forest bathing in southeast vermont

woodsSo, summer’s hurtling to a close, kids are back in school, and I’m actually wearing a cardigan – A CARDIGAN, PEOPLE! – as I type this. We had so much fun exploring new places this summer that I have decided to make a weekly hike or nature walk part of our fall routine. Places we visited this summer are bound to look quite different and maybe even more beautiful come fall. I’m gonna let you in on a few of the hidden gems we have discovered here in the southeast Vermont/southwest New Hampshire/western Massachussetts area. If you’re within an hour’s drive of any of these spots, I highly recommend! There’s nothing like walking through the dappled forest light, smelling the piney fall air, and being forced by your young charges to stop and examine each and every weird mushroom along your path. Just make sure you bring your bug spray and your patience – a one-mile trail recently took us 3.5 hours to traverse, what with the snack stops, the flower-sniffing, acorn-scrutinizing pace, and the frequent detours to look for wildlife.

Speaking of wildlife, one of our most memorable summer hikes was at the wonderful Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, MA.

Featuring five miles of trails, including the easy loop trail around this vernal pool, Arcadia is a great place to enjoy wildlife of both the flora
puffball mushroom

and fauna variety.collage

Plus it has this cool lookout tower treehouse thing!lookout tower

Our most local hiking spot – like, we can walk to it from our house local – is Mt. Wantastiquet, just across the river in Hinsdale, NH. If you go there after a heavy rain, the waterfall near the trail entrance is even prettier than it is here:DSC03349

Wantastiquet is also a good place to spot wildlife. Researching a little for this blog post I found out that apparently, Mt. Wantastiquet is also known as Rattlesnake Mountain. Pretty sure this cute little guy is not one, but perhaps best to keep one’s distance just in case.DSC03416

If you want to get up close and personal with Mother Nature, maybe try a tree instead.DSC03428

Or a mushroom.DSC03438

We found these weird little fungus-like plants, which I later learned are commonly known as Indian Pipe. They’re actually kind of rare plants that grow on a fungus that lives near beech trees, and live totally without chlorophyll. However my three year-old daughter insisted they were a species called “Cylene oxide.” World class science BS-er, that one.DSC03466


On the opposite side of Mt. Wantastiquet is the charming ruin known as the Madame Sherri Forest.9103893113_92098d7b21_k

Madame Sherri, the former owner of this once lavish estate, was a Parisian singer, a costume designer for Broadway, and a die-hard party girl. After her husband died, she bought this 513-acre parcel of land in Chesterfield NH and had a huge, castle-y mansion built. The woods are beautiful and full of wildflower plants like this mountain laurel.mountain laurelProbably won’t see much laurel blooming in the fall, but this is also supposed to be a terrific site for enjoying the autumn foliage.

My kiddos always love exploring aquatic habitats and there’s plenty to see here as the Anne Stokes Loop trail that goes to the castle ruin passes right by Indian Pond, where you can see frogs, dragonflies, and beaver dams, just for starters.9103889141_abcb615749_k

And it’s always fun exploring what’s left of the stone foundation.madame sherri castle

Apparently, Madame Sherri was somewhat notorious, not only for her wild parties full of *GASP* theater people, but also for her pet monkey and her habit of attiring herself in nothing but a fur coat. She’s pretty much the most flamboyant character to ever live in Brattleboro, and that’s saying a lot. That’s right, I said Brattleboro. By the 50s she had fallen on hard times, and ended up becoming a ward of the town and moving to a rest home in West Bratt. Several years later, her house in Chesterfield burned to the ground, except for the stone foundation and stairway. She died a pauper, with only six people attending her funeral. A biography of her came out a couple years ago, written by New Hampshire author Eric Stanway, and if this Keene Sentinel article is any indication, it is juicy as hey-all. Sounds like Grey Gardens meets Mae West, with a touch of Kurt Weill. Sign me up. Oh, and PS, there are also rumors that she ran a brothel out of her castle.

Somewhat annoyingly, although I guess in the spirit of the original house, the ruin seems to be a favorite spot of revelers. The last time we were there, there was a lot of broken glass and trash left on top of the ruin. My son has deemed himself a litter hero and decided that next time we come we will bring a canvas bag and remove all the garbage that other folks left behind. We have tried this on a couple other hikes we’ve gone on and it always feels good to leave things nicer than we found them, although I think it is giving my little garbage collector superhero delusions of grandeur. As we emerged from the woods with a small bag of second-hand trash, he turned to me and earnestly asked, “Are we famous now?”

On to more wholesome hiking locales, coming home from Walpole NH (home of both Alyson’s Orchard and the mouthwatering L. A. Burdick Chocolates) one day, we stumbled across the lovely Ruth C. Warwick Nature Preserve in Westmoreland. Late May was a great time to enjoy the wildflowers the Warwick preserve is known for – we stumbled across quite a bit of trilliumtrillium

and this Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which looks like something straight out of an Uncle Wiggily story (though how a rabbit could possibly hide in one is still beyond me).DSC08144

There’s also a little stream that runs down the hill, from a spring that the eponymous Ruth Warwick had cleared to provide water for the animals that live in the woods. Perfect for some light stomping and splashing in.hiking warwick nature preserve

We spent Labor Day hiking the trail around Sweet Pond State Park  in Guilford VTDSC00765

Tons of cool sensory forest experiences to be had there.DSC00768

I always love how baby pine(?) trees grow so close together they look like a miniature forest.DSC00772

The trail is a 1.3 mile almost-loop (you have to walk about a quarter mile down the road to get back to the parking area) next to what used to be an large pond. The pond was created in the 1800s when developers built a dam in the Keats Brook to power a mill, but it was recently drained due to concerns about the structural integrity and safety of the dam. Apparently there are plans to repair the dam and restore the pond eventually. For now, it’s become an 18-acre marshy wetland in the middle of the woods that has pretty much the most awesome echo I’ve ever experienced. There are several vista offshoots from the main trail, and the kids and I took one to climb out on this fallen tree and sing at the top of our lungs into the echoing meadow.DSC00859

