Climate activists gear up to walk from Middlebury to Montpelier

MIDDLEBURY — On April 5, climate activists from around the state — and from elsewhere — will gather on the Middlebury green to kick off “Next Steps,” a five-day, 53-mile climate solutions walk organized by 350Vermont.
Billed as a “sacred walk for climate justice,” 350Vermont literature says Next Steps will “celebrate the solutions to the climate crisis already under way, while also grieving the (natural gas) pipeline, ecosystem destruction and the ever-growing, multi-faceted injustices of ‘industrial growth society.’”
It makes sense to begin such a walk in Middlebury, where Middlebury College created the nation’s first undergraduate environmental studies program, and where activist/author Bill McKibben’s collaboration with college students nearly 15 years ago eventually led to the formation of 350.org (separate from 350Vermont). But these are not the reasons Next Steps organizers chose the town to begin their odyssey.
“Middlebury is the current terminus of the Addison Natural Gas Pipeline,” said 350 Vermont Director Maeve McBride. “By choosing Middlebury we feel like we’re saying ‘Here, no farther.’”
350Vermont and its allies began resisting fossil fuel infrastructure in 2010. They have managed to delay construction of some natural gas projects, including Phase 2 of what in 2015 was known as the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project, which proposed extending the pipeline from Middlebury to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. They also supported 37 Bristol residents in their lawsuit against the town and Vermont Gas Systems, which led to the cancelation of a license agreement that would have brought natural gas service to parts of Bristol.
When they arrive in Montpelier, walkers will demand legislative action.
“What we’re hearing (from our supporters) is a longing for a commensurate response to the climate crisis,” McBride said.
For a distillation of their concerns, she pointed to 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose work has inspired young people around the world.
“I’m here to say our house is on fire,” Thunberg told adults during a Jan. 25 speech in Davos, Switzerland. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
But as Middlebury College Professor Jon Isham recently told the Independent, all action and no reflection is not the kind of mobilization the climate justice movement wants.
Knowing that, Next Steps organizers have created plenty of space for reflection during their journey.
Each day of the walk will focus on a particular theme:
•April 5 (Middlebury to Bristol, 11 miles): Reunion: building community and relationships among walkers.
•April 6 (Bristol to Hinesburg, 17 miles): Resistance: bearing witness to the pipeline.
•April 7 (Hinesburg to Richmond, 11 miles): Reimagine: shifting consciousness.
•April 8 (Richmond to Middlesex, 19 miles): Re-create: seeking solutions, alternatives, transitions.
•April 9 (Middlesex to Montpelier, 7 miles): Reform: speaking truth to power.
In addition to the kickoff event in Middlebury and the finale in Montpelier, activists will also hold an outdoor worship ceremony in Hinesburg’s Geprags Park, where Vermont Gas installed a gas pipeline in 2017, despite public outcry.
“It’s also very important to us to be a listening audience,” McBride said.
Each evening, hosting towns have organized potluck dinners, which will provide an opportunity for dialogues between activists and communities.
Some of these dialogues may be more difficult than others, McBride acknowledged, especially if they arise spontaneously on the road.
“We fully expect to be confronted or opposed sometimes,” she said.
Organizers will look to their dedicated team of community liaisons to facilitate peaceful interactions. 350Vermont will also provide nonviolent communication training to walk participants.
And they’re checking in with local police departments.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley gave the group guidance about how to conduct themselves safely through and out of town.
“These are usually good people,” Hanley told the Independent. “We have no concerns. We recommended that they use assistance, maybe someone with a traffic vest, to get across North Pleasant Street. And we advised them to use sidewalks until they get out of congested areas.”
Once they arrive in Bristol, activists will find that a group of residents, organized by Sally Burrell, has lovingly prepared a potluck meal for them, and coordinated sleeping arrangements for those who plan to continue walking the next day.
On Monday, Burrell met with fellow residents Alice Leeds, Patty Heather-Lea, Mary Adams-Smith, Gary Smith and Sarah Stott to figure out how to feed more than 60 activists — the latest count — plus community members. Coordinating with 350Vermont officials gave them a view into the amount of work and organization it takes to pull off a five-day journey of this magnitude, they said.
Middlebury College sophomore Divya Gudur, a member of the Next Steps Action Council, is helping pull it off.
“It has been such a powerful experience because it introduced me to so many community members that deeply care about climate justice and making change for our futures,” she said. “This work has shown me that there are people out there who are incredibly passionate about the very issues that I not only fight for with all of my being but are also impacting my life every day; this has given me hope in my own abilities to make change but more importantly, it gives me hope in the community I am a part of.”
For more information about Next Steps, visit 350vermont.org/nextsteps.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]. Ross and his 13-year-old daughter plan to walk all 53 miles of Next Steps and write about it for the Independent.

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