“Things do not change; we change.” – Henry David Thoreau
“In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m starting to see now why it is so difficult for thru hikers to award AT superlatives. How can one possibly settle on a best section, view, trail magic, or anything else? Much of what makes something extra special depends on other factors such as weather, my attitude, location and intensity of body pain and/or numbness, who I’m with, etc.
That being said, Vermont’s Green Mountains are among the greenest, healthiest looking, and best smelling forests I’ve ever been in. It’s a special place even though it lacks the grand views you find in the Smokies and elsewhere. Throughout today’s hike, the alpine smells reminded me of the many Christmas tree shopping trips I’ve been on in my life. I grew up in a live Christmas tree family, unlike Janet and her artificial tree family. I enjoyed our family’s tradition of picking, transporting, trimming, setting up, watering, and smelling the tree.
My dad and I always ended up with sticky sap on our hands and a line of scattered needles running from the car to the living room. I remember my dad under the tree with his butt up in the air, turning the screws that held the tree in place. From my vantage point, he looked more like a plumber than an Air Force officer. Then we’d spin it to hide the bad side and then we’d hang the lights. Once the lights were operational and the tree watered, we’d turn it over to my mom and sisters to decorate it. Invariably, one of the ladies would say the tree was leaning, and Dad would go back under, with his butt up in the air, and strategically place pieces of cardboard under the appropriate tree stand legs to fix the problem. It was a sticky, time-consuming and wonderfully messy process, one that artificial tree families sadly miss out on. Those were good times and I’m happy that Janet agreed on us being a live Christmas tree family and continuing that tradition.
Vermont’s Green Mountains are full of perfectly looking and smelling Christmas trees. On today’s hike, they were complemented by a series of rock cairn gardens that have been accurately described as a scene from the Candyland game. Over the years, hikers have added their own cairns, sometimes with a purpose in mind and sometimes not. I decided to build a small cairn in honor of Harrison and Hayley Waldron. Harrison sustained a serious traumatic brain injury in a 4-wheeling accident and has spent more than a year courageously recovering from it. Hayley has been by his side throughout the process, supporting him and keeping the faith. I have been greatly encouraged and inspired by their example as I deal with my own, much lesser challenges on the trail. So I built a rock cairn in their honor and prayed for them before hiking on.
At mile 1676.8, VT 140, I arrived at some Trail Magic courtesy of the Green Mountain Club! These trail maintainers had an assortment of things to choose from, and I helped myself to two hot dogs, two brownies, and two Gatorades. After resting for 30 minutes and thanking them, I hiked up another Bear Mountain. On the way, I stopped and talked to a group of Philly teens and chaperones out on a section hike. They, like many others, are now aware that my son once pooped on the trail.
The last mile of the day offered great views of the Rutland Airport and the Clarendon Gorge. The suspension bridge over the Gorge was just high and wobbly enough to make my privates tingle. Just beyond the bridge I headed half a mile down VT 103 to Qu’s Whistle Stop Restaurant. In addition to great food and breakfast served all day, Qu’s allows hikers to camp in the backyard of the restaurant. I met and sat with another AT hiker named Tough Love from North Carolina. He got his trail name while hiking with an M.I.T. graduate and another guy. The M.I.T. graduate was complaining about how tough it is being as smart as he is. Tough Love responded that rather than worrying about being too smart, he should focus on using his brains to better society. The third hiker, just behind them, commented, “That’s some tough love right there,” and the name stuck.
Sitting at the table next to us was Hollis Squier, the Official Town Hugger of Tinmouth, Vermont. Yes, this man’s primary purpose is to give hugs to people who need them. He even has business cards. Some time ago a newspaper ran a story on him and it was read by a woman who was seriously ill and in need of a hug. Mr. Squier drove 90 minutes to meet her and her husband and give the lady a hug. After 1683 miles of hiking, Tough Love and I decided that we too could use a hug, and Mr. Squier obliged and also gave us his business card. If you’re ever in Vermont and need a hug, give this guy a call.
I tented that night with Tough Love and a few others in the soft lawn behind Qu’s restaurant. I was warm, dry, full and had been recently hugged. At this stage of my long journey, that’s about all a hiker can ask for.
After eating Qu’s Hiker Breakfast, I was offered a ride back to the trailhead by a local Trail Angel named Plans Too Much. After just a few miles, I began a long, challenging climb in light rain toward Killington Peak. About halfway up the mountain I stopped at the Governor Clement Shelter to get water and talk to some section hikers. I continued the grueling 2600-foot climb and eventually arrived at a crowded, dilapidated Cooper Lodge Shelter near the summit.
With a big thunderstorm approaching, I quickly ate supper, hung my bear bag, and set up my tent not far from the shelter. Had the weather been nicer, I would have hiked an additional .2 miles uphill to the summit to eat at the Killington Peak Lodge, take in the views, and ride the gondola. None of that sounded appealing in a thunderstorm. Instead, I ended my 11.4 mile, all uphill day listening to the sound of heavy rain pounding my tent. I’ve gotten very used to that sound and it helped me fall fast asleep.
Today was what most people would consider a miserable day for hiking. It rained all night, guaranteeing a muddy, slippery descent off Killington. Then, shortly after breaking camp and heading down the mountain, it started raining again. For the first time on my journey, I put on a rain poncho, more so to keep me warm rather than dry. Also for the first time, I made no effort to avoid the mud puddles. I was like a big rig driver whose brakes have failed. If I was going to get wet and muddy, I might as well have some fun with it…so I did.
I have previously discussed my fondness for Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I have related how I have applied Habit 2, Begin With the End in Mind, and Habit 7, Sharpen the Saw, while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The trail conditions on Day 143 present an opportunity to discuss Habit 1, Be Proactive. This habit involves taking responsibility for your life and owning your behavior and your response to situations. Rather than blame your parents, genetics, conditions, or circumstances for your behavior, you realize you have the freedom to choose how to respond to external stimuli. In effect, you and you alone are response-able. You focus on things you can control (your circle of influence) rather than on things beyond your control (your circle of concern).
I was on a long, wet, muddy descent in the rain. It was chilly out. I was far away from my home and my loved ones. I really should be miserable. I should hate the day and the fact that I’m cold, wet, and muddy on the AT. But I don’t have to feel that way. As a human being, I get to choose my response. I don’t have to follow the normal, natural response to such situations. So on Day 143, I chose to be happy. I chose to splash in the mud puddles like a 10-year-old. Each of the three times I fell, I chose to laugh and give myself a score based on my technique and how well I stuck or didn’t stick the landing. I chose to remember I am blessed to be on this trail and need to embrace the bad along with the good.
Habit 1 can theoretically work in every situation, but we humans aren’t disciplined enough to apply it in all situations. We get gloomy when it’s rainy. We take offense when someone says something mean to us or about us. We get frustrated when stuck in traffic or in a slow-moving checkout line. And yet, we don’t have to respond that way. We can choose something better, and I decided Day 143 was going to be a fun, memorable day of hiking.
At the bottom of the mountain the rain finally stopped. I hiked through Gifford Woods State Park, crossed VT 100, and reached Kent Pond near Killington. Wet and muddy, I called the Killington Motel and the owner came and picked me up at the trailhead. I showered, did laundry, and devoured a 12″ sub at the nearby Killington deli. It had been a good, fun, rainy, muddy day on the Appalachian Trail. At least for today, I decided not to let it be miserable.
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