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.

Tortilla Tosser Conquers the Big K

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Tortilla Tosser (AKA Tom LeVert) reminds me of Civil War soldiers when he poses for photos looking as if he just witnessed a Biblical tragedy. When I reached the world famous Katahdin trail sign with him recently, I managed a smile, but he — characteristically — mustered a scowl. Little wonder considering we then had to make our way in dense fog across the Katahdin Table Land and scramble down the steep scree and boulder slope known as the Abol Trail.

Tom is now a shoo-inn to complete a 40-year section hike of the AT. Katahdin and Maine’s 100-mile Wilderness were the biggest stumbling blocks in his path, and over the past couple of weeks he completed that section. He has about a week’s worth of hiking remaining to complete what began back around 1977.

The majority of the trek has taken place over the past 15 years. Tom and I have done most of it together. Since I had completed the 100-mile wilderness for the second time years ago and had been up Katahdin three times already, I was glad when Steve Skinner and Eric Graves agreed to hike the section with the Tosser last year. Sadly, Tom got sick early in the hike — a result of dehydration caused by a medication imbalance. He not only could not hike, he had to stay in the hospital for a few days.

So, when we started up Katahdin at 6:30 a.m. one recent morning, Tom — a week short of his 71st birthday — was dealing with a low confidence level. As it turned out, he had no cause for concern. As he, David Hiscoe (a 1973 thru-hiker and mid-60s type) and I hiked up those challenging, rock-strewn slopes, we were passed by scores of young men and women who had started months ago at Springer Mtn. and were scampering upward like young ferrets. We, the oldest guys on the mountain that day, ascended at a much more — shall we say — deliberate pace.

But, by God, we got there. Tom had no problems. He was strong, self-assured and happy to check the biggest box of all for a section hiker. I made him hug me, and since Tom is very uncomfortable with the concept of hugging, it was akin to embracing a bundle of sticks.

Hiking the 100-mile wilderness with him was very hard work. But at night, as I lay in my tiny tent next to northwoods lakes listening to the cosmic call of loons, I realized how lucky I am — at my age — to be active and engaged in the Maine backcountry. I first did the wilderness on my thru-hike in 1973. Then I joined my daughter Laura through the 100 miles in 2004 as she embarked on her SOBO thru-hike. Being out there again was a privilege I will treasure pretty much forever.

It has been an honor hiking with Tom LeVert all these years. Tom is a man of the highest integrity and humility. I describe him as being totally guileless. His Christian faith guides him quietly. He still works for a living and is a respected professional in the field of personal investing. But he also is an expert on history with an amazing general knowledge of world history that would shame many highly placed academics. I have learned much from him by just asking questions as we hike along together. His friendship has been a gift in my life and his example is one I could never imagine living up to. So, old friend, congratulations. You only have to climb Katahdin once to complete a section hike, and I’m glad I did it a fourth time to be with you. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Exception for SuperStacey!

imrs.php.jpegI’m wary of stories concerning people beginning AT thru-hikes (or in the process). Before I began my 1973 Maine-to-Georgia trek, I was approached by a reporter who wanted to do a feature on my planned hike. I demurred and asked her to wait until I finished. After I hit Springer, she interviewed me for a story that ran nationally in Grit.

I make an exception for Stacey Kozel who recently passed the halfway point of her NOBO thru-hike. Stacey has suffered from lupus for more than two painful decades. An attack a couple of years ago short-circuited her central nervous system and left her immobile. But refusing to stay down for the count, she labored mightily to regain control of her arms and upper body. Sadly, her legs remained paralyzed. Researching on her own, she discovered a microprocessor-enabled device known as the C-Brace. She battled the insurance people and received funding for two C-Braces at a cost of $150,000. Her ability to walk was restored, and she began practicing wearing a pack and walking on uneven terrain.

Then, she announced she was going to hike the AT in 2016.

Not only is she struggling mightily to make her enabling technology serve mile after mile, she is having to protect her hardware from the weather and other rigors of the AT. She is also serving as an ambassador for all people struggling with disabilities. If she can do this, she feels, she can inspire others. I only wish she had been among the Katahdin-bound thru-hikers I met this year near Springer Mtn. I would certainly have insisted on a hug.

So, I suspend my “don’t applaud until they are finished” rule for Stacey. I love her spirit, and I look forward to hearing what she thought about the rugged trails of New England after she triumphantly scales Katahdin later this year. Stay vertical, my hiking friends, and keep walkin’!

