Vermont’s Long Trail is the oldest long-distance trail in the United States. And in July, Alexandra Roberts (along with her husband Rob) embarked on her first thru-hike of the 272 mile Long Trail (438km).
This trip took some series planning for Alex who is a Boston based wedding photographer because summer is such a busy season for her business. I have known Alex for a long time (growing up in the Bangor schools…gosh first grade?) and it came as no surprise that as she hiked the Long Trail she had a camera in hand to capture and share her experience on Instagram and Facebook.
I enjoyed following her adventure so much that it got me thinking that if I was inspired by her journey and wanted to learn more others might enjoy her story too. So I reached out and she said YES to an in-depth Q&A. You may be wondering where did she sleep? what did she eat? How was the weather? What was her trail name? Would she do it again? Could I do a thru-hike? All this and so much more! So grab a cup of tea (or coffee) and curl up with a big dose of adventure!
Why the Long Trail?
I knew I wanted to be on the trail for about a month, and the Long Trail is the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the country. I thought that was pretty cool! I have done very little hiking in Vermont, and it’s really close to home in Boston. It sounded perfect.
Where did you start, where did you end, and how many days were you on the trail?
We started in North Adams, MA, and ended in North Troy, VT. There is a 4-mile approach trail to the Southern Terminus of the LT and there are two trails that will get you there. We followed the Appalachian Trail which crosses Route 2. The 2-mile approach trail to the Northern Terminus of the LT is called Journey’s End Trail. We spent exactly 4 weeks on the Long Trail.
When did you start planning for your trip?
Because I’m a wedding photographer, we had to block off the time about a year and a half in advance. We knew we wanted to do it in the summer time. We chose July because even though it’s in the middle of my season, it’s typically my slowest month. Once we had that figured out and blocked off on the calendar, we didn’t really think about any of the logistics until about two weeks before we left!
What was the longest hiking trip you had done before this?
The longest backpacking trip prior to this was 38 miles and two nights in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. That trip did not involve a trail, it was all map/compass wayfinding. My motto is the best way to learn is to throw yourself in the deep end!
[Tweet “My motto is the best way to learn is to throw yourself in the deep end!”]
How did you prepare logistically and physically for the adventure?
We had done a fair amount of backpacking together, but only out west on trails that are wide, smooth, and gradual. We spend a lot of our free time hiking in the White Mountains and knew the terrain was going to be more rugged than our west coast backpacking trips. About a week before we left both my husband and I went on separate shakedown hikes with another friend to make sure we both knew how to use all of our gear. We did the 32-mile Pemigewasset Loop in the White Mountains which was perfect both in length and difficulty.
Logistically, the only major planning detail was to pack up our food resupply boxes and decide which towns to mail them to. I had a handful of things that I wanted to do, (for example, I really wanted to end one of our days at Killington so that we could watch the sunset from the summit) so we did some planning out of our miles to make those types of experiences happen.
What were your favorite foods and meals? Anything you got sick of eating or found out you love to eat now?
RAMEN. I did not expect that. We packed one ramen each in our boxes, and always ate it first not because it was the bulkiest (because it was), but it was what I wanted every single night. Pop-Tarts are 400 calories for two and it powered me through the first morning climb. I didn’t really get sick of any of the food we packed. Maybe if I ate some of it off-trail, it might not seem as amazing as it was on the trail. When you’re as hungry as we got, everything sounds amazing.
[Tweet “When you’re as hungry as we got, everything sounds amazing.”]
How did you stay stocked with supplies along the way?
My pack weight was 33lbs with food and water when I started. I am not sure if that is a lot or a little, but it felt good to me. The night before we left, we packed up four resupply boxes with six days worth of food in each box. We had already decided which towns we were going to hitch to retrieve them, and we mailed them off to the post offices in each town. We learned in the first couple days what worked and what didn’t as far as food went. The only thing we did not like was making a hot breakfast in the morning. I don’t know what we were thinking, there’s just no time for that! Each time we would get our box, we donated our oatmeal to the local hiker box and went to the market to stock up on Pop-Tarts instead.
Where did you sleep?
There are over 70 shelters with space to tent along the Long Trail. Most of them are lean-tos, and a few of them have the luxury of a door. They are conveniently located near a water source, so we planned our miles around ending at a shelter each night. For the first 12 nights, we slept in our tent. After that, we slept in the shelter. It would thunderstorm nearly every night, and it was so nice to not have to pack up a wet tent in the morning.
About how many mountain peaks did you climb? Any favorites?
There are 53 named mountains on the Long Trail, and 27 of them are over 3,500’! I have three favorites! My favorite peak with the most amazing view was Mt. Abraham. The day we climbed Camel’s Hump, the mountain was completely socked in and crazy windy. Even with no view whatsoever, it was so beautiful. Then Mt. Mansfield was my favorite day on the trail. There are some really challenging parts on a section called The Forehead, and I was giddy for the entire stretch above treeline.
How was the weather?
About eight days in, it POURED for three days straight. There were jokes being made about how the longest river in Vermont is the LT. The trail turns into a waterfall! It got to the point where it was funny, though, and we laughed through it. Other than that one bout of rain, the weather was perfect. High of 70 and sunny every day. It did storm pretty much every night, but when you’re in a shelter listening to the rain and watching the lightning it’s very peaceful.
What was it like hiking, sleeping, and trying to stay dry among the stormy weather you encountered?
I learned that you’ll waste so much effort trying to stay dry and it’s completely pointless. Just embrace the rain. That said, keeping your sleeping bag and spare clothes dry is important. We kept our things in dry sacks and lined our packs with a trash compactor bag. Everything inside my pack stayed dry with no problems. I did have trouble sleeping most nights because I loved the storms too much! I would just stare out the open front of the lean-to watching the sky and forest light up. I also learned that I can sleep anywhere!
