Iron Will and Stubborn Feet

Joan H. Young – Through-hiker, story teller.

July 20, 2022

Last month, I had a chance to walk in the woods with writer and long-distance through-hiker Joan Young for a very special hiking experience. Upon first meeting her on the Oak Ridge Trail in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area in Ripton, Vermont, I was immediately struck by her sure-footed strides and confident nature as we wended through the Green Mountain Forest together for the day toward her eastward destination. Joan was headed to Maine Junction on the Appalachian Trail near Sherburne Pass in Vermont, the eastern terminus of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT). The NCT is the nation’s longest National Scenic Trail that traverses through eight northern border states over 4,800 miles. It comprises a system of connected trails managed by several local chapters and affiliate organizations to connect the northern region of the US. Joan will complete the first half of her second through-hike of the NCT. She began this journey in Western Michigan months earlier. Upon completing the first half, she will head to Central North Dakota and walk back home to Michigan. She will have also walked through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota, and Wisconsin when done.

The North Country Trail was authorized by Congress in 1980 under the National Trails Act of 1968 and is a public/private partnership with the National Park Service and the North Country Trail Association (NCTA), with offices in Lowell, MI. I am privileged to represent Vermont on the board of the NCTA. Coincidentally, I was not able to join Joan during the first legs of her Vermont trek because I was attending a board meeting at Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids at the time. While I traversed the gardens and sculpture park, Joan was walking through the idyllic, gentle farmlands of the Champlain Valley and along the Trail Around Middlebury (TAM), managed by the Middlebury Area Land Trust. One can enjoy a glass of chocolate milk from the dairy bar at Monument Farms Dairy, a willing and generous landowner who hosts the trail in Weybridge, VT.

These girls get only the best organic feed from Vermont’s Champlain Valley.

We texted and planned to meet on her third day in the Moosalamoo, where I would walk in her direction from the mid-point of our day hike at the Moosalamoo Campground, a site well-managed by the US Forest Service. She arranged to be dropped off at the Oak Ridge Trailhead on Scenic Route 125, East Middlebury, where she ended her trek the day before. This is the location of my favorite Vermont home-away-from-home, the Waybury Inn (you might recognize the 1810 stagecoach inn as the iconic image of the Bob Newhart Show). 

In her element.

“Ah, you must be Joan,” I said when she popped around a turn in the trail at our meeting. Dressed completely shielded from the elements, including bug net, Joan was prepared for her walk in the Green Mountain National Forest wilderness. Our destination for the day was the Sucker Brook Shelter, a lean-to on Vermont’s Long Trail. The Long Trail, which runs north/south from Massachusetts to the Canadian border, is managed by the Green Mountain Club (GMC), America’s oldest long-distance trail organization (est.1903) and an important affiliate organization of the NCTA. We arrived back at my car at the mid-point, where we enjoyed a nice lunch in the car before continuing her hike. It was quite hot and humid, and the mosquitos were voracious, so we retired to the comfortable cabin of my Volvo. We shared some chicken/kale salad (prepared by my local IGA) and a Lawson’s Finest Liquids Supersession Comet IPA. Once again, I drove to the next trailhead to spot my car for my return home, meeting up with Joan again at the Sugar Hill Reservoir. 

Sugar Hill Reservoir
Occasional distant view.

Along the way, we had fascinating conversations about long-distance hiking and the community of through hikers and friends Joan has met. One such friend, Denali, another walking force for good for the North Country Trail, completed the Vermont NCT with me last year. Joan estimates that she has approximately 15,000 miles of backpacking since she started the activity in her retirement. Surely, Joan was up to the task of reaching the junction where the Long Trail and Appalachian Trails diverge. As of 2019, this is now designated the official eastern terminus of the North Country Trail by an act of Congress, making it a junction of three well-known national hiking wonders. I had noticed that Joan was prepared for the ruggedness of the rocky-rooty Long Trail with one exception: her shoes. When I asked her about it, she described her experience trying to find properly fitting hiking footwear and found that the cheap sneakers served her well. “I have stubborn feet, she says.” Of course, with many years of personal experience and guiding, I insisted that we try again with a visit to my favorite local outfitter, Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield, VT. Stubborn to a point, she relented, and we saved the 1.1-mile hike up to the LT from the NFS Road trailhead for the following day and headed back to my humble home on the Mill Brook after we visited my local gear shop. Feet more stubborn than a mule, we left empty-handed after trying on every shoe and boot around 6.5. All not being lost, Joan enjoyed dinner with me and a comfortable slumber in my guest room.

Gillespie Peak 3,366′ – the highest you can get on the North Country Trail.

Fresh and ready for a beautiful day in the Green Mountains, we returned to the trailhead and ascended into the Battel Wilderness up the Sucker Brook Trail to the Long Trail, leaving the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area behind. We met a friend, Tony, formerly a glider pilot for Sugarbush Soaring. He also found hiking in his retirement. We leap-frogged him a couple of times along the way as he was headed in our direction and to my destination for the day, Gillespie Peak. At 3,366 feet, it is the highest point on the North Country Trail. Joan will continue for two more days, staying on the Long Trail before she reaches Maine Junction, and her journey’s end at Sherburne Pass, approximately 45 miles away. 

