We started our hike at Petersburg Pass just three and a half miles south of the Vermont border in New York. Occasional clouds floated overhead in a bright blue dome of sky in late August. We climbed up the steep Taconic Trail winding back and forth over a grassy slope fringed with faded pink azalea bushes overlooking the green and fertile valleys of New York and Massachusetts. The trail leveled off at about 2,500 feet elevation and led straight north into hilly Vermont. Our destination was a spot called the Snow Hole less than three and a half miles away.
With the temperature at eighty degrees, my wife Maura and I doubted very much if any snow could possibly leftover the past warm months of summer, but we were intent on proving ourselves wrong. Just this side of Vermont the trail dipped down into a hollow of a dense forest of maple, birch, spruce, and pine with a thick undergrowth of brush and saplings. Up again we climbed to a grassy ridge affording us a marvelous southwestern view of New York’s Helderbergs and Catskills. All the while we were serenaded by the plaintive notes of white-throated sparrows that reminded me so much of my boyhood days on the coast of Maine.
We could not help but notice, as we passed the sign marking the Vermont border, the many dwarf trees with long branches extending horizontally to the lea. Apparently winter’s fierce winds are too severe to permit normal growth patterns. Wind-blown fields became more and more frequent, each one seeming to have an even steeper drop-off into the rolling valleys below. The very ridge on which we hiked became quite thin with a crest not more than sixty feet wide high above New York on one side and Vermont on the other.
One field in particular, some two and a half miles north of gentle Petersburg Pass, dropped off so sharply that I was reminded of the Knife Edge Trail leading to the summit of Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. From here we could see some seventy-five miles northwesterly into the Adirondacks of upstate New York. The cool and crisp wind was filled with the fragrance of forests below. At our feet grew hundreds of blueberry bushes ripe with clusters of coal-black berries. Their taste proved to be as wild and ambrosial as any.
We knew that the Snow Hole must not be too far away as we entered a wind-free white maple forest some forty feet tall. In a matter of moments, we passed a little green and yellow sign saying “Snow Hole,” with an arrow pointing over to a short side trail. We descended some fifty feet passed large gray granite rocks not far from a deep pit just north of the Vermont line. As we trekked over to the very edge of the hole, the air seemed a good bit chillier. An old Vermont couple from Bennington sat on the edge looking down. The white-haired gentleman told us that when he was a small boy, his father carried him on his shoulders to this very spot and that practically every year since then he had paid a visit. A large ash tree stood right above the pit whose branches conveniently served as great handholds. We could barely make out a white line of snow at the very bottom. The old Vermonter challenged us to go down and see if it really was snow.
Maura and I stepped gingerly downwards passed black cliffs blanketed with wet ferns and moss. For each foot we descended, the temperature dropped, and the rockbound plant life became smaller and smaller. As we slithered lower and lower, we started to shiver. The temperature dropped at least forty degrees. Soon we balanced ourselves on a slippery pack of icy snow. We could even see our breaths, August though it might be! I thought I was dreaming until my wife playfully hit me with a snowball! As we climbed back out, the heat of summer gradually returned, and we soon began to sweat. Up top we listened with joy to chirping thrushes and warblers. The old Vermonters waved goodbye to us, each with a big smile knowing that we had a Snow Hole-experience.
Apparently, this granite pit, one of many in Vermont, is so narrow and deep that during the winter the snow keeps packing into it until it is just about full. Perhaps it never completely melts away. Long after we had come out, we found ourselves back on the steep fields of stunted pines and maples high over the valleys. The heat of the August forests farther along the Taconic Trail made it impossible to believe that I was hit with a snowball a few hours ago. At the end of a far field, we descended to Petersburg Pass and our car. We must all hike our favorite trails, wherever they may be, to appreciate the rich varieties of the natural world and to refresh our minds and spirits in this troubled world.
At the beginning of his career, Richard Fleck, many years ago, taught English and French at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams where he and Maura took many weekend walks. He is author of a number of books including Desert Rims to Mountains High and Henry Thoreau and John Muir among the Native Americans.