Skip to main content
Original Issue

Family Plan on Vermont's Long Trail

Last year 5,000 hikers strolled, jogged, tramped or plodded through the Green Mountains of Vermont in pursuit of a sometimes tortuous, sometimes idyllic footpath that extends the length of the state. Among the serious hikers were Robert D. O'Malley, M.D. and his 13-year-old son, Sean, for whom the Long Trail is not just a walk in the woods. It is a rugged challenge to be met like a military campaign, and they approach it as they would guerrilla warfare Moreover, to the O'Malleys, ardent skiers, hiking is an excellent conditioner—an ideal way to fill the long, unmentionable interim between spring and winter.

The discovery of the Long Trail by Sean and his father, who is chief of surgery at Holyoke Hospital in Massachusetts, was not their own doing. It dates back to a day in the spring of 1966 when the family was out on a common American auto trip. Mrs. O'Malley was seized with an irrepressible urge to browse among the Bennington, Vt. pottery shops. "Why don't you two take a nice long walk?" she suggested to Sean and her husband. By the end of the summer of 1967 that walk had earned father and son End-to-End Emblems Nos. 272 and 273 for completing 260 miles of trail from Massachusetts to Canada.

The 12 divisions of the Long Trail can be hiked (according to the Green Mountain Club's rules) all at once or one at a time, in no particular sequence. The O'Malleys spent two summers of weekends, holidays and vacations on the trail. Usually they polished off no more than one division at a time, which could mean a hike of 25 miles over half a dozen summits.

Not the least of the rewards of trail hiking to Bob O'Malley, who was 50 last summer, is the chance it has given him to know his young son better. "As a result of our planning and hiking together," he says, "Sean and I have been a lot closer than I have been with any of the other five kids, and I regret not having had the chance to do the same with his older siblings."

Dr. O'Malley, nevertheless, managed to co-opt the other siblings and Mrs. O'Malley into the project from time to time. On every hike one or another of the family acted as chauffeur and provisioner for the hikers. The "man in the valley," as he (or she) is called, is an indispensable logistical factor in the O'Malley Long Trail System and, according to Bob, the secret of their success Most frequently the valleyman last summer was 18-year-old daughter Pat. Stationed at a motel nearby, she shopped for fresh provisions while the hikers were hiking packed supplies, prepaid a "surprise-basket" lunch (or supper as the case might be) for the next scheduled re-supply rendezvous, took the dirty socks and shirts from the previous day's hike to the laundromat and spent her evenings slicing bologna for sandwiches and dipping match tips in candle wax (to make them fire-and rainproof).

On a typical jaunt, the O'Malleys—Bob, Sean and valleyman Pat—drove from their home in Holyoke to a motel situated not too far from the access point leading to the division of the trail they had chosen to hike. In the evening, to the accompaniment of Pat's guitar, Sean and Bob checked the gear, packed their backpacks and discussed the next day's assault plan. From among the supply of dehydrated and other nonperishable staples in the car trunk—kept stocked at all times by the valleyman—they selected their menus: dried oatmeal, canned bacon or sausage, dehydrated beef, canned chicken, minute rice, biscuits, raisins, soda crackers, hard-boiled eggs, Shake-A-pudd'n, instant coffee, tea bags and, depending on the weight of their packs, perhaps an apple or orange. For his canteen Scan added a package of Fizzies—flavored, carbonated tablets that would spell journey's end to any adult who had to swallow the stuff.

On overnight trips Bob normally toted about 20 pounds, Sean 15. Apart from food, cooking equipment and, of course, sleeping bags (they also indulged in the luxury of air mattresses at the price of 48 extra ounces), they carried very little else.

The O'Malleys' first planned hike, in June 1966, was Division II in the southern part of Vermont. They hadn't gone five miles before they were greeted with a sign announcing that they were about to climb "the longest 2.7 miles in the world!"—the ascent to the top of Glastenbury Mountain. Two years and 254 miles wiser they can now boast of longer, tougher miles. They can also tell you, contrary to popular belief, that it is easier to climb "gently" than to descend. The muscle actions are less jerky and violent in ascent.

Their second summer on the trail was a record season for wetness in New England, but there were silver linings, too. The July 4 weekend through the Sugarbush, Glen Ellen and Mad River ski country was one. "We discovered a beautiful lake we never knew existed [Pleiad] in the Middlebury College Snow Bowl. And we thought we knew that area like the back of our hands," Dr. O'Malley said. They caught a breathless, panoramic view of Lake Champlain from the top of the chair lift at Mad River Glen. At the Sugarbush summit they felt like kings of the mountain when the gondola attendant sent up iced Cokes from the valley below.

By the time they had finished the 10th division, their last and one of the most rugged, Sean and his father—in 28 days, all told—had clambered over 50 summits, including the Forehead, the Nose, the Upper Lip, the Lower Lip, the Adam's Apple and the lichen-covered Chin of Mount Mansfield. As they took their last rest in Duck Brook Shelter, they felt happy but somehow let down to have it all over. The doctor, however, found a remedy. This year, to fill the unmentionable gap between spring and winter, he and Sean, joined by young Michael O'Malley, 12, are hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire.