Tag Archives: Appalachian Trail

40 Yrs of Effort Rewarded by a Man Hug!

About four decades ago, Tom LeVert (trail name Tortilla Tosser) began hiking the A.T. He likely was not thinking of completing the entire 2,190-mile epic walk until 2006 when he and I took on a three-and-a-half week hike from near Connecticut down to Swatara Gap in Pa. Over a dozen years, Tom and I found opportunities to knock off miles — sometimes long backpacks and other times stringing together long day hikes.

Finally a few years ago, Tom took on the 100-mile Wilderness in Maine, the single most difficult stretch he had left to finish. A couple days in, Tom got sick. To make a long story short, he got off the trail,  ended up in the hospital and took a while to recover. I have to believe he was beginning to wonder if — past the age of 70 — he had enough left in the tank to carry out his long-held dream.,

Hiking pal David Hiscoe and I joined Tom a couple of years ago for a second try. This time the Tosser was ready. I won’t say he breezed through the 100 miles, because few can. But he made it through without incident — even knocking off Mt. Katahdin.

Last year and this year, Tom finished miles in Virginia, W. Va., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, bits and pieces he needed to complete his trip. All he had left was what he saved for the very end, .9 miles from the Springer Mtn. parking lot to the top of Springer Mtn. Tom’s wife, Joan, prepared a party at Amicalola Falls State Park while a small army of us joined Tom to Springer for the glorious completion of the hike he so desperately wanted to finish.

Tom is not a touchy feely guy. But he was accompanied by trail buddies who had journeyed with him on the long section hike — myself (left in the photo), Kevin Tanner (behind Tom with the beard) and Eric Graves (right). We know Tom is uncomfortable with man hugs, so we grabbed him in celebratory fashion while lots of pix got clicked. Tom’s face reflects the tolerance of a man who can’t wait to be released.

Later, as we enjoyed the celebration festivities, Tom described his struggles to complete the journey and focused on a couple of critical factors — his ultimately successful battle to conquer blisters and dehydration. Long-distance walkers know that these are among the most important factors to success, and Tom managed to work through the challenge.

Tom and I have discussed new hiking horizons. Tom loves his work as a CFP, so free time is precious to him. Still, I hope he and I — as well as others of us who delight in hiking together — will have fresh new adventures on open trails across the globe.

By the way, if you want to know how Tom got the trail name “Tortilla Tosser,” stay tuned. Someday I’ll tell the story on this blog.

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No sheep jokes please!

Before I turn the page on the adventure in Wales, I need to display this photo taken by hiking pal Susie McNeely (triple crowner, i.e. CDT, PCT and AT). We had just climbed through morning mist out of the town of Knighton where the Offa’s Dyke Path HQ is located. It was a steep, relatively short climb to the grassy ridge where we came to the spot in the photo which had a sort of Mediterranean look to it. The inquisitive sheep added whimsy to the moment.

My friend Jay Dement who will soon be prez of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club observed that the Welsh word for Richard is “BAAAAAAA.” Clearly, I command little respect among my companions, nor do I give a sheep’s butt if I do. Jay and I spent several days swapping sheep jokes before we exhausted our repertoire. Wandering along the Wales/England border certainly provides a sheep jokester with plenty of inspiration.

I am moved to note that the agricultural element of the British Isles is a big part of the joy of the experience. We hiked through fields of corn, sugar beets and all manner of other cultivated vegetation. At other times we hiked through dark forests and across windswept moors covered in purple blooming heather. In other words, there was variety of experience. Each day stood out as an individual memory.

At the end of each daily hike, we bent over — testing our aging, aching vertebrae — and scraped mud and sheep/cow/goat excrement from our boots and trail runners. It’s just what you do there, and it isn’t as bad as it sounds. I’ve experienced the same thing in Ireland, the Balkans, South Africa, Nepal and myriad other adventure venues. Sheep and other livestock — even yaks — are part of the deal. You enjoy their curious countenances and live in the moment. Stay vertical, you all, read THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, and keep walkin’!

