Bird Man's AT Journal
Trail Updates and Photos from the 2002 AT "Flip-Flap"
© Bruce Nichols - 2002
At a little after noon on September 16th, just a bit over two weeks after heading south from Norwich, Vermont, I crossed the border between Connecticut and New York having put all of the AT in New England behind me. Since May when I started north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, I've walked just over 1700 miles and have only another 400 to go to return to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and the finish of my AT walk. I'm home in Connecticut for a couple of days to check on my house and make sure my bills are up to date. On Friday the 20th I'll head back to Pawling, New York and resume the walk south, expecting to finish sometime around mid October.
The walk through Vermont, Massachusetts, and my home state of Connecticut provided a pleasant change from the rigors of Maine and New Hampshire. The miles of rocks and roots magically disappeared and I found myself walking on the Earth again - soft earth, dirt, pine needles, leaves, short stretches of highway and gravel country roads. If they could have shouted for joy, my feet would have been crying, "Hallelujah, we have been delivered into the promised land!" That chorus might also have been prompted by switching to a new pair of shoes - the fourth of the journey - that, though a bit heavier than the running shoes I have previously worn, have thicker soles and offer a bit more protection from the occasional rocks that poke through the trail's gentler surface.
The dramatic alpine vistas of the New Hampshire mountains were gone; replaced by the dense green forests of Vermont and southern New England. There were still occasional views - rocky outcrops and cliffs, ski area mountaintops, and the pastoral scenes encountered while crossing the farms and fields in intervening valleys. But the predominant surroundings were quiet hardwood forests that blended into spruce topped mountains and rich dark hemlock groves. The first hints of fall were both in the air and also beginning to appear in the landscape. In open areas, goldenrod stood tall and in bright yellow contrast to the mottled green hills. Scattered maples blushed red and occasional birches began to turn gold - not the overwhelming rush of color that the height of fall displays but wonderful subtle spatterings that teased and delighted the eye.
When the trail exits New Hampshire and winds into Vermont it first heads almost due west toward the middle of the state. At Sherburne Pass near Rutland it links to the Long Trail turning south and sharing the southern 100 miles with this trail that spans the state north to south from the Canadian border to the Massachusetts border and is the oldest long distance hiking trail in the nation.
In those first few days in Vermont I met most of the remaining north bounders (NoBos in trail slang) with whom I had shared the trail in May and June. The reunions, of necessity, were brief, but always joyful and sometimes a bit raucous. There was Red, Giggler, No Pain, Jester, and Jazman all on the same day, September 5th. This was a big lift since the day before had been one of my rare down days on the trail. It had been too hot and too humid. All the up-hills seemed to long and the downhills too steep. The last miles to the shelter I hoped to spend the night at took forever and when I got to where I thought it was supposed to be, it wasn't there and I ended up spending a buggy night under my tarp while thunderstorms peppered my sleep with short showers and occasional flashes of lightening. But, as the song goes, "The sun come out tomorrow!" - and the reunions of the next day turned my mood around; helped by a restaurant bought lunch at the Inn on the Long Trail at Route 4 in Sherburne Pass.
A day or so after Sherburne Pass, I encountered the "Greatest Omelet in the Galaxy". For a couple of days I had been reading about a small restaurant just off the trail called the Whistlestop. There were wild references to their "three egg omelet" and, since breakfast is definitely my favorite "off the trail" meal, I made a special effort to land at the Whistlestop in time for a morning meal. The restaurant is located in an old rural train station on Vermont Route 103 not far from the Rutland airport. I had about a 7 mile morning walk to get there but I rose early and was seated at a little table near a window with a view of the tracks by 9 AM with a hot cup of coffee steaming in front of me and a copy of the local paper spread across the table.
I ordered the "three egg omelet" and sat back to read a bit. I love these small town papers where the headlines are all about the local agricultural fair or the kids returning to school or some local dispute over trash removal and the big national news has a couple of paragraphs at the bottom of the front page and then it says "continued on page 3". More of our papers should be like that. And what a relief when I turned to the "Financial Section" and the only listings were 'Stocks of Local Interest" none of which I owned. I read a bit about the local girls softball tournament then looked through some of the want adds for tractors, cord wood, and a few 1980's vintage pickup trucks. And then my breakfast arrived.
