In the middle of a July heat wave, some friends and I picked our way through Devils Gulch in the Town of Eden, Vermont. The deer flies were fierce, and there was a fresh moose skeleton lying in the trickle of water flowing through the middle of the gulch.
In 1781 the Vermont Republic granted the township to Seth Warner and the men of his regiment in recognition of their service in the Revolution. None of them ever settled here. Hilly, rocky, and a long way from anywhere else, Eden was of little value for farming; the person who named it obviously had a strong sense of irony. He also knew his Bible; the Gihon River, draining the town of Eden and joining the Lamoille at Johnson, is one of the rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden in Genesis. It’s possible that an early settler, steeped in Scripture, came upon this ravine and, awed by its huge tumbled boulders and thick coat of moss, relegated it to Satan.
Gulch is an American word, derived, like many Americanisms, from Anglo-Saxon Middle English. It once meant “ to swallow greedily.” It’s much more common in the West – Helena, Montana, was once Last Chance Gulch – and a good way to get rid of people you didn’t like was “dry-gulching,” shooting them from the cliffs as they passed through. Along with ravine, canyon, gorge, gully – and in landlocked Vermont, gulf – it can carry sinister implications. During prescientific days, when calamitous natural events were attributed to unhappiness among the gods, clefts in the earth were often invested with gloom, mystery, and danger.
It’s an easy two-mile hike in here on the Long Trail from Vermont Route 118, a few miles northwest of Eden. You enter Devils Gulch by climbing a wooden ladder and slipping beneath a huge tabular boulder leaning up against the cliff. The rock here is metamorphic schist, with an almost-vertical cleavage plane. After the gulch was formed, probably by a combination of glacier and stream, the overhanging side began collapsing, leaving the gully floor a jumble of huge boulders. Halfway through, clambering over and threading through obstructions, we came upon the skeleton – a young bull; antler nubs on the skull. It evoked a number of questions and somber scenarios.
Beyond the Gulch, at the end of a steady climb, we arrived at a Green Mountain Club shelter with a lookout to Belvidere Mountain and the huge tailing pile of its now-shuttered asbestos mine. I remember climbing Belvidere in February of 1989 with veterans of the Tenth Mountain Division, who in February of 1945 captured Mount Belvedere in Italy in a bitter, costly battle. All of them then around 70 years old, they struggled in the deep snow; but at least, as one cheerfully observed, there were no Germans shooting at them.
We hiked back through the Gulch and past the quiet skeleton, with a paraphrase from Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro humming in my mind: “No one has explained what the moose was seeking in that gulch.”
This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.