Operations and Broken Bones

I’ve had my share of medical procedures over the years. While the topic might seem grisly, there’s usually some aspect of each event which is illuminating or amusing.

Little Finger (1955?)

When I was about six, I broke my little finger trying to catch a softball in gym class. I was in my usual position, deep in right field, where it was least likely that a ball might be hit. I don’t remember any details, but in retrospect this injury surprises me since in my subsequent athletic career I rarely recall even getting near a fly ball, much less (almost) catching it.

Appendix (1955?)

Around the same age, I got a tummy ache. As a precaution, the doctors took out my appendix. My one clear memory is that the anesthesiologist asked me to count out loud from one to a hundred as he gave me the anesthetic. I recall starting out strong – one, two, three – then around five or six I reasoned to myself that it would be easier, and just fine, to continue counting to myself rather than going to the effort of actually speaking. I counted a few more numbers silently, then was out cold. I found this interesting because it showed the way my mind created an elaborate rationalization (which I subsequently learned is called “confabulation”) in place of the simple fact that I was going under.

Annoyingly, all this happened over summer vacation. The tummy ache started after the first day of swim class, and I recall being cleared to go back in the water only on the last day of the same class. Eventually I became a pretty good swimmer, but I didn’t learn anything that summer.

It turned out not to be appendicitis, but I recall my mother telling me that the operation had been difficult since my appendix was around in the back. I wonder now whether the surgeons had to cut some redundant nerves, which would explain something that happened later on.

Hernia (1973)

You know how in a routine physical the doctor asks you to turn your head and cough? S/he’s checking for a hernia, a weakness in the groin muscles which can allow a bit of intestine to protrude. (Turning your head isn’t relevant to the hernia, it just keeps you from coughing in the doctor’s face.) It seems to run in our family since my dad had one, and towards the end of my second year of law school I developed one too.

I was in an HMO at that time, which sent me to Somerville Hospital, which I gather is much improved but at that time wasn’t highly regarded. My most vivid memory was of an extremely nervous intern who stood by in my hospital room while my surgeon explained the rather simple procedure. After they left I called the doctor back and asked for his assurance that the panicky intern wouldn’t be involved in my operation; he told me not to worry. Flash forward to the operating room, however, and there the intern was! I was sedated – thank heavens – but conscious, since the anesthesia was to be a spinal block. I heard a clang – the kid had dropped some sort of pan. No harm done, but it certainly didn’t relieve my anxiety. Then it came time to inject the anesthetic, next to my spine, but being careful not to get it into the spinal cord itself, which could cause permanent paralysis. As you might have guessed, the intern was doing the procedure, under the doctor’s supervision. I heard the doctor say, “No, not like that.” Ugh! Then, “No! NOT LIKE THAT!” After a few minutes the doctor touched my foot and asked me if I could feel the touch; I could. After a few more minutes he tried again, and I could still feel it. So they had to do it again; the first injection had gone astray, but fortunately not into my spinal cord. After I got home I dropped the HMO and purchased a more expensive policy that gave me a choice of doctors and hospitals!

I recovered rather quickly, which was lucky, since I was due about two weeks later for a Navy physical, prior to a summer at Officer Indoctrination School in Newport, Rhode Island. I was fully mobile by the time of the physical, but not yet cleared to drive, so I took a bus down to the Weymouth Naval Air Station (originally conceived of as the Navy’s northeastern lighter-than-air station). When the doctor had me drop trou he did a double take and said, “You’ve just had a hernia repaired, haven’t you?” After I confirmed this he went ahead with the exam, saying, “Cough gently.” Lucky for me he was merciful rather than just, since my summer plans would have been wrecked if he’d turned me down.

Head on Collision (1983)

How many people do you know who’ve had a head-on collision on I-95 and lived to tell the tale? I was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, driving from Providence back up to Boston. That stretch of highway is curvy with Jersey barriers on both sides. I was in the left lane, and up ahead I saw what looked like headlights coming towards me, but when they disappeared around a curve I assumed they were really on the other side of the highway. Then I rounded the curve and there they were again, coming straight at me. I should very probably have swerved over to the middle lane, but I had this vivid image of an Alphonse and Gaston situation, where I move right and the other driver moves right, I move left and the other drive moves left, then *bang* we’re both dead. I thought, however, that I could stop, or nearly so, and in that idea I was right. We collided head on at about 20 miles an hour. I was wearing a seatbelt, which probably saved my life, and I was gripping the steering wheel like grim death, which (it turned out later) caused a cracked bone in my thumb.  

The other driver and I both got out of our wrecked cars and sat on the Jersey barrier in the middle of the highway, waiting for the police. This was before cell phones, however, so we had no way to contact anyone. Cars kept coming around the curve and barely swerving to avoid colliding with our crashed cars. Finally, a car stopped and the driver asked if I would like a ride back up to Boston. Even though I was “leaving the scene of the accident” it seemed like a dangerous situation so I accepted.

According to the police report the woman driving the other car had realized that she was going the wrong way, so was driving slowly, but in the northbound fast lane. Supposedly she wasn’t drunk, although how she managed to get going in the wrong direction was never explained. Definitely she wasn’t insured, so I got Blue Book and had to buy a new car.

What none of these people knew was the reason I had been in Providence. I had several issues of a gay pornographic magazine in a paper bag, the only thing from the car which I took care to bring back with me to Boston. I was far too “discreet” (i.e., closeted) to risk going into a Boston porn shop.

Testicular Cancer (1984)

Men are supposed to check their testicles for lumps once a month, which I don’t recall ever doing. The way I discovered the problem was atypical: I went on a long hike in the White Mountains, and when I got home my left testicle was quite painful, which I assumed was a bruise. About ten days later the pain suddenly disappeared. This seemed weird to me so I felt the testicle and noticed a lump. My family doctor referred me to George Prout, the head of Urology at MGH, who gave me an appointment the next day, even though it was the Friday before Memorial Day. After feeling the lump Prout took me downstairs and ran an ultrasound. He told me that it was an “embryonal carcinoma,” an aggressive tumor that tends to metastasize early. He admitted me to the hospital on the spot, and he and his team operated on me the next day.

A “radical orchiectomy” (I can no longer look at orchids without noticing the resemblance) is quite a simple operation. They went in through the groin, in the same spot as my hernia scar, and just snipped the cord that attached the testicle to the rest of the body. The next day I felt pretty good, and the nurses encouraged me to walk around. One of them pointed out that twenty laps around the floor was a mile. I accepted the challenge and walked that mile!

Embryonal cancers, although aggressive, are quite susceptible to chemotherapy; a 95% cure rate is achievable even if the tumor has spread. My tumor, however, also had “syncytiotrophoblasts,” which I thought of rather like chocolate sprinkles on vanilla ice cream. They are one of the ingredients of “choriocarcinoma,” the most deadly type of testicular cancer. Consequently, Prout recommended that I have another, much bigger operation. I chose this option in part to reduce the risk of those deadly “sprinkles” and in part to minimize the likelihood of needing chemotherapy at all.

Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection (1984)

In brief, this operation involved being slit “from my guggle to my zatch,” a bunch of lymph nodes being removed for testing, then sewed back up again. Thoughtfully, the incision took a detour at my belly button, but otherwise it was ran directly from my breast bone to my pelvic bone. As I went under in the operating theater I vowed, “If I live I will love.” At 35 I still wasn’t out of the closet! It took another five years but I did finally come out, in significant part because of the wake-up call of this brush with death.

I was a wreck for weeks afterwards. No walking a mile this time! Fortunately, the lymph nodes were clean, so I didn’t need chemo. I went in for follow-up x-rays for a few years, then they told me there was no need to worry about it anymore. The one lasting consequence of this operation was that when I have an orgasm nothing comes out. This makes me sterile, and also reduces my pleasure, but otherwise is harmless. Prout was surprised by this, because he apparently only cut the nerves on my left side, but I wonder whether the right side nerves had already been cut when my appendix was taken out. Whatever…

It turned out that Dr. Prout was working on an assay that he believed could predict whether or not a testicular tumor had metastasized. The fact that mine had not was so interesting that he asked me to be to be the subject at Massachusetts General Hospital Grand Rounds, where all the doctors gather in an auditorium in their original building to learn about a medical issue and a particular medical case. I didn’t have to do anything except sit there, I guess to show that I really did survive.

