Saturday, December 7, 2013

Unsolicited Advice to Aspiring Thru-hikers

The more I hike, the more I realize I’m not an expert. I’m much more aware than I was 2000 miles ago just how much I have to learn. That said, time to give some unsolicited advice to aspiring thru-hikers. It's worth what you pay for it, I suppose, and above all, the HYOH principle applies - Hike your own hike! 

1)      Embrace reality. It sounds really awesome to be standing on top of Katahdin, a bottle of champagne in hand, celebrating the fact that you’ve walked there from Georgia. It’s significantly harder to actually walk there from Georgia. You will have mountaintop experiences. But the experience of the trail, like the trail itself, is basically a collection of PUDs. The trail is totally worth it. But it’s demanding. It’s never easy, despite the rumors you’ll hear about the mid-Atlantic. It’s awful at times. Do you really want to get out of your sleeping bag and walk through shin-high mud all day – for the fourth day in a row? Perhaps a better question is – are you prepared to do it if that’s what it takes to make it to Katahdin?

2)      Avoid “I will” statements. I hate pre-trail posts. They always strike me as highly presumptuous. For example “On March second, I will start my AT Thru-hike. Over the course of four months, I will walk over 2000 miles through 14 states. I will blog every Tuesday evening. I will be receiving food drops in Hiawassee, the NOC, Hot Springs, Erwin, Hampton, [insert a whole bunch of monotonous towns in VA, at which point the audience starts tuning out]… and Monson. I will spend two weeks fighting the heinous rocks in PA, cruise through the Mid-atlantic, and end on Katadhin, in less than 5 months.” Listen, you can prepare all you want, but nothing prepares you for the trail like the trail does. These ambitious, presumptuous people? They probably quit around Franklin NC, when they discover that the best laid plans get derailed by an all day, cold rain. They also don’t know that they’ll hate the PA rocks. Some people don’t mind them at all. Let the trail be the trail.

3)      Lighten your load. I don’t say this to be an ultralight gear weenie (I happen to find those people insufferable), but to keep yourself from injury. Hauling 40 pounds up a mountain is the quickest way to get blisters, joint problems, or back problems. Plus, you’re more likely to fall and break something. Not everybody should be carrying a 10-pound pack, but get rid of that stupid solar charger for your phone. Some people lighten up on the trail, but it’s really hard to switch out one of the “big heavies” (pack, bag, sleeping pad, shelter), since you get so dang attached to the thing after just a few weeks. Make smart choices before you hit the trail.

4)      Pick your moments. The trail is too vast to do and see everything. You could spend 7 months on the trail and still not take all the blue-blazes or stay at all the “must-stay” hostels. Many hikers, however, have the opposite problem. They’re so focused on hiking and making miles that they walk past incredible things and experiences without so much as a second glance. To find a happy medium, it’s important to know what’s important to you. Don’t skip the Kincora hostel (yes, the other one is nicer, but it doesn’t have Bob Peoples), but you can probably skip that quarter-mile blue blaze to the top of Brushy Sassafras Low Gap Mountain. Like peeing off of fire towers? Then skip High Point State Park (you can’t climb the monument anyway), but don’t skip the Shuckstack. Don’t skip the things that sound cool, and don’t feel obligated to do everything. It’s your hike, after all.

5)      Don’t live at home. I met entirely too many people on the trail who were more interested in blogging about their adventure than actually having their adventure. Similarly, there are some people who checked their phones daily (or more!) to make sure they weren’t missing any important text messages, emails, etc. Their bodies were hiking the trail, but they were allowing themselves to be consumed by their home lives. Keep in contact with the people who matter most to you. But at the same time, allow yourself to have a backwoods experience – and allow others the same.
6)      Don’t feel entitled. I fell prey to this one all too often. Listen, we get it. You’re a thru-hiker, which means you intend to hike the whole trail. And after being told “you’re so amazing; I could never do that!” about a thousand times by non-hikers, you start to think that you are amazing. This kind of entitlement leads to hikers skipping out of hostels (both fee and donation-driven) without paying, or getting angry when a restaurant declines to allow dirty, smelly hikers into its dining area for fear of grossing out their regular customers. Just bathe in a stream first… or put on sunscreen! The overwhelming of services that hikers need are very hiker-friendly. Count your blessings and remember that many of the hiker services we depend on are a result of wonderful people’s generosity.

7)      Know thyself. There are a lot of people who hike in groups, or hike with iPods, simply to keep their brains occupied. It’s almost like they’re afraid of being alone with themselves. How are we distracted or bored when enjoying a 2000-mile walk through God’s creation? Admittedly, there are certainly boring parts (although often in these circumstances, the beauty is just more subtle), But those boring parts gives us time to reflect. We reflect on what this hike means, how it’s changing us, who we really are, our dreams and goals, and God’s graciousness to us in all of this. Try doing that with an iPod, or while debating gear minutiae with Gandalf and Nomad.
8)      Expect to open up. Share a shelter with some other dirty, smelly, bearded freak for a couple nights. Spend an hour rigging up a tarp to keep snow from blowing in the shelter, and sit in your sleeping bags eating Snickers and GORP. You get to talking, and an hour later you’re sharing how after raising three kids, you still had really never done anything for yourself, and hiking the AT was something that you want to do for your own personal development. Or how you fear that even though you’re headed to grad school after the trail, you really aren’t sure whether that’s the path you want to take. And on the flip side, the trail will teach you to listen, to genuinely try to understand the path that the other person is walking. You may disagree, but the first instinct is to understand before you criticize. Expect it. Embrace it.  

