The Best Way to Get Lost in the Green Mountains
I was on the trail and then I wasn’t. There were no blazes in sight, no hikers either, and no clear path forward. This was not at all how I’d planned to spend just my second day back on the trail after a week long break.
Of course, not many people plan to get lost.
Getting lost on purpose is a rather irresponsible and difficult and pointless thing to do – and I highly recommend you try it sometime. It’s less frightening than discovering you’ve lost your way on accident, and far more exciting than always knowing where you are and what’s ahead.
But that day, that bright May morning – just 4 miles into Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest – getting lost was most certainly not on my schedule.
How I found myself lost.
After beating the sun up to start my day I passed into Vermont and onto the section of AT that coincides with the famed – and perhaps improperly named, given its length – Long Trail.
Within minutes of crossing the border I found myself hopping over mud pits the color and consistency of tar. To avoid losing a shoe in the muck I danced across rocks, sunken branches, and islands of dry earth wherever I could. My neck ached, and I felt twinges of PPTSD – Post-Pennsylvania Traumatic Stress Disorder, that is.
After an hour or so the trail turned downhill and became rather creek-like, the mud pits now flooded with runoff from the previous night’s rain. And it was on this section that I first remember thinking, “Gee, the trail sure is poorly marked here.” So I pulled out my phone to be sure I was on the right path.
Well, it so happened that this creek-like “trail” was actually, literally, a creek, according to Google Maps.
Now, in my defense, some sections of the AT are more creek-like than some creeks are. Unfortunately this was not the such a section.
But the map also revealed that the blue squiggle I stood on intersected the trail again, just one mile down trail/stream. So I continued on.
And I did find a trail. But not The Trail.
In a dry sunny clearing the stream crossed a rocky strip of “trail” that was covered in deep tire treads and pocketed with dark puddles deep and long enough to swim laps in.
I scanned the trees and saw no blazes, and yet the blue pulsing dot on my phone sat right over the “Appalachian / Long Trail.” I suppose this could be the trail, I thought. There have been stranger and rougher sections. Something just didn’t feel right, but so – AT or not – I knew there was only one way to go: north.
One and a half miles to the north the trail simply vanished. Dwindled to nothingness, with once again, no obvious path forward. I also still hadn’t seen a blaze. I turned back south, and a half mile past my original creek-trail one of the long puddles opened up into a lake.
To be clear: I don’t mean that this was an exceptionally large puddle. This was a goddamn lake. Wide, deep-looking, impassable, with dark blue water, not mucky brown puddle sludge. Bullfrogs croaked and a stork stood stoically on the far end. And as always in New England, the black flies swarmed all around.
Now fear settled in. Irritation, too. This “trail” was useless. So I abandoned it.
Just over the surrounding tree tops I could see a thin strip of a rolling green ridge. Against all instinct and most common sense, I stepped into the forest and started making my way uphill, with two reasons in mind:
1. The AT always seems to go uphill, so maybe I’d cross it.
2. It’s always better to get lost (or in my case, lost-er) traveling uphill. Because later – when you’re more tired – if it turns out that you’ve gone the wrong way, it’s much easier to get back to where you started.
I fought my way through the thicket for what felt like hours before coming across a trail. This one appeared to have no blazes either, but still I walked a stretch of it, praying, examining each trunk with a desperate eye. And just before I could dive back into the wilderness, a curious white birch caught my eye.
There was no blaze on the birch, but about 5 feet off the ground the bark had been peeled or perhaps scraped off, leaving an unnaturally barren blocky patch. I looked further up the trail: another patch, same height, on a tree just beside the trail.
Later I found out that the AT had been rerouted through Vermont some many years ago. But merely the sight of markings that could possibly maybe have once been White Blazes was enough to keep me on this mysterious maybe-AT.
After an hour of walking the trail became wide and flat and decorated with the ornaments of civilization: crushed beer cans, flattened paper bags from every fast-food establishment imaginable, and cigarette butts. The litter filled me with the conflicting feelings of relief and disappointment. I was no longer lost in the wilderness, but now I was wandering through the wastelands of consumerism.
Eventually, I popped out onto a paved road and found a single bar of cell service. The town of Bennington was just 2 downhill miles away, and I headed for it.
On the edge of town I stopped in at a cafe run by a family from the Netherlands to reward myself for getting unlost. The owners’ Euro heritage was evident in every inch of the cafe, from the carafes of water and tiny glasses on the sturdy farmhouse tables, to the rack filled with Dutch travel magazines and editions of De Telegraaf.
I ordered a toasted ham and cheddar cheese sandwich and a coffee, black. After scarfing both down I chatted with the cook for a few minutes about my hike, and my misadventure that led me to his restaurant.
Then as I packed up to leave, he disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a paper bag stuffed full with pastries both sweet and savory.
“A snack, for later tonight,” he said. “Stay safe, and try to stay on the trail this time, yes?”
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