Long Trail Trip Report: Clarendon Gorge to Middlebury Gap, Part 2

This is part 2 of the trip report. Part 1 is located here.

Daily mileages looked like this.

Day 1: Clarendon Gorge to Coopers Lodge,KillingtonPeak: 1.3 road miles to shuttle bus + 11.3 miles trail.

Day 2: Coopers Lodge to Rolston Rest Shelter: 11.2 miles

Day 3: Rolston Rest Shelter to Sunrise Shelter: 13.7 miles

Day 4: Sunrise Shelter to Middlebury Gap: 10.8 miles.

The Shuttle

One of the biggest headaches of hiking solo is that you need to arrange your own shuttles. However, with a little trail magic, this proved to be remarkable easy on this trip.

Earlier in the week I had tried to contact several of the hiker shuttle services recommended by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on their web site, but none of them were reachable or bothered to call me back. I also tried calling some local taxi services in the Middlebury and Rutlandareas but they wanted $140 for a one way shuttle, which I refused to pay.  

Instead, I drove up from Bostonthe night before my hike and stayed at a local B&B in East Middleburyon Rt. 125. The B&B gave me an early breakfast to go and also let me park my car in their lot. The next morning, I walked about a mile from the B&B to a bus stop where the Marble Valley Regional Transit District picks up riders traveling the 35 or so miles between East Middlebury and Rutland Center. From there I planned to take a local city bus to the south of town and hitchhike to the trail head on Rt. 103 at Clarendon Gorge. The total fare cost for both bus rides was $2.50.

The bus stop inEast Middleburystops outside a Cumberland Farms called Middlebury Beef that has a statue of a cow on the roof. This area ofVermontis a big beef and milk production area. Each morning, every guy with a truck in the area stops to pick up a coffee at Middlebury Beef and shoot the shit with his friends.

Middlebury Beef, Vermont

Middlebury Beef, Vermont

When I got there at 6:15am, the place was packed. I got a coffee and talked to some of the other people waiting for the bus. My first bus picked me up at 6:45am and let me off at theRutlandcenter bus station at 7:55am. I transferred to a local bus and in a few minutes I was in southRutlandwhere I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride to the trail head.

Contrary to popular belief, Vermonters are not hitch-hiking friendly, so I was delighted when a truck pulled over and picked me up within 2 minutes. The driver was shuttling two other section-hikers to the Appalachian Trailand they made room for me. By a stroke of good fortune, it turned out that the driver, Sarah, is the wife of PlansTooMuch, an AT thru-hiker who maintains the Minerva Hinkley Shelter and trail section just south of Clarendon Gorge. She dropped the other hikers off at the Clarendon Gorge swimming hole and then drove me to the trail head, where she took my photo and we exchanged contact information.  Thank you Sarah for your kindness!

By 8:45 am, I was on the trail. I crossed Rt 103, walked through a small meadow of wildflowers and started climbing a steep talus slope, just as it started to rain. Within a few minutes a young guy caught up to me and we started to chat. His name was Garp and he was thru-hiking the Long Trail. Garp and I hit it off immediately and we spent the next 15 miles loosely hiking together.

People always seem amazed that I hike solo. But the fact of the matter is that you are rarely alone completely. Within any given section of trail there is always a loosely-coupled stream of hikers keeping pace with you that provides companionship, conversation, and advice. You can be as alone as you want to be, but solo backpacking is often more social that it might seem.

Garp was hurting when we met. He had been hiking on the Long Trail for a week and had experienced heavy rain every day of his trip. He also had severe heal pain, a characteristic symptom of plantar fasciitis. Despite this, he was remarkably upbeat and happy. We hit it off and hiked together for the next few hours chatting about teaching, Japanese film, American literature, marriage, the economy,Iraq, politics and a slew of other topics, losing the trail twice at road crossings because we were so immersed in conversation.

Garp, Long Trail Thru-hiker, Vermont 2008

Garp, Long Trail Thru-hiker, Vermont 2008

Garp’s plan was to hike for another day, summitKillingtonPeak, and then take a zero day at theInnon the Long Trail off US 4. We hiked together until the Governor Clement Shelter at the base of Killington and ate a late lunch. By then our clothes had completely dried out from the previous rainfall. We were joined shortly by Sally and Taylor, a mother and son, who were also thru-hiking the Long Trail.

Garp decided to stay at Governor Clement for the night even though it’s a pretty ratty shelter that’s heavily used by locals for partying in the woods. After a quick meal, I decided to summit Killington (4,235 ft) because I wanted to camp on top of the mountain in hope of seeing the stars at night. Sally and Taylor were still undecided about whether to stay or proceed when I packed up and set off.

