July 17th – August 8th, 2000
Editor’s note: Thank you to Joe Frank, long time GMC member who has held many leadership positions with the club for sharing his daughter’s delightful end-to-end report.
“Hold your breath, I’m coming out,” my sister announced as she unzipped her sleeping bag. I rolled over and tried to savor the last few minutes of sleep. After a quick glance about, I remembered where I was, Birch Glen Shelter with 9 more days to go. I hastily stuffed my sleeping bag and Thermarest and emerged from my bunk to stare at the mist outside the shelter. After removing the food bag from its nail, I found the heavy breakfast bag. I carefully selected one Crunchy Peanut Butter and one Apricot flavored Clif Bar. As a result of sheer hunger, I managed not just to eat, but also to savor my first Clif bar, praying each heavy, mysterious, soy-protein bite would digest before I started hiking. I assessed the dampness of my hiking clothes on the clothesline. In the cloud, nothing had dried. After packing most of my pack, I removed my warm long underwear, pulled on my damp hiking pants and carefully put on one wet layer of sock after another. Water seeped from my boot as I laced it around my damp socks. At 7:03am, we left the dry shelter and headed up the misty mountain.
Waking up early became a habit very early in our 23-day trek. We had the fortune, or misfortune of beginning our hike on the southern part of the Long Trail where it overlaps the Appalachian Trail for nearly 100 miles. On our first morning on the trail, we were the last campers to leave Congdon Shelter, left in the dust by the 8 other hikers, most of whom had already been hiking for 1000 miles and were experts with their tents and stoves and packs. As we hobbled out of camp at 8:30 am, we vowed to improve our speed. Once we began sleeping in shelters, we realized it was impossible to sleep past 6am when all the thru-hikers began unzipping, rustling, stuffing, stomping and cooking.
Mosquitoes, Mice and Other Joys of Shelter Life
On those first days, it was all we could do to change, filter water, cook dinner and brush our teeth before collapsing into our sleeping bags. We didn’t sleep well, or much, as we weren’t used to falling asleep at 8pm and there was no way to sleep through the thru-hiker wake-up at daybreak. We lay tossing in our sleeping bags, rotating like rotisserie chickens in the night. We were initiated into the joys of shelter life, one joy at a time.
Every shelter comes equipped with a snorer. Whether its name is Copperhead, Woodcutter (aptly) or mom, there is someone guaranteed to breathe heavily in your weakest moment of sleep. When we arrived at Goddard Shelter on our second night, there were 2 AT thru-hikers already settled in. A hiker named Gull and another named Copperhead were nestled oddly at extreme opposite ends of the shelter. It would not have seemed odd to me if I had spent more time in shelters, but I didn’t understand the reason until shortly after I climbed into my bag and heard loud, wheezy snores emerging from the opening in Copperhead’s bivysac. As with other legendary snorers, Copperhead’s reputation preceded him on the trail.
The crinkle of a sleeping bag in a quiet shelter is like a candy wrapper at the symphony. There is no way to move quietly or unzip without announcing your movement to the world. A fidgety sleeper is almost as bad as a snorer. Worse yet is no sleeping bag at all. At Story Spring we awoke to a young thru-hiker, thrashing about in the chilly air, sticking his feet in his backpack and adjusting his raincoat over his head. Lying still in the mosquito swarms of a humid night requires extraordinary fatigue. Five days of grime and sweat bind your legs at the bottom of your mummy bag, and it takes much shifting to find a position in which sore hips, fragile knees, stiff back and sweaty legs can relax. If you do find a comfortable position, you will shortly realize that you need to pee. To pee, you have to find sandals, clothes, a headlamp, make the unzip announcement to the world, wake up the people on the lower bunks with your footsteps and open the latch on the porcupine fencing to achieve relief. Talk about a disincentive.
Lastly, there are the critters. Shelters house a variety of critters, waiting to feast on your food, your blood and your waste. It was cold those first few days, and I didn’t fully appreciate the chill that kept the mosquitoes and other blood-sucking buzzers away. When the weather began to act summery at Taylor, I tried to sleep in the 85-degree night next to the beaver swamp. When I went to bed I thought Taylor was a cute, historic lodge and when I awoke I declared it a bug-infested hellhole and vowed never to return. At Killington, it was black flies, at Taylor mosquitoes; and in the northern part of the state, the deer flies swarmed our sweaty bodies.
There are all kinds of critters in shelters. Several shelters had porcupine fencing to ward off persistent porcupines. We, fortunately, saw none. As I went to sleep in our tent by Cooper Lodge, I watched through the window as a field mouse explored my backpack, sniffing for any stray bits of food. At Birch Glen, I forgot to put one bag of dried apples in the neatly hung food bag, and the mice found it. At Montclair Glen, our fearless caretaker set mousetraps and killed a mouse just as we were going to bed.
