Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Hike

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C&O Canal National Historic Park, July 7 – 10, 2019 — My Hoodlums trail crew colleague Cindy invited me to join her Allegheny Passage hike after her first partner was felled by a hip injury. We agreed to rendezvous at Paw Paw, WV – around mile 158 where the 3,118 ft. Paw Paw tunnel begins.  From there we’d trek to mile zero in Georgetown, D.C.  Link to Allegheny Passage Trail info.

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When Cindy asked me to join her for the last 160 miles, I thought, How hard could this be?  The tow path is flat! Just plant one foot in front of another for 10 days.  It would be a snap with campsites every 3 to 10 miles apart, each sporting a Porta Potty, a potable water pump and a picnic table. Pure luxury!

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Best of all, like the Laurel Highlands Trail, every mile is marked!  Measuring progress by the mile is reassuring.  The distance simply melts away.  Easy peasy, right?  Stay tuned.

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The tow path can be a bit muddy in places, but overwhelmingly consists of hard packed gravel.  Emphasis on the word hard.  It was like walking on unforgiving concrete.

The guide book is written for bikers, not hikers.  Hiker guide books have maps of trail towns showing where and the distances to needed business.  Whereas a mile is a lot for a hiker to walk to a grocery store, it’s nothing for someone on a bicycle.  The only clues we had were town name and yes or no for restaurants, grocery and the like.

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Accordingly I packed 10 days worth of food.  My pack weighed 30 lbs. full up including four lbs. of water in the bladder.  That’s a lot for summer when I usually schlep something closer to 20 lbs.

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The C&O is full of history which has been curated by the National Park Service.  We need a funder for a similar initiative on the AT.

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National Parks are a good cause, but it may surprise most citizens to learn how much the parks depend on volunteers and donations.  Without volunteers and philanthropy our national parks could not continue as we know them.  I wore the glove on my left hand to cushion the surgical scars from my hand surgery five weeks ago.

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Lock keeper’s house.  The canal closed in 1924 and it is surprising how much of its infrastructure survives.

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There’s an old mule barn in the distance.  Boat owners usually kept two mules hauling and two resting on the boat while boarding others along the way.  The sign says they would often get their animals back skinnier than when they left them because unscrupulous livery stable owners would feed short rations.

Most locks are preserved for appreciation.  A few are overgrown and barely visible.

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“Please stay off the ruins,” the sign says.  Of course there was a well-worn pathway to the ruins.

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Active train tracks.  When George Washington proposed building the canal, he could not have anticipated the invention of the railroad which paralleled the canal route even before the canal was finished.  Thereafter, canal boats shipped mostly coal rather than the full range of commerce originally anticipated.  Sadly, the C&O was obsolete before it was done.

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Some of the old infrastructure is still working.  The power plant still generates power.

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We saw a couple of friendly black snakes, a few deer, squirrels, turtles and water fowl, but not much else.

Enough of the park.  Here’s the people story.

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After a hot day, the first night we set up at a decent campground.  Later a couple on bicycles joined us.  Cindy is a hammock hanger.  In the absence of trees Cindy pitched it as a bivy.

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With T-storms in the overnight forecast, sweat soaked clothes hang in your tent which has places to attach lines for that purpose.  The rain and thunder drummed all night long.

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Yup.  It rained.  Everything inside was dry.

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Reveille.

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Midway through day one, we discovered abandoned bacon and dog food at a campsite.  We thought it interesting that the dog food attracted butterflies, but that the bacon was undisturbed.  In fact, we saw lots of raccoon tracks in the tow path mud.  However, in spite of being in bear country, we saw no bear sign whatsoever.  It appeared the camper couldn’t start the fire.

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In spite of the absence of bear sign, we hung our food anyway.

After a respite from the rain allowed us to pack up in the morning, the skies then opened in offering of a day-long baptism of our march.  Note the clothes line behind the picnic table where we hung our stuff out to dry including the plastic ground cloth from Cindy’s bivy.

When I pulled off my sopping socks, my feet were wrinkled and white.  They’d been aching a bit during the day, but I attributed that to the hard-surface walking.  Upon inspection I had developed blisters on the soles of both feet.

This is a first.  I haven’t had a blister in 30 years!  Blisters on the soles of your feet are no joke.  By morning my feet were dry and the pain was tolerable, so I changed into dry socks and thought I was good to go.

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Trash on this trail proved to be a feature rather than a bug.  Bikers are pigs.  The park supplies plastic trash bags at each campsite with instructions to pack it out.  Of course Leave No Trace educational signage was nowhere to be found.  Information on Leave No Trace outdoor ethics at this link.

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At noon on day three we stopped for lunch and to change my socks.  The heat and humidity induced profuse sweating.  To my surprise, my feet we again white and wrinkled with a cottage cheese appearance.  The blisters were worse.  I was in trouble.

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Finding abandoned cheap tents isn’t surprising to experienced hikers.  My bet is that someone either got soaked in the previous rain or did not want to carry a wet tent.

As the day progressed, the walking grew more painful.  I felt like a bird with a broken wing.  Fortunately vitamin I (Ibuprofen) took the edge off.

