Mourning bells on Madison Avenue.

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Boiling Springs, Penn., AT NOBO mile 1117.5, Wednesday April 23, 2014 — The mourning bells are ringing on Madison Avenue because I died today.

Really?

As members of the original Pepsi generation, advertisers promised Boomers we were never going age. We weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30.  Our uniform was going to be Levis, mop tops, and sandals!  We were forever young and the most coveted demographic of all time.

Given the degree of indoctrination we endured, I don’t know if this was a shared Boomer experience, but I felt a little strange when I woke up the morning of my thirtieth birthday and nothing changed. I didn’t look or feel any less trustworthy. Same thing when I reached a few other magic milestones that society commemorates with sacrificial candles.

This morning yet another of my life’s supposedly defining markers slipped by. Yup, another birthday.

This time something is different. I really am dead.

Dead, you say?  Like a doornail?  How could that be?

It’s actually a metaphor. As someone who worked in the marketing and PR world for many years, it’s like this: I know that I might as well be dead. 

Here’s the logic.

In some circles, being in a coveted consumer demographic is high status. Everybody wants to talk to YOU. They know that ME is the most important word in the English (advertising) language. 

Oh yes, you’d better be talkin’ to me!

If that’s the case, it’s over for moi. I’m not in anybody’s coveted demographic anymore. 

I’m tuned in, but Madison Ave. dropped me out.  Studies say that most of my brand preferences have been locked in – like NRA paranoia – for decades.  They think I’ve stopped thinking, because I can’t.

Ha!

It’s ironic.  By the time you reach a certain age, overnight the ad industry writes you off – you’re  a non-entity completely unworthy of ad service. In short, you don’t count in the ratings.

Nielsen, I know you don’t love me anymore.  It’s okay. You can have your box back.

As boomers, mainstream advertising no longer covets our eyeballs and ears. Our music has faded from the soundtracks of hit TV shows, and from the commercials that pay for them.  

Our generation’s stars have been reduced to playing grumpy and eccentric grandparents on the new TV shows.  Even the E-D ads target younger men.  To know that all you have to do is look at the age of the women who play the wives.

In the modern American consumer economy, when nobody wants to sell you anything, what’s left for you? You might as well be dead.  As far as the sales department is concerned, you are.

Big deal.  Life’s interesting.  I can personally attest that the mirror lies like a dog.  My hair isn’t gray, it’s only color-challenged. I mean, I’m glad to still have some.  But hey, I hear the Fountain of Youth is somewhere over the horizon, but that’s not why I’m walkin’.  (Or is it?)

“They” think the bell is tolling for me. They are soooo wrong!

Being retired is like perpetual vacation from school.  There’s a lot of time to fill, and there are a million things to do. If you didn’t notice, our generation has accomplished a lot and we still have talent. Most of us aren’t willing to go quietly into the great good night either.

Guess what Mad Men?  There are better roles in daily life than playing manipulated consumers whose primary benefit to society is buying stuff.  Boomers are born activists.  Remember the 60’s.  I know.  If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.

Buckle your seat belt.  As more of us retire with too much time on our hands, it could get interesting, so let’s get ready to rock and roll.

Enough rant.  There’s something more important to say on this, my first birthday without my mother.

“Thanks for the birthday mom. Without you, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to become uninteresting to advertisers.  I’ll always love you for that alone.”

What I’ve learned so far.

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At the close of every combat operation or training exercise, Army leaders undertake an appraisal known as an After Action Review (AAR) to capture relevant lessons and informative experiences while the knowledge is fresh – both the right and wrong, as well as the bad and ugly.  My first half AAR follows.

Thru hikers learn something new with almost every step.  I came to realize and appreciate just how much I don’t know.  Ignorance is sometimes bliss, but mostly not.  The local history, weather, cosmos, biology and geology are deep subjects, and my knowledge of them only scratches the surface.  Somehow, my thirst for knowledge seemed to grow by the mile.

As the depth of my own ignorance deepened, it also dawned on me that readers may have questions or topics which they might want me to explore.  If so, fire away with your questions and suggestions. You are along for the ride after all. 

About three weeks ago I began scratching notes in my notebook on subjects I thought might be informative for readers or useful for those attempting a long distance hike in the future.  These observations are a product of my unique experience, capabilities and shortcomings.  They may or may not be relevant to others.  I just hope they’re worthwhile.

This post is going to be wordy and a bit inelegantly written, but I can’t think of a way to make so much info pretty. These are broad areas I intend to cover:

1.  Logistics

2. Town visits and zeros

3.  Equipment

4.  Cold weather

5.  Water

6.  Cost

7.  Hygiene

8.  Electronics

1.  Logistics:

When you factor out time off the trail for the holidays and my mother’s passing, but keep zero days, I’m right at 90 hiking days on the trail.  That’s a very normal pace.  I try to average 15 miles per day which generally means staying at every other shelter.  When daylight was more limited, sometimes that was a hard bargain.  Now it’s generally a fair day’s work with time to spare.

