Monday, September 6, 2010

The Long Trail in ~9 days



This story really begins in the summer of 1989 when I was 23, not yet a runner, and setting out on the first big backpacking adventure of my life: an intended thru-hike of Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail, the oldest--and, some say, mile-for-mile the toughest--long distance hiking trail in the USA, running along the spine of the Green Mountains from Massachusetts to Quebec. Not having much of a clue what I was undertaking and making a few rookie mistakes, I called it quits after 100 miles, rescued by my fiance at Killington ski area. However, the seed had been planted: I loved being outside in nature 24/7, loved the simplicity of the trail, and loved the idea of completing an entire long-distance trail. I finished the LT the following summer by doing a series of section hikes, mostly long weekends where I’d tackle a 40-60 mile stretch at a time. I so enjoyed the long distance trail life enough that 5 years after that initial experience on the LT, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

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Fast forward 20 (!) years. It is the 100th anniversary of the Green Mountain Club, and we will be in Vermont for part of the summer. I am homesick for the green hills of my home state and think it would be super cool to overdose on Vermont by thru hiking the Long Trail. With a few other obligations on the calendar, and because I enjoy doing big miles, my idea is to do the Trail fast. Not record-setting fast but comfortable, self-supported (mostly), ultra-lightweight fast. With nearly 6 dozen shelters along the route, I can go without carrying a tent. Since temps are relatively warm, I decide to get by with a light emergency bivy sack instead of a sleeping bag, and is a pad really necessary for a hardcore mountain girl? No, it is not!  I do decide to splurge and bring the stove; a hot meal once a day is a luxury I’m willing to carry. With raingear (this ain’t the Sierras), extra layers, hat, gloves (I have Raynaud‘s - yuck), headlamp, food, water, and cell phone (so I can call my Sweetie every night) my pack ends up weighing around 15 lbs., give or take, but I never weigh it so don’t really know for certain. Because of the pack weight and the gnarliness of the trail, I will strictly be walking as opposed to running save for 3 road miles going into Jonesville. From Lowes I purchase a few 5-gallon buckets w/lids, hoping they’re animal proof. In each bucket is food, soymilk (crave the stuff!), Starbucks Doubleshots, clean clothes, toiletries, bug repellent (never used), batteries, and a gallon of water. I stash one about every 40 trail miles.
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Saturday, July 17... County Road, first crossing of the LT… After 6.2 miles round trip to the Mass. border and back, Chris sees me off on my adventure before leaving to catch a flight to DC. He gets to work this week while I get to walk many, many miles through these beautiful woods. I pass Congdon Camp, Glastenbury Mountain, Story Spring Shelter… and flash back to those early years on this section of Trail. This flashing back will be a constant recurrence as I happily reminisce, thinking of the friends with whom I shared miles, that particular stage of my life, and how certain things change but others remain constants in our lives. I relish the contemplative time alone, all the while getting in some serious mileage on Day 1. While I don’t have a set-in-stone schedule, I don’t want to run out of sustenance before my next food cache. Fortunately this is never a problem because as usual, I packed way too much food. By late afternoon I make it to my first cache at Kelly Stand Road, exactly 40 miles since leaving County Road 14 hours or so earlier. The bugs are bad here and I feel good so decide to continue another 7 miles up and over Stratton Mountain and down to the pond, where there is a shelter. About a half mile below the summit, my progress is stalled by a moose and her two calves, she on one side of the trail, they on the other. This is really awesome but I also just really want to get to the pond! “HEY MOOSE… PLEASE MOVE!” These huge creatures are often as docile as cattle--I’ve had many encounters--but I am cautious about walking between a mama anything and her babies. After a few minutes the calves cross the trail, and I can finally proceed. As I near Stratton Pond, I hear rumblings of thunder in the distance. It is almost dark as I say hello to the GMC caretaker, Meredith. She informs me that the shelter is almost full but that I’m welcome to share her tent platform if I’d like. Yippee! Meredith is an ‘08 AT thru-hiker and an aspiring ‘11 PCT’er. Confused by the small size of my pack, she asks if I‘m thru-hiking the LT. Usually hesitant to offer up such information, I answer her questions about ultrarunning, fueling and the like. She seems genuinely interested and stokes my ego with incredulous “wows.” The thunder and lightening storm that night is multi-cycled and intense. Thanking Meredith profusely for the shelter, I offer to help her out on the PCT in California next year and we exchange email addresses. 47.5 miles of walking today. I am tired.

