Worlds Apart

We drove up north on I-93. As my friend Daniel dozed in back, I pressed my nose against the window, gazing at the grazing cows. He and I were setting out to hike the Long Trail, a path through Vermont’s Green Mountains from Canada to Massachusetts.

The trailhead was overgrown and inconspicuous. We stepped forward onto the path, no more than eighteen inches wide, and the woods swallowed us whole. It was just over a mile uphill to the northern terminus on the Canadian border. Panting, we gazed out into the wilderness—infinite—then turned around and headed south. We soon fell silent.

That night, there were two others at our shelter, a couple in their mid-sixties from Bennington. They’d hiked the hills of Vermont for decades. They watched, amused, as we fumbled with our water filters and clumsily sliced sausages for dinner, coating our fingers in orange grease. By the time we’d finished cleaning up, the sun had dimmed and they were fast asleep. Soon enough, I presumed, we would be like that couple: sage and self-sufficient, rising and resting with the sun, disconnected from the world outside.

The next day, we saw six people, a dozen yellow butterflies, two toads, and one enormous owl, just a few feet off the trail. It beat its wings; we jumped.

***

The first few days on the trail, I struggled to adapt to the quiet. As Daniel hiked resolutely ahead, I resisted the urge to strike up a conversation. I tried to listen. I heard birds chirping, the wind wafting through the branches, and, once in a while, the determined cadence of a northbound hiker. As we descended Smuggler’s Notch, we looked up and saw a peregrine falcon flying due north, emitting an occasional squawk.

Gradually, we grew fond of the silence. The only sound we longed for was music. We had a playlist of about a dozen songs we both knew well enough to sing, from “Once in a Lifetime” to “Beast of Burden” to “Bound 2,” and we cycled through them endlessly. I didn’t miss my phone, didn’t miss the pokes and prods of texts and notifications, didn’t miss the strained feeling in my eyes after a day spent poring over pixels. But sometimes I wished I could open up a playlist and fill my ears with whatever sound I chose.

On our sixth day of hiking, we approached Sterling Pond, a small lake northeast of Burlington, and heard an unfamiliar sound: people. People splashing, people shrieking, people bickering. I’d been looking forward to a quiet afternoon lounging by the water, reading and washing off the dirt caked on my calves, but the pond was swarmed. We dipped our feet in the lukewarm water. Next to us, a father was teaching his two young sons to fish. The kids ran in circles and screamed, chasing their dog up and down the shore. Eventually, miraculously, they caught a trout and cooked it for dinner.

Seeking solitude, Daniel and I decided to head up to the ski lodge. A navy sign with white lettering hung over the door of the: Top of the Notch. We tried the door, and it opened. The air was hot and stale, the floor littered with trash. We sat between an empty Pringles can and a Fritos wrapper, eating tortillas filled with Nutella as the sun beat down upon us through the skylight. It wasn’t exactly the wilderness, but at the very least we had a space to ourselves.

***

Though we managed to create an illusion of escape out in the woods, we were hiking on a leash. We could only carry so much food, so every four or five days we had to descend from the ridgeline and reload on oatmeal, beef jerky, and instant rice. The day after leaving Sterling Pond, we headed into Stowe, a ski resort town, for our first resupply. Desperate for food, we ate bacon cheeseburgers and drank mint chocolate chip shakes at a faux ‘50s malt shop. The people in town were split between rugged, outdoorsy types who had already hiked the Long Trail and potbellied retirees clad in pastel polos who ogled at our enormous backpacks, chuckling in amusement. “You’re hiking how far?”

Even after only five days of hiking, it felt odd to have to obey walk signs, acknowledge how bad we smelled, and use a second shopping cart at the supermarket for our packs so we didn’t barge into other customers or knock soup cans off the shelves. But there were undeniable perks—like sitting in real chairs, with cushions, instead of on the hard ground. And the burgers tasted better than instant mashed potatoes. When we went into towns like Stowe, Rutland, and Manchester, we didn’t restock and return to the trail as fast as possible. We binged on pizza and gorged ourselves on ice cream and cleaned out an entire hibachi buffet. Living simply on the trail showed me what I could do without. Back in town, though, the comforts I was accustomed to seemed irresistible.

***

It was rare to find the kind of uninterrupted wilderness we’d seen at the Canadian border. As we wended our way south, we measured our progress on descents by the hum coming from the nearest highway. The most spectacular summit views were often marred by ski resorts and cell towers (or thronged by day hikers able to park a short walk from the top).

And in a way, the hiking community we encountered often felt like a natural extension of society rather than a refutation of it. The longer we hiked, the more crowded the trail became. The shelters we camped near grew as swarmed as Sterling Pond. I was struck by the uniformity of the modern hiker, each of them reading the same guidebook, eating out of the same silicon bowl, piercing the dim of night with the same LED headlamp. The very implements that allowed me to hike in relative comfort removed any illusion that I was truly in the wild. We were following both an established trail and a well-honed blueprint for hiking it. It made our journey more manageable—but eliminated the thrill of exploration.

One afternoon, about 150 miles in, we were dangling our bare feet over the edge of Rolston Rest Shelter when a hiker bounded up to us with a broad grin on his face. He went by Twigs. He gave us each a fist bump, then launched into a ruthlessly efficient routine, established over the course of two completions of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. He laid his pack aside and unwrapped two tortillas, spreading them evenly with peanut butter. His movements were quick, fluid, precise. He ate quickly, engaging us in cordial but well-rehearsed conversation—asking us where we were from, how long we’d been on the trail, how we’d liked the northern half, and what the water sources were like up ahead. He launched into a stretching regimen; his limbs were rubber. As he swept the shelter, he broke down his gear preferences. Base weight: twelve pounds. Fully loaded: twenty-five. Tent: ZPacks, carbon fiber, eleven ounces. Backpack: Osprey Exos, forty-eight liters. He grabbed the register and dutifully logged his snack break, leaving a note for some friends he’d left in the dust, then bounded back down the trail, trekking poles swung over his shoulder, whistling a jingle. Twigs was the exemplary hiker: fast and lightweight, personable and yet impersonal, out to master the trail rather than be humbled by it.

I fell in line. I used the same hyper-efficient self-lighting stove as everyone else. I pored over our map and guidebook to see how many miles we had left. My desire to escape extended only so far. When we found ourselves camped by a cell tower on the night of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, I didn’t hesitate to whip out my phone and live stream the last two minutes of the game from the comfort of our tent.

*** 

Our last day started with a sharp descent to Route 9. We crossed a bridge into a parking lot and were greeted by an older couple lounging in front of an RV. The trailer was plastered with bumper stickers. Two bicycles were tied on back, two kayaks strapped on top. While the man sat, legs crossed lazily, smoking a joint, the elfin woman, whose name was Pixie, raced into the trailer and returned with a Klondike Bar for each of us. The man gestured vaguely towards the highway. “Ain’t got nothin’ to do with that world out there.” As I bit into the bar—mint chocolate chip, damn good—I felt a sense of kinship. Together, we were spurning society for a simpler life.

But as Daniel and I strained up our last steep climb of the trip, I wondered how much we really had in common with the kind couple. They, truly, had struck out on their own, eschewing stability to seek a new path. We were merely following thousands of other Vermonters through the Green Mountains for a well-curated exhibition of the outdoors. I loved sharing fires with a friend and having sunsets all to myself, bathing in beaver ponds and scrambling across crevasses. But compared to that couple in the RV, I didn’t feel like I’d really rebelled.

Thirteen miles later, we reached the Massachusetts border. Two hikers gave us a round of applause as we arrived. We snapped a few photos, ate a Clif Bar, and left a final entry in the register, quoting not John Muir or McPhee, neither Emerson nor Thoreau, but Kanye West. It was only fitting. We were triumphant, but not transcendent. Even among the mountains, we had plenty to do with that world out there.

 

 

You can contact Mark at mark.b.rosenberg@yale.edu. If he’s back home in the Boston ‘burbs, or camping close enough to a cell tower, he’ll get right back to you.

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