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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

Break your neck and your leg! The next day my binding came apart and we hitched a ride with a local metalworker whose brother had skied down Mt. Everest. The metalworker took us into a little resort town, where his father, for $3, repaired the binding, lectured for an hour on the corporatization of the ski industry, and shuttled us back to the trail in his minivan. We hopped out into subzero temperatures, built a bonfire hot enough to sit beside barefoot, and drank a tea of boiled pine needles late into the night. Right after we set out at dawn, we got lost, skiing imperfect circles through a maze of snowmobile trails. Come evening we were lost again, skiing other odd shapes beneath a maze of stars.

With time, Ross and I came to understand that the trail's greatest attribute was its relentless unpredictability. We trudged to the Blueberry Hill Inn, where the owner offered us a free night's stay, cheese board and wood-fired sauna included. A ponytailed guy doing chores at the inn knew of some snow; he led us to it and skied at our side. Ross's brother also skied at our side, as did the vice president of the Trapp Family Lodge, who's the grandson of The Sound of Music's Maria von Trapp. A friend bearing whiskey was waiting patiently for us, like a frosty little gnome, on the side of a tall mountain.

Scenes appeared: rabbit hunters on train tracks, bald eagles on snags, tumbled stone walls below rime-coated cliffs. Beer cans littered train tracks. Bear claws marked black cherry trees. Sometimes the forest was so dark or the campsite so remote that I swore we were no longer in Vermont. But then the next day we'd make quesadillas in a gas station microwave. We skied over and under and past and through it all, the wild and the wildly familiar.

As we headed toward the summit of Jay Pass, the last significant obstacle standing between our ski tips and Canada, the biggest, maddest snowstorm of the winter grew bigger and madder. It was the final day of our expedition. If weeks earlier I'd felt chewed up, skiing crud-snow or nothing at all, now I was down in Old Man Winter's gut, suffering the destructive forces of digestion: blowing ice crystals, shrieking trees, drifting walls of powder. Lactic acid climbed up through my legs and into my brain. I stopped, pulled my glove off, and felt around with my bare hand. My nose was gone, or maybe my fingers were numb. I couldn't tell and hardly cared.

Ross stood beside me, hunched over his poles. He wore a black balaclava that made him look like a scuba diving moose. His beard held ice. His cheeks were growing delicate feathers of frost, and the feathers were growing feathers, and underneath it all he was smiling. But it wasn't a pretty smile. It was the smile of a miserable, desperate, borderline-hypothermic man who enjoys nothing more than misery and desperation. It filled me with pride to see Ross looking so exhausted, as if the exhaustion itself were a tribute to the immensity and diversity of the landscape. I hadn't looked in a mirror in some time, but I figured that looking at Ross was probably close enough.

For five hours we'd been breaking trail through shin-deep, knee-deep, and thigh-deep snow. For three weeks we'd been fantasizing about and hoping for this very thing: a mega-storm to pave our path with snow and ice. Now that it was here, we found it both exhilarating and debilitating. Ross had doughnuts in his backpack, and I wanted to eat them. I wanted to ski uphill with the force of sugar as if I were skiing downhill with the force of gravity. But we knew it would be a mistake to stop to get them out. We needed to keep skiing, slowly, painfully, up into the churning vortex of the storm.

So that's what we did. We spread out along the trail, each of us settling into his own rhythm, descending into his own inner realm. Mine is usually a calm, quiet chamber, a refuge without wind or cold where a voice says, Keep going, keep going. But in that hour of need, I couldn't hear the reassuring voice. I heard only wind, and it wasn't whispering. And then inside that wind, I did hear a voice. It was a small voice growing louder. "Hals- und Beinbruch," it was saying. And then it was yelling: "Give 'em hell!"

What was that? A hallucination? A memory? Some kindly old spirit skiing at my side?

In Antarctica I'd met a trekker whose eye had frozen shut. Now my eyes were freezing shut. Maybe they'd been shut for a long time. I was confused. I forced them open and there was the top of Jay Pass, not the South Pole, but a road winding over a mountain ridge. Cars were parked along one side of the road. Bearded dudes were drinking beer, tailgating, hiking up their ski socks. French-Canadian snowboard chicks in pink helmets were smoking cigarettes, preparing for a backcountry run. A pickup truck cruised by at an unsafe speed. Old Man Winter belched. I was confused. Where was Ross? Where were the blueberry pancakes? What kind of adventure was this?

Three hundred miles. The length of Vermont. The length of my big backyard.

A gust of wind knocked me sideways, but I did not fall. Hals- und Beinbruch, I thought, and kept going, onward to doughnuts and the end of the trail.

Leath Tonino is a writer and adventurer working on a project he calls Seven Lengths of Vermont, of which this ski expedition is a part.

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