 

 

THRU: A Pacific Crest Trail Love Story

starcrunch.jpgHere’s a fine looking pair of healthy American youths. To the left is Andrew, a former naturalist at the Len Foote Hike Inn. To the right is Leigh (trail name Starcrunch after the tasty Hostess brand snack), another former LFHI employee who is also an AT thru-hiker. They are shown near the halfway point as they head NOBO on the Pacific Crest Trail. Since that photo was taken, they have made great progress and actually passed the Columbia River which means they are well into their final state — Washington.

A couple of thoughts about these two:  First, they appear trim and fit but not emaciated. Hikers in the 21st century are more fully aware of nutrition. They can carry food that packs far more into their stash — ounce for ounce — than was once the case. When I hiked the AT 44 years ago, I grabbed what was cheap in whatever grocery store I could hitchhike to. I did not know a fat from a protein from a carb. I snatched boxes of store brand mac & cheese and whatever else looked inexpensive, light and flavorful. I ended up looking like a scarecrow at the end of my trip. Fortunately for me, a 21-year-old body is forgiving. I felt fine even though my family doctor told me I was medically malnourished.

As for point number two, this hiking duo look fit, properly fed, svelte and very happy. I suspect some of the happiness is derived from being together and experiencing the kind of loving partnership many experience on the trail. They are living much of what I described in THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story. I hiked mostly alone in 1973. There were few young women thru-hiking in those days. When Starcrunch was working at the Hike Inn and we discussed thru-hiking, I used to kid her saying, “where were girls like you when I was out hiking?”

I was talking to Andrew a month or two before he embarked on his PCT trip. He was saying that his original plan was to hike the AT, but Leigh had talked him into hiking the PCT with her. He seemed a bit conflicted about his decision.

Being the wise old sage that I think I am, I said to Andrew, “Let me get this straight. You have two choices. Hike the AT alone or hike the PCT with Starcrunch. I’m having trouble seeing the problem.”

Andrew smiled sheepishly and replied, “Yeah, it really is a pretty easy decision.”

Duh, Andrew!

 

 

In the Eclipse Groove!

21032688_10154626056056097_4138275308027879275_n.jpgMany of you checked out the eclipse, so the photo above may match your experience. I chose to go to the Len Foote Hike Inn, a few miles out of the zone of totality but still a fine place to take it all in. Rachel, one of the Hike Inn naturalists, brought a colander out of the kitchen, and we saw a multitude of tiny bright circles with moon shadow crescents in them. A nice Kiwi lady (a New Zealander for those of you wondering) provided me with a spare set of protective specs. You can see me in the middle of this photo — the guy with the green Hike Inn blaze on his shirt — gawking away at the celestial display with all the other Hike Inn guests.

These are stressful times we live in. Sometimes we need to witness a massive visual extravaganza in the heavens, something totally out of our control and much larger than we are, to remember that the quibbling of nearly seven billion souls is but a small squeak in the cosmos. I believe human beings are a great miracle — perhaps unique in all creation. Nonetheless, there is power far greater and intellect far deeper than ours. A little dalliance between the sun and the moon are a good reminder of all that.

So, stay vertical, keep walkin’ and remember that nature is what brings you back to equilibrium, almost every time.

O.J. ready to tackle A.T.

O.J. and A.T. Those two pairs of initials don’t go together naturally.

But I’m hearing that as O.J. — the man who has dedicated his life to finding the “real killer” of his wife — rambles on about his future plans, one aspiration he has mentioned is a hike of the A.T. He reasons that even though it would really be hard, he feels he can do anything.

When you consider what he’s gotten by with in the past, it’s hard to disagree with his rationale. He has managed to literally get by with murder it seems. But I wonder if he can adhere to all the rules of parole while spending each night in a different wilderness setting. As I muse about this, I wonder if he could avoid a cold beer in a trail town which would violate his “no alcohol consumption” requirement. If he got in a heated argument around the campfire, could he resist brandishing a knife and jumping his ideological opponent? Would his parole officer be willing to have “on-trail” sessions?

