Forgive me for emoting a little, but I appreciate so little of what the government does without my asking that when it does something wonderful — I want to point it out.
Lyndon Johnson signed a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation 53 years ago called the Wilderness Act giving Congress the right to decree tracts of federal land as wilderness. I have visited a number of wilderness areas in the last half century and am a better man for it. I spent a career in the oil business and watched the Kabuki dance that went on between bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen, environmental groups and public citizens about how “wilderness” would be established and where.
This year we celebrate another major half-century milestone, the National Trails Act which gave government incentives and funding to recognize and promote maintenance, development and protection of a number of trails including the PCT, the AT, the CDT and the Florida Trail.
I wonder if any of this would had happened if Benton MacKaye — the ultimate hiker’s hero — had not (1) Conceived of the AT and (2) Cofounded the Wilderness Society. Let’s just be glad he existed so we won’t have to find out. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!
This little piece of plastic is a common sight hanging off thru-hikers packs as they head up the Approach Trail from Amicalola Falls State Park. Again this year, I am participating with paid ridge runners and volunteer trail ambassadors to talk to aspiring thru-starters at the park visitors center ready to walk through the stone arch and head up 604 steps to the top of Amicalola Falls.
Part of my job is to sign them up and hand them the little hang tag pictured above. The tag is a way of saying they registered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and that they agree to follow Leave No Trace rules such as bury your poop, camp on durable surfaces and keep your food away from critters — particularly bears.
I am seeing every type of age, nationality, race, gender and preparation level as we talk to people and send them off. Most of them are eager to sit down and listen to a brief talk about equipment, water treatment, Leave No Trace and common trail courtesy. What I love most is the demeanor of the hikers just as they are ready to take their first step — a combination of grim game face/eager anticipation/”What the %$#@ have I gotten myself into?”
In THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story I describe thru-starters who pass over Springer Mtn. as “starry-eyed Alices going through a white-blazed looking glass bound for a dream they don’t understand with shiny new gear, fresh faces and resolve in their eyes.” Since I wrote that, nothing much has changed — just the volume of hikers.
This year more than 4,000 hikers have registered with the ATC, and there is no way to calculate how many will actually be out there. Let’s hope clueless dolts are at a minimum. Most of the hikers are genuinely nice folks who join a supportive and congenial trail culture. Leave No Trace was never so important if we are to keep ourselves from loving the beloved AT to death.
When I was a kid, there was a Smoky the Bear PSA on TV showing an animated forest fire. Smoky — in his characteristic deep bearlike voice — shouted, “Fire! Fire! Run for your lives!” And all the little forest animals went dashing through the woods attempting to beat the flames.
Fire was dangerous in those days half a century ago, and it’s dangerous now. At least most of the time it is. But as you can see from the photo above taken in the Chattahoochee National Forest, experts who know what they are doing can start and control fires to burn underbrush, sticks, logs and stumps in an effort to reduce fuel and mitigate the severity of future unplanned fires in the risky fire season months. At the same time, the residue of fire leaves healthy minerals behind to nourish plants that will emerge from the forest floor in early spring.
In the 80s I was on a family vacation in Yellowstone Park when the uncontrolled forest fires ravaged the western woods. Fire had been suppressed for so long in the park that fuel had piled up. The result was utter conflagration. We watched from Yellowstone Lake as trees on the other side literally exploded in a cloud of sparks and smoke.
I returned to Yellowstone a few years ago to backpack into the wilderness. Even three decades later, there were still signs of the fire I had witnessed long before. Yellowstone is a patient place, and it will recover. But I am pleased to see that we now do a better job of taking care of our forests so that hiking, camping and backpacking remain safe and enjoyable ways to visit the woods.
I love the annual Neel Gap AT Thru-hike Kickoff Party at the Mountain Crossings store. This year it will be Saturday, Feb. 24, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The CCC-built Mountain Crossings building is a great gift shop, a full-service outdoor store with a great hiker shake-down service and hostel. If you come, consider car pooling, because parking is limited.
You might want to park early down the road at the Byron Reece parking lot, hike up the access trail from the lot to the AT and then north on the AT to the celebration. That way you can get in a nice hike and still have fun listening to music, getting a signed copy of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story from me and talking to the many hiking experts and equipment salesman who will be there. What it boils down to is that if you like to hike, this is the place to be.
You will also get a chance to see some thru-starters who have come just over 30 miles from Springer. Here is how I describe the thru-hiker experience in THRU: “This is where SOBOs blow through quickly, taking just enough time to fuel and freshen up before blasting up Blood Mtn.’s easy switchbacks, eager wings on their trail shoes for the last 30 miles to Springer. NOBOs are another story. Thirty miles is a triumph. Neels Gap is a victory. They hobble in feeling an ill-earned sense of entitlement to the goodies within.”
If you are paying attention, you will notice a mistake in my THRU quote. It is actually called “Neel Gap.” Regardless, stop by. You might want to start a THRU dream of your own.
As sure as night follows day, another AT thru-hike season is gearing up. I plan to spend a few days working the Visitors Center at Amicalola Falls working as a Trail Ambassador for the lucky crowd showing up to get their AT hangtag and start on the Approach Trail toward Springer Mtn.
I will also be a speaker at the Amicalola Falls Annual AT Kickoff gathering on March 3-4 at the Amicalola Falls State Park lodge. If you are planning a thru-hike — or just dreaming about one — stop by and say hello. I will, of course, be happy to sign a copy of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story for you. There is so much to learn at the Kickoff as well as a chance to meet legends such as Gene Espy, the dean of thru-hikers.
Then, on March 5, the Len Foote Hike Inn will feature an after-dinner program celebrating the beginning of the 2018 thru-hike season. Hike Inn employees Diane Duffard and Gayle Edgar will join me to talk about the heritage of the trail and the thrill of a modern-day thru-hike. Thru-hikers share an almost evangelistic fervor about their adventures, so I imagine the three of us will generate some fun and energy.
The next morning, Diane will lead guests out to the Approach Trail and up Frosty Mountain as they head back toward the trailhead at Amicalola Falls, a great way to wrap up a Hike Inn trip.
If you want to join us, go to http://www.hike-inn.com to make an on-line reservation. You can also call 1-800-581-8032. As the Beatles once said: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”
Oh, how I love sustainability and alternative energy. So it stands to reason I have to love the “Above the Grid” program we recently kicked off at the Len Foote Hike Inn. I’ve been hanging around the AT and the AT Approach Trail for years. And for nearly 20 years, I have been associated with the Len Foote Hike Inn — just one mile off the Approach Trail. We have pushed solar hot water heating for our bath house, solar photovoltaics for our Sunrise Room, rainwater catchment to water our native plants, composting toilets to conserve more than 200,000 gallons of water each year, worms to eat our waste paper and food scraps, a composting cube to dispose of other waste and a number of other practical technologies we use every day to save water and energy and to reduce pollution. That’s one reason we proudly wear Gold-level designation from the U.S. Green Building Council, among other honors.
“Above the Grid” takes us a big step farther down the sustainability path. Thanks to a grant from All Points North Foundation, a loan from the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority and installation by the experts at Radiance Solar, we are now using state-of-the-art photovoltaics to supply more than two-thirds of our electricity needs. We are still looking at ways to use improving battery technology to boost the percentage of power. And we are doing all this in a practical and sustainable way. Guests who visit the Hike Inn learn that solar power is a practical and economical alternative to the conventional power grid. I’m not bad mouthing utility companies. Heck, I spent a career in the oil and gas business. I’m just saying that sustainability is coming. The Hike Inn is a great example of how it can happen.
Our new solar display — cleverly mounted on an actual photovoltaic panel — tells the story of our new solar project. Hike up to the Hike Inn to see it. Check http://www.hike-inn.com for details on how to make a reservation. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!
