How the Long Trail Restored My Sanity in the Time of Covid
Ever since my successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2019, I knew I would find myself hiking another long trail in the future. I made it happen, and that long trail turned out to be the Long Trail (LT), Vermont’s 273-mile footpath that dates back to before the AT was even a thought. My boyfriend Pusher and I wanted to return to New England and its challenging, brutal, rocky trails that we both loved while hiking the AT. We figured the LT would be the perfect answer to our needs.
I say the word ‘needs’ because, after nearly a year since finishing the AT, we both were more than just wanting to get back to the woods. It was a full-on need for the sake of our sanity. Being back in the world at large, both of us working, in a state with no mountains to cry home about (Indiana), along with the added stress of a pandemic, we needed to return to the place where we felt most at home—the woods.
To make this hike a reality, we had both asked our bosses for time off for the month of July 2020 far in advance, before the term COVID was on everyone’s lips. When the pandemic took hold of the United States in March of 2020, and I was temporarily furloughed from my job, I asked my boss if it was still okay to use my time off should the store be open again by the time my departure date came around—which turned out to be the case—and I was given a yes.
The trip was still a go, but we made sure we were going to be as sensible as possible, given the new national reality. We rode straight through to western Massachusetts in one 12 hour drive, slept in our tent in a secluded spot, and drove to the trailhead the next morning. We had masks for town excursions and plenty of hand sanitizer.
One of the most important pieces of our plan, that we were extremely fortunate to have, was the help of our fellow AT Tramily member, Diggs. He drove in from Boston, got himself tested, and followed us up the trail in his car as we hiked, giving us rides into towns for resupplies, and storing a lot of food we’d buy ahead of time so we didn’t have to go into town as often.
The addition of Diggs and his car let us focus on our hike and not the logistics of transportation. It of course also afforded us many instances of trail magic, mostly in the form of hot breakfasts cooked from his camp stove right before we’d start a long day of hiking. Diggs met us at many road crossings, taking our trash, giving us ice-cold Cokes, and providing trail magic to other hikers as well—he was definitely the MVP of our hike.
On the LT itself, trail life was pretty much unchanged, in comparison to being on the AT the year before. The first 100 or so miles of the LT are also the AT, and the trail was very populated throughout this first stretch. In fact, our first campsite at Congdon Shelter was practically a tent city and we had to walk a good ways away from the tent sites and shelter to find something more secluded. There was even a line for the privy the next morning!
We met a good number of AT thru-hikers on our very first day who had continued hiking after the recommendation by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to leave the trail due to the uncertainty of COVID, and they had a very defiant and joyous outlook on their decision. We hiked around them the first few days and wished them well on the rest of their trek. It was interesting and a bit jarring bearing witness to their boundless energy, knowing that had been us just the year before— wasn’t long before we couldn’t keep up with them, well before Maine Junction where the two trails go their separate ways.
In terms of taking precautions against contracting or spreading the virus, I’ll be the first to admit that, as with anything related to thru hiking, things didn’t always go according to plan. We made a point of sleeping in our shared tent the majority of the nights on the LT, but we ended up sleeping in a total of four shelters over the course of our hike, for various reasons.
The first exception to this self-imposed rule came early, on the summit of Bromley Mountain, where we had hoped to catch a nice sunset but the weather had other plans. We were driven inside the warming hut with three other hikers as sheets of rain and hurricane-force winds pummeled the ground outside all night long. We were all spaced out well, and it was understood by all of us that sheltering inside was what the situation called for.
We hiked on towards Killington, the first of five peaks over 4,000 ft along the LT, and being that it’s the only one on the Vermont section of the AT, we had hiked it the previous year. The pandemic was rarely a topic of conversation among hikers, but there was one instance we ran into at the base of Killington that kind of got under our skin. We were resting up at Governor Clement Shelter, preparing to make the climb up and use a tent platform at the top, in hopes of making the short yet steep 0.2-mile side trail to the peak to catch the sunset.
As we were fueling up with snacks at the shelter, a hiker who introduced himself as a camp counselor informed us that he was part of a youth hiking group of 15 boys who had already hiked up the mountain and would be sleeping in the next shelter that night. Being that the shelter on top of Killington slept 8 people, we assumed the group would also spill out onto the tent platforms we planned to sleep on, not to mention whoever else would be up there as well.
We were too nervous about hiking up only to find no place to pitch our tent, and we recoiled at the thought of a large group keeping us awake well past ‘hiker midnight’ (when thru-hikers go to bed pretty much just after it gets dark), so we stayed where we were with another LT hiker and tented by a stream.
Not only did we miss out on what I’m sure was an incredible sunset, we questioned the thinking behind a large group hiking together, likely sharing meals, during a pandemic. It is also a well-known rule on trails that groups of a certain size should plan to tent rather than take up an entire shelter, which this group clearly ignored.
Once we passed Maine Junction the next day, we were just on the LT for the remainder of our hike and things quieted down a lot. We welcomed the change. The terrain was more difficult, as we knew it would be, and we could enjoy the occasional company of strictly LT hikers.
It soon became clear that we would not be able to reach the northern terminus before we had to return to work, unless we did the kind of miles that would destroy our bodies in the process, so we decided to take a leisurely pace and leave our hike off just after Camel’s Hump, with about 80 miles of trail remaining.
