Audie Murphy Memorial

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Major Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in WWII, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as the highest among his several decorations for valor.  The Audie Murphy memorial on the AT marks the plane crash in which he died as a civilian after the war. 

It’s a hiker tradition to leave something at the memorial, especially those of us who are veterans.  I’ve been carrying a special Army pin since the beginning of my hike, expressly for the that purpose.

Audie Murphy served in the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne) which is currently stationed near Savannah, Ga. at Ft. Stewart.  There its mission is to be our nation’s rapidly deployable armored force. 

What you may not know is that many military units have unique songs that grow out of their various traditions.  The Third Division’s song is a fun ditty entitled “Dogface Soldier” which is reminiscent of the culture and times when it was written in WWII.  Here’s a link:  http://www.stewart.army.mil/faq/dogface.mp3  By the way, and no offense to my Marine comrades, but I too “Wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy-pants Marine. 🙂

Regular readers of this blog know this, but for those who don’t, I’m a retired “dog face” Army infantryman with 28 years of service.  Today I proudly stood at attention and saluted the memory of a bona fide American hero.

“Dog Face.”  That’d be a great trail name for somebody, don’t ya think?

This is how Murphy might have heard or sung it:

“I wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy-pants Marine.
I’ll be the dog face soldier that I am.

I wouldn’t trade my old ODs for all the Navy’s dungarees,
’cause I’m the walkin’ pride of Uncle Sam.

The poster on the wall says the Army builds men,
So they’re tearing me down to build me over again.

I’m just a dogface soldier with a rifle on my shoulder.
I eat my beans for breakfast every day.

If you feed me ammunition,
‘N keep me in the Third Division,
Your dogface soldier ‘ll be okay!”

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The day ended post-hiking up the Dragon’s Tooth in a biting wind. The icy descent to my waiting friend’s car was treacherous practice for New Hampshire’s White Mountains coming up in June.

Am now taking a weather zero in Roanoke.

Are we there yet?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Vandalism

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A certain number of our fellow countrymen/women don’t like rules and they don’t hesitate to demonstrate their viewpoint.  The AT is far from pristine throughout the 700 miles I’ve hiked so far. 

The A.T. Journey’s magazine recently chronicled the growing graffiti problem.   The story is spot on.  Most every shelter is covered in it.  Of interest, almost all of the graffiti dates no earlier than 2010.  Since then, every year is amply represented. It makes one wonder what change caused such an explosion of orgasmic ego expression.  Did fracking fluid enter the water supply?

Hint to the young folks who do this – and you can tell.  It’s not flattering to you or your generation. 

Trash is another problem.  The Carter Gap shelter and the grounds around it in North Carolina where my most excellent bear experience occurred was full of empty food containers.  My theory is that the bear hangs out there because he can score tasty treats the campers leave behind.

To be fair, not all the trash is left by long distance hikers.  Hunters and weekenders probably account for most of it.  How do I think I know that?  Well, it’s the cans and other detritus one finds which have included frying pans and coffee pots – not the stuff 2,000 miler wanna bees routinely hump, especially after a couple of hundred miles.  I’ve also found spent ammunition in and around the shelters as well as on the trail.  This, in spite of the hunting ban on and in proximity to the AT.

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Property damage also is prevalent in some areas.  This is from that part of Tennessee where the AT right of way was taken by eminent domain.  Every night I was in the area, hunters passed through in their ATVs using the trail itself as their primary right of way.

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There’s a lot of trash in this photo taken on the night the temp dipped to zero at Ice Water Springs in the Smokies in early November.  Too much of it stayed put in the shelter.  I tried to gently shame the young Southbounders who left it into carrying it out when they decided to backtrack into Gatlinburg to duck the weather.  They politely let me know where they wanted me to stick it.

Three things – erosion, trash and overgrowth – are serious threats to the AT.  Any one of them could destroy the experience. Clearly Leave No Trace could use a few more evangelists. 

For those who are following, my hike should resume in about 10 days.  I’m almost done with the aftermath of my mother’s passing, my taxes are filed and I now have a Medicare card.  The National Weather Service reports about 18 inches of snow with deeper drifts at altitude.  Here’s hoping that it’s warming enough to melt a bunch of that snow by the time I can get back out. 

