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Exile's_Home ©1997 George Steffanos

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Then The Hail Came

Last updated 2/01/97


CHAPTER 19

DAY TRIPPING

(North Adams, Massachusetts to Sherburne Pass, Vermont)

SUNDAY, 8/21/83, MILE 1574.9 --- Although dayhiking freed me from a great deal of pack weight today, it does impose new restrictions of its own. Roads passable by ordinary passenger automobile are scarce in the Green Mountain region of Vermont, and my hike required a passable road at both ends. Today's hike worked out to almost nineteen miles -- the section of the Appalachian Trail between Massachusetts 2 and Vermont 9, so I wanted a reasonably early start. . . Yeah. I hit the trail at 12:15. I did not allow my late start to get me down, however. I had a couple of great breakfasts in North Adams before leaving, and the weather was beautiful, just as the forecasters had predicted. My mother dropped me off at the AT crossing of Massachusetts 2 and drove off into Vermont to check into a motel. I followed the AT across its foot bridge over the Hoosic River and began walking northward to Vermont.

Following a short roadwalk, the AT turned up a private driveway, then into the woods. The climb out of the Hoosic valley was long, but on a nice section of trail: scenic and excellently graded. The initial mile-and-a-half ascended alongside a stream named Sherman Brook past a variety of cascades and small waterfalls. Next, an old woods road led me away from the brook, climbing along a ridge to the top of East Mountain. There was one steep scramble up a rock slide before the trail broke out of the forest into an open area on the ridgecrest with great views southward across the valley. The neighboring large towns of North Adams And Williamstown spread out below, covering a broad, relatively flat section of the river valley. Mount Greylock rose massively as a backdrop to the south, and westward I could make out a northern spur of the Taconics. A short while later, another climb brought me to a spot called Eph's Lookout with similar views.

After the second lookout, the Appalachian Trail leveled off as it followed the ridgecrest. Less than a mile later, I arrived at a Green Mountain Club trail register. I was at the Vermont state line and the southern terminus of the Long Trail -- a footpath which follows the crest of the Green Mountains through Vermont to its Canadian border. The Appalachian Trail traverses the southernmost hundred miles of this trail before turning east near Sherburne Pass to strike out towards the White Mountains of New Hampshire. More than 1500 miles and about three-and-a-half months of walking behind me, I had arrived in northern New England at last.

I signed the register and headed out. Four southbound backpackers who were hanging out there taking a break informed me that I would enjoy Vermont, while the AT in New Hampshire and Maine was pretty terrible. They were very happy to be past those two states. I did not give their opinion too much weight. I expected the Appalachian Trail to be difficult in those two states. I knew from experience that the trail in the White Mountains was not for the faint of heart. I also know that they contain some of the most spectacular scenery on the AT. After 1500 miles of backpacking, I suspect I am in considerably better shape than those guys were, and I am prepared to pay the price to enjoy the rewards earned through my struggles. There was some fairly tough trail in North Carolina and Georgia, towards the beginning of my hike. By the time the surviving southbounders reach those mountains, they will be far better equipped to handle the rough spots than I was at the time.

The initial miles of the Appalachian Trail in Vermont passed through beautiful forests of northern hardwoods, spruce and fir with an abundance of birch trees, including many fine stands of white birch -- one of the loveliest of trees. Slender and graceful, their dazzling white bark makes a startling and pleasing contrast with the gray tones of the surrounding woods. Now that I am in northern New England, I will be seeing more and more of these beauties. Thanks to the spruce, the fir, the white birch, the sugar maples, and all of the varieties of moss and ferns spreading over the forest floor, today felt like a homecoming for me. The mountains of northern New England were my first love as a backpacker, and many elements of their boreal forests were present today.

I crossed County Road along the ridgecrest seven miles into the hike. My original intention had been to hike the 13.5 miles from Greylock's summit to this road yesterday, until I noticed that would leave me with a short day today as a result of the lack of road crossings along the trail in Vermont. I revised my plans accordingly. One look at the road today made me glad I did. My guidebook called this a gravel road passable by car. It was in fact a one-lane, rutted dirt track with about three pieces of gravel to the square yard. My mother would have been thrilled driving solo over this road yesterday evening to pick me up.

