From George’s House to the Daughter of the Stars

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Mount Vernon, VA; Harpers Ferry, WV; Shenandoah National Park, VA, October 24 – 26, 2019. — This was a good week.  It opened with a quick trip to Annapolis Rock in a drippy drizzle and closed with similarly soggy weather in Shenandoah.

In between the sunshine was brilliant when we came knocking at George’s house.  Mt. Vernon hasn’t seen my shadow since 1985.  What a difference 34 years make.

Last visit, there were a small number of tourists, much of the house was undergoing restoration and few outbuildings that had been reconstructed.  Other than a mention, there was next to nothing about slavery or the other people and infrastructure that made the plantation economically successful.

This visit, we found a huge visitor center, plenty of docents, museum and hoards of tourists and herds of school kids on field trips.  The house is looking good too.

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Mary Thurman occasionally visits and we explore the region.  She’s a member of the Cherokee nation, so last summer we visited the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian.  This visit we had a choice of Mt. Vernon or the Spy Museum.  Our choice was a good one.

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The spits, hooks and other kitchen paraphernalia reminded me of torture tools that might be found in a medieval dungeon.  The audio tour was excellent and downloadable for future use.

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Fall Colors in Harpers Ferry.  The church is antebellum as is every building in the photo.

The next day Mary returned to her ridgerunning duties while myself and two other PATC volunteers led 20 Northern Virginia Community College students on a hike to the Maryland Heights viewpoint.

Great idea:  The college parks a bus in front of its student center on Fridays.  Nobody knows where it’s going until they board.  This day the destination was a rendezvous with us at John Brown’s fort.  The fort is in its third reconstruction and location.

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This photo was taken from the fort’s original location which was elevated for a railroad bed (no longer used) after the civil war.  The foundations of two buildings that were once part of the pre-civil war federal armory are visible.

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Not sure why people feel free to vandalize national parks, in this case the fort which was originally a fire house.

Perfect time to visit Harpers Ferry.

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Maryland Heights was crowded in addition to our students.

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The view is worth the effort.

Maryland Heights.

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Stephanie is using a professional model electric chainsaw.  It’s power and longevity was impressive as was its light weight.  Dear Santa …

In the predawn murk I slammed down a coffee and hightailed it to Shenandoah for chainsaw sawyer recertification – required every third year.  Chairsaws are no joke and the park service pays attention to safety.

The information on which certified sawyers are tested is at this link:  Sawyer Handbook

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After passing the test, my intent was to refresh the white blazes on my trail section.  Several of them are peeling.  Unfortunately Mother Nature and her liquid sunshine suggested other ideas.  So I simply took a stroll looking for work that will need doing in November after the leaves are down.

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The spring is barely flowing.

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The tread is in good shape.

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Nature’s art.

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Northern Red Oak.

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Another view of the overlook.  Shenandoah to the left.  Potomac in the town foreground.

Next week:  Final Road Scholar hikes of the year and the end of Mary’s ridgerunning season.  Stay tuned for the blog.

Sisu

 

 

Hiking Maryland Heights with Old Friends

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Friends from my days in the White House/National Security Council Press Office.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  July 7, 2018 — The auspicious press room at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is just off the West Wing, constructed over what was once the inauspicious presidential swimming pool.

As life would have it, my favorite journalists swam in the deep end of that former pool, now known as the press room basement.

You could say this invisible nether region was reserved for the less pyrotechnic news broadcasters such as Bloomberg, the Voice of America, NPR and the like.

I wish I’d taken photos of these down-under denizens who were literally schmooshed into their phone booth-size working spaces.

Believe me, ya hadda be there to appreciate it, especially the irresistible treats they’d bring from home each day.  I was soon food-conditioned and grazed almost daily.  It was an irresistible trap of sorts.  In return for treats, I’d respond to questions.  Hope my answers were as good as the brownies.

After my time at the Executive Mansion expired, keeping in touch was precarious.  This was the mid-1990s when the Yahoo search engine was revolutionary and long before social media.

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Two decades passed.  Then our friend Tina thought we should meet-up at a baseball game on July 4.  Catching up, we realized some of us had in common a previously unknown love of nature.

