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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)

The Long Trail predates by decades the Appalachian Trail—the country’s most famous and lovingly tended route—so the LT is usually tagged as the nation’s oldest long-distance path. (Never mind that the original long walk in the Americas was arguably the Oregon Trail, the Inca Trail, or whatever dim, long-lost path brought the first folks across from Asia or wherever.) The section I turned my ankle on, for instance, was roughed out in 1910, and since the 1930s has provided a continuous route up the main ridge of the Green Mountains, the length of Vermont from the Massachusetts border to Canada. Like me, many Long Trail hikers (about 150 do it in a continuous trip each year) first learned about the trail during a thru-hike of the AT, which shares the route of the southern 100 miles of the LT. The Long Trail diverges from the AT just down the road from the Long Trail Inn, the best trailside pub you’ll ever find. (Believe me, sometimes I wish I would have climbed up on a barstool and stayed right there.) 


Of course, you won’t experience the nature thing—“the love of wild Nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love ever showing itself whether recognized or not,” as John Muir extravagantly put it—inside a bar. So we put up with blisters and rain and dehydrated Stroganoff, and set off again and again in search of those wild moments. And even if you’re like me—you’re not much moved by all the words in all the books and articles from Thoreau to Wallace Stegner to the latest thru-hiker trail blog, and scenery is only one reason, and not even the chief one, that gets you out in the woods—rest assured that the Long Trail overdelivers. 


I have sat in perfect quiet in the middle of hundreds of Christmas-smelling spruces, exquisitely stunted like wild bonsais, watching the microclouds boil right out of the impossibly rich, wet earth and rise in snowlike wisps above me. It was a beauty that could rock the most hardened financier’s soul. And unlike on the AT, where shelters are often sited in muddy, forsaken hollows near yahoo-howling back roads, the Long Trail cabins usually sit beside classic New England brooks, at 3,500 feet, overlooking some Sierra Club calendar scene.


On a stretch a little north of where Robert Frost made his last home, I spent one incredible afternoon lazing behind a sauntering black bear. For hours I was so close, I would sometimes have to slow down a little when the groundwater hadn’t yet oozed into her prints. No need to spoil the moment by catching up with her on a narrow ridge that left neither of us many options on how to deal with the other. This near-perfect afternoon was September 11, 2001. Up on that ridge, playing hide-and-seek with a bear in total silence (no airplane noise that day), I was probably one of the last of my neighbors in North America to have to struggle with a newly brutish world. 


And the uncommon Vermont beauty—coupled with the uncommon rigors of the terrain—seems to attract just the sort of neighbors with whom you’d like to share a trail. This is not a trivial social comment. The hikers you encounter can be just as important as the scenery, which is another reason the Long Trail epitomizes the best of backpacking. Think of the pain-in-the-butt characters that make Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods so successful at describing the complete AT experience. Then go to the other end of the human spectrum. Like the older couple I met just south of the Canadian border. He was maybe 55, with the legs of an Olympic sprinter and the general aplomb and competency Harrison Ford might display in the role of a mountaineer. She was an incredibly handsome 60 or so, with beautifully graying hair in elegant Heidi braids. This was the first day of their third Long Trail end-to-ender (after two AT thru-hikes), and both were so obviously lit up by being where they were, with each other, that it kept me in a Zen state for days just remembering them. We stopped to get water together, talked a bit, and they loped off up Jay Mountain, leaving me sucking air behind them. I met them at the top while they were setting up camp with a joy and efficiency that longtime couples exhibit when they’re doing something deeply satisfying together. “For the wind and stars,” he said of the mesh-topped tent pitched in front of a thousand-foot drop. “Full moon tonight.” Behind his back, she gave me a grin and a provocative wink. 





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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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