The next stretch will be a treat.  There’s Woods Hole hostel, the Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and the Priest, plus a few other chunks of trail candy.  Best of all, several friends who live along the way plan to meet me.  Baring another nor’easter, t should take about a month to reach Waynesboro where one of my high school classmates lives.  Can’t wait to see him.

Sisu – Makin’ tracks.

Worst Case Scenario

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland

The range of winter weather in the southern Appalachian Trail and mountains ranges from pleasantly mild to bitter cold with heavy snow.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is both noted as the home of the highest peak east of the Mississippi (Clingman’s Dome – 6,643 ft.) but probably more so for its terrible winter weather.  Just this week a group of ill-prepared hikers required rescue from the cold and snow. http://www.weather.com/video/hikers-rescued-in-snowstorm-42994?

With facts like these in mind, I re-evaluated my winter kit over the holidays.

When I left the trail to celebrate Christmas with my family, my basic sleeping system, due to my distance runner’s stature, was based on a woman’s Sierra Designs woman’s dry down 25 degree bag supplemented by “puffy” down booties, pants and two down jackets sized to fit inside one another.

I am a warm sleeper and reasoned that the sleeping bag was good to at least 20 degrees F in my case.  With the booties, pants and jackets I figured that I could get to -10 F comfortably.  A zero degree night of borderline comfort proved me wrong.

So, I resurrected my zero degree 70’s vintage, but weighty, Holubar sleeping bag .  Holubar was bought by North Face decades ago, for the record.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I adore winter hiking and camping.  To be redundant, it’s unique and there’s nothing like it.  To be selfish, this week I spent four days on the AT and guess how many other hikers I saw?  Zero!  The AT was mine alone for that time.  Not a human track anywhere.

I enjoy company on the trail, but those who have thru hiked during the crowded traditional hiker season may appreciate what it means to have the trail and the woods, not to mention every shelter and privy all to one’s self.  It’s an amazing experience and privileged access to a treasured public accommodation not to be lightly dismissed.

When I hit the trail on Tuesday, I knew that the weather forecast for Thursday and Friday was ominous. As I ‘misunderstood’ it, the chance of rain on Thursday was 40 percent with an 80 percent chance of snow on Friday.  The bottom was supposed to drop out of the thermometer Friday night.  I was only slightly off.

Knowing it “might” rain on Thursday, January 2, I prepared appropriately.  When I bounded away from Thomas Knob Shelter, I was ‘armored up’ in rain gear including waterproof mitten shells and my new (and third) pack cover was battened down with a cat 5 hurricane in mind.

What foresight, if I do say so myself.  Ever seen a cow urinate on a flat rock?  That’s how the rain let loose about five steps after I jumped out of the shelter door!

Bam!!! I was swimming in the soup.  The volume varied, but the precipitation didn’t let up all day as my boots squished steadily southward across White Top Mountain in the direction of Damascus. The going was slow.

Here’s the good news and bad news.  First the bad.  The temperature all day hovered around 32 degrees.  The ground remained frozen. As proof, I nearly crashed and burned crossing a gravel parking lot glazed with a hidden layer of slick black ice.  On the positive side, my rain gear and base layer did their jobs.  I arrived in camp in very good shape considering.

I had hoped for a 24 mile day.  If I could do that, I’d be in Damascus by noon Friday and home Friday evening.  That was not to be.  Oh well, flexibility is a key to happy hiking.

At 4:30 p.m. I made Lost Mountain Shelter.  The temp was dropping and the rain was just beginning to mix with snow.  With my quota still six miles away, I realized that I’d be night hiking yet again.  This time with early darkness caused by the cloud cover, it would mean almost three murky hours in sleet and snow.

The decision to stop for the night was a no-brainer.  I was fatigued from the previous two tough days.  Given the day’s rain volume, who knows how heavy the snow might become.  Headlamps penetrate snow no better than car headlights see through fog.  The trail bed was icy in spots.  Check dams can form frozen skating rinks in winter.  Not safe.  Time to check my ambition at the door and brake for sanity.

Good decision.  The shelter was clean and in good repair with convenient amenities thanks to the local trail club volunteers. The spring and privy were handy.  The setting was aesthetically pleasing.  It doesn’t get better than that on the AT.

