Am I Nuts?
There’s a popular saying that suggests the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Some might say I’m crazy. And they may be right. I’m back on the Long Trail again. I’ve tried to complete this trail twice before, but fate intervened both times, preventing me from accomplishing that goal. So why do I expect to be successful this time? When I came off the trail in July, there was nothing left to prove. Yet here I am toughing it out for reasons I can’t articulate and sometimes questioning why. Am I nuts?
A Balancing Act
This time I hoped to be a little better prepared, but that’s no guarantee of success. I was in decent backpacking shape during my attempt earlier this summer, and had this been any other trail, it would have been fine. But this was the Long Trail where balance and agility are just as important as having endurance and “trail legs”.
I started trail running again in the hopes of improving my balance. At first, I was tentative, afraid of injury. But then I started to find a flow and rhythm. Hesitation was something that plagued me on the LT after coming back from the accident. I would look at an obstacle and freeze, trying to decide the safest way forward. It’s often easier to maintain balance while in constant motion, and trail running forces you to make countless decisions on foot placement in just milliseconds.
For the first time since the accident, it no longer hurt to run. And overall, I felt better. The daily pain I experienced in my knee for over a year finally started to fade. Maybe it was the running, or possibly just some extra time to heal.
Then came a week of backpacking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming exploring high alpine lakes in search of trout. It was a fantastic adventure with my buddy CW, who is a veteran of the John Muir Trail. Carrying a heavy load at altitude was great endurance training for the LT. In addition to my normal backpacking gear, I took a fly rod and reel, a backpacking chair, a 15-degree bag, and bear spray. It added up to about 5 lbs. more than my normal load. That doesn’t sound like much, but it does make a difference. And 35 pounds is about the maximum that my pack can handle without feeling a little unstable.
After the consistently bad footing on the LT, it was a welcome relief to hike on sections of the Continental Divide Trail where I could get into a normal pace and rhythm. There were plenty of places where we encountered granite boulders similar to the LT, but none of them were slick and I could feel my confidence returning. This was more typical backpacking terrain, unlike the LT. And the scenery was incredible!
The fishing itself, both out west and at home, also helped my balance. Scrambling across wet rocks or wading in streams really helps your footing and sense of balance. I fell in a time or two, but these slips were normal and nothing like the spills I had been taking on the LT. And we caught and released some awesome fish!
A Milestone Moment
At this time last year, I was home on the couch and hooked up to an IV, just days removed from being in the hospital again. It was a trying time. I was physically unable to do the things I love. Several previously planned trips and events had to be cancelled or postponed: fishing, camping, hiking, paddling. For the most part, I accepted that reality with a positive attitude, feeling fortunate to be alive and on the mend.
I’m not sure why, but the one thing that I was most disappointed in missing was the KTA Trail Challenge, a 25K trail race on my home trails in the Susquehanna River Hills.
The 25k race is a major fundraiser for Keystone Trails Association, an organization devoted to trail stewardship and advocacy. Many of my hiking friends participated as runners or volunteers last year. As photos appeared in my social feeds of friends toughing it out and crossing the finish, I was happy for them, but depressed that I was unable to join them. In addition to suffering from my injuries and a serious infection, I seemed to have a bad case of FOMO.
Now that I was mostly healed, I vowed to run the race this year with my friends and looked forward to it for months. I started strong, running the flats and hiking the hills. The humidity was brutal, and I wilted on the Pinnacle, a climb I’ve done several times before while training for the LT. I was well hydrated but still suffered from heat exhaustion. About halfway through the race, I thought about giving up.
But finishing was a way to acknowledge how far I’ve come in the last year, so I kept going. Jenny was great company for the second half of the race as we looked out for each other. It wasn’t always pretty, but I persevered and completed the race.
The KTA Challenge became a launching pad for a return to the LT. I was ready to try again before the daylight hours got any shorter.
Back in Vermont
Jake dropped me off at the Duxbury parking area where he and Emily had picked me up after the floods of July. I hung out at the trailhead for a while with No Hitch and AKA, two thru-hikers who were waiting for their shuttle to town. They were taking a zero in Waterbury after a tough stretch on the trail. After they left, I hiked southbound for a short distance to a stealth spot and set up camp. The following morning, I got an early start and retraced my steps heading northbound.
Crazy or not, I was back on the Long Trail! The Winooski Valley looked much better than the flood ravaged scene back in July. The trail was reopened through the previously flooded farm fields along the river instead of following the road. That sounded good to me, but it might have been simpler to just stay on the road.
There were new stiles over the electric fence to replace those damaged in the flood. But there was a confusing stretch where a chicken pen was right on the trail. I ducked through the farmer’s electric fence to follow the blazes but was soon faced with a choice: bushwhack through heavy brush along the river or chance getting zapped by the fence trying to climb over where there wasn’t a stile. I’ve been zapped crossing electric fences while fly fishing farm streams in PA. Not fun, so I bushwhacked. Turns out, there was another way around that was only obvious if going Southbound.
