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Backpacker Magazine – January/February 2010

America's Worst Trail: A Love Story

Is the reward always equal to the effort? Uh...maybe, says this bloodied, bruised, and bandaged reader.

by: David Hiscoe

(Illustration by Marcos Chin)
(Illustration by Marcos Chin)
(Illustration by Marcos Chin)
(Illustration by Marcos Chin)

I finished the Vicodin prescription in 10 days.

But, of course, my foot and leg stayed streaked from toe to calf for weeks afterward, displaying vivid colors I last remember seeing 20 years ago during a particularly violent episode of curry-induced food poisoning. Five months on, there was still a lemon-size lump where my fibula joins my right foot. And it ached the way only a 90-degree ankle turn can ache—sharply and deeply, like a broken tooth on a cold day.

I nearly destroyed my joint when the trail surface gave way and I dropped suddenly onto the side of my foot, my ankle twisted to an unnatural angle. There are approximately 10,000 words in the average person’s vocabulary (by way of comparison, Koko, the world’s most communicative gorilla, was, with great perseverance, taught to sign about a thousand). My companions assure me that in the 45 seconds after my fall, I attached the blessed word “mother” to an impressive number of terms in my personal vocabulary—none of which appear in any polite dictionary (or family-friendly outdoor magazine).


My physicist, American-Academy-of-Sciences-accredited brother-in-law ran the numbers for me. The short drop (eight inches) and my combined body and pack weight (200 pounds) jammed the end of my fibula against my ankle ligaments and tendons with about 4,000 pounds of pressure in the first two-tenths of a second of impact: For comparison, that’s approximately the force applied to a baseball when a juiced Manny Ramirez smacks it 400 feet. A similar cracking sound issued from the inside of my right boot. When I asked my orthopedist (every backpacker over 50 has one) if the numbers seemed accurate to him, he said that they sounded “in the ballpark.” (In my experience, orthopedists who treat aging hikers don’t have an ironic, um, bone in their bodies.)


My ballpark moment occurred when I was in Vermont in the fall of 2008, for the fourth September in the previous seven years. On the day of my fall, I had progressed a grand total of 1.3 miles into what was supposed to be a two-week hike to finish up the Long Trail. I had a little less than 80 miles to go to complete the entire 273-mile walk. On most trails, 80 miles is a fairly leisurely six-day trip for me. But I had learned from bitter experience that this leafy gem of a New England footpath is, in fact, thoroughly Hobbesian: short, yes, but nasty and brutish.


A year earlier, at the very same trailhead, I’d shattered an incisor on a hard piece of chocolate (that broken tooth wasn’t a random analogy) and prematurely ended my trip. On my most recent attempt, after a flight into Burlington, a quick lunch with friends, and less than 30 minutes under a full load, I was headed back to the same emergency room at the University of Vermont. By 6 p.m., I was getting a series of x-rays and swallowing the first fistful of painkillers. As I watched the ER docs puzzle over the mangled foot of a guy who’d been mowing his grass barefooted, I mumbled a baleful curse: The Long Trail, I swore, is the worst damn recreational path in America.


But I would be back on it the next September (last fall). Sure, I’m stubborn and don’t like to be beaten: I’m part Irish, part Scottish, part ACLU-card-carrying Southerner. But it goes deeper than that. For reasons even I don’t fully comprehend, I look forward to coming back home earlier than planned each year, tail between my legs, some part of my body in a cast, ACE bandage, or studded with new sutures—ready to hobble into the office on Monday and tell the story to my amused, couch-planted colleagues. I’ve actually worn a hospital bracelet to work just to please them. Prior to my last trip, there were two office pools: one on how long I’d actually be gone, one on the type of injury I’d bring back.


For me, the whole Long Trail experience (I just mistyped it “Long Grail,” I swear I did) sums up why I’ve been backpacking for 40 years, long after hiking has been culturally squeezed by biking, kayaking, snowboarding, Wii, and the rest. This trail (I just typed “trial”) is the essence—boiled down so even the dullest among us can understand—of what the whole backpacking enterprise entails.





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Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Luke
Jan 13, 2012

But it really sounds like some of those commenting on this couldn't pick out a well written article if it hit them dead between the eyes. The article wasn't meant to be a description of a trail, but rather an interesting personal narrative. So many seemed to be offended by the article's title yet failed to see the intentional irony and see past the words. If the author truly felt this was the worst trail then why would the author be in love with it and keep coming back. Not every bit of writing needs to be completely straight forward, leaving nothing to the imagination. Maybe some were put off by the descriptions of the ruggedness of the trail. However, I'm sure I'm not the only one that found this narrative exciting and committed the Long Trail to memory as something to attempt. As for Stu Marks, way to fill a stereotype by taking joy in someone's pain. Someone who has never done anything to hurt you. Someone you don't even know.

Mike
Jan 13, 2012

People are reading too much into the title. Great article. Well written and makes me want get out of the ADK's and get into Vermont for once...

Jim Campbell
Jan 12, 2012

Read the whole article. It is a love story and very cleverly written. Get past the title and enjoy.

