 8-person lean-to. As John mentioned, “you really get to know each other. At first it’s uncomfortable, but it is your only option so you just deal with it.” As always, a smile and a laugh preceded this comment.
John spent many nights in lean-tos during his four-month hike along the Appalachian Mountain trail and had to have one on his property. That’s John. Nothing can stop him when he gets a whim. Whims transforming through hard work into reality. So the research to build one began. I had played with Lincoln logs as a kid, but that is the extent of my building experience. I had a lot to learn. Before we could even start building, we had to decorticate (strip) the bark off of ten-foot logs. Logs that John cut from trees around his property. Unfortunately, the Lincoln logs didn’t teach me to decorticate.
Removing the bark prevents bugs from making homes and eating the wood underneath the bark. As we stripped the thick sticky bark on our first day small white worms or larvae slithered around on the bark. It is hard to believe that dime size bugs can destroy entire trees, but bugs make decorticating essential. The process is time consuming, intensive and requires special tools and arm strength. Luckily when working with John, his motivation makes me want to work as long and as hard as I can, even if my arms throb. Nothing stops John once he gets going. On many occasions I arrive at his house to find him working on crucial projects that he must finish before winter, instead of telling me he doesn’t have time to work on the lean-to, he stops his project to help me. John can’t resist a project or helping someone.
Once stripped, the logs are ready to use. The first two logs form the foundation. Under the logs we place large flat rocks to prevent these logs from rotting. John struggles to find rocks for us to prop the logs because he believes that every rock he pulls from the river is too beautiful. He has a fascination with rocks. He built the stonewall that surrounds his property. As he explained, one of the main reasons he enjoys the outdoors is because of the rocks. On my first visit, we walked to the river and John began pulling the white rocks out and handing them to me.
“Here, Mary, take these. You can keep them.” John grinned. I slipped the rocks into my pocket. And nodded a “thank you”. They just looked like white rocks to me and I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with them when I returned to school, but John was excited so I went with it.
“I always take this rock from the river. It has a unique snow white color and soft texture. If I can collect enough I’m going to build a Japanese stone garden.” John had an idea for almost every natural resource surrounding his property and had the ability to create something out of it. He took logs and made a lean-to, rocks from the river became a stone wall, and he cleared fields for sports and other activities. John imagined a dream house, and he taught himself the necessary skills to make it happen. Before John purchased his house, he hadn’t used a chainsaw, yet after a short lesson he worked like a lumberjack. He climbs hundred foot trees and cuts from the top down. John acquires a new skill and puts it good use. His lumberjack skills come in handy while we build our lean-to.
When we place the second layer of horizontal logs onto the first two vertical ones, John uses a chain saw to cut notches for the logs to lay. The two layers of logs sit about two and a half to three feet off of the ground. We then we nail two by fours to the logs to make a level and comfortable platform to sleep on. We stack faded bark less pine trees one on top of another to form the three walls that protect the hikers from the wind, but not the rain. We still need a roof. This is where the true meaning of the “lean-to” comes into play. Originally camping shelters consisted of sticks slanted at forty-five degrees to the ground with leaf, sticks and other forest debris inter woven into the roof. The roof worked, yet hikers were still affected by the inclement weather. With the sturdier log structure the slanted roof plays the same but not as important role in protecting hikers. Log lean-tos are the mansions of hiking shelters. They keep hikers warm, dry and safe.
John places his chainsaw on a tree and moves towards the tractor. He picks up the log with the tractor, moves the log to the other side of the field, turns off the tractor and is back to the chainsaw. He has a battery charge. He never stops moving. I, on the other hand, decorticate for ten minutes and need a break. I walk over to the “break stump,” take a swig of water, and sit down. I gaze off towards the river.
I look forward to each visit I make to John’s house. It is a distraction from the growing list in my assignment book and an excuse to be outside. At John’s I escape the Middlebury bubble and experience the quiet towns deep in the Green Mountains and the hardworking Carhartt wearing Vermonters. Once immersed in authentic Vermont, I’m eager to be apart of the friendly communities and close connections of the Green Mountain, Maple syrup state. It’s growing on me. Each time I drive through the small town of Bristol on my way to John’s, I gaze into the locals’ hangout, the Bristol Bakery, hoping to get a glimpse of the locals spending their Sundays the way everyone should, together. I can’t resist stopping to buy a cookie just to hear friendly “hellos” and new small town news. It is as if everyone has some sort of connection. These connections follow John to his house where a neighbor is usually helping him with a skill he has yet to learn. John reciprocates these friendly gestures by helping his neighbors. Good deeds occur regularly. Because of the my new experiences with Lincoln’s tight knit community, I’m often times more inclined to help others after spending time at John’s house. More and more, each time I leave John’s house I yearn to return to the small towns in the mountains.
The tractor growls and my gaze shifts back to the logs. Time to go back to work. I find my groove peeling the bark. There is something peaceful about running the sharp tool underneath it. I focus on the natural pink in the bark. I pretend I am a boat builder. John starts the chain saw. He moves from the chainsaw to the tractor and back again. John and I play the same roles every time I come. He maneuvers the logs with the tractor and cuts the excess branches while I pull bark off. Each day we make progress, yet somehow the lean-to never really looks any different. I try to stay positive, but it’s slightly frustrating. Why put this much effort in if I do not immediately see results?
