In Which Those Who Wander Are Lost: A Hike up the Ski Trails of Jay Peak in Northern Vermont
Walk Taken: August 2, 2011
Directions: Drive to 1144 Access Road in Jay, Vermont 05859. Park and walk towards the Tram Haus Lodge. Walk past the lodge facing up the mountain and find the left-most trail that begins near the “Magic Carpet” ski lift.
While most of my stories will be set in New York, I had the chance to visit Vermont earlier this August and took the opportunity to be inspired by a truly rural walk. This walk follows ski trails up the mountain. Therefore, all the trail signs are intended to get you down the mountain and don’t really help you with the ascent. I recommend getting a map from the gift shop, on which all the trails are clearly labeled.
First Stop—Beginning to Climb
A gust of rain threatened to keep the Olson family in the rental van as they pulled in to the Jay Peak parking lot. It was the first summer in family-reunion history that the adults had decided the children were old enough to hike the ski trails up the mountain instead of riding the gondola up and strolling down, and 13-year-old Lena, cozy in the nook of a window seat, wished the rain would stay and spare her this particular right of passage. But a fast wind blew the clouds onwards, and as soon as the rain stopped spitting at the windshield, her mother turned off the engine, and up the hill it was. Lena supposed it was only fair. Her mother, Kirsten Pinker, née Olson, had waited patiently until just the right year to finally get a decent workout during her yearly gym-free visit to her mother’s cabin in Northern Vermont. This year Pierre and Jean-Luc, her brother Max’s twin boys, were 10 years old and eager to impress a pantheon of real and imaginary heroes from Jacques Cousteau to Frodo Baggins, and as for Lena, once so stubborn in her wants and not wants, a change had come over her since she had started middle school, and now all that had once burst out of her lay reservoir-still behind the dam of her lips.
Lena herself was hardly conscious of the change, and even though her legs ached to look up the tree-darkened mountain, she never once thought that two years ago she would have stamped and cried her way into the tram if her parents had suggested such a hike. She was too busy listening to her father and her Aunt Juliette discuss politics. Her mother was already far ahead, and Lena had abandoned her cousins on their quest up Mount Doom to destroy the mood ring she had lent them for the game, leaving them defenseless against her Uncle Max’s cameo appearances as orcs, goblins, and giant spiders. Time was when Lena lived for make-believe and thought adult conversations boring, but recently she had discovered that all games of pretend ended with the same happy ending, while each eavesdropped conversation revealed a new secret about her once-familiar world.
“I don’t know why I keep trying to convince our mother-in-law that global warming is real,” her father was saying.
“I understand; every time she goes on a rant against government spending, I have to stop myself from reminding her that Max and I chose to stay and raise our children in France in large part because of the health care. Of course, there was my family, and my band, and he already had a job, which is a hard thing for a foreigner to get in Paris. But she’d have a much better chance of having her son and grandsons on her side of the pond if this country had a better social safety net!”
Politics were one of Lena’s new discoveries, acquired during her seventh–grade’s civics unit, and it changed everything she had once believed about the people around her. That her grandmother—who had taught her how see the way the sun turned trees to gold and had placed a copy of Les Misérables on her dresser table exactly the summer when she was beginning to look out from her own imagination towards the wider world—was against the Kyoto Protocol and universal healthcare shocked her nearly as much as the initial discovery that the instinctual values of Lena’s own heart could be translated into political beliefs.
Aunt Juliette was the only adult who had not disappointed her. She had already loved her for her velvety French accent and dark-brown, silken hair, for being the only one, besides her father, who listened to her violin playing as if Lena were a real musician and not a gifted child, for the fact that, unlike her own father, she had not given up her art and still sang weekly in bars and cafes, and because, when her father brought out his guitar to accompany her on summer nights, his face regained the wide smile and deep dimples of Lena’s earliest memories. And now she loved her more, because everything Juliette said about politics matched Lena’s childhood image of her as free-spirited and compassionate.
Even now she climbed the hill in a wide-brimmed lilac hat, with a cream scarf blowing around her neck, so much more graceful than her corporate-lawyer mother, still straining ahead on vacation in a t-shirt and baseball cap
“She didn’t used to be like this you know, when I first married Max,” Juliette was saying. “She was much more open to other points of view. It’s that stupid program she’s always watching—Fox News?”
“Well, she’s lonely, I suppose,” her father answered. “She used to have Kirsten and Max’s father to keep her company, but now it’s just her in that cottage all day…”
“Hé, Lena,” Jean Luc called from up a dirt path that shot up off the gentle gravel slope they’d been following. “We’re pretending Pierre just got bit by a poison spider. Can you come be an elf queen and heal him?”
Lena sighed, leaving her father and her aunt to their adult secrets so she could pretend to be a child who still enjoyed pretending.
Second Stop—Shaded Secrets
When you get to a dirt path that heads steeply to the right off Queen’s Highway, take it and follow it until you come to a fork beside a sign that says “Queen’s Highway.” Take a right and go straight until you reach a small trail that shoots left through a field of purple flowers. This is Taxi. Follow it until you come to a large tree that juts four-like out of the right side of the path.
