2013 AT Hike Prep.

Full Pack Practice

A Lake Along the Hike

A Lake Along the Hike

Last week I received an email from a former thru hiker who has been reading my journal. Bob was the same age when he completed his hike that I will be when I hopefully finish mine. I’m definitely listening to some of the advice he has graciously offered. To begin with, he told me that he started hiking regularly with a full pack about a year before he left from Springer. With fewer than four months remaining before my departure, I decided that it was time to go for a hike.

I retrieved the old Kelty Tornado from a storage room off my garage and loaded it with 32 pounds of hard cover books. At least that’s the weight that the bathroom scale indicated. After adding a bottle of Gatorade and another of water, I shouldered the pack and headed for a nearby park. With the temperature in the upper 40’s and a bright sun overhead, the day looked like the perfect one for that first “practice hike” in preparation for March.

The hike began in a fortuitous manner as I spotted a shiny nickel before travelling the first one hundred yards. I bent down and picked it up, remembering days of youth when finding a coin brought so much excitement to a boy of ten. Those were the days when a found quarter would purchase a coke, a candy bar, and a comic book as well. So I pocketed the five cent piece, partly for good luck, but mainly just for reasons of nostalgia. If I had been on the AT, I might have left it where it lay, not wanting to add extra weight.

As I walked toward the park through neighborhood streets, the pack felt odd at first. By the time I reached my destination, a little less than a mile from home, I was again getting accustomed to the added weight on my back. So for almost exactly three hours I walked on wooded trails. They were fairly flat, with only minor undulations along the way; however, my 8.6 mile walk proved to be a good workout. Twice I stopped for short breaks of about five minutes each, and I paused three times to speak with acquaintances who were also out for a stroll on a beautiful afternoon.

Walking along a lake at various times while in the park, I asked a couple of fishermen if they were catching anything. One replied that he had just arrived but motioned to another who he said had a “bucket of fish.” I didn’t stop to look, but I know that I would have, if I had been hiking on the AT. I look forward to chatting with locals along the trail, especially those who are sitting by a pond, lazily passing an afternoon.

When I arrived back home and evaluated this first hike with a full pack, I was pleased to find that other than a little stiffness in my right hip, everything seemed to feel fine. Still, it was only 8.6 miles of rather flat terrain. But I was carrying over 30 pounds which is no small order. After I decide on a new pack and other significant gear, I’ll hopefully get the pack weight down considerably before arriving on Springer. The day was a gorgeous day for a hike in the park, as I’m sure many days will be when I start my walk on the Appalachian Trail.

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Spirit Run

Leafy Trail in the Park

Leafy Trail in the Park

When I coached high school cross-country, I almost always provided the young ladies and young men on my teams with pre-planned daily workouts which I expected them to execute. On rare occasions, however, we would do what I called spirit runs. I use the pronoun “we” because in my 30’s and early 40’s, I did all the workouts with the team. So it was both the members of my teams as well as I who looked forward to these special days. We all embraced the idea of leaving campus for a run on the roads, or trails, or simply through the woods around the school, wherever the spirit led us. A leader would be selected to navigate for a while until another leader emerged from the pack. There were really no specific rules for these runs. We just ran.

These days I usually begin my runs from home, weaving through neighborhood streets to a picturesque park with roads and trails and, yes, even woods through which to roam. Like with my cross-country teams, I know which route I plan to take and how far I’m going to run, before the workout begins. Today was different. As I ran toward the park, I decided that when I arrived there, I would resurrect the days of yore and embark on a spirit run. For about an hour, I ran in parts of the park that I had not traversed in years. I strode down rutted gravelly roads, over dirt embankments, and through unmarked trails, all the time hearing the crackling leaves beneath my feet. And I felt moved by the spirit within me.

At one point as I headed up a short incline, I noticed a solitary lady enjoying her lunch at a cement picnic table under a pavilion. I wondered what items might have been stored in the red, canvas container. Had I been hiking the Appalachian Trail, rather than running through a public park, I might have stopped, engaged her in conversation, and perhaps been offered a morsel from her bag or a cold drink. But on this day the spirit moved me to run, and I complied.

