Running a hiker hostel is hard work – your clientele arrives smelling to high heavens, their clothes are filthy, their equipment is filthy, they are filthy – do you see a theme emerging here? Continue reading “The Appalachian Trail Hostel Hustle”
Running a hiker hostel is hard work – your clientele arrives smelling to high heavens, their clothes are filthy, their equipment is filthy, they are filthy – do you see a theme emerging here? Continue reading “The Appalachian Trail Hostel Hustle”
After 152 days and 2,189 miles I’m finally done with my AT thru hike. 152 days is a long time to be gone from home. By the end, I was pretty much a well-oiled backpacking machine. I knew where everything was in my pack. I had a regimented routine for how I started my day, hiked and ended my day (people who know me will probably say “well, hiking the AT didn’t change THAT about him”). Continue reading “Reintegration”
So, I’m a bit over 1700 miles into my thru hike, currently taking a day off in Killington, VT. I recently passed a sign that says there are 500 miles left to the summit of Katahdin (signs no longer say how far you’ve walked – we’re in countdown, not countup mode). Finally, after I made a recent Facebook photo post, my friends commented on the fact that I’ve lost so much weight they think I might disappear if I turn sideways.
As loyal readers of this blog well know, I am a bit slow on the uptake at times, but it has finally hit home – this thru hike thing is really, really hard (yes, I know that many of you will be saying to yourself “well, duh!”).
After months of resisting or worse yet, fighting, the demands of the AT, I have been humbled by it. The real question might be why it took so frikkin’ long to arrive at this state? Frankly, I don’t have a clue. I think it might be an accumulation of things.
In the past 2 weeks 2 hikers whom I met on trail have called it quits – they’d hiked more than 1600 miles, endured snowstorms, thunderstorms, drenching downpours, roots, rocks, steep inclines, lots of mosquitos and more. They just decided that they’d had enough. When someone you know leaves the trail at this point, it really grabs you in the gut and you wonder “am I next?”
In about 40 miles I will cross the Connecticut River and enter New Hampshire. The White Mountains and then the rough backcountry of Maine await. Most people seem to agree that this final piece is the toughest but also the most beautiful part of the entire 2,190 miles.
My attitude about the earlier parts of the trail has also changed. In a previous entry I labelled the trail builder/designer for the AT in northern PA a sadist. Well, I have rethought that. If you don’t bend in response to what the AT sets before you it will eventually break you. I now think about what the AT in previous states has taught me, in order to be able to successfully complete the whole trail. Georgia and Virginia gave me practice with really long ascents. Tennessee and North Carolina? How to do miles under adverse weather conditions. Pennsylvania? How to walk over rocks and boulders for long periods of time. And then, in succession, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont gradually put those things together with Vermont adding a lesson in how to walk in lots of mud. Of course, there was also great beauty in the outdoors in all these states. Once I realized this, I stopped fighting the AT.
I’ve stopped pushing out 12 hour hiking days to get in 20 or 22 trail miles. I’m going off trail more frequently to get to “real” food at restaurants and I am taking days off from hiking more frequently to rest up and load myself with calories. I no longer care about the arbitrary schedule I set for myself 6 months before I set foot in Georgia. And, after actively resisting hiking together on the trail, I’ve discovered that, with the right people, walking the AT at this stage with a hiking buddy has some really significant advantages.
I’m hoping that all of this means that things are coming together, and right on time, as the last stages of the hike loom just ahead. Somewhere buried in here are lessons that carry over to life off the trail as well. I hope those lessons stay with me once I’m done with the AT, whenever and wherever that may be.
White blazes mark the AT in Pennsylvania
I’m currently in Stroudsburg, PA recovering from finishing the Pennsylvania section of the AT. I’m now certain that the northern PA section of the AT was designed and built by sadists, but perhaps that is a topic best explored at a different time. Anyway, when I woke up Monday morning at the Leroy Smith shelter I decided to make a mad dash for Delaware Water Gap, just to be done with Pennsylvania once and for all. I made it, walking over an endless series of rocks and boulders for at least 90% of the 20 miles it took to get to the end of the line. The AT gods punished this lack of appreciation by drenching me in a thunderstorm just as I entered town.
After 12 days hiking in Pennsylvania, I’m now taking time off to learn how to walk on flat surfaces again. I’m not kidding. My gait was transformed by the AT in PA. I still pick up and put my feet down as if I were traversing rocks and boulders. This ends up looking a bit odd when you are striding down a sidewalk. The people in town must look at me and think “I wonder how long this man has been in rehabilitation since his stroke? He is very brave to be walking around like that in public”. This is the price you pay for getting through Pennsylvania. On a map the Pennsylvania AT looks like it should be “easy” – only modest elevation changes. But, it involves a huge amount of rock climbing. But it is almost exclusively (Lehigh Gap notwithstanding), horizontal rock climbing. That is what you do – each step is climbing over rocks. If you hike the AT in PA you are a rock climber. No ifs, ands or buts.
This brings me to today’s other topic – blazing. The trademark characteristic of the entire 2,190 miles of the AT are the white blazes painted on trees (and, yes, on rocks as well) to show you the proper path. Someone with some serious issues actually counted all the blazes he saw as he did his thru hike a few years ago and reported that there are over 80,000 blazes. That’s a fair number in my book. So “white blazing” is an active verb, suggesting that you are hiking the AT. However, there are other types of blazing as well.
Blue blazes mark the path off the AT to springs, shelters, alternate trails, outhouses, etc. “Blue Blazing” as a verb refers generally to taking a short cut on the trail to cut down on the miles or to avoid ominous features that misguided trail designers have worked into the AT. For example, to continue picking on Pennsylvania, one can avoid “Wolf Rocks” by taking a blue blazed bypass trail. For someone wanting to assert that they have thru hiked the AT, “blue blazing”, as it is called, is in kind of a gray zone.
Less sporting for those claiming to thru hike the AT is “yellow blazing”. This involves getting in a car to avoid pesky features like a 900 foot rock scramble of the vertical kind out of Lehigh Gap, or just cutting down on the total miles you want to hike. In the Shenandoah, there is a lot of talk about “aqua blazing”. Here you completely stop pretending to be on the Appalachian Trail and instead float down the Shenandoah River in a kayak or raft. You can get pretty much all the way to Harpers Ferry this way. I’ve been accused in some quarters as being a bit rigid at times, but I think even these detractors would agree with me that this isn’t playing by the thru hiking rules, so to speak.
Finally, we come to a type of blazing that doesn’t cause arguments about whether you are “really” thru hiking the AT. I refer here to “pink blazing”. Color aside, this type of blazing refers to the art of romance on the trail – and there is a lot of romance going on even when everyone is dirty, sweaty and hasn’t showered in 3, 4 or even more days. Speaking of which, TBS (“time between showers” for the uninitiated) is a way to prove how macho you are and does come up in conversations in the evening around the campfire. I impressed my shelter mates recently when I mentioned that my max TBS so far was 10 days. No one else had more than a 5 day TBS. I owned that night. A word of caution however to those seeking to improve their TBS – maxing out your TBS just before meeting your spouse for a day off the trail does not “max out” your chances for romance.
Okay, yes, I’ve digressed again. Back to romance, even with the TBS factor. Some pink blazing is obvious – for example when you are spending time at a hostel and can observe your fellow hikers at closer quarters (no, I am NOT some creepy stalker). More subtle is noticing the pairing up of hikers who previously seemed to be on solo thru hikes. As in “real life”, the romance on the trail can be long lasting, or tragically cut short. A hostel owner with whom I was chatting told of a hiker who showed her an engagement ring he was carrying, while passing through Hot Springs, NC. He planned to give it to the woman with whom he was currently hiking when they made it to the end of the AT – the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Very romantic indeed. Alas, by the time they reached Damascus, VA (200 miles north), the romance was over and his betrothed-to-be was pink blazing with another. Such is life.
So, I must make a confession. When I decided to write about blazing, I desperately wanted to cleverly work into the entry a reference to Mel Brooks’ movie masterpiece “Blazing Saddles”. I thought long and hard about how I could do this. Surely there was a connection to be made between white blazing on the AT and Alex Karras punching a horse, cowboys sitting around a campfire eating their fill of beans, or Cleavon Little looking smart on his horse with his Gucci saddle bags. But, alas, I must report that I failed. So, there will be no reference in this entry about AT blazing to “Blazing Saddles”. I promise.
