This article appears in the Summer 2023 Long Trail News. It was written by Brooke Marshall, inspired by hiking with dad. We reprint it here just in time for Father’s Day.
My dad’s an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who’s climbed the 100 highest peaks in New England…twice. He’s also a Long Trail End-to-Ender; he section-hiked the whole thing, including every side trail, over the course of 25 years. Now at 67, he’s doing the LT again, “in the opposite direction this time.”
When my sister and I were growing up, Dad wanted nothing more than to share his love of the outdoors with us. One of our first Long Trail section hikes was from the Keewaydin Trail near Wallingford to the Big Branch parking area in Mount Tabor, passing by Little Rock Pond.
“The water at Little Rock Pond is so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom,” Dad insisted to seven-year-old me. That night, I dreamed we were canoeing through a lake teeming with enormous fish, through water so clear you couldn’t even see it.
The reality was less magical. We took the Keewaydin Trail to get to the Long Trail at White Rocks. I groaned under the weight of my pack, staring up with dismay at switchback after savage switchback. When I finally dragged myself into camp, I threw down my backpack and screamed in outrage:
“I HATE HIKING!!”
Dad’s only response was a knowing chuckle.
We continued our Long Trail section hikes, me complaining all along. We endured daylong hikes between Codding Hollow and Hogback Road, eventually working our way up to a longer overnight death march from the Canadian border to Hazen’s Notch. On an overnight from Brandon Gap to Route 4, we ran into one of Dad’s AT friends. Dad called him “Chilcoot,” he called Dad “Dough Head,” and they stayed up all night telling stories about their trek from Georgia to Maine. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do something like that, I thought.
And then there was Tillotson Camp to Devil’s Gulch. Dad warned us that Devil’s Gulch was a scramble, that it could get sketchy, that we’d have to be extra careful. Meanwhile, I was stuck on the name. “DEVIL’S Gulch?” I thought. “Are you making me hike to HELL?”
The trail to Hell crosses Belvidere Mountain. My sister darted up the fire tower; I inched my way up with a white-knuckle grip on the handrail. There were no walls to hide how high we were climbing, and when we got to the top, the spindly structure swayed in the wind.
From there, we hiked on to Ritterbush Camp (taken down in 1999), where we dropped our packs. Next stop: an out-and-back to Devil’s Gulch, a sketchy scramble that may or may not lead to the underworld. As we got closer, my palms began to sweat and my breath came in short gasps. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I sat down.
“You guys can go on to Devil’s Gulch,” I pouted. “I’m staying here.”
Dad tried to backpedal, to cajole, even to bribe me. I crossed my arms and scowled at the ground. When it became clear that I wasn’t budging, not even for a crisp $10 bill or two Little Debbies, Dad admitted defeat. While he and my sister hiked Devil’s Gulch, I sat and sulked on the side of the Long Trail.
Freedom at Last
Dad kept subjecting us to family hikes until I graduated high school and left Vermont to go to college in Atlanta. Finally, I was free!
I missed hiking.
After I graduated, I decided to section-hike the AT in Georgia. It took six months to cover the 78.1 miles. Sometimes it was arduous; other times, like when I ran into a black bear hiking after dark, it was scary. And that, I realized, was exactly the point.
Since then I’ve hiked unnamed hills in southern Malawi, biked over Irish mountain passes, and pulled myself up a ragged old rope to the top of a massive, turret-shaped volcanic nunatak jutting out of a glacier and overlooking the Ross Sea and, beyond it, Antarctica’s Royal Society Range. I’ve also ridden a bicycle on every continent — and in only half the time it took Dad to hike the Long Trail.
In 2016 I did my own AT thru-hike. Even though I hadn’t lived there in 13 years, crossing into Vermont felt like coming home. The smell of rich, moist soil, the cool nip in the evening air, and the way the land refuses to lie flat — whether it’s lumpy or hilly or draws itself up into a proud, rugged little mountain. It was on the section of the Long Trail that overlaps the AT that I saw a beleaguered couple all but dragging their young son along the hiking trail. “I’m so tired,” he whined. “My backpack is SO HEAVY.”
“Aww,” I said, smiling at the parents. “I was just like that when I was a kid.”
Brooke Marshall is a writer and traveler who grew up in Fairfield and currently lives in Michigan, where the hikes are decidedly flatter than in Vermont. She is the author of Lucky: An African Student, An American Dream, and A Long Bike Ride. Her dad still lives in Vermont, where he goes hiking, hunting, fishing, and skiing at every opportunity.