Eating the Elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food containers do not burn completely.

Food containers do not burn completely.

IMG_2368Nothing should go into the fire pits or privies that’s not supposed to be there.

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

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

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

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

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

Some folks are old school.

Some folks are old school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award.

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

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

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

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

During my stay the seasons changed – at least twice.

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

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

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

Aquatic Event

Trapper John Shelter, NH, AT NOBO mile 1759.7, Friday June 13, 2014 — “Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.” I could hear the coxswain in my head calling the cadence as I slopped my way through the second half of the day.

Larry dropped us off at the trailhead at precisely 8:30 am. and we started our climb out of Hanover. The first half of the day was pleasantly cool and dry. The other half was the opposite.

Just past noon the sky opened up, and as one would expect, the trail became a water course. I landed on my backside four times in the mud. The hiking was head down and pump it out. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.

One pleasant surprise. The mountain on which this shelter is built is shaped in the trail guide like a witch’s hat. That usually means talus or ugly rock slides. There’s even a warning in the guide suggesting precipitous terrain in the area.

Well Friday the thirteenth must be a lucky day. Not only did the rain stop, the whole mountain was dirt! Whoopee.

For some time, we’ve been walking past the infrastructure used to harvest Maple sap from which syrup is made. Thought you’d like to see what that’s all about.

Trapper John was a real person, a doctor from Maine after whom the character in “MASH” was named. He was a prominent member of the Dartmouth Outing Club. The fireplace in front of the shelter is from a cabin formerly located there.

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Small victory

Tom Leonard Shelter, Mass., AT NOBO mile 1523.5 Saturday May 24, 2014 — Yesterday we got caught in a cloudburst a mere .4 miles from the shelter. We ambled in looking and feeling like drown rats. Of course nothing dried out overnight.

Today the rain held until five minutes after we reached the shelter. Score one for the good guys. I even had time to fetch water before nature’s tears of joy washed over our obscure encampment.

It was nice to eat under cover while the rain pelted everything around us.

Memorial Day weekend has drawn out the expected crowd. So far we have five at the shelter including a young couple who live in NYC who are tenting. It’s early so more may wash in before the night is over.

Ironies of ironies, everybody but Swayed claims a Maryland connection. Seems we are a crabby but convivial crowd tonight.

After two days of rain, I’ve only got one pair of dry socks besides the ones in which I sleep. The wet socks have generated some nasty rubbing under my toes.

The weather is supposed to be sunny tomorrow, so I’ll wear my last pair of dry socks and hang the wet ones all over my pack to dry out. Let’s hope this is the last of the foot issue.

Massachusetts continues to display stunning scenery and trail bed featuring slick slab rock. This stuff is slick when dry let alone wet. The rains also muddied up the trail a lot. Guess that’s good training for the next state – Vermud as it’s known on the trail.

We also passed the site of the last battle of Shay’s Rebellion.

Early next week we’ll resupply in Dalton, MA where my badly worn boots will be replaced by the ones I wore all winter. The new pair has been sent to Hanover, NH where the real hiking begins.

Thinking of my comrades and all of those who have fallen fighting for our country.

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Another state.

The Hemlocks Shelter, Mass., AT NOBO mile 1509.1, Friday May 23, 2014 — The best thing that happened today was crossing into Massachusetts. Everything else was wet.

We met two women of a certain age at the shelter last night. They were up and moving at 0430 which is really early. Later when we passed them on the trail we realized why. They were slow, really slow, but at least they were out here.

The rest of the day was marked by slick wet rock. Toward the end we has two steep climbs in Mts Race and Everett. The climb up Everette was especially brutal – vertical slab rock most of the way.

Both Swayed and I practiced our John Wayne bite the dust impressions several times. It was slow going. We’d planned to reach this shelter by 5 pm. Instead we showed up at 7:30 pm.

I sent my rain jacket and gaiters to Hanover, NH from Kent. I received substitutes, but guess what? They aren’t good enough. Live and learn, yes. Add a week’s worth of rain to the mix and I will learn a hard lesson. My sleeping gear, sans Sleeping bag is working just fine.

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Indiana Jones and the Lost Shelter

Port Clinton, Penn., AT NOBO mile 1213.7, (14.8 mile slack pack) Tuesday April 29, 2014 — This morning we were greeted by leaden sky blacker than the local sequestered carbon known as Reading anthracite. That’s a shade of dark a well digger might recognize.

As our expedition breached the Port Clinton railroad tracks at the edge of dawn’s early light, the ominous sky grinned its anticipation of major mischief. Two hikers, Sisu and Pepsi Hiker, dared enter enchanted territory.

The trail keepers challenges were diabolically designed to keep the unworthy at bay. We were about to endure an ordeal.

The first escarpment is the definition of up. One thousand vertical feet in less than two miles, most of it in the first half mile. Coated with friction-free leaf litter, only the strongest could withstand this trail.