That night we camped at Fort Frederick State Park, the site of a 1756 stone fort from the French and Indian War.  Link to Fort Frederick State Park

We discussed my ability to continue.  The next day we’d be passing through the town of Williamsport where we planned to grab lunch in what turned out to be a stereotypical dive bar that served a delicious burger.  That’s where I’d need to decide.

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They were rebuilding flood-damaged part of the canal in Williamsport forcing a detour through the town.  We had stopped at the campsite closest to town where I inspected my feet.  The left was tolerable.  The right was a clear no go.  If the skin sloughed off, I’d be unable to walk and might require an embarrassing rescue.

As it happens there’s a C&O Canal visitor center in Williamsport.  That’s were I slipped my pack off my shoulder for the final time with only 60 miles on my odometer.  I limped inside and called for the hour-long ride home.  I must have looked pathetic.  The people at the center tried to cheer up a disappointed visitor who had failed his partner.

Cindy’s trail name is Song because she sings at any prompt.  She’s a walking parody of a Hollywood musical.  At one point, after reminding me that a mutual friend noted that her hiking partners tend to have bad luck, she launched into Queen’s 1980 hit, “Another one bites the dust.”  Well, as it turned out, that another one was me.

The good news, I’m meeting Cindy and our mutual friend, and her new partner, Janice in Harpers Ferry Saturday morning for breakfast.  It’s the least I can do.

Sisu

 

C&O Canal Walkabout

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C&O Canal National Historic Park, Maryland, November 16, 2018 — Sometimes these days it’s hard to find peace and quiet, free from Washington’s noise. That was our quest when we planned a Friday morning hike in this particular park.  Good choice.  We were rewarded with fabulous weather, nature’s serenity and the warmth of good friendship.

Unfortunately high water closed the trail we’d planned to hike.

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The water level in July.  Note the rocks above the sign.

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The water level has risen because the Potomac River watershed precipitation levels are far above normal.

The part of the C&O Canal park located in urban Washington has three hiking trails.  The Billy Goat A trail was flooded and closed for safety reasons.  Link to blog about Billy Goat A  The adjacent Billy Goat B has been closed for maintenance and redesign for awhile, and only the more distant Billy Goat C was open.

Rather than drive to Billy Goat C, we decided to wander the canal towpath out and back for a few miles.  That proved to be serendipitous.

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Earlier in the week, the weather report predicted snow.  With steely resolve we vowed to persevere regardless.  Knowing how inaccurate longer term weather reports are, we rightly kept our fingers crossed.

Over time the report shifted to rain, then finally to a reasonably warm 30 to 40-something morning dusted with sparkling sunbeams and kissed by a light breeze. It was perfect for dancing down the pathway.

In all it was a day any little kid would love.  Besides, who are we at heart but big little kids who are allowed adult beverages.

Along the way, we told stories, laughed, snapped a ton of photos, and complained about politically induced headaches.

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In total, we discovered three blue herons patiently earning their living trolling the abundant canal waters.  This is one.

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Another heron working the far bank.  These birds are quite large, about three times the body size of the mallard ducks which also were in the area.

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A busy flock of mallards.  We saw dozens of these paddlers throughout the day.

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The crunching gravel sounds like music.

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In places the canal is wide and deep blue.  In others it’s shallow, snagged with tangled trees, dabbed with floating green algae.

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The designer of Central Park in NYC and Piedmont Park in Atlanta has a monument.

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Who are we?  Friends who worked at the White House more than 20 years ago.

After our hike, we adjourned to a nice Tex-Mex place where, over a tasty lunch and margaritas,  the conviviality continued.  We’d earned it.

The next sunny day adventure:  Annapolis Rock.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Sisu

 

 

 

Ten Glorious Days

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Hiking and Working on the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah National Park, October 4 – 10, 2018 — Being busy beats boredom more often than not. It’s the same when work is pleasure and pleasure is work.

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Hike across Maryland hikers resting at the Ed Garvey shelter.

Road Scholars offers several hikes in our region.  The one in which we are normally involved is hiking legs of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia – in that order.  We have one more of these on schedule for this season.

The other offering is four days hiking the AT across Maryland’s 42 miles.  This is a gentle hike compared to rest of the AT with most of the miles spent running a ridgeline on an old logging road converted to trail.

We were asked to fill in for leaders who could not make it.  Good weather graced our participation and the hikers marched into Harpers Ferry in good spirits.

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The next day, my friend and colleague Mary Thurman, currently Blackburn Trail Center caretaker, offered to help with some trail maintenance on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

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On a grossly muggy day, we weeded a couple of miles worth of trail on two sections in the North District and removed seven blowdowns, two by handsaw; the rest with a chainsaw.

The long sleeves, gloves, face shield, and buff are to protect from poison ivy which is atomized by the string trimmer.  You can feel the spray as you go.

Soon Mary will be headed for her next gig at the Grand Canyon.  I’m going to miss her. This spring my wife and I are going to celebrate my 70th birthday in Colorado with my siblings and cousins.  Mary and I plan to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim on the way.

