Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 9: The Cult Of Leaves

If you drive to North Carolina in the fall, the origin of any person you meet is most likely Florida. It means that millions of old folks from the sunshine state make an annual pilgrimage to the closest mountains to see what a season change looks like.

My plan has always been to avoid that situation, because who wants to hang around a bunch of old Floridians? I finally realized why I have been avoiding this time in the past...about half the men I ran into looked very much like me, and not all of them were older. However, if you have to be old and in North Carolina looking at the change of color in the leaves, there is no better way to do it than on the trail. The best parts of my days where just looking around in wonder at all of the color in front of me. I have been in the  mountains when there were no leaves in the winter and when everything was green in the summer, but I finally saw the reason so many people make this trip.

Being around all of this puts you in a different mindset, and I noticed that everyone on the trail was friendly. If you pass anyone, you stop for a few moments and swap stories, or if you are my brother,  you regale them with your exploits. These stories are about surviving blizzards, avalanches, bears, etc. Then you compare how many places you have seen and miles you have put in on the trail. I kept very quiet during these times, so as to seem a introverted through-hiker extraordinaire, but my brother made sure to point at me on every occasion, and say, yeah this is his first hike...at least nobody opened my backpack to see what extra junk I brought along that I didn't need..except for my huge survival knife.

It came to me, something that isn't so obvious now that I'm sitting in a civilized place, that the people on that trail are a very small subset of humanity that placed themselves there on purpose. I became convinced that some of the people I met would rather be on the trail than anywhere else in the world. People are nice, world politics is only something outsiders worry about...the weather is WAY more important. I started thinking that some of the hikers actually lived on the trail. I think it could be done. There is no rent, no police, little drama, at least when I wasn't getting storm warnings from my watch. After a few days I definitely saw that this was not just "backpacking", this was "doing the AT". I had joined the cult without knowing it.

One of first things you learn about the cult is "Trail Magic". This refers to items left at strategic locations on the trail as presents for hikers. I saw bags of kidney beans in front of a trail sign and one shelter had ramen noodles and cans of cooking gas. One shelter actually had a bottle of whiskey, but it had been opened and I wasn't feeling too sure of myself, concerning getting drunk out in the middle of nowhere in the dark. Life was exciting enough already.

I need to see those leaves again. My wife promises me that it will happen and we will join that pilgrimage on I-75 to the log cabins with the fantastic views, and walk the streets of Gatlinburg with crowds of suntanned Floridians, always knowing that there always be a flushable toilet somewhere nearby....

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 8: Eating Right..Sort of

One thing I learned way before we left on this trip, and that was it required a lot of preparation. Just the thought of walking off into the wilderness, bringing everything you could possibly need, in a area where the weather predictions were notoriously incorrect, was a little daunting. How much clothing would I need to stay warm? How much water did I need to carry? And most importantly, how do I make sure that I won't starve to death?

The good news was I had seasoned veteran hikers to help me figure all of this out, and for the most part, those two guys were right on. The exception was the food part which was actually a little sketchy for my liking. I'm bigger than either Paul or Chase and normally have a larger appetite, so when Paul told me I only needed 2lbs of food per day and gave me the list of food to bring, I was already thinking about doubling that list. Paul also smokes, and I remember from my old days of smoking, if you offer a smoker a candy bar or a cigarette, they will take the cigarette every single time. Paul was making sure he had enough smokes while I was making sure I had enough food.

Paul and Chase own a vending machine business, so I was a little suspicious when I noticed that the food shopping list had things like Pop Tarts, Snickers bars, Oreos, and Cheezits. I questioned this and was told that through research they had found that these foods provided the proper nutrition while being easy to pack and weighed little. We were going to have a whole menu of food that basically was stuff that I never eat at home. It didn't sound awful, eat junk food and lose weight? Who would turn that down?
On my side, I had my wife, the Whole Food lover and one that knows how to make healthy stuff taste good. She made up a big supply of trail mix that would have cost over $20 a lb just for the ingredients. That trail mix ended up tasting better than any bag of cheezits ever eaten. Unfortunately, I ended up having to share it with my other two companions.

Another mainstay of our diet was Mountain House freeze-dried dinners, which by the way, were excellent, although an expensive way to go. For about $7 a bag (you can get them in the camping section of Walmart), I had expected to add hot water to a bag of powder, and then eat some kind of soupy mixture that tasted like lasagna. The real experience was that it totally WAS lasagna, just a little bit less than I wanted, but at $7 a bag, one was all I was going to get. Of course the best part of Mountain House food, was the form of entertainment I offered to Paul and Chase the second night when they sat giggling after I found that I had eaten my whole bag of "Chinese Stir Fry" without removing the little silicon bag that is supposed to preserve freshness. I did think that the stir fry tasted a little funny.

