Previous Hikes

AT Serendipity

Ponder, Alton, and Mike in Manchester Center, VT

Ponder, Alton, and Mike in Manchester Center, VT

View from Wayah Bald

View from Wayah Bald

During the winter and spring of 2005, Alton and I again found ourselves planning yet another section hike on the Appalachian Trail. This hike was to be different from the others for me, because I would be hiking the second week alone. Just like the previous summer’s trip up to the northeast, we departed from the Atlanta airport with LaGuardia in NYC as our destination. From there we rode a bus to the Port Authority and another bus to the Delaware Water Gap. Rather than beginning this hike in mid-afternoon, we opted instead for a taxi ride to Stroudsburg, PA and a motel for the night.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we waited in front of the motel for a taxi we had pre-arranged to take us back to the trail. As we were waiting for it to arrive, I noticed a pick-up truck, with hiking gear in its bed, leaving the motel parking lot. It was too late to flag the driver down and ask for a ride, but it was not the last time that we would see the man behind the wheel. In fact, over the next few days and again two years later, Ponder was to become one of the most enigmatic hikers I would encounter on the AT. Douglas hailed from Michigan and had been hiking the trail for a few weeks every year for some time. He latched onto Alton and me during the first part of our hike that day and remained with us throughout much of the section.

Douglas was just a genuinely nice fellow. He seemed to prefer his real name over his trail name even though “Ponder,” in large white letters, appeared across the front of the navy cap he wore. It was one of those bulky baseball caps that looked like it had been purchased at a convenience store. Since Douglas would occasionally just stop and stare into the distance, and since he asked some quite thought provoking questions, it became apparent how he had gotten his AT trail name. Ponder also exhibited a tad of eccentricity which began with his buttoned-up cotton shirt. He shied away from shelters, preferring to pitch his one-man tent nearby.

So for this first day on the trail in New Jersey our duo had become a trio. Like most of our other hikes, this one had been carefully pre-planned to include a stay at the Mohican Outdoor Center at the conclusion of our first day on the trail. Even though it was a mere 10 plus miles to the lodge, we determined that a bunk and a bathroom were preferential to a few more miles and a tent. After all, we had already decided to hike 18 the next day to arrive just in time for supper at a steakhouse at Culver’s Gap. Ponder happily agreed with our plan and walked on with us for the next four days.

Since Douglas had driven from Michigan, he was actually shuttling his truck as he hiked. At Unionville, NY (where the trail briefly leaves the Garden State before returning), Ponder called a taxi to take him back to his truck at the Water Gap. A few days later, however, after Alton had left to return to the south for a family commitment, I ran into Ponder again. I had hiked solo from HWY 17 near Greenwood Lake, NY to the Fingerboard Shelter for the night. Walking toward the shelter just before dusk, I spied Ponder’s tent pitched behind the shelter. After calling his name, he quickly emerged, smile on his face, happy to again be reunited with his friend of a week.

The last time I saw Ponder that year was at the Bear Mountain Zoo. He again planned to move his truck up the trail, so we bid our goodbyes as I headed over the Hudson. He had carefully explained to Alton and me earlier in the hike what sections he had completed and how he planned to finish the trail in the next couple of years. What we didn’t know then was that his plans would change.

Two years later in the late spring of 2007, Alton and I found ourselves up in the Green Mountains, working on completing the Vermont section of the AT. After our fourth day of hiking, we ventured in to Manchester Center for a night at Sutton’s Place, an old home whose owner rents rooms to hikers. After settling in and enjoying my first shower in four days, I suggested to Alton that we walk back to the center of town for dinner. As we strolled down the sidewalk in front of the home, we both noticed a strikingly familiar gentleman walking toward us. He wore a cotton, buttoned shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and a billed cap. Hesitating at first, Alton asked, “Do you know a hiker named Ponder?” “I am Ponder,” Douglas replied. And almost immediately he recognized us as his two former hiking buddies from Georgia. A smile crossed his face as he agreed to accompany us to dinner.

