The Colin T. O'Neill Trail

By Jill Hindle ‘97.5

If you’re traveling south on route 30 past the Center for the Arts, past the gym and the new weight room and the new pool and the new hockey rink, past sad, sag-roofed old Fletcher Field House, and up the hill toward Kirk Alumni Center, there is a trailhead on the right side of the road marked with a sign.  It reads: “The Colin T. O’Neill Trail…dedicated by the class of ‘97.5.” Enter here, and a narrow path will lead you into a modest grove of mostly third generation trees, an inconspicuous corner of the College’s property I myself didn’t really notice until we had marked the site for the trail.  The path winds sharply at first, its edges rutted and cluttered with cut logs.  Sapling stubs show their blunt heads mid-path and live roots, unearthed, twist motionless in the leaves.  The trail takes advantage of the varied terrain, bulging into a sudden rise before plunging again, winding between trees, around boulders, over stream rivulets.  My favorite segment, just past a small footbridge, runs parallel to a rude rock slope topped with birch trees that hover weightless particularly in the dim light of overcast winter afternoons like thin ghosts above and beyond the darker trees.

Colin and I were both Environmental Science majors.  During our sophomore year at Middlebury we took one of Don Mitchell’s ES writing classes together.  One of our assignments was to spend an afternoon outside under a tree, in a tree, by a stream, on a trail then write a poem about it.  Mine turned out to be a clumsy meditation on man’s role in nature inspired by an imagined conversation I had had with a squirrel in Ridgeline Woods, pre-ski-chalet complex.  Colin’s poem was about birches.  It was simple and clean, entirely unlike mine.  I tucked a copy of it in one of my notebooks and didn’t find it again until after his death, two years later.  Before the trail was complete, I took his poem into the woods and sat on the footbridge reading it over.  Though his diction lacked the grace and majesty of the nature poets we had studied (no Wordsworthian longing or Whitmanesque zeal) he seemed to understand the beauty of the trees, the way one might be familiar with the beauty of a woman.  Looking up at the west-facing ledge fringed with a grove of white birch, I could see what he had seen.

Beyond this point, the trail winds into thicker woods where the canopy leaves little room for light to filter through.  While planning the route, I remember clamoring across dozens of old, downed trees, their dried roots stripped and propped on end like the woody altars of so many pagan gods.  We chewed through the trunks of these fallen monarchs with chainsaws, revealing the tight-textured rings of their age.  Bisected, their insides shone, like bright moons in a landscape of gray bark and brown leaves.

As the trees thin out again, the grade steepens and the trail winds north.  A fallow field stretches west from the bottom of the hill.  Stripped logs built into the embankment serve as steps leading down to the edge of the wood.  From here the trail continues south and west along the edge of the field, then north along an outcropping of pine trees growing in a narrow stand perpendicular to route 125.  The trail follows the pines, eventually crossing the road and continuing along a haphazard network of gullies, fences, and hedgerows until it meets up with Perkins Road in Weybridge.

At the news of Colin’s death on February 25, 1996 I ran along this road to its highest point where the view of the sunset is best.  Just off the road, deep wheel ruts grown up with grass lead to a weathered barn still stocked with hay and regularly visited by pigeons, starlings, and barn swallows.  Part of a fox carcass, no doubt a clutch of bleached bones by now, rests in one corner of the dirt floor.  It is by this barn that I sat, small in the yawn of its gaping dark door the lactic acid still surging through my legs from the sprint up the hill, the blood pulsing hot in my hands, my heart like an anvil in the pit of my chest realizing with a keen, abrupt horror that Colin was dead.  He would not see any of this again: the big sky, the sun setting in the clouds, the golden grass, the silhouette trees.  He would write no more poems.  He would miss the next lambing season at Don Mitchell’s farm.  He would miss the millennium, and his twenty-first birthday.  This is a true loss for the world.  But I am encouraged by the things that are built out of loss.

When four seniors came up with the idea to dedicate a trail in Colin’s name to the school as our class gift, no one disagreed.  Matt Ralston, Matt Ireland, Pete Schneider, and Greg Horner designed the basic layout for the trail and, after permission for a land easement was passed, spent two full days cutting through the big stuff.  After the basic ground work was complete, the whole class was invited to help clear out the rough cut.  Teams of five to ten people worked on the trail once a week, and within three and a half to four months (which included a lot of time exploring the woods searching for the driest and least intrusive course) the trail was complete.  The five signs posted along the path, made out of recycled locust scraps from the Ridgeline Woods expansion project, were hand-painted with a logo specially designed for the trail and engraved with informative excerpts from farmer’s almanacs, poetry, and environmental literature.

At the opening ceremony, all were invited to walk the trail together.  Many of us spent the whole afternoon wandering back and forth along the narrow path still smelling of upturned soil.  As it grew dark, we sat on the ridge watching the sun turn the field gold below.  Someone said, “Colin would have come here all the time.”

A rover, an adventurer, an outdoorsman, a prince, a fool, a lovable rogue, a real kid at heart, Colin made us all look old.  Whether it be mud-sliding, sledding, water-skiing, or broom ball, he had everyone beat.  The trail was created as a tribute to his spirit, his sense of discovery, his copious energy, and his bright-eyed, assiduous wit.  It carries our best memories and our greatest fears, our fickle faith in this life and our drive to identify our individual purpose within it.  It holds whatever it is that Colin left here, so that when we come back to these few, quiet, uncut acres, we are reminded of the weakness and strength in ourselves. We pay homage to the years that have passed so quickly while giving thanks for the people and the environment that shaped them.  On the trail we get our bearings again.  We see Colin in everything.  His life is now something larger.