I knew I was in too deep as soon as we started the hike. My legs were still tight from the six-and-a-half-hour car ride, my breathing was already quick, and I had a hunch that my pack wasn’t fitting right. I struggled for about a quarter mile before we stopped at a junction to reference the map. Dropping my pack to the ground (thankfully), I consulted with the others about the route. After we finished, I turned to the group. “Alright, guys, I’m gonna be honest – I can’t carry the tent, my stuff, and extra cans. I’m gonna have to hand some food off to you.”
Even with my crew taking some of the weight, the two miles that followed were some of the hardest physical activity I’ve done – and albeit, I’m no body builder, but I’ve suffered through my fair share of grueling cross-country workouts. Let me tell you, hiking up an insanely steep logging road for two miles with a huge pack on your back is a quality workout. I only felt reassured when I looked around and saw that other people were soaked with sweat, too.
This was an extremely disconcerting start to what would turn out to be three days of beauty, adventure, and de-stress in the Green Mountains of Vermont. At UPenn, we get four short days of bliss every October (fall break), and this year I elected to lead a backpacking trip with our Outdoors Club. Recognizing my limits was the first of many lessons I learned about trip leading on this adventure. I had never led one before, and I hadn’t been backpacking, specifically, in about two years, but I was excited to re-familiarize. So after quite a bit of planning and organizing (by far the hardest part), we headed out on the trail. And it was definitely worth it…
Day 1. Hike to Stratton Pond Lodge.
Day one was by far the hardest. The packs were the heaviest, the group was the least familiar with one another, and we had the latest start (1:30 pm). After we finished hiking up the Everest-styled logging road, we hit colorful forest and a decently flat path to Stratton Pond. I started to get a little nervous that we wouldn’t make it before sunset (which, in contrast to previous hikes where I’d just been a participant, I felt responsibility for), but we eventually arrived right as the sun was setting, and although our weary selves were overjoyed to drop the packs, when we saw the sun’s rays hitting the tree tops, our jaws dropped.
The trees were alight with color – deep reds, brilliant oranges, golden-apple yellows – and the colors were magnified by the rays of the setting sun. We sat at the water’s edge and just enjoyed the view peacefully for a few minutes, before I turned to the next task: shelter.
We were lucky in that the Bourn-Pond-Stratton-Pond Loop (which we did backwards) has two shelters on trail; we did carry tents, just in case they were full/because we genuinely wanted to camp, but the first night we decided that since we’d had such a long day, we’d stay in the shelter. I laid down, utterly exhausted, at 8 pm, and we all slept like babies for twelve hours.
Day 2. Day Hike to Stratton Mountain.
I woke up and my whole body was sore. If I had to rate it, I’d say: 1. Back. 2. Legs. 3. Everything else. We proceeded to pull out the oatmeal packets I’d planned out as one of the breakfasts and chow down before full day of hiking. I was endlessly grateful that, after breakfast, we could pile our stuff under a ledge in Stratton Lodge and pack a few things into smaller bags for the day hike up to Stratton Mountain.
This hike was a beauty. Unfortunately, when we reached the summit of Stratton Mountain, it was extremely foggy and wet, but we enjoyed the hike there and back nonetheless. On the way back, I suggested a detour, and we ventured off trail and discovered a peaceful meadow. We sat there and relaxed for a while, then hiked back to the shelter.
When we arrived back at the shelter that night, we pulled out a bunch of the cans and made a giant pot of chili. Our shelter-mate, Chett – complete with calorie-dense food, long curly beard, and Appalachian trail book (your prototypical hiker dude) – looked at our repast and told us we weren’t having a dinner, we were “having a feast!” Later on, when a solo Appalachian trail hiker arrived in the pitch black, I was cleaning the pots and asked him if he wanted the last bit of chili. He looked me in the eyes, and responded with the most heartfelt “Hell yeah” I’d ever heard, then proceeded to gratefully gulp scrape the pot clean (I sincerely wished I’d left him more!) That night we impressively got a fire built (shout out to my girl Lauren for persisting even though it had rained the previous night) and sat around roasting the marshmallows which had been taunting us, visibly attached to the outside of Julia’s pack, for the previous two days.
Today was another learning experience – it was a real bummer that we didn’t get to see the view from Stratton Mountain because it’s notoriously breathtaking. Lesson of the day: Roll with the punches. Although the foggy summit obscured my optimism (see what I did there?), knowing, as I did, that some of the crew had really been looking forward to it, I had to remind myself that oftentimes things don’t work out ideally but there is always an opportunity to be positive and keep group moral high.
