Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Floridians In Sandals with Socks

It's pretty easy to tell that backpackers like to have their own little bit of flair. Maybe it's hiking in a skirt (when you're a guy that is, I don't think girls ever do that). Maybe you prefer retro old timey gear, or just maybe you like hiking in sandals. From the very first time I set foot on a trail with Paul, he has been all about the sandals. The idea is that you are lighter, cooler, and a little bit more careful about where you step. That sounded really good on paper, but when Paul's sandal started cutting into his ankle last trip, we almost had some real trouble. One of the main things you do not want when backpacking, is anything wrong with your feet or legs. You don't want be the person that has to be carried out, supposing you could find somebody that could do it. For example, there is no way Paul could carry me out of the woods. I'd just be left with a bottle of water and a knife to kill all the bears and wolves that would attack me.
Yes, the sandals were attractive, but the issue of getting your feet hurt by the straps or sliding on the bottom was important. It is here that I, a Floridian by birth, surfer by nature, suggested that we wear socks with our sandals. worked great! I hiked almost the whole trip in a pair of Croc Swiftwaters, with some really good Smartwool socks, just so folks didn't think I was uncool. Paul tried the same thing, and pretty soon we had decided that the next trip, we would just leave those heavy trail shoes at home. I was very proud of myself, until my wife told me that I'm not allowed wear this getup once I'm back in Florida. She said that it's bad enough getting old without having a husband dressed like that.
The only problem with my Croc's were when we found ourselves walking on smaller rocks, kind of like a bed of large gravel. The soles of the sandals couldn't quite handle that much change. When we hit Daleville, once a shower and food were a done thing, we began the walk to the Outfitter's store where I was surprised to find two awesome things: 1) They had a lot of cool stuff, some of it on sale, including sandals and 2) Right next door was one of the best coffee places around.  I ended up with a pair of Chaco's for 30% off, and I'd never even seen them discounted a bit before. I really like those sandals. They are heavier, but the sole can handle any of the terrain we encountered. It only took 3 half mile hikes to the store to get a pair. The first time I went home and my box contained two left sandals, and the second trip the guy somehow managed to give me two different color that point I almost kept the mismatched pair as my own personal flair for the trail.
The biggest surprise, however was the coffee shop. I should have known better, from my trips out west. We tend to think, in Florida anyway, that good strong coffee can only be found in urban environments. Somehow thinking that rural folks don't like to spend their money on caffeine jolts. Well, that is just wrong thinking, my friend. Everybody likes caffeine and will spend their hard earned money on it, including backpackers. And they like those 5 hour energy little bottles as well. The coffee place, Mountain Coffee, looked like not much of anything from the outside and I kind of chuckled walking over to it, to see what passed for a coffee place in this one horse town, and then I opened the a place full of old timers, and young people. There was a long line at the counter and the wall seemed lined with containers of different kinds of coffee beans. There were the obligatory alternative young guys working behind the counter and lots of home-made-looking pastries under the counter. I got mine and sat down for the next hour, thinking I have found my new home away from home. It was sitting here, and meeting the people coming and going that I found that though the town itself is small, there are plenty of folk around with nice cars, nice clothes, and time to spend in a nice cafĂ© like this...I made sure I kept my pack close to me so that they understood why I was wearing these socks with the sandals...

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Finding The Unexpected In Daleville

If you are anything like me, you probably just throw some stuff in the suitcase and drive off in your car with no idea of where you are going....just kidding. I'm on googlemaps, I'm on Yelp, I'm checking out the streetviews of places I'm going way beforehand. Why? I guess it's because I can and I'm not fond of unhappy surprises, like bad weather, wrong clothing, running out of food and water. Stuff like that. However, in spite of all of my preparation, Daleville, VA. caught me off guard. This is a little town with a population of about 1500 that just happens to be in a spot where the Appalachian Trail crosses the main road. From my research, this meant there was most likely a grubby gas station and perhaps an old restaurant that served 'country vittles', both straddling a gravel two-lane piece of asphalt where the nearest traffic light couldn't be seen from there. I was pretty far off, and my first indication of that was when Theresa, our shuttle person warned us before dropping us off on the trail, that the road in Daleville was busy and sometimes you had to wait 5 minutes to cross. I laughed at that, thinking these country people have no idea about traffic. Later, I was to learn that comparing my chances of getting eaten by a bear to getting whacked crossing that road was a bet nobody would take. Apparently, Daleville has become a nice place to build your 50 acre dream ranch and it's only 15 minutes to your job in Roanoke, and they pretty much drive like they've got a Starbucks in their lap and less than 5 minutes to make that 15 minute drive. And couple that with the fact that the population of Daleville doesn't count all of those people in those big ranch mansions as part of the city...but they are still driving, shopping and waiting in long drive-through lines at Dunkin Donuts.

