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uhh-oh my knee, ‘come to jesus’ & a clash of egos

by | Sep 13, 2020 | Uncategorized

13 September 2015 — Day 5
Solo backpacking the length of Vermont on the Long Trail

May that remain the most miserable night of my camping life.

Because the TarpTent SUCKS in a 12-HOUR VERMONT RAIN.

Because the rain comes down, hits the ground and bounces up and hits the soffits, splashing up into the tent and creating mist.

Then there’s the fact of the do-it-yourself seam seals. And no matter how carefully you seam-seal your tent, there’s probably a spot you could have done a bit better. UGH. Everything in my tent seemed to be getting damp — including my down sleeping bag. I had brought my plastic ground cover inside though (been using it to sleep on and keep my Thermarest clean), so I wrapped it around my sleeping bag like a big blue plastic cocoon. Safe and sound! Until… an hour or so later I reached between the tarp and my bag only to feel my sleeping bag was wet! NO ventilation under the blue plastic. SHIT. I was in for a damp sleepless night listening to pounding rain.

Justin fared no better under his TarpTent and, after an hour or so dove into Wahoo’s tent to join him and Gracie for the night.

All night long I lay there scheming ditching my tarp tent in Manchester and replacing it with a real tent. GOD DAMMIT! Why had I not just brought my perfectly good Big Agnes tent? Wooed by the UltraLight bullshit, that’s why. I have since talked to a couple of GMC staff who agree with me that the TarpTent isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be — at least not in a cold 12-hour September Vermont rainstorm.

My mantra that night — and throughout the tough times of this journey — was “This, too, shall pass.”

This, too, shall pass.
This, too, shall pass.
This, too, shall pass.

Over and over I repeated that to myself, trying to ignore the moisture dripping from the roof into my face. Somehow, eventually, I did get some sleep, but surely not enough.

Was gonna get up at 5:00, what with a long climb up Stratton Mountain. But at 5:00 it was still raining. If I was going to take down camp in the rain, I might as well wait until I at least had a bit of daylight.

Breaking down camp in the rain.
I don’t know when the last time was I had to do that. But it must be some 35 years ago. Even then, I don’t remember ever having to do it IN the rain — just AFTER the rain. Doesn’t matter. Then, now… It SUCKS.. Got the TarpTent down and stuffed it along with probably 3 pounds of extra water sopped into the sack. Lumbered over to grab my bear bags. I stood there and ate breakfast — a ProBar. Figured I’d just graze on bars and nut butters while hiking.

Shook the fellas’ tent at 6:30 — Wahoo wanted an early start.
“How did you fare Dawn?”
“Well most of my stuff is good and damp. Maybe not soaking wet, but definitely damp.”
“Well if you want WET, come on in here!”
The front lip of their tent was practically in a lake of a puddle.

Sketch of tent site locations on the Long Trail from Dawn Chandler's thru-hike journal.

All morning hiking through wet — if not actual rain — dripping trees and vegetation. I had my rain cover on my pack, my Gore-Tex jacket on, rain kilt and gators. REALLY glad for the gators which kept debris and crap out of my boots — I’d forgotten that benefit of them until I hiked on a sunny day without them.

Crossed the road after about 30 minutes or so, and upward I went. Once entering the forest again, I spotted a grey tarp tent on the right — I bet it was Smoky.

A white birch against a forest of green along the Long Trail of Vermont. Photo by artist and thru-hiker Dawn TaosDawn Chandler

Stratton Mountain is one of the high peaks of my journey, reaching up to about 4000 feet. I was intimidated about it, but Wahoo pointed out that you climb — you ascend — 2000 feet, but over the course of three miles each way. I appreciated that observation. Still, it was a slog, and the trail was hardly a trail, but a brook. (Again, grateful for SNOSEAL).

Concern Concern Concern was coursing through me with the fact that so much of my gear was wet. My spirit was low, but I kept trying to push it aside.
“This, too, shall pass… This too shall pass…”
The air was cool and, though the hard rain finally seem to stop, the sky was flat gray, with no sign of lifting.

My concern was hypothermia….. I looked up to the sky, put my hands together and called upon Mum and Dad:

“Help me keep myself safe.
Help me keep myself safe….”

then set the timer on my watch to go off every 20 minutes so that I would remember to ask myself,
“Am I warm?
Am I dry?
Am I sensible?”
…as I moved up in elevation conditions were only going to get worse.

And… now my knee was starting to talk to me. Not my usual problematic left knee, but my RIGHT knee — a dull ache deep inside, kind of below the knee cap and under the kneecap. Not constant, but rising up occasionally.

