Medicine Man

Thru Hiker Formulary – Gray Mountaineer version

Back in 2017 when I hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT), my first-aid kit was of the minimalist persuasion:  I wasn’t on any prescription medications, so my kit consisted of a few band aids, a couple blister patches, some antibiotic cream, tweezers and a small supply of the hiker’s main friend – Vitamin I (Ibuprofen).  This didn’t take up much room in my pack.  In fact, I probably used less than 10 doses of Vitamin I during my entire 5 month journey.  Even better for me, I never really got sick on the AT, not even a cold.  Fast forward 5 years and the world is sure a different place as I have been busy wrestling with the PCT.  Although maybe not as busy as I would have liked to have been.

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A Day in the Life (on the PCT)

The beginning and the end of a day on the PCT

The alarm goes off at 4:20 AM. This is not a mistake. In the southern California section of the PCT it starts getting uncomfortably warm around 11 AM and with that my performance starts to go downhill (metaphorically speaking). So, I want to start walking right around dawn. Right now that means 5:30 AM. Eleven to 12 hours later I will stop walking. But before any of that happens there is a lot to do.

First off are taking my meds. I’m on one for high blood pressure, another to lower my heart rate (to control atrial fibrillation) as well as a blood thinner. Is it safe for someone taking these drugs to be out here doing the PCT? My cardiologist thinks so. He says that he has marathoners as patients with my condition. He acknowledges that this “cocktail” is not conducive to maximizing cardiovascular performance, which is kind of what you want if you are out here on the PCT. It is another challenge for my hike.

Next up is getting my equipment ready to go. Backpacking means each piece of equipment has its place and you know where that place is, at all times. When you are packing and unpacking you need to be methodical and repetitive. My wife might agree that these are some of my strengths. First up – getting back into my hiking clothes for the day. Then the sleeping bag and pad get rolled up and each piece of equipment that I got out the night before is put back where it belongs in my pack, exactly.

What’s missing from this morning ritual is breakfast. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I started my day by making a cup of coffee then heated water for oatmeal. It was nice but it used a lot of stove fuel and took a lot of time. Now, I just eat a bar. The final thing I do is take down my tent and stuff it into my backpack. I turn off my headlamp and put that away. At this point I can see well enough to start walking. So I do. All this has taken between 60 and 70 minutes.

The night before I had done some calculations – how many miles will I hike today, how difficult will the terrain be, where are feasible places to camp and most importantly where will I get water during the next day or two? In this section of the PCT, water access is always paramount.

I love this part of the day. It is cool and quiet and as I walk, the day gradually comes alive, the scenery for the day slowly revealing itself. I don’t listen to music or podcasts on the trail. I spend my time absorbed in my surroundings. I fall into a rhythm and try to find my zone. At some point I pass my first NOBO hiker and this breaks that zone.

Each day I pass a lot of NOBOs. The trail can be very narrow, often hugging steep mountain sides, so passing another hiker can involve some dance steps. It is a bit of a game of chicken. Who stops first and pulls off to the side? You need to leave enough room so neither one of you goes sliding down the side of the mountain. Sometimes you just smile or wave, perhaps saying a word or two (hopefully not “Happy Trails”). At other times, and in the right terrain, you might pause and chat briefly, exchanging info on trail conditions, water caches, good looking places to camp. But, you always end up moving on pretty quickly. The extended conversations usually come with someone who is of my “vintage”. The young bucks and beckies, as I refer to the younger generation hikers, usually but not always, just hustle by.

The trail is usually rough enough that I spend much of my time with eyes on the ground immediately in front of me. If I didn’t do this then I’d end up doing a face plant. But there is always time for a brief glance up when I pause, to take stock of my surroundings. I might be hiking up a hill via switchbacks and across a valley I see a snow covered peak that might be tomorrow’s objective. Or, I finally reach a highpoint and look back and see a panorama of a couple days of hard walking. It can take your breath away, reminding you why you are out here in the first place.

These moments are interspersed with the practical aspects of my hike. If you are going to make it from Mexico to Canada (or some approximation there of) you need to get in your mileage and that means taking care of your body. Where are you going to take your next break and have some water and eat some calories? Don’t let it go so long that you bonk, emptying your gas tank. I find myself needing to take breaks every one to two hours. Thirty days and thirty pounds down in body weight, this obviously didn’t work perfectly for me!