When I thru-hiked the AT in 1973, my parents visited me where the trail crossed the Nolichucky River near Erwin, TN. I recall that the bridge was an old trestle affair in those medieval days, but my Medicare-eligible brain may be fuzzy. What I most cherish about the visit was the steak I scarfed down that night in Johnson City.
The next day I headed up out of the river valley on a steady series of switchbacks that seemed to keep me hanging out over the river — sort of a lovers leap sensation. Years later — when I was working on a 15-year section hike — I came from the other direction headed north and descending to the river. That’s the spot where Uncle Johnny’s hostel is now, not as desolate as it once was. Lots of hiking and rafting in the area, not to mention good smallmouth bass angling.
My hiking chums Stoneheart and Trailbeard went through there this past fall and captured the heart-in-your-throat view down into the river. (Thanks to Stoneheart for the pic.) A northbounder has plenty of thrills ahead over the next few days heading toward Roan Mountain and the gorgeous balds north of there. Many AT lovers consider this region among their favorites.
Get out and hike this winter. Cold weather gets the juices flowing. Stay vertical, keep walkin’ and use your Christmas money to buy a copy of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story.
On the educational tour at the Len Foote Hike Inn, I show off the worm beds. For two decades, the Hike Inn has used worms to dispose of waste paper and food waste.
The worms do three things: Eat, defecate and copulate. I joke that worm activity is similar to what goes on at most college campuses. But when you think about it, the worms provide a useful service. They keep waste out of landfills by eating it and converting it into feces which we euphemistically call “worm castings.” The castings resemble black soil, a material rich in nitrogen and useful as fertilizer on our native plants. I delight in teaching Hike Inn guests these simple lessons.
The Hike Inn is a back country lodge. I am privileged to serve as president of the board of directors. To get there guests hike 5 miles from Amicalola Falls State Park. The trail winds through oak and hickory forest, over crystalline streams and underneath laurel and rhododendron tunnels. Delicious meals, hot showers and linens are provided — a great overnight wilderness experience for people of all ages. Check http://www.hike-inn.com for details.
Remember, read THRU, stay vertical and keep walkin’!
Hiking pals, it’s Black Friday, time to consider multiple purchases of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story for holiday gift giving. Anyone who loves the outdoors will enjoy this gritty — sometimes wacky — novel about a group of Katahdin aspirants who encounter each other early in their 2,000-mile odyssey. THRU captures the day-to-day texture of life on a long-distance hike and answers the question asked by thru-hikers: “What have I gotten myself into?”
All proceeds go to the nonprofit publisher, the Appalachian Trail Museum. The humble author receives no monetary remuneration, but he sure has fun on the ride. Make your shopping easy and boost a good cause. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!
So much good hiking thus far this year, but I still hadn’t had enough. So, my buddy Steve Skinner, and I headed down to Pine Mountain to spend a few leisurely days on the Pine Mountain Trail. Most mountains run south to north, but the Pine Mountain ridge runs east and west between Pine Mountain, GA and Warm Springs. The area is famous for Calloway Gardens and for the time FDR devoted to the region.
We started on the Pine Mountain side of the 23-mile trail about noon one recent day and hiked about eight miles to a backcountry campsite. Along the way we spotted a handful of day hikers. Otherwise we had a gently undulating hardwood ridge to ourselves. The campsites are completely primitive, and from what I can tell, they have excellent water.
The second day started with Steve spotting a bobcat. Then, we hiked about nine miles with lovely views, moderate trail and a stretch through a tornado-damaged area that must have been brutal to clear. After another nice night at a good campsite (we did have to pack out a few beer cans left by inconsiderate geeks), we finished with six miles that ended up being my favorite part of the trip. Much of the trail paralleled a meandering stream with a few little waterfalls spilling into limpid pools. The photo above is yours truly at Cascade Falls, one of Roosevelt’s favorite spots.
You will not be surprised to hear that there are rules and regulations for backpackers on the Pine Mountain Trail. Just check http://www.pinemountaintrail.org for details. Then, go out there. It’s a good way to stay vertical and keep walking.
Aside from day hikes, I do not have hiking plans for the near future. But you never know what might come up, do you?