The second in an eight-part series in which the author travels the length of Vermont, his home state, via various modes of locomotion.
It’s hard to say much about the Long Trail because you can never say enough. You drive up to the Canadian border on a gray, windy morning in early October with a backpack full of food and a guidebook in your pocket. You walk for three weeks through a rain of colored leaves—273 miles of root, rock, and black mud grabbing at your boots. You climb mountains, drink from springs, watch moths and stars. Weather washes over you like thoughts and your thoughts become like weather. Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes sad, sometimes bored. When you reach Massachusetts—the end of the line—it’s snowing.
What summary could ever do justice to an experience so rich and varied? The Long Trail, America’s oldest long-distance hiking trail, reminds me of Aristotle’s idea of “an animal a thousand miles long”—we can focus on little pieces of the animal at any given time, but never on the whole thing at once. And we can talk about those little pieces we’ve encountered—the summit of Mt. Mansfield, the Clarendon Gorge, a certain stone or stump—but our words won’t ever wrap around the whole vast thing.
The Long Trail is huge, powerful; it’s a beast whose back I’ve walked. I recently completed my second through-hike of the trail. Southbound. Twenty days. A week of rain, a week of sun, a week of cold. But there I go already, reducing the animal to direction, duration, and a meteorological report. It’s hard not to describe my hike this way, yet it also seems unfair.
Countless images come back to me now, sitting here at my desk, each a little anecdote linked to a precise moment in time and a point on the map. The images coat the surfaces of my thoughts like birch leaves papering over a puddle. I search for some theme or design that will turn the leaves into a coherent story, but find nothing. And so they just float there on the puddle, layered and beautiful and random.
I’ve climbed up out of the hardwoods onto a narrow ridge that climbs higher still, into the mist. This is the spruce-fir zone, all inky green and needled and boggy. My face is turned down to the trail, as it has been for hours and will be for hours more. The footwork is tricky, mesmerizing. I feel drugged with repetition: step after step, breath after breath. In my ears there’s only the beat of my walking. The world has contracted around my focus.
Whump-whump-whump-whump-whump. A ruffed grouse, still in tawny summer plumage, fires out from the drooping ferns to my right. The noise of the grouse’s beating wings—so much louder than anything else in this subdued forest—breaks through my hypnosis, stopping me in my tracks. For a second I’m terrified, like I’ve woken, disoriented, from a deep dream. I look around. The grouse is gone, but my awareness is up. Other birds are appearing through the trees: blue jays, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets. Have they been here the whole time? Was I that oblivious? One chickadee comes in close, almost landing on me, and then the shining eyes and delicate feathers dissolve back into the woods. A raven croaks somewhere out of sight. I’m growing cold, standing here, waiting and hoping for more.
A stiff wind is blowing and leaves are flying everywhere—mostly yellows and oranges and nameless shades that blend the two. I feel like an ant on some abstract expressionist’s canvas, the artist hidden up in the day’s overcast sky, flinging darts of pigment down around me. I make no effort to dodge them. Rather, I hike hard, straight into the wind, leaves catching against my body, hanging there for a moment before falling away. At times I enjoy the funny feeling that I am a tree and this shedding of leaves is proper to me, an ancient ceremony by which I prepare myself for winter. At other times I go mindless, lost in that droning meditation of the trail. Step-step. Breath-breath.
And then… shuffle-shuffle-shuffle. Beneath me the canvas has changed. I’ve stepped from a brown-gold pattern into an ankle-deep pool of magenta. The artist has laid it on particularly thick here, adding bright green moss and cream-colored mushrooms for a flourish. I’m startled, as I was by the grouse, but this time it’s more like waking into a dream. This color! Unreal! I look up into the canopy. One tree, directly above me, stands out from the rest. A leaf falls, a blotch of magenta growing and growing. It hits my smiling face, and I shed it, good tree—or ant?—that I am.
Fat Carl is grilling me a steak over the fire pit. Barry is handing me the Polish blackberry brandy. Evil Pete is adjusting the volume on some portable speakers that pipe out an incessant stream of bad classic rock. Schmitty chops more wood. The fellow in the flannel shirt is quiet as a log. And then there’s old, gray-bearded Randy, sitting snuggled up in the back of the lean-to, overseeing it all. He’s shouting jokes, dirty words, and old stories, talking with big gestures of his shaky hands.
