By Marguerite Jill Dye
It was high time we hiked up the Deer Leap trail once again but I’d forgotten what a challenge it was. Even with my twin hiking poles keeping me balanced, placing my feet atop, in between, and over boulders and rocks, carefully picking our way was difficult and tiring. As we slowly climbed higher, children descended like leapfrogs and mountain goats. The granite rocks, split by glaciers and shifting earth throughout the ages, were embedded with crystal strata here and there, signs of the mountain’s geological history.
We felt a great sense of accomplishment when we arrived at the Long and Appalachian Trail signposts! The trail leveled out briefly, then continued up the tricky ascent, often looking like a dry, rocky stream bed on a steep slant. “Glad it didn’t rain yesterday,” I called out. “Can you imagine how treacherous it would be to hike up with water rushing down?”
As well as the boulders, rocks, loose pebbles and dirt, a plethora of exposed roots created a continuous web trying to trip us with each step. Now and then we sat on a rock to take a drink of green tea for energy or water flavored with apple cider for thirst. During one of our pauses we began a conversation with a woman and her young son who live in Boston. They were staying in a hotel along Killington Road and liked the area so much they were thinking of buying a condo on the mountain. We offered them names and numbers, and they offered to share their chocolate. The sweet woman, Ella, originally hailed from Russia. Her son was anxious to continue and mosquitoes were biting, so we bid the pair “adieu.”
Nearing the top, we passed a serene fern-carpeted woods and stepped timidly along the labyrinth of roots. We followed the boardwalks and descended wooden stairs beside a long, cracked stone ridge. As we approached the bare boulder cliff, several hikers appeared, admiring the view, catching their breath much less than we were.
We found a perfect picnic niche, took pictures of Pico and distant blue ridges that disappeared in the distance beyond Rutland. When our selfie failed, someone snapped one for us; then I unpacked brunch from my small backpack. Two paper bowls held a still-warm Western omelet to honor my dad on our hike. We munched on peanuts and savored sweet cherries and grapes, and a shared a tart tangerine.
One grape rolled down the stone slab and a little grey junco came to open it up. Peck, peck, peck to no avail, so I rolled a few softer grapes her way. She reappeared with her mate, tweeting away, as we packed up and left the rock. “They’re thanking us, no doubt about that,” the birdman proclaimed, turning around.
Sometimes I call my husband “the birdman” because he loves watching birds wherever we are — in Vermont, Florida, or on the Camino in Spain. At Kent Pond his favorites are loons, ducks, and geese; in Florida he adores little green herons sitting on bridges waiting for fish to appear in the night; and all along our pilgrimage in Spain, Duane is enthralled by the rooftop storks!
My legs were shaking when we reached the car. We’d hiked only three miles on Duane’s step gadget, but the trail’s difficulty couldn’t be measured in steps, but more accurately by its elevation and uncountable boulders, rocks, and roots. However, for those with bodies capable of the feat, the payoff is the bird’s-eye view.
We were thrilled that my older brother Jack and niece Laura were able to come for a visit from Virginia. Over the decades, while raising triplets in Virginia Beach with his wife, Debbie, Jack managed to get away for one week each year to help Mom and Dad build our Killington Ski Lodge, the “Vermontclair Palace.” Laura has fond memories of coming up as a child, too. One of my Florida writer friends, Amy, also arrived so we set out on a little Vermont expedition to Chittenden Reservoir.
Although it seemed like we’d made a wrong turn, Duane’s sixth sense of direction had kicked in: our wrong turn turned out to be right when we arrived at Leffert’s Pond. It’s amazing we’d never been there before, since my plein air painter friends have often suggested we meet there to paint, completely surrounded by nature. One such time was on the eve of Tropical Storm Irene when we’d planned to paint there the following day. Not only were we rained out when we awoke, but the roads were impassable for weeks and months. We were all stranded in place.
Our expectant tour group walked from the parking lot by the reservoir whose shimmering light shone through the trees. We followed Jack, a forestry major at UNH, who identified “spruce trees’ square needles that don’t roll between your fingers,” Canadian hemlock trees’ flat needles, Eastern white pines with clumps of five needles, and fagus grandifolia—beech trees. Further along he pointed out yellow birch and white birch trees, striped maples’ (moosewood) green bark with vertical white stripes, and acer saccharum—sugar maple trees.
When we arrived where the view opened up, we gasped in awe in unison. Laura declared, “It looks like heaven!” from our perch on a small bridge. The water glistened in the bright sunlight. Hither and yon, the pool’s edge hid behind soft embankments of outcropping trees. A giant white pine and bare-barked tree had fallen dramatically into the pond. Patches of tigerlilies, blackeyed Susans, and daisies sprinkled the dappled shoreline. Butterflies danced and bullfrogs croaked. We were mesmerized by the serenity of Leffert’s Pond.
We followed a trail up through the woods until hunger turned us around. Below the bridge, water fell several levels from the high pond into the swiftly flowing stream into Chittenden Reservoir. A flock of colorful kayaks appeared, rowing upstream, one by one. As they left, we left too, and drove the short drive to the Chittenden Reservoir dam. We unpacked supplies and spread out on the lawn like Edouard Manet’s famous painting, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” for a “luncheon on the grass.” Beside the boat ramp and pebbly beach, we feasted on some special treats: melted ham and cheese Croques Messieurs open sandwiches, colorful veggies with red pepper hummus dip, olives, pickles, and fruit for dessert. (We’d already devoured Duane’s almond pound cake that had bubbled over the pan like lava almond paste!)
We shared stories from decades of building the house, and Jack told us about his summer fighting forest fires in Montana. We laughed a lot and ate quite a bit, relaxing on the shore of bucolic Chittenden Reservoir.
Then we packed up for one more treat: Duane drove us up to the Mountaintop Inn. We sat and stared, “oohing” and “aahing,” enchanted by the views as we rocked. Duane counted 10 different peaks he’s been studying from the other side of Routes100 and 4, trying to determine where to begin our hike from Killington to Chittenden Reservoir.
That evening, I took Laura and Jack on the pilgrimage to Kent Pond. As we hiked what many consider to be the Appalachian Trail’s most beautiful stretch.
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer whose weekly column features nature, spirit, compassion, and justice.