A Christmas Reward

BreadThis holiday break was a gift for sore legs in more ways than one.

It is the third long break to occur during my hike.  I didn’t plan it that way.  The calendar just intervened on its own like a deus ex machine to save my bacon, or at least that part of my anatomy that is analogous to the part of the pig where we find bacon.

Maybe my trail name ought to be something like “Well Rested, Days Off or Hardly Hikes.”

Nevertheless, being home is a treat.  Let’s see, there’s hot water on demand and porcelain, the fridge doubles as an endless food bag, and best of all, the shelter is warm when I wake up no matter the outside temperature!  Central heating.  What a concept!

In contrast, there is the honey do list, regular chores, family matters, holiday shopping and far too many impatient drivers. I do live in the Washington, D.C. region where “everyone is entitled and special” after all.

Do I really have to go back out in the cold?  You bet, so start getting your head and backside ready.

Of course, I knew the facts of thru hiking life the day I returned home.  In fact, I was motivated.  I started running on the first day just to maintain my cardio fitness, but I put off the dreaded gym as long as possible.

My wife’s mother taught me to make nisu, a traditional Finnish braided holiday bread that is smothered in cherries, nuts and frosting.  We enjoy it on Christmas Eve.  This special treat takes forever to make because it has to rise three different times during the course of its preparation. http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/4168/finnish-nisu-aka-pulla.

I used to get up at 2 a.m. so that the nisu could be ready in time to unwrap presents on Christmas morning.  But, once Santa’s alias became obvious to every household member, we shifted the presents and the bread to Christmas Eve so dad could get a few extra winks.

This year, while the nisu was rising and Sisu was contemplating its stratospheric caloric richness, I  slipped in a trip to Fitness Together in Bethesda, Maryland where I train.  By doing so, I rationalized that I could discount the calories in advance.

By the time my training session was over, I knew the next day was going to hurt.  Hiking doesn’t work your body much above the waist.  Of course, that’s the part that got tortured the most.

As Christmas day opened, this hiker hobbled out of bed like a geriatric pretzel permanently bent and twisted into a shape not found in nature.  I felt like a human sacrifice.  However, a generous dose of vitamin I, some gentle stretching, and an extra hot Hollywood  (very long) shower combined to enable basic locomotion and upright posture.

The best part came later. I limbered up enough to zip off a five-mile run and topped my usual time for the course by better than a minute and a half per mile!   The exercise and weight loss gods at long last had rewarded my offerings.

In a short while, I’m going back to the gym.  Dread the thought, but will love the run to follow.

BTW, the way the weather forecast is racking up, it appears I’ll be back on the trail when the calendar flips to a new year.  Since I usually go to bed early, I won’t miss much.  I’ll just celebrate at hiker midnight rather than when the clock strikes.

The ponies of Grayson Highlands will be the scheduled highlight.  Can’t wait.

Chocolate

Chocolate

“Hi. My name’s Sisu and I’m a chocoholic.”

An introduction at a Hikers Anonymous meeting? Not really. But, I do have a problem. On the trail I am obsessed with chocolate.

It started innocently enough when tossing some pro forma hiker fare into my food bag. You know, Swiss Miss, granola bars with chocolate covered nuts, the German Ritter Sport dark chocolate and hazel nut bars I used to like as a kid when my dad was stationed in West Germany. Then the Snickers and some Starbucks Via mocha instant coffee packets and before you knew it, I was schlepping more cocoa power per square inch than a stick of dynamite.

In other words, a bag full of high octane chocolate treats with visions of sugar plumbs dancing in my head.

For the record, in real life I don’t eat candy. Period. I find the sugary stuff revolting. I don’t munch chocolate either. I especially don’t like “fru fru” flavored coffee. “Give it to me straight, Mack.” I like my coffee hot, black and thick enough to pave pot holes thanks to way it was brewed by Army mess sergeants from a bygone era.

It didn’t start this way. Over time, the chocolate started replacing the jerky, oatmeal and grits. I’m not sure where or when I got my first taste on the trail. But, I do know that the gateway indulgence that hooked me was the dark chocolate, cherry and nut granola bars. After that, chocolate was all I could think about. I was almost ready to throw my life away for it.

