North South Trail Traverse
I am not a brave person. When I become earnestly afraid my hands shake, my thoughts leave me and I am prone to flight. Under duress I make hasty and impulsive decisions. I think there have been moments in life where I’ve lucked out and those decisions turned out to be the right ones. One fear, a totally misplaced and needless one, I had the joy of confronting on my trip down the North South Trail.
The trail is a 78 mile meandering line from the northern edge of Rhode Island to a warm sandy beach on the southern edge. The state I think is <50 miles as the crow flies, so that should give you an indication of the meander. The trail even takes you into CT for a short spell. Composition is a mix of paved roads, jeep roads and single track. In a sentence, a serenely beautiful jaunt through a wooded and rural New England paradise. Alternatively, a great place to drink bud light, drive a jeep, and buy eggs off someones porch. Seriously, there were cans, jeeps, and egg stands everywhere.
I set out Friday afternoon from Boston and took the commuter rail out to Worcester. After waiting with “drug people” for a bus I took an hour long transit where an inebriated fellow told me about his life of chemical adventures. The bus dropped me off in Webster, MA and I hung out with some locals at a bar and grabbed a bite to eat. Around 7PM I started down the road that would take me to Douglas State Forest, a park on the southern end of MA that houses the southern terminus of the Midstate Trail which transitions into the North South Trail. In a sentiment that I fully reversed later in the trip I cursed the constant traffic whizzing past me, the lights destroying my night vision. In the slightest bit I understood the world that the anti-technology advocates dream of. Before long I arrived at the last little bit of the Midstate Trail and hopped into the woods.
The winding single track pulled me away from the road and into the cover of night. The sounds of acorns falling from trees and the symphony of insects filled the evening. And this is where my imagination began to freak me out. Every crash of leaves was a bear. I recited in my head everything I knew about black bears not being aggressive and fairly easy to deter. I knew the chances were near impossible that I would actually see one. I clapped occasionally and talked out loud to myself. I began to feel the need to run faster and see farther. I laughed at myself. I was a young boy shutting off the light in my basement and sprinting up the stairs away from the darkness.
I misjudged how long the trail was so after 10 miles I finally hit the North South Trail head. It was 10PM but I figured I could get a little down the state before camping for the night. I had run the first 2-3 miles of the trail and it seemed easy to follow, and it was. The first indication of difficulty following markers came as the blaze dumped me out into a boulder field. By the time I realized I hadn’t seen a marker around I was far enough in that I couldn’t see the path I came in on clearly. I did what I thought was backtracking but things didn’t look very familiar. In just a few minutes I was legitimately lost in the woods at night. It was easy to right myself by looking at the GPS track on my watch and crossing over where I had been before but without that feature I would have had to camp till daylight to find the markers again.
In short order the trail dumped out onto a road and I got going the wrong direction again when I missed a turn. This time the marker was on a telephone pole (A very common thing I’d learn about this trail) and the yellow light from the municipal lighting washed out the light blue marker to my already shitty color detection abilities. Frustration and the desire to sleep gnawed at me. I ran through neighborhoods with my light shining in peoples windows as I looked for markers on the poles. After the jaunt past the Joneses I started down a dirt road which had ominous looking signs indicating some sort of corporate land ownership. A lone beat up jeep was the first life seen in awhile, it slowly came from where I was going. And then I lost the trail again. Walking up and down the dirt road a few times I reasoned that it was simply lacking in confidence markers.
Forging ahead I followed the road to its logical conclusion, high voltage power lines. The behemoths stood alone in clearings looking like slumbering beasts in the dark. An abundance of construction equipment led me to believe it was an ongoing project. With very few places to put markings I defaulted to following the dirt road, even though I hadn’t seen a blaze in quite some time. I checked google maps against a printed out map I had and I appeared to be in the right area. I could see my breath in the air and I decided it was getting near time to sleep and that I was making no progress getting continually lost.
As I stood in the dark thinking about bears a familiar sound was carried to me by the wind. Country music. It was loud, it could have almost been a live show. Thinking I might be close to a paved road I continued down the half constructed power lines. As I draw closer to the music I heard the sound of drunken human merriment. The path had been littered with discarded cans and it made sense people would come out here to rage. The sound of a vehicle climbing dirt hills roared through the clearing. At first I thought maybe someone was stuck but as the sound persisted periodically, and from different vehicles, I put together that it was some kind of 4X4 party. The lone jeep leaving the road earlier made sense now. As much as I was trying to escape civilization my irrational fears were comforted knowing people were close. Though I never saw them I set up my camp and was lulled to sleep by the sound of screaming engines and humans.
Dawn brought a beautifully crisp morning. I hurried through my morning routine, knowing that daylight was precious, and started backtracking. All in all the first night I had gone 7 miles in nearly 3 hours. Only 4 of those miles were forward progress. As I passed the construction equipment the Saturday morning crew was arriving. In my mind they were the ones tooling around in their big old pickup trucks last night. As soon as I left the power lines area I saw the turn I had missed and began to make forward progress.
After that it was smooth sailing. I caught a sunrise over a beautiful still pond and found plenty of easy trail to cruise on. With those worries out of the way I focused my anxiety on my water situation. I had brought a 3 liter bladder with me, and an armies supply of purification tablets. Some random forum posts (totally the resource you want to trust) had said there were plenty of springs along the way. Maybe during a wetter season this would be the case but I went pretty long stretches without seeing anything.