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July 18... 4 a.m.… I quietly depart Stratton Pond before the songbirds awaken. Not being exactly a morning person, I am surprised that this becomes my favorite time of day during this trek. The first bird begins singing just before sunrise, others quickly chime in. What a wonderful serenade! The mostly flat 10 miles to Route 11/30 pass quickly. I climb Bromley Mountain and take a break in the ski hut which is generously left open for hikers. Mad Tom Notch… Styles and Peru Peaks… Griffith Lake… My feet are starting to really ache and I pop a couple of ibuprofen tabs. I usually prefer to remain completely drug free during these types of things but decide that the temporary numbing sensation and resulting attitude adjustment are worth it.  (One mistake I made was in choosing an old pair of trailrunners, ones I was hoping to finally "kill" on the Long Trail.   It worked.  I definitively killed them.  Unfortunately, they also did a job on my feet.)  I am very happy to be out here, hiking through the Vermont mountains and forests, this place where I feel the most comfortable in the world. Shortly after Griffith Lake are signs directing hikers to use a bypass route due to replacement of the Big Branch bridge. The bypass adds 3+ miles, and south bounders report no problems with the river crossing: “Rockhopped it with dry feet!” is the common response to my query. Great! I don’t take the bypass and don’t regret it because it means I get to climb over rocky Baker Peak, one of the gems of the southern LT. Sure enough, Big Branch is running low and the crossing is a lark today. Little Rock Pond is next and is as lovely as I remember. The weather has been beautiful and I am full of gratitude as I traverse White Rocks, smiling at all the weird cairns and rock art. Upon reaching my second food cache at Rt. 140, I notice that the container is missing--oh no!--but then chuckle with relief as I see that it has been dragged just a few feet, the plastic unsuccessfully chewed on by some hungry critter. The last 3.5 miles to Minerva Hinchey Shelter are through beautiful hardwoods, but after just over 40 miles for the day, I am ready for some rest. There is a nice young couple and their black lab sharing the shelter tonight. They are taking a month to thru-hike the Trail and having a blast.
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July 19... Once again I depart by headlamp, cross the Clarendon Gorge bridge, and reach the Lookout just as the sun starts to rise. As is the case with all the early morning hours, the miles pass quickly and smoothly. Morning is when I feel the best and make the best time. I easily ascend the flanks of Killington Peak and reach Cooper Lodge just as the skies open up with another thunderstorm. Perfect timing! As I sit in the shelter waiting out the storm while watching a chubby chipmunk scurry about scrounging for crumbs, I find it increasingly difficult to ignore what I know awaits at the next road crossing: the Inn at the Long Trail and McGrath’s Irish pub! I start rationalizing and making deals with myself as I fantasize about crashing there for the night even though it means only 22.5 miles for the day. My feet hurt and I’m hungry, dammit, and a Guinness sure would be tasty, and, oh my gosh, a shower would be heavenly, and isn’t this adventure first and foremost about having FUN? Screw it, I’m going! The rain stops and I continue past another moose, this one quite drenched, and down the new-to-me section of LT--the one that’s pretty but takes the hiker through chest high stinging nettles, the one that deposits the hiker a whole mile from the Inn at the Long Trail (as contrasted with the old route, whereby hikers passed right by it). Grrr! As was my experience on the AT, some relo’s seem to make very little sense. But enough whining. Shortly I’m there, I get a room, I take a shower, I eat (a burger, apple crisp, and a beer), and I call Chris who laughs when I tell him where I’m staying. I am happy. If only our everyday wants could be so simple.
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July 20... It rains through the night. Heavily. I am SO content snuggled up in my warm bed--a REAL bed--and am almost sorry that the rain stops before my self-imposed 4 a.m. departure time. I remember the next 20-mile section of Trail well even though it’s been many years since I last hiked it. It is known by some to be the most “boring” stretch, with limited views save those of Chittenden Reservoir. Twenty years ago I found this to be the case; today I do not. Based out of arid southern California for the past 4 years, I am in awe of all the plant life, all the green, the water running everywhere, and the mushrooms which are freaking amazing!! Within a few hours I am sitting next to the kiosk at Brandon Gap, picking through Cache #3 before tackling the Great Cliffs of Mt. Horrid. It’s a bit of a misnomer; the climb isn’t difficult but is followed by Cape Lookoff Mountain, Gillespie Peak, and Worth Mountain.--the Trail is getting more up-and-downy. I cross Middlebury Gap and do the last few climbs of the day: Burnt Hill, Kirby Peak, Mt. Boyce (where I see yet another moose), Battell Mountain, and finally, Breadloaf Mountain. I am psyched to reach both the halfway point AND Emily Proctor Shelter because I stayed here 20 years ago and have fond memories of watching a spectacular sunset from the shelter. The sun is going down as I reach the empty shelter, but where is the view? To my dismay, it is obscured by a thick wall of tall evergreens. Lamenting the loss of the sunset view, I think “if this were my adopted shelter, I’d go nuts with a saw…” 37.1 miles for the day.
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July 21... I sleep badly. Without a pad, the shelter floors are hard, and my bivy bag doesn’t breathe very well: every night I awaken multiple times sweaty and clammy. The tradeoff is that I’m much more comfortable on the Trail during the long days. Still, my feet continue to hurt, and there are many, many wet and muddy spots, some of which cannot be avoided. The worst section seems to be in the so-called Vermont Presidentials over Mts. Roosevelt, Cleveland, and Grant. Good grief, no wonder this Trail is jokingly referred to as “a footBATH in the wilderness.” After Lincoln Gap the drainage and my attitude both improve as I traverse the lovely Mts. Abraham and Ellen. As with Bromley Mountain, Mad River Glen allows hikers to use their warming hut, Starks Nest, a large, warm, enclosed cabin. My intention is to pop in for a short midafternoon break, especially since it has just begun to sprinkle. I no sooner step inside than the sprinkle turns in to a deluge, complete with thunder and lightening. Hmm, perfect timing yet again! Four rounds and an hour later, I somewhat reluctantly opt to crash here for the night after only 19.5 miles for the day. A few more rather exciting (read: lightening strikes) rounds throughout the night convince me this was the right choice. Realizing that the footing is going to royally suck for a couple of days, and that my feet really, really hurt--and will only continue to hurt if they remain wet and rotting (trench foot anyone?) the next few days--I decide to call my folks to see if they’ll come rescue me. They are both retired and live only about 90 minutes away so are sweet enough to pick up their crazy daughter. The next morning I descend 2.5 miles to Appalachian Gap and soon am happily whisked back to Mom and Dad’s.

