The Animal One Thousand Miles Long: Seven Lengths of Vermont and Other Adventures

The Animal One Thousand Miles Long: Seven Lengths of Vermont and Other Adventures

by Leath Tonino


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The phrase “an animal a thousand miles miles long,” attributed to Aristotle, refers to a sprawling body that cannot be seen in its entirety from a single angle, a thing too vast and complicated to be knowable as a whole.

For Leath Tonino, the animal a thousand miles long is the landscape of his native Vermont. Tonino grew up along the shores of Lake Champlain, situated between Vermont’s Green Mountains and New York’s Adirondacks. His career as a nature and travel writer has taken him across the country, but he always turns his eye back on his home state. “All along,” he writes, “I’ve been exploring various parts of the animal, trying to make a prose map of its body—not to understand it in a conclusive or definitive way but rather to celebrate it, to hint at its possibilities.”

This fragmented yet deep search is the overarching theme of the twenty essays in The Animal One Thousand Miles Long. Tonino posits that geography, natural history, human experience, and local traditions, seasons, and especially atypical outings—on skis, bicycles, sleds, and boogie boards—can open us to a place and, simultaneously, open a place to us. He looks closely at what he calls "huge-small" Vermont, but his underlying mission is to demonstrate our collective need to better understand the meaning of place, especially the ones we call home and think we know best. From Laredo to Jackson Hole, San Francisco to Burlington, his sensibility is applicable to us all.

In his signature piece, “Seven Lengths of Vermont,” he traverses the length of the state in seven different ways—a twenty-day hike, 500 miles on bicycle, a thirty-six-ride hitchhiking tour, 260 miles in a canoe, ten days swimming Lake Champlain, a three-week ski trek, and a two-hour “vast and fast” flyover. He plots each route with blue ink on maps strung across his office. “Each inky thread was an animal a thousand miles long,” he writes. “Vermont appeared before me as a menagerie.”

What Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods did for the Appalachian Trail and Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence did for the South of France, Tonino's affinity for the land he calls home gives a new perspective on the Green Mountain State. His infectious love of the outdoors, the ground of everyday life, should inspire us to explore the places just outside our own front door.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595348586
Publisher: Trinity University Press
Publication date: 09/30/2018
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Leath Toninio, a writer from Vermont, has also worked as a wildlife biologist in Arizona, a blueberry farmer in New Jersey, and a snow shoveler in Antarctica. His essays, reported stories, and interviews appear in magazines such as Outside, Men’s Journal, Orion, Tricycle, Utne Reader, and The Sun. When not at his desk, he roams North America’s libraries and wildlands.

Read an Excerpt

from"Seven Lengths of Vermont"

A coyote darted from the fog of my tiredness, crossing Interstate 80 and the headlight beams with the flickering speed of a ghost, a dream, a hallucination. This was somewhere in Indiana, sometime before dawn. I’d been driving close to 48 hours, all the way from San Francisco, stopping only for gas stations and a sunrise nap at a Nebraska rest area. Basin after range after basin after range, Salt Lake City’s neon glow, cold starry darkness in Wyoming, roadkill stains, big rigs blowing tires, wind turbines rising from Iowa alfalfa—I’d seen some sights, to be sure. But now a specter-coyote? Too damn much. I took the next exit, parked out back of a dumpy motel, and fell asleep in my seat, just another Green Mountain boy headed home after years bumming around the West.

Morning brought filmy skies, pinging rain, and me—where else?—behind the wheel, trapped on the dangerous, efficient, butt-numbing, brain-dumbing freeway, that supreme homogenizer of the American landscape. Why rush 3,000 miles across the continent in a single manic burst, neglecting innumerable cultural and natural curiosities en route? Why subject oneself to the achy, boring torture of three days and nights solitary confinement in a 1993 four-speed Toyota Tercel, the radio busted? The answer seemed obvious enough at the time, and even more obvious once I’d escaped Cleveland’s traffic, crested a ridge beside Lake Eerie, and entered the Adirondack’s brilliant, prismatic, everywhere-in-an-instant foliage show.

Obvious. I was trying to reach New England before the leaves finished their turning. I was trying to witness autumn’s turning in my native place. I was trying to align a personal turning—a turning of my life back toward Vermont—with that greater cycle’s unpredictable schedule.

Pedal to the metal, as they say.


I grew up in the Champlain Basin, its towns and schools, its forests and marshes. Mine was an outdoorsy childhood, untold hours spent skiing, swimming, biking, tromping, climbing trees, eating worms, catching frogs, building forts. The young me was a connoisseur of muck-abouts, a pioneer of teensy-expeditions, a diminutive dude in grass-stained denim roaming a backless backyard. How come backless? Because the lawn pressed up against cornfields, soggy gullies, pine thickets, miles of terrain rumpling toward the bluish bulk of Camel’s Hump, third-highest mountain in the state. Because barbed wire fences are meant for hopping, for snaking beneath. In a word, I grew up exploring.

