Da Bears (Den)

Bears Den Hostel and Hiking Center, Bluemont, VA – Saturday, November 21, 2015 — Sometimes pop up projects just happen.  The PATC supervisor of trails was jawing with Glenn, the Bears Den caretaker.  “Ya got any work?”  “Yup.”  And so another adventure begins for the North District Hoodlums Trail Crew.

So there I was, minding my own business when in comes a “flash” email looking for volunteers for Saturday.  Bears Den needs firewood and urgent repairs to one of its hiking trails.  Who can come?  Sawyers bring your chain saws.  “Let’s rally!”

Now what can you say at a time like this?  A chance to fire up my chainsaw…  This is better than playing baseball in late October.  Woah dude!  Don’t ask twice I’m there. I love extra innings.

Fortunately we’ve had a prolonged indian summer here in the mid-Atlantic.  Unfortunately we became way too comfortable with unseasonably warm weather.

Of course the weather pattern was going to hold.  What was the chance it would be subfreezing Saturday morning … No need to guess.  It was 26F according to my car when I pulled into the parking lot.

Everyone was shivering as we organized our work parties.

We had three sawyers and split into two parties while a larger crew marched off to repair a badly eroded trail.

The swampers got some help from one of two Scout troops camping on the Bears Den grounds. We were bucking the hazard trees a professional crew of arborists dropped earlier this summer as mentioned in this post:  https://jfetig.com/2015/07/29/on-the-road/

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Lunch is always better when enjoyed outside, especially since the temp jumped the shark back to early autumn.

 Now to split the damn stuff.  Fortunately, Glenn has a hydraulic splitter.

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At the end of the day, we tramped down to Bears Den rocks for a zen moment  Thus ended another Hoodlums excellent adventure.

 

Winter Wonderland, North Georgia Style

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Top of Georgia Hostel, Hiawassee, GA, Friday February 27, 2015 — A couple of days ago I marched into the woods to begin my duties helping hikers get through their first of the Appalachian Trail’s (AT) 14 states.

My duties are to educate hikers on Leave No Trace principles, which at its essence means that they are supposed to live in and leave the wilderness undisturbed by their presence.  “Leave only footprints” is the mantra.

We also hike out trash we find, help where we can and be a friendly presence on the trail as well as eyes and ears.

The first day began at 9 a.m. at about 70 miles north of the AT’s start point on Springer Mountain.  This section begins with a 1,500 foot climb right out of the door.  It took about a nano second for me to fully appreciate that the 2,200 mile-strong “trail legs” earned on my thru hike last year were past their expiration date.  Ooooph!

But I slushed on through the snow, stopping every 50 yards or so to cool down and catch my breath.  I’m packing about 35 lbs. of cold weather gear, gaiters, food, stove, first aid kit, water purification pills, tooth paste and the like.  Then there’s my trail saw, trash bags and bungee chords.  Oof Da, as the Norwegians say.

First stop was to check the Deep Gap shelter and pick up some detritus left behind by hikers.  Not much thank heaven.  Then to push on to the Tray Gap shelter, about seven more miles up hill and ahead.

A storm was expected to roll in about 5 p.m., so no day dreaming was allowed.

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The snow was typically heavy and wet southern snow ranging from four to eight inches deep with some drifting to a foot.  My calves were screaming from pushing up hill and slipping back.  What would have been a five hour hike on dry trail unfolded in just nine hours.

Of course the storm hit around four o’clock, an hour early.  I arrived at the shelter covered in thick white stuff.  Three hikers were there.  They were strong and competent though the strongest among them told me that he’d been plowing Georgia snow for 12 days!  That’s normally five to six days for most people just starting out.

I ate and took a deep dive into my down bag and reached slumber depth before anyone could say it’s snowing.

Throughout the night the wind whipped snow across my face, waking me occasionally.  Who knew what we’d find in the morning.

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The dawn sparkled with a fresh landscape of new snow, six to 12 inches adrift over everything.  At least it looks good, I reasoned.