At first, I didn't know all of this. I knew that I was happy at HoJo's Hotel, seedy as it was. I just lay there in my bed, watching the rain without getting wet, and wondering how long it would have to rain to fill up that old swimming pool that was just outside my  window. The hotel pool looked like it had been a long time since anyone had even tried to keep it clean, but perhaps it was just early in the season.  I looked around my room and decided it must be pretty early in the season for general maintenance as well. Paul was pacing, because he knew it was getting to be dinnertime and a long hike to the BBQ place in the dark rainy night was out of the question. So it was that we finally took a big chance and darted across the highway to Pizza Hut, one of the numerous places in the world where they had nothing Paul would eat. I convinced him that he could get a salad or something while I chowed down on a large Pepperoni pie. All I kept thinking was that I rarely get to have pizza and this was a very good opportunity. A little aside here about food and hiking. Normal people look at packaged food (maybe) so see how fattening it could be and if it's worth the extra calories. Not hikers, they will say "Only 600 calories! I can't deal with that. Maybe if I have 2 Snickers bars with it, that might work."  I hardly saw anybody hiking that had more extra weight on them than I did. My take is that mountains will do for you what a treadmill won't.
We came into Pizza Hut soaking, narrowly avoiding a couple of cars that seemed to speed up to run down hikers, and found ourselves the lone customers of the night. I was excited, I could eat a whole large pizza, have ice cream after and still be the fittest of my life! And I wasn't going to have to pitch my tent and lay awake all night in my sleeping bag either. We were going to the Outfitter's store in the morning and then back on the trail for 2 more nights, but we had finished the hard stuff and I felt like now was the time to relax and enjoy a night off.
Meanwhile, Paul is explaining to the waiter that he wants whole wheat bread, no tomato, no cheese, and he emphasizes that he doesn't want the cheese and tomato scraped off, it cannot touch the bread ever, and he needs to be sure that the cook changed his gloves before any of this....I'm groaning to myself. Damn, I was sitting in an outhouse with bugs and two pieces of toilet paper yesterday, and he gets to be this picky in a Pizza Hut!?
I was waiting for the waiter to let him have it, but instead I looked up to see our waiter was this skinny young guy with tattoos and giant earrings. He said, "I am a Vegan as well, and I understand perfectly sir. I'll have the cook make yours like he does mine."
We got our pizza and it was fantastic. I had no idea that Pizza Hut made such good pizza, in fact I hardly ever eat there. It might just be that one place in Daleville, or that you need to hike 60 miles to get to it first. In spite of my ambitions, I was only able to eat half of it. Paul was happy also, with what looked like pieces of BBQ on wheat bread. It was the saddest excuse for a pizza I ever saw in my life. I'm really starting to think how much easier it would be if Paul just told people he was Vegan, instead of just being an extremely finicky eater. I mean, he was into this stuff way before it was cool. I can still remember on some surfing trip, while we all waited forever in McDonald's so Paul could have a custom-made hamburger that had never seen mustard. Of course, this was before he knew you could ask them to change their gloves. Sigh, Paul will not tell people this of course, because then he would have to give up Trump, the ultra conservative life, and keep quiet about the whiny tree-huggers out west. Me, I think one good trip to Portland, OR would change his life forever. Hmmm, I wonder if they have any good backpacking adventures in Portland?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: From The Ridgeline To HoJo

If there is one overwhelming reason to keep doing this hiking thing, it is the feeling you get when you are walking across the ridgeline of a mountain. It's seems crazy when you are back in town, to look up and say "I was there, up at the top, only yesterday". And if there is a best sensation, it is walking the ridgeline in the dark, and seeing the stars above and the city lights below. It made it worth all of those uphill switchbacks that we groaned about. I can still remember Paul saying that we were almost at the top and then see the trail turn and see another mountain to climb. We would get our hopes up when we'd look ahead and see blue sky behind the trees instead of more mountain. Sometimes we would be walking on a narrow line with the sides of the mountain falling from us and on either side you could see the city below. I almost never had that experience but for a curious guy named Glenn, that taught us hiking in the dark is a peaceful thing. It sure doesn't sound like it at first, but for me, the guy that can't sleep on the trail, I was at least a moving target for bears and whatever other critters were waiting for me to lay down in that sleeping bag, with the world's thinnest material for a tent separating me from the nightlife.
The problem of sleeping at night is not a camping thing. I have no problem at all sleeping on a camping trip, and a whole lot of people have trouble sleeping while on backpacking trips. Strangely enough, Paul is not one of those people. He slept like the dead almost every night of our hike, and I'm here to testify of his ability to snore on command. I was mighty jealous, and am now much more sympathetic to my wife's troubles with sleeping. Paul was happiest in his bag out on the trail, but when we finally climbed down off the trail and hiked into Daleville for a shower and a chance to recharge our electronics, Paul found he couldn't just sleep anywhere.
One thing I did not really understand before Daleville, was that the through hikers didn't rough it for months on end, eating nothing but Ramen noodles and drinking from streams. Nope, they would go into town, chow down, sleep in a hotel, and get some more stuff for the trail. Sometimes, they were switching out packs, gear, clothing, and even just hanging out with other hikers. Daleville is the kind of town that welcomes hikers and even offered special hiker discounts. We took advantage of that at the Howard Johnson's right next to the trail. That place was full of hikers, and the management was really nice to us all, but I'd have to say, the hotel was probably appreciated most by hikers that hadn't seen a shower and a bed for a while...there was no way my wife would have set foot in that place. I do recall that Magic Mike told me his wife was keeping him restocked and he had to find her a nicer hotel down the road, like I say, hikers liked it the most.
I've seen some worse hotels out west for more money, but this one was in the running, for sure. None of that bothered me a bit. The shower had hot water, the bed had a pillow and I knew that real food was coming in the morning, and there was a Pizza Hut, and supposedly an awesome BBQ place down the road. In spite of my dislike of all things fast food, Paul talked me into lunch at Wendy's which was a half mile walk down the highway. For most of us, a half mile walk down the highway doesn't sound worth a trip to Wendy's, but take off my backpack and it was more like I was floating down the road. And...the food at Wendy's tasted awesome. The place was full of backpackers, and if you wonder how I knew, just think of a bunch of homeless looking guys, and you'll get the picture.
We had come into Daleville at this time, not just for fun, but because the weather was supposed to get bad again, and I was a little apprehensive after the episode at Dragon's Tooth. The weathermen were right this time and it rained hard while Paul lay sleepless in the hotel room, thinking about how much it was costing him to sit there and watch reruns of Gilligan's Island while I was snoring in the next bed....

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Ridin' Dirty

Thanks to my brother Paul, we had great maps for our trip. The Appalachian Trail is one of the few trails that is almost completely recorded in a database. He printed out the sections we were hiking and I uploaded them in my GPS watch. We also had googlemaps in my phone. We tended at first to rely on the printed maps, or Paul did, until he realized that it is possible to read them upside down. In other words, I would tell him that we have an easy hike to the next shelter, it's all downhill and then it would be straight uphill instead. We learned from the through hikers that indeed there is an 'app for that' and I bought the Guthooks app for the AT...but Paul never did truly trust a computer.
One of the big deals for me on the map, was trying to figure out where that convenience store was. We kept hearing stories of, you come to a road, turn left to go to a hostel and take a shower, turn right and walk half a mile to the convenience store. I was pretty sure we were going to make it by lunchtime that day, and was already planning my meal. Now, you must understand, that normally, I would turn my nose up at a fast food place for food, much less a gas station, but take me out in the woods for 5 days and I'm ready for any kind of food, no matter what the transfat, or corn syrup content is. As we hiked, we were asking hikers that passed us from the other direction if we were close to road. At one point we met a nice woman about our age that was taking a day hike with her two dogs. She was tall, thin, quite athletic, and her dogs were big, white fluffy dogs, like German Spitz or something like that. Actually, one was white and the other was covered with mud, and the lady explained that the one dog never passed a stream without taking a splash. The dogs paid us no mind at all, and merely wandered about, smelling every tree they came to. Their owner told us that we weren't all that far from the store, but unfortunately, to get there, we would have to hike two and a half miles down off the trail, and another half mile to the store...but she would be glad to give us a ride if we went to the parking lot and waited for her to finish her hike.

