The New Fall Lineup

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The indicators are all there.  School has started.  The first college football games play this weekend.  The automobile companies are ready to unveil next year’s models.  The TV networks are unwrapping their new fall lineups.  It’s fall.  My favorite time of the year.

As Labor Day approaches the anticipation of autumn excites the senses.  The pending ascendance of nutmeg as top spice in the kitchen helps complete the fashion shift from polo shirts to polar fleece.  By the time the frost is on the punkin’, snow can’t be far behind if you live far enough north.

If fall is a-comin’ then my mid-February Appalachian Trail start date is just around the corner.  Time to focus on the task at hand and lay down some boot tracks.

In any sport, cross training helps improve performance.  But, no matter how much cross training you do, you still have to get the reps in for the sport itself.  Football players lift weights, but they also block and tackle, baseball players hit, catch and throw and runners run.  It follows that hikers should hike.

The trail is pulling me out of my comfortable rut and telling me to start putting one foot in front of the other, get funky and stress test the shelter, sleep, food, and clothing systems that will be used during my thru hike.  Only a long trek can produce the realistic conditions needed.

The first item on the fall dance card is a joint National Park Service/Potomac Appalachian Trail Club two-day advanced trail maintenance workshop September 21 -22.

We’re scheduled to build erosion control structures with big rocks.  Think Triassic tinker toys, building blocks and Lincoln logs all rolled into one giant play set.

This stuff is fun, especially the part where we’ll be car camping at Mathews Arm Campground in Shenandoah National Park.  We get to bring a camp chair and coolers! They’ve got showers!! They’re even cooking the food for us!!!

I wonder if the cooks could just follow the class of ‘14 up the trail?   We could all chip in…

A couple of days after the workshop, it’ll be happy trails for for me on the 160 miles of AT from Waynesboro, Virginia to Harpers Ferry. That’s enough miles to find out what needs fixing. 

It has another advantage.  It simulates the longest leg without resupply that I’m planning in the spring.  That stretch is from Fontana Village, NC to Hot Springs, NC.  I’m not particularly high on the options in between, so a simple by pass strategy seems reasonable caveated by a severe weather opt out proviso.

Here’s where it gets personal.  This particular test hike is not happening by accident.  It will determine whether my body will stand up physically to a thru hike.  With all the weight training and running, you’d think it would be a cinch.  Let me clue you in on a secret.  It’s not even close.

Six years ago I severely injured my right ankle.  The injury includes the effects of tibial nerve damage that may not withstand the continuous pounding and dynamic stresses that long distance hiking generates over time.  If the outcome is going to be negative, it will be unambiguous and show up before the end of this little jaunt.  My thru hike could be over before it even begins.

If that isn’t enough, a chronic running injury called piriformis syndrome adopted me several years ago.  When the piriformis muscle gets irritated, it is literally a pain I the butt that hurts like hell. 

Of course the hurt has a bonus effect.  The swelling irritates the sciatic nerve.  And that my friends is a joy to experience, not to mention a potential show stopper! Both injuries are in the same leg. Has anyone ever hiked this thing on one leg?

 I’m actually shocked that my right leg and foot haven’t filed a class action law suit for abuse. 

The effects of these injuries can be moderated by systematic stretching, religiously limiting miles, and frequent rest.  But in spite of everything, piriformis misbehaves on its own schedule.  Moreover, the neuropathy in my right foot attended the same reform school and they’re both frequent recidivists. 

Drama aside, there’s plenty of optimism.  After all, I’ve made it through a year’s worth of heavy duty trail maintenance without problem.  My intermittent hikes with a full pack have gone well.  We just need more a more realistic test before actually reporting for duty in Georgia.

Triassic rocks and a little long haul truckin’ – a couple of nice shows for the fall schedule wouldn’t you say?  Ah, but it gets even better.   Get this.

Following a successful hike to Harpers Ferry, it’s immediately home to refit and head out to rendezvous with a member of the class of ’13 who flipped and is now southbound for Harpers Ferry on a Thanksgiving deadline.  I get to observe a real lab rat performing the act itself.