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Twelve hours later.  Here we go again.  Time for the White House Hiking Group’s planned hike up Old Rag, Shenandoah’s most popular hike – so popular that it was on Thomas Jefferson’s bucket list back in his day.

We rendezvoused literally at Zero-dark-thirty in order to get a jump on the crowds.  On a rare dry day in a rain soaked summer, you just knew people were gonna come, and they did.

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Dawn cracked with an unexpected overcast.  Since you hike Old Rag for the views we prepared for disappointment.  Imagine our delight, popping out of the gloomy clouds  into happy sunshine.

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Obligatory horsing around photos.

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We made it!

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Brick oven pizza and a brew in nearby Sperryville capped the day.

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No rest for the wicked.  Tuesday and Wednesday brought the Road Scholars again, this time hiking the AT in four states.

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This bunch was unique – a running group from Grand Rapids, MI.  They’ve been together for decades and were a hoot!

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Meanwhile Sophie endured surgery to remove a cancerous cyst. The bounce is returning to her step and the prognosis is good.

Not until the heavy exercise was over, did the weather turn toward autumn.  The humidity and temps are mercifully down just in time for the Hoodlums trail crew next weekend.  See you there.

Sisu

Last Ridgerunner Hike of the Season

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Appalachian Trail in Maryland, August 24 – 26, 2018 — In spite of the horrible heat, smothering humidity and the drenching rains we’ve enjoyed all summer, autumn is skulking on the next calendar page and that signals the time when the clock expires for all but one of our ridgerunners.

The last man standing remains on duty in Maryland until Halloween hoarfrost beards the pumpkin patch.

Still, the season’s not over until it’s over.  We made time to celebrate the season’s finale with a final jaunt across Maryland’s 42 AT miles.

Kiki and I cinched up our hip belts and headed southward from the Mason-Dixon line, to Harpers Ferry.  I always forget this route is a little more challenging than hiking the other way around.  People say the trail in Maryland isn’t rocky.  Not so, as my blistered boots will gladly attest.  Best of all, hiking southbound front loads the best of the abrasive boulder fields.

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Kiki carried a hoe to clear clogged waterbars (drains) on what proved to be a waterlogged trail.

Initially we didn’t set a goal for the day because we got a late start which was the result of stashing my car in Harpers Ferry. We decided to see how the day would unfold.

Of note, Maryland is one of the most hiked portions of the AT with millions of people from the greater metro areas between Philadelphia and Washington living within a two-hour drive.  Consequently,  no dispersed camping is allowed to help protect the environment.  To compensate, there are shelters and campgrounds conveniently spaced along the way. We suffered no worries about finding a place to camp.

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We made excellent time in spite of finding several gallons of trash.  We measure trash by estimated volume rather rather than estimated weight for closer accuracy.  Occasionally, we stopped to enjoy the views after breaking up an illegal fire ring or two.

Penultimately we thought we’d drop anchor at Pogo campground.  (Yes, it’s that “the enemy is us” Pogo.)  But, long before we reached Pogo, we remembered Annapolis Rock is just a couple of miles further, and there our colleague Harry would be in residence as caretaker.

At our pace, we’d arrive slightly at the end of evening nautical twilight, but having the company and hanging out at the caretaker’s picnic table was worth the energy expenditure.

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Caretaker’s tent.

As it happened, we literally stumbled in, tripping over stones because we weren’t using our headlamps with the intent of pranking Harry.  In the gloom, Harry didn’t recognize us as we pretended to be thoughtless hikers intent on breaking all the Annapolis Rock rules like building a fire and camping on the overlook.  Ya had to have been there to appreciate the dialog before we ended the charade.

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Two years ago, in a one in a million tragedy, a dead tree fell and killed a camper at Maryland’s Ed Garvey shelter.  Since then trees of concern are quickly removed.  Recently, we traded safety for aesthetics in the caretaker’s area.

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Insects had invaded the wounded area and hollowing was present in the trunk.

From Annapolis Rock, a reasonably strong hiker can comfortably reach Harper’s Ferry the next day.  However there was a risk of arriving too late to catch the shuttle to the National Park Service’s remote lot and my car.

So, expecting unusually good weather for this sopping wet year, and therefore a busy Saturday, we decided to hike to the Crampton Gap shelter.  That would leave an easy 10 miles for Sunday morning.  It proved to be a solid decision when we coached a large group of young men on how to party without ruining the evening for everyone else.

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On the way to Crampton, we stopped to inspect and clean up the shelter at Rocky
Run.  We found a supermarket bag with a week’s worth of hiker food hanging on the bear pole.

Why would someone leave that much food where it was?  We checked with some campers.  It wasn’t theirs.  It was there when they came.

The food could have been leftover from an individual hiker or one of the many college freshman orientation groups currently on the trail.  It also might have been a misguided attempt by a trail angel.  Regardless, it’s irresponsible behavior to leave food anywhere in the woods.  The good news:  Kiki didn’t have to buy supplies for his final week on trail.

