Having completed the undisputedly toughest states on the AT (Maine and New Hampshire), I eagerly looked forward to the more gentle terrain of the 12 remaining southern states. After a few days of rest and relaxation in Hanover, I stepped back into the woods on a late Wednesday afternoon with a fully loaded pack ready for new adventures in the Green Mountain State of Vermont.
Crossing into Vermont, the trail took on an obvious departure from the more familiar long rocky stair-stepping climbs of the previous weeks and transitioned to smoother gradually inclined packed dirt surfaces, ripe with plenty of switchbacks and void of the treacherously slick roots and jagged rocks. Although the terrain was slightly easier, the hiking also targeted different muscles, taxing more of my hamstrings and calves to walk up the ramp-like inclines.
Spending the first two nights camping by myself in empty shelters, it became evident that the bubble of northbound hikers was dwindling, and a new realization that the trail would be a more solitary experience started to sink in. It was an ironically eerie feeling to arrive at the Happy Hill shelter late that Wednesday afternoon without seeing another hiker in passing. As the night wore on, it was clear that I would have the place to myself and, since the weather called for rain storms, I decided to stay in the stacked stone structure reminiscent of an old church or schoolhouse. Sleeping alone in the old stone shelter during a night filled with thunder, lightning, and heavy downpours, I had little sense of comfort with a mind filled by scenes from countless scary movies. But the pitter patter of raindrops on the metal roof slowly but reassuringly lulled me to sleep.
Unscathed, I awoke in the morning to a fully saturated forest floor all around me. The streambed behind the shelter which was bone dry the night before when I arrived was now a flowing path of gushing liquid freshly fallen from the heavens. This new moisture rich earth foreshadowed the soggy and muddy terrain that lie ahead.
Another change was the abundance of fields bisected by the trail. Without many high peaks, a bulk of the views in the state were located atop these cleared pastures randomly speckled throughout the countryside. Popping out of the trees briefly to pass through grassy open areas, I took advantage of the newest form of trail candy I had come across…wild apples. One spot in particular had two inscribed benches where I stopped to indulge in a few tart yet tasty treats while resting for a bit. The inscriptions were a reminder to relax and enjoy while also welcoming each visitor to the green mountain state.
The Appalachian trail in Vermont is a dual personality pathway in the woods. Upon reaching Mt Killington, the presence of other hikers greatly increased since the AT and the slightly older Long Trail share roughly 100 miles through the southern part of the state. Even though they carried large backpacks stuffed with gear separating them from the usual day hiker crowd, it was quite easy to discern who was an LT hiker vs an AT hiker. The type of equipment and comfort items brought on trail were the clear giveaways and, as I headed further south, the cleanliness along with the pleasing aromas of fresh laundry helped to set them apart even with my eyes closed.
Trail magic was limited but fittingly “when it rains it pours”. It worked out one day where my normal mileage got me near Gifford State Park which is a state-run campground close to the base of Killington. Having researched the area, I knew there was an Irish pub close by with live music scheduled for that night. After pitching camp and getting cleaned up, I hitched a ride over to fill up on music, beer and food. At the bar, I sat next to a group of men chatting and laughing in the typical Friday night fashion. Focused on completing my previous blog post, I was glued to my phone when my idle ears eavesdropped on their dialogue and I offered up a quick joke.
The man to my immediate left turned and chuckled and then introduced himself, giving me a curious look up and down in assessment considering my odd choice of attire which was my cleanest and least smelly clothing at the time (long johns with a t-shirt and shorts worn over top). Explaining that I was hiking the AT he shifted in his barstool, his eyes brightened up, and we then began to talk about life and politics while sharing a few drinks. He was a retired local and avid skier, pointing to his hat signifying that he skied over 100 days last winter and told me of his plans to do the same again this year.
Having the opportunity to indulge on non-dehydrated foods, I quickly ordered loaded nachos, a burger with fries, and homemade bread pudding a la mode, all washed down with some cold local brews. After a few hours of pleasant conversation, it was bill time and my new companion Denny graciously offered to cover my check, which I hesitantly accepted knowing how much I had just eaten. He gave me his number with the invitation to call when I was finished hiking to join him by hitting the slopes once the snow flies.
After reaching the rocky summit of Killington the following morning, the trail began to resemble the phrase I had heard used many times before to describe this state. Vermud. Increasingly for the next few days, I encountered some of the slowest moving and annoyingly muddy sections of hiking I have yet to navigate. My pace was stuttered, having to tip toe around massive puddles of watery dirt and mud seemingly everywhere I went. Eventually I perfected a technique of using my trekking poles to form a human bridge over the ponds of muck while gingerly walking around the outer edge of the muddy pools scattered at my feet.
On day eight of nine in Vermont, the weather was warm and dry as I made good time hiking with a fellow SOBO’er and Mainer I joined up with named Pete. We spent a couple hours together chatting and hopping from dry spot to dry spot. He was getting a ride into town that afternoon and we parted ways near a parking lot. No sooner did I start uphill again when the winds intensified and the sky darkened. We had been hearing thunder off in the distance earlier but now it was right on top of me.
Pausing to put on my poncho, I attempted to wait out the storm as it passed but, after 20 minutes of heavy rain, I decided to march on and finish the remaining 3.5 miles to reach the spot I had planned to camp for the night. Each step was carefully calculated so as to not get my shoes wet, knowing I still had another long day before getting off trail to clean up and resupply. It started raining around 3:30 and by 5:30 I hadn’t yet reached my destination. With the sudden deluge of rain, the trail transitioned into a fast-flowing river, at which point I gave up on keeping my feet dry as the daylight slowly vanished. Trudging through ankle deep water, I finally reached camp around 6:30, fully soaked and quite aggravated.
It continued to rain all night and I awoke to pools of water everywhere. The stream I slept next to was raging and the trail was even more of a river than the evening before. Begrudgingly I got dressed by climbing into my cold wet clothing, slapping on my soggy shoes and setting out to wrap up this water-logged state. With knowledge of an upcoming three day vacation from the trail raising my spirits, I abandoned all concerns about my footwear and splashed straight through the middle of every mud puddle I came across while loudly bitching to myself about the lack of proper trail maintenance that led to this situation.
As I crested a small hill, a sign fell into view marking the end of the Long Trail and the entrance into Massachusetts. Quite fittingly the thirty or so feet separating the two signs consisted again of ankle deep mud water, which I sarcastically stomped in like a delighted child after a rain storm. My frustration was quelled with the satisfaction of finishing another state and (as the YouTuber Darwin onthetrail always says) the experience of embracing the suck. I continued a few miles further on to the town of North Adams to meet up with Hannah where she and I ate dinner before heading home to Maine to attend a weekend music festival put on by one of my favorite bands, Skyfoot.
Each state so far has contained new challenges that make for memorable experiences which set each apart from the other. Nine long days on trail allowed me to conquer Vermont and taught me some good lessons in determination and solidarity that I carried with me into the next state on my southward journey, Massachusetts.