The social benefits of having a compatible hiking partner aside, a medicinal traipse through the Pennsylvania rocks will notch up the difficulty factor enough to be an absolute validation of my body’s ability to perform over six months.  Can’t wait.

What comes after Thanksgiving?

Last December I saw someone who gave me a great idea.  This guy was decked out in REI’s finest while hiking with a ginormous pack on the Capitol Crescent Trail – an old street car line that’s now a nice walking path from Silver Spring, Maryland to Georgetown, D.C.  Only later did I realize that he was training for the AT. 

Thanks to the anonymous hiker, I’ll devote several hours each day, regardless of weather, to following his footsteps while wearing a full pack until it’s time to do an about face, jump in the car and motor to the Peach State. 

BTW, I used to work at Georgia Tech.  Georgia is a nice place if you haven’t been there.

If everything works, I’ll feel a lot more physically prepared to play my part in the 2014 Appalachian Trail reality show.  I can only hope it’s not going to be  “Survivor – the Earnest Shackleton Edition.”  Whatever mamma nature plans to throw at us, it’s coming to Trail Journals in February.  Hope to see you there.  Sisu

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If the weather is ugly, ole Sisu is comin’ anyway.  He’s got backup.

Don’t Ask for Whom the Trekking Pole Clicks

 

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The Appalachian Trail in the central region is a lot quieter now.  The northbound (NOBO) bubbles are long gone.  Students are returning to school.  And the southbounders (SOBO) are still many miles to the north.  The trekking poles are quiet.

I took a long walk along the AT Friday NOBO from the Compton Gap parking lot in Shenandoah National Park.  It was a chance to test some gear and carry a full winter weight pack as a prelude to the Hoodlum’s monthly trail maintenance Saturday.

Wouldn’t you know it.  I started breaking spider webs right from the get go.  There aren’t too many things in this world that I actually hate, but spider webs are on the list.

Walk through a spider web and it sticks to your hair, glasses, face or arms in the most inconvenient and annoying way possible.  You almost never see ‘em comin’ either.

Then I thought about it.  If the trail was heavily draped in spider webs, that meant nobody had passed by in quite awhile.  Me and the critters had the woods to ourselves.  That’s pure joy.

The day was especially perfect.  Just warm enough and sunny with low humidity.   Then bingo!

I hadn’t yet schlepped a mile when a bear cub trundled across the trail not more than 50 feet ahead of me.  I think it may have been the tail end Charlie because I never did see the momma or a sibling, but I sure was lookin’ for all the obvious reasons. 

Later I saw a huge doe that was big enough to remind me of an elk.  At first I thought she was a buck, but they’re sprouting horns now, so she was just big.

Within a short time I cruised by the Tom Floyd shelter to read the register and snack.  I was greeted by a friendly toad, and best of all, lucky enough to find amusing entries from thru hikers whose blogs I’ve been following.  Some of the handwriting didn’t seem to match their personalities.  That was enough to make the day by itself.

Near the end of the return trip, a couple of bard owls serenaded me with their hooting – the decibel level can drown out a heavy metal rock band. I camped at the Indian Run maintenance hut with a few of my Hoodlum crewmates.  The owls played their rowdy concert all night long.  We loved it.

One gear item I was testing was my new (and first ever) set of trekking poles. 

Poles first began to appear back in the days when getting home to hike in the Colorado Rockies was regular fare.  They were seen most often in the hands of clueless tenderfeet.  These dude ranch types always appeared to have been outfitted by Abercrombie and Fitch.  This was back in the days when the store equipped great white hunter wanna bees headed out on city park safaris.

We (then) studly types thought they were pretty dorky.  Not for us.  Moreover they were a European invention where the trails are very unlike most of ours here in the U S of A.  So, in spite of solid recommendations that I try them, I never seriously considered acquiring poles.

Jump ahead to now, and trekking poles have almost become prosthetic aids for hikers.  Everybody’s leanin’ on ‘em.

Honestly, I was surprised.  The test didn’t go well.  As a cross country skier, I expected far better results.

