When I set out last year to walk across Vermont, one of my plans was to create a body of paintings based on my hike. They would be in the style of my “textual landscapes’ where I combine language (text) with semi-abstract landscape elements. The text might come from my Long Trail diary. If I were lucky, maybe I could even secure a 2016 residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT, and develop these paintings there, just a few miles from The Trail.
So much of last year was spend getting ready for my Long Trail hike. Hours and miles of spring and summer getting my body used to walking with weight; still more hours researching, planning, gathering and testing supplies and food and equipment. Painting focus was withdrawn. When I was able to paint in my studio, I worked small: 6” x 6” and 6” x 12” and 8” x 8” — panels small enough for me to get my head around in short bursts of time. Small enough, too, to hold in my hand and not take up too much space as piles of food and gear expanded from the closet tucked under the stairs and out into my studio. Rarely during this time did I finish a painting; mostly, they were incomplete.
In late summer as I packed up my gear and readied for my journey, one of my last actions at home before heading off to Vermont was cleaning my studio: I put away all the backpacking gear I was not taking, tidied table tops, arranged pens and brushes and paints and panels so that all of these would be in good order when I returned seven weeks later. And all of those unfinished paintings I hung on the wall in a neat grid.
And then deep into the Vermont woods I went.
You who are well acquainted with New England mountains will laugh, but here’s what I didn’t really grasp about Vermont until I attempted to walk across it:
Vermont is 80% wooded.
The Long Trail then is, as one fellow Trail veteran put it, “A long walk through the trees.”
Even the mountain tops!
This was a surprise to me. To slog up…. up…. up…. up…. and… finally… reach.. .the… summit… and… look out… and… see..
I am so entirely conditioned and spoiled by the trails of New Mexico and Colorado, where, for the most part if you hike up a mountain, when you reach the top, you’re rewarded with a BIG VISTA PAYOFF.
But not in Vermont. At least not on most of the mountains in the first 174 miles of The Long Trail.*
Some of the peaks have fire towers. Others have ski areas, where swaths of trees have been cleared to make ski runs. In fact, if ever I was able to get a sweeping view of the landscape around me, it usually was from the summit of a ski area.
Mostly though, my walk through Vermont was very much a walk through the trees; little blue sky was revealed to me. And when it was, often it was obscured by mist.
What’s funny though is that I never thought of myself as a “sky seeker.”
Then I returned home to New Mexico, and walked into my studio, and found myself. . .
. . . surrounded by sky.
Nearly every painting in my studio seemed to be of sky. Even those tiny unfinished 6” x 6” panels expressed B I G expansive S K Y.
It nearly knocked me over the abundance of sky — especially BIG BLUE SKY — in my studio.
And what I realized then is that even though I had just walked through the forest, I wasn’t ready to paint it.
Rather, I was ready to paint the sky. Hungry to paint it.
And so I set about doing just that: finishing all those little panels I had started last spring.
I do still plan on creating that series on the Vermont woods.
But those paintings are going to have to wait until I finish walking that last 100 miles through the trees.
Meanwhile, I’ve found my path to the sky.
*I have yet to hike from Camel’s Hump northward, across the Mount Mansfield region, whose peaks most certainly do rise above timberline. Indeed, those views are one of the several reasons why I’m determined to return to the trail next year and finish out my last 100 miles….