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What a Failed Thru-Hike Taught Me

By: Rebecca Sperry

Rocks crunched under the tires of my SUV as we rolled into the small dirt parking lot at the end of the appropriately named Journey's End Road in Jay, Vermont. I sat behind the wheel and my husband sat nestled into the passenger’s seat, groggy from the more than three hour drive north. With the push of a button the engine silenced and simultaneously the black flies began their cyclical ballet dance around the passenger and driver side mirrors. The knot in my stomach tightened and an uncomfortable silence filled the air. 

“Well, I guess this is it,” I said to Jason, my husband, as I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the door. The air outside the climate-controlled SUV was dense, thick, almost tangible. I could feel beads of sweat begin to form on my neck as I brushed back the thick braids that hung from either side of my head while leaning over to tighten the laces on my trail runners. 

“Are you nervous?” Jason asked. He stood behind me while I hefted the 27-pound pack onto my shoulders. 

“A little, I guess,” I responded, while I buckled the waist belt and tightened the straps. The weight of five days’ worth of food, clothes, sleeping gear, everything that I would have at my disposal for the next week felt heavier than I had expected. While I wasn’t innately aware of my nervousness, it was there, sitting in the bottom of my pack. 

“I’m going to miss you. Can we take a picture?” I said.

“Of course,” he replied and I snuggled into the crook of his shoulder, held my phone out at arm’s length, and snapped a few photos. 

“In the blink of an eye, the time had come; the moment I had been waiting for. Three years in the making, and dozens of hours of planning and re-planning, had led me here.”

In the blink of an eye, the time had come; the moment I had been waiting for. Three years in the making, and dozens of hours of planning and re-planning, had led me here. I said goodbye to my teary-eyed spouse just a few short miles from the northern terminus of Vermont’s Long Trail, a 272-mile trail that ran from north to south along the spine of the Green Mountains. The plan was to walk the length of this trail in 21 days. To become a real hiker, a thru-hiker, and finally join the ranks of my fellow hikertrash. That plan failed.

Before I could change my mind, and without watching him drive away, I began plodding down the single track flanked by knee-high grass. Despite being in what felt like the middle of nowhere, there was a well-worn path heading 1.3 miles northwest. It slithered and slinked, gaining gradual elevation, as it wound along the edge of a hill. My pack seemed to grow heavier with each step and reality began to set in. There was no turning back now. I was committed to making my way first north, and then south, following the white 2x6 blazes that were painted at intermittent intervals marking the path ahead. I had one goal: follow the blazes south to become a real hiker. My path, though, ended up taking me off of that white-blazed trail.

“Never again. Never again,” I sobbed. Dirt was caked under my fingernails as I grabbed for one of the exposed roots that snaked its way through the rich Vermont soil. With a heave, I yarded myself uphill. The traction on my trail runners was barely enough to grip into the loose footbed, and as I tried to navigate up the duff and dirt, wads of trail were sent streaming downhill towards the base of the mountain that I was attempting to ascend. Five minutes earlier, I was descending this stretch of trail, after checking and rechecking my map, trying to convince myself that I had finished all of the climbs for the day. I tried to will the Long Trail’s direction down off of Tillotson Peak. But no matter how much I wanted the trail to go around this massive mound of dirt, it went directly up and over it, and therefore I had to go up and over it, climbing my sixth mountain for the day, with a 25 pound pack strapped to my back.

“Tears streamed down my cheeks and I wiped them away, smearing dirt onto my skin, but I didn’t care. All I cared about was not having to climb this stupid mountain that wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place. But it was, and therefore I had to climb it.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks and I wiped them away, smearing dirt onto my skin, but I didn’t care. All I cared about was not having to climb this stupid mountain that wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place. But it was, and therefore I had to climb it. That night, after finishing my ascent of Tillotson Peak, followed by a mile and a half-long walk through nonstop mud and stream-covered trail, I ripped my trailrunners off my feet. Water pooled up in the bottoms of them as I ate my instant mashed potatoes. Black flies twisted and turned their little tiny heads into any of my exposed flesh, but I didn’t care. I was immune to caring about the biting insects at this point. I was too exhausted to swat them away, so instead, I went back into the enclosed shelter that sat a few hundred feet off of the Long Trail, and in the dark, ate my dinner in silence. 