That sounded good to us, and that is how we came to do our first hitching-a-ride as backpackers. Apparently, this is very common in the area, and every hiker we met spoke of hitching rides with friendly locals. Our lady turned out to have a very nice Volvo wagon and I immediately became conscious of the fact that I had been on the trail for five days without a bath, and it seemed that the dogs were aware of this as well. They stayed in the back part of the car with their paws over their noses the whole short trip.
Soon, we were at the store of my dreams, and although in reality it was the kind of store that I would drive right by, this time it was perfect. I was like a construction worker that just got paid in there. I had two slices of pizza, a muffin, and grabbed all kinds of junk food for later. I even bought some instant mashed potatoes to show that I had a little bit of class. I got a cup of coffee in an old carafe that looked like it was made about five hours before I got there and it tasted just like Starbucks. The pizza was sitting in a little glass case under an infared lamp by the cash register and it was better than any pizza I'd ever had before.
Meanwhile, Paul is asking the Indian lady that runs the store if she could make him a special egg sandwich, where the biscuit had never been touched by grease that contained any animal fat. I'm not sure what she did in the back room with that biscuit, but Paul seemed satisfied with the result.
To top all of that off, our lady was waiting in the parking lot to give us a ride back to the trail! We both offered to buy her some gas, or anything she wanted to eat, but somehow I got the impression, that she would usually drive right by this store just like I would.
I was so full and so happy, that it wasn't until later that day I realized that I still didn't get a shower, and I also forgot to get a brownie..

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Back On The Trail Again: The Flannel Girls And Black Max

I feel good when I have my pack on, and I'm heading up the trail. I know I have good gear, I'm in shape and my body feels like it is made for this effort. I feel like this for a while, at least until 2 girls in their early 20's go dancing by up the mountain with packs as full as mine, and stuff hanging out everywhere. Funny thing is I can remember being 18 years old and climbing Mount Adams with Paul and my Dad. I can remember being down on all fours, wondering how anyone could do this with a pack, when two little old ladies went dancing by us up the mountain. I'm still wondering, when is it gonna be MY turn? I have a feeling that a life in Florida does little to help us for mountain hiking.
The two young girls were ahead of us and playing around on McAfee Knob, when we finally dropped our packs and sat down to enjoy lunch. The taller girl reminded me of my neice, Taylor Snodgrass, long raven hair, a flannel shirt tied around her waist and playing with her friend like they had been here many times. The other girl was a petite blonde and had enough energy for the two of them. She did all the talking and just made you feel that there was nothing better in the world to be doing that day than hiking in the woods.  They had been dropped off for a two night section hike, like we would take off for a day at the beach. I'm pretty sure they just grabbed a pack and threw some stuff in it and ran for the car. Not planning for days, not pouring over maps, not wondering if there was something that weighed 1 ounce less than the coat they were wearing...just having fun like it was nothing. Meanwhile, Paul is holding on to a tree for dear life. You see besides Paul's penchant for naming mountains after clothing stores, he has a little bit of cliff fear. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but he was even afraid that the girls were too close to the edge and that bothered him.
Surprisingly, Paul faced his fear head on and walked really close to the middle of the rock, almost near an edge, close to a tree. Hard to believe that this is the same guy that was climbing on the roof when he was a baby. Don't get me wrong, he doesn't live in fear, it's only when we are on top of mountains that have big rocks and steep cliffs. Me? I'm just worried about losing something I need to survive, like the woman in the movie that accidentally drops her shoe over the edge. That kind of thing was the real fear for me, like cooking your last cup of coffee and then spilling it before you even had a taste. That is the kind of fear I lived with.

The girls were having a great time, and Paul was feeling pretty good about getting to McAfee Knob and getting a photo taken to prove that he could almost get near the edge. We finally caught up to the girls at the shelter and they were surrounded by the through hikers. For some strange reason, Paul and I were the only two to sleep in the shelter that night. Everybody else was sitting around a campfire with the flannel girls. One guy, who didn't seem to get or care that the girls were a couple, was Max's owner.
 Max was a black Labrador Retriever dog that carried his own pack and loved everybody. He also loved everybody's food and thought the top of the picnic table was where he belonged. The flannel girls loved him, as well as did everyone except for one old couple that seemed to think dogs belonged on the ground instead of on the table. We heard great stories and learned even more about the world of through hikers. We got a lot of examples of luxury items people like to bring on the trail. As Paul brought out his cherished folding chair, one other guy was showing around his flask of whiskey. I was determined that once I finally got to the convenience store that was the stuff of legend, I myself, would grab a prize piece of luxury to bring back on the trail. I was already drooling a bit, thinking of restocking on coffee, and creamer, which was all but gone. A real sandwich, some Gatorade, and it was all starting to seem that it was really going to happen someday soon. I was thinking of all this when the flask guy said that "You know? I like having a taste of whiskey once in a while on the trail, but what was really special, was that damn trail magic brownie!"

