The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
I woke up in the Catamount Motel in Bennington, Vermont with a queasy feeling, as if I’d murdered someone or slept with my best friend’s girlfriend. Oh, yeah: Last night I quit the Appalachian Trail.
Now in the dim morning light I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I bailed. I would cringe every time I glanced in the mirror. The trail had taught me time and again, never, ever make a decision at the end of a hard day—why couldn’t I remember?
While wandering a trail of dreams, my brain—the same twisted organ that fixated on ridiculous songs and refused to be kind to the body that hauled it around by taking a few zeroes here and there—had come up with a plan I could live with: I would pack up that morning, head back to the trail, and start walking north to see if I could rekindle my enthusiasm. If that didn’t happen within a few days, say, by the end of the Long Trail—America’s oldest long-distance trail, contiguous with the AT for some 87 miles—then I’d take a real break. I’d go home, rest up, then come back and flip-flop up to Katahdin for a change of scenery, and finish my mad pursuit of Moby Dick SOBO.
The sky was cloudy and I felt the prickle of a few tiny raindrops on my cheeks as I walked east on Main Street, but thankfully the deluge had passed. I bought enough food for five days at Henry’s Market, weighing down my pack more than I would have liked. Then I put my thumb out and in 10 minutes I had a ride—from the same guy who’d given me a lift in! By the time I hit the trail, it was already after 10 a.m.
Another reason I decided to continue was the somewhat unlikely chance that I might catch up with Patches, who had been traveling with Yosamite (cq—that’s newspaper-speak for “correct spelling”) and Doc. I’d seen his name in shelter logbooks in northern Massachusetts and I had been gaining on him; now he might be no more than two days ahead. We’d been texting and he explained that he and his new crew had adopted a less-maniacal pace for New England, backing off the crazy miles so they could enjoy more time in town. (Lava had gotten off at Harpers Ferry, as he’d planned, and moved to Colorado with Heather; none of us had any idea where Easy-E might be.)
I also hoped I might see BASA or Achilles again, since we’d been in the same general neighborhood. But they always moved fast, and I suspected they’d put me permanently in the rear-view mirror. And maybe I’d run into 69-year-old Alan, who did 20s like clockwork, since we were at the same shelter just two nights before and he wasn’t big on staying in town.
Intellectually, I accepted the wisdom of AT veterans who said, “Nobody ever regrets spending too much time on the trail.” But as Patches said, “Pony, you’re the most restless hiker I’ve ever seen,” and foolish as it is, I tend to chide myself for not going far or fast enough. So, off I went, feet still thrumming and legs churning at less than optimum.
The climb from VT 9 to an unnamed summit and powerline (mile 1612.7) was fairly steep, gaining some 1,300 feet in a couple of miles. Hikers often rue the conditions in “Vermud,” especially in early summer, when the trail is practically a continuous mudpuddle. Despite the previous day’s soaking rain, my sense was that the state was experiencing a drought like the rest of the northeast, but the first 20 miles or so were definitely sloppy.
For the most part the ridgewalk and climb to Glastonbury Mountain was enclosed in a green tunnel. The fire tower at the summit offered a 360-degree view of endless blue-green spruce tops and rippling mountains, but lingering gray clouds obscured the summits of Greylock to the south, and Mount Stratton to the north.
I arrived at Story Spring Shelter in late afternoon, and pondered calling it a day after 19 miles and a solid 3,000 feet of climbing. But the weather was pleasant, neither too hot nor especially humid, with no rain predicted for that night, so I decided to roll on a couple more miles and pitch my tent. I ended up stopping at a campsite at the foot of Stratton Mountain.
I feel lost, I wrote in my journal, and tired.
In hindsight, I can’t say if it was true, or a perception colored by my weariness and declining enthusiasm, but the following day offered more of the same and Vermont seemed hardly distinguishable from northern Massachusetts, even though it would soon remind me a little bit of the coniferous, stony heights of Tennessee and Virginia.
The climb up Stratton Mountain was much the same as ascending Glastonbury, only longer and steeper, four miles and about 1,800 feet. The perspective from the fire tower was essentially the same, but on this day the views were unobstructed by clouds and the beauty of the vast, green ocean that is Vermont finally registered. The land of Ben & Jerry’s and Bernie Sanders seemed from here to be an almost uninterrupted carpet of forest.
Stratton is famous in AT lore because it’s where Benton MacKaye is said to have been when he first had the inspiration for the trail. He formally proposed the idea in his article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” published in the October 1921 issue of Journal of the American Institute of Architects.
After slipping several times on the steep descent, I stopped to wash up in Stratton Pond. The water was pleasantly cool on my face but I didn’t swim. Instead I ate peanut butter, tortillas and string cheese, then stretched out in the sun for a luxurious half hour.
The trail was relatively flat after Stratton, but the tread was still muddy in places and cluttered with slippery roots and rocks. Given how dry the summer had been, I felt sorry for hikers who had to come through here in a wet year.
I stopped for a couple of minutes at VT 11 to ponder my next move. Vermont wasn’t doing much to renew my psych, and I actually considered bailing out to Manchester Center, which would have left 538.4 miles of hiking for my SOBO leg. I finally decided that my goal should be to hike at least another 38.4 miles, so I’d have no more than 500 to finish up.
I was smart (and tired) enough to pull up at Bromley Shelter (mile 1652.7) after just a 19-mile day. Three Long Trail hikers came in behind me and pitched tents.
I had spoken to a hiker somewhere in Massachusetts who declared Vermont his favorite state on the Appalachian Trail. I understood why, after hundreds of miles through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, it was so appealing. The trail was identifiably “northern,” rolling through vast evergreen forests and, just as in the South, going up and over summit after summit. The air was a little cooler and the smells wilder. Still, it felt to me much like the lower elevations of the Colorado Rockies, minus the spectacular grandeur above timberline.
VT’s not doing it, I wrote that night. Time to make a bail-out plan.
Jody was excited when I told her I was coming home … until I told her that it was just a break, after which I would fly up to Maine and finish my hike. I would hike beyond the 500-miles-to-Katahdin mark (mile 1689.1, near the foot of Killington Peak) and give myself a much-needed break.
I remember Baltimore Jack saying that tortoises are more likely to succeed on the AT than jackrabbits—speedy hikers (aka “big-dick” hikers, in the parlance of Mathrage, who provided such excellent magic at the foot of the Roan Highlands) are not only at higher risk of injury, but also of wearing down, mentally and physically, after too many miles in too few days. I wasn’t hurt, but I was worn down. I hated to admit it, but had I just given my body a break—besides the two long gaps, I’d taken no zeroes on the entire trail—I probably would have fared better. But I felt confident that a couple weeks off and the prospect of starting back in Maine—which would definitely not be Massachusetts—would give me the renewed vigor for a strong finish.
The AT hikers I admire the most—people like The Dude, Olive Oil, Two-Pack, Terrible Lizard, Trekkeroni and many others—are those who make steady progress, but take time to rest and care for themselves so they don’t burn out. That is a more elegant, a more artful, Appalachian Trail thru hike, if you ask me, than the way I’d done it. I’d been a jackrabbit, starting and stopping, allowing my ego to override common sense when I should have taken a break, and here I was in Vermont, drained and even a little depressed.
Not as artful as hikers who pace themselves, I wrote that night, but I will finish.
Ironically (though not surprisingly), simply having a plan gave me a spark, at least mentally. Such tricks weren’t enough to fully reinvigorate my exhausted muscles, but knowing I had just 48 miles to cover in three days was more than enough for me to push on.
I enjoyed walking along the open, grassy lanes leading to the top of Bromley Mountain (NOBO mile 1653.7; SOBO 536.4). I chose not to ride the lift down to the base of the ski area, where many hikers go to pig out at a resort restaurant, partly in fear that I would never make it back up the hill.
From Mad Tom Notch, the trail climbs to Styles Peak, then dips up and down along a ridge to Peru Peak. After dropping fairly steeply for about a mile, the trail levels out for several miles before reaching a short, steep, but fun scramble up granite slabs to just below the summit of Baker Peak.
The morning’s climbing wasn’t brutal, but the tread continued to be less than ideal—mud, rocks, roots—and the temperature was in the mid-70s, with little breeze. I swam briefly in Griffith Lake on the north side of Peru, but decided I wasn’t up for the chilly waters of the Big Branch River just six miles further up the trail.
The trail leveled out quite a bit after that, and, feeling good, I bypassed the fee-tenting area at Little Rock Pond and managed one more semi-EoDMoFo to an unnamed summit before finding a stealth spot just off the White Rocks Trail (mile 1674.7). That meant I only had to average 16 mile days to reach US 4.
I sort of like having a deadline, I wrote that night. Still an old journalist, I guess.
Though I felt better having made my decision, I was now mostly “making miles.” I took almost no photos in Vermont and my journal entries were mostly cursory. Consequently, my memories of that part of the trail are more vague than for anywhere else along the way.
I’ll be more mindful when I get to Maine, I promised myself.
Bear Mountain was my 1,000-foot BoDMoFo the next day, which dawned clear and even warmer than the day before. About eight miles in the trail offered a panoramic view that included the Rutland airport. After a fairly steep and rocky descent, I crossed the suspension bridge over the Mill River at Clarendon Gorge.
I followed a path down to the water, where I dumped my pack on a stony perch. I slipped into one of the many pools and stony buckets of cool, clear, greenish-yellow water, fully clothed, with the sun beaming overhead.
Feeling refreshed, I crossed VT 103 (mile 1683.1) and immediately ran into the buzzsaw of a steep, rocky ascent (68th steepest half mile on the AT) past Clarendon Shelter. Following a brief descent, there was another climb that, if anything, seemed steeper to the summit of Beacon Hill (but as it was less than half a mile long, I can’t say for sure). Just a few miles later, I stopped to photograph a small, carved wooden sign reading, “KATAHDIN 500 MILES.”
And then I was in for a genuine, Southern-style (but with worse tread) EoDMoFo (to refresh your memory, End of the Day Motherfucker), some 2,500 feet and seven miles up Vermont’s second-highest summit, Killington Peak. This was my last real crank before I bailed out, and I didn’t want to leave half the climb until the next morning. By the time I arrived at Cooper Lodge Shelter (mile 1694.5), I had hiked less than 20 miles, but it was the biggest climbing day—around 4,500 feet—I’d had in a long while, and I was bushed.
Fortunately, I made it in time to walk two-tenths of a mile to the (overpriced) ski lodge, so I didn’t have to mess with dinner. Then, in a snap decision, instead of going back to the shelter I decided not just to stealth camp, but cowboy camp. The weather was gorgeous, clear, warm, with barely a breeze, and I wanted to make the most of my last night outdoors.
I don’t like having to admit that I’m getting off, I wrote that night. But it’s going to be good.
As it turned out, the night got cooler than I expected at nearly 4,000 feet. I woke a couple of times, thinking I’d heard the rustling of one of the mountain’s allegedly ravenous porcupines, but all I saw was stars and the silhouette of evergreens against a blue-black, moonless sky.
I woke early and after a fast, fairly easy 15 miles and a 2,000-foot descent to my exit ramp, I was on vacation from the AT. I put my thumb out at 2 p.m. and in 15 minutes, I was on my way home.
I never did catch Patches, BASA, Achilles or Alan. But by flipping up to Maine in late August, I knew there was a decent chance I’d run into all of them somewhere along the way.
Months later, BASA would say something about Vermont that rang in my ears as I headed home: “We all know about the unofficial halfway point, the official halfway point, and the historical halfway point. I often told Achilles the most important halfway point that no one talks about is the mental halfway point of the trail that I figured was around 1600 or 1700 miles.”