Less than 48 hours earlier, I had started on this journey, to walk from the top of Vermont to the Massachusetts border. In those 48 hours I had already fallen into a mud pit trying to get water, had a terrible night’s sleep as the sides of my poorly-staked tent thumped and swayed in the wind, and now the flesh on the tops of all of my toes glowed pink from being rubbed raw in my wet shoes all day. I still had hundreds of miles of hiking to go and as I looked over my mileage goals for each of the next 18 days, a knot settled in my stomach. I realized that there was no way I could keep up this pace of over 12 to 15 miles a day over some of the most rugged terrain in the Northeast. I realized I had grossly overestimated my mileage and underestimated my physical abilities. Was this really how I wanted to spend the better part of my summer break? Was this really what I wanted to do with three weeks of time? The questions spun around in my head that night as I prayed that my trailrunners would miraculously dry out by the morning (they didn’t).  

“With hours of free time, I realized this was what I wanted my thru-hike to be like. Not forced death marches up and over a half-dozen mountains, to prove to myself that I was strong enough, fast enough, good enough, to be considered a thru-hiker. What I wanted was to spend hours in the woods, stop at streams and soak my feet and legs in crystal-clear water, and just exist with no expectations set upon me.”

The following morning, I slid my cold feet into sodden trail runners and vowed that I was going to take it slow. I cut my mileage goal in half, and by noon, I reached the shelter where I would spend the night. With hours of free time, I realized this was what I wanted my thru-hike to be like. Not forced death marches up and over a half-dozen mountains, to prove to myself that I was strong enough, fast enough, good enough, to be considered a thru-hiker. What I wanted was to spend hours in the woods, stop at streams and soak my feet and legs in crystal-clear water, and just exist with no expectations set upon me. What I wanted was to be alone in nature, to reset, reflect, write, and allow myself the space to just be for a few days. I didn’t need an entire thru-hike to get what I needed to get out of this adventure. The following morning, climbing out of Devil’s Gulch, I came to the realization that this was not how I wanted to spend the better part of my summer. That day, day four of my thru-hike attempt, I texted my husband and said, come get me, I’m done hiking. With that message, I felt an entire summer of adventures open up to me. The sun beamed down on my head, and I did an about-face through Devil’s Gulch, and off of the Long Trail. I took the less-traveled path, covered in Hobblebush and swarming with mosquitos,  to route 118, and from there, home. It was in those final four miles, where I was no longer following the white blazes south, that I felt most at home. In those final few hours, seeing a section of Vermont that maybe no other Long Trail thru-hiker had seen before, I realized what I loved most about hiking was seeing the places not many have seen. 

 

Sometimes the lessons we learn, the ones that have the most impact on us, are not found at the end of a 272-mile trail. Not everyone who enters one end of a thru-hike comes out the other side. Victory cannot always be measured in miles completed or end-to-end patches sewn to sweat-stained ultralight backpacks. And for me, finishing the Long Trail was not what I had expected. I set out to complete this hike to prove to myself and the hiking community as a whole that I was an athlete; a real hiker, once and for all. I ended up getting off-trail after four days of hiking because I came to realize that this hike was, in fact, getting in the way of all of the things that I really wanted to do with my summer break. That I didn’t need to be a thru-hiker to be a hiker. I had spent the better part of four years telling myself that I wasn’t a real hiker until I had completed a thru-hike, and in focusing so much on one goal, I didn’t realize how much I had learned and grown as an exclusively solo hiker.

In the three years since getting off of the Long Trail, I have embraced a new identity within the hiking community, as a “tracer” or “red-liner” in New Hampshire, which entails hiking all of the 1,400 miles of trails in the White Mountain Guidebook. I may never go on a thru-hike of one of the long trails, but I will see every inch of trail in my home state, and that, to me, is far more exciting than walking a straight line from one place to another. Taking the trails that are less-traveled, the ones that are being decommissioned, or already are decommissioned, in order to see places rarely seen by human beings is my own version of thru-hiking. Navigating on unmarked trails, building day hikes out of a map that looks like it’s covered in spaghetti noodles, and finding my way through the woods, on my own, has become my passion. I never would’ve known that this was what I love if I hadn’t taken the trail less traveled to get off of the Long Trail that warm summer day in June of 2019. My failed thru-hike pointed me in the direction of what kind of a hiker I am, and it was in that failure that I found who I am within the hiking community. 

Rebecca is an avid hiker who spends the majority of her free time either hiking in New England or writing. In 2020, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and continued to hike throughout an entire year of aggressive treatment. She is a strong proponent for the importance of staying active, especially as a way to alleviate some of the side effects of cancer treatment. You can follow her journey on instagram: @rebecca.l.sperry or her website: rebeccasperry.com 

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