There were a few nice views a mile-and-a-half later from the high point of a nameless ridge that was my second 3000-foot summit since Shenandoah National Park (Greylock being the first). A scenic little beaver pond, tiny whitecaps ruffling in the breeze, sat beside the trail just after the descent from that ridge. The AT continued through the woods, passing over a series of small knobs along the ridgecrest and skirting the shores of a couple more small, secluded ponds formed by beaver dams in little mountain brooks.

Towards the end of the day, just before Congdon Camp, I ran into Pete. We updated each other on our thru-hikes as we walked together to the shelter, a four-sided wooden cabin. He told me that he had also met those four southbound thru-hikers I ran into at the Vermont border. Having shared a shelter with Crazy Charlie the previous night, they were raving about what a great guy he was. I laughed and told him that I knew there was something wrong with them. Pete smiled as he informed me that the shelter at which Charlie had stayed was Seth Warner. He had left Mount Greylock that morning and managed thirteen miles -- a respectable first day back, but certainly not material for the ever-growing legend of himself Charlie was creating. I told Pete he could be sure that the mileage would grow as Charlie talked about it with subsequent hikers.

I took a short break at Congdon Camp and headed out, saying good-bye to Pete, who was spending the night. I could not stay long because my watch had died for no apparent reason. I had told my mother to meet me at 8:15 on Vermont 9. That was four miles ahead, and I had no clue as to the current time. Two-and-a-half miles later, I came upon the grassy, scrub-grown summit of Harmon Hill, with the finest views of the day. To the west, the small city of Bennington, Vermont lay cradled in a long green valley surrounded by mountains.

From that summit, the Appalachian Trail descended into a deep, narrow, wooded valley. The final mile or so was fairly steep, but no killer. It was the only tricky piece of hiking I encountered all day long. I had heard that the Long Trail was very strenuous and not well-graded -- a traditional New England footpath. That was not the case today. The footway was carefully engineered, with log walkways over the boggy stretches and modern methods of erosion control on the slopes. The last descent even had some switchbacks. It was definitely not a stereotypical New England trail.

It turned out I managed to complete the day's mileage at 7:45, so I had to wait a half-hour for my ride. I need to get a new watch soon. At least this one lasted more than 1300 miles; my first watch died before I had hiked 200.

My mother picked me up right on schedule at 8:15, and I drove us to the motel she had found about two miles down Route 9 from the Appalachian Trail crossing. We ate in an Italian restaurant near the motel. The lady who owned the place sat at the table with us and chatted with my mother while her kids prepared the meal. The food was good, but it was a strange experience watching our chef running in and out to play with his little friends while his assistant scooted around the dining room on her roller skates. I can only hope that they were more scrupulous about washing their hands than I was at their age.

MONDAY, 8/22/83, MILE 1595.5 --- The weatherman called for all-day showers today. I fortified myself with a couple of balanced breakfasts before hitting the trail at 10:15, hiking in running shoes. The soles of my hiking boots were once again beginning to peel -- not much, but I thought it best to take care of the problem now. My mother was able to take them to a cobbler today while I was hiking, enabling me to get them repaired without the necessity of taking a day off from the Appalachian Trail.

Along with my running shoes, I was wearing about a ton of Muskol. The black flies remain out in force. In a normal year, these swarms of biting pests have died out early in the summer around here, but this has been no normal year in any respect. I dealt with bumper crops of flies, gnats, and mosquitoes this summer, so I guess it is only fitting that the black flies should linger to take their crack at me.

The sky was beginning to cloud over as I started up the relatively-steep climb from Vermont 9 to the ridgecrest. An interesting feature along that ascent was encountered when the trail passed between the two halves of a gigantic split boulder. They stood several feet apart, and the facing sides were a perfect match. Glacial ice had cleft the rock and separated the pieces like some immense supernatural force.

In the register at Nauheim Shelter, located near the top of the climb, many hikers complained about the severity of the ascent. I did not find it to be all that bad. Switchbacks and rock steps had alleviated the difficulty somewhat, and the AT kept crossing the eroded remnants of the original trail, which had leapt straight up that acclivity. After seeing what the old trail had looked like, I was fairly content with the new one.

