A Tale of a Beached Whale

Woods

In Maine’s 100-mile Wilderness.

This is the final post for “A fork in the road.”  A new blog will appear at this address entitled “Life at Two Mile per Hour.”  It will explore life’s adventures in active retirement be they combinations of fun, travel and adventure, or ups and downs and triumphs and tragedies of life.

This final post will cover the post hike blues and lessons learned for the purpose of sharing this experience for the benefit of future hikers.

My thru hike ended August 6th.  The operative word since then has been lethargy.  Imagine a whale stranded on a beach by his enormous weight and too tired to rise with the tide.  A mammal out of water so to speak.  How about swimming through molasses?  That’s how it’s been.  Adrenalin withdrawal, cold turkey, seriously clamps down on motivation.

A number of former thru hikers report having had the post hike blues.  While hiking, each day’s short term goal counts toward the strategic end game.  You can actually see and measure your progress as the miles click by.  You have a clearly defined goal for which to live.

Without the single-minded focus on pushing forward every day; absent the intense physical exertion required to negotiate the mountainous landscape, the mind loses direction once there’s no place to go and the adrenalin subsides.

After the white blazes disappear, the wheels spin but the direction tends to be circular rather than straight ahead.  It’s easy to sink into a favorite chair to enjoy that which has been sacrificed over the past several months.  For me it’s been reading and watching TV fortified by my favorite adult beverage in the evening — all the while too tired and unmotivated to do much else.

The good news is that within a week of returning home I was back at Fitness Together with a new personal trainer.  The one who so excellently prepared me for my thru hike has moved up to become a high school coach at one of the D.C. area’s excellent prep schools.  Good for Pam!  I’ll never be able to give her enough credit for helping me get in shape to tackle the physical demands of an AT thru hike.

There is good news in spite of my still sore knees.  My running times have improved tremendously — more than two minutes per mile.  That should be no surprise.  Weight loss has always been a miracle cure for slow running.  Hour-long runs are now common as I work my way up to 90 minutes once per week.  That’s probably enough.

My leaden arms also managed to bang out promised observational reports about my hike to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and to the Appalachian Mountain Club.  Sitting down to write them was akin to pulling teeth, but they got done.

Progress toward moving my now expanding behind is happening.  Thursday was my first day as a volunteer at the ATC in Harpers Ferry.  I’ll work on Tuesdays and see where it goes.  Meanwhile I’m seeking additional opportunities with my trail club aside from the trail maintenance I already do.  Committee service is first on the list.

Overview.

Rather than hiking the AT as planned, I backed into what actually happened.  The original plan was for a traditional NOBO thru hike beginning in mid-February.  February was chosen to get ahead of the crowd. Instead it unfolded in a very different way.

Following a 160-mile training hike from Rockfish Gap (Waynesboro, VA) to Harpers Ferry late last September and early October, I shifted to Springer on October 24 at the invitation of MayDay who was hiking to Fontana, TN where the southern gate to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located.  Somewhere along the way the siren song of the trail lured me to keep on going.

And so it happened. My thru hike was underway with winter knocking on Autumn’s door.  Hiking through the winter was not a major concern because of my previous experience and formal training.  Little did I know…

Philosophy.

Although I was in excellent physical condition in the beginning, I decided to measure my hike in terms of quality of life on the trail, not by the number of daily miles on the tot board at the end of each day.  Consequently, I didn’t hesitate to limit my daily mileage, zero when necessary or slack pack when that was convenient, all the while realizing that if you don’t make miles, you don’t make Maine.  In time I learned that occasionally taking some of the blue blaze by-pass trails was and expression of wisdom (and safety), not lack of commitment or a violation of someone else’s sacrosanct ideal.  They exist for good reasons, and it was my hike.

Scenario.

Real life has a way of intruding on thru hikes.  Said differently, a lot can happen in six months it takes on average to complete a thru hike.  Due to several circumstances, my hike lasted 27 trail weeks, but unfolded over 10 calendar months including time off the trail for Thanksgiving, Christmas, a wedding, a funeral and severe weather.  Lesson:  Be flexible and plan in advance to cope with predictable events and circumstances.

The basic plan was to stop at every other shelter, or about 15 miles per day on average.  Shelter spacing is flexible for various reasons.  Sometimes every other shelter is 20 miles, not 15.  Many times the terrain allows for a 20+ mile day without major strain.  My longest day was from Boiling Springs to Duncannon, PA ~26 miles.  The shortest was 5.4 from Mahoosuc Notch to Speck Pond.

Mostly each day’s hike depended on the amount of available daylight.  After awhile a formula emerged as the days lengthened.  If I reached the objective before 2 p.m. (happened a lot in the second half), then it was on to the next shelter or a stealth site.  After 3:30 p.m. a careful assessment of the trail, elevation profile and distance determined whether or not I’d go.  After 5 p.m., it was in for the night.

