A feathery frolic on the Long Trail

Early winter snowfall holds all of our hopes and fears for what this year’s winter will bring. What do its delicate crystal flakes foretell? Have the squirrels’ tails been bushier this year — a surefire hint of a snowful winter? I saw a wooly bear caterpillar this fall that was nearly entirely black but for the red tips; doesn’t that seal the deal on a steady supply of snow?

When the first real snowfall piles up in skiable depths, skis, snowshoes, and snow shovels are kept within easy reach. That first trail of the season has been in the back of my mind, waiting for a day like … today.

The Appalachian Gap is a break in the Green Mountains just wide enough for Rt. 17 to wiggle through before falling steeply east to Mad River Glen and Waitsfield; and west to Buels Gore (pop. 12) and the Champlain Valley.

Running along the spine of the Greens is the 272-mile Long Trail, which traverses the state, tip to toe. Where it crosses the apex of the “App Gap,” a roomy lookout point on Rt. 17 provides ample parking. The northern leg of the trail is easy to find, starting at the base of a yellow pedestrian sign on the north side of the road. From there, it’s a steep, rough, and rowdy scramble in any weather to Molly Stark’s Balcony, a blissful lookout with a stunning view 2.6 miles up the trail.

The sky is that patented, rapturous shade of Vermont Blue — (What do you call it?Cerulean ecstasy? Galactic infinitude? Mergatroid?) — it vibrates; it’s a visual version of a frosty swig from your water bottle — icy, clear, and bracing. It’s an instant cure for seasonal affective disorder. The wind has not yet shaken the feathery sleeves of snow from the branches, which stand out in stark contrast to that richly hued sky. All is calm, all is bright.

Even in snowshoes, we sink to the rocky, rooty base of the trail. We wade through thigh-deep, untracked powder, scrambling up standard-issue Long Trail: Straight up, sharing a course with a stream, a series of little frozen waterfalls, tree roots, ice caves, boulders, mini glaciers, and stark-raving gorgeous views. This section eventually evens out before plunging and rising and wriggling further through the woods.

On this day, the snow, ice, challenging terrain, and impending storm clouds prevent us from making it to Molly Stark’s Balcony. But it doesn’t matter: We are lost in time and space and blue sky and feathery snow. That’s what we came here looking for, and it found us.

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