Homeland Insecurity: Vermont's Long Trail

The Long Trail offers steep climbs and solitude-and a whiff of border intrigue.
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The Long Trail offers steep climbs and solitude-and a whiff of border intrigue.

For a hiker uninitiated to the Long Trail's rigors, the climb up the backside of 3,858-foot Jay Peak is an hour-long baptism of fire: nearly 1,700 feet up in under 2 miles. It's as if the Yankee adventurers who blazed this stretch of trail were selling the Calvinist notion that hard work is a virtue. I don't count myself among the converted, but at least the climb has me focused on hiking. Before we started this weekend-long trek 15 trail miles short of Canada, we'd spent all our time discussing this loopy post-9/11 era we live in--and wondering how far in we'd get before the Feds swooped in to search our sleeping bags or confiscate our brat-wurst. But we make the summit without seeing another person, and all we can do is speculate, between gasps, about how these trailblazers could have been so oblivious to the notion of gentle switchbacks.

My brother Jim and I aren't the first people to trek the northernmost section of the Long Trail-a 272-miler that begins on Vermont's southern border and yo-yos over more than 40 Green Mountain peaks (including 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield, the state's highest) before ending on Canada's border--with more on our minds than hiking. We're here because we'd heard of fears that the drug smugglers once rumored to ply this trail have been replaced by dirty-bomb-carrying terrorists--and by the body-armored border-patrol teams fanning out to find them. No one's ever paid much attention to this patchwork of ski hills, farms, and tiny towns. After all, there are 800 miles of open border in New England, and only three interstate crossings. But after 9/11, and Iraq, and the look-under-every-rock paranoia that followed, this dense, piney wilderness apparently--to Tom Ridge and his ilk--resembled a gaping hole in the homeland's perimeter.

When 80-year-old thru-hiker Bob Northrup recently held a party at trail's end to celebrate his seventh finish, a border-patrol chopper buzzed the group to make sure nobody was up to any funny business. Backpackers have complained on weblogs of being questioned by agents. Even folksy Yankee magazine published a piece in which an official reminisced about the relative innocence of the days when they only worried about a few ragged cigarette and dope runners. "Now," he told the magazine, "we're looking for terrorists." My brother Jim and I figured we'd check it out. We grew up in El Paso, TX, across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, so we know border tensions.

But the unrelenting climb yielded little fodder for the Homeland Security hotline. The view is huge: We can see the Adirondacks in the southwest and the White Mountains to the southeast, but except for a few carpets of green dairy pasture, much of the terrain is buried under conifers and hardwoods down the spine of the Greens to 4,083-foot Camel's Hump and beyond. To the north is big-sky Canada, and an isolated wilderness that makes Vermont's rural villages seem almost cosmopolitan-and makes us realize how utterly indefensible this border really is.

When 80-year-old thru-hiker Bob Northrup recently held a party at trail's end to celebrate his seventh finish, a border-patrol chopper buzzed the group to make sure nobody was up to any funny business. Backpackers have complained on weblogs of being questioned by agents. Even folksy Yankee magazine published a piece in which an official reminisced about the relative innocence of the days when they only worried about a few ragged cigarette and dope runners. "Now," he told the magazine, "we're looking for terrorists." My brother Jim and I figured we'd check it out. We grew up in El Paso, TX, across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, so we know border tensions.

But the unrelenting climb yielded little fodder for the Homeland Security hotline. The view is huge: We can see the Adirondacks in the southwest and the White Mountains to the southeast, but except for a few carpets of green dairy pasture, much of the terrain is buried under conifers and hardwoods down the spine of the Greens to 4,083-foot Camel's Hump and beyond. To the north is big-sky Canada, and an isolated wilderness that makes Vermont's rural villages seem almost cosmopolitan-and makes us realize how utterly indefensible this border really is.

We're wrapping up our break when we hear the click-click of hiking poles, and over the horizon comes a scraggly college student with barely an ounce of body fat. He goes by the trail name Master Splinter, and he's one of the 150 people who bag the whole trail annually. Blazed between 1910 and 1930, the Long Trail inspired the creation of its famous cousin, the Appalachian, and the two merge for 100 miles. The Splinter tells us he's doing 15 miles a day, which is clearly faster than we're moving. But he insists he wants to walk with us to the Laura Woodward Shelter, tonight's destination.

He hasn't seen any obvious terror candidates, the Splinter reports as we chug down Jay Peak's grassy slopes and back under the canopy. If he does further on, we'll never know. After a chilly late-summer night at the shelter--where the kid inhales one of our cold bratwursts in three bites--he slathers his last ration of peanut butter on a Clif bar, and clicks off down the trail.