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Now this has always been a family blog.  But hikers have to do their business in the morning.  Let’s just say that some mornings are easier than others.

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The snowscape was inspiring.

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Along the way I removed trail obstructions and noted some heavier work for later.

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Wild pigs love to root and pillage.

Needless to say, the slogging was tiring.  The smart decision was to push on another 8 miles and over another 1,500 foot climb to Unicoi Gap where I could get a ride back to the Top of Georgia Hostel where I’ve set up my base camp.  I’d totaled only 20 miles.

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Today is a zero day and the snow is melting.  Tomorrow it’s back to Unicoi and another steep climb up Blue Mountain.  We’ll see how far I get.

Trail Ambassador

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Role playing exercise

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, February 20, 2015 — I’ve spent the past week gettin’ ready for love.  Oh, not THAT kind. I’ve been with a group of people training to assist hikers on the Appalachian Trail this year.  We love the trail and the people who hike on it.

Our base camp is a modern style house from the late 50s or early 60s owned by the National Park Service.  During the summer it is basecamp for the trail crews that work in the park.

Our mission is to educate hikers primarily on “Leave No Trace”™ principles, encourage them and help them in practical ways.

An estimated three million people walk at least some distance on the Appalachian Trail each year, so Leave No Trace is a big deal.  The national scenic trails, of which the AT is only one albeit the most famous, are being “loved to death.  The number of users continues to increase at a high rate.  Therefore, the impact on the environment from human footsteps alone is enormous.  Add their feces and urine, toothpaste, dishwater, dropped litter, abandoned gear, fires, animal disturbance and all the rest together and the sum is enormous.

Unfortunately, individual hikers fail to appreciate that their impact is additive to all the others.  That’s why Leave No Trace is more than Pack it in.  Pack it out.  Hikers are expected to plan and prepare for everything they might encounter on their hike.  Understanding how and where to camp prevents erosion and unsightly scars.  Knowing how to dispose of human waste properly is critical to preventing water contamination and disease. Respecting wildlife, fellow hikers and campers, leaving what you find undisturbed and generally being considerate round it out.

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Here I’m demonstrating how to hang a food bag in a way that is not tied to any tree.  Bears have learned to break ropes tied off to trees and feast on what falls to the ground!

Human food kills bears.  Once they become unafraid of humans, bears have to be trapped and moved, or worse, destroyed. They are magnificent animals.  Being thoughtless has sad consequences.  The AT-wide bear statistics weren’t encouraging.  Bear territory is shrinking and the animals are only trying to find food.

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Had a small bear encounter at the outfitter in Gatlinburg, TN.

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During the week, the Forest Service taught us a lot about hiker/camper psychology and methods to be persuasive without confrontation.  Nobody wants to hear that they are a screw-up.  Above all, we learned to count small victories.

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Then there’s the weather.  Minus 23 at altitude in the Smokies!  Holy frostbite Batman!!!  My gear will get me to -15F at best with a miserable night.  I’ve experienced and slept outside in -50F in Alaska and northern Minnesota.  I can’t carry that kind of gear over these mountains.  Best to stay in town when the weather forecast looks like this.

Today I drove to Hiawassee in north Georgia to visit a couple of hostels and assess trail and weather conditions.  There weren’t that many hikers around.  Several had been driven back to or into town by the subzero temperatures.  They said the snow wasn’t a big deal, but that there were a lot of downed trees to impede progress.

Ridgerunners/trail ambassadors carry large pruning saws to attack blowdown up to about a foot in diameter.  At a minimum, we can trim away the branches from a large trunk.  The going will be slow next week.  Can’t wait.

Tuesday the Georgia crew meets with the Forest Service and the local trail club for coordination.  Let the games begin!

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Dick’s Creek Gap today.

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Same rock.  Better weather!

Up, up and away

The Dumont’s, Grantham, NH, Friday June 13, 2014 — It’s Friday the 13th with rain in the forecast all day. A lucky day and time for some hiking.