This is how low it goes. I bought some brand name amaretto flavored chocolate covered almonds at a gas station convenience store in Erwin, Tennessee. That’s when I knew I had a serious problem. “I’m really buying this for the nuts,” I rationalized as I traipsed through the check out. They were so good that I bought more at the next stop. It was getting ugly.

I should have asked myself why gas stations in the middle of the sticks could even sell such highly branded empty calories at a premium price, but I wasn’t very analytical at the time. Instead, hiker hunger was knocking as my body fat reserves diminished.

Hiker hunger is real. It raps on the door to your soul. You have to eat. The food formula becomes calories per pound. Taste, texture and presentation fly out the window along with your pride.

Could it be that I’m just hungry? Maybe I’m just a situational chocoholic? Even so, I need to own up to my chocolate affliction and treat it with the best medicine – more nourishing chow.

A Wild Night In Animal Kingdom!

Quite the adventure.

spark2fire

The weather was finally nice for hiking again. I packed up fast choosing to hike while weather was back on my side.
Caleb and Chris had one more wonderful gift… Organic trail mix!
I was so grateful they had been there with me that cold stormy night!
As we stepped out of the tarp entrance into the white snowy dawn – the sight was spectacular!
Very little phone charge meant mtoday I would get to take my last pics before it no longer worked. I snapped shots of snowscapes and animal tracks. The drifts reached 2 feet on the Northern sides of the mountains.
The ground was full of ice and the trees rained Ryne Ice all morning like a snow storm in the sunshine.

20131222-220917.jpg

20131222-220940.jpg

20131222-220958.jpg

20131222-221034.jpg

20131222-221100.jpg

20131222-221135.jpg
I hiked for 2 hours before stopping to make breakfast.
There was a peaceful feeling inside me. A calm I had missed. I hadn’t felt…

View original post 892 more words

Trail Brain

IMG_1486

After a day hike, I ran into Winter Walker wearing his replacement garment at the outfitters.

“I sure hope this isn’t pathogenic,” I said to Winter Walker.

Winter Walker is a Vermonter I met at a shelter south of Damascus. In real life he’s a trucker whose doctor told him to “get healthy.” So Winter Walker set out on a “thousand mile diet.” His intent is to hike along the Appalachian Trail until he thins out. When I met him, he was making fantastic progress.

When our paths crossed, Winter Walker had decided to begin his return trip. Once his goals are met, he’ll call relatives for a pick up. He figured that would be somewhere around Harpers Ferry assuming that severe winter weather didn’t interfere.

He is one of the good guys one meets on the trail. In Spanish you’d describe him as muy amable. We enjoyed each other’s company, humor, and easy repartee. One evening he hung a fleece hoodie he’d sewn himself on a nail protruding from the shelter wall. He forgot there’s nothing a shelter mouse won’t eat.

As the waxing moon glittered on the snowscape embracing our shelter, a stealthy field mouse munched away. By morning the mouse had carved out chunks of his hood that reminded me of a Congressional assault on the federal budget. The mouse was either after salt residue or trying to feather its nest. Regardless, the hood was so full of holes that it could have been repurposed as a Green Bay Packer cheese head. It was hardly recognizable for its original purpose.

Characteristically, Winter Walker found the humor and made the best of it. The fine folks at Mount Rogers Outfitters in Damascus would make a sale on a factory made replacement. Could the mouse have been in cahoots we pondered? “Great conspiracy theory!” I thought. No way, we concluded.

Winter Walker’s misfortune is what thru hikers learn to take in stride. Just another bump in the road. That morning, we packed up as the heavens began to cry rain with a volume your favorite high pressure shower head could only imagine.

“Let’s aim for early lunch at the Blue Blaze,” he suggested. “Bingo!!!” I thought. I’ll be needing an injection of hot nutritious food. It was 10 miles, mostly downhill, to Damascus. We’d make short work of that, and we did.

When we sopped through the Blue Blaze’s welcoming entrance, we made a beeline for seats at the bar. It was about 11:30, so we weren’t there to swill beer. We just wanted to be closer to the eats and faster service. It proved to be a good decision.

Enter my dilemma. Pony, the Blue Blaze’s owner and chef, peppered me with choices. Did I want the all-you-can-eat special, something from the menu, what to drink, and appetizer, did I have a trail name, why NOBO now, and more ?

Whoa! Waaay too much, too fast. I couldn’t process it all.

