The Long Enough Trail Transcript

Feb 20, 2020

Back to the Long Enough Trail episode.

Ben Rose: I used to say that the Appalachian Trail takes five or six months to hike and it’s a couple thousand miles of forced march, and that the Long Trail could really be called the Long Enough Trail because two or three weeks is long enough to have a psychological imprint on a life.

For many, hiking Vermont’s Long Trail is a lifelong goal.

Ben Rose: My mom drove me down to Williamstown with my big Kelty Pack, which weighed about 70 pounds I think. It had fishing tackle and a harmonica holder and the books I was going to read on the trail and jars of peanut butter and jelly. I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Ben: Certainly the times that I’ve hiked the Long Trail end-to-end, it’s been a meaningful marker in my life and helped me to clarify what I was really thinking about at that point in my life.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

First, we’ll check in at the Vermont Historical Society, where Librarian Paul Carnahan and Public Program Manager Amanda Gustin are looking at a very special collection.

Paul Carnahan: What we’re looking at here are end to end reports filed by hikers on the Long Trail, who hiked from Massachusetts to Canada, or the other way around, and filed a report with the Green Mountain Club about their experience on the Long Trail. We actually have 13 boxes of end to end reports consuming some 4,561 reports.

The Vermont Historical Society has been keeping these journals on behalf of the Green Mountain Club for several decades now.

Paul: And I just learned the other day that there are another over 1000 reports at the offices of the Green Mountain Club. So there are approximately 5,877 people who’ve completed the Long Trail from end to end and have chosen to write about it and deposit a report with the Green Mountain Club, and hence with the Vermont Historical Society.

Anyone who wants to have proof that they hiked the Long Trail end to end has to submit a report to the Green Mountain Club. Each hiker gets a badge and a number.

Paul: The earliest report we have is 1943. And it actually appears to be not the first report that was given a number because it’s been given the number 1943 dash two dash two, which means it was the second person who hiked the Long Trail in 1943 and the second person overall. We do not have 1943 one dash one. There were people, of course, who hiked the Long Trail before the Green Mountain Club had established the numbering system. So we also have a folder of information about some of those people.

Most of the reports are in paper, and with each report as a complete record of hiking the Long Trail…all that paper adds up.

Amanda Gustin: Many, many like dozens? Or hundreds?

Paul: Like hundreds.

Amanda: Hundreds of pages.

Paul: There are some very, very extensive end to end reports.

Amanda: I wonder where you find the time.

Paul: I wonder. But now, as you might expect, people are filing them on CDs and DVDs and they’re filing them with lots of photographs. In fact, now sometimes the story is the photographs rather than the written word.

Today, these journals are used by different researchers for different reasons. Sometimes family members of hikers read through them. Sometimes the hikers themselves come back to revisit their past. The journals are also a good resource for environmental historians who want to learn about how Vermont’s landscape has changed over the years.

Today on Before Your Time, we’ll explore some of the stories in those journals – the stories of those who have hiked and loved Vermont’s Long Trail.

Vermont has always been represented by its green mountains. Even the name of the state comes from the French “montagnes vertes.” And it seems like we’ve always been a state in love with the outdoors.

James P. Taylor was a man who embodied that love of the mountains and the outdoors, and he saw them as a singular selling point for Vermont. We sat down with someone who followed in Taylor’s footsteps many years later to learn more about him. He started by describing the Vermont that was before the Long Trail.

Ben Rose: A lot of people had gone off to the Civil War and not come back. A lot of people had gone West, to greener pastures and easier farming, and Vermont farm land was starting to be abandoned. The roads were in rough shape. There wasn’t really enough money to fix these horrible muddy roads, and there was not a great sense of aesthetic to the Vermont landscape. At least, Vermonters weren’t articulating that they were proud of the aesthetic of their landscape.

Ben Rose was Executive Director of the Green Mountain Club in 2010, when it celebrated its centennial – one hundred years of hiking the length of Vermont.

Ben: And James P. Taylor really was inventing ecotourism in Vermont before the word was invented in the 1980s. But he had this vision of what Vermont could be, if it took care of its aesthetic.

In 1909, James Taylor was sitting in a tent on Stratton Mountain, listening to the rain. He was a schoolteacher at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, and a frequent hiker. On that day in 1909, he came up with the idea of hiking the length of Vermont by way of the mountains.

One year later, Taylor had gathered a group of twenty-three other men and together they founded the Green Mountain Club. They had $100 in the bank, but started cutting trail that summer – and didn’t stop until 1930, when the last segment was cut through from Jay Peak to the Canadian border.

Ben Rose: I’m not sure if James P. Taylor had this idea all himself, but in any case, he certainly deserves credit as an early visionary and promoter for what the Long Trail could be. And of course he plays a central role in the story of the Green Mountain Club because once that idea took hold, it took on a life of its own and he ended up on opposite sides of a very important issue.

Taylor’s vision was always more of an economic one than an environmental one.

