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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.

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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