On the Long Trail with North Star

by Dana Dwinell-Yardley, Montpelier VT

Author's Note: My father and I embarked on a great adventure last summer: hiking Vermont's Long Trail together. I was asked to write about some of our discoveries and stories from the trail for this excellent publication. Instead of telling you about it from an ordinary point of view, though, I decided to interview my alter ego trail identity, North Star, 21, about her trip with Twilight Time, 57. Here's our conversation. . . if you can call it that.


DDY: So who are you, anyway? And what's with the funny name?

North Star: Umm... I'm a human being?

DDY: No, I mean: tell me a little bit about yourself.

NS: Ah, I see. Well, I'm a 20-year-old Montpelierite and eighth-generation Vermonter. I take real pride in being born of our Green Mountain State, of having roots here. I love being outside. I was homeschooled for my entire life and now I work in the "real world" as a graphic designer.

North Star is my trail name. It's customary for long-distance hikers to have a trail name that's not their real name. Sometimes it's given to them by other people, sometimes they choose it for themselves. I picked North Star because we were heading north, and I felt like I might need to call upon some kind of inner star — my strength and energy, I guess — to keep on heading north.

DDY: Why did you want to hike the Long Trail?

NS: Wow, good question. I've always found a deep sense of peace and fulfillment after a hike up a Vermont mountain. My father has taken me outside in the woods and on hikes since before I could walk, and I guess I share his love of the Vermont woods and mountains. It's always been a bit of a tickle in my brain — "Hmm... it'd be cool to hike the Long Trail some day..." — and as I got older and more physically and mentally capable the tickle grew into more of a real possibility. Plus, I've always been a bit independent. The idea of being self-contained, with all my stuff and my food on my back, and of getting from one place to another under my own steam really appealed to me.

DDY: Speaking of being capable, were you guys super-buff or something to be able to do this?

NS: (laughs) Uh.. no. Not really. Not at all, actually. We walk or bike around Montpelier instead of driving, and play the casual game of frisbee, but we didn't do any particular fitness plan or anything to get ready. We didn't even manage to get in a practice hike beforehand! But we were both totally fine. The trail got us in shape. We just went a little slower than the crazy buff young AT hikers. Ten-mile days or so.

DDY: How long were you on the trail? Did you do the whole thing?

NS: We were in the trail for 16 days in late August to mid-September. A 12-day stretch and a 4-day stretch. We made it as far as Appalachian Gap... was toward the end of September, it was getting cold, and we weren't sure we'd have time to finish before Twilight Time's October 1 plane trip. And I kinda wanted to save some of it for next year!

DDY: Tell me about the stuff you brought. What did you eat? How heavy were your packs? Did you ever change your clothes?

NS: Ah, practicalities. Our packs were 30, 35 pounds. We didn't carry a tent, trusting that we'd find room in shelters — which we did, for the most part — so that helped cut the weight. We ate food. . . rice, pasta, parmesan cheese, dried fruit. We got these great dried veggie flakes that stopped me from going totally vegetable-crazy. What we ate seemed to be really different than other hikers, though. We had all bulk and whole ingredients whereas most other people had packets of ramen or insta-dried-whatever.

And yeah, I had two tshirts. Wore one and washed the other. But everything else got pretty grody. It doesn't matter so much out there, though: the whole ultra-clean thing that we expect in the "civilized" world.

DDY: I hear you hiked barefoot the whole time, North Star. Wow! Why did you choose to do that? How did it go?

NS: I've never liked shoes. Too hot and sweaty and confining. I've always hiked barefoot — it feels better and works better for me. Long-distance hiking was no exception. I did bang up the ball of one foot through my own stupidity — looking at the gorgeous overgrown orchard instead of at where I was going — but it was an inconvenience, not an emergency, that healed right up on our rest days off the trail.

And bare feet are great in the rain! No squishy socks.

DDY: Did you miss any of the "comforts of civilization"?

NS: Not in terms of technology or appliances, not really. The shower I had when I got home had to have been one of the best in my life, though. And I made the mistake of buying a 45-degree bag, which, on the 90-degree day I bought it, sounded really cold instead of normal for September. I was pretty cold quite a few nights. That was not so much fun — to be inside your sleeping bag wearing all the clothes you have and knowing there's no way to be any warmer.

DDY: What were the other hikers like? Did you meet anyone interesting?