Toward the back of the park a prison crew took a break for lunch. One tall, lanky, very young looking inmate stood by the lake, tossing bread crumbs toward a gaggle of geese that flapped their wings in appreciation. I wondered if he might have been thinking of another time when perhaps he had fed geese or ducks as a child. Perhaps he had stood at this same lake with the innocence of a five year old, smiling as the ducks quacked in his direction. Yet now he stood amidst the beauty of nature, clad in attire which let all around him know that, as his clothing stated, he was a state prisoner.

Around the next bend in the trail, two silver haired ladies approached. They had both tied knit sweaters around their waists, baring their arms on the unseasonably warm early December afternoon. Just before we met, one warned, “Watch out for that root there.” I looked down at the gnarly growth protruding from the base of the oak. There are roots aplenty on the Appalachian Trail. Just as I stepped to my left to avoid this one on today’s run, I’ll need to hike the AT with a watchful eye, always anticipating a potential fall up around the next bend.

When I begin my attempt of a thru hike next March, there may be times that I just want to let the spirit move me. I realize that the white blazes are there to guide me along my way. But I may take a detour now and then. Sure, I plan to pass all the blazes as I walk, but an opportunity may also present itself to meander down to a rushing stream or to a cascading waterfall, hidden away in the woods.

In a section of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Byron states, “There is pleasure in the pathless wood.” Despite having directions to follow in life, or blazes to follow on the trail, at times I believe we all want to just set out on our own. We so often move in a rhythm that has been pre-determined for us. We stay in line; we obey the rules; we follow the blazes. At other junctures of our lives, however, we may just want to let the spirit move us. As I ran today the spirit moved me. Most days when I finish a run, I know exactly how many miles I’ve covered. Today I merely estimated. Does it really matter? When we walk or run or hike, isn’t it really the beauty of nature that should take precedence over all other incidentals?

When I leave from Springer I will constantly be in search of the next white blaze. Collectively these vertical, rectangular marks will lead me to Maine. Still, I hope if I’m so inclined, that I’ll take a few minutes now and then to amble into the pathless woods where the spirit leads me. I realize that it can be dangerous to wander too far from the marked trail; therefore, I’ll eventually pause and let the spirit lead me back. After all, what could be nicer than a spirit filled day along the Appalachian Trail.

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Learning on the Move

On the Way to Maine

On the Way to Maine

In Oscar Wilde’s 19th century comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell asks John Worthing whether he knows everything or nothing. She poses this question when she is interviewing him regarding his marriage proposal to her daughter, Gwendolyn. Mr. Worthing’s reply is, “I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.” When it comes to an Appalachian Trail thru hike, I might cite the same answer. As I prepare for my AT venture, I sometimes feel as if I know nothing. Sure, I’ve hiked over 1000 miles of the trail in sections; however, section hiking is only a mere microcosm of a thru hike.

From the first day of a section hike, the backpacker, whether seasoned or a rookie, knows that his hike is going to end in a few days or at the most two or three weeks. Knowing this, he may already be in the “countdown to completion” frame of mind from the outset. No matter what circumstances he faces, there are at all times only a few days remaining. Plus with a section hike, there is also the opportunity to “cut it short” if conditions aren’t favorable. Section hikers often take several years to complete the trail.

The thru hiker, on the other hand, knows from the beginning that if his hike is going to be successful, he will be on the trail for five or six months. Even the faster hikers face over four months of continuous hiking. Sure, days become weeks, and weeks eventually become months, but it takes a lot of days of hiking to reach a point where an end is in sight. The monotony of the trail at times can be overwhelming, especially when four or more consecutive nights are spent in the woods. This is why I feel like a stay at a hostel or a motel is mandatory at least every four or five days. With some creative maneuvering, this is possible.