As our poles punched us skyward step by labored step, Mariah howled her ominous warning through the still barren tree tops, twisting and turning them with groans of icy agony. “Enter ye not here. Go no further!” they seemed to scream.

We pushed onward and upward through Mariah’s chilly breath, our backs glistening with the salty liquor of our agony. As we paused to catch our flying breath, the rhythm of our hearts seemed to beat like jungle drums warning of intruders.

We had been cautioned, but our quest was forward. There would be no turning back, no matter what. We hiked on, our senses straining for early warning.

Frigid tears of terror began tearing at our courage. There, on display in warning to all intruders, were two pair of jeans once lovingly worn by others who had passed this dark place.

What was their owners fate? How did they come to be here? Was there meaning for us? What could happen to us?

We pressed on, Pepsi Hiker and me, nerves raw and senses strained. By now, we were four miles in with only one way to go according to the white blazes.

Not even a drenched mile further we spied an orange work glove twisting by its wrist in a sapling. Another unambiguous sign. What had become of its twin? We could only hope.

Our quest was Eagles Nest Shelter now lost in the tangled and rock strewn wilderness before us. There we would find respite and a dry haven to eat lunch. At this point it might have been Oz or Mordor for all we knew.

Then our hearts sunk. There it was, just above eye level. There was no missing it. Someone’s bright green baseball hat, spiked on a limb as if on a Roman pike, symbolizing the fate of those who dared, hard rain crying from its brim.

“Where was the head it once crowned?” I worried.

“Turn back!” it seemed to say.

If I were still in the Army, I would have ordered, “Fix bayonets!” I’m not, so instead I searched for the next white blaze with rain stained glasses, the hood of my rain jacket cinched tightly to my face.

Along the way the trail keepers set rock traps. Lots of them. By now stumbling through them has become standard locomotion. I think little to nothing of them. They hardly count anymore.

Did he really say that about Pennsylvania rocks?

The wind howled, the rain whipped, and the rocks tripped, but Sisu and Pepsi Hiker pressed on against all odds.

At long last the trail to the lost shelter turned up, its signpost downed in the mud. We planned a hasty assault and liberated the hovel with dispatch.

The loss of body heat during lunch was profound. We smacked down a couple of chocolate bars each and pressed on.

Just as we returned to the AT we smacked into Herr Yodel, a German section hiker I first met at the Iron Master’s Hostel in Pine Grove Furnace. He as planning a weather zero for tomorrow too, so expect him to turn up in this saga again at some point.

At this point we had found the lost shelter and the icy rain had chilled my imagination, but the Indiana Jones meme may continue. Stay tuned for further episodes.

BTW, all stray clothing mentioned in this story really existed as described. No names were changed to protect the innocent.

Hunkering down with warmest regards, Sisu

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The good, the bad and the ugly days.

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Someone asked me if I’ve ever considered quitting.  The short answer is a resounding, “No.”  The question did prompt a reflection on how I classify my days.

They say never quit on a bad day ’cause the next day’s always better and you’ll most likely get over it.  Well, I’ve had good days, hard days, but fortunately no bad days though I’ve been close twice.

Almost every day has been a good day.  That means everything has mostly been routine.  I got up, got where I was going, and got fed, all with minimal discomfort.

There have been a few hard days.  I had three of them in a row after returning to the trail in early March.  I was trucking my full 0F, 38 lb. winter kit, enough out of shape to notice, and a total slug from a mental perspective.  Moreover, the climbing was bigger and harder than I anticipated, not to mention that my cake got frosted with snow on the second day.  Woe was me!

I sucked it up and got over it as I ate the weight out of my food bag and my body and mind readjusted to hiking.

Even the nasty early November storm in the Smokies was just hard.  A little frost nip is nothing and the adjustments I had to make weren’t that big of a deal.

Twice I was soaked through to the skin and everything in my pack was wet enough to have been in a Dunkin Donut contest. I had nothing dry to change into though my bedding was dry as a teenage guy’s mouth when he’s trying to talk to a pretty girl.  In each case I’d made a costly mistake, but had the fortune to be walking into planned town stops each time.  Warm and dry Erwin, Tennessee and Damascus, Virgina never looked so good.

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It’s 34F and raining in this photo – that’s cold – and I’m soaked inside and out.

Had the towns not been there, we might be telling a different story.  As they say, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

What’s a bad day?  How about when you break a bone, fall and knock yourself silly, or run out of food?  Bears, racoons, skunks, mice, porcupines, pit vipers, rocks, widow makers, lightning and a whole lot more have propensity to turn the odds in their favor.

In the interim the best advice I have is this: Don’t dwell on it.  Just hike.

