Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Last Christmas Present

Have you ever had something just pop into your head fully imagined? That does not usually happen to me. When writing essays, stories or songs, it is something more like I'm on a journey and don't know where I'm going or where I will end up. This time was quite different, it was almost like the story was beamed into my mind. I can still remember standing on the beach and wanting to find paper and pen fast before the vision of the story left me....and yet, it never did.

One thing must be cleared up Dad doesn't surf (he tried once) and he is still around and we get along fine.

ONCE UPON A TIME..............

It fell to me of all people to do this thing. My life has been the road. Everything I need or want fits in a carryon bag and that's how I like it. If I had a hero, it had to be the fictional character, Jack Reacher, the man that tosses his clothes when they get dirty and buys new ones, not in a desire to be wasteful, but in a move to have no dirty laundry to carry around. This life has been good to me and I have been rewarded with a career that demands precision and the ability to make quick decisions and let go of things that don't work well.

So, perhaps it was fitting that upon arrival at my parents' home for the holidays, I found the one thing my mother wanted most was for me to clean out the garage of my father's belongings. He had passed on more than 6 months ago, and no one had the heart to do what needed to be done. My father and I were never close, in fact it would have been difficult to find two people that were as different in personality in the same family. Where I found joy in a minimalist existence, he found happiness in the mementos from his life. His garage was full of those things. I could remember thinking back when I was young that he liked his things more than he liked us. Looking around, all I could see was junk, yet I felt there was something in there somewhere that was worth finding.

My dad was a private man, he spent more time off surfing than he did with us. I can still remember getting sad when I saw how happy he was when he came home with a  new surfboard. I wondered if I would ever see him that happy to play with me. Most of my memories of him involved me watching him waxing boards, hanging up wetsuits, and talking to Mom about the great waves he got after a session at the beach.

I guess this job fell to me because everybody knew that I would be the one that could throw away all of Dad's cherished possessions. I could do that. It wouldn't be that hard for me to get rid of things that nobody needed anymore, but there was something out here in the garage that needed finding. There was one little nagging thing from my youth that I wanted to put to rest for good.

Dad was an odd duck by anybody's standards and one of his little quirks was thinking that objects carried memories with them. I tried on more than a few occasions to get him to demonstrate a provable example of that. He would just shrug and say that it worked for him. He could hold up a toy from his childhood and say that it immediately brought back memories of playing with it, where he was and who he was with. I responded that it was merely visual clues and his brain was doing the work, not the object. Dad paid me no mind and would go about caressing some old knickknack and getting that wistful look that I was quite accustomed to seeing.

There was one truly weird story that Dad told. It had me looking around the garage more closely than I would have. He used to speak of a yellow Hansen surfboard that he owned. I remember it being a big deal because it cost a lot of money and he and Mom argued the day he brought it home. He was really careful with that particular board, but in spite of that, he had an accident while surfing that injured him and the board. The way he told the story, some blood from a cut on his knee, found it's way into the break in the fiberglass on the surfboard and created a bond between them. So far, this was a typical Dad story. He went on to say that the board spoke to him in his mind. It told him if he promised to keep it safe, it would save every memory of every wave he rode and would let him replay that memory by just touching it. That sounded like my Dad alright, but I was a little concerned about the talking board stuff. It wasn't like it was the only crazy thing my Dad ever did or said, but that wasn't the reason I remembered that story.

As my Dad got older and finally got to where he couldn't surf anymore, He still kept that one board around, and it was starting to look old as well. Dad seemed to spend more time near the board and many times, as I thought about it, he was laying a hand on it. Well, if it made him happy in his old age, then what was the harm, right? wasn't all that hard to find after all. Over in the corner, under a blanket and still covered with dust, there was a dingy, dinged, faded yellow surfboard, brown spots everywhere with "Hansen" on the deck. So, this was it. Are we talking magic? Or one more person falling prey to my Dad's flaky beliefs?
I wondered why I thought it was even possible that it contained memories...that was stupid, and yet, no one was looking and what would it cost me to try?

I reached out....

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Frozen Floridians and Accidental Magic: Part 4

It is difficult to convey how so many different feelings can pass through your mind in such a short time while backpacking. One great feeling is that of being away from the craziness of regular life, heading to a place where all that matters is putting one foot in front of the other and the knowledge that everything you need and can have is right there on your back.

Yes, that is one awesome state of mind to be in, until you find yourself trudging along in the dark and cold, and suddenly realize that you have dropped your hat....somewhere behind you in the night. And your hat is a fantastic Under-Armour beanie that will keep a soul alive in the freezing cold mountain air...and you are bald-headed and the temperature is dropping to a place that you've not experienced since childhood in Minnesota.. It must be mentioned that in this particular case, the hat is black. The chance of finding it on the trail in the dark is about the same as finding a bear....nah, you'd find a bear first.