So as I continue to prepare for my attempt at a 2013 thru hike, I’ll keep remembering that, like John Worthing, I definitely come closer to knowing nothing than I do to knowing everything. In reality, I do of course know some things. What I do know I hope will help me in overcoming what I don’t. I also hope that my ignorance of certain aspects of a thru hike may be beneficial as I seek to discover and learn from my shortcomings. Therefore, in the next few weeks, I will continue to research gear in order to make practical and intelligent choices for a thru hike. I’ll also read all that I can from former thru hikers in an effort to learn and benefit from what knowledge they have to share.

When I set out from Springer next spring, I may still not know everything, but as the days and weeks go by, I know that I’ll learn from those who accompany me on our journey north. I’ll try to keep an open mind and a willingness to accept suggestions and benefit from occasional criticism. After all, it is more probable that the hiker who knows nothing, but is willing to learn as he hikes, will have a greater chance of success than the hiker who departs from Springer thinking he knows everything there is to know about a thru hike. If you see me on the trail and have a suggestion, please let me hear it. I fully expect to rely on my fellow pilgrims to make it all the way to Katahdin and the end of the Appalachian Trail.

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Befriending the Rocks

Pennslyvania Trail

Pennslyvania Trail

For many, the word “trail” conjures up a picture of a flat, peaceful path, winding aimlessly through a picturesque backdrop of blooming posies. Or it may bring to mind a straight, rutted country road leading to the home of someone’s grandmother. Or then again, the word “trail” may evoke an image of a lengthy dirt lane snaking through the countryside. Whatever the image, the “trail” in our heads is more often than not much different from the Appalachian Trail.

So when you tell someone that you’re going to hike the Appalachian Trail, they often think that you are merely going for a long walk through the woods. Still, most of those who enjoy the outdoors would like to have the opportunity to hike along a scenic trail. What many who have never seen the trail believe, however, is that even though the terrain may prove challenging at times, really, after all, it’s just a trail.

Yes, at times it is just a trail. At others, however, it’s much more. You see, there are a lot of rocks on the Appalachian Trail. And when I say rocks, I don’t mean the kind you pick up to skim across a lake. Sure, there are some like those. But there are also sharp, jagged rocks, and trash can size rocks, and compact car size boulders. Some you have to climb over using your hands; some are knives edges, with drop-offs on either side of sometimes several hundred feet. You can slip on a wet rock and take a tumble or worse. Sometimes a strategic approach, for which rocks to step on in order to advance from point A to point B, is necessary. In fact, one state in particular is so noted for its rocks that it has earned the nickname Rocksylvania.

While some rocks do prove challenging to navigate over or around, some may actually help you with your hike. There are stepping stone rocks over streams. There are also staircase rocks that make certain portions of the trail easier to negotiate. There are even occasionally chair-like rocks, jutting out of a mountain, that appear just when you need a place to rest.

Rocks on the Appalachian Trail may indeed become my enemy; however, as I hike the trail I’m going to try to befriend them. After all, why should we view them as adversaries when we will have to encounter them daily? Would you rather consider the rocks obstacles that hinder your advancement to Maine or as companions that quite often offer you a more direct route? Rocks perhaps at times will complicate my movement, but at others they may afford me one of those views that previously I’ve only seen in pictures. Many a day, a rock has been a place to sit to enjoy a scenic vista and a peaceful interlude. The more we come to accept our daily duels with rocks, the more we will appreciate our walk along the Appalachian Trail.

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Tis Not Too Late to Seek a Newer World

Near Max Patch, October, 2012

Near Max Patch, October, 2012

As I plan and prepare for my attempt at a 2013 thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, I am reminded of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Ulysses.” After having been away from his wife and son for twenty years, the now graybeard Ulysses has finally returned home. Having experienced a plethora of adventures during those two decades, Ulysses quickly grows restless. He remembers fighting with his comrades on the hills of Troy as well as events that occurred during the return voyage. And as he remembers, he longs for new adventure. Despite being reunited with a faithful wife, Penelope, he realizes that his life can never again be confined to his home of Ithaca. After all, neither his now grown son, Telemachus, nor the citizens of the city he once ruled, really knows him.

