Do You Believe in Trail Magic?

Do you believe in trail magic?  For sure this Saturday 25 AT thru-hikers did.

The Hoodlums Potomac Appalachian Trail Club trail-maintenance crew works in Shenandoah National Park (SNP) on the third Saturday of the non-winter months.

That’s when park trails are in heaviest use requiring constant upkeep following storms that blow down trees, erode the pathways and feed the vegetation which assertively marches to the old song, “The Egg Plant that Ate Chicago.”

“Today Chicago.  Tomorrow Shenandoah National Park!” seems to be the green stuff’s strategy with bugs – disease-carrying, blood-sucking vampires that they are – in direct support.

In the summer whacking back vegetation and sawing blown down tree trunks is hard and sweaty work.  Did I mention insects?  Sometimes turning your body into a superfund site by saturating it in 100 percent DEET doesn’t even work.  I digress.   Bugs come with the territory.

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Hoodlum work team taking a lunch break.

After our monthly expeditions, it’s customary for the Hoodlums to repair to the Indian Run maintenance hut for a potluck feast.  The hut is a stone throw from the AT, and some members tent at the hut on Friday and Saturday evenings to enjoy eachother’s company and make their trip a little easier.

June also happens to be the peak month for thru-hikers in the park.  The rule of thumb being that they need to reach Harpers Ferry before the fourth of July if they hope to reach Maine before Mt. Katahdin closes.

As the hikers approach their first thousand miles, they’re hungry – all the time.  Burning 6,000 calories/day  for the three months it takes them to reach the northern SNP depletes their inner reserves and they’re running on empty.

Enter the Hoodlums – thirty strong Saturday.  We’re already there, so why not put out the feedbag.  Full disclosure, one of our intrepid former thru-hiker leaders was the prime instigator.

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We posted signs and opened for business with hot dogs and hamburgers, tasty summer pasta salads.  Meanwhile, over at the high test pump – desert and beer!  What a spread.

Even before we were open, the hikers started drifting in with ultimately 25 who stopped by.  We had spread word on the trail and a couple of folks hiked long days just to make it.  The last hiker staggered in after 10:30 p.m.  He got leftovers, but he made it.  Eight even camped with us overnight.

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We mingled with all the hikers.  You only had to listen to understand how deeply they appreciate knowing that people care about them.  When your almost half way through the AT demolition derby, you’re tired, beat up, hungry and homesick.  That’s when even the smallest acts of kindness make a giant difference.

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My favorite was a young school teacher eponymously named “Hugs.”  Her name sort of summed up the entire day.

Hoodlums Fire

 

Law of Diminishing Returns

Saber, a current thru-hiker, asked me a really good question the other day.  Should an AT thru hike more a hike or a camping trip?  The answer that question profoundly affects how one approaches a thru hike.

This raises profoundly philosophical issues along with all the purist and more liberal arguments about how the AT should be hiked.  Don’s Brother, a 2013 thru hiker I’ve been following, told me recently that he tries to spend every night in a town.  He said that to date he’s only slept in shelters for a handful of nights.  That’s one approach.

Saber’s question crystalized a conflict in my head that I didn’t even know I had.  The nub of it can be explained by the law of diminishing returns.  What is the optimum ratio between the quality of the hiking experience and quantity of stuff needed to create it?  The lines cross on the graph at a different point for everyone, but there is an optimum point for each of us.

Everyone has to have a basic load.  High performance clothing and equipment is lighter, but costs more.  But, after basic safety considerations – food, water, warmth, shelter, sanitation and hygiene – the weight of all the extras, photography, creature comforts, light, entertainment, fashion, and back-up systems quickly add up.

The answer to Saber’s question came to me in a twist on the old chicken joke.  Why did the hiker cross the road?  To get to Mt. Katahdin, of course.  In this context, camping on the AT is a means, not an end.  In my case, I’d walk nonstop if I could.  Why schlepp anything for months on end that doesn’t make a direct contribution to hiking up the last rock and hugging that sign?

Think about it for a minute.  Not only is a 2,000-mile hike a demolition derby as far as your body is concerned, even a single ounce adds up if lugged five million steps and up and down the equivalent of 13 Mt. Everest elevation gains.  Why add insult to injury potential?

Taken far enough, weight reduction could become an obsessive-compulsive exercise.  For example, remind me to shorten my shoestrings, cut off my toothbrush handle, and shave my head, not that I have that much extra hair to spare, but everything helps.

Let’s not go too far. Without my personal pocket philharmonic entertainment center, how will I find the right playlist to help me sing the blues?

The problem is that most of us weekend warriors don’t behave like thru hikers.  Packing up for a three to seven day adventure, weight really doesn’t matter that much.  “Stuff” finds its way into my pack that is nice to have just in case, but not really necessary.