Friday, May 19, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Waking Up With The Dragon

If there was one time on that trip where I thought I might get a good night's sleep, it was the night of Dragon's Tooth. Wiped out from the climb, the fall, the storm, and the dread that we were doomed to die of exposure on top of a mountain, I was ready to climb into my bag and kiss the world good night.
It was a good thing that Paul like to look around for good camping spaces because I didn't see much right at the spot where everyone takes photos. I was ready to just throw my tent anywhere and go to bed while it was still light. The rain had passed, and the bandaged parts of my body were just a dull ache. I really thought sleep was looking possible. But..Paul found a really cool hidden spot to camp that seemed protected from the wind and probably would escape the notice of any bears just passing by. The only flaw was that we seemed to be on a slight incline that led down to a cliff. I started paying close attention to that feature when I noticed that my tent was acting more like a kite and was threatening to launch me right off the edge. I staked it down, using every single stake I brought along, and 3 of them were immediately yanked out of the ground by the wind. I decided that the only thing that would hold it down was my body, and that's how I ended up going to sleep before dark....only to wake up for the night about an hour later.

Paul will tell you that there is nothing more soothing to sleep by than the gentle sound of the wind through the trees and the sweet whooshing that reminds you of the waves breaking at the beach. I could hear him snoring all night and I can say with certainty that it was something like that, only the beach was in Hawaii, the waves were 50 foot monsters, and I was trying to sleep on the beach while the tide was coming in.  It wasn't a constant roar, it was more like a jet plane coming by. There would be moments of a gentle breeze, followed by a concussion that pushed my tent flat. I was pretty sure for a while that my tent was going sailing over the cliff with me in it. By the way, if you, like me, are the kind of person inclined to get up in the middle of the night to take a leak, there are a couple of things besides bears that might make you lay there and wait a while longer than you'd like. One of them is the howling of a 50 mile an hour wind while you are barely holding down your new $200 tent next to the edge of eternity and the other is the realization that the weathermen weren't kidding about the cold front. We had gone from 90 degrees to 30 degrees in just a few hours. I had my bag zipped up better than I thought possible and even just my nose sticking out for air wasn't enough to stay totally warm.
When the morning finally came, the wind was still going and I got out of the tent to see the sun shining and thought immediately that I had the chance to get the best photo of the trip. I quickly tied my tent to a nearby tree and went up to see the best sunrise ever. I went back for the camera and a cup of coffee, which was my most prized possession, I mean the camera, but the coffee was a close second. Paul was getting out of his tent and talking about what a great night of sleep he had, while I resisted the urge to tie him to his tent and see if he could fly.

Yes, the worst was behind us, we had survived the storm and the night on Dragon's Tooth, got the pix, and the rest was going to be gravy, or so we thought.....until we remembered Dirty Ernie's warning..

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: The Price Of The Dragon's Tooth Was Blood

To get this shot, you have to be on top of the mountain at sunrise and let me tell you, that wasn't so easy. The Dragon's Tooth is one of the top 3 places to see while hiking in Virginia, and Virginia has the reputation of having some of the best views on the whole Appalachian Trail. I feel quite fortunate to have had this opportunity...but I sure didn't at the time.
It started back at the shelter with the group of hikers trying to decide if the weather people missed the call or what. It was one of those deals where you watch the weather channel and they show a bar moving across the USA, causing flash floods, tornados and just general destruction. I had no desire to be out in the open when that thing hit, but it was already 2pm and there was not much of anything in the sky. The weathercasters blew it, and I was antsy, ready to hike and get me that photo of the Dragon's Tooth.
We took off and started hiking up the mountain, dealing with our personal issue of needing more water than we wanted to carry. Those fast hiking folks can get there in half the time we can, so they can take less water.  We needed to conserve water, get to the top, get some photos and get down the other side before dark, hopefully stopping at a water source, and another shelter.

We hiked for a while, looking at the sky, and noticing that the difficulty of the hike was cutting our speed in half. In other words, we had more of a water problem than we thought before, and were now contemplating hiking down the other side of the mountain in the dark. And, that is about when the storm hit hard. At least we no longer had to worry about water. My thoughts were now consumed with the fact that it was almost dark at 4pm in the afternoon, and I was starting to wonder just how waterproof those cheap knock-off bags I bought were. Truthfully, I had often wondered what it would feel like to be miles from anywhere, with everything I owned on my back, and have the sky open up on pretty much felt just like I thought it would.

It was then, about the time I was thinking that we were the only people crazy enough to be out in this weather, when a withered old man approached us from the other direction. He seemed to be my Dad's age, and my first thought is what was he doing up there in this weather? He told us his name was Dirty Ernie, and he was doing his 3rd round of hiking the whole trail, and this time, I believed the guy. He said that it was very dangerous to try to camp at the top if there was lightning, but it was even more dangerous to try to climb down the other side in the rain. The best idea was to turn around and go back, but we were having none of that. We said goodbye to Dirty Ernie and his dire predictions and continued.

It wasn't long after that I took a big spill while navigating some large rocks with my trekking poles. What happens with the poles on rocks is that your foot slips on algae and you depend on the pole, but the pole is not that helpful on rock and you go down hard, lacking the use of your hands to break the fall. Add forty pounds of turtleshell weight on your back, and any fall is bad news. I lay there for a minute, assessing and hoping that I would not find anything broken. I was seeing blood and feeling big hurts on my arm and ankle. Paul's suggestion was that we stop while he had a cigarette and pondered the situation.
While laying there trying to hold my blood in, I had a vision of the future: Fox and Friends news is on and the hot young Anchor woman is talking about the mysterious death of a hiker in Virginia, and was now going to Bert, who was on the scene in Daleville, Va. with a group of State Police and yellow tape wrapped around a stand of trees in the woods. "All we know right now is that two brothers were hiking, one got injured, and then they found they were being followed by a pack of wolves. The injured hiker had his brother drop his pack and run for help while he fought off the wolves. We are still trying to piece together the rest of the story. The only details we have right now, is that we found "Vahalla Awaits" carved into a rock near the body, carcasses of 7 dead wolves around the body,  and one larger grey wolf carcass with his jaws embedded in the neck of the hiker and the hilt of a knife protruding from one of the wolf's eyes. We can only assume that the hiker fought bravely to the......Seriously? They don't even have wolves in Virginia! Come on Princess, I'm going to see that Dragon's tooth, even if it kills me!", said Paul, stubbing out his cigarette butt.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Joining the Tribe

If there is one single thing that really blew my mind on that trip, it was the people. I'd been on the trail before, and Paul had spent years on the trail. To us, coming across an AT through-hiker was an oddity to remark upon: a really smelly person comes by,  usually with a really long beard, and mumbles "hello" under his breath at most. You'd stand back looking at what must happen to one after spending months alone in the woods hiking from Georgia to Maine in one year.
What was different this trip and forever changed how I perceive this pilgrimage was that, quite by accident we landed right in the middle of a "bubble" of through-hikers. I'm guessing that right about now I need to do some man-splaining.