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Speaking of college freshman orientation groups, we met students from Loyola University of Maryland (Baltimore) on the trail and stopped briefly to chat.  They seemed like an agreeable group.  Only at Ed Garvey, where they’d camped the previous evening, did we discover the present they’d left for us in the privy’s wood chip barrel.

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Thanks Loyola for more trash then we could pack out.  Then we wonder why the number of problem bears is increasing.  I’ll be sending a letter to the university with an offer of free Leave No Trace education this spring when they train rising seniors to be student leaders.

But, there’s more …

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Survivalists and preppers are among the many subcultures on the trail.  They are sometimes called camosexuals, a label that is a twist on the Hipster lumbersexual subculture. Unfortunately, if everyone strip mined live vegetation like this, the shelter and camping areas would look like moonscapes.  This was within sight of the shelter.

This makeshift shelter would have been worthless in wet weather.  Moreover, nowhere on the Appalachian trail is this appropriate.  If you really want to do this, the national forests and some state forests are happy to oblige.

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We found this fire ring and grill half way between Ed Garvey and Harpers Ferry.  Not a bad field expedient attempt at making a grill from green wood and wire. Again, fires and dispersed camping are verboten in Maryland. But if you are willing to risk an expensive ticket, why not clean up your mess?  Please!  Leave No Trace.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Billy Goat Trail

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C&O Canal National Park, Maryland.  July 12, 2018 — When my friend Mary was volunteering as my swamper while I chainsawed blowdowns Monday, she mentioned a hike she and friends were planning for today just 20 minutes from my house.  Did I want to come?  Did I?  Don’t count me late for dinner!!!

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We met at the Great Falls Tavern visitor center for a scramble along the craggy Billy Goat Trail.

Billy Goat Sign

Photo by Mary Thurman

There are three Billy Goat Trails – A, B and C.  We hiked A.

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These routes lie in the higher part of the Potomac flood plain where they have been scoured from the bedrock by eons of roaring water.

 

The views and falls are spectacular.

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People were out taking advantage of the low humidity including the climbers on the far bank and a kayaker in the river.

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Kemosahbe.  Many buffalo pass this way.

The Great Falls and the Billy Goat trails lie in the heart of the Washington, D.C. metro area. Its population of 6.1-million spits out an endless supply of park-loving visitors.

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Sadly we’re loving this park to death along with many others.  Think about it.  Many people.  Small Space.  Overcrowding.  Environmental damage.  Lots of rules.

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Trash is no stranger.  Too many of the day hikers are bugs, not features.  Their ignorance and lack of concern beget litter.  Why anyone would bag their dog’s poo and then leave it is confounding, but found it here and see it everywhere on hiking trails.  In total we policed up more than a gallon (by volume) of trash during our hike.

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Fortunately, the trail tread is water-worn bedrock.  For water, it’s always the long game.  She’s patiently gonna wear you down until you shine like a cheap suit.  She’s going to be here long after we’re extinct.

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Humans aren’t the only environmental impact.  This ambitious beaver bit off more than he could chew.

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Enough of the bugs.  Now for the features.  On Billy Goat A, the price of admission buys a quality climb up a sharp knife edge.

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Photo by Mary Thurman

As we soared upward, I was suffering flashbacks of the Appalachian Trail in “Rocksylvania.”  My shouts of “You got nothing on Pennsylvania!” bounced off the bedrock with absolutely zero effect.

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Near the top.

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Summit view.

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Well-earned salt stains thanks to the low humidity.  Consensus:  We’d do it again in a heart beat.

Sisu

Road Scholars 2018 Edition

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First Road Scholars of 2018 on the Appalachian Trail at Bears Den Rocks, Virginia

Middle Maryland and the Rollercoaster, Virginia, April 17 – 18, 2018 — If ridgerunners are the first sign of spring, then the start of Road Scholar hikes is the confirmation.  This week we hosted our first group of Scholars on their ‘Hike the AT in Four States’ offering.

Link to program web page:  Road Scholar Description

This was a fun group.  Several claimed they wanted t shirts to display things like:  “I got detention at Road Scholars” or “I flunked out of Road Scholars.”  In a couple of cases, I actually believe such shirts might be prophetic.

These folks, being the confirmation of spring, could have fooled all of us. They were miscast. Their first hike in Pennsylvania featured trails turned to torrents six inches deep.  Maryland featured spitting snow and ouchy wind chills.  Virginia opened cold (note the title photo) but ended as a bright sunny spring day.  West Virginia today featured winds gusting to 40 mph.

Somebody ought to tell the prop department to knock it off.  Winter’s over, dammit!

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A stop at Dahlgren Chapel, Maryland. Link to Dahlgren Info

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Reading the historical markers at Fox Gap where a civil war battle occurred.

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Recently defaced Confederate marker.  This is part of a national trend.  Unfortunately, this marker is part of a battlefield, not a city park.

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Lunch at Rocky Run Shelter

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The trail is rocky and rough.  This hiker fell and we put a chemical ice pack on her injury.  We later learned that she had two hairline fractures of her wrist.

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Beginning of the AT hike in Virginia

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Approaching the first river crossing.