Harpers Ferry and the author at ATC Headquarters
So, I recently rolled into Harpers Ferry on my AT thru hike. I stopped at the ATC headquarters there and let them collect statistics from me. As of mid May, over 3,700 people had started a thru hike. I am thru hiker #545 to check in at Harpers Ferry. Many hikers started on the trail after I did and are making there way north – folks refer to this as “the bubble”. I hope to avoid getting caught up in the bubble as it means crowded shelters, campsites, etc.
On the AT, Harpers Ferry is 1023.7 miles from the top of Springer Mountain and considered the psychological half way point of the hike. The real half way point for me comes in a few days where the AT crosses Dead Woman’s Hollow Road. Yes, that is its name. Seriously, someone really thought this was a good idea for the name of a road? I wonder what they call their children? Were they like the Arthur family my ex-wife knew who named their first born son “King”? I am not kidding – it is a true story. Maybe Mr. Arthur was a cartographer.
But, I have digressed rather badly. Back to the main point – Harpers Ferry seems a good point to reflect on what I have learned thus far from my journey. So excuse me while I expound/vent/complain and/or rant about a few things.
1) Worst advice ever for anyone contemplating a thru hike? “No need to train before hand, just show up in Georgia and hike yourself into shape.” I mean, this is just so wrong. The data indicate that ¼ of the people who start the AT at Springer never make it out of Georgia. I believe that is largely because people do go down there and think they will hike themselves into shape. But, Georgia is really hard. The mountains are steep and high (6000+ ft) and come one after another. My advice? Be in the best shape of your life before you get to Springer and have at least 150 miles on the boots you plan to use before you step on the trail.
2) Worst assessment I’ve heard about the trail? This is a tie between “Virginia is easy” and “The Roller Coaster in Virginia is not really that bad”. Let’s break this down. VIRGINIA IS NOT EASY. The AT in the Shenandoah National Park indeed is a welcome break but there are 450 other miles to walk in that state! For example, in the space of a few days you encounter Apple Orchard, Bluff, Bald Knob and Three Ridges – all mountains with a lot/constant granite to negotiate and all involving steep climbs of thousands of feet. Then, there is the matter of the Roller Coaster – in 13 miles you climb 5,000 feet up and down a series of very steep and very rocky hills. The master trail planner for this section did not believe in switchbacks. So, no thank you, the Virginia AT is NOT easy.
3) Worst aphorism ever:. “No rain, no pain, no Maine.” If someone says this to you, please detain them so I can come slap them in the face. If I am not available, please feel free to slap them yourself. There has been a lot of rain this Spring on the AT in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The Smokey the Bear national forest signs all indicate that the forest fire hazard is “low”. These signs NEVER say “low”. I always thought that was part of the sign just to provide symmetry. But all the rain this year doesn’t make getting to Maine more noble than any other year. I’d be happy to reach Katahdin without ever needing to don my rain gear (that possibility was unfortunately eliminated for me on Day 2 of my thru hike).
4) Biggest testosterone question on the AT? “When did you start your thru hike?” This is another way of announcing “I’ve got a big one”. Initially, I thought this was a nice, innocent conversation starter among strangers but hearing this repeatedly has let me understand that it is really meant as a macho lead in to how great/fast/strong the other hiker is because they started on the trail 2, 3, 4 weeks after you. There was a section hiker at a recent shelter who made a game out of guessing when you started your thru hike. For me, he estimated that I had started a full month sooner than I actually had. In other words, he looked at me and thought I looked particularly decrepit. I just let it pass. But I have yet to ask someone when they started hiking – it just doesn’t seem relevant.
But there are actually upbeat things on which to comment:
1) Best advice I got before starting my hike? “Bring a Kindle Paperwhite with you and load it with books”. My friend Michael insisted that this was a good idea despite the added weight and I took his advice. At night, I am working my way through Justin Cronin’s masterful zombie apocalypse trilogy “The Passage” and it has made settling into the shelter or my tent at night a highly anticipated event. Thank you Michael.
2) Best piece of equipment that I’ve added to my pack? A high amperage battery recharger. Yes, most people gradually pare down the size of their pack as they hike – my pack weight has grown. But having the battery recharger has enabled me to continuing using my cell phone without fear of running out of juice.