I passed below a power line about two miles into the hike. I make note of the spot because that is where the first raindrops of the day began to spatter against my face. Soon, I was wearing my rain gear and the rain was coming down steadily. It never completely stopped during the remainder of the hike. There were a few good lookouts along the wooded ridgecrest, and none were totally obscured by clouds. Rather than the usual solid, low overcast, this rainy day in the mountains was marked by a higher, mid-level overcast, with scattered small clouds drifting past at my altitude. The trail elevation hovered in the 3000- to 3500-foot range all day, while the ceiling was at about 5000 feet.

Between those occasional viewpoints, the Appalachian Trail passed through twilight stands of spruce and fir alternating with hardwood forests of maple, beech, and birch. Occasional bursts of heavier rain pelted the mountains. About halfway through the hike, high up on the slope of Glastenbury Mountain, I arrived at Glastenbury Mountain Shelter. A heavy downpour had just concluded, and the sky was brightening considerably as the rain tapered off into a fine mist. The shelter was packed with hikers, including Crazy Charlie and several other thru-hikers. We all talked and laughed about the joys of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Even on a rather somber and miserable day like today, everyone seemed to share my recent upbeat mood. We have all of us walked such a long, hard road, and the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming so bright it is almost dazzling.

When I left the shelter, I had a quarter-mile climb to Glastenbury Mountain's summit. A dense forest of tall spruce shut off all of the views, but an old United States Forest Service firetower rose above the treetops into the opaque white sky. I spent several minutes up at the top, enjoying ethereal views of misty mountains and fog-shrouded valleys with patches of low-level clouds streaming past. It was fitting adornment for a mythical land of cool, green forests which glistened in the daydreams of a tired, discouraged wanderer trudging the blistering landscapes of a long ago summer. The scene was mesmerizing, but it was windy and actually quite cold up there above the treetops, so I reluctantly dragged myself away. I descended the mountain through another dismally beautiful northern spruce and fir forest. It was dark and boggy, furred with lustrous green mosses. Small forest glades sported dense mats of lush ferns. Rain is no stranger to these northern mountains.

Four miles later, at Caughnawaga Shelter, I ran into Pete. We talked for a few minutes, but I had to head on. He was staying there tonight, while I still had six miles to go. The trail had been rugged and the footway slippery from the rain. I was not making good time. It was 4:45 when I left the shelter, and I was expected at the trailhead at 6:45. I was not going to make it on time.

I did my best, but just could not manage to move very fast over all of that mud and the wet, mossy rocks. I walked in a continuous downpour from just past Glastenbury Mountain to the end of today's trail, journeying along boggy ridges speckled with beaver ponds. The dark, brooding aspect of the spruce-fir forests was enhanced by the rain and fog. The evening was cold and dreary, but somehow hauntingly lovely. Of course, it is much easier to savor the experience of a day such as this when you know a hot shower and clean, dry clothing await you at the trail's end.

I came out on the Arlington-West Wardsboro Road at 7:15 -- a half-hour late, but my ride was not there. The road was dirt-surfaced at the Appalachian Trail crossing, so I began to walk down the road in the direction from which my mother was coming, figuring I would eliminate some of the unpaved portion of her drive. She drove up as I was walking a few minutes later. She had become lost, as the beginning of this road was somewhat difficult to locate. I drove back to the motel. It was a slow ride through all of that fog. I had earned my twenty miles today, and the long, hot shower afterwards.

TUESDAY, 8/23/83, MILE 1610.2 --- A dazzlingly fine day, a beautiful section of trail, another late start. I did not begin hiking until 1:00 P.M. -- partially due to the fact that, as my mother had last night, I missed the very obscure turn-off onto the Arlington Road.

The initial four miles were a piece of cake. The Appalachian Trail traversed flat terrain through dense forests. I breezed quickly over that stretch to make some time for later on. I came out of the woods at Stratton Pond, a large mountain lake in a shallow hollow encircled by low ridges. It was a lovely spot, particularly on a crystal-clear day like today, with the blue water glittering in the sunlight. The hollow was a slight depression in a wide plateau which nestled against the western slope of 3900-foot Stratton Mountain. The western shore of the lake gave a picturesque view of that famous mountain, which would be covered with skiers in a few short months.

