Three Keys

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One last post before I return to the trail after Thanksgiving.

So far three keys to successfully hiking the Appalachian Trail have jumped to mind after 400 miles.  They are fitness, field craft and luck. These are in addition to the discourse in Zack Davis’s excellent book http://appalachiantrials.com/.  Yes, Zack, I made my lists.  Thank you for that.

When I left the trail at Davenport Gap (Standing Bear Farm) and shuttled to Hot Springs to meet my wife, my body was pretty well beaten up.  In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all hikers are required to sleep in shelters. Stealth camping in between is forbidden largely due to the high volume of hikers.  In addition, the wild hogs and bears which have learned that backpacks are analogous to picnic baskets would significantly complicate stealth camping.  The hogs are aggressive and unafraid of humans.  As a consequence, night hiking i strongly discouraged.

The distance between shelters dictates the distances you have to hike each day.  Most often, I would reach a shelter around two or three in the afternoon, too early to stop hiking – especially after it turned cold.  Having to make the next shelter before dark meant bearing down, digging in order to produce the physical effort needed to “git ‘er done.”

Ironically, it seemed like the second shelter was always five to eight miles away – up hill (both ways)…

Before the Smokies, I was physically in good shape thanks to the ample number of camping sites between shelters.  I’d hike until it was about to get dark, then stop and pitch my tent.  Georgia features gentle, well-maintained trails.  The trail becomes significantly more eroded on the north side of Standing Indian Mountain and onward in North Carolina.  The Nantahala Wilderness is steep.  Some would say “brutal”- just sayin’. 

Word about the obvious, any time a section of trail has been tagged with a name, be aware that you may feel some discomfort.  The Rollercoaster and Jacobs Ladder are memorable at the moment.  The former because it was 90 degrees and I had 21 miles to make.  The latter because it’s steep and came at the end of a long day.  I am already dreading the words associated with “notch,” even if they are a 1,000 miles away.

After Nantahala and the Smokies, defined by multiple 15 – 18 mile days, my left knee was getting sore and my right (severed in 2008) Achilles tendon and calf muscle were very sore.  I was developing pain (neuroma) in my left foot as well.  I was overdue for a couple of zeros, or an aptly timed break for Thanksgiving. 

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, as the saying goes.  I definitely got lucky with the timing of the Thanksgiving holiday. 

What I learned from the first 400 miles is that fitness is a double edged sword for me.  While being especially fit (strength and cardio) enabled comfortable hiking and significantly diminished the psychological impact of steep terrain and long miles, it also enabled me to overdo it a bit. 

Observing others on the trail who were less fit engendered an appreciation for its intrinsic value.  There are hikers who “suffer” through steep stretches, the weight of their packs, and long days because they are not as fit as they could be.  My distinct impression is that hiking yourself into shape is an option with higher risk than preparing in advance.  The sweat in the gym paid off.

Knowing the little tricks of the trade can be invaluable.  Whether we learned them from our family, Scouting, military service or by other means, knowing what to do and how to do it also mitigates psychological stress.  Whether dipping water out of a shallow source with a plastic bag, keeping your water inside your jacket and using narrow mouth water bottles on freezing days, or placing your tent footprint under your sleeping pad to block floor drafts on shelter sleeping platforms, every little trick of the trade counts. 

There are a million tricks of the trade, and I don’t purport to know them all.  But knowing how to use light weight layers to stay warm and dry, to make field expedient gear repairs, to maintain personal hygiene, first aid, to stretching, to bring the right equipment, to properly adjust and carry your pack, to pitch and strike a tent in the rain, to sleep comfortably, to build a fire when it’s wet, to read the weather, and to anticipate challenges contribute a lot to eventual success and psychological balance.

BTW, my pack weighs 30 lbs. with five days worth of food.  I’m dumping the Kindle, and some small items that might equal a pound.  I’m adding a Jet Boil with a smaller fuel cartridge, warmer clothing and snowshoes, and a third auxiliary battery which will up the weight a bit.  A light weight four-season tent will be purchased and added when I return to the trail after the December holidays, though the plan will be to try and camp at shelter sites through the winter.

The rest of it is luck.  I tripped on a rock at one campsite and did a face plant in the dirt.  If it had been a rock upon which I landed, the outcome could have been more than a humorous non-event.  My weather has been exceptionally clement.  Of the 36 days of my hike so far, only five have been defined by rain, or snow.  I happened to be zeroing in Hiawassee during a sixth. Yes!  My bear encounters have been benign as nearly all of them are, and so it goes.

