My wife Beth works for Champlain Area Trails out of Westport but, long before she started there, we were major fans of the network of hiking opportunities radiating through hill and dell interwoven throughout the eastern side of Essex County. The trails are gorgeous, running through field, forest and stream, and have some of the best views anywhere of Lake Champlain and are a perfect, nearby antidote for those wishing to take “pressure off the peaks.”
They don’t present the physical challenge that the High Peaks do, but look, it’s not every day that you want to climb up the south side of Saddleback.
Being generally free of erosion, roots and rocks, the trails are a break for the knees. Being mostly short, and at lower altitudes, there is no need for a pack full of survival gear. And being more open and interspersed with civilization than the wilderness to the west, there’s little chance of getting lost.
Or so one would think.
I was out for a quick spin up the North Bouquet Mountain last week, and in my defense I had several things working against me. One, I was wearing my prescription sunglasses instead of my regular spectacles and when it became cloudy in the woods my normally cat-like vision was compromised. Second, I was in bit of a hurry due to an important appointment later that day. [Disclosure: Important in the sense that Beth wanted to go to Costco to “stock up.” Cosco is a corporation that has brilliantly preyed upon women’s “nesting” instincts, and like all women, Beth, I guess, just feels safer and more secure if, when the snows of winter hit, there is a 40 gallon drum of Worcestershire sauce sitting in the pantry. Beth, being equally brilliant, got me to go along by promising me a new 50-inch television set.] And finally, I had with me two big bouviers des Flandres, a type of dog bred for pulling milk carts.
So even with pinch collars, trying to hike with these two is like having a leash connected to two bullet trains. When we’re on the trail I suspect it strongly resembles those cartoon chariot races where the driver’s vehicle splinters apart and, still clutching the reins, he’s bouncing along at warp speed like a rag doll behind an out-of-control team. So when you’re trying to watch where the dogs are going, in conjuction with where your feet are going, you are often required to make decisions at speeds normally associated with Phantom jet-fighter pilots, which is to say the margin for error is exponentially increased.
And these factors, added together, are probably why I missed the sign directing me back to the Bouquet Mountain trailhead and instead wound up on the Rocky Ledges trail, which is a perfectly fine trail, but does not come out anywhere near where I had parked my car. For about half a mile I’d had the feeling that I was on unfamiliar turf, but hikers know that oftentimes the return trip bears no seeming resemblance to the ingress.
It was only when the trail dropped down some steep, stoney pitches through a narrow, picturesque gorge that I knew I’d zigged when I should have zagged. It wouldn’t have mattered except that the clock was ticking and I needed to be at the Essex Ferry at the prescribed time.
Briefly, I wrestled with my pride. I have climbed all 46 High Peaks, some multiple times. I had climbed Allen two days after the furious blowdown of Hurricane Floyd. I have bushwhacked any number of wilderness prominences. I like to think of myself as an experienced woodsman; I can’t be getting lost on no CATS trail. Even worse, I couldn’t call the CATS office for help if there was any chance that Beth would learn of my unseemly predicament. Because an experienced woodsman loses a lot of face when he has to call his wife for directions on what should be a walk in the park.
But I had to call, and as luck would have it, of course it was she who answered the phone. Thinking fast, I affected a fake accent to disguise my identity:
“Oh, ello miss, might I have a word wit the trile stew-ward, if you please.”
“I’m sorry, he’s out in the field.”
“All royt. Mightn’t I chew the fat wit the die-rector then?”
“He’s in the field too.”
“Oh bloody hell. Wot field? It wouldn’t be the Bow-kett would it?”
“Why are you talking like this, Tim?”
I stammered something about being in a playful mood and then cut to the chase. I was still holding out hope I could appear to be less stupid than I apparently was. I said, “Say, I just passed a sign for this trail called Rocky Ledges (technically this was true; I must have passed it, even if I didn’t see it) and I was wondering, uh, where it comes out?”
Maybe if I’d just been some random caller I would have gotten away with it, but she knows me all too well and immediately said, “You’re lost, aren’t you?”
If she’d just come out and laughed openly it would have been better. Instead, not wanting to wound my pride anymore than it already was, she dutifully said that it could happen to anyone, and, even as I know she was inwardly doubled over in guffaws, gave be a very businesslike set of directions to the nearest trailhead where she drove to pick me up.
I didn’t say much the rest of the day. But I did resolve that from now on, even if I’m just going to the post office, I’m taking a map and compass.
Photo: Pete and Addie on the Bouquet Mountain Trail.