Until a short time ago, the Appalachian Trail had swung around the south and west shores of the pond before making a long dogleg past another pond, passing for six miles through a region recently designated by Congress as the Lye Brook Wilderness Area. They create wilderness areas in National Parks and Forests to preserve undeveloped and scenic areas in as close to their pristine condition as is possible. A wilderness designation prevents roads, buildings, or any other features incompatible with the concept of wilderness from being constructed in these places. For reasons of their own, the powers that be decided that the Appalachian Trail itself was incompatible with the wilderness designation, and the trail was rerouted around Lye Brook. The relocation shortened the trail by about two miles, but I had heard that the old trail was much more scenic, so I followed the old trail through the wilderness.

The former AT was very rough and poorly-blazed compared to the present trail, but it was worth the extra effort and mileage. Initially, it skirted the south shore of the pond, a sparkling cobalt through the trees. After brushing the western shore, with that view of Stratton Mountain, the trail passed through a number of mossy bogs, crossing them on wooden bridging and stepping stones. I emerged from the woods at Bourne Pond, which the trail skirted with more gorgeous views of Stratton Mountain across the water. Bourne Pond was almost as large as Stratton Pond, and just as lovely.

The Appalachian Trail followed an old logging railroad grade along the shore of the pond and for another mile as it followed the course of Bourne Brook, the pond's outlet. The trail followed this brook for four or five miles, sometimes on paths and occasionally on woods roads. The brook and the surrounding forest were pretty, but the trail maintenance seemed to have virtually ceased since the Appalachian Trail was relocated. The route became very iffy a few times. At one point, it came to an abrupt end in the middle of some tall weeds in a large marsh. I spent about twenty minutes trying to locate some sign of a path before giving up and bushwhacking for a while until I had found it once more. Soon afterwards, I rejoined the current AT at the point at which it crossed the brook and turned down an old jeep road.

I followed this road for a mile to an outcrop called Prospect Rock, located at the salient where a precipitous set of southward-facing cliffs meet a vertical westward-facing cliff. A sweeping panoramic view of the town of Manchester, Vermont, its green valley, and the surrounding mountains detained me for fifteen minutes as I chatted with a couple of local men, one of whom was a 1980 thru-hiker. This had been my lone stop of the day, but I was still running late. I was supposed to be at the trailhead at 7:30. I left Prospect Rock at 6:OO, with more than five miles remaining to be hiked. I was not going to make it on time today, either.

Three miles later, I made a side trip to Spruce Peak, which had another fantastic view of Manchester's valley and the mountain backdrop to the west. Except for this fifteen-minute detour, I put my head down and flew the rest of the way. For the final mile, the Appalachian Trail followed an abandoned gravel road which at one time was a portion of Vermont Highway 30, the state road which was my destination for tonight. It was now a ribbon of tall grass and ferns with an extremely narrow strip of gravel peeking through where hikers' footsteps kept down the undergrowth. The old highway clung to the side wall of a small gorge. The wooden guard rails projecting through the tall brush on the left side of the path, where the ground dropped precipitously towards the floor of the gorge, were the sole remaining indications I was walking on what used to be a main thoroughfare.

I arrived at the current Vermont 30 at 8:00, a full half-hour late and drove back to the motel beneath an enormous Vermont moon. This is a very different way of seeing the country than backpacking. Then, I saw a long, narrow corridor. Now, I am getting a much broader picture of the surrounding area as well. I am growing rather fond of Vermont's tidy little villages, green pastures and deep evergreen forests. Although I live in nearby Connecticut, I had never spent a great deal of time in this state. I will do so in the future.

I passed the 1600-mile mark of the hike today, as well as the three-quarters point of the Appalachian Trail. Tomorrow, I hit the first major Green Mountain peaks crossed by the AT. The weather is supposed to hold, so it should be a great day. I am going to try to get to bed early tonight.