My hike will resume on or about Dec. 1 for the 226 mile trek from Standing Bear Farm to Damascus, VA.  I’m expecting to take 15 – 17 days with no zeros and three town (nero – near zero miles) days for resupply, shower, laundry and a beer.  After that, it’s home for the Christmas and New Year holidays with a prompt return to the woods thereafter.

The magic ratio rules the day

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Numbers tend to govern our lives, even deep in the woods while hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Obviously there was too much time on my hands, or I wouldn’t have started thinking about them.

The most apparent use of the numbers 2 x 6 is the White Blaze.  Two inches by six inches, there’s no navigation without them.  The white blazes are the central focus of every day.  Gotta have ’em and have to find them.

Unfortunately, it seems to be universal that there aren’t enough of them.  The blazing is very inconsistent throughout the trail.  I can’t tell you how many times I and others have spent trying to figure out directional changes or if we were on the correct route when another trail overlaps with the AT.  Let’s not talk about twilight, night or certain sun angles.  Is there a white pain shortage?

Blazing is the responsibility of volunteer trail supervisors – folks who accept responsibility for routine maintenance of specific sections of the trail.  Unlike thru hikers, they are familiar with their territory.  They don’t arrive clueless, tired, hungry, thirsty, with the sun in their eyes, or in the dark of night. 

Once my thru hike is over, I’m scheduled to become a trail supervisor in Shenandoah National Park.  Trust me, I’ll walk my trail section both directions, at all hours of the day and night and try to put myself in the shoes of unfamiliar hikers trying to find their way.

The two by six magic ratio also applies to shelter space.  That’s about what you get in a crowded shelter.  Measure your inflated air mattress.  It’s close.

Someone asked me about my daily routine. It is dominated by 2 x 6.  Beyond white blaze navigation and sleeping space, a space two feet by six feet is the area upon which I concentrate while walking. 

On the AT, people rave about the views.  They are the exception.  Most of the time is spend head down, surveilling a moving chunk of trail two feet wide and about six feet long.  The primary objective is to avoid falling or injury.

There’s a lot to look for depending on the time of year.  Consider rocks – loose and otherwise, slippery exposed roots, leaf litter, holes, snakes, giant piles of bear scat, terrapins, steps, blow downs, ice, mud, and other hazards.  Hikers see the AT in rolling 2 x 6 chunks whether they want to or not.

In describing my day, I don’t know whether to start in the morning or evening.  Each time of day is a bookend and a logical beginning or an end.  Weather and the amount of daylight are big schedule drivers, making this time of year roughly equivalent to hiking in early March.

Normally my first wake up is at 0430.  Naturally, it’s too cold and too early to get up.  I usually doze until 0530 or 0600.  Definitely by six I’m up and moving.  First thing I pack my gear – tent, sleeping bag, air mattress etc.  The last item in the pack is my down jacket.

I have both a system and a fixed routine that never varies.  If you’re familiar with Six Sigma, you’ll automatically understand why.  Consistently repeating a strict routine and having a highly organized system for packing prevents mistakes like leaving stuff behind.  The added benefit is that gear is organized in order of priority of use and grouped by type.  For example Rain pants, jacket, hat, and pack cover are in the middle outside pocket where I can get at them RIGHT NOW if need be..  Gaiters are in one side pocket.  The opposite one has water and three light weight clothing items to be added as layers when I stop or get cold.  I also made a water holster out of a net bag.

I’ve given up cooking hot breakfast coffee, cocoa, grits or oatmeal.  When it’s very cold, I need to get moving to generate heat.  Consequently I chuck three or four granola bars, Cliff bars, snickers, Builder Bars or their equivalent into a side pouch and get moving by 0700 which recently has been first nautical twilight. 

This I borrowed from my Army days.  I normally walk 20 – 40 minutes before stopping to adjust what I’m wearing, eat, drink and settle in for the day.  By then I am warmed up, know what to wear for the day (generally much less than most would think), and have a feel for the trail.  This also is when I double check my trail guide to confirm my hiking plan for the day.

As the day unfolds, I tend to snack around 10, 2 and 4 (remember the old Dr. Pepper commercials?).  I stop to take photos whenever the opportunity presents itself, and sometimes will spend 20 minutes on a sunny lunch.  Otherwise I’m motoring along. 