Our wonderful stay with my cousin Debbi and her husband Larry must end before we eat them out of house and home! They’ve been so gracious it’s hard to leave. Last night we joked of hiking in a circle just so we could return. Thanks guys. You’re the best!

We used our time for R&R, that is resupply and reconnaissance. The resupply part is obvious. Nothing new.

For our reconnaissance mission, I rented a car again from Enterprise. We drove northward to peek at the trail, view the mountains from the opposite end of the telescope (bottom of the hill) and check out a couple of the hostels.

We also arranged to slack the “Wildcats” while we were in Gorham. All of this will become clear as it unfolds over time, so stay tuned.

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Superfund Site

Leroy A. Smith Shelter, Penn., AT NOBO mile 1,269.4, Sunday May 4, 2014 — Zinc smelter in Palmerton operated from 1898 – 1980. The resulting pollution killed the vegetation on the ridge above town and contaminated the water.

Palmerton is a very hiker-friendly town but notable for having an inordinate number of lawyers, numerous medical facilities of various types and two funeral homes on main street alone. I know the rules about correlation and causation, but I’m just sayin’.

During our short visit we heard talk about cancer clusters. Sadly we saw evidence of obviously neurologically damaged people in town.

BUS (Big Ugly and Slow) is a mining engineer with a degree from the Colorado School of Mines. His observations were fascinating. He noted that the plant is operating albeit with new air scrubbers.

The climb up the Lehigh Gap was the biggest one in a long time, but pro forma after more than 1,200 miles.

I’ll let the pics tell the story.

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Brought to you by our sponsor…

Rice Field Shelter, Va., Mile 638.1, March 13, 2014 — “This is W Appalachian Trail radio and that was Bob Dylan and “A Hard Rain.”

And now a word from our sponsor (Mad Men style). Hikers, do you feel tired after a long day on the trail? Are you more run down than usual? Do your feet get sore making every step painful? Then you need to zero at Woods Hole Hostel. Neville and Michael can restore your vitality with a deep tissue massage or a little downward dog action on the yoga mat. But best of all, Neville can prepare you a nutritious and delicious home cooked meal that will restore your energy and improve your outlook. You can even help. At meal time hikers can volunteer to help out making the leafy green salad, slicing the aromatic bread or helping to clean up afterward. ‘A little slice of heaven. Not to be missed.’ Stay awhile at Woods Hole Hostel. It’ll help you hike!

And now ‘Stormy Weather’ on W Appalachian Trail radio …

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you another one of Jim’s blogs. Take it away Sisu on the trail.”

Left my favorite little farm in the snow. The snow had all but disappeared by the time I reached Pearisburg with it’s stinky Celanese Plant. It’s aroma reminded my of the glacial acetic acid used in the wet chemistry darkrooms of long ago.

The climb out of Pearisburg was on poorly maintained trail, but uneventful. Rice Field Shelter is situated on the edge of a bald with a to-die-for view. If the weather were warmer and less windy, I would have slept on the cliff’s edge.

Matt dropped of in Pearisburg to see his cousin. Probably will not see him again.

So it goes on the trail:

The sky is blue
The leaves are brown,
The trail goes up
And the trail goes down.

Hikers come
Hikers go,
We march on
Not hoping for snow.

Tomorrow’s trail candy is “The Captain’s Place”. He’s a guy who lets hikers tent in his yard after the crossing the river on a zip line. Too bad I’ll pass at mid day.

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The Value of Zero

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Some people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.  That’s the rap on more than a few of the bean counters out there in the business world.

It’s a fact: 1 x 0 = 0.  That equals nothing, nada, zilch, zip, empty, nil, naught, nix, nicht, and without value.   It follows that 2 x 0 = 0 and so on.  So, zero’s worthless?  Don’t kid yourself.  On the AT a zero can be priceless.  A zero can save your hike.

