Matt returns to finish what he started in his first Livin’ Deliberately post (found here) with the story of his multi-day backpacking trip through the Green Mountains of Vermont
It’s taken me longer to sit down and write this than I’d have preferred, but the story to tell about this trip is not quite positive so I haven’t been real motivated to articulate my report on this trip. However, now a few days removed from the Green Mountains, I’m feeling a bit more reflective at this moment in time.
So, as I outlined in my previous guest-post, the plan was simple – hike up Camel’s Hump near Huntington, VT on Friday, then spend the next few days making the nearly 30-mile trek between the Hump and Mt. Mansfield in nearby Stowe, VT. Oh yeah, and then back. My car wasn’t going to drive itself to come pick me up – I had to get back with my own two legs.
I awoke at 5 AM on Friday after hardly five hours of sleep, with a mix of apprehension and excitement keeping me awake the night before. Still groggy from the lack of sleep, I took a little while to gather myself and my things, eventually setting off in my trusty Hyundai Santa Fe around 6 AM. The drive to Vermont is not exciting – over 140 miles on Interstate-89 from Concord, NH to Waterbury, VT (the town I only recently learned is home to the OG Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shop; had I known this earlier I might have had to stop in) – but what it lacks in excitement, it makes up for in scenery. I arrived at Camel’s Hump State Park around 8:30, gathered my things, drank a Red Bull, and set off on the Monroe Trail at 8:45.
This was my first-ever backpacking trip, and the first thing that I realized was how cumbersome my pack was – my Osprey Atmos AG 50 is a great bag and sits comfortably on my back, but the sheer weight was something I wasn’t used to. No amount of squats in the gym can really prepare you for taking literally tens of thousands of steps with 30 or 40 pounds of stuff on your back (I never weighed my bag, but I’d estimate it was somewhere in that range).
I was hardly a mile into the hike, and the terrain was not difficult at all, but I was already tired, dripping sweat, and beginning to question myself. What have I gotten myself into? Am I going to be able to do this? Am I even going to make it through today? A sense of self-doubt and apprehension was filling me up. I had a ton of mileage to cover and a finite amount of time to cover it. The time for worrying was not now – I had to stay moving.
After what seemed like forever, I arrived at a junction, which informed me I had covered 1.4 miles from where I’d began. I checked my phone and saw that I’d been moving for just over a half hour, putting my pace around 2.5 miles an hour. That was pretty good, and if I could keep that up I’d definitely cover enough ground to make this trip successful. Some of my doubt was put to ease, and I started the last two miles up to the summit with a bit more pep in my step.
The next 1.7 mile section of the Monroe Trail was pretty tame, but I began to see some foreshadowing of what was in store for me this weekend. Wet, slippery rocks dominated the majority of the footpath, with no sun to dry them from the rain that had come through Thursday night. Nevertheless, I pressed on, and soon reached the small clearing where the Monroe Trail intersected with the Long Trail. Just three-tenths of a mile south on the Long Trail and I would reach the Camel’s Hump summit. I began up the trail, took a peek above me and saw… nothing. The sky was completely grey, and wisps of grey fog enveloped the tops of the trees around me.
As I advanced on the trail and slowly made my way into the treeless alpine zone, it became incredibly obvious that I was not going to get any rewarding views or pictures with which to remember this mountain by. I reached the peak at around 10:15, which meant I covered 3.4 miles in just about an hour and a half – keeping my pace just above 2 miles per hour. At the summit, I found the marker, took a picture to prove I had actually made it, and then departed after just five minutes. When clear, you can see parts of the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the Adirondacks, but today I was completely fogged in.
The descent down Camel’s Hump was incredibly long and strenuous. The first section was not steep, but was incredibly wet and slippery. I learned that any rock a shade damper than “bone dry” was not to be trusted in the Green Mountains. Unlike the Whites, which are composed mainly of granite, the Green Mountains are made of metamorphic rock – mainly green schist, so I’ve discovered. While most White Mountain hikers bemoan the rocky conditions of their trails (I’ve been guilty), granite’s surface is actually quite rugged and provides relatively good grip, as far as rocks go. The same cannot be said for Vermont’s rocks, which are incredibly smooth and slippery when wet. I learned quickly not to trust my footing on any rock that was damper then “bone dry”.
After descending through the muddy woods, you begin to descend a portion of the Long Trail with various exposed rock ledges and boulders. This part was not wet, by virtue of being exposed to the wind (the sun was still struggling to break through the clouds), but descending these rock scrambles with a large bag was tough on the joints and took a great amount of time. After the ledges, the last three miles of descent is through woods, which was not as rocky as the upper sections of the trail, but was steeper and just as muddy.
After what seemed like an eternity, I had descended the 5.6 miles and 3,700 feet down Camel’s Hump to the banks of the Winooski River in Bolton, VT. This descent took me about three hours, which was decent time for the length and condition of the trail.