Lena was relieved when her cousinly duties were dispensed. Even as she had shaken her hair out of its ponytail so it hung around her shoulders and raised her voice to an ethereal pitch, she had kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure there were no other families with teenagers hiking the same trails. She even blushed a bit when her father and Juliette passed, ashamed to be caught by the most sophisticated member of her family in the act of make-believe. But the pair were so deep in conversation that they didn’t seem to notice.
“Now,” she said, once she had rubbed a “healing” leaf over her cousin’s “bite,” “I think those to travelers way up there”—she pointed to the distant shapes of her mother and Uncle Max, who had paused to split a power bar and consult the trail map—“have answers that will help you on your quest. If you hurry, you might catch them!” Her cousins raced ahead, and she was free to catch up to her father and aunt and listen to their conversation in peace.
When she found them, they were sitting on a tree that called to the child in her to be climbed. It grew straight out of the hillside, creating a perfect chair between the two thick branches that shot up from its sideways trunk. And as she watched their faces so close in conversation that her father’s head dipped below the brim of her aunt’s hat, she was relieved to know that adults together could still take advantage of perfect trees.
“The children have gone?” asked Juliette.
“Yes,” her father answered. “I heard them run by. We’re all alone.”
They were too absorbed in the secret they were about to share to turn and see Leena standing down-trail. Lena stood still and turned her right ear—the ear less damaged by violin playing—towards them. She waited for their lips to move again and speak some truth that would change her understanding of the world. But their lips did not move. Instead, they met. She waited for them to break apart, waited to have miss-seen a French -cheek kiss. Instead, they pressed closer together until her father’s upper lip disappeared into Juliette’s mouth and Juliette wrapped her arms around her father’s back and her father’s hands tossed aside the purple hat to sink into Juliette’s silk hair, and Lena turned slowly forward and crept quietly past along the leftmost edge of the trail.
Third Stop—Strawberries Before The Storm
Keep walking straight along Taxi until it grows dramatically steeper. It has now turned into the run called Angel’s Wiggle. Rest in the grass on the right side of this incline, where wild strawberries grow.
It was hard to walk softly; the path was grass growing between large stones. Jumping between them would have made too much noise, but Lena wasn’t sure her strategy of scrambling up and down, and half-tripping on hidden pebbles, was much quieter. She didn’t dare look back; if they saw her, she didn’t want to know. And if they asked her anything later, she would pretend she hadn’t seen.
It was obvious that this was a secret affair. And who knew how long it had been a secret? That wide smile on her father’s face when Juliette sang to his guitar was not a new thing. So as long as it stayed secret, Lena thought, nothing would change. But if it became known? Her parents might have to divorce. Then her father might run off to Paris and play in Juliette’s band, and her mother and Uncle Max might move back in with Grandma, and she and her cousins would be stuck in the woods with two telecommuting parents—always running up hill for Blackberry reception—and a grandma nodding in agreement to everything said too loudly on Fox News.
In the distance, Lena heard the laughter of young voices. The path before her rose into a steep hill, and halfway up, in the grass beside the thin trail, her cousins scooted around on their bottoms with their legs outstretched, lowering their heads between their legs until their foreheads seemed to touch the ground, then shooting up triumphant with little red balls in their raised hands. The laughter came after they dropped the balls into their open mouths.
It occurred to Lena that her cousins now lived in a different world than she did. She felt as if her new world swirled above her like a hurricane seen from space, and if she got too close, it might invade her cousins’ sun. She stopped.
But Pierre called to her. “Hé Lena! Fraises de bois!”
He held one out to her, slightly smashed by his fingers, and because it would be even worse to explain her hesitance, she came forward, panted up the hill towards him and let him roll the berry onto her fingers. She lifted the small, sweet, sun-warmed ball onto her tongue. “Très bon,” she smiled graciously, drawing on her years of playing make believe. It was easier, now, to be an elfin queen accepting the heart-felt gift of a humble subject than it was to be herself.
“Lena!” her mother called from the top of the hill, where she was doing lunges as she waited, “Have you seen your father and your aunt?”
“Yes,” Lena yelled back. “They stopped to pick flowers for Grandma to press; they said to go ahead without us.” And, as she pinched another strawberry into her mouth, she pretended this was true.
“Well, I hope they hurry,” Uncle Max said, pointing to a dark shadow spreading over the countryside below them. “That cloud’s pretty big, and it’s heading our way. Come on, kids, let’s keep moving.”
“Yeah, we’ve got to go,” said Jean Luc. Out of his pocket he pulled Lena’s ring. It didn’t seem to reflect her mood at all—it glowed blue for calm. “We’ve got to destroy this before the shadow reaches us!”
Continue up Angel’s Wiggle. At the top, turn right on Northway, then left on Catwalk, then cut right along Green Beret. When Green Beret joins Vermonter, turn up the hill and walk straight until you reach a line of wood fence built to protects skiers from the downhill slope to your right.
