Blame the Weatherman

Matts Creek Shelter, Va., AT NOBO mile 778.6, Sunday March 23 — Today’s my daughter’s 25th birthday. Happy birthday Tiger. Go get ’em!

Today’s forecast was for sunny and 70F. I dressed accordingly.

Had a lousy night’s sleep. Don’t know why. The night was too warm, maybe. At around 2:30 am the temp dropped 20 degrees. That did it. I slept ’til 7 am; was hiking by eight.

There I was cruising up the first of two scheduled climbs for the day when, two hours in, nickel-size snow flakes began bombarding the woods as if dropped from a fleet of B-52s directly overhead.

“Where the hey did this come from,” I muttered. Faster than a NASCAR pit crew, my wet weather gear was on me and my pack. Everything needed fits in pockets outside my pack, making for quick access. “That’s not what the weatherman said!”

Just then a gaggle of Boy Scouts trooped by. Some were in shirtsleeve T-shirts. ‘Nuff said, I thought. I’m not the only one.

Being a bit underdressed kept me moving at a hasty pace all day. I reached my planned destination by two o’clock. Stopping for the day at 2 pm in the cold, empty shelter wasn’t a viable option, so I pressed on for a total of slighly more than 22 miles on the day. Now I’m much lower in altitude and out of the snow.

The old aphorism about everybody complaining about the weather – and by extension weathermen – but nobody ever does anything about it.

As I passed through the trail feature known as the guillotine, the answer to the age old complaint flashed between my ears.

“Off with ‘is ‘ead!” The answer was obvious.



Are we there yet?


In October, the weather at White Blaze number 1 was a harbinger of temperatures to come – The ambient air temp registered a unseasonal 17 F frosted with a stiff wind.


When 2014 rolled over on Father Time’s odometer, the annual blossoming of the Appalachian Trail (AT) commenced as hikers slowly began pollinating north Georgia’s Springer Mountain.  Each new arrival swelled the cavalcade expectantly streaming northward.  From a few in January, each successive month bears witness to new hopefuls joining the annual rebirth and migration.

From Springer, they follow the nor’ easters stormy track for 2,185.3 miles – all the way to Baxter State Park in central Maine.  Their ultimate hope is to hug that battered placard atop Mt. Katahdin.  Undeterred, they willfully ignore the overwhelming odds against their success.  Historical evidence suggests that least three of four of us will be unsuccessful. 

As a family strung out over the miles, individually and together we hikers navigate a unique ribbon of reality. It twists and turns in a slow motion parallel universe to I-95 which, just a few miles east of the AT, rages relentlessly northward in the direction of our common destination.  We are confident in our slower but equally determined pace, and fortified by our greater peace of mind as we leave civilization in the rear view mirror.

For the next several months we inhabit a migrating colony of free-range hikers.   Our feral existence is defined by day-by-day adventures all our own.  That’s how our story unfolds.

The class of 2014 has done all the preparation possible.  From now until Katahdin, for any chance of success, each of us needs luck, and above all, the courage to keep on keeping on, no matter what challenge comes our way. 

 Feet to brain, “Say what! “

Not one of us is an island.  The support of family, friends, the trail community, complete strangers, and those who read our journals is a necessary condition of success. 

The long march for the Class of 2014 is finally underway in significant numbers. If we have the physical stamina, enough luck to avoid major illness and injury, and the mental fortitude to repeat the first stride five million times through ups and downs, snow, rain, mud, heat, humidity, ugly rocks, injuries and blood sucking insects, then we too will claim the high ground and tag that weathered scoreboard almost 2,200 miles north of white blaze number 1. 

My hike is highly unconventional, although not originally planned that way.  On September 24th I started a 13-day, 160-mile practice hike from Waynesboro, Va to Harpers Ferry WVa.  It was so much fun that I did not want to waste it.  So, I decided to get down to Springer Mountain and start northward as soon as I could.


With my friend Mary “Hey Man!” Manley, I took the on-ramp to the northbound hiker super highway on Oct. 24.   Mary plans to resume her hike from where she suspended it in about a month from now.  I know this tough cookie is going to make it all the way.


As I crunched my way forward on the snow and ice-crusted trail as the days darkened, I heard of three NOBOs hiking ahead of me with the intent of driving on to Maine unless weather drove them off the trail.  Reports are that one left the trail in Damascus just prior of my arrival there.  I have no word of the others.


Now it’s my turn to rejoin the class.  The administrative tasks related to my mother’s passing are complete, the taxes filed, and all the rest. 

My official return to the trail is Wednesday.  High octane drop boxes packed with calories were mailed last week. During the interim, I’ve been working hard at Fitness Together.  The plan is Katahdin or Bust by July fourth – give or take.  Fingers crossed.


As always, armchair hikers are welcome to enjoy the rest of the journey.

 Sisu – Making tracks

Humor does not diminish the pain – it makes the space around it get bigger. – Allen Klein 

“The most certain way of ensuring victory is to march briskly and in good order against the enemy, always endeavoring to gain ground.”   Fredrick the Great

A version of this entry was previously posted on Trail Journals.

