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Great Outdoors, Kelly Nokes '15

The trail begins inauspiciously. First cross the train tracks that hug South Royalton's southwestern flank. Then walk through the parking lot of the Crossroads Bar & Grill, the low-slung red wooden building where generations of law students have sedated their weary brains. After climbing a steep dirt road, skirt the gate that blocks the path, squeeze between the posts of a gate topped with barbed wire, and trudge through a concrete passage tunneling beneath Interstate 89.

But just past that, Kelly Nokes ’15 can leave behind the Supreme Court decisions and the law review articles and let her feet do the thinking. She springs up a trail flanked by alders, maples, and hemlocks. Her route takes her near a small pond that rings with spring peepers in May. She runs up the steep hillside, finally stopping to catch her breath at Kent’s Ledge, a rock outcropping that looks out on miles of mountains rolling to the horizon. There she gets a small reminder of why she traded her beloved Oregon mountains for the halls of Vermont Law School.

People come to law school for all manner of reasons: to make money, win prestige, feel the thrill of legal combat, please their parents, or fight for justice, among others. For some, their passion for the outdoors is the spark that ignited an interest in the law, and keeps it burning in the arid landscape of, say, the fine points of water law. The land grounds them, counterbalancing the law’s heady, ethereal tendencies.

It’s a safe bet that Vermont Law School has a disproportionate share of such people: die-hard anglers, mountain-biking adrenaline junkies, devoted paddlers, cross-country skiers, and plenty of students who simply enjoy a good hike in the woods. It’s a place where rugged Subaru station wagons are the car of choice (preferably topped with a ski or canoe rack), field dogs seem like a standard accessory, and Patagonia outranks Brooks Brothers. It’s a place where students arrive in class sweaty from a quick midday hike or wet from riding inner tubes down the fast-flowing White river, and a class on the Clean Water Act might convene at the edge of campus, on the river’s banks.

It’s easy to see why such folks might be attracted to a school that consistently ranks as having the country’s top environmental law program. The nexus between playing in the mountains or the water and wanting to work on their behalf seems obvious. What about the flip side? What if the Vermont landscape also lures people whose interests fuse law and the outdoors?

For some, part of the school’s allure is a setting that offers just enough of what they love, but not too much. That’s the case for Nokes. She fell for the West when she took an Americorps job in Hood river, Oregon. though she had grown up in the Chicago suburbs, she developed a fondness for the outdoors while attending college in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In Oregon, that turned into a full-blown love affair.

Her appreciation of nature comes with an edge. She’s an avid mountain biker, drawn to a high-speed style called enduro-racing that blends long-distance stamina with bombing down hills as fast as possible. The wide-open country around Hood river, with miles of trails through public lands, was intoxicating. She got good enough to win regional races. At the same time, her work with the Columbia riverkeeper convinced her that the law was a critical tool for protecting the environment.

The obvious law school choice might have seemed like Lewis & Clark, just down the road in Portland. It usually hovers next to Vermont Law School in the environmental law rankings. But for Nokes it was exactly the wrong combination—too urban, but also too near places that would lure her from her studies. Vermont Law School flipped that equation. She could scratch the outdoor itch with runs to Kent’s Ledge and the occasional rides along mountain-biking trails in nearby Pittsfield. But the attractions weren’t so irresistible that she would neglect her work. As she puts it, “I’m glad that I found Vermont, where I could separate my lifestyle enough that I can be really successful here at school and accomplish my mission, but still maintain my balance of who I am. And what keeps me going is getting out for that trail run or going for that bike ride.”

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