The first day, we had been joined on the trail by a band of young folks from Tampa. Some of them were very experienced and some seemed like they were on their first trip like me, so I was very interested in seeing how we all did. We took some different side trails and somehow ended up at the same place to camp that night. When we arrived, they had tables, chairs, a fire and what smelled like T-Bone steaks cooking on the fire.

We set up our little camp on the other side of the stream and warmed up our little bags of freeze-dried foods like real backpackers, scoffing at these city-slickers, bringing chairs on the AT! They did not seem too unhappy about having carried all of that stuff up the trail and actually seemed much happier than we were. Truthfully, at that point I was wondering about going over to their team and seeing if they were planning on s'mores later.

That, did not happen. What did happen was Paul took about two bites of his food and ran off to find a nice place to puke everything up. Yes, the leader of our group, the one who knew where we were going, how to find water, how to find the truck...he was getting violently ill, and I suddenly realized that in my role as team-worrier, I was getting ready to peak....we certainly were not going to make it out of this...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Note From The Applachian Trail Part 7: Scared Of The Dark

There was something special about hiking the AT on Halloween.  I don't know if it was all the books I've read or perhaps just the feeling that I couldn't lock my door and sit guarding my tent with a shotgun, but at night, I'm pretty sure I just laid there in my coffin-like tent, waiting for a bear or whatever to just maul me to death.

I did bring along a large survival knife, which was immediately mocked by any hiker I met on the trail. This mocking did not include the mocking from Paul and Chase BEFORE we left on the hike. The second day, the knife remained inside my pack, where I was safe from being made fun of, but totally vunerable to attack from rabid hikers, bears, mountain lions, etc. I made up for this by constantly joking about creepy clowns hiding around every corner. Although my guys were rolling their eyes, the clown bit came into good use later on. You must admit, no Halloween trip could be complete without some scary story telling and I made sure that I did plenty of it.

The problem Paul forgot to warn me about was sleeping at night. I think I have spent about 7 days of my whole life with insommnia, and 3 of those days were on our hike. I can usually sleep standing up...or even in the dentist's chair BEFORE they sedate me. This trip was something else. There seemed to be over 12 hours of darkness each night and it was cold. All I had room to do in my tent was schooch in feet first into my mummy bag and try to generate warmth. Most of the time that worked well, until I heard a monster with claws scratching around my tent, or a leaf falling from a tree. Yeah, there were a lot of leaves falling from trees that trip. My brother remarked on this, oh, that's a well known issue for hikers, Chase and I take Advil PM, but we only have enough for the two of us. Meanwhile, I was looking at Paul's pills, thinking I was pretty sure I could take those pills from him, if it got to that.

The second day of the trip both excited me and scared me at the same time. We met a seasoned hiker named Glen that lived to hike at night. A total opposite of anything I knew, he was my age and carried an MP3 player, listening to audiobooks while walking the AT in the dark. At first, I couldn't even imagine someone doing this unless it was survival, but the more I thought about it, the more I was warming to the idea. It sounded crazy, but I found that I could take a nap during the day and I had a great headlamp to wear at night. The days were short, nights long, and we struggled to make the miles we wanted. What if we hiked until 8pm and then got up at 4am? That would mean only 8 hours a night just laying there wondering what time it was, plus I could get some more sleep at lunchtime. The only problem was nighttime is when the monsters and creepy clowns are out in force.

It actually worked for us, we hiked in the dark, Chase running up ahead, looking for the white blaze on a tree that would tell us that we were still on the right trail instead of being totally lost. There were only a few times I worried that between Paul and Chase we might go the wrong way and my jokes about there only being enough food for TWO of us, might stop being jokes. A couple of time there were missteps where you'd put your foot down on the leaves and there was nothing underneath and you'd almost go tumbling down the side of the mountain, and then we'd laugh. Yup, that trail crazy feeling was in full effect during the night hiking.

On the last day of the trip, we were hiking out in the dark when we stopped for a minute and took our packs off. I looked in dismay at the back of my pack when I saw that one of my brand new $175 trail shoes was missing. I had decided to wear my $35 crocs that morning and now realized that somewhere back within the last 45 minutes of walking in total darkness, lay my shoe that I had neglected to tie into the pack. Chase took a look at the two of us old guys and volunteered to jog back and see if he could spot my shoe on the ground back at camp. He borrowed my new $50 Petzl headlamp, which is freaking awesome in the woods, and took off. We waited a long, long time. Long enough that I began to wonder what would you do in that situation in a horror film, certainly not split up, the monsters are just waiting for that. Then I saw a bright light off in the woods, moving like a car down a highway. It was Chase with my shoe. I thought he was running with joy, to be on the trail, young and powerful, no pack, and full of testosterone, but he said it was because he thought the Manson family was right behind him.....I guess my clown stories did some good after all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 6: What To Wear

