The Tallest Mountain: Mt. Mansfield and the Long Trail

Mt. Mansfield, VT: June, 2021

Continued from: The Greenest Mountains: Burlington and a Big Red Bus

Not far south of Jeffersonville the Green Mountains launch upward so steeply and dwarf in ruggedness anything in the east outside of New Hampshire. As they loomed ahead, a flashing sign read ‘Route impassible for trucks’ followed about a half-mile later with another: ‘Seriously, your GPS is wrong. Trucks will get stuck.’

The warnings proved correct as I entered Mt. Mansfield State Forest and the road wrapped around boulders and plunged downward along s-curves that were tight for my Corolla and wouldn’t be out of place on a Mario Kart track. I found the trailhead I was looking for and pulled next to a line of three other cars, joining the early-starters on an already warm morning.

There are several methods to summit Mt. Mansfield, from the easiest: a twenty-eight dollar toll road, to the most strenuous: an aptly named trail called Hell Brook that is quite literally walking up a mountain stream from base to source. Between the two, in both geography and difficulty is the Long Trail. Part of it at least.

Probably the most storied trail in the US that doesn’t have a major movie about it, the Long Trail runs lengthwise through Vermont, from Massachusetts to Quebec along the spine of the Green Mountains. First blazed in 1909, it predates and served as the main inspiration for the now more famous Appalachian Trail. The two overlap for a bit in southern Vermont before one heads to New Hampshire and the other to Canada.

There are a few differences between the two – for one, the creators of the Long Trail had never met a switchback they liked. The trail basically goes up and over mountains as if blazed by a bear, rather than the snaking bends of the higher but eminently more climbable mountains further south. While on a different section of the trail, I happened across a group from Colorado who were hiking the entire LT after completing the Pacific Crest who said that day for day the original in Vermont was a tougher go despite the modest elevation gain. I would soon learn why.

I began my hike at Barnes Camp, and after a half a mile of modest elevation gain the trail took a sharp turn up a semi-dry creek bed, much like the one I was warned about if I took the Hell Brook route. The creek didn’t meander but tumbled down the mountainside like a tilted waterfall, the grade just shallow enough to avoid using hands to climb. I was hemmed in by maples of all sizes, their leaves still the fledglings of spring this far up latitude. Also noticeable were the lack of weeds and shrubby undergrowth that populate the moister Appalachian environs. I imagined the forest to be very pleasant but I had a difficult time appreciating it as the thumping crescendo inside my chest steadily blocked out the sounds of birds and brook. I sat on a boulder to rest, feeling as if my heart was about to repeatedly burst out, caught only by my shirt like a lovestruck Looney Tune. My watch read a mile but my legs said otherwise, both indicating I was only a third of the way there, and I looked back to see the adjacent mountain still towering over my perch.

Though the slope remained a challenge, the second mile was a bit easier when temperature dropped as I approached the foliage transition zone, and gradually a few fir trees found themselves mixed among the maples as welcoming signs from above. It was around here I heard what sounded like a rockslide approaching from around yet another upwardly twisting bend. The clinking of rocks against bigger rocks got louder until it was joined by exasperated grunts and stunted conversation. A troop of runners were step-sliding their way down the trail at an unsustainable rate of descent, cutting side to side like ill-equipped skiers in the wrong season. I stood to the side as a half-dozen or so passed, followed about ten seconds later by a young woman who was clearly the smartest of the pack who cheerily said “I’m falling behind!” and slid her way toward the pack.

After I left the maples below, even the coniferous trees began to shrink as cedar and fir immediately wafted their way to my nose – another good sign. This aroma can basically only be experienced while in the woods, and so it always brings with it pleasant memories as smell is one of the few things technology hasn’t been able to dilute. You can search an image of just about anywhere in the world or quickly pull up and listen to a nostalgic song from times past, but scent, at least so far, cannot be totally replicated.  Of course you can get a candle or plant a couple of trees but to really smell an alpine forest you must go to an alpine forest. Sometimes I envy those who traveled the world before street view or witnessed the ocean for the first time without having seen a picture of it. With few exceptions, modern travelers can’t even fathom that sense of wonder – but we can with smell. I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath of alpine air, then realized I was finally high enough to get service and promptly sent a photo to Lauren and then checked to see if Cleveland had won their baseball game the previous night. Technology takes, technology gives. I probably wouldn’t be able to visit the mountains of Vermont if I were alive in the eighteenth century, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to share a solo trip with my wife, so if it means the first time I see the summit of Mt. Mansfield is really just the first time off-screen, then that is just how it goes.