Almost from the outset, I could average 12 miles per day.  More recently that’s been upped to between 15 and 18.  I’ve done a few 20s, but really have not needed them and don’t plan to make them a habit due to the cumulative wear and tear they seem to generate on my body.

I try to reach my camp – stealth site or shelter – by 5 p.m.  That gives me an hour to settle in and eat.  Can’t wait for the days to lengthen so I can actually hike much later or earlier if desired.

First thing I get water and figure out how to hang my food and throw the rope if necessary.  Then, I dawn my light weight layers and down clothing to conserve heat. Following that step, I set up my tent and bedding so the down has a chance to loft.  I cook – the usual:  Generally Mountain House dehydrated meals, Knorr pasta sides, or Ramen noodles.  I normally add spices and make decaffeinated tea or coffee.  After I’m done eating, I put everything away and hang my food bag with my cooking pot and trash bag inside.  

While eating, I study my Awol Guide and plan the next day paying particular attention to the location of water sources, the trail profile and alternate places to camp depending where I am between 2 and 3 p.m.

Then it’s time for bed.  The night I slept at Tri Corner Knob shelter in GSMMP, I reached the shelter around 4:45 p.m., got water and followed my routine.  By the time dinner was done, it was pitch dark.  I slid into my sleeping bag and checked my watch:  it was 6:15! 

“Whoa!”  I thought.  I quietly enjoyed listening to the wind and woods for a couple of hours before breaking out my iPod nano which I use mostly to listen to pod casts or vintage radio dramas at night.  I generally sleep hard for about four hours, then cat nap until around 0430 when the daily routine begins all over again.

Exciting.  Not really.  It’s all about ratios, time and daylight over and over again. 

The fun comes from what you serendipitously see, hear and find, and from the people with whom you can share your experience.

 

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!

Flash Mob at Pinefield Hut

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It was a dark and thirsty night, but the old folks at Pinefield Hut didn’t know that yet. 

Meanwhile, day three of my Appalachian Trail training hike had just closed.  In spite of my heavy pack, I’d made good time walking on the contoured terrain around the Loft Mountain camp ground. Put it in the books as a good day.

There I was making camp with a couple of younger guys just out of the Army and an older 70-something thru hiker recently back on the trail following a long injury recovery. He was hiking from his home near Delaware Water Gap to the place in southern Virginia where he had to leave the trail this past spring with his hopes for completion long dashed.

It was dark and quiet with hiker midnight fast approaching.  The military guys decided to tent leaving the shelter to the two older guys.  It would be my second night in a shelter, but given the hour, it didn’t seem like we should be expecting more company.

Wrong!

Just as we were settling in a couple of young Millennials drifted in.  One was a young woman whose blog I’d read and we had a nice conversation about that and other mundane aspects of the trail.  Than a few more young faces drifted in from the darkness – and a few more after that.  The dynamic of one of those You Tube flash mobs quickly took over.

Once the crowd reached critical mass, out came beer, wine in one and two liter bottles.  In a flash the picnic table was groaning under their weight.  I checked my watch.  Ten thirty.  For me, it was past time to sleep.  For them it was party time.

A roaring fire accompanied a solo guitar.  Alcohol fueled voices harmonized – more or less.  The rowdy revelry continued well into the wee hours before dawn.  The other adult hiker and I scrunched into the deep shadowy recesses of the shelter and tried to sleep, me with my iPod cranking out an alternative soundtrack.   

It was a stereotypical display of Millennial self-absorption. I generally hold young folks in high regard having worked with 18 – 24 year-olds most of my life.  This group, other than being inconsiderate, wasn’t that bad with a couple of obnoxious exceptions.  As minor payback I certainly didn’t hesitate to make noise when I broke camp at the onset of morning nautical twilight.

One thing came out of it, a new song to add to my AT playlist.  Judy Collins’ “Send in the Clowns” seems a most appropriate way to memorialize the evening.

Close Bear Encounters of the Third Kind

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Bear busted for shopping in store at Shenandoah National Park’s Skyland Resort.  He was a nice guy!

Psst!  Hey you…  Yah, you.  Wanna lose weight?  You do.  Guess what?  Hike for 13 days and 160 miles straight through on the AT without a zero and eat only what’s in your pack and YOU too can lose a pound per day.  I did.  Betcha!  One more hike like this and I might be willing to take my shirt off at the beach.

