Saturday, December 21, 2013


How was the Long Trail? I'm going with a word I made up: aweful. Full of awe. Awesome. Awful. All of the above.

When I worked as an ABA therapist, we tried to teach recognition and mimicry of emotions to kiddos who struggled reading facial expressions. We'd show emoticon flashcards, prompting the response of "happy", "sad", "angry", "scared" faces, respectively. Then we'd ask "show me happy". The kids learned to respond with a stretched-out smile, but I'm not sure they ever truly made the connection between the emoticon on the flashcard and the emotion in a person or themselves. It made me a little sad-face. This was perhaps the least convincing part of the ABA program as I worked it in those years. In a program that needed to boil skills down to a pre-generalised state for teaching -- once mastered, skills could be generalised -- emotions were unwieldy. In real life, recognising emotions requires generalisation, even at the early stages. That's why it's difficult.

Psychology categorises a few basic, primary human emotions: Plutchik lists fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, trust, anticipation and suprise; Aristotle gives us anger, friendship-love, fear, shame, kindness-benevolence, pity, indignation and envy-jealousy. However, emotions don't tend to politely take turns. I love the foreign words for variously mixed, nuanced or contradictory emotional states. 

Mal de coucou. Rückkehrunruhe. Vemödalen. Vellichor

And what is happiness, really? Does a perfect experience make you happy if there's no sully in the sweet, no struggle to the top, no pain before the joy?

"Awe" can be seen as bundling of various, often contradictory emotions, often at the same time. It's the best word to describe the feeling-chaos I got when I saw the moose. When I hit the top of the Mount Mansfield cliff of terror. When I count off a song and everyone exhales the first downbeat simultaneously. The first crash cymbal in this song. When the marimba kicks in on 'Pickle Trousers'. When the drums kick in. When the drums kick in. When the drums kick in

Paul Pearsall, according to Oliver Burkemann's book The Antidote, 'spent a large part of his life waging a lonely battle... to get the concept of "awe" accepted by the psychological establishment as one of the primary human emotions ..."Unlike all the other emotions," he argued, awe "is all our feelings rolled up into one intense one. You can't peg it as just happy, sad, afraid, afraid, angry, or hopeful. Instead, it's a matter of experiencing all these feelings and yet, paradoxically, experiencing no clearly identifiable, or at least any easily describable, emotion."  Awe, he writes, "is like trying to assemble a complex jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. There's never any closure in an awe-inspired life, only constant acceptance of the mysteries of life. We're never allowed to know when this fantastic voyage might end... but that's part of the life-disorienting chaos that makes this choice so thrillingly difficult".'

The text of 'To The Earth' (by Frederic Rzewski, for four flowerpots and speaking percussionist) became really meaningful to me over the course of the hike:

To the Earth, Mother of all,
I will sing the well established, the oldest,
Who nourishes on her surface everything that lives.
Those things that walk upon the holy ground,
And those that swim in the sea,
And those that fly in the air,
All these are nourished by your abundance.

It is thanks to you if we humans have healthy children,
And rich harvests.
Great Earth, you have the power to give life to,
And to take it away from creatures that must die.
Happy are the ones whom you honor with your kindness and gifts. What they have built will not vanish,

Their fields are fertile. Their herds prosper.
And their houses are full of good things.
Their cities are governed with just laws. Their women are beautiful.
Good fortune and wealth follow them.
Their children of radiant with the joys of youth.
The young women play in the flowery meadows,
Dancing with happiness in their hearts.

Holy Earth, undying Spirit,
So it is with those whom you honor:
Hail to you, Mother of life,
You who are loved by the starry sky,
Be generous and give me a happy life in return for my song,
So that I can continue to praise you with my music.

 So yes, please "give me a happy life".  Or, you know, an awe-ful life.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Day 25: Seth Warner Shelter to Massachusetts

Last day on the trail, and Hopeton Lewis is correct -- there's no need to hurry. I permitted myself to have a lie-in, and slept til the daylight arrived around 7:30 am.

"The next toilet I use will flush!" I told myself, latching the privy shut. My face flushed with excitement and joy at this thought.