The edge of the pond was rich with little late summer wildflowers, including these little orange lovelies that I keep seeing everywhere, including at the edge of the woods behind my son’s elementary school. Anybody know what they’re called?DSC00883

Of course, you can’t talk about hikes in and around Brattleboro without mentioning Fort Dummer and the Brattleboro Retreat Trails. Our favorite kid-friendly hike on the Retreat Trails is the path past the cemetery up to the haunted tower. Sounds deliciously spooky, doesn’t it? Perfect for a late October outing!5876515623_f3d41662aa_b

The woods are very pretty and lush, and this hike is fairly short though it gets pretty steep at the end. But I’ve taken 2 year olds on it multiple times with no trouble.9162177629_b272c219ad_k

Oh, did I mention the tower was built by patients at the Vermont Asylum for the Insane (now known as the Brattleboro Retreat)? And yes, it’s supposedly haunted.6434554585_389b11f942_b

The tower is usually locked, but if you’ve ever been curious what it looks like inside, or from the top, somebody made a video and youtubed it:

In November, we’ll do our annual Lantern Walk down the sunset trail at Fort Dummer.10769919035_007d20ef10_k

Fort Dummer originated as a British fort pre-dating the Revolutionary War by about 50 years, used in a conflict between New England and a confederacy of Native American tribes who were allied with New France, called Dummer’s War. It’s named for William Dummer, who was the governor of Massachussetts (which what’s now Vermont was then a part of) at that time. Um, yeah, that may be the most confusingly worded sentence of all time. Three tries and that’s the best I can do. Nowadays, it’s a 218-acre state park, with beautiful vistas for watching the sun set (and rise, if you’re the type of person who goes on hikes at sunrise, which I decidedly am not).10089968306_09e0d29d57_k

Fort Dummer is also a great place to visit for the petless dog lover. I’m not really a dog person but my kids so are, and it always makes them so happy to encounter dogs, as we always do, who are taking their people for a walk through the Fort Dummer park. If you decide to do a late afternoon/early evening hike, this is a great place for it but make sure to bring a flash light. Darkness falls quickly as autumn draws on, and there are a lot of roots crossing the trail for you to trip over if you’re not careful.

Happy hiking, and remember, take nothing but pictures (and trash), leave nothing but footprints!

strolling of the heifers


One day, when my daughter is an elderly woman living with her three widowed or divorced friends in a Florida condo, she’s going to tell them endless stories about the quirky little hamlet in the middle of nowhere where she grew up. And the most unbelievably Rose Nylundish of all the stories will begin, “Every year, we would have The Strolling of the Heifers, where all the farmers would walk their cows down Main Street in a parade…”


Yes, it’s actually true, people come from far and wide to watch the cows walk down Main Street the first Saturday in June.


We always kick off the Heifer weekend with the Friday night gallery walk, where they close down several blocks of downtown and it is turned into a huge street fair with food carts, performers, musicians, and a blocks long DIY chalk mural sponsored by the Boys and Girls Club.


Since The Strolling of the Heifers was begun to raise awareness and support for local agriculture and small-scale farming, it’s only fitting that the pizza oven cart advertises their wares based on the local wholesomeness of their flour.


The next morning the whole town (and several thousand tourists) gather to watch the cows and their compatriots.


The cows are quite sweet and groomed to their prettiest, but my favorite thing about the parade is the way the local culture creeps in.


Ya got the local food co-op, the place that literally stocks more than two dozen types of granola in their bulk section, if that gives you an idea of the place, doing grocery cart choreography down the street.Image

Ya got the Eat More Kale (Chips) locavore contingent.Image

Ya got the pee composters.


Ya got the circus performers. This place is rife with circus people, due to the awesome New England Center for Circus Arts.


Ya got the grade school bands, featuring Bessie on maracas.


And don’t forget the local youth thespians. No shortage of quirky, creative kiddos around here.


I can’t describe how charmed I was when we had just moved here and went to our first First Friday. My husband and I used to go to a fair amount of gallery opening First Fridays when we lived in Chicago and the scene was 99% twenty-something hipsters and 1% actual art buying people. In Brattleboro the “galleries” are local businesses who display a rotating selection of artwork by local artists. The First Friday crowd is a completely mixed bag of middle-aged, elderly, young people, little kids, and amazingly, packs of free-roaming teens and tweens. And I think I might have maybe once seen a singular hipster. (Now that there’s a whole lumberjack/homesteader chic thing going on it’s hard to tell but I’d like to think after 14 years on the north side of Chicago I can tell the difference between ironic flannel and sincere flannel.) Anyway, my whole point is, it was so heart-lifting to imagine that in 12 years our kids would be wandering Main Street on gallery night hoping to bump into their crush, or whatever those packs of kids are doing there, rather than all the stuff that you hope your 14-year-old isn’t doing but let’s face it they probably are. Except here! (she said, batting her eyes in hopeful naiveté…)

The parade was closed, as is every local parade, with our town mascot, Alfred Hughes.


You might think that cattle farms and flamboyant cross-dressers don’t go together but you would be oh so wrong. Not only is Alfred an excellent beef farm float participant, he is also the Independence Day Parade Marshall, for which he always wears a magnificent ball gown, Santa’s sparkly elf at the municipal Photos with Santa event, and a beloved nursery school teacher.


So that’s Strolling of the Heifers, in an extremely long-winded nutshell. Just a bunch of cows, hippies, and wackos walking through the town. Sure do love this place.