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July 22-24... Chris returns from DC. We hang out at my folks’, get in a couple of short runs, eat, drink coffee, rest. It would be easy to stay here, but I am determined to finish the Trail.
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July 25... Chris brings me back to Appalachian Gap--this time with my favorite Salomon trailrunners--then drives around to the west side of the ridge, hikes up the Forest City Trail, and we meet at Montclair Glen Lodge. We climb one of Vermont’s most well known mountains Camel’s Hump together, but the summit is completely socked in so there is to be no view over 25 feet today. The trail is rocky, rooty, and wet. I say “This is what the White Mountains are like” to which he responds “This sucks!” so spoiled is he by smooth trails. Chris descends the Burrows Trail, then drives around to meet me at the foot of Camel’s Hump on Duxbury Road. I throw my pack in the car and run the 3-mile road section to Jonesville. Oh, the luxury of being crewed! After doing 5 more to Bolton Notch Road, I call it a day at 30 miles, and we retire to a neat little rental cabin named “Moose” at Little River State Park in Waterbury.
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July 26... 3 a.m. arrives too quickly. Chris has to catch another early plane, this time to Dallas, so drops me off back at Bolton Notch Road to begin one of the most difficult days of the trek: over Bolton Mountain, Mts. Mayo and Clark, Vermont’s high point Mt. Mansfield, down to Route 108 where I have a food cache, steeply up Spruce Peak, Madonna Peak, Morse and Whiteface Mountains, and finally to Bear Hollow Shelter, my destination for the night. My pack is a little bit heavier: my sleep has been utterly insufficient due to the hardness of the shelter floors, so I schlep a Thermarest this time. (Not such a hardcore mountain girl after all?) The wind on Mansfield Ridge is cold and brisk and knocks me around a bit, but I am happy that overall the weather is very good. The trail both up to and down from the main ridge is even gnarlier than I remember: I would go so far as to call them Class 3 scrambles, but it is great fun! At Sterling Pond I meet a young orthodox Jewish couple, both too clean and dressed too formally for hiking; they must have taken a chairlift up. He asks where the Trail goes and is not amused when I answer “Canada.” He rolls his eyes. “No really, I‘m serious. It’s 272 miles long and starts in Massachusetts.” The woman’s eyes light up and she seems intrigued. I spend the next mile or so wondering whether a long-distance hike is an option for someone like her, what her life is like. At long last I reach Bear Hollow and meet my shelter mates for the night, a couple about my age who are section hiking the LT. Like Meredith at Stratton Pond, the woman is curious about my hike and asks many questions to which, in my depleted state, I try my best to answer thoughtfully. She tells me she runs 3 miles a day and wants to know how to run further.  It turns out all 3 of us graduated from Burlington’s Champlain College in the 80s and we laugh about the “Champlain Beavers,” perhaps not the best choice of mascot for a predominantly female school. We also discuss our favorite bars--anyone remember Rasputin’s? To think the drinking age was only 18 then!   Total for the day is 30 miles (but felt like 40).
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July 27... I try to be very quiet and whisper my apologies for leaving the shelter so early, but my Champlain comrades are very understanding. Since last passing through these parts, the Green Mountain Club has constructed a beautiful bridge over the Lamoille River necessitating a relo that eliminates a bit of road walking along Highway 15. Now this relo makes sense! I pass by the new-to-me Roundtop Shelter and appreciate the sparkling clear water from a water pump! This particular day turns out to be my favorite. The weather is absolutely perfect, I feel good, the surroundings are peaceful and beautiful, and there are very few people on the trail. I particularly enjoy the stretch from Corliss Camp to Devil’s Gulch--just a very lovely stretch of trail. “I could spend the rest of my life doing exactly this,” I think. My final food stash is at the Rt. 118 crossing, and then all I have to do is climb Belvidere Mountain and go 2.8 more miles to Tillotson Camp… but not without working for it. The section of Trail between Belvidere and Tillotson is the most in need of TLC; it looks like this stretch hasn’t been brushed out in years. In sharp contrast to every other night on the Trail, Tillotson Camp is FULL. Dang. Looks like I might be sleeping under the stars. As it turns out, though, some of the hikers are tenting, so there is a spot for me inside. Yay! 30.6 awesome miles today.