Marching to different drummers on the Appalachian Trail

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Sometimes you just need to march to the beat of a different drummer – something other than the tired soundtrack pounding in your head. It could be a little up-tempo mojo music will help your giddy up.  Other times distracting yourself from pain or rain may be necessary to preserve sanity itself.

The remedy for fashionable hikers this season, appears to be accessorizing with ear buds.   All colors of the rainbow are acceptable so long as they’re plugged into your favorite personal bowling alone device.

None of this is any surprise since most of us have evolved into smart device-dependent cyborgs these days.  Heads bowed like digital monks, we follow our screens wherever they lead us.  This prayerful posture may be the only typically urban behavior useful to hikers.  

Keeping your eyes on the prize (the trail) is not a virtue.  It’s a necessity!  On the trail, evil roots and rocks lurk in the muck and shadows hoping to ambush passing innocents stumbling by.  The most points are awarded for full face plants, broken bones and sprains. Bruises and strawberries gain far fewer.  Don’t fall for looking around and marveling at the scenery.  It pays hikers to bow so not to scrape.   (Groan.)

Some purists don’t believe in electronics on the trail.  Their view is that the natural soundtrack of the forest is the most authentic experience of all, and everything that anyone needs.  I agree with that sometimes, but not always.  HYOH, right? Not going to argue this one.

Occupying one’s mind is important since there’s a lot of down time spent waiting – alone in a shelter for severe weather to pass, for laundry, the post office, hitching a ride or just reading oneself to sleep.  We haven’t even discussed the big “L” – loneliness.

Variety is the spice of life.  The hikers I interviewed this summer talked about needing a wide range of music, pod casts, audio books as well as books to read.  Light-weight tablets such as the Kindle were popular.  TED Talks and NPR’s This American Life were mentioned most often as favorites.  

Juice!  The little electronic critters are efficient, but they eat power like hikers consume pancakes.  A wide range of axillary battery options exist ranging in price from about $100 to $20.  “Mo” is the operative concept.  Mo power equals mo money and mo weight.  A couple of hikers up-graded at Harpers Ferry, so pick your poison.

What to bring?  There’s the old double duty maxim.  Smartphones are definitely the digital equivalent to Swiss Army knives.  Most hikers said they used their phones for everything – calls, photos, music and reading.  Others preferred to husband their phone batteries and bring iPods and Kindles which individually are far more energy efficient at their singular functions.  For example, in temperate weather a Kindle battery lasts five weeks.  If you’re reading, a phone lasts a few short hours at best.  At any rate, a phone, iPod and a Kindle together weigh less than a decent size book and take up less space.

As for me, I’m schlepping an iPod nano and a Kindle in addition to my iPhone.  I will fill the nano with a variety of music for moods ranging from the need to jack up the amperage in difficult terrain to quiet music for relaxation and sleep time white noise.  I’m also including a variety of iTunes U lectures, pod casts and a particular favorite of mine – vintage radio dramas from http://www.radiospirits.com. “The Shadow knows!”  “Tired of that everyday grind?  We bring you ‘Escape!”  I also love the smell of “Gunsmoke!”

The AT Class of ’14 has an on-going music discussion on our Facebook page.  Folks are sharing a lot of great ideas and good music ideas there.

The story of a thru hike can be told in music.  When this year’s hikers blog something that reminds me of a song, it goes on a special AT playlist.  

Some topics are obvious – any song that names an AT state, rain, “Rocky Top,” or is by John Denver.  Then there are songs like “Hitching a Ride” and folk songs like “500 Miles.”  The old graves and churches remind me of country gospel.  For dark humor, there’s Queen’s “Another one bites the dust.”  Hanna Montana’s “Climb” is uplifting.  So far the playlist has 202 songs lasting12 hours.  Here’s hoping that helps carry me into the “Appalachian Spring” through “Shenandoah” on my way to “Almost heaven, West Virginia.”

I know of two hikers who ditched their iPod Shuffles for lack of capacity.  Music can get stale, but new material is easy to get.  There are useful apps that subscribe to free RSS feeds that automatically update your subscriptions with fresh stuff.  I have two.  One is ‘RSSRadio;’ the other is ‘Podcasts.’  TED Talks and vintage radio dramas come via the former and history lectures from the latter.

People love choice.  Of all the advice the Class of ’13 shared with me, the capacity to carry tunes and good books was high on their list.  Since I don’t know that many songs by heart and I love to read, I’m going to bring a little help fortified by a high capacity auxiliary battery.

The next post will cover what folks shared about photography on the Appalachian Trail.

Rain Magnet

Rain Magnet

Was checking the weather in hopes for a dry night for the ’13 through hikers I’m following. What I found was alarming. The only place in the world it’s raining is on the Appalachian Trail. Sorry hikers. No doubt about it. The thing is haunted and this photo proves it. Perhaps you guys could find a  sacrifice to the trail gods?

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.