Logistics for for the first half are far more simple and I could imagine, even after closely following a couple dozen hikers day-by-day last year.  The towns are easy to reach making both food and equipment resupply easy.  Moreover, many people will go out of their way to help you if need be.  You won’t always find exactly what you want, but you can find what you need to get by. 

I walked off cycle meaning that much of the hiker support infrastructure wasn’t there – many shuttlers, hostels, restaurants, some outfitters and trail angels only operate during peak season which ranges from mid-February through April starting in the deep south with the dates sliding to the right on the calendar as the hiker “bubbles” migrate northward.  Still, I had little trouble finding shuttles, places to stay, getting my laundry done, fuel and groceries at any point.  David “Awol” Miller’s guide book is excellent and the phone numbers listed within are accurate.

Food is the heaviest item in most hiker’s packs, and I seemed always to have too much of it.  That’s mostly because I didn’t trust the resupply system.  In retrospect, I could have schlepped a lot less food and resupplied more often without slowing down one bit.

The average Dollar General, Kroger or other grocery has most everything with the exception of dehydrated hiker meals manufactured by companies like Mountain House.  With that caveat, the remaining choices are more than serviceable.  Ramen is ubiquitous.  It became a staple that I fortified with spices, hot sauce and meat from other sources.

I didn’t start using mail drops until I reached central Virginia.  I was unsure of resupply there, so I mailed food and other expendables to Woods Hole, my friend near Roanoke, and to Bluedogart.  I’ll continue the practice of mailing directly to places where I’m going to stay.  That way I don’t have to hunt for the post office or go grocery shopping.  I do call in advance to see if they’re open and willing to accept a package; and let them know approximately when to expect me.

2.  Town visits and zeros:

Some of this is individual preference and some is driven by social factors for hikers in season. Since I was solo and alone most of the time, hanging with anyone or any group wasn’t a consideration.  I could hike or go to town on my own schedule without fear of hurting anyone’s feelings.

Hostels are as unique as their owners.  Some cost more than others.  Each is special.  They’re hard to rate, but my favorites for the first half is a tie between Woods Hole near Pearisburg, Va. and Bears Den about a day-and-a-half hike south of Harpers Ferry.  Each is unique and offers hikers a special high value experience.

Hostels are not hotels.  Mostly they’re operated for love, not profit.  Being solo offered me the opportunity to spend quality time with many of the owners.  These are good folks who will take good care of you.  Please take good care of them.

Stopping in town every five to seven days seemed about right.  I needed to shower, do laundry, recharge my electronics, and buy groceries.  To compensate for winter, I carried some emergency rations (chocolate bars and the like) to cover for unforeseen weather, but not enough to extend my range much.

I did learn that rest days were not required.  In my case a hot shower and a soft bed was as good as an entire day off!  Weather stops were another matter.  On seven occasions I stayed in town at least one extra day to wait for severe weather to clear. 

A good example of a wise weather zero is when I chose to spend a second night at Woods Hole Hostel.  The forecast was for snow, 11 F ambient air temp, and wind gusts up to 50 mph.  That howling night Mother Nature delivered on her promise.  Meanwhile, I was inside, warm, dry and safe.  The next day dawned with the weather improving, so I hiked out bright and early in a residual snow squall.  By nightfall, the sun was shining.

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These photos were taken on the same day, about 15 miles and 10 hours apart.

Another thing I learned was not to pig out on town food in spite of my worst instincts and deepest desires.  Subsequent to the first couple of zeros, I waddled out of town stuffed with rich food like a Thanksgiving turkey crammed with oyster dressing.  It generally took about three days to recover from the ensuing lethargy and bloating. 

I learned that one hamburger was sufficient, and to eat only until full.  For the second meal and beyond, I shifted my diet toward more nutritious green food – salads and the like.  Did I mention I have a weak spot for onion rings?

It seems that hiker fare on the trail is low volume and high calorie.  Unfortunately, too much of it is sugar.  While town food is high volume, but lower in calories except for the beer maybe.  The human gut has a hard time making the switch.  It needs help from upstairs in self-control HQ.

3.  Equipment:

The aphorism goes:  You can have your equipment lightweight, sturdy or inexpensive.  Pick two.  It’s also a trail maxim to make three piles of gear – survival, nice to have and luxury.  Pack everything in the survival pile and one thing from the luxury pile.  Everything else stays behind.  It’s all sage advice unless you’re okay with the weight of a blacksmith’s anvil on your back.

From the time my hike began until winter closed in, I developed three different packing schemes to cope with expected temperature ranges.  One each for expected lows of 30F, 20F and 0F.  The 30 degree set up weighs 26 lbs with five days food and 1 liter of water.  The 20 degree weighs 32 lbs with the same food and water; while the zero degree kit slams the scales at 38 lbs complete with optional micro-spike crampons.  Thirty eight pounds is a hard load to tote.  There’s no spontaneous dancing on the trail for sure.