 

 

TIME FOR SOBOS

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As predictably as night follows day, SOBOS are gearing up to begin their annual lemming-like diaspora from Katahdin toward Springer. Those who have started already have borne the brunt of attacks by black flies and mosquitoes large enough to drain gallons of blood, not to mention the sloshy remains of last winter’s snow and this spring’s rain. SOBOs are an odd breed who begin their long peregrination by climbing the most difficult climb on the entire AT and then turning around to retrace their steps downhill to Katahdin Stream.

Then, after an easy stroll down to Abol Bridge, they enter the 100-mile wilderness. Here is an observation about the 100 miles from THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story:

Wilderness is a state of mind. For a NOBO, the view of Katahdin from Whitecap is as close to an expansive wilderness view as a thru-hiker will see. You may see vapor trails in the sky and a column or two of industrial smoke in the distance, but roads, structures and other signs of human impact are hard to pick out. It is a fitting finish, a cooldown at the end of a long workout, a century of miles to wind down the greatest adventure a person will likely ever have.

For the SOBO, the 100 miles is an amazing beginning. After a one-day emotional tornado at Katahdin, the first long stretch of trail is an old Disney nature flick in gaudy color, with blue lakes, azure sky and accommodating wildlife.

Some accounts portray the 100 miles as remote, intimidating and so dangerous it can’t be finished by normal mortals — a canard disproven regularly by thousands of ordinary hikers. It has its challenges, but it is not overwhelming.

The reward of finishing for a NOBO is the view of Katahdin from Whitecap and later, just after emerging from the wilderness, the close view from Abol Bridge.

As I look back now, I remember the day I began the AT at Katahdin in 1973. I was 21 and just out of college. It was the day Grandma Gatewood died. I have just enough lack of humility to think that on that day, I took the WWII generation torch from Emma Gatewood and trudged  ahead carrying the banner of the Baby Boomers. This year, God bless the Millenials. The adventure is as fulfilling as ever!

 

 

 

RIP to Inchworm

How many hikers were simultaneously saddened and relieved to hear that Geraldine “Inchworm” Largay’s death was not a result of foul play? Recent press reports inform us that she left the trail to relieve herself, got disoriented and ultimately found herself hopelessly lost in the rugged mountains south of the Crockers and Saddleback on the AT in Maine. A written note revealed that she knew she would likely not be rescued and asked that her family be given the sad news of her fate. Additionally, stored text messages that were never sent made us aware that she was unable to find her way out of trouble. She died of starvation and exposure.

I am struck by the fact that her cell phone became her enemy. As I spend time on trails these days, I marvel at the way hikers are consumed by smart phones. They are an infernal distraction that detracts from appreciation of wilderness. They also give hikers a false sense of security, because they make the assumption that the phone can cure all ills. Dinosaur that I am, I only recently began carrying a smart phone, and I often find myself responding to its siren call as I stare slackjawed at the small screen.

Apparently, when Geraldine got disoriented and lost, she decided to seek higher ground in hopes of getting a cell signal. We now know that she did not succeed and that her text messages were stored but not sent. They help to piece together the sad answer to how she died, but sadly her smart phone led her farther away from safety. I can only imagine the silent desperation she felt out there as her strength and hope faded.

I was with my friend Tom LeVert when the search for Inchworm was going on. We were hiking in the area where she had been hiking. We felt the haunting sense of helplessness that searchers and hikers felt, knowing she might be out there — somewhere nearby — but unable to help her.

I am reminded of the horrible kidnapping and murder of Meredith Emerson near Blood Mountain years ago. I also think of my friend Bob Brugmann who drowned in the Mill River of Vermont in 1973. The Appalachian Trail is a pretty safe place most of the the time. But when each of my kids took off on their individual AT thru-hikes, I warned them that good judgment is always critical, because the AT — just like every other place on the planet — can be deadly.

My old Boy Scout training to Be Prepared will henceforth include a promise that even though I carry a smart phone, I will never assume it is a guarantee of safety. It is just one of many tools combined with good judgment to bring us home safely.

I send my kindest thoughts to Inchworm and her family. They are my kind of people, the ones who — even in the darkest hours — pledge to stay vertical and keep walkin’ on our great American hiking trails.

 

 

 

Harpers Ferry on a Gloomy Spring Day

As I slacked my buddies through Northern VA, WV, MD and Southern PA recently, we made the requisite stroll through Harpers Ferry. Although nowhere near the halfway point of the AT, HF is considered by many the first of many “halfway” landmarks for AT NOBOs. These midpoint markers keep cropping up well past PA’s Cumberland Valley until you cross the mighty Susquehanna River on the far side of Duncannon.