It also was nice to have extra time to settle in.  I wouldn’t have to cook or set up my bedroll by headlamp.  As the curtain of darkness smothered the landscape, my appetite was satiated and I rolled into my sleeping bag. It was around 6 p.m.  Hiker midnight is a relative condition… set at any time you want if you’re solo.

Since the previous two nights bottomed out in the low 20s, I expected the trend to continue because my understanding was that the super cold would arrive overnight on Friday.  By then I could now anticipate being comfortably ensconced once again at Crazy Larry’s.  Accordingly I chose to wear fewer layers and not don my down pants or booties.  I did, as I habitually do, tuck into bed with me a liter of water, a butane canister and a pair of mittens.  Since it was time to change socks, I put on fresh liners and socks.

I fell asleep almost immediately.  When I winked out, rain drops were still tapping the shelter’s tin roof.  In time nature called.  Without glasses I glanced at my watch.  I thought it read 5:30 a.m.  I felt like I’d slept through the night.  That would be a record.  As I parked my glasses on my nose to confirm the time, I realized it was only 9:30 p.m.  Oops!

The weather was calm.  The rain had stopped.  Not much snow was falling.  The temperature was moderate.  I plugged in my iPod to a vintage radio playlist and drifted off to an episode of “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.”

Ever imagined what sleeping next to a thousand-car freight train at full speed sounds like?  That thought jerked me awake around 11:15 p.m. as the wind howled and trees cracked and groaned.  Thank you Benton MacKaye for imagining shelters built like military bunkers.

The snow was swirling like icy diamond dust as it sprinkled my face with surrealistic pin pricks.  I cinched down the opening to my sleeping bag to the size of  grapefruit.  My nose was colder than I could remember it being for a long time, yet my body was toasty.  Back to sleep.

The wind kept blasting away.  Falling branches and trees served as multiple alarm clocks trough the night.  My exposed nose-o-meter sensed remarkably lower temperatures.  What layers should I wear tomorrow if this continues, I worried?  That the next day’s destination, 18.5 miles away, was Damascus was the saving grace.  With that in mind, I reasoned I could gut through most anything.

A sudden silence awakened me around 5:30 a.m.  The driving wind stopped like Mother Nature flipped a switch.  Check.  The front moved on.  One problem solved.  Extreme wind chill was out of the wardrobe and safety equation.  Amen!

Knowing I had big miles to go, I was up and moving well before six.  As I stumbled to the privy in rock hard boots, the light powdery snow squeaked and crunched.  Oh oh.  It’s colder than I thought.  Snow doesn’t make that sound unless it’s 10 F or colder.

The thermometer on my pack read -15 F.  The bottom had fallen out a day earlier than I expected.  In spite of all that, I was comfortable through the night without the benefit of my full kit.  The added tonnage on my back paid its dividend.

Think about it.  At 4:30 p.m. the previous evening, the rain had soaked all my exposed equipment.  My pack straps, nylon webbing, including my trekking poles, had been thoroughly dunked.  How about my rain jacket and rain cover?  Oh boy!

I’d hung my gear up in hopes that dripping and some evaporation would occur before everything froze.  As every professional manager knows, hope is not a method.  By morning everything was crunchy to say the least.  What an understatement.

This is the worst case scenario that I have seriously worried about since contemplating a thru hike.   What happens when hikers get soaked right before the temperature crashes to a dangerous level?  At -15 F, skin freezes on contact with any material that rapidly conducts heat.  Frostbite and hypothermia are clear and present dangers.  You can be serious trouble before you even know it.

Fortunately I have profited from previous soakings.  In those cases, luckily timed town stops saved my bacon as I slopped thoroughly waterlogged beyond imagination into Erwin, Tenn. and Damascus, Va.  This time, the cargo compartment of my pack was dry inside and out.  The base layer I was wearing dried out because it was only damp with sweat.  The waterproof mitten shells worked.  For redundancy’s sake, back up gloves, mittens, socks and a base layer were in the ready rack if need be.

When it is seriously cold, everything takes at least twice as long.  After unzipping my sleeping bag, I slipped on my glove liners; then my mittens.  You never want bare skin to touch anything.  When I needed dexterity to stuff cargo sacks or manipulate zippers and the like, I took off the mittens.  When the task was complete I jammed my hands back into the mittens until they warmed up again.  Only then did I attempt the next task.

The valve on my NeoAir was frozen shut.  Why not?  Breath is full of water vapor.  Only bare hands could wrench it open.  That smarted.

