Congdon Shelter to Kelly Stand Road
Misty Shelter Camp to Best Mexican Food In Vermont Camp
AT miles: 26.9
Total miles: 1645.9
Elevation change: 6109ft gain, 5922ft loss
Out west there are really big mountains, and it is not uncommon to spend all day hiking up and over a single pass or peak. Deep in the High Sierra on the PCT, it takes a really huge day of hiking to hit more than one of the major passes in a single day. If you manage to touch Mather and Muir during the same turn of the Earth, my hat comes off for you. Once, I spent an entire weekend hiking up Sawmill Pass, only to come straight back down the next day. One single, stinking pass. The scale is just big out there. Until today, hiking in Appalachia has been completely different. These ancient mountains have been worn down. The climbs are shorter, though often steeper, and the distance between them is almost nonexistent. The AT is almost always touching a summit or within a couple miles of the next. It rides ridges where the peaks, balds, knobs, and gaps come fast and blur together. Until today, at least. I woke up this morning with a single objective in mind, to climb up and over Glastenbury Mountain. Glastenbury alone. It would take 27 miles to traverse one peak. What is this, the PCT? With SpiceRack waiting for me on the other side and a near-empty food bag, no mountain would stop me from reaching a hot meal and shower. Not in the Sierra, not in Vermont.
The sun was shining brightly through the shelter window when my alarm vibrated the wooden sleeping platform. Today was a new day. No more rain, no more fatigue, at least not yet. My morning routine followed the same practiced flow, but I appreciated the extra space that the shelter provided, and the comfortable place to sit while I ate my breakfast and tended to a new blister on the pad of my right big toe. Where it had come from I did not know. New state, new blister. With my damp pairs of socks steaming in my pack’s mesh back pocket, I got hiking into the steaming forest.
Vermont was either easier, or just seemed easier, with a fresh look. The trail was relatively smooth and flat to Harmon Hill, where an open view showed me some of the things that I had missed in yesterday’s cloud. Lots of gray hills and the town of Bennington far below. I breathed in the cool, dry air, feeling free without the oppressive humidity and dampness.
The trail then dropped steeply for a mile down to a road, finishing with a vicious flight if stone steps. At the bottom, I sat on a log and ate a big cookie between swigs of my oddly brown water. It maybe tasted a little funny, but I decided that I was too lazy dump it and filter a fresh batch. Besides, I’d been drinking it all night. If it was going to make me sick, then it was already too late.
As the trail likes to do, it climbed steeply back towards the sky on the other side of the road. It wasn’t quite as bad as the descent, but it got my blood pumping for sure. Still, with less than a day of food left to haul, I was feeling light. The psychological odds were stacked in my favor today. Shortly, the trail mostly leveled off for the long ascent to Glastenbury. While it trended uphill, it was easy to keep my stride long and efficient through the shining forest of bright-barked birch and a knobbly tree that I didn’t recognize. The leaves reminded me of beech leaves, but those knobs, they were crazy.
I filtered some not-brown water at a rushing creek, then continued on, without much changing, until lunch. I found a spot under a tree and finished off all the yummy snacks that I had been rationing carefully for the past few days. No need to be responsible now. Chips, gone. Sriracha cashews, gone. Licorice, gone. Granola, gone. Peanut butter, gone. I did save a little trail mix for later, just in case.
The final push to the summit was over quickly. Bare hardwoods transitioned to shady evergreens, and patches of snow and ice began to appear next to the trail. I’d caught up with winter, which hopefully wouldn’t hang around for much longer. I hadn’t bargained on dealing with snow in the north, and it didn’t interest me one bit.
On top, amid a the dense forest, rising from a floor if ice, was an old fire tower. I dropped my pack and spiraled up the metal stairs, feeling uneasy about the growing distance from solid ground. However, the images of a horrendous trip and fall were replaced with the most intense view of the entire AT so far, easily. While I had been cloaked in cloud the past two days, the hills had grown into mountains. Big ones. In every direction I looked there was a looming peak or ridgeline. It was wild and desolate country. The gray lower slopes were capped by green summits, which looked similar to the wild highlands of Colorado or the Brooks Range in Alaska. Once the trees leafed out, it would look a lot different, but for now the gray could have been talus. The mountains were especially large and dense to the north, right where I was headed. It was an intimidating sight. This trail was about to get serious.
Back on solid ground, looking at ten mostly downhill miles to Spice, Tango, and our van, I cut my brake lines and held on for the ride. The variable snowpack over the next mile was challenging for my footing and ankles, unpredictably firm or soft, but my poles kept me on my feet when traction failed. And once the snow disappeared, I could not be contained. I pushed hard, searching for those 18-minute miles that had become so elusive since the flats of New Jersey. The rough trail, as of yet untouched by trail maintainers, was covered in confusing pockets of dense leaves and fallen limbs, and went the way of the snow. My poles worked overtime keeping my feet below my knees.
The final three miles felt like six, but soon enough, I was at the van, wondering where everybody was. The yoga mat was out though, so I popped off my shoes and stretched out my legs. Less than a minute later, Tango came roaring around the corner with Spice not far behind. Hugs and pats all around.
To celebrate Cinco de Mayo, Spice whipped up the best tacos that Vermont had ever seen, and I scarfed them down with the groans and compliments that they deserved. With the night already dark and quiet, and a belly full and spicy, I didn’t stand much of a chance of staying awake once the final sip of tea was down. One big mountain, two big tacos. That’s a good day right there.