As I marched along with that single cone of light from my headlamp and started thinking about the predicament I was in, I realized how different life is when you can't just drive a little ways, pull out a credit card and get whatever you need.
The things we take for're hungry? Pull over and grab a bite at McDonald's. Need a shirt? Drive a few miles in any direction and there will be a clothing store. About as close as you can get to that feeling on the trail in normal life,  is driving far from home and realizing that you left your wallet behind. You realize then, "Hey, I'm going hungry" when a few minutes before, you were imagining a cup of coffee with a chocolate chip cookie..

I was going to have to survive 27 degrees for the next two days without a cover for my head. I thought of using my extra shirt as a head cover, and also wondered why in the world I had not opted for a jacket with a hood instead of the one I did buy that was a few bucks cheaper. Meanwhile, Paul was looking at me curiously over his cigarette at our break, probably wondering if I was going to be a liability and if he and Chase were going to divvy up my food rations and leave me on the trail whimpering alone in the dark. Fortunately, I had brought something extra along for my head. It wouldn't do much to keep me warm, but it was a cover, a buff, they called it in the he-man store, basically a berkah for men.

I pulled it over my head and tried not to think about what I was going to do when the temperature hit rock bottom. This trip I had already experienced the elation of going out with experience under my belt, and the best backpack and sleeping bag I could buy, but I was quickly earning the reputation of being the guy that loses the trail name "One Shoe" started solidifying in my brother's brain as the most apt name he had ever created for a fellow backpacker.

It was late in the evening when we came across another hiker heading back down the mountain. It was beyond pitch black and the moon and stars had taken the night off. They left behind a brisk cold wind that occasionally swooped in and reminded me that I was really going to miss that piece of headgear tonight. We chatted briefly with our newfound friend that was also crazy about hiking in the total dark, and found that we still had a lot to do before reaching our camp at the top of the mountain. As we parted ways, I mentioned that he might find a bit of accidental trail magic on the way down, and to please wear that hat all the way home and remember the guy who donated it....

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Frozen Floridians and Accidental Magic: Part 3

It wasn't long after Paul, Chase and I started down the trail in the freezing cold weather that I started regretting the many layers of clothes I had on. I still find it quite difficult to imagine wearing shorts and a t-shirt in 40 degree weather while hiking, but many if not most hikers have already figured out what happens. And that's how I happened to get left behind on the trail, while Paul and Chase decided to see just who was the fastest backpacker out that particular day.

I was sitting on the ground, struggling to get my long underwear off without getting my butt wet on the ground, when I heard a "good morning! Are you okay?" I looked up to see a solo hiker about my age, looking like he had just found a lost, deranged person in the woods and was deciding how he could help. I explained that I was just making some apparel adjustments and waved him on down the trail. He kept looking back, and I waited a real long time to resume, hoping that I would not be bumping into this guy again soon, certain that I had now become another story told around campfires in the next few nights.

If I thought that I was spooked enough having a guy come up on me alone on the trail while my pants were down, what happened next easily trumped any fears I had previously...gunshots. Yep, it was hunting season. Would I have gone backpacking with that knowledge? Probably not, and here I was alone with sounds like somebody testing out their AK-47 in the woods. I did my very best to not act like a bear or a dear, and started moving quicker, as if I might outrun a bullet somehow. I finally arrived at the spot where I found Chase and Paul waiting for me. Paul was stubbing out his genuine, homemade, healthy cigarette. Paul claimed at one point that his special brand actually prevented cancer, and improved the lives of anyone lucky enough to get some of that second-hand smoke.
As I stood there catching my breath from the long hike up away from the unseen huntsman that was having more fun firing his weapon than I was on my hike, Paul smiled and pointed towards me and said, "Looks like you have a friend." I slowly turned around with dread, wondering what could be back there, and in my already heightened state, it was an easy shift to augment what I saw to what I thought I was seeing. It appeared that Cujo was about 20 yards behind me, standing frozen in attack mode. I'm thinking, "Slowly reach into my pack and retrieve my large survival knife...yes, the one I left home because it weighed too much."

Once I got over the initial fear of that large dog standing on the trail, eyeing me like something to be dealt with, I realized that this was a hunting dog with a big GPS box on his collar and he had somehow gotten separated from the rest of his hunting group. He followed us at a distance for quite some time and then finally found us too boring to hang with and disappeared into the woods. We only saw hunters once on the trip, but the sound of gunfire was frequent. It kind of messed with my Zen and the Woods thing. The other strangeness was how many people we encountered backpacking on the trail, even though this was to be one of the coldest nights yet this year.

Even with all of the excitement and the cold, I was definitely up for the adventure and was loving my new ultra-light Osprey pack and was looking forward to trying out my new sleeping bag. Even as we hiked up into the darkness of the evening, looking for the best stealth campsite around, I was feeling good about the whole trip, until the time that Paul looked at me and said "You've lost the eye of the tiger"....and I had. I knew I was doomed, and it was just the first night..

