Eating the Elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food containers do not burn completely.

Food containers do not burn completely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some folks are old school.

Some folks are old school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award.

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

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

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

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Drying out at Hawk Mountain.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

Her dreams are one step away from becoming reality.

During my stay the seasons changed – at least twice.

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

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

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

Another day, another rock

Rutherford Shelter, N.J., AT NOBO mile 1329.7, Saturday May 10, 2014 — Today was all about nature, human and otherwise.

First, last night Swayed, Bus, Maglev (the nurse) and I were at a shelter with two young women from Rheinlander, Wisconsin. They were. It only a total delight, but a hoot as well. It’s been a long time since I’ve met anyone that genuine.

The girls are on a six week southbound section hike for all the right reasons. Adventure and discovery will punctuate their personal growth. May the wind be at your back ladies.

Today’s hike was rocky enough that we thought we’d taken a detour back into Pennsylvania. The rocks will thin out permanently within the next 100 miles or so. Not going to fret about them.

We discovered where a bear had been making its own blazes. I only wish humans could to that well. We spent two hours this morning chasing the trail due to some poor and unconventional marking techniques.

Later we encountered some tourists near a parking lot. “No, I didn’t see any bears today!” I need a sign to put around my neck to answer that ubiquitous interrogative.

A funny black snake which had a payday crossed the trail. He was pretty slow, being fat in the middle. Once his head was hidden, he stopped trying to get away thinking we could no longer see him.

Also watched some red tailed hawks trying to make their living.

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Beaver Dam Rules

Brink Road Shelter, N.J., AT NOBO mile 1,314.4 Friday May 9, 2014 — Once upon a time a hard working beaver built a dam and all was good.

It was a strong dam with a very large pond away from people. Each day the beaver greeted the other animals when they came to drink. They were happy that the beaver chose their neighborhood to make his living. Everyone was happy.

Then one day the beaver heard strange noises. Heavy construction equipment was making a lot of noise. He learned from a passing deer that men were building a power line on the next ridge over.

That same day people with picks, McClouds, Pulaskis and white paint began carving a hiking trail on the beaver’s dam and around the edge of the pond.

The Appalachian Trail was being rerouted around the power line construction. This was sad news for the beaver and the other animals in the forest. People, especially smelly hikers would be everywhere. The peace and quiet would be gone forever.

With winter coming on the beaver new he needed to raise his pond’s water level to make sure he would have room under the ice. So he set out to reinforce his dam and the water rose to the appropriate level.

Sadly, the trail crews didn’t like it when the water level rose and covered the trail they had worked so hard to build. The crews installed a drain to lower the water level. The beaver plugged it and the trail crews unplugged it, and so it went.

In time the beaver decided to draw the line. Be permanently plugged the drain, then he cut down the trees with white blazes, then be blocked the trail itself. That’ll show ’em, he thought … and it did. The trail crews moved the trail up slope and decided to leave the beaver alone.

When the hikers saw what the beaver had done, they cheered. They like it when nature wins.

We stopped short today so Bus could stay with us. Life is good and the beaver story is true.

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New Jersey tries harder

Mohican Outdoor Center, N.J., AT NOBO mile 1,300.4, Thursday May 8, 2014 — Early this morning I passed a sign that said Sunfish Pond was one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey. I know Cape May could be another of them, but for the life of me I can’t think of any candidates for the other five.

Actually, it’s New Jersey’s unnatural wonders I worry more about – the Meadowlands superfund sites, the urban blight of Elizabeth and Newark, organized crime and state politics as if you could tell the difference. Then there’s Snookie…

New Jersey has more bears per square mile than anywhere else on the trail. We saw three huge piles of bear scat today, but no other indications. We even saw a sizable stash of uneaten acorns. Bet we’ll see a bear before we’re ought of here.

To be fair, most of the day was rainy and foggy. Very little of Sunfish Pond was visible, so maybe I’m missing something. If not, old New Jersey is trying awfully hard to make something out of not much. That was confirmed when we tripped upon the state’s cache of spare hiking rocks. Nice try NJ, but you’re no Pennsylvania.

We’re at the Mohican Center, a former Scout camp operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC is derisively know in some circles as the “Appalachian Money Club” for charging excessive fees for the use of its facilities, especially the huts in the New Hampshire mountains.

Tomorrow’s hike is 21 flat, and (we hope), moderately rocky miles to the next shelter. Here tonight is Swayed, Bus, and a male nurse section hiker from North Carolina. He makes the eighth male nurse I’ve met on the trail.

This is probably the last night we’ll see Bus. He’s much slower and can’t consistently do the mileage Swayed and I routinely turn in. He’s a great guy who will be missed.

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Trail Toast

501 Shelter, Penn., AT NOBO mile 1186.6, Sunday April 27, 2014 — This morning we were looking at an impressive pile of abandoned equipment we found at the shelter when we arrived last night.

None of it was hiker grade, but all the essentials were there in terms of clothing, wicked knife, now saw, bear line, pots, pans and even tooth paste.

“Wonder why this guy abandoned his stuff,” I mused.

“He was trail toast ” shot back one of the lady section hikers from Illinois.

If that’s so, there’s a lot of crumbs out here on the trail.

This is not the first abandoned equipment I’ve seen.

At various places I’ve found almost every kind of equipment imaginable from cast iron skillets to tents and backpacks. There’s been enough clothing to stock a huge consignment store.

Why is all this detritus scattered willy nilly?

How many stars are there in the sky? It’s complicated.

A funny place to start is Bill Bryson’s book, “A Walk in the Woods.”

Katz, Bryson’s foil, fool and neophyte acts out every stereotypical AT scenario from overpacking to throwing away his gear when he realizes that heavy equals hard. That’s a good part of the answer.

