Long Trail: 3 Musketeers Grab Nation's Attention

07/21/10 7:50AM Tom Slayton
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The Long Trail: Vermont's Footpath Through History

Theron Dean, courtesy UVM

(Host) And now, "The Long Trail: Vermont's Footpath Through History."

VPR is looking back at the century since the Green Mountain Club was founded and the trail was built.

Today, we go back to the 1920s, when early hiking enthusiasts wanted to get attention for their creation.

It turns out that three young women put the Long Trail on the map and made themselves quite famous in their day.

Here's VPR Commentator Tom Slayton.

(Slayton) All of the founders and most of the leaders of the Green Mountain Club in its earliest days were men. But it took three young women to make the club and The Long Trail nationally famous.

(Cue Charleston)

(Slayton) Their names were Hilda Kurth, Catherine Robbins, and Kathleen Norris, and their nickname, "The Three Musketeers," stuck because their adventure -- hiking the entire route of The Long Trail, from Massachusetts to Canada - was bold, daring -- and completely unheard of for women in the 1920s.

It was the era of the Charleston, the flapper, and bathtub gin.

Ms. Norris, 18 years old, had just graduated from high school. Ms Kurth and Ms. Robbins were both 25 and schoolteachers.

(Robbins) "I just loved it."

(Slayton) Catherine Robbins remembered the trip years later for the Vermont Historical Society. Their hike took a little over three weeks in the late summer of 1927 and they became an immediate sensation. Newspapers throughout the country pounced on their story and ran photos of the three togged out in knee-high boots, knickers, bandannas, --and winsome smiles.

Green Mountain Club executive director Ben Rose noted that the Musketeers quickly became media darlings:

(Rose) "It was national news! It was a big deal that these three young ladies were out there, hiking the entire Long Trail, unaccompanied, that is to say, without male companionship. And that was thought to be quite a daring, flapperish thing for young ladies to do at the time, and I must say that even all these years later, they were quite photogenic. They cut a very nice figure out there."

Part of their appeal, obviously, was that they were the epitome of the young, liberated women who were at that very moment in history shedding the confines of Victorian clothing and manners, striking out on their own and proclaiming their rights and their individuality.

The Musketeers were obviously bright young women with minds of their own and plenty of spunk. They were also the first women to hike the entire length of the trail. And they were young and pretty. The press loved them.

Vermont Historical Society librarian Paul Carnahan recently dug out some of the newspaper clippings covering their hike:

(Paul Carnahan) "There was media coverage of the hike as they walked north, we have a clipping in front of us here a clipping from The New York Times, September 4, 1927, shows the three musketeers and says that they're the only three women to have hiked the famous path over the Vermont hills."

(Slayton) The story was very quickly splashed across front pages all across the United States. In bold type, The San Francisco Examiner's headline gasped, "They Carried No Firearms and Had No Male Escort!" And other newspapers were similarly incredulous.

They kept their packs to 25 pounds apiece and somehow managed to avoid blisters. But their hike did not start auspiciously. On their first day, the trio got lost and had to find their way by luck and by compass into Bennington. Part of the problem was that southern sections of the brand-new Long Trail were poorly cleared and even more poorly marked.

But the Musketeers were not about to let a little thing like a sketchy trail deter them. They pushed through the underbrush, found a blaze here and there, and made their way northward. Ms. Kurth had packed along a 4 oz ukulele, and when the trio got tired, they would plunk themselves down at trailside and sing what one newspaper described as "the peppiest songs they could think of." Then, refreshed, they would walk some more.

Near Bourn Pond, they found their path blocked by a rain-swollen trout stream. They forded it by inching across a crumbling railroad trestle, packs on their backs and 60 feet above the rushing water.

But they encountered their share of trail magic, too. Approaching Hazen's Notch, near the end of their trip, they looked over a cliff and saw a man far below in white slacks and a white jacket. In an interview years later, Catherine Robbins Clifford remembered what happened next:

(Robbins Clifford) "And he says, "I'm looking for the three musketeers." I said, "Oh, you are? Well, here we are." The others were behind me. "Well, come on down, I have a gallon of ice cream for you." Boy, did I go down that mountain fast. And sure enough they had a whole gallon of ice cream, and did we sit down and eat it. We all shared it, ‘til we ate it all up, you know. It was terrific."

(Slayton) The Long Trail was not even blazed north of Jay Peak, so the three walked the final miles to the Canadian border on dirt roads and ended their historic hike on Sept 4,1927.

Catherine Robbins summed up their adventure:

(Robbins) "I just loved it. Being away from the mob. You know, a chance to be alone. A chance to do some thinkin'."

(Slayton) The three women had become celebrities, but even more important, they had triumphed over their adversities and had turned the attention of the nation to the Long Trail and the mountains of Vermont.

(Host Outro) Tom Slayton is editor emeritus of Vermont Life and editor of "A Century in the Mountains."

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The Long Trail: Vermont's Footpath Through History

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