The good news is that poles do provide thrust and tend to slow me down.  I desperately need slowing down.  Their use may be worth that much alone.

The bad news is that on ugly rocks and rough terrain, I kept much better balance without them – a key point when remembering how damaging and frequent falls tend to be.

The AT is mostly down hill from Compton Gap to Virginia highway 522.  The opposite is true for the return trip.  Just after Tom Floyd, the trail gets steep and rocky for a good stretch. 

From my point of view, the poles were useless in either direction in rough terrain.   I actually tripped on one pole trying to negotiate some large rocks, but enjoyed a fortunate outcome.

I didn’t like the tick, click, tick noise they make either.  The racket makes sneaking up on wildlife especially challenging.

Not going to toss ‘em.  Not gonna do it – yet. 

On September 24th my first long shakedown hike will be the 160 miles from Waynesboro, VA to Harpers Ferry, WV.  The trail is well maintained over that course by my PATC compadres. 

If the sticks haven’t won me over by the time I reach the Appalachian Trail Conservancy GHQ, they get aced off the gear list.  If that’s the case, I’ll have to find a new handy spot to stash my bright yellow duct tape.  Damn!

The trekking poles may click the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, but probably not for me.  Like my mom used to say, “Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. “  Could be that I’m just incorrigible.  Time will tell.

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A Hoodlum trail crew on the march.

The Value of Zero

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Some people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.  That’s the rap on more than a few of the bean counters out there in the business world.

It’s a fact: 1 x 0 = 0.  That equals nothing, nada, zilch, zip, empty, nil, naught, nix, nicht, and without value.   It follows that 2 x 0 = 0 and so on.  So, zero’s worthless?  Don’t kid yourself.  On the AT a zero can be priceless.  A zero can save your hike.

Recently a hiker I’ve been following wrote a blog post embroidered with frustration and punctuated by despair.  It wasn’t unlike dozens we’ve seen in all seasons this year when hikers have reached their wits end.  Cold, heat, sow, rain, mud, bugs, discomfort and falls all add up.  My hiker friend, who has anonymity, was ready to cash it in and go home. 

Enough was enough.  The rain, mud, bugs and all finally added up.  But no, that wasn’t enough.  Then came the fall. It wasn’t the first, but this one was serious – a faceplant into a rock.  There was blood, and it hurt – a lot.  I was heartbroken for my friend.

Every hiker has an inner reservoir of mental resilience much like a checkbook balance. The balance ebbs and flows as a hike unfolds. 

Debits are obviously related to cumulative experiences with rain, cold, heat, snow, rain, plague, mud, fatigue, hunger, aches and pains, etc. 

Deposits come in many forms – trail magic, hot showers, town food, trail angels, new friends, and cool experiences, etc.  Everyone tries to keep the balance in positive territory.

My friend was in a mental overdraft situation – out of gas and without the will to even take another step.  Worse yet, there were no zeros on the schedule and the nearest exit was literally in the middle of nowhere, and probably the most austere “trail town” there is with a hostel.  Its only claim to fame is jewelry literally made out of dung and we’re not talkin’ buffalo chips!  Think of it as the only fly-over burg on the whole AT.

Then a miracle happened (Enter deus ex machina.)  in the form of two unplanned zero days (2×0) notable for the hostel owner’s generous hospitality and remarkably spiked with the company of a gaggle of friendly hikers who showed up to duck some nasty storms. 

Gently stir (not shake) it up over a couple of days and guess what?  Total rejuvenation.  Mental over haul complete!  Back on the trail and ready for the next challenge. 

 Cue the bugles.  Charge!  Never quit on a bad day, right?

 Who says zero has no value?  Sometimes a zero or two can be the difference between success and failure.  What’s that worth?

 

Say cheese!

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Everybody wants to make National Geographic quality photographs to document their hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Well, maybe most would just settle for some nice snaps of the folks and places that will help keep cherished memories alive long after the trail is done. 

Fact is that with a little luck related to available light, chance timing and the right clouds showing up over a placid pond …and you never know…  You certainly don’t need “professional” photographic equipment to make really good pictures.