9)      Keep a journal. I didn’t keep one until Hot Springs (mile 273), and I wish I had started at the get-go. My journal discusses what I hiked that day, my thoughts/feelings, anything notable that happened, and people I met along the way. In theory, at least. One day’s entry, in its entirety, was “I HATE WINTER”. On a related note, don’t take so many mountaintop view pictures; Standing Indian Mountain looks exactly like Tray Mountain, which looks pretty similar to The Priest, foliage conditions notwithstanding. Instead, take pictures of those funny orange salamanders, those funny orange-clad hikers, and trail angels handing out oranges. You love looking back on those. And, unlike me, keep taking pictures after the first month.

10)  Develop traditions. Traditions give us something to look forward to and ground us in our days. Every evening, upon settling into the shelter, I would announce that this was the best time of the day – dry sock time! I won’t tell you what I did at fire towers, just in case my mom reads this, but suffice it to say I was careful never to drop my pack downwind of the tower before I climbed it. 

Unfinished Business

“How was it?”

I get asked that by pretty much every single person I know these days. I’m not sure what they’re expecting to hear. Some of them, of course, are just being polite, in the same way that we say “how are you?” without really expecting a substantive answer. But for the rest of them, the people who really do want to know, what am I supposed to say? “Oh, it was great!” I suppose that’s true, but it’s so vague as to be meaningless.

How am I supposed to sum up four and a half months of my life in some sort of trite answer? The only thing I can say is this: It was wonderful, terrible, scorching hot, freezing cold, rainy, muddy, beautiful, frustrating, magical, perfect, lonely, socially stimulating, humbling, confidence-infusing, exhausting, refreshing… And I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

The trail was the best four and a half months of my life. It was FUN. But it wasn’t fun in the same way that, say, spending a day at an amusement park is. Think of the closest relationship in your life: it’s not always fun, but it’s always worth it, and on the whole, it’s your highest enjoyment. It’s not shallow fun, it’s a joy.

But let me back up. I last updated in Hanover, NH. Hanover is the gateway to the White Mountains, the most rugged section of the entire trail. I was pumped. And I was totally justified in doing so. The Whites were AWESOME. I stopped in Glencliff, NH at the Hikers Welcome Hostel (yes, it was just as inviting as it sounds) and refueled, got some good advice on stealth camping in the Whites. Then it was off to climb Moosilauke, the first real peak in the White Mountains. At over 4800 feet, it was almost 1000 feet taller than anything since southern Virginia. It was also the first mountain on the trail that was above treeline. It reminded me of being out west. You know, actual mountains. We (Bright Side, Passover, Witchdoctor, and I) had an absolutely perfect day to summit: sunny, clear, and warm. The wind was only about 40mph, which is about as good as you can ask for in the Whites. Each afternoon, it started thunderstorming, which is rather concerning if you’re holding two metal poles in your hands above treeline, but with a little planning, I managed to play the weather pretty well.

Well, almost. On the day I summited Mt. Washington (the second highest peak on the trail, at 6200 feet), Bright Side and I got up really early and hustled to try and get to the Madison Spring Hut before 3pm, after which there was a likelihood of severe storms. As a side note, there are very few places in the Whites where you can legally camp. There’s a 20-mile stretch, in fact, totally above treeline, and the only places to stay are at the Appalachian Money Mountain Club’s “huts”, which are basically small hotels on top of mountains. They go for $130 per night. There are “work-for-stays” available for two thru-hikers each night. This means that you wash dishes, sweep up, etc, in exchange for feeding on the leftovers from supper, as well as being able to throw your sleeping pad on the dining room floor after all the guests go to bed. You get treated like a third-class citizen (by the guests; the hut crews in general love thru-hikers), but you get ALL THE FRESH-COOKED FOOD YOU CAN STOMACH!

Anyways, the entire stretch from the Mizpah Hut to the Madison Hut (15 miles) is above treeline, with no place to camp. I arrived at the Madison Hut just in time; it hailed on me on the way, but I was safely inside the hut by time the lightning started striking where I had been about 20 minutes prior. Then came the twist. The Madison Hut crew is evil. Since we got there “too early” (you’re not supposed to get there much before 4pm), the crew sent us out… in a lightning storm, over the top of 5700-foot Mt. Madison. Sprinting across boulders above treeline isn’t fun in the slightest. Of course, we weren’t the only people that the sadistic Madison crew screwed over: they made one guy hike over Mt. Washington, in a thunderstorm, with a leg bleeding so bad he had to get stitches. Why? Because he too made the egregious error of arriving 30 minutes too soon. There’s following the rules, and then there’s being morally irresponsible.

Really, though, aside from the miserable experience at Madison, I had wonderful hut stays in the Whites. The hut crews fed me well, treated me well, and (if such a thing appeals to you) liked to share their booze. Yeah, they’re college students, in case you haven’t gathered.

The Whites were hard. But they were worth it. I had a great day on Moosilauke, an epic windy and foggy day on Washington, great views along the entire Presidential Range, and reconnected with some trail friends. The Whites were hard, absolutely. But they’re my favorite part of the trail thus far.