We quickly learned of Ponder’s last two years on the trail, especially of the difficulty he had had in the Whites. He explained that he had already finished NH and Maine and that he was within a few days of completely finishing the AT in sections. It was good to reunite with Ponder. Alton and I both knew that he would again become our travelling companion as we journeyed through Vermont. He did, but I know we enjoyed his company, and likewise, I think he enjoyed ours.

The last night Ponder spent on the trail was at the Governor Clement Shelter. We all set up our tents and the shelter was filled as well. Douglas seemed a little sad. I imagined that he was probably contemplating all the other nights he had camped, while on his quest to complete all of the Appalachian Trail. There were others in and around the shelter that night including Billy Romp and his two sons. None of those present, however, were thru-hikers. As the evening waned and the conversations continued, Ponder just turned in, not choosing to banter with the others.

The following day dawned wet and cold. We donned rain gear as we headed for US 4, where Ponder was to complete his AT section hike. For much of the morning we all hiked together, but then Douglas slowed, quite possibly intentionally, not wanting the adventure to come to an end. When I reached the intersection of the highway, I waited for what must have been at least an hour for Ponder to arrive. Camera in hand, I began snapping pictures as he approached. Hand outstretched, Ponder touched his last white blaze. As the rain and sweat glistened on his face, I seem to remember a countenance of both excitement and relief.

At that moment I had no plans to ever fully complete the AT, so I don’t know if I really appreciated Ponder’s accomplishment. Whether attempting a thru-hike of 5 or 6 months or section hiking over what could turn out to be 15 or 20 years, walking every step of the Appalachian Trail requires determination and perseverance. For Ponder, a goal had been achieved. For all of us who hope to reach Katahdin in 2013, there lies the task at hand….a 2180 mile walk to the last white blaze, a sign, and the end of the Appalachian Trail.

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Above Tree Line

In the Whites

In the Whites

As is evidenced by the accompanying picture to this entry, I really did know absolutely nothing about backpacking on that first hike back in 2001. That day had begun with promise as the six of us headed north on the fairly easy Lincoln Woods trail. The old railroad bed afforded a flat and wide traverse for the first three miles of the day. In the coolness of the early morning, we even strolled down a side trail of about half a mile to a scenic waterfall. It was only after we reached the Pemigewasset Wilderness Trail and the climb began that our lack of hiking expertise became obvious.

Alton and I quickly hiked ahead of the others, and then I hiked on ahead of Alton. After a while, however, I decided to stop and allow my buddies to catch up. When they finally arrived I was checking my pulse, something I often did when running intervals on the track. In fact, this hike was starting to feel more and more like a hard track workout rather than a relaxing walk. Noticing that I was trying to determine whether or not my heart rate had exceeded its limits, the others followed suit. There we stood, six would-be backpackers, left hands on right wrists, eyes clued to watches, wondering what our max heart rates should be.

As the hours sped by, Alton and I again hiked ahead of Reg, Fitts, Doc, and Lindsey. When I reached what appeared to be a dead end to the trail, I shouted over my shoulder, “There’s no more trail.” When Alton caught up, he looked to his right and upwards to explain, “I think the trail is up there.” So after examining our situation, we quickly realized that we were definitely going to have to do some real “climbing” to continue the hike. What we didn’t realize at the moment, however, was what a spectacular view we would have when we experienced our first taste of “above tree line” hiking.

Again, this picture is of me at that moment. Notice the attire of the “knows nothing” backpacker. Cotton Dockers slacks, 100% long sleeve cotton shirt, boots that were made for some task other than hiking, and not pictured cotton socks inside those boots. Also visible is a sheathed knife on a heavy leather belt, an army surplus one compartment backpack, with the aforementioned (prep. entry one) four man tent on top. And finally, there’s the hiking stick that I had picked up a few miles back. I’d never even heard of hiking poles. So here we were in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and about as ill-prepared as a hiker can be.