It probably came as no surprise to my parents when, at the age of 16, lacking any previous backpacking experience, some friends and I set out to hike the wooded spine for which our state—vert mont—is named. I knew it only as a spontaneous drive then, but in retrospect it’s clear that I was looking for a rite of passage, an old-fashioned confrontation with the elemental forces that pervade all earthly locales and can infuse life with meaning, purpose, direction. Moss and rain, rocks and pain, birdsong, exaltation—I touched and was touched by these. When I emerged exhausted at the far end of the Long Trail, 273 miles and 22 days after setting out, I was a new man, or a man for the first time.

Skip ahead a handful of years, over trips in Utah’s canyons, California’s redwood stands, and Wyoming’s bear-tracked backcountry. One summer, on a break from philosophy and ecology studies in Colorado, I rowed, sailed, and drifted the length of Lake Champlain on a handmade raft no roomier than a mattress or kitchen table. The raft was many things to me—my floating house, my floating friend—but mostly it was a plain honest seat, some bobbing planks upon which I dwelled, week after week, waiting for the lake, the shore, and the sky above to reveal some unknown facet of their collective being. It was a wavy, fishy, thunderstormy facet that I received, drastically different from the arboreal facet offered by the Long Trail.

This focus on facets, on a landscape’s countless faces and our ability to turn our own faces toward them, has everything to do with everything. Vermont, like New Hampshire and New Mexico, like Alabama and Alaska, is infinitely complex. You hike its hollows, paddle its ponds, drive to work, or stroll the path to the barn, and each outing presents a refreshment, your sense of things expanding through an endless series of nuanced iterations. As with clouds and waterfalls, you can never pin Vermont down because it is always moving, always morphing, always different than it was the last time you checked in. The seasons change. The ground beneath your feet shifts, heaves, erodes. Something you knew becomes something you could never have imagined.

Not only is the physical Vermont inherently dynamic, so too is the experience of the observer, the psyche-in-place. Maybe you’re ice skating, sailing, jeeping. Maybe you’re crawling, hands-and-knees adventuring. Alone or with companions? As a naturalist, an athlete, a pilgrim? The styles by which we choose to encounter the land are limitless, the mind with which we encounter the land endlessly variable.

Taken altogether, this is my deep and cherished belief, a belief gifted to me during the unfolding of a raft voyage, a rite-of-passage hike, and a free-wandering childhood. It’s a belief in the unbounded potential for exploration close to home.


Radio busted, some version of this inspired manifesto looped inside the Toyota Tercel—inside me—during the final hours of that transcontinental slog. I crossed into Vermont with a whoop and a little jig of excitement. Soon I could go slow, dig in, atone for the sinful obliviousness the freeway had bred. A strange and exhausting width of the United States was almost complete, a promising engagement almost begun.

The plan was simple. Over the course of 12 months, I aimed to travel the length of Vermont, from Massachusetts to Quebec, or vice versa, seven times via seven different routes. Each excursion would embrace its own idiosyncrasies and thus rejoice in a unique variation. My hope was that by the end of the year, having journeyed a few thousand miles back and forth through the human and more-than-human communities that comprise the state, I’d be able to draw together in consciousness all those disparate lengths, seeing them—feeling them—if only for an instant, as parts of a grand unified whole.

Night again. At Fair Haven, I hung a left onto Route 22A and shot north, sticking my nose out the window to inhale the familiar scent of dirt and cows and rain. The leaves were just turning on the trees—I could tell this, even in darkness. By the time I hit Bridport and Addison County, the thrill of return had worn off and the foggy tiredness was back. Night again, yes, and tired again.

Ghost, dream, hallucination: in a coincidence that seemed too improbable to be one, a coyote flickered in the headlights, tawny-gray and fleeting. Adrenaline surged forth from some ancient gland, pouring into my foot and the break pedal, the scream of tires on pavement rousing me more immediately and violently than any alarm ever had or could. The coyote was gone. My heart was blasting in my chest. I was awake and alert in the land of my birth, ready to observe.

A glimpse. Seven glimpses. A sprawling experiment in local learning. An immersion into the wildly familiar. A tour of the big backyard. Seven glimpses. A glimpse. What fun!

Table of Contents

Wilderness at Home

Green Ghost Town

On Track

Bumping into Life

Seat Mountain

Seeing Is an Art

Autumn Snows

Riding the Watershed

Ratbird Overwhelm

Adirondacks Inside Out

The Great Derangement

Steep and Difficult of Ascent


Frostbiting with Frostbiters

A Grebe to Save Our Souls

The Smiles Are Huge

Spandex and Firepower

Return to Silver Fields

So Gone

Seven Lengths of Vermont

Credits and Acknowledgments

Customer Reviews