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Frozen Floridians and Accidental Magic: Part 2

"This is not what it looks like..."
Yup, those were the words I said to a complete stranger that came up to me alone on the Appalachian Trail, sitting there with my pants 30 degree weather.

We had a long eventful drive to North Carolina on a Wednesday afternoon, and as we drove north, the weather progressively got worse, the little sprinkles of rain progressively came down until the windshield wipers were going constantly and I started naming off other fun things we could do in the mountains besides backpacking in freezing cold rain. I offered a trip to the mall, movies, or perhaps even driving back south of all of this stuff.
Paul would have none of this. "We're going to sleep in the woods" I kept hearing him mutter under his breath. For some strange reason this day was starting to get really long and dark and we were heading to a spot where there were few hotels. We needed a hotel to get one good night's sleep (for me anyway) and then a big breakfast before the shuttle driver picked us up and dropped us off at the trail. I was debating at what point a smart person might say, "I'll just stay in the hotel and wait for you guys". I just never quite got there. The night almost came to an early end when I pulled up the driveway to the mountain top hotel and found it was on a winding road that had no guardrail. The night was pitch dark and still raining, not a star or moon to be found. It wasn't until the next morning that I saw just how scary that little road was in the daylight.

The hotel was a really nice clean place, that was packed full of construction workers, many of whom we saw the next day, out driving bulldozers and holding flags in the road repair areas on the freeway. There were so many burly men in bright orange vests and boots that when you heard a woman's voice, all heads turned in unison. There was supposed to be some kind of continental breakfast, but we had better plans. There was an IHOP only a mile down the road and even Paul wanted to go there...although I think the reason he wanted to go was to find out if they had 100% real maple syrup.

We all slept pretty bad that night. I was worrying about the weather, Paul and Chase were chomping at the bit to get out in the woods. In the morning, I took a quick run outside to check the weather in the dark, and ran back in to put on every single piece of clothing I had. Paul was clucking at me, saying that I would be stripping all those clothes off 10 minutes after we started hiking. "Ha!" I said. "You only wished you were smart enough to bring your UnderArmour Compression Longjohns with you!"

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Frozen Floridians And Accidental Magic: Part 1

When you first decide to plan a hike, you know that you are at the mercy of mother nature. My very first planned trip was postponed due to a hurricane, and I narrowly missed getting a first hand look at a forest fire right after that. This trip, we got the arctic cold blast that arrived the same day we did in North Carolina. It had gone from nicer fall afternoons to the point where the locals were stocking up on canned goods....while us Florida boys took off to the woods with our packs on our backs. We had some worse ideas in our lives, but this one was up there somewhere with the bad ones.

Now, you may think that the word "Pivoting" is mostly used for business these days, but when it finally got to me that instead of our trip being in the 40's - 60's in temperature, and we were looking at 27 degrees, I took a serious look at my sleeping gear. Truth is, you don't know nothing, until you go into the woods and think about how you're going to live through the night with what you're carrying on your back, especially when the temperature drops like that. For us Floridians, we're busting out the jackets when it goes below 70, so I knew I was in for a shock, and my quilt and sleeping bag liner hadn't worked that great earlier this year when it was mostly warm. I was finally told that I was putting everyone in danger by skimping on this one piece of gear. Even Pam told me to go out and get what you need to stay warm, and so it was that I ended up with a $300 sleeping bag on the trip. That's probably more than I spend on most anything like that, but by the second day of the trip, I would have taken on anybody that tried to pry it from my frozen fingers.

Where all your money goes in backpacking is in trying to stay light. Everything light costs a lot of money, and I, like most people said "well sir, I will just carry a little bit more weight". You don't say that for too long. The only people that ever say that, are sitting home in a chair with a blanket around their knees, a beer in one hand and a bag of Doritos in the other. Once you've hiked with a 40 pound pack a few days and find out that you can almost cut that in are ready to whip out the checkbook.

This trip was my first trip with Ultralight gear and I loved it. My pack was around 25 pounds, more than 10 pounds lighter than last trip, and that was including everything I needed to eat and stay warm. We were going to hike 30 something miles of the Appalachian Trail near Bryson City, NC. I was pretty sure that we were the only people in the whole world that would be out in the mountains that, was I wrong.

This first thing I would have liked to know after the 27 degree temperature prediction, would have been that it was BEAR season..... 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 7 - Coming Into Shaw's Landing

The thing about backpacking is you look forward to going and then you really look forward to it ending. There is nothing much like that very last 5 mile stretch, when you're running out of food and know there is plenty of great food ahead and things like showers, clean clothes and being able to walk without carrying a 35 pound pack on your shoulders.
In this particular instance, we were heading to the town of Monson and Shaw's Landing. There is quite a buzz among hikers about this place and it truly lived up to the legend. Try to imagine a little hick town in the middle of nowhere and then think of an old ramshackle two story house. Now, add to that a yard full of hipsters, old folks, young couples, and mountain men, filling the area, throwing Frisbees, drinking beer, and mainly just taking it easy. The house rents out rooms to backpackers, and offers a breakfast of endless pancakes that is loved by all. I fully expected to be let down by this experience, but it is now one of the top 10 meals I've had. If I had one wish, it would be that I could have done this in my 20's like some of the guests there. Paul and I got a room with 2 beds and then a common bathroom that we shared with everyone on the floor. There were girls and guys all about and everyone had that relieved look of finally getting clean for a bit, before they move on to finish the AT. Paul and I were getting off here and flying back home, but a part of me wished that I was going on to the finish as well. I can still remember the old lady that used to run the place telling us that every once in a while, some hikers just decided to stay...and sooner or later she'd had to push them back out on the trail. I can understand why.

