The way home

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(HOST) Adventure, someone once said, is what happens when you make mistakes. Commentator Vic Henningsen had occasion to reflect on this recently, when he almost literally got lost in his own backyard.

(HENNINGSEN) A few weeks ago, I took a walk into the hills behind my house. Like a lot of places in Vermont, they’re laced with old wood roads, known only to the hunters, hikers,skiers
and horseback riders in our little neighborhood. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to stray from one path to another and wind up totally confused.

I left late, walking a path I hadn’t traveled before, and the light was fading by the time I reached the summit. I pushed along the ridge to a poorly marked shortcut that would bring me to the fields above my house. I’d only traveled this trail once, but was confident I could do it again.

I was wrong. I should have looked at my watch and noted that it was now past four on an early December afternoon. I should have remembered that we live on the east side of the ridge, where the light goes first. I should have considered the flakes drifting down; and I should have remembered there was no moon that night. But
I didn’t. Within two hundred yards I was in a snow squall, off the trail, wandering.

I hurriedly bushwhacked back to the ridge, knowing that if I got there before full dark I could find the main trail downhill. It was close, but I made it.

Here I had sense to stop and take stock. This was hard: my instinct was to keep moving and make use of what little light remained. I was reasonably well-equipped: wearing layers, wool hat and gloves, insulated boots. I’d be cold, but I wasn’t going to die of exposure.

Was I lost? Mountain man Jim Bridger’s response springs immediately to mind: “Heck no, I wasn’t lost. I just didn’t know where I was for six weeks.” I knew where I was in a general sense, but I lacked the specific knowledge necessary to return quickly. I could make a number of wrong turns on those unmarked byways and spend a cold night wandering.

As I slowly worked my way back, I reflected that this complicated network of obscure trails and old roads was like the Vermont I knew as a youth, before public safety concerns required that every corner be marked and identified. In those days there were few road signs or directional markers, save for the occasional indication of where you weren’t, like the famous St. Johnsbury sign that read “This is not U.S. Rte 2.” The implicit message was that you ought to know enough to find your own way. If you didn’t, you shouldn’t be here. Outsiders found this hostile; I thought it reflected a flattering confidence in one’s route-finding abilities.

I miss those days. Even though I may occasionally have to wander in the winter darkness, I’m glad Vermont still has lots of places where you can get turned around and have some anxious moments.

But next time I’ll start earlier.

This is Vic Henningsen, back home in Thetford Center.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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