It’s crisp, likely in the low 50s with enough dampness in the air to make a couple of layers under an impermeable shell advisable to ward off both the chill and the moisture. We’re on a trail in Groton State Forest, looping Kettle Pond, surrounded by the brilliant maples that draw visitors here from all over the world this time of year. The near hallucinatory carpet of dropped foliage, coupled with recent rain, makes for dicey footing on the moss-covered boulders that punctuate the way forward.
We’re walking and talking but not about “him.” We’ve agreed that our several-hour sojourn through this luminescent cathedral that taunts even non-believers into the notion of a grand scheme of some sort, will be void of politics. Between rocks, roots and slick boards over marshy sections, careful foot placement requires all the attention we can muster, shutting out even the slightest temptation to focus elsewhere. The necessity of looking down provides its own rewards. The forest floor is covered with nothing less than a tumultuous orchestration of red fallen leaves that instantly transform a simple walk into a glorious meditation on the pure joy of being in this place, at this moment.
As we make our way silently along the lakeshore, the solitude is shattered by a ruffed grouse, seemingly waiting until we’re nearly on top of him to thunderously take flight. Other than the disembodied gurgle of an unseen raven, this intrusion is all we hear beyond our own voices. We’re taking advantage of the senior discount, for which only retirees need apply. Hiking mid-week on a threatening day, the crowds are non-existent. Ours is the only car in the parking lot. We have the place to ourselves.
As the trail veers slightly, we come to a clearing along the water’s edge, noting that the autumn palette on the opposite shore disappears into the low hanging cloud bank, obscuring the surrounding hillsides, as well as the Owl’s Head summit at the north end of the pond, our original destination. We put it off for a different day to avoid the lowering visibility, which now appears to be descending on us even at lower elevations.
Although Groton feels like our backyard — it’s less than a half-hour from home — the forest is far larger than I realized, covering over 26,000 acres spread across seven towns and three counties. It contains seven state parks along with eight lakes and ponds, as well as a number of relatively flat hiking trails and the Montpelier-Wells River Rail Trail, that bisects Groton and (I presume) served the 12 sawmills that once operated within the forest. It’s now part of a multi-use trail system that will eventually span 90 miles, crossing the entire state of Vermont.
As we round the narrow southern shore and begin heading back, the topography changes somewhat with deep crevices between enormous boulders that I remember holding solid ice well into June. We’re on the eastern edge now which doesn’t get sun until the afternoon and even then, it’s diffused by the surrounding hills. As we transition through fall toward the beginning of winter, direct sunlight will become an ever-dwindling commodity here, usually insuring a deep snow cover that lasts well into spring.
In mid-October though, this side of the pond has the look and feel of a temperate rainforest, more typical of the Pacific Northwest than Vermont, with moss-covered rocks shrouded in mist, covered in a striking array of yellow leaves. We chuckle at the thought we’re “Forest Bathing,” a relatively recent import from Japan that essentially means being in the woods feels pretty good.
But as new-age precious as it sounds, this wooded hygiene has a basis in real science. An English study demonstrated that people living near more green space reported less mental stress. Their Dutch counterparts found a lower incidence of 15 diseases, including depression, anxiety and heart disease, in people living within a half-mile of green space. There’s even some evidence that hospital patients whose rooms have a view of trees and grass, recover at a faster rate. The healing power of nature was, in fact, part of the rationale for creating our first national parks.
Later in the afternoon, the temperature is dropping. Parked in the isolated fishing access of West Hill Pond in Cabot, with wind-driven rain showers streaking the windshield, we’re warm and dry, sipping hot, home-brewed coffee from the battered metal cups that have survived years of camping. There’s a bag of fresh-baked, Burtt’s Orchard apple cider donuts nestled between us as we watch a slowly expanding sliver of light off in the distance, beyond the tree line in the otherwise slate grey, autumn sky.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.