Southern Maine doesn’t get the press that the Whites do, but it’s almost as tough. Doing a 15 mile day is still a huge accomplishment over that kind of terrain. One of the highlights of my hike was the so-called “hardest mile on the AT”, Mahoosuc Notch. Imagine a canyon with sheer vertical walls, and in the bottom, a “jumbled pit of boulders” the size of houses. You have to climb over, around, and even under these rocks. It takes some people up to 3 hours to traverse the mile. I think that there were much, much harder miles on the AT, but this one was certainly the most fun. I thought it was just a big rock jungle gym. The Notch was the last major psychological barrier to break on the AT. For a few months, I had wanted to at least make it that far, to prove that I could take the absolute toughest that the AT could throw at me. And I passed with flying colors.

After the Notch, it was time to get off. Those last few days were some of the most difficult trail days for me. I couldn’t think about anything else other than that emptiness that getting off the trail prematurely would certainly bring. It’s not the fact that I’m not a “thru-hiker” that bothers me; I just want to know what’s around the bend. I want to climb to the top of Avery Peak, Saddleback, Bigelow, and most importantly, Katahdin. But more than all of that, I want the hiking life. I love the freedom, the independence, the simplicity, the importance, of life on the trail. Some people were counting down the miles until their hikes ended. Not me.

I’ve thought a lot about what it feels like to be off the trail. When I look at everyone’s Katahdin pictures, something seizes me, and it’s tough to say what it is. I guess the best way to describe it is “unfinished business”. That trail is mine, and I’m going to finish what I started. Period.

I was going to end the blog on that  note, but that doesn’t seem quite fair. Because I’ve gotta roll the credits. Thanks go to:
·         Mark and Wendy, trail angels in the Smokies, for picking me up after a really frustrating, icy day
·         Miss Janet, for bailing an entire tribe of us off the mountain in the worst snowstorm in years
·         Bob Peoples, for being the Most Interesting Man in the World
·         The Bastian United Methodist Church, for the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten, anywhere
·         Nomad. Not just for the good work that you do, but for the spirit of service to God. Straight out of Matthew 25
·         The fine folks at the Bears Den Hostel
·         Blue Moon, for being a wonderful friend, baseball connoisseur, and considerate person. I never had a true “hiking partner” on the trail, but I’ll admit it was tough to say goodbye back in PA.
·         Bright Side, for sticking together to make it through the rain in New England.
·         Passover and Witchdoctor, for bringing so much joy wherever you went. Also for motivating me to push through the pain
·         Mary Jo and Jerry! Thanks for taking dirty, smelly hiker trash into your home for a couple days. Had an absolute blast with some dear friends
·         The Glencliff hostel, for great service, stealth camping info, inspiring dreams of the PCT, and preparing me mentally for the Whites
·         Coups, Dirty Mike, Chino, and Ayce, for not running me over as you flew past me on the trail.

And a special mention goes to my family, for being there for me. They were a listening ear when I complained about endless snow and cold. They sent me stuff as needed. They prayed their hearts out for me. And they actually read every word of these silly blog posts:

·         Dad, for being unfailingly encouraging
·         Mom, for being willing to do anything and everything to help
·         Grandpa and Grandma Start, for praying, following my blog, and getting almost as excited about my adventure as I was.
·         Josh, Jennifer, and Nichole, who made my entire week better when I had chances to call them.

I am blessed.

Friday, June 21, 2013

There is a God in Israel

It's been a long time since my last blog post. Sorry. No pictures this time, as my phone got wet. Not sure if those pics will be recoverable or not.

Anyway, Topics!

  • The rain. May was rainy, June's been worse. We've had more than 9 inches in the month of June, which turned the clay soil of Vermont into an absolute mess. For those of you who go/went to Calvin, think walking through the Mud Bowl, for 150 miles. Yesterday was the first time in a week and a half that my feet stayed dry. Protip: if you saturate your socks in mud for 4 days, they will literally fall apart when you throw them in the wash. 
  • Actual mountains. It's all about readjusting your expectations. The mid-Atlantic was pretty flat (with the exception of half of New York, which contained a bunch of absurdly steep, rocky, and generally horrible pointless ups and downs. NY earns very low marks. Plus, I did it in the one week of heat that we've had so far (heat index 100+). But once I hit Vermont, the Greens were a nice change. Killington was over 4000 feet; Stratton was nearly that. If the terrain is going to be steep and/or rocky, I much prefer going over big mountains as opposed to this pointless up-and-down stuff. 
  • The blues. I managed to avoid them in VA and through most of the rocky, flat horribleness that is PA. From NY through about mid-Vermont, I was in a twilight zone where there were zero thru-hikers around me. The monsoon, heat, and pointless nature of the miles was really getting me down. I suppose every hiker gets it at some point. One particularly rough day in CT, I realized that "THIS is where I earn Katahdin". It's no accomplishment to hike when you want to hike. You earn your stripes when you soldier through the drudgery, knowing that it's worth it in the end
  • Those moments. Sometimes the AT wears on you, but there are also those moments of pure, undiluted awesome. I had one of those days in northern Vermont. It was the first beautiful day in about three weeks. I was hiking through a state park and got stopped by this lady's puppy, who was doing the typical puppy thing and jumping up on me. We got to talking, and soon enough I was sitting at their (Kim and Patrick) trailer drinking coffee and eating fresh fruit. An hour later, I had to leave and hit town on my way. But as soon as I got to the main road running through the campground, I saw Passover and Witchdoctor for the first time in more than a week. And of course we all three made a happy ruckus, and Kim walked out and invited them for coffee as well. So all three of us headed back to their trailer, and feasted on cinnamon rolls and more fruit. And didn't leave until three hours later. A complete waste of a morning, hiking-wise, but I can't think of a better waste. And that was just the second best part of the day. There's a cabin and lookout tower just a tenth of a mile off-trail on top of a mountain. It's on private land, but the owners allow hikers to crash there for the night. After spending all morning not hiking, I realized that I could still make it to the cabin, if I hustled. So I got on my horse and made it there around sunset. I climbed the lookout tower to check out the view. I'm not normally a sunset person, but on this occasion it was simply overwhelming. I unfortunately had no way to take a picture, not that a photo would have done it justice anyway. There were several layers of mountains in view, the first green, almost black. The subsequent ridges were progressively bluer, then grayer, and finally, in the distance, a purple ridge. The jagged peaks were a sharp contrast to the smooth contours of the thin layers of clouds, fading from dark gray into yellow, to bright orange. Right in front of the setting sun were three puffy cumulus clouds, "the size of a man's hand", I joked to myself. In the Bible story in question, Elijah prays that God sends fire on his sacrifice in order that the people may know that "there is a God in Israel". And that's exactly what I experienced. If nature is a "theater" of God's glory, as John Calvin put it, then I was certainly on Broadway.
  • The Whites! I've been looking forward to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for a long time now. They're apparently brutally hard (think 1500 feet of elevation gain in a mile), but beautiful. Most thru-hikers say that New Hampshire or Maine were their favorite parts of the trail, even though they're undoubtedly the hardest. Makes me think that the difficulty has got to be worth it!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mini-picture Post, Take Two

