What’s for dinner?

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.

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Is it time for a safety meeting?

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.

What’s in a (Trail) Name?

I rolled into Damascus this morning, glad to have now finished with 3 of the 14 states that the AT meanders through.  It gives me the opportunity to reflect on exactly one month of being out on the trail.  Today a complete stranger gave me a ride to and from a Walmart 13 miles away so I could get my eyeglasses repaired.  This is typical of the acts of kindness that occur on the trail every day. All this guy would take from me in return was my heartfelt thanks.  But for me, it solved a big problem (being able to see).

This picture shows some of the folks with whom I shared space at the Greasy Creek Hostel last week as 5” of rain fell in less than 24 hours.  It was only my second rest day since starting my hike (tomorrow will be my third). The hosts at the Greasy Creek are really nice folks. Interestingly, they said that when they first started the hostel they had complaints from neighbors (yes, they have one) that landed them in court. It seems that the neighbors saw AT hikers coming to the hostel and thought that the owners were taking in homeless people. I’m not sure why that in itself is a problem but such is the impression that an AT thru hiker makes after weeks on the trail.

But the topic of today’s post concerns one of the more curious aspects of the AT hiker subculture – trail names. I emphasize that none of the folks in the above picture are associated with any of the trail names discussed below.

Despite that, let me assure you that the following conversation really did happen as I wandered about Hot Springs: “Hey Cur Dog, is that you?” “Gray Mountaineer! Good to see you again. Let’s get together for dinner tonight.  I’ll see if Witch Doctor can join us.  Tinkle and Doc might be around as well.” “Good, see you tonight around 6?” “Excellent.”

When I told the people with whom I worked that I was planning to retire and hike the AT, one of the first questions I was asked was “what’s your trail name”?  Honesty, I hadn’t a clue at the time that this was so important to thru hiking.  But I caught on quickly and learned that there are certain rules associated with it. For example, they are supposed to be given to you by another hiker.

I’ve now been on the trail long enough to get thoroughly acquainted with this aspect of AT hiking.  It is kind of like going into the witness protection program – at least for the period of time that you are on the trail you assume a new identity, tied up with your trail name.

It is just another aspect of thru hiking that seems pretty strange when looking in from the outside.  I mean, what is this phenomenon that leads grown men and women to clamor to be known not as Gloria or Jerry, not Brittany or Fred but instead as Zip Code, In Flux, Goddess or Thunderbuns?  I’m not making any of this up by the way.

Each name presents a mystery.  Did Gas Monkey get his name because of a propensity for flatulence? And does that make him proud of his name? What about Black Widow – certainly a disturbing name to be given. It turns out that she got that name when she discovered a black widow spider nest in a shelter.  Loyal readers of this blog, especially the recent Gimmee Shelter post, will understand that this is yet another reason that I am reluctant to stay in AT shelters. The etymology of Whistler seems straight forward enough but what do you make of someone named Drinkles? Ultimately, people don’t seem to really care about origins, just that they have a name.

Thunderbuns got his name for an act of heroism.  In the night, in the middle of a thunderstorm, he responded to multiple calls for help from fellow hikers who had not properly pitched their tents. Getting out of his own tent to help was noble but doing this dressed only in his skivvies bordered on the heroic.

Witch Doctor gets my vote for best trail name and the most interesting person that I’ve met so far on the trail.  Born and raised in Africa by missionaries, he returned to Africa as a missionary himself (and also played the role of physician’s assistant) before returning home to the US to retire.  His trail name is a natural.

At a trail magic event the other day the trail “magician/angel” turned to me and said “hey, are you Gray Beard”?  I was not amused.  Gray Beard is trying to set the age record for AT thru hiking – he is 81 (I hope I don’t look 81, at least not yet).   Putting that aside, Gray Beard has assumed legendary status on the trail. Most everyone knows of him and his record attempt.  I’ve run into him on several occasions.  His name is well deserved – he has a very full, very gray beard, kind of like what you’d expect to see on a California gold prospector from the 1800s.

