Long Trail Legacy – Following in My Father’s Footsteps
An Epiphany on Mt. Mansfield
It was June 2018, and I was sitting on the summit of Mt. Mansfield having lunch with my daughter Emily and her fiancé Jake. We were in the Green Mountains on a family vacation and had planned to do a hike or two when we weren’t busy touring the local breweries. I had researched a few different trails for our hikes, but Jake suggested iconic Mansfield since we were staying nearby in Smugglers Notch. At 4395’, Mt Mansfield is the highest peak in Vermont. He wanted to take the historic Long Trail to the summit, pointing out that it’s only 2.3 miles each way (he ignored the 2793” elevation gain!). I was a little hesitant but decided it would be a good challenge for all of us, as well as a barometer of my own physical capabilities. I was just a few months removed from emergency surgery and was slowly recovering.
It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and perfect temperatures. I had carried a day pack with lunch for all of us as well as a few extra liters of water. I was tired and sweaty, but reaching the summit was well worth the effort. The views were spectacular, and I felt as if I had finally turned a corner in my post-op recovery. As I was unpacking our lunch, Emily said, “Too bad we didn’t bring any beer”. I grinned, reached into the pack, and pulled out a beer for each of us. As we toasted our successful climb, Jake commented, “Dude, that’s pretty bad ass, I can’t believe you carried beer up here!” Little did I know that it would be a prescient moment – one that hinted at the trail name I’d later receive on the Appalachian Trail.
As we were finishing lunch, a few thru hikers reached the summit. They were bug bitten, disheveled, and a bit smelly, the true definition of “hiker trash”, an expression I’d soon come to know well. At 273 miles from the Massachusetts line to the Canadian border, Vermont’s Long Trail is considered quite challenging in the backpacking community. We were impressed! We asked about their journey as we took summit photos for them. Most were undertaking this adventure as a rite of passage to mark their recent college graduation. What a cool idea!
It prompted me to tell Emily that her grandfather had done something similar when he hiked a long section of the LT after graduating high school in 1937. Like the college grads, he had his whole life before him with an uncertain future. She had never heard about his hike, so I told her the little I knew about it. He had carried a heavy pack with a skillet, bedroll, ax, and rifle, along with flour, sugar, and a slab of bacon for food.
So here I was, sitting on Mt. Mansfield, impressed by the young thru-hikers, remembering my father’s legacy, facing my own mortality after a health scare, and approaching a transition to retirement. These events, stories, and memories all converged at once and I had an epiphany there on Mt Mansfield. I should attempt a thru hike of the LT! It made perfect sense. In some ways, retirement is a similar transition to graduation. One filled with hope, uncertainty, and a search for purpose in the next chapter of life. And a hike would honor my father’s legacy.
An Outdoor Legacy
My father was a member of the “Greatest Generation”. At 18 years old and just coming out of high school when he hiked the LT in 1937, he probably had little idea what his future held: military service in Europe during WWII, getting married, raising seven kids, and working hard to support his family. A blue-collar worker toiling six days a week for most of his life, he didn’t have a lot of free time. But what time he did have was often spent camping. We regularly camped on family vacations as well as with the Boy Scouts, where he served as a Scoutmaster for nearly thirty years. During the time we spent together he’d mostly relax while in camp and tell stories of his time in the outdoors as a young man. But what stories they were!
When I was a young teen, we took a wilderness canoe trip together to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine with the Boy Scouts. He was clearly in his element, both in the many months of pre-trip planning, as well as the adventure itself. Everything was so effortless and natural to him. It was at this point that I realized those weren’t just tales of past glories. He was the real deal – a true outdoorsman. In the more than fifty years I’ve spent paddling since that trip, I’ve yet to see a more efficient and natural paddler.
I went on to take many wilderness trips after that one, but life got in the way for my father, and he rarely went along. I started backpacking when I was about the same age he had been when he hiked the Long Trail. It began with a Thanksgiving section hike of the Appalachian Trail with my buddy Jim from the Boy Scouts. From there, Jim and I regularly backpacked the Loyalsock Trail, Black Forest Trail, Chuck Keiper Trail, Old Loggers’ Path and others. I often schlepped a large format camera and tripod on those trips to take landscape photos for calendar companies.