WEDNESDAY, 8/24/83, MILE 1627.2 --- A 12:45 start. Oh, well. I had four major mountains to climb. I would need to average two-and-a-half miles per hour, rest stops included, in order to complete this section by dark. I keep managing to make day hiking a greater challenge than backpacking. Perhaps I am becoming addicted to the pressure.

My first climb featured the largest elevation gain of the day. The trail ascended about 1400 feet in two-and-a-half miles to the summit of Bromley Mountain. The climb was well graded with the exception of a bit of a steep scramble near the top, and I hiked it in about an hour. That took care of the first big climb and still kept me on the pace I would need to maintain all day. It was an encouraging start.

To be specific, I did not quite need to average two-and-a-half miles per hour today. I had a twenty-minute cushion with which to play. So, naturally, I blew fifteen minutes of that cushion atop Bromley's 3260-foot summit. The views were perhaps the most spectacular I had seen on the entire hike up until that point. Thanks to a mass of dry, crystal-clear air entrenched over New England today, I gazed out upon an expanse of country covering hundreds of square miles, from the Adirondack Mountains of New York in the west to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the east.

Bromley's summit featured a wooden observation deck, part of the extensive ski development on the mountain, which gave 360-degree views. I talked with several people who had paid to take the chair lift up from the valley below to the platform. A couple of them had a problem comprehending why I would take the hard way up. Now that you mention it, I could have driven from Georgia to Maine with a lot less expenditure of time and effort. Damn! Why didn't I think of that?

A short, sharp drop into a col, and a brief stiff climb up to the north summit of Bromley. A nice view south across the ridgecrest to the main summit. The Appalachian Trail descended very gradually along the north ridge, through a beautiful forest of balsam fir and red spruce. I stopped for a quick scan of my guidebook, checking out what the trail ahead held in store for me. I saw, for the first time on this adventure, a word which chills the blood of New England backpackers. I was descending into a notch: Mad Tom Notch. In New Hampshire's White Mountains, these deep, glacially-carved valleys are known for endless, steep 2000-foot ascents and descents. A mile climb up out of one of those valleys can take as much out of a person as ten miles of normal hiking. I steeled myself for the worst.

Happily, this notch was nothing like its cousins in the neighboring state. The decent was rather moderate. The climb back out was steep for most of the distance, but not excessively so. The AT climbed about a thousand feet in a bit over a mile from the floor of Mad Tom Notch to the summit of Styles Peak, the second of my four major summits today.

The top of Styles Peak was 3394 feet above sea level -- about 270 feet higher than Bromley's. The views were almost as nice, almost another 360-degree panorama, although not quite as unobstructed. I had to spend a few minutes taking it all in. On almost any other day, this mountain would have been the main highlight of the hike. It was difficult to tear myself away after just five minutes, but it was 3:45 and I still had eleven more miles to cover. At this time of year, it is almost completely dark at 8:00. I will be back some day.

The Appalachian Trail continued along a somewhat muddy ridgecrest sprinkled liberally with small bogs. The lush spruce-fir forest testified to a damp climate similar in some respects to the southern Appalachians, but this woodland had a completely different feel. Harsher temperatures and cold north winds here create a starker, more barren-looking rain forest than those down south. There was less undergrowth, no vines and creepers, and none of that riotous, concentrated crush of growth so characteristic of the jungle-like forests of North Carolina and Tennessee. The trees here were slightly more dispersed.

They face a more desperate battle to grow and survive than their southern cousins; I could see signs of that war all around me. A fir tree was anchored to a huge boulder, its naked roots clinging to that rock in a desperate embrace which, to me, seemed to symbolize the struggle for life here. New England topsoil, scoured by the glaciers, is very thin, and the roots of trees must soon grow out rather than down into the earth, dooming those trees which apparently were winning the battle by growing the tallest. They hang on grimly, fighting and clawing for life, but, eventually, a nor'easter with their name on it roars across the ridge and the giant tree becomes just another mossy old blowdown on the forest floor. There are no ancients along these ridgecrests.

