Boredom on Long Distance Hikes

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Entering Virginia Blues territory.

There’s no set distance or time on the trail when the boredom switch flips. The lucky ones don’t experience boredom, but they are few in number. The rest of us are normal and it happens.

That switch flip may come sooner for hikers not used to being away from home. It comes much later for others such as former military or business types who are used to deploying overseas or taking lengthy business trips. Nevertheless it comes.

On the Appalachian Trail the “Virginia Blues” seem to be the most common malady related to boredom. It makes sense.  Virginia is the state with the most trail miles.  Somewhere, in what can become a vast wasteland, the tedium, monotony and the repetitious plodding along, can strip your soul like solitary confinement.

The endless weeks of staring at the ground, vigilant for trip hazards, eats your mind. The green tunnel is endless, the views are rubber-stamped, and the goal posts seem always to be moving the wrong way. Progress is slower than the watched pot that never boils. Your brain screams, Enough already!

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A trail family.

There are several coping strategies. One is to hike with compatible friends. Trail families offer distractions, both positive and negative. Above all they can serve as support groups where everyone keeps each other’s spirits up and copes together.

Virginia also is a basket full of what one might call trail candy, and hikers can hike from one delicious place to another marking their progress place by place.

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Damascus, Virginia.

The super hiker-friendly town of Damascus is the first sweet out of the wrapper. It’s just a hop from the Tennessee border and a half-day hike from the nearest shelter. The AT marches straight down a Main St. trimmed with restaurants, an outstanding outfitter and legendary hostels. Being the home of Trail Days adds to its ambiance.

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Wild ponies, Grayson Highland State Park.

A few days north of Damascus is Grayson Highlands State Park where the wild ponies gallop followed quickly by Partnership Shelter where you can shower and order pizza.

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Lindamood School.

You can go inside and write on the blackboard if you’re old enough to know what one is.

Almost before your body can absorb the pizza comes the Virginia Frontier Museum’s Lindamood School and the Barn restaurant, both right on the trail.

How can this be monotonous?

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Woods Hole Hostel.

The next layer includes Pearisburg home of the unique Woods Hole hostel and where the rule of thumb says you can safely send your winter gear home.

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It’s a bit of a stretch to the Audie Murphy memorial, the next delight. The memorial marks the spot where Murphy, WWII’s most decorated soldier, died in a plane crash.

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McAfee Knob.

Not long after that, in close order, you unwrap the Dragon’s Tooth followed by the photogenic McAfee Knob and the iconic Tinker Cliffs.

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The Guillotine.

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James River Bridge.

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Post crossing view of the James River.

Next up is a rock formation known as the Guillotine on Apple Orchard Mountain followed by the James River crossing. Then comes the Priest Mountain shelter where it’s traditional to confess your sins in the shelter register – salacious reading if you’re lucky.

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The confessional.

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Yummy.  Three hundred feet from the park entrance.

From the Priest it’s a short haul to Rockfish Gap/Waynesboro and Shenandoah National Park with its delicious waysides and handy campgrounds. Unlike in the Smokies, the AT touches most of the front country amenities in Shenandoah. The blackberry milkshakes are yummy.

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You know you’re in the park.

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The AT passes through front country in Shenandoah National Park.  Skyland Resort.

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The Roller Coaster hills begin.

.After Shenandoah comes the Roller Coaster hills with the $30 hiker special at Bear’s Den Hostel and from there, on to the psychological halfway point in Harpers Ferry.

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Bear’s Den Hostel.

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End of Virginia Blues territory

Chewing on Virginia’s trail candy  breaks it up a bit and beats singing the blues for more than 500 miles.

Blogging or journaling offers another creative distraction and a way to tell the story of your hike to family and friends.

Observation suggests thru hiker blogs come in two themes. One is the daily/frequent chronicle of mundane events – Here I come, there I go. Pitched my tent and dug a hole.

The other is the descriptive adventure story in which each day/time period becomes a unique story fueled by imagination and observation of the people and of the nature the writer finds along the way.

The three most common blogging platforms seem to be Trail Journals, WordPress and Blogspot. All of them are free.

Any thru hike requires a lot of mental stamina and it helps finding a way to disassociate your mind from the daily mind-numbing grind.

On the AT, the mental challenges don’t end in Virginia. They continue until the end.  Think about it this way, paraphrasing the late, great Yogi Berra: “(Hiking) is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”

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Flip Flops – the New Hiking Boot?

