From this bird’s-eye perspective, I can see Canada to the north, New York to the west, and New Hampshire to the east. Crisp air fills my lungs. Geese are heading south. The first third of the rugged Long Trail has humbled me plenty, but I’m making progress and finally hiking with the New England fall as planned.
The bright colors tickle my eyes and the smell of decomposing leaves is in the air as I crunch through the forest and down Mansfield’s side to the Winooski River. The Mansfield dayhikers are quickly a distant memory.
Three days later, my quest to walk with autumn ends abruptly when winter arrives. Snow, sleet, and freezing rain frost the woods, making an arctic ordeal out of a 100-foot trip to the privy outside Skyline Lodge, where I’ve holed up for the night. The next day, Travis, the GMC caretaker, and I sit and read in silence inside the chilly shelter, occasionally making small talk and listening to the weather report on a battery-powered radio. It’s a day not fit for man nor beast, and I wonder whether my end-to-end hike will have to be put on hold until the weather breaks.
“Hey, y’all in there?” comes a voice from out in the cold.
Jennifer and Bret, a couple from Louisville, Kentucky, out for an overnighter, are on the front porch. They’re wearing flannel shirts, corduroys, and bandannas, and are just begging for a lecture from a self-righteous outdoorsperson on the evils of cotton. Even so, the supposedly thin-blooded Southerners appear to be enjoying the scenery.
“It’s a little cold out here, but it’s beautiful!” they rave. “Just look at Skylight Pond in the fog!”
I decide that the cotton-clad interlopers aren’t about to out-tough me. Mumbling my mantra (“Today is a good day to hike”), I don my high-tech clothing and follow Bret and Jennifer back to the trail.
As my blood pumps and the altitude drops, warmth returns. Autumn, however, does not. Winter hangs in the air and offers a few more dustings of snow before milder weather ushers in Columbus Day weekendthe unofficial fall-foliage holiday. Only 100 miles and a week on the trail lie ahead of me, but I’m not about to battle the crowds of holiday leaf-peepers. Instead, I give up walking for a few days and hook up with a GMC trail crew to “give something back,” as they say.
Five volunteers and I lug rocks of all shapes and sizes to create a trail to crew leader Greg’s exacting specifications. “Make it easy to walk, but hard to break down,” he says. “It should look as though it belongs here.”
By day’s end, my body aches and I’m covered with dirt, but the stone staircase and smoother section of trail do me proud. Working like this makes me all the more grateful for the sweat others shed so that I might enjoy a few weeks of backpacking along this route.