October 12, 2017

Hiking Vermont's Long Trail

A Trail Journal: End-to-End in 24 days

The below is a very lightly edited version of a trail journal I kept while thru-hiking Vermont's Long Trail northbound (that's "NOBO" in hiker parlance) in the summer of 2017. I wrote it in part with the intention of sharing it with others who might find it interesting or useful, but also simply to help center myself after long days of walking alone through the forest. This was a much longer hiking trip than any I had done previously and it tested me in ways that I did not anticipate. Based on my initial research I estimated that I might be able to hike the length of the trail in 19 days or so. It took me 24.

6/4 - Day 2:

My hike yesterday began beautifully, but quickly took a turn for the worse after I took a wrong turn onto an ATV/snowmobile trail. I ended up fairly lost. I tried to make it back to the first shelter (and as I found out this morning, nearly made it), but it got dark so I had to simply choose a spot in the woods and slept using my tarp tent as a bivy. I didn’t have the energy to pitch it, the weather seemed fine, and it turned out I didn’t have the stakes regardless.

This morning I found the AT quickly — the dirt road I was on crossed it just south of the shelter - and I headed south, planning to return home, not feeling at all confident about my ability to solo hike. Near the MA border I decided I might as well hike back up to the first shelter and spend a night there. After all, what was I going to do for the next month if I went home? Might as well at least spend one more night in the woods. I got there around 10 AM and decided to hike north, thinking that if I took things slow I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I ran into a man on an ATV at a point where the trail he had been riding on dead ended into the AT. He asked if I knew the way back to a road that he was looking for. I believe this was where I made my initial wrong turn yesterday. I was relieved when I reached Consultation Peak, a point that I was sure I did not get to yesterday. I arrived at the next shelter at 3:30, and decided to hike another 5.6 miles to the next one, which felt a bit risky given my sore knees, the elevation change in the section, and the light rain threatening to worsen, but it worked out and I made it with plenty of time to eat dinner and record this entry before dark.

6/5 - Day 3:

Made it ~12 miles to Kilgore Shelter today. The “Ver-Mud” is no joke, especially after rain last night. I’d planned to go to Story Spring today, but decided against it, facing a worsening storm when I got to Kilgore at three. My knees are quite sore after the last few days, so some rest this afternoon will be good. I’m about 11 or 12 miles from Stratton. I need to double check my calendar, but I believe I need to be done hiking by the 25th at the latest, and I’m realizing reaching Canada will be a challenge, if I can do it at all. [NOTE: I realized days later that this was inaccurate — I had until the 28th, but I wasn’t wrong that it would be a challenge!] I may choose to simply go slower and enjoy myself. The idea of pressure to complete high mileage goals with long days and constant knee pain doesn’t exactly make me want to stay on the trail. For now, I’m glad to be off my feet and I hope things dry out soon.

6/6 - Day 4:

Rain continued last night with a strong wind coming in from the front of the shelter. Luckily, a few guys from Toronto who were staying there had a tarp that we were able to hang up to block the wind. It was still quite windy and rainy this morning, and fairly cold as well. Bad enough that I considered not venturing out at all, but I decided that I could make it at least the 4.7 miles to Story Spring. The hike over was brutal - the trail was river-like from all the rain; I passed one pond where the trail was below the level of the pond and had the rain continued for a few more days I’d imagine it would have been impossible to use the trail at all. My right knee has really been slowing me down, and it was a struggle to maintain a fast enough pace to keep my body temperature up. Arriving at Story Spring at 11 AM could not have been more of a relief.

I have a small day's supply of food remaining - I was thinking I could resupply at Stratton and possibly even rest a night in the resort town, but I’m now realizing that will only work well if the gondola is running. If it’s not, I’ll have to choose between hiking down (and then later back up!) the ski trails 1.5 miles, which might be fairly difficult given the steepness and recent rains. Likely I’ll choose to be a bit hungry for a while until I make it to Manchester.

Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing the sun again. The hard rain seems to have slowed again, and when I was able to check the weather report for Stratton early this morning it said it should stop raining by midnight, so hopefully that shouldn’t be too long. Once again, I’m feeling very okay with having the rest of the day to rest.

6/7 - Day 5:

The storm had cleared by this morning and I’ve rarely been happier to see sun and blue sky. Stratton Mountain turned out to be a relatively easy climb, both up and down, and I was able to cover 21 miles of trail and get to Manchester, where I was able to hitch a ride in no time at all both to the grocery store to resupply and back to the EconoLodge to get some rest, where I am now. I spent quite a bit of time trying to wash my clothes in the sink and shower, with limited effectiveness. I forgot to buy more ziplock bags, which I was hoping to get to keep my extra clothes drier if (when) it rains again. Maybe trash bags will suffice. Or even better, maybe it won’t rain much. Ha. I’d really love to sleep in tomorrow, and probably will relative to the past few days (I’ve been getting up around 5:30 on average), but I also want to get in a fair number of miles tomorrow again if I can. Probably I won’t push quite so hard tomorrow. I slipped a few times today and also bent one of my trekking poles. I was really pushing it so that I could get to town to resupply tonight instead of tomorrow morning.

Trying to plan resupply is a challenge since it’s difficult to predict mileage due to fatigue/pain, weather, trail conditions, etc. I think I have about four days of food now. We’ll see.

6/9 - Day 7:

Made it 17 miles to Big Branch yesterday. Too tired to cook dinner or write a journal entry. Made it to Minerva Hinchey today, another 15. Realizing obvious things such as how taking breaks and eating and drinking enough water will seriously impact how my body is feeling and how far I am able to hike. Not sure where I will resupply next. Killington seems too close, the next road crossing after is at mile 124. If I can get there in 3 days, I think that will work reasonably well. Planning mileages continues to be difficult. I had hoped to get to Clarendon today, but my knee was killing me on the way to Greenwell Shelter, where I stopped for lunch despite it being a bit off trail, partially because it was drizzling and I was feeling paranoid about a potential thunderstorm given both my pain and experience with the last storm on Tuesday. The storm, if it existed, missed me today mostly and I continued on after lunch to Minerva Hinchey.

6/10 - Day 8:

Made it to Killington summit. Cooley Shelter is filled w/ trash. Only like 6:00 but trying to just eat and get to sleep.

6/12 - Day 10:

I managed to hike 18 miles yesterday to David Logan Shelter, putting me only 7.3 miles down trail from the road crossing to get into Brandon, which allowed me to get into town at a reasonable hour, do laundry, get something to eat, and resupply all by early evening. That said, the last stretch of yesterday’s and today’s hikes were a real struggle and the tendon on the front of my ankle is quite inflamed and I have a pretty limited range of motion at the moment. Depending on how I am feeling tomorrow, I am considering spending a second night here to recover. I’ve spent essentially every night in throbbing pain as I go to sleep and I am not looking forward to the prospect of two weeks more of the same. Even if I don’t start hiking again until the 14th, I still only need to average 10 or 11 miles per day to finish by the 28th. For now, I’m very happy to be in town and resting.

6/13 - Day 11:

Got back on the trail today after a lovely stay at the Brandon Inn. I considered spending a second night there but instead decided to get back on the trail but do a short 5.5 miles to Sucker Brook, which seemed like a good compromise. Hypothetically, this means I could do 10 miles per day starting tomorrow and be done on the 27th. That sounds reasonable enough, but the bugs are really getting to me and the trail has begun to feel a bit like the never-ending “green tunnel” that I’ve heard it described as. I like the idea of completing the trail, but 2 more weeks of this sounds not only tedious, but seriously taxing both physically and mentally and I’m just not sure whether I care enough to make myself do it.

