STOWE, Vt.—There are two ways to deal with a New England winter:
Fight it, try to avoid it, stay indoors as much as possible and complain about it incessantly until it is over.
Or give the season a big hug, and play in the snow every minute you can.
I had chosen the latter philosophy. I would spend two full days romping in snowshoes on the Catamount Trail, a 300-mile-long path for cross-country skiers and snowshoers that runs the length of Vermont, north-south.
And as long as the trail happens to pass by many of Vermont's country inns, we -- staff photographer Patrick Raycraft joined me -- would snowshoe from one inn to another, immersing ourselves in the trail night and day for more than two days.
My fear was that we might literally immerse ourselves in the trail. The forecast as I left for Northern New England was iffy, possibly rain, possibly snow. Rain would be most unwelcome and turn the trail into a soggy mess. Snow would be wonderful.
As we arrived in Stowe in late afternoon, it began to snow. We checked in to our rooms at the Fiddler's Green Inn, a bed-and-breakfast built as a residence in 1820 that is but a few hundred yards from the trail. A fire was burning in the parlor hearth. Our rooms overlooked the West Branch of the Little River.
In the morning, innkeeper Bud McKeon made us a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes, juice and coffee. Meanwhile, it was still snowing -- 5 or 6 inches overnight, as if to freshen the trail just for us.
We grabbed our gear and headed out, connecting with the Catamount via a couple of local ski trails. If my reading of the maps was correct, we would trudge about 5 miles on the trail to reach Edson Hill Manor, our next country inn.
The moment we hit the Catamount, we knew it. The snow was knee-deep and unbroken. We would be the first to tromp through it this day. This was real exercise.
Most people on the Catamount Trail are cross-country skiing, but snowshoers are welcome. The Catamount Trail Association, which manages the trail, asks only that snowshoers avoid walking in the ski tracks so as not to disturb them. That wasn't something we even had to give a thought to on this day; there were no tracks. We were grooming the trail ourselves, paving the way for the skiers.
It would have been tiring enough walking 5 miles through deep snow without adding any distance to the outing, but we did. Somehow I missed a trail marker. Here we were, minutes later, off the trail, trailblazing through the woods. Up hills, down hills, crossing brooks, not only burning up calories but burning up those hamstrings. It was still snowing lightly with the temperature about 30 degrees, but we were sweating.
We were not lost. Of course not. I knew exactly where we were. We were just east of the trail, somewhere, following the West Branch of the Little River, which was to our left. On this day, the stream was more than scenic; it was a comfort. No, we really weren't lost; the river was right there. We just needed to work our way west gradually, and we would rejoin the trail.
We did, but we had made our adventure a little more of an adventure, made it a little more tiring than it had to be. By then, Bud's hearty breakfast was nothing more than an empty feeling in the stomach. Snack time. From my daypack, I pulled out raisins, dried cherries, peanuts and cheese.
The trail food was fine, but, truth be told, we were already fantasizing about dinner. As rugged as our day was, we knew it wouldn't be all exertion. There was the prospect of the hot shower, the dinner, reading quietly before bed, a fire crackling in the fireplace.
A slice of Vermont
In places, the trail is groomed; in other places, it is not. In places it is more remote; in others, it is easily accessible. Along some popular parts of the trail, near Camel's Hump, for example, hundreds of people may be out on a sunny weekend day in winter. In other sections, you have the trail to yourself.
The Catamount Trail was the idea of three young Vermont men, Steve Bushey, Paul Jarris and Ben Rose. Bushey, a student at the University of Vermont, researched the route and obtained access permissions from landowners as a thesis project. The three of them skied the entire trail in 1984, when it came into existence. It actually was only fully completed last fall, when a section of about 4.5 miles in the Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont was cleared and marked.
The trail is pieced together from remote wilderness paths, groomed cross-country ski trails, snowmobile trails and old logging roads. The scenery varies widely. We walked through forests at times, along the edges of farm fields, past old farmhouses, along split-rail fences and through resort properties. Parts of the trail can be steep and difficult; parts of it can be flat, groomed and easygoing. It is woodsy; it is pastoral; it is the essence of Vermont.