1978 North Country Trail (NCT) Thru-Hike
Last week we stumbled upon an interesting post on the North Country Trail (NCT) Facebook page. A gal by the name of Carolyn Hoffman had posted a picture of the beginning of what would be a seven-and-a-half-month-long journey "along what was then no more than the proposed route of the trail" in 1978. Out of five people that began, only two would complete the trek - Carolyn and Lou Ann Fellows.
If you're unfamiliar with the NCT, it stretches from New York to North Dakota, including 96 miles that run through our backyard here in the Allegheny National Forest. I've collected many moments with family and dear friends under the canopy on this trail over the years. It is, indeed, a very special place.
It's such a young trail even today, I cannot imagine the adventure (and the gear!) in 1978. Well, I couldn't until Carolyn came along. She continues to post about their journey, and has given us permission to update this blog post weekly to include new stories she shares, for those that may not use social media. Hope you enjoy it as much as we have.
We hiked into the town of Canastota along the canal. By this point, the guys were complaining about not yet having had a day off from hiking, so they stayed in the town while Lou Ann and I hiked ahead. They thought this was an ideal solution since they could hike so much faster than the two of us. This way, they reasoned, we “wouldn’t hold them up.”
The next day (March 23, 1978) in Kirkville NY we rejoined the men and sent the snowshoes back to Lance Feild in Maine. We hadn’t used the ‘shoes in days, and the longer we walked the less snow we saw. Kirkville was a really small town that had a post office and a gas station with a soda machine and little else. We had lunch there, eating out of our packs but taking advantage of the soda machine.
At one point we saw two old farmers chasing a muddy old draft horse around a muddy pasture on the other side of the canal. We yelled back and forth across the canal. They asked us what we were doing and we shouted back and forth, providing as much detail as possible over the width of the canal.
In Fayetteville T called a friend he’d worked with at a hiker’s lodge in the Smoky Mtns, who picked us up in a tiny compact car, a Pinto I think. We tied a couple of the packs into the trunk and on top of the car and squeezed into the car, me sitting between seats with the stick shift between my knees and a pack on my lap. It was like a clown car or one of those phone booth challenges (remember those?) we were stuffed in so tight. The car was definitely not made for six people, five with expedition-sized packs. It’s a wonder that poor little car could move. After a night of civilization, and baths (!) T’s friend took us back to Fayetteville and we struck out again.
Our hike was now taking us through a very rural area of low, broad hills, mostly farmland with a mile or more between houses. I remember being able to see for miles. That next day we hiked 14 miles to Fabius, all on paved rural roads. The roadwalking, as always, was killing. In the early afternoon we all thought we would soon reach the town because we passed a sign announcing we were entering Fabius. Unfortunately for us, the sign wasn’t for the town limits, just for the edge of the surrounding township, so we still had several more feet-killing miles before we reached the town.
At the small post office, we discovered that our next batch of topographical maps had arrived, but not our food packages. As a result, we decided to spend the night nearby, hoping the food would arrive the next day. Fabius didn’t have a hotel, so after discussions at the post office and with the local police, we stayed in the garage of this burned-out house just down the road from town. It turned out to be a very cold place.
We were about half a mile from the town bowling alley, so Lou Ann and I walked back there to make phone calls home, use their restroom and get warm. The guys all claimed to be tired and didn't walk back to the bowling alley with us.
I’ve looked and looked but can’t find a photo from this day but here’s one of Lou Ann taken a week or so earlier in the trip
The three men always hiked faster than Lou Ann and me during our NCT route hike, but we always managed to reconnect and find them again when it was time to set camp. To those of you who’ve never been without a cellphone, it's likely a surprise how easily we had regularly reconnected with them. It wasn’t unusual for them to have reach a camp site and have their tents set up and dinners cooking before we even got there. We developed our own method of finding each other. If we were camping in a spot illegally, a frequent occurrence in this rural landscape, the men would leave articles of gear, usually a boot, at the spot where they left the trail. The gear was a signal to Lou Ann and me that they’d found a hidden camp spot and that we should venture off the trail or road to look for it. Usually they placed the item in a conspicuous spot on a rock or up against a tree. Following behind them, we would see the gear and then know to head off the trail or the road and look for them, retrieving the gear as we did. This night it was a boot by the side of the road, and we headed back into a mature pine plantation at the far end of a large cow pasture. The barn and house weren’t visible from the trees. It was a lovely spot to camp, with the sound of the breeze through the pines.
For 3 weeks this method had worked well for us. We couldn’t know that tomorrow it would fail us utterly.
