In the Summer of 2015, Tim Patterson, the Director of Admission here at Sterling College, set off to thru-hike the Long Trail with his fiance, Emily Kniffin, and her 9-year-old daughter, Avela. Here are some lessons he learned along the trail:
Trail Magic is Real, and Really Wonderful
Trail Magic is the phenomenon of receiving unexpected and serendipitous kindness while hiking. Often, but not always, it takes the form of food and drink.
My favorite example of Trail Magic occurred on Day 5 of our thru-hike while skinny-dipping at Stratton Pond. As I emerged from the water, naked, a man walked out of the woods and gave me a turkey sandwich. I devoured the sandwich, dressed, and lay down to rest in the sun.
In a few moments, another hiker came along and proceeded to grind coffee beans, boil water, assemble a French Press and serve me a delicious cup of hot black coffee. Trail Magic is awesome.
Hiking with Kids > Hiking With Dogs
Avela joined us for every other week of our journey, and hiking with her was absolutely joyful. We built fairy houses out of bark and stone, told countless stories, and created super cozy nests in our tent. Avela was a great hiker, helpful and attentive, and able to persevere whenever the going got rough. Towards the end of our journey she had become so good at setting up the tent that she would make camp by herself in the evenings while Emily and I filtered water and attended to other chores.
Sparky, our dog, was an enthusiastic but terrible camping companion.
His barking kept us up at night, and since Long Trail campsites and shelters are almost always shared with others, Sparky made us personae non grata among our fellow hikers. Through no fault of his own, he also cramped our style when it was time to take a day in town, because he wasn’t allowed in restaurants or stores, or on public transportation.
The Ski Warming Hut at the Top of Mad River Glen is the Taj Mahal of Long Trail Shelters
Oh my goodness. If I could write a Trip Advisor review of Stark’s Nest, the warming hut at the top of the Mad River single chairlift, I would need way more than five stars. Thank you, thank you, thank you to the Mad River Glen Cooperative for letting hikers stay in your lovely hut. The roof! The walls! The windows! The reading material!
However, word to the wise: don’t believe the flyer on the wall of the hut that says General Stark’s Pub is located a “short walk down the mountain.” It’s located a LONG walk down the mountain, and it’s an even longer walk back up to the summit after you realize that the pub is closed on Tuesdays in the summertime.
Beyond Mountains, There Are Mountains
One evening, a young hiker from Virginia joined Emily and I on the exposed summit of Baker Peak, where we were blissfully consuming a dinner of tuna fish, crackers, and miso soup. Most of the Long Trail is in the woods, and the trail can feel like a green tunnel at times, but the view from Baker Peak is wide open and majestic. To the west, mountains roll out in waves beyond the Valley of Vermont and the marble quarries of Danby.
The young hiker from Virginia caught his breath and whistled, sweat dripping from his brow as he gazed west into the haze of the setting sun. “Damn,” he finally said. “I never realized there were so many mountains in Vermont.”
It’s true. There are SO many mountains in Vermont.
Hike Your Own Hike
A few months before our hike, Emily and I attended a thru-hiker panel at the Green Mountain Club in Waterbury, Vermont. One thru-hiker on the panel gave us a piece of advice that resonated: “Hike your own hike,” she said. “Don’t try to measure your experience against that of other hikers. Go at your own pace, and enjoy your own unique experience.”
I remembered this advice on Day 22, when Emily and I met a thru-hiker named Sprout at Cowle’s Cove Shelter in Camel’s Hump State Forest. We had limped through a few miles of trail that day, and were collapsed on our sleeping mats by the fire ring when Sprout arrived.
Sprout, who had “only” hiked 16 miles that day, was on Day 10 of his thru-hike. Good for him.
The Green Mountain Club is a Vermont Treasure
The aforementioned Green Mountain Club is responsible for the stewardship of the Long Trail. Keeping up the trail involves a huge amount of work. It was humbling to think that for every footstep we took on each one of the 273 miles of trail, members of the Green Mountain Club had spent hours securing land rights, doing trail maintenance, updating maps, and generally doing everything possible to connect Vermonters with the mountains.
