Eating the Elephant

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Springer Mountain, Georgia, March 21 – 26, 2015 — My volunteer period is complete. I’ve hauled my last load of hiker trash out of the North Georgia hills.  It’s now up to someone else.  Some end of tour observations follow.

It’s a free country.  You can tell that from the range of people and their degree of respect for nature, the environment and the hard won Appalachian Trail infrastructure.  I just wish more hikers would come to the trail better prepared.

The overwhelming majority of people naturally do the right thing.  They practice “Leave No Trace” outdoor ethics by taking only photos and leaving only footprints.  Everything they truck in, they haul out from cigarette butts, Charmin flowers, and uneaten food to unwanted gear that’s unneeded or too heavy, excess clothing, or used dental floss.

My pleasure was being with these folks.  They’re plumbers, pipe fitters, surgeons, teachers, nurses and bus drivers.  They share a common love and respect for the outdoors and are excellent students of how to do well out here.  They love being outdoors and live to be one with nature.

A lot of hikers come to the AT overwhelmed.  They struggle to grasp all 2,189 miles at once.  It’s like the old aphorism about how you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.  The average AT hiker goes to town every five days.  If that’s so, hiking the AT is simply 35 consecutive five-day hikes.  Put that way, it’s much easier to get your arms around the magnitude of the task ahead.

My hope is that more hikers would better prepare themselves.  I follow a blogger from Colorado who wrote an interesting post this week about Colin Fletcher who wrote some of the seminal books on hiking including the all time favorite, The Complete Walker.  His post can be read at this link.  http://www.pmags.com/the-complete-walker-iii-colin-fletcher I just wish more people would read Fletcher, or at least check out the enormous amount of information available on line.

Here's a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills).  He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Here’s a fellow dressed in cotton (cotton kills). He also could learn a thing or two about packing.

Others are far less attuned to ethical behavior in the back country.  They do what they do back home.  Twice hikers even tried to argue that I was hiding the trash cans from them.  These would-be-thru-hikers had a hard time appreciating that thru hiking is supposed to be a wilderness experience.  You pack it in.  You pack it out.  No trash cans.  End of story.  I was ignored more than once.

Food containers do not burn completely.

Food containers do not burn completely.

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Bill Bryson had it right in his book A Walk in the Woods.  It’s been made into a movie which will be in theaters later this summer. Bryson wryly observed the unprepared throwing their gear overboard and much more.  Why people come out here so poorly prepared is beyond me, and a hellova lot of others too. You don’t have to look far for classic examples. It’s a topic of continuing conversation among the properly prepared.

This was my final trash run.  The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food.  Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

This was my final trash run. The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food. Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

Considering how much excellent information is readily available on the internet or from recent books, there’s no excuse for being unprepared.  Some self-identify with so-called survivor show heroes and want to give it a whirl.  Others are just clueless.  Somehow almost all of them manage to learn one thing – that is to wind duct tape around their hiking poles.  A precious few don’t even find that out.

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There are two basic hiker types out here.  There are the thru hikers.  They are self-evident.  Only one in four will finish.  Still, this is their season.  They’ve got until mid-October to climb Maine’s Mt. Katahdin before it closes.  They’ve got to get going.

Some folks are old school.

Some folks are old school.

Then there are all the shorter distance hikers, sometimes called section hikers.  Of them, about half are on spring break – families and college students alike.  This is one of the only times during the year when they can come.  They identify with the AT brand and are in Georgia because it’s where the southern terminus of the trail is, it’s warm and the logistics are easy.  They’re not going away.

IMG_2296_2 IMG_2285_2There’s an interesting subculture among section hikers.  A significant number of these hikers want to share in the excitement of the great spring migration – to be there, to rub shoulders, to share the thrill and/or to relive their own adventure and reignite memories of years past.

Some come every year.  It’s muddy form of March Madness where they get to be on the court with the actual players themselves.  Later they will follow hikers they’ve met and root for them.  It’s hard to beat.

The challenge is that, in the first 30 miles of the trail, for every 10 thru hikers there are 8 section hikers.  The infrastructure is taxed to the max!  Even the privies fill up – ugh.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter.  These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

This is the second shift cooking dinner at the Gooch Mountain shelter. These were some of the folks tenting in the rain.

Overcrowding has its downsides.  Earlier in the week, the Georgia Health Department issued a noro virus warning.  A case had been reported in the state.  Funky hikers who don’t know how to stay clean in the wilderness, living in close proximity, form a perfect petri dish.  In spite of the beauty, it can get really ugly out here.  Nevertheless, it’s worth it.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning.  Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they'd collected.

Blood Mountain on Saturday morning. Some of the thru hikers showed me the trash they’d collected.

Many hikers are tuned in to Leave No Trace practices and collect trail trash as the hike.  I gave one hiker (from Brooklyn, NY no less) a “Trail Karma” award for carrying out discarded clothing and other trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award.

