Tag Archives: THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story

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’!

 

 

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The End of the World in Wales

This photo taken one recent morning was in a part of Wales known as The End of the World. The path we followed tracked along cliffs and escarpments with views of sheep grazing in pastures, hedgerows, forests, streams and ancient dwellings.

My trip lasted three weeks starting in Chepstow in Wales and hiking north about 180 miles to Prestatyn on the Irish Sea. We followed long ridges topped with blooming heather cloud-walking with beautiful pastoral tableaus on either side of us. At times we dropped into the heart of the countryside traversing hardwood forests, across grazing land, past castle ruins and centuries-old houses, up incredibly steep ascents and down the inevitable precipitous descents. We kept score on falls, and I was tied on the last day with one of my companions with a total of three. She managed one last fall on the final downhill to Prestatyn, so I was spared the ignominy of being championship stumbler.

We followed an established trail known as Offa’s Dyke, a large berm and moat construction thought to date back to the eighth century A.D. A ruler named Offa required landowners under his domain to build the dyke as a way to establish a boundary and perhaps to fortify the territory. No one seems to know for sure. Regardless, at times, we actually followed a path directly on top of or beside the dyke.

Each night we dropped into a valley to a village, town or settlement and stayed in a local hotel or B&B. We feasted on pub food or whatever was considered best in the area for supper. At least three times I opted for fish and chips accompanied by a local lager. For breakfast we had a choice of any combination of the so-called full English breakfast which can include cereal, toast, coffee, tea, juice, black pudding, baked beans, stewed tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, two eggs any style, sausage and bacon. Obviously, the full monte was a bit much, so we picked what we wanted and were never disappointed.

Along the way we chuckled at the Welsh use of multiple consonants and minimal vowels in city names. We thrilled to the beauty of Welsh and English accents and wit as we meandered along the England/Wales border. We scraped all manner of mud and assorted livestock turds from our shoes at the end of each day. And we reveled at the shimmering beauty, clear sky, magnificent pastoral scenery and delightful culture we encountered — seemingly at every turn of the trail. Each day had its individual charms.

Setting up the trip for us was Will Ainsley of Discovery Travel. I don’t do plugs in this blog, but this guy became a friend for sure, and I would recommend him to anyone who wants to enjoy a trip thoroughly. Email them at info@discoverytravel.co.uk

Wales is not a wilderness. Still, the trip did provide a magical feeling of remoteness. At other times, we had the feeling of walking back in time, exploring ancient sites and wondering if much had changed since laborers more than a millennium ago toiled at building the earthen mound we followed for weeks. If you’re thinking of doing this, don’t let me discourage you. I still can’t quit thinking about it.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.