I left you last when I was in Bennington, Vermont. In thinking back over my last email to you, I was struck by how much I emphasized eating. But it is true, I have to eat in order to hike. I am likely burning 5000 to 6000 calories a day, and I am lucky if I can consume 4000 calories a day on the trail. I make up the difference when I come into trail towns, which averages about every five days. I find that thoughts about food keep me motivated on the trail, and memories about food give me comfort. For instance, during our night in Bennington, Ironman, Bon Bon, and I went to an Italian place called Allegro. It was a much more upscale restaurant than we were told by our hotel proprietor. Even though we were in hiker clothes, we were welcomed inside. Business was kind of slack that Sunday evening. We had a fabulous meal of cream sauces over pasta with chicken for Ironman and me and shrimp for Bon Bon. We toasted the Trail with glasses of Merlot wine.
The memory of this meal helped me survive Tuesday, July 21. You see, after one night in Bennington, and most of the day spent at the post office, library, and outfitters, I hit the Trail after catching a shuttle to the trailhead five miles outside of town at 3:00 PM on July 20. With such a late start I was only able to hike 10 miles before darkness started setting in. I found a level place off the trail and set up a solo camp. I found myself smiling, sitting on a log, fixing my supper, and listening to wood thrushes singing around me. I slept incredibly well that night.
The morning of July 21 came overcast, but I have a saying: “Never judge a day by its dawning.” After breakfast, I hit the Trail at 7:00, hiking 9 miles before an early lunch at 11:00 at the Kid Gore Shelter. This is when my day changed. The rain started slow at first with falling temperatures and gusty wind. Then it poured. I hiked on anyway another 4.6 miles to the Story Spring Shelter, arriving at 1:45 that afternoon. I found the shelter full of wet hikers, both section and thru, already hunkered down for the day. Even though I had only hiked ten miles for the day, I made he decision to stop. It was another ten miles to the next shelter, and the colossal Stratton Mountain, standing 4000 feet in altitude, stood between my current location and there.
I have never concluded a hiking day so early, but I rolled out my sleeping pad in the shelter, spread out my sleeping bag, and made a cup of coffee to warm myself up. My intention was to keep on my wet clothes and let them dry from my body heat. I watched for the signs for hypothermia: numbness of bay parts, shivering, slurred speech, and irrational behavior. Fortunately none of this set in. I decided to use some of my afternoon time in writing this message to you, to be typed in on a computer when I next got internet access.
I find that as I write this out on a little piece of paper with very small handwriting, I feel satisfied that I did the right thing today by warming and drying off in the shelter. Warmth is gradually coming to my body. I am sure it will be an early supper and bedtime for me with hopes that tomorrow will give me better weather for hiking. The memory of that Italian meal with Ironman and Bon Bon comforts me as I listen to the wind and the rain hitting the shelter roof.
So, today, July 27, I am in comparative luxury as I sit at a computer in Mountain Meadows Lodge outside Killington, VT. Classical music is playing the background as I type this message to you shortly before breakfast is served to all the guests. Let me back up and tell you what has happened to me since that rainy day in the shelter.
I got up the morning of July 22 concerned about the conditions I would find on the Trail since it rained all night long. After a standing up breakfast with water dripping on me from the trees above, I hit the Trail at 7:15. It was a two hour climb up Stratton Mountain, but I felt great after all the rest from the day and night before. When I reached the top, shrouded in fog, I discovered that this peak was very important to the Appalachian Trail and to the state of Vermont itself. It was on this peak in 1921 that Benton McKaye — forester, author, and philosopher — conceived the idea of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath that would link the scenic ridges of the Appalachian Mountains running up the entire East Coast. It was also on this peak, in 1763, that a new state in our Union was named Verd Mont, French for Green Mountain, and shortened to Vermont.
I have been hiking in the Green Mountains from that day until this. I reluctantly admit that the thing I will remember the most about Vermont is the mud. My fears on that morning after the heavy rain proved true. The Trail has turned to mud in many places. I am talking thick, black, boot sucking mud up to eight inched deep. I have tried to keep my feet as dry as possible by skirting the deepest puddles and also by stepping on rocks and tree roots. But let me say that stepping on wet rocks and tree roots is an invitation to catastropic falls if not done very, very carefully!