Anna Huthmaker aka Mud Butt
Jan 12, 2012

This is flat out, some of the best writing I have ever read in Backpacker Magazine! Thank you for making me laugh, wince and think. I can't wait to read some of your other stuff!

Robert
Jun 03, 2010

We live next to the Long Trail just 30 miles from the Canadian border and hike it almost daily and cover the northern 2/3rds every year. I realize it's tough, but the "worst"? No....on the contrary IMHO it's one of the best in the east. Wild, challenging, still fairly quiet and the closest you can get to true "backpacking" in the east outside the 100 mile wilderness.

Due to the lack of detail about the actual trail and the narcissistic ranting of the author....the title should have been "Americas worst hiker: A whiner story"

Spiderbite
Mar 23, 2010

I thru-hiked the Long Trail in the summer of '09. From my expereince (and two fellow hikers who had previously completed the AT in '06), the LT is a whole different beast. A good day in the norther 2/3 would be 14 miles. And that was a long, grueling day. However, the beauty of the trail, the rich tradition that the people of Vermont share with it and its hikers, the physical grind, and the comroderie of fellow hikers made it a wonderful trip overall (and I cannot forget the Inn at Long Trail, a quintessential place for any hiker to visit before the long sleep) and I look forward to going back again. Three weeks is doable (take a brisk warm up over five days on the south end before tackling the final 170 in the north). A highly recommended hike, thought!

Spiderbite
Mar 23, 2010

I thru-hiked the Long Trail in the summer of '09. From my expereince (and two fellow hikers who had previously completed the AT in '06), the LT is a whole different beast. A good day in the norther 2/3 would be 14 miles. And that was a long, grueling day. However, the beauty of the trail, the rich tradition that the people of Vermont share with it and its hikers, the physical grind, and the comroderie of fellow hikers made it a wonderful trip overall (and I cannot forget the Inn at Long Trail, a quintessential place for any hiker to visit before the long sleep) and I look forward to going back again. Three weeks is doable (take a brisk warm up over five days on the south end before tackling the final 170 in the north). A highly recommended hike, thought!

David Hiscoe
Feb 06, 2010

Hi folks:

Thanks for the comments. Somehow, the first sentence of the article was left off the online version. It's "I finished the Vicodin prescription in 10 days."

Jeff
Jan 31, 2010

Geez everybody...... gita lief.

Hawkshadow
Jan 25, 2010

Sounds like a lovely hike.
I'd go with you anytime. We could start an over the hill group. Then you would have friends to carry you out. I've done it before.

Gar Foss
Jan 21, 2010

As a Vermonter, and having thru-hiked the 275 mile Long Trail myself, and I was a little upset with the title of the article. America's Worst Trail? Come on! Challenging? Absolutely. Physically Demanding? Hell yes. But to label it as "america's worst" is just plain absurd. Had the author thru-hiked the AT at the same age he tried hiking the LT, he would have said the same thing about that. I fear the label could deter future would-be hikers from enjoying the Long Trail. But at the same time, hey less crowds in the cabins, right?

Aaron M
Jan 21, 2010

Politics do not belong in the backcountry. A grade of F- for a poorly written and self incriminating bit of ramble. BUT hey, i'm an NRA card carrying southerner.

Jim "GitRdone"
Jan 16, 2010

Although I have not had the pleasure of hiking the Vermont Long Trail, I would highly recommend a book entitled "The Ordinary Adventurer" authored by Jan Leitschuh. Jan has a great attitude about her Long Trail adventure and this was her prelude to thru hiking the AT. I thought David's account of hiking the Long Trail was humorous. It confirmed he "Hiked his own Hike" however physically challenging it was for him. Good job David and enjoyed your starting the article with "But". Also, good luck on finishing the trail...like my trail name says, just GitRdone.

Jim "GitRdone"
Jan 16, 2010

Although I have not had the pleasure of hiking the Vermont Long Trail, I would highly recommend a book entitled "The Ordinary Adventurer" authored by Jan Leitschuh. Jan has a great attitude about her Long Trail adventure and this was her prelude to thru hiking the AT. I thought David's account of hiking the Long Trail was humorous. It confirmed he "Hiked his own Hike" however physically challenging it was for him. Good job David and enjoyed your starting the article with "But". Also, good luck on finishing the trail...like my trail name says, just GitRdone.

Jonathan
Jan 16, 2010

There is a purpose behind starting a sentence with but. It drops the reader into the middle of the story. Middle school teachers will tell you that it is a hard rule, don't start with but, but! it can be effective.

Emily Hogan
Jan 15, 2010

Loved David's article, and I appreciate the reminder that this passion we all pursue has a price.

Stormy
Jan 14, 2010

What a wonderful trail to hike and yes it is a little tough but thats what makes it worth it. Slips, trips and falls happen everywhere and its a good thing it happened close to the a trail head. I am sure he will go back to finish.

Dennis
Jan 14, 2010

You people are ignorant!

Dennis
Jan 14, 2010

You people are ignorant!

Alice
Jan 14, 2010

One aspect of hiking is to develop the skill to NOT fall down on rough terrain. Learn to recognize the pitfalls before you proceed. Learn to use more care on potentially dangerous footing. Anyone can fall and sustain an injury, but the author seems to be a slow learner.

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