Recently a hiker I’ve been following wrote a blog post embroidered with frustration and punctuated by despair.  It wasn’t unlike dozens we’ve seen in all seasons this year when hikers have reached their wits end.  Cold, heat, sow, rain, mud, bugs, discomfort and falls all add up.  My hiker friend, who has anonymity, was ready to cash it in and go home. 

Enough was enough.  The rain, mud, bugs and all finally added up.  But no, that wasn’t enough.  Then came the fall. It wasn’t the first, but this one was serious – a faceplant into a rock.  There was blood, and it hurt – a lot.  I was heartbroken for my friend.

Every hiker has an inner reservoir of mental resilience much like a checkbook balance. The balance ebbs and flows as a hike unfolds. 

Debits are obviously related to cumulative experiences with rain, cold, heat, snow, rain, plague, mud, fatigue, hunger, aches and pains, etc. 

Deposits come in many forms – trail magic, hot showers, town food, trail angels, new friends, and cool experiences, etc.  Everyone tries to keep the balance in positive territory.

My friend was in a mental overdraft situation – out of gas and without the will to even take another step.  Worse yet, there were no zeros on the schedule and the nearest exit was literally in the middle of nowhere, and probably the most austere “trail town” there is with a hostel.  Its only claim to fame is jewelry literally made out of dung and we’re not talkin’ buffalo chips!  Think of it as the only fly-over burg on the whole AT.

Then a miracle happened (Enter deus ex machina.)  in the form of two unplanned zero days (2×0) notable for the hostel owner’s generous hospitality and remarkably spiked with the company of a gaggle of friendly hikers who showed up to duck some nasty storms. 

Gently stir (not shake) it up over a couple of days and guess what?  Total rejuvenation.  Mental over haul complete!  Back on the trail and ready for the next challenge. 

 Cue the bugles.  Charge!  Never quit on a bad day, right?

 Who says zero has no value?  Sometimes a zero or two can be the difference between success and failure.  What’s that worth?

 

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.

To be or not. Story-telling on the AT. That is the question.

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Is less more or less?

Why tell your story? Who is the audience?  What’s the message? What’s the most effective way to communicate?

Enter technology.  Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, You Tube, Trail Journals, WordPress, Blogspot, photos, video, text, smartphone, tablet, camera, paper and pencil, all of the above?

Constraints.  Poor cell coverage, where’s the WiFi, phone it in?  What to say, when to say it, TMI?  Privacy? Who can see it?  Family?  Friends? Creepy voyeurs?  Is that a problem?  How to grow an audience?  Is that a good purpose?

How about a co-pilot?  Is there someone at home who can help increase efficiency?  You post it once, or send it in, and the co-pilot posts it everywhere else and in the various formats needed. Many hikers do this.

There’s a lot to think about before stepping off.  It’s much harder once the trek is underway.

Some hikers develop a fan base of hundreds, especially on Trail Journals.  They report that the encouragement and feedback reenforces their commitment to stay on task and strong.  They’re stunned that so many people care to share in their adventure.  They relish and are energized by the on-going conversation with their fans.

Every step you take?  Every move you make?  What’s the audience want to know? “Here I come.  There I go.  Pitched my tent and dug a hole.”  How interesting is that 180 times over 2,000 miles?

My favs are the thematic entries.  People write entries on single topics – milestones, hiking and camping routine, cooking, gear, weather, trail conditions, the interesting characters they meet, hostel and town reviews, food – food – food, unusual situations, their mental state, rain – rain – rain, shelters, views, the flora and fauna, rocks, archeology, thank trail angels, hopes and fears. They retrospectively review and prospectively anticipate. The list is endless. They also warn of danger and rip-offs.

Pictures and videos are worth a thousand words.  There’s nothing like seeing and hearing rain pound a poncho, the view obscured by the hiker’s foggy breath, to erase  gauzy romanticism and drive home the hard realities that define the AT’s epic quest.

Hope this wasn’t too boring.  I’m just trying to get a grip on how to share my hike next year.