Once the pack was set, the real adventure unfolded.  Everything that had been exposed to rain was stiff and solid.  Think of a pack harness forged of wrought iron.  Board-like straps didn’t slide in buckles.  The frozen-solid rain jacket stood up by itself.  The straps on my trekking poles which had been hung on a peg resembled rabbit ears…

Fortunately, I always loosen the laces on my boots before bed.  If I had known just how cold it would get, I would have put them inside my sleeping bag.  Thanks to the thick dry socks, my feet never got cold in spite of wearing icy boots.  Walking saved the day.  Gaiters kept the snow off my socks and out of my boots.

The snap, crackle and pop sounds of Rice Crispies echoed off the walls as I struggled into my gear. Had you been there, you would have had to pardon my occasional “french” expletives.

The shelter faded behind me around 8:30 a.m.  Not bad considering.  As the day unfolded, body heat thawed the equipment, the straps loosened, and everything ultimately began to fit properly.

The day’s high hovered around 5 above.  My water bottle even got slushy inside my jacket.  That NEVER happened at -20 in northern Minnesota!  I had different and a heavier outer layer then which may account for the difference.

The day and trail itself were awesome.  Brilliant sun reflected off a snow frosted landscape.  The tracks on the pristine path read like a story book with Br’er Rabbit and his pals eluding foxes and bobcats.  Wild boar and deer made their separate grocery shopping trips.  Guess what?  No bear tracks.  That was a surprise.

I’m home now in preparation to fly with my daughter to Colorado on family matters.  I can’t wait to get back on the trail.  As for future weather? We’ll see.

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Gizmos, Gadgets and Acquired Knowledge

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When you’re hiking day in and day out, your mind sometimes drifts to the whimsical.  Other times it’s strictly focused on not tripping, the next drinkable water or whether or not you can make the next shelter before dark.  Unfortunately, there’s much more of the later. 

The all too familiar scenario became: 3 p.m.  Dark at six.  Six to eight miles to go.  All up hill. 😦 

Along the way, I had an idea.  Water weighs a pound per pint. In round numbers, that means two liters weigh slightly more than four lbs.  That’s a lot.  Fortunately, I learned to carry only a single liter when I got word that the water was good up ahead.

Still, I have a challenge for all my scientist friends at Georgia Tech.  What you geniuses need to invent is dehydrated water.  You know, open the bottle and just add air.  Air has the essential ingredients –  hydrogen and oxygen.  Certainly, someone could figure it out.  Sure would help a bunch of tired hikers!  Every hiker to whom I mentioned was certain that the scientist who invents dehydrated water would be canonized for sainthood!!!

As for the rest of the gizmos and gadgets, there’s good news and bad.  First, I used everything I brought in my pack from sewing kit to the Kindle.  Obviously, not everything in the first aid kit was used, but parts of it were.  The Kindle didn’t get used enough, so it’s stays home, as much because of the cold weather’s effect on batteries as anything else.

Lithium batteries are terrible in cold weather.  No way around that.  Even when kept in my front pocket, my phone/camera power level would dive from 100 percent to zero after a couple of minutes of exposure on cold days.  (It was in airplane mode.)  The same goes for spare storage batteries.

The best I could do was store the phone close to my body and the spare batteries deep within my clothing bag.  At night I put the phone and/or iPod under one armpit after diving into my sleeping bag, and the storage batteries under the other.  Once everything warmed, I could recharge or listen to the media stored within.

Cold is for lovers.  Everything wants to get in bed with you – that is your water bottles, your fuel canister, your electronic devices, extra batteries and your sweaty clothes.  I’ve never felt so loved in my life!

My Salomon GoreTex boots froze on a couple of nights because I had no room for them in my extra skinny light weight sleeping bag.  It wasn’t a big deal.  So long as I had dry socks, my feet were never cold, even in frozen boots.

Sweaty clothes.  Only once did I have to whip off a soaking shirt and replace it at the end of the day.  The polyprop shirts I had wicked dry in a very short time after I stopped hiking.  Usually I just covered my base layer with a couple of loose wind shirts I carry for layers.  Over them, snuggled my down puffy as needed.