In addition to Shaw's, there were other businesses in this little town that catered to the grizzled group of folks passing through on their way to Mount Katahdin. One place that really had me excited was this old time BBQ restaurant that we had heard about for days from other hikers. We walked the several miles to get there, my stomach rumbling the whole way, only to find that we had arrived at the one day of the week they were closed.
I had made Paul promise that we would hold out for a really good dinner, not just some takeout from the gas station...and where did we end up eating? Takeout burgers from the gas station, sitting in their backyard at a picnic couldn't get more ghetto, but I must say, that was the best tasting burger and fries I ever had. I realized when we were sitting there, that I had been there once before long ago, with Pam and her folks. We had been driving through Maine and had stopped for directions and saw the big grill inside and took a chance on some rough country food. I did remember that it was very good, and from what other hikers told me, we weren't the only ones that found this place was one of the best worst-kept secrets in rural if you're ever in Monson....stop at the gas station..

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 6 - The Best Worst Breakfast Ever

The strangest thing I could ever imagine was happening...Paul was trying to wake me up. Even I struggled to sit up and remember where I was, I realized just how odd the whole situation was. Normal is me lying awake all night while Paul snores peacefully like a bear in the tent next to mine. I understood that I had finally found the magic elixir that could enable me to sleep like a baby while backpacking: Hike straight up a mountain all day, and then get lost in the dark and hike back down until 2am in the morning, knowing that you are running low on food and water, and you are about 10 miles behind where you need to be to get resupplied...and the phones aren't working...yup, that put me right to sleep.
Once I was awake and for the first time, saw where we were, I was a little bit excited. There was a road in sight, and a car was going quickly away from us, leaving a large cloud of dust behind. Yes, we were close. I realized that we had ended up camping on a overgrown dirt side road that was used for snowmobiles in the winter. I quickly fixed my last cup of coffee and considered just how much oatmeal I could eat, in the event that we might still have to hike out of here.

It was touch and go for a bit, but Paul finally walked until his phone worked and we found somebody that would come pick us up. It would cost $100, but at that point, the money wasn't the thing. We waited 2 hours for an "immediate" pickup, which means something different in Maine than it means in Florida. I think it means they are coming when they are good and ready. We drove back in almost total silence with a young man that said that he and his father ran the hotel where we would be staying. By silence, I mean that all attempts by Paul to engage him in conversation were met with a stone wall. Until....he heard Paul and I talking about something he knew, then suddenly he talked non-stop the rest of the way to the hotel...I still haven't quite figured that out, but I'm guessing Mainer's like to take your measure before they decide if you're worth talking to.
The Sterling Inn, our warm place with a bed for the night, was not known for loving backpackers. They preferred the Bed and Breakfast crowd, the only problem being that there wasn't such a crowd around and they were sitting right near the Appalachian Trail, so there were plenty of backpackers needing a place to resupply and shower. In fact, if there was a singlular fact I knew about the Sterling, it was that everyone griped about the included breakfast, being just cold food, nothing cooked. I will say this, nobody that complained was a hiker. I had fruit, muffins, cold cereal and all the coffee I could drink...I was a happy guy and so was Paul.
The Sterling Inn had gotten smart about one thing...hikers need to get food they can take on the trail and they had a nice little store of just the kind of stuff we wanted. All in all, these guys saved us, and that really was one of the better breakfasts on the trip...but there was one that topped everything I'd ever had before....

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 5 - The Fastest Thing In The Woods

