Tina Weikert: Finding my way on the path not taken

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If you drive U.S. Route 7 though Bennington County often enough, you are bound to see something entertaining along its margins. The same could be said of Vermont Route 30 or Vermont Route 9, or any local lane you consistently traverse.

For me, Route 7 from Manchester to Bennington holds the honor of hosting a favorite sighting: A goat, positioned just so on the grassy slope, as if a deer had taught it how to highway graze. Deer, I am used to seeing roadside; a goat, with no residence or reason in sight, not so much. I certainly was entertained. I've seen moose, turkey and foxes along that stretch, but never a goat.

That day in the car, I was the passenger, not the driver, and knew better than to shout alarmingly, "Hey stop! There's a goat over there!" Besides, the goat knew where it was. I could tell by the way the brush surrounding it was mowed down, the greenery cleared away by the goat's hard work. In the background was the vague makings of a path. Its residence was nearby; I just had never noticed it before.

Along the highways, old logging roads more easily catch my eye. Pull-offs with a stream nearby and a parked truck with a "Ducks Unlimited" bumper sticker draw me in too, as do dusty dirt roads with enticing names like Forest Road 10 leading into an ether of pine. These are simple observations, but they leave me feeling connected to the rhythm of the natural world and my fellow Vermonters. They're reminders that I can't possibly be the only one who takes lunch breaks bankside by the Battenkill.

On winter roads, I note snowmobile tracks crisscrossing fields before entering the woods, and come summer, I can make out the distinct parting of birch branches where the ringing calls of chickadees have replaced churning engines. Seasonal snows outline paths I hadn't noticed in the summer. If it's a warm-enough winter day, I'll strap on my running shoes and explore. Sometimes I align my footfall with the maintained town roads; other times I'll divert to the newly discovered paths that zigzag across the swaths of woods I pass.

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No trespassing, no being unsafe, no ignoring law or posted signs, and yet with these rules firmly in place, there are still so many sideways and byways I have discovered through the years! We are lucky to live in a space with such access to natural resources at our fingertips. After a long day, to walk in the woods or down a quiet country road is a salve to my soul.

Ever take your daily walk and choose to turn left instead of right, discovering that the decision led to a beautiful spot you previously had never know existed? I had this experience in Manchester at Equinox Preservation Trust the first time I diverted from my usual trail to walk "The Snicket." I had it again the first time I turned onto Auger Hole Road in Brattleboro headed to Olallie Daylily Gardens. I could not believe I had never chosen to travel that exquisite Vermont road until that day. I have yet to regret a decision that sidetracks my initial plan of travel — be it by car or by foot.

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My household has acquired a ragtag set of snowshoes over the years. They aren't top of the line, and a few of the straps may be ornery, but they get the job done. Many a winter day has been spent with my family exploring the woods just beyond our doorstep. We know these woods. We study them in every season and see where the biggest boulders are to climb, and where the trickling creek winds among the ferns. In winter, everything changes. It is familiar yet exotic.

On a recent outing into the woods, we walked the first half-mile in understood silence. Each of us find a comfortable gait while we slide out of our concerns and begin to concentrate on the wood's invitation to explore. My youngest son predictably stops to ensure that he has remembered his thermos of hot cocoa. He has. Recent snow has coated the trees in sparkling white tinsel, shining brightly because the sun is out. We are not warm exactly, but the light and the exercise coax us all into feeling comfortable.

This walk through the woods has evolved over the years. At first, a tentative plunge into the trees, then back to familiar ground. We went further each time until we could follow a deer path and have a rough idea of our orientation.

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We know the terrain now but still are astounded by the beauty at every turn. The tree branches, blanketed with snow, bend over our path, forming a natural arbor under which we walk until we get to the fallen tree — the huge one, the one my youngest keeps an eye out for because he knows it's here. There, we will stop so he can have his hot cocoa.

Afterward, we crest the highest ridge along our hike and chart our course home. The sun has moved lower in the sky, sending its fractures of light bouncing off the stand of evergreens and onto the path before us.

Once we reach the power lines, the boys tumble away from my husband and me, eager to show they know the final steps to the house. May they always be this eager to lay tracks and explore their world.

Tina Weikert contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.


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