On the trail, things are fairly simple. One foot in front of another. Mind the slippery spots. I might add here that I hate exposed roots far more than slick rocks. More on the philosophy of roots another time.

While thru hiking, it’s best not to think too far ahead. My time horizon spans the capacity of one food bag. When it’s empty, I have to do what’s needed to fill it up. In between times, I stay inside the day at hand and the 2 X 6 rectangle of trail immediately to my front. Success is usually defined as not falling and making it before dark to that day’s goal.

Back to the bar. This wasn’t my first time with an overwhelmed processor. It happens every time I go to town. On the trail, your senses evaluate very different information. The cues are the sights and sounds of nature. Everything slows down. Your brain adjusts from highway speed to something more civilized to say the least. It’s not less, but more in a vastly altered context.

So, when Pony asked me to make a bunch of choices, my mind hadn’t made the transition. My aside to Winter Walker was rhetorical. I knew it wasn’t caused water I might have forgotten to treat. Instead, it was a prime symptom of the best part of my hike. It’s evidence of the transition from the inhuman pace of corporate existance to a more sustainable speed for a longer and more healthy life.

Winter Tips

Image

Two members of the class of ’14 contacted me privately to ask about hiking in winter temperatures and conditions.  One recommend that I publish what I’d shared with him.  Needless to say, I was reluctant.  The information is generally well known, and is readily available elsewhere. 

I thought about it during the last leg of my hike and eventually, decided to share it for what it may be worth to others.  When I was in the Army, I taught winter operations and  survival for a time.  Since this knowledge has paid dividends on my hike thus far, I thought there might be a benefit to sharing it.

Obviously, my musings are not comprehensive.  Others may feel free to add their two cents as appropriate.  If you do, please keep it civil.  Dear trolls out there, neither you nor I are idiots. 

The good news is that winters tend to be mild in the southern Appalachians with notable exceptions.  Even when the weather turns bad, it doesn’t often last long.  That said, the recent five-day nor’ easter in early December brought a load of moisture to the mountains.  Fortunately only the last day of the storm was cold.  Otherwise, we might have experienced several feet of snow, so it pays to be prepared. 

Where to start?  In my view, the most important winter concepts are layering and moisture management.

The key to staying comfortable when it’ cold is layers and staying as dry as possible.  Modern poly prop and other wicking fibers are game changers in helping your skin stay dry.  Note I said comfortable, not necessarily toasty warm – a relative concept that changes with each individual’s tolerance. 

You absolutely don’t want to be hot and sweaty all the time.  If you are, not only is dehydration likely, you’ll rapidly chill when you stop moving.  Moreover, all the wet stuff will eventually need drying.

On top I’m using a Columbia Onmi Heat base layer (it’s got Mylar dots that reflect heat back — and it works) with three additional light layers that can be added or subtracted accordingly. For the outer layer I have a light weight nylon wind jacket backed up by my rain parka which has pit zips, a wind collar and hood.  Most times I don’t need more than one or maybe two light layers so long as I’m moving. 

My rule of thumb is that less clothing is more so long as it helps keep your core at the right temperature and your skin as dry as possible.  In my experience, most people put on way more clothing than they need.

Once I stop, I usually don’t have to take off the base layer.  It is normally only wet in the back and seems to dry quickly on its own under the other loose layers I put on when I stop.  There have been exceptions to this practice, of course.  When the day is over, I change into a large fleece shirt, a loose fitting hiking shirt, plus one or both of my down puffy parkas, down pants and the fleece cap in which I sleep. 

On the bottom I hike in bike shorts and compression running tights alone or under a water repellant pair of Columbia camping pants.  My rain pants go over this or substitute for the camping pants as needed.  That’s potentially three layers – more than enough to take you well below zero in a stiff wind in my experience.

Head, hands and feet are the key to real comfort and mental comportment. 

For my head, I carry a fleece ear band which keeps my ears warm while allowing the heat to vent from exertion without wet hair.  I also have a polly prop knit hat I used for cross country skiing.  It can go on over the ear band or replace it. Since I wear glasses, I have a Gore Tex bill cap to keep the rain/snow off the lenses.

I clomp around in Salomon Gore Tex boots with medium weight smart wool socks (I carry three pairs) with sock liners.  I start each day with a dry pair of socks.  I also take off my damp socks and put on dry ones as soon as I stop for the evening to help keep my feet warm.  The damp socks and liners go in between my sleeping bag and air mattress at night.  They’ve always been dry in the morning.

