The Good, the Bad, and the Muddy

The fates are conspiring against us. Or maybe I should say they’re conspiring for us, because oddly enough, every time we decide we’re fed up with this hike and decide to head straight home something happens that keeps us on the trail. It’s as if this journey — with all its bizarre ups and downs — isn’t about us anymore. We’re just caught up in some weird kind of hiking vortex that refuses to let us get out.

So let’s start with the bad part of the last five days, just to get that done. First off, getting back on the trail after a couple of weeks off was harder than I expected. My pack weighed too much. I missed our family and friends, along with the people we’d met previously on the trail. And frankly, after 600 miles the newness had worn off, highlighting the sheer difficulty of hiking and putting me in a real funk. I began to understand why so much of this trek is mental — and began to suspect that I’d flake out.

Master Chef and Chaos


The trail conditions didn’t help. Forget the bad climb out of Massachusetts. Forget the knee-killing descent to Vermont Route 9 where it took us three hours to go four miles — although the incredible trail magic in the parking lot at the bottom was certainly a huge relief.  (First Chaos and Master Chef fed us and gave us a pep talk that boosted our morale. Then Katrina came along with some great chocolate. She also told her parents about us, and they have now invited us to their house in Maine.)

Because despite that wonderful trail magic, the reality is Vermont is wet — which means the trails are filled with mud. Huge, deep stretches of it. Mile after mile after mile of it — thick, black, boot-sucking mud. Meaning there was no possible way to avoid it. Meaning our feet got filthy and soaked — and stayed that way for days. And it rained constantly on top of that, the showers turning into a steady downpour that got everything (even inside our bags) all wet.

We got muddy and bruised from all our falls. We were cold and miserably wet. The clincher came when after a 17 and a half mile slog to Manchester Center — where we’d reserved a room — our promised ride backed out, leaving us with no other option except an additional three-mile walk to the motel in the blowing rain.


But here’s where fate came in. I had never hitchhiked before.  And I knew we looked pathetic — soaking wet, smeared with mud, laden with equally wet bags. Surely no sane person would invite us into their dry car. But in desperation I stuck out my thumb, and the very first car stopped. One second after I put out my thumb, Jonathan picked us up and drove us to our motel.

And it only got better from there. The motel owner dropped us off at a restaurant. A nice patron drove us back. I’d posted my desire to quit on Facebook, and dozens of people chimed in, saying how much our hike inspired them and urging us not to give up.

So we decided to take the next day off to re-evaluate our plans. And sure enough, in the morning the sun came out. We found a laundromat and dried our clothes. We even saw some of the gorgeous Vermont scenery we’d missed in the rainy woods.

We decided we couldn’t quit. So many good things were happening at exactly the right moments that it couldn’t be happenstance. There’s a reason that we’re out here (although what it is I have no clue).

We are going to do things a little differently, though. This past week illustrated that we need to have more fun (if that’s even possible in the rain). So we’ve arranged to take more days off. We are cutting our daily mileage, even though it extends our hike. We’re plodding on, since fate seems determined to keep us here.

I just wish this grand plan — whatever on earth it is — didn’t involve so much blasted mud!

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Comments 9

  • Sandy Parks : May 31st

    Way to go. I lived in Maine as a kid/teen and they are the most hospitable folk you’ll meet. I’m seeing from this that those in Vermont are much the same. Good luck on finishing up this amazing trek. I’ve loved following along. Thanks for posting about your trip. Can’t wait to see those photos from the end. I’ve friends up in the northern part of Maine. Let me know where you’re ending and if it’s anywhere near, I’ll give them a holler.

    • Gail Barrett : May 31st

      Thanks, Sandy. I sure will! (Although our real end won’t be until much later since we still have the Georgia to West Virginia section to do).

  • Ryan Price : Jun 1st

    Gail – you summed it up perfectly about that mud.. Was glad to read that you guys took some days to rest, step back and enjoy the beauty of VT. As Julie and I were driving back Tuesday morning, you could actually SEE all the mountains and scenery for once, seems we were stuck in a misty/cloudy fog for days up there with just tree after tree.. Look forward to more of your writing – enjoy the moment out there! (Although it was truly hard for me to “enjoy the moment” those last few days…)

    • Gail Barrett : Jun 4th

      Ryan, the mud actually got better north of where we were. There were still patches of it but nothing like the awful mess below. And the sun came out! We still haven’t seen much, but it is so nice to be dry!

      I hope your knee improves with rest. Ours ache, but it’s still manageable for now. We’ll see how long our luck holds.

      Stay in touch! We’d love to see you back in MD and commiserate.?

  • Lisa : Jun 1st

    So glad things looked up for you! Someone else wrote that the emotional roller coaster between the highs and lows was exhausting. Keep on riding you guys! This time will be over before you know it and the bad days will become just a blur.

    • Gail Barrett : Jun 4th

      Lisa, that is so true. Everything seems more intense on this trip, and the mood swings are insane. But it really is worth it!

  • stealthblew : Jun 1st

    Here is a novel ideal. Consider heading back down to Harpers Ferry and heading south through Virginia (or another section of the trail) or to wherever you arrive come the end of June, then head back up to Vermont and head north. While it may be starting to get hot in VA this time of year at least there are several options to help deal with the temps. Midday breaks, ideally by water sources, slack packing from local hostels (especially the big climbs for us older hikers…not necessary but very pleasant) and being able to self regulates our internal temperature by removing excess clothing.
    After heading back north, the temps will feel delightful, the body will be better conditioned for the hard stuff you heading into and the black flies will be basically gone until next season. The trail character is markedly different in VA than in Northern New England. This will also help spice things up a bit.
    While older people do not have the natural physical gifts of youth, we often have a few extra bucks in our pockets to help find alternative ways to stay in the game (so to speak).
    Please consider avoiding the black fly season by hiking a different section of the trail over the month of June. The trail will be easier and the environment less hostile this time of year.
    I honestly believe those black flies will test your metal like nobody’s business. Why put yourself though that kind of ordeal if it can be avoided?
    Good luck on your continued journey.

    • Gail Barrett : Jun 4th

      Great advice! Sorry I couldn’t answer sooner but I don’t get much cell service on the trail (if any) and have to wait for a stop in a town.

      We did take two weeks off to let the snow melt. We drove back home to MD and hiked a bit south. Unfortunately I don’t think there is a perfect way to do this hike. The NOBO’s got hit with late snow this year, too, and it rains everywhere. The only way to guarantee good weather is to do short section hikes, I guess. We’ve met people who are driving around and doing sections out of order, but that isn’t feasible for us. We are taking more days off and have arranged for some slackpacking ahead, though. That should help.

      As far as the trail goes, the mud is improving, thankfully. So far the flies aren’t bad, so we’ll see how they go!!!

  • stealthblew : Jun 1st

    Vermont is one of the loveliest states to hike in part due to the tread way. It is nice to get off the rocks for a few weeks before hitting the Granite State unless of course someone is hiking in Mud and dealing with Black Flies. Shame on those who encourage starting in Harper’s Ferry at his new kick off site. Yes, the trail is becoming somewhat overcrowded with thru hikers leading to this alternative. However, those who suggested it know that Vermont is very muddy in the early spring. In the past this same group strongly encouraged hikers to avoid this state during the mud season primarily to prevent damaging the trail. What is even worse is they are also well aware of the black fly season up there.


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