On The Custodial Spirit, and the Excellence of Eric St. Jean and Eva Malone
Several days into my Long Trail trek, I met two 23 year old hikers who had a similar pace to my own: a lovely couple from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Eric St. Jean and Eva Malone. I was hiking up Bromley Mountain, a pretty ski mountain covered in a meadow of wildflowers, and at the top, near the ski lift, sat Eric and Eva, with a pizza (!) they'd carried to the top. When they offered me a slice I yawped with joy. Fast friends.
(Eva, Eric, and Bruce, an Appalachian Trail hiker and fellow pizza lover.)
Eva and Eric and I managed to hike in synch with one another throughout many of the days, sometimes chatting as we hiked, sometimes simply hiking near one another in mellow silence. When The Long Trail split with the Appalachian Trail, after 104 miles, Eva had to get off, due to a foot injury. She's a great hiker and a bright spirit, but the intensity of her injury required her to make the wise decision to finish the remaining undone section of The Long Trail at a future time, when she's healed.
So, a little bummed, Eric and I moseyed forward, into the mud and rain. We set our tents up alongside each other and spurred each other onward through some gnarly weather, tough terrain, and achy legs. Eric is a quicker hiker and would usually get to a peak several minutes before me. I'd yell to him to "reel me up!" He'd yell "You got it, Matty!" We'd often walk within eyesight or earshot of each other for hours in quiet, just appreciating the sounds of streams and thrushes and the feeling of cool breezes on our necks.
A few days ago, in high winds and damp weather, we came to the top of another ski mountain area, called Smuggler's Notch. At the mountaintop sat a nice looking warming hut and we decided to see if it was open, even though it was summer and there was no ski snow to be found. Wouldn't you know...the door was unlocked and we went right in.
(Eric in front of our happy warming hut.)
But to our dismay, we found the place utterly trashed inside. A large group of hooligans had very recently driven up a Jeep trail and had a clandestine party in the hut. Garbage, spilled beer, and broken bottles were strewn everywhere inside. It made us both sad. So we decided we'd do what we could to tidy it up. There was a large garbage pail and a broom and we got to work. After an hour or so we had the place looking pretty spiffy. We'd thrown out all the refuse that was strewn around and as we cleaned we found 1/2 a chocolate bar, 1/2 a bag of marshmallows, a package of hotdogs, some buns, and a bottle of ketchup. We considered this booty our reward for a good cleanup job and we proceeded to make hot chocolate and cook the hotdogs on our camping stoves. I dried the slightly soggy buns over the stove flames while the dogs cooked, which made Eric laugh like hell. Very tasty cookout! Our bellies full and our good deed done, we slept soundly in the windproof mountaintop hut.
Two days before the end of The Long Trail we ran into a southbound Long Trailer who was having some aches and pains and asked if we had any ibuprofen, since she'd run out. Eric gave her a nice pile of Advil and in return she told us about a secret camping spot up ahead next to a pretty pond that was great for swimming. This was pure trail magic. We hiked the rest of the day, found the nice little spot, called Ritterbush Pond, and swam to our hearts' delight.
(Ritterbush Pond, great for swimming.)
(Eric feasts using his new "woodland chopsticks.")
We had a great sunset meal and camped on a little covered dock looking out over the water. When it rained through the night we stayed dry and happy.
Yesterday, as I approached the northern end of The Long Trail, Eric, who had arrived there a few minutes before me, yelled, "Run it, Matty!" And I charged to the end, bellowing with glee. It was great to share the joy of completion with a new friend.
(Northern Terminus of The Long Trail.)
(Eric sings "Oh, Canada!" at the wilderness border between the U.S.A. and Canada, just a few feet away from the northern end of The Long Trail.)
Eva drove for hours from New Hampshire and met us at the trail terminus. We jumped in her car and proceeded to the lovely town of Stowe, Vermont, where there was a warm inn Eva had booked for us. Much feasting and laughter ensued. This morning they drove me to the Amtrak station in Waterbury, Vermont, where I hopped on the Vermonter train, to ride back to New York. Goodbye for now, Eric and Eva. Thanks for everything and I'll see y'all soon.
