Tag Archives: Appalachian Trail

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.

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.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

THRU Goes to Ireland!

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Steady, my AT thru-hiker daughter, joined me over the past couple of weeks to hike what many call the most beautiful trail in the world, Ireland’s Dingle Way. I’d be hard pressed to disagree that any place is more beautiful, and to make matters even more wonderful, we were there for just over two weeks and never wore rain gear while hiking. We climbed rugged peaks, traversed gorgeous pastoral tableaus, strode along the edges of sheer sea cliffs and often walked for miles on lonely strands of beaches. We saw sheep, surfers, cows, horses, castles, ancient abbeys, museums, peat bogs, craggy tors, idyllic villages and people whose speech is as much lyrical as communicative. Unlike trips in recent years to the Himalayas and the Balkans which left me exhausted, this trek energized me. I’m eager to hit the Benton MacKaye Trail in a few weeks. Hiking with Steady was a treasured experience. She seemed ready to chuck her return flight ticket and stay in Ireland forever. Stay vertical, my friends, and keep walkin’!