Outdoor Writing Ain’t What It Used To Be

The road to Jay Peak Resort in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom leans north and west from Interstate 91’s Exit 6 in Barton – the final, 32-mile leg of a 3½-hour, 200-mile trip from my Greenfield home.

I was there to attend the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s Vermont 2021 Annual Conference, a first for me though I have been an active OWAA member since 1984. The resort sits a mere five miles south of the Canadian border. Check-in for the three-day, October 4 to 6 event at the Hotel Jay was on a Sunday afternoon, with a Wednesday noontime check-out.

These professional gatherings meander yearly from state to state, region to region, attracting young and old for a jam-packed assortment of meetings, workshops, sight-seeing trips, meals, cocktail hours, and other social events. Some folks even brought fishing equipment and gun dogs. Not me. Attending my first such conference since the 1980s, when I routinely participated in the New England Outdoor Writers Association’s annual meeting, I was there to get a feel for how outdoor writers, not to mention the outdoor-writing paradigm, has changed since I was a young man. Back then, Field and Stream and Outdoor Life hook-and-bullet tales were boilerplate fare, while more creative Gray’s Sporting Journal served professorial readers.

Times have changed. Hook-and-bullet yarns no longer sell. The average modern reader doesn’t care to read about well-placed shots through vital organs and the resulting blood trails to the carcass. I lived the transition during 40 years as a newspaper columnist, could feel it happening at about the midpoint of my career and tried to tell my clueless last editor that modern readers no longer had the stomach for the hunting tales of his father and grandfather. Readers of outdoor columns and narrative were more interested in nature and natural history, fish migration and wildlife restorations that slipped into local history and prehistory. That fact was blatantly apparent at this Vermont conference.

About 150 miles into my drive up the northern Connecticut Valley, above St. Johnsbury, I entered the brilliant world of peak fall foliage. The problem was that there I also ran into foggy rain that got heavier as I proceeded north, limiting visibility and eliminating any chance of helpful distant landscapes, such as ski slopes carved into tall mountains. Though no stranger to the Northeast Kingdom, I had never been in the neighborhood of Vermont’s northernmost ski area, but was able to get there with the help of a couple gas-station inquiries.

Wet, gray, foggy skies enveloped the resort upon my arrival. Checking in at the front desk, I learned I would occupy Room 535, penthouse quarters with a king-sized bed and large-screen, hi-def TV. The fall colors would have been incredible from that top-floor perch had the skies been clear, but I never saw a sliver of the sun before placing my final travel bag in the truck for my Wednesday-morning departure.

On the previous day, before noon, finally, I was for the first time able to see the ski slope behind the motel and the brilliant surrounding landscape. It was worth the wait.

I was surprised to see the getaway-morning sun far to my right as I loaded luggage into the car. In a strange place with no sun to guide me the previous three days, the view through my windows felt south. Wrong. All the while I was facing northeast, toward central Lake Memphremagog in Canada. Any woodsman is well aware that such disorientation can easily occur in an unfamiliar, stormy place with no sun or compass to guide you.

Oh well. Such is life. No big deal. A transitory guest, it is doubtful I’ll ever again step foot anywhere near Jay Peak.

Which brings me to a writing assignment I took on during an uninspiring Tuesday workshop titled Narrative Nonfiction: Nature, Ecology and the Outdoor. Condescending for a retired outdoor writer, I got through it much like I had during distant school daze a half-century ago.

The one-hour assignment was to find a quiet place in which to melt and, for the first 10 minutes, absorb the sensuous stimuli. That done, we were to describe the sights, sounds, and smells we encountered and articulate what we were feeling in a narrative describing a sequence of events and perceptions. It brought me back to deadline writing at work, Creative Writing 101 in college, and literally hundreds of columns I had written over the years after being touched deeply by something encountered on a walk, hike, hunt, or drive – or just plain creative ramblings from an introspective place. It’s what writers do.

I walked back to the motel, took the elevator to the fifth floor, opened floor-to-ceiling curtains for the panoramic view over a small porch with two chairs, sat down and studied the colorful mountain landscape. Here’s what I read to the small class an hour later, without a hint of insecurity or fear:

Overcast. Gray and cool. Visibility fair. Air damp. No day for outdoor assignments without warm clothing. I know the value of comfort in such conditions, and it is hanging in my closet 200 miles south.

