Total Miles: 221.6
What is at the heart of any trail experience? It’s a question I’ve had more time than most to ponder over, the luxury of a charmed life whose privilege is never forgotten. And over many years and many thousands of miles, I’ve come to the realization that the experience of a trail is not about the trail itself, not the thing physically beneath your feet, it’s about where it takes you. To experience Rome is not to experience the pavement of its streets.
Not only the granddaddy of all long distance trails, when it comes to pure ruggedness the Long Trail stands alone. Peerless. As a kid who grew up hiking on the same rugged trails here in Vermont, in the Adirondacks of New York, and in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, it’s a kind of hiking that isn’t for everyone. It’s hiking the way it used to be, and for better or worse, it’s a brand of hiking I’ll always have a deep affection for.
But love it as I might, and as great a trail experience as the Long Trail is, there’s a problem. And this is the part that, if anyone from the Green Mountain Club is reading this—and I hope that they are—is going to sting a bit: the Long Trail isn’t a great trail or even a good trail. For long swaths, it’s a bad trail.
When I made that very statement to a GMC caretaker yesterday evening, let’s just say it wasn’t met with an open mind. You’d have thought I’d just insulted her first born.
Speaking with a particular reverence for the trail, its history, its lore, and its legacy, if there was a Church of the Long Trail she’d be its high priestess. To the notion that the trail was in any way flawed or unsustainable in its current incarnation, there was a simple answer in her view: that the trail founders would’ve dismissed such complaints as simply a chorus of the whiners, those unwashed masses unworthy of hiking a trail of such unparalleled esteem. As though quoting from a mythical bible of the trail written by visionaries like James P. Taylor, it raises the question: even if such a guiding document did exist, ordaining precisely what the trail should look like and how it should remain, would we be no better than strict constructionists worshipping at the misguided altar of originalism to adhere to it, chapter and verse?
There is—sadly—a vast number of people for whom the greatest reward of hiking a long distance trail is what they believe it says about themselves. The perceived identity of the trail becoming the identity they adopt, relegating the entire experience to nothing more than an exercise in vanity, pride, and ego. And when those who view the trail experience through that narrow and unfortunate lens are elevated to be the guiding voices behind the organizations responsible for the stewardship of the trail itself, it can be no surprise that they are resistant to change. Because changing the trail would mean changing the very identity that they cling to so tightly.
When exactly is a trail a bad trail? When there is more than one footpath at any given moment. When the trail and its drainage are one in the same. When its footpath widens, unchecked, in response to quagmires of mud. When a quarter mile of boardwalk is required to walk it. When it relies upon the timely maintenance of beaver dams by their rodent owners. Good grief.
When we ran into an Appalachian Trail section hiker who also happened to be the head of a North Carolina trail club responsible for maintaining a portion of that trail, he had just one word to describe how is organization would feel about the state of the southern Long Trail on which we met had it been their responsibility: embarrassed.
One state to the west, in one of the nation’s largest forest preserves encompassing more than 6 million acres where trails share nearly identical DNA to that of the Long Trail, the Adirondack Mountain Club has made it plain where it stands on the future of the trails under its care. From a newsletter entitled We Can Build Better Trails:
“The Adirondack Park’s trails depict the vision of the early hiking guides, who sought to create the most direct routes to summits, regardless of environmental consequences. Traveling along streambeds, through wetlands, and over alpine habitat, these trails were not built with long-term impacts in mind.
Today these paths are degrading before our very eyes. With more hikers on the trail than ever before and climate change-related storms increasing in frequency year by year, the legacy of the Adirondack Park’s trailblazers is eroding, leaving behind paths that are unsafe and unsustainable for today’s generation.”
Here’s the conundrum of all of this: I love these trails—both the Long Trail and those of the Adirondack High Peaks—just as they are. But that love, and the ego it can so often be synonymous with, cannot and should not stand in the way of making these places more accessible to more people, safer, and more sustainable for a future where resources to build and maintain trails will continue to be constrained.
From their own webpage, you’d think the Green Mountain Club ought to agree:
“The mission of the Green Mountain Club is to make the Vermont mountains play a larger part in the life of the people by protecting and maintaining the Long Trail System and fostering, through education, the stewardship of Vermont’s hiking trails and mountains.”
The Long Trail may be nearing its centennial, but the mere existence of a thing is not a testament to its sustainability. To be honest is to recognize its flaws. The same self-awareness we ask of each other as humans. To preserve it strictly as it is, in spite of its mission “to make the Vermont mountains play a larger part in the life of the people”, is to render the Green Mountain Club not as a hiking club, but as a different kind of club: a country club. One that gets to be the sole arbiter of exclusivity as to who is and is not capable (read: worthy) of hiking its crown jewel. One aspiring to protect not the character of experiencing the Green Mountains, but a nostalgia and a mythology of provincial nativism.
It is, of course, complicated. Practical limitations such as trail building expertise, funding, and the intricacies of public/private land management pose very real barriers to doing anything of substance that would materially improve the experience of the Long Trail. But to allow those limitations to stunt a path to the future is to ignore an opportunity.
Everything can be better than it is. But without a vision for what the future could be, there is no progress towards that future. That’s what it means to be aspirational. And to realize that vision requires unburdening ourselves of the chip we often carry on our shoulders, and shedding the mythology we wrap ourselves with like a warm blanket.
After two trips down the length of the Long Trail, it’s still one of my favorites, and I’ll surely be back to thru-hike it again before I’m dead and buried in the ground. When I do, I hope that there are glimmers of an evolution that are so clearly within its grasp. No matter its age, nothing is ever truly “finished”, and the Long Trail is no exception. An unfinished symphony awaiting the right composers, with enough vision and fortitude to shape it into its ultimate expression.