After crossing Rt 2 and ducking through the tunnel under the highway, the trail turned into the woods and started a gentle climb. It felt great to be in the forest, the footing was good, and there were even some switchbacks on the climb. Switchbacks are almost unheard of in Vermont! Before I knew it, I was at Buchanan Lodge, my target for the day. I had covered 10 miles quickly and felt good. It was just after lunch time. Should I push another 4 miles to Puffer? I decided to stay put as planned.
Passion for the Journey
Another hiker, Purple Haze, soon arrived at the shelter and we a nice conversation about the challenges of the trail and our respective journeys. After completing over 190 miles of the LT, he had just made the difficult decision to end his thru hike, mentioning that he just wasn’t feeling the passion he had earlier in his journey. He was clearly comfortable with his decision to go home to be with family, so I just lent an ear. As he spoke, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d soon be faced with the same dilemma.
This section of the LT was different for me. I didn’t have my father’s legacy or journal to keep me going. And I seemed to be searching for a reason or purpose for being here. Or as Purple Haze put it, a passion for the journey. What was driving my decision to try again? Was it just so I could say I finished? That didn’t seem good enough. I really wanted to enjoy this hike, not just complete the trail. When I received a text that evening from Cheryl asking if I was having fun, I didn’t have an easy answer.
A Danged Quesadilla!
The next morning, I chatted with Detour, Lemon, and Ballsack at the shelter as I had coffee and packed up my gear. They were a fun group of experienced AT thru-hikers. Purple Haze quietly kept to himself, but I wished him well as I lifted my pack to leave. Something tells me he’ll be back to finish the trail when he’s ready.
After yesterday’s easy terrain, the LT soon returned to form with the typical rocks, roots, mud, scrambles, climbs, and ladders. As the trail got more challenging, I tried not to question why I was here. Damn, this trail is hard. There was a damp chill to the air. The weather was unsettled with gusting winds and rain showers from Hurrican Lee, which was battering the coast of New England. The wind was howling on the ridges and summit of Bolton Mountain, although the trees provided some protection.
For a couple of miles, I kept leap-frogging the group from the shelter. Moving quickly helped me keep warm in the damp winds, but there was a little extra motivation to keep up – the promise of quesadillas for lunch at the next shelter courtesy of Ballsack! I got to Puffer Shelter just as she was starting to cook and quickly got out of the wind and into my rain pants and puffy to warm up a little. Just as I stopped shivering, there it was, a piping hot quesadilla. It was gooey, cheesy goodness! It turns out that in addition to being a great trail chef, Ballsack is a former blogger here on the Trek!
Two other hikers stopped at Puffer for lunch. Ice Man and Ice Cream were also from Lancaster, PA. They had recognized my name from the trail register. Small world! Soon after leaving Puffer, I met two local day hikers who stopped to talk for a few minutes. Julie offered to exchange numbers with me in case I needed anything during the hike: a ride, a meal, laundry, etc. I truly appreciated the offer and promised to contact her if need be.
The 200 Mile Mark
The quesadilla, shelter camaraderie, and trail conversations helped carry me through the day, but the hiking was definitely tougher than yesterday. I’m definitely feeling stronger and have better balance than back in July, but the downhills still slow me down. With fewer daylight hours to cover mileage, I wish my pace was faster. It wasn’t the 10 miles with 3600′ of elevation gain that made it tough and slow, but the 2900′ of descent. But I did pass the 200-mile mark today!
The payoff for the challenging day was arriving at Butler Lodge just as the weather cleared in time for a spectacular sunset shared with Ice Man, Ice Cream, and Justin.
Magnificent, Magical, Mansfield
Morning arrived with more great weather, a perfect day to climb Mt Mansfield. At 4,395′ it’s the highest point in the Green Mountains. Once again, I took my time in the morning to let my joints and muscles loosen a little before starting to hike. Overall, the climb was fun. Squeezing through the Needle’s Eye was a bit scary and challenging, definitely not a place to take a fall. Taking my pack off was necessary for balance on one critical move.
The rest of the climb was less technical and really fun. I was able to make good time even while stopping often to take photos, enjoy the view, and talk with a friendly group of GMC day hikers. We leapfrogged each other a few times, but they jumped ahead when I stopped for a break to put on sunscreen and my sunglasses for the push up over the Chin. The bright sun and clear skies were a welcome change from the rain and wind of yesterday.
For a surreal moment, I was the only person on the summit of Mansfield. Alone with my thoughts, the reasons for embarking on the final leg of this journey suddenly made sense. My doubts disappeared. It was a triumphant return to the spot where this journey began five years ago.
My solitude and reverie were short-lived as hikers suddenly seemed to appear on the summit out of nowhere and my moment of Zen was gone. People were everywhere. Had I imagined being alone? Now that would be crazy.
I lingered on the summit for a bit soaking in the moment, taking photos, and having a snack. Looking north, I tried to pick out Jay Peak and Canada in the distance. I wondered what I’d encounter on the trail between here and there. It looked like a long way to go.
Along with the many day hikers now on the summit, I ran into several thru-hikers. Most I hadn’t met before, but AKA and No Hitch arrived, and they shared a flask of bourbon for a celebratory summit swig. None of us were in a hurry to climb down the steep, precipitous ledges off the summit.
