Saturday, May 28, 2011

Long Trail is Looooooong.

This week, I took my gear north to my parents' house in Vermont and set out on my first real overnight trip, traversing section 6 of the Long Trail from Route 4 near Pico to Brandon Gap. I spent three days and two nights on the trail. I figured it wasn't a true test unless I had at least one full day that began and ended in camp.

I'm proud of my home state. The Long Trail was the first extended walking trail of its kind, and served as a model for the Appalachian Trail. The AT joins the LT for much of the southern part of the state. I started at the point where the AT splits off east toward Maine, while the LT drives straight north to Canada. Even though it was cut before backpacking was an established sport, the Long Trail is full of foresight and thoughtful detail. The trail itself is clear, well-tended, and frequently blazed. Intersections are marked with unambiguous signs. There are sturdy shelters with solid water sources and remarkably clean privies every 5 to 10 miles. They really made it easy--as easy as hauling 35 pounds over mountaintops could possibly be.

But you didn't hear it from me. After the first mile, which follows a popular day-hike route to Deer's Leap, I didn't see a single soul. The solitude was luxurious. I sprawled in the shelters and plopped down to rest in the middle of the trail. No one had to witness what was surely an entertaining trial-and-error experiment in bear-bagging. (There are bears in Vermont, but they're almost never problems for hikers; it was mostly for practice.) My company was moose sign, birds, and the evocative notes of previous visitors in the shelter logs. (One pair signed off, "May the forest be with you!")

I can't be sure whether it was the ease of the trail or my own awesomeness, but the first test of my preparation went off without a hitch. I didn't get any blisters. I never got lost (admittedly, it would have been very hard to given the nearly straight and amply marked trail). I didn't forget anything I needed. When a thunderstorm blew through overnight, my camp was snug and my tent was leak-proof.

Not that I didn't learn anything. Most of what I figured out had to do with refining how I load and organize my pack. I spent too much time digging and re-loading whenever I needed something. I also have a better sense of what I want with regards to the last bits of equipment to buy (smaller stuff sacks, a narrower sleeping pad, longer rope, the exact configuration of multi-tool). I did bring too much, and while some of what I never used was "just-in-case" stuff I've gotta bring regardless (first aid, rain gear, a warm layer), some of it was unnecessary, most notably my amount of food. I walked out of the woods with nearly half my supplies intact without once feeling hungry.

I also learned things that were less material. I made a somewhat last-minute decision to start on Wednesday afternoon rather than the next morning to take advantage of perfect weather and better pace the walks between shelters. My dad dropped me off at the top of Sherburne Pass, at the parking lot of the Long Trail Pub along busy Route 4. It was the warmest day of the year so far. I sweat. I was still wearing makeup from a day in town, and I'm glad I didn't have a mirror. The black flies were like negative snow. I crossed paths with packless day-hikers bouncing down Deer's Leap, and I felt as loaded down as the Junk Lady from Labyrinth.

God damn amateurs.
But then the Long Trail separated from Deer's Leap and the Appalachian. It left behind the foot traffic and road noise from Route 4. Undergrowth filled in around the trail, and the woods were studded with wildflowers. With no one else around, I slowed way down (I ended up covering far fewer miles per day than I predicted, even for a warm-up trek). I identified the flowers I knew--trillium, Dutchman's breeches, jack-in-the-pulpit--and mentally photographed the ones I didn't. I would look them up in my grandmother's wildflower book when I got home. I'd received the book, complete with pressed samples from my grandmother's long walks, when she passed away several years ago. She died about this time of year, just before Memorial Day, just after my birthday and not long before my sister's wedding. She spent almost her whole life in Vermont, and came to know its woods and fields through years of slow, watchful walks.  What I should learn from her, and from this trip, is to go slow, and to look close.

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