By Preston Bristow
Each summer about this time the hills of Prosper Valley are alive, but it’s not with Julie Andrews singing the “Sound of Music.” The hills are alive with the annual crossing of NOBOs and SOBOs on the Appalachian Trail.
The Prosper Valley is the stretch of Route 12 north of Woodstock village where the four towns of Barnard, Bridgewater, Pomfret and Woodstock meet. Named for the hamlet of Prosper, all that remains of Prosper is the stone Prosper Community House at the junction of Route 12 and the North Bridgewater Road where the annual Prosper Chicken Pie Supper is held in September.
The 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) begins at Springer Mountain, Georgia and winds its way up the eastern seaboard and eventually through the Prosper Valley and the towns of Barnard, Bridgewater, Pomfret and Woodstock before ending at Katahdin in Maine. Although the AT through the Prosper Valley is normally a quiet stretch of trail, lacking the charisma of the nearby Green and White Mountains, a unique pageant is played out in the Prosper Valley every year at the close of July into early August that few locally are aware of.
A NOBO is a “northbound” hiker. Every year, about 1,500 eager hikers start out from Springer Mountain in Georgia hoping to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, a feat that takes about six months. A SOBO is a “southbound” hiker. Every year, another 500 or so hardy souls start out from Katadhin in Maine, hoping to hike the entire AT heading south.
A NOBO hiker generally begins in Georgia within the first three weeks of April. A SOBO hiker, however, must wait until the snow recedes and Maine’s Baxter State Park opens, and therefore usually starts within the first three weeks in June. A NOBO hiker can average 14 miles a day through the relatively moderate Mid-Atlantic states while a SOBO hiker tackles the most challenging part of the AT through Maine and New Hampshire first, averaging about 10 miles a day.
Where does the NOBO bubble, beginning in Georgia in April, and working its way north at 14 miles per day, and the SOBO bubble, beginning in Maine in June, and working its way south at 10 miles a day, meet? In the Prosper Valley!
There are, of course, many variables. Not all hikers start at the same time. Not all hikers hike at the same speed. Trail times are different each year due to weather. The meeting of the NOBOs and SOBOs is not like the swallows at Capistrano. Not only that, statistically only about one-quarter of the hikers who begin an Appalachian Trail through-hike will finish it.
Still, that means that somewhere around 700 hikers will cross Route 12 between the last week of July and the third week of August. We’re so used to the pageant that we tend to think it’s normal to see all these serious backpackers at road crossings around the end of July and into early August, but it’s only normal here.
Woodstock is not well known as a “trail town.” It’s somewhat out of the way for hikers. Hikers can easily resupply in Hanover (the AT passes through the center of town) or they can ride “The Bus” (the Marble Valley RTD’s Rutland-Killington “Diamond Express”) from the Long/Appalachian Trail crossing at Route 4 in Mendon into Rutland for a day in civilization.
There are ways, however, that locals can show hospitality to through-hikers by being “trail angels” or by practicing “trail magic.” A trail angel is an individual who delivers a good deed to a long distance hiker in need, often in the form of transportation. Trail magic is a random act of kindness like a box of cookies left at a trail crossing or a six-pack of beer found in a cold stream (most hikers will say they prefer the beer).
As you see hikers with heavy packs in the next few weeks at Route 12 and other road crossings throughout the Upper Valley, remember that, for a brief time, the hills are alive and this is where the NOBO and SOBO meet.
Preston Bristow coordinated the federal protection effort for the Appalachian Trail in Vermont from 1978-1986 and was president of the Green Mountain Club from 1983-1985. He is currently a member of the Woodstock Select Board. Want to support maintenance of the Appalachian Trail in the Prosper Valley? Learn more about the Ottauquechee Section (or chapter) of the Green Mountain Club by visiting their website at www.gmc-o-section.org.