Impulsively I offered to organize a hike and BOOM, there we were, three days later, munching (this time my homemade blueberry muffins) in a Harpers Ferry parking lot preparing to assault the Maryland Heights overlook.  Maryland Heights Trail

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The iconic view from Maryland Heights is spectacular.  The Shenandoah River is top left.  The Potomac River is bottom center.

The weather was unheard of for July in the mid-Atlantic region.  Our 7 a.m. departure featured low humidity, a light breeze and a sweat-free temp of 60 F.  Up we chugged, skidding to a stop at the featured overlook in well under an hour.  We toured the 1862 civil war fortifications on the mountain top before finishing the 10 km loop before lunch time.

 

 

Along the way we took selfies like giddy teenagers.

Me with thru hike pix

Showing off my thru hike photo from 2014.

With time to spare, we toured the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Visitor Center, then we stopped for burgers and beers in town before moseying down to John Brown’s fort.

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Railroad tunnel and bridges over the C&O Canal and the Potomac river.

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Ruins of a lock keeper’s house on the C&O Canal.

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Jefferson’s Rock.  The props were added in the mid-1800s to preserve the balanced rock formation.

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The view from Jefferson’s Rock.

After exploring the lower town and crossing the river over to the C&O Canal, we marched up to Jefferson’s Rock, then through the ancient cemetery and back to our initial rendezvous point where we hugged all around and agreed to hike again soon.

Upon reflection, I’m thinking food history might be repeating itself.  I’ll keep baking blueberry muffins and other treats, as long as they keep coming.

To those from that era who weren’t there: We’ve got plenty of roster slots, lots of fresh hikes, and all the freshly baked muffins you can eat.

Sisu

Flip Flops – the New Hiking Boot?

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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, April 16 -17, 2016 — Flip flops are not going to be the recommended hiking boot anytime soon.  Certainly they have merit.  After all they’d tread lightly on the environment – with no cleats to rearrange the dirt.  They’re cool and airy which might help limit athletes foot.  Certainly they’d dry quickly.  Alas, they’re just not practical.

Flip flops are a type of Appalachian Trail thru hike.  Rather than hike in a single straight line direction from one terminus to the other, flip floppers are hiker jazz artists, jumping ahead or starting somewhere between the two ends and working outward.  They still hike all 2,200 miles within 12 consecutive months, they just don’t book a linear itinerary.

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The ATC is trying to encourage flip flop hiking in an attempt to alleviate some of the spring season overcrowding on the southern 500 miles of the trail.

Enter the flip flop Festival, an attempt to increase awareness of and participation in nontraditional AT thru hikes.

More than a hundred aspiring thru hikers and hundreds of hikers attended the many seminars on hiking-related subjects including trail etiquette, hygiene, basic hiking, trail issues and long distance backpacking.  I offered the latter.  My slides are here:  Eating the Elephant

The festival featured vendors, displays and even a food truck.  The cannon is located in the exact same spot as one that appears in a civil war era photograph.

Sunday morning we sent those starting their hikes off in style following a tasty pancake breakfast hosted by the Harpers Ferry Odd Fellows Club which was chartered in 1833!  It’s building is graced with (rather poorly) repaired cannonball holes from the civil war.  Talk about history!

Later that afternoon we were hiking up the southern shoulder of South Mountain (Maryland), just outside Harpers Ferry, leading the second of Sunday’s day hikes up to a nice viewpoint overlooking the Potomac River called Weverton Cliff.

The conga line of hikers winding up the switchbacks reminded me of a big city rush hour traffic jam. People were stepping all over each other.

Why would anyone do this, I thought.  I like to share scenery and the outdoor experience with a few friends or people that I like in small doses.  That’s when I realized that above all, one word describes why I like to be on the trail where ever that trail may be.  Solitude… and that’s no flip flop on my part.

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/

Major Milestone Complete

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George Harrison with the Beatles had it right.  “Little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely, winter!”  You bet!  One thousand and eight, point eight northbound miles on the odometer. 

“Here comes the sun,” I hope.  Of course, along with warmer weather I realize that in trade I’ll be sharing the trail amenities with other thru hikers, section hikers and recreational users of the trail.  That’s been the (very welcome) case pretty much since spring break.  Actually, it’s been nice to have some company after weeks playing a combination of Daniel Boone/Grizzly Adams/Kit Carson going solo in the wilderness. 