Then we transitioned to wilderness canoe trips including the Allagash, Machias, Adirondacks, Boundary Waters, Temagami, and Quetico. In my father’s later years, he and I did revisit the Allagash Wilderness on a canoe trip, as well as one to the Adirondacks, and on both trips, he was still that effortless paddler I remembered.
And now, here I was, in my sixties and seriously considering a thru hike of the LT. Where to begin? I was only a few months removed from emergency surgery and knew that I would have to invest some time, not only planning the hike, but getting physically prepared. Although I spent a lot of time in the outdoors fly fishing, day hiking, snowshoeing, skiing and wilderness canoe tripping, it had been decades since I shouldered a full pack for a backpacking trip. It wasn’t something to be taken lightly at any age.
Searching for the Past
When I mentioned the idea of hiking the Long Trail to my siblings, they all thought it was a cool idea. Several of them mentioned my father’s diary of his hike and suggested that I could use it to compare my adventure with his. My reaction was, “What diary?” Everyone insisted that surely I must already have the journal since I was the only one in the family who really shared his interest in the outdoors. But I had never seen it. My brother Tom insisted, “Don’t you remember all the talk of killing ‘porkies’ in his journal?” Uh, no I don’t… I was clueless!
We all started scrambling to look for the journal. Finally, my sister Anne found it and mailed it to me. Wow, what a jackpot! Along with his handwritten account of the hike, was the 1937 Long Trail Guidebook, a short newspaper clipping about the hike, and a photo of my father at 18 years old wearing a stylish fedora at the LT trailhead. Looking at the diary, it turned out he hadn’t hiked the entire LT, but a long section from Mendon Mountain pass to Mansfield with a friend from high school named Loren Jones. A common theme in his journal entries were the many challenges they faced including bugs, heavy packs, blisters, failed equipment, bad weather, and especially “porkies”.
I questioned whether they enjoyed the trip at all. But when interviewed by the local newspaper the day after they completed the hike, they reported they “enjoyed the trip immensely”. That seems to echo the sentiments of James Gordon Hindes in the forward to his book of a 1931 LT thru hike, So Clear, So Cool, So Grand: “A lover of nature never gives up, in fact, he often revels in pitting his strength against forces which beset him. The highest satisfaction which he knows is to triumph.” My father and his friend had clearly triumphed over the challenges they faced on the hike.
Shit’s Getting Real!
A few months after I received my father’s diary and guidebook, another package arrived in the mail from my sister Anne. It was a beautiful leather-bound pocket AT journal. She thought it would be the perfect vehicle for me to record my own journey on the LT. It was a thoughtful and beautiful gift meant to support my adventure, but my heart sank a little. It looked heavy. So I immediately weighed it – damn, a half-pound! I had been researching gear for a few months now, and I guess the current ultralight craze was rubbing off on me. But how could I NOT take this journal with me no matter what it weighed? I was torn.
It was also a reality check. Suddenly I felt a little pressure to follow through on what had been an abstract idea, one of several items on my post-retirement bucket list. My family is expecting it. The gift represented that to me. In the back of my mind, there was always just the slightest hint of doubt. Can I really do it?
But after giving it a bit more thought I realized it wouldn’t be my family that I’d disappoint if I didn’t hike the LT, it would be me. If I wanted to be successful, I had to do the hike for myself, and no one else. And as I had recently learned (from reading The Trek), the number one rule of long-distance hiking is “Hike your own hike”. And if my father could carry an axe, rifle, and skillet, I guess I could find room for a journal and a pen! Who cares what it actually weighed? Once I embraced that idea, things started to fall into place.
