The Universe Doesn’t Want Me to Finish This Hike
“If any man wishes to sincerely find himself, let him strap a pack on his back, turn to the glories of nature and drink deeply. Surely there can be no other test which will prove his worth -or weakness- more conclusively.” James Gordon Hindes, after completing the Long Trail in 1931.
A Roller Coaster of a Hike
Riding out the big storm at Montclair Glen Lodge gave me plenty of time to reflect on this journey. Resuming my hike of the Long Trail has been a physical and mental roller coaster, to say the least. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the universe might not want me to complete this hike. It keeps placing major hurdles in my way. Last year it was the unexpected accident that forced me off the trail. This time around, it was a combination of physical challenges, self-doubt, and then the rain. Lots of rain. Catastrophic flooding rains.
The severe storm became a major news story. The New York Times stated: “Widespread rainfall of six to eight inches was observed up the spine of Vermont, with isolated pockets of over nine inches in places like Plymouth.”
And sadly, the hiking community is mourning the loss of one of our own due to the storm. Steady Eddie (Robert Kerker) was about my age and apparently got caught in floodwaters along Stony Brook on the AT in Vermont. There’s a kinship in the backpacking community forged through shared goals and experiences. Although we never met, his tragic passing hit close to home and underscores the severity of this storm. My heart goes out to his family and friends.
I don’t mind hiking in the rain, but this was quite different. The storm created dangerous conditions that forced me to carefully consider how and when to continue. There were plenty of reasons to bail out on this hike, assuming I could safely get off the mountain. Some parts of the trail are within my abilities, while others are a bit of a push. That’s the confounding thing about the Long Trail. One minute I’m feeling great, my feet powering towards Canada. The next I’m flat on my back in a mud puddle trying to figure out what the hell happened.
Maybe I expected too much of myself. Yes, I’m mostly recovered from the accident, but this trail is far more challenging than I anticipated. This isn’t anything like the many sections of the Appalachian Trail I’ve hiked in the past. Maybe it was time to regroup, train a little harder, and return when I’m closer to 100% in my recovery. And for the first time, I began to question the wisdom of hiking alone. I’d really like to finish the Long Trail, but I need to be smart about it. Maybe it was time to listen to what the universe seemed to be telling me.
Never Leave the Trail on a Bad Day
There’s a saying in the hiking community that you should never leave the trail on a bad day. The logic is to make that decision on a good day, so you are more objective about your reasons for ending the hike, and hopefully leave with few regrets.
The notes in my journal during the storm clearly reflected a struggle with a decision: “Thinking a lot about whether to continue after tomorrow. I’m leaning towards ending at Bolton for now and coming back in September when mud shouldn’t be as bad. If I make it to the old hut clearing on Camel’s Hump today or tomorrow, I’ll probably end at Bolton like Pop. If I have to go down the road and bypass the Hump entirely, I’ll come back on Friday to continue. I’ll have the chance to assess trail conditions on the walk out.”
After summitting Camel’s Hump, the day was marred by the bad spill I took afterward. Physically I was okay, but the fall really dampened my spirits. Perhaps it was time for me to come off the trail for more than my planned rest days. The universe was surely suggesting that. But that would mean ending the hike on a bad note.
And what about the trail conditions north of the Winooski? Flood damage would likely include downed trees, erosion, washed-out sections, and of course mud. More obstacles to contend with. There was a real possibility that some parts of the trail would be closed due to damage or dangerous conditions, taking the decision out of my hands.
A Healing Hike
A good night’s rest at Bamforth Ridge had me feeling a little better and put yesterday’s trials and triumphs in perspective. The hike down to Duxbury was absent of the bone-jarring drops I’d been experiencing on other descents. That was a welcome change.
It was wet in spots and there were a few obstacles as the trail went around some giant boulders, small cliffs, and a cave. But nothing major.
All of these features were not only manageable, but scenic. For a while, the trail passed through a pleasant conifer forest with dry and firm footing on a bed of evergreen needles. After ending yesterday on such a down note from the fall, I started to feel good again!
As the elevation dropped, there was a noticeable transition to a mixed deciduous forest eventually leading to Gleason Brook, a cascading stream bordered by old-growth hemlocks. It reminded me of some of the old-growth forests I sought out while healing from my injuries, and it suddenly dawned on me why I was feeling so great. This had turned into a healing hike!
I was taking my time, the footing was good, and the forest seemed so alive after the big storm. Emily had texted me her ETA for meeting at the trailhead and confirmed that the road was open in the valley. They would be able to pick me up and we could spend a couple of days together in Waterbury and Stowe. After a few anxious days worrying about rain, floods, and road closures, I could finally relax and just enjoy the trail. That knowledge was liberating!
This section of forest was full of wonder! I embraced that by observing my surroundings and taking photos of waterfalls, massive trees, toads, salamanders, butterflies, ghost pipes, mushrooms, and unusual green bugs. Dropping my pack, I bushwhacked to investigate interesting plants and critters, or to get a better angle for photos. A little voluntary off-trail rock scrambling led to some great cascades along the brook.
