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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 encounter reminded me that I started my own AT trek, in 1973, primarily with the hope of meeting some compatible hippie woman on some heart-stopping ridge. But I’ve long since learned that when it comes to the Long Trail, it takes primal urges even more powerful than romance to keep me coming back.

Consider the name itself. On some elemental level, the Green Mountain Club employed brilliant marketing when staffers named the trail in 1910. It’s the Long Trail, after all. It’s that simple. Let it resonate in your mouth a bit—it’s about as mythic as you could ask for. I’ve always been a sucker for names that suggest an archetypal quest: the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes, the Long March, the Grand Tetons, the Great Plains. At its very core, backpacking is mythic, even sacramental. Like pilgrims who honor the gods by suffering through impossible journeys on sacred routes, we swing out of our cars, pull on the ritual gear, and start up our trails. What self-respecting young person—even if her biggest dream is to grow up and be a jolly investment banker—could resist a journey on something called the Long Trail?

The very name triggers memories of pilgrimages that stir something fundamental in just about all of us. At each trailhead, we feel ourselves become somebody stronger and more heroic. With ritualistic headbands, beef jerky, and clothes from the feathers of birds, we assume some deeper character and hoist on something of the vast historical trips that our ancestors endured. At the very least, a week on the trail satisfies some soul-deep need that keeps us from stumbling out into the streets en masse and flogging ourselves with penitence chains or acting out some other demented, destructive need to connect to something more real than our desk jobs. Be honest. Who hasn’t, at the start of every trip, felt a little like he was heading out for Normandy or joining Boone on a scouting trip for Newfound Gap? Perhaps the religious among us feel like they’re setting out for Canterbury. When we jauntily swing that pack on and set foot to dirt, we’re stepping out on a long and noble trail indeed. 

There’s no reason to sugarcoat the final reason why the Long Trail perfectly captures the seduction of backpacking: Hiking this path, above all, is a miserable, dangerous experience. There’s a reason I come back each time with some body part broken or torn. As a hiking trail, it’s the mother of all disasters. I could play the death card and tell the story about the teenager who was killed trying to cross the Clarendon Gorge, right in front of me, in 1973. But that story, as we used to say at the time, is a little heavy.

Instead, I’ll start with my favorite piece of LT trivia. Check out the Long Trail article on Wikipedia. It starts out flatly enough, with a couple of short paragraphs of the usual “it was started a long time ago, is maintained by a club, and goes from here to there” stuff. Then it quickly veers into the absurd, with the bulk of the article being about the “curiosity” that folks seem to go missing or otherwise come to untimely ends on it. “The Long Trail,” Wikipedia recently stated in one of its famously dynamic entries, “has gained notoriety due to the fact that at least four people (possibly as many as eight or nine) inexplicably vanished … between 1942 and 1950. Only one body was subsequently found in puzzling circumstances and the fate of the other missing persons remains a complete mystery to this day.” That’s it—a paragraph of trail data, then a wildly illogical leap to an obsessive outpouring of ancient unpleasantries.

On one level, this is just the sort of strange “reporting” that drives purists nuts about Wikipedia. But the last thing I intend here is to mock the unknown author—because he or she, from my hard-won perspective, got it exactly, if unintentionally, right. A hike on the Long Trail is like some sort of bizarre vacation in a wooded Bermuda Triangle.

Not because you’ll disappear, but because of the mysterious state of the treadway itself. Partly because it’s an eroded, ankle-torquing mess, partly because of the terrain, but mostly, I’ve come to suspect, because the folks who laid it out did not really believe that anyone would actually hike it. On the northern two-thirds of the Long Trail—and I swear against my mother’s good name that this is not an exaggeration—the next horizontal nine feet forward is as likely as not attained first by dropping down 16 feet vertically. The method of getting there is varied. There’s the “Christamighty, that’s a 5.9 stretch of granite and I don’t have a rope and besides folks don’t usually try to climb down a pitch because gravity really throws your balance off” descent. Or the “If I grab those ragged, much-abused remains of a birch root, and slide over to that muddy place there, then throw my pack into those bushes and maybe step lightly on that wet, mossy pile of crumbling limestone, I’ll only fall five or six feet” technique. At the bottom, you wipe off the body fluids and scope the way up with all the care that Whymper applied to the first Matterhorn ascent. At the top, you’ve just knocked off another three yards.

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