Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rites of Passage

Vermont is known for maple syrup, colorful fall foliage, quirky politicians, socialist mayors, snowy ski slopes, high property taxes, rustic inns, and rugged individualism.

Among outdoorsmen and backpackers, it’s also known for its famous Long Trail.

Built by the Green Mountain Club between 1910 and 1930, the Long Trail is the oldest long-distance trail in the United States. The Long Trail follows the main ridge of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts-Vermont line to the Canadian border as it crosses Vermont's highest peaks. It was the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail, which coincides with it for one hundred miles in the southern third of the state.

Although the Long Trail is known as Vermont's "footpath in the wilderness," its character may more accurately be described as backcountry. As it winds its way to Canada, the Trail climbs rugged peaks and passes pristine ponds, alpine bogs, hardwood forests and swift streams. The Long Trail is steep in some places, muddy in others, and rugged in most. Novice and expert alike will enjoy the varied terrain of the trail as it passes through the heart of Vermont's backwoods.With its 270-mile footpath, 175 miles of side trails, and nearly 70 primitive shelters, the Long Trail offers endless hiking opportunities for the day hiker, weekend overnighter, and extended backpacker.

Today there are numerous diversions for a young person–soccer camps, x-boxes, television, motorbikes, and summer jobs, but for a good number of years a standard rite of passage for a young Vermonter was to hike the Long Trail, all of it if possible, and alone if he had the moxie, over at least one summer in his teen years.

For those who did it, the experience was definitely what you could call formative. I know, because I had the chance to do it. As a preteen my parents sent me to a Y camp in upstate New York. Many of those camps were first-rate and had great reputations statewide. Ours was not quite in that league. Some of the kids were middle class, but a lot of them were what in those days we called "underprivileged." Some came from inner city families, and a few actually lived in orphanages. I’m not sure exactly why they sent me there. It may have been because it was inexpensive. It may have been to toughen me up. It definitely had something to do with the fact that my dad was on the board of our hometown Y. In any event, I had a great time, and it’s probably one of the reasons I vote Democratic to this day.

It was a big deal to be among the chosen few who got to go on the Long Trail. The camp truck took us to a place in southern Vermont for the beginning of our four-day, three-night trek. There were at least twelve kids and two adults. We had to carry all our food for the three days with us. I remember the first days in the woods as days of heaven. Few places are as beautiful as the Green Mountains, especially in summer. We camped along rushing streams and quiet ponds. We sat around campfires and regaled each other with stories of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, comparing our exploits to theirs. We dined on hot dogs and canned stew, seasoned with that most savory of spices-- fresh air and keen hunger from a long day’s hike.

The second morning, however, I noticed a couple of the inner city boys arguing. The World War II knapsacks we were using weren’t as comfortable as the L.L. Bean backpacks today’s "generation x" hikers use. Nor was our footwear the equivalent of that with which today’s gilded youth are shod–more likely they were worn out keds with floppy laces. Some of the guys were already complaining about blisters. And now a couple of them were fighting about how much food each of them was expected to carry.

As the gang set off, I stayed behind for a while to use the outhouse. Running to rejoin the group I noticed something in the bushes. It was a can of spam! Someone must have accidentally dropped it. I fitted it into my pack, making it a lot heavier, and hurried along to catch up with the others.

We hiked that day through forests of birch and maple, through bogs, and up and down hills. We stopped for a lunch of kool-aid and spam sandwiches. For a while it rained lightly. That evening we arrived at a lean-to shelter alongside a mountain pond. We set out to make dinner. Apparently there had been some miscalculation. We were light on supplies. Something had gone wrong. We were out of grub.

There was one guy I didn’t like; I think his name was "Skip." The year before I suspected he had ripped off my favorite pocket knife. And now, when I lifted his pack, it was as light as a feather. It was empty. "He must have thrown his stuff out to make his pack lighter!" I shouted.
Skip was from a tough neighborhood near the railroad tracks, an address that was always showing up in the crime reports in the local paper.

"I told you my pack was too heavy!" he said, spitting through a gap in his front teeth. I proceeded to get into my second fistfight that summer. One of the adults broke us up.
That night each of us got a box of cornflakes doused with some instant milk out of a canteen. (Apparently Skip wasn’t the only one ditched his loads that day, when no one was looking; we were essentially out of food.)

