I remember Advent Calendars having a rancid kind of chocolate behind their ornamented doors. They tasted like the painted paper that housed each day’s kitschy, Christmas-themed weirdness. Perhaps I remember this so fervently because the entire month of December—when I was a boy—I’d wake up at-the-ready to rip through another cartoon evergreen or red-cheeked Santa face to get at the slightly yellowed, amorphously-molded chocolate piece. My satisfaction at the treat was always checked immediately by the strangeness of the taste and the twenty-four hours of lamentation before I could have at it again.
I was a dumb kid.
Maybe the best stories don’t start with “When I was a boy…”; maybe we get too Freudian for our own good: all hunger and desire and wishing-well-holes for brains. But Christmas is one of those things caught up in childhood. I know this because I’m in my mid-thirties, am childless, and couldn’t care less for the 25th of December. Nowadays, I think of pre-packaging: of how long those chocolates had to sit in their plastic places before moms could buy the calendars at thrift stores, of how much preservatives they must have put in them to keep through the end of the year. Of how little they have to do with Advent.
Some of my best recent memories of Christmas don’t consist of egg nog, pajamas, and fasting to afford presents. In 2007 I spent Christmas on my best West Coast friend’s parents’ couch, just outside LA. I’d arrived after driving on a Kero-whacky road trip from Seattle in time to search for a pickle in the Christmas tree. In 2010, in Dessie, Ethiopia, the proprietors of a hotel that was also a brothel erected (pun intended) a tree and decorated it with clouds of white cotton—ersatz snow—to make the American travelers feel at home. In 2011, in El Salvador, I learned that you only say Feliz Navidad! on Christmas Eve, right before the fireworks, liquor, and dance parties ensue. In 2012, my wife and I rode bicycles out of Chiang Mai, Thailand then climbed the mountain of Doi Sutep to the Wat that overlooked the region.
This is what Christmas has become for me in my adult life. Gone are the days when I rise giddily for cardboard chocolate and tinsel, presents and carols (I’ve always hated the carols). Perhaps, when I reproduce, as I’m so programmed to want to do, I will revisit these things subjectively, through the focus of tiny, widened eyes. But for now, it’s all get out of dodge and prepare for something new. To begin again. Empezar. An advent.
Enter Vermont: the Green Mountain.
For the previous three years, I’ve been home for Christmas. And let me make it clear that I’m not ruing family time or taking for granted any of the obvious collections of Christmas benefits: time off, big-full bellies, quasi-free stuff (the “quasi” because you pay into gifts for others, right?). But I have to admit that each year, come end of December, I get an itch to move. It may be the end of year=end of times, winter of discontent metaphor of end-life so richly portrayed in every literary text featuring the season, but I see the new year approaching like a trumpet-call toward some kind of oblivion and off I run.
This year, I was able to sucker Amy and some friends to come up to Vermont with me for my X-Mas expatriation. As far as state destinations go, Vermont had every likeable quality: breweries, mountains for skiing and hiking, Ben and Jerry’s, coffee, the Appalachian and Long Trails, and the dubious assignment of being a state I’d never visited before. One AirBnB on the side of a lonely mountain later and off we went, speeding north to vacate everything we know about holidays. (Quick and interesting note: nearly everyone I spoke with after returning lamented their own Christmases—bemoaning family fights over politics that mirror more reality shows than government and bitter eternal familial grudges spanning decades. And I’m the crazy one for emigrating?)
For the week, we took to exploring Burlington, imbibing at too many breweries, hiking the Long Trail (a vertical trail stretching the entire length of the state), practicing yoga (you can take the kids out of the bourgeoisie city but can’t take the bourgeoisie city out of…), team cooking, jogging dirt roads past tractors, and not once realizing it was Christmas. We searched for and found Vermont’s Holy Grail: the sought-after beer that never leaves the state, ranked as one of the best beers in the world (who does this?)—Heady Topper, another piece of Americana to sample from its aluminum housing. I don’t know if it’s the best anything, but it was good.
But what I really want to talk about is Camel’s Hump.
When we recycle things so much, they can lose their inherent value. Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion or shopping; sometimes, it can be about climbing a mountain. And every once in a while, “a” mountain can become “the” mountain for a person, when it enters the mythos of one’s life experience. When a mountain is so much more than a rock that it carves into you, putting its shadow-negative weight into your memory so that you carry it always, gladly. And you realize: mountains are big things until they are inside of you.
Two US states use foreign idioms of mountains for their namesakes: Montana, which, inserting the ~ tilde of Spanishness equals “montaña,” or “mountain” (not too subtle there Big Sky State); and Vermont—truncating some French: Vert (green), Mont (mountain). And what do you know, there are actually green mountains in The Green Mountain State. There’s something about mountains that draws me—heights call to climb, peaks beckon like lighthouses, seductive as if up is where I’m from. I’ve recently gotten into rock climbing, which adds to my already innate desire to scale rock faces and immense myself in wood. When I’m there, on mountainside, I feel simultaneously an adventurer and an athlete, a journeyer and one in-tune with my natural surroundings. Wherever I go, I look up; I aim my sight to the great heights, then trace them down to locate the nearest path up. Little invigorates me like a mountain ascent; little satisfies me for so short a time that I must quit my sea-level environs to again look for where I can find sky.