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One of five stream crossings in Virginia.  We feared high water but got lucky.  Notice the difference in clothing compared to the previous day.

Lunch at Sam Moore Shelter

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Best part of the trip.  Joined by Mary Thurman who was my 2015 ridgerunner colleague in Georgia.  This year she’s the caretaker at the Blackburn Trail Center.  The sign damage was caused by a bear marking its territory.

The intrepid Road Scholar hikers handled the five challenging rollercoaster mountains like pros.  Mary Thurman contributed photos to this blog.

Sisu

 

 

 

Hiking the AT via Virtual Reality.

This is a rewrite of a blog I wrote in 2013 while preparing to hike the AT.  It appears today on the AT Expert Advice Facebook page.

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At this time of year, some hikers are counting down the days, dying to get started.  The question is, How are you not gonna go crazy in the time you have left? Wouldn’t you rather have something to do to stay busy?

Then there’s those people would love to thru hike the AT, but just can’t find the time or the money to do it when they want. There has to be an alternative to a 30-year section hike or having to wait until retirement.

Well there is an alternative, at least an imaginary one.

Maybe it’s time to think outside the hiker box and solve the dilemma for those waiting patiently or impatiently to thru hike the AT.

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at one possibility.

If you can’t hike the AT for real, how about doing it on line? You could make it legit with reading assignments, quizzes and simulated practical exercises right in your own backyard.

Let’s envision what the AT hiking course on line might be like. Cue the dream sequence music….

Imagine it’s late winter. You’ve registered, and are ready to begin. You log into the website: www. noRain-noPain-noMaine .com It tells you to come back, but you must use your smart phone.

Lesson One: Communications:

Find a cell phone provider that radiates one bar in your area. That will simulate the reception you’ll get on the trail.

On that phone, read a dozen blogs every day and check Facebook as often as possible. Fill out the quiz you will receive via email by typing long answers with your phat thumbs. You get bonus points for doing it while standing in the rain or snow.

Lesson Two: Terrain.

Later, the doorbell rings. You look out side.
Looming in your driveway is a ginormous Terex MT6300 dump truck. It carries 400 tons in a single load!  This is a man’s truck.  Bet your sissy Ford F-150 can’t do this.

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Just your luck. Today that truck is brimming with specially sharpened and polished number 4, Pennsylvania-grade, extra-slick, hiking stones.

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This is where Pennsylvania stores its extra rocks until they are needed.

The MT6300 dumps a mountain right there on your driveway. Leave most of it be. It’s for practicing PUDs. But, do spread some of the extra stones over half of your yard. You’ll need those rocks to sleep and trip on for the next six months.

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Spread the extra rocks like this.

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

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Turn half of your yard into a swamp.

Lesson Three: Drinking water.

Find a nice mud puddle. That’s your water source.

Just a little later, a muddy brown UPS food truck delivers cases of dehydrated oatmeal, spaghetti and jars of peanut butter, tortillas, pop tarts, Snickers, and Knorr noodles with tuna. Yummy! You’re not going to starve.

Lesson Four: Environmental simulation.

This is the one time you’re allowed inside.

Put on your rain gear. Prepare a meal and go into your bathroom shower and turn on the cold water. Eat the meal while standing under the full spray. It’s also the last shower you’re ever going to get.

Lesson Five: Blogging.

Write a blog about how great the meal tasted and how much fun it was to eat it in the shower. Note how great your hike has been so far. In this lesson you get a field trip to the scenic overlook nearest you.

Obviously, the course is just warming up. With each passing weekend you sign into the next lesson with your phone and single bar of connectivity, then you hike or hitch to the post office for new training materials. Why mail? We need to simulate as much realism as possible and you need practice hoping your mail drops arrive on time.

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

Best of all, other students in your area come over and together you form a trail family, make a friendly campfire every night, share your secrets, and build friendships that last forever.

Finally spring arrives.

Lesson 19: Flora and fauna.

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Plant your yard full of the poison ivy you received by mail. Set out pots of stagnant water in which to grow the mosquitos and ticks.  When nature calls, dig a hole.

And so it goes on endlessly, each night after work, every weekend, and through your two-week vacation. Month in and month out, in circles you march while your potty towel edges grow dull and the music on your iPod becomes monotonous.

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

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

Last Lesson:

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Climb to the top of your rock pile. Take a stereotypical photo with the fake cardboard Katahdin sign that came in last week’s mail. Declare victory and send in the photo for a special certificate of completion!

If you enjoyed the shower sequence and making friends, you’re qualified. Sign right up. It’s time to hike.

Sisu

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.”

Sisu

Planning Your On-trail Budget

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Where the budget starts for most hikers.

From and article I prepared for the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page, January 5, 2018.

Running out of money is one of the primary reasons hikers do not finish their thru hikes. A realistic budget, understanding where the money goes, and a little self-discipline can help ensure your hike goes all the way.

What a previous hike may have cost any single individual is relevant to your planning, but not definitive because everybody is unique. But, if you know what drives costs, you can develop a budget that will help you succeed at a price you can afford.

