No rest for the wicked

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Everywhere, May 2019 —  No time for a deep breath.  May is just like that.  The list is long.

In all, I flew to my brother’s in Loveland, CO and belatedly celebrated a milestone birthday (50 + shipping and handling), led a Road Scholar hike, attended ridgerunner training, and worked with the Hoodlums trail crew in Shenandoah National Park.

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Walking around the lake at my brother Jack’s.  Rocky Mountain National Park (Long’s Peak) is on the horizon.

Next comes two orientation hikes (OJT), our neighborhood homeowners’ association meeting (with several contentious issues), an appointment with the Social Security Administration (it’s that time: 50 + shipping and handling), and a pre-op physical because I’m having two more Dupeytren’s fingers surgically straightened on the last day of the month.

Oh, my friend Karma, who hiked he AT in 2013 and the Pacific Crest Trail last year, is hiking the AT again.  I’m hoping to meet her on the trail in Shenandoah when I weedwhack my trail just before surgery, but for sure we’re having lunch in Harpers Ferry just like we did in 2013.

Karma was was not only an inspiration for my hike the following year, but in practical terms, she was the person whose wisdom and practicality was worth its weight in gold when I was preparing for my AT thru hike.  Her blog for that hike is the the best AT blog ever, IMHO.  Click here: Karma’s 2013 AT blog

May has been and is going to be a blur.

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Robert, the 2018 northern Virginia ridgerunner, briefs Witt, the incoming.  Witt is a tripple crowner having hiked the At, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.  He also holds the FKT (Fastest Known Time) for the Arizona Trail.  That’s a bunch of hiking.

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Joanne, will be patrolling in Shenandoah again this year for 30 days beginning June 15.

Wilderness First Aid – It also was my year to re-certify.  It’s an excellent course.  Sixteen hours drinking from a fire hose and splinting the hell out of them and so much more.  If you’re ever injured on a trail, you want a WFA to find you.  Click here:  Wilderness Medicine

Caffeine addict alert.

Hoodlums work trip.

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Does it get better than this.  I don’t think so!

Sisu

A Flip Flopping Festival

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Harpers Ferry, WV, April 26 – 28, 2019 — The fifth annual Flip Flop Festival this weekend was fun and helped send off a new class of hopeful thru hikers on their 2,200 mile odyssey.

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Some hikers jumped on the trail on a drizzly Sunday morning. Others departed earlier, while others chose to wait until Monday for better weather.

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The festival features a kick off party at the Barn in Harpers Ferry Friday evening with educational seminars and vendors punctuating the activities Saturday and Sunday.  That was a bottomless box of nachos on the lower right weighed as much as a black hole and took a lot of digging to empty it out.

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The well-attended seminars included tips for beginners, trail health, hiker hacks, navigation and survival, trail craft, forest bathing and food dehydration.  For one, I would rather hikers actually bathe than rely on the breeze through the trees carry away their scent.  The ridgerunners were on hand to do pack shakedowns with the idea of helping hikers rid themselves of superfluous kit and the unnecessary weight.  Folks this year came well-prepared.

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The Methodist church hosts a pancake breakfast.  By the time this was taken, the vast majority of the hikers had filled their tanks and moved on.

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Posing with James Smyle who is the esteemed organizer of this mighty event.

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Mugging with my friends in 16-year-old mode.

Friends

Friends photos by Laurie Potteiger

Posing again in adult mode.  See you next year.

Sisu

New Ridgerunning Season Coming Soon.

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Kensington, MD, March 12, 2019 — The snow drops are up!  As sure as daylight savings time, snow drops are a natural alarm clock announcing it’s time to get ready for a new season on the Appalachian Trail.

Here’s the starting line up.  Our first Shenandoah National Park Hoodlums trail crew work trip is this weekend.  As reported here, there’s still plenty of storm damage to clear.

No fooling, our first ridgerunner starts in Maryland April first.  The second ridgerunner begins patrolling in Shenandoah on April 8.  The remaining four are scheduled for mid-May.  Project ahead two weeks and we’re there. So, let’s get ready to rock and roll!

We’ve been getting ready for awhile.  The budget was submitted last year.  The application deadline was January 31.  Hiring occurred in February.  The last of the supplies and equipment arrived last week.

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First to arrive was six Bear Vault BV 450 bear canisters.  These are the half-size canisters with a four-day capacity.  They are very difficult for a bear to open or break.  I’m certain Yogi and Boo Boo hate them, but I can all but guarantee that Mr. Ranger loves them.