Someone creatively tried to hike the space blanket they no longer wanted.

Someone creatively tried to hide a space blanket they no longer wanted.

Still, hikers are excited to be on the AT whether the trail viscosity matches a hot fudge sundae on a summer day in Georgia or it’s frozen over.  In many cases they are living their dreams.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

During my stay the seasons changed – at least twice.

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This year the Appalachian Trail is 90 years old.  It was built by volunteers and is maintained by volunteers as originally envisioned by its founder Benton MacKaye.  It’s thrilling to play a small role in that legacy.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.

Springer Mountain memorial to Benton McKaye who envisioned a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia.

The First Patrol

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This tree was snapped off like a match stick

Hiawassee, GA, Top of Georgia Hostel, Sunday March 8, 2015 — My first patrol was over late Friday night.  The hiking was energy intensive at times, especially in the snow early on.  The ice and wind inflicted some serious damage on the trees, especially along the expose saddles between mountains.

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Overall, the trail treadway is in good shape.  The water is draining properly and the mud is minimal under the conditions although my clothes were covered with it by the time I’d reached the summit of Springer Mountain.

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Along the way I was able to clear several blowdowns that impeded navigation.

The hikers seemed strong and determined for the most part.  I did notice a propensity for them to hold at shelters or dive into town when it rained.  I can’t say I didn’t do some of that during my hike.  Hiking in the rain is miserable.

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My patrol pattern will be changing for the rest of the time I’m here.  From now on, I’ll be hiking south from Neels Gap to Springer where I’ll spend two days while the caretaker there is off.  This makes sense since most of the need to help hikers occurs in the first 30 miles.

Naturally, Murphy was lurking over my shoulder.  I didn’t get back to Hiawassee until 11:30 p.m. Friday evening.  I was so tired that I locked my car keys in the trunk.  I had to go to Atlanta to get a new one.  Lesson learned!

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This weekend was spent at the Appalachian Trail Kickoff.  It’s a hiking seminar at Amicalola State Park.  The presentations ranged wide and far from bears, to hostels, to lightweight gear.  It’s designed to help hikers learn what would be helpful for them to know prior to starting their hikes.

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It was a special privilege to meet and talk with Gene Espy, the second person ever (1953) to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.

Next week we do it again.

Garbage Man

Neel Gap, GA, Saturday March 1, 2015 — Beep – beep – beep – beep. That’s the sound of your friendly hiker garbage man backing out of a shelter with his pack full of detritus others have left behind.

When I staggered into the hostel at Neel Gap with ten pounds of junk. The most galling was the four liters of frozen water.

Seems some folks didn’t realize that you take your water bottle to bed with you when it’s freezing outside at night. So they left the frozen water behind for yours truly to haul thirty miles to the nearest trash receptacle. That’s not to mention the other junk in the photo.

This really isn’t a complaint. That’s why we are here, to help the hikers understand how to do the right thing. When they don’t, we remove the trash before it can serve as a bad example to others.

We also remove blowdown. Sawing keeps you warm, believe me.

In the morning the snow reminds me of a stiff starched white shirt. Sort of crunchy when you put it on. The weather is turning so by noon the snow is as limp as that same starched white shirt on a Georgia summer day. Today the slush was three inches deep with about an inch of water as a top coat.

Tomorrow the forecast is for rain. That’ll remove the snow and slush, but only by turning the trail into a river in the process.

Throughout all of this, the hikers seem intrepid. After all, they’ve come 50 miles. Maine can’t be far ahead.

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Better than Disney World

Kennebunkport, ME, Friday August &, 2014 — Reintegration back into non-hiking society began in earnest this morning with a visit to a local coffee shop called Morning in Paris. Can’t get much further from the back woods than that.

Later we jumped on my friend Ed’s Vespas and scooted to the beach to watch some friends surf. His daughter Katie is home from her job with the United Nations, so naturally we posed for our “life is a beach” pic.

The adrenaline drained from my system during the shuttle from Millinocket yesterday. I was too exhausted to join a party in progress at a local Irish pub. Instead, I sat on the front deck sipping wine and let the sound of the crashing waves massage my cares away.

I can tell that I’m still suffering from adrenaline withdrawal because I’m dragging a bit. It feels a lot like the aftermath of a long business trip.

I can’t get too far in front of my ski tips. I have two short sections of trail I skipped over, about 27 hours total hiking time. I’ll get the first six hours on Sunday and the remainder Monday and Tuesday.

Tuesday or Wednesday I hope to meet with some Appalachian Mountain Club officials to offer them some requested feedback centered on their brand image with thru hikers. These are the Appalachian Money Club folks.

Then it’s off to my cousin’s to retrieve the gear I Ieft there. After that it’s home to join my trail crew working next Saturday in Shenandoah National Park.

