The place known to its non-resident owners as Melody Ranch embraced some 400 acres of mostly hilly and heavily-wooded northern Vermont countryside. Its many mysteries included long-abandoned barns and outbuildings, the remains of a prohibition-era whiskey still, and a “bottomless” pond whose black waters were said to hide a wagon and team that had fallen through thin ice one long-ago winter.
For several years of our young married life, the rambling 13-room farm house which presided over Melody Ranch was our home, and we were the designated “care takers” of the premises. Exploring the vast and diverse acres of that 200-year-old “homestead” was a never-ending adventure, and by the end of our tenancy, we had still not seen it all.
One day, while wandering among a mixed stand of maples, beeches and other hardwoods far from farm buildings or any roadway, I literally stumbled over what I thought at first was some random piece of stone poking its way above old leaves and forest duff. It seemed though to be out of place surrounded otherwise by a carpet of relatively unbroken woodland floor. Bending to look more closely I saw that it was the top of a square granite post, obviously hand cut to shape. There was a two-digit number barely visible through the time-encrusted build-up of lichen on the stone’s top, and I found that the whole thing was firmly and deeply set into the ground. Looking around, I could find no similar object anywhere in the area, and I thought it unlikely that any surveyor would go to such pains merely to mark a boundary line.
The trees whose spreading canopy I stood beneath were up to a foot in diameter, and I knew they were not “Johnny-come-latelys”. In northern New England hardwood trees are what plant scientists call the “climax forest;” that is they do not just spring up on available land, but follow in orderly progression a complex series of preparatory steps. First come berry bushes and ground covers, followed by birches and poplars, beneath whose protective umbrella the conifers – spruce, hemlock and pines – make their appearance. Only after this lengthy environmental metamorphosis do the hardwoods emerge, eventually denying sunlight and moisture to the underlings they dwarf. What I was standing under was a forest which must have been more than one hundred years in the making.
The incident played in my mind for some time until one day at the general store in the village of Worcester, I mentioned it to an old-timer. “Oh”, he exclaimed with no particular surprise, “what you came across was a mile marker on the old Hardwick stagecoach line. It used to go right through this country in the early 1800s. Every so often there was a granite post to let the driver know just where he was on the old turnpike.”
“Old Turnpike”! I marveled. Right through what was now an unbroken forest stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions.
That unexpected woodland discovery took place sixty years ago, and if some farmer with a chainsaw hasn’t come along to change things, those sugar maples are now probably two feet in diameter, and that old granite marker completely covered by forest detritus. Ever since that day though, I have looked at human history from a very different perspective, and as I have traveled this wide, wonderful and disparate land of ours, I have looked for the “mile markers” – in whatever guise -- along the way. In the process, I have become a pilgrim; not a mere tourist.