If I were to simply concede defeat and follow the dirt road to Craftsbury where my car is waiting, I’d have just a little over a mile left of today’s run. Bailing out is an option. The trail has been elusive as a phantom today. Impassable swamp, fenced-in cow-speckled pastures, No Trespassing signs, descriptions and maps that don’t match what’s in front of me, endless detours on hot shadeless pavement. I’ve been at it for several hours in 90+ degree humidity. Even so, the notion of throwing in the towel is at least as repugnant as it is tempting. I am covered in layer upon layer of salty dried sweat, razor grass slices across my knees and shins, and dozens of deer fly welts across my shoulders and neck. I am also stubborn and competitive and quitting now makes me feel sour. I haven’t come through all this just to pack it in and chalk up Section 27 as hopeless. I will not relent. It’s not the point.
To be honest, I’m too weary and dehydrated to actually remember the point, but I know I’m supposed to be looking for diamond-shaped blue markers. So instead of an uncomplicated trot north down the hot dusty road to the car, I head east on Town Highway 19 (a dead-end dirt road) toward what I think will be the next chance for finding the Catamount Trail as it crosses the road. It feels good to make the harder choice. Nothing else feels good right now — literally nothing — but somehow the pig-headed recalcitrance of pressing on into the sweltering oppressive unknown does. It doesn’t exactly feel like a win, but it’s not losing either.
Almost immediately upon leaving the road I find some well-maintained snowshoe trails with somebody’s sweet little wooden painted signs. It’s not the CT, but it’s headed in exactly the right direction and surely, of course, without a doubt, these lovely little trails and the Catamount Trail will come together here somewhere. I hold like hell onto this wisp of possibility, congratulating myself on hanging in there and relaxing for a moment into sweet optimism just long enough to very nearly step into a huge pile of relatively recent bear poop. The fragile strands of hope strain under the weight of frustration and exhaustion now garnished with a splash of wee panic. Perfect.
On I plod. It can barely be described as a run, this pathetic but persistent pace, now into the fifth hour of this run. Alone, exhausted, I see moose that aren’t there morph into blackened tree stumps. Standing tree corpses seem to stir in slow motion like the fictional tree Ents from Lord of the Rings, their stick fingers and arms reaching and pointing skyward. A boulder pushes its voluptuous belly from the undergrowth impersonating one of those Paleolithic Venus figurines from my college art history class. My brain is delirious from running in the heat and wrestling between this bad option or that worse one. My feet have a mind of their own, obeying inertia, carrying my body along through the woods. I’m barely even thinking anymore now. Just having a few hallucinations here and there, no longer caring much at all about much of anything. The trail signs lure me, zombie-like, to today’s end point: the ski trails at Craftsbury Outdoor Center and the security of the car at the end of Catamount Trail Section 27. Lewie pants alarmingly in the shade while I pour quarts of water down my dusty throat.
But the day is not over…
In an effort to minimize my carbon footprint as I pursue this three-year quest of running the Catamount Trail from Massachusetts to Canada, I have decided to run the remaining five sections in two back-to-back chunks. My budget is tight and I want to live it up for the final three sections which means tonight I am sleeping in the back of my Subaru Impreza. Section 27? Check. Find dispersed campsite in the Steam Mill Brook Wildlife Management area? Check. Everything I need to spend the night in my car? Check. Youthful enthusiasm and confidence? Hello? [Insert cricket noises here.] Nope, not today.
I am parked next to a meadow at the end of a long dead end road. The Steam Mill Brook sign is barely visible through bushes and saplings growing around it. The sky is blue and there are a few puffy white clouds. It’s approaching 5:30 pm and there is no foreseeable relief from the relentless heat. Birdlife is abundant. And so are the deer flies, mosquitoes, and black flies. My unsureness about this sleeping in the car plan begins to mount. My belly knots and I can feel the anxiety build. The day has left me wrung out and wanting something safe now. Something that doesn’t require continued grit, another dive into the well of courage followed by a long night of sweaty non-sleep. I suddenly feel excruciatingly vulnerable and hesitant about whether I should honor those feelings or push through them.
I have cell service so I call Tom. As soon as I hear his voice I begin to break down, hot tears and a tight throat. I don’t want to bail on this plan but I don’t want to be out here alone tonight either. I am awash in indecision. He listens, as he always does, with the patience of a saint. When finally I get quiet and tell him I don’t know what to do, he encourages me to sit with my feelings awhile, talk to them, listen to them, see what happens. Call me back, he says. I hang up, take some deep breaths, walk out into the meadow. Lewie comes out from the shade and follows. I finish crying and mutter some swears, feeding him a few pieces of cheese. I writhe and overthink and cry and struggle while Lewie … well, Lewie thinks about more cheese. He looks at me, panting, doing that thing with his eyebrows. I envy that uncomplicated space between his ears.