The climb from Governor Clement up toKillingtonPeakis a killer with 2,000 feet of ascent over a 3 mile distance. The trail, which runs along the north side of the mountain, is narrow and choked with tree roots and blow downs. It’s an eerie, colorless grey path that was made stranger by dense mist which got thicker as I ascended to the summit.

Mushroom on Killington Peak, Long Trail, Vermont

Mushroom on Killington Peak, Long Trail, Vermont

As I was climbing, I only saw one spot of color, a brilliant yellow mushroom, whose cap formed a cup to catch rain water. I saw many other mushrooms from this species over the next 3 days, but this was the only one that wasn’t white in color.

After finishing the 3 mile ascent in 2 hours, I was pretty tired, so I filtered some water from a small spring and had two Chorizo sausages and some bread for dinner. Refreshed, I covered the remaining mile to Cooper Lodge on the summit. For some reason, the quadriceps muscle in my left leg had started to hurt pretty bad, so I decided to call it a day and pitch my tent for the evening. Unfortunately, Killington was socked in with dense fog, so there were no stars to see that evening. At about 7pm, Sally and Taylor made it to the top and decided to sleep in the summit shelter which turned out to be a cold damp experience due to the fog

I slept in to about 7am the next morning and broke camp by 8am. As I was filtering water near the shelter, Garp snuck up on me and surprised me. He had left Governor Clement at 5:30am to summit Killington, and we set off together again for the hike to Pico Camp and then to US 4 through thick fog.

I really liked having Garp as a hiking partner because he understood that I was willing to hike together with him for a while, but that I also wanted periods where I could hike completely alone. Conversation takes attention away from the now and being present with all of the sensations of hiking, so it’s not something I want all the time.

When we reached US 4, Garp and I said our goodbyes again as he headed to theInnfor his zero day. I continued on toward the Maine Junction and the Tucker Johnson Shelter where I had decided to stop for lunch.

Long Trail, Vermont

Long Trail, Vermont

After crossing the road, the trail got a little swampy and buggy, so I beat feet for the next half mile and entered a beautiful forest whose tress towered over a sea of ferns and jewelweed. I quickly came to Maine Junction in Willard Gap, the point at which the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail split: the AT heads east to New Hampshire and Maine and the Long Trail continues north to the Canadian Border north of Jay Peak. 

Maine Junction, Appalachian Trail, Vermont

Maine Junction, Appalachian Trail, Vermont

I stopped in the woods past Tucker Johnson shelter for a quiet lunch in the woods. Once I had passed Maine Junction, I knew that there would be a lot fewer backpackers on the trail and that the terrain would become a lot tougher.

After lunch, I started the 4 mile leg to Rolston Shelter where I hoped to camp for the night. When I was about half way there, a huge lightning storm started flashing away overhead, thundering so frequently that it sounded like microwave popcorn. Then it started to rain in buckets, drenching me to the core. It was hopeless. The trail became extremely wet and muddy as I hurried for the next shelter, about 2 miles away.

After 45 minutes, I crossed a stream and could immediately see the bright green metal roof of the Rolston Rest Shelter. I climbed up some logs and dropped all of my wet gear in a heap on the shelter floor, stripping off my clothes and putting on my rain shells to warm up. The rain continued to cascade heavily in front of the shelter and I decided that there was simply no way that I was going to bother pitching a tent that night. I knew that Sally and Taylor were behind me and hoped that they would be able to make it before nightfall. They arrived a few hours later after the rain lightened up.

Sally and Taylor are a mother and her 16 year old son who live in Northern Vermont. Their plan was to hike 21 days from the Massachusetts border to Jay Peak, take a break, and then finish the Long Trail later in the summer. I was impressed at how well they got along and appreciated their company. They were both fun to talk to and were comfortable with conversation as well as silence.

I was glad for their company because this was going to be my first time sleeping in a shelter. For years, I’d always maintained my independence and privacy in a tent and was nervous about whether I would get a good night’s sleep.

Before we went to sleep that night, a bunny rabbit visited the area just outside our shelter for about 20 minutes. I had heard about shelter bunnies on the Long Trail but never seen one before. I didn’t get a great photo from within the shelter, but managed to touch up the one below. As you can see he’s a pretty big fellow.