There is no place else that I can think of where a group of people would stand in admiration of a smelly homeless person with a pack on their back, all of them wishing they could be that guy. Yet, on the trail, that smelly homeless guy is actually the king of hikers: the AT Through-hiker. This is the guy that is on a quest to do the whole thing from Maine to Georgia in one year. We stand in awe, because with our measly backbreaking 3-4 day excursions, we are merely tourists pretending to be hikers, he is the real deal...but get him down to McDonalds or at your local park, you'd just think he was another bum.

I only saw one such hiker, and he took a look at the size of our group eating lunch at a shelter, and hurried on to complete his journey while we quietly watched with respect. There are actually quite a few people each year that try to do the whole trail and now it has gotten to the point that just doing the trail itself is not enough. The trail is full of rumors about people that are legend along the trail. We heard about "Stumbles", a guy that many people have met that seems to be constantly inebriated, and three sisters that were attempting the whole trail while barefoot. There was also Pat, who was doing the whole trail in his Scottish uniform with kilt, spats and all. Then there was the guy we ran into in the dark, that looked like a large girl in a dress, but had a Johnny Cash voice.

Me? I was happy to have made my part of the journey and get back home in one piece. I did learn a lot about what to wear and what to not forget. The major piece of clothing I forgot was a regular jogging t-shirt. Just a short-sleeve wicking shirt. I probably have 20 of them at home, but never thought something like that would be useful when the temperature was supposed to range from 40 to 60 degrees. I did bring something I thought was better, a compression shirt. This shirt was awesome, if you wanted to sweat when your fingers were still cold.

Another great item was my zip-off fishing pants. Paul suggested that I bring these along. They are lightweight and the legs zip off at the knees so you can convert the pants to shorts. They seemed like they would not be any protection from the cold at all, but they were perfect, and I used the zip feature every day.

It turned out that my best friend in the whole world was a $20 fleece hoodie I bought at Gander Mountain just a few days before the trip. It kept me warm when I got cold and made a nice cushion on top of my pillow. (I had a special hiking pillow I borrowed from my son's collection of hiking gear, essentially it was a bag of acorns).

Bottom line, hiking is all about layers. Paul showed me how 4 layers of light clothing can do the job. You start off a little cold and by the time you've hiked 30 minutes, you've peeled down to your t-shirt, or like me, if all you had was a compression shirt...you go shirtless.

Come to think of it, I'm probably some kind of legend on the trail by now...the old shirtless, homeless guy hiking around with a Gopro on his head....

Monday, November 7, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 5: Finding that Mountain Water

As the newbie on the trip, my brother had to explain many things to me beforehand. One thing that he did not quite explain well enough was the water situation. He did talk a lot about getting water, dumping it before a climb and making sure you had enough all the time. He showed me a map that said, there is water here, in certain places. I guess my thinking was that those locations were spigots that were strategically placed to enhance the hiking experience. The real life experience was something quite different. Sometimes the water source was a mud puddle. Sometimes it was a beautiful mountain stream, and sometimes it was a little drip coming out of a rock. It quickly became apparent that I was going to get all of the water I could get whenever it was available. The water tasted great, but there were signs in all of the shelters warning that you could get sick from the water and that it needed to be filtered. I wasn't too worried about the water since Paul had purchased the best filter system money could buy. It used a special light that killed all bacteria and viruses within seconds. We took turns running the Therapin device on our water and everything was great. That is, until we came to the mud puddle day. My brother neglected to tell me that there is one thing the Therapin doesn't do, and that is remove sediment from water, something that any ordinary filter does do. In other words, we had a day with the most pristine mud water to drink that you could ask for. I'm not sure that I will ever ask for that again. Not long after realizing that it was drink mud water or die of thirst on the dusky trail, we came across a large mountain stream that I could have bathed in...and probably the people I encountered at McDonalds after the hike wished that I had..

Friday, November 4, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 4: The Storm Warning

It seems like that a big part of backpacking is preparing for the trip. It's a little spooky, thinking that every single little thing you are going to need has to fit on your back. I heard many stories of people throwing stuff out on the AT because the pack was too heavy....I never really felt that way. My feelings were different, there were some things I wish I had brought along and didn't. I could really have used that weather app on my phone.
My brother and I see life differently. He told me that cellphones don't work on the trail and mostly folks look down on you for bringing electronics along into the wilderness. I took him at face value, but I'm starting to think that just perhaps he wanted four days of no support calls for his business...I write this because it seems that everybody else had phones that worked, and many were listening to music while they walked. One guy my age that was doing a 400 mile section, played us some of his favorite music on a bluetooth speaker while he cooked supper at a shelter.
I could have used that phone....because, the single piece of high tech electronics I brought along was my watch. This gleaming techno marvel could do just about everything. It knew where we were, the time, our pace, when the sun was setting and tons of other stuff that I have yet to figure out, but it did one thing that scared me more than the thought of a creepy clown hiding up in the mountains..