Maybe we should've warned him to be ready for anything: It's common knowledge that the path has long had its share of nonrecreational users. During the War of 1812, profiteers used an early, primitive version of the trail to smuggle in embargoed British goods. In the 1920s and early '30s, bootleggers purportedly used it to keep the States wet through Prohibition. Today, border agents will tell you that a few area families are still smuggling after 80 years, though now the contraband is more likely to be $3,000-a-pound hydroponic marijuana called Quebec Gold, or illegal aliens-usually from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe--searching for opportunity. Last year, a University of Vermont student was busted selling Canadian "hydro" out of his dorm--and later confessed to carrying it in on the Long Trail, inspiring some to rename the path "The Bong Trail."

The border here has always had a sort of quirky charm. In several places, a road starts in the U.S., pokes into Canada, and ducks back into the States. The border runs right through the town of Derby Line, cutting the 400-seat opera house in half.

From the shelter, the path again pushes straight uphill, covering a fast 600 vertical feet up 3,409-foot Doll Peak. We break through the thick woods near the summit, and from a west-facing outcrop a half-mile farther on, we again drop the packs in front of the empty expanse.

From the shelter, the path again pushes straight uphill, covering a fast 600 vertical feet up 3,409-foot Doll Peak. We break through the thick woods near the summit, and from a west-facing outcrop a half-mile farther on, we again drop the packs in front of the empty expanse.

There may be treachery afoot somewhere, but for now our only whiff of intrigue comes from the trail itself. The Long Trail Guide warns that the path from Doll involves "a steady and sometimes steep descent." This is a near-criminal understatement. Not only is it precipitous, but the six or so inches of topsoil on the trail have washed away to reveal a slippery slate bedrock channel. Unlike the indomitable Master Splinter, we aren't outfitted with handy poles, and we both take a few pinwheeling tumbles onto our packs. We heard that this is the third wettest year in state history, and my mud-shellacked shoes are proof. "This is like hiking down a river," Jim says, hauling himself up after another wipeout.

Anyone who smuggles on this trail, I think, must already be in the mind-altering grip of their contraband--or seriously fit, or owners of the world's grippiest shoes. Or all of the above.

We pick our way for 3.4 miles to the Shooting Star Shelter, where we eat the remaining bratwurst and discuss the literal allure of the shelter's name, given that pine boughs obscure the sky almost everywhere else. It's pretty in here, and quiet-the sort of place that draws people into the woods.

If I already saw cracks in the notion that the LT deserves Code-Orange vigilance, Brian DeBrita opened them into a full-blown crevasse. DeBrita, a muscular 35-year-old, is a 9-year border-patrol veteran and member of the elite Border Patrol National Tactical Team (BORTAC), which tracks terrorists and intercepts smuggling operations, among other duties. His station patrols 16 miles of wilderness border, including this stretch of trail. We'd arranged a meeting at the VT 105 crossing.

As we hike north, DeBrita, who sports a pistol, telescoping metal baton, and pepper spray, shows us tracking skills--like determining the age of a shoeprint, and whether a person was running or walking--that he honed "down South." All agents start out along the Mexican border, and for 7 years DeBrita patrolled the El Paso Sector, which has miles of chain-link-fenced border and unmanned surveillance blimps. When he learns we grew up in El Paso, he looks shocked.

"It's a different world down there," the Vermont native says. "I'm sure there was a day I didn't have at least one apprehension, but I can't remember it." Here on the trail? He waves dismissively. In a 12-month period ending in October 2004, agents arrested 2,701 illegal aliens and seized 5,661 pounds of pot--but that was along a 300-mile span of border between New York and the Maine-New Hampshire line, and almost entirely at road crossings. "You just can't carry that much on this kind of hike," DeBrita says.

By late afternoon, we poke out of the forest at the trail's end. Compared to buttoned-up Texas, it's pretty modest: Just a small metal obelisk and a swath cleared of brush mark the border--although there is reportedly some form of electronic detection in place. The wilds of Quebec loom invitingly in front of us.

DeBrita scans the emptiness, eventually fixing his gaze on what looks like an abandoned tractor-trailer abutting the border in the valley below. As he takes mental notes, we sit by the obelisk and conclude that the Long Trail experience hasn't changed much, complex geopolitics notwithstanding. It's still a hiker's dream: a chance to pound your glutes into submission amid classic Green Mountain scenery and solitude. And it's mostly protected by the same rugged terrain that makes it a great place to hike.

If you go, bring extra bratwurst. Not because your food could get confiscated, but because The Splinter might try for a repeat--and bring his friends.

The Plan

The Hike To hike the entire Long Trail the usual way--south to north--pick up the AT where it intersects with MA 2, just over 2 miles west of North Adams. From there it's a 4-mile uphill hike to the Vermont border and the Long Trail's southern terminus. Thru-hikers typically complete the 272-mile path in 26 to 30 days, averaging 8-10 miles per. It's a modest pace by long-trail standards, but that's a by-product of the steep, rocky relief.

Shelters There are 70 three-sided shelters along the route; no reservations required.

Guide Green Mountain Club's Long Trail Guide is the LT hiker's bible.