Tag Archives: thru-hike

Idle musings for 2019 thru-hikers

Far be it from this writer to assume my opinion is worth listening to. But I have hiked the AT a couple of times, and I do have some gentle advice. After talking to hundreds of Katahdin aspirants over the years, I have learned what the fictional Springer Mtn. caretaker in my book, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, realized: “the only certainly in his mind was the uncertainty of eventual outcomes.”

In other words, as you watch the traveling circus move north, good luck if you think you can keep an accurate scorecard.

So, for what it’s worth, here are a few nuggets of advice if you are considering taking the last great American adventure in 2019 or beyond:

  • Before you take a first step, get serious about what is essential in your pack. Do you really need a hunting knife in a leather sheath? Do you need a bulky, multi-piece cookset? Is your pack one of those nine-pound super-padded numbers with so many surplus cubic inches that you can’t resist filling them with electronics and food that will take you days past your next resupply point? Remember the scene in the movie Wild where Reese Witherspoon puts on her pack for the first time and has trouble standing up? Don’t let that be you. Good grief, I met a man recently who was about to take his first steps on the Approach Trail with 160 pounds of gear including a one-liter bottle of vanilla extract.
  • Stay hydrated. If you start your day with a liter and a half, that is the smartest weight you will carry. And you can reduce the weight quickly by drinking — even if you are not particularly thirsty. Do not wait to hit camp to rehydrate. Some of the worst trail days I have endured were due to not taking my own %$#@ advice and getting dehydrated.
  • Take care of your feet. On the first day of your hike, promise me that you are wearing trail runners or boots that you have broken in with up-and-down trail-weight hiking. Otherwise, you are walking into unknown territory which may include grotesquely damaged feet. In THRU, my Captain Stupid character says this about his feet: “FEMA should be called in for this, plus the Air National Guard and a MASH unit of podiatrists and surgeons and EMTs. I cry when I look at what just two days have done. Blisters began on the Approach Trail to Springer. They demanded immediate attention, but I was so overwhelmed that instead of giving them first aid, I just kept slogging along and hoped for the best.” The Captain got help and survived, but his experience was not typical. Treat your feet better than any other part of yourself.
  • Stay dry. A pack cover will not keep the contents of your pack dry if you hike through a blinding rain storm that switches on and off for a couple of days. Anything you really want to keep dry should be in ziplock bags which weigh practically nothing and can save your sanity.
  • Leave No Trace. If you’re out there, you’ve heard the LNT pitch. If you are a human being, you leave urine and feces in your wake. Remember that nobody — at least nobody normal — wants to see any of that. Bury crap off-trail at least 200 feet away from water sources and camping areas. Also, pack out hand-wipes, uneaten food and general trash. I know most of you don’t need to hear this, but problems still exist.
  • Give it time! If the first couple of days out there are the worst days of your entire life, don’t stop. Give it a couple of weeks. It will get better. You will finally reach a moment of joy that will transport you to levels of transcendence you never dreamed possible. Just be patient.

As I say, I have done the AT a couple of times and I’ve hiked all over the world. I am an ordinary guy with average physical gifts. If I could do it, so can you. Have fun!

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“the 2180” tells the AT story podcast style

Andrew Iden is a CNN producer by day and a podcaster in his spare time. He approached me recently about an interview for his new AT-focused podcast titled “the 2180.” I have no fear of talking — if you know me, please don’t scoff — and was delighted to sit with Andrew and expound on my experiences over the last half century as a long-distance hiker.

After our chat, Andrew cherrypicked the pithiest parts, added sound effects and music and magically transformed our chat into a wonderfully professional exposition of how an old guy’s world has been transformed by his connection with the AT and all the people, places and experiences associated with it.

Probably the best way to get my “world view” of the AT is to read THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story. But to learn much of what matters to me about the AT, a 20-minute investment in the 2180 accomplishes much the same thing. It has vignettes about people I met, my struggle with the death of a comrade and how the AT has embraced my family and friends.

Go to http://www.the2180.com to experience the podcast. There will be great ones upcoming, including a session with my triple crown chum, Susie McNeely.

Meanwhile, stay vertical and keep walkin’! There’s plenty of the world left unseen.

Stealth Thru-hikers Up and Running!

This little piece of plastic is a common sight hanging off thru-hikers packs as they head up the Approach Trail from Amicalola Falls State Park. Again this year, I am participating with paid ridge runners and volunteer trail ambassadors to talk to aspiring thru-starters at the park visitors center ready to walk through the stone arch and head up 604 steps to the top of Amicalola Falls.

Part of my job is to sign them up and hand them the little hang tag pictured above. The tag is a way of saying they registered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and that they agree to follow Leave No Trace rules such as bury your poop, camp on durable surfaces and keep your food away from critters — particularly bears.