Wrist (1989)

Fast forward five years. I had become quite an active swimmer. One particular evening I swam a mile, but when getting out of the pool I slipped and landed hard on the flat of my right hand. It didn’t hurt that much, so I drove over to a previously-planned dinner party. It was when I opened a bottle of wine that I could no longer ignore that something wasn’t right. Sure enough, I had a hairline fracture of a bone in my wrist. I had to wear a small cast for several weeks, but I was able to get it removed days before my trip to the Cook Islands, which is another story.

Olecranon (2008)

I managed to avoid operations and broken bones for nearly two decades, but then one day I had a bright idea. I had taken a big cardboard box down to the recycling room in my apartment building. Rather than tediously “breaking down” this box by ripping all four corners I came up with the idea of jumping on it and flattening it in one fell swoop. I was concerned about a possible flaw in the plan, specifically could I jump that high? I assessed the situation carefully and decided that Yes, I could! Next thing I knew I came to on the concrete floor with a strangely angled right arm. I was able to jump that high, but I hadn’t figured on the possibility (certainty?) that one side of the box would collapse first, thus throwing me down on that side.

I went upstairs, got dressed, took the T into Charles/MGH, and presented myself at the Emergency Room. They x-rayed my elbow and informed me that I had broken my “olecranon.” Who know that I even had an olecranon? It’s the part of the ulna at the sharp tip of the elbow that “cups” the lower end of the humerus, creating a hinge for elbow movement. The problem with this sort of fracture is that the muscles of the upper and lower arm pull in opposite directions, tending to hold the break open and preventing it from healing; before the 20th century the joint often froze in place and the forearm sometimes had to be amputated. Fortunately, a marvelous technique was developed in which an assembly of stainless steel pins and wires convert tension into compression, enabling the break to heal.

There was no cast because mobility was encouraged, and in fact required. At first my arm could only move a fraction of its former range, but with aggressive practice every day in a few months it gradually regained 100% of its range of motion, and strength. A year or so later I would do anything without even thinking about whether or not I was using the broken arm.

It’s possible to simply leave the pins in place, but I chose to have them removed six months later, just to avoid leaving foreign objects in my body. They didn’t set off metal detectors, so it was a purely aesthetic decision. Before the second surgery the anesthesiologist stopped by my hospital bed to explain my choice of whether to have a local anesthetic or general anesthesia. At length I decided on a local to avoid the dulling effects of the general. When I was wheeled into the operating room, however, my surgeon countermanded this and put me under.

Forehead (2012)

At my 40th college reunion one of my classmates, Paul Perkovic, calmly told us that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. I had dodged a similar bullet twenty-five years before, but I did have a few thoughts, including my mantra, “You’re alive until you’re dead.” Whether or not affected by my sage counsel, Paul absolutely aced being alive, right up to his final weeks! One of many brilliant ideas was to use a big chunk of his retirement savings, which his partner of 36 years — and husband — didn’t need, for a magnificent “Bon Voyage” party at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. When he floated the idea I wasn’t sure I would fly out, but when I got the invitation, including an art deco poster, a “passport” and other swag, I knew I had to go. Paul had invited everyone he had liked in his entire life, including childhood friends, co-workers, neighbors and even his medical team.

A week before I was scheduled to leave for San Francisco I noticed an odd lump on my forehead. My dermatologist sliced it off and called a few days later to tell me that it was a “squamous cell carcinoma” (my second cancer, and counting…)  This is neither the most common and least worrisome form of skin cancer (basal cell) nor the most serious and aggressive (melanoma), but it can spread and needs to be definitively removed. My problem was whether to cancel my trip and have the surgery right away or go ahead and defer the surgery for about ten days. I chose to defer, recognizing the irony of delaying my own cancer surgery to celebrate the life of a friend who was dying of cancer. The Bon Voyage party was absolutely magnificent! You can hear more about it on a BBC podcast at this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00yc3q9

The procedure for removing skin cancer in a cosmetically sensitive location is called Mohs surgery. The surgeon removes a thin layer of tissue which is examined by a pathologist to determine whether any cancerous cells remain. If so, a second layer of tissue is removed, and so on. It can require several layers before the tumor is fully removed. In my case, since we caught the tumor so early, only a single layer was required. The surgeon then deftly closed the wound with tiny sutures, and it left no scar. I paid no price for choosing to defer, but I’m happy with my choice even though it could have had consequences for me.

Quadruple Bypass (2021)

Like all of us, I’ve had occasional pains of one sort or another in and around my chest. I’d always just taken Tums or waited them out, and they went away. In late May, 2021, I had a dull pain below my rib cage that felt like indigestion. I took a couple of Tums but after an hour it didn’t go away. I then took two more Tums and waited another hour but it still didn’t go away. The pain wasn’t acute, and seemed to be quite a bit lower than my heart, but the failure to respond to Tums was unusual so I called the Blue Cross Blue Shield triage nurse. She asked me a few questions, then said that she was calling 911 for me.

The ambulance – my first! – arrived promptly and at my request took me to Mass. General Hospital. I was told that my blood draw didn’t have the markers for a heart attack, but to make sure they wanted to do some tests. There were no available rooms, so my bed was parked until the next morning in a hallway of the Emergency Room. An ultrasound showed that my heart was fine, but other tests revealed a calcification that had substantially narrowed my Left Main Artery. Blood flow had not yet been impaired sufficiently to cause symptoms, but if a clot or plaque from elsewhere in my circulatory system were to lodge there it would cause a catastrophic heart attack: In the colorful language of the doctors, a “widow maker.” A stress test yielded mixed but telling results: I was able to achieve an excellent level of 13 METs (estimated metabolic equivalents) — above the target level for a healthy 20-year old! — but at peak exertion my heart rhythm became erratic, strongly supporting the need for an intervention. It was impossible to use a stent in the circumstances so it was decided that I needed a quadruple bypass to provide an alternate blood supply to keep my heart going in case the Left Main Artery became blocked.

The easiest way to add blood flow to the heart is to repurpose the left mammary artery, which is near the heart. The second source is the right mammary artery, which can be pulled across the chest to reach the heart. The other two vessels were veins from my left leg, which happily turned out to have more than it needed. These aren’t naturally as springy as arteries, but they tend to transform to become more artery-like after they are moved.

The operation involves sawing through the breast bone, pulling the ribs up out of the way on both sides of the chest, then attaching a heart-lung machine and stopping both the heart and lungs for the several hours required for the surgery. Once the bypasses are attached, the heart and lungs are re-started, and the chest is closed up again. Several drainage tubes are left in place, however, until fluid around the heart and lungs has cleared. One is anesthetized during the surgery but quite conscious when the drainage tubes are pulled out!

Such a big operation, during which one’s heart is stopped for many hours, can have both short and long term impacts on mental function. Fortunately, I noticed no impairment. I had been reading a translation of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Rabelais for one of my book clubs before the operation and I was able to pick it up again without losing a beat after I came to. My surgeon was fascinated by this book, which he said he had always meant to read himself, and on his final post-surgical visit he asked if he could take a photo of me reading it.

Full recovery from bypass surgery – regardless of how many blood vessels are repurposed – takes several months. I was very weak at first, and had many limitations on movement and activity. Friends took shifts of staying over in my spare bedroom the first few nights back from the hospital, since I live alone. After that I was visited several times a week by a nurse and a physical therapist. Just standing up and other simple movements were quite challenging! Over several months, however, I gradually recovered most of my strength and stamina. I achieved the same excellent level of 13 METs in another stress test about four months after surgery, this time with no irregular heartbeat!

I had had a bout with a heart arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation (“AFib”) a month after surgery, which required another ambulance ride to MGH, but my heart quickly recovered its normal rhythm with the help of medication. Two subsequent two-week heart monitors – after the strong anti-AFib medicine had been discontinued — showed no hint of AFib, so I’m hoping that that issue is behind me as well.

Is a Millionaire Rich?

When a friend said that Bernie Sanders was “rich” I demurred. We confirmed that his net worth is about $2.5 million but still disagreed: my friend said that this makes him rich while I said it didn’t. In all fairness Bernie certainly isn’t poor, and in fact his assets put him (barely) in the top 5% of Americans. He’s nowhere near the top 1%, however, which has more than $10 million, and is what I would call really rich.

