Why I have cravings for Bread Loaf
In his book ''The Lost World of the Kalahari,'' Laurens van der Post is told by his bushman guide of a cluster of hills deep in the desert. Once a year the bushmen gather there to replenish themselves through old tales, tribal dances, and the brilliantly colored paintings of eland and rhinoceros and giraffe that adorn the sheer rock faces.
For 10 years now, the area around Middlebury, Vt., where I attended college, has performed a somehat similar function in my life. Repeated journeys there and the remembrance of those journeys have made its landscape the face of a friend. To the west of the campus are dairy farms and apple orchards and the distant blue silhouette of the Adirondacks. To the east, a dark shoulder of the Green Mountains makes the steeple of the town's Congregational church seem ever whiter. The more you run or cycle on the dirt roads that fan out from Middlebury , the more these two mountain ranges and the valley sweeping north and south between them etch themselves indelibly in memory.
Without some ongoing link to the people in Middlebury, however, I would probably find the mountains themselves somehow less friendly when I go back there. So I generally stop off to visit Steve, the school forester, his wife, Margo, and their three children - even if it's just to register shock at how the youngsters have grown and ask about Margo's cornucopic vegetable garden.
Fourteen miles to the east - not far from Middlebury Gap - is Bread Loaf. It's there that two of my other most thwarted cravings - for literature and for mountains - are gratified. Bread Loaf is both the name of a long, sloping summit astride Vermont's Long Trail and of Middlebury College's mountain campus, a cluster of yellow, barnlike buildings nestled at the foot of its namesake.
Each time I return to the Bread Loaf School of English, the privilege of poring without guilt or distraction over Keats and Wordsworth and Chaucer feels like a home-cooked meal after a month of eating from vending machines. Reflecting on such interludes, I always marvel at the extent to which the luxury of college seems wasted on the so-called college-aged.
For me, the perfect complement to these rambles through literature became a run on the mountains overlooking the campus. I couldn't seem to get enough of my surroundings.
When school ended and the dorm was shut down, I slept outdoors and lived out of a car for two days. Finally my money ran out the night before I was due back in the city to pick up a friend at the airport. I decided the most fitting way to say goodbye to summer and to Vermont would be with one final mega-run on the Long Trail.
Early the morning of the last day, I drove to a section of the mountains farther north to find a trail junction I remembered hiking from years before. The pavement yielded to dirt. I passed a field where once I played flashlight tag with some kids on a camping trip. The dirt road gave place to a logging road; not far beyond, the big wooden trail signs at last came into view. From there it was three miles uphill to the top of the ridge where the Long Trail ran , three miles up through maple and birch already yellowing to where the mountain spruce began and the air turned crisp and fragrant. (I remember a camper who, on sniffing the air at this point, remarked, ''Gee, it smells like bathroom spray!'')
Several hours and thirsty summits later, I was nearing the end of the trail that swept back down off the mountain to the junction where I had started. For several miles I had crossed, recrossed, and gratefully drunk from a stream. Though we eventually parted ways, I could tell from a roaring in the distance that it must have run off to join a river. The workout had been a long, glorious , pedal-to-the-metal affair, and I had a very good idea of how it and my summer along with it should end. The trail finally converged with the river, then crossed and skirted it for half a mile. The shallow pools among the boulders kept getting deeper and more tempting as the river dropped farther below me.
Finally, I saw it - at least chest-deep and clear to the bottom. I slithered down some sun-bleached boulders to a pebbly ledge, tore off my shoes and plunged . . . Ah, bone-chilling bliss! - the river's benediction on muddy legs and sweat and the long journey done. Drying off afterward, I thought how in four hours I would be smelling jet diesel and jockeying for a place on the curb. Meanwhile, I had had my fill.
By the time I climbed into my car, I was ready to go back.