Virtual Reality. Hiking the AT by correspondence course.

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A lot of people would love to thru hike the Appalachian Trail (AT), but they just can’t find the time or the money to do it when they want.  There has to be an alternative to having to wait until retirement. 

 Recently colleges and university professors started offering MOOCs.  (Massive Open Online Courses)  MOOCs remind me of the old days when students took college courses by correspondence if, for some reason, they couldn’t be present on campus. 

 Maybe it’s time to think outside the hiker box and solve this dilemma.

 If you can’t hike the AT for real, how about doing it by correspondence course?  You could make it legit with reading, quizzes and simulated practical exercises such as practicing PUDs (pointless ups and downs) and learning how to stumble and fall while freezing, baking and boiling?

 Imagine what the AT correspondence course might be like.  Cue the dream sequence music….

 It’s late winter.  You’ve registered, and there you are anxiously awaiting arrival of your course materials.  You hitch or hike to your local post office.  Hey Mr. Postman!  Look and see.  Is there a letter or package for me? 

 Lesson One:  Reading Material.  Find a cell phone provider that radiates one bar in your area.  On that phone, read a dozen Trail Journal blogs every day.  Fill out the quiz you will receive by email by typing long answers with your pfat thumbs. You get bonus points for doing it while standing in the rain or snow.

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Later, the doorbell rings.  You look out side.  Looming in your driveway is a ginormous Terex MT6300 dump truck.  It carries 400 tons in a single load!

Just your luck.  Today it’s brimming with specially sharpened and oiled Pennsylvania-grade hiking stones. 

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Lesson Two: Terrain.  The MT6300 dumps a mountain right there on your driveway.  Leave it be.  It’s for practicing PUDs.  But, do spread some of the extra stones a foot deep over half of your yard.  You’ll be having your sleep on the rocks for the next six months. 

 Dig up the other half of your yard and turn it into a swamp.  Don’t forget to wet the rocks frequently and scatter the rubber snakes found in the miscellaneous parts package.

Of course you scrounged up everything on the equipment list.

Lesson Three:  Drinking water.  Find a mud puddle and fill your water bottles.  Add two Aqua Mira pills to each.  Wait 30 minutes, then drink.

 Just a little later, a muddy brown UPS food truck pulls up with cases of dehydrated oatmeal, spaghetti and jars of peanut butter, tortillas, pop tarts, and Knorr noodles with tuna.  Yummy!

Lesson Four:  Indoor environmental simulation.  This is the one time you’re allowed inside.  Put on your rain gear.  Prepare a meal and go into your bathroom.  Eat the meal while standing in a cold shower.  It’s also the last shower you’re ever going to get.

Lesson Five:  Blogging.  Write a Trail Journal blog about how great the meal tasted and how much fun you’ve had so far.

Obviously, the course is just warming up.  With each passing weekend you hike or hitch to the post office for new lessons.  Why mail?  WIFI and cell phone connectivity is iffy out on the trail.  We need to simulate as much realism as possible.  That’s why you can’t take this course on line.

Let’s fast forward.  Weeks pass.  You hike up, down and all around your rock pile for eight hours every day.  Your feet blister.  Toe nails turn black and fall off.  Finally spring arrives.

Lesson 75:  Flora and fauna.  Plant your yard full of the poison ivy you received by FEDEX.  Set out pots of stagnant water.  Time for the mosquitos and ticks.  When nature calls, good luck with that.

And so it goes on endlessly.  Each night after work, every weekend, your two-week vacation, month in and month out.  In circles you march. 

Lesson 82:  Mud flopping.  Practice falling into the muddy part of your yard while wearing your pack.  Roll over and do it again, and again, and again.  Extra points for breaking your hiking poles.

Those special high quality Pennsylvania rocks shred your boots.  You fall.  Ankles and knees twist, yet you persevere endlessly onward in the rain, sleet, snow, humidity and burning summer sun.  You even have to climb an extension ladder and hike over your roof a few times.

Each night you file a blog post about your wonderful experiences.  Once a week on the way to or from the post office you stop at Mickey D’s to pig out on burgers and fries just like a real hiker.