Rolston Rest Shelter, Bunny Vampire

Rolston Rest Shelter, Bunny Vampire

We were all asleep before 7:30pm that night from exhaustion and in preparation for the long 13+ mile hike to Sunrise Shelter the next day. I got an early start the following morning but I had no idea just how hard and long the hike would actually be. It sure felt a lot longer than 13 miles and there have been complaints made to the Green Mountain Club that the mileage listed on the Long trail Map is inaccurate. The lack of blazing in this area was also an issue: it is virtually non-existent and the area itself is pretty remote.

The next 8 miles or so toBloodrootMountain, named for the red roots of the evergreen trees in the area, were hard hiking, with lots of mud from the previous day’s rain. By now my boots and socks were hopelessly soaked through and felt as heavy as cinder blocks as I sloshed through the puddles and mud on the trail. After passingFarrPeak, the hiking became much easier and I picked up speed as I got closer to Sunrise Shelter.

Bloodroot Mountain, Long Trail, Vermont

Bloodroot Mountain, Long Trail, Vermont

But then it started to rain again, even harder than the day before. Since it was later in the day, I put on my rain shell to prevent myself from getting chilled. When I arrived at the sign for the shelter, it wasn’t clear where it was or how to get to it, so I hiked up a stream behind the shelter sign that was gushing with water. This turned out to be the shelter trail! What a laugh.

The rain was coming down so hard that a stream of water was flowing under the shelter itself. I took off my boots and socks to look at my feet and they were absolutely white and wrinkled like prunes. There were a few spots that had been rubbed raw on the tops of my toes but I didn’t have any blisters. In about 30 minutes they dried out and hardened back up again.

Unlike Rolston Shelter,Sunriseis a much older structure and in much poorer condition  But it was dry, so once again I shed my wet gear and waited for Sally and Taylor to make their appearance. They followed a few hours after me and we called it an early evening.

When I woke the next morning, it was still raining heavily. This was the last day of my 4 day trip and I needed to hike about 11 miles to the Rt 125 trail head before 2:45pm to catch a local bus that would take me back to the B&B where I had parked my car. I packed up my gear, but Sally and Taylor were clearly thinking about staying in the shelter all day and taking a zero to avoid yet another day of rain.

I ate two probars, said my goodbyes, and took off by 7am. The rain stopped about 30 minutes later and the mist that had enveloped us for the past 3 days began to lift. I covered the mile to Brandon Gap quickly, crossed Rt 73, and began ascending the Great Cliffs of Mt. Horrid, known for its peregrine falcon nesting refuge.

Brandon Gap, Long Trail, Vermont

Brandon Gap, Long Trail, Vermont

Although the rain had stopped, the trail was covered with water streaming down the mountain. Hiking conditions were very slippery and muddy as I climbed the first of the 5 peaks that I would have to summit that day. When I got to the top of Horrid, I found that the worst mud was on the top of the mountain with puddles that were 20 feet long and 10 feed wide. I continued pushing on oblivious to the mud until I came to Romance Gap and the sun began to break through the clouds.

As soon as the sun came out, my rain pants were covered with dozens of black flies. Despite the heat, I wore my rain pants and jacket from Romance Gap to the Rt 125 trail head to avoid being eaten alive. Luckily, my trip had been nearly bug-free up to this point. By noon, I summitted my final peak, Worth Mountain, and emerged at the clear-cut top of the Middlebury Snow Bowl, a ski resort associated with Middlebury College.

View North from Middlebury Ski Bowl, Long Trail, Vermont

View North from Middlebury Ski Bowl, Long Trail, Vermont

I finally got some views to the north as I descended the trail which meandered down ski slopes and through the woods. I can’t really explain how huge an impact a ski resort has on the trail or the surrounding vegetation, but people should be outraged. The woods and ground suddenly seemed unnatural and man-made with completely different contours. I had had the same experience hiking on Bromley Mountain on my last section hike. I’m not a downhill skier, so I guess I have little sympathy for the ski industry.

I passed some day hikers hiking up from Rt 125 on my way to Middlebury Gap who were out geocaching and made it to the trail head at about 1:45pm with plenty of time before my bus was scheduled to arrive. The problem was that it never showed up. I tired hitching for an hour but no one would pick me up. But as luck would have it, the geocaching couple I had passed earlier offered me a ride to my car when they came out of the woods and I got back to the Boston area before sunset.

After this section, I have to say that I really have a lot of respect for the Long Trail thru-hikers I met. They kept going day after day in very difficult, wet conditions. I also have become a convert to shelter-based camping and plan to adjust my gear a little to incorporate more shelter stays into future section hikes.

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