Despite all the joys of shelter life, they were a delightful haven on the trail. We spent many nights listening to the rain on the rooftop, praising the structure for its dryness. At Battell Shelter on Mt. Abraham, we stirred Jello No-Bake cheesecake in our bowls in a torrential downpour as we watched the lightning strike trees on the mountain. All of the tenters and the caretaker gathered inside as we watched the water pour from the roof and puddle on the normally well-drained campsite.
The shelters also provided a social outlet for our otherwise solitary hike. In the shelters we met the interesting, strange and fabulous people who made our hike wonderful. They cheered us in the clouds of rainstorms, encouraged us after exhausting days, and exposed us to lives and ideas that we would never have seen. In the surreal life on the trail, people entered and exited our lives daily, each becoming more dear to us than any contact in the outside world. For time on the trail is certainly marked by the company you keep.
The Company You Keep
“I am Mountain Slayer” a middle-aged redhead announced to us as he arrived at Big Branch Shelter. Hiking trails and Dungeons and Dragons games may be the only suitable locales for this moniker. Sore knees had thwarted his mountain slaying, and he had stopped at the Williamstown emergency room for treatment. The orthopedic surgeon who treated him, “White Rabbit”, left a few days later to hike the Long Trail, and also stayed at Big Branch shelter with us that night. At the shelter that night rested Stubble, Mountain Slayer, White Rabbit, the Red Barons and two teenage boys.
We discussed gear, knee injuries, thru hiking, the game show “Survivor”, the Eco-Challenge and the rain. We observed the variety of cookware, eating habits and camp meals. We were nearly asphyxiated by Stubble’s running shoes and learned about his life as an accountant in Grand Rapids. Mountain Slayer and I soaked our injured knees in the soothing waters of Big Branch. I watched the two teenage boys steam powdered milk to pour on their enormous bowls of oatmeal. It was a rare night, being the only females in the shelter. While I understand that to be common on the AT, we encountered many women and had several all-female nights in shelters.
David Logan looked worn-down when we arrived, covered in porcupine fencing, strewn with glass on the trail and littered with trash out back. However, once the Red Barons settled in with Sassafras, Boyceterous and Woodsy, we could not have imagined a nicer home. It seemed like an all-girl party on this section of the trail. Sassafras and Boyceterous graduated from Mt. Mansfield Union High School in 1992, the same year I graduated from South Burlington. Amy Boyce teaches 2nd grade in Williston and Stacey “Sassafras” begins graduate work at Tufts this fall. Lisa Woods, “Woodsy”, took a month off from managing an office in Tampa to hike the trail. Amy and her alien blisters kept us in hysterics while Sassafras worried about the Hantavirus. On our first encounter at Minerva Hinchey Shelter, we spent an hour laughing about the absurd and heavy items we unnecessarily hauled in our backpacks. Woodsy had “town clothes” and Sassafras and Boyceterous carried family radios. We discussed the art of being dirty and the merits of feminine wipes.
We encountered Mad Tom slightly before Mad Tom Notch. After strong rains thwarted our plans of tenting at the Bromley Tenting area, we trekked an additional two miles up the steep rocks of Bromley to stay in the Bromley ski patrol hut. We were greeted by a dirty barking dog and a young woman tending her blistered feet. In the corner, a half-naked man, covered in hair, lay sleeping on two sleeping pads with two sleeping bags. The young woman, an AT section hiker, appeared relieved to have company with this odd man who signed the register calendar as “H&L” (in such letters reminiscent of the word “hell”) and had his food neatly stacked in piles on the counter. “H” was an odd older man, relaxing with his dog “Leni”. He had started the AT further south, hitchhiked up to Vermont and spent the last week and a half in the Bromley ski patrol hut waiting for his friends to catch up. I mused that all of his duplicate gear resulted from a lost hiker, but he explained that he had just received a mail drop in Manchester. I went to sleep with my mace that night, to the soft sound of the thunderstorms, protected by the well insulated walls. Leni slept inside the man’s sleeping bag. Early on he made odd oral noises as if removing dentures and left early to walk his dog. I felt much relieved to leave the odd company of such a warm haven.
I can safely say that Mad Tom was the scariest person I encountered, which demonstrates the warmth of almost everyone we met. As we skipped out of the hut that morning, a young, female thru-hiker named “Roots” jumped out of her tent and ran to catch up with us. “It is so nice to hike with girls!” she exclaimed. We spent many days with her and her boyfriend “Rocks” and they became fun companions. Our friends on the trail had names like Gingerroot, Flaxie, Boom-Boom, Granny, Pappy, Em and Han Solo. They were a sweet bunch and we loved talking with them over hot drinks and camp meals. Boom-Boom and I discussed adventure books at Bear Hollow. At Corliss Camp he recited “Casey at the Bat” while cooking a dehydrated meal. Gingerroot expressed awe at the 15.7 miles my 57-year old mother hiked into Corliss and lifted her dampened spirits.