About the same moment the wasp stung me on the side of the neck, I realized just how relative pain can be. Most of the time in my life, I would have been crying for a medic and a first-aid kit, wondering if I had developed an allergy to the stings and would this be the final goodbye after all.
However, this was not like most of the time. I swatted the dying wasp onto the ground and sped back up, holding my hand to my neck, thinking I would keep running until I fell flat on my face. For the last 40 minutes, I had been the fastest thing in the woods. A bear would have given up chasing me, and some deer stood by in amazement at what this grizzled guy was doing. I had already done something unheard of for Paul and I. I passed by a couple of young women that were trekking along with their packs and a dog. And I passed them like they were standing still. It must have been a low point in their day, because we did meet up later and one of the women explained about a turned ankle and how the old dog was slowing them up.  Yes, I was flying for a certain amount of time and it was an adrenaline rush like no other. How was this even possible?
You see, through the tricky stuff, like rocks, streams, logs, and climbing, I am slow like a snail. I don't where to put my feet, and I have a quite realistic idea of what the consequences would be if I managed to break my ankle out there in the woods. But, put me on a flat trail, 5 miles from camp, and that is in my range, baby. I have a big pack on my back and a big reason to get there fast. I've heard it said many times that running is a mental thing, more than physical and I believe that to be true about backpacking as well. It's more about making yourself remember why you are doing it and why you need to keep going than about how much more your body can take. In this case, I was doing some simple math in my head. If I went 2 miles per hour, then it was going to take me 2 1/2 hours to get to camp. If I could keep up 4 miles per hour, I could shave off an hour from my hike. THAT sounded awesome. The added benefit was that both Paul and I had become concerned about finding places to camp. There were quite a few people on the trail and we started noticing that the campsites were filling up by 5pm. By the way, when I say 'campsites', you're probably thinking of a nice graded spot with a picnic table, water spigot, perhaps even a electric outlet to charge your electronics....nope, none of that stuff. What I was excited about seeing, was a nice flat spot on the grass near a stream, and an outhouse nearby. In Maine, this wasn't that easy to find, so concern over being the people that show up with no where to pitch a tent was legitimate.

We had figured out early on in the trip, that Paul with his ultralight pack, was superior climbing and I could do better with my long legs on the flat trail. Although we loved hiking together and talking, when we started seeing the time crunches, we developed a plan. Paul would surge ahead on the climbs and find the easiest ways up, and I would take off when we had a flat trail and needed to secure a campsite.

On this particular day, we somehow founds ourselves with a late start, knowing that a large group of through hikers was ahead of us, and probably filling up every campsite available. It was about 3 in the afternoon that we realized that we were in my kind of section of the woods, a flat, pine needle path, the kind you seldom saw in Maine. The camp was ahead, water, food, tent, resting, it was all there waiting. All I had to do was run for an hour. And that I how I came to find that the pain of a wasp sting was something bearable when so much was at stake.

Hours later, I sat at camp, sitting in my folding chair, watching Paul set up his tent and seeing the young women with their dog come by, trying to find a non-swampy spot to pitch their tent and I enjoyed that extremely rare smug feeling that for once, I was faster than somebody....

Monday, September 25, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 4 - When's It Going To Be MY Turn?

Many years ago, my Dad took us on a hike up Mount Washington, and I can still remember clawing my way uphill on hands and knees, and getting passed by a pack of little old ladies scampering up the trail. I was 18 years old and in total amazement. Well, here I was, years later, at age 63, crawling up an apparent rockslide of a trail on hands and knees, when suddenly I saw a young woman appear at the top of the ridge with a large smile on her face. I begged her please don't make it look too easy. Her smile widened and she said, sorry, but she had just downed a RedBull and proceeded to hop down those rocks like a mountain goat. I heard Paul grumble something about damned Parkour people as she continued down the mountain, never slowing for a moment. "When is it going to be MY turn!?" I said, mostly to myself.
Don't get me wrong, hiking is a sport about peaceful walks in the woods and seeing how you prepared you can be for extreme effort and survival. But, sometimes it seems to be a little bit like running. It's all you and doing your personal best, until you get passed by somebody that made you look like you were standing still. There were a lot of hikers on the trail this trip, and we probably didn't go an hour without meeting someone. They were almost always nice and friendly....and much faster than we were. It wasn't like it felt like a race, it was just we were already doing our best, and we saw how puny it was.
Probably the most extreme example of this was the time we were coming to the very top of Bigelow. We were above the treeline and saw nothing ahead but rock and a sign at the very top. I told Paul that there is no way that the AT could go up that way because it seemed something impossible to do with a pack on your back. We stood there for a few minutes, trying to figure out how in the world we could even climb up on the first rock to get up to the sign, all the while I was wondering if there was a cliff we had to scale down on the other side.

About this time, a young heavyset woman with a large pack on her back came up beside us and we stood there with our mouths hanging open while she hopped up on the first rock and scurried up to the sign while we tried to imagine how someone that didn't even look like a fit hiker just did something that Paul the long-term hiker hesitated at. I was already to pull out my old-person card just in case I needed it, but unfortunately we had already been passed earlier that day by someone that could have been my father.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 3 - Living After Midnight

Our first night on the trail was at the Horns Pond Lean-tos. One of the great reasons to do the backpacking thing is that you work so hard all day long that the mere act of getting to sit down and go to sleep before it even gets dark, sounds awesome. In fact, something you hear about frequently is "Hiker Midnight" which is 9pm. Believe me, if you hiked up mountains all day long, and then had a no-fire evening in the cold, you would be heading for the sleeping bag as well. I know that it seems that I am not exactly extolling the virtues of this kind of vacation, but what it does is make small things seem fantastic. For example, while hiking along, you happen to find a mint in your pants pocket, well that's almost like finding a $100 bill in normal life. You feel like a lottery winner, and go on smiling for about as long as you can suck on that mint.
So it is, that after hiking all day long, and you come to a grimy, old wooden, 3-sided structure that is totally open to the elements, it feels like home-sweet-home.