So as I stated in my last prep. entry, I fully expect to begin this hike with more knowledge than the first, yet with much still to be learned. There is no doubt in my mind that I won’t know all that I need to know to complete a thru hike. At least the gear that I’ll be using this time will meet my needs and provide me with the best opportunity to be successful. After all, we do learn from experience. And experience can go a long way to completing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

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Hiking the Rocks

Alton and the PA Rocks

Alton and the PA Rocks

After posting the picture of some Pennsylvania rocks yesterday, I felt like a sort of disclaimer was in order. Not all of the rocky Pennsylvania section requires the skill that is exhibited here by my long-time friend and hiking partner, Alton. After all, if an almost 60 year old, graybeard, with a walking stick rather than poles, and a brace attached to his knee can negotiate these rocks unscathed, then most others should be able to do so as well. When we hiked this section back in 2008, neither of us had any misfortunes that I can recall.

In reality there are some beautiful rock-free stretches of trail in the Keystone state. The section from the PA/MD border to Boiling Sprints affords some picturesque level stretches with a couple of picnic areas to walk through. Other than the Bear Rocks and the climb out of Lehigh Gap, with some exposed rock face at the top, much of the state is quite nice. Then again, when you hike with a positive attitude and are willing to accept the challenges of the trail along with its beauty, your accomplishments should supersede the travails. Most any day can be a great day on the Appalachian Trail.

Thanks for all the hiking adventures we’ve shared, good buddy.

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On The Trail Again

Alton, Fitts, Don’s Brother on GA Section

When you do something poorly the first time, you sometimes want to try it again. As the next school year began I couldn’t help but recall how we had been planning our hike in the White Mountains this time last year. Even though the memories of the Whites were still fresh in my mind, I felt this desire, almost need, to get back out there. A former student and athlete, who I had coached in cross-country, had thru hiked in 2000. After listening to (trail name Jeremiah Johnson) talk about the trail to one of my classes, I knew that I had to give the AT another try. He spoke of covering the entire 42 mile stretch of Maryland in one day as some sort of challenge. As a distance runner, this seemed like something I could do. After all, I had read that Maryland was the easiest (not a term that really ever applies to the AT) state.

So without hesitation I approached my buddies about hiking Maryland as soon as the ’01-’02 school year concluded.  This time it was I, not Alton, who did most of the planning. For the entire fall I spent time convincing the others that we needed to give hiking one more try. So in late May of 2002, five of us (Fitts’ truck broke down before we left GA) set out in two SUV’s for Harper’s Ferry, WV. I had even arranged for a stay in a real AT hostel (Sandy Hook) the night before we were to begin our southbound trek from Pen Mar Park at the PA/Maryland border.

Like the previous year in the Whites, that first day was an ordeal despite the “easier” terrain. After a night at a shelter some 9 miles in, Doc, Reg, and Lindsey decided that hiking definitely was not for them. They hitched a ride back to the vehicle and opted for a tour of Gettysburg. Alton and I trudged on, determined to complete the entire 42 miles, even though we had already decided that this was a three day hike, not a one or two day one.  Our buddies, before deserting us, did offer to carry some of our gear to the Dahlgren campsite, where we planned to set up our tent (yep, still the 4 man one) the second night. We didn’t know what slackpacking meant at that time; however, over the years, “slackpacking” has become one my favorite hiking terms.

Day three took us into Harper’s Ferry and to the end of that year’s hiking adventure. Since Maryland was complete, over the next few years, Alton and I continued the section hiking, knocking off a state here and a state there. Fitts even joined us for the section from Springer to Neel’s Gap during spring break, 2003.  Alton has completed more sections than I have and has promised to complete his section hike with me in Maine, if I make it that far. That would be pretty special—Alton completing the AT section hiking at the same time I completed a thru hike, on Katahdin together. If nothing else, it should make for some interesting journaling over that last 300 miles.

