To the Chin
Mount Mansfield from Underhill. Far left is the Chin, far right the Forehead
Disclaimer: Parts of this story could be entirely false. I know how the story ends, but not how it began. This happened in 1996; I do not remember everything.
In middle school, at the end of each year, we got to choose from a list of day trips. In the sixth grade, I chose to go hiking. In the seventh grade, I played nine holes of golf, and in the eighth grade, all of us had an end of middle school party at Quarry Hill (pool and tennis club). I'm not sure what the other choices were: going to the mall, seeing a movie, visiting a museum?! I have no idea; they never entered my mind. There was no way I’d choose to spend the day indoors.
The trip was to hike Mount Mansfield, at 4,395 feet, the highest mountain in Vermont. Nick and I were excited at the chance to go on the trip together, despite being in different grades. My older brother and I had never hiked a real mountain.
Being 11 and 13 years old, we had no idea what hiking a mountain would entail. We didn’t know what the trail would look like, how much distance we would cover, how long it would take, or what it would feel like to stand at the summit. Naïve to the details, we were nonetheless excited.
Our day started at the Underhill State Park, on Mansfield’s western slope. I'm not sure how large the group was, maybe up to 50 kids, each toting a backpack full of water, snacks, and extra clothing. The plan was to take the Long Trail to the summit at Mansfield’s Chin and the Sunset Ridge Trail down the mountain. (It is said that Mount Mansfield’s profile—from the east or west of the north-south range—resembles a man. Hikers traversing the summit from south to north cover the Forehead, Nose, Lips, and the highest point, the Chin.)
A short while into the hike, Nick and I found ourselves moving slowly in the middle of the pack when a few of our friends casually stopped and opened their backpacks. We paused with them, sat on a rock, and laughed at undoubtedly idiotic middle school jokes. A short time later, the group stopped again. It seemed like a drag. Why are we stopping again? This sucks! Feeling trapped amongst the group, three of us pushed to the front of the pack and continued up the trail. Soon we were forging ahead and pausing to let everyone catch up.
It was a warm, sunny, early summer day, and as will happen, sections of the trail resembled free-flowing streams. We hopped and jumped around the water but I'm certain my sneakers were soaked by day’s end. One of the chaperones called ahead to ask us (tell us) to slow down; she needed to keep an eye on everyone. Of course, in the excitement of hiking our first mountain (we were really just kicking everyone else's asses), we continued to outpace and soon became separated from the group.
There were three of us: Nick, myself, and our friend Will.
We were told from the beginning that we would be returning to Underhill State Park via the Sunset Ridge Trail. We were also told that we would know the Long Trail by its white hash-marks on the rocks and trees. We were not told how the Sunset Ridge Trail was marked, but surely, there would be a sign. We weren't worried about that; we planned to reach the summit and wait there for the rest of the group.
So, we forged ahead, reached our connection with the Long Trail, and headed north across the mountain’s rocky face toward the Chin. We continued to be wary of the group, frequently stopping to wait and wonder where they were. The top of the mountain is nothing but rocks, scrub grass, and Christmas trees in miniature; visibility is measured in miles rather than feet as it had been on the forest trail below. We should have seen, or just as likely, heard them if they were anywhere near. Should we wait here? Where are theyyyy? How is everyone sooo slowwww??! A battle was waging in our minds: We wanted to be good boys, but needed our freedom. Badly. So, we continued our march and soon found ourselves at the windy, cloud-covered Chin.
This is where the story gets interesting.
The plan from the beginning was for everyone to hike to the summit. We were at the summit. All we had to do was wait for everyone else, right? Well, we waited and discussed and thought out loud, and truly, we didn't know what to do. And it was cold and uncomfortable inside a cloud. As time passed—still, with no sign of the group—we gave more and more thought to continuing our hike down the Sunset Ridge Trail; it was supposed to lead back to the bus at Underhill State Park. How long should we wait? Should we go back and find them? Where are they??!