Around two and a half miles since leaving Barnes Camp, I reached Taft Lodge. Nestled amongst the needles, this century-old shelter was built for hikers and caretakers as a place to stay just below the summit while following the trail. It has a dozen wooden bunks and a deck that looks east over the forested ravines. Today, it was empty save for a couple on the deck, he lying on a bench with a towel over his face and she studying a map. We talked for a bit – I needed the break as much as towel man did – and it turned out they were following the same series of trails that I was.

“It’s less than a mile to the chin” said the woman with the map.

Mt. Mansfield has several promontories, which when taken as a whole vaguely resemble the face of somebody lying supine with their feet aimed at Canada, not unlike this woman’s partner at that particular moment. The chin was the highest point in Vermont, but the upper lip, lower lip, and nose were rather steep bumps that were tough scrambles in their own right when following the trail across the ridge. Adam’s Apple was slightly north of the chin but wasn’t on the main trail.

I said farewell and pressed on into the ever shrinking conifers, confident I could reach the chin fairly easily now that a cooling breeze was a constant presence. I passed the sign for Profanity Trail and contemplated its etymology before looking at the contour lines on my map and wondering no more. Soon I reached treeline, where the firs were replaced by stubby green things and the trail by gnarled slabs of schist. Without any vegetation, I really had to keep an eye out for the blazes, which were now white marks smeared occasionally on rocks. It was at the base of the chin that Long Trail went vertical.

The scrambling over and through open-faced boulders would not have been as difficult had the last 2.9 miles not existed, but I found myself taking a few breaks between locating footholds. On all sides but the one that mattered were severe dropoffs to the lower land below, and this vista, along with the green beard of unbloomed alpine azaleas clinging to the earth between rocks, reminded me of mountains far to the west of here. At last I completed the final stretch of clambering and there was nothing around that was higher than I was, at least not until the Presidential Range one state over. There were a half-dozen others on the barren summit, and I found a spot away from them to have some water and generally not move until I felt like it again.

I had become a bit turned around on the ascent and asked an official looking twenty-something woman in a Green Mountain Club tee shirt which direction we were facing.

“This is toward Burlington, and that’s Lake Champlain” she said and pointed the partially hazy cerulean expanse far below and I felt like an idiot because obviously that large wayward body of water could be nothing else.

“On really clear days, you can even see Montreal. But that’s like ten percent of days.”

Even though today wasn’t quite clear enough to do so, it was still a beautiful day for hiking – clear save for an occasional cirrus wisp, not even a hint of humidity. Canada was less than thirty miles to the north so I could most certainly see into Quebec, though that border remained closed. The shorter Green Mountains folded and stretched out below like the scales of an alligator, blending seamlessly into the island-dotted Champlain, which looked more like a wide river than a lake from this angle. Beyond its shores were the Adirondacks, a blue wall of teeth that cut the jagged horizon.

As the Green Mountains aren’t a National Park, they don’t have rangers, but instead ‘caretakers’ who spend their summers roaming around the more popular destinations doing things like keeping trails clean, informing hikers about the ecology, and mentioning that sometimes you can see Montreal.

“Do you have to hike up this mountain every day?” I asked, already planning on having a difficult time walking up the three steps into the bus later this evening.

“Sometimes. It’s definitely the most mellow caretaker job. Except when it rains. But a lot of times we are on trail duty, which basically means just hiking around all day.”

This definitely sounded like a job I would have liked to know existed ten years ago. Or ten days ago for that matter after a year of kitchen table laptop malaise. However, my daydreaming was interrupted by a shirtless guy with hair like Chuckie from Rugrats who was swatting boisterously at invisible bugs.

“What are all these bugs?” he said exasperatedly.

“I dunno man, I only really noticed them on the bottom but I think they’re just gnats.”

“There aren’t often bugs on the summit” said the caretaker, also realizing he was swatting at nothing.

I took this opportunity to look over the other side to see if Mt. Washington was visible, but it was an endless blue-green sea of still waves rolling out of sight.

After some more rest time on the summit, I followed the ridge towards the nose and the other face parts. The trail was well marked by the caretakers, who each year string rocks together to create boundaries of where hikers can and cannot walk. For nearly a mile, both directions were steep slopes to the east and west with views not all that different from those from the highest point.

The toll road ends a little under a mile from the chin, and as I got closer the ridge became increasingly crowded and the questions of “how much further?” expanded in turn. As one of the few who was walking away from the summit, I had unwittingly become a breadth of local knowledge, describing the forthcoming terrain to curious park-and-walkers and stopping one family from accidentally taking the Profanity Trail. I eventually reached the point at which I would diverge from the Long Trail, it heading up the nose towards Massachusetts as I began my descent.

I followed the gravel and dirt toll road for a bit, looking off to the left for signs of the trail that would take me back to Barnes Camp. A car came rolling up the road and as I stepped to the side, it slowed and crept past me. As it did so, the driver rolled down his window and said “I’m going slow so I don’t kick up too much dust!” I thanked him for his courtesy and also for telling me, otherwise I never would have known.