So, this post isn’t going to tell you now much money you need. Instead, it seeks to help you think through how to develop your budget by looking at where costs come from and offering a sense of what average hikers spend.

The irony is that while you’re actually hiking, you aren’t spending money. You may be eating, wearing or carrying what money bought, but unless you’re shopping on line from mountaintops, you’re not actually burning cash while you are on the trail itself.

Being that we’re discussing on-trail expenses, we will not include the cost of gear or equipment purchased prior departure or your transportation home.

Towns are money sumps. Some expenses are undeniably necessary while others are optional, but for the most part, how much you spend is purely up to you.

At this point human nature is worth noting. By the time a thru hiker gets to town, s/he has been on the trail for approximately five days. In addition to the big four: groceries, laundry, fuel, and a shower, most hikers want to sleep in a bed. Those five usually cost less than number six.

Number six. Being people, we’re hungry for restaurant food and maybe a beer or two. You guessed right. That’s where the real money goes. A restaurant/bar stop can cost more than the big five all together. Stay for a zero and a second night and you can easily double that.

So let’s talk about town stops.

First, how do you get to town?

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Some hostels shuttle for free and some do not.

With the exception of the few times the trail actually runs down Main Street, you’ll need to hitch or shuttle. Hitching is free, but sometimes difficult or sketchy. It’s also against the law in New York, New Jersey, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, in and around Harpers Ferry, and possibly more places. Weather and time of year also can be factors in this decision.

Shuttles usually cost around $2 per mile. Be sure you understand the cost before asking the driver to meet you at the trailhead. Shuttle drivers also expect cash payment.

With a growing number of hikers attempting to duck payment, some drivers are asking for payment up front, so be prepared.

Some hostels shuttle for free; some don’t. Sometimes you can spit costs with other hikers or get a group discount. If the guidebook doesn’t say, be sure and ask up front.

The average one-way shuttle cost is around $10 – $20 or $20 – $40 per town stop.

Once in town, expect to walk where you need to go. Hostels located outside a nearby town generally will offer free daily shuttles to town at designated times.

The big five:

Grocery costs depend on menu. The menu includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Also, most hikers change tastes over the course of their hike. So, that energy bar you love today may be the one you gag on three months in.

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Shopping at Ingles in Hiawassee, GA.  Taken from the in-store Starbucks.

As for entrées, on the high end is freeze dried food. You can save a little by buying freeze dry food in bulk, and use resupply boxes, but your tastes may change. On trail, freeze dry meals are available at Walmart and at most outfitters. Depending where they’re bought and the specific meal, freeze dry food costs, on average, between $6 and $10 per meal, bending toward the higher number.

Among the more affordable prepared foods are Knorr sides and Ramen which can be supplemented with tuna or chicken packets and much more. Hikers also favor instant oatmeal, granola bars, energy bars, candy bars, jerky, instant coffee, cured sausage, cream and block cheese, hardboiled eggs, crackers of all kinds, olive oil, peanut butter, tortillas, snack cakes, sticky buns, and cookies just to mention a few. Consider taking a multivitamin if you eat too much of your diet in refined sugar and salt.

Of course there are vegan diets and those who love fresh food. Also, some cook and some don’t. Choosing not to cook can save $3 – $8 per week in fuel costs depending on fuel type.

Your menu choices will determine food costs.

Don’t forget you’ll not be very hungry but will transition to eating much more after hiker hunger kicks in.

Your grocery bill will depend on what you eat. Between $30 – $50 per resupply stop seems to be around average.

Your trip to town subtotal is now $50 – $90 and you still have to shower and do laundry. There’s also a place to stay.

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No two hostels are the same.  Costs can vary dramatically.

Let’s say you’re sleeping in town. Hostels are cheaper than motels. The cost of hostels can vary widely depending on amenities – platform bunks vs. mattresses and pillows, tenting, private rooms, etc. Some hostels include laundry in their total price while others offer a la carte pricing for laundry, showers, snacks, meals or offer use of a kitchen to cook your own meals and save money.

Laundry and showers, without stay, at most hostels average around $5 each.

The cost of a hostel stay can vary a lot. The prices have been recently increasing due to supply and demand, the short season, and growing overhead costs. While one may be as low as $25, another can be more than $50, with some considerably more. An up to date guidebook will have the details.

At this point your plan may be to stay only at the least expensive hostels, and at that tent whenever possible to save money. Unfortunately no plan ever survives contact with reality.

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Severe weather can change your plans.  Photo by Warren Fewtrell

Your spreadsheet may say so many miles per day and specify town stops. However, weather, illness, frame of mind, trail family companions, injury, fatigue and a host of other issues may alter that planning and add considerable unexpected expense.

For planning purposes, it’s generally safer to round up. So let’s average $50 per hostel stay even though that may be slightly on the high side.

Your bare bones town stop is now up to $100 – $140 and you haven’t even had a hamburger yet.

Remember the reference to human nature. It takes a strong will to forego at least one restaurant stop while you’re in town.

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Some restaurants are part of the trail tradition and are difficult to avoid.