A couple of weeks to relax and study, etc. at my parents’ house while waiting for my sister’s wedding sounds quite nice at the moment. That said, I think the weather has begun to cool a bit and is expected to continue to (although I’m not sure as I don’t have cell service at the moment), which will be nice as long as it stays dry. If and when it does rain, maybe that will keep away the bugs for a bit. I am better prepared for both now, with a bug net and several gallon size ziplock bags to keep my things dry.

6/14 - Day 12:

I hiked another 11 or 12 miles to Emily Proctor today, where I am sitting now. There is no one else here at the moment, but it is not even 4:00 yet. My stove and cookset are missing. I have a jar of peanut butter, a few scoops left in another jar, some nutella, an apple, some tuna packets, and some trail mix that I can still eat. Maybe someone else will come along and allow me to borrow theirs. If that doesn’t happen, I’m pretty sure I’ll need to resupply prior to where I was planning to in Waterbury, as that road crossing is not for 50 miles and an expected three more nights after this one.

Even without that setback, I am not sure how much longer I want to be on the trail. Rachel, who I initially me on the second day of my hike, showed up to the shelter I was at yesterday with a friend who she is hiking with until Waterbury. It was reassuring to see that someone I’d met early in my hike was also still on the trail. They hiked on to the shelter past this one, which I considered doing as well, but I decided it would have been too much of a struggle.

For the first several days of my hike I mostly enjoyed hiking solo, but the trail seems much quieter now after splitting off from the AT, and it has gotten a bit lonely at times. I wouldn’t expect that to change much as I continue further north.

I have considered the solo hike as a sort of meditation, a chance to simply be in the forest, away from everything else. The physical discomforts of the hike have made this difficult. When there are other hikers around, you all share in the struggles of the days’ walk. Facing them alone, I have found myself wondering why I am continuing to do this, and yearning for home.

6/16 - Day 14:

Just before 6 AM at the moment. It has been raining all night and is expected to most of the day. The Glen Ellen Lodge where I am staying has 4 walls and offers good shelter from the storm. It is also, however, located a quarter mile down a steep rocky side trail that I expect will be quite slippery this morning.

Once I get to Waitsfield I need to pick up a new stove, a bit of extra food, and hopefully a replacement bladder for my water filter as I broke the one it came with and am currently using an Aquafina bottle, which feels flimsy.

I could hypothetically rush all of this and get back on the trail today and push up to Cowles Cove or even Montclair Glen (miles 168.5 and 173.5, respectively), allowing me to get to Route 2 tomorrow, but that doesn’t sound like any fun in the rain, and I will likely spend the day in town and tonight at the Hyde Away Inn instead.

I’m currently feeling good about my chances of getting to the border and Journey’s End after a strong 19 mile day yesterday. I don’t know if it was because I was well rested, excited to be in town sooner, enjoying the views from Mt. Abraham, or what, but everything was flowing all day and I finally felt like I had my trail legs.

I really hope this metal roof is making the rain sound worse than it actually is…

6/16 - Day 14, Cont’d:

Hiked the 3.5 miles down to the App Gap this morning. Was able to get a ride into Waitsfield with a couple of guys who were at Glen Allen last night and were finishing their trip at the App Gap trailhead. Picked up a new stove and bought a new collapsible bowl, which I’m now realizing isn’t very useful since it’s rubber and so can’t be used to boil anything. I considered going back on trail today, potentially allowing me to get to Route 2 tomorrow, but given a 19 mile day yesterday and the fact that it’s raining today I decided to quit while I’m ahead and still feeling good rather than push too hard and I’m spending the night in town at the Hyde Away Inn. I should be able to do 11 miles to Montclair Glen tomorrow, and then 11 more to get to Route 2 and Waterbury on Sunday the 18th, and get back on the trail well-rested with less than 90 miles to go on the 19th.

Then, potentially: 11 miles to Puffer on 19th, 10 miles to Taft on 20th, 12.5 to Bear Hollow on 21st. Then, could do 15 more to Corliss, or resupply off Rt. 15, but the towns there are on the smaller side. If I do the 15 miles, it would be 10 more the next day to resupply off 118, at mile 242. On second thought, the town(s) near there may be even smaller, so I suppose I need to give this some more thought.

