By Evan Johnson
The year’s first hike on Vermont’s storied Long Trail has always been something akin to a homecoming for me. It heralds the start of the hiking season and all the revelry that comes with it; the rocky, rooty, scrambles, fresh pine-scented air, views of lush green valleys and rolling hills, and long dips in some secret swimming holes followed by creemees. In that order. I took my first hike of 2020 on the country’s oldest long-distance hiking trail this weekend.
I was joined by my girlfriend, my brother, and a one-year-old Plott hound mix who we recently adopted from South Carolina. We adopted him at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown partly as a coping mechanism for the chaos that was gaining momentum around us, and partly because we’d always wanted a pup.
“I just want soft ears,” my girlfriend said when we filled out the necessary paperwork on a Friday night in late March. “I want to pet soft ears and look at some soft brown eyes.”
We got the soft ears - the size of jumbo slices of pizza - along with deep, soulful eyes that alternate between mischievous and morose like a lightswitch. The dog who arrived was equipped with paws that could have also passed for flippers, which earned him the nickname “frog paws.” Along with a hound’s quiet, observant disposition, he has an unstoppable urge to go. When he catches a scent, be it the neighbor’s cat or Monday morning’s passing garbage truck, a surge of energy overtakes him and he needs to pursue until the objective is up a tree (his breed were initially used to tree bears and later boars) or exhausted. With the springtime mud mostly dried and word that we could now recreate outdoors - albeit with good social distancing - we decided it was time Moose got his first hike.
The start of hiking season usually incurs a rush to Central Vermont’s marquis hikes - Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, Hunger, and Lincoln - so we elected to try something a little more low-key on the high ridge that would still yield the views we longed to claim. Hikers that start on any of the gaps on the ridge (Sherburne Pass, Brandon, Middlebury, Lincoln, or Appalachian Gaps) have the advantage of starting at roughly the same elevation. But for those of us starting in the valley floor, an approach hike was needed. The trailhead for the Hedgehog Trail is up a few twisty dirt roads with sweeping views of the Green Mountain spine. Along the way, we took stock of the ski houses that face the ski trails at Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen. At the parking area, we were dismayed at a line of fellow hikers’ cars that stretched out of the parking lot and down the road. The weather was cool and overcast. A stiff wind kept away the rapidly emerging black flies. We set out with backpacks full of snacks for us and the pup.
We ascended to the Long Trail in a network of logging roads that crisscrossed streams descending from higher in the mountain. As we gained elevation, the lush green of new growth forests gave way to hearty evergreens. Our path steepened and turned rocky and the wind picked up. When we finally intersected the Long Trail and turned north towards the summit, just .6 miles away, we put on more clothes. Our four-legged friend couldn’t get enough of all of this. Every breath seemed to ratchet his brain into a higher level of activity and he carried a consistent wheezing gurgle of excitement the entire time. He practically hauled me to the summit where we had a lunch of rice cakes and peanut butter before a late spring snowstorm chased us off the top. As we snacked, we watched advancing stormclouds over mountains to the south.
Descending the muddy, rocky and rooty Hedgehog trail was more like skiing, with Moose hauling me on his leash. A few times he nearly sent me toppling down short pitches. I was able to catch myself at the last second on branches or rocky outcroppings. The smells drove Moose past excitement; by the time we recrossed the stream to the parking lot, he was crazed in the woods. Then again, we all were. As soon as we hopped back in the car, Moose curled up in his ball and was asleep. On returning home, he relocated to the couch.
He’s next to me right now as I type, snoozing as he dreams whatever dogs have to dream about. I’m looking forward to our next trip to the trails and mountains that ring our home in the Green Mountain State. And I think he is too.