Every year, thousands of people descend (probably ascend would be a better word) on northern Georgia to begin the trek to the 100 mile wilderness in Maine. For all of their trouble they get a piece of paper saying they completed the trail. I'm pretty sure that all of this is on the honor system, so I've probably met some people that have told me they've done the trail twice, and how am I to know if they really did. But, the real thing is the fact that by the time this throng has reached Roanoke, Virginia, where we started out, 4 out of 5 that started have already given up. The people we met were considered quite likely to finish the whole journey by the end of August. These people, in the current "bubble" were very happy. They told us they were about a week ahead of the "party people". I must assume that there were some dead serious people going without sleep ahead of them. It's not a race, but there does seem to be something about how many miles you can do in a day. Paul and I were good for about 10 miles a day, while a normal through-hiker would try to do 20 miles or more.

You might think, as I did, that these folks would see Paul and I as tourists, gawking as the real hikers did their thing, but they gladly accepted us into their fold. It might have been because we looked like real salty dogs out there, or perhaps it was Paul's stories of his hikes in Maine. He had many stories and it started seeming like the punch lines were his names for mountains. At least that's where he got the most laughs. Paul has some kind of condition where his brain substitutes the names of clothing stores for the names of mountains. I don't think there is a cure, but we do have hopes that it won't get any worse. An example would be, when he wanted to refer to the epic mountain Katahdin, he said Neiman-Marcus. It's strange, but every once in a while it worked out, like when he told someone that we had just hiked from the Gap.

On our third night, we stopped at a shelter and were surrounded by through-hikers. We all stuck around, waiting for a forecasted storm to hit. We made friends with GrapeNut, Couscous, RickTic and his girlfriend, Tasteless, Mandrake, Rockhopper and many more. Everyone had great stories to share. By the way, if you are ever out on the trail, there is one question that you need to know the answer to: what is your trail name? That is the very first thing a through-hiker will ask you. Paul already had the name, Major Pain, and I had to agree after going to several restaurants with him, that it is an apt name. I chose Bad Marvin since I had been using that name for a long time with my music. The thing you do with this name is to sign the registration book in the shelter and leave messages for those that come behind you.
I heard so many great stories on that trip and met so many wonderful people that it still invades my sleep at night. It might seem, knowing the difference in our hiking abilities, that we might see these people but for a moment and then never again, except for something I didn't understand before this trip. Most hikers only carry enough stuff to go for about 3 days (unlike us). They plan stops on the map where there are little mountain towns that welcome hikers. They walk to town to get a hotel room, a shower, a good meal, and more provisions for the trail...sometimes that "zero day" can turn into a "zero week". This is how we came to the point of the magic number 3. Paul and I decided that once you have met the same hiker 3 times, you are now considered old friends. Magic Mike (above in red) and Tasteless (above in blue) are examples of old friends of ours.
The best example of this was the trail runner girl. She looked about 19 years old and was hiking alone. The first time we saw her, she was passing us by while we were taking a break. I can still remember that she was blonde, quite striking looking, with large girl tattoos on her arms, and oddly enough, snot running down her nose like a little kid. She was hiking fast, with these trekking poles that looked more like long black toothpicks. She nodded a quick hello and then was gone, before we could even get a good look at how much pack she was carrying. She was pretty small and I still wonder how somebody so small can carry enough. We saw her again two days later, once again, as she passed by us quickly with a wave, still looking like she was just going for a walk in the woods. Then again 9th day of our trip, we took a bonus hike from the woods 20 miles back to town and she came across us, exclaiming "Hey! You're going the wrong way!" Then she stopped and told us she was really 31, an expert trail runner, and "some guys" were carrying the rest of her stuff. I got a good look at those tattoos and wondered, is this girl some kind of rockstar in this world? I held one of her trekking poles for a minute and could not even guess that it weighed anything. If my poles cost $100 and I thought that was a lot, what did her poles cost? The point is, the 3rd meeting was the time we turned into old friends.
It suddenly dawned on me that I could smell this girl from a decent distance and then realized that it was lunchtime and if she had just come from town and a shower, she had covered 18 miles in the time we had covered 3. It is truly humbling to see what some really athletic people can do. I'm just happy that they let us hang out with them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Facing Your Biggest Fear

Say for a moment that I was going to take you with me on a 6 day hike. Sounds like fun at first, and then the fear creeps in. For me, it was wild animals, food, and water. Perhaps there was a bit of wondering who would save me if I got really hurt, but hiking itself doesn't sound too dangerous, and it was never a big worry for me at first anyway. Most people think that the solution to the first fear is to carry a gun or a big knife like I did, while the experienced hikers are trying to whittle down their pack weight. You get a lot of ridicule, and then slowly realize that the most dangerous parts of the whole hike are walking through parking lots of the towns you pass through. You are way more likely to get whacked by a car than a bear. You don't even need national statistics to make you understand that.
But...the fear of running out of food and water is a real thing. It is something most of us never worry about in our everyday lives, which should make us stop and think a bit. After my over 100 miles of being a newbie backpacker, I can safely say that the fear of not being able to get good, clean water is the number one item on my list. For a hiker, this is a tough thing because water is one of the heavier things that you can carry on your back, but running out of water will get you before just about anything else. You'd think food would be the top of the list, but I actually came home with food I didn't eat. You know how it is at the beach? You drink a lot, but tend to eat less? It's like that with hiking, and the hotter it is, the more you drink. The bad feeling is when you suck on the straw on your camelback, and get air bubbles instead of water and see on the map that the next water source is 5 miles away....straight uphill.