After covering about half the distance we had planned, we were exhausted. Walking into the camping area, we were surprised to find tents everywhere but few people in the Lean-tos, in fact, Paul and I had one to ourselves. A few people came by later, looking and took a look at us and kept moving on. I'm pretty sure we didn't smell that bad at this point, maybe it was the scowl on my face, or Paul's eagerness to share some of his stories. Regardless, we settled down to a hot dinner of Mountain House freeze-dried food, and let me tell you, that stuff is like eating a big steak dinner at home. Hikers tend to find this kind of food expensive and at $7-$9 a meal, it is, but when you are only going for a week, Ramen noodles don't quite cut it for a meal after a long day of hiking. Another positive about the freeze-dried food is that it weighs very little. Ramen noodles weigh less, but there is dubious nutrition value and plenty of sodium which results in drinking a lot of water and then having to get out of that sleeping bag at night and go into the dark of the woods and hope that you can relieve yourself before some wild animal gets you.
I was excited on this trip to try out a new piece of gear. Instead of a sleeping bag, I brought a special quilt that was called a "jungle snugpak", well, at least it sounded manly when I ordered it. It came in a army green camouflage color and packed down really small. I was quite proud of myself for saving space and weight for this trip. Something I did not count on though, was the temperature dropping down way below what a Floridian would call a cool evening. In fact, we decided during the trip to totally disregard any information concerning difficulty of hiking or temperatures coming from anyone from Maine or Canada. All I can say about that first night was that I kept getting up and adding more clothes as the night went on, feeling for sure that I would be found frozen in the morning. Paul had loaned me a thing called a "sleeping bag liner", which is kind of like a sock for your whole body. The one he had brought for me was to raise your body temperature 10 degrees in an emergency. That thing was my best friend the whole rest of the trip. Instead of freezing to death, I was able to lay there shivering all night. The only issue I had was that while inside the liner, I couldn't really feel where the quilt was, so many times I would jump up suddenly to find that I had somehow kicked the quilt off. The first night taught me something else....the reason everyone was sleeping in tents instead of the Lean-tos, was that the tents add one more layer of warmth. I used my tent frequently after that first night...

Friday, September 1, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 2 - The Famous Last Words

Paul and I sat next to a beautiful stream in the woods, slightly sweating, even though the temperature was quickly dropping below 50 degrees F on this August evening in Maine. It would have been a great time to reflect on how lucky we were to have escaped city life and the oppressing heat of summer in Florida except for one thing: It was 12:30 at night and we could find no level ground to pitch a tent, only rocks, boulders and roots.

I was out of energy and out of ideas, and suggested to Paul that we take turns napping by the stream while the other person stood watch. That was my BEST idea. Paul suggested that we keep hiking until we find something flat to pitch tents on...something we had yet to see in Maine...
Not even 12 hours earlier, I had remarked while cheerfully hiking down the trail from Stratton to Monson, that I could keep this pace up all day long. I was feeling great. I had my pack weight down to 32 pounds, including my stash of muffins, and my body weight, although slightly higher than I like it to be, was going to be good insulation for the upcoming cool evenings we had seen in the weather forecast. Looking back, Maine actually gave us the best conditions she had. We had no rain, a minimum of bugs, and much cooler temperatures than Florida. In fact, if you sat down for too long, you would start wanting warmer clothes to wear. This turned out to be a good thing, that the Maine weather was so fair, because what passes for easy hiking in Maine made me think of serious mountain climbing.

Paul, in addition to joining the ranks of "ultra-light" hikers, had the desire to plan everything to the ennth degree, and he had factored into our food and water supply that we would average 1 1/2 mph hiking to the next re-supply destination. Actually, that was a very conservative number and I knew we could easily do 2 1/2 mph on any given day. Well, that turned out to be not conservative enough and we learned a brand new lesson that first day: When the going gets rough: 1) you go slower 2) you eat more 3) you drink more. And this is how it came to be that by day 2, we were 10 miles behind schedule and running low on food. Our intended speed walks down woodsy paths of pine needles were instead rock scrambles up what appeared to be dried-up waterfalls. The first time I saw one of those, I said "You're kidding, that cannot be the trail!" It was after about 3 of these ascents that I began to see the wonder of ultralight backpacking, as Paul climbed up the rocks, and I tried to figure out how I was going to do it without falling over backwards because of that 32 pounds on my back that wanted to do nothing more than fall to the ground.
The ascents were slowing us down to the point that by the first night, as we climbed into the lean-to and pulled out our sleeping gear, we said that "we'll make the miles up tomorrow". Little did we know that the climbing we did on the first day was the ascent of the "Little Bigelow"....

