Independence Day in Vermont

I’ve been meaning to write this post since we returned but I wanted to make sure I had the time and photos to do it justice! Without further excuse, here’s what we did on Independence Day 2016.

My best friend of 30 years lives with her husband on the side of a mountain in Vermont where they keep chickens and grow a massive garden. Her husband builds and maintains trails in the mountain forest, they tap the trees for sap, and they’re both highly-educated, athletic college professors. She and I grew up together, although we haven’t always been in the same time zone for the past 12 years (they also lived in Colorado and Alaska…I’m not jealous at all….yes I am). Now that we’re a mere 4-5 hours apart – depending on traffic and who’s driving – we’ve done our best to visit as often as our busy schedules allow. I had been in Vermont a bunch last year for skiing and a Tough Mudder race but our schedules hadn’t linked up…but this year, for 4th of July, they weren’t going anywhere. Travis and I needed a backpacking trip – so off we went!

We found a 12-mile loop hike on the Long Trail passing through Stratton Pond, Stratton Mountain, and Bourn Pond. We weren’t looking to get too crazy, so this sounded like a good trek. At Hillary’s place we reviewed our route over homemade pizza (eaten way too late thanks to NY traffic) and they told us they’d done that same hike last 4th of July – as a training run. Again, they are accomplished athletes, but they clued us in to the fact the trails weren’t going to be nearly as burly as we’d been expecting. We took another look at the map and found a way to add a loop to bring us to about 30 miles over three days of hiking. Done. The following morning they made us stuffed french toast, complete with syrup from their trees, and sent us on our way, bellies full and ready for adventure. We drove to Manchester and parked at the Prospect Rock lot – thank you Subaru for your all-wheel drive getting through the final bit of eroded road to the actual lot and trailhead. We knew we had about 8 miles of hiking ahead of us and set off up the mountain.

The first part of the hike was all uphill on an old, gravelly road. We moved slowly but the weather wasn’t nearly as oppressively hot and humid as it often is in Harriman. Coming upon the Prospect Rock lookout, we turned off to eat sandwiches and take in the views.

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Continuing on, once we linked up to the LT/AT, the trail was much more rolling hills than straight incline. Translation: a much faster, easier hike. There was plenty of water – the trail followed and crossed a river – and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect for a walk in the woods. Approaching Stratton Pond we looked up at Stratton Mountain, where we’d be hiking the next morning. At the pond we met a young man who asked where we were headed. “Here,” we offered.

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“Welcome home.” We hiked up to the shelter to check out our options. Compared to the AT shelters we’ve seen, the Green Mountain Club’s LT shelters were Hiltons. Bunk beds, picnic tables, privies, directions to springs…we were astonished to see this much in the middle of the woods. That said, we’d brought hammocks – nothing to sleep on bunk beds with – so it was back out to the main trail we went. We passed some couples who told us the tent sites were all full, so we were at a loss. Sleep in the shelter that was quickly filling up, or stealth-hammock in as quiet an area as possible? We went with option two, finding strong, smooth trees off the trail near the pond. I will state here that if you’re going to stealth camp, be considerate of nature. Don’t hang your hammock from a tree with shaggy bark. Don’t pitch your tent on top of tons of small saplings. Don’t move lots of things around just to put your things down. Be very careful about where you set up your stove, and you do NOT need to build a fire.

As the sun set over the mountain we made our dinner on the knockoff pocket rocket stove I’ve been using for three years. Then it was into the hammocks we went. A lone loon began to cry in the middle of the night. I generally don’t sleep well my first night out, and I found it soothing to hear such a familiar sound. There were two distinct calls and it brought me peace while I gazed at the bowl of stars that had fallen over the lake. Without tree cover it felt like we were in a planetarium – we hadn’t seen stars like this since the White Mountains last summer.

Travis woke before me, having gotten more sleep than I did. His hammock was neatly packed away before I was out of mine, and he’d already cooked and eaten his protein-powder-spiked oatmeal. I slowly began the task of cooking and packing, and shortly after 7am we were on the trail again, heading up to the mountain we’d gazed upon yesterday, and I’d skied down more than a few times. Just like yesterday it was pretty much a steady climb to the top once we got back on the trail. The weather was sunny and warm but humidity wasn’t crazy. We had filtered water before we left so our packs were heavy since we wouldn’t cross any major water sources until the descent. Still, it was an enjoyable, peaceful climb since we got such an early start. At the summit we met a young man coming down from the fire tower as we went up. The top floor was glassed in, but it was great to be able to get to the top. Many of the towers we’d come across in other areas were boarded up past a certain landing.

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From the fire tower we could just barely make out Stratton Pond below us, and beyond it, Bourn Pond, where we initially hoped to spend the night. We descended the fire tower and took some time to eat and check out the educational materials the Green Mountain Club had left neatly in a basket at the summit. We also read about the history of the LT/AT and how historic this area had been in the development of both.IMG_6409

Heading toward the LT South we passed the caretaker and chatted with her for a few minutes. She expected thousands of people to summit during the holiday weekend – we were early that morning, but the weekend was young. She said she’d been up on that mountain for years and we silently wished that could be our job too.

Down we went, back into the tree cover and winding down the mountain. The path was clear and well-cut – no direct descents and no serious rocky areas, so our knees were spared. Once off the mountain itself the path became – as we’d been told – rolling hills.

Something we learned in the Whites was never to trust trail marker signs. They tell you it’s 0.2 miles until the next intersection, next hut, next water source. I’ll be damned if those 0.2 miles don’t feel like the longest 7 miles you’ve ever hiked in your life when you’re waiting for something on the other side. Although the hiking wasn’t technically challenging, our bodies – from days sitting in cars and behind computers – were feeling the effort we were putting in. We were not going to set any speed records. By the time we reached the road we’d hike for 2 miles, we were moving just barely above one mile per hour – our pace in the Whites. The road was gravel and a long, sunny, slow, 2 mile ascent back to close the loop on the trail. The sun was taking its toll on us, as were our shoes. Travis had needed new shoes for months but hadn’t taken the time to get them. My boots always wore hot spots on my first long trip out of the season, so I wasn’t surprised, but I also usually didn’t tackle 30 miles at the start of the season.

When we finally approached Bourn Pond, we were a sweaty, achy, hungry mess. We found the tent sites, as the map had indicated, and they were AMAZING!! Enormous lakeside tent sites with fire rings, space for tents and hammocks, beautiful views…they were absolutely gorgeous, and plenty of privacy from site to site. We stripped down and splashed in the pond to cool off our feet and clean up our bodies before…we got back on the trail. That’s right, we decided during our trudge to keep pressing on, to cover more miles on this day so we wouldn’t have to do them tomorrow. With sadness, we dressed, ate, and hoisted our packs once more, turning to make sure we hadn’t just imagined these campsites with the eyes of weary hikers. We couldn’t even make out the fire tower atop Stratton from here, which made us feel pretty proud of our weekend-warrior ways.

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Back on the trail, we had a lot of work to do to get to Douglas Shelter by nightfall. Although the trail was mainly flat, the bottoms of our feet were sore and our muscles were tired. Our pace slowed to a crawl and, occasionally, Travis or I would stumble over something small. I don’t know what I looked like but I know he looked pretty rough. I was actually concerned whether he would make it to the shelter at one point. We had plenty of water, but he had stepped in a puddle and his mesh shoes had gotten wet – so now he was dealing with wet shoes, wet socks, and shoes without any type of cushioning left. No amount of filtered drinking water can help when your feet are unhappy.

We pulled into Douglas Shelter as the radiant light was fading from view. A lone thru-hiker was set up on one side of a large clearing and we asked if we could set our hammocks up on the other side. He agreed, and we gratefully slung up our straps. I took off my boots and hung my socks, and my feet were wrinkled with sweat. I had hot spots on the inside balls of both feet, one fourth toe, and one Achilles tendon. I cooked our dinner barefoot and we sat in my hammock, passing the bag between us in near-silence. We brushed our teeth almost immediately afterward and were in our hammocks to sleep before the last of the light gave way to darkness.

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I slept like a log, and although I wasn’t too keen on it the day before, I was thankful we only had a few miles to hike out before we sat in a car for five hours. We awoke, cooked our breakfast, and hiked out along the ridgeline until we linked back up with Prospect Rock and the gravel descent to the car. It was another very quiet day. We had somehow managed to hike in an extremely popular area at just the right times to not be on crowded trails. This is why we go hiking.

We took the descent slowly to minimize the impact on our joints, and finally made it back to the Subaru. Changing into shorts, we packed the gear back in and headed into Manchester for some food. Up For Breakfast was open and we put our name on the list, going back downstairs to wait out of the sunshine. A trio of hikers who had also been at Douglas Shelter arrived shortly before we did and were also waiting. They’d left the shelter before we did and headed the opposite direction – if they’d gone back up the mountain, they were superhuman. We didn’t ask.

Second breakfast was delicious, and we hesitated to leave, but knew we had a long drive ahead. Back in the car we talked about the hike, about how impressive the trails were, about the weather and terrain being so much better than our usual stomping grounds, about my friend’s garden and relaxed lifestyle that allowed her to focus on what’s important in life, about what we wanted out of life. We don’t want to have to drive 5 hours to take a walk in a beautiful, peaceful area. We want to be part of it. We want to grow our own food and rely less on others for everything. We want to opt-out of the rat race and opt-in to a rewarding and fulfilling life focused on what’s truly important to us: reading, writing, seeking knowledge, being outside, being active, nourishing our minds and bodies, and slowing down.

Does anybody have a home in Vermont – preferably with some land we could use to garden – for rent?

 

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