There were odd people, like the man at Battell Shelter who, on day 13 of our hike, warned people not to hike to the top of the mountain because it “felt like death”. There were saints, like the “Hiking Gnome”, who left a stream full of cold sodas near Killington to benefit the thirsty thru-hikers. There were the GMC caretakers who were always friendly, fun and knowledgeable: Kate, Hugh, Jean, Todd, Tammy, Lindsay, Tom, Max, Tim, Neil, and Zach. Kate told us about the ski patrol hut at Bromley. Hugh and Jean pointed out a sun prism atop Stratton. Todd told us stories of his “thru-camping” on the AT for 385 days. We would have liked to have heard Tom’s guitar and we thank Tim for killing mice and Zach for singing like us.
I kept closest company with my fellow red barons, my mother and sister. Becky carried everything. As I limped down mountains on my ailing knees, my sister stopped me, removing common gear from my pack so that I could keep walking. There seemed to be no limit to the amount she could carry, and her body didn’t seem to complain. At times I thought I could just strap myself, pack and all, to her back and she’d just keep on running down the mountains. After 23 days of very close quarters with my sister, I think the meanest name I called her was “sneezy poopyhead” when she kept me awake all night in the tent at Killington. We called mom “the free-loafer” because she carried no common gear and collapsed every night in camp. It became a fun game to treat her like a queen, serving hot tea in the tent and washing her dinner dishes. At age 57, she kept up with us on her fourteen days on the trail and functioned as an important part of our support crew for the remaining nine. She doubted us only once, when we had to take the stove apart to clean the fuel line. As we worked, covered in stove soot, she spoon-fed us pickled green beans she brought from her garden. We didn’t intend to wear matching outfits, but our three red shirts sparked the same joke in camp every night: “What are you? The red barons?” and our trail name was born.
Being dirty with your family requires patience and humor. Everyday I told my sister that she smelled like a flower. As I hiked behind her in the morning and her stench drifted towards me I told her that she smelled like roses, and daisies, and lily of the valley. We gave advance warning upon opening our stinky sleeping bags. For the most part we didn’t wash and claimed to accept our stench. Deodorant was one of the first things we sent home from the trail. It was useless to try to smell better; after a while, you didn’t really smell yourself. But I could smell Becky and I could smell every day hiker who passed me. Thoughts drifted in my head like “I think I have that perfume” or “I know that type of shampoo”. We showered twice in 23 days. On Mt. Mansfield, we rewrote song lyrics as we anticipated our shower in Stowe:
They’re cleaning up our Tinky, sterilizing her too,
She will be the cleanest that you’ve ever seen
You can put your arms around her, even kiss her too
They’re changing stinky Tinky from dirty brown to blue…
To really appreciate a shower, one must be very, very dirty. I have never appreciated a shower like those I took at Rte 4 and Stowe. However, the satisfaction of being clean lasted for only a short time. The next mornings we were back on the trail and by 3pm smelled just as bad as before. At some point around four days out, we reached dirt saturation and didn’t feel much dirtier. Being dirty is a mindset, not a state of being.
There are no current events to discuss on the trail, so after three days of absence from the civilized world, conversation reverts to the basics of life: eating, sleeping, relieving yourself, and any variation on those themes. For instance, if the trail was nice, we’d compliment our leader by awarding her brownie points. If the trail was lousy we’d exclaim “No cheesecake for you!” If the leader mused aloud “I think we are at the top”, she would immediately lose dessert privileges unless there was physical evidence of the summit. Normally, if you think you are at the top, you are really at least a mile away and the summit is just hiding in the clouds. The emotional letdown of not being at the top is terrible, so we forbade each other to discuss the T-O-P unless there was a S-I-G-N. Physical evidence of a summit was often hard to find, so we summited many mountains, thinking internally ‘this must be Tillotson’ or ‘this must be that unnamed peak of the North Jay massif’. Progress is hard to measure when there aren’t any signs.
It is even harder to measure progress when there is nothing to sign because the summit is “unnamed”. We traveled over many unnamed summits, feeling dejected because no one had bothered to name the steep mountain over which we had just hauled our 40-pound load. We took matters into our own hands on those days, assigning names to the unnamed peaks. In the small Vermont presidential range, in between Mt. Roosevelt and Mt. Cleveland, lies a 3348 ft peak respectfully named Mt. Parker after my college roommate who hiked that section with us. North of Rte 9, in the southern part of the state, there is a 2815ft peak and a 3331ft peak named after my father, Little Joe Frank and Big Joe Frank respectively. You get the idea.