I crossed over several knobs along the crest to Peru Peak. This summit, at 3429 feet, was the highest I crossed today, but the peak was heavily wooded. A side trail led off a few yards from the AT to a viewpoint which was barely a peephole. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this mountain also. When I was a kid, coniferous forests always seemed to hold a special magic for me, and that feeling never completely went away. Besides, I was in a wonderful mood today.

I descended along a rocky trail to a low, boggy area on the ridge, flying over long stretches of log walkways. When they are well-made (and it is not raining), walking on them is like walking on a sidewalk. I have had many chances to practice this technique during the course of this summer. The trail followed the eastern shore of Griffith Lake for a while. It was another lovely spot, one of the many large mountain lakes I have passed in New England. I stopped for a couple of minutes on the shore to listen to the rippling of the waters and to savor the views of the surrounding mountains before I went on.

The final summit of the day was 2850-foot Baker Peak, to which the Appalachian Trail ascended after leaving the lake. This was the lowest summit of the day, so I was not expecting much. The end of the climb scaled straight up some open rock ledges. A broad expanse of the mountains and valleys to the west, as well as a large chunk of the Green Mountain chain to the north and south were visible. Up ahead were Pico and Killington, the two highest mountains on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. Because Baker Peak lacked the commercial development of Bromley, this became my favorite vista of the day and a fitting climax to a perfect hike. That vast mountain view and the rocky crag on which I was standing was reminiscent to me of New Hampshire's White Mountains, the Green Mountains' more spectacular cousins to the east. I must have shot thirty pictures over the course of the day.

The final five miles were quietly pretty. The trail passed a succession of scenic little ravines and streams. I had used up my entire cushion and then some on all of those wonderful peaks and at Griffith Lake, and needed to make up some time at the end. Night was falling like a rock as I cruised the last mile to the Danby-Landgrove Road. I made it to the road at 8:03, having wrung every drop of usable twilight from the waning day. Five minutes later, it was pitch dark.

THURSDAY, 8/25/83, MILE 1641.5 --- Another 12:15 start on the trail today. Perhaps someday I will see morning on the AT again. That would be pretty cool. I was feeling somewhat run-down right from my first step out onto the trail. My energy reserves were low, my head felt fuzzy, and my muscles ached as my body was shaking off some kind of cold or flu bug. Not coincidentally, my hiking really sucked. The footway was of no help at all; it was a veritable rock pile. The Appalachian Trail followed a number of badly-eroded woods roads -- eastern Pennsylvania revisited. Fortunately, the grades were fairly reasonable. Otherwise, my hike may have gone on until midnight.

The first couple of miles followed a congenial little brook up to Little Rock Pond. I have seen so many mountain lakes lately, but this may have been the nicest of all. Nestled in a narrow valley between two good-sized peaks, it radiated an aura of seclusion from the world (an ambiance somewhat tarnished by the hordes of campers already thronging its shores at just a little past 1:00 on this fine August afternoon. Someday, I would like to return to the Long Trail in late autumn, after the crowds go home).

Leaving the pond, the Appalachian Trail crossed a brook and made a long, gradual climb up White Rocks Mountain. It skirted the summit and began an even longer and more gradual descent. Along the trail down, I very carefully kept an eye open for the spur trail to White Rocks Cliffs. It took me forever to cover that short stretch of trail; I was being very cautious about not overlooking the trail junction. Nevertheless, I somehow missed that side trail, and insufficient time remained to double back and resume my search. The guidebook seemed to indicate that these cliffs were the major highlight of today's entire section of trail. I know that my head was not entirely clear today, but the access trail could not have been very obvious, or I would have seen it.

I passed Greenwall Shelter shortly afterward. It was still early in the afternoon, but there was no room left at this inn, either. All of the shelters in Vermont have been crowded. This is a bad time of year to hike the Long Trail. A lot of summer weekend campers are out on the trail, there are still a number of northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers passing through, and the bulk of the southbounders are in this area due to their later starts. Additionally, a number of hikers backpack the Long Trail each summer. Although I have not been running into many hikers on the trail itself, they have all been turning up at the shelters.

