Thursday, May 29, 2008

Moving Right Along

I am 624 miles along and am picking up steam. In the last week I have averaged 27 miles a day, with a little help from a 43 mile day. As you may well imagine, hiking monopolizes the greater part of my day and when I do make it to towns it is all about eating, washing (both clothes and myself) as well as resupplying for the next few days on the trail. In the next few days I am hoping to take a day off to catch up on the web site. While every day in the woods is the same, each is unique and there is so much going on. Until then...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Day Off in Damascus

I made it to Virginia, but I am still only 466 miles into the trail. While I am 21% of the way there, Maine still feels like a long way off. I am however, quite literally, finding my stride. It seems that my routine is: that I have no real routine. While I still put my left sock on before my right, it seems that every day brings something new to contend with. The weather is also warming up, so I will start worrying less about freezing at night and more about staying hydrated during the day.

Never one to shy away from commitment I decided to buy some trekking poles. It seems that I have a good rhythm while using them and it seems to increase my cadence, not to mention save my knees on steep down hills. I also have another new pair of boots. I am now using trail running shoes as opposed to actual boots. Being that the weight of my backpack is dwindling, the need for stiff boots is decreasing. While my pack didn’t weight 50 pounds to start with, I am still finding ways to lighten the load. It is getting to the point though that the only way to drop a few ounces is to spend big bucks on super lightweight gear and I don’t really want to go there. I made it this far with my pack, I hope to make it the rest of the way. I am having some technical difficulties posting my gear list (which has changed significantly since I started), but I hope to have that up soon, as well as the miles/town section for the hike. It is difficult when I keep getting tossed out of libraries after an hour of internet usage.

Over the last five days I have averaged a hair over 25 miles a day, including another 32 mile day. For the trip I am averaging just over 21 miles a day. The trip isn’t all about the miles though. I have seen some unbelievable scenery and tons of wildlife (fortunately no bears). I have also been meeting a bunch of people along the way on the trail if only for five minutes. For the most part, other people that are hiking don’t really cover large distances, so if I see them on the trail once or twice that is usually about it. It’s a bummer in a way as there are a number of people I met on the trail for however so briefly that I had some good conservations with. I guess the flip side is that the handful of people I had an aversion to, I will never have to see ever again.

I usually like to have more interesting things to say about the trail, but when I leave myself 15 minutes to write and post to the web site, it is basically a stream of consciousness. In the next week or two I am thinking about taking off two days to rest the body and fully update the web site. Hopefully some of those interesting people that I had passed on the trail will catch up.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hiking in the Rain

It was good to get out of town and back on the trail. I bought a new pair of boots in Gatlinburg, TN as I just wasn’t feeling it with my last pair. They weren’t bad, but not great either. And when I am walking all day, it is nice to have a super comfortable pair of boots. The problem with boots that are comfortable is that they generally don’t last long. I am OK with that though. I shouldn’t have much trouble getting another pair in a couple of weeks. It’s not like when I was in Nepal and my foot exploded out the side of my boot while hiking the Annapurna Circuit. I had to hike through the Himalayas for a almost a week with duct tape wrapped around my boot. Even the Sherpa were laughing at me.

It seems that luck has been on my side, sort of. The night before I got back on the mountain, the storm of all storms rolled through. The roads were covered with downed branches and leaves. As it turned out, the mountains were riddled with hail, some of which still remained when I got back on the trail at noon. I was glad to have missed that. I still managed to get 20 miles in for that day. I finished up at 8:30 and just in time as some heavy rain started coming down. My luck would only hold out so long though.

