Busy Week

ameShenandoah National Park and Antietam National Battlefield, first week of April, 2016 — It’s about time I complained about the weather.  It’s been totally schizoid for the past several days – hot then cold with a dash of sun, rain and wind, frosted on occasion with powdered snow.   There’s snow dusting in this weekend’s forecast.

Why weather?  Last Saturday Shenandoah was ripped by strong winds.  A sleeping hiker was pinned under a tree that blew over about two days hike south of the park at a place called Spy Rock.  Trees and branches were down everywhere in our region.

I was supposed to spend Sat. night at Indian Run with a friend I was going to help Sunday clear blown down trees on one of Shenandoah’s 400 miles of side trail called Jeremy’s Run.

After spending a cold night at Annapolis Rock, I chickened out.  The wind and cold were distinctly unwelcoming.  Instead I showed up bright and early Sunday morning to a greeting by an icy windchill with teeth and a dusting of snow still on the ground.

Jeremy’s Run is located in a designated wilderness area.  That means all work must be done with hand tools.  No motors allowed.

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So off we marched with a junior sized version of the famous crosscut saw you see in antique logging photos.  It sports a traditional carpenter saw handle on one end and a moveable vertical handle on the other.  If the vertical handle is on the far end, it’s a two person saw.  If it’s just forward of the fixed handle, it’s a one person saw.  Very versatile.

Blowdowns are a pain in the butt for hikers.  Step-overs like this one are not so bad.

It’s the chest high or ones with a ton of protruding branches that are a real pain.  You can’t go up or down.

We whacked six and 1/4 blowdowns.  One quarter?

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This big fella came at the end of the day.  It requires two cuts to get it on the ground and two more to cut out the section obstructing the trail.  Its height and the adjacent slope make cutting out the center section too difficult and dangerous.  Better to lay it down.

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Lots of work here, especially coming as it did at the end of the day.  At least we were out of the wind.   The wedges keep the cut open as the tree’s weight and gravity wants to close the top of the cut and bind the saw.

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This guy was too large for our little saw to be fully efficient. It took 45 minutes for two tired sawyers to make this slice.  Hence one quarter. A crew with a longer crosscut will finish the job next weekend during the Hoodlums regularly scheduled monthly work trip.  At least hikers have a relatively passable step over until then.

Wednesday I joined a group of nine PATC members at the Antietam National Battlefield to disassemble a section of worm row fencing. We got ‘er done in three hours!  In the process we dubbed ourselves the Hole-in-the-Ground crew because of the dozens of ground hog dens we occasionally stepped in.

We celebrated a local ice cream parlor in Sharpsburg – no work without play is our motto.

The National Park Service is working on a multi-year project to restore civil war battlefields to the sight lines and condition they were in when the battles actually happened.  This fence was not present on Sept. 17, 1862 when 23,000 soldiers became casualties on this ground.  It was and remains the bloodiest day in U.S. military history.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antietam_National_Battlefield

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The week ended with a short trip to Shenandoah so our ridgerunners could meet with the back country office before Lauralee’s first patrol starting today.  Both Lauralee and Hal are returning from last year and need no introduction.  Chris Zigler is the new back country manager and we wanted to make sure we were all on the same page.

Of note, the park’s trail crews will be beefed up.  Better yet, up to six back country rangers will be on the trail and at the huts this year – helping people do the right thing and coaching Leave No Trace outdoor ethics.

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On the way home this little guy on my AT section got chopped up with a pruning saw. Did I ever mention that I love retirement.  The work is not work.  It’s fun!

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.

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.”

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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The good, the bad and the ugly days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Tarzan

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As one hikes on – hour after hour; day after day, sometimes whimsical ideas emerge from somewhere deep inside your brain stem. Maybe the cause is hallucination. Nevertheless, here’s one that short-circuited my gray matter off and on for awhile.

If Tarzan is lookin’ he might find an opportunity or two along the AT route.

Here’s the deal. The woods are totally hung with vines – the thick strong kind that could support the Golden Gate Bridge if an organic, free range engineering solution was required. I pondered the purpose of so much excess hanging vegetation. I remembered one from the distant past.

When I was a very adolescent boy some farm kids showed me once, when we were collecting sassafras roots for tea, that you can smoke the thinest vines. I remember almost choking to death. The vines were a gateway to rabbit tobacco, which for me is, where it all thankfully ended. I think I was ten. But, I digress.

Along the trail, vines are everywhere and a most of them are going to waste. They’re unused for anything unless the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk hangs his enormous shoelaces out to dry.

So, here’s a thought. What about a string of Tarzan swings and/or vine-ripe zip lines stretching from Georgia to Maine? This is where Tarzan enters the picture – as the project engineer, of course.

Tarzan would know how to git ‘er done, as they say in the south. Hikers would love swinging hand over hand, soaring over the snow, rocks and mud at a pace faster than a good day at Six Flags. You could say goodbye to the dreaded Tyrannosaurus Rex atrophied arms that hikers develop too!

You might have to build some treehouse shelters and hostels. How cool is that? I’d love it.

If anyone knows how to get in touch with Tarzan, please let me know.

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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 …

Today brought to you by the color green

Maupin Field Shelter, Va., AT NOBO mile 837.0, Tuesday April 1, 2014 — Got myself vertical at the crack of dawn knowing I had a big day in store.

I wanted to hike 20 miles today to reduce tomorrow’s haul from 22 to 18. That sets up an easy jaunt into Rockfish Gap/Waynesboro where this adventure kicked off last September 24.

Today was the last of the trail candy – a dandy mountain called The Priest. I understand there are others nearby in the genre named the Bishop and Rabbi.

An unusual rock formation atop The Priest may account for its name. The adjacent shelter is known as a place where hikers confess their sins in the shelter log. Unfortunately it was both fairly new and soggy. Nothing salacious and I couldn’t write in it. Another “Oh fer.”

Unlike the weather forecast, the morning started cold and cloudy, but around eleven everything changed. Today’s temp on the trail eventually reached a whopping 75 big ones!

Concurrently the wow factor kicked in. At an overlook I noticed for the first time that GREEN was visible in the fields. Old Man Winter you can vote against green all you want, but your gloomy brown and white can’t hang on much longer. You’re outa here dude. Wow.

Shortly thereafter I stumbled on a familiar face in the form of two hikers, Tracy McG, who thru hiked last year, and her sister are hiking all the way in the form of a double “flip flop.” They started at Harpers Ferry headed to Georgia. When they reach Springer Mountain, the southern terminus, they’ll flip to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, the northern terminus, and head south to Harpers Ferry for their finish.

All in all, it was a fine day.

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