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Homeland Insecurity: Vermont’s Long Trail

The Long Trail offers steep climbs and solitude-and a whiff of border intrigue.

When 80-year-old thru-hiker Bob Northrup recently held a party at trail’s end to celebrate his seventh finish, a border-patrol chopper buzzed the group to make sure nobody was up to any funny business. Backpackers have complained on weblogs of being questioned by agents. Even folksy Yankee magazine published a piece in which an official reminisced about the relative innocence of the days when they only worried about a few ragged cigarette and dope runners. “Now,” he told the magazine, “we’re looking for terrorists.” My brother Jim and I figured we’d check it out. We grew up in El Paso, TX, across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, so we know border tensions.

But the unrelenting climb yielded little fodder for the Homeland Security hotline. The view is huge: We can see the Adirondacks in the southwest and the White Mountains to the southeast, but except for a few carpets of green dairy pasture, much of the terrain is buried under conifers and hardwoods down the spine of the Greens to 4,083-foot Camel’s Hump and beyond. To the north is big-sky Canada, and an isolated wilderness that makes Vermont’s rural villages seem almost cosmopolitan-and makes us realize how utterly indefensible this border really is.

When 80-year-old thru-hiker Bob Northrup recently held a party at trail’s end to celebrate his seventh finish, a border-patrol chopper buzzed the group to make sure nobody was up to any funny business. Backpackers have complained on weblogs of being questioned by agents. Even folksy Yankee magazine published a piece in which an official reminisced about the relative innocence of the days when they only worried about a few ragged cigarette and dope runners. “Now,” he told the magazine, “we’re looking for terrorists.” My brother Jim and I figured we’d check it out. We grew up in El Paso, TX, across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, so we know border tensions.

But the unrelenting climb yielded little fodder for the Homeland Security hotline. The view is huge: We can see the Adirondacks in the southwest and the White Mountains to the southeast, but except for a few carpets of green dairy pasture, much of the terrain is buried under conifers and hardwoods down the spine of the Greens to 4,083-foot Camel’s Hump and beyond. To the north is big-sky Canada, and an isolated wilderness that makes Vermont’s rural villages seem almost cosmopolitan-and makes us realize how utterly indefensible this border really is.

©Tyler Stableford

Master Splinter kicks back in the Laura Woodward Shelter, One of 70 scattered along the route.

We’re wrapping up our break when we hear the click-click of hiking poles, and over the horizon comes a scraggly college student with barely an ounce of body fat. He goes by the trail name Master Splinter, and he’s one of the 150 people who bag the whole trail annually. Blazed between 1910 and 1930, the Long Trail inspired the creation of its famous cousin, the Appalachian, and the two merge for 100 miles. The Splinter tells us he’s doing 15 miles a day, which is clearly faster than we’re moving. But he insists he wants to walk with us to the Laura Woodward Shelter, tonight’s destination.

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