The Benefit of Fitness


Thirty-seven lbs. in a 40 liter pack – ugh!


Visions of history’s great force marches gnawed at my mind as I set out on my last training hike. This hike was deliberately designed to test my limits. 

I constantly reminded myself that my efforts and challenges were a cakewalk in comparison to the distances both armies frequently marched during the Civil War on some of the very ground upon which I was walking. 

The suffering and horror of Bataan or Napoleon’s retreat from Russia were beyond imagination or reasonable comparison.

In this context, my hike was easy.  Why, I pondered, do so many people physically succumb and drop out of their thru hike attempts?  I learned some about why that happens and would like to share it with you.

The test I created was a simple worse case scenario.  I would hike 160 miles in two weeks carrying my full winter kit and 14 days worth of food.  While knowing resupply was easy, I chose to be self-contained and heavy on purpose, just to learn how my body would handle the stress of the extra weight.

In the beginning by total pack weight was 37 lbs.  That wasn’t a monkey on my back, it was a full grown gorilla!  Jane Goodall would have been proud.  As I ate the weight down I expected some relief, but Mother Nature had other malevolent ideas. 

I ate weight, but Momma Nature countered by turning up the heat.  As I basted in my own sweat, my mind played games with my head.  I obsessed about and deeply resented the useless weight imposed by my winter base layer, the 20 degree  sleeping bag and the now useless puffy down jacket.  My clothing bag came to weigh as much as a black smith’s anvil.  Thank heaven there were no hiker boxes around tempting me to off-load a little superfluous mass.

As it was, I pushed to finish one day early in order to beat a tropical storm.  Doing that involved three consecutive 15s and one 20-mile day in 88 – 90 degree temps. Good training for summer weather I thought – fortunately minus most of the blood sucking insects.

The good news is that the time spent pushing myself to near nausea in the weight room with my trainers at Fitness Together paid off in spades. 

This hike was harder than imagined, but thanks to my weight training and running, strength and endurance were never issues.  In fact, I was able to keep pushing hard at the end of several painful and frustrating days.

Age-imposed limitations are the bad news.  After it was over, three full days elapsed before I could even contemplate resuming hiking.  The message there is that I essentially gained nothing by force marching for 13 days.  Zero mileage days actually gain time in the future. 

Today, one week after finishing, my knees are still sore.  The extra weight in my pack conspired with rocky downhill slopes to impose maximum stress on them.  Trekking poles helped some, but not enough.  I vowed that my total pack weight will never exceed 25 lbs. again, no matter what, when or why.

As the hike wore on, small aches and pains asserted themselves.  My calves wanted to cramp no matter how much I drank.  A muscle in the middle of my back decided to go on strike.  My triceps got sore from pushing and lifting myself up with my poles.  My glutes staged 60s-style protests.  I developed a stiff neck from sleeping the wrong way.  Joy was everywhere.

The object lesson is that a zero (rest day) about every fifth day would be optimal.  Zeroing at least once every seven days is mandatory for me.  Otherwise, my body will start rapidly breaking down.  Good to know now while there is still time to plan before the main event begins.

Without the extra fitness level, I would have been screwed. It is good to know, however, that I am able to push as hard, far and fast as necessary if need be.  It’s not too late for anyone hiking in 2014 to get in better shape.  Training hikes help, but weight training, boot camp fitness or cross fit under the supervision of a coach/personal trainer can impressively improve your odds of success.  Think of it as insurance.

The reason I suggest coaching, if you can afford the investment, is that most folks profit from the expertise they offer and their ability to maximize the benefit of your workouts.  For months mine have been specifically designed for hiking and they paid off.  For example, box jumps with weights are perfect training for high-stepping up stone steps and over ledges or big boulders.

And now some breaking news.  Plans have changed for my next training hike.  Roadrunners often train on the same course upon which they will race to gain familiarity.  I’m hoping this rule of thumb applies to hiking.

On October 25th class of ’14 member Mary “Hey Man!” Manley and I will begin hiking the 165 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Fontana Village, North Carolina.  She’s a recently retired nurse.  We’ll travel at her pace and on her schedule.  After reviewing “Baltimore Jack’s” notes, I think about five days worth of grub is the most I’ll ever need on this stretch. 

Not sure how it will go, but we’ll let you know how two retired folks do and will share what we learn from our individual age, gender and hiker perspectives.  You can follow Mary’s blog on WordPress and Trail Journals.

Sisu – Making tracks.

No pain. No Maine. Insane!


As far as the human body is concerned, an Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike is 2,000-mile demolition derby. Just showin’ up with a pearly smile for this beauty contest might not be enough.

Frost that cake with the Biblical ordeals endured by this year’s thru-hikers – endless winter, viral plagues and human tragedy – and you have to ask yourself, “Am I really ready for this?”

Recently a potential thru-hiker on the class of ’14’s Facebook page wanted to know if anyone was doing anything extraordinary to prepare for their hike next year. The right answer to a question like that has an infinite number of variables involving hiking experience, current fitness level, age, gender, goals and individual circumstances.