Why bear canisters?  The number of human-bear encounters is increasing each year.  The 2018 reported incidents are at this link:  ATC 2018 Bear Incident List

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Some of these incidents included stolen food bags and damaged tents.  Fortunately there were no injuries though there have been nasty injuries and even a death in previous years.

Bears become food conditioned because careless backpackers, day hikers and others leave food or food trash at or near shelter areas and campsites.  Ultimately bears learn to identify shelters, tents and backpacks with food.

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Camera studies by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service show the first place bears go in camp is the fire pit because people toss food trash thinking it will burn.  It does not burn completely so the residue continues to attract bears long after the fire is out.

Once bears associate humans or places where human’s congregate with food, the potential for trouble compounds when bears lose their natural fear of people.

Bear canisters make it difficult for a bear to get a food reward.  Ridgerunners uniformed presence on the trail affords them visibility.  The weight of the example they set by carrying bear canisters complements the educational component of their mission.

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We experimented last season by having some of our ridgerunners carry BV 500 canisters loaned to us by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  They voted unanimously for the smaller version.  Comparison of a BV 450 and the larger BV 500 on the right.  The stickers help tell them apart.  The reflective tape helps find them of an animal decides to bat one around.

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Additional equipment includes 12-inch folding saws, clippers, SAM splints, and work gloves.  The rope and tarps help cover the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.

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Meanwhile I have recovered from off-season Dupuytren’s release surgery.  I have two more impacted fingers on my other hand and hope they can wait until September.

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Next stop.  Setting up the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.  Can’t wait.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

Widowmakers

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Would you camp under this tree?

The Appalachian Trail, November 9, 2018 — It’s been a hellova year.  Shenandoah National Park normally receives 55 inches of annual rainfall.  To date the park has measured 85 inches with seven weeks remaining in the year.  That’s 30 inches above normal so far.

That’s not the only weather pattern that’s off.  We usually enjoy magnificent indian summers here in the mid-Atlantic region.  This year it stayed hot and muggy right up to the bitter end.  In less than a week, the temperatures turned raw with cold winds and a freeze warning in the immediate forecast. Oh, not to mention that it’s still raining.

If traffic on Facebook is any judge, the AT thru-hiker class of 2019 is hard at work getting ready to go. These intrepid hikers are buying gear, planning hard, and doing as many training hikes as possible.

For those who will be planning trips from now until their start day, there are a lot of things to think about. Here’s one more.

Campsite selection is pretty much straight forward. The first thing to know is the rules of the jurisdiction you’re in. You should know that some places have strict rules on camping while others do not.

I manage the ridgerunner program for 240 miles of the AT in the mid-Atlantic region. That’s four states and five different sets of rules for camping.

For example, Shenandoah National Park allows dispersed camping with a few reasonable limitations. In contrast Maryland requires everyone to camp at official campsites with no dispersed camping allowed whatsoever. Maryland rules do not allow fires except in designated fire pits. The rules for the area you’re in will usually be posted on the trailhead kiosks or your guidebook, map or app; if in doubt check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s web site at http://www.appalachiantrail.org/camping.

Using already existing campsites helps reduce environmental impact. Look for tent sites with good drainage and that are sheltered from wind and heavy weather if that applies.

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Standing dead trees.

Here’s the ‘one more thing.’ Check overhead for widowmakers. They are sometimes called fool killers and are anything that has the potential to injure or kill someone below. In a more specific sense, they are dead or weakened branches caught precariously high in trees, ready to fall on unsuspecting individuals underneath.

These hazards are not trivial.

In August 2018 a hiker was hit by a falling branch while hiking on the AT just north of US route 50. A 15 – 18 inch waterlogged tree limb snapped and fell to the ground without warning. It struck and killed the hiker instantly.

Not that far away, a tree near Maryland’s Ed Garvey Shelter fell, fatally striking a hiker as he was heading for the Trail one fateful morning in March 2015.

It’s not always easy to spot hazard branches, but it’s always worth the look. Most importantly, it’s not worth the risk camping or hanging out under or too close to such a risk.

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The brown substances at the base of the black opening is rotted tree material.

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Healthy-looking crown of the same tree.  This is a tree of concern.

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Stump of a rotting tree preemptively felled at the Annapolis Rock caretaker site.

Trees that might fall are another potential risk. They may be dead or diseased. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. If the ground is highly saturated; high winds can push trees over because the roots can’t hold in waterlogged soils. This year’s heavy rains saturated soil and fallen trees increased the number of down trees maintainers had to remove from the trail.  After a March storm, 700 blowdowns were removed from the 102 miles of AT in Shenandoah National Park alone.

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Healthy trees rooted in rain-saturated soil, blown down by light winds.

