From the shelter, the path again pushes straight uphill, covering a fast 600 vertical feet up 3,409-foot Doll Peak. We break through the thick woods near the summit, and from a west-facing outcrop a half-mile farther on, we again drop the packs in front of the empty expanse.
There may be treachery afoot somewhere, but for now our only whiff of intrigue comes from the trail itself. The Long Trail Guide warns that the path from Doll involves “a steady and sometimes steep descent.” This is a near-criminal understatement. Not only is it precipitous, but the six or so inches of topsoil on the trail have washed away to reveal a slippery slate bedrock channel. Unlike the indomitable Master Splinter, we aren’t outfitted with handy poles, and we both take a few pinwheeling tumbles onto our packs. We heard that this is the third wettest year in state history, and my mud-shellacked shoes are proof. “This is like hiking down a river,” Jim says, hauling himself up after another wipeout.
Anyone who smuggles on this trail, I think, must already be in the mind-altering grip of their contraband–or seriously fit, or owners of the world’s grippiest shoes. Or all of the above.
We pick our way for 3.4 miles to the Shooting Star Shelter, where we eat the remaining bratwurst and discuss the literal allure of the shelter’s name, given that pine boughs obscure the sky almost everywhere else. It’s pretty in here, and quiet-the sort of place that draws people into the woods.
If I already saw cracks in the notion that the LT deserves Code-Orange vigilance, Brian DeBrita opened them into a full-blown crevasse. DeBrita, a muscular 35-year-old, is a 9-year border-patrol veteran and member of the elite Border Patrol National Tactical Team (BORTAC), which tracks terrorists and intercepts smuggling operations, among other duties. His station patrols 16 miles of wilderness border, including this stretch of trail. We’d arranged a meeting at the VT 105 crossing.