Two schemes involved my 40 liter Deuter ACT lite 40 + 10 pack (color red).  The zero degree mash up required the purchase of a 65 liter Deuter ACT lite 65 + 10 pack (color blue).  I chose Deuter because I’m short and their pack suspension system allows for infinite height adjustment. Deuter packs fit both short and tall people equally well.  Really! The cargo compartment design also is ideal for the way I like to organize my gear.  http://www.deuter.com/US/us/backpacking-trekking-120.html

The two packs have an identical suspension and cargo compartment design, the difference is that the blue one is larger.  Regardless of which I used, the system for organizing my gear in my pack and when I made and broke camp, remained the same. Staying organized on the trail is a critical component of success.

Everything has a place, the same place every day. Call it SOP or Six Sigma.  Process consistency pays.

First thing out is the last thing in.  In my case it was a medium size Sea to Summit waterproof compression sack guarding my clothing.  First thing out of that sack was a fleece hat followed by a fleece shirt, down jackets, pants, dry socks and booties.  Once my body was going to remain warm, I could prepare to sleep and eat.

I also separated my sleeping gear and first aid kit from food, stove, personal hygiene items and clothing.  Deuter packs have two inside compartments.  The sleeping gear – bag, air matress, pee bottle and first aid kit – snuggled in the bottom compartment.  Everything else jammed the upper one.  Those items that might be needed on a moment’s notice – rain gear, waterproof pack cover, gaiters, TP, headlamp, and water canteen resided in the top or outside quick and easy access pockets.  My tent was usually strapped outside whether I had room inside or not. Don’t ask me why.  I just liked it that way.

My ample first aid kit was in a place quick and easy to reach with only a zipper to protect it.  No straps or buckles to be undone. Inside you’ll find first aid for me and also for my equipment. 

Everything in both compartments that could be affected by water was packed in Sea-to-Summit waterproof compression sacks.  The entire contents were inside trash compactor bags. 

Twice the inside of my cargo compartment got soaked by rain which only underscored that staying dry has to be fail safe.  Let’s just say that it is now.

Both packs were durable.  They do take about 200 miles to break in though.

Shortly before returning to the trail in March, a friend found my favorite piece of equipment.  While Mary Manley and I hiked together, she heard my complaints about not having pockets or pouches that would provide quick access to frequently used items without having to take off my pack. She discovered Ribz (www.ribz.com)  Ribz resembles what the military dubs “load bearing equipment or LBE.”  You don Ribz before your pack.  The pouches and pockets can carry gloves and hats, snacks, tools, hand warmers, guide book pages and virtually every small item you need.  After 350 miles, I declare Ribz a winner.

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Wearing Ribz

My food bag is a ZPack Cuben Fiber bag designed specifically for that purpose.  It was expensive, but held up fine.  In a pinch I could cram up to eight days rations within.

“Feets don’t fail me now” is a slogan seen occasionally on marathoner’s shirts.  If it’s true for marathons, it applies ten-to-the-tenth for thru hikers.  Foot health is everything, and it all begins with boots. 

I got really lucky in the boot department.  I have a high-arched, narrow foot and 30 years ago I discovered that Salomon’s last conforms perfectly to my foot shape.  I haven’t had a blister since. 

My current hiking boots aren’t really boots per se.  They are actually high-topped lighter weight Gore-Tex trail shoes –  Salomon model X Ultra Mid GTX.  The rocks on the AT are so ubiquitous and unstable that, with the pack weights I had to carry, I needed high tops to protect against rolling my ankles. The insides have a silver threaded lining that seemed to work like my Columbia Omni-Heat base layer to reflect body heat back.  My feet never got cold – never!  Not even at sub-zero temps.  I wore polypropylene sock liners with heavy “Smart Wool” socks.

Here’s the bonus.  My first pair of boots lasted 850 miles!  The norm is 500 or less. The reason the boots lasted so long isn’t brand magic.  There’s a special circumstance.  I spent most of my time walking on fluffy leaf litter and snow.  The soles show plenty of wear, just not what one might expect from 850 miles. 

Toward the end though, my faithful boots started giving up the ghost.  The stitching in the uppers stretched to the point where the toe and forefoot areas leaked in the snow.  I also poked a stick through an upper toe box which I repaired with Tenacious Tape and silicone seam seal.  RIP my intrepid friends.  Ya done good, and I’ll miss you. 

I bought two identical replacement pairs of boots with my REI dividend.  One for now and one for a planned tire change in Hanover, NH. 

4. Cold weather:

When I decided to hike on after my planned trip from Springer to Fontana ended, I thought I was well prepared for seasonal weather, even in the infamous Smokies.  After all, it was barely the first week in November. I planned to heavy-up my gear during the Thanksgiving break which was slightly more than 10 days away at that time.

