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Walking and waking: One author’s trek along the Long Trail

long trail watercolor

By Shay Totten

posted September 29, 2006

Walt McLaughlin tried his hand at fiction writing, but found he just wasn’t good at it. Instead, he took his interests in philosophy and botany and blazed a different trail for himself.

McLaughlin, who runs Wood Thrush Books in St. Albans, says he is probably one of the few people to have read all of Henry David Thoreau’s journals from start to finish — 14 volumes in all.

“Journaling is absolutely essential and helps to really make the difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, and that difference is the facts,” McLaughlin said. “I write religiously in my journals, and I can’t imagine telling the truth without it.”
McLaughlin also heavily reads up on and researches the trails, or regions, he hikes, as is evident through parts of his book Forest Under My Fingernails, which is his account of trekking the entire Long Trail.

The account is a mix of his personal journey along the way and the observations of other hikers he meets along the way. These folks are often the first to hear his evolving tale.

“Sometimes they become a test audience for a story as we are sitting around a campfire,” said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin is currently at work on a book detailing his recent two-week hike in the Adirondacks, and Heron Dance Press will release, next month, The Laws of Nature: Excerpts from Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by McLaughlin.

The following excerpt is reprinted from Forest Under My Fingernails by Walt McLaughlin (Heron Dance Press, 2006). It is reprinted here by permission of the author. The watercolor is by Roderick MacIver and is also printed with permission.

Daybreak. I awaken to howling. It’s a series of busy, high-pitched yapping sounds unlike anything I’ve heard recently. I force my eyes open as if to convince myself that the sounds are real. Still half asleep, I tell myself that it’s just a bunch of dogs — three or four of them out there. Then I remember that I’m in the middle of the Breadloaf Wilderness. Entered it yesterday after climbing out of Middlebury Gap. Must be coyotes.

In the next moment, I hear the rustle and snap of a rather large animal breaking through the forest. Belly to the shelter floor, I catch a flash of brown fur down by the stream bed. A few moments later, a moose bounds into full view, slowly skirting the clearing in front of the shelter. When it’s only thirty feet away, I search its eyes for some reaction. No alarm registers there, even though the moose has surely spotted me by now. How strange. It stomps through the brush unhurriedly. A calf appears in its leafy wake, anxious to catch up. I am inclined to shout something at it, just to be ornery, but remain respectfully silent. Life is hard enough for wild animals as things are.

By the time I’m fully awake, the moose are gone and the coyotes have stopped howling. Something stirs deep within me all the same. The surrounding forest is quiet and still. The wild hangs in the air like a lingering scent. It’s good to be back in the Breadloaf Wilderness again.

In Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard wrote: “I came here to study hard things — rock mountain and salt sea — and to temper my spirit on their edges.” While rambling through the Green Mountains, I graze the forest for whatever morsels of insight come my way. Forest ecology is a straightforward study; casual observations of animal behavior rarely illuminate; the linear trail underfoot offers few profound realizations. But every once in a while something happens, something appears out of the corner of the eye, providing an opportunity to see through the mundane. It’s nothing less than a glimpse of undiluted reality, a flash of the divine. At such times, I pay careful attention. I try to grasp the full significance of the encounter but that’s extremely difficult to do. More often than not, the divine eludes me.

To study hard things — concepts as hard as granite. To study nature — that quasi-mystical relationship between all things animate and inanimate. To study concepts like God, humanity, the world and all those other vague, half-baked notions that surface whenever one is alone in deep woods. Two conscientious hikers might chatter emotionally about saving the earth as they pound a trail together but rarely do they dig deeper. In solitude, harder things emerge — things that resist definition; things that platitudes always miss; things that propagandists and advertisers cleverly avoid; the very things lost in translation whenever philosophy and religion become institutionalized, fossilized, hopelessly political.

Life itself, that ethereal subject, is the absolute hardest thing of all — a vexing cosmological ambiguity forged by the most mysterious forces of the universe. A great deal of effort is necessary to secure any truth concerning it. Such truths, buried deep in the earth, are as rare and as difficult to extract as diamonds. By contrast, half-truths are as easy to come by as acorns in autumn. In fact, it is nearly impossible to keep from stepping on them.

