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Connecting With the Land Around Ripton's Spirit in Nature Paths

Words and photos courtesy of Seven Days

Connecting With the Land Around Ripton's Spirit in Nature Paths
By Melissa Pasanen

In preparation for a recent daytrip to Ripton, my husband and I threw snowshoes, hiking poles and various clothing layers into the car. I filled up our water bottles.

Then I departed from my usual modus operandi.

I pretty much cannot leave for any excursion without tucking fruit, nuts and a granola bar in my bag. My husband claims that, on longer trips, I could feed an entire family for a week on the food I bring along "just in case."

But on a Saturday early in January, our destination, Spirit in Nature Interfaith Path Sanctuary in Ripton, was far from a serious hike, so I dared to venture out sans serious provisions.

Even so, we had mapped out several potential stops for nourishment along the one-hour drive from South Burlington.

The Spirit in Nature sign first caught our eye on the way back from an early October hike up Mount Moosalamoo, and we pulled off Goshen Road into the parking lot to check it out.

The welcome board map showed a network of 13 intersecting paths representing different spiritual and religious practices — from Druid to Muslim to Native American.

Tacked onto a tall tree at the main trailhead was a quote attributed to William F. Schulz, a Unitarian Universalist minister and human rights activist. It read, in part, "Come into this place of peace and let its silence heal your spirit."

We pledged to return when our spirits needed an extra dose of the healing outdoors. That time had definitely come.

But first: snacks.

Tiny Ripton has only one option when it comes to shopping. But the fabled Ripton Country Store is worth a stop. (A New York Times op-ed penned by Ripton resident and climate activist Bill McKibben attracted the store's current owners.)

Here the walls are lined with old-fashioned post office boxes, shelves of free used books and old phone books — labeled "good for toilet paper" — and an array of penny candy. Customers can grab a basic sandwich from the cooler or compile a spread of crackers and Vermont cheeses.

Historic Ripton Vermont

If you're passing through on a weekend, I recommend fresh pastries from local caterer Lauren Slayton of Breadloaf Kitchen. We bought her tender-crumbed, not-too-sweet chocolate-chip-pecan scones ($3.75) for immediate consumption and, for later, a bottle of red wine ($16.99) from a new-to-me local vintner, High Rows Vineyards.

Another option for trail snacks would have been New Leaf Organics' farmstand, which we had driven past on Bristol Road. The self-serve stand is stocked with Vermont vegetables, cheeses, apples and more.

There's also a cooler filled with Blossom Whole Foods offerings made at the farm's on-site kitchen. The vegan and gluten-free peanut-butter-chocolate-chip-oat energy balls ($6 for four), substantial chocolate chip cookies ($6 for two), or tub of freshly made hummus ($5) with some local carrots would power many outdoor adventures. (Delicious vegetarian entrées are also available.)

Enough about food — for now.

Fortified by scones, we proceeded to explore the Spirit in Nature trails, walking about three slow, gentle miles, crisscrossing paths fluidly from Buddhist to Christian, Interfaith to Pagan, Quaker Friends to Muslim.

As the organization website notes, these "aren't running or conquer-the-mountain hiking trails; these paths are for spiritual, not physical, fitness."

Snow cover was just enough to frost everything beautifully but not quite deep enough to require snowshoes or icy enough for micro-spikes, though both would be useful under different conditions. Paths are clearly marked, and the entire map is posted at a number of junctions. On this chilly but sunny weekend, we ran into only a few other walkers and one happily free-range dog.

We paused at the start to look up to the sky at a natural opening in the trees where the creators had crafted a labyrinth, currently blanketed with snow. Winding through the woods, we crossed streams swirling under a veneer of ice and paused to appreciate the view of the south branch of the Middlebury River from an overlooking bank. We traversed Goshen Road to find more paths and the Goshen Brook.

Everywhere were thought-provoking signs bearing quotes from a rich variety of voices.

"Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth and the Great Silence alone."
—Ohiyesa (Dr. Charles A. Eastman), Santee Sioux

"Deep peace of the running wave to you. Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the quiet earth to you."
—ancient Gaelic blessing

"El respeto al derecho ajeño es la paz." [Peace is the respect for the rights of others.]
—Benito Juárez, first president of Mexico of Indigenous origin

"Nature is God made visible."
—Amma Mata Amritanandamayi, Indian Hindu spiritual leader

Spirit in Nature opened to the public in 1998 on 70 acres of land belonging to Middlebury College. The project was inspired by a 1990 symposium at Middlebury College titled "Spirit and Nature." A small group of volunteers maintains it with a tiny budget that mostly covers liability insurance and parking lot plowing in winter.

The nonprofit's mission statement envisions "a place of interconnecting paths where people of diverse spiritual traditions may walk, worship, meet, meditate and promote education and action toward better stewardship of this sacred Earth."

The Ripton effort, in turn, inspired six other Spirit in Nature sites around the Northeast — including one in Norwich.

After about two hours of walking and reading, our spirits were well nourished but our tummies were starting to grumble.

We had a little time to kill before our après-walk destination, Hogback Mountain Brewing in Bristol, opened at 3 p.m., so we drove to Alderman's of Vermont Chocolate Shop in Monkton.

The Aldermans owned what was the Monkton General Store for more than a dozen years; a year ago they began to focus on the chocolate side business that Darcee Alderman had started for fun in 2017. Among her confections are chocolate caramel pretzel clusters ($4.99 per bag), chocolate-enrobed potato chips ($6.99 per bag) and lustrously gilded truffles (three for $2.50).

Darcee also makes hot chocolate bombs and sticks. These hard chocolate spheres ($7) or sticks ($11.99 for four) encase dehydrated marshmallows and Vermont-made cocoa mix. They would be a great post-walk treat to make at home — for those not headed to a brewery taproom.

At Hogback, Jamie Sawyer greeted us warmly and seated us in a corner with a clear view over the empty bar of three stainless-steel fermenter tanks.

Jamie and his wife, Sam, who is the brewer, bought the small brewery a little more than two years ago. Katie Baas operates her Lucky Star Catering business from the on-site kitchen and also provides the food for the taproom, which is currently open Fridays and Saturdays.

We ordered glasses of Drake, Smith & Co., Hogback's toasty, bitter-edged American brown ale, and Patricia Alice, a tart, crisp, strawberry-rhubarb sour. To pair with our beer, we selected from the specials menu a hefty pulled-pork burrito and a seven-layer dip with beans, fresh salsa, avocado, shredded cabbage and pickled red onions.

Our final purchase of the day was a four-pack of Get Out of Dodge!, brewed with local hops and malt and billed as "an Addison County IPA."

We had connected with the Addison County landscape by foot, and now we would take home a taste of that landscape to drink.



About the series


This series, a partnership between Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing and Seven Days, will run weekly through mid-October, presenting curated excursions in every corner of Vermont. The idea is to highlight the state's restaurants, retailers, attractions and outdoor adventures so Vermonters and visitors alike can plan safe, local trips and discover new corners of the state. Happy traveling, and stay safe.