After the shelter, the Appalachian Trail passed through private lands for the final seven miles of the day. It remained, for the most part, in the woods, but crossed a few open pastures. Several stretches were on dirt roads passable by car, including the segment that went past the last shelter on the trail today. Not surprisingly for a shelter located on a road, the place was a dive. Someone remarked in the register that they had discovered the nearby spring to be filled with fragments of scrambled eggs. Shelters accessible by vehicles always seem to attract the truly classy people -- for instance, those who see nothing wrong with washing their dishes in the next person's drinking water. An old trail axiom states that the further away from roads one travels when backpacking, the nicer and more considerate the people one encounters.

A couple of good views helped ease the last two miles of trail. The first overlooked an enormous mountain lake ringed with vacation homes, and the second provided a view of the Rutland, Vermont airport. Two runways, a long one and a short one, and a few small buildings served the air travel needs of this metropolis. From the second viewpoint, the Appalachian Trail plunged down into Clarendon Gorge, the main highlight of today's trail.

The Mill River roared through a narrow defile between two sets of cliffs bristling with evergreens. The Appalachian Trail leapt high over the gorge on a long, narrow suspension footbridge. The side ropes rose only slightly higher than my knees. YEE, HA! The experience of crossing that spectacular gorge on that writhing, bucking hunk of wood and rope, with virtually no protection against the certainty of a fatal fall was intoxicating. Hiking the AT is definitely not for the faint of heart.

I arrived at Vermont Highway 103 at 7:10 -- almost a full half-hour later than expected In spite of the trail's moderate grades and lack of long climbs, I had needed almost seven hours to cover fourteen miles, carrying an extremely lightweight backpack. As it was, I was lucky to make it that early. Hiking was hard work for me today. I hope to feel better tomorrow. The heat and humidity are supposed to return in strength, and I will be climbing the two highest mountains on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. Rain is predicted for tomorrow night. I should really get an early start, but I am not going to kid myself. I know me too well by now.

FRIDAY, 8/26/83, MILE 1658.2 --- I hit the trail at 12:07, narrowly missing my second A.M. start on the Appalachian Trail since I began day hiking. At the beginning, the trail followed an old, rutted dirt road for a mile to Clarendon Shelter. The placed was trashed and vandalized -- another shelter located too close to a road. Just past the shelter, the AT left the road.

This was the Long Trail about which I have been hearing stories for years: an ungraded, unimproved footway in the true tradition of New England trails. The half-mile climb up Beacon Hill was steep, eroded, and paved with a tangle of exposed tree roots and rocks. Of course, the weather was the worst I have seen for hiking since Massachusetts. The thermometer had skyrocketed and the humidity was amazing. Although these were extremely unusual conditions for northern New England this late in the season, nothing about the weather on this journey can surprise me anymore.

The views from the summit of Beacon Hill looked promising, but the haze was so thick that the surrounding mountains and valleys may have fallen off the edge of the earth for all I saw of them. I took it philosophically. You cannot expect great conditions for every great viewpoint you encounter on a five-month hike. I've had my share. The only potential major disappointments for me would be not getting a decent day to climb Katahdin or a nice afternoon on the eve of my ascent. I would dearly love to live the vision that carried me through the early disasters of this adventure and the long, hot summer which followed. I want to stand in that campground in Baxter State Park and gaze up at the fading alpenglow tinting Katahdin's summit, knowing that my quest has succeeded and I will climb that mountain the next day. If there is any justice in the world, I will receive adequate weather conditions for these two events. A battered, disillusioned guy I used to know worked awfully hard for those prospective moments in the sun.

The Appalachian Trail descended very slightly from the summit before crossing two pastures on either side of a paved road. The first one was an adventure for a city boy like myself. It was teeming with cows, large bodies sprawled all around the trail route. I hoped there were no bulls in the crowd -- some of these farmers have a warped sense of humor. I sang to them as I passed, regretting the absence of suitable cow songs in the annals of rock music. Just before I reached the fence at the end of the pasture, a large cow leapt to her feet right next to me, no doubt to ask for my autograph. I said, "Nice kitty," or something equally intelligent, and she very kindly refrained from mashing me into a formless hulk of blood, flesh, and aluminum. I hopped the fence, crossed the road, and continued through the second pasture. This one was empty; the only potentially hazardous obstacles were cow pies.

