Trail Magic: Leapfrog Cafe

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Old Forge Picnic Area, Michaux State Forest, PA, May 2, 2018 — Trail magic in the hiking world is thought of as an unexpected act of kindness, generosity or discovery, or finding exactly what you need most when you least expect it.

Trail magic can make your day or your hike.  It can move you to tears, restore your faith in humanity, or stimulate extreme gratitude; sometimes all three.

As you can imagine, hikers love trail magic, but not all of it is welcome. Unattended trail magic can food condition animals and litter the forest with heaps of trash.

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This trail magic in Maine attempted to get it right but failed because it was unattended.  Animals could easily open these containers or a careless hiker could fail to close them.  Moreover, it’s personal property left on public lands and helps create expectations of free food for hikers.

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Those who bestow trail magic are known as trail angels.  Tim Davis is one. That’s about an eight-pound omelet he’s making for me in that frying pan.

Following a thru hike attempt where his ill-tempered knees failed to cooperate, the generous-hearted electrician wanted to stay involved and turned to cooking which is his second love after hiking.  Tim’s trail name is Fresh Ground for the beans he ground up and the fresh coffee he brewed with them each morning of his hike.

He invented the Leapfrog Cafe as the means to deliver his love to hikers. He sets up the Leapfrog Cafe for a few days, then moves up the trail to find new hikers.

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The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe was a welcome discovery in 2015 when, as a ridgerunner, I splashed out of an icy rain into Gooch Gap, GA.  The freshly grilled banana pancakes and steaming coffee were simply divine and exactly what I needed. If I was crying out of thanks, no one could tell if it was rain or tears running down my freezing red cheeks.

Later, I enticed several hikers, who had been dodging the rain for several days at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, to move on with the promise of fresh pancakes and hot coffee at the bottom of the soppy mountain.

Then, it was my duty to discuss Leave No Trace principles with Fresh Ground.  For one, he didn’t lock up his trash at night in bear country.  Since, he’s refined his methodology to be truly compliant.

This trip, since the Cafe was only slightly more than an hour away from home, I spent most of the day hanging out at the Cafe.  I brought cases of Coke, grape and root beer sodas plus a cash donation as a small payback for the priceless kindness I received not that long ago.

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Hand washing station for filthy-handed hikers.  The water has bleach in it.  He properly disposes of his gray water afterward.

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A clean towel covers the picnic table in the food prep area. Sanitation is paramount.

Hiker feeds like this are not allowed to charge money or accept donations.  Fresh Ground has a Facebook page and Go Fund Me page for that. Initially he saved and used his own money.  Now he does that, but accepts donations, 100 percent of which go towards feeding the hikers.

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Stopping at the Leapfrog Cafe can be like a fine dining experience with the owner doing double duty as the server.  Pancakes, omelets, hot dogs, taco bowls, fresh fruit, cookies and lemonade are on the menu.  He now packs up every night and operates out of picnic and off trail areas.

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Even the hikers need photographic souvenirs.

The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe, featuring live entertainment by “Strummy String.”  He says his instrument is a reformulated mountain dulcimer.

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Trail magic is criticized for causing hikers to congregate.  But, whenever hikers stop for a bit, there’s always an opportunity to talk and sometimes make a difference.

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While talking to “Research” who is a psych professor on sabbatical from a college in Macon, GA, I learned she had hiked within a shout of the half-way point and didn’t know how to hang her food bag. She thought she couldn’t throw the line high enough.  “Never fear!” I offered.  “There’s a way even you can throw like Tom Brady.”

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After loading a sock with a rock and knotting it to her bear line, Research learned to fling the sock over a tall branch by swinging it underhand.

The next step in the PCT hang is threading the rope through a carabiner, then hoisting the food bag up to the branch level.  Here she’s tying a clove hitch on a stick that will prevent the bag from sliding back into bear reach.  Reverse process to retrieve the food.

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Success!!!  I love it when someone is excited about learning something new.

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Fresh Ground planning his next move while Research destroys a taco bowl.

At dusk, the Leapfrog Cafe disappeared into the sunset headed for its next surprise location.  With luck, that will be near you.

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Short Part of a Long Journey

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Appalachian Trail, New York, April 2017 — Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days hiking with my delightful friend Robin.  She is on a month-long trek to both close an unfinished gap she has between Georgia and Maine; and to get into shape for ridgerunning.

She parked her truck and stashed her extra gear at our house and then together we drove to New York where climbed up to the ridge that hosts the AT at the NJ/NY border on a very warm spring day.

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I met Robin, aka Miss America, when I was ridgerunning in Georgia in 2015.  The daughter of National Park Service rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she’s a willy woodsman and a strong hiker.  She was a ridgerunner in Maryland last year and will serve in Northern Virginia this season.  All told, she’s a perfect hiking partner.