Cost.

The nontraditional nature of my hike upped the cost of my hike primarily in two ways.  The first was the additional equipment needed for winter.  The rest related to being off season when most of the trail infrastructure was closed.  This occasionally forced me into motels which are much more expensive than hostels.  Moreover until spring, there were no other hikers with whom to share shuttle and slacking costs which can be considerable.  Choosing to eat healthy foods as much as possible, including commercially prepared dehydrated meals; ducking extreme weather in town and the need to travel home several times added to the expense which totaled approximately $12,000.  I’d estimate I could do it for half to two-thirds that if I ever were to thru hike again.

Highlight.

Earl Schafer, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earl_Shaffer, was the first person ever to thru hike the AT.  Along the way he stayed in many places.  At least two of them are documented and I was fortunate to stay in the same room he used at each of them.

Elmer's Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs, NC

Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs, NC

AT Lodge, Millinocket, ME

AT Lodge, Millinocket, ME

IMG_1254IMG_1253

Equipment Review.

The top five most valuable items were:

1).  Zip lock freezer bags.  They are versatile. Among other things, they collect water, protected my electronics, guide book and other valuables.  I used them to repackage my dehydrated meals, to reduce volume, trash and for cooking too.

Ziplock

Ziplock

2).  Tenacious Tape.  This stuff is pure magic.  Formulated to repair nylon tents and other plastic, it saved my bacon several times.  After a mouse ate its way through my pack in Georgia, the repair stayed strong all the way to Maine!  It also repaired rips in the stuff sack for my tent and the plastic bag in which I stored my guide book.

TenaciousTape

3).  Light weight Brooks running jacket.  As I was walking out the door this jacket caught the corner of my eye and I tossed it in the car.  What could it hurt, I thought.  It weighs nothing and squishes down to the size of a baseball.  Serendipity!  I wore it almost every day.  Except on the coldest winter days, this breathable jacket over my base layer was sufficient while moving.  As spring sprung, this efficient windbreaker added warmth when I stopped to rest. It also alerted hunters to my presence.

Atop Max Patch

Atop Max Patch

4).  Ribz Front Pack.  When hiking with MayDay I complained incessantly about having to take my pack off every time I wanted a snack, to check my guidebook, to add or remove hats and gloves, find my head lamp, etc.  Next thing I know MayDay emails me a link to http://www.ribzwear.com.  Low and behold!  The answer to my prayers.  This handy $65 item kept me moving.  All-in-all I carried snacks, spare hats and gloves, bug juice, phone, headlamp, water treatment, notebook and pencil, vitamin I, hand warmers, spare junk and much more as the seasons changed.

Wearing Ribz

Wearing my green Ribz front pack

5).  Smart Phone.  Hello 21st century!  This little sucker served as camera (video and still), phone, map, telegraph (text msg), weather service, typewriter (albeit with thumbs), jukebox, game console, dictionary, ebook reader, and sooooo much more.  The lithium ion batteries froze several times on my initial iPhone 4S which forced an upgrade in NH when the battery would no longer hold a charge.  Sprint enabled me to be in contact with my family on all but around a dozen days.  Best Practice:  I texted the AWOL guide’s NOBO mileage number to my wife whenever I could, not just at the end of the day.  She marked progress on her copy of the book.

It's nice to know the weather!  Photo by Warren "Swayed" Fewtrell

It’s nice to have advance weather warning! Photo by Warren “Swayed” Fewtrell

The “one” takeaway.

A thru hike is an endurance athletic undertaking that is both physically and mentally demanding.  Being in shape helps prevent injury and not having to struggle physically bolsters the mental front.

That said, the length of time spent in the woods, the tedium of endlessly walking, being alone too long, the boredom of constantly having to look down to avoid falls, the green tunnel and more add up to a huge mental challenge.

You have to want this hike.  Nothing less than complete commitment will git ‘er done.

It was my good fortune to have read Zack Davis’ book Appalachian Trials before I left home.  It’s a must read and offers the key to overcoming the mental obstacles and stumble blocks that seem to crop up for most hikers beginning (but not ending) around the 500 mile mark.

Since finishing, it’s been interesting to reread some of the popular thru hiker memoirs.  It seems that each hiker has a unique experience.  For example, my recall of specific terrain features is very different than David “AWOL” Miller’s or those of the Barefoot Sisters.  This holds true with other hikers I know.  It depends on the day, the weather and the individual hikers experience and comfort zone.

The one thing everyone experiences is the mental challenge that must be overcome.  That’s where Zack’s book is different.  If you’re contemplating a thru hike and can read only one book, that’s the one.

Other gear.