Being alone does help foster peace of mind.  I’ve come to understand and embrace the appeal that solitude brings monks, nuns, hermits and those who spend hours in meditation.  On the other hand, sometimes your mouth fills up with stuff you just have to share with someone.  In those cases, when two hikers paths cross, the stacato wordy eruptions from the two parties can be positively Vesuviun as they lock on like Blue Tooth, spouting information at rates that would melt fiber optic cable. 

Since I trekked from Rockfish Gap to Harpers Ferry in the fall, when I closed on the Gap, my hike flash forwarded the 160 miles through Shenandoah National Park and on to the Maryland border where the Potomac washes the West Virginia line. 

As I ensconced myself at a convenient popcorn stand, Tim, my high school classmate once again saved my bacon.  He scooped me up for an Italian lunch in downtown Waynesboro, a shower at his house and a visit to a very cool museum within walking distance of his house as we killed time until my wife could arrive and drag me home. Of course we treated our spouses to fine dining first.

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Day 1:  10:04 a.m. Sept. 24, 2013

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11 a.m. March 3, 2014 – 25 lbs. lighter.  Notice the big difference in body language.

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A popcorn/jhot dog stand right on the trail.  What a concept!

The Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Va. (http://www.frontiermuseum.org/)is a living history affair modeled on Colonial Williamsburg, featuring the ethnic groups that settled the Shenandoah Valley – including the original Americans and the ethnic Nigerian Igbo enslaved population.  The perspective it offers about how the valley was settled and evolved was absolutely awesome. 

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Along the way, I learned that those stone walls I previously wrote about were actually built by rented slaves.  That tale is not as romantic as the image of hard-scrabble farmers clearing land by the sweat of their brow.

When to reenter the northbound hiker flow is to be determined.  The Conservancy staff suggests waiting until late April or early May or risk riding winter’s tail all the way to the end.  That option would add the social factor associated with more people too.  On the other hand, I’m not inclined to wait that long.  Therefore I’ve arranged to consult with several successful of thru hikers who reside in the northern states and seek their advice.  My departure date will be based on how their insights fit with the experience I hope to have. 

Meanwhile, there’ll be more in this space on lessons learned, Tarzan, and a couple of other subjects that banged against my skull as I bumped along the trail.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Sisu – Makin’ tracks …

Stolen Sign Epiphany

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I lunched today with two fantastic southbound thru hikers, a couple of folks from the great state of Tennessee.  Their blog on www.trailjournals.com is so creative, I just had to meet them.

Since Maine, they’ve been living for the day when they’d slide south of the Mason-Dixon line and return to the land of sweet tea, mac and cheese, biscuits and gravy, and almighty grits. 

We met at my usual spot in Harpers Ferry.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters is like a temple where thru hikers memorialize their hike with an official photo that is filed in the official data base forever.  They can bring their kids back decades later, open the book, and there they are in full glory.  There’s even a copy to be found on line, so you don’t actually have to visit.

As I drove in, I couldn’t miss them.  There they were marching up the hill distinguished by their bright orange pack covers.  The international orange pack jackets are supposed to protect hikers from deer hunters figuring no one would ever confuse a deer with a traffic cone – would they?

After the obligatory introductions and photo ceremony, we headed out for lunch in the historic district where John Brown’s raid on the arsenal and some anecdotal civil war history happened.

We found a eclectic eatery nestled in a house erected in the early 1800s.  We settled into a cozy patio carved from the rocky cliff behind the house.  Shaded on a hot day, it was nice.

The conversation superseded pouring over the menu, so we ordered on the fly. 

I need to digress a bit.  I have lived enough in the south to be an honorary southerner with certain southern culinary habits.  I like all of the aforementioned southern delicacies, and often substitute them for haute cuisine. 

Back to the story.  It wasn’t until I ordered sweet tea that my guests fully realized they were back on Confederate territory.  You see, someone has stolen the sign demarking the Mason – Dixon Line.  Without that reminder, who knew!

A quick check of the menu revealed mac and cheese and most of the other great southern dishes.  So, there they were.  Hike only half way done, but almost all the way home.

Trooper and Number 2, thanks for letting me have a tiny share of your most excellent adventure.  Godspeed.

Mid-point Reality Check

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It’s not uncommon for aspiring Appalachian Trail thru hikers to vicariously hike the trail the previous year.   As an armchair hiker, I’ve been attentively reading the blogs and trail journals of the class of ’13 since February.