The morning before we hit HF, my pals hiked through a blinding rainstorm. I spent part of the morning arranging a book signing in Winchester and waited until the afternoon — when the rain had conveniently ceased — to join them on a stroll along the C&O Canal tow path, one of my favorite spots on the AT. We stopped by the ATC HQ and chatted with other hikers and ATC employees, including one of my favorites — Laurie Pottieger — who serves as sort of a den mother for thru-hikers of all ages, shapes and sizes who love making the stop in HF to get their pictures recorded in the ATC record book. Laurie is a repository of knowledge and a patient dispenser of TLC to hikers who feel very proud to have made it all the way to historic Harpers Ferry.

The day we were there, Harpers Ferry was not exactly abuzz with tourists. The downtown area was eerily somnolent, almost as if if had backslidden a century and half to the days when Robert E. Lee took on a feisty abolitionist named John Brown at the still-standing armory. The day was overcast, misty and a little on the spooky side. Trailbeard — a big tall dude who has little to fear at any point on the AT — is pictured below walking past the old church en route to the final ancient stone steps that descend to river level. Note that the venerable Trailbeard is wearing the smartest version of gaiters I’ve seen yet. They are made of a stretchy material that hugs footwear and ankles to keep trail debris out without weighing too much. Just another item in Trailbeard’s magnificent collection of lightweight gear. Check out my Facebook Page to see him in his fashionable rain kilt and lightweight umbrella ensemble.

Harpers Ferry, a treasure trove of Civil War history, is a spot I have visited many times. The first was in 1973 when I met Jean Cashin who held Laurie’s job in those days. She introduced me to Col. Lester Holmes who at that time was ED of the ATC. He told me that I was the first SOBO he had met and ribbed me a little for doing the trail “backwards.” Fast forwarding 27 years, I was in HF when my son, Optimus Prime, strode through town during his 2000 thru-hike. I’ve also visited over the years when working with ATC friends on trail committees and establishing corporate grants. It was great fun to see it again with Stoneheart, Tortilla Tosser and Trailbeard. They knocked off more than 100 miles on the trip as they labor toward completed AT section hikes, and at no time did they have to carry full pack weight. Stay vertical, my friends, keep walkin’ and tell all the world to read THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story.P4280751 (2)-2.jpg

Hoofin’ down the C&O Canal Towpath

I joined my buddies Tortilla Tosser, Stoneheart and Trail Beard on the AT in Northern Virginia, not far from Front Royal. The idea was that I would spot them on their AT section hike. I would park at a road crossing each morning and hike with them for a couple of hours. Then I would return to my car and travel north to pick them up at a end-of-the-day road crossing. This was a rare chance for the three of them to rack up miles on their section hike of the entire AT without carrying full-weight packs.

The lads made their way north over the “Roller Coaster” of North Virginia where a narrow corridor forced trail builders to follow a severe up and down course. Then, they hiked into West Virginia where we stopped by ATC HQ in Harpers Ferry. It was fun getting reacquainted with my old friend, the legendary Laurie Potteiger. As a side note, I met Laurie’s husband on the trail where he was slaving merrily away with a trail crew.

As you will note in the photo above taken by Trail Beard (Kevin Tanner, all rights reserved), we left Harpers Ferry and hiked a few easy miles on a lush, wet day down the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. Flat, easy hiking which made for a nice finish to a wet day.

Over the next few days, I spotted the guys through Maryland where they began to get some sense of the delightful rocks which get much worse in Pennsylvania. Tortilla Tosser has already completed PA, so he gleefully regaled the other guys with how much fun it will be when the PA rocks turn their feet into sawdust.

The next-to-the-last day of the trip ended near Pen Mar Park, a sentimental favorite spot of mine which I hiked past on my 1973 thru-hike and where we met son with snacks on his 2000 thru-hike. And finally the last day ended with the trio more than a dozen miles into PA. Tortilla Tosser has about 170 miles left to finish his section hike of nearly 40 years. We hiked a lot together since 2000, and I finished my section hike in 2014. Now, I feel invested in helping the Tosser wrap up his own section hike. This time out we had a great trip with no injuries and lots of laughs. Stay vertical, keep walkin’ and recommend THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story to all your friends.

 

 

 

Trail Ambassador with a safety pin!

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I joined my hiking pal, Richard Wannall, last week to serve as a trail ambassador on the AT. I forgot to sew on my ambassador patches, and if you look closely at this photo, you will note that I safety pinned them on. Amateurish I suppose, but it got the job done.

Over two days, we saw 75 or 80 thru-starters northbound to a liaison with Mt. Katahdin — 2,189 miles away. They were male and female, multiracial, all ages and multinational. Most seemed well prepared, although some were in a confessional state about carrying too much. The plan was to jettison unneeded gear at Mountain Crossings store near Neel Gap and to swap out certain items there as well.