There are these stories we tell ourselves, over and over, until we believe they're real. Stories that become grooves and ruts in our hearts and minds until we think we know who we are. Sometimes these stories, these narratives, are positive. Sometimes not. We'll turn certain experiences into full-blown catastrophes, over and over in our heads, until we think we're unlucky, troubled, downtrodden, etc. Or we'll look in the mirror and see affirmations of the messages we've been telling ourselves for so long that it all feels like Truth. But, walking all day, one day after the other, 17 miles per day, and coming to the end of The Long Trail of Vermont, I've had a little chance to watch my mind grab certain tales, hang onto them for a while, and then (often when I get to the top of a mountain, refreshed by a blowing breeze) let go and relax into a less grasping calm. A calm in which I'm not sweatily trying to tell myself who or what I am. A simple, quiet being.
I'm sure this is not new wisdom I'm doling out here. I'm sure we all have this experience, from time to time, of thinking we know who we are and then allowing that knowledge to gently slip away.
I had this narrative in my head that I simply had to wear heavy boots that covered my ankles, or else I would injure myself and be unable to finish my trek. And then I met Dilan and Kelly, two sisters walking The Long Trail. Dilan, a first-year college student, found that her hiking shoes were not very comfortable to her and decided to switch to trail-trudging in her Crocs. Yes, her Crocs! Those light, minimally supportive lounging shoes that are made of foam that's only slightly denser than a marshmallow.
(Hiking sisters, Kelly and Dilan, near the end of The Long Trail.)
(Dilan's Crocs, which took her through the toughest section of the trail.)
Dilan walked 171 miles of the toughest and most rugged part of The Long Trail in those little Crocs, just taking it easy and enjoying the walk in the most comfortable footwear she had.
So, when my Achilles' tendon started giving me trouble, I thought of Dilan and I let go of the narrative that lacing my boots all the way above my ankles was "the only way." I put duct tape and an Ace bandage over my irritated spots and walked on. For over 50 more miles.
(First the duct tape.)
(Then the Ace bandage.)
(Then the sock and loosely tied, more comfortable boot.)
I was inspired by Dilan to let go of my narrative that my shoe must be a certain way. And I relaxed into what became a much more comfortable experience. Maybe on my next hike I'll even try low-top shoes...or Crocs!
This is just a wee example, but there were other times when I'd stew my own brain to its boiling point over various issues and troubles from my paved life, even while surrounded by grand mountain vistas. Often such psychodramas would make trekking over easy terrain feel like I was trapped in a bog. What would it take to get back to the moment, to the immediacy of lived experience? Breathing helped. Cool drinks of water and snacks helped. But even more helpful was simply being attentive to the styles and textures of my thinking patterns until I could see that I often held onto certain negativities for no reason other than sheer force of habit. Sheesh. How ridiculous I am when I am convinced, with white-knuckled conviction, that I know what I am. How foolish to let the shifting web of narratives and my inevitable embellishments define my world. There's a certain clarity, and even a strange security, in letting the stream of thoughts just be a stream...instead of trying to weave them into something permanent.
Have now hiked 212 miles of The Long Trail. Only 60 miles left to complete the "through-hike." The last three days have been grinding and tough, with Burnt Rock Mountain, Mt. Ethan Allen, Camel's Hump, Mt. Bolton, and Mt. Mansfield (Vermont's highest mountain). All of these mountains have their own special way of busting your ass and crushing you. On some it was crazy weather (high cold winds, heavy rain), on others it was lots of climbing up and down ladders (ladders!) bolted into the rock, on still others it was long cautious shuffling up and down very slippery vertically challenging boulders. It was never boring, believe me. Anyway, these last 60 miles to the Canadian border should be challenging as well, though not as ridiculously steep as this section I've just finished. Onward!
(On Camel's Hump.)
(Ladders bolted to the rock ascending Mt. Mansfield.)
(Freaky red mushrooms...do not eat!)
(Pretty little red berries.)
(Pretty little blue berries.)
(View from the shelter where I'm sleeping, by Sterling Pond.)