From the bottom of Camel’s Hump, I walked almost three miles – mostly through agricultural fields where the “trail” had been roped off from the farmland, and you had to climb homemade ladders to get over the electric livestock fencing – to the footbridge that crossed the Winooski River. I was exhausted and low on water, so I stopped on the riverbank to rest my feet and filter some water for the afternoon. Despite not eating since I left more than five hours earlier and expending a ton of energy getting up and down the Hump, I was barely hungry enough to choke down a protein bar. That was not a good sign. Regardless, after a much-needed 20-minute siesta, I re-shouldered my pack and set off once again. After crossing Vermont Route 2 and going under I-89 via a tunnel, more climbing loomed ahead of me.
That’s the thing about hiking down to just 350 feet above sea level, where the Winooski River sits; you have to go back up. There were 6.3 miles between me and the next shelter on the trail, and it was already 3 PM and I was gassed. I had already traversed 12.4 miles that day, over mostly difficult terrain, but the day was certainly far from over.
Those 6.3 miles were impossibly long. The first half was steady climbing and despite the very gentle slope, I was dragging ass. My mood slipped from slight apprehension and doubt to full-on bitterness and resentment. Why am I even out here? When is this trail going to end? How am I not at the shelter yet? The second half of the section was up-and-down, the kind of trail that makes no vertical progress but makes you work just as hard as if you were. It was maddening. Every time I rounded a corner, I expected to see the junction for the shelter, only to curse aloud when there was nothing but more trail.
After over three hours of trudging, I finally spotted the sign: “Buchanan Shelter, 0.3 mi”. Sweet relief! I moved probably as fast as I had all day down the spur trail to the shelter. When I arrived, I nearly hurled my pack off in defiance. After exactly 19 miles of trekking, I was finally afforded some time to just… not move. It was bliss. I set up my sleeping bag in the bunks inside the shelter doors, started a fire in the pit, re-filled my filter bags with water from a nearby creek, and sat down on the bench on the porch.
About a half-hour after I arrived, I was joined by a friendly Quebecois named Jean-Sebastian, who had just finished the thirteenth day of his MA-to-Canada Long Trail through-hike. He was incredibly friendly and made great company for the night. As you read this, he should be finished with his adventure: he informed me that the last day he had to hike was Thursday the 21st. I had no doubt that he’d be able to finish in time, as he had just about 80 miles to go over six days at that point. After chatting for a few hours, a heavy rain started to fall, and we both retired to our bunks around 10 PM and promptly passed out.
I awoke a bit before 6 AM on Saturday, stirred by the sounds of Jean-Sebastian gathering his things together. Despite the long day I had on Friday, I wasn’t hungry Friday night or Saturday morning – like, at all. I had muscled down a pot of oatmeal and some beef jerky the night before, but I was honestly a little concerned. I knew my body needed fuel, and that just staying hydrated wasn’t enough to get me through another hard day of hiking. I did my best to consume a Clif bar before setting out around 7 AM on Saturday, but the lack of food was not ideal and my stomach actually growled as I hiked.
I was worn down nearly immediately on Saturday, tired from the miles I’d put in the day before and malnourished due to my nonexistent appetite. Nevertheless, I pressed onward, as I had 3.7 miles of climbing ahead of me in order to summit Bolton Mountain. The plan for the day was to go over Bolton, then go another 10.5 miles to the top of Mt. Mansfield, then come down Mansfield and spend the night. By the shape I was in at that point, I was beginning to doubt if I could do that. I had gone into the hike thinking that the trail between Camel’s Hump and Mt. Mansfield was mostly flat; I didn’t know that the descent down Camel’s Hump went to such low elevations, or that the 3,700 foot Bolton Mountain stood between the two, or that the terrain between even Bolton and Mansfield was punishing. In short, I was unprepared: I didn’t even have a map, just a list of checkpoints and distances on a piece of paper. The doubt on day one was nagging, but on day two I was all but convinced there was no way I was going to finish this hike.
Despite my pessimism, I made it to the summit of Bolton at about 9 AM on Saturday. The woods was thick with fog that morning, and the fear residing in the back of my mind manifested itself in the form of a driving rain that came down almost as soon as I began my descent of Bolton towards Mansfield. Luckily, I knew there was a shelter just half a mile down the trail, so I went as quickly as I could over those treacherously slippery rocks and sought refuge from the rain at the Puffer Shelter, located in a clearing at 3,200 feet on the side of Bolton Mountain. I was soon joined by a group of three also looking to wait out the storm, and we chatted for a little as the rain eventually thinned out and moved on. However, the sky remained dark and the fog remained thick, threatening to begin drenching us again at any time.