I cross two mountains, Boyce and Battell, before dropping down to Skyline Lodge to refill my water bottles. Then I cross three more: Breadloaf, Wilson and Roosevelt. I breeze through the Breadloaf Wilderness like a tourist doing a dozen countries in as many days. Information overload. My mind becomes a traffic jam of memories. How many times have I passed through these mountains? From every vista I see a valley where I’ve spent a small portion of my life — a few days camped over here, a couple days bushwhacking over there. I’ve walked most of the trails in these parts. I’ve fished every stream. I know this country as well as I know my own heart. Perhaps even better. After all, the heart changes steadily over time but this wilderness remains largely the same. The Breadloaf Wilderness is close to being the geographical center of Vermont — the wild core of a seemingly tame landscape. How could anyone spend much time in the Green Mountains without stumbling into this place? Every backwoods wanderer must wind up here eventually.

After panting over a rather insignificant summit, I brace myself for the seventh and last climb of the day: Mt. Cleveland. Low on water because I’ve been sweating so much, I lick my lips. I grunt all the way up the endless mountain. An easy climb under better circumstances, Mt. Cleveland feels like Mt. Everest this late in the day. The intense heat only makes matters worse. By the time I crest the summit, my skin is on fire — the salt-burn of dehydration stinging everywhere. I suck down a few last drops of water, then check my map to see how far it is to the cool, rippling stream hidden in Cooley Glen. Only half a mile and it’s all downhill. Still, my parched lips lament the distance. Twenty minutes is a long time when the body aches with thirst.

Cooley Glen Shelter is an old friend. I stayed here several years ago during a west-to-east traverse across the Breadloaf Wilderness in the springtime. Back then it was so damp here that I couldn’t start a fire. Now it’s so dry I wouldn’t dare. Hmm ... So much for the concept of unchanging wilderness ... . The stream looks different. The shelter does, too. Even the trees around the shelter look different: older, taller, with all kinds of new growth lurking in their shadows. But the boards of the shelter floor, aged by weather, convince me that it must be the same place.

* * *

Back in the 1920s, when the Long Trail was still new, a good number of speedhikers took to the woods. At first they were rare among the ramblers but soon there were all sorts of hikers “racing up and down the Trail, trying to outdo one another and get themselves in the news.” As Jane and Will Curtis reported in their book, Green Mountain Adventure, Vermont’s Long Trail received “a good deal of unsolicited publicity which the Club soon wished would just go away.” Members of the GMC [Green Mountainn Club] swiftly concluded that speedhikers, with their headline-grabbing feats of physical prowess, undermined the spirit in which the trail had been blazed. After all, the founders hadn’t built a race track. They had created “a footpath in the wilderness,” enabling people to temporarily escape the tensions of modern living and enjoy the natural wonders of the mountains. So the GMC resolved to quell the trend. No longer would the club mention Long Trail firsts in any of its publications, nor would it keep any time records. Speedhikers would be tolerated but they would not be encouraged.

No one knows for certain just how fast the Long Trail has been hiked or by whom. Back in 1927, a fellow named Irving Appleby supposedly hiked the entire trail in less than fourteen days, beating his own previous record. Surely it has been done faster than that since then. Just recently, a long-distance runner tried to do it in less than a week. Someday the record will be measured in hours and minutes. Some damned fool will sprint north from the Vermont/Massachusetts border at the discharge of a starting pistol and will be met at the other end by an official with a stopwatch. And the news hounds will gather around our hero at the finish line. No doubt some reporter will tout the run as a good example of humankind’s indomitable spirit. And everyone will be duly impressed.

If I had the time, I’d shoot for a different kind of record altogether. I would hike the Long Trail as slowly as possible — taking months, perhaps even years to do it. What a feat that would be! Forward movement as a mere by-product of simply being in the woods — the ultimate achievement! But those who never finished the hike would have me beat. And the record would be held forever by some Zen master expiring in a half-lotus position on the starting line.