This article previously appeared in the Spring 2021 Edition of the Long Trail News. While it’s never too late in life to start hiking, readers are reminded that we are currently observing mud season conditions in Vermont and we urge you to avoid high-elevation trails until later in May.
Katie Boyd, 48, is a lifelong Vermonter — but that doesn’t mean she’s always loved the outdoors. “It’s kind of my schtick, that I don’t like the outdoors,” says the Northfield mom of two.
Boyd keeps busy as the office manager of Caledonia Spirits in Montpelier and raising her two teenage daughters. But after a divorce, and as her girls got older, Katie realized she was “facing middle age alone without kids, and I don’t want to just be a workaholic.” So she started hiking. When she saw a sign saying she was on the Long Trail at Sterling Pond on her first “real hike,” Katie “literally cried. I was 46 at the time, and had never, in all my life living in Vermont, stepped on to the Long Trail.”
Sunday hikes quickly became an essential ritual last summer for Katie and her close friend Lea, cherished times for just the two of them. “If my kids said, ‘Oh, can you give me a ride?’ I would say, ‘No, Sunday is my hiking day.’”
Anyone who uses the trail system is a hiker, but Katie came to consider herself one over those dedicated weeks, a personal fitness journey culminating atop Camel’s Hump on a sunny October Thursday. Hoping to avoid the record-setting crowds of last year’s season, Katie and Lea took the day off for the climb. “It was really spur of the moment for me, which was great,” Katie says, “because I don’t think I ever would have mentally said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’”
They took the moderately difficult Monroe Trail to the Dean Trail to the Long Trail, then descended Monroe, a round trip of around 6.8 miles. Katie recalls a sign indicating 1.7 miles to the summit. “Oh, that’s a piece of cake,” she thought.
It wasn’t. “It was so steep, so rocky, and so hard.” Facing the summit only seemed to make the miles crawl by more slowly. “I’ve discovered that looking at your destination can mess with your mind, because you feel like you’re not getting any closer, it’s still there.” But they persevered, completing the hike in about seven hours. “Whenever I drive by Camel’s Hump, I do a little [smile], I’m just so proud of myself.”
Becoming a hiker wasn’t always easy or enjoyable, especially in a pandemic that impelled thousands of locals and visitors outdoors, sometimes flouting both hiking and covid rules. Many popular Long Trail hikes were so crowded with hikers unmasked even when passing others that Katie and Lea began driving two or more hours from central Vermont to the Northeast Kingdom. An especially obscure trailhead there led to a charming encounter with a local hiker who showed them how to reach the trail from his son-in-law’s back yard.
In July, Katie had to turn back short of the summit on her first attempt on Mount Abraham with Lea, exhausted and worried about wearing herself out for the descent — an exercise in prudence many hikers would be wise to emulate. In the words of legendary mountaineer Ed Viesturs, “Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
Looking back now, Katie feels confident that the steep pitches of Mount Abe would be feasible with what she’s learned, and it’s first on her list for this summer. “It was just new. The first hike we did was easy, the second one was hard, and I just gave up. And then I didn’t give up [again] for the rest of the summer.”
Katie has learned how to have her best hiking experience, and what becoming a hiker later in life means to her. “I don’t need to do hard, strenuous hikes in order to enjoy myself.” Her approach shows all of us that hiking doesn’t have to mean constant peak bagging or comparing summit lists. Knowing your limits and making journeys enjoyable is more likely to make hiking an activity you’ll want to stick with.
After descending Camel’s Hump too fast in order to make one of her daughter’s soccer games, Katie suffered a minor knee injury that ended her hiking a few weeks before the season’s end. Now she speaks up when a partner may be going too fast, and she can adjust the pace and strenuousness of her hikes accordingly. She’s accepted the value of trekking poles for safer descents.
Katie joined the Green Mountain Club as an at-large member after her life-changing hiking season. “It’s just a no-brainer that if I want to keep hiking on these trails, I need to keep them maintained, and the way to do that is support the organization that does the work.”
She also looks forward to the day when group hikes will be safe again. Hikes are social excursions for her, and while Lea has been an excellent partner, Katie will have the club to keep hiking fun, safe, and part of her routine if Lea can’t go.
“Becoming a hiker makes me very, very proud,” she concludes. “I’m more physically fit, but more than that, it’s just such good mental therapy. Every one of these mountains is completely different, has a different texture and feel and a different view. We love reaching the summit and enjoying a sandwich while we take in the view. Even if there’s no view, it’s this moment of solitude and quiet, where you just look over the mountains and think about how far you’ve come.”
This article previously appeared in the Spring 2021 Edition of the Long Trail News.