By the time the rain stopped, it was 10:30 AM, and I still had ten miles to go just to get me to the summit of Mt. Mansfield. While it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to make it that distance on Saturday, making it safely back below tree-line and to a spot where I could camp out the night would be risky. And even then, I would still be over twenty-five miles from my car come Sunday morning. I was faced with a difficult decision. I could hike even further down Bolton, then begin ascending Mansfield and stay at one of the shelters located at the foot of the mountain that night, then climb to the summit in the morning and hope to find someone there who would give me a ride to my car. Alternatively, I could just turn around, go back over the top of Bolton, and retrace my steps back to where I was parked on the east side of Camel’s Hump.
On one hand, I had set out this weekend with the ultimate goal of climbing Mansfield, and falling short of that would be a major disappointment. On the other hand, it would be risky trying to hitch a ride all the way from Stowe back to Waterbury. From where I sat weighing this decision, I miraculously had some internet connection on my cell phone. I used this lifeline to check what the forecast was for Sunday: mostly cloudy, with scattered thunderstorms.
On that note, I decided there was no use in risking my ass to not only the generosity of others giving a dirty stranger a ride, but also to Mother Nature. With sadness in my heart and disappointment in my mind, it was decided: my original plan was a failure, and I needed to make the safe choice to turn it around before I got any deeper in the Vermont woods. After 22 miles of trekking and nothing to show for it, I began the long journey back to my car, defeated as I’ve ever been.
The trip back to my car was mostly uneventful; I followed the Long Trail back the way I’d came, then took a side trail down to the nearest road. It was still early in the afternoon and the weather in the valley was much calmer than it was in the mountains, so there were plenty of people moving around on the road. I’d covered 11 miles already that day, but I was still 13 miles by road from my car. So, with a little apprehension, I did something I’d only ever seen other people do: I stuck out my thumb.
Yep, I was hitchhiking. The word conjures negative images in the heads of most, who picture dirty vagabonds trying to bum rides (which was pretty accurate to describe me in that moment) or axe murderers trying to pick on some unsuspecting sucker who was generous enough to help them out. Realistically, I knew that hitchhiking was much tamer than that, especially in places where backpacking is common. So, despite being a little nervous, I wasn’t too hesitant to try to see if someone would take the load off my feet for at least a few miles.
I began walking, and after only a minute or two, I heard the rumbling of a pickup truck behind me, and I held out my hand with my thumb to the sky, and what happened next was shocking: they stopped! For a moment, I was the world’s most successful hitchhiker: 100% career success rate. The couple that picked me up was from Montreal, and they were only heading a couple miles down the road, but I was grateful either way. The husband and I chatted briefly about the Canadiens and PK Subban, and they dropped me off a few minutes later, and I was spared what was over an hour’s worth of walking. I thanked them profusely and got along with my walking, crossing back over the Winooski River once again (not included in the story: me ruining my 100% success rate by going 0-for-20 trying to grab a ride on route 2).
After crossing the bridge, I still had over eight miles of walking left to go, and it was past 2 PM. I could make it, but it would be exhausting. Once again, I started trying to thumb a ride, this time with considerably less success. Eventually, an older gentleman stopped and asked where I was going; luckily for me, he lived off of Camel’s Hump road, and could take me nearly six miles closer to my destination. Jackpot!
After chatting for a bit and reaching where he turned off Camel’s Hump road to head home, I thanked him and got walking. In my mind, I was already at the car – I’d be there any minute now. Strangely, my appetite started to return, and the stick of pepperoni in my bag started to sound pretty good right about then. Unfortunately for me, the car was actually over two and a half miles away still, and almost all of that was uphill. I wish I could say that it felt like nothing, but it was actually one of the hardest parts of the day, being that I was so close yet so far.
When I finally reached the car after an hour of walking, I tore my boots off, launched my pack into the back seat, and slumped down into the driver’s seat of my car, all but ready to fall asleep. Unfortunately, I had to drive two and a half hours home, but that could wait. I tore into my stick of pepperoni and drank almost every drop of water I had. Despite failing miserably in achieving what I had set out to that weekend, I was exhausted, and I took a minute to catch my breath and fill my belly. After satisfying my gnawing hunger and seemingly endless thirst, I set off on the long road home, disappointed but happy that I was able to make it back safely.
The main takeaway to learn from here is preparation: I was not prepared for this trip, despite thinking that I definitely was. I had no familiarity with the terrain I was covering – had I known how punishing the land would be, I wouldn’t have planned to cover such ambitious distances. I wasn’t sure of the weather – I knew there was a chance of rain, but I didn’t know it would be so frequent up in the mountains. I also wasn’t sure of how to pack for a trip like this – in hindsight, I was incredibly overburdened, with way more food, clothes and gear than I needed. Thankfully, I had a backup plan and was able to recognize when to use it, and I did so when that time came.
I’m sure I’ll be back to Vermont, despite this lackluster experience – I want to see the views from Camel’s Hump, I want to finally conquer this section of the Long Trail, and most of all I want to summit Mt. Mansfield after failing to do so this weekend. Next time I go, however, I’ll surely be better prepared to make that trip as successful as this one was disappointing.
Be sure to also check out Matt’s work on BaseballEssential.com
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