What to Expect on the AT Through Vermont

There was no shortage of signs that announced my arrival in Vermont.

The first and most obvious was, of course, the VT/MA state line sign, a big wooden placard bearing a wordy paragraph about – well, I’m not quite what it was about. I barely looked at it. Because at almost the exact moment I passed this first sign, sign #2 revealed itself: the bugs.

Now I’m no stranger to insects. I’ve spent many a muggy North Carolina summer afternoon swatting at horse flies with a mosquito-maimed arm as fire ants nip at my ankles and toes. On long bike rides down dusty farm roads I’ve swallowed flies and gnats and thought nothing but “Good thing that wasn’t a bee.” A family of black widows once lived on the back porch of my parents house, undisturbed, for an entire summer because, “Those webs are just spectacular!”

But as it turned out, these Yankee bugs were nothing like their hesitant, dawdling cousins back in Dixie. These bugs were determined, ruthless in their pursuit of flesh – my flesh.

They weren’t all entirely unbearable. The mosquitos were irritating; the spiders and their webs, just a sticky nuisance.

And then, there were the black flies. Big, fuzzy clouds of them, hovering over the black mud pits (which were sign #3 for Vermont) and launching themselves at every uncovered inch of my skin, sometimes even sneaking their way under my shirt or worst of all, my shorts. They were inescapable.

Black flies don’t bite with the clean, surgical precision of a mosquito – they lack the necessary hardware, the “proboscis”. So to get at your blood, they use a more crude, more devastating tactic: burrowing.

That’s right – black flies literally burrow into your skin. At the front of their stupid ugly faces is a sort of corkscrew nose, along with tiny barbs that look like meat hooks because that’s precisely what they are.

After digging their blood hole, a fly spits into it a droplet of its anticoagulant saliva to prevent clotting. They then drink deeply and painfully until quenched, leaving behind a visible chunk of missing You.

If you’re curious and masochistic, you can even watch a black fly do its devilish work. The fucker will land, sniff out a tasty epidermal patch, and start writhing and squirming with its face pressed against your soft, vulnerable flesh.

Deet can deter black flies to an extent, but the best way to save your skin, as it were, is to just keep moving. Don’t let the bastards land. From the moment you leave the sanctity of your tent in the morning until you’ve climbed back into it and slammed the zipper firmly shut at night, you’ve just got to keep. moving. forward. On the bright side, if you’ve been searching for the motivation to put in big miles, there’s nothing more compelling than the fear of being eaten alive.

If it weren’t for the black flies, Vermont might be my favorite state. The climbs are steady and long but not nearly as steep and brutal as the ones you’ll encounter in New Hampshire or Southern Maine. And the flora is constantly switching between unique and distinct genres.

The hardwood groves of the low valleys, with yellow-green light filtering through the airy canopy and sun-soaking a floor of snow-flattened leaves.

The coniferous woodlands that rise up from gentle slopes, cool and tidy and majestic.

And then, perhaps most impressive all, the dark, hardy boreal forests of the high peaks, packed unimaginably dense with small efficient firs and stout spruce trees that grew on nothing but their own fallen pines of yesteryear.

At times I felt guilty and unappreciative in these woodlands. I spent entire days with head bent to the ground and eyes open just slits, all in fear of the aforementioned bloodsuckers. I prayed for reprieve from the aerial onslaught, for just a few minutes when I didn’t have to worry about my own blood being drawn of me by a tiny but fierce and inexhaustible army.

And a few times, my wish was granted. At the summits of Stratton Mountain and Killington Peak, where the wind blew in steady and cool and strong – even the black flies couldn’t make it up there. And so I drank greedily the fresh cold air, breathed deep each spicy-sweet breeze that washed over the sea of evergreens. And there, way up there on those famed peaks, staring out at the sea of green below, at the bold blue outlines of the Whites that made the horizon to the northwest – for a moment, Vermont felt just as pleasant as anywhere.

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