These blog posts, photos and videos are especially valuable because they offer generally raw and unedited insight into the day-to-day hiking experience before distance and selective memory can file off the sharp edges.

Following the AT in virtual reality is a good thing, but it’s even better to encounter real-time hikers in situ.  Thru-hikers are an abundant species in these parts from early spring through mid-summer, so running into them in season is easier than driving bumper cars at a county fair.

Living within proximity of Harpers Ferry and Shenandoah National Park during thru hiker open season allows for special opportunities to bag live game, so to speak.  Hint:  Free hamburgers make excellent bait!
The scene is Harpers Ferry, more than 1,000 hiker miles from Georgia.  By the time hikers get this far, a lot of them are physically and mentally distressed.  These circumstances apply equally to age and gender.  Trail journal blogs describe the accumulative effects of cold, heat, humidity, rocks, insects, blisters, dirt, funk and hunger as they snowball over the months and miles on end.

Every hiker seems to experience a mid-hike crisis.  Sometimes it’s nothing more than the Virginia blues.  Relief comes by simply crossing the West Virginia state line.  Other times the meltdown is triggered a little later.  In fact, it happened this year to one hiker in Maine, believe it or not.  But it is probably gonna happen irrespective of where, when or why.

Reading about it in Trail Journals is one thing.  Engaging the lab rats themselves and observing them first hand is another.

The spectrum is amazing.  Some hikers seem fresh off the showroom floor as if day one was yesterday.  Others appear bruised and battered and seem to remain mobile solely by the grace of prosthetic braces, wraps and devices.  One young woman tied bandanas around her legs to bolster her sore knees.  Maybe the Conservancy could raise money selling AT logo affinity hiker orthopedic devices.

The really unlucky hikers appear to have been the main course at a blood-sucking insect all-you-can-eat buffet.  I’ve seen scourge marks that would horrify Mel Gibson’s make up designer.

Clearly everything that happens on the trail is cumulative.  A hiker’s body experiences a thru hike is like a 2,000-mile demolition derby.  With this in mind, most hikers were not afraid to admit that quitting had crossed their mind more than once.

Overall, I was able to talk to about 30 thru hikers.  Five of them were special because they were sympathetic enough to candidly share lunch and their thoughts as they passed through Harpers Ferry.

I selectively invited each to lunch because their blogs were especially informative, insightful, and not to mention, interesting and fun to read.   Most fortunate for me, Saber, a retired Army guy who finished in less than four months, generously stopped by my house to share his thoughts.

I had a lot of fun talking to these folks and consider it a privilege to have been part of the tapestry of their hikes.  The hiker community is nothing less than totally awesome!  Thank you all very much.

The hikers didn’t agree on everything, and most of what I learned can be found among the eternal verities of the AT.  I hope billboarding the top level take-aways can be helpful to others.

Why am I here?

Saber asked me if my primary objective is hiking or camping.  That determination dictates everything else about the AT experience.

If your objective is to hike, then go light to fight.  Less pack weight cuts down on injuries and fatigue.  Just carry the equipment you need to handle extreme weather, temperatures and injury.  A lot of folks sent excess stuff home along the way.

Ultra light packs can carry ultra light loads.  No upgrades on the load limit.  A couple of folks suggested that pack comfort was a really big deal for them.

There’s an exception to every rule.  At the 935 mile point, I saw one thru hiker who said she was as “happy” to be hauling a pack about the size of a hippo with a camp chair attached as were those saddled with 20-lb. packs the about the size of shoe boxes.   Hike your own hike.  Right!

Feet don’t fail me now.

Healthy feet are everything.  The right boots or hiking shoes matter a lot.  It’s almost impossible to avoid blisters at one time or another.  Many of these hikers spend a lot of time thinking about and caring for their feet.  On average, Boots/hiking shoes last about 500 miles.

Techno-hikers.

Some newer, high tech equipment can confer a real weight and performance advantages if you can afford them.  Reports are that dry down works.  One hiker said her fuel-efficient stove was still on its original butane cartridge (albeit the dregs) at 1,000 miles.  Lightweight thermal air mattresses are recommended for cold, hard shelter flours.

On the downside, the lighter weight fabrics are prone to tear or puncture.  Best to carry a patching kit.  Duct tape doesn’t stay stuck long and leaves a mess to clean up.