I have to preface the next story with the description of a "bald". A bald is essentially a spot on top of a mountain that has been clear cut of trees and given a name so as not to be called "some mountain that had all the trees cut down" It seems that down south people have an inherent love of balds. I however seem to have to cross them in the most inhospitable weather. In this instance it was worse as the Appalachian Trail had been lengthened by four tenths of a mile to meander all over the bald. Sure, four tenths of a mile doesn’t sound like much, but when I am getting pounded by hail and rain on pretty much the tallest mountain in the area and it being completely devoid of trees, it’s far. I also didn’t think wind would be a factor while hiking, but I was blown all over the place as I tried to hurry across the bald. I already saw the headline of the following days newspaper: May 11, 2008, Some Idiot Killed on Bald by Lightening. It wasn’t the smartest move I had ever made, but I managed to literally run across the bald. Had I a map, I would have routed myself around the bald, but I made the decision before I started on the trail to forego maps.

It seems that the weather has been less than ideal for the last week. Most days have been overcast with a light drizzle on and off all day. I have had several other days of heavy wind and rain. I experienced one of my worst nights out in the woods of all time on a particularly windy and rainy night. Rain was just blowing right into the shelter. I pulled my pack liner, a.k.a., a garbage bag over the bottom part of my sleeping bag, but it was of little use. Worse though was that just before I was ready to go to sleep, a tree of about 10 inches in diameter came crashing down not 15 feet from the shelter. Fortunately the tree fell away from the shelter and not in the direction of it. Sleep was fleeting that night.

On another evening I arrived in a shelter to a bunch of written warning notes left by previous hikers. The warnings were of a bear stalking the area and had a taste for "people food" One of the written warnings used several expletives and damned more than one deity just to get any other hikers to turn the page and read his suggestions of keeping their food safe. I generally hang my food in a tree as one is supposed to do, so I was just certain to take extra care and hang it properly. It was also one of those nights with a heavy, heavy rain, so if anything I thought the bear would be grabbing a mate and making for the ark. I woke up more than a few times hearing things that went bump in the night. In the morning when I went to check on my food bag, it was no longer hanging where I had put it. I only had a one day walk to a town, so I could go a day without food, but as it turned out, with all the wind, the trees swayed to the point of snapping the cord I used to tie my food bag between two trees. My bag was on the ground and no worse for the wear other than being a little wet.

Later that day I discovered why I wasn’t harassed by the bear. The bear had moved to the next shelter along the trail, about ten miles on. There was a family camping there whose food was taken. I would later find out that on the following night another hiker would have his food taken, but the bear’s appetite not sated it was about to walk into the shelter looking for more, before the hiker yelled and scared it off...for the time being. It’s sad to say that something has to be done about the bear as the problem is chronic. It is just a matter of time before a person gets hurt, or worse.

I am currently averaging 20 miles/day hiking. My longest day was 32 miles, which ended crossing a bald in the rain (surprise, surprise). It was so foggy that I could barely see the trail. There were at least a few times where I had to backtrack. I thought about ending my day at 22 miles, but I met two people on the trail that wanted to do some night hiking, so we set off together. Hiking at night gives an entirely different perspective on the trail. Many of the nocturnal animals are out and the forest just looks and sounds different. I didn’t really see much other than the three feet of the trail that was immediately in front of me. I will definitely do some more night hiking, but when the weather is better and I have some moon light.

Some people on the trail ask me how I can enjoy my hike while putting in so many miles. I just couldn’t imagine hiking for four hours and then just sitting around. One couple said I must really be missing things. They hadn’t left camp until noon that day. How do they see anything just sitting around? I don’t think I am missing much by putting in the miles. I walk the same trail as anyone else hiking the Appalachian Trail, whether 10 miles a day or 20.

I am currently in a small town in Tennessee where I have actually heard the people say "blowed up" "we was" and "dis-encouraging" I have met some interesting people hitching rides into towns. People have been so friendly, kind and helpful. I don’t know if it is that people are just different down south, but in the span of five minutes, I know their whole life story. On my bike ride I postulated that misfortune begets misfortune and I have had further examples today. One gentleman was going to the doctor to get an injury checked out. He had a shotgun shell explode in the gun, burning his hand and face. He also had two brain surgeries prior to that, not to mention that one of his children was shot to death on a playground at age 10. Another woman, who was married at 15 only spent six of the eight years of her marriage with her husband, being that he was in prison for the rest. Here daughter just got pregnant at 16 and her sons wife just walked out on him and his two children. Oh, and she got a traffic ticket that morning. I don’t know if it is more unbelievable that all of these things have actually happened to people or that I learned it about the person in a matter of minutes.

