Separation Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taken three years apart.

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

Brilliant Weather 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re Off

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

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

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

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

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

  
Very tasty southern hot dawgs. 

Onward!

Adventure Season 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for dispatches.

On A “Blissful” Patrol

Lauralee Bliss may well be the dean of AT ridgerunners.

Lauralee Bliss may well be the dean of AT ridgerunners.

Shenandoah National Park, VA, August 15-17, 2015 — I now coordinate five ridgerunners who patrol the 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) for which the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) is responsible.  While I am a volunteer, they are paid a modest stipend for their summer work.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be walking a bit with each of the five.  My objective is to know them better and learn what I can from them about the issues on their respective sections of the trail.  Afterall, we’re expecting many more hikers next year. http://appalachiantrials.com/a-walk-in-the-woods-and-its-impact-on-the-appalachian-trail/

Last weekend I walked a section with Lauralee Bliss who is the sole ridgerunner for all 105 miles of the AT in Shenandoah.  That’s a lot of territory to cover.  To say her hiking resume is strong is an understatement.  A former orthopedic nurse, she has thru hiked the AT both northbound and southbound.  Her memoir of those hikes, Mountains, Madness, & Miracles: 4,000 Miles Along the Appalachian Trail sells well. She also has published more than 20 books. http://www.amazon.com/Lauralee-Bliss/e/B001JPCEBI

Lauralee’s multi-year tenure and the volume of unsolicited praise from hikers pretty much says it all.  I’d heard a lot of good things about her long before actually making her acquaintance at a National Trail Day event earlier this summer.

Last Saturday, after completing my work with PATC’s North District Hoodlums trail crew, I hiked in to meet Lauralee at Black Rock hut located at northbound mile 882.3 on the AT.  From there we would hike to McCormick Gap at mile 865.3 with a second overnight stop at the Calf Mountain hut in between.

A very nice couple, former thru hikers, joined us at Black Rock.

A very nice couple, former thru hikers, joined us at Black Rock. Lauralee tents. I hung my hammock.

Along the way we swapped ridgerunning stories and performed minor trail maintenance including clearing some minor blowdowns and picking up micro trash.

Our first adventure happened bright and early the first morning.  We stopped to snag the TP someone had left next to the deposit they’d plopped just a couple of feet off the trail.  As Lauralee shed her pack with intentions of parking it, I noticed a copperhead lolling in the leafy landing zone, perfectly camouflaged as they are.  When ole “Jake No Shoulders” slid into a new residence amongst the discarded TP we decided let it be and wait for another time, discretion is the better part of valor you know. That’s the only mess we didn’t clean up.

Lauralee checking in with Shenandoah dispatch. Many ridgerunners are issued radios that connect them to the various forms of support they need.

Lauralee checking in with Shenandoah dispatch. Many ridgerunners are issued radios that connect them to the various forms of support they need. She’s standing next to Skyline Drive which is the primary front country feature of Shenandoah National Park.

The first day was a hot one.  Toward the end, my IT band was talking back loudly and with authority, but what the hey, it’s all in a day’s work.  At one point I saw a branch strangely sticking out of the ground and partially blocking the trail.  I judged it to be a tripping hazard.  Wrong!  It was plugging a yellow jacket nest.

I got lucky.  When I yanked it out only a few of the evil little critters buzzed about to take a gander.  Rather than luck, it could have been professional courtesy since I used to work at Georgia Tech.  Whatever the reason, I’ll take it. (The Georgia Tech mascot is “Buzz” the Yellow Jacket.)

Along the way we heard about a boisterous southbound Boy Scout troop which had camped at the Calf Mountain hut.  Negative reputations travel fast on the AT.   We didn’t know what to expect, but experience has taught each of us not to hope for much.  We weren’t disappointed, though it could have been much worse.

Trash left by the Boy Scout troop. We only wish they had signed the shelter register. We love return addresses when we find trash.

Trash left by the Boy Scout troop. We only wish they had signed the shelter register. We love return addresses when we find trash.  The pot was full of uneaten food.

Of course the trash was right next to this sign.

Of course the trash was right next to this sign.

Lauralee’s purpose for bringing me to this section was for me to see where maintenance is needed. Some parts of this section are overdue for weeding.  Weeding is important because weeds are the vector for Lyme disease-bearing deer ticks.  http://distancehiking.com/blog/lyme-disease-appalachian-trail/

A contractor mows parts of this section since its distance from population centers makes recruiting overseers difficult.