The Green Mountain Club runs on the generosity of its members. Everyone who hikes on the Long Trail should sign on as a member of the Green Mountain Club, and even if you don’t hike, know that it’s an organization worthy of your support.
Shelters Are Awesome, But Pack a Tent
There are shelters conveniently located at regular intervals along the Long Trail, each with its own trail journal and particular sort of rustic charm. These shelters can be wonderful places to sleep, but sometimes they are full of other hikers.
We came to appreciate the privacy of camping in a tent, although we almost always set up our tent close to a shelter in order to socialize with other hikers and to follow the principles of Leave No Trace by using established tent sites where we wouldn’t leave an impact on the land.
Any long distance hiker will tell you that the weight of your pack can make all the difference between a happy hike and a miserable slog. Although Emily and I didn’t count every ounce in our packs, we did take care to minimize weight by carrying only the things we truly needed. I only brought one shirt on the trail, for example – my super stylish Craftsbury General Store T-shirt.
We also were careful to distribute weight properly within our packs, and divide up heavy items like our tent, water bladder, and the food bag. Avela carried her own clothes, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, along with snacks and a book.
The Yellow Deli is a (Super Nice) Vortex
We almost skipped staying with the Twelve Tribes, but are so glad we did — their humble generosity was heartfelt and inspiring. There is no charge to stay at the hiker hostel, though everyone is encouraged to help out with cleaning and other chores. Most hikers stay just one night, long enough for a shower, laundry, and resupply, but some hikers get sucked into the “vortex” of the Deli and stay for days on end. Each year, a few even join up with the Twelve Tribes.
Although Emily and I weren’t seriously tempted to join the community, we were genuinely touched by the hospitality of our hosts at the Yellow Deli. Also, the reuben sandwich that I demolished when we first arrived at the Deli was the closest thing to a religious experience I encountered on the trail.
Squeeze, Don’t Pump
Prior to hiking the Long Tail, most of my backpacking experience was in the mountains of Hokkaido, Japan, in the early 2000s. (You can read stories about hiking in Hokkaido on the blog I kept at the time, Sleeping in the Mountains.) In those days, I used a pump to filter water, and so I bought a pump for the Long Trail. This was a mistake.
Halfway through the trip, we invested in the water filtration system that almost all other thru-hikers use: a Sawyer Squeeze. Using the squeeze got us clean drinking water much more quickly, and with less effort, than the pump.
On a practice hike we also tried treating our water chemically with Aquamira, but we didn’t like the taste or the way it made us feel. The chemicals that you add to water to make it drinkable will also kill beneficial microfauna in your gut, and after just a couple of days we found ourselves feeling weirdly ravenous and craving yogurt, kim chi, and other fermented foods that would replenish our intestinal community.
Home is a Really Nice Shelter
Before Emily and I went on our hike, we had experienced a lot of angst about where we would live after getting married. We both own houses, one in Craftsbury and one in Jericho, but neither seemed quite right for our combined family. For a while, we looked at a selection of other homes and even went to the bank to see what sort of mortgage we could afford.
During our thru-hike, we came down from the mountains for a day at home. Emily opened the door, we walked into the living room, and looked at each other: “This is a ridiculously nice shelter,” I said. “I’m so excited about hot water,” said Emily.
Being on the trail changed our perspective in a healthy way. Just like Winter Expedition at Sterling College teaches the difference between luxury and necessity, the Long Trail taught us that we only need a few basics in order to live happily together. Instead of going back to the bank to sign mortgage papers, we decided to make do with our lovely little home, and now, without that mortgage, we will have have the financial freedom to take many more long hikes in the mountains.
When you’re in Vermont to thru-hike the Long Trail, why not schedule a visit to Sterling College? I would be happy to whip up some trail magic for you. – Tim