I am on the trail again tomorrow and hope to make Damascus, Virginia in about a week. In the mean time, lets review the dumb things I have recently done. I don’t carry a map. I don’t have a tent and I cross open mountaintops during thunderstorms. Lets see if I can find some rattle snakes to play with for next time.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cleared the Smoky Mountains

I have made it past a very large hurdle, the Smoky Mountains. I have to say that while challenging, they were beautiful to hike through.

Before even getting to the Smoky Mountains though there were some tough days. I had a few days north of 20 miles, my longest being 24.3 miles. On one of my 20 mile days, the distance wasn’t the hardest part, but the elevation change. The elevation change for the day equated to something like walking up and down the stairs of the Empire State Building about four times. I still love the up hills, at least far better than the down hills. My knees are still getting used to the punishment as are my feet. I had contemplated using hiking poles, but I think they are awkward, at least for me. I have been snowboarding for 20 years, so unlike a skier, poles feel odd to me. I have however periodically used a walking stick. It seems to help on the knees considerably. I wield the thing like hockey stick; stick handling left and right, descending mountains. I also like the low commitment factor to a walking stick. If I don’t want it any longer I can burn it in the camp fire or just toss it back into the woods from whence it came. And if I want another walking stick there are millions readily available sitting right on the ground, free for the taking.

I am really getting into the groove hiking. I have developed a routine that keeps me moving throughout the day. Upon wakeup, which is usually around seven, I pack all my gear and get set up for the day. I don’t cook breakfast as some people do, but rather eat some type of breakfast bar; several of them. I usually don’t take my first break for the first 8 or so miles, allowing me to get a few miles under my belt before late morning. I play the rest of the day by ear, depending on how I am feeling. I will generally take one break of a half an hour to eat and take off my boots to rest the feet. I usually arrive where I am going to spend the night in the late afternoon, which gives me some time to goof around before dinner. I cook dinner on my little stove, eating some type of pasta mainly. After dinner there is some more goof around time, potentially used for planning the next day, shooing away mice and then getting to bed just about as it is getting dark. Within the first 15 minutes of climbing in my sleeping bag I shoo away more mice until I drift off to sleep. Naturally I am woken in the middle of the night on average of about three times by mice scurrying about.

Just before entering the Smoky Mountains there is a large shelter where people tend to conglomerate. There were a couple of guys who had been there for over a week, just hanging out. They were looking for recruits for a Blue Grass festival that was happening a few days hence. I would have loved to catch the festival, but I couldn’t spare the four days. I did however have the chance to have some fun on a nearby lake. I had found a large rectangular block of Styrofoam that was about three feet long. I decided to use it as a boat, so I straddled it and rowed it around the lake using my camp shoes. Now you know what else I do in my free time. I will post a photo of that at some point.

When I entered the Smoky Mountains I started seeing more wildlife. I have seen rabbits, deer, grouse (I think), snakes and even a wild boar. I have not seen a bear, probably due to my abysmal singing. Previously, the shelters in the Smoky Mountain National Park had chain link fences covering the front of them to protect people from bears, but people would purposely leave food outside to bait the bears. It seems that the park decided to have the last laugh and took down the fences. Good luck.

There was also a decided increase in the number of people in Smoky Mountain National Park. I would see 10 or more a day as opposed to three. You would think that with all those people to bite, I would have fewer bug bites, but no. I have been a meal to over probably 50 different insects.

After climbing over Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail (it is all down hill from here, in theory anyway), I stopped in the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where I was shooed out of the library while posting my last update. It is an odd town. Take Jackson Hole, Wyoming, commercialize it with chain restaurants, add some hillbilly flare and Viola! You have Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Alternatively, move Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to the Tennessee mountains and add that hillbilly business. I think the result would be the same. It was a nice place to spend a day getting prepared for the next section of the trail, especially with the number of all you can eat buffets on offer. Tennessee barbeque. Yum. Gatlinburg is also home to Dollywood though I decided to give it a pass.