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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, April 16 -17, 2016 — Flip flops are not going to be the recommended hiking boot anytime soon.  Certainly they have merit.  After all they’d tread lightly on the environment – with no cleats to rearrange the dirt.  They’re cool and airy which might help limit athletes foot.  Certainly they’d dry quickly.  Alas, they’re just not practical.

Flip flops are a type of Appalachian Trail thru hike.  Rather than hike in a single straight line direction from one terminus to the other, flip floppers are hiker jazz artists, jumping ahead or starting somewhere between the two ends and working outward.  They still hike all 2,200 miles within 12 consecutive months, they just don’t book a linear itinerary.

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The ATC is trying to encourage flip flop hiking in an attempt to alleviate some of the spring season overcrowding on the southern 500 miles of the trail.

Enter the flip flop Festival, an attempt to increase awareness of and participation in nontraditional AT thru hikes.

More than a hundred aspiring thru hikers and hundreds of hikers attended the many seminars on hiking-related subjects including trail etiquette, hygiene, basic hiking, trail issues and long distance backpacking.  I offered the latter.  My slides are here:  Eating the Elephant

The festival featured vendors, displays and even a food truck.  The cannon is located in the exact same spot as one that appears in a civil war era photograph.

Sunday morning we sent those starting their hikes off in style following a tasty pancake breakfast hosted by the Harpers Ferry Odd Fellows Club which was chartered in 1833!  It’s building is graced with (rather poorly) repaired cannonball holes from the civil war.  Talk about history!

Later that afternoon we were hiking up the southern shoulder of South Mountain (Maryland), just outside Harpers Ferry, leading the second of Sunday’s day hikes up to a nice viewpoint overlooking the Potomac River called Weverton Cliff.

The conga line of hikers winding up the switchbacks reminded me of a big city rush hour traffic jam. People were stepping all over each other.

Why would anyone do this, I thought.  I like to share scenery and the outdoor experience with a few friends or people that I like in small doses.  That’s when I realized that above all, one word describes why I like to be on the trail where ever that trail may be.  Solitude… and that’s no flip flop on my part.

The Ridgerunners Ride Again!

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After a early evening rain shower at Annapolis Rock

Annapolis Rock, Maryland, April 1-2, 2016 — Spring has sprung loose the usual Pandora’s box that is the hiking public.  The weather is improving and they are on the march.  Time for the ridgerunners to ride again and help the challenged to do the right thing.

This year’s class is interesting.  We were funded for six vs. five last year.  The extra one goes to Shenandoah National Park where we’ll now have two veteran ridgerunners to cover 105 miles of the Appalachian Trail there. I’ll introduce or reintroduce everyone as they come aboard.

First things first.  Maryland funds two ridgerunners because its 42 miles of trail is among the most heavily used anywhere.  After all, millions of people who live in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. areas are within two hours travel time and easy access to relatively gentle hiking.  The trail candy, e.g. the sites, vistas, civil war, and monuments, are attractive incentives.

Consequently the state wants a caretaker at Annapolis Rock (AR or the Rock) from April one through Oct. 31.  All the rest, with one exception, work from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day – peak season so to speak. That exception launches in Shenandoah next week.

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The easy access, gorgeous views, romantic sunsets, and excellent rock climbing, not to mention being named one of Washingtonian Magazine’s top 10 hikes, make the Rock a prize to to which people flock in droves.  Three hundred people on a pleasant weekend day is not uncommon.  Someone’s gotta help and guide them or the vegetation would be trampled and the trash would obscure the rocks.

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Enter Kyle. He’s a jocular former Marine and 2014 AT thru hiker.  He’s also a recent graduate of the National Park Service Park Ranger Academy.

Ridgerunning is not glamorous.  First thing is moving into the rustic apartment provided by the Maryland Park Service.  Then the AR overseeer helps you find the wood chips that help the two composing privies at the AR campground work.  Taking care of poop by tending the privies is a big part of every ridgerunner’s job!  That’s the ironic part of this dream job.

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Q:  Guess what the shovel’s for?  A:  It falls into the privies.

Next you have to put up the tent in which you or the summer ridgerunner will be sleeping in for the next several months.

It was fun trucking that stuff up the mountain – not.  Thanks to Rush, the AR overseer for schlepping it up.