When John suggested we build a lean-to I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult or take very long. I was wrong. I’ve never built anything; however, with each task I commit to, I not only want to succeed, but succeed as quickly as possible. I’m impatient. Therefore, each time the lean-to looked the same or worse when I left, I felt insufficient. During our first attempt we decorticated fives log and organized them on the ground only to realize two logs would suffice. On our second attempt, John’s neighbor told us we needed rocks to further prevent rotting under our recently organized logs. Take three and over a month and half in, we had the two base logs with rock underneath. Needless to say, we won’t finish the lean-to before winter. It took until our third and most successful attempt and many positive days with John to realize it wasn’t about finishing the project, but enjoying and learning from the building process. In two months time, I went from shaking my head when we had to restart to smiling and taking in the rushing river, fall foliage and new knowledge. I learn that each process won’t ever be perfect and that it is okay to work through the kinks to make the project the best it can be and of course, to keep smiling.
John finishes cutting the notch for the other log, turns and smiles.
“So Mary, Rick who was here early says we should only put two logs on the bottom rather than five.” John sets the chain saw down and climbs towards the tractor.
“This just goes to show how little I know about building.” John shakes his head, smiles and starts the tractor. He lowers the tractor fork, picks up the log and moves it to the other side of the open area. He repeats this process three more times. I try to catch his attention so we can make plan, but he looks past me and continues moving the logs. I take a breath and decide I better just go with the flow.
I am frustrated. John has rare and adventurous experiences that I’m eager to hear about, but at the pace John works I cannot stop him for long enough to talk. I know that he spent over a year of his life hiking the three longest trails in the US including: the Appalachian Mountain Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. How do you walk for that long? How do you stay motivated? Is it really tough? These questions sit on the tip of my tongue as I wait for the moment when John stops moving, so we can sit and talk. Other than a few quick questions on the first day, that break doesn’t come while at his house. I guess that it takes John’s nonstop personality to hike over eight thousand miles.
I watch John pick up a log with the tractor. If he didn’t tell me that he hiked the length of the country three different ways I would never know. John doesn’t look like an ultra marathon runner or an extreme athlete, yet his strength and trust in his instincts allow him to take part in almost activities. Watching John work I think back to the first day that I met him.
We sat in his reclining chairs with the fire crackling behind us. I held a cup of homemade hot-spiced apple cider and quizzed John on the details of his trips.
“So you really hiked all three of those trails” I am amazed.
“Yep!” He shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal. “I hiked them because I love hiking, but its not like I go for hikes very often.” Now I am lost. I love to hike. If I could I would spend every free minute I have hiking.
“Wait, so you don’t just go for hikes?” I shook my head and gave John a questioning look.
“I mean I look back at every experience as a positive one, but no I don’t feel the need to hike all that often. I accomplished the Triple Crown (not the horse race, but the three hikes) and can now move on with my life. I have new important projects. Besides, I have so much work around here I don’t really have time for anything else.” John isn’t complaining about the work he has around the house, he loves every minute of it. That day, I left his house confused as to how somebody could hike as much as he does and not love to go on regular hikes. I later realized it was less about the hikes and more about John’s passion and determination.
The cold air hits my nose and stings my eyes. Its late November and I’m at John’s house for my final day. I stare at the two horizontal and one vertical log, our entire semester’s progress. We may not have a finished lean-to, but I achieved my goal of understanding John. I now recognize how important it is to go with the flow and not sweat the small stuff, that building something as small as it might be is not an easy process and that it takes a very unique personality to hike the length of the country. With that said, I hope to one day have the ability to create my own “dream house”. Because of John’s influence, I feel the need to smile more and stress less and I will forever remember the day that I fell in the river walking to his house.
It is Tuesday night and I email John to see if we will start work the next day. He emails back and says he would love to start work. He also asks if I can walk across the river. I haven’t done this yet, but I say yes anyways.
On Wednesday I wake up to pouring rain. It doesn’t stop raining all day. Around 4:00pm I leave school to go to John’s house. I pull up on time at 4:30. Something doesn’t feel right. John’s car isn’t in the normal spot and the tram is waiting on the roadside of the river. I figure that Lolly must have taken John’s car and I prepare myself to cross the river. Because of the rain, the low river John emailed me about is gone. The river rushes over the rocks. It hits my knees in the shallowest spots. I’m unsure of what to do, but John and I talked about meeting on the other side so I decide to go for it. Three steps in I realize I made the wrong decision. The water fills my boots and soaks my pants past my knees. Its cold and I’m wet. I carefully find my footing trying not to think about the very expensive camera in my backpack. With a feeling of relief I safely reach the other side. The low clouds move across the open field. The water fills the tractor tracks. I have an eerie feeling as I walk towards the house. It’s calm and empty. The low rain clouds create a mist around the house. I’m unsure of what to do. I walk over to the house and peak in the window. It is dark. John is not home. I can’t decide if I’m angry or frustrated. I make the decision to wait on the house side of the river for him. I mean maybe he is just running late. I wait there for ten minutes and I keep imaging seeing John’s big black truck rolling around the bend, but he doesn’t come.
My jacket is soaked and I’m shivering. I can see my car on the other side. I want to go wait in it. I step into the river and sink past my knees. I’m anxious so I try to cross as fast as possible. I’m half way across when I hit a slick rock. I lose my footing and all of a sudden I’m sitting in the river. Now I am really wet. I stand up as fast as possible worried that someone will see me. I’m embarrassed and cold. At that moment I decide I’m not going to wait any longer. I scramble up the bank. I hold onto the side of the car for balance and flip my heal up towards my back. A waterfall sprays out of my boot. How does this happen? I fell in the river walking to someone house. I try to make myself cry because it seems like the emotion that I should feel, but instead I can’t stop laughing.