This post was written by Rita Chartrand. It appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of the Long Trail News under the headline “Trail’s End.”
My husband, Phil, and teenage daughters, Michele and Camille, and I hiked out that last day, and suddenly it was all over. The Long Trail was behind us.
At first, we felt jaunty and elated. Then we started feeling a sense of loss — we were purposeless now, and hot showers and clean underwear, welcome as they were, didn’t quite make up for that. “How was it?” friends asked. “Oh, it was great,” we’d say. “Fun, huh?” “Well, no, not fun exactly. Well, it’s hard to explain.”
It is hard to explain. There was the simple, uncomplicated feeling of having an adventure, a family odyssey. There was the revitalization that came from living outdoors for a month. As Thoreau put it, “We need the tonic of the wilderness.”
There were golden moments too: our first view of Indian Pipe pushing up through the leaf-blanketed forest floor, morning mist over Little Rock Pond, the memory of rose-gold sunsets, of round bursts of wild Sarsaparilla and of fern-filled dells, the joyous babble of Big Branch, the peace that comes from hearing only one’s own footfall. Golden moments are a notable part of what backpacking is all about.
The remainder is, first of all, satisfaction from physical accomplishment. We had achieved each day’s only requirement—to hike to that night’s destination through whatever the trail held. After the first few days, hiking north to south, we also managed to get to our objective without dragging through the woods by flashlight, wondering if we would make it. It was a pass/fail test and we passed.
Closely related is the acuteness of the body’s response to the fulfilling of elementary physical needs — the fact that water never tasted so good; or the sweetness of resting when you’ve reached your physical limits, then feeling genuinely refreshed; food, let alone hot food, when you are famished at the end of the day. And so on—warmth when you’re cold, sleep when you are exhausted, dry socks most anytime. Feelings of ultimate well-being as well as feelings having to do with total exhaustion give the body the exhilarating feeling of having been used to the utmost.
Finally, there is the sense of serenity that comes from reducing life to its simplest elements—from gearing down to become attuned to the infinite beauty of the woods and the mountains. Again, Thoreau said it best: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Rita Chartrand was born in Vermont. Her family hiked the Long Trail in 1977. Her current interests include writing, piano, swimming, wildflower photography, and Vermont’s 251 Club.