Run into some trail friends you haven’t seen in awhile, here’s betting you can’t avoid the temptation to find a place to eat, grab at least one beer and catch up. What about if you’re hiking out of town after a zero and just happen to run into these same friends you haven’t seen in awhile? Bet you take a second zero. Kerching! It’s like lighting twenty dollar bills on fire.

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Trail families form and dissolve.  You’ll want to catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile.

Beer and burgers/pizza cost more or less depending on where you are. Realistially, you probably won’t get out of most restaurant/bars, with the exception of fast food, for under $40 – $50. The cost of alcohol is expensive and most hikers don’t drink just one beer or eat one hamburger.

Restaurant food and alcohol can cost as much or more than the big five.

If you eat breakfast and lunch in restaurants, add more. The good news is that AT towns are so rural that there are only a couple of Starbucks on the trail, so your coffee habit won’t beak the bank!

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There are excellent and not inexpensive coffee shops/restaurants along the way.  Dalton, MA.

Subtotal: $140 – $190 per town stop. If you use resupply boxes, add around $15 for a medium size flat rate box, two-day delivery. A medium size Express Mail box will hold four days food.

Since town stops are so expensive, how many should you expect?

The average hiker goes to town every fifth or sixth day. The reason is that food is the single heaviest item – and one of the bulkiest – in their pack. Think weight and space. Five days is about what fits (in a bear canister, food bag or pack) at a weight hikers feel comfortable carrying. There are exceptions, but again we’re talking averages.

Divide the average time it takes for a thru hike, 180 days, by five and you get 36 before zeros. Believe it. You’ll want to zero from time to time. Let’s say you plan for 15, but due to circumstances actually take 20 under the round up principle. That’s 40 five-day hikes and 40 town stops.

Estimated rounded-up cost on the trail ranges between $6,000 and $7,200. Add $15 for each resupply box you expect to use. The author used about 15 of them, all in the north.

Resupply by mail is common.  You can leave boxes open so the contents can be adjusted if necessary.

Can you thru hike for less? Absolutely.

Start with fewer zeros. If your body holds up, you may only need one zero per month. That’s six, not 15. Unfortunately, that’s not what most people need or do.

By increasing days between resupply you need fewer town stops at the price of a heavier pack. You can use the NERO (near zero) option to minimize your overnight stays in town. Above all, decrease eating in restaurants and alcohol consumption.

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Hitch more if you’re comfortable doing that.

Work for stay also can reduce hostel costs. But remember that you won’t be the only one who wants work for stay and the opportunities are limited. There just isn’t enough work for everyone.

Be aware that hostel owners complain that a lot of work-for-stay hikers aren’t willing to work hard and do a good job. They have a list serve and communicate with one another. All the other hostels up the trail will know about shirkers or problem hikers. Do a good job and you’ll stand out from your competition.

One successful hiker was very smart about work for stay. He was a decent handyman who was able to do very useful work for hostel owners. When he completed his assignment, he’d ask the hostel owner to refer him up the trail. His lodging budget was $0 and he was successful. He even earned real money from time to time. The keys were his willingness to work very hard, do an excellent job, his useful skills, and being savvy enough to ask for help landing a gig at his next stop.

Of note.

You’ll need a budget contingency for equipment you may have to replace. Whether a bear tears up your tent, you fall and bend your trekking poles, a boot fails, or you lose weight and need new pants, you may have to replace something along the way.

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Gear breaks and hasty repairs don’t always hold.

Bear Damage.

Be aware that the southern end of the trail is very good at separating hikers from their money. The trail towns are friendly, the festivals frequent, and the hikers really want to be social.

You really have to watch your spend rate on the first half of your hike. Too many hikers spend way too much money in the south and have to go home early because they are dead broke.

Hiker feeds are found primarily in the southern half of the trail.  Do not depend upon them to reduce costs.

Many hikers don’t realize how much more expensive the northern half of the trail is compared to the southern half. There also are far fewer hiker feeds that sometimes off set food costs in the south. Consider adding 15 percent to what you think the southern half will cost.

New England accounts for part of the northern cost increase. The area is unique with its fragile ecosystems that require management of very popular overnight sites. Trail/infrastructure costs are higher because human waste has to helicoptered out at the end of the season. The warm weather season is too short for it to compost. Caretakers must be paid. Campsite fees cover these extra expenses. They are listed in the trail guidebooks.

The huts in the White Mountains take only the first two thru hikers for work for stay requiring most hikers to either find a scarce place to stealth or go to a pay-for-stay campsite.

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The crowding in New England at popular sites requires expensive management.

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White Mountain Hut (Madison)

Hikers can avoid some of these sites by doing long (and hard) miles in tough terrain and unpredictable weather.

The Appalachian Mountain Club has tried to help hikers save money with this recently announced campsite deal: https://www.outdoors.org/articles/issues/2017/may-june-2017/amc-rolls-out-overnight-camping-deal-for-appalachian-trail-thru-hikers

Baxter

Once you reach Baxter, there’s a $10 fee to camp at the Birches. After you’ve summited, the hitch to Millinocket is easy. There’s only one road in and out of Baxter State Park and it goes straight to Millinocket. Millinocket is usually another town stay to celebrate and recover before you head for home.