I packed up and hung around the shelter for a little while, so I was last to leave. My last trail breakfast: a packet of dry Ramen and a Fiber One bar. Luscious.

The flattest and comfiest campsite yet. 
I felt sleepy, calm and pensive as I slowly started hiking. Up, down, rustling over dry leaves. The bright sun was almost too hot. Inevitably, I was soon sweaty.


I was sort of spinning out the last few miles to the Massachusetts line. Moving around 1.5 mph, I found myself thinking of Nikki Kimball, who RAN the Long Trail southbound. I wonder how Nikki was feeling in these last few miles. I can't wait to watch the film about her journey. 

My quad muscles are burning, and both big toes feel broken. But I'm content. 

The last white blaze in Vermont.
The Southern Terminus comes up quickly; there's a nice clean woodsy sign welcoming northbound hikers to Vermont, and a relatively shabby and functional one marking the Massachusetts state line. I piddle around in the no-woman's-land between the signs for a little while.

Feathers from the first happy northern day, and the sunny south.

I sit and eat peanuts, and hear a woodpecker hammering away high in a tree. I decide to capture this magical moment on video. Turns out you can neither see nor hear the bird:

Now, of course, I don't want the LT to be over. I go back into Vermont briefly, to find a commemorative rock. I pick up a small bit of quartz that matches the trail's white blazes. It's a precious thing to me already. 

And on into Massachusetts. Snakes and frogs and chipmunks all over the trail; it's hot and bouldery. I go over East Mountain, down over rockslides careful careful of my teetering fragile ankles. 

Welcome to Massachusetts. We call this wobbly mess a "trail". 
Monkey-mind jukebox is playing fragments of 'Your Mother Should Know' by The Beatles, for no apparent reason.

I stop and eat more dry ramen. Down, down beside a broad river -- I'm almost to the road where I'll get picked up. Mosquitoes start up, and I emerge from the AT into the town of Greylock swatting my own ears and swearing loudly at the bugs.

It's very weird to walk through backyards and see the AT blazes on telegraph poles rather than trees. I have some time to kill -- I've arranged a ride from a carpark a little up the road from the AT crossing. I turn left, walk, fail to find the carpark. A bus of schoolkids passes and the kids yell "HEY HIKER!" I wave back regally, like a fetid empress.

Turns out I made the same mistake as I did the first time I crossed an actual road in the LT's northern section -- the first road I come to is not the main road where I'm getting picked up. I pole my way through town, boots rocky against the pavement. Over a footbridge, it's hot today but I'll keep my hat on to hide the slick cowpat of my hair.

I find the appointed dusty carpark -- I'm early, so I toddle on looking for a petrol station. Food, toilet, perhaps some perfunctory attempt at washing before getting into the closed quarters of my friend's car. I cross a river, there are wine and liquor stores both sides of the road before I hit the first gas station. It's kiosk-sized; I have to drop my backpack to browse the shelves. They have no toilet. It's OK. I buy strawberry-kiwi juice concoction, a Heath bar, a carrot cake square and an icecream bar, displacing the young clerk who's leaning on the freezer with a broken ankle in an air cast. He asked where I'd walked from; I told him Canada to Massachusetts (with a silent disclaimer about the bit I missed in the middle when my boots gave up on Mount Mansfield -- I WILL go back to finish that gap). He was incredulous: "You walked all that way? On your own?" I confirm. "Well! That sounds Lonely And Boring!" he states with certainty. I don't really have a rejoinder to this, so I pay for my actually-surprisingly-disappointing snack stack and pole back to the carpark slurping my ice-cream.

It was lonely. It was boring. It was painful and difficult and cold and wet and scary and slippery and easily one of the toughest things I've ever attempted. It was also one of the best months of my life. Long Trail, I love you.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Day 24: Melville Nauheim Shelter to Seth Warner Shelter

Two days left to finish the LT, and neither of these carries a massive mileage. Today I walk from 7:30 a.m. til 6 p.m. -- that's normal now. It was a slow and bouldery start, descending to VT Route 9. 

The other hikers at the shelter told me the U.S. government is shut down. The first evidence I see of this is that the USFS toilet I excitedly hiked towards is locked.

