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Lewis and Clark and Me

It may have been Stephen Ambrose's new book on the Lewis and Clark Expedition that made me do it. Maybe some deep yearning to experience firsthand a tiny bit of what he records in "Undaunted Courage." Some partly romantic, partly pragmatic desire to tame at least a small part of our own Louisiana Purchase - 10 or 12 acres of heavily wooded hillside that only rarely "flattens" to less than a 30-degree grade.

I knew, from repeated meanderings up that slope, that near the peak of the highest ridge lay a reward - not quite as good as the Northwest Passage to the Pacific, but a navigational breakthrough nonetheless. Way up there, a few hundred feet above our valley-floor house, lay a hiker's paradise of well-marked trails cut by the latter-day mountain men in this part of Vermont, the local snowmobilers. These trails, following the ridge tops, extend for miles, connecting towns, ski areas, campsites. Perhaps a mile and a half to the east, the main snowmobile track intersects the Appalachian Trail. Theoretically, I could go out my back door and keep walking all the way to Maine - or Georgia!

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The first problem with that theory was the sometimes impossibly steep hillside between me and the snowmobilers' playground. I had struggled up it enough times - puffing up short, passable stretches of old logging road, sliding on patches of wet leaves, becoming entangled in thorny masses of wild berry bushes - to know its problems. The solution was obvious: Cut a switchback path through the fairly vertical, but least brambly section.

My wife and I set out in late May - or possibly early June (my journal entries are much less complete than Lewis and Clark's). We carried rakes, hoes, shovels, and weed-thrashing implements. The burst of vegetation that follows a heavy Vermont winter had barely begun. The thick growth of goldenrod in the lower meadows was perhaps halfway up our calves. The fiddlehead and other ferns were still in the early, edible stage. And, most important, the thorny brambles were young and tender - easy to lop off.

That other awakening nemesis of the springtime north woods - small flying and biting insects - was present, but not yet en masse. We hacked and hoed most of a morning and afternoon, she working downward from a point 100 yards or so up the hill. I ventured upward. My wife, a naturalized Vermonter with deeper roots in the state's stony soil than mine, made it a one-day project. She sensed, perhaps, that this was a mission without any reasonable end point, no Pacific Ocean at which one could breathe "at last!"

I had no such instincts, and the trail project became my passion, calling me forth at least once a weekend to make the climb. I'd chop at more saplings with an axe or brush hook, fasten bright pieces of surveyor's tape to trees to mark the route, and clear away whatever had obscured the path since my last foray.

The woods, I learned, never rest. Each week brought a newly fallen branch (if not a whole tree), spectacular growth of ferns and vines, walls of now-chest-high goldenrod, and fresh hordes of buzzing, hovering insects. Could the gnats and deer flies of an extra-swampy New England summer be any less vexing than the gigantic mosquitoes that greeted Lewis and Clark on the Oregon coast? But fall came, and the bugs got a taste of the most effective repellent of all - frosty night temperatures.

The trail is now well established, by my standards. There are places where there's just room enough to put one foot in front of the other, and where a handy tree trunk is the best way to keep from making a rapid, unplanned descent. Still, it's satisfying, this minor conquest of the boondocks.

The biggest challenge still lies ahead. Can I keep up the weekly treks along what I pridefully call (just to myself) "The Henderson Trail" even as winter approaches? Inevitably, deep snows will return this terrain to those other trailblazers, the snowmobilers.

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My insulated boots, snowshoes, and cross-country skis are ready. In fact, I've already attempted the climb in snowshoes after 19 inches of wet, early-December snow. It was tricky. The narrow path that served fine for boots in the summer doesn't accommodate the breadth of a snowshoe very well. And if your footfall lands a little downhill from the earthen ledge hacked out all those months ago - well, there's nothing holding even this depth of new snow to the hillside. After I set off a couple of mini-avalanches, my progress was very cautious, very slow.

Clearly, going up (and especially coming down) by means of winter gear will make the familiar, moderately rugged weekly excursions seem a pleasant walk in the park. What lies ahead may be my own slog through the Bitterroots (to keep the Lewis and Clark thread going). But provisions, home, and a warm fire will be much, much closer at hand.

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