The next day was March 25,1978, Easter weekend. We knew nothing in the small towns we were walking through would be open, so we had no reason to hurry. As usual, the 3 men hiked faster and ahead of Lou Ann and me. This day’s walk was again all on back roads, with many turn-offs and side roads. Our plan was the usual one. We’d hike until late afternoon, the men would find a place to camp and leave an article of gear along the side of the road to let us know where they were. So we walked and along about 4 or so started keeping an eye out for the gear. We didn’t see anything so we kept walking and walking. And walking.
Eventually, we hiked 17-18 miles and reached the small town of McGraw NY not long before sunset. We certainly didn’t plan to hike that far. We wondered if the guys just kept walking because they wanted to get somewhere for a drink or grocery shopping before the holiday closed everything. But once in town we checked the local bars and the post office and no one had seen them. Almost no one was around town on this holiday weekend and those who were hadn’t seen them. One person thought he might have seen them at a twisted road sign around 4:30 pm. We knew the guys planned to hike until around 5, which should have gotten them to McGraw at the speed they hiked. So we wondered if they’d been confused by that twisted sign and taken the wrong road.
The woman who owned the Empire Inn found us a place to stay for the night. I remembered my feet throbbed so much that it was after midnight before I could fall asleep. We wondered if this possible wrong turn took the men a while to figure out. The next morning, the woman bar owner fixed us a huge breakfast. Lou Ann and I hung around for a while, figuring the guys would show up in a few hours. But they didn’t. More about that tomorrow.
I’m not sure today’s photo is from that day or not but it’s close. Spring was starting to spring.
In McGraw we waited for the 3 men to arrive. We figured if they didn’t walk all the way to town the day before, they would reach McGraw in 2-3 hours from wherever they were. They didn’t arrive by noon. They didn’t arrive by 3 pm. Lou Ann and I had no idea where they were or what was going on. We wondered how we could have missed seeing the boot by the side of a narrow road with almost no shoulder. We wondered if they somehow looped around McGraw entirely and were instead somewhere up ahead of us yet again. So after much discussion, we were convinced they were now far ahead of us, essentially a full day’s walk ahead, and the only way to rejoin them was to get a ride to the next town and wait for them there. So we got a ride to Slaterville Springs in pouring rain with an elderly couple who didn’t have anything else to do that afternoon.
But the men weren’t in Slaterville Springs either.
The town was really little more than a village. It had a store, a post office and a fire hall. We stayed in the firehouse, courtesy of the firemen.
From my trip journal
“3-27-78 – Monday
“Heard about the guys, second hand, this morning in Slaterville Springs. They called the PO and told him [the postmaster] they were in McGraw after ‘taking a day off’.”
At this point we had no other details. When we got a ride to Slaterville Springs, we figured that since they didn’t show up in McGraw by 3 p.m. that they had continued walking, thus putting us behind them again. Now we found we were way ahead of them.
Lou Ann and I spent much of the day wandering around the small town and speculating why the guys had “taken a day off.” We pumped the poor postmaster for every scrap of detail, every voice inflection, but we didn’t get much beyond what he’d told us the first time.
Lou Ann and I tried to figure out what had happened. After constantly being behind the guys, it was hard for us to understand just how we now managed to get ahead of them this time. We wondered if they’d taken a different route into McGraw, but we couldn’t figure out how or why they would have turned off the road to do that. We wondered why, after being separated like this, they were now “taking a day off” instead of getting back together with us.
The next day (Tuesday) we were still separated. Now we still didn't know where the guys were, only that they were going to take a shortcut cross-country to catch up with us. So we walked on, along back roads, up steep hills that gave us impressive vistas of farmlands surrounded by steep mountains. A Holstein cow followed us a short distance along the road until it wandered off into its owner's (presumably) yard. Sometimes I felt as though I could see Rip Van Winkle in those deep valleys. I almost expected Revolutionary War soldiers or Native Americans. The road walking took its toll, but the views were great. I remember sun, followed by snow squalls, followed by rain and big black clouds racing across the sky. We didn’t see many people, and I liked the wide valleys that afforded great vistas, unlike my home in Pennsylvania, which has deep, narrower valleys, without such spectacular views that go on for mile upon mile.
Lou Ann and I spent the night in Newfield New York, after what I described as "the toughest 12+ miles I've ever done." We camped in the local Methodist Church, after asking a cashier at the local grocery store where we might stay. She suggested we call the pastor, who arrived about five minutes after we called and took us to the church. We stayed in the church basement, which had a kitchen and seemed like a great luxury to use instead of our backpacking stove.
