Stow Teen Takes the Long Trail… August 19, 2015

By Ann Needle

Sandy and Erica Taft on a break in Erica's hike.                                                       Courtesy

Sandy and Erica Taft on a break in Erica’s hike. Courtesy

Even the confidence of a 17 year old usually does not go as far as hiking continuously in summer heat for a month over hundreds of miles. For Stow’s Erica Taft, it does.

Erica spent most of July hiking the Long Trail, which extends about 280 miles from around Williamstown, MA, up through Vermont and to the Canadian border. But, along with the sweat and fatigue came what appeared to be some priceless memories for the Nashoba Regional High School senior.

In a way, Erica could point to Boy Scout Troop 1 Stow for helping bring on a few blisters.

Sandy Taft, Erica’s dad, explained that his daughter got the idea for the trek from a cousin who once hiked Long Trail, and from Troop 1 Stow’s high adventure trip in California a few summers ago. When Erica’s brother and father were both on the Boy Scout trip, Erica and her mom, Tara, took a 5-day hiking trip with the Sierra Club for their own adventure.

Though Erica took on hiking the full length of Long Trail on her own – most hikers take on only sections at a time – she stressed that she was never alone, with several family members taking turns meeting her and hiking portions of the trail. Joining Erica at various times were her father, mother, brother, several of her own friends, Tom’s friends and their parents, and even a college friend of Sandy’s, she said.

Erica’s changing roster of companions also helped keep her backpack at about 35 lbs., with everyone bringing in supplies and switching off laundry as they joined the hike, according to Sandy. The backpack included food she cooked and assembled in plastic bags at home (Erica declared the portable pad thai her favorite), clothes, a water filtration system, a camp stove, and a small tent that Erica did not use because she managed to make it to Trail shelters (usually three wooden walls, a picnic table, and four beds bunk-style) each night, he said.

Erica added that she even reached a few hostels by the Trail — where she could shower — and took just one evening off, staying at the Long Trail Inn and having dinner with friends.

Welcome to “Ver-mud”
Though the longest hiking day was 18 miles and the shortest was 7 [the first day], Erica said she went about the same distance each day. While this steady pace makes sense to someone who has never done a multiple-day hike, Erica said she may have been in the minority. As Sandy explained, long-range hikers often push themselves to charge ahead for a few days, then take a day or so off.

This still left plenty of challenges. Though she usually traveled from about 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., one day Erica and her companion did not arrive at their shelter until 9:30 p.m. Mentioning that many hikers term this time “hiker’s midnight,” given most trekkers have been sleeping a few hours by then, Erica recalled making her way through pitch-dark woods with only their headlamps as guides. As it would happen, it was probably the “creepiest” shelter on the Trail, Erica laughed.

Although she experienced very little rain over the course, the rain she did experience reminded her of why one of Vermont’s nicknames is “Vermud,” she said.

She recalled what Sandy termed Erica’s most mentally challenging day. This was the day Erica described “crawling” a straight-uphill trail where “you feel you’ve gone on for so long, and you have to keep going.” There also was the taxing trek up Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. Erica wryly remarked that, after hiking about 5 miles and reaching the top, “You’re dying, and there’s a parking lot” [referring to the lot at the end of the driving route up the mountain].

“I thought it was more of a green trail, but there are ladder climbs they had to do with a backpack on,” over some of the rockier terrain, Sandy observed. He said his college friend described having to navigate the trail at one point through two boulders. To make it through, Erica went first — with her backpack on — and had the friend toss his pack over to Erica before squeezing through.

The big upside of the journey was meeting a full range of people, Erica said. This was helped by the fact that the well-traveled Appalachian Trail overlaps Long Trail for about 100 miles, helping channel interesting people into the hike, Sandy said. Erica fondly looked back at starting her hike as two other women also began, making for good company until the women finished their portion 10 days later. There was the entertaining young woman with the trail name “Gumball.”

And there was the sense of community Erica praised, recalling how some hikers who went ahead of others they had met would leave behind encouraging notes couched in rocks. Each shelter also had a log book, making for encouraging and often exciting reading from previous hikers, she said.

Though she was expecting a big monument of sorts to greet hikers at the end of the Trail on the Canadian border, Erica noted that, despite her joy, the end of the trail was low-key. It is marked by a small wooden sign reading, “End of long trail.” A granite marker stands at the U.S./Canada border.

By the end of the hike, Sandy said it became clear that Erica was “the youngest person on the trail, by far.” The irony of that was not lost, with Sandy reflecting of his teen daughter, “When are you going to have the opportunity to do this again?”