Therefore, he urges his fellow mariners to join him on another great adventure. When Ulysses proclaims that it is “not too late to seek a newer world,” he is charging all with the responsibility, the duty to continue on the quest to become the person we were intended to be. He reminds us not to “rust unburnished, but to shine in use.” He challenges us “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

I believe that for all of those “over 60” would-be thru hikers of the Appalachian Trail that Tennyson’s words ring true. Like Ulysses, we are perhaps seeking a “newer world,” a world for some free of obligations and stress; for others a world free of loneliness or boredom. The “retired” hiker wants to replace the perhaps daily feeling of “wondering what he is going to do” with wonderment. He wants to breathe deeply from the mountain air; he wants purpose again in his life. And like Ulysses, the older thru hiker is seeking. He still seeks meaning in a life that may have only a decade or two remaining.

The youthful hiker, however, may be attempting to make some sense of a post college existence. He may be escaping from the rigors of a classroom to a carefree, solitary jaunt through the woods prior to settling into the routines of responsibility. And he hopes that what he learns on this pre-full time employment peregrination will sustain him in the years to come. He may flaunt his youth as he bounces over tough terrain, but simultaneously he will appreciate the less agile footfalls of the aging hiker. And as the miles and days go by, each will view the other with respect and admiration as they walk together toward Katahdin.

The Appalachian Trail can toughen you or break you. It can offer you solace and contentment; it can bring you to your knees with frustration and pain. Ulysses knew frustration as he tried to navigate his way back home, but he also knew solace as he found moments to rest under the stars. Like so many aspects of life, we too are engaged in an odyssey of sorts. We expect to confront obstacles that may force us to take a detour on the road of life. We also hope for a path that will provide us perspective and direction. Whatever the reason for hiking, all are pilgrims together on the Appalachian Trail.

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Just Passin’ Thru

Winton's Book and My New Poles

Winton’s Book and My New Poles

After my recent hike beginning at Unicoi Gap, I decided that a trip to Neel’s Gap was also in order. Neel’s Gap is where the fabled Mountain Crossings at Walasi Yi is located. Even though I had visited the historical site on three other occasions, this was to be the first time I would arrive with a filled pack ready to be evaluated. Much to my good fortune, it was Winton Porter who asked if he could help me with my search for hiking gear. After explaining to him that I was planning to attempt a thru-hike in the spring, and that I would need several new pieces of gear, Winton was gracious enough to devote well over two hours of helpful advice. Our conversation primarily centered on my selection of a light weight sleeping bag and pack; however, Winton also advised me on shoes, hiking poles, a stove, and a few other essential items.

In addition to my gear education, we also discussed running, an interest that I discovered Winton shares with me. Amid the hiking discussion, the running discussion, and the gear discussion, time zoomed by. Not really wanting to purchase either the pack or sleeping bag without doing a bit more research, I finally declared to Winton that since I had taken so much of his time that I felt obligated to buy something. He suggested an autographed copy of his award winning book, Just Passin’ Thru. Even though I appreciated Winton’s suggestion, I still felt like a more substantial order was warranted. Since the hiking poles I have been using are both cheap and in poor condition, I purchased a pair of Leki corklite poles for my upcoming thru-hike attempt. These should suit me well.

Before leaving Mountain Crossings I chatted briefly with another employee, George, a thru-hiker from 2009. Three south bounders, who were planning to complete their venture in the next two days, were also relaxing out front. As the afternoon waned, I wondered how I would feel with only two days remaining of a five month adventure. Like so many, I look forward to passing through the stone arch as I walk toward Maine next March.

If you’re within a few hours’ drive of the famous structure at Neel’s Gap, I would recommend a visit prior to your hike. Winton and all of his employees possess a wealth of hiking knowledge that they will gladly share with all who ask. And by the way, I did pick up a copy of Winton’s book. It has proved to be both enlightening and entertaining. I would call it a must read for anyone contemplating a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.