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We got the rain tarp flying over the picnic table just before the rain hit. The rain was a nice complement to April Fool’s Day.

After the first band of showers, we went up on the rock to enjoy the scenery and that last “golden hour” of sunlight.

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Overnight showers snare-drummed the fly of my hammock all night long.  Me, I was hanging high and dry, my ears stuffed with ear phones listening to old “Lone Ranger” radio shows. Rain drops or hoof beats.  I couldn’t tell.

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They sky cleared this morning and it was time to haul up the first bail of wood chips for the privies. The first day in the glamorous life of a ridgerunner.

Separation Anxiety

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Hiawassee, GA, March 17, 2016 — It was time to say farewell to my intrepid friend Denise and head home for a Hoodlums trail crew work weekend, since snowed out, but that’s another story.

I really didn’t want to go.  In fact, the bug bit me.  I really, really wanted to hike all the way home.  A cool thousand miles would be a great way to celebrate spring and work off my winter weight gain.  Unfortunately, my volunteer career comes with responsibilities requiring my presence in places other than the southern Appalachians.

I’ll be up front.  I think Denise is going to make it.  At the very least she has better odds than most.  She’s stubborn, positive, and has the self discipline of the soldier that she once was. Her competence in the woods counts for a lot.

For most people Georgia’s 80 miles are a bitch, plain and simple.  Although the treadway itself is mostly smooth dirt, the hills are steep and a good test of will and fitness.  The first day out, Denise’s challenge was compounded by a nasty upper respiratory infection (URI).

Being sick in the woods isn’t fun.  She suffered, yet she persevered without complaint – good sign!

Along the way we met a ton of people.  At one point she asked me if there was anyone I didn’t know.  Here we are with Erwin, Tennessee’s “Miss Janet” Hensley, one of the iconic trail personalities and genuinely good folks on the trail.  She’s referenced in memoirs going back to the turn of the century.  It’s fair to say those stickers help keep her van in one piece.

The weather this season has been unusually warm leading to a slightly greater number of hikers making it out of Georgia.  In other years adverse weather tends to wash out a lot of inexperienced people.

The warmth this year has led some hikers into believing spring has sprung.  They have sent their weighty cold weather gear home.  Not Denise.  She knows that she’ll  be hiking over 5,000 ft. (and at one point 6,000) for the next 400 miles.  Not until you’ve seen the wild ponies at Virginia’s Grayson Highlands state park just south of Parisburg is it safe to shed most of your cold weather gear.

Denise started ahead of the big bubble.  By March 15 last year I was counting around 150 hikers per day.  They fill the shelter/camping areas beyond capacity in spite of the heroic improvements made by the Conservancy, the Georgia Club, National Forest Service and the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Association.  Knowing the area helped us find good flat spots away from the tent cities.

We hit one day of intermittent rain last week.  Our training hike in the cold rain last spring paid off.  The orange rain cover is to give the hunters a visible aiming point.

I’ve always loved the way life renews itself and finds a way to survive and recover.  That tree is a survivor.

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People still need to learn how to Leave No Trace in the woods.  It’s gross, and a lot worse than this in many places.

Taken three years apart.

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Meanwhile, our intrepid hiker has invaded North Carolina.  One state down.  Thirteen to go. She’s fine.  I’m the one wringing his hands.   I’ll continue to cross post her blogs as her hike unfolds.

Brilliant Weather 

  
Neels Gap, GA, March 12, 2015 — Double speak lives. Winter is summer! The daily highs have been in the 70s. Even the gnats are out – bastards. 

Don’t get used to this hikers. Winter will find you. Promise.  

The second and third days in Georgia are difficult for many people. The climbs are steep and frequent, although relatively short. They take their toll. On average one-third drop out at Neels Gap, the 30-mile mark. 

  
The weather seems to be dampening the attrition rate some, in spite of the infamous Blood Mountain. Today it’s pouring buckets. Wondering what difference that’s going to make…

   
 
This year’s early crowd is very social. Folks gather round the picnic tables at the shelters. Note the electric devices. Not sure they enhance the experience, but then again, I’m a traditionalist. 

  
Not everyone camps at shelters. Lance Creek borders an area south of Blood Mountain, a section where bears are extra active and bear canisters are required for food storage if you camp overnight. Most don’t schlepp bear cans so they camp here. 