Got a snazzy update for the blogger app on my phone, so I figured I might as well put it to good use. A photo essay, of sorts. Disclaimer: I totally cribbed all of the content of this post from Blue Moon, whose site you should definitely check out.

Me and Blue Moon decided to hit up a sunday buffet. Watch the video before scrolling down.

The verdict?

Food and drink for all :(

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Goal-setting is a funny business. You set a big goal, and begin to work toward it. Each individual step is small, almost inconsequential. What's the significance of hiking 20 miles when it's just 20 out of 2,184? But after time, these insignificant achievements add up to something significant. As I type this, I'm at mile 998.6. Tomorrow morning, I will hit 1,000 miles, followed later in the day by reaching the "psychological halfway point" of the AT, Harpers Ferry, WV. How in the world did I get here, when each day means almost nothing in the grand scheme of things?

As far as I see it, the big achievement is almost less significant than the multitude of little achievements, because the big achievements are merely derivative of the little ones. The real victory of the AT comes not in hitting these milestones, but in daily choices. An example: I bought new shoes in Waynesboro, VA. After breaking them in, I discovered a manufacturing defect in the left shoe that has given me a nasty and excruciating blister-bruise combo on my left heel. And about 10 miles into each day, the temptation to quit early for the day sounds absolutely delightful. But if I make a pattern of getting off my feet until they're comfortable, I'll never get anywhere. The AT is a lot about pain tolerance, and knowing when to listen to your body, and when to grit your teeth and suck it up. These choices are what make 1,000 miles possible.

People often talk about the "Virginia blues". Virginia is a really, really long state. It contains about 550 miles of trail (about a quarter of the entire AT), and I, like most hikers, spent a bit more than a month in the state. After a while, the monotony of travelling in the same state can become oppressive, especially since a good chunk of it is spent walking nondescript ridges. I never got the Virginia blues, however. I found Virginia to be punctuated by a few really delightful sections. One of them was the Dragons Tooth. It's a gigantic rock outcropping atop a mountain that sticks more or less straight up into the air. It's a really fun climb, and blurs the line between a rock scramble and straight-up bouldering (yes, the little nondescript figure at the top is me). You don't get very many of those adrenaline-rushing "oh crap, I'm gonna die! This is awesome!" experiences on the southern half of the AT, but this was definitely one of them.

Virginia was also the place where I finally got my trail legs. It had been a source of some annoyance to me that, although I was feeling stronger, I was still plodding along through the southern part of the state. However, around mile 750, I finally started to hum along at a good pace. First I started doing a couple of 20 mile days per week. Then I did a pair of 20s back-to-back. And finally I could do 20s on a daily basis. I went from doing about 100-mile weeks to 115 mile weeks. And when the terrain became easier in Shenandoah National Park, I could do a 130 mile week. The goal isn't to do big miles, of course. I know a lot of people (especially young people) who ramp up the pace to keep up with their friend-groups, and end up with shin splints, tendonitis, or stress fractures. But after a while, an 18 becomes a short day, and you're able to do 20 and still take the time to sit on a rock and admire a view, or to play a 15 minute game of peek-a-boo with a pair of deer.

Anyway, tons of things have happened since I updated last, but I don't possibly have room to describe them all. Also, I'm lazy, and am running out of themes for my ever-expansive blog posts. So I have an assignment for you: if you wouldn't mind, PLEASE leave a comment on the bottom of this post (or shoot me an email/facebook message/text) to let me know what YOU want to know about this here hike. I'd like to make it interesting and relevant to the readers, and to avoid having to come with with good post ideas. I will answer pretty much any question except the following:
  • "Do you bring a gun?" If you think I'm gonna tote a five-pound brick of dead weight all the way to Maine on the odd chance that a bear even looks askance at me before running away in sheer terror, you crazy. A gun will do nothing to protect me from any actual dangers on the AT (namely: hypothermia, giardia, or slick rocks in a rainstorm)
  • "How to you eat?" I open my mouth, insert the food, chew sufficiently (sometimes), swallow and digest, and burn it as energy, much like you do! Now if you're asking where and how often I get the food, that's a different question entirely.
  • "I just met a guy with a beard on the trail, but I can't remember his name. Do you know him?" Yes, probably, but "guy with a beard" describes every thru-hiker who has a Y chromosome. Try to be more specific, and don't include stuff like "scruffy hair", "was carrying poles", and "flew past me really fast".
  • "How far are you going?" This question is always ambiguous, because I'm never sure if they mean where I'm stopping for the night, or how far I'm going on this trip. If you misinterpret, you either look like a braggart, telling them you're a thru-hiker when they really just wanted to know if you're gonna take the last spot in the next shelter, or too reticent to share what you're doing.
  • "Do you wear deoderant?" Yeah, like that would make any difference after you've been sweating from every square inch of your body and haven't showered in two weeks.
Seriously, please post your questions so all my posts aren't as boring as this one is. kthxbai.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

