Vermont has an embarrasment of riches. in the fall, you can kayak or cave, climb or canoe, hike or mountain bike. Or… you could do this.
Back in my adventurous teenage years, on a bright, crisp autumn afternoon, a friend and I stood around in the yard, bored, wondering what we should do to pass the golden hours, to generate a thrill. Summery lake activities were finished. The winter of mountain activities had not yet begun. We knew there was something to do, some perfect something, a hobby tuned to the season, a quest tuned to the beauty of the present-tense landscape, but we couldn’t quite name it.
Saturday in the Champlain Valley: a low-stakes quandary, a question mark.
Have you been there? Can you relate? Yes, probably. Thus far the story is exceedingly common, borderline banal. What happened next, though, has stuck with me ever since, and this stickiness, this unforgetting, signals a kind of importance, a kind of hidden meaning.
My friend, who for our purposes we’ll call Brown Bat, scratched his chin and scuffed the grass with his heel—he looked down. And I, who for our purposes we’ll call Flying Squirrel, scratched my chin and tossed an acorn toward the branches of an overarching oak—I looked up.
“What if we drove to Weybridge Cave, largest cave in the state, or maybe deepest, I dunno,” said Brown Bat. “I’ve spelunked it a couple times. Crazy. You sidestep this narrow hallway, then rappel a small cliff, then it gets complicated, confusing, things start branching.” He sang the praises of mucky slop and slippery rock, of blackest claustrophobia and stalactites bathed in a headlamp’s pale yellow glow, until I interrupted with another tossed acorn, incredulous.
“You really wanna go subterranean on a gorgeous afternoon, get all filthy and scared while the birds are chirping and the maple leaves are popping?” I liked the mention of ropework, the idea of using finely braided nylon to gain access to an otherwise inaccessible realm, but the underworld itself was unappealing. “What if we drove to Bristol instead,” I countered. “There’s that stand of old-growth white pines, those big fellas, remember? I bet we could climb ‘em with your rope, rig hammocks a hundred feet off the deck, chill in our harnesses and watch the sunset.”
Spoiler alert, there was no plunge into dirty damp darkness, no lift into green giddy swaying, no adrenaline, no exposure. Rather than commit to a plan, Flying Squirrel and Brown Bat continued to mill around, debating what style of weird entertainment best suited the afternoon, the beauty of the present-tense landscape. Meantime, the present-tense landscape dimmed and the afternoon faded away, along with the dilemma. A pair of aimless adolescent critters hamstrung by options, we failed to act, to either descend or ascend.
Failed, hmmm. Is that an accurate word, an accurate evaluation, or is it misleading? Perhaps feeling overwhelmed by options is actually failure’s opposite, a sneaky form of success. Therein lies, I believe, the hidden meaning of this little story that is superficially about indecision.
I’ve come to understand that what occurred on that bright, crisp afternoon was a partial survey of Vermont’s staggering diversity, its stupendous possibility. Pygmy shrew, moose, Canadian lynx, cottontail rabbit, bog lemming, bear: the state boasts 58 mammal species, each of which practices the art of flowing through and in and with a particular wild habitat. Bats wing through cavern corridors! Squirrels leap crown to crown! And aimless adolescent creatures, if we remain awake to the awesomeness of nature, draw inspiration from these and countless other lifeforms—or at least can.
The thin film of horizontal space that separates ground from sky is not the only world worth exploring. There is a below, an above, and who the heck knows what else. There is a vertical axis to the planet, an unfathomable thickness to the globe. Contemplation of this thickness occasionally lights a fire beneath our butts, spurring us to action, jumpstarting a new adventure, packing us into the car and pointing us to Weybridge, Bristol, wherever. That’s good, very special. But loafing around in the yard, kicking leaves, tossing acorns, brainstorming with a buddy, touring in imagination the diversity, the possibility, of our place—well, that’s a pretty legit adventure, too.
Nay, that’s a pretty legit celebration. That’s creativity and appreciation. That’s failure’s opposite, a sneaky form of success.
Epilogue: Brown Bat went on to study geology in college (go figure) and Flying Squirrel went on to take a job with the US Forest Service (surprise, surprise). Channeling their more-than-human neighbors, the athletic denizens of the local thickness, the duo did eventually cave and climb, and they also devised other strange expeditions into the inexhaustible terrain of the Champlain Valley. Grown men now, they still thoroughly enjoy standing around in the yard on a bright, crisp afternoon, standing around and jabbing their jaws, standing around and improvising answers—experimental solutions—to the question mark of the day.
Ferrisburgh native Leath Tonino is the author of two essay collections, most recently The West Will Swallow You (Trinity University Press, 2019).