I am just going to go off on a little rant here for a minute, so please excuse me. What is up with the bus trolley system in Gatlinburg? Was it designed by an eight year old? I had to make three stops between Gatlinburg and the neighboring town, Pigeon Forge. It took me 12 separate trolley rides and over six hours. I couldn’t have traveled a distance of more than 15 miles and that is a generous estimate. Why use a complex hub and spoke model when an intersecting point to point system would be much, much more convenient and simple? My favorite was getting on one trolley as the only passenger. The driver asked me where I was going and after telling him my destination I also explained that I wasn’t from around there so I wouldn’t know when the stop was coming up. He drove right past my stop. Perhaps it just wasn’t my day. Get me back on the trail.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Made it to Tennessee

In leaving the town of Franklin, NC I was given a ride back to the trailhead by the President of the hiking club there. Nice fellow. He mentioned to me that by the time Franklin rolled around, about 50% of all potential thru-hikers had given up. As soon as I got back on the trail it certainly felt that way. It just felt deserted. I saw only a couple of people during that first day back on the trail and they were just out for the day. That being the case I had the pleasure of spending the night alone in the woods. Well, I wasn’t completely alone as I had the mice to keep me company. Throughout the night two mice were doing laps around me like I was the infield of Churchill Downs.

In the time I had alone on the trail I have been thinking about what I am carrying with me and how, in theory, I want to get my pack weight lower. It’s not like I have much else to think about on the trail. One afternoon I had debate with myself over the death penalty. It took hours, but I am pretty sure I won. Also, when hiking alone it is wise to talk or sing so that bears can hear you coming and have a chance to wander off before I round a corner and surprise them. I spent a morning repeatededly singing every National Anthem I know, which amounts to the anthems of: America, Canada and Germany. I wasn’t just singing (which I do badly), I was really belting it out like I was Roseanne Barr singing the anthem at a baseball game. I would have been rather embarrased had I come across anyone. At least on the bike ride I had signs along the road to remind me of things, which then generated a train of thought to keep my mind occupied for a few hours. I also had people to speak with throughout the day. Another pursuit to occupy my time has been whistling opera arias. At least I know more than three.

I am currently in Gatlinsburg, Tennnessee using a library computer. I was only given a half an hour, most of which I used checking e-mail, so I am getting the evil eye from the librarian. I best wrap it up, but I will be passing through a small town or two in the next couple of days, so I hope to post more about the trail then.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Made it to North Carolina

I made it to my second state on the Appalachian Trail. It is no major achievement as only about 76 miles of the trail are in Georgia, the first state. I am plugging away and have found that like the first few days, it is still fairly easy to get off the trail to civilization if need be.

The last few days have been interesting. I have seen far fewer people than in the first few days of walking, perhaps because it was mid-week, or possibly to the attrition of thru-hikers. I had spoken to at least a couple of people who claimed they would be ending their thru-hike bid and would be getting off the trail. I have also discovered that with the people I do meet along the trail, stories travel quickly and not necessarily accurately. It seems that I am known to some people as a psycho samurai. Apparently the story of me finding the samurai sword in the shelter turned into me brining the thing from home and carrying it along the trail. It's just like the game of telephone. I too have heard some stories of other hikers, but take them with a grain of salt.

As I gain elevation the temperatures are getting colder. It seems that the elevation in Georgia hovered in the 3,000's, in North Carolina the 4,000's and the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee will be in the 5,000's with a top elevation of 6,643. The other night in North Carolina at 4,760 feet was the first night I could claim I was cold. The problem wasn't so much the temperature, but rather a blustery wind that blew into the shelter all night long. I would sweat in my sleeping bag and then the wind would blow right through the shelter. I woke up shivering and was looking forward to getting on the trail to warm up. Getting out the of sleeping bag was the worst part. It was just like on the bike ride waiting to go ride in a cold rain.