Last Lesson:  Climb to the top of your rock pile.  Take stereotypical photo with cardboard Katahdin sign facsimile and declare victory!

If you enjoyed the shower sequence, you’re qualified.  Sign right up.

Slaying Vampires

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Gotta call it like I see it.  Ticks are vampires.  They engorge themselves with mammalian blood.  The redder, the better!

 Ticks aren’t picky.  They want blood, and don’t much care where they get it.  They love all 31 flavors.

 Worse yet, ticks are stealthy.  They hang out on tall grass, weeds and low hanging branches.  The idea is to score a passing Happy Meal in the form of a hapless mouse, squirrel, deer, bear or even the occasional hiker. 

Hikers must taste good ‘cause the ticks sure seem to like ‘em.  Unfortunately, they are too small to drive miniature wooden toothpicks through their evil little hearts.

Currently a research scientist funded by grants from the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is thru hiking for the purpose of studying ticks.  He has reported in his trail journal that most hikers attachment to ticks seems to come from trailside vegetation, not the shelters where he has found few ticks.

 The Hoodlum maintenance crew gathers on the third Saturday of most months to groom hiking trails in the northern district of Shenandoah National Park. This trip tick habitat reduction was the mission of my work team.  That’s a fancy way of sayin’ weed whacking and pruning trailside trees and bushes. 

 Even if you’re a yard work klutz at home, you’ll really jump on this.  It may be more fun to saw blowdowns or build check dams, but anything done to reduce exposure to Lyme disease is all good. 

 So what do trail maintenance crews do after the equipment is cleaned at the end of a hot sweaty and buggy day?  Here’s the secret.  You don’t have to ring the dinner bell more than once! 

 The North District Hoodlums retire to the Indian Run maintenance hut where some camp overnight and most everyone shares in the potluck dinner, swaps stories and revels in party games until the stars brighten and the fire fades.

 The AT is a complex system with a rich culture.  Trail maintenance is done by thousands of volunteers from Georgia to Maine.  It is usually hard physical and dirty work.  Some of it is mundane.  All if it is necessary to keep the AT active and safe.  Best of all, it’s time well spent with fascinating people who share a common love for the Appalachian Trail.

For those who discover this blog in preparation for AT hiking, I hope this little bit of insight deepens your understanding of the behind the scenes work that helps improve the the trail and improves all of our odds for success.

Upgrading The Armchair Hiking Experience

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In preparation for retirement, my wife and I downsized into a smaller house two years ago. If I finish the last of the ensuing honey do list, I will be allowed to begin my hike on time in the early spring.

Most recently I’ve been painting the wooden trim on our brick house. Somehow several mosquitos managed to get in yesterday and they ate me alive as I was catching up on the end of day Trail Journal posts.

Every one of yesterday’s TJ entries complained about the target rich environment the AT provides the plagues of bugs and clouds of mosquitos resident in the great green tunnel.

Given the 18 bites I suffered in my armchair, it occurred to me that sharing the hiker’s pain and itching was literally an upgraded feature Mother Nature was allowing me to test drive. If the air conditioning had failed, I am certain I would have felt that much closer to my friends in the class of ’13. If the carpet had turned to mud, I would have initiated an emergency call to J.K. Rowling!

Speaking of practice hiking, this entry is being typed in the WordPress smart phone app on a flexible, rubberized Scosche Bluetooth keyboard. So far, so good and it beats the heck out of trying fat finger type on my iPhone.

Tie Dye put the idea in my head, so all credit is hers. We will see what she reports during the remainder of her hike and what my experience is on my long practice hikes this fall. So far, so good.

Mid-point Reality Check

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It’s not uncommon for aspiring Appalachian Trail thru hikers to vicariously hike the trail the previous year.   As an armchair hiker, I’ve been attentively reading the blogs and trail journals of the class of ’13 since February.

These blog posts, photos and videos are especially valuable because they offer generally raw and unedited insight into the day-to-day hiking experience before distance and selective memory can file off the sharp edges.

Following the AT in virtual reality is a good thing, but it’s even better to encounter real-time hikers in situ.  Thru-hikers are an abundant species in these parts from early spring through mid-summer, so running into them in season is easier than driving bumper cars at a county fair.

