Peace and Poetry in Unexpected Places

Conventional wisdom is that hikers must travel well into the backcountry to find peace, serenity, and solace from everyday concerns.  However, this was not the case on a raw, overcast, drizzly Novemer day in northern Vermont.  Located just a stone’s throw from the busy Route 7 carrying Friday afternoon commuters between Burlington and Vergennes, Mt. Philo is a prominent hill among the flatland farms along the shores of Lake Champlain.  The short hike up its flanks require only 650 vertical feet of climbing.  However, the modest ascent provides an unexpected respite from the drudge of news reports and nagging concerns of everyday life.

The summit trail starts from a small parking lot and winds up the mountainside through a twentieth century regenerated hardwood forest.  Aiding the climb are well-positioned wooden steps, which today were snow-covered and slick.  The trail weaves through massive rocks seemingly strewn randomly about.

Nearing the top is an exposed rock ledge providing a lookout to the remarkably picturesque Lake Champlain and its valley.  Among this vast sea of nature’s beauty,  a human-made object centers our attention. It’s a 1960’s inspired peace symbol etched in a farmer’s grain field.


Champlain Valley looking west to the Adirondacks of New York State with the peace symbol in the foreground

This view and symbol are quintessential Vermont.  Shaping nature’s beauty with thoughts of bettering relationships among peoples and nations harks back to the state’s history as a place of openness, acceptance, and refuge.  Today, the image evokes calming thoughts only a few steps from the comings and goings of the workday’s hustle.

In pre- and early European times, the lake served as a superhighway for travel, warfare, and trade.  As observers can easily spot travelers, it’s clear why the western New York Mohawk Indians named the peak Tyontkathotha or Lookout Place. However, it is much less clear why the Abenaki who were indigenous to Vermont called the mountain Mataguesaden or Rabbit Mountain.

After a time of further reflection, a stiff western breeze engendered a return from the lookout to the trail. Upon reaching the top of a large rock band, the grade lessens and a few switchbacks lead to the 968-foot summit.  There are additional vistas to the south and the north, but what catches your eye is a famous poem written on a wall of the caretaker’s hut.

Mary Oliver Poem

Sign on the summit of Mt. Philo, Vermont

Who would have thought that hikers reaching the summit would be greeted by Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese?  Her verse reminds us that a walk is nature in a wonderful salve for life’s ails. Additionally, her sentiments remind us that one can find solace just off the beaten path even on a less than inviting cloudy, raining, blustery day.  Though not the right season, one can imagine a flight of Canadian Geese transiting the summit!

Next time the world seems to be closing in, take a hike into nature.  It does not have to be far from the road.  Garner new perspectives and feel the warm, comforting hands of the beautiful natural world.

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