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Unicoi Gap Hike, Nov. 15, 2012

A Bear in the Woods

A Bear in the Woods

Late last week I had the opportunity to drive up to the North Georgia Mountains for a couple of days. While there I decided to do a day hike on the Appalachian Trail. Since I viewed the hike as somewhat of a practice venture, I decided that a practice journal entry for the hike would also be appropriate. Even though most of my journal entries while on the trail will be from my phone, this one is being typed at my computer in the comfort of my home. I’ll wait until later to practice writing a journal entry in a tent, with freezing temperatures, snuggled into a sleeping bag, using my phone. At this time there’s no point braving the elements to record the adventure.

Every hike has the possibility of being an adventure. On the Appalachian Trail is seems like daily adventures collectively become one major adventure. When I set out at Unicoi Gap for what I planned to be a 7.2 mile out and back hike to the Cheese Factory camping site, I anticipated a solitary, less than eventful morning. For about 90 per cent of the hike, I was correct. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me get back to the beginning of the day.

After arriving in Helen, Georgia, a Bavarian themed village of sorts about 10 miles from Unicoi Gap (at the 50.9 mile mark of the trail), I checked in at a local motel. Since it was approaching sundown, I decided to wait until the next morning to visit the AT. Having already section hiked all of Georgia, I merely wanted to re-acclimate myself to the rigors of the trail. I purposefully left my sleeping bag at home so that I would not be tempted to spend a cold night in the woods. After all, the motel offered a blazing fire in the lobby, coffee and cider, and the chance to listen to a group of dulcimer players who were in town for a yearly convention.

Well getting back to the trail, I awakened just before 6:00 with the intention of starting my hike at 7:00. When I noticed that it was still very dark and a cold mist covered the mountains, 7:30 and daylight began to sound better for a starting time. So I leisurely enjoyed my waffle, sausage, and coffee, from the motel’s complimentary buffet, before driving up to Unicoi Gap. Several of the dulcimer folks were dining as well. Although I thought about engaging one of the couples in a conversation regarding an instrument whose sound has always fascinated me, instead I tried to stay focused on the ensuing hike.

In my car, I navigated the winding road up the side of the mountain toward the gap, arriving at about 7:15. The day was cold and foggy, but the light rain had subsided. When I took my first step on the trail, headed northward, my watch showed that it was 7:25. Although visibility was only fair for the first hour, I made good time reaching the top of Rocky Mountain. I purposefully chose this section for my “practice” hike since there was over a 1000 foot accent during the first 1.3 miles. Since I hadn’t hiked any on the trail in over three years, I wanted a challenge from the beginning. Not really remembering the first time I was at this section very well, the climb seemed a little less difficult than I had expected. There were an abundant number of switchbacks and rock staircases in places as well. With any hike on wet rocks, however, I always worry about slipping. Fortunately I only slipped a couple of times and was able to cover the entire distance without falling.

After reaching the crest of Rocky Mountain, the hike meandered briefly before a descent began toward Indian Grave Gap. There was another less severe climb toward Tray Mountain Rd. just before I arrived at my turnaround point, the Cheese Factory Site. Most of the foliage in the area had dissipated, but the ground cover of varying shades of yellow, red, and orange leaves afforded a beautiful backdrop for a brief respite and a sip of water. Since I hoped to conclude the hike around 10:30, I quickly re-shouldered my daypack and started back toward Unicoi Gap and my car.

Up until this point I had neither seen nor heard any other living creature on the trail. As I began the return trip, sunlight filtered through the few remaining leaves. I paused for another short break at the only vista on this short section and snapped a few pictures of the fog covered mountains in the distance. Peacefulness abounded as I steadily hiked back up the north side of Rocky Mountain to its apex. After another brief rest for water, I started back down the now 1000 foot descent. It was just a very nice day, but what was about to happen would make it even nicer.

