Way Down Upon the . . .well, you get it!

A few years back, I canoed with friends on the Suwannee River from Fargo, GA, to White Springs, FLA. Last week we added a century of miles on down the river from White Springs.

If you like to canoe, know this: Florida State Parks have set up a series of canoe camps, accessible only for canoes and kayaks and free for anyone who makes a reservation. A group gets to use a screened, roofed platform with lighting, a ceiling fan, power outlets, potable water, a picnic table and nearby restroom and hot shower facilities. A camp host keeps things in order and supplies needed info. The settings along the gorgeous blackwater river are quite beautiful.

The canoeing was easy — a few rapids, none of which were more than a ripple. The fishing was not good due to cold weather. But we did see enormous sturgeon leaping completely out of the water to equalize their air bladders.

We heard barred and great horned owls and saw bald eagles, osprey, belted kingfishers, vultures, hawks, kites, tufted titmice and many other types of avian life. Although we heard coyotes at night, we only saw small mammals.

I will soon be back on the trail, but a break in a canoe is fun. We shared the river with only a few people, and the whole experience was refreshing. Read THRU, stay vertical and keep walkin’!

 

 

 

 

Red and Green Lead to White

I have been at Amicalola Falls State Park Visitors Center for the past few days working as a Trail Ambassador — helping the assigned ridge runner register and counsel thru-starters bound to Springer Mtn. and beyond to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Most are ready to roll, reasonable well informed, registered with the ATC and aware of Leave No Trace.

As they head off from the falls, they see a green blaze leading to the Len Foote Hike Inn and a blue one directing them to Springer, the Southern terminus of the A.T. It’s common knowledge that many who dream of Katahdin have their hopes shattered on the Approach Trail. It’s hard, and if you’re hiking for the first time, the harsh reality is torturous.

I saw people from many states, and many countries. All ages and races, male and female. Some elicited silent pity from me. I hope they prove me wrong. My message to aspiring thru-hikers: Get informed, reduce pack weight, get in shape, actually do some hiking and do not assume you can get in trail condition and learn everything you need to know after you start. That is a recipe for failure.

But aspirants who appear to be pack-carrying disasters might fool you. As I wrote in THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, the most unlikely thru-starters “might fool you. They would adapt to dirt, sweat, godawful weather, monotony, chronic foot pain, bugs, mice, sleet, days on end of precipitation, bone-penetrating cold, waves of sweltering heat, wrong turns, obnoxious shelter partners — all of this and much more. And after adapting and surviving for six months or so, they would find themselves at Katahdin Stream Campground ready to push five miles and 4,000 feet to the top of the A.T.’s northern terminus. They would be trim, transformed and ready to return to a world that would never again be ordinary.” God bless them all.

 

 

LNT is the Key to Hikeable Trails

One of my favorite hiking pals is a guy named Jay Dement. I have hiked to numerous places with him — including the Balkans and the Himalayas — and have found him to be a  constant source of witty cynicism, good humor and friendship. We have so many funny stories to share that it would take days to share them all.

Jay is also a persistent and stubborn son of a %$#@. He has several major obsessions, and he hangs onto them like an grouchy pit bull with a big soup bone. Obsession #1 is the whole Leave No Trace (LNT) philosophy. Jay has handouts, an elevator speech, detailed slide presentations, patches and an overarching commitment to the idea that anyone who goes into the wilderness should understand the basic precepts of leaving things as you found them. He also understands and preaches that just saying “take only pictures, leave only footprints” is not enough to get the point across.

Obsession #2 is the Trail Ambassadors program which pretty much goes hand in hand with LNT. Working with the U. S. Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, Jay has worked tirelessly (Well, actually, I imagine he does get tired sometimes) to assemble a group of qualified, highly trained volunteers to assist in handling the onslaught of people who arrive in Georgia each year to head north from Springer Mtn. on the AT headed for Mt. Katahdin in Maine. There are professional caretakers and ridge runners in Georgia who help handle this yearly northbound diaspora, but Jay’s cadre of Trail Ambassadors are on the job to fill in when the hard working paid staff take days off.