A Relentless Descent
The descent off the Chin of Mansfield was a bit dicier than I remembered it from my hike here five years ago. The route hadn’t changed, but I’m older and more cautious these days after recovering from my injuries. I turned to face the rock and had an anxious moment or two not being able to see where my feet might land after a short drop. A butt slide felt safer in another spot.
After navigating the technical section coming off the Chin, the remaining descent was easier, but relentless. It was slow going, descending over 2800′ in less than three miles. Both knees were really feeling the brunt of the constant downhill pounding. I also felt some mild discomfort where the pack’s hip belt was pressing. I’ve been using this pack for a few years and never felt that before. Weird. I made an adjustment to the buckle to move the pressure point and that seemed to help.
Seeing my full pack, many day hikers stopped to ask about my hike. They usually seemed impressed when I told them I’m headed to Journey’s End and Quebec. A time or two I thought, damn dude, that really is impressive! I’m out here doing it, despite all odds.
On to Smuggs
After a late lunch stop at Barnes Camp and a nice chat with the GMC volunteer, I set out for Sterling Pond keeping a sharp eye out for a bear that was just spotted by some day hikers who were a bit shaken by the encounter.
The bear seemed to be long gone. Too bad, I was kind of hoping to see it. It had been a fantastic day, but I was pretty beat up by the time I reached Sterling Pond and Smugglers Notch Ski Area. The constant gymnastics required to hike the Long Trail seemed to take a toll both mentally and physically.
I walked down by the pond at dusk to look for the inlet spring to fetch a little water. There was enough in my bottles to get me through dinner and breakfast, but the forecast called for rain tomorrow. It made sense to filter more now rather than in the rain in the morning. I didn’t find the pipe from the inlet spring but saw a spectacular sunset through the trees and worked my way to the shore before it faded. It would be the last time I’d see the sun for a few days.
As I crawled into my sleeping bag that evening, the pain in my abdomen returned. And now there was some pressure associated with it. That wasn’t good. What could it be? I didn’t want to overreact, but given my history on the LT, my first thought was, “Not again!” It’s one thing to end a hike voluntarily like Purple Haze did, but quite another to have the opportunity taken from you. I’m not sure I could handle being forced off the trail again.
I went through some possibilities in my mind: a bruise from rock hopping with my pack, a muscle strain, kidney stone, appendicitis, hernia? It made sense to pay close attention overnight and for the next few days watching for any signs of infection or fever. And then I ran through some options for getting off the trail if the discomfort didn’t resolve or got worse. It was a short hike out the Sterling Pond Trail to Smugglers Notch if it got worse overnight. And if it resolves I’m headed to Johnson tomorrow to resupply and stay at a B&B. Either way, I’m not too far from help if needed.
A Crazy Climb
By morning, all symptoms had disappeared – probably a false alarm. That was a relief, but something about it still concerned me. I planned to stay vigilant for any more symptoms as I headed out in the mist and rain. The sound of a distant foghorn on Lake Champlain seemed appropriate in this weather. It was over ten miles to Johnson where my resupply box was waiting for me at the hardware store. I pushed hard early to try to get to town while the store was still open. But I soon ran into mud and a few rocky climbs that slowed my progress.
Then came a steep climb of wet rock, roots and mud that I’m guessing was over 500′ straight up Whiteface Mountain. Looking up at the extreme terrain, I started laughing and thought, now that’s the true definition of insanity!
Cruising Into Johnson
Once over the top of Whiteface, the descent wasn’t as bad as expected. It took a while to get down the steep section, but once the elevation dropped to a more open, deciduous forest, the footing was good, and my pace improved. I started making better time and then came to a logging road and could really cruise. I covered the last four miles in under an hour and a half. That’s more like it! And I still felt okay after last night’s scare. I probably could have gone even faster, but my feet were a little raw where my new pair of trail runners rubbed my heels from being soaked.
When I got to the hardware store, Legacy, Blind Eye, Full Moon, Bucket, and First Gear were there. They had all passed me at some point during the day, but I didn’t fall too far behind. We were all there to resupply and headed to Nye’s Green Valley Farm B&B. After cleaning up, we were shuttled into town for food, beers, and camaraderie.
A Clear Purpose
Crazy or not, I’ve been drawn back to the Long Trail for reasons that I struggled to articulate. Alone on the trail, I had a lot of time to explore what my motivation might be. Maybe it was simply the challenge. Maybe it was the allure of completing America’s oldest long distance hiking trail. Maybe I owed it to myself to finish in recognition of how far I’ve come in my recovery, and all the work put in just to get back out here and try. All good reasons, but not quite it. For a fleeting moment on Mansfield, I felt it. But it too, proved to be elusive.
It took a few days of being back on the trail but slowly my reasons for being here started coming into focus. In many ways, it was no longer about the Long Trail. Yes, I want to finish, but I know where the trail was headed. What I didn’t know was where this journey would take me next. And I really want to find out. That doesn’t seem so crazy to me.
Long Trail Class of 22/23