Speaking of what’s hot, I can’t remember the last time I hiked in temperatures under 80 degrees F.  Last September in Vermont, this March in Georgia and last week in New York it was hotter than Hades.  My socks have been so sweat-soaked that they make a squishy sound that squeaks like Crocks on a wet tile floor.  Talk about holding your feet to the fire.  Enough with the hot weather already!

Fortunately the water sources were plentiful and flowing.  In spite of that, I drank four liters of water and still didn’t urinate.  By the end of my journey, my clothes were so salt encrusted that they could stand by themselves unaided – you know, kind of crunchy like saltine crackers.

New York is the state where the AT angles a hard north eastern turn toward Maine.  The trail turns perpendicular to the north-south flowing ridge lines meaning it’s all day up and down for the hikers.  In other words, PUDS – pointless ups and downs.

Here rebar replaces an aluminum extension ladder that was too easy to steal.  Hey, it’s New York!

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The terrain is ugly for the most part.  This is hard work even when heat is turned down.

The gnats had recently hatched.  In NY they’re a feature, not a bug.

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Can you spell rugged?

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How ’bout them bears?  We properly hung our food every night.

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Casualty.

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We navigate using a guidebook that lists terrain features, elevation profile, campsites, springs and also has town maps and phone numbers.

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Miss America photo bomb!

We were out four days before it was my time to head home for chainsaw recertification, a trip to Annapolis Rocks to bring supplies up to Gene Anderson and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Flip Flop Festival this weekend where I’m a featured speaker.

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We tented rather than sleep in shelters.  This is at dawn, packing up before a big rain pending.  At first, Robin was worried about wearing a Red Sox cap in Yankee country, but people treated her as a novelty.  Not sure most of them had never seen a Sox fan before.

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Staying clean in the woods is critical to remaining healthy and avoid gastrointestinal ailments.  We were hiking along one afternoon when I got a message from the ATC asking me if I could take a photo of a hiker using soap and water to clean up in the field practicing leave No Trace principles.  We magically produced the goods.

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Hudson River Valley just south of West Point.

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Yes, the trail goes straight up that rock slab.

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Earning my trail legs.

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Sometimes you get surprised by trail magic.  This was just north of the aptly named “agony ridge.”  The sodas were cold too!  As a practice, leaving unattended food, trash and drink along the trail is not a good idea.  Too many opportunities to unintentionally feed animals and make a mess.  Some call this “trail tragic.”  We did appreciate it though.

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Old sign.  Can’t wait to rejoin Robin next week.  We’ll be hiking north until just before ridgerunner training starts in late May.  Then my spousal unit will come pick us up. There’s no doubt in my mind that Miss America will go far.

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Weedwhacking

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A ray of light perfectly aligned with my eyes under my hammock fly this morning at 6 a.m.

Shenandoah National Park, June 17-19, 2016 — It was North District Hoodlums trail crew work weekend.  I usually go to the park on Friday early to work on the section of the Appalachian Trail for which I am overseer and personally responsible.  Saturday we do crew work.  Sunday we clean up any odds and ends we didn’t get done on our AT sections.

It’s been raining like crazy on the east coast for the past month. In fact, it’s only recently warmed up.  Add water to vegetation and you get jungle!  Jungle is habitat for the ticks that are the vector for Lyme Disease.  What to do about that. The only logical thing is to chop back the jungle.

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Weed whacker Man – a superhero if there ever wasn’t one.

I spent two whole days week whacking.  First was my trail.  Second was a section that belonged to a dear fellow who left us for the charms of Milwaukee.  Did I mention that it was hot?  At least there were two of us the second day – we are a crew, right?

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The idea is to cut the salad back about double arms length from the center of the treadway.  The hikers should not touch vegetation as they walk.  No vegetation.  No ticks (well, almost).

I have an informal campsite on my section.  No fires allowed people.  They build them anyway and risk the fine.  I break up the fire rings by tossing the rocks a long way away.  This knucklehead obviously had an unsuccessful fire, not to mention ample signs of raging diarrhea.  Poetic justice.  Damn right.  I’m sparing you the shxtty pics, but I always document the scene of the crime.

The third week of June is prime thru hiker season.  Time for the annual Hoodlums hiker feed.  We cooked burgers and hot dawgs for about 30 thru hikers.  Turns out that they were all very nice folks.  That’s not always the case this late into the season.

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Sometimes we see dramatic views.  Worth a whack so to speak.

Love the evening ambiance.

Next up:  I’m about to hike 55 miles through northern Virginia with Denise, the friend with whom I hiked Georgia.  She’s here and off the trail on “vacation.”  After that, I’ll be out for 240 miles with this year’s group of excellent ridgerunners.  Can’t wait to get moving!

The Value of Zero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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