I am one of Jay’s volunteers. Having hiked the AT twice and staying involved in the trail community for decades, I am somewhat qualified to size up what we call “thru-starters” and engage them in friendly conversation. I have seen all kinds of inappropriate gear and behavior out on the trail, and as a TA, it is my job to suggest — without being imperious — better ways to succeed on a thru-hike with an overarching emphasis on LNT. Jay’s training sessions helped me to do this job by using role playing to practice what to do if a hiker is committing such malfeasances as setting up a new fire ring, allowing his/her dog to run rampant and terrorize other hikers, carrying a three-pound handaxe, getting drunk or cluelessly indulging in all manner of other activities that are not good for them, other hikers or the trail. TAs have no authority and must call up their best powers of diplomacy and sincerity to persuade people to exercise good behavior rather than “lay down the law.”

What should be emphasized about Jay is that the program has been very successful and has resulted in many positive outcomes. He has been the main mover and shaker in the success of TAs, and he has done so despite the red tape and bureaucracy of dealing with the Forest Service. USFS personnel are very dedicated, but they will be the first to tell you that implementing new programs within a federal agency is never easy. My friend Jay has done that, and I tip my hat to him.

One anecdote: For those of you who have read my novel, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, you may remember the Captain Stupid character, a 350-pound schlub who heads north from Springer Mtn. seeking his final shot at redemption on the AT. I actually met his real-life equivalent last year as I served as a Trail Ambassador at the Hawk Mtn. Shelter about seven miles north of Springer. This poor guy was morbidly obese, over equipped, in dark despair and hobbling on ankles he had twisted seven times (one incident per mile) since embarking from Springer. I had a long talk with this Captain Stupid doppelgänger, and he was ready to cash in his dream before it had a fighting chance to get started. I talked to a kind soul who was willing to give the fellow a ride out to Dahlonega, a town about 2o miles away. My suggestion was to lay up for a day or so and take stock of his morale and his body. Judging from the look on his face, his trip was about done.

Fortunately, most of the hikers encountered by Trail Ambassadors have happier stories. Some are eminently well prepared and need no one’s advice. Some are fine tuning their equipment and attitudes and are happy to discuss ways to improve. Most are having a positive experience, although many are asking themselves, “What have I gotten myself into?” As this year’s crop of thru-starters get underway, I wish them the best. And God Bless Jay Dement and his cohort of Trail Ambassadors who spread the gospel of LNT.

 

 

 

 

Legalized Pot!

Well, now that I have the attention of all you recreational drug users, this post is actually about a cooking pot. It has an amusing history you might enjoy.

Here goes: When I thru-hiked SOBO on the AT in 1973, I had limited funds. I sold appliances and worked layaway at a Zayre’s store in Athens as I wrapped up my senior year at UGA and banked as much money as possible to fund my trip, assembling equipment on the cheap. Examples include a cheap nylon Zayre’s windbreaker, an onion sack to carry my food, a cheapie swiss army knockoff pocket knife, and a threadbare sweatshirt.

Where I wisely put my money was into a really good Trailwise pack (recommended by the legendary Colin Fletcher and now displayed on the lobby wall of the Len Foote Hike Inn), a Swedish-made SVEA 123 stove that ran on unleaded gas, a pretty good spring-weight down sleeping bag and a slightly-better-than-mediocre pair of Raichles.

Easily, the most intriguing piece of gear was from my Dad’s old Boy Scout mess kit purchased in 1928. Its 32-oz. capacity was pretty limiting at the end of the day when I was always — guaranteed without fail — famished. A typical meal was a store-brand box of mac & cheese with something mixed in — often a 3-oz. can of tuna. I also occasionally mixed instant pudding for desert. Another culinary favorite was instant rice which probably had less nutrition than the cardboard container it came in.

But the old pot perched on top of my SVEA 123 which emitted a delightfully sibilant hiss to keep me company on lonely nights — Ah that pot was wonderful! It will turn 90 next year, and I have to believe it is one of the oldest items ever carried on an AT thru-hike.

My dad, by the way, was an Eagle Scout. As am I. As is my 2000 AT SOBO thru-hiker son Optimus Prime. And, to boot, my 2004 AT SOBO thru-hiker daughter Steady is a Gold Award Girl Scout. Scouting has provided all three generations of us with a love for wilderness and a passion for adventure.

That humble little piece of cookware characterizes the whole experience. It’s a form of legal pot.