I think the concept that a “millionaire” is “rich” became established at a time when it actually did imply independent wealth. A TV series called “The Millionaire” ran from 1955 to 1960, while I was growing up. A fictional multi-millionaire, John Beresford Tipton, Jr., anonymously gave away a tax-free one million dollars to an ordinary person at the start of each episode. The show explored the consequences of such sudden wealth. One million dollars, in 1955, was the economic equivalent of $9,598,506 in 2019 dollars, which is most anyone’s definition of “rich.” Inflation has eroded the value of a million dollars in real terms by almost a factor of ten, but not the linguistic impact of being a “millionaire.”

I subsequently found an interesting article indicating that the average American considers someone with a net worth of $2.3 million or more to be “rich,” so Bernie just makes the cut and my friend was right. Interestingly, the article reports that baby boomers like myself set the bar a bit higher, at $2.6 million, while millenials like my friend say $2.2 million, which conveniently gibes with our different perspectives.

The Long Trail – 1990-1999


Chiltern Mountain Club – 1990-1999
By Robert Mack

The Long Trail is a 272-mile wilderness trail that runs the length of Vermont, from the Massachusetts state line to the Canadian border. I hiked it in a series of weekend (or shorter) trips between 1990 and 1999, mostly with other members of Chiltern Mountain Club. This is the account I prepared to qualify for an End-to-Ender certificate from the Green Mountain Club.

Division I – Massachusetts State Line (via Blackingon, MA, Route 2) to VT 9 – May 9-10, 1992

Jean-Johnny and I co-lead this trip.  Also along were Ray Duprey, for his second Long Trail excursion, his boyfriend Jim Douthit, and Jean-Johnny’s roommate Dan.  Andrew declined to come because we were a few days early for the Green Mountain Club guidelines; we respected his position although in fact the trail was remarkably dry and we did little damage.

We overshot the southerly trailhead by 4 or 5 miles before I noticed a “Welcome to Florida” sign and questioned Jean’s navigation.  The footbridge over railroad tracks was a dramatic beginning to the trip.  The weather was foggy and spitting rain almost until the moment we got out of the car, but it cleared up and stayed nice for the whole trip, only to turn foggy and drizzly again just as we reached the cars – a very lucky trip in this respect.

Jim had imagined that this would be an easy walk in the woods, so he set off at a blistering pace.  The rest of us struggled to keep up, marvelling at his stamina.  An hour or so into a steady uphill climb he turned around and confessed to being tired, despite being in magnificent shape.  We all happily settled in to a slower pace for the rest of the day.

Seth Warner shelter was already occupied, so we slept in tents.

The second day was a long one, but not especially difficult.  Jim lost patience with Jean’s constant gay chatter, so he and I hiked on ahead of the others.  But they made up by the end of the trip.

Ray vowed to do all the rest of the 1992 trips, and Jim said he would hike with us again, although we were not surprised when he failed to return.

Division II (22.3 miles) – VT 9 to Arlington-West Wardsboro Road – June 19-20, 1999

After three false starts, the Long Trail completed at last!  On my first attempt, several years ago, Michael Stevenson and I were very late and missed our rendezvous with Jean-Johnny – we couldn’t do the trip with only one car so we did a couple of day hikes instead.  Three years ago I listed the trip but Hurricane Bob deterred us  – Lok Yong and I completed a missing part of Division III instead.  Last year only Rich Ruppel was willing to come so I cancelled.

This year Rich and I were joined by my stalwart backpacking companions Jamie Guggina and Fred Crisp on their first Long Trail experience, and by Arlene Stanton, doing her second Division of the Trail.  I led the trip.  Since we could not all fit in one car we had to bring four cars to avoid a second trip between the trail heads on Sunday afternoon.

The drive took 3-1/2 hours, whether you came by Route 2 or the Pike.  We spotted cars on Friday afternoon (seeing a small bear in the road), then had dinner in Bennington.  My plan had been to hike up to Melville Nauheim shelter (1-1/2) miles) by headlamps that evening to assure an early start the next morning, and to cut a bit off Saturday’s mileage.  Over dinner, however, someone suggested that we instead stay in a motel that night.  All quickly assented to this “mutinous” suggestion.  We had an excellent night’s sleep for $30 a person; were all up for inspection at 6:30 am; and got on the trail at 7:10 am.  The idea would never have occurred to me but it was successful, and the restful night laid a solid foundation for the rest of the trip.

The weather was perfect for hiking all weekend – crisply cool with a gentle breeze and mostly sunny skies.  We were grateful for the shelter of the verdant Vermont forest.  Jamie and Fred had a tendency to rabbit ahead, but they always waited at appropriate intervals, and the rest of us moved along steadily enough to keep to guidebook time for the entire trip.  We saw a “wounded” grouse in the first hour, and another hiker (Andrew) reported seeing a Mountain Lion cross the trail just ahead of him.  Goddard shelter was in excellent condition and the view, including Mt. Greylock, was impressive.  We enjoyed a variety of butterflies (notably a yellow and black variety) but we were less amused by the numerous and voracious black flies.  After a nap we clambered up the fire tower and enjoyed the 360 degree view, including the Adirondacks in hazy silouhette.  Jamie and Fred prepared a magnificant feast of spicy chicken quesadillas with rice and beans which both pleased our palates and stuck to our ribs.

Sunday was “all downhill, except for the uphill parts.”  We got a staggered start between 8 and 8:30 am.  The trail was for the most part gentle and excellently maintained.  Nevertheless, 12.5 miles is a long day of backpacking in any terrain and we were well tired by the end of our walk, just before 5 pm. I was at last an “End-to-Ender!”  The company humored me with several “toasting Bob” pictures despite being bitten by black flies.  We picked up the southerly cars, dropped off our motel keys, and celebrated with an excellent meal at the Latchis Grille in Brattleboro before going off into the night on our separate ways.

Division III (Partial) – Arlington-West Wardsboro Road to VT 11/30 – June 26-28, 1993

I led this trip, the rest of the group being stalwart Andrew Bush and charming newcomers Don MacDonald, Andre Roberge (from Burlington, VT) and Michael Stevenson.

Michael and I met Don at my house and he drove us up to the north end of this segment – just over 2-1/2 hours via Routes 2 and 91.  There we joined Andrew and Andre, who were both 1/2 hour early.

The Arlington-West Wardsboro Road is not too hard to find from the west because of the “Kelly Stand” sign, but there is no sign from the east side.  Access is much easier from the east, however, because there are six or eight miles of dirt road to be navigated when driving from the west.  This will not be an easy trailhead to find in the dark!

We started hiking in hazy weather at around 11:00 a.m.  The trail rose continually but at a moderate grade which allowed fast progress with few rest stops.  The fire tower atop Stratton Mountain was a welcome sight.  The caretaker – Amy – welcomed us when we arrived at the top, and described to us the view that we would have seen had we been able to see it.

The walk down to Stratton Pond was easy, although with more ups and downs that I had expected from the topo map.  Clouds had thickened by that time, and thunder was audible, so I was the only member of our group to take a dip.  A rainstorm hit half an hour later, but we were well sheltered under the forest canopy.  Those of us who elected to get wet fared better than those who donned rain gear, although we all covered our packs.

We continued on to William B. Douglas Shelter over level terrain and arrived there around 6 p.m., a bit ahead of the usual Chiltern pace.  We were joined by Dirk (alias Sly Dog), a 67 year old railroad man originally from New York City and now from Ottawa.  He entertained us with stories of his hiking adventures, which began at age 40 when he took the train from New York City up to Connecticut for a hiking weekend with a woman friend (who was never so friendly again).  We fear that he will not be able to complete either the Appalachian Trail or the Long Trail, but he has had wonderful times along the way and is an excellent trail companion.

After a pleasant dinner and sleep (only slightly marred by Don’s sonorous snoring) we set off around 7:00 a.m. to the north.  We covered the first four flat miles in an hour and a half (twice Chiltern pace), regrettably missing Prospect Rock as we raced by.  After an enjoyable scramble up Spruce Peak (with a pleasant view) we pressed on through surprisingly bumpy terrain to the north end of the segment, arriving around 11:00 a.m. (just a bit faster than usual).

Andre left to drive north, while the rest of us had lunch at a pleasant family restaurant along Route 30.  Don, Michael and I then repaired to the nude gay swimming hole along Rock River, which crosses that highway just south of Newfane.  Don swam nude, I swam in a swimsuit and Michael buried himself in his book, but a good time was had by all.