For my hands, I carry two pair of light polly prop glove liners so that one pair is always dry.  I also have a pair of polar tec gloves and a pair of heavy mittens with a waterproof Gore Tex shell.  I didn’t have the mittens in the Smokies when the ambient air temp hit zero F and paid a price for their absence.  Mittens are absolutely the key to warmer hands.  I’ve added chemical hand warmers and used them once.  They work well enough.

At night I almost always sleep in a tent (Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2) unless I think it’s going to storm.  The tent blocks the wind and is about 10 degrees warmer than an open shelter. 

My bag is a woman’s Sierra Designs Dry Down rated to 25 degrees F.  My guess is that a male would be comfortable about five degrees cooler.  As I wrote in my previous blog, I’m exchanging the sleeping bag for my 1970’s Holubar zero degree model in which I have more confidence at lower temperatures.  

At night any wet clothing – usually socks or the base layer – goes between my sleeping bag and air mattress (Themarest NeoAir).  Everything’s dry by morning.  If I think that the temp will drop below freezing, I always put my water and fuel canister in the bag with me or they’ll freeze.  If they do, I’m screwed.  Note to self:  Screw the water bottle cap on tightly so it doesn’t leak!

On seriously cold days – 20 degrees F or less – I hike with my water and fuel inside the inner pockets of my wind layer.  Butane lighters stay in pants pockets or they too will freeze.  Fortunately, the electric starter on my Jet Boil works.  This has magically turned the lighters into dead weight.

I’ve described every item of clothing I carry except my bandanas.  Almost all the clothing gets used every day.

BTW, in the rain, the objective is not necessarily to stay dry.  It’s to manage heat.  That’s one time when the wet base layer comes off quickly at the end of the day.  It’s usually soaked.

Here are some additional tips that may be helpful in preparing for a winter hike.

1.  Practice setting up your tent, operating all your zippers, hooks, snaps, buckles, stuff sacks and cooking with gloves on.  Modify your gear accordingly.  For example I’ve added extra long zipper pulls and replaced the miniature spring-loaded chord keepers with larger ones on some of my clothing.  I modified my tent with extended guy lines and oversize tension keepers so I can manipulate them with mittens on, and or tie the to rocks if the ground is frozen too hard for tent stakes. 

2. Quality backcountry clothing tends to have two distinguishing features.  The first is large inner pockets.  They are to keep, next to your body, water, fuel canisters and any other liquid (medicine) you need to keep from freezing.  You can store gloves, hats and mittens there too.  The other is pit zips.  Clothing designed for fashion tends not to feature these extras.

As I noted, when you’re out there hiking hard, dumping heat is a high priority.  During the recent storm in the Smokies, the pit zips on my wind shell remained open all day – the temps ranged from 18 – 22, the wind was moderate, and it was snowing.  I closed them only when the temps began to plummet and the wind picked up.  Meanwhile, I was comfortable and dry.  The zipper pulls have been modified with extra long pull chords so I can find, open and close them using gloves or mittens without taking off my pack. 

3.  When pitching your tent in snow, stomp down or scrape off an area big enough include your extended guy lines.  Make sure that your tent ventilates well or you’ll have to deal with frozen condensation in the morning.  Pack up quickly inside your tent.  Your body heat will create a thin moisture layer underneath that freezes quickly. To negate this, immediately when you get out, lift the tent off the ground so that the floor/footprint doesn’t freeze to the earth.   A couple of bloggers reported that problem last winter and their light weight nylon tent floors shredded when the tried to pick them up.  Of note, a Tyvek foot print won’t tear.

4.  I carry two 1-liter plastic bottles as canteens.  When water is plentiful, I only keep one filled.  Their key feature is a narrow mouth.  If they should freeze per chance, and mine started to in the Smokies because I didn’t pay attention soon enough, you can get a narrow mouth bottle open with your hands and punch down the ice plug that forms.  You have no prayer of opening a frozen wide-mouth bottle like a Nalgene if it freezes.  The threaded area is large and poses too much friction when frozen.

