An Appalachian Trail Series – Vermont

“Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever remains to them.”

-Rose Kennedy

149.8 miles

12 days (08.21-09.02)

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When people ask me “What is your favorite section of the Appalachian Trail?” it’s tough to form a response. Is this question in reference to the scenery and beauty? Is this an inquiry into the amazing people I was surrounded with? Or, perhaps a particular moment or timeframe in which I felt the most enlightened?

This is tough because amazing moments could be found in many parts of the trail.

The majestic Smoky Mountains…

The unforgettable party crawl and insightful conversations through Pennsylvania and New Jersey…

The benevolence of trail angels in the South…

It’s multi-dimensional and multi-faceted. However, when I consider the region that provided the greatest concentration of views, people, and personal growth, I would have to give the award to our last three states. So, while I won’t narrow this question down to a singular point in time, I will narrow it down to the northern region of the Appalachian Trail.

And thus, Vermont begins…

I was bewitched.

Bewitched by my surroundings.

Bewitched by the people.

Bewitched by my accomplishment.

Bewitched with Vermont.

I had it in my mind from the get-go that once I made it to Vermont, I was really, really doing this thing. Silly, I know, but somehow Vermont became a symbol for being a “serious” thru-hiker. It didn’t matter that I had walked 1600 miles to get here (in itself an amazing accomplishment). It didn’t matter that some of the toughest terrain still lay ahead. It didn’t matter the weight I carried, the blisters I endured, the blood, sweat, and tears I experienced along the way. Vermont was my white flag and I had reached it (the NASCAR reference, not the “I surrender” reference).

Yikes. I can’t believe I just referenced NASCAR in my writing…

And we were welcomed with gunshots.

Not literally on entrance but during our very first night’s sleep in the Green Mountain State. After an enjoyable day hiking and celebrating our entrance to the third to last state, we set-up camp a bit down trail from a full shelter. At this stage of the hike, we didn’t have a hard time crashing once our heads hit the clothes pillow (yes, our pillows were our extra clothes in a stuff sack). At about midnight, however, we bolted awake seemingly at the same time.

We heard gunshots. Gunshots that were close enough to wake us up from a dead sleep.

It’s not completely strange to hear gunshots along the trail. We’ve heard them while hiking as the trail can butt right up to someone’s property. But, it was odd to hear them this close and in middle of the night. In an act of paranoia, or as I prefer to call it, preparedness, we ended up throwing our shoes on, grabbed our dull pocket knives that probably wouldn’t even pierce skin, and anxiously awaited the impending attack. We even whispered our exit strategy and plotted the direction we’d go in case we needed to outrun a 1,700 mph bullet.

Fortunately for us, the attack never came and Rob consoled us back to sleep.

I did keep my shoes on, though.

Sleeping in the woods really enhances your paranoia preparation.

We decided to take a short break in Bennington, VT to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. Bennington is approximately 5 miles west of the A.T. and offers every major service a hiker could need. Getting there is fairly easy as you can either request the local bus to pick you up right at the trailhead or throw your thumb in the air and wait for the first kind townsfolk to pick you up.  Once you make it into town, you’ll appreciate the downtown area’s designated Vermont Main Street offering many shops and restaurants amongst a historic setting. A Price Chopper and Walmart are available for resupply along with some big chain hotels/motels to rest those weary feet.  And rest we did.

An interesting fact: Bennington is home to Robert Frost and two, you read it, TWO murderesses; quite the odd juxtaposition.

The A.T. coincides with the Long Trail for 100 miles in Southern Vermont. The oldest long-distance hiking trail constructed in the U.S., the Long Trail follows the Green Mountains for 272 miles from the Vermont-Massachusetts border to the Vermont-Canadian border. While I can’t speak for the 170 miles of the Long Trail I didn’t hike, the 100 I did were incredible. The mountains were getting bigger, the biggest we’d seen in awhile, and the densely-forested land helps coin Vermont the “Green Mountain State”. Vermont fulfilled every imagination I had of the state and more.

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Including cows. Happy cows.

Those mountains start prepping you again for the increasingly tough terrain ahead with plenty of ups-and-downs. Well-maintained shelters provide respite to help increase stamina for the ongoing endurance test to cross the finish line. Besides landmarks and popular vistas, shelters are the primary location for hikers to congregate and socialize. Because of this, shelters are key in trail culture and meeting those people that make your thru-hike so memorable. For example, we stopped at a Vermont shelter to eat a quick lunch and air out our feet (somewhat a highlight of our day!). We introduced ourselves to the three other people there and were soon engaged in fascinating conversation. Our group included a geochemist, a surf/ski bum, a religious social worker, and us, two fill-in-the-blank not-so newlyweds from Michigan. How else could such an eclectic mix of people converse in the middle of nowhere? I’ll likely never see these people again. Hell, I don’t even remember their names or what they look like. It was simply this realization that different people with different backgrounds and viewpoints could randomly come together and interact with no judgments, no real goal in mind; just to genuinely enjoy one another’s company before heading on our separate ways.

