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..