A few hours later...

Having looked at this a bit more, I think after Bear Hollow it makes sense to stop in Johnson, which could either be a quick stop before continuing to Roundtop, or for the night. Beyond that point, it’s hard to say now what will make sense, but I can envision finishing on the 27th or potentially even the 26th. Certainly by the 28th, my deadline, but fingers crossed that nothing throws a wrench in any of this.

6/17 - Day 15:

Got back on trail today, 11.5 miles to Montclair Glen. After a challenging mile or so coming off the road, the terrain was pretty easy for a while and I thought this might turn out to be a fairly short day. In reality, Burnt Rock Mt. turned out to be very challenging. There was a lot of scrambling and the rocks were still wet from yesterday’s rain, so I had to go pretty slowly to avoid falling. I did slip a couple of times, and it took nearly 5 hours to go the 5.1 miles from the last shelter to here.

Tomorrow is Camel’s Hump and then a long descent. Bamforth Shelter is only 6.5 miles, Route 2 is about 12, and Buchanan Shelter is about 17, which seems unlikely given Camel’s hump and likely thunderstorms tomorrow afternoon. I don’t really want to go back into town again, but I also don’t want to stop as soon as Bamforth, or get caught in the rain. We’ll see what happens I guess.

6/18 - Day 16:

I’m in Waterbury now. I wasn’t going to stop, since I just did two nights ago and I had a fair amount of food with me, but apparently I’ve now lost my lighter. I seriously considered quitting here - Waterbury is on an Amtrak line, so I could easily ride home, save my Mom some effort, and finish the last 90 miles another time. On the other hand, if I’m able to push through the Mansfield section, I think I’m in pretty good shape to finish. Analyzing what I was carrying a bit more, I was a bit light on food for the 3 nights I expect to be out in this next section prior to Route 15.

It’s supposed to thunderstorm the next couple of days, but I’m hoping I can push through it and do Mansfield on the third day out after it clears up. We’ll see.

6/19 - Day 17:

I thought seriously about calling this a section hike when I got to Waterbury. With Mt. Mansfield looming, the 90 miles left was feeling both within reach and yet quite far at the same time. A day hiker yesterday told me that Bolton is a relatively easily walkup, which was reassuring since the section from Waterbury to Rt. 15 felt a lot more doable if it started off easy. I also found a trail journal online that described some of the sections beyond this one in the far north as being relatively easy, so I thought that if I can just make myself do this next Mansfield section to Rt. 15 I’ll only have about 50 or so miles left, and if at least some of that is relatively easy, then the end would seem within reach at that point.

Quitting in Waterbury seemed somewhat “logical” - there is an Amtrak stop there meaning I could have taken the train home to Boston, saved my mother the trouble of picking me up, and I could do the final third another day. Of course, hiking the trail in sections really isn’t quite the same as doing it all at once.

Anyway, I haven’t quit yet. I’m back on the trail and Bolton did turn out to be relatively simple as I was told, thankfully. After getting to the trail at 10 AM, I made it to Puffer by about 4:15, having been caught in about an hour of relatively hard rain. The trail was quiet today (it is a rainy Monday after all), and the forest was damp, muddy (reminiscent of southern Vermont), and dark. Spooky even. At one point, I heard some loud growling off the trail to my left, after which I shouted a bit to announce my presence to whatever it was (a bear?) and began hiking a bit more quickly.

I considered pressing on to Taylor Lodge, as it would be nice to be closer to Mansfield for a possible summit attempt, but I instead opted to quit while I am still relatively dry, and try to wait out the storm from the comfort of shelter. Thunderstorms and cooler temperatures are expected again tomorrow so I expect it is unlikely that I will get to the top of Vermont (Mt. Mansfield’s summit is the highest point in the state) tomorrow. I may opt to go nowhere, or possibly to Taylor or Butler, depending on the weather. Luckily I have cell service here so I can check the forecast. In Smuggler’s Notch - the other side of the mountain - it is expected to storm from early morning to late afternoon, so if things are similar here, I may be best off staying put.