Backpack.  I used two different Deuter packs. I like them because they infinitely adjust to fit my short torso.  The also ride comfortably and their design suits my organizational style.  Their upper and lower compartments allow me to separate my sleeping gear from my food and clothing.  Ample outside pockets allow quick access to items such as rain gear that might be needed in a hurry.  That they wear like iron is an added benefit. Eighty percent of my hike was done with an ACT Lite 40+10. I would carry them again.

On the downside, Deuter packs are very old school.  They aren’t seam sealed and do not have water resistant zippers.  I also had to add longer zipper pulls for use with winter mittens.  The lone pocket on the hip belt is a joke.  Trash bags inside combined with a pack cover outside are absolutely necessary to guarantee dry contents.  Don’t even think about doing it any other way.

Tent.  The Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 was a good choice.  It’s light weight, weather tight and roomy.

I used it about 80 times.  The rest of the time I slept in shelters.  Sleeping in shelters made for quicker set up at night and much quicker get-aways in the morning.  Privacy was not an issue because I was alone or with one or two others most of the time.

One technical issue arose.  I stored the poles in the water bladder compartment in my pack since I didn’t otherwise use that space.  Over time movement caused the shock cords to snap. Although I could still use the poles, Big Agnes customer service shipped new poles and a new stuff sack for my tent free of charge.  They done good, as they say in the south.

Air mattress.  What to sleep on is a big question.  Closed cell foam sleeping pad or air mattress?  That is the question.  Primary considerations include weight, size, ground temperature and durability.

Cold weather alone dictated that my sleeping pad be a strong four season insulator.  My Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite performed perfectly.  No leaks, no repairs, just superb performance.  It packs smaller than a Nalgene bottle and weighs 8 oz.!

Everything has a down side.  As if its yellow color wasn’t loud enough, the Mylar heat reflective baffles inside make a hellova lot of noise.  You can wake yourself up just rolling over, or compete with the Harleys on Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Take your choice.  On my second night out, I slept in a shelter with a section hiker.  Each of us had brand new NeoAirs.  It was a loud night.  The good news is that the noise diminished some in time.

Sleeping bag.  I carried a Sierra Designs “Dry Down” woman’s sleeping bag designed for someone not taller than 5’6″.  It was rated at 25F.  Being short saved me $100 over the cost of a similar men’s bag. It also saved some weight.  Since women sleep colder than men, a 20F rating would be more like it.

I supplemented the bag variously with two down jackets sized to fit one within the other, and with down pants and booties.  I was warm at -5F using this configuration plus a fleece hat on my head.  Being able to mix and match to suit the temperature was an advantage as was my ability to reduce cube and weight by shipping individual components home as the weather warmed.  Of note, cold weather hikers have to carry this stuff anyway, so it pays to carry a lighter bag and supplement it.

The A.T. Guide by David “Awol” Miller.  This book is indispensable.  It’s most valuable feature is the comprehensive lists of hiker support businesses and services, complete with addresses and phone numbers, found in towns along the route.  Everyone I met along the trail wore theirs out, me included.  The one drawback is trying to determine from the elevation profile what the trail ahead will be like.  Neither myself or anyone I met could do it.  Some times the steep “sharks teeth” or “witches hats” turned out to be nothing burgers. At other times they ate your lunch.  No where does the book explain the tread way – smooth, rocky, slippery, etc.

Lessons.

Logistics.  It’s daunting to contemplate the logistics of a thru hike.  How do I make sure I don’t run out of food?  How do I get to town and find what I need.  How often should I plan to go to town?  Where do I find money, food and fuel?  Will mail drops work?  How do I space them?  The questions are endless.

To my great surprise, none of this was a big deal.  Until northern New England, towns are everywhere and you can pretty much stop when and where you want.  And at that, even in northern New England, there are plenty of towns.  Awol’s Guide helps with the planning.  In retrospect, I obsessed waaaay too much about logistics.

In a short time, a pattern emerged.  I carried food for five to six days depending and averaged a town stop every fifth day.  Getting to town was never an issue, even when the town was miles off the trail.  In town, I’d look ahead for my next stop – usually five days away.  Then I’d call ahead to reserve lodging and a shuttle if necessary.  The rest is Hakuna Matata if you know what I mean…

Zero vs. Neros.  Time in town is expensive.  In addition to the cost of the necessities – a bunk, laundry, shower and supplies – restaurant food is perhaps the most significant town expense.  There are ways to save money.  Several times I could reach town about 10 a.m. with time to shower, do my laundry, fill my food bag, grab a burger and hike out to the next shelter without staying overnight.  Obviously this saved money and helped maintain momentum.

Personal Hygiene.  We all know the aroma of Hiker funk.  Your nose detects some people long before you see them. There’s more than hiker funk to consider.  Monkey butt.  Skin disease and infection. Noro virus.  The list is endless.  None of it happened to me and these conditions don’t necessarily have to define anyone else either.  For more info there is an excellent post on White Blaze written by an Army Special Forces medic that offers excellent advice.

