Crisis as Opportunity: Vermonters lead the way to a better, freer, more natural way of life

If we’re fortunate, walking trails to work and school may be the leading edge for all of us as we move through global energy descent and climate weirding. Walking real distances will quickly reverse accelerating obesity and diabetes rates and begin to starve the medico-pharmaceutical complex of profit and control. In general, getting off the couch and outside, to walk or bike especially on natural earthen trails, will clear our heads, slow us down, ground us back into our bodies, and thereby cure much of what ails us in this hyped-up, cyberneti-tizzied age. On the other hand, as per this article, we have a ways to go with the sugar . . . Thanks to the New York Times.

Just Try Topping This ‘When I Was Your Age’ Tale

Cheryl Senter for The New York Times

It may be weeks before storm-damaged roads are fixed in Vermont. Until then, there is the path.


September 11, 2011

CHITTENDEN, Vt. — Karen Prescott, the principal of Barstow Memorial, never expected that her 33 elementary and middle school students who live on the other side of the mountain would make it in that first day.

Hurricane Irene had washed away large stretches of the road down from Killington, Route 4. Huge craters left Route 100 impassable. Brandon House of Pizza was sitting in the middle of Route 7.

But on Wednesday, Aug. 31, at 7:55 a.m., three days after the storm closed down much of the state, the four school buses pulled up right on time, and off hopped 18 children from the dark side of the mountain (their electricity was still out).

“They were so proud,” Ms. Prescott said.

They had reason to be. Their families had discovered a half-mile-long forest path that they could walk, from Route 4 across the mountain to their school bus. At first, the woods were still and unsettling. “My hands shaked a little bit,” said Jillian Bradley, a second grader.

But as Sophia Hussack, another second grader said, “Since Vermont got hit by the storm, people think we couldn’t, but we do.” And what townspeople do and have done is a thing to behold: they have taken that quiet trail and in two weeks’ time turned it into the I-95 of wooded paths. More than a 1,000 people a day now walk it to get to their jobs and go food shopping on the other side. So many cars line Helvi Hill, the dirt road leading to the path on this side, that handwritten no parking signs have been posted to make sure the road stays passable.

There are also signs that say the path is open only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Porta-Pottys donated by A1 Sewer and Drain have been placed at each end of the forest trail. Volunteers sit under tent canopies supplied by Celebration Rentals, giving out sandwiches, beverages, doughnuts, gummy bears and red licorice. Six golf carts from Green Mountain National Golf Course transport the elderly and infirm. All-terrain vehicles from Central Vermont Motorcycles and the Hendy Brothers John Deere dealership are used for safety patrols.

John King, owner of the Gramps Shuttle, has volunteered his vans to take the students up and down the mountain, along with adults who don’t have rides from the end of the paths.

Last week a Gramps van picked up seven people at Rutland Airport who needed to make connections at Logan Airport in Boston. “We told them we could do it, but they’d have a short walk,” he said. “We didn’t tell them where they’d be walking until they got here.”

A Gramps van dropped them off at one end of the path. Their luggage was loaded onto all-terrain vehicles. Then they trooped through the woods to another Gramps van, which drove them to Boston. “Made it in three and a half hours,” Mr. King said.

The roads are still so bad that the final three students who live farthest away didn’t make it to school until last Wednesday. Town officials hope to have the roads passable in the next few weeks, before the first snow, but until then the children are walking through the woods.

It’s not a simple commute. Crawford Jones’s mother drives him from Mendon to a pickup area on Route 4, where the Gramps Shuttle van meets him and takes him down to the start of the path. There, a parent volunteer walks him and the others through the woods. A small school bus that can turn around in a tight space picks up the children and takes them to Sherwood Drive, where the big bus is waiting to take them to school.

One day after school last week, the bus arrived at the forest path and the students made a beeline to the refreshment tent. There were fruits and peanuts, but most favored the doughnuts, gummy bears and licorice. By the time they headed into the woods, sugar was oozing from their pores. Michelle Ericksen, a school board member who was accompanying them, caught Riley Bates, a second grader whose favorite classes are gym and recess, with an entire bag of gummy bears and confiscated them before he could rocket to the moon.

It was raining and muddy. Several of the girls, including Charlotte Tyler, a kindergartner, wore pretty boots, but not Riley, who said all he needed was sneakers. “If you walk around the house, the mud just wears off,” he said.

Along the way, they passed Darren Snitker, a contractor who has coordinated donations from the local businesspeople. He was spreading 12 truckloads of pine bark mulch along the trail, which made it less slippery but also explained why this wooded path smelled like the garden department at Home Depot.

Whatever children are doing seems normal to them, and for most, hiking through the woods has become routine. Asked how she does it, Charlotte, the kindergartner, said, “I just walk straight ahead.”

Ms. Prescott, the principal, believes their adventure stands for something a little more. Last week, when all 33 had finally made it to school, she held a special assembly to officially welcome them for the new year. As assemblies go, there wasn’t a lot of dazzle, no special effects, not one PowerPoint. She simply stood in the middle of the gym, and one by one called them down from the bleachers to be recognized for making it to school under difficult circumstances.

“Charlotte Tyler,” she called out. “Ben Tyler. Mollie Porcaro. Gage Porcaro.” When they heard their names, they bounded down from the bleachers and formed a line on the gym floor facing their classmates, who cheered them and let out loud, high-pitched “woo-woo”s.

After Ms. Prescott was done with the children, she called down teachers who’d overcome sizable odds, including Bob Myers, the middle school social studies teacher. Mr. Myers left his house at 4 a.m. and managed to get to school the first day by 8:07, even though his GPS said “Recalculating” so many times he finally turned it off and guessed the best way.

That afternoon, Ms. Prescott gave out no trophies, plaques or certificates of appreciation. When asked why she’d held an assembly, she said, “It makes people feel good.” And it was true — as they headed back to class, they did look a little puffed up.

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