We eventually decided to finish the hike as planned and meet up with the group back at our starting point. They wouldn’t leave without us; we just needed to get back to the bus.
The trouble was, we'd already passed the Sunset Ridge Trail. In our excitement—or possibly because visibility is limited inside a cloud—we didn't see the sign on our way to the Chin. We hadn’t even been looking for it before reaching the Chin, so we thought we had to continue north on the Long Trail.
We were wrong. The Sunset Ridge Trail was behind us.
Heading north on the Long Trail from the Chin brings hikers down the Stowe (east) side of the mountain; Underhill State Park lay to the west. However, we were middle school kids and headed downhill. That seemed like a good thing.
After a significant descent, we still hadn’t seen the Sunset Ridge Trail—or any other trail, at all. We were getting concerned, but heading downhill still seemed like the right move. How did we know that it wasn't still in front of us?
It wasn't still in front of us. It was on the other side of the mountain. The west side, the sunset side.
But we were locked into a steady rhythm until suddenly, we popped out of the woods at the trailhead at Route 108, just north of Stowe Mountain Resort.
Crap, uhh, we made a mistake.
The three of us looked around for a minute and wondered where the hell we were. About 30 yards to our left, there was a group sitting on the grass at the roadside, with a big passenger van parked nearby. Seeing three confused, backpack-toting tweens, one of them approached us. Stranger danger came into my mind as the adult man walked over.
We were conflicted. We could hike back up the trail and make our way back to the group. We had descended the mountain very quickly and could seemingly make it back up quickly. The stranger talked us out of that. He was leading a hiking club of college kids from out-of-state. After telling him where we needed to be, he offered us a ride around the mountain to Underhill.
The stranger (hiking expert and authority figure) made it clear to us that the only way we were going to make it back to the Underhill State Park was in his van. Sounds a bit creepy, I know, but he was right. After a bit of pondering, we headed up the road in the van. We didn’t feel like we had a choice.
It’s only a few miles directly over the mountain, but much further by car. He drove north through Smuggler’s Notch (“the notch”) and west on Route 15 toward Underhill. Not that any of us knew where we were. I don't remember much about the ride. I think the three of us were contemplating how much shit we were in, like little kids waiting for daddy to get home and administer the punishment. (Perhaps that’s an outdated analogy now that belt whipping and just general child beating is, you know, frowned upon.) The thing is, none of us had ever been in much trouble. It wasn't as if this was another in a long line of juvenile troublemaking activity for any of us. As an eleven-year-old (at school, at least), even I was a poster boy for the quiet, no hassle student. This was probably the first time any of us expected to be confronted by an authority figure outside the home. (I was still a number of years away from any run-ins with cops or campus security.)
In all honesty, he could've taken us anywhere at all and none of us would've known. We were nowhere near driving age and didn’t know many roads outside our hometown. Fortunately, nothing sinister was in the offing and the drive was soon over as we pulled up alongside the yellow school bus at Underhill State Park.
“You got back safe, that's the most important thing,” is a phrase we heard from exactly no one. We got chewed out pretty bad. I didn't even know the woman doing the chewing, but she gave us the business/bit clear through her muzzle/she was pretty upset. Beyond the intensity of the verbal tongue-lashing, some of the other kids were nearby and heard every word.
Looking back, the phrases “Chill the fuck out” and “We are sixth and seventh graders, give us a goddamn break,” come to mind. I'm not sure whether she treated us too much like snotty little kids or too much like adults. Perhaps high-volume screaming was not the answer either way.
The bus ride home was full of hushed gossip over our misadventure. I'm sure my parents got a phone call but I don't remember any resulting discussion or discipline. We were likely told “We’re just glad you’re okay; don't do that again,” and the book was closed on the issue.
I would like to say that our exceedingly brave and rebellious adventure turned the three of us into legends in the halls of Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School.
One more thing: the rest of the group never made it to the summit.