One Quarter Done!

Wow! So much has happened since the last time I updated! I've walked almost 300 miles, crossed a few state lines, and witness (FINALLY!) the coming of Spring. My computer time is rationed here, so I'll attempt to refrain from my typical bloviation.

After leaving Erwin, TN, I started to develop ankle problems. I had previously twisted my left ankle in the Smokies, but it reared its ugly head again once I got into snowy and icy terrain in the Roan Highlands. I ended up taking a zero day in a random shelter on Easter Sunday because I couldn't walk on it. Roan Mountain, one of the highest peaks on the AT (and home to the highest shelter) was about three miles of continuous ice. And when I say continuous, I mean I stepped on nothing but ice for three miles. Trying to do that on one ankle is a bit of a challenge, to say the least. Fortunately, the ankle felt a little bit better just on the day I was set to go to the doctor, so I pushed on, making sure to baby it. And boy was I rewarded! The Roan Highlands consist of about eight "balds"; mountaintops that are grassy fields at the top. The views are terrific, and no one is quite sure why no trees grow up there! I had one of my first bright, sunny, beautiful days while crossing Hump Mountain. I'd upload a picture but the internet is too slow here and apparently I'm too much of a moron to make my pictures actually show up. Still working on that problem, folks!

After the Roans, I crossed for good out of North Carolina and into Tennessee. And boy was that nice! Tennessee featured some of the easiest terrain to date; traveling through river valleys and along steady ridgelines. With a few exceptions, it was more or less a racetrack. I did my first 1-percenter: a day where I hiked more than 1% of the AT (21.8 miles). My time in the river valleys also featured my most fun stealth camping location to date: a graveyard. There were warnings everywhere not to camp too close to a particular road crossing because of the risk of crime or harassment. So I kept pushing on as the sun was setting and soon found myself with very little level ground and a severe need to go to sleep. But the good old Isaac Cemetery sure was level, and that night, I certainly rested in peace! As far as I see it, the dead don't care, and the baptist church never found out, so what's the problem?

I'm not much of a hostel-dweller. I don't like paying for accommodations when the whole woods is just waiting for me to stake my claim for the night. But there was one hostel I absolutely had to stay at: the Kincora Hiking Hostel in Hampton, TN. When you get to the road crossing, there are two hostel options, one to the east, and the other to the west. The one on the east side is a lot nicer: it has heating, good resupply, wireless, and whatever other perks. The west side hostel is unheated, and generally unremarkable. But it has Bob Peoples as the owner. And so I decided to go to Bob's hostel, Kincora. I'll save you the sibilant sophistry of Robert Frost, but boy am I glad I went to the dumpy place! Bob Peoples has to rank up in the top ten most interesting people I've ever met, on the AT or otherwise. Former colonel in the US Air Force, has a Ph.D in Mayan archeology, former starting hockey goalie for UMass, trail maintainer extraordinaire... the guy is a walking storybook. He dropped in to drop off a load of fresh towels that evening, and he and I spent the next two hours discussing possible pre-Columbian Old World-New World contact. He was particularly knowledgeable about Peruvian sites, which I very much enjoyed discussing, given my recent trip down there. Shelters north of Kincora on the trail feature Chuck Norris-style Bob Peoples graffiti jokes: "Bob People can slam turnstiles". "Bob Peoples sleeps with a pillow under his gun". "Every time Bob Peoples builds a switchback, an angel gets its wings". You get the point.

After Hampton, the trail was easy, for the most part, to Damascus, Virginia, the "friendliest town on the AT". I didn't spend much time there, but managed to meet up with most of my trail friends, many of whom I hadn't seen in a couple weeks because my ankle was slowing me down. And AFTER Damascus, my wonderful grandparents came to visit! I absolutely loved spending some time with them. They even did a mile or so of the AT with me. It's amazing how much you become jaded to how beautiful it is out here, and sometimes you need someone who's new to it to remind you of it. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did! Speaking of grandparents, I'd like to give a random shoutout to Grandma Nell.

After Damascus came Mt Rogers, the highest point in Virginia (don't bother climbing it, there was absolutely no view) and the beautiful Grayson Highlands. Wild ponies graze in the area. They're pretty used to humans, though, and don't even notice your existence... unless you offer them food. Then, as Samson found out, they will harass you endlessly to get more. And sometimes, they end up eating your socks. Feeding the ponies: not advised.

After about Atkins, VA, I had another injury scare. Suddenly my good ankle became my bad ankle, and walking on two gimpy ankles is even worse than one. I got tendonitis in my right Achilles, and climbing uphill was excruciating. Once again, I resolved I was going to the doctor "tomorrow" (in both instances, it was a Sunday and so the clinics would be closed). And once again, I woke up the following day and felt well enough to continue.

