Freedom and Unity on Vermont’s Long Trail
Thru-hikes do not fizzle or fade out; thru-hikes end suddenly and definitively. The very word “terminus” signals an abrupt conclusion. Four days ago, I emerged from Vermont’s woods and mountains after roughly a month of hiking to find the metal pillar marking the border between the U.S. and Canada, and in that exact moment, my trek was complete.
I would not slog, exhausted, into camp that night to pitch my tent, cook my dinner over a collapsible stove, chat with friendly strangers, and crawl into my sleeping bag well before dark. Instead, I would knock as much mud off of my boots and body as possible, and climb into the back seat of my parent’s car to be whisked away to a restaurant and an Airbnb. Although the physical part of the adventure is over and the somewhat jarring transition back to “normal life” has begun, the reflection and good deal of the learning is just beginning.
As I reflect, I can’t help but draw a parallel between my experience on the Long Trail and the motto of the state through which it passes. Vermont’s “Freedom and Unity” was adopted in 1788 and has been central to the ethos of the state ever since. Writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote: “the Vermont idea grapples energetically with the basic problem of human conduct – how to reconcile the needs of the group, of which every man or woman is a member, with the craving for individual freedom to be what he really is.” I’d say the Long Trail (or at least my experience with it), also “grapples energetically” with just the same idea. While perhaps seemingly opposing concepts, freedom and unity were inextricably intertwined on the Trail.
There were many moments on trail when I absolutely did not want to be doing what I was doing. There were times of utter exhaustion and true pain and misery (a.k.a “Type III Fun”), but what I reminded myself in those moments was that I’d chosen to be there. Essentially, I was telling myself to be grateful: “Yes, you may be miserable, but you’re also free.” To be able to chose to embark on a big adventure into the unknown, to choose how many miles to go, where to stop for views or to keep on trucking, whether to stay in a shelter or tent, whether to be social or seek solitude, what time to go to bed, and what time to get up and do it all over again – all of these choices represent an immense amount of freedom.
There was also the freedom of not being beholden to the normal demands of society: going to work, grocery shopping, visiting the dentist (I missed my appointment, oops), etc. I was no longer held back by daily vices, like scrolling mindlessly for hours on social media or sleeping in too late. Ultimately, I found that to thru-hike solo, while constraining in many “modern” ways (e.g. I couldn’t just turn on a tap when I wanted clean water and I couldn’t just put my leftover food in the fridge), was also incredibly liberating. I was accountable to no one but myself and my days were entirely my own. But to call my thru-hike “solo” would also be a bit of a misnomer, because as clichéd as it might sound, one of the most impactful and memorable aspects of the trek was the people I met and the humans who supported me along the way.
The general consensus of the “Freedom and Unity” notion in Vermont seems to be that we can enjoy our individual liberties only by recognizing the needs of others and operating cohesively and peaceably with our neighbors. If we can build and support something great together, we can then enjoy it as individuals to our own liking. Similarly, there is a huge amount of unity on the Long Trail. Yes, we’re all there to “hike our own hike,” but we can only do so by virtue of supporting each other and the environment through which we travel. Take “Leave no Trace,” for instance: it would only take one yahoo to leave their food lying around the shelter at night to bring the havoc a bear visit down on everyone else in the joint. On the trail, we recognize the work that must be done so that everyone can thrive in their own, individual venture.
I found that more often than not, camaraderie and support was given freely and without hesitation. During the portion of the hike where the LT coincides with Appalachian Trail, I met a pair of hikers called Lightyear and Margaritaville who quite literally saved my hike. If you read my previous posts, you know that I was struggling with a massive bout of incredibly painful of Plantar Fasciitis, and sans wifi, I had no idea what to do about the problem. It felt dire to the point that I seriously questioned my ability to complete the hike. And then, out of the blue and at exactly the right time, appeared Margaritaville and Lightyear with a bounty of advice on how to deal with tendon issues. I acted on every single one of their words of wisdom, including buying different shoes halfway through the venture, and my PF went away. I literally couldn’t have done it without them, and without numerous other amazing humans.
My partner, Jon, shouldered the care of our dog, garden, and chickens without hesitation so that I could act on my harebrained trekking scheme. He texted and called with words of encouragement and helped me feel like I wasn’t alone even though we were thousands of miles apart. Jon’s parents also spent a great deal of time looking after our dog, Opie. My parents, Andrea and Bobby, were invaluably helpful with logistical support, lending a hand with resupplies, transportation, and new shoe-purchasing. My neighbor, Teddi, took in my two remaining chickens into her ultra-secure chicken fortress after a massive raccoon discovered our coop and picked off two of my hens. Blisters and Yukon were great company and picked me up from Appalachian Gap for a delicious breakfast at Waitsfield’s Toast and Eggs. Ari and Sam both provided Advil when I was critically low, having forgotten to purchase that all-important item on one of my resupplies. Riley showed me the magic of shelter log books, to which I’d previously paid little mind. No Idea boosted my confidence by assuring me that 15 miles on the Long Trail in northern Vermont feels like 30 on the Pacific Crest Trail (which he’d thru-hiked). Tam offered a yard to camp in, as well as a shower, laundry, and wifi. Spill Beer offered general entertainment and endless snacks from his 10-pound snack bag. Happy Packs and his brother, Ty, told me all sorts of cool facts about local flora and fauna and were, unsurprisingly, always cheerful. My good friend from college, Sukie, offered her house as a stopover pre and post cross-country flights. Friends from various stages of my life offered encouragement through the screen of my phone. My extended family welcomed me with enthusiasm and hugs at the end of my journey.
So, yes, “solo” is a bit of a misnomer; I couldn’t have had the freedom without the unity. And while Vermont is as equally enamored of the phrase “good fences make good neighbors” as it is with its motto, (just as I’d much rather sleep in my own tent than in a busy shelter), there is an undercurrent of camaraderie along all 272 miles of trail. Although you may go 23 hours and 50 minutes without seeing a single other human (as I did just past the AT/LT split), you are nonetheless connected to other seekers and adventurers by the “footpath in the wilderness” beneath your feet. And what an amazing footpath it is.
Over and out (for now).
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