Sometime near the end of the day you reach a place that might work for camping. Do you stop or push on for another mile or two? Often the young bucks walk into the twilight but that doesn’t work for me. I stop before the sun starts to set. Setting up camp reverses what I did that morning. The first thing is getting my tent set up. This is behavior left over from my Appalachian Trail hike where you never knew for sure if it might decide to start raining. Getting protection from the elements for your gear was always critical. Here in SoCal that is not typically an issue, but old habits die hard. After that, I prepare my evening meal. After a day that has involved eating about 8 bars of various types, I look forward to an actual meal. This is usually a dehydrated dinner that I prepared months before.

After that I finish unpacking, storing my gear in my tent, and getting ready for the night. On the PCT there are typically no privvies (another difference from the Appalachian Trail). I am methodical about this and always take the time to prepare a cat hole near my campsite so that if an urgent need arises I don’t have to waste time getting things ready.

One of the pleasures I find from a day of backpacking is the luxury of stretching out in my tent, finally relaxing after a day that has often been physically challenging as well as rewarding. Before drifting off to sleep, I’ll write in my journal, and review my plan for the next day.

Then it is time to turn in for the night. 4:20 AM will be here soon and I need to be ready to repeat the above, ad libitum.

Buen Camino on the PCT?

Not the garb of your typical PCT hiker

The other day I started the next phase of my PCT journey hiking south from Wrightwood. My next stop was Big Bear Lake, 6 days away. To help pass the time I decided it might be fun to count the number of NOBOs (northbound PCT hikers) that I passed as I continued my SOBO journey.

By the end of the day, 22 miles later (my miles were mostly downhill) I had counted 113 people passing me headed north. I ended my day at a water cache at Swarthout Canyon Road. I wondered if there would be any water left after the number of hikers who had passed me that day. When I got there the guy who maintains that cache (a true hero) mentioned that this was a record setting year for the # of gallons used per day at his cache. I wasn’t surprised.

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Sisyphus Revisited

What would Sisyphus think? The Guthook PCT app faithfully tracks where you are as you climb yet another mountain peak

Remember Sisyphus? He was that Greek guy who ran afoul of Zeus for managing to cheat death (at least for a while). This apparently really ticked off Zeus. So when Zeus finally got his hands on him he was condemned to rolling a stone up a hill in Hades for all eternity. Here is the kicker. Zeus arranged for Sisyphus to lose his grasp on the stone JUST as he was about to complete his task and get it all the way to the top. The stone rolled back down to the bottom of the hill and Sisyphus had to start all over again, and again. Among other things, this proves that Zeus had a very nasty sense of humor. It is a timeless story of misery and the capriciousness of the gods, immortalized by Laurel and Hardy with their piano and staircase skit.

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Pacific Crest Trail: Initial Thoughts

Water Tanks on the PCT. Where squirrels go for a swim

I’m about at the 200 mile mark of my PCT SOBO flip flop (just had to get some thru hiker lingo into the first sentence). I now have enough perspective to offer a few thoughts on my hike thus far. Most of this will be comparing it to my Appalachian Trail experience.

Cat Holing – on the AT this is a nightmare. Everywhere you try to dig you find roots of all sorts. Getting a cat hole dug “to code” is nigh well impossible. The PCT in contrast is a cat holing paradise. Nothing seems to grow here so all you are doing is shoveling sand – just like you are living in a giant litter box. I guess this is a plus for the PCT?

Trail Grade – I kept hearing how the PCT grade was easier because it was designed for horse traffic and thus limited to an average 10% grade compared to the AT. So far I am not impressed. I can report that there is indeed plenty of horse poop on the trail but nary a horse have I seen. Perhaps the poop is planted to perpetuate the myth about the grade on the PCT being easier? Time will tell but so far there have been plenty of steep inclines and places where I’d never take a horse, even if I owned one.