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July 28... Today is my last day on the Trail which makes me mostly happy but also a bit sad. Because of big, aggressive mice making a racket trying to get into food bags, I don’t sleep well and end up departing even earlier than 4 a.m. I gather all my stuff very quietly and walk up the Trail a bit to load my pack without waking anyone. This final day on the Trail doesn’t go quite as smoothly as the previous one. The trail is rough, and there are numerous small mountains to traverse: Haystack, Bruce, Buchanan, Domey’s Dome, Gilpin, Jay, Doll, North Jay, Burnt, and finally Carleton. In between are extra rocks, roots, mud, and moose droppings over endless steep little ups and downs. Aah, the wild and wonderful northern end of the Long Trail. I call my folks from the top of Jay Peak and tell them I’ll be done around 7 p.m. They have agreed to pick me up at the end of Journey’s End Road. I cross the last road, climb the last mountain, pass a sign marking the 45th parallel, and finally reach Line Post 592, the northern terminus of the Long Trail, exactly the way I started: completely and happily alone. I don’t linger, however; it begins to rain immediately after I reach the border, as if to say “Your luck’s run out, lady!” I giggle and hustle the last 1.3 miles to my parents’ waiting vehicle.
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I am so thankful to have been able to thru-hike the Long Trail 20 years after completing it for the first time. I did end up experiencing Vermont in a most wonderfully intense way:  on the Long Trail, to quote the plaque on Springer Mountain, “A footpath for those seeking fellowship with the wilderness.” This Trail is very special to me, perhaps the most special of them all. A huge thank you and happy 100th birthday to the Green Mountain Club! My plan is to thru-hike the Long Trail again in another 20 years. But I plan to take a month to do it.

4 comments:

Laurel said...

After reading your report, I thought, "I've gotta do that!" Sounds like you had a great hike.

olga said...

Welcome back in so many ways...and saw you visited Texas - and didn't give a shout!

Mike said...

Loved reading about your Long Trail adventure. Congrats, also, on your recent White Mountain 4K quest. It's noted in my column in this week's Littleton (N.H.) paper.

RunSueRun said...

Thanks Mike. The LT was a lot harder for me than the 48; both were very special, fulfilling experiences. So grateful to have been able to do both.

I still remember that winter traverse of Harrington Pond and the Kinsmans w/you, Steve, and Creston all those years ago... Hee hee! ;-)