The only thing we really knew about the three guys at this point was that they were determined to make our March 30 mail drop in Watkins Glen, so we figured we would meet up with them there, if not before.
Lou Ann and I left Newfield the next morning, with plans to follow a series of old woods roads. We'd hiked about four miles when we arrived at our next woods road that was still covered with deep snow. We were surprised by the snow, as virtually no snow was left anyplace else and what was left certainly wasn't deep. But this old farm road was sheltered from the sun on the north side of a hill, winding narrowly through a deep pine forest. We took a few steps along it, soon up to our knees in snow and came to the conclusion that going forward along this route was impossible. So we turned back and after walking 8 miles were right where we started the day. It was now noontime and once again we were pushing against a weekend and needed to get to Watkins Glen before the post office closed for a day and a half. We found a ride to take us south.
We arrived in Montour Falls, just south of Watkins Glen. This is a really pretty little town, with a long Main Street that comes to a dead end right in front of the falls for which the village is named. We stayed in the top floor of the firehouse, right next to the falls. The old Victorian-era fire hall had a large open space on the second floor, with big windows and a high ceiling. We could hear and see the falls from our vantage point.
Lou Ann and I set out the morning of March 30, 1978, towards Watkins Glen, just a few miles down the road, hoping we would find the three men in town. Imagine our surprise as we were walking along the road, when people started greeting us and waving to us and stopping to have their pictures taken with us. The local newspaper did a story about us and we were recognized from that story.
As we neared the town, we suddenly found R, T and F, who arrived along the road by car from somewhere. They were out of the car and walking with us within a few minutes. As we got closer to town, the postmaster arrived and also walked with us, telling us about our mail. Over 100 pieces of mail awaited us, plus 15 packages. Watkins Glen was a whirlwind of interviews, opening mail and people just wanting to talk with us. The postmaster arranged for us to sleep in a local gym.
Several of us wanted to go into the gorge of Watkins Glen. We were told it was “closed” for the winter but that we could walk around the gate to get in and that’s what we did.
More from Watkins Glen:
We were soon so busy I didn’t have time to get details from the guys about their sojourn away from us. We were rushed from the mayor’s office to the police station, to lunch, to an interview, back to the gymnasium, carrying tons of mail and trying to figure out what to do with it all.
Later in the afternoon, I was anxious to get into the glen to take photos. I’d been here once before as a child with my parents and grandparents on a short summer vacation. I remembered it as a very beautiful spot and wanted a chance to see it again and take some photos without the encumbrance of a backpack. F. went along. R’s foot was bothering him so he didn’t go along. Lou Ann was tired. I think T. was still reading his girlfriend’s letters.
Technically, the glen was closed for the year, but the locals didn’t make a fuss as we went into the canyon. Like the road Lou Ann and I couldn’t hike the day before, the spot was deep and dark, ice and snow-covered and probably dangerous. The glen was narrow, covered with ice tinged with blue and pink. It was beautiful and quiet, except for the water rushing under the ice. I took nearly a roll of pictures here, climbing all around.
While I was in Watkins Glen, I learned afterwards that R went to the emergency room to have his foot looked at. The doctor there told him he had to stay off of it for two days "or it would swell up like a watermelon." His foot problems were a surprise to me, as R was our strongest hiker, easily able to walk 25-30 miles a day, while I struggled to get much above 15 miles a day without paying for it in aching feet.
The guys weren’t very descriptive about what they did while we were separated. They couldn’t figure out how we didn’t see the boot they’d left by the side of the road. They couldn’t figure out why we kept walking, as to them it was obvious that we were ahead of them. So now that we were back together, we just focused on the next day’s walk and not on what happened several days ago.
R decided he would try and catch up with us before Salamanca, New York. In this area, the trail followed a dome-shaped route, and he planned to walk across the "bottom" of the dome so he could rejoin us without hiking as far as we would.
When we left Watkins Glen we hiked to near the town of Monterray on a warm, beautiful day, the warmest so far.
After 40 years I remember lots about the hike, but I’ve forgotten some of the order of the days. I was thinking that we stayed in the old barn/ garage (the photo where I’m wearing the red plaid jacket) a couple of days before Watkins Glen, but it was actually the night after leaving here.
From the bar that was in front of the old barn, I called home and learned that my parents had arranged with a neighbor to stay in his cabin overnight when we reached Allegheny National Forest in PA.
So rather than post the barn photo again, I’m posting another one from Watkins Glen.
Next update: 2/19/2018