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My Big Backyard

Skiing the wild and wildly familiar on Vermont's 300-mile Catamount Trail.

Text and photography Leath Tonino

Skiing the length of Vermont, a state often associated with leaf peeping and maple syrup slurping, was a far cry from my previous icy adventure—skiing on the East Antarctic Plateau, the planet's driest, coldest, windiest, emptiest, deadest icescape. While working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station a few years ago, I frequently skied alone, for fun, out into the screaming silence of that most extreme and inhuman wilderness. I squinted against the midnight brightness, searching in vain for the line between snow and sky, for anything to anchor my gaze. But there was nothing to see, literally no thing: no tree, no pebble, no person. I most assuredly didn't see an 89-year-old man peeing beside his SUV.

A 20-day trip on the 300-mile Catamount Trail, the longest cross-country ski trail in the country, is not freakishly extreme. For one, there are no catamounts. It is not endlessly white or dangerously inhospitable. Don't get me wrong—the trail does provide a "traditional" adventure with requisite doses of hardship, monotony, and risk (read: wet sleeping bags, endless climbs, sketchy descents). It also offers access to countless hollows, outcrops, beaver ponds, and frozen cascades, each remote in spirit if not in miles. The trail is long. It goes up and down. It goes and goes. It is rural, rugged, elemental. And the winter storms, when they come, can be severe. That said, there's no denying that Vermont's wilderness is more of a whisper than a wild, screaming silence. It's the whisper of snow sliding from a hemlock bough, wind easing over a raven's wing, Gore-Tex brushing Gore-Tex.

For three weeks we'd been hoping for this very thing: a megastorm to pave our path with snow and ice.

The Catamount Trail traverses private woodlands, Nordic touring centers, national forests, golf courses, hiking paths, farm fields, frozen reservoirs, snowmobile corridors, unplowed roads, and many other skiable terrains. Rather than submerge yourself for weeks in the wild, you trudge and shoosh for a day or two, then pop into a general store for doughnuts. If you're lucky, you stumble into a conversation with some trailside octogenarian. Part old-school suffer-fest, part soul-stirring nature pilgrimage, part swank dinner party—that's the Catamount Trail. Or, as I prefer to call it, Adventure in My Big Backyard.

Chicken breasts with diced blood orange, fried green bananas, black beans, corn bread, saffron rice. It was a dinner party all right, not exactly in our honor, but close enough. Grandpa arrived with a bottle of red wine. Candlelight flickered. The toddler was put to bed. I ate thirds of everything, and Ross did the same. Wary tentmate that he is, he gave me a sidelong glance when I reached for fourths on the black beans. I shot the glance right back at him. An opportunity had presented itself, and there was only one thing to do: Hals- und Beinbruch! Give it hell!

For more than a week we'd been waking in the dark, hitting the trail by dawn, skiing 12 hours, wolfing down sticks of butter in a relentless quest for calories. The snow, when we'd found it, had been the definition of old crud: rough, frozen, nearly without traction. Moose-strong Ross had hardly looked fatigued, but I'd felt masticated, as if Old Man Winter had chewed me up and dribbled me out onto his big icy bib. A blister on my heel had eaten through a third layer of skin and was hungering for a fourth. My long johns were rotten. A break sounded pretty good.

And then it happened—suddenly, unexpectedly, randomly—in perfect Catamount Trail style. We were near the end of an arduous 16-mile day that had taken us through spruce-fir highlands, down a vertiginously steep skidder road, over bobcat and grouse tracks, alongside a creek, behind a condo, past a parking lot, into a thicket, out of a thicket, and into the cold, clear evening. The sun was down, the sky glowing purple-orange above inky ridges. We were in a boggy area and had been for a while, heads lowered, skiing to the drumbeat of our hardworking hearts. And then we were in a yard, a howling dog escorting us over to the back door of a large house. A woman poked her head out and invited us inside.

Our outdated guidebook said this was a B&B, but the renters, two restaurateurs from Manhattan, said the business had closed five years ago. No matter. Their names were Lindsey and Jack. Lindsey introduced her father, Grandpa, a white-haired man in a sweater. Tonight, she said, was Cuban Night.

So we ate and ate and did the dishes and dried our socks by the woodstove and listened to Grandpa's stories of ski-touring these hills with homemade gear 60 years ago. Our tent was waiting in the backyard, and I was about ready to seek out its privacy, what with the beans and all, when Jack mentioned coffee.

"No, I'd be up all night," I said.
"I meant in the morning," Jack said. "I get up around six and can have some going by a quarter after."
I took a moment to consult with my inner adventurer, that stodgy traditionalist built of pemmican, hardtack, tobacco, and nails. Buzzed, stuffed, and half asleep, he made no response. I told Jack that coffee would be great.
"And do you like blueberry pancakes?" Jack said.
"Yes," I said. "With butter."


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