Keeping electronics charged is a universal pain.  Auxiliary storage batteries come in all prices, shapes and sizes.  A few folks had the smaller solar chargers.  The larger ones had been sent home long before 1,000 miles.

This was universal.  Strike up the band.  Music/electronic book readers/ or some form of entertainment should be considered.   More songs are better along with a variety of pod casts.  It’s a long hike.  I was assured I would fall in love with my personal pocket juke box before it’s over.

Mo better grease is gourmet fare.

Everyone does food differently.  One vegan said she had been able to maintain a very healthy diet.  Very few hikers were that picky.

There’s a reason hikers post so many photos of food on their blogs.  Hiker hunger is real!  The folks with whom I lunched had the option to get very nice (and HEALTHY) salads, seafood, etc., but NO!

Hikers are addicted to hamburgers and fries – the more artery clogging the better.  It’s sort of like the AT version of the Atkins diet with a pop tart bonus.  (Mom, stop reading now, please.  “Personally, I can’t wait.”)

Logistics.

You can resupply high octane calories out of a convenience store if necessary.  Your doctor and dentist might not approve, but it’ll keep you on the trail until a grocery store is near.

Many towns have an outfitter of some kind.  Fuel cartridges are readily available.

Mail drops are a pain.  Many of the hikers were reducing their dependence on them.

Towns are necessary time and money magnets.  You can save a lot of time and money by taking neros in town – just doing the necessary shower, laundry and resupply, then jumping back onto the trail before the day is over.

Be smart and get off the trail and go to town when super bad weather is pending, especially in the winter.

Not all hostels and motels are equal.  Some are filthy dumps.  Read the Trail Journals carefully or contact a hiker directly.  Hikers will tell you what they think.

If you need privacy, you’ll probably not like hostels.  Everybody has a list of must places to stay and places to be avoided unless hell is about to freeze over, and it almost did a couple of times during the luck winter of ‘13, so stay flexible.

Bring earplugs.  Everybody snores at one time or another, even if they think they don’t.  Say it ain’t so!

Embrace the suck factor.

To paraphrase Yogi, 90 percent of hiking is half mental.  On the one hand, the physical and mental can combine to kick a hiker’s butt and destroy morale.  It can be psychologically wearing to hike for days on end without conversing with, or even seeing many other people.  Many said this was where music really helps keep morale up.

You have to hike your own hike.

Dictate the terms of your own hike.  The hikers in the best shape were approaching their hikes using the tactics distance runners use in marathons.  Don’t go out too fast, control your pace in the middle of the race when you think you ought to be passing more people and then, it’s mostly a mind game at the end.  The end game is a successful finish.  Never mind what the group thinks.

Conversely, the hikers who seemed to be concentrating more on bragging rights and endless numbers of big mileage days were suffering accordingly.  Age and gender were not factors in this observation, but pack weight was.

Hiking is a social experience.  The more the hike was about friendship and community, the easier the mental challenges.  A lot of folks said they were going to slow down and enjoy themselves more in the second half.

Plagues and other medieval experiences.

Norovirus nailed almost 100 percent of this year’s hikers.  Everyone I met got it including a hiker with a clinical background who took meticulous measures.  Folks kept themselves extra clean, avoided shelters, privys, shelter registers, sick hostels and stealth camped. It nailed them anyway.  OhJoy.

Hiker funk should be classified as a weapon of mass destruction.  It took three days to get the aroma out of my car after leaving a pack in my trunk for about five hours on a hot day.  Heaven only knows what incubated in there.  My bet is that the Pentagon would pay a fortune for it.

A rose by any other name … A small number of folks reported that they managed to largely avoid the worst of the hiker funk by taking sponge baths, rinsing out their clothes as frequently as possible, even in colder (not the coldest) weather.  REI carries NASA-designed waterless soap and shampoo that may be worth consideration.

Bottom line.

Hiking he AT is personal.  Each experience is unique.  Every hike is hard at times.  Reading about it, watching You Tube videos and talking to hikers isn’t the same doing it day in and day out for six months.

The hikers I’ve encountered have been fascinating people.  I’d tend to expect that of anyone with the giddy-up to hike a thousand miles in three months. It’s going to be fun to watch them summit Katahdin.  I’ll be cheering no matter what.