Rewind Shows No Sign of Winding Down

A couple of years ago, Susan Caster took off on a PCT thru-hike. With characteristic indomitable spirit and enormous levels of good humor, she averaged twenty miles per day, a feat people half her age would envy. Along the way, she was dubbed with the trail name “Rewind” due to her propensity to occasionally double back on the trail to retrieve lost items or see something she missed. As one of the laziest long-distance hikers in history, I marvel at anyone who is willing to add a single step over and above what is required in the daily grind of a thru-hike. That’s no problem for Susan, however, because she has a curious mind and high levels of energy far beyond that of normal mortals.

I took a walk with Susan the other day to catch up on her activities, and it was a delight to hear her enthusiasm for all the places she’s been, all the people she’s interacted with and all the dreams she is working furiously to bring to reality. After her PCT hike, she spent time traveling and exploring in New Zealand and Australia spending much of the time working on organic farms.

Now she is back in Roswell, Ga., but that will not last long. Her next step is toward Northeast Georgia where she is developing something she calls Little Toccoa Creek Farm. Her dream is to develop a small farming operation to supply local produce to farmer’s markets and restaurants. Her challenge is to decide where to plant, how to plant, interacting with her neighbors, developing outbuildings and constructing a small home — all the while keeping everything environmental sustainable.

Susan is a retired educator with a track record of success. She has great kids. She has suffered through the pain of losing a spouse. She is a cancer survivor as well which makes her PCT accomplishment even more amazing. Through it all she has spent much of her spare time dedicated to a variety of volunteer activities — many of them devoted to environment education. Frankly, if I were her, Little Toccoa Creek Farm would be a place where I would kick back in a rocking chair and watch bees pollinate. But Susan is not a contemplator so much as a “doer.”

I wish this whirling dervish of a friend the best, and I really look forward to visiting her new digs near Toccoa.

 

 

Triple Crowner Extraordinaire

I hiked the past couple of days with Susie McNeeley. Susie deserves to be loved and appreciated for putting in a career as a special education teacher. But beyond that, she is a spectacularly gifted and accomplished hiker.

She and I have spent lots of time talking about the old days of thru-hiking the AT. We thru-hiked SOBO in the 70s — me in ’73 and she in ’79 — back when there were still dinosaurs out there. She later thru-hiked the PCT in the early days of the 80s. Then, last year, she went out and took on the Continental Divide Trail. “Anyone who plans to do the CDT should have already thru-hiked one of the other big trails,” she says. “The logistics and route finding on the CDT are way more difficult than the other trails.” She stresses that finding reliable water sources and getting resupplied are Herculean chores out there.

Susie battled illness and minor injuries during her trek, but she managed to do her share of 35-mile days and did most days over 20. I could not have done that when I was 21 years old, much less at Susie’s (I’ll phrase it delicately, and add that she is younger than I) more mature age. But I think I understand what makes her tick. I hiked with her on the rugged Peaks of the Balkans Trail a few years ago. There, I learned that she has constant good humor, an indomitable positivity and energy that just goes on and on. She couples this with a remarkable level of physical stamina unlike any other I’ve witnessed. Any hiking group is improved by her presence.

It’s my guess that of the of 200-or-so Triple Crowners in the world, Susie is among the ones who have the longest gap between first and third thru-hikes — if not the single longest. Apparently, she will not be slowing down. I hope to have a chance to hike with her in future years.

Meanwhile, she is one of those rare, fortunate mortals who can eat all they want. The CDT left her stick-like, and she can scarf down great quantities of food as often as she wants.

Susie exemplifies what I love about the hiking community. If you enjoy being out there, you belong. You check politics and other opinions at the trailhead and enjoy people for who they are out there in the wilderness. Anyone hiking with Susie learns from her example. Stay vertical, Susie, and keep walkin’!

 

 

Trail Therapy

cbspringerCB and Jeff Butler are among the many friends I have made over nearly two decades of being part of the Len Foote Hike Inn community. The two of them have illuminated me with their inner strength and their zest for living in the moment of each day.

Not terribly long ago, CB tells me, she had to deal with losing her son and the fiancee of another son in separate accidents just days apart. This unimaginable pain put a massive stumbling block in the path of this marvelous couple, and they tell me that the pain of  dealing with it was almost impossible to bear.

