Monday, September 23, 2013

Day 8: Johnson State College performance / to Bear Hollow Shelter

The performance space at Johnson State College was pretty perfect for a portable percussion presentation (and alliterative opportunities). A shallow, low stage with a rock wall and seating for about 90 people. I set up my flowerpots, my cup of acorns, and so on; the routine of preparing for a concert was familiar, but the instruments, my clothing (clean from the mail, but not exactly concert-wear), and lack of makeup-jewellery-car keys was all unfamiliar and vulnerable.

I played music, and chatted with the audience about parallels between the hike and a career in music. I reckon that -- like the Long Trail -- a music career is hard, but possible. The music business itself (like, say, Jay Peak) is not going to be kind to any of us -- one student nodded most emphatically at this comment. I reckon a sustainable creative career involves learning to be kind to yourself. Move forward at your own pace (even if this is somewhat less than one mile per hour) and with your face pointing in the right direction. In my case, hiking the LT and performing Dennis Bathory-Kitsz's 'The Forest At The South Field', the directions are in the text: "set thy face to the south and drop thy word to the south".

After the concert I was kindly swiped into the college canteen, where I ate. And ate. And ate. Real, actual food cooked by someone else, on a ceramic plate. I scoffed unceremoniously.

Then it was quickly time to repack my gear, fill my water bottles and get back to the trail. Friends had come to my rescue postally by sending me a megalight Megamid tent -- I dumped the car-camping tent under a grand piano at JSC with the promise to pick it up later in the month. Then it was mid-afternoon and I was back in the dust at the side of the road, pointing south with a significantly lighter pack on my back. Over the bridge and the riverbed, into the humid and close woods. Speeding along, I lost the trail and backtracked immediately to find the white blazes. I crossed Route 15 and followed some logging roads, again getting confused about where the trail went. I did some experimental stumbling on non-LT trails, and had to pull out the guidebook map multiple times. A few miles involved walking uphill on roads, sweaty and sticky. I plodded uphill, then the LT went off into more woods, narrow and muddy. Also a little misty and creepy -- I hadn't seen any other hikers on the trail since Johnson. In fact, I hadn't seen other hikers since before Roundtop Shelter the previous evening.

I took advantage of the solitude to swear heartily at the sticky, winding, dusk-gathering trail. Right and 6pm, Bear Hollow Shelter loomed out of the woods. Once again, I was on my own in this open-face shelter, but I felt OK about it purely because there were high and low bunk structures, and the shelter itself was raised up above ground level. Perching on a top bunk felt very different to lying down just above ground level with my toes peeping into potential bear territory. I slept pretty well.

Here's some video footage:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Day 7: Roundtop Shelter to Johnson State College

I'm excited about getting to town, and I'm up and out of camp quite early. Around 8am I come across a lovely bouldery vista over valley fog. 

The trail goes down down down a few miles to the road, and I get to the crossing early. Almost out of juice, I text Dennis who plans to pick me up and drop me to the motel JSC are providing, before he goes to teach at the college.

There's a suspension bridge over the Lamoille River, and I sit in the sun with nothing else to do. Finally, my brain shuts up and I'm in a sort of contented trance for quite a while. This literally never happens to me. Worth a week of struggling through the woods and sleeping in the dirt. 

It turns out I messed up, and was waiting at the wrong road. By the time we've figured this out, it's close enough to class time that I have to go straight to the college and wait a couple of hours before going to the motel. I feel fetid, and uncomfortably alien in the clean, institutional setting where normal people are wearing normal clothes and not smelling of campfire. It's noted my pack might set off the elevator smoke alarms. I go to the women's room and am shocked at my mud-streaked, lower-leg-bruised, incredibly-spotty appearance. I've eaten more chocolate in the last week than in probably the previous couple of years, and my skin is surprised. I sit in the music office -- where a glamorous, shiny poster of ME in concert gear adorns the door -- and I sift through emails on a plodding desktop. 

And then... to the motel. And the longest bath, in which I eat generic poptarts and marvel at the layers of skin peeling off me. I phone some dear ones, text some dear ones, and have an exhausted, discombobulated quiet "practice" of my rep for tomorrow. I hope the old saying about crap rehearsal=good performance holds true. I sleep with cable news on low, and I don't wake up cold at 3am. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Day 6: Corliss Camp to Roundtop Shelter

Laraway Mountain demonstrates the difference in atmosphere between a mountain's northern and southern faces. I spend much of the morning quietly climbing the boggy, bouldery, north face -- tunnelling through a narrow trail overhung and edged by bright green trees and moss. There's plentiful moose poop on the trail, almost all the way to the summit. I wonder what a moose's daily routine looks like. My metal waterbottle clangs against my belt buckle with every step -- I've set this up on purpose so Wildlife Knows I'm Coming. 