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The season’s first winter storm on Nov. 5th challenged that premise. The overnight temp unexpectedly plunged to 0F and the trails turned to sheet ice. In spite of having only a 30F kit, I dozed off and on at the Ice Water Spring Shelter that night, but only after wrapping myself in my tent fly for extra insulation. I was not as comfortable as I would like.

The real issue was the absence of mittens.  I did have thick gloves and liners, but they were not sufficient to prevent light frost nip.  I backtracked into Gatlinburg to buy mittens and microspikes from the large and well-equipped Nantahala Outdoor Center outfitter there. 

SOL.  No mittens in stock!  I was stunned, so I bought a pair of extra large fleece gloves into which I could cram the gloves I already had and pushed on. A couple of fingertips got nipped, but a warming trend prevented further damage.

Staying warm is all about light weight layers.  Purely by accident I discovered Omni-Heat clothing by Columbia.  The premise is that Mylar microdots embedded in the fabric reflect body heat back and improve the R value.  I’m a data guy without real data in this case, but in my experience Omni-Heat is nothing short of magic.  It really, really works.  As an added attraction, the base layer wicks moisture well too.  I also have a lightweight Columbia down jacket with the same feature. Everything has withstood heavy laundering.  Score!  http://www.columbia.com/Omni-Heat-Reflective/Technology_Omni-Heat_Reflective,default,pg.html

The layering concept is the basis of my various temperature-based packing schemes. Clothing worn while hiking wasn’t a big deal.  Hiking generates so much heat that it didn’t take much to be warm.  The real issue was not to sweat too much and get soaked. 

On my coldest hiking day it was +5 F with 18.5 miles on the menu.  I wore my Omni-Heat base layer with a light fleece over that. The top layer was a hooded, high collared rain jacket with pit zips.  The windchill was about 10 below.  My hands were protected by fleece glove liners and thick mittens inside water/windproof shells.  That’s why I only took two photos that day – about 50 yards apart.  It was just too hard to unwrap everything.

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The real challenge to staying warm isn’t walking, it’s sleeping.  My sleep system is based on a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite air mattress.  Most heat loss while sleeping is from the bottom.  This air mattress is also magic.  I was warm every single night.  http://www.cascadedesigns.com/therm-a-rest/mattresses/fast-and-light/neoair-xlite/product?  Its technology also captures radiant heat. 

My sleeping bag is a Sierra Designs Dry Down 25F-rated woman’s bag.  I’m 5’6″ and it fits my stature well and saved me about $100 over a comparable men’s bag designed for longer people. 

The sleeping bag is supplemented by combinations of the following:  A silk liner, a light weight fleece hat and shirt, light weight down booties, pants, and two light weight down jackets sized to fit one inside the other.  Add fleece gloves and dry socks and I’ve slept in an open shelter, warm and toasty, at five below with degrees to spare. 

These items are mixed and matched in various combinations and are supplemented buy extra hats and gloves as the various temperature ranges dictate.

One important cold weather factor is keeping your hands warm and DRY.  Waterproof hand coverings are essential.  In fact, rain and 34F can be more threatening than snow at 30F.  I used REI mittens with a waterproof shell – and sometimes the shell alone supplemented by fleece gloves – or dishwashing gloves with glove liners inside as circumstances dictated.  No problems.

Cooking in colder weather also has a different dynamic.  I purchased a highly efficient Jet Boil stove to replace my Pocket Rocket.  Boiling ice cold water took less fuel and time with the former.  I also made an insulating cozy into which I could put my food while it rehydrated. 

If it’s cold enough, your food can cool dramatically during the 10 – 15 minutes it takes to fully rehydrate.  The cozy is simply a double layer heavy duty plastic frozen pizza bag cut down and taped together with HVAC tape.  It works well and weighs little.

5.  Water:

In the beginning I was trucking two liters of water.  That’s four fat pounds worth.  Ultimately realizing that water would be plentiful, I cut back to a single liter and purchased a Nalgene two liter collapsible canteen for in-camp use. I’ve never run short.

Water treatment is personal preference.  I use iodine tabs because that’s what I’ve always used, and I know they work.  They’re light and take up almost no space. 

I buy several bottles of the tabs, and the white clarifying pills that remove the bad taste, and repack them into two-inch plastic tubular containers.  The one drawback is that iodine tabs take 30 minutes to be effective.  In contrast Filters are immediate, but they freeze, clog, require maintenance and take up valuable space. 

I did pick up a Life Straw filter to take on the second half for emergency use.  Sometimes in the summer heat, you can’t wait 30 minutes to rehydrate.

6.  Cost:

Ker-ching!!! Being out of cycle and buying extra gear for winter has been costly.  The rule of thumb for an in-cycle hike is amortized at $1,000 per month which includes the cost of gear.  Gear for a largely summer hike reportedly ranges from $1,000 to $1,500. 

My costs have averaged about twice normal – including a lot of extra winter gear.  Off cycle, there’s usually no one with whom to share the cost of shuttles and lodging.  Some of these services cost extra then too.  The weather zeros add up as has some down time waiting until my wife could come and collect me for the holidays.  Towns are expensive, especially the restaurant food.

After crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, I’ve noticed that I can anticipate fewer inexpensive hostels and more expensive motels.  The price difference is up to a factor of four in many cases.  Ouch!

Could I have shaved some of these costs?  Not really, unless I switched to a normal hike.  It is what it is.

6.  Hygiene:

After packing my “survival pile,” the luxury I chose was personal hygiene.  My mother is the principal reason.  She used to admonish us as adolescents for smelling like “Boy Scouts” when we’d come home from a camping trip.  Later, as an Army leader, I learned that throughout history more soldiers have died from preventable diseases than at the hands of their enemies.  Keeping clean is the key, and I am obsessed with it.

My hygiene kit includes a comb, plastic mirror, tooth brush, floss, waterless shampoo, Dr. Bronner’s (very eco-friendly) soap, hand sanitizer, fingernail clippers and file, a ration of two “Wet Ones” per day, and a small microfiber towel.  The hand sanitizer doubles as deodorant.  Just remember to rub it in to activate the alcohol. 

I also use table napkins as TP – much stronger and less likely to tear.  When digging a cat hole, I carefully burn the paper before filling it back up.  It’s an old practice I was taught in dry climates where paper can last a hundred years.  Just don’t burn down the woods.

Keeping clean differs some between winter and summer conditions.  Below 40F, I don’t wash my hair daily or shave everyday.  Too cold.  But hands can be washed, body wiped down with Wet Ones, and teeth brushed. 

In summer, I sponge off he sweat residue as soon as I reach camp.  Clothes can be washed and rinsed in a trash compactor bag, two liters of water and Dr. Bronners.  Just fill up the bag and shake.  Repeat for the rinse cycle.  Oooom. Irish Spring.

I carry two base layers in winter, plus several light outer layers.  In summer, I always have two sets of shorts and t-shirts, plus a cotton sleeping shirt and a decent shirt to wear in town that only comes out in town.  Accessorize sans hiker funk, and note the clean hair and fingernails.  No hiker trash here.

7.  Electronics:

Cold temperatures raise hell with lithium batteries.  Once the battery itself reaches temps under 50F, it can shutdown in a matter of minutes.  By March I was carrying 4 1/2 extra iPhone battery equivalents, plus the phone.  Most of them were manufactured by Mophie.  During the day I couldn’t do much except keep my phone as close to my body as possible.  Twice I used dry handwarmers to keep my phone battery viable enough to phone for shuttles. 

At night the batteries snuggled inside my jacket pocket.  Once warm and bedded down, I’d recharge my phone or iPod as needed.  Not an ideal situation, but the best I could do.

In town, most hostels don’t have enough plugs to charge several devices at once.  During hiking season it must be a zoo.  I purchased a single plug, multi-port charger into which I could connect everything I carried.  It was slow, taking all night to recharge everything, but much better than charging the phone and storage batteries one at a time.  Can’t wait for summer.

Summary:

The age old truths apply.  In particular, when there is will, there is a way.  Best of all, if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. 

 

Sisu – Makin’ tracks …  

Hair today. Gone tomorrow.

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I started cultivating my beard the day after my mother’s funeral. I just needed to change things up a bit.  If nothing else, I needed to see something different in the mirror.  We were beyond the fuzzy stage when I returned to hiking in early March.

Until the stubble showed up, I was clean shaven on the trail.  As winter progressed, the cold forced me from shaving every day as had been my previous habit. So shearing the crop shifted to join my weekly town routine along with laundry and a shower.  I should reverse those because the shower always comes first!

Believe it or not, on the trail having a beard made a huge difference.  Sans beard I had a hard time convincing people I was a thru hiker.  I just didn’t look the part. Thru hikers are supposed to be scruffy.  Almost by definition facial hair is an expected part of the male uniform along with a distinct odoriferous funk and filthy fingernails. 

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I didn’t fit the picture.

A typical conversation would go like this: 

Q: “Where’d you start?”  A:  “Georgia.”  (I didn’t want to complicate matters by explaining that I started first in the north before going south.)

Q:  “Where ‘ya headed?”  A:  “Maine.”

Q:  “What section are you doing this time?”  A:  “Not doing sections. I’m a thru hiker.”

Puzzled look.  :~{ 

Q: “Geez.  You don’t look like a thru hiker.  When did you start?”  A:  “Late September…”

And so it would go. Even Crazy Larry labeled me a section hiker on his hostel’s Facebook page – after I had explained my unconventional hike more than once, but then again Larry admits he’s crazy.

Once the beard showed up, the entire social dynamic changed.  People assumed I was thru hiking and were interested in the number of miles I averaged each day, how much my pack weighed, and how long I thought it would take to reach Katahdin.  It just goes to show that judging a book by its cover can be very misleading.

By now, someone out there is wondering why I whacked off the whiskers.  It’s simple.

