Forest Notes: Venturing Out on the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway
Story and photos by Oliver Reitz
Starting a new job is always hard, but doing so at the beginning of a global pandemic is something I had not prepared to do. In April 2020, I began working for The Venture Out Project (TVOP), a nonprofit that leads backpacking trips for the LGBTQ+ community in a safe and inclusive environment, as their administrative coordinator and an instructor. I was excited to get my boots on the ground in the new programming year, but COVID-19 completely changed everything. It all stopped, including TVOP overnights, day events, and volunteer-led hikes. When I was hired, I thought I’d be training volunteers and keeping trips running smoothly. Instead, I spent most of my time at home, rethinking the way we do things, creating virtual education trainings, running social media, and barely speaking to any volunteers. This was devastating for us and especially for our participants.
These trips mean so much to the people in our community who are searching for a respite from the real world and a chance to bond with others like them in a whole new way.
Although our events were on hold, Director of Trip Operations Travis Clough suggested that we scout trails we’d never hiked before, so when we could go out in groups again, we’d have some new trips to offer. Enter the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway (MSG), a 49-mile trail connecting Mount Monadnock in the south to Mount Sunapee in the north. I had never heard of the trail until Travis suggested hiking it from end to end. It would be the longest thru-hike I had ever done, but I was excited to try it. So, in mid-June, Travis, Logistics and Marketing Coordinator James Saunders, and I embarked on a five-day southbound exploration of the MSG. Our goal for the trip was to identify portions of the trail that might be good for a group backpack later in the summer. We planned to note how much room there was at each shelter, the distance between shelters, the water availability, and any fun perks like lakes to swim in.
On our first day, we stopped for lunch at Lake Solitude. It was the perfect place to sit, reflect, and mentally prepare myself for the longest trail I’ve ever attempted to hike. I knew I’d miss my partner and two dogs who I hadn’t been away from for even a day since the pandemic started. I also knew I was out of practice.
I felt confident I could handle the mileage, but I hadn’t been backpacking in almost three years. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to feel like I was at home in nature where I’d live for a week and let my feet take me where I needed to go. Inspired by the beauty of the lake, I was ready to push on.
Day three was long. We put in 12.5 miles; but walking through the 11,000-acre Andorra Forest, a property the Forest Society holds a conservation easement on, and seeing the Robinson Brook Cascades made it worth every step. It was a perfect sunny day with clear skies. We also climbed Pitcher Mountain’s fire tower where we were rewarded with spectacular views of green hills and mountains and sparkling blue lakes for miles in every direction.
On the fourth day it rained—and rained, and rained, and rained. We were soaked to the bone, but the weather did bring out plenty of red efts to look at, some of which I helped move off the road, telling each one, “Don’t get squished. Don’t get eaten.” As we arrived at Silver Lake, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We hung up our wet gear and took a dip in the lake. Even though the water was too cold to stay in for long, it was exactly what my sore muscles and feet needed. When we reached the Spiltoir Shelter, we were drenched and exhausted, but James was ready to keep hiking to enliven our spirits. We were only a mile from the Route 101 parking area, so with barely enough cell phone service, we managed to order a pizza and have it delivered to the trailhead. James hiked out and returned with three boxes of hot, cheesy goodness. Eating pizza in a shelter isn’t exactly conventional, but boy was it the perfect way to end our day.
On day five, we finished our hike of the MSG just north of Mount Monadnock. We’d all hiked it so many times before that we didn’t feel like it was necessary to summit on our trip.
Hiking the trail left me feeling rejuvenated. After months of working from home and being mostly alone, it helped bring life back into perspective. We hoped this trail could do that for some of our participants as well. It was such a good place for reflection since it was mostly quiet, and even though we saw other thru-hikers, we had the shelters to ourselves every night.
After our trip, we all agreed that the MSG was the perfect trail to run our first overnight on. There was not a ton of foot traffic, there were some really great views, and most of the campsites had plentyof space. We knew participants would be hesitant, but our trips are small, they are outdoors, and people in our community seemed desperate for some sense of connection. We figured out how to keep everyone as safe and comfortable as possible, including wearing masks and distancing, sleeping in individual tents, and eating from individual dehydrated food systems. We downsized our usual enrollment and capped it at four participants led by two instructors, James and myself. We began our journey at Pillsbury State Park, where we stayed one night to go over some basic backpacking skills, hang out by the fire, and play a couple of games. On Saturday morning, we headed out for the MSG. We made it to the Max Israel Shelter early in the day and set up our tents, fixed a bear line to hang our food, and then day hiked Mount Lovewell.
On this trip, we had one beginner backpacker and three people who were more experienced, but all were new to The Venture Out Project. It is always nice to see the more experienced hikers help the newer ones. Sometimes we move a little slower than some of the diehard backpackers, but hiking in a group pays off when we reach the summit together and we can feel our collective joy. It was no different on Mount Lovewell. Everyone was excited to share the view and the triumph of reaching the top. We spread out on an outcropping to snack and relax. It was then that I felt confident in our decision to hike this spot. We sat on the summit for at least an hour and we had it all to ourselves.
When we returned to the shelter there were several other hikers around. We were glad we had set up camp earlier and reserved a little space just for us where we could chat and laugh as we made our meals, happy to be together in nature. We ate dinner and let the day wash over us.
On our final day, we ate breakfast, played games, and headed back to Pillsbury State Park. Once we got there, we gathered in a circle and talked about leaving behind all of our anxieties and fears as we headed back to our everyday lives.
It is always hard to return from a trip after spending time with people who understand you and who you can truly be yourself around. It is difficult to step back into the day-to-day, which for many queer people consists of subconsciously changing the way we act or speak in order to not be seen as overtly queer. Even though it’s many times subconscious, it’s still draining. It takes a toll on the way we are able to interact with people, on our ability to let our guard down, and on how much focus we can expend on other things. Going back to that is tough, even after only being gone from it for a short while.
It was especially tough this time because not only was everyone going back to their lives, they were going back to their lives in the middle of a pandemic and in the middle of civil unrest.
Liz, one of the trip participants, summed up her experience nicely in a blog post she wrote and published on our website:
“In some ways joining the first TVOP trip mid-covid seemed like an unnecessary risk to take; but driving home after two nights in the woods with three other TVOP newbs and two guides, I felt full in a way I hadn’t realized I’d been missing for the 6 months prior. I felt like I had formed a new family.”
It is common for folks to leave our trips with a new sense of fullness and family, but to do so in the middle of a pandemic has been especially healing for those who can attend. “In a pandemic that makes establishing in-person connections a challenge at best, building new friendships (even situational, fleeting ones) felt like a miracle,” Liz said. For me, having this job and seeing the faces of the people I serve and hearing their stories feels like a miracle every day. I am so thankful for everyone who comes on our trips and for everything we are able to do for them.
Since leading that trip, I’ve learned a little more about the Greenway. I’ve learned that it is coming up on its 100th birthday and that it was almost lost forever until sections of it were rebuilt in the 1970s. In a lot of ways, the MSG is like many of our participants. They might feel lost or broken, but spending time outdoors with other queer people gives them hope. The combination of nature and a sense of community helps them rediscover themselves. And once they’ve found themselves, they can share their joy and light with others, in the same way that the MSG being found and restored has given joy to its hikers over the many years of its existence. I’m so grateful that I was able to hike this trail and soak in its radiance, and in doing so, see my fellow queer hikers get to open up and to experience their true selves.
Oliver Reitz (he/him/his) is the programs lead and an instructor for The Venture Out Project. He spends his free time hiking his favorite trails, rock climbing, and searching for new swimming holes.