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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.

I finished the Vicodin prescription in 10 days.

But, of course, my foot and leg stayed streaked from toe to calf for weeks afterward, displaying vivid colors I last remember seeing 20 years ago during a particularly violent episode of curry-induced food poisoning. Five months on, there was still a lemon-size lump where my fibula joins my right foot. And it ached the way only a 90-degree ankle turn can ache—sharply and deeply, like a broken tooth on a cold day.

I nearly destroyed my joint when the trail surface gave way and I dropped suddenly onto the side of my foot, my ankle twisted to an unnatural angle. There are approximately 10,000 words in the average person’s vocabulary (by way of comparison, Koko, the world’s most communicative gorilla, was, with great perseverance, taught to sign about a thousand). My companions assure me that in the 45 seconds after my fall, I attached the blessed word “mother” to an impressive number of terms in my personal vocabulary—none of which appear in any polite dictionary (or family-friendly outdoor magazine).

My physicist, American-Academy-of-Sciences-accredited brother-in-law ran the numbers for me. The short drop (eight inches) and my combined body and pack weight (200 pounds) jammed the end of my fibula against my ankle ligaments and tendons with about 4,000 pounds of pressure in the first two-tenths of a second of impact: For comparison, that’s approximately the force applied to a baseball when a juiced Manny Ramirez smacks it 400 feet. A similar cracking sound issued from the inside of my right boot. When I asked my orthopedist (every backpacker over 50 has one) if the numbers seemed accurate to him, he said that they sounded “in the ballpark.” (In my experience, orthopedists who treat aging hikers don’t have an ironic, um, bone in their bodies.)

My ballpark moment occurred when I was in Vermont in the fall of 2008, for the fourth September in the previous seven years. On the day of my fall, I had progressed a grand total of 1.3 miles into what was supposed to be a two-week hike to finish up the Long Trail. I had a little less than 80 miles to go to complete the entire 273-mile walk. On most trails, 80 miles is a fairly leisurely six-day trip for me. But I had learned from bitter experience that this leafy gem of a New England footpath is, in fact, thoroughly Hobbesian: short, yes, but nasty and brutish.

A year earlier, at the very same trailhead, I’d shattered an incisor on a hard piece of chocolate (that broken tooth wasn’t a random analogy) and prematurely ended my trip. On my most recent attempt, after a flight into Burlington, a quick lunch with friends, and less than 30 minutes under a full load, I was headed back to the same emergency room at the University of Vermont. By 6 p.m., I was getting a series of x-rays and swallowing the first fistful of painkillers. As I watched the ER docs puzzle over the mangled foot of a guy who’d been mowing his grass barefooted, I mumbled a baleful curse: The Long Trail, I swore, is the worst damn recreational path in America.

But I would be back on it the next September (last fall). Sure, I’m stubborn and don’t like to be beaten: I’m part Irish, part Scottish, part ACLU-card-carrying Southerner. But it goes deeper than that. For reasons even I don’t fully comprehend, I look forward to coming back home earlier than planned each year, tail between my legs, some part of my body in a cast, ACE bandage, or studded with new sutures—ready to hobble into the office on Monday and tell the story to my amused, couch-planted colleagues. I’ve actually worn a hospital bracelet to work just to please them. Prior to my last trip, there were two office pools: one on how long I’d actually be gone, one on the type of injury I’d bring back.

For me, the whole Long Trail experience (I just mistyped it “Long Grail,” I swear I did) sums up why I’ve been backpacking for 40 years, long after hiking has been culturally squeezed by biking, kayaking, snowboarding, Wii, and the rest. This trail (I just typed “trial”) is the essence—boiled down so even the dullest among us can understand—of what the whole backpacking enterprise entails.

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