Living within proximity of Harpers Ferry and Shenandoah National Park during thru hiker open season allows for special opportunities to bag live game, so to speak.  Hint:  Free hamburgers make excellent bait!
The scene is Harpers Ferry, more than 1,000 hiker miles from Georgia.  By the time hikers get this far, a lot of them are physically and mentally distressed.  These circumstances apply equally to age and gender.  Trail journal blogs describe the accumulative effects of cold, heat, humidity, rocks, insects, blisters, dirt, funk and hunger as they snowball over the months and miles on end.

Every hiker seems to experience a mid-hike crisis.  Sometimes it’s nothing more than the Virginia blues.  Relief comes by simply crossing the West Virginia state line.  Other times the meltdown is triggered a little later.  In fact, it happened this year to one hiker in Maine, believe it or not.  But it is probably gonna happen irrespective of where, when or why.

Reading about it in Trail Journals is one thing.  Engaging the lab rats themselves and observing them first hand is another.

The spectrum is amazing.  Some hikers seem fresh off the showroom floor as if day one was yesterday.  Others appear bruised and battered and seem to remain mobile solely by the grace of prosthetic braces, wraps and devices.  One young woman tied bandanas around her legs to bolster her sore knees.  Maybe the Conservancy could raise money selling AT logo affinity hiker orthopedic devices.

The really unlucky hikers appear to have been the main course at a blood-sucking insect all-you-can-eat buffet.  I’ve seen scourge marks that would horrify Mel Gibson’s make up designer.

Clearly everything that happens on the trail is cumulative.  A hiker’s body experiences a thru hike is like a 2,000-mile demolition derby.  With this in mind, most hikers were not afraid to admit that quitting had crossed their mind more than once.

Overall, I was able to talk to about 30 thru hikers.  Five of them were special because they were sympathetic enough to candidly share lunch and their thoughts as they passed through Harpers Ferry.

I selectively invited each to lunch because their blogs were especially informative, insightful, and not to mention, interesting and fun to read.   Most fortunate for me, Saber, a retired Army guy who finished in less than four months, generously stopped by my house to share his thoughts.

I had a lot of fun talking to these folks and consider it a privilege to have been part of the tapestry of their hikes.  The hiker community is nothing less than totally awesome!  Thank you all very much.

The hikers didn’t agree on everything, and most of what I learned can be found among the eternal verities of the AT.  I hope billboarding the top level take-aways can be helpful to others.

Why am I here?

Saber asked me if my primary objective is hiking or camping.  That determination dictates everything else about the AT experience.

If your objective is to hike, then go light to fight.  Less pack weight cuts down on injuries and fatigue.  Just carry the equipment you need to handle extreme weather, temperatures and injury.  A lot of folks sent excess stuff home along the way.

Ultra light packs can carry ultra light loads.  No upgrades on the load limit.  A couple of folks suggested that pack comfort was a really big deal for them.

There’s an exception to every rule.  At the 935 mile point, I saw one thru hiker who said she was as “happy” to be hauling a pack about the size of a hippo with a camp chair attached as were those saddled with 20-lb. packs the about the size of shoe boxes.   Hike your own hike.  Right!

Feet don’t fail me now.

Healthy feet are everything.  The right boots or hiking shoes matter a lot.  It’s almost impossible to avoid blisters at one time or another.  Many of these hikers spend a lot of time thinking about and caring for their feet.  On average, Boots/hiking shoes last about 500 miles.

Techno-hikers.

Some newer, high tech equipment can confer a real weight and performance advantages if you can afford them.  Reports are that dry down works.  One hiker said her fuel-efficient stove was still on its original butane cartridge (albeit the dregs) at 1,000 miles.  Lightweight thermal air mattresses are recommended for cold, hard shelter flours.

On the downside, the lighter weight fabrics are prone to tear or puncture.  Best to carry a patching kit.  Duct tape doesn’t stay stuck long and leaves a mess to clean up.

Keeping electronics charged is a universal pain.  Auxiliary storage batteries come in all prices, shapes and sizes.  A few folks had the smaller solar chargers.  The larger ones had been sent home long before 1,000 miles.

