The Mountains

These days between the hours of studying, the doctorhood quest unfolding slowly and quickly at the same time, I find myself hiking whenever time allows. It’s difficult to describe what I find in the forest as I climb to a mountain’s peak. Some days I go quickly, not observing the trees and moss as I forge up the trail. Other days I step slowly, methodically looking at the ferns and the rocks and the sun rays that scatter across the forest floor.

Sometimes my mind buzzes with thoughts—of friends, family, and school. Of puzzles I still have left to solve or chores that await me when I get home. But, more often as time goes, I find my mind mostly empty. An uncommon feeling in my daily life in town. As I get lost in thoughtless contemplation, the chipmunks make me smile as they scuttle around me and the grouse make me jump as they burst into flight before I see them. The sound of their wings is in stark contrast to the silent trees around me.

I stop for a sip of water partway up a steep stretch of trail. My forehead is crusted with salt from sweating. I feel my heart pounding. The wind picks up and the trees creek and groan. I look up and see their branches waving. Even a brief pause allows my breath to slow before I hoist my backpack to my shoulders again. Onward.

I’ve done enough trails to know which rocks are most likely to make me lose my footing. I avoid them. Mud jumps from the trail to my pants. The trail gets steeper and I shed a jacket layer. Once taking off the layer, I climb higher and the wind gets stronger. I put the jacket back on. It’s a dance of layers—just enough to stay warm, not so many that I roast. I sweat regardless.

As I climb the final pitch to the mountain top I have on my warmest layer—in summer just a windbreaker and in winter a hefty coat. I hike so much, there are many days when I get to the highest rock and there is no view. Clouds never did bother me, so the clearness of the day doesn’t impact my decision to take to the hills. When it is sunny and clear at the summit, the landscape around my mountain stretches away from me. I think about what all the distant hills and valleys have seen, countless stories they can’t tell me.

Some days the wind threatens to push me over as I pause at the summit. On days when I can see the mountains beyond my mountain, I ignore the wind and take time to watch the sunshine. The rolling hills and fields below are a patchwork of cloud shadows and sun patches. Beyond them are the mountains of some other state. When I hike in Vermont, the mountains beyond are always pointer than the one I climbed. The green mountains were scraped by glaciers and, therefore, have softer features than their neighbors in New York and New Hampshire.

I don’t doddle as I descend to my car. My heart is filled by the fresh air of the summit. I’m ready to return to the hustle of regular life by the time I get back to the parking lot. At the same time, as I turn my car toward home, I’m already daydreaming of my next hike. The mountains don’t let me forget them, no matter what adventures I have waiting for me in the lowlands. 

Climbing Mountains

One year when I was young we celebrated my mom’s birthday by hiking a nearby mountain. Our family has loved mountain adventures since our beginning, so it seemed like a perfect way to celebrate another good year.

The hike was beautiful and challenging and magical in the way hours spent in the woods while climbing a slope always are. When we got to the top we settled on the peak rocks to enjoy the view, eat snacks, and let our heartrates drip back to resting. Us kids sat down, pulling out our normal fare—peanuts, bread, cheese, among other easy-to-pack items.

My mom wore a happy smirk as she opened her backpack. First, she unpack a stack of plates and forks. Then came some bags containing several layers of chocolate cake. Then came the Tupperware with the sauce for between the cake layers. And then the whipped cream…She’d also brought sparkling cider.

My mother had secretly packed and carried an entire black forest cake up the mountain. That’s dedication, determination, and the proper way to start a new era.

I’m turning 30 this year, so I’ve been thinking about birthdays a bit because it seems like ending my twenties might be a big deal. I can’t really think of a better way to nod goodbye to my first complete decade of adulthood than cake on top of a mountain. There is something about icing that makes the horizon seem promising and clarifies the path you’ve already trod.

Golden Leaves and Golden Sun

Autumn in Vermont is like a pendulum; it swings between cold rainy days and bright sun that reflects off the yellow, orange, red, and brown leaves soon to fall off the trees. The damp days and frost-laced evenings are a prelude to the winter soon to come. The strong sun on the loveliest days of October is not only a reflection of the summer just past, but also particularly appealing because it contrasts with the brisk wind and cool damp air inherit of autumn.

Earlier this October when the sun looked like a flood of gold as it reflected off the hills, I set out with a friend on an easy, wandering hike through the woods, past beaver dams, and up the tame slopes of a hill with an outstanding view. The shade and wind carried the hint of frost, but the sunlight danced so joyfully through the birch, beech, and maple leaves that I didn’t feel cold while wearing only a light jacket. The pleasantness of the day penetrated through my slight haze. The previous weeks had been a whirlwind of adventure, topped off by working the night shift the night before our hike and running a half marathon with my sister two days earlier. But, as we parked the car and started walking I didn’t feel tired. My mate had kicked in and the day was too charming to pass inside. There’s something about the woods in Vermont…they recharge me more than anywhere else. [Text continues after image.]

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I grew up in Vermont, but moved to the city for college and work and then moved abroad. I’ve been back a few years, enjoying the time until more schooling picks my next home. I imagine, just as I did as a new adult, I have more city turns and many places to live before I sleep for good. I imagine many of those places will be about as different and as far from Vermont as possible on our small planet. While I never really miss the Green Mountain State in its entirety, when I live elsewhere I periodically find myself aching for the quiet woods that always awaits me here.

The woods in the fall are my favorite. Fall is my favorite season in Vermont for its smells—piles of leaves, apple cider, wood smoke, and pumpkin baked goods—and perfect temperatures. The leaves already fallen rustle underfoot and the tangy, earthy smell of the soil and crisp foliage tingles your nose in an only pleasant way. The natural world is getting ready for sleep and a long stretch of harsh weather. The chipmunks and squirrels are in overdrive, jumping about like bunnies with cheeks full of nuts. Wild apples, acorns, cherries, and berries adorn the trees, weighing the branches down and feeding the deer and other woods dwellers. There’s an influx of geese and other migrating birds—their flocks fill the ponds and trees and raise a chorus of excited chatter about their long journey south.

The forests of Vermont aren’t epic like those of California and Washington state. They aren’t misty, exotic, and lavish like the Amazon or the jungles of Central America and Africa. Nor are they tangled and concealing large snakes, jaguars, and anteaters like the forests in Paraguay. In contrast, it’s their humble scale and unassuming beauty that brings thoughts of the Vermont woods, my childhood haunts, to me when I’ve spent too long away. I always know when those thoughts percolate it’s time to visit.

My friend and I paused on the hilltop to enjoy the view and take in a few golden rays before our descent back into the forest. I sat, knees pulled up against my chest, and gazed out over the rolling patchwork of gold, green, and bronze. The stone face on which I sat was slightly warm thanks to the sun. We were shielded from the breeze. No one else was around. There was a quiet that’s forgotten even in the smallest of towns. The calm was a relief after the rush of work in a hospital and traveling for medical school interviews—places full of complicated thoughts and human interaction. In those moments on the hill, I was thankful for the forest. I also felt a pang of bitterness about the cold winter soon to come, but I know (as I’ve said before) that the cold is one thing that keeps people from flooding Vermont. And, anything that keeps the autumn woods here quiet so I can sneak away and meditate on life’s challenges is welcome.

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