I often hiked in a pair of compression tights that I use for running and cross country skiing.  They don’t hold water at all.  Best of all, they provide excellent support for leg muscles and joints.  At the end of the day, slipping my rain pants over them did the trick.  No problem wearing the whole giddy-up to bed.

In an earlier blog, I nominated the ziplock freezer bag to replace the Swiss Army knife as the universal tool.  Subsequently, Tenacious Tape gave its zippered brethren a run for their money. 

Somehow, a mouse got into my pack and ate a hole in the baffle between the lower and upper compartments enroute to building a nest.  My sleeping bag developed a hole on the inside.  Wondered why my tent was full of feathers in the mornings…  A three-seam corner in my tent leaked.  The stuff sack for my tent got a small rip. 

Tenacious Tape (and a little silicon sealer) to the rescue. By NOC I had used nearly a whole role of tape.  I bought two new ones from the outfitter at NOC just to play it safe.  Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff works.  It’s specially formulated to STICK to the light weight nylon used in our equipment.  Keep the AMEX card, I wouldn’t leave home without Tenacious Tape. 

Duct tape.  What’s that?

David “Awol” Miller’s guide is the gold standard.  It’s highly accurate, though not perfect.  I carried the AntiGravity Gear strip maps as a supplement.  Gave up on them quickly. 

The universal challenge with the AWOL Guide is reading the trail profile.  On days the trail looks easy, it’s hard in reality and visa versa.  A lot has to do, not with the trail incline angle, but the surface condition of the trail bed – how rocky, number of steps and boulders, roots, etc.  Just don’t be lulled into a false sense.

A lot of the trail infrastructure listed in the Awol Guide pops up during hiking season; then disappears by the end of April.  That was a tough one to learn.  Shuttlers, hiker rates, and other conveniences haven’t been there in some cases.  Also be advised that those listed in the Guide pay to be there.  (I asked.)  Nothing wrong with that, but caveat emptor. 

Saw evidence of a lot of bear bag hanging disasters in the form of ghostly and mossy derelict food bags tangled way up high. Alternatively, there’s ample evidence of cut ropes decorating prime hanging trees like nylon tinsel.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  So far, so good.  Just hang your food, please.

Speaking of food, since I’m cooking exclusively in ziplock bags, I switched my stove from a Pocket Rocket to the small Jet Boil Sol.  It’s incredibly more efficient at boiling water which is all I do.

Lastly, I tented most nights near shelters.  My tent was warmer and easier to keep my “stuff” organized and safe.  Unfortunately, at a shelter in the Smokies, three meals disappeared after I hung my food bag on the bear line.  At the same shelter someone rifled my pack when I was outside cooking and took three twenty dollar bills from deep within. Lesson learned.  I’ve since acquired a wallet that hangs around my neck.  $hit happens. 

On blogging and future plans

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AT blogs seem to be divisible into two fundamental categories. The travelog and the essay.

The travelog blogs appear to try and chronicle in as much detail each day more or less as the hiker progresses. In 2013 there were several outstanding writers of this genre. My favorite was Linda (Karma) Daly’s blog at http://thumperwalk.com.

The essayists pick topics and explore them. A lot of the travelog detail makes it into these stories, just not in chronological order. Clever Girl was, in my view, handsdown best in this class at http://trailkit.blogspot.com

My blog is a collection of essays. Either my imagination is a failure, or I’m too boring to write a travelog. I’ve spent 36 days hiking the Appalachian Trail since 10:08 a.m. Sept. 24. That’s enough to know that most of the days are pretty much alike. The first time something happens, it’s special. After that it becomes pretty mundane. I can’t make writing about hiking in the rain interesting more than once – if that – unless it turns into an adventure of sorts.

I’m telling you this because I have some readers who may be expecting a travelog. For instance, someone wrote to me correcting my mileage to date. It’s 400.8. What I said in my last blog was that I was writing from Hot Springs, NC. Due to the essay format, I did not say I hiked there. In reality, I got a shuttle from Davenport Gap where I’d stayed at Standing Bear Farm, to Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs. Hence the missing miles.

I needed the shuttle because my wife was scheduled to pick up me, along with two other hikers who needed to get to the D.C. area, in 36 hours. With sore tendons from having to hike long days to reach certain shelters in the Smokies, I was in no condition to hike 38 miles that quickly. Moreover I was a day behind schedule thanks to the storm that dictated my side trip to Gatlinburg. So, I got a ride and took a zero in a great hiker town to make up the difference.

