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Back to Butler

08/01/06 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) This is hiking season and a busy time for those who maintain Vermont's trails and shelters. Commentator Vic Henningsen reflects on the life of a Long Trail caretaker.

(HENNINGSEN) Every so often I return to the cabin on Mount Mansfield where I worked for the Green Mountain Club back in the 1970's.

Nestled under the Forehead cliffs, Butler Lodge is a little jewel of a place. Built in 1933 and beautifully restored, it sleeps fourteen, more or less comfortably, on board bunks and in a small loft. From Memorial Day until Labor Day - sometimes until Columbus Day - it's staffed by a GMC caretaker.

Last time, I wasn't surprised to find it empty at mid-morning. It's an old caretaker ploy to sweep up the cabin after the hikers depart and then race to the top of the Forehead on the trail they didn't take. Having last seen you sipping a leisurely cup of tea at Butler, they're astonished to find you waiting to greet them at the top. It's eight-tenths of a mile and about a thousand feet of climbing from the lodge door to the Forehead. But you get fit walking that hill every day: my best time was eighteen minutes. Can't do that any more.

Sure enough, I found the Butler caretaker on the ridge, where we fell into the easy talk of people who once held the same job. The further apart in years, the more enjoyable the conversation. I have vivid memories of the 1941 caretaker, thirty years later, initiating me into the ways of the lodge: Why the bunks slant (the trail crew used water in a pie tin for a level); which ledges were best for stargazing; and how he used the brook to generate power for electric lights. Each caretaker added something to the folklore of the place. Who had a garden; what happened when the brook ran dry - there are lots of stories.

And so we yarned away, all Vermont at our feet.

I asked about animals. Porcupines were our nemesis: eating anything sweaty - axe handles, pack straps, boots.

Nope, no porkies, but we had moose in the front yard this morning.

How about your most crowded night?

Only fourteen so far.

Full houses were routine in the early 70's. One rainy night I crammed in forty-four. Early next morning, a man walking in his sleep fell out of the loft, turned a perfect somersault, and landed on a group of snoring boy scouts. Somehow, no injuries.

We compare lost hiker stories and laugh about the man who thought he was on Camel's Hump. It took a lot to change his mind.

We talk mountain weather, trail conditions, alpine plants, accidents: the conversational small change of summer crews.

It's rare that we can live what Thoreau called "the life we have imagined," but working in the high hills is one way to come close. Without quite saying so, those guys from the 40's who visited me meant to convey that understanding. I suppose that's one reason I return.

And perhaps, also, to remember a time when life could be measured in simpler terms.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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