I didn’t respond, but the Facebook post did cause me to consider the question.

Like most Baby Boomers, I have an accumulation of injuries and insults to my body as well as many of the standard age-related maladies. These are off set with experience, motivation, and a healthy case of attitude known as sisu in Finland.

In pondering the question, the individual chronicles of this year’s hikers on came to mind. More than half of them are Boomers.

Reading suggests that some of the Boomers projected the narcissistic mindset so often associated with our generation. We’re ageless with all-access passes to the Fountain of Youth. I mean we’re the folks who were never going to grow up or trust anyone over 30.

Sadly, along the trail this year, more than a few Boomers discovered a different reality. The Pepsi Generation is running into Mother Nature’s limits.

These natural limitations are compounded by the magnitude of the challenge we are attempting.

I will admit it. Reading about the class of ‘13’s travails definitely got my attention. I’d almost rather be hit by a NFL linebacker than endure some the trials and agonies they have recorded so far this year, and hiking season is only half over!

It’s no wonder that fate has so far forced hundreds of them to bite the dust and return home in the vertical and – tragically for a couple of folks – in the horizontal positions. Bless them all.

The take-away from all this caused me to rethink everything about my own hike from gear to my conditioning program. I need to improve my odds of success, but there’s more to that then meets the eye.

Since so many hikers are Boomers, a Boomer reality check might be helpful.

We’re still special, just not in the way we might fully appreciate. To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s plastic surgeons and hair colorists can’t stop time. That is unless your name is Cher.

For some of us, vanity is beyond passé. “Does your belly hang low? Does it wobble to and froe? Can you tie it in a knot? Can you tie it in a bow?” Humpty Dumpty was carrying his weight in all the wrong places. Maybe if his center of gravity had been higher or lower…

Even if you’re lucky enough to be still getting checked out, believe it or not Ripley, by now every Boomer has lost that fabled step or two compared to our more youthful counterparts. Try as we might, it just happens.

It works like this. When I “run” 10K races, stopwatch batteries die before I can finish, so now they time me with a calendar. ☺

That’s why I’m starting my hike in February. I may need the extra time, ‘cause my Maine squeeze isn’t going to wait beyond October 15 when the trail terminus at Mt. Katahdin closes.

Let’s dig a little deeper. As we age, our cardio capacity is reduced. Our less-elastic tendons and reduced bone density make us more vulnerable the orthopedic disappointments that frequently erase thru-hikers from the roles.

Even our eyesight is diminished. Everyone over 40 suffers from presbyopia. But, as TV pitchman Billy Mays used to say before he gave up the ghost, “…but wait, there’s more!”

I recently hugged my ophthalmologist when she told me that everyone over 60 develops cataracts. Oh joy! Did you know that cataracts diminish night vision acuity?

Just for kicks, imagine this: During those long cold nights sometimes prostate symptoms often force guys to wake up and get up. Add reduced night vision to an unscheduled pit stop and guess what? If you want to see where you’re “going”… better remember your flashlight.

So to sum it up, sixty is NOT the new 40. Who would ’a thunk that? OBTW, don’t trust anyone under 2 x 30…

Face it fellow Boomers, we’re about to star in a reality show that is more like a “Twilight Zone” episode inspired by the Bataan death march and the Shackleton survival ordeal, than Disney’s “Davy Crockett.”

As I sit here considering what I’m up against next year, the words of my drill sergeant long ago are echoing in my head, “Life is cruel. Get over it and give me 50 push-ups!”

Maybe if Mr. Dumpty had pumped a little iron and did his push-ups….? Just sayin’.

Exercising and pumping iron, working out? What a concept!

Don’t laugh. Long distance hiking is an extreme athletic event. Serious strengthening programs are insurance against the stress injuries that add up after 5 million relentlessly pounding steps and a couple of hundred turtles and face plants.

If we workout at all, most of us aren’t focused on climbing over boulders, powering up hills, recovering from falls, and in particular, controlling down hill movement where shin splints and patellar tendonitis love to live.

That heavy pack on your back? Its weight serves as an exponent in the joint injury and tendonitis equations. Packing less weight is good as long as you can be safe.

So then, if luck is when preparation meets opportunity, this year’s hikers taught us this. When adversity smacks you up side the head, being fit and strong can be better than trail magic, and that’s worth strong consideration.

Fitness Together helped me design a strengthening program appropriate to the challenges presented to AT thru-hikers. My bar tab at the Fountain of Youth ran out long ago, so I had no choice but to pay up front.

By way of full disclosure, I am a life-long athlete who will turn 65 somewhere along the trail next year. If I don’t make it, I want to know I did everything I could to be ready and Pam Stanfield, my coach at Fitness Together, was a big part of that.

If I crash and burn, I want to be able to get up, recover and hike on. Either that, or I’ll throw in the towel knowing I left it all on the trail and there was nothing more I could have done.

Irrational determination and perseverance is what “Sisu” is all about. Now all I have to do is eat my spinach and measure up. BTW, don’t discount dumb luck and the kindness of the good people I am going to need and hope to meet along the way. Thanks to all y’all in advance.