Flyover: The Animal That Contains All Animals
A year ago, after living for eight years out west, I drove from the Pacific Ocean to Vermont, my home. Within two days of arriving, I was on the Long Trail, backpacking south from the Québec border through low gray clouds and swirling rainbow leaves. The trip lasted 20 days, culminating at the Massachusetts border in a snowstorm. Its ending was the beginning of something much bigger.
Sitting alone on a dark bus that snowy night, heading north through the storm, I tried to make sense of my experience. I’d seen so much, the faces of so many mountains, so many turns of trail. I’d gazed out over countless vistas, been soaked by rains and dried by the sun. I’d slept on the ground and been filled with its dreams: of moss, of mice, of schist and dirt. My brain hurt with the question: How does it all hold together?
An image from Aristotle came to me. It’s an image that defies imagining: an animal 1000 miles long, a sprawling body that can never be seen in its entirety from any single angle. Too big, this body. Unfathomable. And yet real, tangible, an animal whose parts and places we can engage with and in some sense come to know. The Green Mountain spine. The spine of an immense, living being. I relaxed into my seat, enjoying the idea.
Six weeks after the Long Trail hike, I took a hitchhiking trip. Another six weeks passed, and I embarked on a three-week ski tour. It went on like this: 500 miles on a bicycle, 260 miles in a canoe, 10 days swimming Lake Champlain. I hung Vermont road maps all over my office, plotting my routes and paths and tracks in dark-blue ink. Sometimes, between trips, I stared at the maps, lost in fantasies of future journeys and memories of journeys past. Each inky thread was an animal 1000 miles long. Vermont appeared before me as a menagerie.
Nearing the end of my year of travel, just a few weeks ago, I allowed myself a treat I’d been looking forward to for months: I plotted all the paths onto a single map. Doing so, I felt as though I were drawing together the objective map of Vermont and my subjective experiences of it. Blue threads — stories — ran parallel, crisscrossed, bunched up, knotted, frayed out. They covered ground, as I had.
Though my travels have tended to be open and uncertain, I’ve always known how my Seven Lengths of Vermont project would find its end. October would disappear into the churn of seasons and be spit back up 12 months later. Geese and leaves would fly, and I would take to the air with them. I fantasized that after a solid year of exploration I would rise out of the folds of land to see Vermont all at once, unified and whole. Even if it lasted only a second, I wanted to gather the threads of my journeys and braid them together. The impossible view: everything at once. My best chance, I figured, would be a plane.
Frank Gibney — retired Army helicopter pilot, retired Air Force fighter-jet pilot, friend of a friend, all-around nice guy — agreed to meet me at the Shelburne Airport’s grass strip at 9 a.m. on a Thursday. But he was late. Waiting, I chatted with another pilot who flies out of Shelburne. I told him I’d never been up in a small plane before, and I asked what to expect. “Fast and vast,” he said. It was a cool, sunny, cloudless day, perfect for turtlenecks and hundred-mile views.
Frank arrived, and we pushed his RV-6 — a sleek, snug two-seater that clocks 170 miles per hour once airborne — out of its hangar. In the cockpit, among the dials, switches and gauges crowding the faux-wood control panel, was a little plaque. Hardly larger than a stick of gum, it read, “Passenger warning: This aircraft is amateur built and does not comply with federal safety regulation for standard aircraft.”
Absent-mindedly, fiddling with his iPad, Frank briefed me on safety. “Should we get on the ground somehow and I’m not conscious and you are,” he began, “in that green pack behind the seat there’s a black, zippered container, and inside that black, zippered container there’s a yellow box. You flip the antenna up on that box and it automatically starts putting out a distress signal. OK?”
I nodded, but I don’t think he saw. Frank was adjusting two rubber bands that helped connect a dangling cord to the iPad. The iPad contained important flight software and wasn’t working. He encouraged me to be careful not to knock the rubber bands. I said sure; I liked his style.
After a half hour of miscellaneous prep work, we stepped up onto the plane’s wings and lowered — or maybe I should say stuffed — ourselves into our sardine seats. Frank slid a glass hatch over our heads and locked it, bubbling us in. He started the engine, and the propeller blades on the nose of the plane, just beyond the windshield, blurred and disappeared.
Smell of fuel. Deafening mechanical noise. We put on radio headsets that allowed us to communicate over the roar. When Frank spoke, he sounded like he was centimeter tall and sitting in my ear.
Air sickness? I told Frank it had never been a problem in the past, but that my belly couldn’t make any promises. We bumped out to the end of the green runway. A voice, broken with static, welled up in the headphones. Frank said something jargony, the voice replied in kind, and we started forward. The roar grew louder. And then the sky was everywhere.
Mutton Hill. Shelburne Pond. Richmond. Sunset Ridge. Elephant Head. Trapp Family Lodge. Waterbury Reservoir. Winooski River. Camel’s Hump. Appalachian Gap. Lincoln Peak. Breadloaf Wilderness. Brandon Gap. Chittenden Reservoir. Pico. Killington. Rutland. Route 7. Route 30. Mt. Equinox. Bennington Battle Monument. Route 9. Glastenbury Wilderness. Prospect Ski Area. Somerset Reservoir. Searsburg Wind Power Facility. Harriman Reservoir. Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Vernon Dam. Brattleboro. Landscape of rounded hills, bedrock whales and elephants slumbering beneath blankets of trees.
