Again, I have the long incline of the road snaking up Barr Hill to myself. Only a short drive from home, this otherworldly plateau in Greensboro, Vermont, is where I go when I need to pace something out, to knead an idea or predicament like dough. Others might head for steep mountain trails, but I love this rutted one-lane track rising above the pretty village. I suppose it’s cheating—just a fifteen-minute ramble and I’m staring at the scarcely earned, grandiose view of everything remaining in the wake of a glacier.
I should be able to point out distant peaks: Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield, but perversely I like to pretend they’re all just waves, giant granitic waves in the big green Sea of Vermont. Indeed on my way up, I listened to the wind swishing in grasses like spent surf, and saw bees clinging to pitching blossoms as if they were each riding a tiny buoy.
This respite on Barr Hill, found though a mix of sweat and imagination, feels like it’s mine alone. But it isn’t. Many came before and many will come after, and actually because of one predecessor, I arrived to Barr Hill long before I ever actually hoofed up it.
In one of my favorite novels, Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner, who summered for many years in Greensboro, describes the view from this spot as:
“…the alternation of wild and cultivated, rough woods ending with scribed edges against smooth hayfields – this and the accent dots of white houses, red barns, and clustered cattle tiny as aphids on a leaf.”
Were he to stand here today, he’d probably choose the same words again.
More recently I encountered a poem, “On Barr Hill” in debut poet, Diana Whitney’s book Wanting It. She also rendered the simplicity and solitude, “Up here you can run for hours alone./You can criss-cross the woods & never/meet a soul.”
A 2008 National Endowment for the Arts report called “Artists in the Workforce” concluded that Vermont had more writers per capita than any other state in the union. Listening to Stegner’s character Larry, ensconced in a cottage near Barr Hill, it’s not hard to imagine why.
“With my typewriter on a card table and the thrushes and whitethroats signing up the last act of summer’s intense family life, I could sit among the treetops and look down through the hemlocks to the glitter of the lake and feel my mind as sharp as a knife, capable of anything including greatness.”
–Chapter 12, Crossing to Safety
But this landscape’s conduciveness to writing goes beyond the sweet summer season. Diana Whitney’s poem captures the hillside’s first snow, “hissing like steam” as well as evoking the hill’s connection to the past, “when the mountains were bald /& sheep ate the landscape down to bare rock…& kerosene burned & men harvested ice in blocks & slabs…”
Even with Diana’s words jogging through my mind and Stegner’s perfect descriptions preceding my own view of it all, as I amble back down to the car, it occurs to me, Barr Hill hardly seems trammeled.
Then, just as I reach my car, a herd of Angus emerges from the screen of trees. They follow one behind the other– Stegner’s “aphids” returned to large black animals. Lumbering single file, they seem like yet another ephemeral sentence, writing itself across the field, in the ongoing story of this place.