I am in virgin territory. The realization dawned on me with a bit of awe as I swooped through the hills and curves of the Northeast Kingdom. Smiling to myself, I thought, It's still thrilling. Vermont is like a longtime partner to me, one whose beauty never grows old.
After my 35 years as a Green Mountain cabbie, discovering new roads is an increasingly uncommon experience. I've had many fares to Jay Peak, but I couldn't recall a trip that took me north of the ski area. I was en route to North Troy — at least, that was the nearest town — specifically to Journey's End Road, the aptly named northern terminus of the Long Trail. I was set for a 2 p.m. rendezvous with two guys in a rental car, Paul and Blake. The plan was for me to drive them to the Appalachian Gap, west of Waitsfield, where they would hike the trail back to their vehicle over a few days.
I'd heard about Journey's End Road from another cabbie, and, as I turned onto it, my fears were quickly confirmed: This was a steep, winding road, ruddy and rocky, better for goats than cars. Some manner of four-wheel drive was called for, but that was not, alas, a feature of my low-riding Chevy Malibu.
Nonetheless, I ascended slowly, tucked in low gear, and made it to the turnoff a mile up. It was more of a wide shoulder than a parking lot, with space for about six vehicles. One car was parked, but it didn't belong to my guys. As I was early, this didn't make me nervous. I cut the engine and stepped out.
Total silence engulfed me like a tsunami.
Or rather, I noticed after a couple of beats, the sound that was absent was of the human-generated variety. The natural world was playing a symphony. Trees rustled in the breeze; crickets creaked; unseen birds called to one another.
I'm such a city boy, I reflected, chuckling to myself — though, ironically, I've spent a good part of my working life traversing rural byways. It was the heart of the foliage season this far north, and the surrounding color was almost liquid in its intensity. I spontaneously raised both arms over my head in a posture of surrender and took it all in.
Fifteen glorious minutes later, my customers pulled up — two men in late middle age. I shook hands with Paul, then Blake.
"My gosh, I am exhausted," Paul said with a laugh. He was tall and lanky, with bushy, still-blond hair and a rugged beard. "We flew out of Baton Rouge at four this morning. I got up about two. How about you, Blake?"
"I don't think I slept at all, though I did catch maybe an hour or two on the plane," Blake replied. He was already unloading stuff from their car onto the grassy ground. He, too, was tall and lean, and I noticed how he moved deliberately and efficiently. "Jernigan," he said, "it's going to take us a minute to get ready."
"No problem," I said. "Take all the time you need. Gotta be prepared when you're heading into the wild."
Oh, yeah, I'm such an experienced outdoorsman. Dropped into the wilderness alone, I'd likely be in a fetal position within the hour.
I leaned against the fender of my cab, watching them empty out their vehicle and methodically pack their large backpacks. I found myself fascinated with the process. Their attention was calm and focused as they moved separately, yet in tandem, loading in water bottles, freeze-dried food, clothes, plastic bags. That they were old friends I had no doubt. For two people to be utterly comfortable in silence demonstrates an affinity that develops only with time.
"Ya ever forget anything important?" I asked, and immediately regretted it. Not the question — which was entirely benign — but my violation of the moment. I felt like a squawking toddler in a Zen temple. In the quietude, my voice resounded like a bullhorn in a library.
All of this apparently was happening only in my head, because the boys seemed fine with me. Blake chuckled, saying, "Last year, Paul forgot a spoon — remember that? For a day or two, we both shared mine, until we ran into another hiker who generously gave him a spare."
On cue, Paul held up a spoon. "Well, I won't make that mistake this time."
They finished up, and we loaded their packs into the taxi trunk and headed south with Blake in the back and Paul riding shotgun.
"Do you do this often?" I asked. "You seem like experienced hikers."
"Yeah, we get out — what would you say, Paul — three times a year?"
"That sounds about right," Paul replied. "For about 20 years now. We've hiked all around the country."
"How do you guys know each other?"
"We're both professors at LSU. Blake retired two years ago, and I've gone to part-time status."
"What's your field, Paul?"
"Both Blake and I are entomologists."
"Interesting. So, at some point, did either of you have, like, an actual medical practice?"
"Entomology is a branch of zoology," Paul explained. "The study of insects."
"Oh, jeez," I said. "I think I actually knew that."
The route to the Appalachian Gap was a straight shot down Route 100. Along the way, the guys didn't talk much. When they did, it was mostly to marvel at the passing topography. Where they lived, southern Louisiana, was as flat as it comes, with nary a hill, let alone mountain.
In Waitsfield, I took the right onto Route 17, and soon we reached the apex of the gap road. Here the parking lot was huge, and dozens of campers and day hikers milled about in various stages of preparation.
The moment we pulled to a stop, Blake popped out to unload their packs, while Paul paid me and thanked me for the ride. There were no long goodbyes before, in silence, they turned and walked into the woods.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.