I feel briefly annoyed about not being able to use a real toilet (which is quite a thrilling treat these days -- I'm 9 days out from my last shower and newly appreciative of all bathroom fixtures), but then I contextualise this inconvenience in relation to how annoyed the USFS workers likely are about not getting paid. Why are we governed by petulant sulkers? That's all I'll say.

By the river is an empty dome tent, an extensive picnic setup, coolers, religious texts, and abandoned cell phones ringing inside the tent. It's an unusual scene, and I briefly wonder if these campers are OK. In the nearby carpark, two guys in skullcaps are changing into what I can only describe as ritualistic outfits. I slither spandexily past them and start off up a really long and pretty annoying boulder-staircase trail from the road. Note I'm still complaining about uphills, though I chose to hike a trail with 65,000 ft of elevation change. My grumpiness is intensified by the close and really humid weather. I know part of my annoyance at the LT is that the end is in sight -- like the end of a band, or a relationship, or a job, there's a point where you just want to be done and not prolong the transition. Often, intense irritation is how I protect myself from the sadness of something coming to an end.

I rustle through dry leaves on top of a small hill, and the humidity lets up a little.

I like how the AT sign is sort of a tree, sort of an arrow. 

16.8 miles to the first road in Massachusetts. Or 1,563 miles to the southern end of the AT. 

"The first half nearly made me want to go back but the last half was easy and flat" -- Alex, I'm right with you on this. Sums up my Long Trail experience overall. 

One thing I've noticed is that the earth itself has as rich a palette of colours as the autumn foliage. Here, the mud is very nearly black; elsewhere it's ranged from pea-green to beige to burgundy to chocolate. 

The guidebook mentioned "beaver-challenged puncheon" -- here it is. 
I walk through some beaver lands. It's striking how significantly beaver activity changes the landscape. I'm walking on boards below the waterline to my right -- beaver engineering holds the pond up around the height of my ribs:

To my left, the land is spongy and yellow and anticlimactic -- a sepia reflection of the pond. 

It seems like beaver ponds drown out the trees; their dead stumps give a prehistoric feel to the scene. I mentally witter on with all my unfounded beaver-related thoughts, and add "books about beavers" to "books about moose" on my wishlist for when I get home.

All this beaver talk has probably irreparably altered the SEO profile of this blog... So let's talk toilets. I stop at Congdon Shelter and am pretty happy they have one of the new, garden-shed-sized privies. I assume it's a quirk of federal funding that, deep in the inaccessible forest, the new-built privies must be accessible and ADA-compliant. Very thankfully, the LT-system privies are not locked while the government's in sulky shutdown. I leave a brand-new, ziplocked roll of TP and mini hand-sanitizer behind -- I overpacked on privy supplies and see no way I could get through them all in the next 48 hours. 

I have lunch at the shelter with a couple of ladies from Montana and STL respectively. They're hiking the AT from New York state up to Hanover, NH. They seem really nice, and bonded by an easy friendship. Apparently the AT in Massachusetts is pretty; the AT in Connecticut is flat. There's an Amtrak station right by the trail in New York state. I stockpile all this information, and toddle off on the river-side trail. 

I climb to Consultation Peak. It's a sunny-rustly day now the humidity has cleared. My feet hurt. I'd expected the kind of blisters I'd endured on the Coast-to-Coast -- improbable fractals spiralling from every toe, and from foot-surfaces I never thought capable of hosting such angry, distorted, pulsing, erupting horrors. Instead, I've just got these weird deep blisters on both big toes, that have made both toes nervily numb over periodic bone-aching pain. In fact, writing this just before Thanksgiving, I haven't felt my right-big toe since Labor Day. But I have faith sensation will return before the end of the year -- the dead patch is shrinking every week. 

As I'm finishing the LT, though, the actual bones of my feet are wailing. Last night at the shelter, bony-nervy pain in the very centre of both feet stood between me and sleep for quite a while. I still think I'd take this periodic stabbing pain over the surface-level grating-pain of C2C-style blisters. It's a functional discomfort.

As the sun shifts and the shadows get longer, I go into what I think of as "weary-power" mode -- I'm super tired but moving faster than usual. Because I want to get where I'm going and take my protective but rigid boots off my damn feet.