My first training hike is in the books.  Sept. 24th was day one.  I launched at 10:08 a.m. from Rockfish Gap, Va.  It was 55*F.  At 10:12 I saw three bears before I could even get off the road and into the park!  An auspicious beginning if ever there was.

By the time they get this far, 858 miles into their hike, most thru hikers can knock out the distance from Waynesboro, Va. to Harpers Ferry in about 10 – 11 days.  Since this was a test of my injured right foot, my gear, food, and much more, my pace was deliberately slower.

The first day was seven miles to the Calf Mountain shelter.  Most thru hikers would want to bang out more miles, but maybe not the 20 miles to the next shelter at Blackrock.  For those wanting to do more than seven, but less than 20, I counted 14 excellent stealth camping sites scattered between Calf Mountain and Blackrock.  The only caution is that  water is available only at the shelters.  Tank up at Calf Mountain and you’re good to go.

I set the first day deliberately short followed by two 13s in a row.  The schedule next called for rest following an eight mile NERO.  I reached my destination just after noon and cooled my heels until some great guys showed up to spend the evening.  Following that, the days averaged around 12 until I got word that the remnants of a tropical storm would clobber the trail on Monday Oct. 7.  Not wanting to ride out a tornado watch and a deluge in some shelter, I hiked three 15s and a 20 in order to finish a day earlier than planned.  Two weeks without rain – priceless!  Pushing that hard – ouch!!

My initial pack weight was very heavy on purpose. For example, I carried all the food and supplies needed for a full fortnight. I also lugged my full winter kit since that’s the heaviest weight scenario.  Other small things added up such as packing a full bottle of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap.  

As time passed, the weather changed.  In the beginning morning temps hung in there around 40 with day time highs around 60 – 65.  This near perfect hiking weather shifted to sticky windless summer temps in the second week with the final day ending  above 90.  My sleeping bag smelled worse than my socks – and my socks smelled so bad they actually woke me up one night!  They got kicked out of the tent after that.

In spite of the weather, I managed to stay relatively clean.  I did laundry and shower at Lewis Mountain camp ground and again at Bears Den.  I washed my shirts out in streams a couple of times.  Twice I was alone at night and use the solitude as car wash moments.

Lessons learned?  You can bet I’ll never do that again.  When I finished I was still strong, but sore and beginning to notice some of the classic overuse injury symptoms.  For me, a zero is in order at least once per week. 

My initial pack weighed 37 lbs.  That’s at least 10 lbs. too heavy.  I’m glad I could manage it, but even as I ate the weight down, the dead weight on my back sapped my morale much more than I would have predicted. 

Most of the extra weight was food.  I had way too much in the beginning, so I gave some away.  Regardless, I still finished with two extra meals. 

I can also cut weight elsewhere.  My fist aid kit could treat a decimated army. It can be much smaller. A little Dr. Bronner’s goes a long way.  I’ll repackage it and other liquids and consumable supplies into week size portions. 

Beyond that, I’m chopping up David “Awol” Miller’s guide book into bite size chunks.  That thing is a brick.  Speaking of Awol’s AT Guide, it’s excellent, but as many in the class of 13 noted, the trail profile is hard to decipher.  When you think it’s going to be hard, it isn’t and visa versa.   Fortunately I had topo maps which don’t lie and never run out of batteries. 

What’s going on with Awol’s guide may have more to do with the trail surface than anything else.  The rocks make a difference.  If the rocks are difficult, the trail is hard in spite of its ascending or descending grade. Stay tuned for my rock classification post.   If you’ve never heard of a Susquehanna snot slicker, you will.

This is a family blog, so scatological discussions are not normally part of the genre.  However I did have one eureka moment.  You’re gonna use a lot more TP than you think.  When I needed to resupply, the store was out.  Table napkins are a most excellent replacement.  Never goin’ back if you know what I mean.

The special orthotics my podiatrist made saved me from the pure brutality the rocks inflict on your feet.  Excellent investment they were.

Last note.  Bears Den is a jewel of a hostel.  Dana and her husband are warm and welcoming hosts.  I wasn’t the only one who could not eat the entire hiker special – pizza, pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a soft drink.  Also, the guide doesn’t mention that you get to cook your own free pancakes for breakfast.  My trail crew will be at Bears Den Nov. 2 to help with some projects.  Can’t wait.