Big boy camera gear is large, expensive and technically complicated.  Visualize those sideline photographers at sporting events with their howitzer-length lenses.  Besides, you’d almost need a caddy to drag a camera bag that size up and down the mountains.  The advanced amateur versions of these cameras and lenses produce fantastic photos, but still they are relatively expensive, bulky and heavy. 

Modern professional photography equipment is feather light compared to cameras back in the day. Here’s where I’m going to date myself.  I used to lug a Nikon FTN with a couple of lenses, filter stack, 2x tele extender and a dozen rolls of Kodachrome.  The weight was roughly the equivalent of three bricks.  The cube (amount of occupied space in my pack) was even more than that. 

When technology advanced to the Olympus OM-1 miniaturized 35mm SLR, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  This leap forward reduced the weight by about two bricks and the cube by about half.  The downside was that those chunks of metal and glass still weighed a lot.  You always had to worry about running out of film.

Then came digital photography with cigarette pack-sized cameras.  The early cameras by Nikon and Sony took decent photos.  Now the options have expanded enormously, and the photographic quality exponentially, as sensors and chips have improved.

Good light-weight camera options are plentiful.  I know at least two video bloggers in the class of 13 who rely on their GoPro rigs. 

GoPros are the cameras that capture the helmet cam dare devil shots you see on TV. These small water and shock proof hummers mount on trekking poles, chest straps, helmets, snow boards, etc.  You do need WIFI to transfer their photos to your Drop Box, Flickr , Smug Mug or one of the other  web based photo sharing/scrapbook sites.

Plenty of other hikers are carrying small cameras by Lumix, Nikon, Sony and others. 

The vast majority seems to be using the camera built into their phone.  Unless you’re using expensive cameras, all the others will have technical trade-offs.  iPhones, for example, have difficulty handling high contrast lighting situations that the Photo Shop app can’t always fix.

For a good test of two cameras check out “Man Cub and Kit Fox Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail 2012” on You Tube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Tpvzsq2VAg 

The first half of this charming video was shot with an iPhone; the second with a GoPro.  With the exception of the underwater scenes, obviously shot with the waterproof GoPro, it’s hard to tell from the video which camera is which.  It ends with a special treat.  If you haven’t seen it, look for the marriage proposal atop Mt. Katahdin. 

The majority of hikers I’ve encountered who are blogging from the trail are using a smart phone as their primary camera.  It’s just easier to post directly to Trail Journals, BlogSpot, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter.  One sent her GoPro home.  She didn’t need it or its weight. 

Using your smart phone camera offers the Swiss Army knife advantage – one tool that can do many things.  With apps like Photo Shop and iMovie, a smart phone can produce amazing work.

The smartphone story only gets better.  The photographically savvy will want camera lenses. 

Never fear, lenses are here.  The website www.photojojo.com sells an array of equipment, and lenses that attach magnetically to any smartphone.  I have several, ranging from fisheye to 2x telephoto and they do work.  I also found an 8x telephoto that screws onto a threaded phone case that comes with it.  It does not interfere with the other lenses. 

What’s the secret to great photos?  I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture once at the National Geographic Society in Washington by one of the best wilderness photographers who ever lived.  That evening Galen Rowell’s presentation was entitled “The Edge of Light.”  Unfortunately, he met an early demise. 

Google Galen Rowell and check out his work.  You might not be able to duplicate it with a smart phone, but judging by some of the Appalachian Trail photos on TJ this year, you can get pretty close.

 

Marching to different drummers on the Appalachian Trail

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Sometimes you just need to march to the beat of a different drummer – something other than the tired soundtrack pounding in your head. It could be a little up-tempo mojo music will help your giddy up.  Other times distracting yourself from pain or rain may be necessary to preserve sanity itself.

The remedy for fashionable hikers this season, appears to be accessorizing with ear buds.   All colors of the rainbow are acceptable so long as they’re plugged into your favorite personal bowling alone device.