6/20 - Day 18:

I woke around first light this morning and watched the sun rise as I filtered water and prepared to hike. The sky was somewhat clear, but it was obvious that a storm was coming. I got on the trail at 5:45 hoping to get ahead of the rain to Taylor Lodge, or at least to lower elevation. I had about 35 minutes before the rain started - the rest of the hike to Taylor was quite wet. This stretch took me nearly three hours. By then the sky had cleared, and after a break and a snack I pushed on to Butler, which took under 2 hours and I arrived there about 11 AM.

The wind picked up shortly after I arrived and the rain soon followed. It cleared again, and became even sunnier this time. A couple of day hikers planning to summit figured we had a good window. A mother and daughter said that they were taking a side trail. Earlier I had planned to break for a few hours and reconsider whether to go at all today, but based on an apparently clear sky to the west, where the wind and storms were blowing in from, the radar forecast from the day hikers, and my own eagerness to be on the other side, I decided to press on then. It took me a short while to get back on trail, and I soon reached a sign telling me I was 0.8 miles from the Forehead - the south summit. Shortly after that, I was faced with some quite technical rock scambles, and a sky that was becoming cloudier with winds picking back up again.

When I’d told the mother taking the side trail that I was planning to push on, but I was concerned about the weather despite not seeing an coming storms, she said she was “sure I’d scoot over”, but I could sense that she was also uncertain about my prospects. At this point I did not feel good about the idea of a few miles of unknown terrain on the ridge, likely many slippery rock scrambles at high elevation, and the possibility of getting caught out during a storm. Coming off of Burnt Rock was a challenge, Camel’s Hump and its low visibility and high winds quite intimidating, and in all likelihood this would be even more difficult. I decided to turn around, and for now am back in Butler.

I am sure in a couple of hours, or maybe even now, I’d be able to make it to Taft if I set out to, but I don’t feel good about doing so at the moment and should trust my instincts. The forecast looks only marginally better tomorrow (change of rain but not thunderstorms), but I feel better about the prospect of going over this mountain after a good night’s sleep. I may be being overly cautious here, but there’s no reason I need to go over today. For now, I’m going to rest a bit.

Update: I’ve decided to wait until tomorrow.

6/21 - Day 19:

After a long rest yesterday, I felt good this morning. It was still quite cloudy, but the weather report said it wouldn’t rain until late afternoon, and I thought the clouds overhead were sort of the edge of a storm that would just miss us.

I was wrong. As soon as I got up to the Forehead, a hard, cold rain soaked me. At this point, there was no turning back - I wasn’t going to downclimb the difficult section I’d just went up. I knew I could make it over the ridge, and if the going was too tough, I could always bail out by taking the Profanity Trail to Taft and try again later. By the time I faced that choice, the rain had stopped and I’m seen a few other hikers who had come from the summit, so I decided to press on. I wanted to be off and done with this mountain. The summit was extremely windy, even causing me to lose my balance, but fortunately the way down this side was a bit less technical than it was leading up to the south side, and I made it down just fine. With the possible exception of the cold rain on Stratton, this was the most intense part of my hike so far.

I’m at Whiteface Shelter now, 7.5 miles from the road to hike tomorrow morning, then I’ll be getting some rest at Nye’s Green Valley Farm before the final 50 mile stretch. I’m glad to now have the Camel’s Hump and Mansfield sections in the rearview, and that I didn’t quit in Waterbury. I’m sure the final stretch will have its challenges, but I feel I have the end in sight.

6/22 - Day 20:

The weather is finally nice again after a few days of on and off rain. I feel as though I am “wasting” the good weather a bit by stopping at Nye’s, where I am now, particularly because there are thunderstorms and about half an inch of rain predicted for tomorrow. The hike up to the Whiteface summit and the next couple of miles descent were rugged, as expected, but not nearly as difficult as yesterday. I think the terrain was a bit easier, but also the fact that the trail was simply wet and muddy as opposed to wet, muddy, and flowing, river-like, with water from recent rains made a difference as well.