You captured your experience with a camera and shared images on social media along the way. What did you end up bringing with you?
I brought a Fuji X100T and my iPhone for camera gear. I originally wanted to bring one of my backup cameras, but it was just too heavy and big. I knew I wanted to photograph the trip with something better than my iPhone, and I also wanted to be able to use wifi capabilities to post photos on social media from the trail (which was usually at the top of a mountain).
What was your experience meeting other hikers? Did you feel a sense of camaraderie?
The best part of the trail was the people we met. The experience itself is so hard to explain. You spend the bulk of your day in pain and discomfort. I would tell myself to not look up when we’d start another uphill climb, then I would look up and curse at myself for doing so. I’d think “#$%^ I can’t make it!” 50% of the actual hiking time. When you see a sign that a shelter is .2mi away after hiking 15 miles over five mountains, it’s the longest .2 of your life. Once you’re at the shelter with your trail families all of that disappears. You are all laughing about how rude Mt Ethan Allen was to your toes, or who fell in the last river crossing. It doesn’t matter if you’re super fast or a slow poke, everyone is going through the same challenges as you are, and it was reassuring to come together at the end of the day.
[Tweet “It doesn’t matter if you’re super fast or a slow poke, everyone has the same challenges. “]
What was your trail name and how did it come about?
I was given the name Pink Heels by a friend that we met on the AT portion of the Long Trail. I had acquired some crazy blisters on my heels on day 1 (still not sure how that happened having never had blisters before), and ran out of those blister-specific Band-Aids on day 3. Once we were in town I just went to go get duck tape. I heard it was good for blisters. Of course, I chose the neon pink duck tape, because why not!? He called me Pink Heels and it stuck.
Did you have a set goal or expectation going into the trip?
The only goal I had was to finish. I try to go into these types of trips with no expectations and an open mind.
[Tweet “The only goal I had was to finish. I went in with no expectations and an open mind.”]
How did your goal or expectation change and evolve as the trip progressed?
At first, I didn’t care how many miles we did in a day. We wanted to mosey our way north and get there when we get there. But we didn’t anticipate how attached we’d get to the people we met along the way. They become your trail family. We ended up doing 13-16 miles a day to make sure we met up with the same people at camp. Seeing your trail family at the shelter was just the best. Our friends who were picking us up in Canada and bringing us home could only meet us on a certain day which meant we had to slow down or else we would finish a week before our friends could come get us! Each morning during the last 50 miles we would say goodbye to our trail family knowing we wouldn’t see them again, only for us to decide midday to push on and make it to the same shelter so we could hang out with the trail family ONE MORE NIGHT. That happened repeatedly. We could have finished earlier and found another ride home, but we were also really excited that our friends were hiking ten miles to come hike us out. We did some seriously low miles the last few days to drag it out, going shelter to shelter and having a ball, so we got the best of both worlds!
If you had to sum up the trip in a phrase, what saying, song, or mantra would you use?
When I started to get close to the end of the trail, I got really sad. I’m usually ready for vacations to end when they do but not this time. We’d come up on south bounders just starting and I would stop to chat with them, letting them know how jealous I was that they had only just started. They’d ask me “how was the trail?” and I would just look at them like “how can I possibly answer that!?” All I could ever think of when asked that question was a short line from Ben Folds “Still Fighting It” which is “it was pain, sunny days and rain”. That sums it up pretty well, I think.
What were a couple of your moments experiencing “pure joy and awe” on the trail?
Cowboy camping on top of Mount Stark. I had never slept outside with no tent or shelter before. This was the day after the three days of straight pouring rain and we looked up to see the stars were out. I thought it would be fun to sleep under the stars so we just got in our bags on top of the mountain. It was a night where the moon was just barely a sliver, so it was really dark. The Milky Way was right above us, so prominent in the sky. I’d never seen it quite like that (even having backpacked out west in the desert) except for in photos. It was another sleepless night because I couldn’t stop staring at the sky.
What surprised you the most from the trip?
How far 100 miles seemed on the day we started. It sounded like we might make it that far in the time we allowed for the entire trip. We were at the 100-mile mark seven days in, and that really put the distance into perspective.
[Tweet “We were at the 100-mile mark seven days in, and that really put the distance into perspective.”]
What advice would you give to people interested in a thru-hike?
Although it’s obviously a physical undertaking, people underestimate the mental challenge. Just know that it will be tougher on your brain than on your knees. That being said, you should stretch every day. And most importantly it’s not a race, hike your own hike!
Are you hooked on thru-hiking? Any immediate plans on another hike?
Yes yes yes yes! No immediate plans, but when I got home I immediately looked at next years calendar to see where I can take some time to do another one. I texted my best friend, Lara, a few times while on the trail just “Appalachian Trail 2018?” and she hasn’t exactly said no yet, so there’s that. I also have my eyes set on something like the Pacific Northwest Trail that goes from Montana to Washington, or the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that goes from the Smokies to the Outer Banks.
What does the phrase “live your adventure life” mean to you?
When I hear that phrase I just think, if you want to do something, stop thinking about it and do it. Don’t listen to anyone telling you that you can’t, especially if that person is you.
[Tweet “Live your adventure means that if you want to do something, stop thinking about it and do it!”]
Do you have an adventure story to share? Or do you know of someone who has a story to share? I get super jazzed up about this stuff from the backyard adventure to the epic thru-hike and everything in between. I would love to help share your story and learn what “living your adventure life means” with a Q&A or guest post. Let’s chat and see what emerges! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.