When I return to the tail, I’ll spend another night at Sanding Bear and start hiking the next morning from Davenport Gap. No way I’m going to miss Max Patch! I’ll also get another night at Elmer’s when I reach Hot Springs. That’s a bonus.

The plan for the hiking through the winter is simple. Since I’m solo, I am acutely aware that I need to be careful of the weather. My wife and I will be paying acute attention to 10-day forecasts with the intention of being off the trail during storms. The accuracy of 10-day forecasting means I’ll be hiking on average from three to seven days out of every 10.

In addition, from this point on, I’ll be trucking my full winter kit complete with snowshoes, microspikes, mittens, balaclava, including down jacket, pants and booties to supplement my sleeping bag. Everything is in dry sacks. The down garments are double bagged.

My winter goal is to reach by the end of March, Waynesboro, VA where I started on Sept. 24. If this is a stormy winter, that may not happen. If not, I’ll dive into the first 2014 hiker bubble that comes along in the spring.

I did hear that there are two men and one woman, each hiking solo, ahead of me. I hope to meet them before the winter is out.

So, family, friends and random readers, that’s the plan. More to come on gizmos and gadgets, the 2:3 ratio, the cost of trips to town, and more.

BFRs. What are they good for?

BFRs. Yup, Big Effing Rocks! What are they good for? In Appalachian Trail maintenance, most everything.

The Hoodlum work crew had another great weekend, our final regular outing until March.

The work group to which I was assigned built two check dams and a water bar on the Pass Mountain trail – a blue blaze trail in Shenandoah National Park.

This video offers a little bit of insight into the work we do and the fun we have doing the work and afterwards.

The water bar we are constructing in the video was much needed to help keep the trail in good hiking condition.

Hikers sometimes wish the trail was in better condition with fewer rocks and less erosion. Rest assured there are a ton of volunteers up and down the full length of the AT working had to keep it in the best condition possible.

If you think the rocks are bad now, imagine the AT without erosion control and other maintenance.

All erosion control structures require building material. Stone is best, but simple swales only require mounds of dirt. Logs, particularly extra hard woods such as Ash are long lasting substitutes when stone isn’t available.

If stone is preferred. Than BFRs are the best you can get.

Rock potentially lasts a lifetime. Moreover, if the stones used are ginormous enough and set deep into the trail tread, the bears have a hard time digging them up to get at the grubs that take up residence underneath. Yup, the bears love to play three card Monte with big rocks. Sometimes they even score a treat.

Chunking BFRs around is hard work with dependent mostly on brute force and ignorance. You really only need one smart person who knows where the rocks should go for best effect. That means I’m pretty much qualified be a rock technician, but not for the engineering jobs.

Erosion control structures on the AT come in a simple variety. Check dams are perpendicular to the trail with the purpose of slowing down the water flow. They should stick up a few inches and require frequently cleaning to ensure sediment doesn’t render them useless.

Water bars are set at a 45 degree angle to the trail direction. Their purpose is to direct water off the trail. Check dams and water bars frequently work in coordination with one another

Parallel drains are canals/ditches that run parallel to the trail tread for some distance until they reach a point where water can be sent away. Sometimes the trail tread is raised and the canals are made of carefully fitted stone.

Steps help prevent erosion or may simply improve the hiking experience by adding safety or by making the trail easier. Stone is preferable and more durable, but logs and compacted dirt or gravel work.

You’ve all seen the ladders and rebar in New England. Those are special cases.

Sometimes dirt swales are dug and the spoil is mounded and compacted to form a check dam or water bar that works fine as long as it lasts.

If you live close to Shenandoah National Park, consider joining the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and channel your inner 12-year-old. Become a Hoodlum Trail Crew member. It’s fun!

The New Fall Lineup

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The indicators are all there.  School has started.  The first college football games play this weekend.  The automobile companies are ready to unveil next year’s models.  The TV networks are unwrapping their new fall lineups.  It’s fall.  My favorite time of the year.

As Labor Day approaches the anticipation of autumn excites the senses.  The pending ascendance of nutmeg as top spice in the kitchen helps complete the fashion shift from polo shirts to polar fleece.  By the time the frost is on the punkin’, snow can’t be far behind if you live far enough north.