Thursday, August 31, 2017

It's All Downhill From Maine: Part 1 - Trying To Remember Why We Do This

This was  a trip that Paul really wanted to do. He wanted to find a place where no phone call could find him, no work emergency could stop him and where all he had to worry about was his new sleeping bag. Oh yes, backpacking is not really about taking less stuff, it is about taking more really expensive lightweight stuff. This was the trial time for Paul's new ultralight backpack, that weighed less than my Android tablet. Of course, that new backpack required a new smaller, super expensive sleeping bag, but it was all worth it if he felt better while hiking. Me? My plan was to have ULTRA-LIGHT stitched on the back of my pack so the other hikers would think I was cool. My real problem was not my pack but the sixpack of muffins that was stuffed in my gear.

We flew straight through to Bangor, ME from Florida and in 3 hours went  from the land of flat and hot to the land of hiking.
Our shuttle driver picked us up at the airport and we began the 2 hour journey to the small town of Stratton where we would hit the trail. The ride was mostly in silence but slowly our driver opened to us with tales of hiking the local trails. I was really pumped up about getting out there with my pack. We finally reached the trailhead, which was actually a small gravel area off a deserted two lane road in the middle of nowhere. We grabbed our packs out of the back of the SUV, cinched everything up tight and took one last look at something approaching civilization.
As our driver turned to leave us, he remarked "So you're going to challenge the Bigelows right off the bat?"
The only thing more disconcerting than that phrase  was my brother, the expert hiker's response: "whaaaat?"

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 26 - Pam versus Miami

If there is any good cop-bad cop in our relationship, Pam is the bad cop. Everybody that deals with us gets told it is for their own good to deal with me when they can. I can control Pam, and keep her in check when needed, except for a few times in life that almost ended with a tazing.
So, when things started going south at customs in the Miami airport, about the best I can say is, the leash broke.
We left our nice flight and went into a terminal full of the largest crowd of people being lined up by the meanest, nastiest workers you can imagine. We had one hour to make our connecting flight to Orlando, and all we had to worry about was our carry-ons. We were heading back home and were almost there, what could possibly go wrong? Now, try to imagine the nice Pam, sweetly speaking Spanish to a maid in Nicaragua, and then imagine her cocking back for a roundhouse swing at a surly customs lady in Miami. I'm not saying that it wouldn't have been deserved, but I was worrying that I might get tazed just for standing next to her.
At first, I thought, "we are so far ahead of Nicaragua." When I saw the fancy kiosk machines that almost automated the whole passport process, then the first worker told us to go get in line. To call what I saw a line would be the kindest thing anybody could ever say about the mess we witnessed. You can be very sure that there were signs, lit up signs, that proclaimed no photos, audio or video recordings allowed. I'm pretty sure that if I did try to record any of it, I would be locked away in some blacksite prison. I wasn't worried about Pam spending my retirement money though, because I was having an extremely hard time keeping her from recording it.
People pushed, people cussed, some giant black football player-looking guys tried to step ahead as if they were late for their super bowl game, but the tongue lashing they got from the meanest old black HSA lady I ever saw, had them whimpering just like me.
Her co-worker was trying to talk her down from her mean place, but she was in a state to take on President Trump head on. Her friend was saying "take the baby, take the baby in your arms...".
I believe my main thought was about renting a car and driving home.....but somehow, in spite all of that, we got through customs and started running for our flight, only to find our bags had to go through security again.  Pam fumed, while I told her sweet nothings, which kept her calm until the scanner lady pulled Pam's bag aside for further ransacking.  Then the lady turned to a coworker and told him she was taking her break and walked over to a friend, while our group grew larger. I was starting to feel like I might need one of those suits the bomb disposal guys wear. Pam was looking like she really might get us in trouble, but somehow found favor with one of the men working the security area and they brought our security lady back.

Pam grumbled a little too loud about the delay and yet one more mean old black lady made sure her bag got done last and took the longest. I can still remember part of the conversation, "What's in this bag? Rocks?", "Yeah, rocks, so what?".

Of course, our gate was at the other end of the terminal from where we were, so we ran faster than anybody else there, me dragging two heavier than usual carry-ons, while Pam carried her handbag, a coffeecup, and dragged her bum foot.
We got there, only seconds before the flight started boarding. We even got offered better seats, and I thought that the adventure was finally over.
That was when the storm hit....

This is dedicated to my mother, Kay Perkins, who pointed me down this path, and my wife, Pam Perkins, who keeps steering me in the right direction.

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 25 - Is The First World Preferable?

We were leaving. My board was somewhere back in Popoyo. It was probably the best board I'd had, yet I knew I could always get another. That is something you think hard about in Nicaragua, that no matter what happens, you can usually fix it with money, if you are somebody that has the ways and means. Most of the people that live there do not. Even when we got back to the Best Western Mercedes Hotel by the airport, I was thinking about where the people that work at the hotel live. However, it was bothering me a little bit less than it did two weeks ago, and that concerned me.

