When I turned off Route 17 onto Jerusalem Road, dark gray clouds hung low over the mountains, shrouding their tops completely. As an omen, they don’t come more ominous.
It balanced out shortly after. Arriving at the trail head, itself an assuming stretch of dirt road with cars parked along the shoulder, I saw a deer bound out of the woods, across the way and back into the opposite treeline. That made for a promising start.
I was surprised by how many people were there at 8:00 in the morning: a couple from Massachusetts and a group of seven or so. The big group all piled into cars and left one behind, seemingly intending to hike to this point from elsewhere, then ferry themselves back to the other cars.
The trail head set the tone for the morning: muddy. In places, it seemed positively churned. Still, the incline was easy and for a while, I was visited periodically by a bounding pair of dogs, a chocolate Labrador and a golden retriever; their human called them back repeatedly and finally I didn’t see them again.
After some easy uphill walking, the trail passed through a working sugar bush. I spent a lot of the walk thereafter comparing managed timberland to areas of the mountain left to their own business.
Aside from the rough tracks for vehicles to move through, the sugar bush is much more open than the forest around it, probably because they clear out the non-maples for other uses and give the maples room to grow, or so I suppose.
Initially I let the Massachusetts couple go first, assuming they’d rapidly outpace me. However, once I passed them at a blue sap collector mid-way through the sugar bush, I managed to outpace them, going from slightly ahead to losing them completely shortly after entering more wild-looking forest.
This section was much more densely forested. Fallen trees were overgrown with moss and ferns. The view through the trees descreased. The trail narrowed and steepened. At one point I looked up to notice tendrils of the cloud cover wrapped around the trees at the top of a short slope.
That’s when I started paying more attention to how the plant life changed as I climbed Mount Stark. The first noticeable section consisted of the sugar maples. Next, I noticed a majority of birch trees — possibly just because it’s so easy to pick them out. Continuing up through this section, I noticed the birches slowly petering out and giving way to coniferous trees. And those conifers gradually became shorter and shorter. They never got to the sort of scrub one finds in an alpine zone, but I thought of them as dwarf pines for my own purposes.
All the way up, I kept reminding myself to be grateful for the cool cloud cover. My hair was perpetually wet and dripping from the condensation, but I appreciated the cooling action of the water far more than being a dripping mess of moisture bothered me.
Eventually, after a short climb up a steep, slick series of step-like rocks, I found myself sort of “there.” The Jerusalem trail seemingly stopped, at a sign marking it as such at a three way intersection of paths. A short way off I found Orvis Outlook, which gave a breathtaking vista of the local weather conditions. Further along that branch, I found the intersection with the Long Trail, between the Appalachian and Lincoln gaps.
At the time, I took this sign to mean that Glen Ellen Lodge was to the south along the Long Trail. Now I wonder if it means it’s back along the direction from which I came, down that unexplored branch at that initial junction I came to from the Jerusalem Trail.
I knew the Mount Stark summit was to the north, so I went south a ways to see what it was like. My first impression was much more heavily traveled; any soil on the trail was churned to mud, often with strategically placed timbers or rocks to help ford the morass. And there wasn’t too much soil, this being a ridgeline. The trail was often rocky and consequently slick, thanks to the cloud cover heavy with moisture. I was treated to a number of short showers, either from the wind shaking moisture from trees or maybe precipitation straight from the clouds themselves. I was never sure.
Once the trail started descending noticeably — probably not for long, given that it’s five miles to Mount Abraham and probably along a ridge — I decided to check out the path north of the Long Trail junction. That took me up and up a bit more. The trees got a bit shorter, but never really thinned out enough, except at a few spots close to the edge of the ridge.
The sense of solitude really hit me here. I was up walking in the clouds by myself. All I heard was the wind rushing over head, maybe the occasional bird call, but not many. Then I stumbled across the only other person I saw up there: a young hiker in his teens, seemingly out for a day on the mountain — or maybe packed absurdly lightly for an overnight or longer. We passed with a brief “hi” and that was it. I didn’t see anyone else on the Long Trail that morning.
After a while, I decided I wasn’t going to accidentally stumble across the summit of Stark and I hadn’t done enough research to know just where it was, so I turned back to the top of the Jerusalem trail and began descending.
Some people may think the hard bit of hiking a mountain is climbing up over the rocks and such. Really, it’s the descent. You still have to climb over rocks, but by lowering yourself at a controlled pace. And all the while gravity really, really wants to help you down, only faster than you might prefer.
The walk down to the road seemed so much longer than the walk up. Maybe I was anxious to have done with my expedition and go jump in the river — I was. Maybe it was the tedium of deliberately choosing where to put a foot — it was. Maybe it was that familiarity of retreading old ground so soon after it was new — it was. In fact, the sugar bush seemed to go on and on much longer than I remember it doing on the way up.
At one point, I passed a group of hikers resting. At the time, I don’t know if they were on their way up or down, but they must have been heading up, as I found a whole batch of cars from New Hampshire and Quebec on the road shoulder.
Finally, the road came into sight. I was happy to peel off soggy hiking boots and socks in exchange for sandals. I was even happier to pull on swimming trunks. The next stop after a walk in the clouds was a jump in the river.
[Thanks to LocalHikes for the trail information.]