Wind – hands down the section on the PCT from Tehachapi to Hikertown takes the cake. On the day I got into Tehachapi the wind was gusting at 75 mph as I hiked over the final mountain top. I crab walked for a while as I tried to prevent myself from being blown over. I heard later that another hiker crawled through this section on his hands and feet. In contrast all I had to deal with on the AT was the misfortune of my pack cover being ripped off my pack by a wind gust while at the top of some mountain in Maine. But that is more just about Maine than anything else. Remember that in Maine they don’t believe that it is manly to have a bridge for you to walk over a stream – water is meant to be waded through not walked over.

The Bubble – both the AT and the PCT have them, i.e., groups of hikers heading north in a bit of a pack. As a SOBO flip flopper (more hiker lingo) I get to observe the bubble but am not in it. I prefer it this way even though I have to endure jokes like “hey you do know that Canada is in the OTHER direction, right”.

Green Tunnel – This refers to the trail going through a dense grove of trees. This is pretty much everywhere on the AT. No where to be found on the PCT however. Desert hiking is a different animal. The greatest concern is water because this section of the PCT doesn’t have much of it (more on this below). Not much water means not many trees which mean no green tunnel. At times this is an alien environment. Going through the Lake Hughes burn area made me feel like Matt Damon in “The Martian”. Pretty much nothing growing except for poodle bush which appears to be SoCal’s answer to poison ivy, only worse.

Water – I admit it. I am suffering from Water Anxiety. My initial solution was to carry 7 liters of water. Folks, believe me, this is close to insane. Adding 15 pounds of pack weight does not make Jack a happy camper. Gone are the days on the AT when you carried a liter, maybe 2 and just about always camped at a place with a water source. In contrast, on the PCT, you get to read comments like this in the Guthook PCT app: “next reliable water source is a tank in 15 miles. Last year Fred found two dead squirrels floating in the tank. He managed to fish one out but did draw water from the tank anyway since he was very thirsty. Be sure to filter and treat the water. Fred did and he apparently is still alive”. Note to reader – I did not take water from this tank.

Blazes – these are the paint slashes on tree trunks that let you know you are headed in the right direction. the AT has thousands of these. The PCT? Apparently they are non existent. Of course it is hard to put a blaze on a tree that doesn’t exist. And splashing paint on the sand doesn’t work well either. Still, route finding on the PCT can be difficult. I’ve come to intersections multiple times with no external clue as to what to do next except to observe where the foot prints seem to be going. Without my trusty Guthook app I could still be out there wandering around (or waiting to be rescued after punching the SOS button on my Garmin Mini).

Not sure if I am keeping score here in the great PCT vs AT debate. I’ll let the reader tally things up for themselves.

Flip Flap Flop?

Not the flip flop I am talking about (but this site has a nice YouTube video explaining their version)

It’s March.  It’s officially open season on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  People with legitimate thru hiking permits are now leaving from the southern terminus and heading north.  These folks are called NOBOers in the strange vernacular of the thru hiking community because they are headed strictly northbound.  I recently saw a FB post with a report that it was cold and rainy in Campo, the town closest to the southern terminus and a bunch of hikers had holed up in a trailer at a hostel about a mile from the border.  1 mile down, 2,649 miles to go.  This is an inauspicious start to their thru hiking attempt.  And, a sobering reminder that this kind of adventure is far from a walk in the park (although the PCT is managed literally, by the National Park Service).

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Training Daze

Somewhere in Sedona

Possibly the worst advice I’ve ever heard offered on how to get in shape for a long distance backpacking trip came from a facebook group dedicated to thru hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT).  The advice was “just go down to the start and hike yourself into shape”.  People who take this advice and arrive at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia unprepared undoubtedly contribute a huge percentage to the high failure rate on the AT.  According to official statistics about 25% of the people who start an AT thru hike at the southern terminus never make it out of Georgia which accounts for only 80 of the 2200 odd miles of the AT.

I’ve been contemplating these issues lately as the start date for my thru hike attempt on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) looms closer.  My kickoff will occur in early April.  Being a resident of Wisconsin, this presents challenges for how one can effectively get in real training miles before leaving for California.  The problem of course is the thing called a Wisconsin winter.  We are currently in the midst of what has been a really significant cold snap, even by Wisconsin standards.  The temperature, for weeks on end now, has often been in the single digits.  Ice fishermen and snowmobilers, as well as ice motorcycle racers, are very happy with this situation.  Long distance hikers hoping to prepare for their ordeal?  Not so much.