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Last hostel in Millinocket, ME.

Your last budget item is off trail – the cost of transportation home.

Good luck. Sisu

 

 

Searching for the Edge of Spring

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Appalachian Trail, Massachusetts, April 27 – May 6, 2017 — Just outside Great Barrington, Mass., Robin “Miss America” Hobbs gave me a shout.

“How far away are you?”

“An hour,” I guessed.

Actually I wheeled into town less than a half hour later.  I’d been stopped for gas in Connecticut and didn’t realize how close I was.  After minor confusion I found Robin and her new friend Sonia “Soho” Horschitz, a 33-year-old German hiker she serendipitously met a couple of days after I left her back in New York.

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These two were amazing together.  They meshed like Mercedes and Benz and could finish each other’s sentences as they delighted nearly nonstop over the merits of cream cheese and other hiker treats.  Being along for the ride with these two charming people was pure delight.

After lunch in Great Barrington, we dropped my Subaru at the local hostel in Sheffield.  Its owner, Jessica Treat, shuttled us to the trail and we were off.  She would shuttle us back at the end of the hike from as far as we could get toward the Vermont border some 76 miles northward.

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Miss America and Jessica Treat.  Wonderful ladies.  Jessica teaches English at a junior college.

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The first couple of days toasted us like summer.  Here the lunch menu features cream cheese and Triscuits slathered in honey. The delight is obvious.  It took me awhile, but I eventually became a convert.

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The Massachusetts countryside features classic New England scenery.

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Trillium.

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I’d never seen so many Trout Lilies.  This plant ultimately became the bellwether in our quest for the edge of spring.

Just outside Tyringham we found this kiosk.  A young entrepreneur had established a trail magic business.  Cold drinks and snacks at a very fair price!  Smart.  Hope he does well.

However, for us, Tyringham is where our weather luck expired.

After topping off at this much appreciated kiosk, we faced a respectable climb to the cabin at  Upper Goose Pond where Miss America and Soho had planned a rest day (zero) in the field.  Along the way we hoped to dodge the forecasted rain.

No luck.  The rain began to spatter shortly after we started our climb.  Soaked in sweat, we decided to minimize on rain gear, even opening our pit zips to shed the extra heat we expected to be generating while climbing in the warmish rain.

Boom!!! The first lighting strike was “danger close.” Link to DANGER CLOSE artillery And so were dozens more.  With nowhere to safely hide, we pushed on as close to double time as we could safely manage.  The lightning exploded all around as the cold rain drenched us and the ambient air temperature crashed to the low 40s (F).  Not at all what we had anticipated.

We stumbled onto the cabin’s porch frozen and shaking from the icy rain. Camping on the porch is allowed, so we got into warm dry clothing and made camp.  It would rain almost all night and the next day.

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We shared some firewater for medicinal purposes.  Soho shared, but make it plain.  She likes bier besser.

After Upper Goose Pond, the warm weather disappeared, but reducing the mount you sweat is really a benefit when you’re making miles.

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Rock hopping.

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Appreciating a view.

Crossing the Mass Pike.

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We bought hard boiled eggs from the “cookie lady.”  Soho’s philosophy was moderate miles.  Good sleep.  Fresh food.  I learned to like it.

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Camping at the cookie lady’s.  Looks warm, but it was 40F.

On the way to Dalton for a shower and resupply.

After Dalton we faced a pending storm that eventually dumped 1.5 inches of rain on the trail, turning it into an endless series of streams and mud pits.

Knowing what was coming, we pushed past Cheshire, Mass. to the Mark Noepel shelter where we planned to ride out the rain high and dry, less than a full day from the Vermont border.  The hike into Upper Goose Pond had taught us a lesson.

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The Massachusetts shelters are mostly of the same design with a loft.  Up there, we were out of the wind and slightly warmer than if we’d stayed below.  The windows are plexiglass.

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We tucked into our sleeping bags to spend the day thankful we weren’t hiking in the cold and rainy weather.  We could see our breath.  Note the cookie lady’s eggs atop the orange and tan stuff sack.

Shot this while the wind was relatively still.

With three days of rain in the forecast Robin and I decided to exit.  She’s within sight of Vermont.  She only has a few miles in Vermont to finish this fall before she completes the AT.

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We bid Soho farewell on Mt. Graylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts. This gentle and genial soul hiked on into Vermont. We hiked to the bottom of the mountain because the road to the summit had not yet opened for the season.

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Mt. Graylock. Massachusetts WWI memorial.

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An inch-and-a-half of rain produces boot top mud.

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The Graylock summit was windy, wet and bitter cold. I looked down only to spy trout lilies whose flowers had not yet bloomed.  A day later Soho phoned to say that the thermometer and snow in Vermont were forcing her off the trail.  Without doubt we had found the edge of spring; and on that edge the cold wind sliced through our hearts and blew us in new directions.  Our journey had ended.

Sisu