A dark green Subaru pulled into the dirt parking lot, so Brendan and I stood up from our spot by the treeline to start putting on our packs. I winced at the pain stabbing at the back of my ankle, the skin rubbed raw by miles of hiking in boots I hadn’t broken in well enough.
When our other two hiking partners exited the vehicle, instead of grabbing their gear and following us to the trailhead, they waved us over.
“Hey guys! Come here for a minute!”
Brendan and I shared a nervous glance before carefully making our way across the lot. We had plenty backpacking experience between the four of us, but this was our first time hitchhiking, and it was hard to push the countless horror stories and cautionary tales out of our minds.
We inched toward the car, and our anxieties slowly faded as we saw the white-haired old woman behind the wheel, thick glasses magnifying her squinty eyes, a goofy grin spread across her face as she waved emphatically as if we were old friends. A plain red T-shirt hung loosely from her frail upper arms.
She rolled down her window.
“Hi guys! I was just showing your friends my silly songs!” she yelled, following it up with a high-pitched chuckle. Our friends were laughing along with her.
“You have to hear these,” they insisted.
We were in Manchester Center, a picturesque New England town nestled in the hills of southern Vermont. A tiny village of fewer than 5,000 people, Manchester Center keeps most of its activity relegated to Main Street, which features coffee shops, local pizza joints, and a few outlet shops before leading out of town and rising into the small, yet rugged surrounding mountains.
Located roughly 40 miles from Vermont’s southern border, the town is a popular first stop for hikers traversing the state’s Long Trail. The oldest long-distance hiking trail in the country, the LT runs the length of Vermont, following the ridgeline of the Green Mountains for 273 miles from Massachusetts to Canada.
We’d set out from the trailhead five days prior, weighed down by heavy packs that betrayed our lack of preparation (though experienced hikers and campers, this was our first attempt at a long-term trek), and this morning had finally stumbled into town, hungry, exhausted, and plagued by aches and blisters. After a day spent stocking up on food and supplies, gorging ourselves on sausage pizza and Ben and Jerry’s, and finally buying a map we’d forgotten to pack at the start, we’d split into pairs and hitchhiked back to trailhead to keep moving.
The elderly woman in the Subaru introduced herself and explained that she’d lived in Manchester Center for most of her life. Her husband, who suffered from dementia, was living in a nursing home, so she spent a lot of her time driving around and giving rides to local hikers.
“And whenever I pick people up, I always play my silly songs for them,” she said, pointing to her CD player, which was currently blasting a provocative Billy Joel parody titled “Mammaries I Desire.”
At first, we were caught slightly off guard by the sight of this tiny old lady rocking to the beat and belting out such suggestive lyrics, but soon we found ourselves laughing and dancing along, all worries about the steep climb ahead of us fading away. After a week of nonstop hiking, it was nice to cut loose a little and just act like a gang of goofballs for a moment before strapping on our packs again.
When we felt it was time to go, we started to say our goodbyes, but the woman raised her voice in protest.
“Oh, just one more!” she pleaded, quickly changing the track to a song called “Strangers in My Shorts.” We eyed one another quizzically and agreed hesitantly that we could stay for another song.
And another. And another.
Soon, an air of mutual anxiety washed over us, as we worried the woman was never going to let us go. I noted the pink hue of the sky caused by the falling sun and thought about the next shelter, still three miles away from the parking lot. We needed at least an hour to get there, and we’d have trouble finding our way along the trail if it got too dark.
I started to feel nauseous when I noticed a few empty bottles of vodka in the woman’s backseat. I’d been slightly worried she was going to ask us for money before letting us go, but now it seemed that her sense of desperation was motivated more by a need for personal connection than finances. She was lonely. When we left, we would have each other, and the trail ahead. She had only the empty car and her silly songs to keep her company.
We finally managed to say our goodbyes, but I couldn’t shake a pervasive feeling of isolation. Hiking up Bromley Mountain, the 3,000-foot peak just north of the town, I felt seized by the sadness that had clung to the air around the Subaru. It permeated the path in front of me, supplementing the agonizing weight of the newly stocked backpack and worsening the vicious blisters on the backs of my ankles. With each step, the leather of my stiff boots cut into the bloody scabs, making me wince with pain.
Gradually, my three companions drifted ahead of me. I fell back, watching them climb up the final steep grassy path that served as a black diamond ski slope in the winters. A horde of mosquitoes enveloped me as I pushed my way forward, ravaging my bare arms despite how much I flailed in protest. By the time I finally reached the peak, where my friends were resting on the platform of the chairlift, abandoned for the summer, my feet were screaming with sharp agony and I was fighting off tears. Weighed down by exhaustion, pain, soreness, and sadness, I felt ready to give up. Maybe the Long Trail was too long for me.
But then I saw it.
From this vantage point, the panoramic view that surrounded us was astonishing. Peaks and peaks of verdant green hills unfurled in an endless sprawl toward the horizon. The sun had just dipped out of sight, casting an angelic glow over the valleys in the distance, while the first twinkles of stars became visible in the darkening sky. There was a stillness in the air, disrupted only occasionally by the soft hum of a fly or a gentle rustle of the pine trees nearby.
It seemed that the entirety of Vermont, maybe even all of New England, was within our sight, but yet, we felt like the only people on the planet. Miles behind us was a town where locals gathered for pizza at the parlor on Main Street, where families bought ice cream and dipped in and out of shops, where an old woman rode through the night in search of fleeting companions to join her for a brief drive.
I let my pack fall off my shoulders and inhaled a deep breath of crisp mountain air. The once-fiery pain erupting from my blistery ankles had faded to a distant ache. Up here, where the world stretched out for miles and we stood on top of it all, I finally remembered to enjoy the view.