Wondering what moose do, I notice that I've started making quite wildlife-esque noises myself on the trail. When I round a corner and see another massive boulder on the trail, an automatic dog-growl of frustration or vexation comes out. When I have to lift my backpack, or hop up to a ledge on the trail, a hearty grunt is helpful. On the interior, my thoughts are a jumble of basic narration, song snippets, drum loops, and instructions to myself. I stare at a bouldery section of trail, wondering whether the muddy or the mossy perimeter offers a more favourable route. "Take the green line, traverse, and transfer to the brown" says my automatic-instructional voice. I do. I mince across slippery duckboards, holding my hiking poles up and out as if they will hold me up (apparently I learned to walk the same way, holding Christmas decorations aloft). 

The summit's a little misty-creepy, and I can't see the view for the trees. I set my pack down for the first time this morning, and it steams like fresh moose droppings. Big birds circle, yelling "WAR!" and I'm spooked -- I strap my pack on and hasten down the southern side of the mountain. 

The trail has a different character this side, with lots of cliffs beside the trail. It's drier underfoot; miraculous trees overhang the cliffs, rooted almost entirely on a thin layer of moss. Unexpectedly, I arrive at Laraway Lookout. It's my turn to hike up to a view and exclaim "wow", beaming.

Down along the trail, I pass day-hiking couples. "There are only great things ahead", one lady tells me. 

This is really the first flat bit of the LT I've encountered. This photo shows how long the zero-gradient lasted. Back to knobbly descent right around the corner. 

I have a couple of small summits between me and Roundtop. A couple of northbound hikers cutting out at the end of a section tell me "it will be blowy up there this evening". 

I am so used to plodding on, up and down on the trail, that Roundtop Shelter comes as a surprise. 

It gets towards dusk, and looks like I'll have the shelter to myself tonight. I make a fire, and ponder whether I'm brave enough to sleep in the open-face shelter. Decide I'm not, and pitch the tent inside the shelter (leaving plenty of floor-space for late arrivals -- I'm not a total arse). Sunset is scenic and I go to sleep listening to the fire's embers crackling. Tomorrow: town. Plumbing, electricity, non-ramen sustenance.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Day 5: Spruce Ledge Camp to Corliss Camp

I woke up feeling cheery, and started a dry southerly climb to the twin summits of Bowen mountain. This was a big day for me -- I made it almost 7 miles in around 5 hours. Breaking the 1 m.p.h. barrier!

Between the northern and southern summits of the mountain was a nice, easy saddle. I stopped for a proper lunch break, scoffed snacks and sent texts to loved ones. 

I thought this rock looked like mountains and sky. Evidently, I take any excuse for a photo break.
Wish I knew more about mushrooms. There are lots. 

I  leapfrog the school group from last night a few times -- they're also heading to Corliss Camp. I get to the camp sooner than I'd thought, and pitch up jumbo tent in a clearing. 

I sleep perpendicular across the tent to avoid hard knobbly roots. I probably touch the sides of the tent in doing so -- it rains hard overnight and I have puddles by my head and toes in the morning. 

The taxi driver who dropped me to the northern trailhead said "with you being a musician, maybe the trail will give you some great ideas for new songs!" So far, inching along the trail itself with my almost-unbearable backpack has consumed almost all my energy. For the first few days, the deepest philosophical thought I had was "Mud: It's Slidy". My brain played a mosaic-like monkey jukebox of song snippets culled from recent gigs, and various verses or lyrical lines by Skindred, Sleater-Kinney ('The Professional' has been my trudging-uphill song for years now), Veruca Salt, The Beatles (for the lyrics "you're gonna carry that weight... a long time") and Warrior Soul (for the lyrics "It's so frightening, carry a heavy load / Hits like lightning that's just the way it goes"). The jukebox skipped from one verse or phrase to a different song as I hopped over boulders in the gulch, never playing through a whole song or even a whole chorus. A whopping 16 beats of a new hair-metal anthem -- provisionally entitled "In the Very Gulch of the Devil", and highly derivative of "Shout at the Devil" with additional squealiness on the guitar -- swirled around the jukebox as I stumbled up toward Spruce Ledge Camp, and on the next day towards Corliss. That, and the zipper piece, are all I've written so far. Brains are weird.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Day 4: Jay Camp to Spruce Ledge Camp

And on the fourth day, I increased my mileage from around or under 5 miles daily, to a notch over 20. I really picked up speed. By riding in cars between Route 242 and Route 118. 

