Vermont

The time between posts is getting longer and longer, just as the time between my hikes is getting longer and longer. It’s been an interesting autumn– I’m obsessing about something very different than usual, and it’s taking over much of the time that I would normally spend escaping into the mountains. It’s taken up a lot of my limited brain power, too, hence the lack of blogging.

Even from a distance, the people on Monadnock look like a milling mass.

A few days ago I awoke with my legs aching from lack of use, which struck me as a sign that I really need to get out a little before the busy time during the holiday season. I’ve also been thinking that I need to spend some more time on the “lesser” mountains closer to home. On Sunday, I hoofed it up Monadnock for only the third time since I’ve lived beneath it in Keene. This is a travesty– living twenty minutes from the most popular hiking destination in the US, and avoiding it for mountains three or six times as far away!

A small crowd, by Monadnock standards.

It was a fine hiking day for late autumn– brisk, sunny, and somewhere between warm and cold. Thermal regulation is way too difficult in these conditions. I was pretty chilled when I got out of the car, but sweating like mad within ten minutes, despite icy patches all the way up the mountain.

Yvonne and one of the regulars.

The crowds that are usually my excuse for avoiding the mountain were only slightly present. I passed a handful of hikers on the way up, and there were about twenty people spread out over the expansive summit. It was cold up top, but sunny enough to make hanging out a pleasant activity. Views were short, with a dense haze obscuring almost everything. I don’t know what it was from– there’s no humidity, and it’s cold enough to keep the air crisp. Could it be pollution? Someone out there must have a better explanation than I could come up with.

Yvonne was the summit steward for the weekend, getting some of the last days of the season for the job. I watched as she dispensed knowledge about the geology and trails of the mountain to curious hikers. She’s been on the summit dozens of times over the past year, mostly for work, but plenty often just for fun. Monadnock is definitely her mountain, more a home than I think I can ever make it. I don’t know if I can count any particular mountain as “home” right now, although there are plenty that I have very nostalgic connections to. I wonder if I’ll feel that way about Monadnock once we’ve moved away from here.

A bit quieter on Ascutney, looking west to Killington and Ludlow.

That got me thinking, as I walked down from the summit and missed a turn, sending me on a much longer hike than planned (although a very nice hike, so I had nothing to complain about). Monadnock, being such a popular mountain, is almost never empty of people. But all of the wilderness or hiking locations that I count as home, or to which I feel that connection, are places where I’ve had experiences alone or with small groups of friends. Hunger Mountain, near where I lived in Vermont, was my solitary refuge on so many occasions I lost count of how often I’d climbed it. At Stratton Pond, almost every one of my memories is of some very peaceful and nearly solitary moment. The Camden Hills were my refuge between most of the adventures of my early years after college, and always seemed to be empty of people when I wandered into them.

Monadnock, barely visible through the haze from Ascutney.

But that’s just memory. The times when my favorite mountains were crowded with people don’t stand out as much as the times I had them alone. I remember Camel’s Hump on the night when I hustled over just after sunset, saw an elusive rabbit chewing on the sedge, and hurried to Montclair Glen without seeing a single person within two miles of the summit. I don’t choose to remember Stratton Pond as when I hiked by on my Long Trail end-to-end this summer, when the shelter was packed full. I guess I don’t remember Monadnock the same way, because I’ve never had a quiet moment of my own there.

The hang-glider launch on Ascutney. Forgot my glider, so we had to walk down.

The next day, Yvonne and I took a trip to Ascutney, another monadnock, but a little further away from Keene. We had been there only once before, the day after Hurricane Irene hit Vermont. This day was much the same as Monadnock the day before– cold, sunny, and very hazy. We could just see Monadnock in the distance from the handful of ledges on the southeast side of Ascutney, but the views were still gorgeous without the distance. Even the dull brown of stick season didn’t hurt the views. There’s something so nice about the acres of farmland in the Connecticut River Valley.

A nice little ravine on the way up Ascutney’s south side.

We didn’t have the mountain to ourselves, but I started to crave more from this mountain in particular, like I felt some kind of attachment. We have to come back here a bunch this winter, I told Yvonne, and I made plans to come back in the spring, when I figured there would be some quiet days. Ascutney has something very appealing to me, even if there are lots of people there– the sheer variety of things to see on such a small mountain induced a sort of ecstasy. Bare ledges with views of the valleys below, ravines with cascading waterfalls, dark coniferous forests, rocky peaks– in only three short miles of trail, it seemed we saw what takes several more miles in other areas. It’s not my home mountain yet, but I can see it becoming that once I put in some more effort.