The worry about water sounds silly to a city-slicker, but I, like you figured that a water source on a map meant that there was a spigot with good clean mountain water, better than the best bottled water you can buy! Not so fast, buddy. Sometimes it was a nice big stream, sometimes it was a dried-up mud puddle, sometimes it was a rusty pipe coming out of the ground, but it was always water that had to be treated. I suppose you could take your chances, like my brother told me, "As long as it looks like no animal could have pooped in it, you're good." I'm still not sure how he could tell that stuff. Me? I always made sure my water got purified. Sometimes it was easy to get to the water, and sometimes it cost me dearly. One of my first trips to a water source, I had to go through some nice green vegetation that turned out to be thorn bushes that ripped my legs to pieces and while I stood there bleeding out, Paul decided to have a cigarette and stop to consider what we should do first: get the rest of the water and go back for the first aid kit, or have me give him all of the water just in case I didn't make it back to the campsite. All I know is that next time, I'm taking a really big first-aid kit.

There are many ways to purify water, and I was so worried about water that we each took a different device and that turned out to not be enough. Paul's device was this fancy thing that had a special kind of light that you stick in a bottle of untreated water for about 40 seconds and the water was magically cleansed...sorta. It wouldn't do anything for stuff floating in the water, it just killed microscopic bugs, so if you're really pulling water from a mud puddle, you'd end up drinking purified muddy water. It was quick though, and it turned out that the real major issue was that it used some special battery that you can't find anywhere. Paul had figured on that part and bought extra batteries...and he griped about the weight of those batteries almost all day long every day. The day we figured out that all of the batteries that he had brought along were bad and his gizmo was useless...well that was a bad day. Every time I'd starting talking about how great that banana I had before was, Paul would reply about how heavy his pack was because he was carrying dead batteries and a worthless purifier.
The good news was that I was carrying a mechanical toothpaste tube filter by Sawyer, that was small, light, and needed no batteries. It was basically like a tiny version of those Brita filters we use at home....only one problem: mine stopped working after 3 uses. I don't mean that it didn't filter the water properly, I mean you put water in and nothing came out. Almost all of the hikers had this thing and nobody ever had a problem. They backwashed mine, tried every trick in the book and eventually, I even ended up at a Outfitter store that could not resolve the issue. Bottom line: I got a lemon. That is not much of a deal, but when both of your water purifiers break and you are 20 miles away from the nearest water faucet, you start getting a sinking feeling that you are not going to make it. Fortunately, our hiker friends helped us out, but anybody that ever made a joke about the Perkins men having to have a backup for everything, understand now why we are this way.

We finally realized that we could still boil water and were able to fully enjoy the times when we found the streams. We knew we were going to get to town, get our purifiers working, and Paul was looking forward to a garbage can where he could dump all of those batteries. We were cheerful again, as we realized that sometime the next day there would be a store with water, food, and maybe even a shower. By now, you're probably wondering why we just didn't go jump in the streams and take a bath. Well, as hot as we were, that water was about the coldest water you can imagine. I don't mean like a cold shower in the summer, I mean like you fell through the ice in the winter. My wash cloth was like a good buddy and I used that thing almost as much as I used my fork. I cleaned up frequently, but still wondered just how bad I was going to smell when I finally got to that store. At this point I still didn't know that everybody smelled, including the girls and there were just levels of how bad you smelled. Paul didn't smell that bad, but I did try to make sure I kept my distance. I just kept my eyes on the prize, I was going to that store and load up with every goodie I could find and I was damn sure I was going to get a brownie.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Magic In The Woods

There is something about being in the woods for a while that changes you. My brother Paul says he has determined that it takes 3 nights sleeping on the trail before you start feeling different. It is truly something. Your whole world has become this pack on your back that contains everything, and your foot putting one in front of the other. Soon after I got back home, I was almost immediately nostalgic for the time when the one mess I had to figure out was where my fork was and how far to the next water source. Some time after that third night, the outside world started slipping away. I can still remember one day on top of a mountain ridge, coming upon piles of rocks. Large piles created by humans I assume, but how long ago, I can't imagine. What blew my mind was that some army of people decided to do this in a place where it was a good 7 mile hike to anything else. Was it from the Civil War? Did some farmer clear this forest and then try to farm it? I tried to imagine how many people and how many hours it would take, and how much food you'd need to have to do it....or it was just magic?

Then there was the time, I stopped for no particular reason and put my camera down on the ground and realized it was sitting on some pink stuff, that on further examination turned out to be Easter basket grass....the pink plastic stuff the bunny puts in our kids Easter baskets...and this was way out in the middle of did that get here and why? Then my gaze wavered a bit and I suddenly saw that there was a lot more of it around. My first thought was, I've gone trail crazy and next I will be seeing the Easter bunny himself hopping down the trail. My brother, who is much more worldly just ventured "who cares? It's just Easter grass." He is very much of this world, except when it comes to going to a Psychic to find out what numbers to play in Vegas..

Anyway, there is a kind of magic on the trail that CAN be explained and that is often referred to as Trail Magic. These are presents left on the trail by people referred to as Trail Angels..If you ever have the good fortune to receive one of these magic gifts, you will be smiling just like I was in the photo above. Somebody installed a camp chair by a stream, along with other gifts and I made extra sure I spent about 15 minutes in that chair. People told me stories of ice chests full of beer, cokes, and one guy that even hiked up to a shelter with 37 hamburgers, and cooked them for anybody that showed up at the try to imagine hiking 12 miles with a 40 pound pack, looking forward to freeze-dried mush for supper and having an angel hand you a fresh-cook campfire burger....

My favorite was a plastic bag full of bananas that Paul found after we crossed a bridge. I have to say that was the best damned banana I ever had in my whole life. I was talking about it all day long after that (I did mention the trail crazy stuff, right?).  I almost never found out what was in the other bag in the photo above.
We were sitting in a shelter a few nights later, talking with the other hikers about great things that had happened to us and I of course, shared my story about the world's most awesome banana. One of the guys said, "yeah those bananas were really good, but those damn brownies in the other bag were the bomb!"
I slowly turned towards Paul and said "Brownies?" Paul replied that he thought that we were trying to eat healthy and that chocolate hurt his tummy, so he never mentioned them to me. I'm still hoping to forget about this, but it seemed like every hiker we said more than 3 words to on the rest of the trip had enjoyed one of those brownies. ...

