- Courtesy Of Reidun Nuquist
- Reidun Nuquist
In November 1944, an American soldier fighting in Europe wrote this in a letter home:
I keep a worn out 1935 edition of the Guide Book in my foot locker to always remind me of what I'm fighting for.
That "Guide Book" just happened to be the Long Trail Guide, and the GI's words hint at how important these little tomes have been over the years, in so many ways to so many people. The plural "tomes" is appropriate here; while most people think of the guide as a book, there have been, in fact, 28 versions, all published by the Green Mountain Club, beginning with the first in 1917 and culminating in this year's Centennial Edition.
As that homesick soldier's note suggested, over the decades these volumes have achieved significance far beyond that of mere guidebooks, for two good reasons. One is that, as the number of weekenders who become (or aspire to become) end-to-enders signifies, the Long Trail is not just a trail. Hiking it is a coming-of-age accomplishment, a badge of honor, a bucket-list item, a family bonder and more. The other reason is that the inspiration, dedication and perspiration of the guides' editors and contributors have resulted in the kind of quality that labors of love generally produce.
Such longevity and excellence, the current GMC leadership realized, shouldn't go unchronicled.
"With the 100th anniversary edition, it became clear that the history of the guide had not been told and that this was the perfect opportunity to do so," GMC executive director Mike DeBonis said in a telephone interview.
That decision might have been simple, but finding an author was another story. Any candidate would have to be an expert and diligent researcher. "This would not be an easy book to research or to write," DeBonis explained. "Because not all the backstory is written down in one place, it would require reading all the old guides, as well as finding and digging through archives and interviewing past editors and contributors."
Another consideration: One little book about a lot of other little books could have significant yawner potential. The author of this little book would have to be creative.
As it turned out, though, the perfect candidate was near at hand: Reidun Nuquist, a Norwegian-turned-Vermonter, devoted outdoorswoman and longtime GMC devotee. And she had long been a contributor to the Long Trail guides.
Now 77, Nuquist immigrated to the U.S. in 1963 after marrying Andrew Nuquist, a past GMC president. The couple moved to Montpelier in 1970, and Reidun enjoyed a career as a librarian for the Vermont Historical Society and the University of Vermont's Bailey/Howe Library. She and Andy have one son, a fiftysomething Bostonian who inherited his parents' passion for the outdoors in general and hiking in particular.
Nuquist's own affinity for the Long Trail and the GMC produced, as DeBonis noted, "a tremendously strong connection to club history." In addition to being a Long Trailer herself — one who has hiked the trail end to end — Nuquist has served as president of the GMC's Montpelier chapter and spent more weekends than she can remember volunteering for grinding pick-and-shovel work on trail-maintenance crews. Frequent contributions to club newsletters and to the guidebooks — including a chapter in A Century in the Mountains: Celebrating Vermont's Long Trail — demonstrated her gift for writing.
And so, in May 2016, the GMC gave Nuquist the job of tackling the centennial retrospective.
When reached by phone, Nuquist explained how to pronounce her first name: "Rye like in bread, dune like in sand." If a voice can twinkle, hers did. A subsequent visit to her hillside home, with its neat woodpile and mustard-yellow doors, only reinforced that impression of buoyancy — all the more surprising given that she's currently battling serious illness. Ensconced in an easy chair, with a white knit cap and a shawl around her legs to ward off chill, Nuquist fielded questions with smiles and stamina for more than an hour.
Asked how she approached the Long Trail project, Nuquist admitted, "I was delighted to be asked to do the book, but I did wonder how I was going to approach a retrospective of 28 separate guides. I knew this had to be more than a bibliographic project. It had to be interesting to general readers."
She paused and grinned. "I figured the way to do that was to write about people."
So she did — a very good thing for readers of A Century of Long Trail Guidebooks: A Retrospective, published by the GMC in October. It's short — just 90 pages — and the table of contents indicates that it's much more than a "bibliographic project." For starters, rather than employing a predictable chronological progression, Nuquist divided the book into seven chapters that focus on the trail guides' essential elements: origin, evolution, illustrations, hiker advice, trail descriptions, maps and editors.
Her writing of these chapters renders a book that could have been literary Xanax into one that's alive with wit, irony and insight. Some examples:
The guidebook carried business advertisements through 1940 but just for the Long Trail Lodge and state agencies, before they ceased altogether — something we may be grateful for.
Some past advice may strike us as quaint or amusing ... For fending off mosquitoes, a hiker could follow John Muir's recipe for a repellent of "three parts of oil or pine tar, two parts of castor oil and one part of oil of pennyroyal."
Attentive readers were never shy about pointing out errors. The 1932 edition labeled two mountains as Vermont's third highest, Mount Ellen (4,135 feet) and Camel's Hump (4,093 feet). Theron Dean, having climbed both numerous times, was called on to referee. He awarded the distinction to Mount Ellen, intimating that the guidebook editors had been "in a slightly muddled condition after partaking of a church supper in Burlington."
Like much of her own writing, Nuquist's carefully chosen excerpts from the guides accomplish two key goals: leavening the pages with wry humor while delivering interesting, often fascinating information.
[The] first guidebook was also a yearbook and as such holds valuable club history. In addition to lists of officers, trustees, and committee and section members, it included bylaws and GMC articles of association. The latter stipulated that the club was to "make trails and roads in the Vermont mountains, to erect camps and shelter houses therein, to publish maps and guide books thereof" [author's emphasis]. The membership lists of local club sections (chapters) showed an impressive number of women; of the Brandon Section's thirty-one members, half were female.
The 2nd (1920) guidebook had detailed advice on what to carry and how to carry — down to what to put in each pocket: "Left shirt: handkerchief, postals [postcards], notebook, pencil. Right shirt: guide-book, money securely pinned in bag or envelope. Left trousers: matches in flat tin box, waterproof. Right trousers: pocket knife, strong twine. Left hip: toilet paper. Fob pocket: compass on lanyard." The only thing left for the hiker was to select the contents of the right hip pocket!
Nuquist also quotes other writers — book authors, newsletter contributors, journal keepers, letter penners — liberally and to good advantage. Here, for example, is memoirist James Gordon Hindes describing his experience of overnighting with companion John Eames at Frank Beane's Hanksville farm one July.
We slept in the same bed but could hardly see one another — a soft but prominent ridge of feathers billowed between us. Gawd, but it was hot!
A bit further on, in a section devoted to hikers' travails with shelter-gnawing porcupines, Nuquist cites a verse from a 1989 Margaret MacArthur folk song:
They saw a lump of a beast all covered with spikes.
Not what they expected to see on their hike.
"What'll we do?" "Get the guide book from the pack.
It says knock him on the nose with the back of the axe."
Over a century, a few people have been so important to the Long Trail's evolution that Nuquist might have considered a chapter titled "Titans of the Trail." Instead, she opted for the less obvious and more graceful approach of weaving their stories throughout her chapters as their ages and achievements suggest.
To cite a few examples, the aforementioned Dean was probably the editor of the very first guidebook. Dr. Louis J. Paris was "the glue that held the GMC together in the early years." Charles P. Cooper, "the hardest working executive the Club has had," spent weeks, in all weather, nailing hand-painted white discs to trees and rail-crossing posts. "The GMC was his hobby," writes Nuquist, but, judging by his actions, it was much more than that.
The same could easily be said of Nuquist, for whom, over nearly half a century, the Long Trail has meant work, play, adventure, friendships, family and joy. All of which makes reading her new book nearly as much fun as hiking the trail itself.