The events recorded in this post occurred in May 2019.
Outdoorsy gear was strewn about the van. A collapsed walking stick wedged next between the chair cushions, a casual carabiner. I clambered with another hiker into the back seat, moving aside a pair of trauma shears as we buckled in. Patrick, a Putney employee and our fearless captain for this adventure, slid into the driver’s seat once the stowaway in the trunk was closed in. He turned the key in the ignition and off we went.
Our destination was a nearby fire tower. I didn’t know my fellow hikers well, but I was glad to be along for the ride.
It was Day 2 (or 3?) of a long weekend of staff training. Earlier in 2019, I was selected to lead a National Geographic Student Expedition to Thailand, a program operated by Putney Student Travel. It was training for this experience that brought me to Middlebury College in Vermont, where I met Patrick and our fellow hikers.
We rolled through Vermont’s hills in the early summertime. The van was filled with a harmony of chatter and silence. United by a love of adventure and a desire to share that passion with the next generation, we had much in common. After a half-hour of driving through scenery with aching beauty—Rolling mountains! Fully leafed trees! Little evidence of human impact!—we pulled over on a wide gravel strip on the side of the road. A quaint brewery perched behind us, and a vista of undulating, green mountains sprawled before us. We climbed out of the van in the same giddy, giggling fashion we loaded into it with.
We hiked to the fire tower. A wooden hut greeted us at the start of the hike, perhaps the home of a previous fire watcher? Or the summer abode of a hunting aficionado? We walked on. Tiny wildflowers, perky smiles on delicate stems, winked in the grasses. Amongst the trees, lichen scrawled across trunks and stones. Small, sluggish salamanders stomped slowly, visible only if you watched the edge of the trail carefully. They moved like flame-colored alligators in miniature. A creek cut across the path, easily crossed in a single step.
Finally, the fire tower. It is no longer used for its original purpose when fire watchers would guard the valley and signal danger to other towers on distant ridges. Nowadays, the tower is an attraction for casual hikers and teenagers who come to carve proclamations of their undying love into its wooden beams. I climbed the creaky stairs, rusted in some parts, and sighed at the top. Magnificent views. The group photos, alas, are on someone else’s phone.
The same trail led us back to the van. As I’d quietly hoped, the hikers had also developed a thirst on the trail. Pleasantly sweaty in the cool Vermont summer, we looked both ways and crossed the road, where the brewery awaited.
Stepping inside, we were transported in time. Maidens in braids and breastplates gathered in groups while bearded men in leather and fur nodded and laughed at the bar. We could’ve been in a previous century were it not for the modern chrome taps, from which local ales flowed freely.
I stood with another hiker (we’ll call her Amanda), and together we leaned on the wooden bar. One of the bearded men was to our right. His blonde hair was plaited down his back, and his beard must’ve been growing throughout the winter. Instead of a pint glass, he held a bull horn from which he steadily sipped.
“What are you drinking?” Amanda ventured to ask.
He looked at us and smiled.
“Mead. I’ve been making it myself here at the brewery,” he responded with an inviting gesture. “Would you like to try it?” He proffered the drinking horn to Amanda.
Amanda accepted, using both hands to secure her grip. The horn had a wicked curve to it, like devil horns in a crude drawing. “Be sure to hold it here,” he pointed to the middle of the horn, “and mind that the tip points away from your face.” A gracious reminder, for the tip certainly would be a hazard around the eyes. Amanda adjusted her grip and took a swig. Her eyebrows knitted together as they do when you taste something new and your mind must work to categorize the flavor. “It’s good. I like it,” she pronounced.
“Could I try it too?” I asked, and he agreed. Amanda handed me the horn. I adjusted my grip on its smooth, mottled surface and took a swig. Not as sweet as most ciders, no bubbles, and deep brown color. It had a cloying aftertaste that left me wanting more. Very good. I handed the horn back, regretting that the homemade mead was not yet for sale.
We thanked our generous companion and swapped quick stories about what brought us out that day while Amanda and I waited for our drinks to be poured. As it turns out, we had stumbled upon an annual gathering of Vermont’s Viking community. These folks come out from across the Northeast each year to honor their ancestors by donning the garb of Vikings, though we are assured they do not plunder the local towns.
With our drinks in hand, poured in glass pints, we wound our way to the outside picnic area where our fellow hikers and another carload of National Geographic Expedition Leaders were already gathered, laughing and exchanging news.
I slid into the group, happy to have a new story of my own. After all, it’s not every summer you get to drink with Vikings.