As soon as I get new boots, get my orthotics adjusted, a sleeping bag liner and a couple of other things.  I’ll be on my way from Harpers Ferry to Duncannon, Pa.

Sisu – Making tracks.

 

 

Stolen Sign Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Don’t Ask for Whom the Trekking Pole Clicks

 

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The Appalachian Trail in the central region is a lot quieter now.  The northbound (NOBO) bubbles are long gone.  Students are returning to school.  And the southbounders (SOBO) are still many miles to the north.  The trekking poles are quiet.

I took a long walk along the AT Friday NOBO from the Compton Gap parking lot in Shenandoah National Park.  It was a chance to test some gear and carry a full winter weight pack as a prelude to the Hoodlum’s monthly trail maintenance Saturday.

Wouldn’t you know it.  I started breaking spider webs right from the get go.  There aren’t too many things in this world that I actually hate, but spider webs are on the list.

Walk through a spider web and it sticks to your hair, glasses, face or arms in the most inconvenient and annoying way possible.  You almost never see ‘em comin’ either.

Then I thought about it.  If the trail was heavily draped in spider webs, that meant nobody had passed by in quite awhile.  Me and the critters had the woods to ourselves.  That’s pure joy.

The day was especially perfect.  Just warm enough and sunny with low humidity.   Then bingo!

I hadn’t yet schlepped a mile when a bear cub trundled across the trail not more than 50 feet ahead of me.  I think it may have been the tail end Charlie because I never did see the momma or a sibling, but I sure was lookin’ for all the obvious reasons. 

Later I saw a huge doe that was big enough to remind me of an elk.  At first I thought she was a buck, but they’re sprouting horns now, so she was just big.

Within a short time I cruised by the Tom Floyd shelter to read the register and snack.  I was greeted by a friendly toad, and best of all, lucky enough to find amusing entries from thru hikers whose blogs I’ve been following.  Some of the handwriting didn’t seem to match their personalities.  That was enough to make the day by itself.

Near the end of the return trip, a couple of bard owls serenaded me with their hooting – the decibel level can drown out a heavy metal rock band. I camped at the Indian Run maintenance hut with a few of my Hoodlum crewmates.  The owls played their rowdy concert all night long.  We loved it.

One gear item I was testing was my new (and first ever) set of trekking poles. 

Poles first began to appear back in the days when getting home to hike in the Colorado Rockies was regular fare.  They were seen most often in the hands of clueless tenderfeet.  These dude ranch types always appeared to have been outfitted by Abercrombie and Fitch.  This was back in the days when the store equipped great white hunter wanna bees headed out on city park safaris.

We (then) studly types thought they were pretty dorky.  Not for us.  Moreover they were a European invention where the trails are very unlike most of ours here in the U S of A.  So, in spite of solid recommendations that I try them, I never seriously considered acquiring poles.

Jump ahead to now, and trekking poles have almost become prosthetic aids for hikers.  Everybody’s leanin’ on ‘em.

Honestly, I was surprised.  The test didn’t go well.  As a cross country skier, I expected far better results.

The good news is that poles do provide thrust and tend to slow me down.  I desperately need slowing down.  Their use may be worth that much alone.

The bad news is that on ugly rocks and rough terrain, I kept much better balance without them – a key point when remembering how damaging and frequent falls tend to be.

The AT is mostly down hill from Compton Gap to Virginia highway 522.  The opposite is true for the return trip.  Just after Tom Floyd, the trail gets steep and rocky for a good stretch. 

From my point of view, the poles were useless in either direction in rough terrain.   I actually tripped on one pole trying to negotiate some large rocks, but enjoyed a fortunate outcome.

I didn’t like the tick, click, tick noise they make either.  The racket makes sneaking up on wildlife especially challenging.

Not going to toss ‘em.  Not gonna do it – yet. 

On September 24th my first long shakedown hike will be the 160 miles from Waynesboro, VA to Harpers Ferry, WV.  The trail is well maintained over that course by my PATC compadres. 

If the sticks haven’t won me over by the time I reach the Appalachian Trail Conservancy GHQ, they get aced off the gear list.  If that’s the case, I’ll have to find a new handy spot to stash my bright yellow duct tape.  Damn!

The trekking poles may click the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, but probably not for me.  Like my mom used to say, “Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. “  Could be that I’m just incorrigible.  Time will tell.

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A Hoodlum trail crew on the march.