I found on the second day of our trip that I could record our hiking experience and find out how we were doing towards making it to the next camping place. Believe it or not, that is a big deal, making sure you are making the proper progress if you want to camp before dark. So, while we were in a little valley, picking crabapples and reading signs that said "Flash Flood Area", my watch suddenly emitted a siren sound and started flashing "STORM WARNING!" across the screen. It did this about five times before I could start running for higher ground. Paul and Chase looked at me blankly as the sky was clear and blue.
No storm ever came...maybe I need to read that instruction manual after all.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Notes From the Appalachian Trail Part 3: Wearing the world's smartest watch for pooping in the woods

My brother marveled that I was "afraid of the woods". By that he meant that if you left me alone in the dark on top of a mountain there was a reasonable chance that I would scream like a little girl. But, in truth, it was much more specific than that. I was afraid of two things really: 1) A bear getting me and 2) pooping in the woods...I suppose 3) would be a bear getting me WHILE I was pooping in the woods.

The bear thing I got over quick, because while hiking I became certain there are no animals left on the AT. I think I saw a couple of bugs, and maybe one little bird. This is less than I see on any given day in my back yard in suburbia.
Pooping in the woods, well that wasn't any better than I thought it was going to be. In fact, if you asked most men I know that even wanted to do this with their female significant other, the big obstacle would be the lack of nice flushable toilets here and there, with faucets, paper towels and mirrors. There is none of that and when you do find you have something better than a tree, it is a "Privy", which is something that makes a Portalet look positively fancy.
Try to imagine a large pile of poop on the ground, with the occasional leaf, and over that, an outhouse with no door and part of a backside. You sit inside and wave your legs to let anybody walking by know that the place is currently occupied. You bring your own toilet paper and a large sign says that you are to carry it out with you....leave nothing but footsteps. One of these facilities had two large buckets of leaves on the seat and I'm not sure if that was in case you ran out of toilet paper or what. Actually, the way your digestive system works while hiking.....next time I'm bringing twice as much toilet paper.

On the third day of this trip, I was contemplating the juxtiposition of the latest titanium things in our backpacks, the sleeping bag that weighed several ounces and could keep you warm at 0 degrees, my new watch that could give you your exact location, temperature, altitude, barometric pressure....and I was carrying around a large load of used toilet paper....this discovery seemed to elicit a new round of Trail Crazy in my companions and when they finally stopped laughing for a few minutes, I found that I might be the only person in the world that ever obeyed that sign.....

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 2...It Sounded Like A Good Idea...

My brother Paul has over 700 miles on the Appalachian Trail and this trip he wanted to add a new wrinkle. He had tried using his sandals for hiking before and really liked it, but could he get by using only sandals for the whole time? If you ever put on a pair of good hiking boots, you could easily understand why someone might want to use sandals instead. I was new, had no idea of what I was getting into, so I brought a good pair of hiking shoes and a pair of Croc Swiftwaters that I love walking around in at home.

Paul's son Chase, was along and decided to wear a cheap pair of hiking shoes that he used for work...basically so we could all complain about our feet at night. Paul's sandals went about half the first day before the straps started cutting into the side of his foot and by dinner time he was limping badly. I was going to offer him the use of my emergency duct tape, but he had made fun of me earlier for bringing it, so I forgot to offer it....I believe that the first evening was the beginning stages of what they refer to as "Trail Crazy". Mainly, you laugh at other people's misfortunes, and then your own...laughing about people caught in the rain, running out of toilet paper, just about anything that isn't really that funny.

So, while Paul was looking like death warmed over, sitting at the campsite, Chase and I were laughing. I was still laughing while my feet informed me that they were never going back in those shoes again. Thus, I spent the rest of the trip in sandals. I loved it! Until my heels got rubbed raw, as did Paul's.  Paul described the feeling "as if somebody stuck pieces of glass in my heel".  My heel felt the same way, so I wasn't laughing quite as much as Chase. I will use the Crocs again on my next trip. One thing I found to be totally awesome, was wearing toe socks, with synthetic wool socks over them in my Crocs....I didn't do too well with the ladies, but my feet were happy. The video below shows how excited we were about a stream crossing where we didn't have to worry about getting our feet wet. Paul just did not quite count on how cold that water was going to be....