I am seeing every type of age, nationality, race, gender and preparation level as we talk to people and send them off. Most of them are eager to sit down and listen to a brief talk about equipment, water treatment, Leave No Trace and common trail courtesy. What I love most is the demeanor of the hikers just as they are ready to take their first step — a combination of grim game face/eager anticipation/”What the %$#@ have I gotten myself into?”

In THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story I describe thru-starters who pass over Springer Mtn. as “starry-eyed Alices going through a white-blazed looking glass bound for a dream they don’t understand with shiny new gear, fresh faces and resolve in their eyes.” Since I wrote that, nothing much has changed — just the volume of hikers.

This year more than 4,000 hikers have registered with the ATC, and there is no way to calculate how many will actually be out there. Let’s hope clueless dolts are at a minimum. Most of the hikers are genuinely nice folks who join a supportive and congenial trail culture. Leave No Trace was never so important if we are to keep ourselves from loving the beloved AT to death.

 

 

Dropping Down to Erwin

When I thru-hiked the AT in 1973, my parents visited me where the trail crossed the Nolichucky River near Erwin, TN. I recall that the bridge was an old trestle affair in those medieval days, but my Medicare-eligible brain may be fuzzy. What I most cherish about the visit was the steak I scarfed down that night in Johnson City.

The next day I headed up out of the river valley on a steady series of switchbacks that seemed to keep me hanging out over the river — sort of a lovers leap sensation. Years later — when I was working on a 15-year section hike — I came from the other direction headed north and descending to the river. That’s the spot where Uncle Johnny’s hostel is now, not as desolate as it once was. Lots of hiking and rafting in the area, not to mention good smallmouth bass angling.

My hiking chums Stoneheart and Trailbeard went through there this past fall and captured the heart-in-your-throat view down into the river. (Thanks to Stoneheart for the pic.) A northbounder has plenty of thrills ahead over the next few days heading toward Roan Mountain and the gorgeous balds north of there. Many AT lovers consider this region among their favorites.

Get out and hike this winter. Cold weather gets the juices flowing. Stay vertical, keep walkin’ and use your Christmas money to buy a copy of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story.

THRU’s a Black Friday Natural!

8175LT3PJ6L._SL1360_.jpgHiking pals, it’s Black Friday, time to consider multiple purchases of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story for holiday gift giving. Anyone who loves the outdoors will enjoy this gritty — sometimes wacky — novel about a group of Katahdin aspirants who encounter each other early in their 2,000-mile odyssey. THRU captures the day-to-day texture of life on a long-distance hike and answers the question asked by thru-hikers: “What have I gotten myself into?”

All proceeds go to the nonprofit publisher, the Appalachian Trail Museum. The humble author receives no monetary remuneration, but he sure has fun on the ride. Make your shopping easy and boost a good cause. Stay vertical 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!

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Rewind Shows No Sign of Winding Down

A couple of years ago, Susan Caster took off on a PCT thru-hike. With characteristic indomitable spirit and enormous levels of good humor, she averaged twenty miles per day, a feat people half her age would envy. Along the way, she was dubbed with the trail name “Rewind” due to her propensity to occasionally double back on the trail to retrieve lost items or see something she missed. As one of the laziest long-distance hikers in history, I marvel at anyone who is willing to add a single step over and above what is required in the daily grind of a thru-hike. That’s no problem for Susan, however, because she has a curious mind and high levels of energy far beyond that of normal mortals.

I took a walk with Susan the other day to catch up on her activities, and it was a delight to hear her enthusiasm for all the places she’s been, all the people she’s interacted with and all the dreams she is working furiously to bring to reality. After her PCT hike, she spent time traveling and exploring in New Zealand and Australia spending much of the time working on organic farms.

Now she is back in Roswell, Ga., but that will not last long. Her next step is toward Northeast Georgia where she is developing something she calls Little Toccoa Creek Farm. Her dream is to develop a small farming operation to supply local produce to farmer’s markets and restaurants. Her challenge is to decide where to plant, how to plant, interacting with her neighbors, developing outbuildings and constructing a small home — all the while keeping everything environmental sustainable.

Susan is a retired educator with a track record of success. She has great kids. She has suffered through the pain of losing a spouse. She is a cancer survivor as well which makes her PCT accomplishment even more amazing. Through it all she has spent much of her spare time dedicated to a variety of volunteer activities — many of them devoted to environment education. Frankly, if I were her, Little Toccoa Creek Farm would be a place where I would kick back in a rocking chair and watch bees pollinate. But Susan is not a contemplator so much as a “doer.”

I wish this whirling dervish of a friend the best, and I really look forward to visiting her new digs near Toccoa.