As I gaze into Canada from my vantage point in northernmost Vermont, the Great White North lives up to its name. Fog and clouds blanket the thickly forested valley beneath my feet, and a few treetops barely peek out. I pause to soak up the scene—briefly, since a light rain makes standing still a chilly proposition—then turn and head for Massachusetts with the perfect plan in mind: Beginning on this, the first day of autumn, I'll follow fall through Vermont as it colors the Green Mountains in shades of crimson and gold. And in the process, I'll satisfy my hunger for a long-distance hike as I chase the season along the 270-mile Long Trail (LT).
While most foot travelers assume the Appalachian Trail (AT) was the first long-distance footpath, that honor actually belongs to the LT. Years before the AT was even marked, before the Pacific Crest Trail was a germ of an idea, the Green Mountain Club (GMC) marked, cut, and blazed a route along the length of the Green Mountains. Not only did the LT inspire the creation of the AT, but for 100 miles the two run concurrently.
Between 1910 and 1930, GMC trailblazers plotted the route to run near existing vacation cabins and three-sided hunting shelters so the new trail would be readily accessible to Vermonters. More small lodges and lean-tos sprang up as the trail's popularity grew and, after just 1 day out, I'm glad they did. The four walls and roof of Jay Camp Shelter seem like the Ritz, and I'm thankful to be out of the rain that's pummeling northern Vermont.
Warm sun burns through the fog the next morning, and for the next 2 days, I don't see a soul, unless you count the occasional owl, osprey, or salamander. The Long Trail's slogan is, after all, "a footpath in the wilderness," but I knew going into this hike that I would encounter "urban" parts of the trail where I'd cross a few roads. At times, I hear and see signs of civilization in the form of chain saws and distant town lights at night, but those intrusions are minor and don't discount the slogan's truthfulness.
My pace slows considerably as I ascend yet another ladder installed by the GMC to help with a grueling climb over another peak. Halfway up, I wonder if I should have hiked a less punishing trail somewhere else. As it turns out, the trail's jagged design is not an accident. When the path was being plotted, a casual observer had suggested that more switchbacks and a gentler grade might better suit pack animals. "This isn't the West!" was the angry retort from one GMCer.
A week into the hike, I emerge from hemlock forests onto the open tundra of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak and one of the few spots in the Green Mountain state that's above treeline. Panoramic views in all directions greet me, as do dozens of dayhikers. Folks from all over make the trip to Mansfield, by far the most popular mountain in Vermont with almost 40,000 visitors annually.
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 weekend—the 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.
The Long Trail was originally conceived by schoolteacher James P. Taylor in 1909 "to make the Vermont mountains play a larger part in the life of the people." Soon after, Taylor and some prominent citizens formed the GMC to establish and manage the trail. By 1930, the trail officially stretched from border to border, and the GMC had published eight editions of the Long Trail Guide. Ever since, the club has vigilantly maintained the path, relocating parts from valley bottoms to mountain peaks, building shelters, educating the public, and keeping the myriad side trails in tip-top shape.
I leave the work party just south of Maine Junction, where the Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail merge. Green Mountaineers possess a fierce sense of pride for Vermont's gift to hikers and even refused to rename it to the suggested "Green Mountain Trail" when the longer AT outdid the LT by some 1,800 miles. The Long Trail existed first, GMCers retorted, insisting that it was still the longest trail in the state and that the Appalachian Trail was merely a side footpath. I had hiked the AT/LT overlap portion 4 years previously, so I decide to finish up my Long Trail adventure by taking some of the side trails that loop back to the LT. Less traveled but no less beautiful than the Long Trail proper, the Old Job, Branch Pond, and Stratton Pond Trails ease along streams and lakes instead of climbing rugged ridgelines.
After 3 = weeks of southbound hiking, the trees in the mountains are nearly bare, but in the valleys, the birches and maples blaze. My hike with Autumn is done.
I consider what waits—work, bills, a computer—and my body doesn't want to submit. I've gotten into the rhythm of the trail, and want to keep going for another 1,000 miles. But I don't have time to disappear into the woods again. Fortunately, the Long Trail will be there, its short stretches waiting for those with calendars and commitments, and its longer sections available to those who have the time to return to the simple life.
Charlie Wood has three long trails under his belt—the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the original Long Trail.