Last week I chanced to stumble through a swarm of freshly hatched gnats.  There were ‘zillions’ of them, and more than a fair share opened a game of hide and seek in my facial hair, and were still squatting on my property several hours later when I reached camp for the evening.  Combing them out was a pain in my posterior.  While tending to my nitting so to speak, my subconsciousness recalled reading last year about guys combing ticks and other unwelcome guests out of their beards. Yuck!

Fear the beard!  The scariest animals on the AT are not bears.  Lyme Disease carrying deer ticks strike deep dread in every hiker’s heart.  Why offer those pests an extra opportunity to lay you low?  So it was bye-bye beardie. 

Maybe the beard and I will meet again when this is over.  I’ll think about it.  My buds at Fitness Together like it, though my spouse does not.

 

Major Milestone Complete

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 1:  10:04 a.m. Sept. 24, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Sisu – Makin’ tracks …

Cut your losses

Buena Vista, Va., AT NOBO mile 802.6, Thursday March 27, 2014 — Yesterday’s wind storm did a number on the trail.

This morning Butch, who co-owns Bluedogart with his wife Susan, shuttled me to the trailhead parking lot located a mile downhill from AT NOBO mile 818.9 so I could scamper back toward Buena Vista for a 5 pm pickup.

The one mile uphill trek was moderately steep, taking 40 minutes slowed slightly by the six inches of snow clogging the old dirt logging road.

Once up top everything changed. Yesterday’s stiff winds mounded the snow into an endless series of deep drifts, some to midthigh, but most just above the knee. A genuine posthole experience for those who know about these things.

Since the trail started on an exposed ridge line, I thought I would walk out of it. Not so. After almost two trail miles I realized the drifting was for keeps.

The sun sparkled and drifted snow drastically slowed my pace. When I reached a definable land mark on my trail guide, I realized that at my blistering pace, arrival at the pick up point would be after midnight rather than 5 pm. Time to reverse course and try another day, especially since I wasn’t carrying a tent or sleeping bag.

With rain in the forecast starting late tomorrow, lasting into Saturday, I don’t expect the snow to clear until Sunday morning. Being only two hours from home is tempting with three nights to kill. I have a call in to my wife to see if she can swoop in and rescue me tonight. If so, I’ll be home for our anniversary Saturday!

I’ll drive back Monday to hike the section to Waynesboro in three days, then recover my car.

Decision made with no phone signal, I reversed my footprints and retraced my course down the old logging road.

As luck would have it, there’s a Virginia Fish and Game fish hatchery at the bottom of the hill equipped with a phone and a really nice manager named Tim. You’re a gem big guy.

I arranged a shuttle only to arrive at the hostel (built in the 1890s) to find an overheated electrical socket. Butch and I pulled it out of the wall and disconnected it.

Upon reflection, today deep snow was a lucky break. Aside from the obvious reasons, I had $1,500 worth of gear stored on the other side of that wall!

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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.

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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Transitions and Contrasts

Trent’s Grocery, Bland (indeed), Va. March 10 — The seasonal change is about to burst forth. The signs are everywhere. We’ve been seeing fresh bear scat all week. They are around and about. Nearly every plant is preparing to bud. Today I saw a butterfly and a water doodle. Could mosquitos be far behind?

What a day of contrasts. The sides of mountains facing away from the sun – generally the north sides – we’re freezing while the southern exposures cooked. Our high temp on the trail today ladies and gents was a big 72F. Let’s hear it for the weather service.

So there I was wearing a Columbia Omni Heat shirt. For the uninitiated, this winter clothing line features Mylar micro dots that reflect heat back toward your body. I can testify that this technology is a working miracle. Only it over achieves at high ambient temps. Not wearing any tomorrow. Nope. I am not. Tomorrow’s forecast is the same as today’s.

Of course, this early in March, way too early to count our weather chickens. Sleet and snow rear their ugly heads again Wednesday and Thursday.

We’re tenting on the back lot of Trent’s Grocery – grill, off sale beer and hardware emporium. In our honor, the proprietor hasn’t opened the shower or laundry facilities. He’s waiting for the last freeze. He did let us clean up in the store restroom. That’s the one with the out of order sign on the door, except it’s in perfect working order. What a guy. Their hamburgers = A+. Just know before you go.

Earlier in the day we passed a place where seven deer carcasses had been dumped along the road. Just after that the forest floor had been burned. The trash and liquor bottles around the deer and the fire suggest a correlation of deviant behaviors, but I am not so certain. Appalachia is so poor that many families have to poach deer in order to eat. It does not necessarily follow that they engage in other irresponsible activities. It’s a hard life here.

We also saw an interesting suspension bridge.

Tomorrow it’s the famous yoga enshrined, organic and granola encrusted Woods Hole Hostel. There’s only 16 miles and a healthy climb between us.

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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.

Winter Tips

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Two members of the class of ’14 contacted me privately to ask about hiking in winter temperatures and conditions.  One recommend that I publish what I’d shared with him.  Needless to say, I was reluctant.  The information is generally well known, and is readily available elsewhere. 