We measured progress by signs, time, and gorp breaks. Some days, the peaks came one after another on a lovely ridge and we felt successful. Other times, we hiked in the rain, scrambling over rocks, sliding in mud, and performing rare feats of acrobatics with a 40-pound load to find that we were hardly making guidebook time and had a long way yet to go. On the nadir of our trip, we spent an entire day in the drip and rain of clouds, scrambling up what seemed like a low-level rock climbing trail, to reach the elusive summit of Burnt Rock Mountain. The guidebook had simply stated that in this section, “the Long Trail becomes increasingly rugged and more interesting.” “More Interesting?!” After nearly wearing through my hiking pants butt-sliding down the cliffs of Burnt Rock mountain, I hiked the longest 1.5 miles of my life to reach the unsigned summit of Ira Allen mountain (which I think we reached 25 times).
Sometimes in the light rain the drops would glisten on the ferns and clover in the faint sun, making the mountainside a misty wonderland. That is the only good thing I can say about rain. Southern Vermont flooded in the summer of 2000. Flash flood warnings and thunderstorm warnings occurred daily. The guidebook says “If the trail is so muddy that you need to walk on the vegetation beside it, turn back and seek another area to hike.” That condition describes a least a third of the 270 miles we traversed, but there was no alternate route to the shelter so we pushed forward anyway. We became fabulously muddy. Rugby players would have delighted in the knee-deep mud puddles we charged through. Descending Camel’s Hump in the rain, beyond saturation, my sister warned my mother “that rock is really slippery, but that mud is not as deep as it looks…” We laughed for days at the plunge that resulted.
We witnessed other seasonal and weather phenomenon. Atop Belvidere, we traversed an eerie ridge where the trees had all blown down, apparently the result of Hurricane Floyd. The trail looked entirely reconstructed. In many other areas, we pretended we were explorers in Africa, cutting through the brush and high brambles to find the trail. “Beck, did you see that hippopotamus?” We learned later that the loss of much upper canopy in the ice storm had provided ample light for the undergrowth to expand dramatically. If we had arrived 2 weeks later we would have received a delicious blackberry meal along with the lashes and cuts on our arms.
In addition to being challenging, and humorous, our twenty-three days in the woods provided extraordinary experiences of nature and beauty. In the evenings, I would perch outside in the stillness of the night and write in my journal. I loved listening to the wind rush in the trees and the stream trickle down its rock bed. At dusk the birds began chirping their varied songs. I could only recognize the six-note call of the white-throated swallow that transmitted clearly at all times of the day.
In the evenings after thunderstorms or cloudy weather, the re-emergence of the sun appeared majestic on the horizon. I lay out on the rocks in the Big Branch River with my journal as the sun set over me and the river and the mountains. At Sucker Brook the sky turned pink and the patches of blue sky created sun-glinted clouds in the west. At Killington, I climbed the spur trail to the top at sunset and stood atop the world, gazing in all directions, picking out the mountains I had traveled and the ones I had yet to climb. The sky turned orange over all Vermont and I knew there was no other way to be at the top of that long climb for sunset if I wasn’t thru-hiking and staying two-tenths of a mile below.
Hiking the Long Trail showed me parts of Vermont I had never seen. In the southern part of the state we marveled at the views from Stratton, Killington and Prospect Rock. I don’t recall having ever climbed a fire tower in Vermont and I loved climbing those extra wobbly steps over the world and wondering at the distance of the mountains. Studying the guidebook and crossing several East-West roads I finally connected the geography of Vermont and figured out why my sense of distance had been so skewed by the interstate and the back roads.
At the end of twenty three days, my father and two dogs met us at the Canadian Border with a bottle of champagne. He said: “Hurry up, you are 30 seconds late!” After 270 miles, we didn’t think 30 seconds was all that bad. We covered the 75 miles home in 2 hours – definitely a speed record for the 23 days. On the first night back I was fully incapable of even helping with the dishes. For a day I did nothing but read. A week and a half later my feet don’t throb in the morning when I step out of bed. The same cannot be said for my knees.
As I look back from the shores of Lake Champlain at the ridge of mountains at which I have stared all of my life, I feel a new sense of ownership. Again and again, I identify each mountain and follow the ridgeline with the names and experiences branded in my memory. Now that I am done, the task seems much less daunting than I once believed. Hiking the Long Trail was something that I always knew I had inside of me, but my completion is definitely not an individual accomplishment. I could not have done it without the extensive support of my father, mother and sister. And as soon as they finish installing the escalators I’ll be ready to do it again.