NS: Well, let's just put it this way: to be a long-distance hiker I think you have to be a little nuts in some fashion. Especially so if you're doing something as crazy as hiking the AT (which coincides with the Long Trail up to Rutland). These people, the ones who started in Georgia, had been on the trail for four months or so. Four months. They were almost a different species. Very trail-weary, but very happy to be in Vermont, which they all said was a wonderful, beautiful state. Our favorite AT people were Blue and Caboosie, a couple who had met on the trail. Then there was Greta, who was young woman just out of school and a Long Trail hiker like ourselves — a mellower, more human type, the Long Trail hikers were, in general.

But the most memorable guy was Mr. Ninety-Five. He and his girlfriend and hyper dog were hiking the Long Trail too. This guy had packed everything and anything he could possibly need — and more likely not need. His pack was 95 pounds. And he was always half-complaining, half-bragging about it. He had a solar shower in there, a foot-long knife. . . a gallon of vodka (that he ended up dumping out). The girlfriend was very patient with all of this.

DDY: Is Vermont a different place to hike in than the rest of the country, do you think?

NS: Well, I don't have a lot of experience hiking in other states, so I can't really say. I do think we are truly blessed to have this beautiful 275-mile trail running along the tops of the Green Mountains, far away from towns and roads. It's apparently one of the oldest long-distance trails in the nation. 100 years ago, Vermonters were hauling their ornery selves up these mountains too. That's a cool thing to think about; that I'm carrying on a 100-year tradition of love for Vermont and its wild, mountainous, woodsy places.

DDY: Could you pick a most favorite, most beautiful place on the trail?

NS: Oh gosh. It was all beautiful. You know, I envisioned hiking the Long Trail as scrambling up and down mountains all day, but really, a lot of it was walking through woods on fairly even terrain, especially in the southern bits. That really reaffirmed my love of the woods, especially maple woods, and got me thinking about things like biology and ecosystems and why certain things grow in some places but not others. This world we live in is truly fascinating and wonderful. But as for sheer beauty. . . the mornings eating breakfast on Glastenbury fire tower and swimming in Stratton Pond were pretty good. And I loved the Monroe Skyline.

DDY: Did you have any hair-raising experiences? Fighting off bears with your bare hands or anything? Scrambling up sheer rock faces through golf-ball-sized hail?

NS: (laughs) You've been reading too much Bill Bryson! We didn't see anything larger than a rabbit the whole time. And the weather blessed us with 14 days of sunshine.

The hard parts were much less exciting than all that, though. I had a rough time dealing with shelters, at first — I'm an introvert and so being around people after being alone all day was hard for me. I figured it out, though. That's another mark of a long-distance hiker — you learn to have "shelter manners," really good personal boundaries when sharing space with others.

We had one day that was pretty sucky — 15 miles from just north of Route 4 to Brandon Gap. There is nothing exciting there. No views, no ponds, streams, nothing. But you are still climbing mountains. And my foot was hurting, too. Not a great day. But at Brandon Gap we got picked up by this wonderful woman who felt like being kind to two bedraggled hitchhikers, and so — happy ending —we made it home that night and got to have showers and watermelon.

DDY: What did you like most about your trip? What was the best part?

NS: The physical and psychological reward that comes from going places on your own two legs is wonderful. We walked all the way from Massachusetts to Waitsfield! How cool is that?! And on a smaller scale, we did those 15-miles days, climbed those mountains, survived the rain and cold and injury when it seemed to be a crazy impossible task. But we did it. And we had fun. That's something to be proud of.

The other best part of it was being outside all the time. Really being part of Vermont, seeing wild places that I never knew existed. We live in a beautiful state, and we miss a lot of its most beautiful places when we travel the same old roads every day.

DDY: What would you say to other Vermonters interested in doing something like this?

NS: If you want to do it, go for it! You don't need special training; just a love of hiking and some basic gear and knowledge.

My experience was that it's both hard and easy. Hard because you're walking all day through the woods and up mountains with 35 pounds on your back and dealing with the inconveniences of no modern house at the end of the day. Easy because that's all it is. All you have to do is walk through the woods all day. All your stuff is in one place. It's a less complicated way of being. More human. More real than a lot of the stuff we do in our day-to-day lives.

DDY: Are you going to finish next year?

NS: Oh yeah! I can't wait.


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Longtrail 100

VPR is marking the 100th anniversary of The Long Trail with a month-long series of reports and essays. Through this series, we'll explore the history and future of The Long Trail and introduce listeners to the people who built, maintain and hike it today.