By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Let's start from the top, shall we?
Standing on the enclosed platform of a 55-foot-tall fire tower on the peak of Vermont's Stratton Mountain, Hugh Joudry scanned the scenery, a 100-mile panorama of bushy-headed hardwoods with roots in various states and mountain ranges. As the tower's caretaker slowly circled the square floor, he described the land's layout, noting the different regions: his home state's Green Mountain National Forest, New York's Adirondacks, the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was 360 degrees of trees on the brink of a color eruption, a sight unseen by travelers on lower ground. "I'm seeing the spin of the foliage," said Joudry, who has spent 41 years living in a mountaintop cabin with his wife, Jeanne. "From a bird's-eye view, you can see the growth of the foliage and the inception of a new season. You are still, and nature is in motion."
At that moment, squeezed inside the small tower, I was indeed pretty still, minus a few small adjustments to track Joudry's gaze across a vast treescape that bumped up against the horizon. Yet not long before, I'd been kinetic, first as a passenger aboard Stratton Mountain Resort's gondola, then as a hiker.
During ski season, the 12-person gondola deposits winter sports enthusiasts at the top of the mountain; the descent is then up to them. In summer and fall, visitors can ride the gondola in a continuous loop or leap off 11 minutes after its departure to make the final ascent, a knobby 0.8-mile trek to the 1914 fire tower, on foot.
When I arrived at the gondola in the resort's base area, I was torn about the best route for foliage-viewing. I originally considered riding it up for a treetop perspective and hiking down for a sense of flora intimacy. But I did not want to miss out on the experience of slowly drifting down the mountain face with the valley spread before me. So I ended up riding it up and down, then hiking 1.4 miles on the steep, grassy trail that runs beneath the gondola. The land route looked deceptively flatter from above, an observation I carried with me as I considered my final trip down. I boarded the gondola for the third time that day.
While on the hike, I focused mainly on my footfalls and on how many more I'd need to reach the finish line. In my cozy metal pod, however, I settled back to watch nature's show unfold, following the line of trees along the trail's edges to the expanse of forested land that would soon be dressed in autumn's finery. "You can see better colors because of the distance of the views," said lift manager Paul Maitland, extolling the virtues of leaf-viewing from the bench of a gondola. "You're not just looking at one or two trees."
From nearly 4,000 feet up, I could see the forest for the trees.