Day 3. Hike to Bourn Pond, Stay in William Douglas Shelter.
I didn’t ask, but if I did I’m sure the group would universally vote day three the favorite. We woke up, gorged ourselves on bagels, peanut butter, apple cider jam (probably the most unsavvy trip leader move of all time, but I had raided the fancy jams section in Trader Joe’s to add a little spice to our repast), and apples before packing up our stuff and preparing for the last full day of hiking. We had a bit of off-trailing along the hike to Bourn Pond (had to limbo under a few fallen trees, but everyone really enjoyed it), then sat down for a brief break as it began to rain, listening to the raindrops patter softly on the fallen leaves while discussing what kind of pasta best represented us (are you an alfredo, marinara, pesto …?) – a real Thoreau moment.
We then continued on through a forest of seemingly painted-leaves to the William Douglas Shelter, where we sat relaxing/snacking (those two go hand-in-hand), since we had plenty of time to set up camp. I orchestrated assembling one of the tents, but everyone pitched in and helped. Around 5 pm we started cooking the pasta, and were joined at the shelter by a group of four French hikers who, unwrapping sleeping mats and casually pulling out a bottle of champagne (it was a birthday), offered us a celebratory toast.
This night got crazier and crazier as we were then joined by a group of Italian hikers, the leader of whom was carrying a hatchet in one hand as he asked us if they could stay the night in the shelter too. Our response was a rather nervous laugh as we eyed the hatchet. Then, at about 9 o’clock, in the pitch black, we were also joined by a solo American hiker who proceeded to pull out marinated steaks and offered us those and sangria, to boot. Between him and the Italians, who uncorked a bottle of wine as they roasted zucchini, sausage patties, and steaks over the fire, I think I observed some of the most luxurious camping I’ve ever seen in my life – and a huge contrast to the night before. I fell asleep in the tent to the sounds of laughter around the campfire.
A reflection on this day … it was the most hands-off for me. The group really took charge. We all assembled the tent together, we climbed/slid down a slope to get river water for boiling the pasta, we sat around and talked with one another. And per my request, no one talked about exams or grades (and boy did I shut that down if they tried). We laughed, we talked, we relaxed.
If you ask me, the real role of a trip leader is to “watch from backstage,” if you will. Personally, my goal was to take the backseat, while making sure that everyone felt important, spoke up, and was fully immersed in the wilderness. Rather than I myself hiking first, I encouraged other people to hike in the front; I solicited the group on dinner decisions, and we all worked on cooking together; I encouraged everyone to forget about school and germs and live in the beautiful wonderland that is nature… At the same time, there are, of course, necessary moments where, as the head of operations, you have to step in – showing people how to use the cookstove and Aquamira tablets, tying up the bear bags, divvying up the food to be carried in packs, pointing out the route, planning the meals, etc. Moral of the story: be present when you’re needed, and the rest of the time, let the group take over. They’ll do beautifully.
Day 4. Return to campus (dry my teary eyes …)
I awoke in the tent this last morning to the sounds of steady rain. After lying swaddled in the warmth of my sleeping bag for a few moments, I got up and rallied the troops for the tent breakdown/packing out process. We said goodbye to our groggy-eyed shelter-mates, and hiked back to the car under a steadily increasing rainfall.
I’d mentioned somewhere along the hike that, in my research prior to the trip, I had come across a hiker’s casual comment that “Bob’s diner was nearby the trailhead.” And ever since that moment the whole crew had been fantasizing about Bob’s to the point that I had to give a disclaimer for liability purposes that I had no idea if this place would actually be any good. When we got there, however, post-trip, it was one of the most beautiful food experiences I’ve ever had. Five words: apple. pie. stuffed. french. toast.
We enjoyed a serene drive back through trees that seemed to have become more colorful over the weekend. And the party car (my car) stopped to grab some touristy Vermont paraphernalia as memorabilia of the trip, per my request.
(Briefly) Thoughts about Trip Leading …
It was stressful; it was beautiful; it was an adventure that I hope to partake in again. The majority of the work was prior to the trip – planning and reconsidering food amounts, gauging how much I thought we could carry/accomplish, renting the cars, confirming the route, etc. I advise everyone who’s even mildly interested to try it. I shared a great deal of the load with a friend who came on this and another trip with me – having a co-captain is a great help. The great lessons of this trip were: Know your limits. Roll with the punches. And step back. Definitely try it; definitely be ready to experience some freak outs (like I did on the first hike). You’d be surprised how well you can come through it.