Ironically, I spent that night, July 22, with another thru hiker by the name of Roots from Hiawasee, Georgia, We stayed in the beautiful Spruce Peak Shelter, built in 1986, with four windows, a sliding door, a woodstove, and big wooden bunks for our sleeping pads. Sweet! I felt good about my energy and output this day. I had hiked 18.3 miles, at least half of it in the aforementioned mud.
The next day I continued hiking in the incredible variety of environmental diversity that Vermont has to offer. I climbed steep mountains, I hiked through bogs, and walked boardwalks through swamps. All this time I was looking for the largest variety of deer that North America has to offer, Moose. Moose can get as large as 8 feet tall and weigh as much as 1,400 pounds. They love the aquatic plants that thrive in the bogs and cattail filled ponds in northern New England. No, I have not seen my first moose, but I have found tracks and scat right on the Trail. I stayed that night at the Peru Peak Shelter and, much to my surprise, both Ironman and Bon Bon showed up around dusk for a grand reunion. Thunderstorms moved in during the evening and it poured rain all night long. Ah, the mud!
Ironman and I hiked together the next day, ending up at the Greenwall Shelter after a 14.5 mile day. We had the place to ourselves and had a very peaceful night even though we were pounded by yet another thunderstorm. Everybody here is getting tired of the rain. Even the locals I have been running into on the Trail have commented that this is the wettest spring and summer New England has seen in many, many years.
One thing that is happening now on the Trail is that I am starting to run into thru hikers who started in Maine and who are moving south. These hikers are called Southbounders and pride themselves with the fact that they have done what most regard as the hardest part of the Trail — New Hampshire and Maine — first. I have enjoyed talking with them and finding out about what they have experienced in the area I am now approaching. The Southbounders (or Sobos as they are affectionately known) tell me they had 31 days of rain in Maine followed by good weather for the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Whites are intimidating to most anyone. They are tall like the Smokies down south, but many of them are above timberline, making for high wind conditions and severe weather. I will likely be entering the Whites in another 7 to 8 days. Debra Bowick, my housesitter, has sent me my winter sleeping bag and long underwear. I am ready and excited for the challenges that await.
One last comment on my latest overnight accommodations. On Saturday, July 25, Ironman and I stayed in the “Secret Shelter.” This is a non-publicized shelter, built by a former thru hiker on her private property. We found out about it by talking to the Sobo hikers. We got directions to it by a very strange way. Just before a particular road crossing, we were told to look for a large shelf bracket mushroom attached to a tree. Directions to the Secret Shelter were written on this fungus! We followed the directions and found a beautiful handmade shelter with pegged hand-hewn log construction. The mysterious owner had left us four cold sodas and four oatmeal pies. We dined by candlelight that evening. The privy or outhouse was the nicest I have seen on the Trail. It was round with attention paid to every detail. Two picture books on outhouses from around the world awaited our visits to the this facility.
My last day of hiking has brought me and Ironman to the Mountain Meadows Lodge outside Killington. Strangely, Ironman’s daughter was married here in 2005. I did not know this, or even know Ironman himself, when I booked these accommodations months ago and had my supply boxes sent here. Another package I was excited to see when I arrived yesterday was from REI, the outdoor equipment company. REI in Washington State, at their own volition, has supplied me with a pair of boots that will hopefully see me through to the end of the Trail, all free of charge. When I called to order a new pair, they looked at my purchasing history and noticed that this would be my third pair of boots for the Trail. “We want to contribute to your success,” the young man told me when he offered the free boots. There was one condition: that I return my current pair of boots so they could evaluate them. I predict that the folks at REI in Washington will get a laugh out of the condition of the boots that have taken me from Virginia to Vermont. The boots are in shreds! There are gaping holes where the uppers meet the soles. And the black Vermont mud have given this pair of boots a very interesting patina!
I look forward to sharing more of my adventures with you.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles