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The Vagabond Spirit: Mud-Slicked Memories of Vermont

A summit on the summit

JUNE 2006

Day 46, Little Rock Pond Shelter, VT, 18.2 miles

‘Cedar Moe’ and I are being mauled by very aggressive mosquitoes. We’re the only ones here — the others must have pulled in at one of the previous shelters. Today was another good day and my love affair with Vermont continues. People complain about the mud but I’ve been to Tasmania. The trick is not to worry about the wet feet and just barge on through each slick. But my relatively high mileage again today is testament to the easy walking again — unless I’m actually getting better at this game… ~ Journal entry

Welcome to Vermont!

I’m cruising up the Appalachian Trail, loving life, as contented young American hikers sometimes say, and loving the Green Mountain State as well. I turned 42 a few days earlier — Day 42 of my second crack at the A.T. — and on a whim I hitchhike with the local college ski club into Bennington as a birthday treat. I eat well, strangers are kind (an old man in a sauna gives me $15, saying “God’s been good to me,” and the guy at the outfitter’s drives me back to the woods), and when I climb up to the first shelter, Melville Nauheim, I find a quote pinned on the wall which speaks to me:

I like [the northern forests] because one can do here just what one pleases. He can wear a shirt a week, have holes in his pantaloons, and be out at elbows, go with his boots unblacked, drink whisky in the raw, chew plug tobacco, and smoke a black pipe, and not lose his position in society… . The truth is that it is natural as well as necessary for every man to be a vagabond occasionally, to throw off the restraints imposed upon him by the necessities and conventionalities of civilization, and turn savage for a season ~ S.H. Hammond, ‘The Vagabond Spirit’, 1857

I have a framed copy of this one

Vermont becomes one of my favourite states in the U.S. Things seem to work out for me here. Where some hikers find it muddy and mucky and mosquito-y, I enjoy VT’s paradoxically gentle wildness. Deep green woods. Comfy shelters. Lakes. Nice, sizeable towns an easy hitch away. Plenty of water — sometimes an excess of water.

My only regret is the moose — the lack of them. It seems I’m always turning up at shelters where excited tenants the night before have scrawled accounts of SIGHTINGS in the register:

Getting water, I looked up and there it was — it was magical! Or: Went to take a leak and almost walked into the biggest damned moose you ever saw…

Their tracks all over the path are, I sometimes fear, an elaborate hoax. I begin to suspect that the Vermont Moose is the eastern version of the Sasquatch, and go moose-less until Maine, content with my first beaver sightings:

Beaver dam

I’m walking in and out of a fluid little group including ‘Firefly’ — the guy from Alabama I met the night of my run-in with the bear in New Jersey — Cedar, a couple from New York called Lug & Zima (I later hear that Lug proposed to her on Katahdin) and a recently married young couple from Michigan called (to their eternal chagrin) ‘The Newlyweds’.

Road Crossing, Vermont

Here’s Firefly and Cedar Moe atop Killington Peak, VT’s second-highest:

A summit on the summit

The journey had taken me 4.5 hours from Clarendon [Shelter] and I hadn’t even thought to look at my watch. On the bare rock of the summit, among the windblown evergreens, we spent some time admiring the views of the surrounding mountains, the ski slopes and conifer forests. The French had named the territory ‘Verd Mont’ from that point, apparently… ~ Journal entry

Here’s some of that rock and some of those windblown evergreens:

Postcard from VT

Meanwhile, Firefly and I are becoming good friends, feeding and feeding off each other’s enthusiasm for the unfolding adventure. We spend ages riffing on the joys of our vagabond lifestyle as we walk, till we downright pity anyone who would even contemplate giving it up. Firefly is even working on some crazy scheme to travel home to Alabama at journey’s end — by canoe.

By this point, a lot of hikers are talking about looking forward to finishing, resuming their “position in society”, but we’re having such a good time that we’ve actually started talking about prolonging the adventure.

Vermont Trail

For me, this makes a lot of sense. Getting to and from the States, giving up work for six months wasn’t easy — or cheap. This is my second shot at the Trail, and since I only have the second half to do, I’m not racing against time. Debt, the vaguest of career paths, of positions – so what? “That’s the price of freedom, baby!” becomes our catch-cry.

Cedar has had a similar epiphany:

Firefly told me something today about Cedar Moe, who’s here tonight [Bromley Shelter] and exuberant as ever. Apparently he got to Harper’s [Ferry -- unofficial halfway point on the A.T.] and realised, “Shit, I’m halfway there,” and was so disappointed that he slowed right down… ~ Journal entry

An iris-fringed lake

Meanwhile, I eat up the muddy miles, wash my hobo socks in streams and ponds, and lie in my bag each evening swatting mosquitos and not wanting the fun to end. Each morning I get up wearing the same fetid shirt, and slip my poor feet into the same unblacked boots; sometimes the cheapest of whiskies sloshes reassuringly in the little plastic flask in my food bag.

And damn it if there aren’t holes developing in my pantaloons…

Junction of the Long & Appalachian Trails

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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