Thanks to everyone for your kind kudos since Katahdin, especially HOBO whose congratulatory text reached me on Katahdin’s summit. His timing was perfect.

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Note the genuine Paris bistro chairs.

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After you hike the AT, life truly is a beach!!!

Made for TV movie

Baxter Peak, Mt. Katahdin, ME, AT NOBO mile 2,185.3, Wednesday August 6, 2014 — Today was like a made for TV movie with perfect scenery, a thickened plot and surprise casting.

Imagine two thru hikers hiking in successive years. Each has walked all the miles except the climb to Katahdin.

Better yet, each one has vicariously hiked with the other through their respective blogs month by month, day by day; mile by mile.

What are the chances that they would find each other and summit together? Well it happened.

Tie Dye wrote a fascinating blog during her 2013 hike. Along the way, we struck up a conversation. In fact, she was responsible for shaping the tone of my own hike. I blogged about it in a post entitled “Conversion on the road to Damascus.” Who knew she was working at the AT Lodge in Millinocket.

Conversely, Tie has been following my blog and has encouraged my progress. I bumped into her when I popped into the Lodge to wait out the rain.

Today was her day off and we summited together. How cool is that?!!! Two hikes, two years and one goal.

We piled into the van, a bunch of hikers headed to the top of a mountain, bound together in common purpose.

The trail can be divided into thirds. The initial portion resembles most of the trail in Maine – roots, rocks and mud. It even has bog bridges. At treeline, boulders resembling Mahoosic Notch add challenge with less difficulty. The end is a tableland walk with a surprise ending. The final exam has a bit of everything.

The dark leaden sky blocked dawn’s early light as the forecast’s twenty percent chance of rain threatened. About 45 minutes in, the sky dropped its load. With those odds, maybe I should head for Las Vegas.

As we scrambled through the boulders, the clouds parted like the Red Sea and we could see forever. It was indeed a perfect day.

Thanks to family, friends, followers for coming along for the ride. Special thanks to Tie for sharing this special day. Without Fitness Together, this would have been a struggle. Please stay tuned for follow-ups , the anthology video and to see what comes next.

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Go for launch

Millinocket, ME, AT Lodge, AT NOBO mile 2,180.1, Tuesday August 5, 2014 — Lies, damn lies and statistics? Wrong! It’s really lies, damn lies and weather forecasts.

Where have all the T-storms gone? Not here. No time passing.

Today dawned cloud free and has remained so all day. I feel like an idiot to have missed another opportunity to put the cherry on top of this most excellent adventure.

The forecast for tomorrow is now for clear weather. Therefore I’ve decided that we attack at dawn come hell or high water. It’s Katahdin or bust ’cause I am about to bust just sitting around here twiddling my thumbs. The hostel is a nice place, that’s not the issue.

Of course I am psyched. Let’s rock and roll kiddies. It’s time.

Now for other news. Sadly Millinocket is another small town drifting toward oblivion. It’s paper mills have closed taking its middle class down in the process. Deferred maintenance and for sale signs characteristically define Main Street in what has become a hiker town trend.

It is sad that the theories of Adam Smith and Darwin are evident one more time. In Smith’s case, the prosperity always seems to accrue to someone else or elsewhere. At least the hiking community brings in a few bucks.

Some of the businesses look like the owners left in a hurry. Names remain on marquees. It looks like they might be open, except they aren’t. Potemkin would be proud.

This town supports its troops. Communities like this have been sending their sons, and now their daughters, to defend our nation’s interests on muddy fields for centuries as monuments to their service attest. It’s ironic that no one seems to have defended them in the hour of their need.

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Outside. The desperation is evident.

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Inside. Working harder didn’t solve the problem.

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Rain delay

AT Lodge, Millinocket, ME, AT NOBO mile 2,180.1, Monday August 4, 2014 — Up to this point, every day, every mile, every rock, every root, every mud hole has been a preliminary heat. Now we’ve made the finals.

With toes on the starting line, the assent of Mt. Katahdin has been delayed by a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms tomorrow. A similar percentage applies for Wednesday.

I opted to regroup at the AT Lodge in Millinocket and climb on Thursday when the weather is expected to clear. It’s sad to come this far and not get a clear view on top, so I’m waiting.

I reached the camp store at Abol Bridge just as it opened. Hot, fresh coffee! Oh boy. Then it happened.

There it was – a moose just inside Baxter State Park! It was munching its way through a swamp to my right. Rain or no rain, I whipped out my camera and fired away. Mr. Moose, or maybe it was Bullwinkle, posed like a pro. Thanks bro!!!

The remainder of the ten-mile walk to Katahdin Stream Campground was a soggy jaunt in drenching rain. Can you believe it? The sky cleared just as I arrived, just 30 minutes past the deadline for starting a summit attempt. If I hadn’t stopped for coffee, I could have summited today. Oh well, 5.2 miles to go…

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The store and it’s setting reminded me of Alaska.

