This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 Long Trail News.
It was 1972 when I got the call from the Green Mountain Club: “Yes, we want to hire you, but…”
I had replied to an advertisement in a magazine for a caretaker position at Taft Lodge on Mount Mansfield. “What a great way to spend the summer,” I thought. It was the ’70s, and things were changing rapidly. I never expected this job to be the least bit controversial, but they had never hired a woman caretaker before. So they decided it would be safer to post two women at Taft because it was a busy and high-profile location. Well, that sounded great to me—the more the merrier.
I was twenty-one that summer, and had just finished my junior year at Montclair State College in New Jersey. My caretaker partner, Susan Valyi, was eighteen and a student at Dawson College in Montreal. We had never met before but quickly became good friends due to our mutual love of the mountains.
It was never going to be a job to make money; we felt the job itself was the reward. This was a good attitude to have, because we were splitting $150 for the summer, plus what we could make by charging 50 cents per person per night. I’m not sure if lodge is really the right word for a one-room cabin with eight wooden bunks, a picnic table, and a wood stove, but it suited us just fine.
We arrived in June and rode the Gondola up the mountain to the Cliff House. We hiked the trail (now closed) from the Cliff House to Taft Lodge. We didn’t have much to unpack: a cook stove, sleeping bag, some clothes, and a few books. The door to the lodge had been gnawed by some animal, and our first night we were awakened by a family of porcupines who snuck through the hole and proceeded to make themselves at home. They eventually ate the crumbs littering the cabin floor and left. We made sure to fix the door the next day.
Our duties that summer were like those of today’s caretakers: trail maintenance, litter control, educating the public about fragile alpine areas, and making sure hikers followed good trail etiquette.
Taft Lodge, located on the highest Vermont peak and only 1.7 miles from the Long Trail crossing at Smugglers’ Notch, is probably the busiest shelter on the Long Trail. During the week it was pretty quiet, but on weekends it could get a little crazy. We met people from all over, and loved hearing their stories. Although at times it was challenging to keep things under control, we never had a bad experience. Everyone was very accepting of us as caretakers, and didn’t think it was anything unusual.
Once a week we hiked down the mountain and hitchhiked into Stowe for supplies. We also took advantage of flora on the mountain by cooking fiddlehead ferns and eating wild blueberries. We became known for the muffins we baked on our stove and sold to the campers.
When we finished our daily chores we explored the trails on the mountain. Most nights we climbed to the Chin or Adam’s Apple to watch the sunset. It was wonderful to experience the mountain in all kinds of weather and conditions. The sunrises and sunsets were stunning, the fog and clouds were magical, and the storms were awesome and definitely commanded our respect. That summer some hikers were caught on the summit during a violent thunderstorm. They took shelter under a big rock, but lightning struck the rock and stunned them. They eventually made it down to the cabin but were pretty shook up.
Dogs had porcupine encounters and ended up with quills in their snouts, and hikers got minor bumps and bruises, but there were no major accidents. We were lucky.
Later in the summer we got a puppy to keep us company, and named him Rudy. Susan took him home at the end of the summer.
There were two rangers on the mountain during the day, a caretaker at the Cliff House and a caretaker at Butler Lodge, so it felt like a little community. At the end of the summer, it was hard to leave and go back to civilization.
On a recent visit to Vermont, my sister told me about the March 24 presentation “Green Mountain Girls: Women of the Long Trail.” It was sponsored by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Commission on Women, and the Green Mountain Club in honor of Women’s History Month. Montpelier Section President Reidun Nuquist walked the audience through history and showed great photos, highlighting stories from the first women to walk the Long Trail and others who worked on the trail and for the GMC.
Since I had firsthand knowledge, I added a few stories of my own. Toward the end of the evening, a woman told us how her mother had allowed her and a friend stay at Taft Lodge when she was fourteen only because she had read in the newspaper that there were two women caretakers. She said she fell in love with hiking then, and we were both very touched to know we had connected way back in 1972.
The best result of that evening is that Susan and I reconnected after losing touch for a while; I now live in Colorado, and she in Ontario. We continue to climb mountains, and agree that the summer of 1972 was one of the best summers of our lives.
A Night at Taft Lodge
I was fourteen in 1972 when my mother read about the first women caretakers at Taft Lodge in the newspaper. Inspired to get me to meet one of them, she asked if I wanted to go for a hike.
Mom offered to drive my friend Robin and me to the Long Trail so we could spend a night at Taft Lodge. I had been camping and hiking before, but never without a parent or Girl Scout leader. My father was not so sure this was a good idea. Mom, however, was confident in my hiking ability and certain it was a great opportunity for me to become more independent. She did wonder how young girls would be treated by other hikers at the shelter and told us to talk to the caretaker if we needed help.
Mom dropped us off on the Mountain Road near the trailhead. We couldn’t find the trail, so we walked higher into the Notch. Eventually we found the sign for Hell Brook Trail, and started climbing. It was long. It was steep. It got dark. We pulled out flashlights and kept hiking. Finally we came to a junction with a sign to Taft Lodge.
We arrived well after dark to a crowded shelter with lots of guys, including a troop of Boy Scouts. Wendy, the caretaker, welcomed us and showed us a bunk. She was friendly to everyone and helpful to us. Robin and I talked about how fun it must be to spend the summer outdoors—but not so fun to hike down the mountain every week for food.
After hiking to the summit the next morning, we descended on the Long Trail. Our adventure was a great success and, as my Mom thought it would be, a confidence builder for me.
On my fiftieth birthday I asked Susan, a friend my age, if we should do something significant in our next ten years—like hike the entire Long Trail. She immediately agreed. Since 2006 we have been putting in the miles to finish. It’s been rocks, roots, and rain in some sections, but also exhilarating.
We are twenty-two miles from completing the last stretch to Canada which we plan to do this fall. Two hundred and seventy-three miles in ten years! There’s talk about doing our favorite sections again.
Every day on my commute I see the Mount Mansfield ridgeline, and remember how amazingly beautiful it was to see Vermont at my feet—thanks to Mom and the first female GMC caretakers.
I may be wrong, but I think the Green Mountain Club was well ahead of other eastern outdoor organizations in hiring women for the field staff and giving them major responsibility right away. The first women at Taft Lodge were great examples of that policy.
More people know about Taft than voted in the last presidential election, and most of them try to visit the place at least once a season. A caretaker could have a full-time job just sitting on the bench in front and waving to hikers walking through the yard. Overseeing the Long Trail’s equivalent of Grand Central Station (only Stratton Pond had more overnight guests — and not by much) took real skill. Being a Taft caretaker required the talents of a seasoned diplomat joined with those of a hardened circus ringmaster. Patience was a must, as were a highly developed sense of humor, an ability to improvise on the spot, and a willingness to do a lot of heavy lifting on projects of all kinds.
The Taft women with whom I worked when I was a Vermont Forests and Parks ranger naturalist up on the ridge—Wendy Turner, Susan Valyi, Libby Tuthill, and Nancy Pettingill—had all of these talents and more. They were worthy heirs to the Roy Buchanan and Will Monroe tradition, and they, in turn, set a standard that their successors have had to work to match. The Lodge, the mountain, and the Club were all lucky to have them.
—Victor Henningsen, Butler Lodge Caretaker ’71 and ’77, and Mount Mansfield Ranger Naturalist, ’72 and ’73