Hymn them hawks, wheeling on the wing, four like spokes at peak tops. Tip of the morning to little berries, tiny crimson and dark blue orblets, vibing beside long rushing water. Some days it's bursting clouds down all day, greying every view in mist, socks sogged out and sluicing. Hands heavy in hard rain, holding trees for support down muck-slid path. Boots heavy too, soles scrabbling for grip over shiny green stone. Wince, wobble and sweat up dripping quartz crevices, legs bowing outward under salty all-day strain. But then dawn has pine branches drop cool dew on hot brow when hearty walking commences anew.
(A fun graffito found etched on a trail shelter.)
(How a camera sees three night hikers.)
(In the distance: The Camel's Hump, a mountain I will climb today.)
(On top of Mount Abraham, mile 154 on The Long Trail, The Adirondacks way in the distance behind me.)
(A steep part of the trail, with helpful rooty tree.)
Come walk with me over shining black mud puddles, oozing and gooping on all sides, smelling of cool rain and full of prints from people, dogs, deer and moose. Come stride with me over shiny shale rocks and slippery reddish roots. Come stretch over fallen birch trees, their white bark peeling like rolls of pale paper. Come stumble down little hills with me, clumpets of scree scattering and plinking as we descend. Come plash through streams and brooklets, that wash the mud off our boots and glister with swirling silt. Come ford rivers with me, using our sticks for balance as we step between the slippery freezing stones. Come sit, rest, and drink cold cold water with me, as it springs out from between two mossy stones. Chuckle and find the trail with me as it hides in high grass and tall purple thistles. Come, reach your hands up and scramble over large, jagged, lichen-green stones. If anything falls out of your pack I will pick it up and hand it back to you, grinning. This is the woods.
The Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail diverge here. The A.T. goes to New Hampshire and Maine. The L.T. goes to Canada. I've now walked 108 miles, with 165 left.
I walk with a pair of hiking poles. They give me extra balance and power. I wear boots that go past my ankles, for extra support on the treacherous stuff. I wear a very light wool T-Shirt when I hike that doesn't smell horrid after many days of walking. If it gets cool or rainy I throw on a rain jacket. I take medium or long strides on flattish ground and short ones going up or down hills. I break every hour or so for water and every two hours for a snack. I walk 15 to 20 miles per day. So far I've covered about 80 miles.
What I Have:
Knife, tent, sleeping bag, food, camp stove, fuel, bowl, spoon, disinfectant, map, first aid kit, flashlight, water-purifying tablets, notebook, long sleeve shirt and long underwear, extra pair of socks.
What I Eat:
Breakfast: Grape nuts with milk (powdered and water added).
Lunch: Banana chips, peanut butter, and sopresatta (or salami or jerky).
Grits or instant mashed potatoes, miso or chicken boullion, sopressata (or salami, tuna fish, or jerky).
Clif Bars, trail mix (no peanuts!), sopressata, or salami or jerky.
How I Think:
In the morning when I wake up (about 6:30am) I'm all business...eat breakfast, break camp and GO. My first hour of walking is "clear my head walking"...I simply walk and watch my breathing. The second hour of walking I think about poetry. These are the only two quite disciplined thinking hours of my day. The rest of the day is enjoying the scenery, taking pictures, making up little songs, chatting with other hikers I meet on the trail, etc. When I get to my campsite at night I'm all business again...getting water from the stream and treating it, boiling water for grits, setting up my tent. I try to be in bed and asleep by 10pm, so I can wake and repeat!
How am I not this wind, this quick breeze muttering in the leaves? How am I not these spiders, whose glinting webs catch and then release me? How am I not my family, my friends, even the rascals, and the troublemakers? Drinking from a cold spring fuzzes my boundaries. And these wacky roots, headed in all directions, drawing life from everywhere? How am I not them too, covered in bright moss? Yesterday a wide-eyed man in the forest told me he saw the planet take a breath. How am I not that emanation? Am I not also time? And if that, then change itself? The light rain becomes torrential and laughs me onward. Is it me or the mountain asking this? Sometimes even a small child can wobble a huge stone.