Tony and Joan – retired but not idle.
The Long Trail.

As we climbed up the rocky slope, I observed the spry and careful steps of Joan’s feet ahead of me. If it does not rain a lot, she will be fine, I thought, in her flat-soled, $20 lace-up seekers. She said that she bought three pairs, wearing-out one in the Adirondacks and one still in the car. This pair will indeed be done by the time she arrives there. I warned her not to trust a root and watch out for the slippery schist. Her gate was steady, and she used one hiking stick, switching from her right hand to her left as needed. I recommended two hiking poles with carbide tips for a sturdier and more supportive climb, up and down. “Hey, suddenly, you’re a quadruped. How cool is that, I asked?” My coaching to keep her hands forward while descending to keep all four corners of each foot firmly planted was not needed but offered. Joan’s healthy 74-year-old body and her strong will made the climb with no complaint. As we rested at the summit, we told more trail tales and discussed family issues and personal reflections. We touched only lightly on world affairs. When you are in the wilderness, you can put such things aside. I enjoyed another Lawson’s Finest, and we snacked on Cabot Creamery Seriously Sharp Cheddar that I brought for us. Joan was prepared with her own brick, precious cargo on a long backpack trip. 

A fellow Michigander, through-hiking north.

We said our goodbyes, and I offered Joan best wishes and assured her that she was now in the welcoming community of the Long Trail. I descended toward the trailhead and the waiting Swedish carriage, thinking good thoughts about Joan’s final two days alone up along the ridge of the Greens, knowing she would be fine. Hey, she made it this far, I thought. I had not planned on meeting with her again due to my busy summer schedule touring and writing for my blog and Drum Corps World. This summer passion is hard to explain, but you can research for a look into an amazing summertime youth music activity. But, lo and behold, two days later, I found a window of time where I could once again meet up with Joan to finish her Vermont hike with her. She had been able to text updates while heading south on the Long Trail so that I could time my third meeting in the wilderness with her just north of Sherburne Pass. She did not suspect this because I was not sure until that morning that I could run down to the Route 4 trailhead early enough for a good hike. This trail section is the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail (AT).

Sticker bomb at the terminus.
Friendly neighbors.

I reached Maine Junction shortly, where the AT heads east toward New Hampshire and Maine and then continued north on the LT toward her. Within 30 minutes, I spied the stalwart strider coming my way with a big smile and friendly wave. We hugged and rested, where I once again enjoyed the hoppy flavor of my local brewery and shared some more delicious chicken salad and cheddar. As we descended at a pace down toward the waiting cars she spotted days ago, she regaled me with her stories of the two days on the LT and the people and experiences she had. We stopped at Maine Junction for a celebratory photo shoot. The delight in her voice was evident as she closed the remaining two-mile gap, moving at a pace like a horse that knows it’s on the way back to the barn. We reached the car in what seemed like no time flat as we conversed the whole way, hardly noticing anything unusual in the familiar Vermont woods. This section of trail is well-warn by the hundreds of through-hikers and thousands of day-hikers that visit our brave little state annually. As we neared our journey’s end, the roar and din of the traffic on the east-west highway corridor reminded us of the real life of our modern, artificial world. Alas. 

Joan and the author.

We crossed the busy highway and arrived at the cars. I broke out the folding chairs from the Volvo, and we removed our hot hiking footwear and donned sandals. Joan’s earth-encrusted sneakers and socks lay forlorn in a pile, probably never to be worn again. But what stories could they tell? Joan herself is a storyteller, presenter, and author. As an early advocate for the North Country Trail, Joan H. Young is well respected by her colleagues and the hiking community. You can learn more about Joan’s adventures and the NCT in her book North Country Cache: Adventures on a National Scenic Trail, where she retells the story of her first through-hike of the NCT in 2005.

Maine Junction.

Joan was very pleased with herself for completing this huge milestone, the first half of her second traversing, but was now faced with a lengthy auto journey to the upper Midwest. This is where she will once again don another pair of sneakers and head for another 2,400 miles of backpacking home to her starting point earlier this spring before the hiking season ends. Joan’s friend Denali chose a different direction for her though-hike of Vermont, continuing over the Champlain Bridge into the wilderness of the Adirondacks. Both women have an excellent knowledge of the flora and fauna that we were embraced by in the north woods. They are much like another fine person I have written about, Mary Coffin, from the Central New York Chapter of the NCTA. She is one of the many stalwart volunteers who maintain this precious national resource. As a board member for a couple of years, I have had the pleasure of meeting so many of them, and I enjoy being part of this larger national community. What I have learned from volunteering, day-hiking with, and getting to know Mary Coffin, Denali, and now Joan Young is that you should never underestimate an older lady, body focused in a determined forward direction, maybe in sneakers. Do not be surprised by their enormous hearts and sheer will. You may find them salted with a dose of stubbornness.

Stubborn feet.

Happy Trails, Joan! You are probably somewhere in the Minnesota boundary waters wilderness as I think of you and write along the Mill Brook.

Kevin Russell

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