This was universal.  Strike up the band.  Music/electronic book readers/ or some form of entertainment should be considered.   More songs are better along with a variety of pod casts.  It’s a long hike.  I was assured I would fall in love with my personal pocket juke box before it’s over.

Mo better grease is gourmet fare.

Everyone does food differently.  One vegan said she had been able to maintain a very healthy diet.  Very few hikers were that picky.

There’s a reason hikers post so many photos of food on their blogs.  Hiker hunger is real!  The folks with whom I lunched had the option to get very nice (and HEALTHY) salads, seafood, etc., but NO!

Hikers are addicted to hamburgers and fries – the more artery clogging the better.  It’s sort of like the AT version of the Atkins diet with a pop tart bonus.  (Mom, stop reading now, please.  “Personally, I can’t wait.”)

Logistics.

You can resupply high octane calories out of a convenience store if necessary.  Your doctor and dentist might not approve, but it’ll keep you on the trail until a grocery store is near.

Many towns have an outfitter of some kind.  Fuel cartridges are readily available.

Mail drops are a pain.  Many of the hikers were reducing their dependence on them.

Towns are necessary time and money magnets.  You can save a lot of time and money by taking neros in town – just doing the necessary shower, laundry and resupply, then jumping back onto the trail before the day is over.

Be smart and get off the trail and go to town when super bad weather is pending, especially in the winter.

Not all hostels and motels are equal.  Some are filthy dumps.  Read the Trail Journals carefully or contact a hiker directly.  Hikers will tell you what they think.

If you need privacy, you’ll probably not like hostels.  Everybody has a list of must places to stay and places to be avoided unless hell is about to freeze over, and it almost did a couple of times during the luck winter of ‘13, so stay flexible.

Bring earplugs.  Everybody snores at one time or another, even if they think they don’t.  Say it ain’t so!

Embrace the suck factor.

To paraphrase Yogi, 90 percent of hiking is half mental.  On the one hand, the physical and mental can combine to kick a hiker’s butt and destroy morale.  It can be psychologically wearing to hike for days on end without conversing with, or even seeing many other people.  Many said this was where music really helps keep morale up.

You have to hike your own hike.

Dictate the terms of your own hike.  The hikers in the best shape were approaching their hikes using the tactics distance runners use in marathons.  Don’t go out too fast, control your pace in the middle of the race when you think you ought to be passing more people and then, it’s mostly a mind game at the end.  The end game is a successful finish.  Never mind what the group thinks.

Conversely, the hikers who seemed to be concentrating more on bragging rights and endless numbers of big mileage days were suffering accordingly.  Age and gender were not factors in this observation, but pack weight was.

Hiking is a social experience.  The more the hike was about friendship and community, the easier the mental challenges.  A lot of folks said they were going to slow down and enjoy themselves more in the second half.

Plagues and other medieval experiences.

Norovirus nailed almost 100 percent of this year’s hikers.  Everyone I met got it including a hiker with a clinical background who took meticulous measures.  Folks kept themselves extra clean, avoided shelters, privys, shelter registers, sick hostels and stealth camped. It nailed them anyway.  OhJoy.

Hiker funk should be classified as a weapon of mass destruction.  It took three days to get the aroma out of my car after leaving a pack in my trunk for about five hours on a hot day.  Heaven only knows what incubated in there.  My bet is that the Pentagon would pay a fortune for it.

A rose by any other name … A small number of folks reported that they managed to largely avoid the worst of the hiker funk by taking sponge baths, rinsing out their clothes as frequently as possible, even in colder (not the coldest) weather.  REI carries NASA-designed waterless soap and shampoo that may be worth consideration.

Bottom line.

Hiking he AT is personal.  Each experience is unique.  Every hike is hard at times.  Reading about it, watching You Tube videos and talking to hikers isn’t the same doing it day in and day out for six months.

The hikers I’ve encountered have been fascinating people.  I’d tend to expect that of anyone with the giddy-up to hike a thousand miles in three months. It’s going to be fun to watch them summit Katahdin.  I’ll be cheering no matter what.