There has been some adversity along the trail. My inflatable sleep pad has a small hole in it, so every morning I wake up on the cold hard ground. My stove is being finicky, which doesn't bother me all that much. I usually only use my stove to cook dinner and worst case scenario, I can build a small fire on which to cook.

My feet are another issue. While they aren't in bad shape, I have a feeling it is gong to be a constant battle. It is not going to be that after three weeks my feet are going to be problem free all the way to Maine. It seems that when one spot on my foot feels better, another takes its place. Again, it is nothing major, but if I don't look after it, it may well become major. It is also the reason I decided to take another day off. One thing I have learned in my travels is that I have to rest my body before it requires rest from some type of chronic pain. Switching from cycling to hiking is a major jolt to the knees and feet. I have every intention of being part of the small minority that completes the thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and with that have to take care of my body.

I have begun fine tuning the gear I need on the trail. I have pared down the weight on some things and have given others the heave-ho entirely. At this point I have even taken off the top cover of my backpack and left it behind as my bag is only about ¾ full as it is. Once I make it over the Smoky Mountains I was planning on jettisoning some more gear, mainly my rain jacket and a pair of fleece pants. With that I was contemplating getting a smaller and lighter backpack as well. If my current backpack were only half full, I wouldn't be able to distribute the weight properly as it would all be sitting in the bottom of my bag. I am thinking that I can drop the base weight of the things I am carrying on my back, excluding food and water to about 12.5 pounds, 11.5 if I go with a different sleep mat and use only chemical filtration for water. Even loaded with a full compliment of food and water my pack shouldn't weight more than 25 pounds.

I was able to knock off a 23 mile day, which is what I was planning to average a day on the trip. Nice that I was able to do it on my 6th day hiking. The terrain was varied and more difficult in some spots than others, but coming off the bike ride gives me the endurance if not the durability. Once I get the body a little more attuned to hiking, I think that I will be able to cover that distance a little easier. It took me nine hours in total and a little under eight hours hiking to do the distance, so I was moving at about 3 MPH...somewhat slower than on my bike. The end of the day was the most cruel. In checking my trail book I saw that where I was and my finishing point for the day, three miles hence, was at the same elevation. What the book didn't tell me was that I had to climb up and down a mountain in between. I should have known as the area in which I finished was called “Winding Staircase”.

From Winding Staircase I wanted to get to the town of Franklin, NC, ten miles on. I didn't have phone coverage, so I just stuck out my thumb. There wasn't all that much traffic but I was picked up by a gentleman named Gary, the high school principal in Franklin. Gary was kind enough to give me a ride to my hotel and even stopped along the way to introduce me to a few people, including his wife. Gary and I talked about small town America and this was an example at its finest. Friendly people everywhere. Even the teenagers in town were as polite as could be. Not one of the kids I had seen looked as if they just came from a Marilyn Manson concert. They were busy being teenages, working at the Dairy Queen and hanging out with their friends. They weren't trying to be older than they are.

It's not like a make a habit of hitchhiking and I certainly wouldn't do it everywhere, it just seems that I do so in the course of hiking excursions. The last time I hitchhiked was after a hiking trip in New Zealand. The trail I hiked was about 70 miles in length, but to get back to my car at the trail head, it was a 200 mile drive. It would have almost been easier to walk back to my car. It took seven rides and eight hours, but I made it to my car that night.

Gary had also asked me to give a little talk at his school about my experiences, but as it was a Friday, I couldn't stick around until Monday. It would have been great talking to some students about the happenings in my life these last three years. Were they the same kids in the classroom that I had seen in town, I would have enjoyed it moreso. Sure its fun to talk about the experiences in my life, but it also hasn't been since graduate school that I stood in front of a classroom. I would have enjoyed it. While I won't be able to stick around and speak to the class, I do hope to come across many more towns like Franklin along the trail.