Lena was jealous that her cousins’ imagined peril gave them the real adrenaline needed to sprint the rest of the way up one ski run and then start up the next. She herself felt something like adrenaline flapping about inside her stomach, but it didn’t power her legs. Instead it flew headwards to chirp at her in her own voice: God, it’s so steep! Is that a rain drop? Seriously, how does Mom hike this fast! What if she gets impatient and goes back to look for them? Ugh, my legs hurt! What if they get struck by lightning and it’s my fault because I didn’t say where they were because I didn’t want my parents to get divorced? Is it normal for a 13-year-old to pant this much?
“Wait, turn back,” Uncle Max called to her mother. “The trail we want starts here.”
Her mother jogged back to where Max stood at the head of a path that seemed to lead straight up into the sky. She bent over his outstretched map. “Yes, I see, this must be Green Beret, then we turn onto the ridge and take Vermonter to the tram house.” She looked up. “Do you think Ed and Juliette will find the trail?”
“Do you really want to go back for them?” There was something about his question that sounded more like a warning—the “Are you sure you want another one?” her mother gave her every time she reached for one of Grandma’s cookies.
“No!” Her mother sounded angry. Did she know? Thunder mumbled in the distance. “Anyway, it’s more important to get the kids up to the tram house before the storm reaches us.”
“Do we have to climb that?” Jean-Luc whined, his game forgotten at the prospect of hiking up a black-diamond run.
“Papa!” Pierre raised his arms towards his father in a universal demand.
“Come on, kids, you’ve done so well today. Just a little more to go! And if you go as fast as you can and don’t whine, we’ll stop for ice cream on our way back to Grandma’s.”
“Come on, Pierre, crème glacée!” exclaimed Jean-Luc. He grabbed his brother’s hand and together they ran at the hillside. Lena plodded behind them, still tired and still afraid.
Finally they turned on to the upper ridge. The path still rose steeply ahead of them, but this was the final path, the one promising the tram house at its end.
The clouds had reached them now; the only blue sky blowing ribbon-like away to the South. Lena kept looking back down the trail, hoping to see the purple dot of Juliette’s hat.
“Shit!” a male voice called. But it wasn’t coming from down the trail. It came from the untamed slope of rocks and sprouting fir trees blocked off behind a wooden fence, warning winter skiers not to descend too soon.
Lena looked between the planks to see two figures halfway down the slope. One of them wore a purple hat.
“It’s them!” she pointed.
“Edward! Juliette!” her mother yelled. “What are you doing down there?”
“We thought this was the trail, but it’s not a trail at all!” Juliette yelled. “And Edward just twisted his foot.”
The rain chose that moment to fall.
“Max, take the kids up to the tram house,” her mother ordered. Her voice was loud but flat, her thin lips pursed and her cheekbones at attention. The last thing Lena saw, before Uncle Max pulled her onwards, was her mother poised at the top of the fence, the gray line of her sports-bra already showing through her rain-soaked shirt.
Last Stop—A Tram House is Not a Home
Lena had never really been afraid of thunderstorms. Only afraid enough, as her cousins were now, to count the seconds between the booms and flashes and exclaim with anxious glee, “It’s getting closer!”
But as she sat now in the tram house, looking out down the rain-grayed trail for any sign of purple, she was more than frightened. Dread pounded in her stomach with every boom and terror jumped in her chest with every purple flash. Just one of those flashes could take away everyone she had, and leave her alone with ghosts she did not understand.
‘There they are!” Jean-Luc yelled. It was because she had been looking for purple that she had not seen them. Three dark figures inched upwards, seeming to lean upon the rain. Juliette’s hat was blue with water now, and it flopped on both sides of her head like ears on a donkey. Her scarf was a thin and dirty rag around her neck. It was her mother who looked like a woman in a movie. Her soaked-through t-shirt clung to every muscle in her torso; two tendrils of hair, bronze in the rain, had escaped her ponytail and blew in the wind around her face. And the line of her eyes looked straight ahead, never jerked or wavered despite the fully grown man she hoisted on her back. Juliette stood at her side, giving her an arm when she needed it, pushing at her father’s back to keep him in place, but her frantic gestures seemed more to try to help than to be truly useful.
Finally, the trio fell into the doorway. Suddenly both of her parents were on the ground, and her mother was bending over her father’s foot and looking at it with a gentleness that surprised Lena, only he refused to meet her gaze, so that Lena wasn’t sure if she admired or pitied her mother more. Juliette was standing beside her husband, but not too close, wringing out her hat and staring at the shape of the puddle it made on the cement floor. Max fiddled uselessly with his Blackberry. And Lena watched them all, aware that none of them were watching her.
Only Pierre and Jean Luc did not seem to understand what had changed. They had reached the top of the mountain, and were now intent on finishing their game. Out of the corner of her eye, Lena saw Pierre run to the tram platform and hold her mood ring over the concrete ledge.
“Come on!” Jean-Luc urged, “destroy it!” And Pierre actually let it fall.
Lena almost yelled at them about the importance of possessing a mood ring at Westchester Middle School, but then let out her breath. Of all the things she had lost today, it was the only one she could replace.