The hyperbole in the registers was all actually TRUE. I was presented with the biggest most unbelievable omelet ever created in the Galaxy. (I forgot to tell you that you get to choose three fillings - mine were onions, mushrooms, and tomato). It was on one of those oval plates that are as wide as a normal round plate one way but about half-again as big the other. The omelet spanned the entire plate and maybe even hung over just a bit on one side. It was just perfectly golden, folded in half, and about 3 inches thick. Piled up along the remaining surface of the plate was a mound of lovely hash-brown potatoes and on top of the whole mess a couple of slices of buttered whole-wheat toast. I had my coffee cup refilled, contemplated the breakfast bounty before me, picked up my fork, and dove right in. I was at it for about 40 minutes, going slower and slower as I became fuller and fuller. I managed to eat all of the omelet (was that a 13 egg omelet??), and most of the potatoes. As for the toast, in the end, I was dunking it in the coffee to make it a bit softer and somewhat easier to swallow, but to no avail. I had to give up on the last piece, unable to consume another bite. My formidable hiker appetite had been defeated by this gargantuan meal. My plate was not clean. I paid my bill and left in AT hiker shame. Oh well, perhaps I'll return someday after a long fast and a 15-mile morning walk and try again.
I didn't eat again till evening.
There were, of course, some non-culinary highlights of the walk south through New England. A wonderful meeting with a "trail angel" who got me into town, fed, re-supplied and back to the trail near Danby, VT.
Another "peak" experience took place on top of Bromley Mountain, the ski area near Manchester Center, VT. During the first week of September, many of the colleges in the northeast hold orientation weeks for their incoming freshman class and a popular option has been a 4 or 5 day sojourn in the wilderness for groups of 8 to 10 new students and an upper classman or two. I encountered groups from Brown, Princeton, Harvard, and Middlebury College during this time period.
At the top of Bromley there is a ski patrol cabin that is left open to hikers during the summer months. There are no facilities or water at the top of the mountain, but the cabin provides a snug place to sleep out of the elements. Next to the cabin is a 30-foot high observation tower from which views in all directions can be had. I had carried up extra water and arrived at the summit just a little before sunset. There I encountered one of the Middlebury College groups who were spending their last night on the trail before returning for the start of classes. Some were in the cabin and others were up on the platform enjoying the view and the approaching sunset. I dropped my pack, pulled on a tee shirt (it had been a warm climb even though the air was cool), and joined a few students on top of the tower. The sunset was spectacular. A red fireball of a sun slowly settling through sprawling gray bands of cloud to the dusky blue ridges of the Adirondacks off on the western horizon in New York. I'd brought my little point and shoot camera up and using the railings as a stabilizing platform shot a dozen or so frames as the sky and clouds blazed with crimson and purple.
When the show was over and the air decidedly cooler I went back down to the cabin and joined the students who were preparing dinner. I'd taken out my little stove and was rummaging through my food bag when they invited me to join them in their meal of bean burritos with salsa and an assortment of other snacks. Never one to refuse food on the trail (as long as it's vegetarian fare) I enjoyed not having to mess around fixing my standard Lipton noodle meal. And the burrito was delicious.
By the time we had eaten only the faintest traces of evening light still filtered in through the windows and we sat in silhouetted shadows in a rough circle. Some of the students started asking me questions about my journey, and I shared a bit of the background of my involvement with the trail and hiking and my love for nature. When I mentioned Peace Pilgrim and the websites and the 50th anniversary of her AT hike - the first complete transit of the trail by a woman in one season - I was met with a host of new questions and for the next half hour or so I spoke about Peace, her pilgrimage and her simple message of inner and outer peace; answering a number of questions from the interested students. It was quite an amazing experience; sitting there in the darkness with the dim forms of the students just barely visible but hearing and responding to the liveliness and interest in their voices. In the end they thanked me for sharing both my story and Peace's and I promised to leave some information before I left in the morning. About half the group opted to spend their last night sleeping under the stars at the top of the platform. I shared the cabin with the remainder of the group and left early in the morning before any were really awake. On the table I left one of the "Steps" booklets I carry with me, and additional information about the websites where they could learn more about Peace Pilgrim. It had been a very special evening, indeed.
All through Vermont I regularly met other hikers on the trail. A few straggling NoBos who still thought they could get to the top of Katahdin before the official closing of Baxter on October 15th, and a number of north bound Long Trail hikers out to walk the 265 miles to the Canadian Border. I knew that once I got into Massachusetts things would change and the trail would become a more solitary experience. On September 10th, my second day in Mass., I encountered no one on the trail in the 17 miles covered between the top of Mt. Greylock and Dalton. I did stop at the Post Office in Cheshire to pick up my bounce box, so the day was not entirely without human contact, but in all the hours on the trail my only company was the silent forest, the shy birds, the sun and sky, and the wind caressing both the earth and myself. I had been thinking about the following day - the first anniversary of the terror attacks of the previous year and had decided that I wanted to be alone in the forest and away from the media hype and reruns that would be unavoidable in town.
I spent the night on the porch of a hiker friendly fellow in Dalton. My host, Tom Levardi, turned out to be another long-time practitioner of Transcendental Meditation and I could feel the quiet depth of his presence and the welcoming silence that surrounded his home. Tom extends hospitality to hikers all year long and often greets newcomers with ice cream sundays, as he did me. There were two other SoBos (south bounders) in the yard that night and we walked a few blocks to a local grinder shop and shared a meal and trail experiences before retiring for the night.