That section of the Long Trail is part of what I already day-hiked last autumn, so this morning I decided it was best to head to Montgomery Center and get some tape and glue for my split boot. On Route 242, the first car that passed picked me up -- the driver, a lady snowboarding enthusiast a few years younger than me. We talked about knee surgeries and Aer Lingus, and she dropped me at the little supermarket in town. The cashier noted my pack, stated firmly: "you'll leave that at the door". On my way out, she and the store's other customer debated which likely weighed more, me or the backpack. 

I had a longer wait for a hitchy-ride down 118. That was OK -- I stood in the sun by the side of the road, periodically raising my "118 S" sign and trying to strike a balance between looking pitiful enough to pick up, but tough enough not to mess with. A younger-than-me dude eventually pulled over, gave me a lift to the trailhead and played some Danish metal with "Johnny Cash influences" through the sound system that took up the entire trunk of the car. It was nice to hear some clicky kick-drum through real speakers rather than my own mental jukebox. 

Off, southwards, into Division 11 and onto the first bit of the Long Trail that I hadn't already hiked in the past. I was heading towards Devil's Gulch, and was happy that I only had a few miles to go and plenty of daylight.

heart-shaped rock

The ladder leads up into the gulch, a creepy jumble of boulders and quasi-canyons.

The triangle-space is the trail here. 

The gulch was pretty tough, slow going. Largely, this was because my pack was a bit too heavy and wide for many of the narrow rocky scrambles. I'd climb a ladder or a boulder-sequence, my pack pushing against the rocky sides of the gulch, or pulling me backwards as I inched over jagged rocks. But the weather was great, and I really loved the creepy gulch. Until I reached the ledge of terror right near the northern end.

The ledge was a couple of feet wide, and to the right was a drop to jagged boulders on the floor of the gulch. Later, someone would tell me there was an old moose skeleton somewhere down there. I'm glad I didn't know this at the time. Ahead of me, a smooth near-vertical bit of rock ascended probably 8 or 9 feet to the next bit of trail. The Long Trail white blaze was casually daubed onto this rock. There was nowhere to grip; I couldn't go that way.

To the left of the rockface, a more jagged rock offered a few hand and foot-holds, for a scramblier route up to the trail. Being a few inches further to the left of the ledge and the drop was another advantage of this route. The main disadvantage, though, was that immediately to the left of the "high road" was a cliff face going straight up. Standing at the start of the "high road", the cliff face pushed my backpack to the right so I couldn't keep my feet on the ledges. It became clear I couldn't climb the "high road" with 60 pounds of pack being pushed firmly towards the ledge I'd started on. And towards the drop.

Screw the pack. I dug around and found my $3 lightweight rope-cord that I'd impulsively bought at WalMart the day before the trip. It had felt like a probably-good-thing to have.  I looped the rope through the top handle of the backpack, then loosely around my own waist. I lashed my hiking poles to the outside of my pack. I put my cell-phone in my zipper pocket, and jammed my wedding ring tight on my middle finger. I refused to have an accident in a place without cell reception. I clung with monkey fingers and toes and made it up the rocky ledges on my first attempt. Without the pack wobbling around and pushing me down, I felt nimble and quick. I sat on the trail above my pack, and did a bit of breathing. I took the rope off my waist, and knotted the end to an embedded tree-root.

I wondered whether I was strong enough to haul the pack up from its distance below me. I refused to follow the pack into the gulch if it did tumble. I braced the rope around a jagged rock, and heaved. The bag moved grudgingly up the rock face, and I pressed the rope to the rock with my boot each time I gained a few inches. The rope held. I reunited the backpack with my body, and walked up the trail a way out of the gulch before I sat down and took a slightly gelatinous, giddy break.

Soon, I saw the spur trail up to Spruce Ledge Camp -- easily one of the most beautiful places I've been. The camp itself was taken over by a school group, so I pitched my tent and went to cook my ramen at the lookout over Ritterbusch Pond.

Note the scale of my tent in comparison to the camp with space for 10 people. 

Two rangy, speedy northbound thru-hiking gents showed up, accompanied by a springy, fluid dog called Maya. She was carrying a dog backpack with her own gear (snacks, tweezers for ticks, etc). Half-beagle, half Australian cattle dog, she was gorgeous with a blue-grey saddle and tan patches. We sat and chatted about what I'm starting to recognise as the usual hiker stuff -- gear, shelters, trail conditions -- as Maya rollercoastered around the bench. Mike, a graphic designer with a 10-pound base-weight pack, pointed out the good and the "shitty" shelters on the southbound map. Steve, waiting to hear his bar exam results and spending "the other half" of the summer outside, thought that being a freelance percussionist was probably the best job description he'd heard on the trail.

It is a pretty cool job. I'm lucky.