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The white tail was a bonus.

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Eyes on the prize!

Hurd Brook Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2,166.7, Sunday August 3, 2014 — Finally! A clear view of Katahdin. Not the best , mind you, but at least the camera saw it clearly and unmistakably.

Katahdin rises like a ginormous humpbacked whale breaching a flat ocean surface. It’s simply overwhelms everything around it. Simply put, it’s impressive.

I actually was so l busy picking blueberries, which are ripening on the rainbow ledges where hikers get their first up-close and personal view of the mountain, that I almost missed it. I looked up just at the right time. The sight took my breath away. Photos do not do it justice.

Earlier this morning a longer distance view was very hazy with Katahdin barely visible to the camera. I’m disappointed in my photo ops so far.

Tomorrow it’s breakfast at the Abol Bridge camp store, then on to The Birches where thru hikers stage for their assents. The weather remains a mystery given how long it’s been since I saw a forecast.

One caveat. The mountain is closed by the park rangers if weather conditions endanger hikers or possible rescuers. If that’s the case, I may have to hang in Millinocket until it clears. I’m hoping for a clean first attempt.

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Lo and behold

Logan Brook Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2,113.9, Thursday July 31, 2014 — Let’s start at the end. A late afternoon thunderstorm was just passing, the clouds parted and behold — the holy of holies, the end all and be all, the ultimate objective, Katahdin. Mind you it was itself shrouded in clouds, but it was unmistakable nonetheless.

There it was, plopped on the far horizon like a great mound of blueberry ice cream snuggled in a cloud of cotton candy draped like a baby blanket over its shoulders. Where’s the cherry on top? That’s where I’ll be in a few short days I smiled before planting my right pole in a thru hiker pirouette to soldier on under the dripping sky.

The end is actually in sight with just 71.4 miles remaining in this little party. My emotions are mixed. On the one hand it’s time to turn out the lights on this little fiesta. On the other, following the white blazes is pretty uncomplicated employment. It’s hard to give up life at two miles per hour and return to interstate speed.

Today was another good day. The trail was in excellent shape. At the river ford, just after the 2,100 mile mark, I met a senior trail overseer from the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) who advised me that the trail ahead of me was fast. Most of it was her responsibility. She told me the story of taking 11 years to build 1,100 stone steps down the north side of White Cap Mountain, the day’s big climb. On my way down, I realized that steps help make today’s 17 miles a relative snap.

The thunderstorm caught me below treeline. Fortunately it didn’t drop much rain, just enough to freshen the mud and slicken up the roots. I thought I’d lose out on the first view of Katahdin, but luck was a lady this afternoon.

All the young hikers are talking big miles tomorrow. The trail flattens and everyone is anxious to speed up their finish. Such competition is the coin of the realm for young men.

My resupply is supposed to be delivered sometime tomorrow, tho I don’t know what time. So as for my planned speed, I’m making sure I get fed.

That’s all I have to worry about at the moment. No deadlines. No hurry.

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Hint.

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The big K is one huge chunk of rock.

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Full speed ahead

Chairback Gap Lean-to, ME, AT NOBO mile 2096.8, Wednesday July 30, 2014 — Maine is a land of contrasts. For the past several days we’ve been breezing along at 2 mph or better. Today slowed to molasses plodding along around 1 mph.

Rock falls and ledges may not have dominated the landscape today, but there were enough of them to seriously erode progress. In between the pacing was brisk.

The shelter popped up at 4:15 pm, too early to stop, but too late to start the nine- mile push to the next one. So, I stopped and used the extra time to cleanup.

Right now it ‘s 6:30 pm and two NOBOs I met in Monson just pulled in. One fell yesterday about four miles into the day and cut his hand requiring four stitches. They’re just now catching up.

This morning’s gift was the most spectacular view on the trail so far. The vista sprawled well beyond the scope of of the grandest cyclorama imaginable. Purple mountain layers rippled across the horizon snuggled by cloud boas weaving in and out of the distant valleys while an azure blue lake invited a high dive from the high cliff where I perched.

The light was just right. I didn’t want to leave. I plan to return to the 100-mile wilderness in the future when I can stay put and dig for treasure when and where I find it.

I beat the rain now drumming the shelter’s tin roof. The prob is for more tomorrow, slowing the next day. I am thankful for small victories like this.

The daily temps are blessedly cool enough that strenuous up hill doesn’t generate extraordinary amounts of sweat. Tonight , as last, a light jacket was necessary to ward off the chill at dinner time.

Tomorrow is a rough day of rock fall and steep but short hills. “Can’t wait,” (he lied).

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River ford.

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Young moose. Far bank. Did not survive.

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Old trail marker.

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