5.  You need to drink as much water in winter as you do in summer even if you don’t feel thirsty.  You lose a lot of water just by breathing alone, not to mention sweating.  By the time you’re thirsty, it’s too late.  Watch the color of your urine.  Pale yellow is optimum.  Urinating every two hours or so is about the right amount.  Be aware that urine the color of apple juice is trending the wrong way.

Dehydration helps bring on hypothermia much more quickly – as does exhaustion, alcohol use and smoking.  The combo can be like cotton – deadly.  A properly equipped hiker died of hypothermia in the Tri Corner Knob shelter in the Smokies this past winter.  Rangers I met on the trail told me that in addition to being cold, they theorized that he might have been tired and dehydrated.  Regardless, he suffered a tragic end. 

You can Google the incident for details.  http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2013/apr/18/national-park-releases-hikers-cause-of-death/?comments_id=2612673 

Here’s a report from the same area in  2012 that had a better ending:  http://www.wate.com/story/19985736/smokies-emergency-responders-search-for-missing-hiker

6. I keep a Gatoraide bottle in my tent for use as a pee bottle.  Does anyone really want to get up and go out into the hyper cold or driving rain at night?  If it’s below freezing, BE SURE AND SECURE THE CAP and put it in your sleeping bag so it doesn’t freeze. Ladies, this may be one male advantage that is hard to overcome.

Along this vein, I know of two NOBOs last year who had water bottle accidents that soaked their sleeping bags when their flip top bottles accidentally opened at night!  Word to the wise.

7.  I shave with a disposable razor every time I stop in town.  Beards may look cool, but in the winter they form icicles — and worse — snot-cicles because when its cold your nose runs constantly.  This does not include food.  The beard problem comes when the liquid in your beard melts and is absorbed by your clothing and sleeping bag at night.  Sooner or later you develop a moisture issue that can be problematic.   For me, it’s easier to scrape it off when I go to town.  Others obviously disagree.

8.  I have worn my MSR microspikes on three occasions to great advantage.  I could have managed to hike, albeit a lot more slowly, without them.  They’re are not a necessity.  But, their utility is such that I am willing to pay the weight tax to carry them.  I did carry snowshoes for awhile, but no longer.  A lot of the trail is unsuitable for their use – too rocky or too narrow.  As an alternative, I decided to hike around the weather.

Another reason I don’t think snowshoes are needed.  Look on the bright side, during NOBO season, some other eager beaver can always be first out of camp and punch the post holes through deep snow for everyone else.  When you’re solo, you’re on your own. 

The trail in winter is peaceful and almost surrealistic in its appearance.  With the right skills and gear, you can have a wonderful experience that is uniquely yours alone.

Image.

Image

600 Mile Gear Review

PackNo two hikers are alike – in their experience, size, strength, comfort levels, ambition, motivation, fears, concerns and confidence level, and expectations. That’s part of what makes interesting the beast that an Appalachian Trail thru hike is.

After more than 600 miles, I thought a gear review might be in order. Remember that this experience has been mine alone. Your or anybody else’s reality could be very different.

First to recap. I hiked the 160 miles from Waynesboro, Va. (Rockfish Gap) to Harpers Ferry, WVa. starting Sept. 24th and finishing on Oct. 6th. During that period the daily high temperature ranged from 54 to 92 with about a week of each. The experience was instructive to say the least. I still can’t get the funk out of my sleeping bag.

On Oct. 24th I started hiking north from Springer Mountain, Ga. with 13 days off for Thanksgiving. My marker is now in Damascus where I left the trail for Christmas, New Years, income tax and to file for Medicare.

With so many people focused on starting early this spring, my hard learned lessons may be helpful to some.

Philosophically, I am not an ultralight hiker. I’m not a tank either. Ever mindful of weight, I carry what I need to be comfortable, warm and safe. Just understand that I am willing to pay a weight tax in the areas that are important to me – but may not be important to anyone else. My spring/fall pack with 1 liter of water and five days rations weighs around 26 lbs. My full winter weight clocks in between 32 and 34 lbs.

My pack itself is a Deuter Act lite 40 +10. That means that it’s basically a 40 liter pack with about 10 liters of expansion room. When I bought the pack, I thought that its size limitations would help impose some weight discipline. My catch phrase was: “If it don’t fit. It don’t go.” That’s been true, but if I were to do it over, I’d buy a 50 liter pack. Forty liters is very tight, but I have been able to make it work.