For all these reasons, I doubt we’ll ever see a triumphant O.J. atop Katahdin. The A.T. can handle just about anything — including O.J. — but I doubt it will happen anyway.

In chapter 12 of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, one of my characters muses about a magazine ad he had seen. In the ad, a man is driving a luxury car and musing about all the items on his life’s bucket list. One of the items he is thinking about is owning the car he’s driving, and there is an X Mark next to it. Among unchecked items is “I will hike the Appalachian Trail.”

I don’t care for bucket lists. They can cause obsessive behavior that can dominate a person’s thoughts for years. I prefer to take on adventure as it comes. That’s just me. I really have to chuckle at a guy like O.J. adding the A.T. to his bucket list. I wonder how long he would last out there. Maybe, like so many other unlikely seeming characters O.J. would shock the world by exercising discipline and daily focus to the extent that he could complete a thru-hike. I doubt he will, and I hope he doesn’t even show up. The media circus would be way too odd.

 

 

Georgia’s most beautiful sunrise

Day after day, we always count on the sun coming up. But guests at the Len Foote Hike Inn get a bonus by seeing the most beautiful sunrise in the state. In my novel, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, I describe how pleasant it is to arise, get a cup of coffee and enjoy the glory of the sunrise, a colorful combination of sky, cloud, sun and shadow interrupted only by gentle murmuring of guests who share the moments with you.

Those who follow this blog know I do a lot of hiking. In the summer much of it is in and out of the Hike Inn where I do the evening tour and give after-dinner program. If pressed to name my favorite place on earth — and I’ve been a lot of places — it would likely be the Hike Inn. I have had the privilege of being on the board for many years and currently serve as president. During these many years, I have worked with great staff, volunteers and board members to maintain the facility in top shape and add sustainable features such as solar hot water in the bath house, a state-of-the-art food composter and now an enormous solar array providing 70 percent of the Hike Inn’s electricity. Many thanks to All Points North Foundation for a grant making the solar array possible.

My life is much richer for having been associated with the Hike Inn, and I strongly urge you to go there if you have not made the trip. Our mission statement is: Protecting Georgia’s natural resources through education and recreation. Many visitors who take this hike deep back into the Chattahoochee National Forest realize how true this statement is after working up a sweat on the trail and later realizing how much they actually learned. Every time I see a family sitting together in the evening playing a board game and laughing together, I think about how great it is that we ask guests to turn off their smart phones and enjoy the reality of the natural world.

THRU begins and ends at the Hike Inn. Go to http://www.hike-inn.com and learn why the place is so much a part of what matters to me.

 

 

 

 

Captain Stupid Lives, thanks to the AT Museum’s publishing program

Those of you who have read THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story are probably aware that the book was the first published by the AT Museum. The Museum has also published A Grip on the Mane of Life, a well written biography of Earl Shaffer, the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

I was at the museum recently and was delighted to see a new display showcasing the two books and highlighting the publishing project. By publishing books about the trail, the museum educates readers and excites them about how the trail can be a source of inspiration in their lives.

I love seeing people wearing Captain Stupid t-shirts. Captain Stupid is the morbidly obese character who was a side show in my mind as I began writing THRU. Ultimately, he became the center piece of the book, a symbol of rising up from the muck of helpless self loathing and using the challenge of the AT to find joy, redemption and, yes, even love.

If you have not read the book go to the Appalachian Trail Museum website and order it from them. Or buy it at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or go to a local independent bookstore and get them to order it. If you buy from the museum, remember to buy a t-shirt as well.

When Larry Luxenburg, the president of the AT Museum, listened to my harebrained idea about a nonprofit group publishing fiction, he proved that brilliant visions are often disguised as goofy ideas. If you have purchased and read THRU, thank you. If not, now is the time to buy this book which is guaranteed to satisfy. Even if you don’t enjoy the read, you know your money went to support a magnificent institution, the AT Museum.

 

 

 

 

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.