During this stretch, I decided to get something from the local outfitter in Burlington and learned that, being that we were from out-of-state, we couldn’t enter the store, even while masked. We ordered online, and the item was brought outside to us where we paid and went on our way.
Looking back, rules like this were likely part of the reason Vermont handled the pandemic so well, faring better than virtually every other state. I was very pleased with how seriously Vermonters were taking the pandemic by only allowing those from the state and a couple of neighboring states whose case numbers at the time were also very low to enter the store.
I was so floored that it left me feeling hyper-aware and a bit guilty that we had come from Indiana just to hike a trail that wasn’t going anywhere and could have easily been hiked another year. It also made me acutely aware of my Indiana license plate sitting at a trailhead near the southern terminus. That feeling became lodged in the back of my mind for the rest of our hike.
Conversely, the day we got back on trail at a road crossing, we were treated to our first-ever moose sighting and I was instantly transported back to the world of the trail. How could I be thinking about a pandemic when I’m watching the most elusive beast of the northeast bounding along a road and disappearing into the woods? It was impossible.
We were back on trail in mid-September, able to get another week or so off work to finish what we’d started. The air was cool and crisp and the leaves were starting to turn. After working retail for months during the pandemic, wearing my mask diligently, and making sure customers were all doing the same (not an easy task!), I was more than ready to get back to the woods of Vermont.
The trail was absolutely gorgeous and even more rugged—so much so that it took everything we had to make it 10, sometimes just eight miles in a day. We caught a breathtaking sunrise at Puffer Shelter our first morning back on trail, and rested from a grueling day climbing up and over Mount Mansfield—the highest peak in Vermont—in the famous and absolutely beautiful Taft Lodge, just a few days before the structure’s 100th birthday.
In normal years, certain shelters along the LT have caretakers stationed to educate about the area and maintain the site. To stay overnight, hikers pay a $5 fee. Both the caretakers and the fee were totally absent in 2020, another reminder from the outside world of our changed reality.
A few days later, we found ourselves sharing a bunk inside Corliss Camp shelter, the third totally enclosed structure we slept in. Our reasoning was that we’d be better protected from the frigid temperatures that were predicted that night, but many others had the same idea. The shelter filled up fast, and late arrivals were forced to set up their tents. Two bunks were taken up by two women out on an overnight with their two large dogs, forcing the thru-hikers inside to stay up longer than was desired due to the women coming in and out of the shelter continuously, well into the night. These types of things are impossible to foresee on a thru-hike.
All of it really drove home the point that no matter how much you think you will plan and pay attention to safety and pandemic-era precautions, once you’re out there, things are likely to play out differently, and a combination of your own choices, the choices of others and things out of everyone’s control such as the weather will likely be to blame.
The LT was an amazing experience that I will never forget. I have the utmost respect for this beautiful and unique trail that runs through the ancient Green Mountain range. Some stretches of trail were so quiet and rugged and primal-feeling it seemed as though I was stepping back in time thousands of years as I hiked. I also have the utmost respect for the Green Mountain Club, the trail maintainers that keep the path a breeze to navigate, and the people of Vermont.
An End-to-End of the LT is kind of like a condensed version of the AT—you earn your progress with every step, constantly positioning yourself in ways that will move you forward, yet avoid injury. It was an extremely humbling experience to be able to hike all 273 miles. Pusher and I even formed a small tramily with two other hikers during our last week on trail.
Looking back on our hike of the LT, I constantly reflect on the privilege we were afforded to be able to make this hike possible. Was it wise to hike when we did, in 2020, while so many people were sick, or working, or in isolation from their loved ones, with no end or even a vaccine in sight? I wonder whether I should feel guilty over having a partner I could spend the hike with, both of us able to get not one, but two stretches of time off work and still come back to our jobs (thanks REI!). I wonder whether the hike would’ve been as enjoyable without the invaluable help of Diggs, which made our hike logistically simple. And I even wonder whether anyone I slept in a shelter with those four separate times ended up getting sick on account of my being there.
I don’t think I’ll ever know the answers to these questions, but I do know that I don’t think I could have gotten through 2020 without our hike of the Long Trail. It was medicine. It was a release of all the pent-up frustrations from my retail job that left me physically and mentally drained after each shift. The trail helped me so I could return to work refreshed and ready to resume the hard work of doing a service job while simultaneously enforcing pandemic-era rules to the general public. On the trail, we did what we could in terms of safety, but in the grand scheme of things, a thru-hike is unpredictable.
It’s a different world in a lot of ways. People become like family. Everyone looks out for each other, everyone wants everyone to succeed, and the mountain air feels amazing on your bare face. You need to make countless micro-decisions on a daily basis, and it’s very difficult to factor in something like a pandemic. As I walked to where I had parked our car at the closed Green Mountain Club Visitor’s Center, I was totally satisfied with the experience I was given.
We all need to take care of ourselves mentally, and I believe hiking long trails as responsibly as you can is a perfectly reasonable way to do that. In 2021, as more and more people get vaccinated with each passing day, we can all feel a little bit better about getting back out on the trails.
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