The next day we had to walk another ten miles or so through the mountains with no food and little water. It was the hottest day that summer. Sometime in the afternoon the camp truck met us on a highway above Manchester, Vermont. On the way back they stopped to pick up groceries from a farm in upstate New York. They threw a crate of lettuce in the back of the truck. We opened the crate, took out a couple of heads, and before the adults could stop us, we tore the lettuce apart and ate it by the handful. I’ll never forget how good it tasted.

Even today I’ll hear some presumptuous liberal expound on the ills of world hunger by saying, "None of us have actually been hungry."And I always have to beg to differ. Everyone who chowed down on those few heads of lettuce that day has an authentic notion of what real hunger is all about. I don’t care what they say.

Another Rite of Passage

The fellow who broke up the fight over the ditched can goods was a Vermonter who had made a genuine rite of passage. (He later told me he wished he had let me give Skip what he deserved. ("I thought you wanted me to stop!") He hiked the complete Long Trail by himself at the ago of fourteen, starting out from his home in southern Vermont early in the summer. (Can you imagine a parent letting his kid do that in this day and age?)

At our campsites we had encountered a couple of creatures that were wild enough for us suburban and city kids. We learned that a porcupine makes a grunting sound like a pig, and a raccoon makes sort of a chirping sound. As we sat around the campfire one night, he told us about his most terrifying experience: hearing a screech in the woods that sounded like a wounded human. Just contemplating such a thing was enough to make us huddle around the fire, as he explained that it was the call of a bobcat.

He said he had never been so scared in his whole life, before or since. Little wonder then, that Vermonters of the day considered a solo hike of the Long Trail a necessary step along the path to manhood.

A Group Rite of Passage

A friend who grew up in Connecticut told me about an experience he had while making a trip on the Long Trail with some high school buddies. One summer day in 1963 they set out from southern Vermont to hike fifty-some miles north over the course of a week. These guys were of the generation that had practiced "duck and cover" drills in elementary school. The teenage angst of the time was regularly amplified by events seen on the evening news. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in people’s minds. (John Goodman made an interesting movie about very this subject at the old Strand Theater in Key West back in 1993: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107529/ ).

After four or five bucolic days in the woods, isolated from civilization and the comforts of home, the hikers emerged at an overlook on the crest of a mountain. The valley below was filled with clouds. Above, in the distance, were rolling thunder heads that looked for all the world like the dreaded mushroom clouds of an atomic blast. There was no sign of civilization below, just the steamy clouds of the mist-filled valley.

Someone had an I-pod of the day, a little plastic AM transistor radio slightly larger than a cigarette pack. Every hep New England teenager had one--with a little luck you could hear the top forty from WPTR in Albany as far away as Maine. But the little radio couldn’t pick up a signal. They tried turning the dial to one of the ominous CONELRAD triangles. For a few seconds they thought they heard a voice reading numbers like some kind of a code. Then the radio was silent.

Who knows what thoughts went through the minds of these mere boys, isolated from their normal surroundings and confronted with the inexplicable? Who can blame them if, stripped of comfortable reference points, they took counsel of their fears? They were convinced that the world that they had left a few short days ago was now in ruins–parents, sisters, girlfriends, their hopes for the future all lay under a cloud of total mindless nuclear devastation.

We can imagine one or more of them counseling the others. This can’t be happening. And another, falling apart emotionally. We’ll all gonna die! Perhaps an older brother telling them all to get their things together. We have to hike out and find out what happened!

They shouldered their packs, and with grim determination headed silently down the misty mountainside through the woods, each deep in his own thoughts and worries. At length they reached the trail head, and came out on the highway. There, at the prearranged spot, was a station wagon with familiar blue Connecticut license plates, and Mom in her raincoat, right on time. "Hi, guys! How was it?"

The rest of the story is pure conjecture. We can only imagine the dissembling among our group. The fellow who told me about it said that, looking back on it, the whole thing was "annoying." We can but guess what role he himself played. But we can be sure that after a week on the Long Trail, there wasn’t one of them who was not in some way a better man than he had been the week before.

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