We landed at Hartness State Airport in Springfield for gas and lunch. The man in the small office there told us this was the oldest airport in Vermont, and that Charles Lindbergh had given a speech here, back in 1927, to an audience of 30,000. A black-and-white photograph hung on the wall: crowds in a field, Lindbergh on a stage, lots of flags. I scanned for cows but saw none. Frank and I borrowed a car, ate at a diner, returned to the plane and flew away.
Traveling at different altitudes, sometimes “down in the weeds,” as Frank put it, sometimes up at 3000 or 4000 or 5000 feet, I realized that an aerial perspective has a way of funneling the eye and mind toward obvious, familiar features. From Springfield it was all Mt. Ascutney. From Mt. Ascutney it was all Connecticut River. The river led us over Sumner Falls, the green bridge at Fairlee, cornfields, oxbows and on north to Moore Dam. From there it was I-91 and St. Johnsbury. Then just Lake Willoughby.
We shot the gap between Mt. Hor and Mt. Pisgah, our wings awesomely close to brushing Pisgah’s cliffs. Things happen quickly at 170 miles per hour. Thoughts come and go like beaver ponds, like villages whose names you can’t quite place. For two seconds I was searching the cliffs for peregrine falcons; then I was remembering a favorite quote from nature writer J.A. Baker: “The peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water.”
The quote poured away, and the cliffs, unattached, tumbled off in our invisible wake. We banked, and the horizon tilted and sank. From there it was the Northeast Kingdom, bruised with autumn’s yellow-brown, patched with crimson swamps. That man at the Shelburne Airport was right when he said “fast and vast.”
At the edge of the Nulhegan Basin, we pivoted over a small logging operation and flew due west: Lake Seymour, Derby Center, Lake Memphremagog, the tram on Jay Peak. Looking down at Jay Pass, I remembered my first day on the Long Trail 12 months earlier and was overcome with inspiration. I knew what I wanted to do. The landscape was telling me.
I wanted to start all over, start on another hike, another hitching trip, another seven or 10 or 25 or 200 lengths of Vermont. I wanted to spend the rest of my life flowing with the seasons, through the land like water, over the water like sky. I wanted to ink paths onto maps until the paper gave out. I wanted to crawl the length of the state. I wanted to snowmobile it. I wanted to ride a horse, rig a sail, lace up my skates, rappel into caves, climb to the canopy, get drunk at a bar, crawl to the next. I wanted to see this huge-small state through the eyes of salamanders, the expertise of botanists, the schedule and routine of UPS truck drivers. I wanted to eat wild roots and grubs and stay at lavish mansions. I wanted to ramble myself into oblivion.
Want, want, want — the view filled me with desire. I wanted to give myself over, not for a year but for good. If I’d had a parachute, I swear I would have jumped right then and there, for in that one brief moment that poured away as all moments must, nothing could have sounded so sweet as to free-fall down into the infinite invitation that is the terrain of home.
All told, Frank and I spent just under four hours in the air zigzagging and curving and diving and rising. The RV-6 tipped a wing to every major geographic region in the state, as well as some stretch of each of my previous adventure routes. The feeling that pervaded the day was that of visiting old friends. It put a lump in my throat. There was a mysterious, emotional power in the repeated nodding — or bowing — of my head to specific places I’d visited; where I’d taken shelter, watched the sun go down and moon come up. These were places that had become more than places. By doing nothing but getting out, traveling, looking, listening, smelling, tasting and touching, I’d turned them into friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters. I know it sounds cheesy, but they’d become parts of myself, and I a part of them.
The writer Barry Lopez has called the land an “animal that contains all other animals.” If that’s not beautiful, I don’t know what is. The land contains squirrels and ducks and children as it contains animals 1000 miles long. I wanted to see this ultimate animal, if only for a split second, but, of course, I didn’t. Instead I saw its parts. The wholeness of Vermont can be understood and felt but never observed. It slips into shadows, elusive and flickering. The best you can hope for is a glimpse of paw or fin or wing, a gas station or river mouth, a moment in a place. But let me assure you: These glimpses are more than enough.
Swanton. Isle La Motte. Malletts Bay. Burlington. Thompson’s Point. Little Otter Creek. Mt. Philo. Shelburne’s Vermont Teddy Bear Company. U-turn. Grass landing strip speckled white with gulls.
The gulls rose before us, and the bright afternoon sun exploded off smudges of insect guts on the glass bubble overhead. The wheels touched down. The flight was over. The year was over. I thanked Frank for an amazing day. I thanked Vermont for an amazing adventure, and for my life, and for being an animal to us all.
The propeller resolved into visibility and the roaring noise went mute. We pulled the glass back, and through the fuel I smelled leaves and wood smoke. I heard the geese. I looked up. They were flying south in a disheveled V, the animal of which they were a part streaming endlessly beneath them. I stepped down from the wing of the plane onto the ground. Though it may be obvious, I’ll say it anyway: The ground felt solid beneath my feet. Solid and good.
This is the last essay in Leath Tonino’s Seven Lengths of Vermont Series.