I have the guest house here at Nye’s, which is great. Marsha picked me up from the trailhead, is doing my laundry now, there is coffee, and I’ll be getting a ride into town later for groceries and dinner, so I should be quite prepared for the final section come tomorrow. Honestly, a part of the reason I stopped is so that I could charge my phone. I suppose I could have sat in a restaurant for a while or something, but that would’ve taken a good chunk of the day as well. In the future I think I may bring a larger charging brick despite the weight. I’ve grown used to being able to check my location and trail info via Guthook, weather reports, etc. I’d considered whether it might be better to hike without using a smartphone quite so much or at all, but I’m not sure what it would accomplish. It’s interesting where we choose to draw the lines between what tools are “appropriate” on the trail and which less so. To truly connect with nature, should I renounce my bug net? Trekking poles? Camelbak? Water filters? Stove? Lighter? Boots? Clothing? Backpack? We carry quite a lot with us to survive, or at least to survive with some level of comfort, in the woods. Wearing a bug net, carrying a bag full of gear, water on a hose, a smartphone, etc, hiking solo through the forest, I can feel both connected and disconnected to the natural world at the same time - an almost alien presence, a powerful yet fragile one, dependent on so much, from the tools I carry to the trail itself, without which I quickly become hopelessly lost.

6/23 - Day 21:

Got back on trail from Nye’s in the rain this morning, but it was on the warmer side and I knew it would likely be a relatively easy stretch of trail, so I didn’t mind too much. Started around 8:45 and reached Corliss by 3:30. Got rained on at first, then it dried out for a while until I was halfway up Laraway. The trail had been easy and I’d been making great time (>2 MPH) up until then, but it got slightly more rugged, a lot muddier, and I was starting to get tired so I slowed down. My pack is a bit heavy right now; I think I brought more food than I needed. I’ve grown thin enough now that my hip belt is a bit loose even when fully tightened, and I’m still tying a knot to use the detached chest strap. Definitely felt the load a bit more in my shoulders and upper back than I’d like the last couple of miles.

It’s hard to believe how close I am to Canada and the end at this point. I’m planning on 15 miles to Tillotson tomorrow, then to Jay, then finishing the day after that. That will be the 26th - Day 24. Definitely slower than anticipated, but that’s okay. 15 miles tomorrow is a bit on the long side, but I think it should be a relatively straightforward section, and it doesn’t involve any overly steep downhills that’ll wear out my knees, so as long as I get an early start, which I have every day so far, it should be no trouble at all.

6/24 - Day 22:

It rained all night last night. It had mostly stopped by the time I started hiking early this morning, but I thought it would certainly be raining again soon. Things were quite dark, damp, and dreary for a few hours, but it didn’t rain again and it cleared up by late morning. I had clear views atop Belvidere, which was nice. I did not enjoy the last few miles to Tillotson - the trail was wet (of course), narrow, and overgrown. I think mostly I was just tired. There was a short but hard rainstorm after I got here that I am thankful not to have gotten caught in. 12 miles to Jay Camp tomorrow.

6/25 - Day 23:

This will be my last night on the trail. It’s a strange feeling. I’m alone here at Jay Camp, which I suppose is fitting as I’ve spent much of my hike - certainly much of the days - in solitude.

I still have 11.6 miles to the border tomorrow and 1.3 down to the road after that. The trail has grown more challenging again since Belvidere, largely because it’s been often quite narrow and overgrown. I am hoping that this final stretch will be relatively straightforward - and that the weather is good - but, we’ll see I suppose. I am ready for the comfort of home and to celebrate with my sister at her wedding, but beyond that I’m still not quite sure what the future holds. As with the trail, time will tell I suppose. No matter what, I’m happy to Be Here.