A steep climb up to a high saddle between two peaks and a gradual descent along another rough footway brought me to a short dirt roadwalk which ended at the paved Cold River Road. The Appalachian Trail turned right on that road, but I turned left, following the road about five minutes to a little general store. I bought two cokes and chugged them down. The resulting caffeine and sugar rush gave a nice boost for the resumption of my hike. I needed something. My energy level today was no better than yesterday's. With all of that heat and humidity, I had used up well over two hours to cover less than four miles of rough and rocky trail. The long climb up Mount Killington was still before me, and it was beginning to appear I would be dropping into Sherburne Pass some time around midnight.

I began to come around shortly after my coke fix. I made up some of the time lost earlier, but kept encountering patches of bad trail on which it was a constant struggle to keep from losing more ground. I managed to maintain the pace on the bad parts while continuing to make up time on the better stretches. I have no idea from where all of the good hiking suddenly came. I still felt crummy physically, but I ground out fast miles during the remainder of the day.

There were no exceedingly steep stretches on the long ascent of the Coolidge Range, which is the portion of the Green Mountains in which Killington, Pico, and the intervening high peaks are located. I ascended at a good clip. After a couple of miles, the Appalachian Trail followed for about a mile a dirt logging road which climbed past the Governor Clement Shelter. The place was already crammed with campers who obviously arrived in the two four-wheel drive pickup trucks parked out in front. I have seen this type of abuse of the shelter system all through Vermont, particularly in those shelters located on or near roads. It is a tough state for an actual backpacker to find a spot in a shelter during the summer months.

The haze remained dense, and clouds were slowly but steadily on the increase all day. As I began the final ascent of Mount Killington, I had already accepted the fact that dazzling panoramas were not in the cards this afternoon. The Appalachian Trail does not actually traverse Killington's summit. The final quarter-mile is on a steep, rocky side trail. Arriving at the trail junction, I was already in the clouds and still running very late despite all of the lost time I had recovered during the climb. Even so, I could not see getting that close to the first 4000-foot summit since central Virginia and not going up.

The side trail was one of the steeper trails I have encountered. All traces of soil had eroded away and the footway had become a rock pile. Portions of the climb traversed short stretches of almost smooth rock face, but it was not terribly difficult without my backpack, which I had dropped off at the trail junction. Some day, I will stand on that summit on a clear day with unlimited visibility. Today, I could barely make out the closest peaks. All the same, I always relish the sensation of standing atop an alpine summit. I stood among the ski development along the crest and watched clouds stream past -- over, around, and beneath me. I reveled in blasts of potent wind and became slightly chilled. That felt wonderful after the steam bath through which I had hiked today.

Once I had carefully made my way back down to the Appalachian Trail, I put my head down and flew over the rest of the range. Killington, Pico, and the three peaks in between are all owned by a large ski corporation which has developed each of the summits. I could discern the outline of a ski lift through the spruce trees as I passed Snowden Peak. A side trail led from the AT up to Rams Head, but I passed on it. Had I the time, or even had I not and the sky were clear, I would have gone for it. As it was, darkness was falling around me like a blanket and I had used up a half-hour which I really could not spare on that side trip to Killington.

I passed Pico Camp, a closed, wooden cabin available as a shelter for backpackers, at 7:20. It possessed a clear, cold piped spring and an inspiring view of the swirling clouds below. After that, it was all downhill to Sherburne Pass. I made great speed, but night was sprinting onward even faster. I needed my flashlight for the last five minutes to the road. I reached US 4 at the top of the pass at 8:08. Incredibly, I was less than ten minutes late. I did some serious hauling over the final five or six miles to make it there by dark (almost).

Tomorrow, the Appalachian Trail follows the Long Trail north for just a half-mile before turning eastward and departing the Green Mountains. I would like to hike the entire Long Trail some day. It would be a scenic, leisurely trip of less than a month. In my immediate future are the rolling hill country of eastern Vermont, the Connecticut River valley, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Floating in a dreamlike mist beyond is the still-intangible object of my yearnings. 480.3 miles to go.

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©1997 George Steffanos

gsat@skwc.com

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