by Glenn Reed
(Swans - September 23, 2013) Modern society is noisy. And we've become addicted to it.
Three weeks ago my partner and I set out on a day hike in the nearby Green Mountains of Vermont. I chose the Bucklin Trail, which was a route I hadn't been on in 31 years. It winds 3.8 miles to the summit of the second-highest point in the state: 4,241-foot-tall Killington Peak.
Hiking has been an essential part of my life since my late teens. It's always provided a time of meditation for me and a place to feel in the present, centered and away from the chaos and troubles of my own life and the rest of the world. I've realized, too, that getting away from the constant noise of living in "civilization" is a major part of hiking's appeal.
For a day, or more if I backpack, I feel able to leave everything behind in even the worst of times and concentrate on the rhythm of my breath as I strain up a steep trail. I'm focused on what's in front of me, whether it's the patterns of fungi clinging to the side of a white birch, catch the cheerful sound of a chickadee flitting from beech branch to branch, inhale the seasonal transitions that manifest change in smell of fallen leaves or a wet meadow clogged with jewelweed. I crumble a few needles from a balsam fir between my fingers, close my eyes and smell them and am transported to a hundred different mountaintops in my lifetime. The Bucklin Trail follows a brook for the first half of the trek up Killington. Within the first half-mile, though, it's been relocated a hundred or so feet up from the edge of the copper-colored waters and tumbled boulders of those waters. That's due to damage from the surging torrents resulting from Tropical Storm Irene a couple of years ago.
One of the most striking things about this particular hike is the total silence of the surrounding forest. It's increasingly difficult to find this basic, sensory pleasure on a surprising majority of hikes in New England and in other parts of the country. If you're close to any major roads, there's often (most?) the background hum of steady traffic or grunt of downshifting trucks. Sometimes there's the high-pitched whir of someone chain-sawing and other times construction noises echo from highways or nearby communities. Virtually always, there's the occasional high altitude rumble of a jet reminding that no place on this planet seems immune from the invasive noises of humanity and its technology.
Luckily, the Bucklin Trail begins off the dirt, Wheelerville Road, an old connection between the east-west Route 4 and north-south Route 7 in Vermont. The trailhead is over four miles off of Route 4 and there are no dwellings or any development at all along the road. The intervening forest and terrain block all traffic sounds from back on the highway.
The ridges that line the narrow mountain valley through which the first couple of miles of trail traverse are also completely undeveloped. A real quiet zone exists, so that as you set out on the Bucklin Trail the only sounds heard are those of the woods. We hear the flow of the main brook, the tinkling of feeder streams, the occasional barking scold of a red squirrel, the leaves rustling in a light breeze, the "ploink" of a little frog escaping our hiking boots into a muddy puddle.
This lack of human-generated noise is one of the greatest joys of this particular hike. However, what surprises me is just how long it takes to shut the noise off in my own brain in order to enjoy that quiet. While my heart rate rises with the exercise, my eyes and noise and ears savor the peace of the woods and quickly tune in to natural rhythms, songs in my head continue to loop in stubborn defense against the sensory onslaughts of "modern" life, while nagging thoughts of personal troubles keep percolating through. I continually tell my thoughts to just "shut up!" and try to focus on the calming sounds around me.
Gradually, I'm able to succeed. Maybe part of it is that we reach the "grunt" section of trail where the grade steepens and stays that way for about a mile and a half. I have to be so completely in the moment, focused on each step as the cool, humid air is making the jumbled rock on the trail sweat with moisture and exposed tree roots continually threaten trips and falls. My senses zero in on so many of the joyous little details of the woods. It's like repeating your mantra in meditation. It's also the animal in yourself taking over, the survivor for whom loud noises are very likely some type of threat, but the slightest noise could be a predator stalking you.
When we reach an elevation that is marked by the forest's transition to mostly balsam and birch trees, there's a short easing of the steady climb. A slightly boggy spot, limited by the lack of deep soil, is marked by scattered boulders, moss carpets, and a thick growth of jewelweed and light, purple asters.
Pausing to take a picture, I realize that there is silence in my brain. Finally.
A few minutes later, as we're almost entirely surrounded by the fragrant spruce and balsam fir that dominate the higher elevations of northern New England's mountains, we hear the first voices of the hike outside of our own. We've just passed the point where the Bucklin Trail intersects the 271-mile Long Trail that traverses the whole Green Mountain range north to south, from the Quebec to the Massachusetts border. I remember that there's a lean-to up ahead that is one of the many spaced an easy day hike apart on the Long Trail. I assume the voices heard are some backpackers staying there, though I wonder why they need to be almost shouting. My sense of connection with the environment is broken and the illusion of being far from civilization is gone.
Approaching the shelter, I see two men sitting on some bedrock, backpacks leaning on a boulder, some equipment strewn about. They're both talking on cell phones. Very loudly. I scamper quickly by them.
The last quarter-mile to the summit of Killington is the steepest part of the trail. Scrambling over rock, needing careful handholds in spots, and weary of slippery patches of bedrock, I've put my head down and am pushing harder than ever. I'd wanted to get far away from those intrusive voices as quickly as possible. I'd even cursed them under my breath for what I saw as some violation, or some code of hikers that is no longer respected by so many. The least they could have done, I think, is to keep quiet and text if they felt the need to communicate to someone in Connecticut what the weather was doing in Vermont.
The view from on top of Killington is impressive. Unfortunately, the peak is one of many in Vermont that is also developed. Thus, after all of your effort to attain it and the feelings of accomplishment and being part of nature, you're greeted by an antenna stabbing at the clouds and people who have ridden the gondolas to the summit from the ski area that dominates the east side of the mountain. To the west, the view is of tree-carpeted slopes for miles down a valley, past a gathering of foothills, the city of Rutland about ten miles distant, and the curving spine of the Taconic Range beyond that. To the east, it's a helter-skelter of ski slopes that slice in artificial patterns down the mountainside, anchored by the multiplying condos and other structures of the ski resort town of Killington. Beyond are jumbled hills leading, eventually, to the higher points of New Hampshire's White Mountains. I don't bad-mouth an industry that is essential to Vermont's economy, but as a hiker, I know what side of the mountain is preferable.
The panorama at the top was impressive, but soon my mind has quieted again as we descend back along the Bucklin Trail. When we reach that little patch of jewelweed and aster again, I stop to savor it as the sun peaks tentatively through the scattered cloud banks overhead.
I'm aware that all too soon, our parked car will come into view. We'll take off our hiking boots and drive back down the dirt road until it intersects a steady din and flow of traffic. The "conveniences" and wonders of our high-tech age will bombard once again. Loudly. The loop of music in my head will restart and play, over and over and over.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed Glenn Reed is a writer and activist from Fair Haven, Vermont, who works in the non-profit world. (back)