November 2, 2012

The Second Secret Hike

“It’s time, David.“David goes on another hike with the town philosopher

This wasn’t Darren speaking, but his beard. Since last summer he had grown it into full mountain man splendor. People in Vermont age hard and full-bore. It’s the only thing that changes here: rougher edges, worse teeth, building alcoholism, and, if you’re a man, more facial hair.

“Time for what?”

“You need to ask?”

Except for the occasional cryptic conversation, we hardly ever crossed paths. But I had seen Darren the night before at 1am, racing on a purloined bike down the middle of Cemetery Road, yelling exuberantly, unintelligibly. We’ve known each other over ten years, but we barely know each other. We try, every summer, to enlighten ourselves about the other. Every summer we try because it’s dumb not to. But we’re different animals.

“It’s time for another hike.”

When Darren says “hike,” he doesn’t mean what normal people mean when they say it — a woodland stroll, a mountain trek, a rock scramble. No, he means a Vermont safari, an expedition headlong into the woods. No sandals, no short sleeves, no trails. If you get back home without scratches on your arms and face, without some kind of poisoned plant infection, it’s not only a miracle, but you probably pussied out somehow.

“We’re going to look for the Calypso orchid, David. It’s rare, and so delicate that it might die if it hears us coming.”

We drove up Flanders Hill, just down the road from my place. Fields, dense woods, fields again, one house, a meadow, fields. We parked next to one of the meadows, and then trudged through the wet tall grass to the woods’ edge. It was overcast, and so, in some weird way, more real than if the sun had come out, happy bright.

“Well, this is as a good a place to start as any,” said Darren, using his wilderness idiom (oh, he grew up in Connecticut; his parents are well-to-do), and then he pushed into the trees with me following behind, his disciple. As usual, I thought the whole thing was a terrible mistake, this walking through undesignated rolling ground, between the trees, over the ferns, pushing aside branches, all the while aware of the specter of snakes.

“Ah, a deer path.”

I could see it, sort of: narrow, delicate. We followed it. Darren identified the plants on the way. We came across a cluster of chanterelles. But they looked off to me.

“I don’t think they’re chanterelles.”

“David, David, of course they’re chanterelles.” We looked at the fluting, the color; we smelled them.

“Darren, I think they’re jack-o-lanterns,” I said, proudly. These poisonous imitators of chanterelles won’t kill you, but they’ll send you to the hospital with terrible stomach pain and diarrhea. I knew all this because when I had found some chanterelles the summer before, I’d spent an hour on the internet triple-checking against photos. I didn’t fully enjoy that meal.

We left the mushrooms, not sure anymore, but I felt at least on some kind of kindred footing with Darren after I had convinced him that the fluting looked wrong.

We emerged into an oasis — a glade of tall grass. Darren pointed at a flattened patch. “That’s where the deer slept last night.”

“Oh? Really?” I didn’t always believe Darren, because he had a pranksterish tendency that revealed itself when he sensed a receding reverence for his woodcraft skills.

“Sure. What else could it be? They find an open space to sleep, so if trouble comes they can easily escape.”

I thought of deer putting down for the night under the stars. It was still summertime; it had been a warm evening. Not an awful life for a mammal that lives in fear. We live in fear, too, but instead of glades, we sleep fitfully in boxes.

The ground grew increasingly wet as we plowed through bramble and grass. The problem was that it was hard to see where your next step would fall. You had no time to stop your foot from getting sucked into what dawned on me was a bog.

“This blows, Darren.”

“We’re almost there. Stop being so David.”

We got on firmer footing, surrounded by firs. Darren ran his hand across the bark of one of the fir trees. “Look at this.” Raised dots pimpled the landscape of the bark. Darren pressed on one of the dots and out squirted some sap. He put a finger in his mouth. “Pretty good.” We sampled several trees. They all tasted different. “I have no idea why,” Darren said in a rare moment, “why this one’s sweeter.”

We moved on, following what had been an old road, according to Darren. He pointed out how the path had the tell-tale horse cart grooves, now almost entirely obscured by the shifting ground and the growing grass. Like the deer path and the dear bed, I’d completely missed it without Darren showing me. We found ourselves in the middle of something. Woods, but different. There was a uniformity.

“It’s an ancient apple orchard. Let’s stop here, sit for a bit.”

“On the ground? I don’t know.”

“David.”

We sat and didn’t talk, which was a relief, because I was getting tired of listening to Darren in pedagogical mode. Minutes went by. Things slowed. The ground, covered by leaves, smelled like leaves. It was that particular kind of autumnal rot that actually smells like renewal. It’s probably rare that used land gets reclaimed by nature. That it still happens gave the derelict orchard an apocalyptic feel. Birds, having been quiet for a while, began talking. “They finally got calm with us being here,” said Darren, sounding like that other half of Vermont, that annoying sustainable, crafts-making, everything-is-connected half of Vermont. But it was true, what he said about the birds.

“David, I don’t think I’ve sever seen you so quiet for so long.”

We moved on. Darren pointed out the local monuments. A buck scraping on a tree, and later on another tree, the clawings of a beer. A torn apart pine cone on the ground. “Squirrel snack!” cried Darren. The forest opened up, revealing a big pond. But it wasn’t a normal pond. It had been manufactured.

“A beaver pond,” said Darren. I’d never seen one. It was enormous, and in the middle of it sat the beaver lodge, a castle protected by its moat. We had to cross the pond, and the best way was by walking on the sturdy dam the beavers had built to exacting code. It held back a deluge, after all. A beaver swam out of the lodge and angrily slapped the water.

“We better be careful,” said Darren. “There could be more of them.” Later, Darren scared the shit out of me by yelling “Bear!” as we hiked back to the road. I clasped him. We laughed. We leaned against trees and drank water out of our packs. We chatted about our trip. We talked about doing it again sometime. This was our conversation, I finally understood. Not the talking, but the adventures. The passing of wilderness knowledge.

I got back home soaked, muddied, scratched, and my lips sap-sticky. And then I wrote all of it down, because, it seemed to me, I might need to remember it all one day.