I thought about it during the last leg of my hike and eventually, decided to share it for what it may be worth to others.  When I was in the Army, I taught winter operations and  survival for a time.  Since this knowledge has paid dividends on my hike thus far, I thought there might be a benefit to sharing it.

Obviously, my musings are not comprehensive.  Others may feel free to add their two cents as appropriate.  If you do, please keep it civil.  Dear trolls out there, neither you nor I are idiots. 

The good news is that winters tend to be mild in the southern Appalachians with notable exceptions.  Even when the weather turns bad, it doesn’t often last long.  That said, the recent five-day nor’ easter in early December brought a load of moisture to the mountains.  Fortunately only the last day of the storm was cold.  Otherwise, we might have experienced several feet of snow, so it pays to be prepared. 

Where to start?  In my view, the most important winter concepts are layering and moisture management.

The key to staying comfortable when it’ cold is layers and staying as dry as possible.  Modern poly prop and other wicking fibers are game changers in helping your skin stay dry.  Note I said comfortable, not necessarily toasty warm – a relative concept that changes with each individual’s tolerance. 

You absolutely don’t want to be hot and sweaty all the time.  If you are, not only is dehydration likely, you’ll rapidly chill when you stop moving.  Moreover, all the wet stuff will eventually need drying.

On top I’m using a Columbia Onmi Heat base layer (it’s got Mylar dots that reflect heat back — and it works) with three additional light layers that can be added or subtracted accordingly. For the outer layer I have a light weight nylon wind jacket backed up by my rain parka which has pit zips, a wind collar and hood.  Most times I don’t need more than one or maybe two light layers so long as I’m moving. 

My rule of thumb is that less clothing is more so long as it helps keep your core at the right temperature and your skin as dry as possible.  In my experience, most people put on way more clothing than they need.

Once I stop, I usually don’t have to take off the base layer.  It is normally only wet in the back and seems to dry quickly on its own under the other loose layers I put on when I stop.  There have been exceptions to this practice, of course.  When the day is over, I change into a large fleece shirt, a loose fitting hiking shirt, plus one or both of my down puffy parkas, down pants and the fleece cap in which I sleep. 

On the bottom I hike in bike shorts and compression running tights alone or under a water repellant pair of Columbia camping pants.  My rain pants go over this or substitute for the camping pants as needed.  That’s potentially three layers – more than enough to take you well below zero in a stiff wind in my experience.

Head, hands and feet are the key to real comfort and mental comportment. 

For my head, I carry a fleece ear band which keeps my ears warm while allowing the heat to vent from exertion without wet hair.  I also have a polly prop knit hat I used for cross country skiing.  It can go on over the ear band or replace it. Since I wear glasses, I have a Gore Tex bill cap to keep the rain/snow off the lenses.

I clomp around in Salomon Gore Tex boots with medium weight smart wool socks (I carry three pairs) with sock liners.  I start each day with a dry pair of socks.  I also take off my damp socks and put on dry ones as soon as I stop for the evening to help keep my feet warm.  The damp socks and liners go in between my sleeping bag and air mattress at night.  They’ve always been dry in the morning.

For my hands, I carry two pair of light polly prop glove liners so that one pair is always dry.  I also have a pair of polar tec gloves and a pair of heavy mittens with a waterproof Gore Tex shell.  I didn’t have the mittens in the Smokies when the ambient air temp hit zero F and paid a price for their absence.  Mittens are absolutely the key to warmer hands.  I’ve added chemical hand warmers and used them once.  They work well enough.

At night I almost always sleep in a tent (Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2) unless I think it’s going to storm.  The tent blocks the wind and is about 10 degrees warmer than an open shelter. 

My bag is a woman’s Sierra Designs Dry Down rated to 25 degrees F.  My guess is that a male would be comfortable about five degrees cooler.  As I wrote in my previous blog, I’m exchanging the sleeping bag for my 1970’s Holubar zero degree model in which I have more confidence at lower temperatures.  

At night any wet clothing – usually socks or the base layer – goes between my sleeping bag and air mattress (Themarest NeoAir).  Everything’s dry by morning.  If I think that the temp will drop below freezing, I always put my water and fuel canister in the bag with me or they’ll freeze.  If they do, I’m screwed.  Note to self:  Screw the water bottle cap on tightly so it doesn’t leak!

On seriously cold days – 20 degrees F or less – I hike with my water and fuel inside the inner pockets of my wind layer.  Butane lighters stay in pants pockets or they too will freeze.  Fortunately, the electric starter on my Jet Boil works.  This has magically turned the lighters into dead weight.

I’ve described every item of clothing I carry except my bandanas.  Almost all the clothing gets used every day.

BTW, in the rain, the objective is not necessarily to stay dry.  It’s to manage heat.  That’s one time when the wet base layer comes off quickly at the end of the day.  It’s usually soaked.