Ben Rose: Well, I see him as a very good microcosm of Vermont’s contradictions in the 20th century. He was socially progressive, but he also cared about clean water and he wanted a beautiful landscape. And to the extent that Vermont was unique in rejecting the New Deal, and it was the only state which never voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in forward opportunities to do so, in part because Vermonters really did not favor the New Deal as it was presented to Vermont, which was this massive public works project which would have built a highway across its mountains. He saw the need for economic development. And I don’t think we had really found that balance yet, which allowed for a mixing of the old traditional Vermont land-based activities and new people coming and enjoying that.

It took the work of many others to articulate a further vision for what the Long Trail could and should be – men like Will Monroe, Theron Deane, and others.

Ben Rose: I think that James P. Taylor wasn’t that fussy. I mean, he imagined that the trail would go from farm to farm, where people could get eggs and bread. There were certainly people living and still trying to work the land in 1910. And as late as the ’20s, the Green Mountain Club was trying to work with the State Forester to basically cut a trail that was going to double as a fire road. So the trail wasn’t on the high ridge line. I think it was only later with Professor Will Monroe, that the club really articulated the organizing geographic principle of being on the height of land and having as much of Vermont below one’s feet as possible at any moment in time. So, that notion of being right up on the top of the highest ridge wasn’t necessarily a pure vision at the beginning. James P. Taylor just wanted to be able to walk through the landscape and give his students at Saxton’s River Academy places to get some fresh air, I think, without having to traverse through the moose brush.

By the 1930s, Taylor was at odds with the organization he had been so instrumental in founding. He championed the proposed Green Mountain Parkway, which would have constructed a paved ridgeline highway along the spine of the green mountains – irrevocably changing those mountains and the Long Trail.

Ben: I think that James P. Taylor was consistent in his vision and the world changed around him. When the Green Mountain Club was founded, Vermont was, I think a little bit of a sad place. It had abandoned farms, it was losing population. It was just at the start of rewilding. And a hundred years later, the Green Mountain Club can claim that the Long Trail is a footpath in the wilderness because it had rewilded. The romance that became attached to the Long Trail has increased over time, as the landscape it traverses has gone back to nature.

In 1927, three young women set out to hike the Long Trail.

Catherine Robbins: Well, it was very helpful and I just loved it being away from the mob. You know, a chance to be alone. A chance to think. A chance to do some thinking. You had two other girls with you, but they were thinking too, I guess.

Catherine Robbins, Hilda Kurth, and Kathleen Norris became the first women to thru-hike the Long Trail, and they have gone down in history with the nickname The Three Musketeers. This interview with Catherine Robbins Clifford was recorded in 1987, when she was 86 years old, and it can be hard to hear at times, but it’s worth it to hear directly from someone who made history.

Each of the Three Musketeers had a different reason for embarking on the strenuous hike.

Catherine: Well Hilda was being bothered by a man who wanted to marry her. Hilda thought well gee if I go out on that trail, he can’t even telephone to me. I’ll have time to think it over…see Kathy, she was 18, she had just graduated from high school and Hilda and I were both 25. That is the way we started.

The three young women were fit and active, but still unprepared for the rigors of the long hike.

Catherine: Of course I think we went about 20 miles the first day which is, we should have had our heads examined…We never did that again.

They learned, as many hikers do now, to pack light and share the load.

Catherine: I had this half of pup tent. I had a wool blanket. It was an army blanket, khaki color. Hilda’s was a beautiful blanket, kind of light colored with a big red stripe and a big black stripe. I think Kathy had an army blanket same as I did. So we had three half pup tents and three blankets. When I made the bed at night, if there weren’t enough evergreen boughs we just went and cut them…Then I put down two pup tents. They were for us to sleep on. Then I would put down one blanket on top of the pup tent. Then we would get in and sleep like spoons, like that. Then we would put the other one over us. Then then other half of pup tent on top of that to keep the moisture out. That is the way we slept every night, like spoons.

One of the biggest problems for hikers in the early days of the Long Trail was, believe it or not, a huge overpopulation of porcupines. They had no natural predators, and were drawn to civilization

Catherine: We always slept in the upper bunk because the porcupines were on the lower bunk looking for our oily shoes. We took our shoes off. I guess we usually hung them way up high because the porcupines want the oil, the salt and sweat. We didn’t change our clothes very often. We didn’t have any to change.

Despite the hardships, the three women found time for joy as well.

Catherine: We were always tired and we had to sit down and rest and sing awhile. This one before she was gone went to a hawk shop and got a ukulele. A little one you know. I guess she paid a dollar or two for it. She took it home and wrapped it up and made a little case out of oilcloth to carry it in….We sat down and tum tum that until we got rested and we would get up and go on again. We had a lot of fun.

In 1927, many hikers on the Long Trail interacted regularly with civilization, whether staying at local farms or driving from one part of the trail to the other. Catherine remembered that they all kept one set of decent pajamas in case they did stay with a farm family. At the same time, she remembers being startled to come across civilization in the wilderness – just as startled as other hikers sometimes were to see three women alone.