If fall is a-comin’ then my mid-February Appalachian Trail start date is just around the corner.  Time to focus on the task at hand and lay down some boot tracks.

In any sport, cross training helps improve performance.  But, no matter how much cross training you do, you still have to get the reps in for the sport itself.  Football players lift weights, but they also block and tackle, baseball players hit, catch and throw and runners run.  It follows that hikers should hike.

The trail is pulling me out of my comfortable rut and telling me to start putting one foot in front of the other, get funky and stress test the shelter, sleep, food, and clothing systems that will be used during my thru hike.  Only a long trek can produce the realistic conditions needed.

The first item on the fall dance card is a joint National Park Service/Potomac Appalachian Trail Club two-day advanced trail maintenance workshop September 21 -22.

We’re scheduled to build erosion control structures with big rocks.  Think Triassic tinker toys, building blocks and Lincoln logs all rolled into one giant play set.

This stuff is fun, especially the part where we’ll be car camping at Mathews Arm Campground in Shenandoah National Park.  We get to bring a camp chair and coolers! They’ve got showers!! They’re even cooking the food for us!!!

I wonder if the cooks could just follow the class of ‘14 up the trail?   We could all chip in…

A couple of days after the workshop, it’ll be happy trails for for me on the 160 miles of AT from Waynesboro, Virginia to Harpers Ferry. That’s enough miles to find out what needs fixing. 

It has another advantage.  It simulates the longest leg without resupply that I’m planning in the spring.  That stretch is from Fontana Village, NC to Hot Springs, NC.  I’m not particularly high on the options in between, so a simple by pass strategy seems reasonable caveated by a severe weather opt out proviso.

Here’s where it gets personal.  This particular test hike is not happening by accident.  It will determine whether my body will stand up physically to a thru hike.  With all the weight training and running, you’d think it would be a cinch.  Let me clue you in on a secret.  It’s not even close.

Six years ago I severely injured my right ankle.  The injury includes the effects of tibial nerve damage that may not withstand the continuous pounding and dynamic stresses that long distance hiking generates over time.  If the outcome is going to be negative, it will be unambiguous and show up before the end of this little jaunt.  My thru hike could be over before it even begins.

If that isn’t enough, a chronic running injury called piriformis syndrome adopted me several years ago.  When the piriformis muscle gets irritated, it is literally a pain I the butt that hurts like hell. 

Of course the hurt has a bonus effect.  The swelling irritates the sciatic nerve.  And that my friends is a joy to experience, not to mention a potential show stopper! Both injuries are in the same leg. Has anyone ever hiked this thing on one leg?

 I’m actually shocked that my right leg and foot haven’t filed a class action law suit for abuse. 

The effects of these injuries can be moderated by systematic stretching, religiously limiting miles, and frequent rest.  But in spite of everything, piriformis misbehaves on its own schedule.  Moreover, the neuropathy in my right foot attended the same reform school and they’re both frequent recidivists. 

Drama aside, there’s plenty of optimism.  After all, I’ve made it through a year’s worth of heavy duty trail maintenance without problem.  My intermittent hikes with a full pack have gone well.  We just need more a more realistic test before actually reporting for duty in Georgia.

Triassic rocks and a little long haul truckin’ – a couple of nice shows for the fall schedule wouldn’t you say?  Ah, but it gets even better.   Get this.

Following a successful hike to Harpers Ferry, it’s immediately home to refit and head out to rendezvous with a member of the class of ’13 who flipped and is now southbound for Harpers Ferry on a Thanksgiving deadline.  I get to observe a real lab rat performing the act itself.

The social benefits of having a compatible hiking partner aside, a medicinal traipse through the Pennsylvania rocks will notch up the difficulty factor enough to be an absolute validation of my body’s ability to perform over six months.  Can’t wait.

What comes after Thanksgiving?

Last December I saw someone who gave me a great idea.  This guy was decked out in REI’s finest while hiking with a ginormous pack on the Capitol Crescent Trail – an old street car line that’s now a nice walking path from Silver Spring, Maryland to Georgetown, D.C.  Only later did I realize that he was training for the AT. 

Thanks to the anonymous hiker, I’ll devote several hours each day, regardless of weather, to following his footsteps while wearing a full pack until it’s time to do an about face, jump in the car and motor to the Peach State. 