Division III (Partial) – VT 11/30 to Mad Tom Notch  (5.3 miles) – August 31 – September 1, 1996

It was nice to get back on the Long Trail after an absence of several years.  I listed the challenging Division II trip (now my last missing section) but got only one response, from first-time backpacker Ching-Lok Yong.  Due to concern about Hurricane Edouard (which never affected our weather) I restructured the trip to this part of Division III and a night at Little Rock Pond.  Lamentably, I got a speeding ticket – 60 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone – on the way up.

We started hiking at 6:00 p.m. and were delighted to reach the observation tower on Bromley Mountain just before sunset.  It was a perfectly clear evening, about 70 degrees, with a steady, pleasant breeze.  The sun became oblate and striated with brilliant color – from orange at the top to deep red at the bottom – before dipping – with surprising rapidity – beneath the distant horizon.  No green flash, though…  After a brief period of confusion – resolved by actually reading the Long Trail guidebook – we continued north – ultimately by flashlight – to Mad Tom Shelter.  Our tentsite was a bit too close to a neighboring tent for complete privacy but was otherwise wholly delightful.

The next morning we scrambled – packless – the remaining two miles to Mad Tom Notch, where I was pleased to find the pump in excellent working order.

We then retraced our steps – enjoying lunch and marvellous scenery atop Bromley – and spent the rest of the lovely weekend at Little Rock Pond.  Lok enjoyed his first backpacking adventure and I predict that he will have many more.

Division IV – Mad Tom Notch to VT. 140 – August 3-5, 1990

My first Long Trail trip!  Our party was co-led by Mike Boisvert, Jean-Johnny and Jill, and I was the special guest.  The weather was beautiful and warm on Friday and Saturday.  Rain seemed to threaten on Sunday morning, but the day turned out partly cloudy and warm.

We began shortly after 11:00 p.m. at Mad Tom Notch (NOT an easy trailhead to find based on the sketchy information in the Guide).  The pump at Mad Tom Notch was out of order, and we do not know whether it will ever recover its normal function.  After about 2 hours hiking with headlamps we arrived at Styles Peak, and enjoyed the views of sleepy valleys in the nearly full moonlight.  Three of us camped out under the stars in the col between Styles and Peru peaks, but Jean, failing to recognize us despite our calls of welcome, camped about a mile further along.

Saturday was our longest day of hiking.  We enjoyed excellent views from Baker Peak, after a somewhat tiring scramble up a seam of exposed rock.  A gentleman from Bennington entertained us at Big Branch Shelter.  We debated whether to stay there with him but fortunately decided to push on to Little Rock Pond.  There we found the swimming excellent, despite rumors of leeches.  The outhouse was the only one we had encountered with its own register.  The caretaker was congenial and informative.  The spring took its own sweet time.  I won a hotly contested game of chess.

We walked out on Sunday, uneventfully, by 2:00 p.m.  We passed up a side trail to the White Rocks Cliff because at this point we all wanted to press on.

Division IV (partial – repeat) and Division V (partial) – USFS Road no 10 at Big Black Branch to VT 103 – September 12-13, 1992

The company was Jean-Johnny and Dave, co-leaders (because of my ignominious fall from grace), Mike Boisvert (reprising one of his favorite segments), Andrew Bush, and a newcomer, Paul Gartland.  We were met at Greenwall Shelter by Roy Stewey from northern Vermont, but he never hiked with us!

The weather for the entire trip was absolutely perfect – clear, sunny skies, a pleasant cool breeze and scarcely any humidity.  (It was a tad cool in the evening).

We got a late start because it took 2-1/2 hours from Manchester, N.H. to get to the north trailhead, not 1-1/2 as Jean-Johnny had estimated.  We allowed 2-1/2 hours from Boston, via Manchester, so we arrived just before Jean-Johnny and Mike – nearly an hour late.  Dave was another 15 minutes later, and it took him 15 minutes to get organized, so the result was that we started at the south end just about 10:00 a.m.

That was fine, though, because the seven miles of trail each day was an easy stroll through the forest.  We moved rather quickly over the easy terrain when we moved, but we rested for hours at delightful spots such as Little Rock Pond, White Rocks and Airport Overlook.

I had forgotten that I had loaned my stove to Ray Duprey; this required me to mooch from others, but my fellow hikers were merciful.  Since I had done the section through VT 140 in 1990

this added only a few miles, through VT 103, to my End to End mileage.

Division V (partial) Rutland-Bellows Falls Highway, VT 103 to Sherburne Pass, US 4 – October 17-18, 1992

The party was Jean-Johnny, Andrew Bush, myself and two newcomers, David and Charles, both from Connecticut.  All were on time for a change – I met the rest of the group at 9:00 a.m. at the south end of the trail segment.

The weather was seasonable – 40’s during the days, dipping well below freezing at night and at higher elevations.  There was intermittent sun throughout the weekend, but it was mostly cloudy.  We had a very brief flurry of snow on Sunday.

Either I am in poor shape or have a bug, because I found the uphill portions very hard, and I was slower than the others even on the downhill.  A bad blister on my left foot didn’t help.  Nevertheless, I hiked close to the standard Chiltern pace of 45 minutes per hour, even up Killington, which is a long although not steep climb.  The solitary walking was not unpleasant, especially when the sun shone along the trail from behind me, illuminating a multicolored carpet of fallen leaves.

I kept my boots, water bottle and filter in my sleeping bag, which, along with the flapping of plastic over the windows at Cooper Lodge, made for less than ideal sleeping conditions.  The water bottles left in the cabin had a thick layer of ice on them in the morning, so it was a wise precaution.

On Sunday I began trudging along the Long Trail while the others took a side trip up Killington.  Snow-making machinery operating on a trail near the summit made a roar audible for miles.

We encountered several handsome young men during the course of the trip: two tenting together at Cooper Lodge, two hikers from Ottawa, a father and son and a straight couple near Sherburne Pass, and the waiter at the Inn on the Long Trail.  Although I have nothing against coming out to people on the trail I felt that we handled some of these encounters with less sang froid than might have been desirable.

All of our October trips have been mildly to very harrowing.  I wonder whether Columbus Day should be considered the end of the fall backpacking season.

Division VI – Sherburne Pass, US 4, to Brandon Gap, VT 73 – October 12-14, 1990

The company was again Mike Bosivert, Jean-Johnny, Jill and myself.  Mike was recovered fully from his recent illness – this was his first hike after a two-month hiatus.  Although the weather was on the wet side we benefited from unseasonably warm temperatures, 60s and low 70s for the most part.  Deep mud, slippery rocks and deceptive layers of fallen leaves made footing extremely difficult throughout the trip.  There were a few spills but no injuries.

We started hiking north around 10:00 p.m. from Sherburne Pass in heavy rain.  The point where the AT diverges using blue blazes – because of the Long Trail’s prior use of white – was noted with pride.  About .2 mile into the trail we encountered a very confusing spot where a blaze seemed to lead us up a cliff face.  It was only after quite a bit of reconnoitering each way that we discovered another blaze, lower down and about 100 feet to the right.  We guessed that a blazed tree must have fallen over.  Tucker Johnson Shelter was a welcome and comfortable destination that night.

Continuing rain on Saturday contradicted any idea of backtracking to take in the view from Deer Leap Mountain.  Views through the trees of Chittenden Reservoir were the highlight of an otherwise uneventful walk.  The trees were colorful, but the colors did not seem as brilliant to us as we remembered from earlier years.  Several snowmobile trails diverging from the Long Trail just before the New Boston Trail were slightly confusing, since they were not mentioned in the guidebook.  David Logan shelter, just a few tenths off the main trail, was another pleasant stopping place.  Mike and Jill had a game of cards, but I was too tired.  This was I think due mainly to difficult footing, since the trail was not especially steep or long.

We had no rain on Sunday – we even had some sun (for about five minutes) -but mostly the day was gray and foggy.  I was quite tired, although I kept up with the company without much difficulty.  A strange trail marked with bright orange plastic markers diverged to the left at Bloodroot Gap, but our route was marked with an arrow made from dead branches as well as with the familiar white blaze.  Shortly after leaving Sunrise Shelter for the final gentle descent to civilization we encountered the only other person we saw on the entire trip.

After squeezing into Jean-Johnny’s car and driving back to Sherburne Pass we capped off the trip with a leisurely lunch at the Inn at the Long Trail.