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Mega Millions winning numbers for Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021; jackpot $171  million -

One type of lottery, there are others

For most of us, specific calendar dates can be iconic:  birthdays and anniversaries have special meaning and are cause for specific remembrance or celebration.  Others can be a reminder that you are getting older – like the date on which your invitation to join AARP arrived in the mail.  Finally, there are the dates we share with a wide cross section of others – 9/11 and 7/4 come immediately to mind.  I have one coming up that I am sharing with at least 10,000 other would be thru hikers: 1/11.  This is the date for the final lottery for permits to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2022.  The PCT stretches some 2,650 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian border.  It is part of hiking’s “Triple Crown”.  Together, the Appalachian, the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide Trails total just short of 8,000 miles.  That seems like a lot of hiking miles, until you become more familiar with the thru hiking community.  There are a number of people out there who are “triple” Triple Crowners and one individual who was recently honored for having hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail 18 separate times.  I retired early with the express purpose of becoming a Triple Crowner.  Perhaps not surprisingly, after I completed the Appalachian Trail in 2017 I decided that maybe a single crown was sufficient. 

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Child of Dune

The southern Californian desert as seen from the Pacific Crest Trail

I recently went to the theater for the first time since the pandemic began to see the remake of Frank Herbert’s epic sci fi novel, “Dune”.  I had been preparing for this for well over a year.  I carefully followed Reddit discussions about the release date, read online pre-reviews that speculated on its potential quality, impatiently waited for the trailers to come out, and then reread the book when I heard that that was important for being able to follow the movie.  I subsequently conducted extensive internet research in order to better understand the exobiology of Shai-Hulud (i.e., giant sandworms).  I shared all of this (and more) with friends and then announced to my wife what we were doing the evening of October 21st about 2 months in advance (hint: we were going to see “Dune” on opening night).

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The Nostalgia (aka Magical Mystery) Tour

The Yellow Deli Hostel in Rutland Vermont, circa 2021

Yes, I will stipulate up front that I tend (strongly) to be a goal oriented person.  Always have been.  Just ask my wife.  But the question is whether someone like that (i.e., me) can be convinced that sometimes it is a good idea to stop and smell the roses.  I offer the following as evidence that it is indeed possible:

My wife and I recently returned from a month long road trip back east.  My main focus (i.e., goal) was two fold: first, I hoped to add more states to my highpointing quest and second, I wanted to attend the annual meeting of ALDHA (the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association).  By any measure it was a very successful trip.  I bagged all 8 of the states that I had targeted and enjoyed attending ALDHA, which is frequented, not surprisingly, by people who have thru hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) or hope to do so in the future.

When people hear that I thru hiked the AT, the question I most frequently get is “Why”?  This is often followed by “Did you do this alone?”  In the lead up to my thru hike, I was pretty certain of my motivation – this was to be a physical challenge.  I was single minded about the hike.  I planned it as a solitary affair.  I looked to maximize my time on the trail, alone.   Long carries, avoid trail towns, skip trail magic/hiker feeds.  I was in this for the goal – getting from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, 2,189 miles.  I presumed that my memories of the hike would be all about the numbers – the mechanics of completing the hike.  How many days, how many mile, how many vertical feet gained.

As it turns out, I was wrong.  Life, I have repeatedly found, ends up teaching you lessons when you least expect it.  When you are absolutely sure you already know the answer, you end up learning something really important.  It makes you reevaluate what your goals really should be.

As with many other things in my life, this revelation crept up on me.  Case in point – this recent road trip.  I had just hiked up Mt. Marcy, New York’s highpoint.  Mt. Marcy was hard – steep slopes, boulders, granite inclines.  It started me reminiscing about my AT thru hike.  Then we headed for Mt. Mansfield so that I could high point Vermont (going after my goals).  But, my mind was now more on my 2017 AT hike.  I saw that our next stop would take us near Rutland.  On an impulse, I insisted that we detour into town there.  I recalled stopping in Rutland during my thru hike.  Suddenly, I was telling my wife about the Yellow Deli Hostel in Rutland.  How I had decided to stay there despite some rumors about how it was super creepy, run by a cult, etc.  How I was really glad that I did.  How I met a fellow hiker there (Squeaks) whom I hadn’t seen since entering the Great Smoky Mountains.  How great the food at the Yellow Deli was.  How they invited us to their Sabbath celebration (and we got a free dinner out of it).  How the people who ran this hostel were so nice to me.  How they had a section reserved for the 50+ crowd (which included me).