Downstream, the footbridge across the brook was intact and made for an easy crossing. That was the last potential obstacle between me and the trailhead. And there was a great swimming hole just beyond the bridge. It was time to clean up and get rid of some of the mud on my legs.
I took a good, healing soak in the brook and felt clean again for the first time in days. I’ve had some great moments on this hike, but for the first time since I returned to the LT, I was having fun and truly felt whole again – maybe for the first time in a year.
Today would certainly qualify as a “good day” if I chose to end this hike now. This was the moment!
Nothing Left to Prove
By reaching the Winooski Valley, I just completed the same section that my father hiked in 1937. That was my primary goal from the very start, making this trip a triumph no matter what decision I make about continuing to Journey’s End and Canada. Being able to compare my experience with his was far more compelling and rewarding than I ever would have thought. The universe sure had a hand in that. Even though I set out to hike the entire trail, I could easily end this journey right here and it would be a success. There’s really nothing left to prove.
A Major Milestone and a Friendly Face
After reaching the parking lot in Duxbury I set my pack down in the shade, got comfortable, and waited for Emily to arrive. As I opened my journal to reflect on reaching this milestone, a vehicle pulled in and a Green Mountain Club crew got out. We said hello, and I soon recognized Compass Rose from my hike last year. She had been the GMC caretaker at Griffith Lake and Peru Peak Shelter. After a moment, she recognized me too and said, “Porkie? I can’t believe you’re back on the trail. That’s amazing! I heard about your accident. You look great.”
I told her that this section of the LT had been a real challenge for me and that I was a little banged up but felt good about what I had just accomplished. Then we reminisced a little about last year, the places we met, and my blog post that mentioned some of her duties as a caretaker.
The conversation quickly turned to current trail conditions. She was part of the GMC crew doing a rapid assessment of trail and shelter conditions after the big storm. I gave them some intel on the conditions from Montclair Glen to Duxbury and confirmed that the bridge over Gleason Book was intact. They told me about the flooded portion of the trail before the Winooski footbridge and north through Bolton.
The trail crew had just come through there and said the stiles over the electric fence in the fields along the river had washed out and that the fence was still live. The GMC would likely reroute hikers onto the road to avoid the electric wires and wading through thigh-high water. That sure made me glad I was getting picked up on this side of the river for my visit to town.
Seeing a friendly face from last year’s hike was a reminder of how far I’ve come and added to the positive energy I felt having completed this section of the hike. As we were talking, Emily and Jake pulled into the lot.
A Double Zero
Spending time off the trail in Stowe with family was great! Good food, good beer, a shower, a real bed, and my resupply box. We had originally planned to day hike in the area, but the GMC was asking hikers to stay off the trails for now. I knew of some trail sections that were probably okay to hike, but the weather forecast called for heavy thunderstorms.
So, we decided to just do the tourist thing and hang out rather than hike. Based on the next round of storms that blew through a little later, that turned out to be a good call. Maybe some time off the trail would provide an attitude adjustment and with it, some clarity on a decision. I was monitoring the situation closely online. The consensus of most hikers posting to the LT forums was to come off the trail or postpone their planned start. In the back of my mind, I continued to struggle with that same decision as we toured the area.
Consulting the Green Mountain Club
Since we were just up the road in Stowe, a visit to the Green Mountain Club headquarters was in order. I was interested in any information they might have about the history and heritage of the LT. It was also an opportunity to see if they could offer any additional guidance on trail closures and possible reopening. It was a great place to visit but it didn’t make my decision any easier.
The GMC clearly recommended coming off the trail, but the rapid assessments they were doing indicated the trail was mostly in decent shape. Muddy but passable, especially in the higher elevations. That echoed my experience as well. It seemed likely, however, that their guidance might change in another day or two and the trail could officially reopen soon. If I wanted to continue, I’d have to extend my town stay a couple more days and look at the logistics for my planned resupply in the Lamoille Valley, which had been devastated by flooding. There were reroutes of the trail onto roads in both the Winooski and Lamoille Valleys because of extensive flooding.
Today is the one-year anniversary of my accident and somehow that seems fitting. The universe didn’t force my hand this time, it just strongly suggested that it was time to quit. The choice was mine. After the flooding rains, I knew there was a good chance I’d need to postpone the completion of this hike. But it wasn’t clear cut.
If I were to continue, the universe would surely make me earn it with another round of unexpected hurdles between here and Journey’s End. Given my accident history, the reroutes onto roads seemed like a deal breaker. I wasn’t comfortable with that idea.
Do I really need to hike to Canada? I’ve got nothing left to prove. I can simply ride back to Pennsylvania with Emily and Jake and be done. So that’s what I did.
A couple of hours into our drive home, I saw an update that the GMC relaxed their trail restrictions. Arrrrgh… Now the universe is just teasing me! But heading home was the right call. There’s no need to continue. I can take a hint. The universe doesn’t want me to finish the LT.
But I’m going back to finish anyhow.
“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.” James Gordon Hindes, In the Foreword to So Clear, So Cool, So Grand
Long Trail Class of 22/23
A few more images from the healing hike, my last day on the trail. For now…:
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