I passed a few dried out stream beds but knew that eventually the trail would meander through some state parks, some of which had campgrounds. I banked on finding a spigot there. Around late morning the trail round its way on the shores of a lake. On the other side I could see campers but wasn’t sure the trail would run by there. As I stood staring out into the lake, considering purifying some of it for drinking, a lone beaver floated into my field of view as if to say;
“Go ahead. I just shit there.”
Opting for dehydration I continued on my way. Eventually the trail did wander through a camp and I interrupted a couple of dads and their sons to fill up at a spigot and used a very well placed port-a-john.
Miles and miles passed. Aside from a pair of mountain bikers I saw no one on the trail. On past beautiful houses that invited you to imagine a quaint New England country life of building chicken coops and hugging trees. Mysterious looking jeep roads traversed woodlands and then abruptly turned into a development. Much of it had the feel of an area just waiting to explode with development. Sometimes eerie houses would sit deep in the woods, the kind of place where the inhabitants could murder you and put you in the basement and no one would ever find you. Abandoned cars and trailers. Other creepy stuff.
I stopped midday at a gas station for some ice cream and to refill on water. It felt good to rest and not have the pressure of the racing environment. When the road was gentle and my mind could wander I evaluated what I was getting from the experience, and what I wanted to get from it. I focused intently on what my senses were telling me about movement and isolation.
The less than seasonal heat of the day was oppressive on some of the road sections and I wasn’t doing a very good job of taking care of hydration and fueling. A few more wrong turns frustrated me. As the sun dipped low in the sky I saw a big ass turtle just about in the road. I tried to reason with him that it was a horrible place for a turtle to be but he would have none of it. I wished him the best and was on my way.
The purification tablets I had with me posed quite the warning message. I tested them out in an extra smart water bottle before trying them in my bladder. After no ill effects for a couple of hours I filled up at a small waterfall and chatted with a photographer there. The second night arrived and the navigation frustration continued. I will certainly never take for granted the reflective markers used on ultra courses. Long straight dirt roads with sudden turn offs were seemingly common. The roads were more than 2 cars wide and the markers weren’t consistently on one side. My time was spent throwing my vision left-right-down, left-right-down. Over and over again.
Around 8PM I emerged from the woods at the foot of a church and sat down to make dinner on the steps. As I chomped my noodles in the passing light of cars I admired stars which I forgot existed in such numbers and beauty. The feelings of being lonely that I had experienced my first few hours on the trail had disappeared. I kept relying on old thought patterns that were straight out of races. Assuming that the trail sections would end because there should be an aid station soon. Assuming that the trail would be a certain way due to a race directors course design.
After a nice warm meal I was on my way down more dirt roads, almost immediately getting lost and found. Some quick pavement pacing afterwards convinced me to keep moving through most of the night before camping. When I did finally lay my head down again in a wooded area I only fell asleep for a short while before throbbing in my feet woke me up. I weighed the options of stumbling around in the dark versus laying around in the bivy. Reluctantly I packed up and stumbled down the trail.
Within a couple of hours it was 3AM and both my headlamps were nearly dead, diagnosis - lack of foresight on my part. I was keeping a slow and deliberate pace to avoid a wrong turn. At one point I caught myself meandering straight into someone’s backyard. Shortly after I found a small clearing at a trailhead and decided to wait for the dawn. Putting on all my warmth gear I laid against a rock and focused on the color of the night sky. The deep dark blue wrapped me up in a chilly embrace. It was in this hour that the whole weekend was anchored. In turn I re-observed the emotions I had encountered. The totally misplaced fear and the confusing loneliness. Looking back on it I can feel the romance of solo adventure but at times in the moment I wished I had someone with me. Much of life has been that for me. An internal struggle to connect meaningfully with others. Shared endurance has proven to be a key in finding like minded individuals.
Dawn began to seep into the darkness. In a way, I was sad to see the beautiful deepness of the night give way. The morning felt intrusive. Back on my feet I hurried as best I could. My thoughts turned toward getting my ass to the beach and then getting to the train station. The portrait of beautiful morning that was painted on this day was one of wheat and cotton plants. The path ran straight through an active corn field where farmers were starting a day of harvesting.
I talked to cows, bathed in the warm energy of the sun as they munched on the organic capture of that energy. They were cute, and I let them know that.
As I entered the last management area the wheels came off. I mostly stumbled and mumbled to myself. Passing through some benches in a bird sanctuary I laid down and wiped the dirt and grime of my face into my eyes. The management area had camping at its southern tip and I knew I was getting close when the woods began to fill with cooking fire smoke. I couldn’t even enjoy the smell of bacon over the ache of my feet. The last 1 or so is a busy road section, which could be a beach road anywhere. Beautiful houses with crushed shell driveways.
And then it ends. It was around 11 AM and people were starting to set up their beach forts with chairs and umbrellas. I entered a post run haze where the simplest of things seem daunting. Even after miles of dreaming of the ocean I could do nothing but lay on the beach next to some rocks and think about getting up.
The trip to the train station was a mess. I think it took me 5 hours to go 8 miles. At times I had to sit down on the grassy side of a busy road and hide from the sun. I spent 20 minutes in a Dunkin Donuts drinking a coke and staring out the window like a creeper.
Such a great trail. If I had the time and authority I would without a doubt try to host a race with an epic on the beach finish. My set up was the gear I've been using for all my trips recently weighing in at about 30 pounds with much more food. This was the first time using my water purification tablets and I got to experience the radical change they made in my body odor. It was slightly unnerving that I reeked of chemicals.