Division VII (partial) – Brandon Gap to Middlebury Gap – May 11-12, 1991

This was the Chiltern beginner’s backpacking trip and we had perhaps 7 hikers, Mike Boisvert, Jean-Johnny, Jill and myself plus two young women and two additional men.  Jim Brown hiked in with us most of the way to Sucker Brook Shelter, then hiked out again (with my flashlight).  The weather was beautiful – warm and sunny – and the forest floor was carpeted with spring beauties and studded with trillium.  Saturday’s hike was an easy walk with just a few viewpoints.

We slept in tents in the vicinity of Sucker Brook Shelter, which is a pleasant but not spectacular spot.  Most of us filtered water, although it seemed clean.  We made a campfire and cooked marshmallows in the evening.  Mike collected dry kindling for the next people who visited the hut to use.

Some dark clouds threatened on Sunday morning, but the day turned out reasonably fine.  We enjoyed the long views from the tops of the Middlebury Bowl ski slopes during the easy walk out.  We lunched at a pleasant Inn in Hancock (great fresh bread!)

Division VII (partial) and Division VIII (partial) – Middlebury Gap to Appalachian Gap – May 25-27, 1991.

This was the big weekend – 29 miles in three days!  The company was Mike B., Jean-Johnny, Lucien and two very game newcomers: Andrew Bush and Ray Duprey (both destined to become fast friends).

The weather was cloudy except for Saturday night and morning, when the views from Emily Proctor Shelter were superb.  We had intermittent drizzle during the walks, but the temperature was warm enough that the moisture was essentially welcome.  Views were limited by fog and cloud except for several nice views in the direction of Killington (one trail of which was still snow-covered) on Sunday.

The halfway point of the Long Trail was an impressive landmark during Saturday’s walk.  We were also impressed by Skyline Lodge, and considered staying the night, but concern about doing 14 miles on Sunday led us to push on to Emily Proctor, which is more rustic but in a wonderful location on Bread Loaf Mountain.  The six of us fit comfortably in this shelter built for five.

Sunday’s walk was indeed a long one.  The climb from Lincoln Gap to Battell Shelter was a hard way to end our 12 mile day, but the shelter was a welcome refuge.  We saw few other hikers along the trail except in the vicinity of Lincoln Gap, where large numbers of day hikers followed the trail in both directions.  (I fell behind there when I stopped to trim my toenails.)  Three young men and a young woman arrived at Battell Shelter from Lincoln Gap shortly after we settled in.  They initially decided to proceed on to the next shelter, but as the rain grew heavier they turned back towards their cars, some looking a bit dispirited.  It poured Sunday evening, and some hikers later confessed having some second thoughts about whether to complete the planned hike the next day.

Monday morning was a bit better, however, and we pressed on over Mount Abraham (to whose summit we were mercifully close) and along the ridge to our destination, unfortunately losing all views to fog.  A hot lunch at Glen Ellen Lodge was exactly what the doctor ordered to raise our spirits, and we arrived at Appalachian Gap late Monday afternoon.

When Andrew started his car in motion there was a terrific thump.  We thought at first that he had run into a pack, but in fact a wheel had fallen off!  Some prankster had removed all four nuts from one of the car’s wheels!  Fortunately it was possible to remove one nut from each of the other wheels so as to reattach the fourth one, which we did with a fair amount of skill and aplomb considering.  This was a disconcerting experience, to say the least!

We had a pleasant meal at the Hancock Inn and all vowed to rejoin one another on the trail at a later date.

Division VIII (partial) and Division IX (partial) – Applachian Gap to River Road (18.7 miles), August 7-8, 1993

I led the trip, and became used to being addressed as “Massa.”  Long trail veterans Don MacDonald and Michael Stevenson returned.  Newcomers Steve Pinkham and Ron Witzky, and Randy and his friend Dan completed the initial group. We tented at Green Valley campground east of Montpelier on Friday night.  The weather was cool but our campfire was warm.  Unfortunately, traffic noise from Route 2 marred the tranquility of an otherwise rather satisfactory night.

After an All-American breakfast at Camp Meade in Middlesex and a few false starts we spotted a car on River Road and proceeded (by the scenic western route) to dramatic Appalachian Gap.  We started up the trail at 10:45 a.m.  The sharp climb to Baby Stark was a baptism of fire, but we were rewarded with an excellent view from Molly Stark’s balcony.  To our surprise, we met two other Chiltern members – Doug Howe and Frank Shivers – at Birch Glen Camp, and they hiked with us much of the way.  From there to the vicinity of Ira Allen we encountered a light but persistent rain which dampened spirits a bit, and made the rocks dangerously slippery.  Burnt Rock Mountain, with its many open ledges, was a highlight.  The wooded summit of Ethan Allen was most welcome, after so much up and down hiking, but we were bemused to realize that there was yet another peak to go – the North summit – fortunately an easy tenth of a mile beyond.  The 1,000′ drop to Montclair Glen Lodge seemed far longer than one mile!

The shelter being nearly full, and there being only one tent site open, Mike and I set up one tent and Steve and Ron another, sharing the same ground cloth.  Despite rather close quarters we got an excellent night’s sleep, lulled by the blessed babbling of a nearby brook.  Snorers in the lodge made for a less restful night for the others, and I resolved to add ear plugs to my equipment list.  Andrew Bush’s (pre-arranged) arrival around 7:00 a.m. (with twelve slices of fresh, homemade blackberry pie!) was most welcome.

The temperature was comfortable on Sunday, and the weather progressively cleared during the day.  We were most impressed by the final ascent of Camel’s Hump, and by the excellent 360 degree views from the summit (although we did not spot the crashed airplane).  The trail down to River Road was a long, relatively gentle, anti-climax.  The portion within a few miles of our destination seemed far more circuitous than the simple and direct line on our map, but we inferred that this was a temporary routing.  Randy, Dan and Don had hiked on ahead, and arrived with the cars minutes after Michael, Andrew and I reached the parking area, at 3:15 p.m.  Ron’s knees having begun to bother him, he and Steve hiked out on a shorter side trail, and surprised us by arriving shortly later in a friendly resident’s vehicle!

Reunited, we first gave Frank and Donald a ride to a phone, then the rest of the company (except Randy and Dan) went for a delightful dip at Huntington Gorge.  Michael Stevenson dipped his feet in the water but was not ready yet to dive in.  Dinner at the Wayside restaurant on Route 302 in Montpelier capped an excellent weekend.

Division IX (partial) – River Road to Bolton Notch Road  (7 miles) – October 10, 1993

This was the second part of my “fill-in-the-gaps” day with Andrew Bush.  Although it stayed cool, the weather improved throughout the day, with the sky becoming nearly clear by evening.

With some difficulty (and delay, due to my compusive pholiage photography) we found the spot where the Long Trail crosses Bolton Notch Road and left a car there.  We then drove back to the trailhead on River Road, south of the Winooski River, and parked in the exact spot where we ended up after the Camel’s Hump trip earlier this year.  We began with the road walk along River Road and across the Edmonds Bridge in Jonesville.  Beautiful leaves and good conversation were the highlights of this section.  We then hit the real trail, beginning with a nice outlook down a powerline swath.  Duck Brook Shelter was a pleasant lunch spot, with the brook roaring away at the bottom of an impressive wooded drop.  The hike proceeded up and down, with magnificent cliffs visible on our left from time to time.  The highest hill along this segment offered a beautiful beech grove.  Poor trail marking led us several hundred yards beyond the cutoff to the road, at the very end of the walk, but since I could see my car the successful completion of our hike was assured.

Andrew and I started off towards my third “gap,”  Bromley Mountain in Division III.  We were prepared to hike out in the dark, but when we realized that we would not even get started on this section until dusk we decided to throw in the towel.  A superb repast at Brattleboro’s Latchis Grille capped an excellent day.  Our spirits were only slightly lowered by the discovery that Andrew had a flat tire (shades of Appalachia two years ago!).  This was quickly changed, however, and we were soon on our way home after another fine experience on the Long Trail.

Division IX (partial) and Division X (partial) – Bolton Notch Road to Smuggler’s Notch, Route 108 – July 12-14, 1991.

Mike Boisvert being hors de combat for the moment because of his knee operation, the company was Jean-Johnny, Jill, Andrew Bush (now a regular), and two new participants, Bill and Jim Murphy.