Curls of birch bark along the Long Trail of Vermont. Photo by artist and thru-hiker Dawn TaosDawn Chandler

Onward, trudging upward… At some point I started to notice the trees were transitioning into higher elevation conifers — a bit more stumpy and windblown. And soon I started to see gray light through the trees and then, suddenly, a gray wooden wall: a shed, or a little cabin. With a pitched roof. And a metal chimney, with smoke coming out: the Stratton Mountain caretaker’s cabin.
I gave a rap at the door and heard a voice from inside — “just a moment.” And then in the door appeared a grandmotherly woman bundled in layers including an obviously master-knitted “scrummy” (Mum’s word
[a combination of “scrumptious” & “yummy”]) raspberry wool cardigan in a greeny — slate bluey knitted woolen cap. She had paint all over her hands and on her clothes.
“I’m sorry to bother you. “
“No — not at all. “
“Oh! Are you a painter? “
“Yes I am.”
“I am, too! “
“Oh how wonderful! “
“But I just wanted to let you know the odd guy hanging out at Story Brook is still there as of yesterday afternoon.”

We then discussed him a bit. When she asked if he had said anything threatening to anyone, I said, I had not engaged him. “But I would not have felt comfortable staying there.”
“That’s all I need to know then; you said the magic words. I’ll call the sheriff and alert them.”

We then talked about art and the colors of Vermont versus New Mexico. She seemed quite willing to stand there in the drizzle and converse with me. I could have climbed into that shelter and talked with her all day, she was so warm and maternal and comforting. Seems that she and her husband live up there each summer from about June 1st or 15th to October 20th — been doing it for years. She also knows well Frank Sutton of Sutton’s Place where I was going to be staying in Manchester. She said I’d have no problem catching a ride once I got to the road. “Everyone knows what you’re doing; they’re happy to help.” Reluctantly I moved on — although actually I think she was even more reluctant then I to end our conversation. First though she gave me her card — beautiful paintings — and jotted down my website.

Green Mountain birch trees along the Long Trail in Vermont. Photo by artist and thru-hiker Dawn TaosDawn Chandler

Chiming in now from my New Mexcio home, on the 12th of September, 2020 as I work on transcribing the pages of my LT Journal…. A few details worth mentioning regarding my LT journey of 2015:

— I did not carry a cell phone with me. The reason is because I wanted to be fully present on the trail. I didn’t want the temptation of an easy “escape” by way of the internet. The point was to get away from all of that.
I DID however carry a satelite phone in case of an emergency, and to check in very occasionally with loved ones.

— At this point I knew no one in Vermont. My closest personal connection to Vermont was my friend Heather, whom I’ve known all my life. In 2015 she had a vacation home in Stowe, but lived in Rochester, NY. She graciously volunteered to deliver me to the trailhead at the start of my journey, with the plan to meet me at Journey’s End a few weeks later near Canada.
To reiterate though, aside from Heather, there was no one in Vermont I really knew. This fact added to my worry if something were to go wrong.

— The GMC has a “Trail Mentor” program. If you are planning a thru-hike, they will put you in touch with “mentors” who have hiked the trail. I was put in touch with about a dozen generous people, but the one who really stood out was a gal my age — Sylvie — who, the year before, had thru-hiked the LT in honor of HER 50th birthday — so we had that in common. Trail name “Charger” and a resident of Vermont, she provided me with an incredible about of sage advice, as well as offered up her home to me if I needed a break from the trail. Sylvie/Charger and I had never met though, so I was reluctant to lean on her too much.

— The GMC has a whole army of staff and volunteers who maintain the trails. They also maintain the latrines, many of which are composting or moldering. Maintaining the latrines — being a “shit shoveler” — is a nasty but crucial job.

— In trail parlance, a “Zero Day” is a day of no mileage, a rest day. I had scheduled no rest days. This was stupid. But the truth is I didn’t know any better. My itinerary was based on those of others who had gone before me, and some of them hadn’t had any rest days. So, basing my plan on theirs, I thought my itinerary reasonable — especially as I was giving myself five weeks to hike the trail, and most people seemed to do it in four weeks or less.

— Another source of anxiety was that I was on a tight schedule. Though I had planned no Zero Days, I HAD planned on spending one night each week at a different inn or other accommodation, so that I could clean up, do laundry, sleep in a real bed, and pick up my food drops, which I had shipped in advance from New Mexico. I had booked those accommodations and planned my food carefully per my itinerary, so I was under pressure to stay on schedule.