The downward trail appeared to turn off beneath a chairlift that is used for the two thirds of the year when this side of the mountain becomes a ski resort. I passed a sign that had a single black diamond and a creative-ish name like Edelweiss, and searched for the trail for a few moments, passing the area indicated on my map and doubling back when no indication manifested. I walked up a nearby stone staircase for a better vantage but still the only trail was that of dirt and dust winding up the auto road. I absolutely did not want to walk back up the auto road.

It occurred to me then, that the trail was in fact the ski slope, and so I passed back by the black diamond sign and began my quick descent. Sliding down the rocky hillside, I constantly cut and angled my feet like a nervous bunny hill rider, my hiking shoes giving me just enough traction to avoid turning into a summer snowball and tumbling down the mountain. Though at a much steeper angle than even the Long Trail I took upward, this method also lent itself to some spectacular views downslope, as the lodges and chalets of Stowe Mountain Resort were visible far downhill for much of the walk.

Part way down, the ski trail and the hiking trail diverged, and I was again under canopy, still descending quickly but with plenty of tree trunks to hold onto. The landscape changed in reverse, and eventually the maples reconvened and kept me company for the remainder of the hike. Before too long, I was in the parking lot of Stowe Resort and only about a quarter mile from the car. I hadn’t realized how exhausted I was until reacquainting myself with the heat at the base, at which point I got a little dizzy and trudged slowly around inoperable chairlift stations and boarded up equipment sheds. When I got to the car, I opened the door to let it cool and leaned there for a while, stretching my legs and getting my heart rate back down to something reasonable. From there I could see the chin of Mt. Mansfield jutting out into the June blue, and I had a hard time believing I had climbed my way up and slalomed down in just a few hours. It was stunning, challenging, and like no other mountain I had ever summited, and had given me a new goal in traversing the Long Trail, a more modest plan than several others. It was certainly my favorite hike of the trip.

I spent that night like the previous ones in Vermont, reading and sipping a local beer outside of the bus, this time the renowned, canned-before-it-was-cool, Heady Topper IPA brewed down the street in Stowe. The Alchemist famously doesn’t distribute widely so picking up a four pack in Vermont or knowing somebody who could do so are the only ways to try what is consistently rated the best beer in the country. Having now utilized both methods, I can now say that relaxing with a can under the starlit Green Mountain dusk makes the former the preferred option. After a hot day completing multiple hikes on the Long Trail, the beer seemed to sublimate right out of my body and soon I wearily made my way back into the bus. Not even Sage startling the chickens or the chants of a rain dance would keep me up.

I woke to the sound of a blast that shook the entire bus. A bit of light peeked through the window, indicating it was dawn but I felt like I had just shut my eyes. The patter of the rain off of the metal roof reached a crescendo and sounded as if the bus was being pelted with gravel, drowning out the sounds of the thunder. I fumbled for my phone and discovered that it wasn’t yet five in the morning, but the morning light, even during the storm, was evident. It seems the rain dance had worked, giving Vermont several weeks’ worth of water in one go. As I waited for it to abate, I feebly attempted to get more sleep but realized after an hour or so that it wasn’t going to happen and began packing and cleaning up the bus. I caught Mark sprinting to his truck with a half-broken bike as I loaded up my stuff.

“I told you I’d bring the rain!” I said.

We said our goodbyes and I told him to tell Caleigh and the others the same. I left them each a beer in the bus fridge, partly as a thank you and partly because all but two would fit in my cooler. The rain finally slowed and Sage ran out to see me off, shaking out the drizzle and giving me one more chance at snatching the Frisbee from his mouth.

As I drove southward, I followed the same road through the mountains, the one that trucks’ GPS lie about, and watched the trees react to their first bath in a month. Steam wafted from each valley while limbs and leaves were strewn about, and somehow the Green Mountains looked greener in the mist. I passed through Stowe and then stopped for coffee and a saunter in Montpelier, a pleasant little place that reminded me of Chagrin Falls near where I grew up. My phone told me New Hampshire was just a short interstate ride away but I found I wasn’t quite ready to leave. Unintentionally saving it for my last eastern state, I did not know what to expect from Vermont beyond hiking and good beer, but it is so much more than mountaintops and Heady Topper. I found it to be the friendliest place I had ever been where it snows regularly, a state without a binary choice between small town provincialism and big city anonymity, one part New England communitarianism and another part Quebecois calmness. And the scenery was positively breathtaking, whether sunny like most of my trip or gloomy like this final morning. No, I thought, as I waited out another squall over a way-too-hot café au lait in a dim coffee shop in old town Montpelier, I’m not quite ready to go.I haven’t even seen a witch window.

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