Slipping all over the wet, packed, uneven snow, I rolled to a stop at the pond loop. The sticky snow had been rubbed off my skis during the descent and now I faced the prospect of either a relatively short ski to the Flatlanders trail that lead back to my car or a longer loop around the pond that eventually leads to the Flatlander trail head, albeit after slogging through some wet bits. I opted for the short cut.
As my skis ground along the packed snow, sometimes jutting gracelessly to the side, I noticed a man standing in the middle of the trail at a key junction where five trails meet, including the Flatlander. He was most likely in his 60’s and hailed from a southern, suburban location by the way he waddled about on snowshoes. His wife stood under a small pavilion with a large trail map and a bin of maps hikers can take with them.
They looked lost, which is really hard to believe since every trail is marked with distinct colors, arrows to delineate the direction of each color, and the aforementioned maps. Thinking that I’d better hang around for a moment just in case, I pulled off to the side and tucked my hat in my pocket. That was all the prompting needed.
Shuffling over in his snow shoes, he asked, “Where is the black gate?” Directly behind the man loomed a large black gate leading to a few parking spots on the street. On the other end of the trail system, near the main parking lot, stood the remains of the former red gate and a newer gate that has green and black parts. Assuming he couldn’t possibly mean the gate directly behind him—which may have been giving him too much credit—I asked, “Where did you park?”
“By the black gate.”
“There’s a black gate right here” I responded with the appropriate pointing gesture, “but I’m guessing that you probably parked on the other end of the trail system by the old red gate and the new black and green one.”
“We just want to get back to the black gate.”
This guy had one thing on his mind and he wasn’t giving it up without a fight.
“We started at the black gate,” he continued, “and now we just want to get back to our car.”
Thinking we’d best eliminate some options, I asked, “So did you park at the bottom of this hill or did you park on the other end and take the Flatlander trail over here?”
“We didn’t park on this side,” the woman said, wresting control of the conversation from her husband who clearly was not up to the task. “We parked on the other side and took Flatlander over.”
“In that case,” I said, “your best bet is to take Flatlander right back. You could always take the Snicket trail, but that has a few small hills.”
“We just did the Flatlander,” the man said. “Can’t we just get to the black gate by going down the hill and cutting across another way?”
I was dumbfounded.
“You could go down that hill, but it’s steep and icy. Then you could turn left onto the road, but it’s narrow and cars drive very fast on it. When you get to Maple Hill road turn left and you’ll have to walk up a steep hill to get to the parking lot. The Flatlander trail will work much better.”
“Nah,” he said, “We’ll take the road back.”
Despite having spent close to $20 on snow shoe rentals, despite my warning about the safety of the road, and despite the logical conclusion that I had provided the shortest and easiest way to move from one point to another, the man and woman took off their snowshoes, picked them up, and began walking down the hill.
As I slipped along the Flatlander trail, I wondered why anyone would do something so odd. You can walk on a busy road and dodge cars anywhere, why keep it up when you paid to rent snowshoes and have some perfectly good trails to hike?
Perhaps part of the issue is we like to stick with the familiar. Trudging in the woods with snow shoes must have felt so odd, so uncomfortable for this man and woman—definitely at least for the man. They had maps and signs, good traction, and well-broken trails: this trail system is as far from rugged as you can get while remaining in the woods. But still, it was a leap for them. And so, even if the trail was a safer, easier option, they took the more dangerous path and harder hike because it was familiar. And that familiarity bred comfort, safety, and created even a sense of ease.
Taking note of the icy patches on the final hill before the parking lot, I zipped down, removed my skis, and set off for the local café to do a little writing. As I turned onto the main road, the narrow one chosen by the man, I saw them merrily trudging along single file, carrying their rental snowshoes, and clinging to the shoulder.
I’m sure they went home and told their friends about their adventurous hike in the Vermont woods. However, tucked away in a lonesome Vermont valley by a rushing stream, there is one person who tells a very different story.