How such a simple thing remains engrained in your memory is beyond me. But, this… THIS is the A.T.

Following those ups-and-downs brings you to a key mountain not only in the Greens but in long-distance hiking history as well. While on Stratton Mountain, James P. Taylor conceptualized the idea of the Long Trail. During its later construction, Benton MacKaye was perched atop the same mountain and thought “Hm, this is great and all but how can I top this? Oh yes! How about a trail spanning the entire Appalachians! That will get even more recognition! Beat that, James!”

Okay, okay… clearly I wasn’t there. I don’t know why but MacKaye somehow wound up as a real one-upper in my imagination.

Our talented friends, the Civilian Conservation Corps, charmed us again with their construction of a fire tower on the summit back in 1934; one of the last remaining towers in Vermont. A small caretaker’s cabin is also found on the summit whose inhabitants were welcoming us to the summit as we approached. They were kind and informative; understandably so as they had been managing the area since the mid-1970’s. They discussed the history of Stratton Mountain and gave us advice on the trail to come. And, if that wasn’t enough, they shared some extra food they had from their picnic with friends. After enjoying great conversation and expressing our gratitude, we climbed to the top of the fire tower on the summit and enjoyed outstanding views.

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At this point, you will have entered porcupine country. I would not have believed it myself had we not been greeted by this lovely guy:

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We were really excited to see him. Him not so much as he was terrified and climbed to the top of the tree. I had no idea they were so nimble:

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Take precaution. Not only to avoid ending up like Chance in Homeward Bound but also to prevent your shoes, socks, and gear from getting gnawed on like a dog with a bone. Porcupines love salt so any sweat covered gear, which will be just about everything a thru-hiker owns, is a potential target. Hanging gear or keeping them inside your tent will prevent your socks from looking like you bought them at a moth-infested Goodwill.

Being that we had just spent some time in Bennington, we had no need to run into Manchester Center to resupply. Many do, however, and you would find food resupply options, two gear stores (EMS and The Mountain Goat), and the Green Mountain House Hostel.

Instead, we ran across the road, walked all of 10 steps and hiked smack dab into a Miss Janet hiker feed (reference the awesomeness that is Miss Janet here). She was cooking pancakes, eggs and sausage and thus had a gaggle of hikers around her (it would be strange if she didn’t). It was incredible! She was entertaining us with her joyful presence, filling our bellies, and replenishing our souls all at the same time. It gave us that extra boost to make those climbs throughout the day.

One such climb was up Bromley Mountain which surprised us in its existence as a ski resort. I suppose those strange treeless corridors we hiked to the top of the mountain should have been an indicator. While that wasn’t clear to us, the chair lift on the summit certainly was. Even though it wasn’t operating, we discussed how much easier it would be to make it to the summit if we could just ride one of those each time. The indoor ski patrol lodge was open, yet unoccupied, so we spent some time inside to get out of the wind.

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Even though it rained off and on for the next couple of days, we still enjoyed some beautiful country.

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Here is a journal snapshot from one of those memorable days:

08.29.2012 – Day 167 (Candice)

In the morning, we stopped for breakfast at a place ½ mile off the trail called “Whistle Stop Restaurant”. They were really kind and had an amazing breakfast and lunch (yeah, we got some items off both menus). I especially enjoyed “The Gobbler” which was a turkey sandwich with stuffing and cranberry sauce. I’ve really been feeling the hunger lately so it was nice to load up on some calories.

Like always, we had a big climb from the road but our small food bags lightened our load and made the climb more bearable. We came up to a section of the trail that was re-routed due to the destruction from Hurricane Irene. After weighing our odds and reading some notes from SoBo’s saying that it was okay, we decided to continue on the old AT rather than doing the long road walk around. Rob got the song “breaking the law, breaking the law” in my head during this section.

The trail was passable. Other hikers ended up paving new paths in the spots where the trail was wiped out. The destruction was incredible. When you picture a tropical storm, I guarantee that Vermont is not the first image in your mind. In a 24 hour period, it rained 8 ½ inches and the rivers crested 15-18 feet! The water caused many landslides, carved new streams, and took out many trees. We saw a lot of debris and a whole bridge wiped away. We tried to find gold or precious commodities in the shallow parts of the river but had no luck. We did see some people panning for gold later in the day. I wonder how they fared.

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of when Irene hit the area. It’s frightening to think that if we did the trail one year ago, we would be smack dab in middle of it all. 2011 hikers are just that much more badass than everyone else, I guess.