On that Monday morning, I got up and was preparing to go into town to get some Aleve. As I came down the hill to the road crossing, I saw a couple of trucks parked at the road crossing. Somebody was in the drivers seat of one of them, so I walked up to try and hitch a ride in. Lo and behold, he got out, said he was from the local Methodist church, and asked if I'd like a free all-you-can-eat breakfast! After picking my jaw off the floor, I hopped in his truck, and was treated by the fine folks at the church to one of the best breakfasts I've ever eaten, period. Their blueberry pancakes featured wild blueberries picked from the Grayson Highlands, local real maple syrup, eggs, sausage, grits, you name it. And they had granola bars, cookies, and goodies for the road. And ALEVE! Saved me a trip into town, and sure made my morning!

The weather has finally improved. The past few days have been rainy, but it's been in the 70s and 80s for the past week or so, and it hasn't dropped below freezing at night except for once. It's the greatest thing in the world not jam your feet into frozen shoes in the morning! The longer days, nicer weather, and easier terrain have allowed me to pick up the pace a bit. The other day, I passed the 500 mile mark, and then the one-quarter pole. And today, I passed the thousand-kilometer mark! Hooray obscure milestones! Of course, I'll still be in Virginia for another 400 miles or so, but it sure is nice to be making progress!

Well, so much for a brief post. My bad.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Picture Post!

A few days after leaving Hot Springs NC, we've gotten hit with the mother of all snowstorms. I managed to cover fewer than 9 miles in 6 hours of hiking today. Elevations above 3500 feet have seen 10-14 inches of snow with heavy drifting. I ended up slogging through knee-high snow all day with drifts up to my waist. The next few sections of trail reach above 5500 feet, where a few southbounders told me that the drifts were above their heads. When somebody who's been on the trail for nearly 2000 miles and hiked through the winter tells you to run for town, you run for town.

What that means for the purposes of this blog is that I have time on my hands for the next few days until the snow melts enough that the trail is slightly passable, which means I can upload pictures!

The view from Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the AT
From Standing Indian Mountain, the first big climb of North Carolina and the first peak over 5000 feet on the trail
Do I look like an adventurer?
North Carolina: not exactly politically correct
Fontana Lake in the early morning taken from the dam; one of just 3 or 4 nice sunny days we've had
Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT. Please ignore the unsightly distraction in the green rain jacket
Max Patch bald. It was a perfectly clear day and you could see all the way to the horizon. Then those pretty puffy white clouds decided to turn evil and dump 4 inches of snow on me while I was sleeping in the shelter that night. Temps plummeted below zero by the next morning.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ups And Downs

They say that the AT is a more difficult hiking trail than the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is longer, higher, has less water, and fewer trail towns. But on the PCT, you climb up to a ridge and follow it for miles. Not so on the AT; it's constant ups and downs. And of course hiking any trail is just like that. It's been a while since I updated this blog, so I'll try to give a few of the highlights and a few of the lowlights.

When I left Hiawassee on March 6, it had just dumped a good four inches on the mountains, and winds had drifted the snow tremendously. I've since found out that it was a really good decision to stay in Hiawassee that night. It got down to about 10 degrees with 40 mph winds. After everyone got soaked by a severe thunderstorm, they shivered through the night. Hikers have joked that we should all make "I survived March 6" t-shirts. Anyway, I did a few miles that afternoon and camped right on the Georgia-North Carolina border. It was an awful camping spot, right in the teeth of the wind getting funnelled through the mountain gap. However, it was the only level spot around for miles. The next day dawned clear and cold. Immediately I had about a 2000 foot climb; the elevation of Standing Indian Mountain was about 1000 feet higher than anything I had done in Georgia. Welcome to North Carolina! Unfortunately, the wonderful bright afternoon sunshine turned the AT into the Appalachian Lagoon. I quit early that day, right on the other side of the mountain, and dried my sodden shoes out so they wouldn't freeze into solid blocks of ice the next day. That worked fairly well, and I'm glad I got down the other side of the mountain, because all the slush and water I had waded through turned into a skating rink overnight. Going downhill on ice is NOT a pleasant experience.

A couple days later I had the opportunity to spend the day in Franklin NC with my Uncle Marc and cousins. We had a wonderful time, got lunch, saw quite a bit of the North Carolina countryside (what a different perspective to be looking up at the mountains instead of down from the top!), and switched out my sleeping bag for a bullet-proof -15 degree bag. And I thought I was done with the sleeping bag issue.

...until I tried to carry the thing. It was a little bit heavier than my old one, but more importantly, it was huge and didn't compress at all. I could fit it my pack, but after about a couple miles, it became clear that it weighted my pack wrong, and made it feel like I was carrying 60 pounds instead of 40. The next day, I had had enough of this new-fangled bag. I went to the next road crossing and miraculously caught a ride back to Franklin with a trail angel ("Vice", NOBO '99) who was intending on handing out food to through-hikers down a side road until he discovered the road was closed. So on the way to Franklin I munched on apples, bananas, and put away a few Cokes. He might have only done trail magic for one person that day, but he made a world of difference! At the outfitter, I had to make up with my old bag. I told her I was an idiot for breaking up with her, and that she was so much better than all the other bags out there, and if she took me back I'd never try to ditch her again. To my joy, she couldn't be happier to see me and down the trail we went, rather merrily. Of course, it didn't help that I bought her a snazzy new sleeping bag liner (which is what I should have just done in the first place!).