  
Special surprise trail magic. Ran into Clare Arentzen at Neels Gap. She was our ridgerunner  in Pennsylvania last season. Clare is a very special person who starts her thru hike next week. Go Clare!!!

They’re Off

  Springer Mountain, GA, March 6, 2016 — Denise crunched her first gravel about noon on the way to Hawk Mountain campground. 

  
The campground was built in record time. That’s the good news. It’s going to need improvements if it has a chance of becoming a hit with hikers. 

The 42 sites are muddy and most will flood in heavy rain. The “bear box” food storage and the privy were popular  with the 14 hikers there, but they were looking for cooking areas and fire rings to socialize. 

Oh, and one wag complained that the water was so far away that it seemed like Alabama. 

   
    
 
We stumbled into some trail magic from Psycho Bob the next day. 

  
Very tasty southern hot dawgs. 

Onward!

Adventure Season 2016

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Kensington, MD, March 2, 2016 — It’s that time of year again when the call of the wild echos through the ether.  This is when we plan, pack, lace ’em up and get it on.

The year starts in Georgia on the AT.  For one, I’m anxious to see if all the planning we have done to manage the early crowds actually is beneficial. All I know is that a lot of time and energy have gone into the improvements.

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Next it’s the National Park Service’s centennial.  Shenandoah has challenged folks to celebrate by hiking a hundred miles in the park in return for a free patch. My friend and first hiking partner Mary and her son Ben will be hiking there on a 600 mile-long AT section hike in mid-April.  I plan to tag along for all 105 of Shenandoah’s miles.

From there it gets fuzzier.  I have my ridgerunner hikes and trail crew week – only one this year. I’m signed up for a Leave No Trace master educator course and a talk on backpacking at Sky Meadows State Park, Va. for National Trails Day.

We’ve hired two returning ridgerunners and four new folks for this season.  More on them at another time.

There’s an opportunity to hike the northern half (Oregon and Washington) of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and/or the Colorado Trail.  Lastly, once school is back in session, finishing the Long Trail in Vermont is carved in stone after having to miss it last year.

I’m learning not to predict too much.  Plans do not survive contact with reality, and this year reality is holding a lot of face cards.   I’ve taken on some executive responsibility with my trail club that’s going to eat time, and have been nominated for a professional lifetime career honor that, if selected, I will accept in person come hell or high water.

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Top of the first inning is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, Georgia.  I’ve noted and written about my friend Denise’s plan to thru hike this year.  Well, she gets dropped off at the trailhead around noon on March 9.  I’ve made the arrangements to be there like a beacon to cheer her on and hike the first 80 miles of the AT with her. She will nail her hike to the wall.

The weather in Georgia has been all over the map.  Hey, it’s in the south you say; it’s bound to be warm.  Well considering that the entire AT in Georgia is above 4,000 ft., cold weather, sleet and snow are factors throughout March.

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I’m packing now.  My pack is going to weigh much more than normal.  For one, I’m carrying my food in a bear-proof container, not so much for the bears, but to set an example to others who don’t take bears seriously.

As for which sleeping bag, jackets and other clothing, I figured I’d split the difference between zero degrees F and 70F.

Stay tuned for dispatches.

Don’t practice being miserable!

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Forty liter pack. 

Appalachian Trail, January 5, 2016 — By now the 2016 thru hikers are deep into preparation.  A very small number have actually launched.  You go guys and gals!

Two years ago on this date I was thru hiking north of Damascus, VA.  The following day I was leaving the trail because one of my parents was going into hospice care.

That was cold hard news, but the weather was colder.

If you recall, the winter of 2013-14 was the year of the infamous polar vortex. When I woke up at dawn the morning of my departure, my thermometer read -15 F.  I had 21 miles to make for pickup.  That’s cause for pause for everyone planning to hike this or any year.

It had rained the entire previous day. Fortunately my rain kit kept my body and the contents of my pack bone dry.  That was a life saver under those circumstances, but my pack harness and pole straps were frozen hard as rock.  Pounding them into a pliable state generated much wanted body heat!

That icy morning I also took my all time thru hike favorite photo of a gorgeous white blaze framed in plump Virginia snow.

This year, as the seasons have switched from Indian summer to true winter, I’ve been following social media discussions on what gear thru hikers should carry.

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This March the temp on the AT in north Georgia fell to 4 F.