A Jump Start on Training
With a target retirement date on the horizon, the timing seemed to be lining up for my LT hike. I had been running, cycling, paddling, and day hiking regularly for nearly two years after my Mansfield epiphany. My goal was to be in good shape when I reached retirement. I hoped to be physically able to attempt all the things on my bucket list. I was making good progress. And then out of the blue, my young fishing buddy Jeff, announced he was planning to thru-hike the AT in 2021. He asked if I’d like to train with him over the winter. Jeff had no idea that I was in the early planning stages for my Long Trail adventure. He just wanted someone to train with (and mostly help with the car shuttles).
I jumped at the chance, and we started doing sections of the AT in Pennsylvania every weekend. It was a great big kick in the pants! I’m much older than him and could barely keep up at first. But by tagging along, I started falling into the rhythm of regular hiking and building a solid base of miles. Training together also helped both my confidence and motivation. Hiking the Long Trail was no longer that abstract idea, it was a tangible goal that I really started to believe in. Hiking with Jeff also helped my preparation on logistics, gear research, and general planning. I went through all my old gear. Some of it was still useful for canoe tripping, but woefully outdated or heavy by today’s backpacking standards. It was time to update just about everything. Jeff was the perfect resource for that, as he had spent the last few months getting his gear dialed in.
Once Jeff left for Amicalola and the AT, I closely tracked his progress and helped manage some of his social media posts, regularly writing updates for him. I was living vicariously through his big AT hike, and it was fun!
I occasionally joined him and his AT “tramily” to hike some sections together, and quickly realized I still had work to do to get ready for a longer trip. Even though I had a lot of miles under my belt and could keep up with them for a few days at a time, I realized I had to hit the gym to improve my core strength and the connective tissue in my joints. I had pains in muscles I didn’t even know existed until they started objecting to the abuse I was putting them through! My body just wasn’t used to carrying a full pack for several days in a row. It was a great lesson and provided the motivation I needed to visit the gym and start working on my weak areas.
Eventually some nagging injuries caught up with Jeff and he ended his hike after over 1200 miles. When Jeff came off the AT, he was immediately hired by an outdoor retailer as a gear specialist. We started occasionally hiking together on weekends again. And I solo hiked the Black Forest Trail, my first time there in over thirty years. I was getting my gear, and especially my footwear, dialed in with his help and advice.
When my retirement day finally came, I was able to really ramp up my training and accept several hiking invitations. Jeff and I did a few overnighters on sections of the AT in PA and Virginia (with Wizard, AT Class of 2021). We were training together again for our individual big hikes. Jeff is back on the AT now on a LASH (long ass section hike) hike from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin!
And then I had the privilege of joining a group of badass lady section hikers on the AT in NC and into the Smokies. It was a great trip, and I was able to test several of the changes I made to my equipment, trail diet, and footwear. After 120 miles on the AT, I felt really strong and knew I was more than ready for the Long Trail! And if I needed confirmation of that, most hikers I ran into on the AT assumed I was a fellow thru-hiker. Over the last year of backpacking several hundred miles, I guess I had graduated to hiker trash status. That’s a badge of honor I gladly accept!
Sharing the Legacy
When talking with other backpackers on my long section hikes, I often shared the backstory of why I was planning to hike the LT. Mentioning my father’s 1937 hike and legacy really seemed to resonate with many of them.
Last month I shared my story and plans with a group of thru hikers as we cooked dinner together at Russell Field Shelter in the Smokies. A few of them, including a two-time AT thru hiker, were visibly moved and actually started to tear up a little. “I’m not crying, you’re crying.” It was humbling to discover that my story was compelling to others on the trail.
I plan to document my Long Trail journey and compare it with my father’s adventure. I’m hoping that I give his legacy the justice it deserves and I’m thankful that The Trek is giving me the opportunity to share it with a wider audience.
After hiking the Smokies, I headed directly to the Black Forest Trail in PA to join another group of backpackers, including Jake and my daughter Emily. The terrain on the BFT is as tough as anything I encountered in the Smokies, with some really difficult climbs. It was Emily’s first backpacking trip and much like her grandfather, she powered through despite the challenges. I couldn’t be prouder of her, and it looks like my father’s legacy may extend to another generation of backpacker!
See you on the trail!
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