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 We’re here because we’d heard of fears that the drug smugglers once rumored to ply this trail have been replaced by dirty-bomb-carrying terrorists–and by the body-armored border-patrol teams fanning out to find them.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.