Almost impossible. But somehow they just kept going — surviving in the millions of moments of each day and learning how to thrive and revel in life. CB decided to take on a challenge last year. She wanted to run the equivalent of the distance of the Appalachian Trail, all 2,189 miles of it. Not surprisingly, she succeeded. Now, her goal is to hike the entire actual AT. Jeff, a pretty fair hiker himself, plans to hike part of it with her and spot her the rest of the way.

I am honored that CB was partially inspired to take on this challenge as a result of reading THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story. I know something about tackling challenges having taken on a few in my days. But I am humbled by how this wonderful couple have fused love and commitment to make life way beyond worth living. I think I might hike a few miles with them on the AT when the time comes.

 

 

 

Sunrise in the Chisos Mountains

Hiking recently in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park exceeded my expectations. If you want reasons, here they are:

  • This photo supplies one reason. We stumbled out of our tents in predawn gloom and hiked out of the Chisos Basin — ascending toward one of the big, rocky ridges. Eventually blackness went to gray, and then we saw early morning alpenglow on distant peaks. Not a bad way to wipe the sleep from one’s eyes.
  • Bears. We saw a few. Some up close. Apparently they were feasting on late-season berries and harassing  hikers. Trails were open only for day hikes as a result.
  • The view south from the South Rim over the Big Bend wasteland and to the Rio Grande beyond was worth the 15-mile hike. Great fun.
  • Desert hiking was fun as well. We left the mountains and explored flat desert terrain and arid canyons that looked like something out of an old Cisco Kid rerun. It gets hot out there, even in November.
  • The stars, planets and galaxies. Big Bend has the darkest skies in North America. It’s the place to go for star gazing. If you go, visit the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory. Not to be missed if you like a close-up peek through a telescope. You will never get a better look at the Milky Way. Only thing to compare for me was the star gazing I did in Nepal a few years ago.

Big Bend is a place you really have to want to get to. You fly to remote parts of Texas and then drive for hours through derricks and pump jacks. Then you begin seeing craggy mountains and cacti. Eventually, you get to the park. The lodge in the Chisos Basin is a great place to eat and stay. We camped at the National Park campground but enjoyed the really good lodge food. So, go to Big Bend. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!

 

THRU still going strong

thrupicTHRU’s second printing is now available. It contains glowing media quotes and notes that the novel was a finalist in the Georgia Author of the Year Awards. The book has made substantial dollars for the publisher, the not-for-profit Appalachian Trail Museum. It is a great gift idea for Christmas, so order quick from Amazon and make a hiker on your list very happy. I continue work on my second novel and hope to make real progress this winter. Meanwhile, stay vertical and keep walkin’!

Do Winners Finish Last?

Take a look at the lanky fellow in the photo above who proves my description in THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story of a long-distance hiker’s body: “A leg support system.” From the hips down, Karl Meltzer is a lean, sinewy beast. In the upper regions, he has muscle definition, but he is pretty reedy — the perfect build for a man who broke the speed record on the Appalachian Trail on Sept. 18. He went from Maine to Georgia in 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes. We’re talking about 47.5 miles per day. Say what you will, but you have to admire any man who could finish the last 83-mile stretch in 24 hours! That’s all of Georgia plus six or seven miles as I figure it. Good grief!

No matter how you feel about “supported” speed hiking, you cannot deny that Karl is a phenom. I averaged about 15 miles per day on my 1973 thru-hike, and that seemed demanding to my 21-year-old physique. I can’t imagine that there is enough Ibuprofen on the face of the Earth to control Karl’s aches and pains.

He did all this with “support.” He had a team of people that met him at crossings and did all they could to feed, hydrate, clothe and attend to his needs. I hear he is a nice guy, but people did not get much of a chance to talk to him for obvious reasons. He just kept moving.

I am not a proponent of all this, but if Karl and others who do this are courteous to other hikers and do not damage the trail, I think they are free to “hike their own hike.” Still, deep inside, I do not like to see the AT used as a venue for overt speed. I talked to Jennifer Pharr Davis after her AT record had been broken, and she was relieved that she no longer had to wear what I suspect had become a slightly dubious honor. By the way, Jennifer is one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

Despite my “own hike” sentiment, I have to agree with a comment made to me in a 1974 letter from the venerable Benton MacKaye when I asked him about speed hiking. He said that if an award were ever given for speed hiking on the AT, it should be given to the person who took the longest time to hike the trail. I guess that’s enough said on the topic.