It’s been real nice getting back to a routine and life in New Hampshire in the past few weeks, but I quickly became a little overwhelmed with how much I need to do in order to get back on track. Even though I mentioned I’d be cutting down on my schedule of blog posts, I managed to let it go a little further than planned– with all the work on other projects, and avoiding the Internet time, my plate is feeling quite full.

The trail to Ethan Pond, with the Bonds far away in the distance.

Last weekend, I forced myself out of Keene for a few days. First, I went back up to the White Mountains with my pal, Clint (who seems to be my newest victim, I mean hiking partner, since our meeting on a Backpackinglight hike last year). We punished ourselves on a very cold couple of days in the Zealand valley and the Willey Range. Saturday night we ended up hiking late into the evening to find a campsite, having forgotten just how early the light now dwindles. Sunday morning was bitter cold– below 40, easily– but a crystal clear reminder of the coming autumn.

Walking alongside the Pemigewasset River.

The next day, I brought Yvonne up to Mounts Abraham and Ellen in Vermont to introduce her to the area. It was a much hotter day, with thick haze, and the leaves are starting to look like they might skip “bright” and go straight to “dull”, but it was a lovely hike anyway. Driving up Route 100 is beautiful enough without even the exciting drive up Lincoln Gap and the walk along the ridge. And to top it all off, we finished the day with baked goods at Sandy’s in Rochester (this place is effing amazing, especially considering it’s in a town that’s tiny and out of the way even by Vermont standards), then had a post-hike dinner at Fritz’s in Keene (one of Yvonne’s and my favorite places in town, with really tasty burgers, fries, and big fat salads).

Looking up the Whitewall Brook valley to Zealand Falls Hut.
Looking into the Pemigewasset Wilderness on a cold morning from Mount Tom.

Rather than a blow-by-blow report, I’ll just load you up with pictures from the weekend. And then I’ll get back to working on my other stuff. These books aren’t reading themselves, and there are some big changes coming in the world of Guthook’s Hiking Guide apps….

Bretton Woods and Mount Washington from Mount Field.
Mt Abraham and smiles.
Lincoln Peak, and not smiles!
From Mount Ellen, into the haze toward Camel’s Hump

Last week, I spent yet more time in Vermont to finish up my summer hiking season. I dropped off my good hiking buddy, Kentucky Blue, at the southern end of the Long Trail so she could start her through-hike; I drove up and down the state to see some places I’d missed over the course of the summer; I hung out with some Appalachian Trail hikers, and got a taste of the through-hiking community again. Best of all, I finally got a chance to see the place everybody’s been raving about– The Green Mountain House in Manchester Center, VT.

Okay, not the best picture, but you get the idea.

The Green Mountain House opened in the summer of 2008, the year after I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Before 2008, Manchester Center was a great hiker town, but there were no options for inexpensive lodging in town. Since the town is a pretty high-end tourist destination, this was a problem for hikers. Now, though, the town has what I think may be the best hostel on the Appalachian Trail– certainly in the top five, and definitely the best on the Long Trail.

What’s so great?

Kentucky Blue showing off the awesomeness.

Jeff, the owner of the hostel, is a long-distance hiker himself, and basically took all the things he loved about other hostels to make his own hiker’s paradise. The entire building is newly renovated with the purpose of being a hiker hostel. There’s a nice hiker-kitchen (complete with dishwasher, and every utensil/pot/pan you could need), a large lounge room (several comfy couches, wifi, computer, TV, movies), multiple hiker bedrooms with comfy beds, fully stocked bathrooms, laundry room, loaner clothes, books and magazines– everything you might need.

Slow Goin’ and Piedmont chilling out in the kitchen.

But the little touches are what make the place so great. The living room with the TV and computer is separate from the dining room and kitchen, so if some people are watching movies and TV, you can still hang out in the other rooms without being disturbed. The bathrooms are fully stocked with soap, shampoo, razors, and other toiletries for the needy hiker. The bedrooms also have comfy couches to make the rooms nice to hang out in. Jeff keeps the kitchen stocked with eggs, pancake mix, cereal, milk, and Ben & Jerry’s (every guest gets a complimentary pint!). The place is immaculately clean, despite four years of hikers coming through.

How cool is that? Hiker backpacks ready to head to the trail in the morning.

