“Can a landscape love you back?”

Poet Katy Gurin posed this question to me last summer during a workshop at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference in Vermont. She wrote it as feedback for one of my poems, and she may have written it as a reflection for her work too. Katy writes gorgeous, haunting poems about her relationship with the California landscape. She also sets some of her poems to death metal music. Katy is very cool.

I am still feeling this question. It stayed with me throughout the summer into autumn, traveling with me like this…

After Bread Loaf, Benjamin and I drove from Middlebury up to Burlington to bike the Island Line Trail. Thanks to a gift from our Colorado Moms, The Official Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Guidebook for New England, we had read about this trail and viewed pictures of bicyclists who seemed to be riding on water. This holy mystery tempted us. We had to experience it for ourselves.

So we started at Leddy Park, or mile 5, in Burlington’s New North End district. Leddy had a sandy beach that reminded me of Silver Lake in Portage, Wisconsin, a place I knew as a kid, a place with the distinct scent combination of freshwater lake, fried food and sugar, a place that said summertime. I felt 12 years old. It was a beautiful way to begin the ride.

We biked a few miles north, pedaling over a boardwalk and crossing the Winooski River Bridge. I love biking on boardwalks for the way they lift me, how I feel fearless, not exactly flying, but swinging on my bike among tree branches. I love the smell of railroad bridges, hot metal and damp wood, how there are always intricate spider webs gracing the posts, and how again, I am not afraid. I can park my bike on those bridges, stand over wide rivers with frothy currents and feel courageous.

After the bridge, we continued through neighborhoods, beside ditches of croaking frogs, past Airport Park with kids on the playground laughing, and finally reaching the Colchester Causeway, the Island Line, the trail that floats on water.

Actually, to quote our guidebook, this part of the trail was
“built in 1900 atop huge marble boulders…a 2.5 mile raised railed [that] slices across Lake Champlain for unparalleled views.” The book goes on to say that “as you sail across the crushed stone surface, you’ll have a sense of skimming the water’s surface.” I can attest, this was absolutely true. I felt a little wobbly at first, spinning my tires over marble with deep, cold water on both sides of me, but once we were in the middle of that grand lake, I exhaled. We had to stop, park our bikes, sit on those chunks of marble and take in the view.

There is a verse from the Indigo Girls’ song “World Falls” that properly expresses what I felt in that moment. It goes like this:

“I’m coming home with a stone, strapped onto my back.
I’m coming home with a burning hope, turning all my blues to black.
I’m looking for a sacred hand to carve into this stone,
A ghost of comfort, Angel’s Breath – to keep this life inside my chest.
This world falls on me with hopes of immortality.
Everywhere I turn, all the beauty just keeps shaking me.”

Thank you for the lyrics, Amy Ray.

Surrounded by limestone cliffs, I felt the beauty shaking me. I felt comforted, hopeful, and most of all, at home. Vermont was like Wisconsin. The glacial rocks were similar to the sandstone cliffs of Wisconsin Dells, a place I once knew as my playground. Benjamin loved the views of the Adriondacks in the distance. He loved Vermont’s Green Mountains too, or as he affectionately called them, ‘hills.’ No mountains in the United States will ever match the height and expanse of the Rockies he knew as his childhood playground, but seeing landscape layered like this comforted him.

We fell in love with The Island Line Trail, and we fell in love with Vermont, so we returned a few months later to celebrate our anniversary.

October is prime leaf peeper season, and we were not ashamed to join the other tourist-peepers for the peak of those colors, nor were we hesitant to eat and drink everything made with apples, cheese, and of course, Vermont’s infamous maple syrup. We drank flights of hard cider from Citizen Cider, gobbled Vermont Farmhouse Cheese sandwiches at Penny Cluse Cafe and savored oven roasted and maple glazed salmon at Two Brothers Tavern. We shopped at the pubs and co-ops, stocking the car, knowing we needed to bring a little Vermont home with us.

Enjoying the cuisine was definitely memorable, but the highlight of this trip was once again thanks to Vermont’s landscape and a hike at Niquette Bay State Park.

Entering Niquette, we were greeted by the usual kiosk that posted the trail rules and provided maps, but this lovely park also offered a little box full of books under which a sign read:

Nature’s Library-for use while visiting the park, return for others’ use and enjoyment.

We were instantly charmed.

And the weather could not have been more autumnal. It was 60 degrees, sunny with a light breeze and skies so blue all the red, orange and yellow leaves popped. It was the kind of day that felt fresh and good, a day filled with energy, when at the end of it, your clothes and hair smell like earth and wind.

That day we hiked The Burns Trail to Calm Cove around Cedar Point Loop to the Beach Bypass and finally back via the Allen Trail for a total of around 1.5 to 2 miles. To some people this would be nothing, but to someone like me, a woman sporting a new titanium hip, this was a perfect distance. The terrain was mostly flat, but there were some contours, and I walked them with ease. More importantly, I walked under old growth oaks, pines, maples and shagbark hickories, and at Calm Cove that feeling of home once again settled into my body.

Calm Cove was a huge outcrop of glacial limestone, perfect for basking in the sun, taking in the view, or taking your pup for a swim. Because it was a week day, the park was mostly empty, so Benjamin and I had the Cove to ourselves for a good while. As I sat there on that familiar, warm rock, I couldn’t help crying.

I don’t know if a landscape can love you back or not, but I think certain places can claim you. That day I was happy to be with Benjamin, happy to be hiking in autumn, feeling Wisconsin and allowing Vermont to take my heart.