To finish out our day, we climbed Mt. Killington. After setting up camp at Cooper Lodge Shelter, we scrambled 0.2 miles to the peak. We witnessed perhaps the most amazing sunset to date. I know I say this every time but they just keeping topping each other. The colors were brilliant as the sun set behind Vermont’s mountains. They expressed themselves in vibrant oranges, reds, pinks, and yellows. Opposite the sunset, a nearly full moon was perched high above the eastern horizon. Below our feet, we read through carvings on the rocks that dated back to the 1870’s. It was hard enough of a climb for us on a well-groomed trail, I wonder how challenging it would have been for them to bushwack the whole way to the top.

This is the most frigid night we have had in awhile (I would say that it is on the same level as No Named Gap way back in North Carolina). Our sleeping bags and sleeping bag liners are keeping us decently toasty at least.

For now…

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We finally warmed up… right after we started hiking the next morning, that is. Any movement that created even the smallest of openings gave you instant goosebumps. The cold did give us a little pep in our step to make it to Killington where we planned to resupply.

Plans.

Change.

We walked into the “Inn at Long Trail” because it was on the way and, well, they pour shamrocks into your Guinness foam. Let’s be honest, that was the primary reason for the stop… that turned into a stay.

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Our rationalization was that it provided an easy place to store our backpacks while we resupplied, a shower was (always) needed, and it was an institution. The “Inn at Long Trail” had been the mandatory LT/AT hiker stop for ages. We didn’t regret it. The pub had excellent food, the room was cozy, and the complimentary breakfast was phenomenal. The decor didn’t hurt either.

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Yep, the dining room is constructed around a giant boulder

You have the option to resupply in Rutland or in Killington at this juncture, however, Rutland has many more options. We had heard about the local bus, called “The Bus”, whose route ran between Rutland and Killington. Conveniently, we were in between the two. Being that the fare was uber cheap at $2/ride, we opted to catch the bus to save us from the hassle of catching a hitch.

If you hadn’t guessed already, our first order of business required food and we thus stopped at the first place that caught our eye, Gill’s Delicatessen. It was delicious, as it always is after getting off trail, and fueled us for the rest of our walk around town. We stopped at Walmart to resupply and the EMS store in the Diamond Run Mall to get my trekking pole tips fixed. While talking with the clerks in the store, they described just how bad Rutland was hit from Tropical Storm Irene. Creek levels shattered previous records rising from 4 feet to more than 17 feet, bridges were wiped away, people were stranded in town while others in surrounding communities had to be airlifted in if they needed medical attention. Nobody fathomed that destruction at this level could be possible and why should they? “Tropical Storm” and “Vermont” are two phrases that don’t go together.

A place that warrants mentioning in Rutland is the Yellow Deli. While it is a deli, it is most commonly referred to in A.T.-land for its popular hiker hostel.

Ran by a cult.

The Twelve Tribes Cult.

Yep, a cult.

While we did not stay (being that we had amazing non-cult, beer-providing accommodations at the “Inn at Long Trail”), we did hear that the people are incredibly kind. They often provide (non-laced) free meals, have reasonably comfortable lodging for pay or work-for-stay and have worship services where attendance by hikers is permitted if desired. I heard something about how they provide women with more conservative clothing if none is had. All things that will surely provide a memorable experience.

Our last full day in Vermont was a good one. The trail brought us to a place called “The Lookout”, someone’s privately-owned cabin who allows hikers to climb onto the platform lookout they built on the roof. The only way up is on a rickety-old ladder but it is worth risking your life over.

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Also worth risking your life over is one of these pies found at “On The Edge Farmstand”:

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While not typically life-threatening, they could potentially become so after consumption of a whole pie to yourself. Fortunately for us, we were in prime thru-hiking shape so our bellies were extra pliable.

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Our campsite that night was particularly memorable. It wasn’t just the meal that was phenomenal after adding in goodies bought at “On The Edge”. It wasn’t just conquering the grueling 600 feet climb over a mere 0.4 miles. And, it wasn’t just the incredible campsite we set-up at the top of this grueling climb with unobstructed views.

It was all of this, combined.

With my husband.

In the middle of this amazing state on the tail end of an unforgettable journey.

When you come to the realization that you are nearing the finish line, you start savoring all of these moments that are becoming more and more limited. It’s easy to forget how unique this experience is as you are walking miles-upon-miles, day-after-day, on repeat.

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Vermont is special. I fear making blanket statements but I believe that one is indisputable. Knowing we saw only a small fragment of its beauty, Vermont is reminiscent to me of harmonious living. Sustainable farms, land that isn’t used beyond what’s needed, heavenly pies, joyful people. It doesn’t get much more blissful than this.

Or does it?

Perhaps the Twelve Tribes did get to me…

Up Next: NEW HAMPSHIRE

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