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Women in the Wilderness
Yesterday and Today on the Trail

By Mary Lou Recor

When Lizzie Bourne attempted to climb Mount Washington in 1855, Not Without Peril author Nicholas Howe estimates she was weighed down by 45 yards of fabric, including a long heavy skirt, several petticoats, pantaloons, and stockings. Unfortunately, poor Lizzie never made the summit nor returned to the bottom. She died quietly where she last stopped to rest, a short distance from the summit hotel.

Lizzie Bourne's sad story made me wonder how it felt to be a woman hiking in the early days of the Long Trail. I spent an afternoon in the basement of UVM's Bailey-Howe library looking through Theron Dean's papers from his term as corresponding secretary of the club. Along with interesting advice for the novice hiker, whether male or female, I found pictures of women out in the wilderness wearing long dark skirts with crisp white blouses buttoned to the neck, short tailored jackets, and narrow-brimmed straw bowlers.

So, on September 22, one week and 145 years after Lizzie's fateful trip, Northeast Kingdom Section Director Beth Dugger joined me on a period costume hike. Beth, who has participated in several Civil War re-enactments, wore a flowing skirt of blue cotton (minus the hoops), white blouse, red tie, black sash, wool felt bowler, and short leather boots. I, meanwhile, had dug out a heavy black wool Victorian walking skirt I found in a second-hand shop twenty years ago. With that, I, too, wore a white blouse, black bow tie, short tailored jacket, and small brimmed straw hat. We both sported bloomers and petticoats we'd designed and sewn ourselves.

Ironically, the day of our hike was very like the day Lizzie started for the top of Mount Washington. As Howe puts it, “... morning brought steady rain and no promise of better skies... . Then shortly before noon the sky showed promise of clearing...”. Beth and I, with six others not in costume, started our trip at the former site of the Couching Lion farm on the east side of Camel's Hump. Fortunately, we both thought to carry umbrellas.

As we made our way slowly up the trail, we met groups of fellow hikers on their way down. Mostly, they looked at Beth and me curiously and continued walking without comment. I'm not sure whether they were shy or had a philosophy of “live and let live”. To have people react, we had to initiate the conversation. We talked about the work of the GMC and its ninetieth birthday. No one we met was willing to trade their nylon and fleece for our cotton and wool.

By the time we reached the large rock which marks the junction of the Monroe and Dean trails, we were warm and tired. It’s hard work walking uphill, dodging roots and rocks, wearing long skirts and petticoats, which by now were wet and sodden around the hems. We ate our lunch of bread and cheese, recited poetry in true nineteenth century fashion, and, unlike Lizzie Bourne, returned safely to the trailhead.

At home, I hung my wet, soiled skirt in the front hall closet to dry. For the next three days, the smell of wet wool permeated my house, a smell I'm sure was common at the beginning of the last century.

I really should have the skirt cleaned before hungry moths make a meal of it. On the other hand, I wonder — how it would feel to ride a bicycle wearing it... or ski.