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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)

Rinse and repeat 15 times to the mile. I’ve counted. I don’t remember a total of more than 30 switchbacks on the 200 miles I’ve covered so far.

And even when the terrain doesn’t naturally grow them, the Long Trail creates its own bizarre, human-made obstacles, and then marches you across them. I met my favorite coming down the south side of Jay Mountain at dusk on my second LT trip. The mouth-smash I had taken earlier (on an unanticipated glissade down the 40-degree, 75-foot slide of wet creek rock one has to navigate to get to the Shooting Star Shelter) had gotten infected. I was running a fever and was maybe just a little dazed and confused, but I swear this is the truth. For no reason on mother’s green earth, the path veered off a perfectly well-marked and maintained ski trail, descending into a rhododendron tangle and through your basic New England jumble of glacial debris. The route crossed broken rocks the size of basketballs (but nowhere near as regular) that had been violently ripped from somewhere up in Canada and dragged down into sharp and jagged chaos. Basically, it was the same trail experience you would get walking over a bombed-out concrete building. And right in the middle of the trail, at chest level, a perfectly smooth, slimy pipe that must have been about 30 inches around. Or seemed so.

The pipe, I’m guessing, was there to carry water up the slope to make snow. But it’s still a mystery to me why trail officials deemed a walk from Massachusetts to the Canadian border wouldn’t be complete without this particular hazard. I can only imagine that it stems from the same impulse that compels a dog to drink from a toilet. There was no way under the pipe—a pile of basketball rocks prevented the crawl-and-cuss method. And no steps, human-crafted or otherwise, going up. Nothing to do but to invoke mother again, pitch off the pack, heave it over into the gathering gloom, and practice my scrambling skills, though no NOLS course in my experience has ever included lessons on how to traverse plumbing.

And lest you think it’s just me, I’ll give one more example. It was well past noon, more than 95°F in September, and the 30-foot drop down pointy roots and crumbling rock that comprised the next couple of yards forward convinced me to stop for lunch. I sat down, dragged out the peanut butter and honey, and began quietly taking photos of my face to check on the progress of incipient gangrene in my busted lip (having broken the mirror on my compass case on one of the previous day’s falls). Just then, a classic LT tableau unfolded below me. A ragged twentysomething dripping sweat came muttering around a bend in the trail and stopped to look up at the pointless ascent in front of her. With a calm fury, she then ripped several pages out of her copy of the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail Guide, looked back in anger and contempt at her male companion, and stomped the offending pages into the mud. She obviously had no intention of carrying out the litter. Next, she loosened her pack’s hipbelt, monkeyed her way up the climb, and powered past me without surprise or interest. A couple of feet later, she turned and said to no one in particular, “Gentle ascent, my ass. Bastards.”

The worst part is that when she got to the next summit she could also, I’m sure, look back toward where she’d started that morning and see the mellow, rolling hills of Vermont stretching off behind her. The sons and daughters of unwed parents who constructed the LT have managed to turn the gently sloping Green Mountains into 273 miles of demonic jungle gym.

And that leads me to this final truth. My first job after finishing my AT end-to-ender years ago was teaching first-year writing courses at a state university—a task that made the daily grind of a 2,000-mile hike seem like toddler’s play. But the job did have its advantages, the chief of which was having a totally captive audience. It was an even trade: If I had to read their attempts at clear, logical writing (yes, I helped train the generation that is filling Wikipedia these days), they were going to have to listen to me brag about my adventures in the untamed forest. After one class, a particularly bright-faced young man swaggered up and hit me dead between the eyes with the greatest verity I’ve ever learned from walking in the woods.

“Dr. Hiscoe [I wasn’t yet, but I didn’t correct him], I’m totally down with hiking myself, but you’ve got it all wrong with the nature stuff. Think about it: It’s all really just Tarzan.”

I didn’t get it at first, so he explained: “I go out there to swing from trees, jump stupidly into bushes, hop off big rocks, eat with my fingers, hoot loudly, and talk dirty.” At that point, I realized that the boy had a philosophical bent to be reckoned with, would probably pass the course, and, with a little work, might be able to give Koko the gorilla a run for her money, communication-wise.

I have, in fact, thought about it, and he nailed why I’d be back on the Long Trail in September. As disgusted as I get about this wretched mess of a trail, it does turn my inner monkey loose. And that’s the fundamental reason why most of us shoulder a backpack in the first place.

David Hiscoe, 60, lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He returned to the Long Trail in September 2009 and finished his last 80 miles. The ankle held up, he counted another 25 or so switchbacks, and he left less than a pint of blood on the trail. Nobody won this year’s office pool.




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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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