I got a lot of sage advice before hiking.  The second best entailed making a list of absolute necessities, a second list of want to have items followed by a third list of luxuries.  You can take all the necessities.  From the next two lists combined, choose one item.  I chose to make personal hygiene my top priority for two reasons.  First, I didn’t want to get sick. Second, I wanted to be perceived as a civilized human both in town and on the trail.

Among the things I did was to wash my hair every night with waterless shampoo (available at REI), carried “Wet Ones” and Dr. Bronner’s eco friendly soap.  I also brought deodorant.  It would be very unusual for a bear to try and eat you for your deodorant.

My physician also prescribed prescription pain, anti-nausea and antibiotics should I need them to address the most common trail maladies. Unfortunately I needed to use three pain pills. Fortunately, none of the others were needed.

Organization.  Staying organized on the trail is vital to success.  I took countless photos of lost gear along the way. At shelters full of people, gear gets intermingled and sometimes goes astray.

Most people learn to pack their backpacks the same way each day with everything going in the same place it occupied the previous day. That’s the best way to know where everything is and to ensure nothing gets lost.

My system was simple.  Distribute weight.  Separate food and bedding.  First things used are the last things in so that they are on top.  Immediate need items such as cameras, rain gear, light sources, first aid and TP are easily and quickly accessible.

The best question I was ever asked before my hike was this:  Are you camping or hiking?  Hikers need less stuff.  Less weight increases your chances of success.  Put differently, the smaller your pack, the less weight you can put in it.

My pack on day one.

My pack on day one.

Lost fleece hat.

Lost fleece hat.

Lost gloves.

Lost gloves.

Someone forgot their rain gear.

Someone forgot their rain gear.

How can you lose your boots and a shirt in the middle of the trail?  Some one did.

How can you lose your boots and a shirt in the middle of the trail? Some one did.

Thru hiking the Appalachian Trail is one of America’s great adventures that nearly anyone can enjoy, at least in part. Thanks for sharing my journey, for your encouragement and for your thoughtful comments.  The pleasure was all mine.

17 thoughts on “A Tale of a Beached Whale

  1. Jim — I’ve been waiting for this and it was well worth the wait and well done. Thank you!
    I’m off on another section hike in a couple of weeks, picking up from where I got off the AT last May. Needless to say, much of your excellent advice is being followed and all of it is much appreciated.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed following your adventures on the AT. I learned a lot. You taught me about a lot of things I never would have imagined. Plus, you gave me and Melanie inspiration to get out and try some more challenging things for ourselves.

    We tried winter hiking and snowshoes for the first time this year. What fun that was. Parts of it were really magical with the snow and ice.

    This past week, we have been in the Taos area. Friday we hiked a 5 mile loop taking us from 7200 to 8300 ft. The downhill was the hard part. But we were psyched by the experience. Today, we hiked a 2 mile out and back that started at 10,100 and went to 11,200 ft. For us flat landers from Iowa, that was awesome. And, the transition into the alpine biome was beautiful.

    Thanks, Jim, for sharing your AT days. I know it did great things for you mentally and physically. It also did a lot for us.

    Peace… Jim

    • Jim,

      I’m speechless. Never in a million years would anyone hope to be so inspirational. If you are ever out this way, let me know and we can share a hike.

      Keep on truckin’.

      Jim

      • That sounds good. Thanks. Likewise, if you come to Iowa. We have a Pikes Peak St Pk near us. We’d love to show you. It is not as high as the one in CO. But, it is named for Zebulon Pike just the same. 🙂

  3. What a great post to wrap everything up. I was very impressed with the use of your front pack and could see where it was a very handy thing to have.

    I could see where it feels like the world has stopped turing and your asking yourself…”Now what…” That’s cool that you’re helping out at Harper’s Ferry. I enjoyed that town and would like to go back. Keep us updated on what you’re up to.

    I’m just trying to get in kaykaing, hiking and bike riding on weekends while the weather is still nice.

    • I’ve joined a Nordic ski club and have signed up for a couple of long distance relay teams. Also going to ALDHA up in Massachusetts in a couple of weeks. I just need to find another epic adventure.

      • Iv’e thought it would be a cool thing to hike the trail of the Idititrod in Alaska. Not sure how many miles that would be. Do it in nice weather of course. That would be an adventure. Or, the John Muir trail in CA. There’s always the Ice Age Trail in WI!

  4. 1) well prepared, 2) well hiked, 3) well written/expressed thru photos, 4) well done AT thru-hiker ! “If a man does his best, what else is there?” ~ Gen. George S. Patton. He also said “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.” Your summit photo shows that exhilaration. Awesome !!!

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