Deuter packs have a brilliantly adjustable suspension. I have the build of a marathoner – which makes it hard to find a pack that fits. Deuter’s infinitely adjustable suspension helps my pack fit like a pair of comfortable old slippers. That’s the reason I’m staying with it. I also like its ability to create compartments which help me stay organized. That’s where my love affair ends.

Deuter could improve all its packs tremendously with a few simple fixes. Watersealed seams and water resistant zippers would be more than helpful. This pack leaks like a sieve, even with a rain cover on. You listening Deuter? I really don’t like that.

The hip belt could use properly sized (meaning large) side pockets on both sides. The one pocket it does have is on the right and far too small. Worse, it is located in such a way that I can’t see its contents. The left side has space to attach something – heaven knows what. There are no after market products specifically designed for this pack that could stimulate my imagination that I can find. I made do with a zippered item I found at REI.

My sleep system works – barely. As a winter hiker I need to be prepared for ten below zero. I’m finding that zero is about the limit of real comfort. The system is based on a woman’s 25 degree dry down bag by Sierra Designs. My stature allows me to use a woman’s bag which saves about a pound of weight and $100 in cost. I really like the extra insulation they put in the area for your feet in a woman’s bag.

The bag is supplemented with a silk liner – mostly for the purpose of absorbing grime and managing drafts. The question is, What happens when the temp threatens to plummet below 25 degrees?

Since I can expect a huge range of temperatures on the trail during the winter, I have to have an adjustable clothing/sleeping system. To supplement both, I truck two puffy down jackets – one medium and one large so they fit inside one another. Then there’s the puffy down pants and booties. Combined, with clothing layers, I figured this system would easily get me to `10F.

Not so. The sleeping bag itself is made of light weight fabric. When stretched by water bottles and a butane fuel container, the bag develops cold spots when the temp nears zero. It hasn’t bothered me much, but I don’t like it. Moreover, the zipper snags both up and down because the fabric is so light. That’s not good.

When I return to the trail after the holidays, I’m switching to my 1970’s zero degree bag. It’s bigger and heavier, but it is absolutely bullet proof to zero. With the puffies added, it’ll take anything mother nature can throw at it, and I’ll be more confident.

My Thermarest NeoAir mattress is awesome!!! Can’t praise it enough. If I could marry it, it would. I’ll just sleep with it instead. 🙂

I switched from a Pocket Rocket stove to a Jet Boil Sol. Since I cook exclusively in Zip Lock freezer bags, that was the right move. The size increase was miniscule. The efficiency increase is remarkable and well worth it. With the Pocket Rocket, I used up a full size butane cartridge about every 10 days. With the Jet Boil, the mini cartridge lasted 18 days with fuel to spare.

I use a Zpacks food bag. It’s NOT waterproof. Moreover, it needed to be modified with an extra tiny snap link and some chord to make it easily hangable and operable with mittens. I’d buy it again. The size is about right for up to a week’s worth of food.

Speaking of modifications, I’ve had to modify about everything – tent, rain jacket, food bag, and pack – for winter and mittens. Try and operate everything you own with mittens on before you actually hike. You’ll be surprised.

My iPod and iPhone serve as communications and entertainment – the entertainment is mostly at night. Since lithium batteries suffer from cold, I carry three Mophies that will fully charge my iPhone a total of one time each, plus the charge in the phone itself. The priority is to the phone because I frequently text my wife and family where I am. I reserve one battery for my iPod which serves as evening entertainment. This arrangement usually works.

I keep the phone in airplane mode most of the time and a battery usually lasts a couple of days, if not more.

My rain gear – pants and jacket are traditional. They work. My jacket is a North Face with pit zips. It’s functional, but the chords that tighten the hood and waist are not designed to use with gloves or mittens. So much for the compromises necessary to honor North Face’s identity as a fashion brand.

My clothing is in a Sea to Summit compressible dry sack. I carry an extra base layer, plus a sleeping shirt, four layers, a sleeping hat and three pair of socks in addition to the aforementioned down gear.

That’s about it for equipment. I carry gloves and waterproof arctic mittens. My first aid kit services me and my equipment. My headlamp is a light weight single LED by Princeton Tec.

I also carry one charging cable and iPad charger for each battery and electronic device I carry. There are not enough outlets at the hostels. They’ve not caught up to the 21st century in that regard.