I rose early on the morning of 911 and walked to a little deli down the street to eat a quick breakfast and use the bathroom. It was a quirky small town place where all the patrons new each other and the owner by first name and long relationships meant that the customer didn't need to add, "I have my coffee with two sugars." It was already done by the time they got to the counter.
A TV played on the wall above the cash register but, thankfully, was tuned to ESPN and I only had to listen to the previous day's sports highlights and forecasts for the upcoming football weekend. I ate my breakfast - good, but not the best in the Galaxy - and quietly departed for the woods. On my way back to Tom's, I met him and my fellow hikers on the way to breakfast also and dashed back with my camera for a group photo before leaving town.
I shouldered my pack and was underway by a bit after 7 AM. The day was warm and humid and a weak sun shone white through high overcast. A little before 8 the weather took a sudden turn. Clouds began pouring in and the forest became darker and darker till it seemed more like evening than morning. The wind began to rise and moan ominously in the trees and brief squalls spattered cold rain drops on the trail. I was in the midst of my morning time of walking meditation and prayer which I had already decided to focus on healing and peace for the world. The dim light permeated the trail till a bit after 10 when the clouds began to thin and color once again returned to the landscape. The wind did not abate though and leaves spiraled down from the upper reaches of the forest and occasional branches and sometimes entire trees blocked the trail.
The timing of the darkness I encountered had been an extraordinary coincidence matching almost exactly the time, a year before, of the plane crashes in New York, Washington, and PA. As I continued to walk I began thinking about the prayer found on the peace poles promoted by the World Peace Prayer Society (www.worldpeace.org) and began repeating to myself, "May peace prevail on earth." I soon found this phrase turning into a musical chant - a refrain to which other verses manifested. It became my theme for the day and was a wonderful gift - one that accompanies me now as I continue south.
The trail itself had been transformed by the wind and rain. Scattered along my path were beautiful wet leaves, some still green some rich with the colors of fall - red, gold, bronze - veined and streaked with other astounding hues, it seemed that I was walking on a trail strewn with glittering jewels. The light was magnificent, my vision clear and sharp, the wind a clarion, and my little song a peaceful mantra that flowed along with my footsteps - "trail magic" of the highest order and one of the best days yet encountered on my journey.
In another couple of days I was walking among the cool hemlock groves of Sages Ravine and crossing the border into my home state of Connecticut. There was great satisfaction in being back on my native soil and on trails that I had walked a number of times before. In late afternoon, I climbed the rocky slope up to the top of Bear Mountain, the highest summit in the state - though not the highest point which actually lies on the side of Mt. Frisell about two miles to the west. The summit of Frisell is in Massachusetts but the state border with Connecticut lies on its southern flank and there somewhere on a nondescript slope is where CT reaches its loftiest elevation. It was good to be walking among the oak and maple forests of home and I savored the beautiful stretches of trail that border the Housatonic River between Cornwall and Kent and enjoyed the climbs up St. John's Ledges and over Shagtacoke Mt. The weather was definitely too hot and humid, and rains fell for most of a day mid state, but it was still good to be home.
I also fell in for a couple of days with a few other south bounders who I had been slowly catching up with all the way through Vermont and Massachusetts. A couple in their mid 20's with trail names of Animal (the woman) and Soggy Feet (the man) from Columbus, Ohio, and two guys that had been hiking together for a while - Pi (as in 3.14159 signed with the Greek letter) and Gravy. Now that I've been off the trail for a couple of days, I'll have to start the chase all over again and hope to reel them back in by the Delaware Water Gap and Pennsylvania border. On the other side of that coin is the possibility that some of the folks I passed coming south will have caught up to me again and there will be a possibility for some additional reunions with a chance to share the trail for a bit as we all continue to move south.
I continue to leave my little foil origami "peace cranes" in the trail registers I encounter along with the message "May Peace Prevail on the Appalachian Trail". I've had the distinct pleasure of meeting a few NoBos in Vermont who had followed my bird trail north and when I identified myself as "Bird Man" responded with, "May Peace Prevail on the Appalachian Trail". Definitely a thrill.
I'll look next for mail at the PO in Delaware Water Gap, PA 18327 toward the end of next week, and probably also in Duncannon, PA 17020 a week or 10 days later. I really haven't figured out my exact schedule yet but expect to arrive back in Harpers Ferry sometime between the 15th and 20th of October. If a computer materializes between here and there, I'll try to get off another trail update and will certainly send off an "end of the trail" message when I get back to CT.
page created - 11/09/2002
updated - 11/22/2002
All text and photos © Bruce Nichols