The next couple days were fairly good days. It was a little cold, but for the most part the weather cooperated nicely. That all changed the day after. They were predicting rain, but it basically just misted all morning as I walked through the clouds. But right around the time I hit a huge 4000-foot descent, the storm hit. I hate downhills to begin with (they're harder on your joints and give you blisters), and right about the time I thought "it can't possibly rain any harder", it of course rained harder. I took my first few falls of the AT over slick rocks and slimy mud.

The next day, I arrived at the Nantahalla Outdoor Center and took care of a few lingering gear issues. I also ran into HamBone, who I hadn't seen since Neels Gap, Georgia. It turns out that he's a Calvin grad and was a senior the year I was a freshman. We ended up grabbing lunch at the NOC, and then hiking out (this time 4000 up) together. For the past week and a half, we've been sleeping at more or less the same places every day. I'm always on the trail by 8:30 or 9:00, while he's invariably the last one out of the shelter, and somehow still always makes the miles.

I've run into a few more people on the trail. Samson is a really nice guy in his 50s who didn't even know what a thru-hiker was 3 months ago. He heard of the trail, decided on the spur of the moment to do it, went out and bought all the gear, and is doing great so far! Generally people don't endure the trail unless it's been something they've had as a lifelong dream, but he's making it work. Interestingly, he walks with a big of a limp because he hurt himself in skydiving (!) accident a few years back. Apparently he was parachuting at an Alabama-Mississippi State football game, and ESPN caught the carnage live on TV.

I've also been hiking with Punkin Pie (former Pennsylvania coal miner), Zhivago (pronounced as in "Chicago"), and Sandman (from Myrtle Beach) for the past week. Through the Smokies, staying at the shelters is required; no tenting. Because of that, a group kind of naturally forms as everyone really only has a couple options: either go 12 miles to the next shelter, or 20 to the one after that, for example.

The Smokies you say? Ah yes, they were wonderful. I was fully expecting an apocalypse of snow and general awfulness (I got blizzarded on a few years ago when I went to the Smokies on a spring break trip), but they turned out to be generally nice. The first two days were picture-perfect. It was clear as a bell and I could hike in shorts and a t-shirt. On the third day I went over Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park, and on the whole AT. It was windy, cloudy, and kind of chilly, but you could still see Mt Mitchell in the distance, 70 miles away. However, the snow was still sticking around at that elevation (5500+ feet), and it had all melted and refroze into an absolute skating rink. Knowing that the backside of Clingmans was steeper, and probably even icier, I decided that a bruised ego was better than a broken neck. I ended up roadwalking most of the way from Clingmans to the next gap instead of taking the AT. I did jump back on the AT for a few miles when I thought conditions would be better. I was wrong. There was still plenty of ice, and where there wasn't ice, there was ankle-deep water. The Appalachian Skate 'n Splash is just about the least amusing experience possible on the trail.

So by time I got to Newfound Gap (where US 441 bisects the park), I was feeling pretty miserable. Then my St. Patty's Day turned around in a hurry. Punkin Pie and Sandman saw me coming through and flagged me down. Two trail angels (Godspeed and Mountain Mamma) apparently come up to the gap on the weekends during thru-hiker season to do trail magic. They had sandwiches, chips, pop, cookies/brownies (!), and a great story of God's providence. They're some of the most special people I've met on the trail yet. Godspeed and their son actually finished the AT three years after the son was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. A miraculous recovery, and then to hike the AT? Incredible! I was also a tourist attraction for the first time in my life. Your typical touristy folks from California, Japan, and wherever else love to just drive through the park, stop and take a few pictures at Newfound Gap, and keep going, for whatever reason. Seems like a superficial and stupid way to see a park in my opinion, but that's just me. Anyway, they all love the chance to see a thru-hiker in its natural habitat and at one point I had a group of about 15 people standing around me peppering me with questions. People seem unable to grasp that this earthy neanderthal with trekking poles is a real person with a real life outside of the trail. Somebody asked me if I had heard of Lord of the Rings. Do they think I was born on the trail?

The next day, I was either going to have to do 12 or 20 miles because of the shelter situation. I left early, and was making good time (I was hiking through the clouds and wind all day so there was nothing to stop and look at). About a mile before the shelter, I slipped on a patch of ice and went down hard, right on my already-gimpy left ankle. While laying there trying to figure out if I alive or not, I started to hear thunder. Well that did it. I did the old hobble-sprint all the way to the shelter, and it took about an hour to do so. Fifteen minutes after I got to the shelter, the heavens opened. Over the next hour, HamBone, Punkin Pie, and Zhivago rolled in, in increasing stages of wet, cold, and irritable. I've never seen it rain so hard in my life, and it must have hailed for a half hour. Apparently Atlanta had tornadoes from the same storm system.