My return to the trail is indefinite. My mother is struggling with cancer. I may fly home to Colorado to be with her before continuing my hike.

I also plan to sneak in the Grayson highlands between Christmas and the New Year with the help of the kind folks at Mt. Rogers Outfitters who will shuttle me 60 miles north so I can hike back to my car in Damascus. Once past Grayson, altitude will be less of a weather factor.

Towns, Logistics, Zeros. They add up.

The cost of hiking the Appalachian Trail has been a topic of prolonged discussion on the class of 2014 Face Book page. The range of views on this subject is wide and certainly subject to individual preference, weather, timing and budget restrictions.

In this essay I hope to offer one hiker’s observations and insights. These views are mine alone based on my individual experience of more than 600 miles to date and may not apply to anyone else. That said, I hope they are informative and helpful.

Earlier I mistakenly reported that businesses paid to be listed in David “AWOL” Miller’s guide. I got a bum steer from a misinformed shuttle driver who isn’t listed and obviously didn’t know better. Fortunately David contacted me to correct the record. I asked and several proprietors confirmed that fact. My bad. Very sorry for the misinformation.

I also learned that David regularly checks in with the businesses he lists to ensure he stays up to date and accurate.

Towns cannot be avoided. Periodically, every hiker needs to resupply, collect a mail drop, shower, do laundry and recharge their electronics. This is not to mention scoring an occasional beer.

Part and parcel to town stops are shuttles, hostels, motels, restaurants, zeros and slack packing.

I have slipped in and out of town on the same day for what is most often called a NERO (near zero mileage day). More often it’s been in town for the night at a hostel and out early the next morning. This works especially well when your arrival time is early enough in the day to accommodate laundry and a super market stop.

When the town or a hostel is a long way from the trail, or you are slack packing (shuttled ahead to hike back to the original location while lugging a much lighter pack), expect to pay between $1.00 and $1.50 per mile. This can be split among a large number of passengers in season. Being solo out of season, there’s no such luck for me. It’s been expensive.

No two hostels or motels that cater to hikers are alike. Consequently it would be unfair to compare them. Some are conventional while others are deliciously eccentric.

Just remember that these are small businesses (sometimes labors of love) operating on razor thin margins that have to earn their profit in about three months in order to survive. Costs range generally around $20 – $25 per night with laundry and other amenities often extra on an a la carte basis. It adds up but the prices are fair.

Unfortunately nearly every owner told me stories of being ripped off by hikers. Please be sensitive to their economics. Being the only guest on many occasions, proprietors have related stories of gross misbehavior, drunkenness and other activity decent folks would never contemplate at home where their reputation is at risk.

We all need to be aware that any misbehavior reflects on and affects us all. The term “hiker trash” definitely has a double meaning, which is to say that it is not always endearing.

If you are respectful, folks tend to help make your life easier, and when they do, it’s always optional. What goes around, comes around.

So far trail restaurants have varied in cost and value. A couple have been excellent and cost accordingly. Please tip the wait staff.

The economies around many of these trail towns are not very diverse, and therefore weak to nearly nonexistent. Folks are working hard to serve you. The wait staff jobs are often the best in the area and support families. Please be aware and considerate.

I’ve been in four major storms since October. Three produced sleet, snow and low single digit temps. Weather has forced me twice into unplanned town visits. I’ve also had to replace lost and damaged gear. It pays to budget for unforeseen contingencies.

In summary, a town visit with a zero, restaurant meals and shuttles can easily add up to a hundred dollars or even more. That’s a word of caution to the wise.

Hope this is helpful.

20131215-154648.jpg

Emasculated Brass Monkeys

When it’s cold enough to freeze the gonads off a brass monkey, that’s a three dog night. Well, we’ve had more than one of those on the Appalachian Trail since the nor’easter blew by.

The days are pleasant enough. The sun is warm when you’re out of the wind. But, oh the nights! The mercury drops faster than lead balloon once the sun winks below the horizon.

There’s no mercy if you’re camped on the eastern slope of the mountain where the shadows come earlier and the radiant heat rapidly dissipates. Blink your eyes and, boom, it’s in the single digits.

It’s almost laughable. I’ve been reaching my daily hiking goals earlier than plan which assumes a two-mile per hour pace on average. What to do with the extra time?