Just to my left, about 20 yards in front of me, a rather large black bear came bounding down the mountainside. After crossing the trail, he stopped and looked in my direction. For what could have only been two or three seconds, we stared into each other’s eyes. With what I’ve come to regard as due respect in nature, the bear and I silently connected. Then just as quickly as he had appeared, the bear jogged westward down a slope. When he stopped again, I was able to zoom in for a picture. Although he is at a distance in the photo, I know it’s a bear. As I kept walking, I looked over my shoulder a couple of times to make sure he hadn’t changed directions toward me. So after seeing no people or wildlife for over six miles, I had the good fortune to have a close encounter with a bear on my first hike on the AT in over three years. The bear sighting made my hike complete.

The last mile downhill on Rocky Mountain required a little more diligence than the uphill climb a couple of hours earlier. Still I made it back to my car by 10:35. For my first experimental hike, I had covered 7.2 miles with two fairly challenging ascents in just over three hours. Despite the early morning chill, the foggy conditions, and the lack of companionship, my short day hike of mid-November proved to once again be a very good day on the Appalachian Trail.

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A Bend in the Road of Life

Trail near Unicoi Gap, GA

Having already hiked over 1000 miles of the Appalachian Trail is a definite advantage for someone planning a thru hike. Having already hiked over 1000 miles of the Appalachian Trail may prove to be a disadvantage for someone planning a thru hike. Knowing just what awaits around the next bend or up over the next ridge may bring a smile to one’s face and a pleasant memory to the mind. Knowing just what awaits around the next bend or up over the next ridge may evoke an emptiness in one’s stomach, a soreness in some body part, a reminder of the agony felt at this same place, another time…on another hike.

But isn’t that what life is like. Just when everything is moving along comfortably, we hit a bump in the road. In our memories we constantly revisit the past, sometimes wanting to repeat those wonderful events from long ago. More often than not we forget, or block out the memory of, the less than desirable occurrences that may have come before, or after, or even paralleled the good times. Still, we reminisce, we long for; we might even yearn for bygone days when we were stronger, thinner, more flexible, faster….youth.

And so it goes on the Appalachian Trail. You awaken one morning early in the hike to sunshine. Despite the fatigue in your muscles and the blister on your heal, you break camp with enthusiasm, eagerly anticipating the climb up the next mountain. The walk goes smoothly along the pine straw covered path. Birds chirp; the sunlight filters through the budding hardwoods; the crisp early spring morning is invigorating. You are hiking the AT. Then the climb begins. The sun gets higher and warmer. Sweat beads up on your forehead. You remember the blister and the soreness in your shoulders returns. You pause and look up to what seems an insurmountable task, reaching the summit of yet another mountain. You realize that you’re still in Georgia. There are 13 more states to follow and many mountains to crest. Still you walk. You reach the top; you admire the view; you try to think of a better word than “breathtaking” to describe what you see. You rest, and then you move on until the end of another day, a good day, on the Appalachian Trail.

As I hope to accomplish the task of completing a thru hike of the AT in 2013, I plan to approach the trail in 4 sections, 2 that I have already completed and 2 that I haven’t. Although not all at one time, I have already hiked from Springer to the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Wesser. This will serve as my section one. From Nantahala to Rockfish Gap, a part of the trail that I have not hiked, other than briefly around McAfee Knob, will constitute section 2. From Rockfish Gap to Hanover, NH, again trail that I have already traversed, will be section 3. Finally from Hanover to Katahdin, another section that I have not hiked, except the brief section in the Whites, will be section four.

Will I make it to Katahdin? I don’t know whether I will or not. What I do know is that I’ll give it my best shot. Maybe around the next bend a fall will await; maybe I’ll sprain an ankle, or twist a knee. Or maybe around the next bend, there will be a doe in my path with a new born fawn at her side. There may very well be both somewhere between Georgia and Maine. Either way, I’ll need to move on. Because as long as I’m moving, I’m still on my quest, hiking toward my destination or perhaps my destiny.

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