Tag Archives: THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story

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.

 

 

 

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’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

High Five Gives Thumbs Up to THRU!

The terrific Appalachian Trials blog based on a fine book by the same name has a wonderful review of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story written by High Five, a talented writer who also happens to be a thru-hiker. High Five and her thru-hiker husband gave a positive review of THRU and even suggested it as a great gift idea for the upcoming Christmas season. Click here to read: http://appalachiantrials.com/book-review-thru-an-appalachian-trail-love-story/

And remember to stay vertical and keep walkin’!

I NEED TO TAKE THEM MORE SERIOUSLY!

I NEED TO TAKE THEM MORE SERIOUSLY!

Anecdotal evidence — mostly what I hear from fellow hikers and read in the newspaper — has me thinking there are more bears out there this year, not to mention more venomous snakes. I have heard reports from several hikers detailing bear and snake sightings. I always breeze past black bears, thinking of them as little more than big dogs. (Grizzlies have always been a different matter altogether). I need to remember that a black bear has the speed, power, teeth, jaw strength and paws to make a real mess of a human being. Reports of black bear attacks are rare, and when they do occur they are normally provoked by idiotic human behavior. Still we owe it to them and ourselves to give them a wide berth and respect their well-earned place in nature. Stay vertical, watch for snakes and keep walkin’!

Thanks for the Kind Words from “Books For Hikers”

“Books For Hikers” is the go-to spot on the internet for information about books and other media dealing with trails and hiking. THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story has just been showcased as their featured book. Go to http://www.booksforhikers.com and read about it. You can also go to http://www.pojonews.co/1gpopKX to see a cleverly written review of THRU by Poughkeepsie Journal columnist Ralph Ferrusi. Ralph was skeptical that a novel about the AT had anything new to say, but his wife loved it and badgered him until he read it. He said that it “might just kick off a ‘THRU’ generation” and that it was a “heckuva 2,000-mile read.” If I can make it in Poughkeepsie, I can make it anywhere.