The day after was fairly nice, and I did my biggest day so far, 19 miles. I wanted to get to a hostel just on the other side of the northern Park boundary. My ankle hurt quite a bit, but at lunch I took a few ibuprofen and rode the sweet wings of Vitamin I all the way to the hostel. The hostel was a pretty unique place, and I don't mean in a good way. It was cheap and the resupply was very fairly priced, but the guy who ran it turned out to be an alcoholic with more than a dash of racism and sexism on top. I honestly felt dirty just being around his language and attitude. I highly recommend not staying at the Standing Bear Farm hiker hostel unless it ever gets new management. I did an easy 15 miles the next day, over Max Patch bald, with 360 degree panoramas  only limited by the horizon. It was cold and windy, but absolutely jaw-dropping. Precipitation was forecasted for the evening, so I opted to stay in a shelter instead of camp. That was a mistake. It's nice to not have to pack a tent up in the rain, but it didn't rain. It snowed. On the first day of spring, I woke up to snow blowing into the shelter onto my face. After trying in vain to stay dry by covering my sleeping bag with my tent fly. I ended up having a drenched down sleeping bag by 4am. I was so incredibly cold I got up and got on the trail by 5am, doing 18 miles before 2:00PM. I rolled into the first trail town, Hot Springs, and am in a hostel tonight, because my bag won't keep me warm enough until it dries out. The next few days are supposed to be cold as well. I cannot put into words how sick I am of snow, ice, and cold. This has been a historically terrible year for hiker weather, and even more people have dropped out than usual. The next few days are supposed to be more of the same. But, that's what comes with the territory.

Other disorganized, random thoughts: I got the trailname LarryBoy. I sing songs of all types to keep my mood up when I'm hiking alone. Apparently, I wasn't alone when I was singing "Oh Where Is My Hairbrush" over Standing Indian Mountain. The person hiking behind me listened for a good 5 minutes, unbeknownst to be, before breaking in to do Dr. Archibald's part.

Oh, the Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week? I met up with a group Yale students in Spring Break. Apparently being smart doesn't make you wise, though, as they were bringing along a glass jar of salsa to put on their beans and rice. The Dartmouth group that rolled in later had a good time mocking the Yale kids about that; they had beans and rice as well, but they were smart enough to leave the glass jar at home.

Grandpa and Grandma: You mentioned that Backpacker claimed that Georgia was the hardest section of the AT (I remember reading that article you lent me), and that's absolute hogwash. Maybe it is if you're 80 pounds overweight and can't live without a twice-daily hot shower, but honestly, the terrain is a lot tougher in most of North Carolina. I'm hoping though, with all the adversity NOBOs have been through with the weather and whatnot so far this year, we'll be less daunted by the really hard terrain and weather in Maine and New Hampshire.

Anyways, for the three of your who are still reading this dissertation, take care. It'll be at least a week before I update again, maybe two. I reserve the right to post irregularly, if at all. Hopefully pictures should be coming soon.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Recalibrating Expectations

I've finally started the Appalachian Trail. It was one of those awful ideas you get during exams; you know, like starting a circus or putting parking boots on Campus Safety vehicles. But this awful idea, unlike all the others, didn't seem like such an awful idea a couple weeks later. I let it brew up in the ol' noggin for probably a year and a half before even admitting to anyone that I might want to try the AT. I was mostly afraid that I'd back down, and then feel stupid for not following through. But eventually the idea became irrepressable, and I was hooked. And now it's finally here.

The reason I felt such trepidation of voicing a desire publically is the huge rate of failure, not for physical reasons, but for mental reasons. People don't drop off the trail normally because they break a leg or get eaten by a bear. They drop off because they're sick and tired of the cold, the heat, the bugs, and the blisters. Nothing is so seductive as the thought of a warm bed and shower when you're shivering in your sleeping bag atop a mountain in March. And this week I found that out.

After a mostly uneventful trip (save the Megabus crashing into the side of a Louisville McDonalds at 6:00AM), I arrived in Atlanta and had a wonderful, albeit very brief, visit with my Uncle Marc and Aunt Paula, along with their daughters. They dropped me off on February the 28th close to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia. It was 33 degrees at the time.

That was the highest temperature I'd see in the next 4 days. It's not too bad when I'm hiking, but at that temperature, when I stop for even a minute, I have to put multiple layers on to stay warm -- or start hiking again. The nights are the problem. My supposedly 0-degree rated sleeping bag didn't do the trick when the temperature dropped below about 15 at nights, and is getting ditched in favor of a new, warmer one.

Monday the 4th brought warmer temperatures and sunshine, and it was a marvelous hiking day. Tuesday, however, was forecasted to bring severe thunderstorms, so I headed into Hiawassee, GA with a few hiking buddies I made along the trail. The day turned out to be mostly fine weather-wise, but considering the state of my feet (quite blistered), a near zero-day ("nero") probably wasn't the worst idea in the world.

The weather hasn't been the only pick-me-up. A couple days ago I was having one of those days where you slog along, annoyed with the weather, your legs, trail conditions, and pretty much everything imaginable.Then I got to camp and discovered one last package of my Aunt Cathi's bon-bons and a piece of banket hiding in the bottom of my foodbag. My entire disposition changed immediately. I'm now jealously guarding the last bon-bon until the next time I have a truly bad day on the trail.

So far, the weather and my feet have been giving me problems, but I can't really complain. The fine folks at the Neels Gap outfitter graciously cut me a deal on a new neck gaitor, and lent me a pop can and a razor knife to do some gear repair on the floor in the middle of their store. The line between "homeless" and "thru-hiker" is finer than one might think. Plus I've run into several interesting people, including a guy trying to start a carnival on the AT, a guy 2 weeks out of the Army, a gentleman on his 9th thru-hike, and a girl carrying a ceramic garden gnome all the way to Maine.

One of the biggest realizations I've come to (yes, I'm a philosophy nerd) is that we westerners have really high expectations. We want everything easy, and only then is it a good day. But out on the trail, if we have food, clothing, and decent weather, we are content with that. Might a little trail experience do us all some good in breaking free of the idolotry of "stuff"?