What In Blazes Is Horizontal Rock Clmbing?

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.


Things I think I know (about hiking the AT)

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.