A contractor mows parts of this section since its distance from population centers makes recruiting overseers difficult.  The vegetation alongside the trail is an invasive species called Japanese stilth grass. Stealth grass would be more like it.  The stuff sneaks right up on you with overwhelming force!

Other sections need work.

Other sections need work.

Lauralee, whose trail name is

Lauralee, whose trail name is “Blissful,” trims briars.

We stashed our trash at Beagle Gap for pick up later. That's about three gallons worth.

We stashed our trash at Beagle Gap for pick up later. That’s about three gallons worth.

Many hikers want to become ridgerunners because they think the job is about hiking.  It’s actually about education.  The purpose of ridgerunning is to help hikers do the right things to take care of the trail and its surrounding environment.

ridgerunners break up illegal fire rings.

Among other duties, ridgerunners break up illegal fire rings.

Ridgerunners help hikers understand how to Leave No Trace that they've ever been in the wilderness.

Ridgerunners help hikers understand how to “Leave No Trace” that they’ve ever been in the wilderness. https://Int.org .

Ridgerunners pack out other people's trash. It's one of the distasteful parts of the job.

Ridgerunners pack out other people’s trash. It’s one of the distasteful parts of the job.

Best of all, ridgerunners help hikers. Here Lauralee helped this young novice with a back shakedown that eliminated eight excess pounds of equipment she did not need.

Best of all, ridgerunners help hikers. Here Lauralee helped this young college student with a pack shakedown that eliminated eight excess pounds of equipment that she did not need.

One thing I learned about Lauralee is that she is a bear whisperer.  On our last morning we found a young bear ambling in the forest.  It probably is his rookie year away from his mother.

When Lauralee talked to the bear in her soft blissful voice, his head cocked from side to side while his ears twitched in every direction like radar searching for UFOs.  Maybe to him that’s what we were.

I just know this: He left us with a gentle heartbeat and in the good spirits that reflected the extraordinary person with whom I was fortunate enough to share the weekend.

Flash Forward One Year

Aug. 6, 2014.  I took summit photos in two different shirts.

Aug. 6, 2014. I took summit photos in two different shirts.

Home Sweet Home, August 6, 2015 — I wasn’t going to write a one-year-retrospective.  Most of them are boring and trite.  As I have often said, being a successful thru-hiker doesn’t make you special.  It only means that you were fortunate enough to have a special experience.

Okay, so what happens when it’s over?  You go home and then what?  Post hike depression is well documented.  Of course, I thought it could not happen to me.

When your hike is over, if you’re lucky, you have to get back to work.  That’s true for most hikers.  If you have something lined up – say going to grad school – you’ve got it made.  But even if you have to job search, you’ve got a defined focus for your time and a purpose to pursue.

If you’re retired, that’s another story.  Recently retired people are the second largest, albeit, small category of thru hikers.  A lot of them shut the door to their offices and open the front door to the AT with little transition time. I met a hiker in Georgia this year whose time lapse was four days!

I prepared for ten months, but it’s almost the same.  I’d done nothing to prepare for retirement itself other than to know that I’d have to “keep busy.”

Boom!  The hike ends.  You take a victory lap. The the crowds stop clapping.  For months on end you’ve had a routine.  Wake up, eat and hike.  Following the white blazes was my job.  Where is the next white blaze?

Aside from the daily trail routine, hiking is heavy exercise that bathes your brain in a heavy flow of endorphins all day long.  Like distance running, the craving doesn’t stop when you end your journey.

Endorphins act like opiates.  These chemicals, manufactured by your body, make you feel really good.  When they go away, the funk can get very deep indeed.

I thought that returning to a strenuous exercise routine and increasing my volunteer activities would help me avoid endorphin withdrawal and the mental depression that goes with it.  NOT SO!

I did all these things, but in between, I sat in my easy chair and stared out the window or zoned out with ESPN on the idiot box.  My reading habit evaporated.  In the past year I have completed exactly one book; that compares to my 3 to 4 per month lifetime average.  My motivation meter was pegged at zero.