Best of all, the rules are simple, and they keep things respectable. No drugs or alcohol. Quiet hours start at 9 PM. That’s pretty much all you need.

Yes, that’s a bomb by the fireplace.

The hostel is located a fair distance outside of town, so Jeff shuttles hikers in from town after they’ve taken care of whatever business is necessary. Since I had my car there, I helped out with driving people out to the trail, but Jeff goes far beyond the call of duty to get hikers to the trail in the morning, get them to the hostel in the afternoon, and to provide a heck of a nice place for hikers to stay. All this for $20 a night– and I got way more than my money’s worth if you count the ice cream and the leftover food in the fridge from someone’s birthday party the night before.

If you happen to be hiking in southern Vermont in the summer, check this place out. It’s a role model for all other hiker hostels out there.

For the final part of my Long Trail end-to-end trip report, I wanted to write a followup to the planning posts earlier on– specifically about how the food plans went. I’ll try to keep this short and to the point. But we all know I get long-winded all too easily. For reference, here’s a link to the earlier food planning post, and to the actual lists of what food went into my supply packages.

Food Variety:

A few things stood out really well on this trip. These were the foods that, even by the end of two weeks, I always dug out of the food bag without hesitation.

  1. Larabar was a sure winner, and their new Uber bars are a fine addition to their flavor lineup. The Uber bars add more nuts and salt to the bars, which makes them easier to chow down on a hot day.
  2. Trader Joe’s pound-plus chocolate bars are one of the best backpacking foods around– inexpensive, calorie dense, and delicious. A few squares of the 72% cocoa version worked better than any energy bar to give me a quick and lasting boost.
  3. Whole fat milk powder is absolutely amazing! A bit of that with a bowl of granola and berries in the morning kept me going for hours. Simply put, it actually tastes like milk, rather than the swill that you find at most supermarkets.
  4. Dr Kracker crackers are also fantastic, if a little pricey. I should have brought more stuff like those, because after too many nuts and seeds, a wheaty snack feels great to eat while on trail, especially with some chocolate peanut-butter or Nutella spread on top.

A few things went less well, and will need a bit of a change on my next big trip:

  1. I need to remember that raw nuts can be a little hard to eat in large quantities. The raw hazelnuts and brazil nuts, as much as I enjoy them, could have been easier to eat if they’d been candied in one way or another.
  2. Speaking of candy, I would probably bring more simple sugars for quick energy during the hiking day. My energy levels throughout the day were generally consistent, but on some days I really needed a boost.
  3. I could have replaced some of the seasonings in my dinner foods with more protein, in the form of tuna packets, or freeze-dried meats from Packitgourmet.com.

Food amounts:

The plan of two pounds of food per day was a pretty big success. Here’s what I had left in my food bag at the end of each supply period:

  1. Small amount of dehydrated veggie mix, potato flakes, garlic, and onion. Handful of nuts.
  2. Almost exactly the same as the first resupply.
  3. More nuts, some seasonings.

As you can see, it looks like I overpacked on nuts (see above in the food cons section), as well as dinner seasonings and dried vegetables. I was well-fed throughout the trip, and my diet was nutritionally balanced compared to many long-distance backpackers.

Changes I would make in amounts for next time, aside from what I mentioned in the cons section above, would be to take less dried vegetables and seasonings, since a small amount of those goes a long way. I’d replace that weight with freeze dried meats, and a little more seasoning variety for dinners. I’d replace some of the nuts with sweets and cookies, or at least honey roasted, maple glazed, or praline nuts, just for some quick energy fixes.

Finally, a note about cooking. I started the hike with 12 fluid ounces of denatured alcohol, which I hoped would last the entire trip. I cooked one meal per day, which ended up being about 14 meals (since I didn’t cook dinner while at the Inn at LT or on the day I finished the trail). The Caldera Cone stove system is incredibly efficient, and so I walked out of the woods with about two fluid ounces of fuel left. Less than an ounce of fuel per boil? Not bad at all!

After a one-day break from hiking, it was time to get back to work. I returned to the trail at Sherburne Pass, right outside the Inn at Long Trail for a long climb up Pico and Killington Peaks, opting for the old LT route as many Long Trail hikers do. At this point, the Appalachian Trail joined the Long Trail. I entered a different world.