We had to get up so early the next morning, that it was actually still dark in Managua, a place where I had yet to see sunrise. Even me, the early riser, was getting used to experiencing full daylight at 5am in the morning. Many times I had seen yard workers hard at it while I walked to the beach, wiping the sleep out of my eyes. It was with a heavy heart that we left the Hotel Mercedes before they started breakfast. Our bellman scooped us up at 4:45am, and magically transported us across the street without upsetting any horsecarts or knocking any motorcyclists aside.
Without the paddleboard to transport through the airport, life was easy. Pam worked her lingo magic on the customs official, but he was bored with his day already, and after Pam's perfect Spanish phrase describing how she had no rocks or pottery, he replied, "Ok, thanks, you're good.".
Life was good, and there was even a coffee shop by our gate that had some of the best cafe con leche of our trip...for $2.00.
I could finally relax, no more worries about spending the rest of my life in a Nicaraguan prison for hitting someone's perro in the road, while my wife spent my retirement money with some young Romeo on a European river cruise.
We waited in the airport with a large group of missionaries that were heading back to the states and I saw many of them staring off in the distance at something.  Nicaragua was telling us that she had one last thing to show us before we left. How many places do you visit where you can watch an active volcano from the comfort of your seat at the airport...I must admit that my thoughts of getting home in one piece were a little bit unsettled by this sight until I heard from one of the vendors that this is a normal every day view, not some catastrophe unfolding before my eyes.

we finally got on the plane after a security person decided that I looked shady and patted me and my stuff down thoroughly. I actually felt pretty good that somebody still felt like I was worth keeping an eye on.
As we cruised over the deep blue ocean, thoughts of regular life drifted dreamily through my mind. We were going back to normal, where I knew the language, I knew where to get food and drink, and most places I would travel to didn't need four wheel drive. And to top all of that off, I would have a clean car again. Something that might stay clean for more than a day.
Yes, I was a happy boy right then, heading into Miami for a connecting flight without a care. It is a very good thing that we do not know what is ahead in life.....

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Letters From Nicaragua: Part 24 - Rivas And The Ride Home

It was getting near the end of our adventure, and although a part of me wanted to see it not end, another part was worried that we hadn't yet made it back home in one piece. I find that I don't really relax until the bags are on the floor at home and I'm sure that the air conditioner hasn't blown up, water pipes are intact, pets are still breathing, and the pool is still blue. But, we were on the downhill side. I had survived the surf, I had managed the traffic in the cities, and as long as there was a bathroom nearby, I could handle the little varmints in my stomach from the local water. So far on this trip, it seemed that only Pam and the kids had gone unscathed from Montezuma's revenge. All the rest of us had at least 3 days of "I think I will just take a nap this afternoon". It wasn't that bad, until you were driving down a dirt road, wondering if you would just stop, jump a barbed wire fence and go in the jungle, or hope that somewhere down the road there was a gas station with a public restroom...since I had seen only 3 gas stations the whole trip, I carried a little bit of toilet paper with me at all times.
We said goodbye to the beach and Pam took in some of the power there, in an effort to get me one with our vehicle and traffic that lay ahead. We decided that Popoyo was awesome and could even deserve a second trip.
We found cool animals right at the Hotel Popoyo and found it was a great place to relax after surfing or sightseeing. They had a driver that could take you to Magnific Rock and it seemed that you could arrange a whole trip here without having to rent a car yourself and drive...and by car, I mean 4x4 truck or SUV.

The drive back to Managua was much easier than the drive out, and my best guess is that I was starting to get used to this country. It helped that I no longer had the big paddleboard to worry about and I knew that the locals probably figured we had no money left, as we weren't hounded at traffic lights going back to the airport hotel.
We went to Rivas along the way and stopped for a quick bite to eat and a short run to the "Poli", which Sam explained was the Latin version of a small Walmart. The walk to the Poli and the shopping inside was something that I am not sure how to describe. A crowded small street town, think Saint Augustine in Florida, maybe after things went really bad for a long time, going into a small grocery store that also carried flat screen TV's, and had guards at the door, and scores of beggars outside waiting for you when you left. You didn't just feel uncomfortable, you felt really bad. I can remember Emily asking her parents if she could leave something in a guy's bowl on the ground. I'm not sure what's worse, seeing that scene or the idea that you could get used to seeing it and have it bother you no longer. Nicaragua has seen a lot of bad times, and I hope that somehow our being there and spending money did a little bit of something. I know that everywhere we went we were told to "tell your friends!". It was as if the country wanted to make sure that we didn't forget they had something special there.
I know that with Pam's blessing, we left a 70% tip to the women that cleaned our rooms and waited on us for the 4 days at the hotel. We were sure that they piled 3 or more on a little motorcycle and rode to homes with dirt floors and no windows.I really wanted to leave behind everything we had in our suitcases with us, but Pam was adamant about keeping her rock collection, which came back to haunt us later...