On the one extreme are the ultra light gram Nazis. Some of them won’t even carry a Bandaid for fear it will add too much weight.  On the other are extreme the Wally World folks who contemplate hauling camp chairs and elaborate cooking utensils.  Each of these approaches carries existential risks that aren’t for me. I can tell you stories …

Most everyone else is somewhere in the middle on pack weight. As I’ve followed the discussions and debate, I’ve contemplated what constructive information I might be able to add.  Afterall, I hiked 1,000 miles on the AT in winter conditions and was a ridgerunner in Georgia this past spring.  I saw and learned a lot of value from those experiences.

In that context I follow a blogger named Paul Magnanti (www.PMags.com).  Paul writes a very useful and entertaining hiker/backpacker blog from his home base in Colorado. His most recent is entitled “Snivel Gear.” Continue reading

A pain in the …

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The ring finger does not straighten.

Kensington, Maryland, December 23, 2015 —  This is going to be short because I’m typing with one hand.  Apologies to my Facebook friends.  You already know this, but you’ll see it again because my blog automatically posts to Facebook and Twitter.

I won’t be involved in much outdoor activity for awhile and there’s a good reason.

I inherited a recessive gene that causes Dupeytren’s Contracture. This is sometimes called “trigger finger.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dupuytren’s_contracture. Dupeytren’s is common to people of northern European heritage.

I like to say that the Vikings married their sisters back in the fiords, then spread the love while raiding and pillaging the British isles and the north coast of the continent.

Unfortunately I have a aggressive case and it exists in both hands. The disadvantage as a hiker, backpacker and trail maintainer is this:  I can’t get a glove or mitten on my right hand.  That could mean a quick trip to frostbite city in cold weather.  This condition specifically kept me from hiking the Long Trail this month with my friend Max and his dad.

Dupeytren’s (named by a pioneering French anatomist) can be treated in two ways.

The traditional approach is surgical where they slice away the collagen that grows around the affected tendons. The much newer alternative is to inject a solution that dissolves the culprit collagen.

I’ve previously had two surgeries on my right hand, and I had one injection procedure immediately before starting the winter portion of my AT thru hike..

This week I had another injection, this time into my right ring finger. The next day the doc straightened it out using a technique that I am certain came right out of the CIA’s torture handbook. Trust me.  You’d cough up your secrets!

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Novocaine is used both prior to the Xiaflex injection and subsequently when the orthopod unbends the affected finger.

The injection of bacteria-derived proteins (marketed as Xiaflex) is quick and done in the physician’s office. The procedure itself is more unpleasant than surgery – I mean they stick needles into the palm of your hand – albeit numbed with Novocaine, but even with the magic of numbness, it’s not nearly as fun as going to the dentist. 

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Post manipulation. The bruising gets more pronounced the second day.

The Xiaflex advantage is a blessedly quick recovery. I expect to return to the gym after two weeks. I should be able to run on Christmas Day.

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A brace is fashioned to help keep the fingers straight. Physical therapists work about every other day to return the finger as close to normal as possible. After a week, the brace is worn only at night – for four weeks.

Later in January I’ll have surgery to clean up the Dupeytren’s affecting my left thumb because I can barely open a large peanut butter jar.

The FDA has not approved Xiaflex for use on thumbs.  Fingers only.  Surgical recovery is a full six weeks. The PT is similar for either procedure.

Christmas Cookies

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With Ron Tipton, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and his ferocious trail dog.

Harpers Ferry, WV, December 5, 2015 — It was time for the ATC’s annual holiday party.  Say party and cookies in the same sentence and count me in.  Add hot cider to the mix and heaven will just have to wait.

Last year we attracted a nice crowd of what were mostly the usual suspects, trail denizens we all know and love.  More than 100 came to turn perfectly good cookies into crumbs, and they did an excellent job of it too.

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Greeting a visitor this year.

This year we drew 225 excited folks, most of whom we did not know.  What changed?  Two Hollywood movies about hiking, “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods.” This year a pile of new AT hikers came to find out what they could learn about planning the great adventures they are imagining for 2016.

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The Visitor Center has a mini shelter for kids complete with its own resident bear and shelter log in which they can color a beautiful entry.

Lots of families came.  Free cookies fresh baked by the volunteers are a big draw!  I ate my quota, but mostly behaved myself around the sweets.

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Professional cookie taster!