Trudging through mud today, I dug the fluted stylings of seven thrushes. I thought: Isn't it all just movement and stillness, anyway? As with the forest, so with the city. And the heart. Strange metallic attenuations, rising out of a bird's throat and drifting on air. Thinking all this, my wits half-focused on wet moss and patches of sunlight, I found I had stumbled up on Consultation Peak. Isn't it all just stillness and movement? The quiet. And the thrum.
I'm headed out on a little walking adventure for a bit.
My itinerary is to hike The Long Trail of Vermont. Built by the Green Mountain Club from 1910 to 1930, it's the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States. It's a precursor to the Appalachian Trail and it actually coincides with the Appalachian for about 100 miles. The Long Trail goes from the Vermont-Massachusetts border to the Vermont Canada border, over 272 green mountain miles. It begins near Williamstown, Massachusetts and ends near North Troy, Vermont.
I have my tent, sleeping bag, and plenty of beef jerky with me.
I will walk northward, hoping to cover roughly 15 to 20 miles per day, and finish the route in about two weeks (maybe a little more). My pack weighs 33 pounds with all my gear, water, and six days of food. I'll resupply at a trailside town or two along the way. For perspective, when I Through-Hiked the Appalachian Trail, my pack generally weighed more than twice what it does now...that was 18 years ago! I'm happy that technology has made big strides with ultralight backpacking gear.
I'm taking my current poetry manuscript with me to work on solidifying the final order of poems in the book. That will be my intellectual project for the trip, occupying my noggin as I stumble over muddy rocks and gnarly roots. I'll also be sending lots of love and happy energy to you all as I go. If, in these next couple of weeks, you happen to glance up at a mountain or stream, or take a favorite forested stroll, mentally send me some good vibrations...as I'll be sending them to you! I'll be traveling solo but keeping you all right next to my heart.
Shortly I'll step off the bus from New York City...I'm about to arrive in Williamstown, Massachusetts...it's a quick walk to the trail from there...the woods and mountains beckon...
At the University of Arizona Poetry Center from May 20 to
This is a week-long intensive Surrealist writing
workshop. We will not write “poetry” exclusively, because to limit the medium
would only negate the expansive attitude the early Surrealists worked so hard
to encourage. In his “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924), André Breton wrote that
the imagination knows no bounds, but that we are nearly always engaged in
actions that limit it. This class works to reverse the process, to “unfurl the
flag of the imagination” and produce the strangest and maddest pieces of art
and writing, in order “to express, either verbally, or in writing, or by any
other manner, the real functioning of thought.” We will read and discuss key
texts such as the major manifestos of the early Surrealists, and early iconic
poetic and dramatic formations by writers such as Breton, Tristan Tzara,
Benjamin Péret, Robert Desnos, Henri Michaux, and others. We will also make
contact with newer works by more contemporary surrealist artists and writers.
However, all of our looking into Surrealism’s past and present unfolding will
be to illumine and inspire us to create our own imaginative works. This
workshop will actively explore both individual and collaborative writing and
art. Even the “critiques” that we perform will be creative and entertaining.
Exercises will include, but not be limited to:
collaborative poetry and drawing, written interactions with visual art,
reading, writing and performance of short dramatic scenes, extensive automatic
writing projects, postcards to nowhere, and building dream sculptures. The
workshop is open to writers and artists of every type and skill level. If you
are blocked or stuck in a particular mode of expression, or feel the need to
kick-start your art in an open and imaginative space, this class is for you.
In addition to the 2 ½ hours that our class meets each
night, Matt will hold office hours several times during the week as a
supplement to the workshop. These will be optional and anyone from the class is
welcome but not obligated to attend. Also, the class will culminate in a short
performance or recital of some of the works we create during the week-long
intensive workshop. This is also fully optional.
Tuition: $225 + $5 course material fee
Monday through Saturday, May 20–25, 6:00–8:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 26, 7:00–8:30 p.m.
An Italian-American Spaceman Foresees His Death:
Smashing against ashen walls, alone in space,/
Weirdly wired, mind warping/
Through the void, veering over/
The vapid edge of madness, mumbling aloud,/
"Per aspera ad astra, you young asshole./
It’s a rough road to the stars, Rotando."