Here are some additional tips that may be helpful in preparing for a winter hike.

1.  Practice setting up your tent, operating all your zippers, hooks, snaps, buckles, stuff sacks and cooking with gloves on.  Modify your gear accordingly.  For example I’ve added extra long zipper pulls and replaced the miniature spring-loaded chord keepers with larger ones on some of my clothing.  I modified my tent with extended guy lines and oversize tension keepers so I can manipulate them with mittens on, and or tie the to rocks if the ground is frozen too hard for tent stakes. 

2. Quality backcountry clothing tends to have two distinguishing features.  The first is large inner pockets.  They are to keep, next to your body, water, fuel canisters and any other liquid (medicine) you need to keep from freezing.  You can store gloves, hats and mittens there too.  The other is pit zips.  Clothing designed for fashion tends not to feature these extras.

As I noted, when you’re out there hiking hard, dumping heat is a high priority.  During the recent storm in the Smokies, the pit zips on my wind shell remained open all day – the temps ranged from 18 – 22, the wind was moderate, and it was snowing.  I closed them only when the temps began to plummet and the wind picked up.  Meanwhile, I was comfortable and dry.  The zipper pulls have been modified with extra long pull chords so I can find, open and close them using gloves or mittens without taking off my pack. 

3.  When pitching your tent in snow, stomp down or scrape off an area big enough include your extended guy lines.  Make sure that your tent ventilates well or you’ll have to deal with frozen condensation in the morning.  Pack up quickly inside your tent.  Your body heat will create a thin moisture layer underneath that freezes quickly. To negate this, immediately when you get out, lift the tent off the ground so that the floor/footprint doesn’t freeze to the earth.   A couple of bloggers reported that problem last winter and their light weight nylon tent floors shredded when the tried to pick them up.  Of note, a Tyvek foot print won’t tear.

4.  I carry two 1-liter plastic bottles as canteens.  When water is plentiful, I only keep one filled.  Their key feature is a narrow mouth.  If they should freeze per chance, and mine started to in the Smokies because I didn’t pay attention soon enough, you can get a narrow mouth bottle open with your hands and punch down the ice plug that forms.  You have no prayer of opening a frozen wide-mouth bottle like a Nalgene if it freezes.  The threaded area is large and poses too much friction when frozen.

5.  You need to drink as much water in winter as you do in summer even if you don’t feel thirsty.  You lose a lot of water just by breathing alone, not to mention sweating.  By the time you’re thirsty, it’s too late.  Watch the color of your urine.  Pale yellow is optimum.  Urinating every two hours or so is about the right amount.  Be aware that urine the color of apple juice is trending the wrong way.

Dehydration helps bring on hypothermia much more quickly – as does exhaustion, alcohol use and smoking.  The combo can be like cotton – deadly.  A properly equipped hiker died of hypothermia in the Tri Corner Knob shelter in the Smokies this past winter.  Rangers I met on the trail told me that in addition to being cold, they theorized that he might have been tired and dehydrated.  Regardless, he suffered a tragic end. 

You can Google the incident for details.  http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2013/apr/18/national-park-releases-hikers-cause-of-death/?comments_id=2612673 

Here’s a report from the same area in  2012 that had a better ending:  http://www.wate.com/story/19985736/smokies-emergency-responders-search-for-missing-hiker

6. I keep a Gatoraide bottle in my tent for use as a pee bottle.  Does anyone really want to get up and go out into the hyper cold or driving rain at night?  If it’s below freezing, BE SURE AND SECURE THE CAP and put it in your sleeping bag so it doesn’t freeze. Ladies, this may be one male advantage that is hard to overcome.

Along this vein, I know of two NOBOs last year who had water bottle accidents that soaked their sleeping bags when their flip top bottles accidentally opened at night!  Word to the wise.

7.  I shave with a disposable razor every time I stop in town.  Beards may look cool, but in the winter they form icicles — and worse — snot-cicles because when its cold your nose runs constantly.  This does not include food.  The beard problem comes when the liquid in your beard melts and is absorbed by your clothing and sleeping bag at night.  Sooner or later you develop a moisture issue that can be problematic.   For me, it’s easier to scrape it off when I go to town.  Others obviously disagree.

8.  I have worn my MSR microspikes on three occasions to great advantage.  I could have managed to hike, albeit a lot more slowly, without them.  They’re are not a necessity.  But, their utility is such that I am willing to pay the weight tax to carry them.  I did carry snowshoes for awhile, but no longer.  A lot of the trail is unsuitable for their use – too rocky or too narrow.  As an alternative, I decided to hike around the weather.

Another reason I don’t think snowshoes are needed.  Look on the bright side, during NOBO season, some other eager beaver can always be first out of camp and punch the post holes through deep snow for everyone else.  When you’re solo, you’re on your own. 

The trail in winter is peaceful and almost surrealistic in its appearance.  With the right skills and gear, you can have a wonderful experience that is uniquely yours alone.

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