Walking in a March winter adventureland
The famous “2011 March Blizzard” left me stranded away from home. Although my foolish attempt to go to work on Monday succeeded, and I arrived in time to teach two of my three morning classes, I was unable to get back home at the end of the day. I spent Monday night in town on a friend’s sofa. Tuesday I was back at work with a scheduled lunch meeting, and an exam to give, but no car.
So I found myself walking from Middlebury College down into Frog Hollow to the Storm Café, across a campus whose walkways were still a long way from being cleared, across a town whose sidewalks were buried under deep dense snowdrifts left from the night’s plowing.
I had joined the adventure that many local residents and students had been “enjoying” for the past thirty-six hours during and after the storm — pedestrians, as well as people on snowshoes and cross-country skies, who’d been making their way across town and campus, sometimes right down the middle of unplowed roads.
Nature writer Gary Snyder (in his essay “The Etiquette of Freedom”) wrote, “Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind.” He explains, “Out walking, one notices where there is food. And there are firsthand true stories of ‘Your ass is somebody else’s meal’ — a blunt way of saying interdependence, interconnectedness, ‘ecology,’ on the level where it counts, (is) also a teaching of mindfulness and preparation.”
Now I don’t think Snyder had in mind walking across town. He was thinking more of walking in the wilderness, “open country”, as he notes elsewhere. And I agree with him. There is something invaluable, adventurous, and highly educational about walking in land that approaches wilderness. For myself, I would say that such experiences border on necessity, emotionally, spiritually, and maybe physically.
Although as I was walking across town, I did notice several appealing places where I could get food and drink. And muggers, as well as large wild predators, can provide firsthand experiences of becoming the prey, or of the necessity of being mindful. I have one good friend whose rear end became the “meal” of a passing automobile in one of this year’s storms.
Which led me to think more of how my understanding of wilderness has changed over the years. I used to have black-and-white thinking: Wilderness was what one found high up in rugged mountains, or in dense forests, or along some northern river where roads did not go. And, without doubt, I still feel drawn to and in need of experiences in that sort of remote wilderness, away from human edifices and creature comforts. Although there is a certain irony in the fact that I’m usually hiking in that wilderness on paths maintained by human hands and camping at designated and cleared campsites, with my high-tech outdoor gear and apparel, and packed-in food supplies.
Certainly walking in “wilderness” environments like these are at different ends of a spectrum from an experience walking around the shopping malls and plazas in Williston or the greater Burlington area. But the spectrum of wilderness also has many places in the middle, and I have come to appreciate these experiences as well, and to see that nature is not necessary found only in the one extreme.
In my younger days, I spent four years of graduate school living outside of New England in Ithaca, N.Y. Though barely a large town by some standards—Ithaca residents referred to it as being “centrally isolated” — it was nonetheless the largest “city” I have ever lived in. Having grown up a small town rural boy, I frequently had to get out of Ithaca. Fortunately, there were a number of state parks within a few miles of town, scattered along the half-dozen gorges that cut through the hills and emptied their waters into the southern end of Cayuga Lake.
Even without driving out of town, though, there was one walking experience I came to enjoy and even depend on. Cascadilla Creek formed the smaller of two gorges cutting across the Cornell University campus. A steep stairway at the upper end of the gorge cut down to a path along the creek bottom, sixty or so feet below a stone automobile bridge. This trail, after a twenty minutes walk, emerged from the gorge right at the edge of downtown Ithaca where I lived. Except in winter months, when the gorge was closed, it was my favorite walk home.
There are, of course, several gorges around Addison County, and I visit them frequently. But I’ve come to appreciate walking even around downtown Middlebury. I have a difficult time walking over the old stone bridge across Otter Creek without stopping and watching the river flow beneath me for a while. It is always changing, season-to-season and even day-to-day. It’s even better walking down below the falls in Frog Hollow, watching the water thunder down from the Marble Works footbridge, where one is oblivious to the automobile traffic.
Although any sort of walking around town on Monday and Tuesday during and after the blizzard proved to be something of an adventure, I can’t say that a walk in downtown Middlebury is usually an adventure in quite the same way that a walk might be in, say, the Canadian Rockies.
Still, it’s a whole lot better than walking around a mall. One can be aware of the changing seasons, trees, wildlife, birds, in that little window of interconnectedness. And, as noted, I did notice where food could be found. And drink. And some really fine chocolates.
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