Clarendon Gorge

A Different Group

It became clear as soon as I passed Jungle Junction (the junction of the old and new LT near Killington Peak) that I was in for a very different experience than I’d had in the past ten days. There were a lot of people on the trail now. A Green Mountain Club caretaker told me, “the AT crowd is like a mullet. Business in front, party in the back. We’re right at the bald spot.” Indeed, there were about equal numbers of the party hikers and serious hikers in the crowds I met. I passed so many northbound hikers that I began to lose track. One day, there were more than fifty– more people than I’d seen in my first week on the trail.

AT Through-hikers overlooking Manchester Center at Prospect Rock.

There was a major difference in mentality between the AT hikers, near the end of their journey, and that of the LT hikers further north. The AT hikers, though in superior shape from hiking for several months already, had an air of weariness about them. I’ve seen this among all the long-distance hikers I’ve met on both coasts. For the first month or so, everything is new and exciting. After the weeks start to pile up, though, the hike becomes a routine, rather than the escape it had been in the beginning. Most LT hikers aren’t on the trail long enough for that to happen. Only a handful of the AT hikers I met were still in the blissful haze that they must have started with, but their joy was contagious.

Ponds and Peaks

South of Killington, the second highest peak in the state, the Long Trail continues through lowlands near the towns of Shrewsbury and Clarendon. A significant section of the trail in this area had sustained serious damage in the hurricane last year, resulting in washed out bridges and eroded land. The Forest Service had closed the trail around the damage, but most hikers went in anyway, ignoring the detour and just crossing streams on fallen trees (of which there were plenty). I did the same, and everything was just fine. Soon enough, I was climbing back up into higher elevations at White Rocks Mountain and Little Rock Pond.

Where once there was a road bridge, now we have a hiker bridge.
Home of the forest gnomes.

The Long Trail’s northern and central sections are full of steep ups and downs between rocky mountains, but the southern end is a very different trail. There are plenty of mountains, and they are quite massive when viewed from afar, but few have natural views from the top. Fire towers and ski resorts help with that, but the real natural beauty in southern Vermont comes more from things below the treetops, not above.

One of the most reliable and serene sunsets in Vermont, at Stratton Pond.

Griffith Lake, Little Rock Pond, Stratton Pond, and several beaver bogs provided fine scenery day after day. A reliably gorgeous sunset at Stratton Pond, an abundance of wildlife in various bogs, a cooling dip in the cold mountain water at Griffith– these were fine shows of natural beauty. The views from Stratton and Glastenbury mountains are two of my favorites in Vermont, and those from Bromley and Baker are delightful, but it’s just as nice to sit by the edge of a pond for an hour and see no traces of humanity anywhere around.

The view at Bromley isn’t bad, and the seats are well-cushioned.

Even walking through the dense forest in the Lye Brook Wilderness, or the ridge near White Rocks, the simple peace of the woods was enough. For every time I’ve heard someone criticize a section of trail for being a green tunnel, or a mountain without a view, I’ve walked through a dozen such places and seen nothing to complain about. A fine pond might not clobber you over the head with its grandeur, but there’s just as much to see as from a mountaintop.

Heading to Georgia? Or just section hiking?

With so many AT hikers passing by, most everyone assumed I was a southbound AT through-hiker. Maybe it was because I carry an ultralight pack, and most people assume solo UL hikers are always through-hikers. Or maybe because I had a beard and smelled funny. Or maybe just because AT hikers so outnumbered LT hikers at this point. Whatever the reason, it no longer felt like I was hiking the Long Trail. I was hiking the AT now.

More lovely Vermont forest.

It might have been different if I’d come through in a different season, or just any time when there weren’t so many AT hikers. But it was a good way to be done with the hike. On the last full day, I sat down in a clearing just before the evening’s campsite, and chatted with a couple of very nice through-hikers who were still riding the AT high, still enjoying every minute. One even recognized me from this blog (that’s a first for me). We talked about the joy of long-distance backpacking, and of the hiking that lay ahead for them. It’s a good feeling to be around people who are so happy to be doing what they’re doing.

Beaver bogs would be a nice place to find moose in the morning, I think.

The next morning, I made it to the Massachusetts border pretty early, and sat down to sign the register there. I realized that this had been the most satisfying long-distance hike I’ve done– things went more or less according to plan, I met good people, and I wasn’t burnt out at the end. And then I looked at the first page of the register, and found an entry from nine months earlier– “…Missed my chance to thru-hike this year. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year. –Guthook”.

Ultralight nerd picture.

Looks like that worked out perfectly.