Friday, May 12, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: The 3am Guys

This whole backpacking thing means different things to different people. To my brother, it means he is almost disconnected from work for more than 2 days and he never sleeps better than he does with a tent over his head and the night filled with forest sounds. Me? The times I felt best were when I had that pack on my back and the hike was easy and there was something awesome to see. The tent, the sleeping bag, and the nights were the parts that I dreaded. And, it appears that I'm not the only one. I can still remember having a conversation with a group of through hikers, asking them how they handled sleeping at night. There was one of the guys, that reminded me of an old friend, Mark Bollenback. That is a funny thing,  by the way. Paul says there is some gene in us that makes us see faces in clouds, trees and in nature. There is some gene in me that makes almost every new person I meet look similar to somebody I already know. This new guy that was talking about sleeping was like my friend Mark, only on steroids. I'm a pretty good sized guy, and he could have picked me up like a toothpick. He had a big red beard and looked like some kind of eco-Viking. I distinctly remember him telling me that he slept great on the trail, averaging at least 3 hours of sleep a night!
I was getting several versions of the same story from everyone I met, except my brother. I also remember a girl named "Bottles" telling me about meditation, calming tea, and reading a book before trying to sleep. The next day she told me she had taken Advil PM as a last resort.
Bottom line was that I didn't sleep much on the trip, and I very much wanted to, but the one night that I was virtually guaranteed not to sleep was the night of the ascent to the Audie Murphy monument. We climbed forever that day, even as the sun was setting off in the distance, and supper was only a memory, we were trudging uphill on the trail, dripping sweat in the 90 degree heat. About dusk, we came to a level spot that we realized was a jeep trail on top of the mountain. It was the trail to the monument, and we still had half a mile to go. "Screw that!" I said and decided we needed to camp right there in the middle of the trail while there was enough light for me to work the zippers on my tent before the spiders could get in. We stopped and got our tents and bags ready, alone in the quiet night before the stars and moon came up, when suddenly a hiker came upon us. He merely said hello, and continued on to who knows where in the dark. I kept thinking, the trail still has surprises for me.

But, I was as tired as I could get, and absolutely knew that I would pass out as soon as I hit the pillow, that is if you count a wad of your clothes as a pillow. What I had not counted on was the breeze passing us by, and me laying in a 20 degree sleeping bag with a layer of sweat on my skin, not unlike a day at the beach without a shower. I lay there and finally went to sleep with dreams of bears going through the pockets in my backpack and drinking all of my water. I kept waking up, thinking that perhaps an early start to the day would not be a bad thing. I checked my watch  and saw it was 11pm and groaned. Surprisingly, Paul heard me and was having trouble sleeping as well. For some strange reason, that cheered me up more than it should have. We finally decided that if neither of us could sleep, we'd get up at 3am and hike down the mountain to the convenience store, that was supposed to have everything in the world a hiker could want. In fact, because of my lack of sleep, I was starting to waking dreams, that usually involved an icebox of beer and sitting back in Paul's chair by a babbling brook.

After a while of laying there in my sleeping bag, reassuring myself that the sounds I was hearing were of the wind blowing my tent rainfly, and not some pranking bears getting ready to pull their next trick, I decided it was time to hit the trail. Paul agreed and we quickly packed up our stuff in the dark and headed down the ridge, bypassing the monument for the greater good of the store with cheeseburgers, beer, and all the water you could ever want.....not 100 yards later, we passed the tent of our hiker friend that had come across us the night before. I sure hope we didn't wake him...but I'm pretty sure we did.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: The Angry Hiker

Here you are, out in the woods, with a giant backpack on. People like you are immediately your friend. Almost everybody that passes by, at least says hello, if not more. You see many kinds of people and different groupings. To me, the most interesting is a girl and guy couple. The girl is almost always perky and happy to be alive, while the guy usually mumbles a lot, but doesn't say much. My thought of that was that, some outdoorsy girl just dragged her boyfriend out to do her favorite sport, while he suffers, thinking that he would rather be back home playing video games. I could be wrong, but it was truly the girl that did the talking in every case. With solo guys, you could either get a "This is the greatest day of my life!" to the sullen downward glance of the person that came here to be alone. I still remember passing this one tall, thin, ghostly-looking guy with a bandana over his face that turned and looked at us wordlessly as we passed by....I kept checking to make sure he continued on his way for quite a while.
The single women on the trail were by far the most interesting. They had the nerve to do something I didn't...heading out into the woods all alone for days at a time.
However, there was one person that really stood out in our minds. That was the Angry Hiker. Not long after we left the Sarver Shelter and our bear friend, we began what was to be the most difficult ascent of the trip. It was the climb to the Audie Murphy monument, something that was hard enough except that we had somehow managed to bring our Florida weather with us. It was 95 degrees that day, and all of us were dripping sweat and wondering how much farther we had to go before the trail leveled out. During this part of the journey, we were passed by a young guy with a baseball hat and joe cool sunglasses and headphones (which we did see a lot of on solo hikers). He was really humping it and stopped for a minute, but I could tell early on, that Paul's friendly conversation was not for him. He took off, up the mountain and soon we could hear him cussing about the trail, who's idea it was, who painted those white blazes, and basically using every cuss word known to a sailor. Paul took this one-sided conversation as an opening to tell the guy about his previous travels in the hiking world and the guy finally yelled down, "Dude! You keep talking to me and I'm too out of breath to help you! I gotta quit smoking!".
My feeling was that he had an appointment to keep somewhere. Either a bet that he could make the ascent in a certain time period, or some awesome food was waiting for him at the convenience store on the other side of the mountain.
A little while later, a really friendly tall guy with two dogs and a bottle of water passed by us. The trail runner guys were amazing. They ran in places where I was almost crawling. We finally caught up to them both, the tall guy laying back resting, his dogs panting, and the angry hiker puffing away on his cigarette. We got a wave and a friendly hello from the tall guy while the angry hiker quickly put away his smokes, got his pack and high tailed it for the top of the mountain. My best guess was that he didn't want to hear any more of Paul's stories.
Paul just took it all in stride, while I spent the rest of the trip wondering what we did to offend that guy. We did have a lot of fun trying to recreate the effect of a guy cussing the whole time he was hiking. I'd have to say that I never met anybody like that again.
There is one other person we met on the trail that might have less than fond memories of us, me in particular. We met him at the top of the mountain by the Audie Murphy monument, and then two other times. We have decided that 3 time meetings is the magic number where you have now become old friends...except that the last time we met him, he referred to us as the 3am guys.....

