August 3, 2011

The Secret Hike

In New York City, I’m as wily as a cat. I can wend around office cubicles without trembling the air; contort myself inside a crowded subway car so I touch no one; negotiate with a hostess for a better table; ignore the crap wine teasers on the drink list at a tapas bar. Hold out for a better day rate at a digital agency. But that’s New York. Here in Vermont, I’m a stumbling fool, a mockable urbanite, an ignorant outsider.

The Vermont philosopher takes David on a hike

I also know when someone’s trying to impress me with their country ways. I play along. I nod with bright-eyed wonderment. I act the fool.

Darren, the town philosopher, invited me on a hike when he saw me at the café. “I’m going to take you where no one ever goes. You’ll have to promise me you won’t tell anyone about it.”

“Sure, I won’t. Where are we going?”

“You’ll see. You won’t be sorry.”

I had originally demurred because I already had a plan: something about drinking more coffee at the café, and then walking up to the library, and then maybe taking a bike ride. Basically, the things I do every single day in this place.

Darren looked at me sadly and turned to go.

“Okay, fuck it,” I said. “I’ll go, okay? Time to be spontaneous.” This was difficult for me. I felt bound to the chair, to the table, to my plan.

“Drop your shit off,” Darren said. “I’ll pick you up at your house.”

There was no getting out of it now. We went with another guy who used to live in town, then went away for a few years to find fame as a poet and was now back, this time with a bushy beard. He was doubling down on Vermont.

We didn’t drive for long, maybe ten minutes, before parking on the side of a dirt road shouldered by woods. I couldn’t see a trail.

“There is no trail,” said Darren.

We hacked through. The ground was mush. A few days earlier someone told me how to identify poison ivy. Pointy leaves? Three of them on a stem? It all looked like poison ivy to me.

“Watch out for water moccasins,” said Darren.

“What’s a water moccasin?”

“Oh, a snake.”

“Oh, okay.”

The bushy-faced guy laughed and then said, knowingly, “Not all the way up here in Vermont.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Yeah, he’s fucking with you,” said bushy beard approvingly.

Although there’s a level of theater to Darren’s ways – I’d say about half of what he tells me is pure fabrication — the fact stands that he lives in a cabin off the grid and tends to an enormous personal vegetable garden. He paints houses for a living. Builds stone fences.

With the other guy, though, there was no sense of theater. He strove earnestly for authenticity. But he didn’t live in a cabin, he lived in a house. He drove a late-model car. He wore ironic t‑shirts. He wrote poetry. There was a taint of the political to his wilderness, mountain-man persona. He taught 101 classes that required some reading and some hiking. My boy Darren just painted houses. Still, Darren had more to talk about with the other guy than with me. But he always tried to bring me into his world.

I heard water running over rocks. We cut through bramble until we got to a high-banked stream. Rocks and boulders poked out of the water as the stream wound out of view. We scrambled down. Light filtered softly through the old trees that towered above us.

“Wow,” I said.

Again there was no trail so the only way up the stream was to step and sometimes hop from rock to rock. We did this for forty minutes, while Darren and the bushy-bearded guy tried to out-man each other by naming the flora on the banks. The water was cold, the rocks slippery. Small stones glittered under the water.

We scrambled onto a big rock that looked over a deep, clear pool, at the bottom of which we could see wide streaks of ochre stone. On the other side of the pool a short but powerful waterfall shouted. We jumped into the freezing water. The floor was all stone, the rust-colored streaks pushing out like angry veins.

Shivering, I pulled myself back on the rock. I watched the two boys frolic a bit and take turns sliding down the big rock into the water, while I produced a copy of the New Yorker and a notebook. I stretched out my legs, on which were cemented twigs and dirt from our hike. I began to write in the notebook.

Dear Clarissa, I wrote.

I lay flat on the cool slab of rock and watched the leaves rocking high above me. The sun filtered through in patches. On the trip to the rock we had found dozens of small colonies of chantarelles. Also, cows behind an old wooden fence, looking into the forest, at us.

Darren was back on the rock. He saw that I was transfixed by the strange pattern fungus had painted on a tree trunk.

“You’re looking at the face of god, right there,” he said. I tried not to laugh and then I remembered that Clarissa had always wanted me to think outside myself, while I had always wanted her to look more deeply inward.

I picked up the notebook.

Dear Clarissa. Now what? It didn’t matter because the pen had stopped working.

“Damn this pen.” I searched my man purse for another.

Darren said, “No pen? If you want me to, there’s a kind of mushroom I can make ink out of.”

“Oh, wait. I found one.”

Dear Clarissa. Maybe it’s time we reproduced.

That sounded retarded. I sighed. It didn’t matter what I wrote. If I said one thing, she’d think I was self-aggrandizing. If I said something else, I’d sound self-deluded. Another thing, plain insane. She never wrote back. Not even a fuck off. But I didn’t mind writing myself off a cliff.

The boys decided to explore further up the stream. I stayed behind and read a bit of an article about a hedge fund guru in Connecticut. Then, drowsy, I lay back on the rock again. Strange-looking bugs targeted my face.

I sat up and spent a good ten minutes watching a water skimmer jerk back and forth on top of a calm pool by the bank. I started to think about bears. I had remembered about the bear attacks in Yellowstone and Alaska in the last couple of weeks. This wasn’t Yellowstone or Alaska, but we still had bears. Nervous, I stood and scanned the woods. If there were bears out there they could see me, so I crouched. Eventually, I heard voices coming from the direction the boys had gone. They were finally back.

“Hey,” I called out. There were shin-deep in the water. Oh, and naked.

“You’re naked!”

Then I realized that these weren’t my friends at all. These were two naked strangers. They looked at me curiously.

“What the hell!” I yelled, without cause. One of them pointed to his ear and shook his head. They couldn’t hear me above the rush of water. They hadn’t heard me yelling that they were naked. One of them looked bewildered.

A few minutes later, Darren and the other guy turned up. They chatted briefly with the naked men before they got back to the big rock.

“That one guy was surprised to see us,” said Darren. “He said he’s been coming here for eleven years and this is the first time he’s seen anyone else.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re back. I started getting worried about bears.”

“Bears!” said the bushy-faced poser.

“Bears? It’s not even cubbing season and the berries are getting ripe.”

“Really?”

“Sure. There’s plenty of food for them now. They won’t come down looking.”

I looked up at the treeline. “Okay. Cubbing season?”

“Baby bears.”

We began to head back to the road. Darren led us out. He made fun of me for having brought — and read — the New Yorker. Then he stopped. He reached for a tall plant.

“Water hemlocks.”

“What?”

“Maybe. Filled with neurotoxins. You rub the tops of these and then touch your mouth and you’re dead.”

“Okay, now you’re fucking with me.”

He looked at me. He thought for a bit. He still wanted — heroically — to drag me into his world.

“Am I?”

 

– Vermont