This is Connecticut Guys’ Weekend, a twenty-year tradition, and tonight I’m joining the “boys”—mostly middle-aged engineers and businessmen—for a little backcountry fun. Hiking after dark, feeling a bit creeped out, I pictured the shelter ahead of me as an eerie, lonely place. I resolved myself to an unavoidable encounter with ghosts. Then I rounded a knob and saw the fire. Then the propane lanterns. And then I heard “Dream Weaver.” What the hell?
It would be easy to judge this sloppy scene as an unwanted intrusion—normal, noisy, technological life butting in on the sacred, quiet realm of the trail. It would be easy to say that this is a deviation from what the Long Trail really is. But that would be wrong. Here we are. Here is a kielbasa to follow up my steak, and here is pumpkin cheesecake to wash it all down. Sit back. Enjoy the company. Pray for a good song. Drift off into a full-bellied trance of laughter and creaking trees and hooting owls. Cadge another beer off Randy.
This is the fifth caterpillar of the afternoon, and it’s just like the others: fuzzy, white with black dots and black spikes of hair, incredibly small, incredibly slow. It’s working its way across the trail, through tunnels of curled leaves and along the airy edges of crisscrossed twigs. I get down on my hands and knees to better appreciate the microtopography and the effort fueling this tiny journey. Soon, through the miracle of sustained focus, my fate is tied to the caterpillar’s: No, go left. No, not over that leaf! The leaf tips under our weight, flipping us back to the ground. No worries. We right ourselves and keep going, unperturbed and, of course, incredibly slow.
Killington Peak is socked in and my sweat is cooling fast. There is no view to be had from this, the second-highest point in the state. I prepare to leave, lacing my boots tight for what will surely be a sketchy descent. And then, in the corner of my eye, like a hallucination in faint rose tones, a valley swirls out of the gray. The fabric of the sky is coming apart, a hundred miles of countryside appearing through the morphing gaps. The wind is bashing my eyes, making me cry. I blink away the tears to see more clearly, and the clouds fall back in on themselves. The view is gone. Maybe it never existed to begin with. So sweet and frustrating, this world of shifting frames.
He’s probably seventy-five years old, hiking solo. Says his name is Dean, says he spent all yesterday sitting by a mountain pond. “Too great to pass up,” he says. “I didn’t hike a mile. What’s the hurry, anyway?” He’s a slight, bony man with a towering pack. White hair. Smiles a lot. “I’m out here for the experiences,” he says. “That’s all I want.”
We part ways—he north, me south. It hits me about twenty steps down the trail that Dean is my hero. That man is Vermont’s answer to the Japanese mountain sage, the laughing hermit who feasts on dew and flower petals, who sleeps beneath a roof of sky.
Later that afternoon, when I reach the pond, I think of Dean again. The spot is indeed too great to pass up. I drop my pack and take the longest lunch of my life. Then I take a nap.
Intent on finishing the trail and hitching a ride home, I rise at dawn. It’s raining, or maybe the rain has stopped and the trees are dripping—I can’t tell. I’m looking out from the cave of my hood, down at the ground. After this many miles, my boots know what to do, as if they have minds of their own. I’m looking out, but I’m not looking at anything.
The dap-dap-dap on my hood is stead— this surely must be rain. Or is it? The sound is shifting, getting lighter, brushier. It’s an infinitesimal shift, audible only to somebody who has been out in the woods for weeks, whose listening has been tuned to smallness by a million small sounds. Whish-whish-whish. Before my eyes can register what’s happening out there beyond the protection of my raincoat, my ears make the call: This is no rain! This is snow!
Up into a white forest, up into a storm of loose, wet flakes. I hike for hours, for miles, up and up and up into the white. It’s my last day on the trail, first snow of the year.
This is the Long Trail, my personal Long Trail. It’s an unruly mess, but what else could it be? An animal 273 miles long is made of many pieces, some social, some ecological, some spiritual. What holds the pieces together is something we will never understand.
Sitting here at my desk, thinking back, I walk again the wooded spine of my home. I hike from memory to memory, camping a while at some, stopping for a short snack break at others. I dip a tin cup into one memory. I strain my ears into the song of another. At the ledge of a third I drop my pack and stare out across valleys of red barns and faded meadows. The Green Mountains are gray-purple, almost leafless, at peace beneath an empty sky. Autumn is behind me. The land is big. Canada seems so very far away.
Leath Tonino was born and raised in Vermont. In addition to working as a writer, he’s shoveled snow in Antarctica, tracked hawks in Arizona, and planted blueberries in New Jersey. This series first appeared in the Burlington, Vermont newspaper Seven Days.