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Removing a hazard tree near Bears Den hostel.

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Storm damage.

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Storm damage.

Don’t assume that, because you’re in a preexisting campsite or in the area of a shelter, there is no danger. Maintainers, rangers and forest biologists watch for trees of concern, but they can’t find them all.

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Nuff said.

Trees of concern aren’t a huge risk, but it always pays to be prudent and add them to your checklist when you’re in the backcountry.

A version of this blog was originally published by the author on the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trail Magic: Leapfrog Cafe

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Old Forge Picnic Area, Michaux State Forest, PA, May 2, 2018 — Trail magic in the hiking world is thought of as an unexpected act of kindness, generosity or discovery, or finding exactly what you need most when you least expect it.

Trail magic can make your day or your hike.  It can move you to tears, restore your faith in humanity, or stimulate extreme gratitude; sometimes all three.

As you can imagine, hikers love trail magic, but not all of it is welcome. Unattended trail magic can food condition animals and litter the forest with heaps of trash.

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This trail magic in Maine attempted to get it right but failed because it was unattended.  Animals could easily open these containers or a careless hiker could fail to close them.  Moreover, it’s personal property left on public lands and helps create expectations of free food for hikers.

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Those who bestow trail magic are known as trail angels.  Tim Davis is one. That’s about an eight-pound omelet he’s making for me in that frying pan.

Following a thru hike attempt where his ill-tempered knees failed to cooperate, the generous-hearted electrician wanted to stay involved and turned to cooking which is his second love after hiking.  Tim’s trail name is Fresh Ground for the beans he ground up and the fresh coffee he brewed with them each morning of his hike.

He invented the Leapfrog Cafe as the means to deliver his love to hikers. He sets up the Leapfrog Cafe for a few days, then moves up the trail to find new hikers.

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The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe was a welcome discovery in 2015 when, as a ridgerunner, I splashed out of an icy rain into Gooch Gap, GA.  The freshly grilled banana pancakes and steaming coffee were simply divine and exactly what I needed. If I was crying out of thanks, no one could tell if it was rain or tears running down my freezing red cheeks.

Later, I enticed several hikers, who had been dodging the rain for several days at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, to move on with the promise of fresh pancakes and hot coffee at the bottom of the soppy mountain.

Then, it was my duty to discuss Leave No Trace principles with Fresh Ground.  For one, he didn’t lock up his trash at night in bear country.  Since, he’s refined his methodology to be truly compliant.

This trip, since the Cafe was only slightly more than an hour away from home, I spent most of the day hanging out at the Cafe.  I brought cases of Coke, grape and root beer sodas plus a cash donation as a small payback for the priceless kindness I received not that long ago.

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Hand washing station for filthy-handed hikers.  The water has bleach in it.  He properly disposes of his gray water afterward.

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A clean towel covers the picnic table in the food prep area. Sanitation is paramount.

Hiker feeds like this are not allowed to charge money or accept donations.  Fresh Ground has a Facebook page and Go Fund Me page for that. Initially he saved and used his own money.  Now he does that, but accepts donations, 100 percent of which go towards feeding the hikers.

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Stopping at the Leapfrog Cafe can be like a fine dining experience with the owner doing double duty as the server.  Pancakes, omelets, hot dogs, taco bowls, fresh fruit, cookies and lemonade are on the menu.  He now packs up every night and operates out of picnic and off trail areas.

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Even the hikers need photographic souvenirs.

The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe, featuring live entertainment by “Strummy String.”  He says his instrument is a reformulated mountain dulcimer.

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Trail magic is criticized for causing hikers to congregate.  But, whenever hikers stop for a bit, there’s always an opportunity to talk and sometimes make a difference.

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While talking to “Research” who is a psych professor on sabbatical from a college in Macon, GA, I learned she had hiked within a shout of the half-way point and didn’t know how to hang her food bag. She thought she couldn’t throw the line high enough.  “Never fear!” I offered.  “There’s a way even you can throw like Tom Brady.”

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After loading a sock with a rock and knotting it to her bear line, Research learned to fling the sock over a tall branch by swinging it underhand.

The next step in the PCT hang is threading the rope through a carabiner, then hoisting the food bag up to the branch level.  Here she’s tying a clove hitch on a stick that will prevent the bag from sliding back into bear reach.  Reverse process to retrieve the food.

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Success!!!  I love it when someone is excited about learning something new.

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Fresh Ground planning his next move while Research destroys a taco bowl.

At dusk, the Leapfrog Cafe disappeared into the sunset headed for its next surprise location.  With luck, that will be near you.

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