“A Walk in the Woods” is a movie currently in production starring Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as Katz. Don’t miss it.

There are mentally ill folks out here too. They talk to themselves, claim to hear voices and all the rest. Then there are the druggies…

Mind you, these are distinct minorities, but they are here and have been known to abandon clothing and equipment helter skelter.

Hunters occasionally use shelters as places to store cooking gear so heavy that they know hikers won’t trundle off with it, so we’re dealing with all kinds.

When you meet someone on the trail, it’s fairly easy to size them up. If their story, gear, body weight and general appearance don’t add up, then it’s time to move on. That’s where the absence of a beard discounted my credibility a bit.

Today’s shelter is a huge room with bunks and chairs around the perimeter. It features a door and giant hexagonal skylight. You can order pizza. Is there more to life? Not out here!

The walking today was very pleasant. Southern PA truly is a hikers joy. However the rock puddles are becoming larger and more frequent.

Within a couple of days I’ll be hiking hell on earth, I am told by nearly everyone I meet.

Some of the trail photos illustrate a few of today’s selected delights.

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Chasing Winter’s Tail

Rausch Gap Shelter, Penn., AT NOBO mile 1172.1, Saturday April 26, 2014 — The theme for next week is precipitation beginning Tuesday. There is a small probability of a sleet or snow mix. Will this winter ever give up?

Today I walked through a small cluster of Rhododendrons that I thought didn’t grow this far north. The buds have yet to form. When I last saw them in Virginia, the buds were more than an inch long. Spring has a lot of work to do.

I’ll be okay if it snows, but I’m no longer carrying serious winter gear – no base layer, fleece or mittens. I still have a light down jacket and a sleeping bag. I was considering switching in about 10 days from a sleeping bag to a quilt and ridding myself of the jacket, gloves, hat, etc. I’ll continue to reevaluate that thought.

Tomorrow is another deli day as we pass through Lickdale,PA, a truck stop haven. Tomorrow’s destination is the 501 Shelter, one of those tricked out shelters with ambiance to spare. I’ll take some pics.

Walked over some excellent stone work throughout the day built by the Susquehanna Trail Club. This stuff was built over years and years – it’s hard labor. Today’s photo is of a raised trail bed with parallel drains. It’s in an area where the water springs from the ground everywhere.

The Rausch Shelter is the most uniquely designed one yet. Someone was very creative. Best of all, the water is 10 feet away! I’m with three section hikers, two ladies from norther Illinois and one from upstate New York who was also at last night’s shelter.

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The Doyle’s Brand Promise

Duncannon, Penn., Doyle Hotel, AT NOBO mile 1143.1, Thursday April 24, 2014 — The Doyle has been one of the iconic AT destinations for a very long time.

Priced for a hiker’s budget, this vintage 1905 hotel welcomes hikers with a smile and open arms. The owners, Vickey and Pat Kelly, led the initiative to make Duncannon an official AT “Trail Town.” They truly are hiker-friendly folks.

The Doyle features everything a discriminating guest could expect from an unrenovated and threadbare late Victorian era working class hotel building.

One Doyle fitness exclusive is the absence of elevators which helps maintain hikers’ leg strength, a critical characteristic that often diminishes while they languish in hamburger-stuffed towns.

Ambiance exudes throughout the hotel. Reminiscent of nature, critters found along the trail are conveniently located in guest rooms and throughout the building. The antiquarian shared baths and room appointments would be impressive to the 18th century experts on “Antiques roadshow.”

The bar and kitchen are to be commended for their hiker fare. Army surveys for years have shown that soldiers value temperature and volume above all else. The Doyle’s menu scores a hundred percent on both. It’s selection of craft brews is excellent.

Karma rated the Doyle cheeseburger “best on the trail.” She makes a valid point. By the time she reached the Doyle, she knew her cheeseburgers.

The Doyle may not have earned any Michelin stars, and there is no expectation that it ever will. But, I’ll have to award it at least one asterisk for brand consistency. It promises nothing but delivers so much more in its unique way. It is a hiker-friendly place indeed, and best of all, a friendly home away from home.

Today’s trek chugged through the farmlands of Pennsylvania’s fertile Cumberland Valley complete with curious cows. The view of Duncannon along the Susquehanna River was magnificent.

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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.”

Underground Railroad

Aside from getting my glasses repaired, one of yesterday’s highlights was staying at the Pine Grove Furnace Iron Master’s Hostel. The mostly restored 1820’s house is huge even by today’s standards. The Iron Master was one of the original one percent.

Whatever else be was or did, his house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The basement actually has three chambers. The normal one is walled off in such a way that you wouldn’t suspect there was more to it.

The entrance to the secret chambers is through a closet floor. The low ceiling suggests a WWII Stalag 17 escape tunnel. The second chamber is entered through a small square opening I tried to capture with my iPhone camera.

One can only imagine the hope, fear, and resolve that passed through those rooms.

What ever else be was, the Iron Master did the right thing.

The iron works lasted until 1894 when it Bessemer process rendered it uneconomical to operate.

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It’s all down hill from here.

Toms Run Shelter, Penn. AT NOBO mile 1094.6, Monday April 20, 2014 — It may not really be down hill exactly, but I passed the official halfway point this afternoon.

Now to repeat the process. Judging from the first half, is a long slog indeed. Note: The official halfway point changes each year due to repairs, rerouting, etc. this year’s official mileage is 2,185.3 miles.

Easter’s sunrise poked me square in the eye this morning and we were up and on our way bright and early. Hiked off and on through the day with the Penn group from last night. They’re good hikers.

We’re entering a stretch where some of the shelters have wonderful caretakers who’ve put a lot of heart into their work. Will write more on this topic later.

Haven’t seen anyone since 3 this afternoon. Alone again, naturally and lovin’ it.

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