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A Beginning

Fitts, Alton, Reg, Doc, Don’s Brother, Lindsey

In the fall of 2000, a fellow teaching buddy, Alton, decided that he and some of his friends (myself included) should begin taking some “adventure trips.”  Since most of us were about to turn 50, or just had, Alton thought that a backpacking trip in the late spring of 2001 was just what we needed.  For this first trip he chose as our destination some place up in New England called the White Mountains. I had heard of the Rockies, the Smokies, the Adirondacks, and even the Green Mountains of Vermont, but quite honestly, I didn’t know much about the Whites.

For the next several months Alton meticulously outlined details for our excursion. After weeks of reading a variety of informative “what to and how to” literature, he provided each member of the backpacking group with folders containing an itinerary, maps, a list of supplies needed, and a discourse on the much dreaded black fly of New Hampshire. Doc, Reg, Alton and I (the already or about to be 50 year olds) and Fitts and Lindsey (20 something’s) eagerly (yeah, right) awaited the end of the school year and our trek up to the northeast.

The flight from Atlanta to Boston and the subsequent van journey to Lincoln, NH proved uneventful. The next morning, we set out near Franconia Notch with great enthusiasm. Our first day goal was about a 12 mile hike that would culminate at the Guyout campsite off the AT. We made it to our destination, but along the way we learned much about backpacking like…’s not a good idea to bungee gear to your pack, don’t plan to camp at a site .7 miles off the trail, taking turns carrying the two 4 man tents does not diminish the weight of the tents, check to find out if fires are allowed before purchasing steaks to pack in to cook over campfires, and lastly, visit a physician before beginning the hike if you’re 50, slightly overweight, and have never hiked in the Whites  (Reg).

Alton and I, who were the only two of the group really in shape, were the first to arrive at the campsite. We were greeted by a young female caretaker who gazed on our appearances with what might have been considered utter amazement that we were still standing. I still remember declaring to this young lady that this was our first backpacking trip and that it was about to be the first night I had ever spent in a tent.  And I unabashedly added, “And I just turned 50 two weeks ago.”  She was not impressed.  When she asked, “Why did you choose the Whites,” neither of us could think of a good reason.

About two hours later, shortly after dark, the rest of the gang arrived, and they were a pitiful looking bunch. The caretaker graciously offered to boil us some water for our MRE’s after telling us that campfires were not permitted. After our meals, we settled in to our tents.  Alton, Fitts, and I shared one; Doc, Reg and Lindsey the other.  I slept very poorly that “first night in a tent.”  If I had brought a sleeping bag, it might have been better.

The next morning six very sore hikers (yes, we were hikers now) awoke to near freezing temperatures. To warm up we began that .7 mile trek from the Guyout campsite back to the trail that would take us southbound on the AT up to South Twin and then down to Galehead Hut. Before reaching the AT, however, Reg declared that he couldn’t make it and actually asked the caretaker if he could be airlifted out.  When she informed him that the only type of rescue that was available was for him to be carried out, he opted to accept her suggestion that she carry his 60 pound pack to Galehead for him. Reg smiled broadly sitting atop a rock on South Twin, packless, as the rest of the group arrived. As we  continued down what some have called one of the toughest miles on the AT from South Twin to Galehead, I prayed feverishly that I wouldn’t break a leg and made one of those deals with God that if  “He would just get me out of these mountains safely…”

After a night at the 13 Falls campsite, on a trail off the AT, we finally made it back to Lincoln. For days, every time I closed my eyes I saw giant rocks. This was one adventure that I would never attempt again. I was a runner, not a hiker. I didn’t even like camping or sleeping in a tent. This would definitely be my last backpacking trip. But alas, it wasn’t.  Over the next twelve years since that first taste of the AT, I would section hike over 1000 miles of the trail and now actually own a sleeping bag. So, twelve years later, I plan to arrive at Springer in March, a little older, and much more knowledgeable about backpacking, to attempt (and I do say attempt) a thru hike.

My goal is obviously to reach Katahdin, but along the way I have some other goals I hope to achieve as well. One of those goals is to record a daily entry into my journal, detailing as accurately as possible what it’s like out on the trail.  Other goals I’ll share in future prep entries and as I hike. Among other things, I’m looking for an adventure. And I think the AT just might provide one for me.

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