Once at the shelter, the decision is to tent or not. If there’s precip in the forecast, I sleep in the shelter. Nobody likes to pack up a sopping tent let alone one frozen like a block of brittle nylon.

After that, it’s a rush to don warm clothes and set out the bed roll. After cooking and gobbling “whatever” before it can cool off, I dive into the sack to keep warm. Under these circumstances hiker midnight has come as early as 5:15 p.m. on a cloudy night on an eastern slope.

The good news is that sunrise is earlier. What is lost on one end of the day is gained on the other. Regardless, daylight is preciously in short.

Once in bed, I like to listen to the forest for an hour or so before plugging into my iPod vintage radio dramas, pod casts or recorded books.

On bitterly cold mornings, it’s a rush to pack up and get moving. My pack system is sleeping gear in the lower compartment with food, stove and clothing in the upper. Everything closes out in reverse order of what will be needed on the evening.

I eat cold food for breakfast because cooking in the morning takes too long. It’s just too damn cold and I need to preserve body heat. So, I munch granola bars after I’ve walked enough to begin generating heat.

Today offered an alternative in the form of good fortune. The over night temp remained above freezing – Yes! – as yet another storm front roared in from the southeast.

Even before I could even saddle up, the rain started in buckets. Beats the alternative I thought. If this precip was freezing, the misery might be profound. At least I started hiking in rain gear rather than having to fool with it on down the trail. You count fortune in small increments on the AT.

I was with Winter Walker, a Vermonter out for a thousand mile romp. He was a humorous fellow and very good company. Damascus was only 10 miles down the line.

Lunch at the Blue Blaze Cafe was our carrot. The rainy deluge our stick. Let me just say that we made early lunch.

The monkeys may have been emasculated by the prolonged cold, but we beat the odds to enjoy a nice meal. We’d laid siege to the gates of Damascus only to be welcomed warmly.

Warmth is all we wanted. Warmth is exactly what we got.

20131214-212200.jpg

20131214-212214.jpg

20131214-212223.jpg

20131214-212240.jpg

20131214-212303.jpg

20131214-214541.jpg

iPod incongruity

On days that I know in advance are going to be challenging, I like to plug into my iPod for distracting/ motivating music. I normally hike without music.

Tuesday was scheduled to be ugly. It was the fifth and last day of a very wet nor’easter. The forecast called for heavy rain turning to freezing rain and then blowing snow. I had 16 miles on the docket.

On days like this, I like to put my head down and go until I reach my destination, stopping only when absolutely necessary to eat a candy bar or when nature calls. Definitely an iPod kind of day.

As iPod serendipity would have it, the first song up on shuffle play was “Psychotic reaction.” My iPod has a sense of humor I thought as I climbed higher and the wind howled. Little did I know.

First up was Unaka Mountain. It summit is a unique spruce eco system frosted in ghostly white.

Unfortunately the trail bed flooded eight inches deep as the rain and snow melted. This forced me to bushwack off to the side. That trail could use some water bars to drain the river and retard the erosion.

An hour later, as I encountered a snow-encrusted scene straight out of “Dr. Zhivago,” my trusty iPod crooned “A summer time when the living is easy. Fish are jumping and the cotton is high.”

Now that’s hilarious I thought. The only thing. colored white around here isn’t cotton, that’s for sure. That is about as incongruous as it gets. I smiled and hiked on.

There is only one photo from that day because this time I was wearing mittens! My hands were toasty unlike in the smokies.

Ever try to manipulate an iPhone camera with ice encrusted Goretex mittens? It’s impossible. I did get one snap when I stopped for a quick bite.

My clothing was biggest reason for keeping moving. I was wearing a Columbia ‘Omni Heat’ base layer topped by rain gear. Moving generated enough heat to remain comfortable.

Stopping equalled rapid cooling unless I quickly dawned extra layers. Since I was coated in snow and ice, stopping wasn’t much of an option. The additional layers were at hand if needed though.

I kept checking my water for freezing. At about 3 p.m. I noticed slush forming so I tucked my bottle inside my rain jacket and pushed ahead.

I reached Greasy Creek at 4, a half hour ahead of schedule and enjoyed a very pleasant night as the only guest at the hostel there. All-in-all, a very good day.

20131211-162834.jpg

20131211-162900.jpg