BTW, I used to work at Georgia Tech.  Georgia is a nice place if you haven’t been there.

If everything works, I’ll feel a lot more physically prepared to play my part in the 2014 Appalachian Trail reality show.  I can only hope it’s not going to be  “Survivor – the Earnest Shackleton Edition.”  Whatever mamma nature plans to throw at us, it’s coming to Trail Journals in February.  Hope to see you there.  Sisu

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If the weather is ugly, ole Sisu is comin’ anyway.  He’s got backup.

Say cheese!

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Everybody wants to make National Geographic quality photographs to document their hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Well, maybe most would just settle for some nice snaps of the folks and places that will help keep cherished memories alive long after the trail is done. 

Fact is that with a little luck related to available light, chance timing and the right clouds showing up over a placid pond …and you never know…  You certainly don’t need “professional” photographic equipment to make really good pictures.

Big boy camera gear is large, expensive and technically complicated.  Visualize those sideline photographers at sporting events with their howitzer-length lenses.  Besides, you’d almost need a caddy to drag a camera bag that size up and down the mountains.  The advanced amateur versions of these cameras and lenses produce fantastic photos, but still they are relatively expensive, bulky and heavy. 

Modern professional photography equipment is feather light compared to cameras back in the day. Here’s where I’m going to date myself.  I used to lug a Nikon FTN with a couple of lenses, filter stack, 2x tele extender and a dozen rolls of Kodachrome.  The weight was roughly the equivalent of three bricks.  The cube (amount of occupied space in my pack) was even more than that. 

When technology advanced to the Olympus OM-1 miniaturized 35mm SLR, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  This leap forward reduced the weight by about two bricks and the cube by about half.  The downside was that those chunks of metal and glass still weighed a lot.  You always had to worry about running out of film.

Then came digital photography with cigarette pack-sized cameras.  The early cameras by Nikon and Sony took decent photos.  Now the options have expanded enormously, and the photographic quality exponentially, as sensors and chips have improved.

Good light-weight camera options are plentiful.  I know at least two video bloggers in the class of 13 who rely on their GoPro rigs. 

GoPros are the cameras that capture the helmet cam dare devil shots you see on TV. These small water and shock proof hummers mount on trekking poles, chest straps, helmets, snow boards, etc.  You do need WIFI to transfer their photos to your Drop Box, Flickr , Smug Mug or one of the other  web based photo sharing/scrapbook sites.

Plenty of other hikers are carrying small cameras by Lumix, Nikon, Sony and others. 

The vast majority seems to be using the camera built into their phone.  Unless you’re using expensive cameras, all the others will have technical trade-offs.  iPhones, for example, have difficulty handling high contrast lighting situations that the Photo Shop app can’t always fix.

For a good test of two cameras check out “Man Cub and Kit Fox Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail 2012” on You Tube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Tpvzsq2VAg 

The first half of this charming video was shot with an iPhone; the second with a GoPro.  With the exception of the underwater scenes, obviously shot with the waterproof GoPro, it’s hard to tell from the video which camera is which.  It ends with a special treat.  If you haven’t seen it, look for the marriage proposal atop Mt. Katahdin. 

The majority of hikers I’ve encountered who are blogging from the trail are using a smart phone as their primary camera.  It’s just easier to post directly to Trail Journals, BlogSpot, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter.  One sent her GoPro home.  She didn’t need it or its weight. 

Using your smart phone camera offers the Swiss Army knife advantage – one tool that can do many things.  With apps like Photo Shop and iMovie, a smart phone can produce amazing work.

The smartphone story only gets better.  The photographically savvy will want camera lenses. 

Never fear, lenses are here.  The website www.photojojo.com sells an array of equipment, and lenses that attach magnetically to any smartphone.  I have several, ranging from fisheye to 2x telephoto and they do work.  I also found an 8x telephoto that screws onto a threaded phone case that comes with it.  It does not interfere with the other lenses. 

What’s the secret to great photos?  I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture once at the National Geographic Society in Washington by one of the best wilderness photographers who ever lived.  That evening Galen Rowell’s presentation was entitled “The Edge of Light.”  Unfortunately, he met an early demise. 

Google Galen Rowell and check out his work.  You might not be able to duplicate it with a smart phone, but judging by some of the Appalachian Trail photos on TJ this year, you can get pretty close.