The trip began inauspiciously with a series of geographical mix-ups.  Jim Murphy and I unaccountably waited for several hours at the wrong hardware store, and made connections only because Andrew happened to see us as he drove by.  We found the Smuggler’s Notch trailhead, after several false tries, only because I happened to see a rather inconspicuous sign in the dark.  Meanwhile, Jill and Bill had already hiked in to Buchanan Shelter, arriving at around midnight and regrettably awakening three young men who were already sleeping there.  The rest of us did not reach the south trailhead until perhaps 2:00 a.m., and even then we had trouble following the trail just at the start.  (Fortunately we had learned from Mike of the recent relocation of the trail at this point.)  We arrived at Buchanan Shelter around 4:00 a.m., regrettably awakening everyone again, the result of which was strained relations with the other hiking group for the rest of the weekend.  (In a perfect world we would have set up tents to avoid disturbing them, but I am afraid that at 4:00 a.m. all I could think of was getting into my sleeping bag as soon as possible.)  We did have a few nice views of lights in the valley during the uneventful hike in.

After only a few hours sleep it was a bit difficult to hit the trail bright and early the next morning, but we did our best.  The climb up to Bolton Mountain was steady and rather pleasant – regrettably the view was of fog.  We had lunch at Puffer Shelter, a welcome respite from drizzling rain.  Although there were several hours of daylight left when we staggered into Taylor Lodge we were pleased to stop there for the night.  I was in my sleeping bag by 6:00 p.m. and didn’t get up until around 7:00 a.m. – a long and much-appreciated rest.  The rain intermittently poured down on our tin roof all night.  We appreciated the comfortable and convenient design of this cabin, although drinking water directly from a beaver pond – even filtered or boiled – was a bit disconcerting.

A lovely view down the valley tantalized us by half-appearing and disappearing the next morning.  We were on the trail by just after 8:00 a.m.  The hike to Butler Lodge was uneventful (although the .1 mile down to the lodge seemed like the longest tenth I had ever walked).  We had a pleasant conversation with the barefoot caretaker, Paul, despite the calumnies which the other party of hikers had written about us in the log book.

Then the fun began, with the excellent and at times tricky ascent of the forehead.  Views came and went through fog and cloud all day, but on balance we saw every perspective and thoroughly enjoyed the views from Mansfield’s multiple summits.  Andrew and I replenished our water from a spring a few tenths down the auto road, then joined the rest of the group having lunch at the little building located just below the nose.  We followed along the ridge, noting its similarity to Franconia Ridge, then had a pleasant conversation with Ranger Jeff atop the chin.  The descent was at times tricky, but on the whole interesting and not too long.  We finished the trail tired but happy, around 4:00 p.m.

Andrew and I stayed for dinner at our old favorite, the Hancock Inn, but the rest scurried back to the flatland, jobs and ordinary life.  I got back home just after midnight, a tired but happy camper.  I’m glad Canada isn’t any farther away than it already is!

Division X – Road walk in Smuggler’s Notch (1.5 miles) – October 10, 1993.

Andrew Bush humored my compulsiveness by joining me on this walk, which we had skipped on our prior trips.  He began with a memorable breakfast at Camp Meade, which we had vividly described to him from our Camel’s Hump trip.  I drove for four hours and met him at the south trailhead at 9:30 a.m.  It had become increasingly cloudy as I drove up, and a light snow was falling in the notch.  We took one car up the north trailhead, then walked carefully, with treacherous footing, along this lovely, windy roadway, beneath spectacular cliffs.  We gave a through hiker a ride back up to the notch when we drove back for the second car, thus underlining the fact that not all “End to End” hikers consider road walks to be an essential part of the Long Trail.  Invigorated by this taste of walking, we were eager to do my next “gap,” from River Road to Bolton Notch Road in Division IX.

Division X (Partial) and Division XI (partial) – Smuggler’s Notch, Route 108 to Johnson-Waterville Upper Road – August 2-4, 1991

This was our largest group to date – 12 persons – including François Huppé and his new friend Gabriel from Montreal.  Mike Boisvert was on the trail again for the first time after his knee operation.  Other regulars included Jean-Marie (Jean-Johnnie), Andrew Bush, Jill and now Bill from Rhode Island.

We assembled at Smuggler’s Notch Friday evening, then shuttled cars up to the North end of the trail, scouted by Jill during daylight.  An error was made, since we had intended to end up at Codding Hollow, but this can be corrected by a two mile nighttime hike next trip.  The trail north was initially steep, but eased up about midway to Sterling Pond.  The evening walk was truly delightful, although as usual it seemed longer than the stated distance (1.3 miles).  The shelters were nearly full (although there was plenty of space in the ski lodge) and several of us tented out or slept under the stars.  Those who did so were sternly corrected by the Warden the next morning.  The pond was stunningly beautiful in the first rays of sun.

The views were magnificent from Madonna Peak – some of the finest we have seen on the Long Trail.  François pointed out several Canadian peaks on the horizon.  Later on we got nice views looking back at Madonna Peak and Mansfield.  Water became a problem, since the spring at Whiteface Shelter was dry.  We filled our bottles urgently at the first sign of water coming down, and Gabriel was so thirsty that he drank his fill without filtration or treatment.

We stayed the night at Bear Glen shelter, still under construction.  Concern about boards being dislodged from the upper bunks troubled both those above and below, to a degree proportionate to the personal risk.  The site is nice, though, and water convenient.  The evening ended with a spirited card game, although a much mooted chess match never occurred.  Steady rain during the night was amplified by the tin roof, but had the courtesy to end by morning.

Mike’s friend David awaited us at French Camp, not knowing of our decision to spend the night at Bear Glen.  We waited while he got organized and hiked out with him.  David had left his car up at Route 118, which would have meant a long day of hiking indeed for him had we not parked our cars just short of Barrows Camp.  The Camp Meeting at Ithiel Falls provided some diversion, as we wondered how they would react if we disclosed the organizing principle of our group.  The view from Prospect Rock was a satisfactory reward for the short but steep climb.  None of us was too sorry to finish our day at the Johnson-Waterville Upper Road, as it allowed an ice cream stop at Ben & Jerry’s (where we took a special interest in how their product is made) and an early return home.

Division XI (partial) and Division XII (partial) – Johnson-Waterville Upper Road to Hazen’s Notch, VT 58 – September 13-15, 1991

The usual suspects were present (except for Jill): Mike, Jean-Marie, Andrew, Bill and John Shoaf.  Dave also joined us on this trip.

First we had to atone for ending the previous trip at the Johnson-Waterville Upper Road instead of at Codding Hollow.  This required a 2.3 mile night hike on Friday evening.  After amicable resolution of a disagreement about whether the dirt road we encountered could be Codding Hollow Road we camped out in a lovely grassy field, lulled to sleep by the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops on our snug tents.

A rather noticeable 1,200′ climb up Laraway Mountain yielded no views in thick fog.  Descending, we learned that Parker Camp (shown on the 1988 map) had been replaced by Corliss Camp, and we enjoyed a break at the brand-new cabin.  I filled up with water, having noted that no water sources were listed for the next 7.3 miles.  Climbs up and down Butternut Mountain, Bowen Mountain and innumerable little bumps and hollows left us exhausted but still capable of amazement when we finally arrived at Devil’s Gulch, one of the most remarkable features of the entire Long Trail.  A young man at Ritterbush Camp, where we spent the night, told us a harrowing story of how his nephew, having insisted on climbing to the top of the ravine, pushed over a small tree, narrowly missing two hikers on the trail below!  The shelter is dramatically positioned atop a rock outcrop, with just a glimpse of the pond below.  There was talk of a swim, but it was too cool and we were too tired.

The adventure continued the next day with a shock, as we attempted to repair one of Dave’s boots with duct tape – the sole was flapping loose from the upper.  He hobbled out to Route 118 and hitchhiked back to the cars.

The rest of us continued on our way, hoping for the warm sunshine which had been forecast for the day, and which seemed presaged by a lovely sunrise.  Regrettably, the weather worsened, there were heavy clouds, some rain, and very high winds.  The forecast made it much harder to bear these conditions than it would have been if they had been expected

Another long day!  Nothing but wet fog on Belvidere Mountain, to the disappointment of several other hiking parties as well as ourselves.  Tillotson Camp afforded a convenient lunch stop, followed by skirting Tillotson Peak and Haystack Mountain, then the long gentle drop down to Hazen’s Notch.  At just over 26 miles, this was our “Marathon Weekend”, the toughest, so we then thought, of all.  Night fell as we retrieved our cars, we found food and fuel in Orleans after an increasingly anxious search, and the drive home, which for some of us ended well after midnight, was in some ways the hardest and most dangerous part of the trip.  John Shoaf’s epic odyssey to retrieve Jean’s forgotten tent posts must be told by a more lyrical bard than myself.