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: The Night Of The Bear

Man, the things we take for granted in this life. A toilet, for example. Ever feel that stress when riding or walking somewhere and suddenly need to use the facilities? You probably think, boy, it'd be nice just to drop trou, and just go in a cow pasture like my little brother did. Me? I kinda prefer a nice flushable toilet, lots of privacy, and preferably not somebody banging on the door asking how much longer will I be in there. I am now proud to say that I finished the whole trip without having to make like a bear one single time...I found an empty privy whenever I needed it, and I also quickly got over any qualms about how dirty and smelly they were. Things like that were the bits of essential pleasure of our lives. Another example, you come off the trail and find a garbage can! Yay! I can drop all of that trash I have been carrying in my backpack for the last 3 days. And then there are the'd think that the reason to go into the woods is to escape civilization, but for a lot of us, it's not to avoid human contact entirely. Whenever you came across another hiker, there was a middlin' chance that you would strike up a conversation about the weather, the trail, or gear, or anything that you might have in common. Our second night on the trail was like that, when we came up to the camping shelter and ended up spending the night with a father and son-in-law. We traded stories and tips about hiking, camping, and everything else.

Sometimes, my initial feeling was that I didn't want to meet any strangers, and then minutes later we are best friends. These two guys were IT workers in a hospital and carried a ton of first aid gear, some of which they donated to us, as it was their last night of their trip. That turned out to be quite fortunate later on.
The son was proudly showing us his high-end hammock, which had a mosquito net, rain fly and some secret method of getting in and out of it. Apparently, the only drawback beside having to learn how to get into it, was that your butt gets cold at night. I immediately crossed that idea off my list of things to try someday. And I still have some band-aids on me that back that notion up.

We were having a great time telling stories back and forth, when the son decided to make one last trip to the privy for the night. Now, a thing you need to know about this stuff, is that the privy and the water source were never near the shelter. I know the makers had their reasons, but plenty of people cussed about the distance to go fetch water. Surprisingly, no one ever complained about the distance to the privy.
He was gone for quite a while when we suddenly heard a lot of screaming and he came running up, saying that there was a bear on the trail to the privy. He was still pulling his pants up as he ran over to his hammock, dismantling it and dragging it into the shelter. You see, he was subscribing to what I refer to as surfer logic: 1 person in the water = 100% chance of getting bit by a shark. 4 people in the water = 25% chance of getting bit by a shark. His feeling, and mine was that with 4 of us in this 3 sided shelter meant that each of us had only a 25% chance of getting our feet nibbled on by a bear. Those odds worked well for me, and I fell soundly asleep while the 3 other guys stayed up worrying about the bear.

We all lived through the night and never saw the bear again, but something still puzzles me. I know that it is considered bad reasoning to think that bears think like people, but: everybody hangs their food from trees away from where they sleep. Bears use the same well-maintained trails that we use, why not, it's easier. But, a bear coming around a privy while somebody is sitting inside swinging their legs, makes me wonder.....were there two bears in the woods and one said to the other: "Hold my beer...I got this"?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Back On The Hike Again: Zippers and Spiders

And the adventure begins! I'm on a mountain, feeling cool, fresh, and prepared. I have very good gear, food for over six days, enough water to last me for a day, and I'm with my brother who really knows what he's doing. This awesome feeling probably lasted about 30 minutes, when I started sweating profusely, realizing that I wouldn't see a shower for a really long time and had only one other shirt to wear. Paul said not to worry, that we only had about 4 more miles to go, straight up, before we could stop for the night. My spirits were up, but somehow my daily routine of running 5 miles in the morning did little to prepare me for this. I'm pretty sure the word "ascent" does not get used much in Florida. In fact, I should have been climbing stairs instead of running for practice. As a newbie, I was a great asset for Paul. I could think outside the box. Every time I saw a stream, my shirt came off and went for a dunking. Nothing much can cool you down faster than a shirt wet with 30 degree water.
Paul preferred his one luxury item: his 1 pound chair. He often claimed to other backpackers that ridiculed him for bringing such a thing along, that it was a medical necessity for his back. I laughed along with the other hikers, but before that trip was over, I had fantasies of Paul accidentally falling off a cliff and me grabbing that chair at the last second.

We climbed for so long that it was really dark when we reached our destination: Kelly's Knob, which didn't look like much in the light of our headlamps. We quickly set about setting up camp and I then realized that I had some serious issues besides being tired as hell. I was attempting to set up my brand new tent for maybe the second time since I bought it. It was a really cool tent, made of recycled grocery bags or maybe something not quite as sturdy. As I was putting up the tent, I kept finding daddy-long-leg spiders, something I hadn't seen in years. Perhaps it was the same spider coming back over and over, but first it was on my pack, then on my tent. I'd shoo it away and then find it again. I mean, I like bugs, but the thought of one in my tent or my sleeping bag tends to interfere with my sleep pattern. I finally got everything about right when I then noticed a whole different kind of spider on my ankle. My first thought was great! I'm going to die the first night from a brown recluse spider bite! I knocked him off, got inside my tent as fast as possible without ripping the material to shreds and quickly went about zipping the door to keep the spiders out. Unfortunately, I had never tried to do that exact thing with this tent before and suddenly saw that a zipper on a grocery bag is a quite fragile item. No matter what I did, the material stuck in the zipper. I tried every trick I knew, including yelling cuss words at the bugs, which now included several moths that found favor with my headlamp. I knew the next thing that was going to happen was that I was going to rip the zipper right off my $200 plastic bag tent and spend the rest of my nights sleeping with spiders. Meanwhile, Paul was snoring in the tent next door, something that became more annoying as the trip went on. I now fully understand the feelings of a person laying wide awake, wondering what monsters are walking around, while your companion tells you that there is no better sleep than what you get while under the stars.
Ironically, the one night I did sleep well, was the night of the bear...