Attitudes among these fledgling adventurers were positive. They still wore their game faces as they measured foot pain and pack weight against the prospect of slogging for ever how many months the trek would take. One woman was planning a shuttle ride out of Hightower Gap. Another fellow — about the size of the Captain Stupid character in THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story — was lamenting the four severe ankle twists he had experienced in the first 7.5 miles. He had arranged to be evacuated by a friendly section hiker to get medical attention. I encouraged him to improve footwear and ankle support and to give the trail another shot when his ankle felt better. He seemed discouraged, and I got the sense his shot at redemption was circling the drain.

I asked hikers if they were inspired by the film A Walk in the Woods. Few had seen it, though many said they had read the book. I talked to precisely no one who said the film had anything to do with their plans to walk to Katahdin.

A large group of around 40 people were staying in and around Hawk Mtn. shelter. They were calm and convivial. I detected no presence of drugs or alcohol. I noted that at any given time, at least a quarter of them were absorbed in their smart phones. Smart phones are a crutch to wean technology-obsessed trekkers away from a civilized attachment to things electronic. I would hope that the phones will get turned off and ignored more and more as NOBOs become accustomed to the magic sound of the wind in the trees and the chirping of eastern phoebes. Let’s hope.

 

 

 

Emma Gatewood, a legacy!

When she felt that her children were old enough to take care of themselves, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood left a note on the kitchen table saying, “I’m going for a walk.” She then disappeared, and the next thing anyone knew, she showed up on the Appalachian Trail. She left behind a brutally abusive husband and embarked on a life of adventure no other woman had ever dared to attempt. She became thegrandma-gatewood

third person — after Earl Shaffer and my friend Gene Espy — to thru-hike the AT, as well as the first woman ever to do so. She suffered silently under the abuse of her husband. There was nowhere for her to turn for help. For that reason, I think every young woman today needs to know her story and to know that women of the World War II generation had to fend for themselves in ways that women do not have to today. The best source for all this is in Ben Montgomery’s fine biography, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, which provides an engaging look at how she became the amazing woman she was. She carried no pack, just an old cloth bag slung over her shoulder; no tent, just a shower curtain; no sophisticated hiking boots, just pair after pair of cheap sneakers. During her hike, she would sometimes approach a mountain farm house late in the day, knock on the front door and holler: “What’s for dinner?” Amazingly, she often received food and friendship as payment for her audacity. I feel a link to Emma. The day I began my southbound AT thru-hike in early June, 1973, was the day Emma Gatewood died. Perhaps I unwittingly carried a piece of her relentless spirit within me as I battled through mosquitos, bogs, endless climbs, brutal weather and unimaginable temperature extremes before finally reaching Springer Mtn. on Oct. 20. Although I had nothing comparable to the gear available today, I was much better equipped than Emma and a darn sight younger. I never met Grandma Gatewood, but I appreciate what she did for the AT and the way she blazed a trail for women in the outdoors. As a brash 21-year-old male, I had little regard for the physical abilities of women until that summer on the AT. There, I saw women of all ages who could match me stride for stride and frequently breeze right past me. So, thanks to the AT, I learned the lesson taught by the first woman to take on the AT alone and make it all the way. We love you Emma, and we will never forget your shining legacy.

A “Rockin'” Time at the Hike Inn

A while back I sent a copy of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story to the editor of an award-winning blog titled Lady on a Rock. Go to http://www.ladyonarock.com to see this blog which combines great Western hiking commentary and photos.

Fortunately, Christy (trail name – Rockin’) Rosander thought THRU was a winner, and she also took me up on an invitation to see the Hike Inn. While visiting her son, Silly Chili, in Tennessee, the family took a hiking detour to Georgia to see the Hike Inn and explore Springer Mtn. Pictured above (from left) are Silly Chili, daughter Stealthy, husband Dan, Peregrine, Corinne Peach (Hike Inn GM) and Rockin’.

This hiking family were naturals to enjoy the Hike Inn, and we also had fun discussing THRU. Christy asked the question I often hear: “Which character are you?” The truth is that there is no character in the book based on a single person. All are amalgams of the many colorful characters I have known on the AT. Some are close friends, and others are people I met in passing who left indelible images emblazoned on my memory. And of course, some are woven out of freshly woven whole cloth.

But, I have to say that the alter ego in the book for myself would have to be the obese Captain Stupid. The Captain is that person I fear I would turn into if I did not stay vertical and keep walkin’ virtually every day. Walking and hiking are my favorite forms of redemption.

I encourage all of you to go see Christy’s blog. I am envious when I see how a skilled practitioner can combine good pictures, nice graphics, and great writing to make a blog a place to return to time after time.