As we got close to Rutland, the scenery became familiar.  Suddenly, we were passing by Killington.  I pointed out a road that led to the Mountain Meadow Lodge.  Now, I was telling my wife about how I stayed there, pointing out a sporting goods store and a deli where I had resupplied.

Primed by these memories, when we stopped in Rutland, I insisted that we have lunch at the Yellow Deli.  Regrettably, it was closed.  But, the stories continued. How I so loved my stop at the Yellow Deli in Rutland that I made a point of stopping at the Yellow Deli hostel in Lancaster, NH as I was hiking through the White Mountains.  How, the woman in charge there got up early and made us breakfast sandwiches at 6:30 in the morning because we wanted to get back on the trail early.  How I stayed there with Kentucky Straight, an Army Iraq veteran, who was hiking the trail basically with only one lung (that stopped me from whining about how hard I was having to work to hike the AT).

Later on we drove through Bennington and passed by the Catamount Motel.  Now my wife was getting her ear bent by stories of how that was where I first met Rocketman, the person with whom I would end up hiking the rest of the AT.  A retired rocket engineer for the Air Force, he approached me at the motel and offered to share his bottle of permethrin so I could ward off ticks.  A friendship was born that continues to this day. 

I looked at the map – could we stop in New Paltz?  No, it was too far out of the way but I retold the story about how a cousin whom I had not seen in decades, picked me up from the AT and brought me to his home there for an evening meal and a trip to the local outdoor gear store to replace my hiking pole tips which, after 1,400 miles, were completely shot. All of a sudden this road trip was about my AT hike but it wasn’t about the hike itself.  The stories were about the people and the places and the things that happened while I WASN’T hiking the trail.  What was going on?  Who was this person telling these stories?

We reached Abingdon which was hosting this year’s ALDHA meeting. It is near Damascus, VA, a legendary AT trail town.  Now I was telling a story about how I had broken my eye glasses on the trail heading into Damascus and how I ran across the owner of a fitness store there who, without asking, insisted on driving me 10 miles to the Walmart Optical Center in Abingdon where he waited for me while they fixed my glasses without charge, before driving me back to Damascus. 

We passed through Waynesboro, the southern gateway to the section of the AT that goes through the Shenandoah National Park.  Now I was telling my wife about my stop at St. Luke’s Hostel where I ran into Graybeard who that year set the record as the oldest person (82) to thru hike the AT.  How when I was there I weighed myself on their scale and found out that I had dropped 25 pounds that I could ill afford to lose.  How the hostel proprietor took it on himself to calorie load me, feeding me cheesecake from his personal stash and then essentially ordering me to stop in Waynesboro and spend the day eating at the New Ming Garden Buffet which offers a truly epic all you can eat buffet.

Who was this person telling these stories?  I hadn’t once talked about walking the actual trail.

I had a great time at ALDHA.  At one point, one of the speakers started talking about “Trail Magic”, how it was a misunderstood term.  Trail magic, according to him, wasn’t about the food people brought to the trail to feed hungry thru hikers.  Real trail magic was about the unexpected things that happen on the trail, the random acts of kindness, the things you can’t explain, the experiences you have that don’t fill your stomach so much as your soul.  As I heard these words, I thought back on our journey to Abingdon and the stories I had told my wife – about the Yellow Deli, the Catamount Motel, the Walmart Optical Center, St. Luke’s Hostel, Rocketman, etc. And then it hit me.  Despite every intention I had professed to the contrary, despite the passage of a considerable length of time since I had walked the trail, the AT had still managed to teach me the proper lesson. 

Oh, should I mention that on our road trip we stumbled upon another Yellow Deli while in Plymouth, MA.  This one was open for lunch, so of course we had to eat there.

It was magical.