Camel’s Hump is Vermont’s third-tallest mountain, is on the state quarter (remember when your grandmother was excited about these?), and—via the Burrows Trail—follows a stream to its apex, where a bald spot in the Alpine line makes for a—you guessed it—humplike promontory where the entire region opens to the hiker intrepid enough to try it in winter. Our design was to wake early, drive to the trailhead, and ascend. When we arrived, it was 18 degrees, and we knew there was a long trek in front of us. It was only 2.6 miles to the ascent, which I thought would be relatively simple. I was, splendidly, wrong.
We donned our costumes (Hadley’s jacket included) and took to the trail. At first, it was delicate and fair-going; there was sun, flat land, and agile legs. Soon, however, began a treacherous (read: fun) ascent along a river frozen over by the arctic temperatures. The climb was perilous: we had to traverse using nearby tree branches, often following Hadley in her more wizened path decisions. It was steep, mostly solid ice, and very slow-going. It was amazing watching Hadley’s athleticism; timid about feats of agility normally, she made daring decisions: jumping six-foot gaps, climbing ice slides, etc. It seemed she was enjoying the trail as much as her human counterparts. There was some falling and an increasing cold, but the fresh-white environment was nothing like I’d seen. It seemed an illusion—an optical trick—the odd whiteness of it; snow frozen to twig as if in motion. From our photos, drenched in color as we were, the backdrop seems false, a department store paper background, a Hollywood green screen; us: superimposed. Ultimately, it was the perfect backdrop for our challenging climb.
Using much more time than we’d expected, we reached a small clearing about 0.3 miles from the summit. Here, fortified by flasked bourbon, some of us pushed on to peak (Had came too). The rest of the ascent was pretty ridiculous. It was all up and it was all ice. Without scrambling, we’d never have made it. In fact, I even had to boost Hadley a couple times. Eventually, however, exiting the timberline and meeting the clouds, we broke forth onto the mountain’s crown, the eponymous hump of the camel. The temperature dropped; our beards were frozen stiff with our exhales, but we’d answered the call that reached us 4000 ft. below: come to the top of the mountain.
The valley, the ranges. No words.
Going down was equal parts fun and horrifying. Often, we simply had to sit and slide down long sections of frozen river, as we didn’t have crampons or polls. There was a lot of falling, a lot of turtling (a word I’d learned hiking the Appalachian Trail that essentially means, when hiking downward on slippery rocks, let your feet come out from under you if you slip so that you land on your pack rather than some other unprotected part of your body), a lot of laughing, a lot of damning our mountain, and a lot of celebrating the ludicrousness of it all. Darkness came quickly, but after what seemed hours and hours (six in total), we made it out just as dusk fell.
All of us were bruised, sore.
Hadley: cold/limp tail.
Flowering hip bruises.
But here’s the thing.
Beyond the pain, beyond the treachery of the whole thing, it’s important to understand what climbing that mountain meant. It’s not all fun. It’s not easy. You challenge your body and your fear beyond capacity, you struggle, you hurt, but you reach the apex and make it out again, only to look for the next higher peak, the next ascent. You see some of the most beautiful things on Earth. What that is isn’t just some random Vermont vacation Monday hike; it’s life. It’s everything that life is and is supposed to be. The bruises remind of the beauty; the scars prove endurance beyond the impossible. I will not remember most of my life when I relinquish my living, but I will remember Camel’s Hump with my very good friends and very good dog—saddled with ice packs and soreness after, one thing that cannot be taken from us is the view from that peak, when it called us, and we came.
Just like living. For that mountain, too, I come.
That night, I was reading Hiram Bingham’s seminal and controversial memoir Inca Land, about “discovering” Machu Picchu (he did no such thing). Very strangely, I came across a passage where he spoke of his father’s teaching him to love mountains, “My father was an ardent mountain climber, glorying not only in the difficulties of the ascent, but particularly in the satisfaction coming from the magnificent view to be obtained at the top.” I thought this was apt: glory in the view and the difficulty. I never dog-ear pages, but I dog-eared this one.
On the day our Vermont vacation ended, Amy, Hadley and I were the last to leave. One last morning walk on the frosted grass, a last run through our haunted house, a few waves goodbye to folks from whom we live only a few blocks away in the big city to which we’d all be heading back.
I opened the attached garage and chose from a collection of sleds—blue-to-orange, toboggan-to-disk—the one that might slide the fastest. I climbed the hill on the property slowly, aimed at the house, sat, lifted my legs, and let gravity pull me back toward the new year. A new calendar. An advent.
—I dedicate this post to my friend Alex Wildman, whose abbreviated name indeed is A. Wildman, and couldn’t be more fitting. Years ago, he sold me my first real pair of hiking boots and is now climbing a pretty steep mountain against cancer. I have to say though, never before have I felt so sorry for the disease. I think it picked the wrong fight.
Hold fast; all storms pass.