Okay, back to my journal and my long walk across Vermont…

Beautiful Green Mountain birch trees along the Long Trail in Vermont. Photo by artist and thru-hiker Dawn TaosDawn Chandler

[After speaking with Jean the caretaker on the summit of Stratton Mountain] … I moved on… It seems to me I walked flat for just a short while when the descent began — down the waterway brook-trail of water, stepping carefully so as not to step on wet rocks, wet logs, wet roots. My knee started moaning and by the time, finally, I was approaching Stratton Pond a couple of hours later, my knee was screaming, and I was struggling to keep from bawling with frustration and exhaustion and anxiety.
Wondering if I should bail.
Thinking I should bail.
Mad at the thought of bailing.
Desperately wanting to bail.
Getting into Manchester and ending it there. I could rent a car and drive around Vermont and maybe even over to Rochester. Visit Exeter [New Hampshire, where I have family]. But I just couldn’t see how my knees could continue

Stopped for lunch by a lovely brook and assessed my knees: was bent over, ass to the trail, massaging my knees when “WHAAA!”
I shrieked with the sound of someone behind me. “Hello! Sorry to scare you!”

It was a group of eight or so college students from SUNY Binghampton — the Outing Club. Out for a few days during Rosh Hashanah break. Staying at Stratton Pond, hiking for the afternoon up to the peak. (Really? They seemed ill-prepared with only a couple of daypacks among them.) All young men except for their club president who was a young Asian woman. Very friendly though and expressed concern over my knees, and offered me a ride back if I was back at the parking lot by the time they got back to it tomorrow morning.

Taking a break along a stream on Vermont's Long Trail south of Stratton Mountain.
A beautiful Vermont stream somewhere between Stratton Mountain and Stratton Pond. Photo by artist and LT thru-hiker Dawn Chandler.

Sometime later I came upon Emily who was just a bright and competent spirited spot of joy in my day. She’s the supervisor here of several of the caretakers and “Chief Shit Shoveler.” We shared our infatuation of Jean at the top of the mountain, and our concern about “those college kids” from SUNY being obviously ill prepared. (She said not all of them had rain gear! “That’s THE OUTDOOR CLUB! I am NOT impressed!” My alarm went off, and I explained what it was for. “I LOVE that — you’re prepared!” I told her of my concern about my knees and she admitted these trails are tough. “But Stratton Pond is a great place to assess. It’s been my place to have a “come to Jesus moment.” You’re just about a half mile and you’ll be able to get some good rest there. Go find Carly (the caretaker) — she’s got some sangria.”

A bit cheered, we parted ways, and some twenty or thirty minutes later I found myself at a cool, split level, big-porched modern shelter, with no one in sight.

Stratton Pond Trail sign, Vermont. Photo by artist and LT thru-hiker Dawn Chandler.
Long-Appalachian Trail - North sign at Stratton Pond, Vermont. Photo by artist and LT thru-hiker Dawn Chandler.

I chose a low bunk near the front, and laid out my gear to dry, draping my sleeping bag upside down over a bunk ladder. Found the composting toilet, and then went to find water, the caretaker (to pay — five dollars at high use sites) and attempt to call Joe and Heather.

Teary call/message to Joe [My Good Man, who was back in New Mexcio]; practical message and conversation with Heather: heartwarming conversation with Carly, the caretaker. The one thing I was comforted by was this: I was NOT going to decide today about my knee. I would wait until tomorrow, see how that descent went, and decide in Manchester whether or not to call it quits.

The Stratton Pond Shelter, Vermont. Photo by artist and LT thru-hiker Dawn Chandler.

Back at Stratton Pond Shelter, Justin had arrived as well as an older Ed Harris type former military powerhouse of a hiker, “Flagman.” What a talker! Mainly about himself — always the hero of his own story — but passionate about the trail. He made it his personal mission to “counsel” me, suggesting that it didn’t have to be “all or nothing.” “Give your knee a rest — take a zero day in Manchester. Then slow down and take it easy. So you only make it to Johnson? Not all the way to Journey’s End — at least you will have been out here on the trail. You’ve put aside all this time and resources to make this journey happen. Stick with it if you possibly can. Change it if you have to. But don’t throw in the towel. I hope you stick it out; I hope you stay on the trail.”

When Wahoo eventually showed up, those two egos clashed; you could feel it.

Wahoo had suggested I tie a bandanna around my knee — just below it. He said he was advised to do that back on the AT when he had knee problems, and it seemed to help him. [Wahoo then left for water and Carly showed up.]

Flagman, Carly and I were talking about it and also about the odd dude at Story Brook. I told them how Wahoo insisted on hiking with me through that section.
Flagman said, “then I misjudged him. That right there speaks of integrity. I took him to be a young know-it-all, and here I am an old know-it-all, and when we met there was tension immediately. But that tells me the guy has integrity.” He was impressed.
He also said that the bandanna idea was a good one, and urged me to ice my knees and elevate them in Manchester. “And stay hydrated! Extend your [trekking] polls on the downhill.”

Artist Dawn Chandler starting her solo backpacking trek across the length of Vermont on the Long Trail.

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Stay safe. Be kind.

~ Dawn Chandler
Santa Fe , New Mexico