Division XII (Partial) = Hazen’s Notch, VT 58 to U.S.-Canada Line – October 12-13, 1991

It’s not over till it’s over, so they say, and indeed more was in store for our final weekend than we had bargained for.  The company was the hardest of the hard core: Michael Boisvert, Jean-Marie, Jill, Andrew, John Shoaf and of course your humble narrator.  Bill and Jim Murphy both regretted due to work conflicts, compounded by (well founded!) anxiety about weather and equipment.

The final adventure began at Hazen’s Notch around noon (due to the usual delays involved with transport and spotting cars).  The usual nighttime hike was omitted this trip because of Mike’s fear that one night on the trail in October in northernmost Vermont might be more than enough.  With 20-20 hindsight we agreed that another time we would drive up on Friday evening, camp somewhere convenient to the road, and get a much earlier start on the trail.

A sharp climb up the impressive face of Sugarloaf Mountain got our attention, followed by what seemed like a long 4 miles to Buchanan Mountain.  We pressed on over innumerable bumps and through bottomless mudholes in near-freezing conditions.  Snow, in huge hail-like flakes, fell several times, and there was a fair amount of snow on trees and plants, but not, at these lower elevations, on the trail itself.  At Route 242 Jill hitchhiked back to the cars, due to back trouble and concern about adequate clothing.  None of the rest of us can be induced to confess having felt the desire to go with her, since such a thought would never cross the mind of a macho mountain man.  We pressed on.

Dark fell as we struggled up the 1,600′ rise to Jay Peak – surely the longest 1.7 miles I have ever walked!  The grip of winter strengthened visibly as we ascended – first the snow cover around the trail became continuous, then the conifers were freighted with snow, then a dusting of snow covered the trail itself, and finally the trail was buried beneath several inches of snow.  Dazzling whiteness flashed back to us the beams of our ever-weakening flashlights.  Astonishingly to me, the only trail markers above tree line were painted on the rock – there were no cairns!  In slightly worse conditions our trip over Jay Peak could have been fatal due to inability to find the trail.  As it was, the strong winds had cleared the powdery snow from nearly every blaze, and we followed the trail with only an occasional moment of doubt.  Although the cloud cover above was still dense we were rewarded with a magnificent panorama of lights in the valley below, on to the horizon, most of which we reckoned to be Canadian.  The climb down the steep north slope of Jay Peak, over rocks made slippery by water, wet leaves, mud, loose moss, snow and occasional ice, all in pitch darkness and freezing cold, was an experience to be savored in memory but hopefully not repeated for a long time.  Laura Woodward Shelter was less than 100′ beyond the point where I persuaded Mike to check the map to see whether we could possibly have passed it, since it seemed to me that we had walked far more than 1.5 miles from the summit.  The empty shelter, with space for all, was reached at 8:45 p.m.

Our smugness in surviving the chilly night in relative comfort was shattered the next morning when we discovered that everything wet had frozen solid: mittens, socks, water bottles, water filter and most distressing of all, boots (including laces)!  After considerable effort we all got our boots on, but they felt (and were) as cold and hard as ice.  Being concerned about both blisters and frostbite I insisted on soaking my boots in hot water before proceeding.  This worked well – they were already wet through, so a bit more water made no difference.  After half an hour of hiking all of our boots were back to their usual state of squishy – but unfrozen! – sogginess and all toes were accounted for (minus a few nails).  My wool mittens never did thaw, but the polypro gloves did – one lesson is to bring a spare pair of mittens or keep the wet ones, as well as wet boots, in the sleeping bag, in a ziplok of course.  The same must be done with the water filter – I drank unfiltered water from a grotty puddle for the rest of the day, along with everyone else.

A delicious sunrise promised a fine day, but clouds soon closed in over us, and we saw only a glimpse of the sun, unless you count the floods of sunshine which we could see in the valley on a few occasions where a view opened up beneath our canopy of clouds.  A stiff little 500′ climb woke us up, but the rest of the day challenged us only with the usual ups and downs of ridge walking.  Shooting Star Shelter was a welcome stop for lunch, and we took another break at Route 105.  Both days we encountered hordes (100 in all) of cheery members of the Ottowa Outing Club – who we fondly dubbed the “shiny happy people.”  (Is it possible to be too cheerful?)  The thrill of the chase sped our feet as we approached the Canadian border.  The wooden sign announcing the end of the Long Trail seemed a bit anticlimactic, but we soon found the spectacular overlook where border post 592 commands a sweeping view, including the border itself snaking its way along adjacent hillsides.  Tarrying only for a few obligatory photographs we rushed headlong – not even stopping to chat up a few more fresh-faced Canadians – to our cars, meeting Jill (who had hiked in from the end of the trail) a few tenths of a mile before Journey’s End Camp.

That evening we enjoyed with a heightened appreciation the luxuries of a hot shower, a delicious supper, a mercifully brief slide show, and a cozy cot warmed by a wood fire in the State of Vermont Ski Hostel in Stowe, which we shared with a hiking group from American Youth Hostels, of which I was at the time a board member.  Over breakfast we congratulated one another on our accomplishments, hugged or shook hands as appropriate, and parted with firm promises to think seriously about probably continuing with some or all of another End to End trek beginning next Spring.


I believe that the best source of factual knowledge is sensory experience, interpreted by critical reason. I wouldn’t quite characterize this as an axiom, since I’m open to the possibility that sensory experience, interpreted by critical reason, could establish that there’s some better way to discover facts: I would at first be skeptical if someone showed me an announcement written in our DNA or in the stars that we should henceforth get our facts from Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, but if other explanations could persuasively be excluded I’m prepared to believe whatever my critically-analyzed senses tell me, even if that means abandoning future reliance on that source of information. As it happens, I’ve never personally encountered any such evidence, and while I’m aware that others have made analogous claims their reports do not persuade my critical reason. While perhaps not quite axiomatic, I acknowledge that my belief in sensory experience and critical reason is foundational. I’m prepared to argue that the results of applying it are consistent with its truth, but I acknowledge that this isn’t sufficient to prove it true, and that nothing can convince someone who starts with some other source of truth.

I believe that the natural world follows physical laws. This belief is empirical, not axiomatic. But I’ve found it to be consistent with my experience and with information from other sources that I judge persuasive. I don’t have any logical problems with the idea of gods or spirits or souls; I just don’t see any persuasive evidence that they exist. And I find the idea of a natural world more consistent with the available evidence. This belief could be disconfirmed at any time — in fact I’d find it rather charming and interesting if it were — but it hasn’t so far and I don’t expect it ever will. Of course I acknowledge that any particular scientific experiment may be flawed or mistaken, and that error could lead to incorrect ideas about physical laws. I believe that the scientific method is a good way to seek factual truth, not in the truth of any particular result. I suppose that physical laws may be subject to change over time or in different places. I acknowledge that our current scientific paradigm could be replaced by another which more completely or elegantly explains observed phenomena. While many physical laws are deterministic, the laws of quantum dynamics are probabilistic; following physical laws doesn’t mean following a predetermined path.

I believe that we are a part of the natural world, and that our thoughts, perceptions and feelings are aspects of that natural world. We are animals; we arose through natural selection; our mental processes are part of the natural world, not something different or outside it. These aren’t axioms, they are the ideas that I find most consistent with sense experience, interpreted by critical reason. But I acknowledge that conscious experiences are different in kind from the dance of elementary particles that is described by physical science. I see no paradox, however: what looks cold and mechanistic from the outside feels vivid and intense from the inside, when you are the complex system that gives rise to consciousness. Whatever are the physical correlates of our sensations, feelings, thoughts and memory, they are not two different things, one flowing from the other, but two aspects of a single natural process.

It plausibly follows that if my conscious experiences are an aspect of the brain and body of a human that other humans have similar conscious experiences. It also follows that other similarly complex systems could have comparable versions of consciousness, mutatis mutandis. The great apes perhaps aren’t contemplating their own mortality or doing higher mathematics but it strains credibility to suggest that they don’t have perceptions, feelings and basic thoughts. The same must be true, to a lesser degree depending on their sophistication, for other animals. The possibility of sentient aliens is obvious, and nothing excludes some sort of consciousness for mechanical devices (though nothing I know demands this either).

