Heading up the Undermountain Trail with Talley. Photo by Julie Bidwell
Yankee Magazine, March 2017
One bright Monday afternoon, I step onto the Undermountain Trail below Bear Mountain, in northwest Connecticut. I climb east. The trail rolls mostly straight up, but because this is an old hill it feels smooth, with only one fast jog north, up steeper rocks. Traveling on a dirt and boulder track widened by many boots, I push upward through mountain laurels. I have come out today because I needed that periodic reconnection with the Appalachian Trail, the 2,190-mile forest highway that links Georgia to Maine. Once I reach the ridge, I will intersect the AT—which pulls me, like a force, back into the pilgrimage of my past.
At age 28, I walked the entire AT with my husband and our friends Phil and Cay. After about a month, our other hiker pals called us the Eight-Legged Thing; that is, it didn’t matter what our names were. I let the other six legs, so to speak, drag me along, and they and this trail gradually taught me that I could press on through all weather, pain, and exhaustion. I grew up here.
It’s been decades since my “thru-hike,” but I am still a changed person, one who pauses with surprise at water coming out of a tap. One who doesn’t care about rain or stale bread, who doesn’t wish for new carpeting, shiny cars, or cruises. Any point along the AT delivers that power. It pulls people back to simplicity. That makes the AT different from any other trail in the East. I don’t have time for more than a three-hour round trip today, yet I know that is enough for the AT to reconnect me.
At Riga Junction, I stare up at a giant signboard of faded and chipped light-green paint with routed yellow letters. A million people have gaped up at this sign:
If I turn right and walk for two months or so, I will reach the placid rumble of Maine landscape and the giant massif Katahdin, where the trail ends. If I point my scuffed leather boots in the other direction for, oh, three months, I will stumble into former gold-mining country and onto the treed top of Springer Mountain in northwestern Georgia.
I turn right. I jig from rock to mud. As soon as I start, I have no name, send no texts, make no lists; I’m just leaping across a jumble of sediments that 450 million years ago tumbled this rock onto older marble and other material. Riga Mountain, as the locals call it, is Connecticut’s only example of this geologic drama. The first blackfly of the year heads for my eye.
Sitting quietly on a mount of rock that once was a fire tower foundation, a grizzled man in a red sweatshirt, hood up, stares out over the green fields and the Twin Lakes of Salisbury, called Washinee and Washining. We get to talking. His name is Joel Blumert, he’s a guitarist and singer, and he’s been climbing the Undermountain Trail onto the AT and to the top of Bear Mountain for decades. Two years ago, he promised himself he’d climb it once a week for a year. At the end of the year, he bumped it to twice a week, indefinitely.
He’s met long-distance hikers up here a lot. I’m not surprised by how easily we talk. That’s the way it is on the AT. Pretension vanishes.
I meet again, in memory, all sorts of pilgrims I’ve encountered on trips up here.
Once I took a radio reporter up onto this ridge. She’d read that fewer hikers were carrying gear and sleeping out anymore, so I decided I would prove this theory wrong. Of course I chose this rocky, open ridge up here near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. But on the way in, I scared her: We’d left late, dark came, she wanted to stop, and I said no, we had to reach a certain campsite with a locking metal box that bears could not break into. That quieted her. It also cemented our friendship.
The next morning, we encountered a soft-spoken man followed by his Welsh corgi. “I find God out here,” he said.
We met a man and a woman from New Zealand thru-hiking the AT in honor of her 60th birthday. She asked why she wasn’t seeing more animals. I considered assuring her that hawks and fisher-cats and coyotes and newts and black snakes and the rest were hiding from the procession of hikers, perhaps only a few feet back from the trodden dirt. But I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone.
I repaired a relationship up here. I followed him, watching his strong legs in baggy blue gaiters fade in and out of fog, sliding over wet rocks. He picked me blueberries on the ridge. That night we camped near a group of boys who were part of a state program for juvenile delinquents. As their mentors stirred a vat of stew, the boys asked if they could meet our poodle, Talley. I could see that they were nervous out here, and they could see that I wasn’t.
I’ve been hiking on the AT for so many years that these memory companions make a crowd. But it doesn’t feel crowded. And I always forget what I have to do after I go back down the mountain. The sun begins to sink. I must go down. I jump from rock to rock.
The Undermountain Trail leaves Route 41 north of Salisbury, CT, and intersects the Appalachian Trail roughly 2 miles up; almost another mile on the AT leads to the summit of Bear Mountain.