But let’s talk about Tinkle for a moment. I met her and her newly wed husband, Doc, when I went out for dinner with Cur Dog and Witch Doctor.  Under what other conditions could you turn to an adult woman and say, perfectly innocently, “Hey Tinkle, how’s that double cheeseburger you ordered?” I mean, what makes someone willing to accept such a name and even freely introduce herself “Hi, my name’s Tinkle, what’s yours?”

In what other universe is this possible?  I’ll tell you – that universe is called the Girl Scouts of America.  Both of my daughters went all the way through scouts and are now life members. I am proud of their dedication to scouting and impressed with what the GSA does.  They take girls and foster their development into confident, adventuresome, independent thinking young women – tomorrow’s leaders.

Despite that, I am ashamed to admit, I relentlessly mocked their use of camp names – Cookie, Cricket, Sunflower, Chocolate Chip – I think you see the similarities.  As they would leave for girl scout summer day camp I’d tease them with something like “be sure to say hi to Turtle Fart for me today.” They did not find this amusing.

So here is true irony – not that many years later, I am sitting in a restaurant with a Witch Doctor, having a conversation with a Tinkle.  My daughters must feel that they have been vindicated.  At least my trail name isn’t Turtle Fart.

Yesterday I reached Hot Springs, NC.  It is at mile post 273 on the Appalachian Trail.  It marked the 19th consecutive day that I’ve been walking.  This in itself is odd, even by the standards set by AT hikers – a decidedly different lot of folks.  Most hikers will get off the trail every 3 to 5 days to resupply, etc.  Today is my first rest day – called a “zero” in AT parlance.

More to the point, I am exactly on schedule with an itinerary I made up, mostly out of thin air, about a year ago.  This kind of compulsive behavior (both making a rigid schedule and then sticking to it) runs against the grain of a core AT mantra – learning adaptability. As you might surmise, the AT has apparently met a formidable foe – my particular brand of psychopathology.  Whether I will eventually get beaten into an adaptable state of mind remains to be seen.

This brings to mind one of those idiotic internet surveys that popped up a while ago on my Facebook feed: “Which Big Bang Theory TV show character are you”?  I already knew that I had a lot of Sheldon’s characteristics (the problematic ones) so I was confident of the result.  Imagine my surprise when the survey spit out its conclusion – I was actually Bernadette.  I choose to ignore this obviously invalid output.

I can easily document that I have many of Sheldon’s “issues”, hopefully in a milder form, although you’d have to ask my wife to confirm that my condition is milder than his.  Sheldon has to have everything in exactly the right (same) place, all the time.  He has a schedule and a system and woe to you if you attempt to alter it.  Anyway, what does this have to do with hiking the Appalachian Trail?  A lot I tell you.

I’ll be honest with you. In the normal, non-AT thru hiking world some of my/Sheldon’s psychopathology leaks out at inappropriate times.  And, let’s face it, it is not adaptive.  We’ll be driving down the road and suddenly I’ll start rooting around in my pockets (by the way, my wife really dislikes the phrase “rooting round”).  I’ll check to see if I still have my wallet, or perhaps did I lose my phone, where did I put the house keys?  You get the idea.

The point is you can’t do this on the AT without going completely mad – you have too many things to check (in a real sense you are carrying your entire world on your back) and you can’t set your pack down every 100 yards to see if you still have your water filter, gloves, insect repellent, etc.

So, what happened when my compulsiveness met the AT?  Well, I sort of beat my sword into a plowshare, metaphorically speaking.  Meaning, I developed a bag system – 5 of them.  All labelled on the outside. Each bag also lists the specific items in that bag. If you take something out of one of the bags you’d best put it back in the same bag, immediately after use.  A fellow thru hiker saw my bag system – “food”, “kitchen”, “miscellaneous”, “clothes” and “bear”.  This obviously sadistic hiker thought it might be great fun to move things around in my bags when I wasn’t looking, just to see how I’d react.  I was not amused. Nor would Sheldon if he were in my place.