3) Piece of equipment that I have not yet used? My tube of sun screen (see #3 in above paragraph concerning aphorisms for more details).
4) Stupidest mistake I’ve made to date? Another tie – between stepping on my eye glasses and bending the frames and not properly securing my tent to the top of my pack and having it drop onto the trail without my knowledge. Talk about a surge of panic – when I discovered the tent was missing, it was not, well, my finest moment. I used some bad words. The good news is that I did eventually find it after hiking back up the trail for a number of panic stricken minutes (I have a better system for securing my tent to my pack as a consequence).
As I look forward to the second half of my thru hike, I can’t wait to find out what new aphorisms or pieces of advice that I will be offered. One thing is certain, if someone tells me that New Hampshire’s White Mountains are overrated, I will try to put them in touch with the person who said that Virginia was easy. They deserve each other.
Meal time on the AT.
So, I admit that I am a difficult person with whom to live, especially because of my dietary restrictions/preferences – low sodium, low fat, low caffeine , etc. Not surprisingly, my wife would agree with my assessment. To her credit, she doesn’t often tell me that my eating habits are a pain in the butt. But, after being on the trail now for almost two months, it is true that my eating habits have, well, further “evolved”. I guess that would be the kindest way of putting it.
Case in point: at a recent trail magic event I tucked into 2 packages of those mini powdered donuts, 3 bags of chips, a honeybun, and a banana, all washed down with a “real” coke (not decaffeinated coke zero). In my “real” life only the banana would have been on the menu. Or consider this, I paused at Uncle Johnny’s, a hostel literally right on the trail in Tennessee, just as Yoda (his trail name, not his real name) put out a plate of bologna sandwiches (bologna, white bread, mayo and cucumbers). Bologna hasn’t been part of my dietary lineup, so to speak, for about 35 years (actually, neither has white bread or mayo), but that day I scarfed down 2 of those sandwiches without a second thought. When I told my wife about these “meals”, I expect that she silently wept, then wondered who this person really was to whom she was talking.
The truth is that eating habits on the AT are, well, unusual. Actually, dinner time on the AT has become a favorite time for me – watching what people eat on the trail is fascinating.
There is the woman I saw making a tuna burrito at lunch time. Pretty basic – a flour tortilla and tuna. You know those foil packets of tuna that you see in the grocery store? AT thru hikers purchase those in prodigious quantities and then spend meal times arguing over which version has the best flavor. Anyway, this woman announced that she had these tuna burritos every day for lunch. This gave me pause, given the problems with mercury accumulation in tuna. If she keeps this up, she could become, literally, a human thermometer by the time she reaches Maine, if not before.
Speaking of burritos, there was the hiker I saw the other day making a burrito by first taking her tortilla, slathering it liberally with peanut butter, then adding corn chips, jelly beans and a little honey before folding it up and eating the damn thing. Take that Chipotle.
But there are other approaches to meal time. For example, I made and then dehydrated 135 dinners so I could eat healthily on the trail. And I felt good about this. Then I met a woman who was hiking the AT with her brother and dad. She had made and dehydrated 465 dinners for the three of them while on the trail. This was truly an heroic effort on her part.
But the vast majority of hikers don’t seem to fancy dehydrated meals. Generally speaking if you see someone preparing a Mountain House or some other brand name dehydrated meal then the odds are that the person is only out on the trail for a few days.
Besides tuna, there are of course those hikers who favor Spam as well as the Underwood ham and chicken products but when it comes down to it, on the trail, Ramen is still King. Is anyone truly surprised to hear this? College students and AT thru hikers must make up a sizeable percentage of the overall population responsible for Ramen sales.
Ramen is consumed in a variety of ways on the trail. There are the traditionalists – making noodle soup according to the instructions (add hot water and the flavor packet). There are the creative types – I saw someone “enhance” their ramen experience by adding Cheez-its to the basic soup. There are the stubborn minimalists who eat Ramen noodles raw (yes, I am serious). But, without a doubt, the most famous of the Ramen recipes is the notorious “Ramen Bomb”. A bomb is made by adding equal parts Ramen and instant mashed potatoes to hot water. The resulting concoction is revered for the carbohydrate load it can deliver for its maker.