None of this is any surprise since most of us have evolved into smart device-dependent cyborgs these days.  Heads bowed like digital monks, we follow our screens wherever they lead us.  This prayerful posture may be the only typically urban behavior useful to hikers.  

Keeping your eyes on the prize (the trail) is not a virtue.  It’s a necessity!  On the trail, evil roots and rocks lurk in the muck and shadows hoping to ambush passing innocents stumbling by.  The most points are awarded for full face plants, broken bones and sprains. Bruises and strawberries gain far fewer.  Don’t fall for looking around and marveling at the scenery.  It pays hikers to bow so not to scrape.   (Groan.)

Some purists don’t believe in electronics on the trail.  Their view is that the natural soundtrack of the forest is the most authentic experience of all, and everything that anyone needs.  I agree with that sometimes, but not always.  HYOH, right? Not going to argue this one.

Occupying one’s mind is important since there’s a lot of down time spent waiting – alone in a shelter for severe weather to pass, for laundry, the post office, hitching a ride or just reading oneself to sleep.  We haven’t even discussed the big “L” – loneliness.

Variety is the spice of life.  The hikers I interviewed this summer talked about needing a wide range of music, pod casts, audio books as well as books to read.  Light-weight tablets such as the Kindle were popular.  TED Talks and NPR’s This American Life were mentioned most often as favorites.  

Juice!  The little electronic critters are efficient, but they eat power like hikers consume pancakes.  A wide range of axillary battery options exist ranging in price from about $100 to $20.  “Mo” is the operative concept.  Mo power equals mo money and mo weight.  A couple of hikers up-graded at Harpers Ferry, so pick your poison.

What to bring?  There’s the old double duty maxim.  Smartphones are definitely the digital equivalent to Swiss Army knives.  Most hikers said they used their phones for everything – calls, photos, music and reading.  Others preferred to husband their phone batteries and bring iPods and Kindles which individually are far more energy efficient at their singular functions.  For example, in temperate weather a Kindle battery lasts five weeks.  If you’re reading, a phone lasts a few short hours at best.  At any rate, a phone, iPod and a Kindle together weigh less than a decent size book and take up less space.

As for me, I’m schlepping an iPod nano and a Kindle in addition to my iPhone.  I will fill the nano with a variety of music for moods ranging from the need to jack up the amperage in difficult terrain to quiet music for relaxation and sleep time white noise.  I’m also including a variety of iTunes U lectures, pod casts and a particular favorite of mine – vintage radio dramas from http://www.radiospirits.com. “The Shadow knows!”  “Tired of that everyday grind?  We bring you ‘Escape!”  I also love the smell of “Gunsmoke!”

The AT Class of ’14 has an on-going music discussion on our Facebook page.  Folks are sharing a lot of great ideas and good music ideas there.

The story of a thru hike can be told in music.  When this year’s hikers blog something that reminds me of a song, it goes on a special AT playlist.  

Some topics are obvious – any song that names an AT state, rain, “Rocky Top,” or is by John Denver.  Then there are songs like “Hitching a Ride” and folk songs like “500 Miles.”  The old graves and churches remind me of country gospel.  For dark humor, there’s Queen’s “Another one bites the dust.”  Hanna Montana’s “Climb” is uplifting.  So far the playlist has 202 songs lasting12 hours.  Here’s hoping that helps carry me into the “Appalachian Spring” through “Shenandoah” on my way to “Almost heaven, West Virginia.”

I know of two hikers who ditched their iPod Shuffles for lack of capacity.  Music can get stale, but new material is easy to get.  There are useful apps that subscribe to free RSS feeds that automatically update your subscriptions with fresh stuff.  I have two.  One is ‘RSSRadio;’ the other is ‘Podcasts.’  TED Talks and vintage radio dramas come via the former and history lectures from the latter.

People love choice.  Of all the advice the Class of ’13 shared with me, the capacity to carry tunes and good books was high on their list.  Since I don’t know that many songs by heart and I love to read, I’m going to bring a little help fortified by a high capacity auxiliary battery.

The next post will cover what folks shared about photography on the Appalachian Trail.