Anyway the point is that you need a system to survive on the trail.  Everything has to go in the pack and in a particular order.  Before I start walking for the day, I ask myself “what am I likely to worry about forgetting after walking 20 paces down the trail?”

So far this has served me well.  I have not lost anything, yet.  The point here is that compulsiveness has its rewards, at least when you are hiking the AT.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Sheldon. And while you’re doing that, I’ll get you a nice hot beverage.

Gimmee Shelter

Generally speaking, there are 3 options on the AT when it comes time to stop walking for the day.  You can pitch your tent, stay in a trail shelter or go off trail and book a motel room.  In the last 3 days I have sampled all of these major food groups.
Let’s  review.  Two days ago I walked 19 miles in continuous rain, periodically accompanied by thunder and lightening.  When I got to Rock Gap shelter it was still raining so I opted for staying in a trail shelter to avoid getting my gear wet while I was setting up.  Now AT trail shelters are rustic affairs –  basically wooden lean-tos.  Their claim to fame is that they have permanent residents – rodents (they like the food that hikers bring).  Ignoring this fact of shelter life, I bedded down for the night.   Somewhere around midnight, fast asleep, I was dreaming that someone was pulling or lifting me up.  Was I dreaming that I was a Hare Krishna and was being yanked into heaven by my hair knot? No, I don’t have enough hair for that, and when I abruptly woke from the dream I saw that a large rat, one that any maze running psychologist would be proud of, was actually trying to pull my wool hat off my head. I slapped at him with my pillow and he wandered over to my sleeping companion to my right. Now, did I remain vigilant the rest of the night for his return? Facing the alternatives I just went back to sleep.  In the morning I still had my hat so …

Flash forward to the following day.  This time it snowed all day with wind gusts and it was cold with a low predicted of about 23° F.  As I finished off another 19 miles day I pulled into the aptly named Cold Spring shelter. A hiker (trail name “cur dog”), was very friendly and invited me to share the shelter. Mindful of what had happened the night before, I politely declined and set up my tent in high winds and still driving snow.  It didn’t stop till early the next morning and I awoke to snow drifts surrounding my tent.  It was so cold that my water bottles had partially frozen.  My boots also had frozen shoe laces. But, after digging out the tent and packing up I was rewarded with a glorious day for hiking – still windy but also partly sunny with spectacular views of the mountains.

Finally, at the end of that day of hiking – a 12 mile day – I booked a room at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. I showered, washed my clothes and had real food in a restaurant. It felt completely decadent.

There you have it – 3 days, 3 different types of shelters.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

Preventive Medicine

In a few days, my wife and I will leave Wisconsin for the drive to Georgia and the start of my AT thru-hike.  This has been a long time in the planning.  I was so serious about this being high on my “list” (I despise the term “bucket list” so I refuse to call my bucket list anything other than a list) that it was a major factor in retiring when I did.  I shocked the office I managed when I announced my retirement but really floored them when I explained why – i.e., I wanted to have time to hike the Appalachian Trail as well as other long distance trails.  For many, the reaction initially was, “well, I wonder what the real reason is for him leaving?”  Eventually, they were convinced that, no, he really means this, there aren’t juicy office politics at play.  They were probably disappointed to realize this. Continue reading “Preventive Medicine”

Adventures in Cuy Farming

As parents, we strive to keep our kids safe and prevent them from doing stupid things that might cause them harm.  In part, this is accomplished, we naively think, by serving as positive role models as we sagely impart various important parenting rules.  We also, and this is part of what I call the “parenting paradox”, strive to prevent them from ever finding out about all the stupid things we did when we were their age. Continue reading “Adventures in Cuy Farming”