There’s more.  My weight began to creep up.  I did switch back to healthy foods from the ultra high calorie trail junk, but I ate a lot and drank more beer.  I’ve regained about 75 percent of my lost weight.

After my voluntary stint as a ridgerunner in Georgia this spring, my mind began to get a grip.  Maybe returning to the scene of the crime helped.

I remembered why I retired in the first place. My retirement routine couldn’t replace my previous career as an adrenalin junkie.  The 60-hour plus work weeks needed to be left to history.  The new normal needed to be new.

Now my volunteer time is structured around specific goals.  I’ve found opportunities with much more responsibility – to the point where I supervise five paid employees in one of the gigs.  Best of all, I’m beginning to have a lot of fun.

For now, one year after my hike, retirement has become a never-ending process.  I’m contemplating more hiking adventures, but I’ll tackle them differently.  For example, I’d love to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. (“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed is set there.)  But if I do, it will be over three years in sections rather than all at once.

If I learned one take-away from hiking the Appalachian Tail it is that thru hiking takes a long time.  While I loved my hike and would do it again, I got tired of being out there “forever.” Moreover, making “forever” so is not a reasonable expectation.

Looking ahead, I’m hoping to better use my time because at this stage of life, you truly have to do more with less.

Post card I sent to those who helped along the way.

Post card I sent to those who helped along the way.

One of the best parts of my final day on the trail was to share it with my friend Karen (Tie) Edwards.

One of the best parts of my final day on the trail was to share it with my friend Karen (Tie) Edwards.

Here’s a link to a one of several videos I’ve made in support of speeches I’ve made this past year.

https://www.sugarsync.com/pf/D3624411_94596663_12582

Reunions

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Harpers Ferry, WV, May 26, 2015 –There I was doing my best Captain Kirk impression as I sat in the command chair behind the counter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) visitors center when the door opens and I hear a cheery, “Hi Sisu!”  (Sisu is my trail name.)

To my delight, in walks Emily Leonard.  At least that’s who she was when I camped next to her and her husband on Springer Mountain, GA in early March.  Now she is “Black Bear,” an awesome thru hiker who remembered me promising that I would take her ‘half-way photo’ if she reached ATC HQ on a Tuesday, my volunteer day.  Well, she did and there I was wearing a giant smile in salute to her presence and accomplishment.

Emily is a former teacher and soccer coach who lives in Maine.  She sounded and looked strong. After the formalities, I treated her to a healthy, read leafy green-colored, lunch at a quirky local restaurant. Our conversation quickly established that she’s having a wonderful time walking in the woods.  You can follow her blog at:  http://happyhiking.bangordailynews.com/category/home/  I really hope that Black Bear goes — ALL THE WAY!

By way of additional insight, I wrote about Emily anonymously in one of my blogs from Georgia.  She was a hiker with the ultra light Cuban fiber tent pitched with so much slack that I worried might blow away in a strong wind.  After staying the first night, her husband returned home to Maine and work while Emily hiked on.  That wasn’t the first time I learned to never judge a pack by its cover.

Of note:  It turns out she ditched that tent for a range of reasons and is using the one her husband had.  So much for hi tech.

IMG_2095Separately, a hiker named “Bonafide” aka “Winter Walker” phoned me from Bears Den hostel last night.  I first met him in Tennessee in December 2013 during my thru hike.  That year his doctor told him to lose some weight, so he walked from his home state of Vermont to Tennessee and back to Harpers Ferry.  This year he decided to thru hike and I met him plowing through the north Georgia snow back in February.

Sisu and Winter Walker in Mount Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA in Dec. 2013

Sisu and Winter Walker in Mount Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA in Dec. 2013

His call was to check in being that he was nearby. When I mentioned that the movie, “A Walk in the Woods” would be out in September, he unleashed a tirade about hikers who mess up the woods and don’t follow Leave No Trace principles.  It was instructive to say the least.  It seems like time and distance don’t weed out all the bad apples.

The “Walk in the Woods” trigger was this:  The Bill Bryson book features many scenes like the ones I reported from Georgia with people tossing trash and worse all over the trail.

He asked me what I thought the answer might be.  My response was one word:  Babysitters.  That’s what you get when you act like a child.

Here’s the trailer for “A Walk in the Woods:” It promises to be a fun movie.

http://news.moviefone.com/2015/05/27/robert-redford-walk-in-the-woods-trailer/