What is the engine that drives all of this gourmet meal making, at least in the southern section of the AT? It is none other than Dollar General. It is hard to over-emphasize its importance to the thru hiker community. I’ve gone through a lot of small towns near the trail at this stage of my hike. Not very many of them have big box type grocery stores but they all have a Dollar General (sometimes two). These stores have adapted to this reality and stock every kind of junk food imaginable. It is hard to imagine what meal time on the trail would be like without them.
My diet now includes regular doses of Little Debbies, Hostess, and Tastykake products. It is all about the calories. I haven’t yet succumbed and bought any tuna or spam (or munched on dry Ramen). You’ll know that I’ve really gone off the deep end if you hear that I’ve started eating tuna burritos. But, truth be told, my wife thinks I went off the deep end years ago, so she probably won’t notice if it comes to that.
An example of an unsafe building on the Appalachian Trail.
“I think we need to have a safety meeting.”
I first heard this from a guy sitting next to me on day 2 of my AT hike while hanging around a shelter close to dinner time. I was confused and a little taken aback. What kind of safety information did this person want to impart? Was he an official with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (the ATC is an umbrella organization that helps maintain the AT). Did he want to go over rules for securing food from bears or perhaps proper hygiene to prevent the spread of norovirus? But this guy wasn’t wearing anything identifying him as an ATC official (they are required to do this when on the trail in an official capacity).
Okay I thought, something is not quite right here – what am I missing? So, I asked, “ umm, what kind of safety meeting are you talking about? He, as well as the other folks around the picnic table, started to giggle. They explained that a “safety meeting” was AT code for being invited to smoke dope. Now, why you’d need a secret code to decide whether or not to smoke dope escapes me, especially when you are out in the wilderness.
Nonetheless this does appear to be the universal code on the AT for raising this issue. After that day, I heard it repeatedly – about safety meetings in progress, in planning, in shelters, on the actual trail, what have you.
Indeed, it turns out that safety meetings can be held anywhere, as the need arises. Just the other day I was at a great trail magic event happily scarfing down food products that I would never eat under any circumstances in “real” life. Anyway, a young lady asked me if I had seen her 3 traveling companions. As it turns out, I had. I explained that they were about ¼ mile back, just sitting down in a circle right smack dab on the trail. Yes, in retrospect it was a little odd, but I am by nature pretty oblivious (feel free to verify this with either of my daughters) and so didn’t give it a second thought when I walked by them. When she heard this she just waved her hand in exasperation/annoyance and said “oh, they’re probably having a safety meeting or something. Not wanting to know what the “or something” might entail, I ended the conversation right there.
But for me, I reached my safety limit, so to speak, one day after a long climb in the afternoon to reach a shelter where I planned on camping for the night. As I pulled in, I noticed that one hiker (trail name “Fred”) was already there. As it turns out, Fred had been sitting there, alone, for 4 hours. I found this odd – why would you just sit at a shelter for 4 hours in the middle of the day, by yourself? Then it hit me – Fred had not just been having your basic run of the mill solitary safety meeting, in all likelihood he had been holding a one man safety symposium all afternoon. In other words, Fred probably was completely cranked.
Soon however, 4 more hikers showed up. Somewhat to my surprise, the symposium topic switched to tobacco. So now, as I am trying to eat dinner, all 5 of them, are sitting around me at the picnic table, happily smoking like chimneys and I am getting a dose of second hand smoke that I haven’t experienced in years. This was really frustrating: here I was, having just huffed my way hundreds of feet up a mountain side and these guys do the same thing and then decide to go damage their lungs a bit? I discretely moved to the fire ring to finish dinner but, out of curiosity, remained in hearing range.
As everyone knows, all decent symposia end with a Q&A session and this one was no exception. Only one question was raised but it was discussed at length and in great detail – the question was how best to score some dope when they reached Damascus.
This was when I really understood that I belonged to a different category of AT hiker.
So far it has been an interesting journey, and a learning experience in unanticipated ways. In particular, making contact with the millennial generation (which dominates thru hiker demographics) has proven to be quite educational. The pack of hikers has thinned out a good bit but the shelters and campsites can still get crowded. And the weather has been extremely challenging for me – rainy and cold. I hate having wet gear. The trail demands your respect in many ways.
So, I urge all of you to remember this – whether you are on the Appalachian Trail or not, it is important to always put safety first.