Catherine: We heard a car coming. A car up in the woods! Why it can’t be a car. It came nearer and nearer. Well my dear it stopped right below the camp. And three grown men hopped out. One hopped out and he had a lot of gadgets, food and stuff. One hopped out with a book about that thick. Apparently, he was going to read. They came up to camp and were flabbergasted when they found three females. Enough to go around you see. They were embarrassed to tears.

Catherine and her friends were the first, but definitely not the last women to hike the Long Trail. In the 1970s, women achieved another milestone when Wendy Turner became one of the first women to serve as a caretaker at a Long Trail lodge. We spoke to her from her home in Colorado.

Wendy Turner: Well, I’ve always loved to hike and have hiked up there and I was going to college in New Jersey back in, this was 1972, and I saw an advertisement that they needed a caretaker for Taft Lodge on Mount Mansfield. I thought, “Oh wow, that would be a great summer job.”

Wendy: I immediately sent in an application and started dreaming about it right away, but it took a little while for them to get back to me. It was the Green Mountain Club that runs the organization. When they did get back to me, they were just a little surprised that a woman had applied. I guess they had never had one before, and that really never occurred to me.

Wendy was paired with another woman, Susan Valley, who had also applied and came down from Montreal. They had never met, but now they were spending three months together near the summit of Mount Mansfield.

Wendy: The Lodge was pretty rustic. It was basically just a one room cabin and you walk in and there’s eight bunks, four on each side. In the middle, there was a little picnic table and then there was also a stove, small wood stove. That was really about it. The bunks were just wood, flat wood. They call it Taft Lodge, but I think that’s a stretch, the Lodge part. But it’s very cozy and I had nice windows and an absolutely beautiful view. Just all around the cabin is woods and there is an outhouse and a little stream a little further away.

Wendy and Susan became caretakers at a specific moment in Long Trail history. In previous decades, caretakers were responsible for the upkeep of the lodge and the comfort of the hikers, sometimes preparing beds and food for new arrivals. In the 1970s, the Green Mountain Club rebooted the caretaker program with a new focus: stewarding the landscape of the Long Trail itself.

Wendy: Our main job was organizing or keeping people that come from doing anything that would harm the environment or disrespect the trail. We would do trail maintenance where we would walk the trails every day that were right around the cabin, and if there are any logs or things on the trail that needed to be removed, we would do that and sometimes put in water features so that it would take the water away from the trail…We would pick up any kind of litter or garbage that was around and talk to the people, people that we saw on the trails. We would talk to them and just inform them if they were doing something that wasn’t right, or just about the area.

The Long Trail saw an explosion of popularity in the 1970s, and there were more people than ever using the trail itself, leaving it open to the dangers of overuse and erosion. Wendy was constantly on guard against that, and she and Susan hiked a loop of the trail around Mansfield almost every day.

Wendy: We would walk the trail from the bottom, from the road, the Stowe road at the bottom of the trail, and then go up to the very top. Up to the cabin is 1.7 miles, so definitely all of that. And then there are two trails, two different ways to get to the top of the mountain. We would walk that trail as well. Then, also the trail that would go to the Adam’s Apple. The top of the mountain has the chin and the nose and the Adam’s Apple.

In between the hard work of trail maintenance and educating hikers, she found time to appreciate her surroundings.

Wendy: Being up there from morning until, I mean, constantly for the whole summer, you can see the mountain at every time of day, every kind of condition, rain, even snow, storms, sunshine, and to be able to be up there and experience all those things is absolutely amazing.

Neither Wendy nor Susan had hiked the entire Long Trail before they became caretakers, but Wendy still describes that summer as transformative.

Wendy: Well, it just made me realize how much I loved being outdoors and having adventure. Spent the whole summer there and it definitely, I really think it changed my life and what I was going to pursue and what I was going to do. Actually, the next summer, I graduated and along with a couple other friends and a friend that I met who stayed at Taft Lodge while we were there, we took the summer and we’re going to bike across America on our bicycles.

Wendy’s summer on Mansfield inspired her and others.

Wendy: There is one lady, a young gal I met up there. She had come up there, this is something I learned just a few years ago, and she had come up there as a young girl, 14-years-old. Her mom thought it’d be a great idea. She heard that there are women caretakers at the Lodge now, so she felt confident in letting her daughter and a friend go up there and stay overnight. She came up and I didn’t remember meeting her back then when I saw her a few years ago. She told me that her mom let them go up there and only because they’re are woman caretakers, and that she met me and they fell in love with hiking and they’ve been hiking ever since all their life.

I just thought that was such a great story and to be able to meet her now she’s in her 50s and I’m in my 60s, and it was pretty cool to know that the Taft Lodge changed somebody’s life like that because I know it changed mine.

Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Amanda Gustin and Ryan Newswanger.

Thanks to our guests: Ben Rose, Wendy Turner, and Paul Carnahan. Thanks also to Marjorie Strong at the Vermont Historical Society and the staff of the Green Mountain Club for additional research support.