Since we are part of the natural world our experiences and behaviors must follow physical laws. Those laws largely embody cause and effect, yet composed of elements which themselves follow probabilistic physical laws. We have no freedom if that implies the action of something outside the natural world, or our ability to somehow transcend its laws. But neither is any process that follows probabilistic laws classically determined. Any system, including a human being, includes a probabilistic aspect which makes its behavior to some extent indeterminate. To that limited extent each system pursues its own incompletely predictable course, “free” of deterministic laws. In this very narrow sense I think humans have an element of “free will,” but I also acknowledge that our choices are to a very large extent — a much larger extent than seems intuitive — causally determined by physical laws.

I don’t believe that moral principles can be derived from the natural world, but I do think some moral ideas are implied by human nature and human societies. God may be dead but that doesn’t mean everything is permitted. The existence of psychopaths and Ayn Rand fans and religious fanatics doesn’t negate the fact that most people prefer to live peaceful lives that are not completely driven by selfishness. People naturally form families, which they love and nurture. Yes, people also naturally form tribes, which tend to fight with rival tribes; yet it’s also natural for at least some of them to aspire to rise above these rivalries. Killing emerges naturally from human nature, acknowledge, yet all societies try to limit and moderate it. Despite their manifold hypocrisies, essentially all religions at least give lip service to compassion for others, and have some variant of the Golden Rule. I don’t claim to be able to derive universal moral principles apart from the context of my own culture, nor do I claim that such principles exist. But I do feel comfortable drawing some general moral ideas, that work to make me feel good about myself, from my own feelings and cultural context. I don’t feel entitled to impose these ideas on anyone else, but I am willing to argue their merits if anyone is interested.

Among the aspirational moral principles I personally believe in are:

  • Avoiding causing unnecessary harm to others. I’m not a saint, and I don’t believe in sacrificing myself or my loved ones for strangers, but I also prefer to live in a way that does as little harm as I can to anyone.
  • Caring strongly for yourself and the people close to you, and also caring, if not so strongly, for people at greater removes. I think it’s natural to look after one’s own interests and one’s biological or intentional family. You can’t care as strongly for people who aren’t so close or are on the other side of the world. But nobody should be depersonalized and treated as undeserving of your care.
  • Being generous, but also strategic in seeking the greatest impact for your generosity. In general, I believe in the Humanist goal of fostering human flourishing.

I don’t believe that progress is inevitable. That would be lovely! But when I look at history I see bubbles of knowledge and tolerance and cosmopolitanism that form from time to time, can grow and flourish for generations or centuries, but then regress and collapse. Something is usually saved from the wreckage, and can serve as the nucleus for another bubble after generations or centuries. But the pattern is one of advance and decline, not one of steady progress. I now see the Enlightenment not as something that has happened and cannot be undone, but as a set of ideas that is continually under attack, and always vulnerable to being swamped by ignorance and anger and stupidity and selfishness. The fact that I don’t believe in the inevitability of progress takes nothing away from the importance of fighting for it! I happen to live in a simply marvelous progressive bubble that I will fight to preserve and enlarge. But I do this understanding that my bubble is as fragile and ultimately mortal as all the bubbles that have gone before.

I would be interested in your comments on my Credo, and in a summary of your own beliefs.

Who’s the Star?

Who’s the star of your story? Probably — though not certainly — you! Perhaps you share the limelight with a co-star? Perhaps not. Just possibly you see yourself as a supporting actor in someone else’s story. Or you might consider yourself a character actor in an ensemble performance.

Whatever your answer, do the other people in your life see it the same way, or differently? I suspect that many interpersonal conflicts and misunderstandings arise from different perspectives about who the star is. And the happiest friendships and relationships may be based on a shared concept of roles.

Egotists always see themselves as the central person in the story of their lives. People they interact with need to accept subordinate roles, or there will be trouble. There can be only one prima donna! But there’s room for lots of supporting actors, so long as they know their places.

And if you are the star, keep this important thought in mind:

Life is too short to spend time with toxic people who don’t realize that you’re the star; or, even worse, who think they’re the star!

Art and Time

Each art form has a distinct relationship to time, both intrinsically and as experienced by the viewer (or hearer). Much of this discussion may seem obvious, but a few interesting perspectives emerged when I considered the question systematically.

Static visual arts, such as painting, drawing, photography and sculpture, also architecture, are intrinsically timeless, even though they are subject, like everything, to sudden damage and gradual decay. One’s experience of a static work nevertheless takes time. As one examines a work one may perceive deeper meanings and resonances. One can focus on a detail, or step back to view the work as a whole. This is especially true of three-dimensional works such as sculpture and architecture, where the viewer has to move around or through the work to appreciate it properly. Only after viewing it from many perspectives and vantage points can one claim to have fully experienced it. One’s ideas and feelings about a work can also develop through memory, comparison with other works, or repeated viewings over a lifetime.

The dissonance between a static depiction and a moving subject underlies this lyric from All the Rowboats by Regina Spektor:

First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price to pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
They will stay there forever and a day

All the rowboats in oil paintings
They keep trying to row away, row away

Installations can create an immersive experience as the viewer explores an imagined space.

Some static works are designed to create a specific aesthetic experience when the viewer moves in a particular way. This can be jokey, but also profound.

Op art can create the impression of movement through clever stimulation of our optical processes (although in this case the work actually moves as well).

Mobile works of visual art are intended to change through time. In addition to all the ways in which a static work can affect us over time, a mobile work calls for viewing over time as it changes form. The work may have a regular cycle that can be fully appreciated, or it may change kaleidoscopically in apparently unlimited variety, in which case one watches long enough to appreciate the work while never being sure one has seen everything it has to offer.

This work appears at first glance to be static but rewards the patient viewer with a surprising change.

The moving finger in this work creates a wavy line, which the remorseless level destroys.

In sharp contrast with static art forms, the performing arts — music, dance and theater — can only be experienced through time. Cinema, including a recorded performance, is by definition preserved in a static medium, but likewise is only experienced over time. In both cases the creators control what the viewer or hearer perceives, from what perspective, when and how long. This is unlike the experience of a static work, which a viewer can move around or through. A live performance is unique, and takes place in “real time,” while a movie or recorded performance reproduces a frozen interval of time. You can replay something recorded but you can never return to the actual experience of a live performance.

Literature, like cinema, is preserved in static form, but is experienced through time. Unlike cinema a reader decides how to interact with the work: how fast to read, whether to go back over a difficult or interesting passage, whether to skip ahead.

Art can please and thrill without necessarily telling a story. This is often the case with the static arts of painting and sculpture, and the performance arts of music and dance. Poetry, similarly, may simply capture an idea or momentary perception. This can also be true of experimental theater or cinema, but more often a play or movie, like a novel or short story, does tell a story that itself moves through time. Opera always tells a story, and so can any other art form.

A story can proceed linearly, moment by moment. It can employ flashbacks. It can jump around in time, or even go backward (like the movie Memento and the Pinter play Betrayal). Each scene of a story, however, proceeds moment by moment, as we experience time ourselves. A suspenseful story grips us through the unfolding of time’s mystery.

The impetus for this post, in fact, was The Sparsholt Affair, the latest novel by Alan Hollinghurst. Like his previous book, The Stranger’s Child, this novel is composed of several parts, each of which jumps forward years or decades from the previous one. This format enables Hollinghurst to tell epic stories, covering generations and lifetimes, without epic length. By skipping great periods of time he leaves us to puzzle out, from clues in each part, what has happened in the meantime. These great books are imbued not only with the mystery and ultimate unknowability of the future, but also with the mystery and ultimate unknowability of the past.

The War

It’s an enormous struggle, with millions of combatants on each side. A fight to the death: Either we will destroy the enemy or they will kill us, including me.

I’m not particularly worried, however. My troops have fought many similar wars, and always won handily. One day our luck will run out, but not, I think, today.

I call them “my troops,” and I like to imagine that they are fighting for me. But in fact they fight because it’s what they do, they and their forbears stretching back to the dawn of time. They don’t take direction from me. They don’t even know that I exist! Yet they lay down their own lives without hesitation, so that I may live.

I support the fight in important ways. An army travels on its stomach, so I ensure that my troops are well supplied. I reduce unnecessary stressors and avoid extraneous distractions. Sometimes I even try to tip the balance in our favor with chemical warfare! But ultimately our success depends on my fighters winning their individual battles; without this we will fail.

We have many enemies. Even in peacetime there are constant skirmishes, which I rarely even notice. But war I notice. When the fighting is at its peak nothing else is important: winning is the only thing.