Starting the Long Trail

With about a month before my planned departure for the John Muir Trail, I finished arrangements to hike the Long Trail and headed for Vermont. After a drive of just under 12 hours, I pulled into the Villager Motel in Williamstown, MA. It was a clean, older place that was only $60 a night. The real bonus was the owner let me leave the truck there for the duration of the hike, though I’m not sure he realized how long I’d be gone. Williamstown sports a take out pizza joint and the local spirit shop had a sale on Natural Light 24 ounce cans for a buck each. My evening was set.

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The Long Trail is accessed from The Pine Cobble Trail that begins about 3 miles from the hotel. Since I didn’t drive 12 hours to road walk, I made arrangements for a cab to pick me up at 7:30 the next morning and tried to get some natural (Light) sleep.

First view! Pine Cobble Trail

First view! Pine Cobble Trail

The first climb is a good indicator if you are in shape for the hike. Pine Cobble climbs around 1,500 feet in the first mile and a half then takes you through a rock garden before meeting up with the Appalachian Trail (AT). It was a sunny warm day and I was dripping with sweat by the time I finished getting through Pine Cobble and to the AT. Despite warmth there was no humidity. Sections in the shade or in a breeze were very comfortable despite a forecast for Williamstown for a high of 90.

Once past rocky first climb, the trail is very reminiscent of AT, which isn’t surprising as it is the AT. Several people were on the trail including Dave and Paul, two guys in their twenties from the Detroit area. They were also doing the Long Trail, but shooting to finish a few days quicker than I was. That seemed doable as their hiking pace was quicker than mine. An early lunch was at the Vermont border, about 3 ½ miles in and the official start of the LT.

Vermont Border and official start of the Long Trail

Vermont Border and official start of the Long Trail

Reaching the trail calls for a break.

Reaching the actual Long Trail calls for a break.

I arrived at the Congdon Shelter (10 miles into the LT) about 3:30, right before significant thunderstorm hit. The shelter contained two double bunks separated by a table. I was the 9th person to show up at the (8 person) shelter.

This portion of the Long Trail is a lot more social than I’m used to. Besides myself, Dave and Paul, there were a couple of AT southbound thru-hikers (SOBOs) and four northbound thru-hikers (NOBOs). As the rainy evening progressed, more kept coming, setting up tents and looking for spots in the shelter to hang wet clothes and equipment. We ended up with about 8 tents nearby while it rained on and off from 5 pm till 5 am.  In addition, a couple more people crammed into the shelter, laying their bags out on the damp floor.

I set up on the table, which actually seemed roomy compared to sharing a bunk with someone I’d just met. I’d mentioned in the last post about Joshua, laying on the floor, providing the evening’s entertainment.

Things seemed pretty crowded to me though it could certainly be worse. One NOBO told me that the first night he started in Georgia, not only was the shelter overly full, there were 40 tents set up in the area. That many people has to result in conflicts and there was actually one on that first night in Vermont. One guy showed up late (9:30, after “Hiker Midnight”) in the rain, and inserted himself as the 12th person in the shelter. His headlamp appeared like a light show as he settled in and made himself some dinner. Eventually one of the SOBOs told him to knock it off. The newest shelter mate replied by thanking him for being so welcoming in the spirit of AT. That’s when the name calling began. No blows were exchanged, but it was not pleasant. Despite that, I did sleep well on the shelter’s picnic table, thanks in large part to earplugs. On the plus side, no mosquitos.

In the morning, despite a few self-serving apologies, the shelter atmosphere was still tense. I packed up quickly, hitting the trail at 7 am. Both the trail and vegetation were wet from the rain but not too sloppy. The rain got a few skeeters moving but not enough to be a problem. Sun and breeze soon took care of that and the weather promised another good day. Passed early by Paul and Dave.

The 1,000 foot drop into the road crossing at RT 9 was still a bit wet and extremely steep. It’s obvious there has been a tremendous amount of work to arrange boulders into quasi steps but the stretch is still very slow going. Thankfully the north side had more switchbacks and less of a rock climb.