My favorite candle lantern jumps immediately to mind. Like Liberace’s candelabra, its comforting warm glow has always been there to read by after hiker midnight. But, in the headlamp/Kindle era, it’s obsolete.  Now I’m wondering how many more of my old favorites will not be serving active duty, but vicariously following my blog.

This reminds me of a hiker I ran into last week at the 950-mile mark in Shenandoah National Park. Her name was Fatty – though she was anything but.  She said she got the name because she could eat most guys under the table.

Truth is that Fatty is a ringer.  In real life she is a Canadian ultra marathoner.  More to the point, what struck me as she floated by was her dinky backpack.  It couldn’t have weighed more than 20 lbs.  With a pack that lite, she was bookin’ – believe me.

I would love to know what’s not in that pack, ‘cause I want to fly like Fatty!

Post Script:  Unfortunately, a week later Fatty’s hobbled by shin splints a hundred miles further down the trail.  Note to self:  Your body needs more rest than a 20-something like Fatty, and never quit on a bad day, right?  Mental health days off are a good idea too.

That brings me back to Saber’s question and the packing list.  For me, this is a long march, not a 180-night camping trip.  Less pack weight equals less force on my knees and feet.  It’s time for some serious rethinking.

A couple of months ago I bought a REI Mars 80 pack to use during the winter months.  It’s big, and I never thought I’d actually fill it up, I just wanted a pack large enough to carry my basic load of arctic gear.  Since then, I’ve realized that gear designed for double digit sub-zero temps is overkill.  Not needed.  Back into storage sacks you go.

I also bought a Deuter Act lite 40+10 pack for summer use.  It’s about two-thirds the size of the Mars 80 and weighs a lot less too.   Change 1 from original plan.  The Deuter goes all the way.  New rule:  If “stuff” doesn’t fit.  It doesn’t go.

Best of all, I’ve arranged to buy lunch for several thru hikers when they hit Harpers Ferry.  Most of my final gear decisions will be made after debriefing them.  More to come on that.  Meanwhile, gear testing continues.

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Cool Rocks. Bad Trail. Hoodlums’ Mission: Fix it.

Hiking trails are like smart phone aps. Sometimes they need to be up-graded. Unlike phone aps, you can’t just punch up the ap store and push a button.

Upgrading a hiking trail is hard work. Normal maintenance such as weeding, clearing blowdowns, and repairing check dams and water bars only maintains the status quo. Adding features takes it to a whole new level. This is the story behind a trail upgrade that changed everything.

The Appalachian range is chock full of remarkable rock formations. Many of these iconic nature works are on the Appalachian Trail (AT) itself which has been purposefully routed so hikers can appreciate them. Others are nearby on side trails marked by blue blazes.

One blue blaze you hardly notice passing by crosses the AT on Compton’s Peak in Shenandoah National Park (SNP). It leads to a delightful, and one of the more geologically interesting columnar basalt formations in the eastern U.S. It’s well worth a look.

Compton Peak columnar basalt formation.

Compton Peak columnar basalt formation.

Better yet, the trail intersection is about a mile south of the Compton Gap parking lot on Skyline Drive. It’s an easy approach hike to the top of Compton Peak. With the side trail, it’s a snappy 2.5 mile round trip. Wow! Let’s go.

Not so fast. – literally. The blue blaze was not only steep, but was treacherous featuring spring-saturated mud-covered boulders and unstable talus on the final half. Not fun to hike and an easy way to turn an ankle or worse.

That’s a problem. The solution: Send in the Hoodlums.

By way of full disclosure, the Hoodlums aren’t criminals. This grubby group of trail maintainers just looks that way. In real life they’re educated professionals who love the AT, Shenandoah National Park. They volunteer their time, sweat and energy to protect and maintain them for everyone to enjoy.

The moniker came by way of an unknown tourist in SNP. When she saw a gang of filthy, tired folks staggering out of the woods, she was overheard observing that they looked like a bunch of “hoodlums” to her, and a brand was born.

Over three hard days last week, a Hoodlum crew of seven led by three National Park Service pros proved that rolling rock isn’t always a brand of beer as we pried, pushed, rolled, dragged, levered, and pounded chunks of basalt, some weighing hundreds of pounds, into 64 stone steps and hundreds of feet of rip rap.

When we were done, the new trail was like a stone escalator down and back up. Thanks to National Park Service folks – Don, Eric and Lyndon, plus PATC Hoodlums – Wayne, Noel, Scott, Steve, Jim, Amy and Cindi – we got ‘er done in three days. We used the last day of our volunteer week to build stone erosion control structures further south on the AT.

At the end we were an exhausted and bruised, but happy lot. As a bonus, I was able to meet some of the thru-hikers I’ve been following this year. Hike on folks, and have fun ya’ll. Meanwhile, we’ll keep improving the AT for those yet to come.