I thought I saw a dead moth on the trail, but it was just hiding out:

I saw this clean sign -- 5K to the state line. I sort of couldn't believe it. Pushed on for the shelter; a group of deer flashed their white tails at me in the dusk. 

What do these last two pictures have to do with the LT, you may wonder. Well, as I headed down to the shelter, my stupid body decided that -- for the second time in three weeks on the trail -- it was necessary for me to enter that Special Time where, ya know, I'd usually be compelled to either cartwheel on a beach in white trousers or retreat to a chaise lounge and scoff bonbons.Grrrr. I guess this was a kind of humourous reliation ("You want me to carry you how many miles? Well, OK -- but in that case I'll be putting you on spin cycle. I think you'll find the bonbon and chaise lounge count round these parts to be... zero!)

I pitched the tent. I went to get water in the dark. I fell in the water just a little bit, chilling my toes through my Crocs. I cooked some ramen. I chatted to the one older gent who was camping in the shelter itself -- he very politely didn't say anything as I hung my food bag right at a perfect height for a black bear to stand up and snag my remaining snacks. I was tired. He'd been hiking the trail in sections for the last 40 years -- I asked how things had changed. Apparently the trail itself has been improved a lot, and of course the shelters keep getting replaced periodically because they have this tendency to burn down. I asked whether there were more people hiking now than in the past. Apparently it was tough to say, because loads of people were hiking the LT in the 70s, when "it was a fad" relating to the back-to-the-land movement.

I love megamid. It doesn't pretend you're doing anything other than sleeping in the dirt. 
Despite the extensive whingeing above, it was a good day on the trail. I'm just never all that into the penultimate stages of any project. Earlier in the journey, I was writing a lot of new music and songs in my mind as I walked; now, the mental jukebox is re-playing stuff I already know -- impatiently anticipating the end of the trail. I haven't too far to walk tomorrow -- I sleep cosy and remind myself that 24 hours from now... I will be clean.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Day 23: stealthy campsite to Melville Nauheim Shelter

I'm up in get-a-move-on mode, with probably 16 to 17 miles to cover today (stealthy camping has undermined my knowledge of exact mileage). I hike fast, somehow almost angry today at just how long the, um, Long Trail is turning out to be. But, reliably, hills still slow me right down. 

There's always time to take a photo of an artifact. 

The dill was a very pleasing addition to the cheese of the day. 

I met a guy who was out hunting; he asked whether I'd seen any dogs on the trail. I hadn't, but the antenna-ed box attached to his belt had all the dogs tracked on GPS. Dog-dots on the screen were ranging through the woods. 

Further along, another hiker said "you look like you're going the distance", and I felt less angry about the Long Trail's length. More, you know, stoic and mighty. Also, smelly.  

I climb Glastenbury Mountain fire tower. From here, more wild forest is visible than at any other point on the LT:

S'troo. Also works for stuff that's not hiking.

Structural remains
Here we go with another designated Wilderness Area. 
I get snackish; I eat an entire VT pepperoni as a snack. I become, predictably, very very thirsty from the salt. This is a dry stretch of the trail, with no water sources for several miles. I feel a tad foolish.

A slightly creepy thing to pass in the wilderness near the end of the daylight. 

I just keep going, racing the dusk to make it to the shelter. A bridge is out and I pick my way across a beautiful stream. I'm tired and sore but OK. Up the spur trail to Melville Nauheim shelter, which is open face (less preferred) with stacked bunk-platforms (definitely preferred over ground-level sleeping). It's quite busy with other hikers, including Swampfoot and his girlfriend who share leftover chili. I set up my home area (foam mat, sleeping bag, layers of sleeping clothes, sleeping scarf, sleeping mittens, ziploc bag of socks as a pillow) on one of the top bunks, and tend to my feet. My right heel's rubbed raw -- I slap a Compeed plaster over the broken skin and trust it will do some healing as I finish the last couple of days' walking. I discovered Compeed during a very painful part of the Coast-to-Coast hike last year -- I will never hike without some Compeed in reserve. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have U.S. distribution. Yet.

America needs Compeed.