I’m seated on a flexible metal chair with a cushioned seat, looking south through large, floor-to-ceiling windows. The curtains are pulled wide open to the right, opening a colorful, sunless fall scene over a small, fifth-floor porch. I see a mountain landscape dominated by red and orange, defiled by a slim, vertical powerline of the same colors, muted.

The nearest ridge wears a gentle slope that slowly ascends to the left before meeting an abrupt, conifer-capped, gumdrop ridge that must offer hard, rough ledge underfoot. That I cannot say for sure, situated here in a place I do not and will never know. It is someone else’s place. I am a brief visitor. A passer-through.

In the place I call home and was born, I could name the faraway peaks and identify the unseen rivers running through distant ravines deeply eroded over many millennia. I could likely point out those crevices still holding remnants of ancient Native weirs and fish-traps, and streams where sophisticated surface collectors can still pick up precious artifacts dating back to Clovis hunters some 13,000 years ago. It’s hard to say where these artifacts come from. Freshets just keep tumbling them downstream like golden nuggets of prospectors’ dreams, deep-history clues for trained modern eyes to interpret.

From my perspective, the beauty of this place created by the recreation industry as a money-maker stops at the gravel parking lot, the surrounding development and the monstrous motel where I’m staying. Hypocrisy from someone enjoying the amenities? Perhaps. But I know my thoughts and moods would be far purer and more meaningful if absorbed into the forest, fishing a brook for speckled trout or sitting still and silent in a deer stand as a hidden, temporary habitat resident.

Looking through the large, modern windows at the lush mountain forest below, I do not know the trails and roads I have not traveled and am having difficulty connecting to the scene as the metal register behind me exhales a warm, sensual whisper.

To appreciate this place like I love my own, I’d have to learn the alder and spruce swamps, the beech and oak groves, the sugarbush, the shagbark hickories, if they’re here. I’d have to trek the ancient footpaths and game trails worn deeply into ridgetop spines. Those who, for eternity, created these ancient indentations on the forest floor were wise and just. They created paths of least resistance to important destinations, be they hunting-and-gathering sites or ceremonial landscapes on which they celebrated solstices and bountiful harvests with song, dance and theatrical oral tales that taught important cultural and spiritual lessons and could last for days.

Many of those ancient paths are still today traveled as paved and altered roads created to accommodate wheeled vehicles in the 19th century. Such cart and bridle paths could not stay with the ancient footpaths through muddy, lowland depressions, which proved at times impassable for wheeled vehicles. Thus, the road-builders cut new paths on higher ground more difficult afoot but easier for horse and carriage and, later, automobiles like those parked below me in a place where moose, cougars and black bears once ruled.

Tell me: is this now a better place because of its ski slopes, water parks, golf course and giant motel? Well, that’s not for me to answer.

To each his own.

Given more time to gather and shape my thoughts, I could have improved the narrative through many rewrites and tweaks. I could have introduced an historic Rogers’ Rangers angle. That is, which of his fleeing bands from the infamous 1759 massacre of Native Americans at St. Francis would have ventured closest to Jay Peak? That could have added a little flavor, I suppose.

I could have also explained that, having seen not so much as a ray of sun since arriving, I had no clue which direction I was pointed when looking through those motel windows. That may have established my disorientation while trying to describe a new place. Plus, I could have spared myself the indignity of a mistake in bold black print. Then again, did it really matter what direction I was looking?

Overall, I’m satisfied with my tight-deadline response about an unfamiliar place. It reminded me in many ways of the many Friday-night football stories I cranked out with the clock ticking and no turning back. Focus is always the key. I know that from experience.

I don’t know or care what others in the workshop thought of my conservationist/preservationist perspective. Maybe they thought me a dinosaur in the world of modern outdoor writing, which seems determined to promote resorts and development that produces outdoor activities like skiing, biking, hiking, kayaking, orienteering, geocaching, tennis, and golf to name some.

I see no need to mire myself in such trivial matters. Asked to bare my soul, I did so, and am more than comfortable in skin wrinkling with age.


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