Wet, yet slick

Wet, yet slick

After that, the trail smoothed out and I started making good time. Caught up to Dave and Paul at a water stop, but they pulled on ahead. Felt good when I got to Goddard Shelter at 3:30 and decided to press on to Kid Gore shelter for an 18.5 mile day. It was pushing 6 pm when I arrived. Dave and Paul were there, the shelter was already full, but they said I could sleep on the table again. The table had a 10% or so lean to it, so I passed. It was a nice evening so I opted to tent. There’s a tremendous view from both the shelter and my tent site and sunrise promised to be a good one. In addition, the group seemed much friendlier and upbeat than the crew the night before.

Kid Gore Shelter

Kid Gore Shelter

Most of the folks in the shelter were section hikers, including Beth from Connecticut. She was about 20 and on her first solo camping trip. She had a Sawyer Squeeze water filter, like mine, and her squeeze bottle had broken. Her duct tape repair wasn’t cutting it, so I lent her mine. Despite her equipment problems she was having a great time.

View from Kid Gore Shelter

View from Kid Gore Shelter

With my long day, it was only about ten miles to Stratton Mountain ski resort. There should a resupply box, room, and a restaurant waiting for me there.

Hiking romantics and purists: Consider yourselves warned.

Near the start of The Long Trail

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It was early August, my first night on the Long Trail and the rain was coming down hard. I had arrived at Congdon Shelter, about 13 miles from my starting point, around 3:30 and was the ninth person in the eight person shelter. It was no problem as I threw my sleeping bag on the dining table once darkness fell. The 10th, 11th and 12th persons in the shelter had less optimal accommodations. They were on the floor, surrounded by wet equipment and getting more than a little damp as the ongoing rain splashed in the front of the three sided shelter.

Joshua from NY was 11th guy in shelter. He was about 22 years old and was on his first ever backpacking trip. Laying on floor and not completely out of the rain, he was talking to anyone that would listen. “I love it outdoors! Everything is so green! I don’t have allergies! This is so wonderful!”

Joshua was pretty entertaining to listen to. To him, hiking the Appalachian Trail, which shares a 100 miles with the Long Trail, was all rainbows and unicorns. However, I am not Joshua. I’m a 57 year old guy with titanium in one of his feet from a failed operation to reduce pain. I’ve spent enough time on trails to know backpacking can be as difficult as it is rewarding. As I write about the trip, I will not gloss over the difficult parts. In fact, I think it would be irresponsible to do so. I’ve seen too many un and underprepared hikers on trails to possibly add to the situation by describing my trip like a visit to Disneyland. Is a long distance hike worth the effort? Absolutely. Is there significant planning and hardship involved to insure a good chance at a successful thru-hike? Absolutely.

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So just what constitutes a thru-hike? That definition seems to change depending upon who you talk to. At the end of “A Walk in the Woods,” despite walking less than half its length, Katz declared, “I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I hiked it in snow and I hiked it in heat. I hiked it in the South and I hiked it in the North. I hiked it till my feet bled. I hiked the Appalachian Trail.”

At the other extreme, there are purists that feel that unless you walk every single inch of a trail with no allowance for alternate routes, slackpacking or other assistance, you haven’t “really” thru-hiked. That’s why a hiker often uses the refrain, “Hike your own hike.” It is an easy response to someone wanting to impose their idea of what constitutes a thru-hike onto you.

My idea of a thru-hike? My basic thoughts come from relating a thru-hike to another long term and potentially life changing experience; getting a college degree. Now, no one questions whether you attended every class or correctly answered every question on every test before deciding whether or not you “really” earned your degree. That would be ridiculous. A degree is given for successfully completing the broader requirements/experience of the program.

My requirements for completing a thru-hike are as follows. The hike has to be completed in one season (a fairly universal requirement). The hike must include the beginning, end, major highlights and the vast majority of the trail mileage. Keeping with the educational comparison, when I went to school, a 95 was an A+ and so hiking at least 95% of the trail’s mileage earns an A+: completed thru-hike. Additionally, many degree programs have options and I feel that alternate trails that are widely used count as an acceptable substitute. On the Long Trail, I’m specifically thinking of the widely used blue blazed trail to the popular resupply stop, Inn on the Long Trail. That alternative trail, which was the original route of the Long Trail, may actually be used by more hikers than the official route. I’ll walk that alternate without apology.

And so, if I can get an A+ in covering 95% of the mileage of the trail as well as round out the trail “experience” by being there for the highlights, then I’ll confidently call myself a thru-hiker of that trail. If you disagree, feel free to hike your own hike.