Rich, Day Hiking Ambassador
The wooded hillsides plunge down to an idyllic stream of quiet water and ice. This is Podunk Brook, running through the back of my parents’ property. It is the day after Thanksgiving, and we are in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, moving through woods laden with newly fallen snow.
Clinging with snowshoe crampons we cross the brook on rocks crusted over with ice. I am snowshoeing with my girlfriend Kristin and my sister Kasandra, accompanied by Kasandra’s backpack-sized dog Maggie, a jet-black mixed breed canine torpedo she affectionately calls her “trail hound.” Kasandra is outfitted with Frontier model shoes, while Kristin is using an LLBean model of Tubbs loosely resembling the Frontier. I’m wearing my Wilderness shoes. As I cross the stream and begin up the other bank I am glad for the extra grip the Wilderness crampons provide me.
From higher hills Podunk Brook drops between opposing slopes, flowing for several miles through the wilderness of Hartford and Norwich, Vermont before emptying into the White River, an east-flowing tributary of the Connecticut. The water meets the larger river at the Vermont-New Hampshire border, aside a village appropriately named White River Junction.
We are approximately eight miles west of the junction, still well within the valley of the Connecticut. The names here are replete with the tongues of the past. ‘Connecticut’ is a French corruption of the Mohegan name ‘Quinnitukqut,’ meaning “long tidal river.” Podunk, which has entered the English language as an adjective denoting a small and unimportant place, is originally a name used for an Algonquin people from modern Connecticut. Here the adjective has been applied endearingly and re-elevated to the status of proper noun.
This part of the Connecticut River Valley, referred to colloquially as the Upper Valley, is where I grew up. Until I left for college at the age of nineteen my life clung to either bank of the river and the hills rising around it. In a landscape of soft foothills and stunted crags the course of the Connecticut River has always seemed to me an anomaly. Whereas all the other rivers of the region twist like writhing snakes held at either end, the Connecticut flies in the face of the rule, and with sheer audacity draws a surprisingly straight line from north to south.
The reason for this, as it turns out, is very simple, and it is found in the geology of the region. 250 million years ago North America and Africa were joined as parts of a larger supercontinent known as Pangea. The supercontinent began to tear apart, and, as it did so, rift valleys began to develop. One such rift valley formed where the Connecticut River now flows, its southern course following the break in the surface of the earth. Had the rifting continued, the land comprising New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine, Newfoundland, Eastern Connecticut, and Eastern Massachusetts would all be part of the African Continent. The eastern and western banks of the Connecticut River would instead be on the opposite sides of an ever-expanding Atlantic Ocean. Eventually the rift failed and a new one began, one hundred miles east of the present East Coast, where the continental shelf drops off into the depths of the Atlantic.
Halfway up the climb we arrive at an old stone wall deep in the undeveloped woods. The stone is granite and basalt, remnant detritus of volcanoes and lava flows that dominated the landscape as the rift valley opened. In more geologically recent times – that is, within the past one-hundred-thousand years – successive glacial advancements and retreats carved out the valley and softened the hills. Glaciers effectively took a valley shaped like a V and scooped it out until it more closely resembled a U. The landscape through which we snowshoe was born of fire and shaped by ice.
But, of course, the stones of the wall did not stack themselves, nor were they assembled so neatly by the glaciers. In part as a result of its volcanic past, the Connecticut River Valley possesses the richest farmland found in the region. The only catch was that the upland came riddled with stones, the broken pieces of mountains the glaciers had torn down. Painstakingly the rocks were picked and stacked to form boundaries of the newly cleared pasture and farm fields.
There are few areas of old growth forest left in Vermont. There are none here. We are climbing through forest undergoing stages of succession, the enterprising conifers being slowly replaced by hardwoods. We climb past empty building foundations filled in with snow and a family graveyard of headstones cataloging several generations, all dating to the mid-nineteenth century. At that time all of the surrounding forest, as well as much of the state, was cleared and under agricultural production. Maps dating to the period reveal a patchwork of family farms where today one finds uninhabited wilderness.
It is as if one has stumbled upon the overgrown ruins of a vast and ancient agricultural civilization. It is also a characteristically New England experience to set off into the woods and find oneself amidst the remains of a deeply human past. Throughout our hike we will climb over multiple stone walls and encounter another, much larger, graveyard, shrouded in wilderness and miles from any modern town.
Without ceremony or fanfare, without hardly realizing, we pick up the Appalachian Trail. The AT is the longest contiguous hiking trail in eastern North America, running for 2,200 miles and through 14 states. Continuing in our current direction would take us 450 miles to the trail’s northern terminus at Maine’s Mount Katahdin; turning around and going south would be a much longer 1750 miles to Springer Mountain in Georgia. Instead we jump off the trail and onto an old logging road, part of an unmapped system that crisscrosses the area, piecing together a several mile loop comprised of logging roads, bits of AT, and stretches off trail.
When I was growing up I would disappear for hours into this labyrinth. I saw nothing special about having my choice of places to pick up the AT, traveling for several miles, and hiking back out on some old logging road. Today I recognize that those early experiences are the foundation of my current perspective, and I know it is a privilege to have that as my origin story.