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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.

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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