Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bicycle Break

As I make my way north there are fewer places to stop, fewer available services and fewer places to find modern comforts near the trail, including internet access. While I try to keep the site up to date, I have to first concern myself with more pressing needs such as stocking up on food. Recently though, I had an opportunity to get off the trail for a day to witness some world class cycling.

Before I had even started hiking the Appalachian Trail I had an invitation from Mechanical Man and Crayon Lady (their trail names) to visit with them in Smith Gap, PA, a stones throw from the Lehigh Valley Velodrome. For those of you not familiar with track bicycle racing, the riding takes place on a banked track and the bicycles have only one gear, quite similar to those bikes used in a spin class.

There was a little wrinkle in the plan though that I first had to contend with. As I was hiking along over the course of one particular morning I began feeling some discomfort on the lower outside portion of my left leg, just above the ankle. I realize that in doing nothing but hiking all day, a small amount of discomfort can quickly become an annoyance, soon thereafter chronic pain and potentially a disabling injury. In an attempt to stave that off I decided to make it a short day and spend the afternoon resting my leg. If you check the Miles/Towns page, you will be able to tell which day it was. While I made the right move, the pain had subsided only until I had made it another 15 miles up the trail on the following day. At that point though, I figured it wouldn’t kill me to walk on it so I continued doing so.

Mechanical Man was kind enough to pick me up at a road crossing so that I could catch the bicycle racing action at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome. Some of the racers were those that will be representing their countries at the Olympics in Beijing. A number of the coaches already hard their Olympic hardware. Track cycling is a completely different animal that road racing, not least of which is that the only option you have to make yourself go faster is to pedal harder. The speed they generate on those bikes is unbelievable. I stood at the top rail for a good portion of the race and the wind gust that is produced when the riders pass by is enough to blow papers out of your hand should you not be paying attention. Not too surprisingly, watching the race made me long for my bicycle, which following my most recent cross-country bike ride was disassembled in its entirety, cleaned and put in a storage box. I would love to try track riding at some point, but at this point my cardiovascular fitness is pretty much a joke. I would have to train at least a little bit so as not to embarrass myself.

As part two of the bicycle interlude, I got to watch Mechanical Man’s son race BMX. While his son is a little young to be an Olympian, BMX riding will be an Olympic sport in Beijing. I think it is part of a campaign to cater towards youth by bringing in newer sports. On one BMX Olympic advertisement they had even stolen the catch phrase from Oldsmobile, “This isn’t your fathers Oldsmobile”. Well, in the Olympic version the word Oldsmobile is replaced with Olympics, but you get the idea. It’s not like Oldsmobile is using the phrase any longer.

The comic relief on a scorching afternoon of BMX racing was watching the four year olds race. It seemed that in each race, at least one of the kids couldn’t make it up one of the mounds on the track. Someone would have to give the kid a push up the hill and they would carry on. It was a riot. People seemed to cheer more for the little kids than anyone else.

Watching two forms of cycling was a nice diversion from my cycle-less world of hiking. Huge thanks to Mechanical Man and Crayon Lady. And while the break was pleasant in and of itself, it also gave me a day to rest my leg. The only option I have now is to hike on and see what happens.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Halfway Through Pennsylvania

I have been getting some great feedback on the 60 and 53 miles days hiking. To those people that commented, yes it is a little crazy. Just wait and see what I have cooked up for the kayak trip.

I have also had someone ask me if I had to sleep anywhere unusual. What perfect timing as I just slept in a hammock in someone’s back yard, but that was only because the kid’s playhouse was occupied. The story goes something like this:

I had planned on hiking a 35 mile day and when I got to the spot where there was allegedly a shelter, I couldn’t for the life of me find it. When I finally recognized a landmark I was almost a mile past where the shelter was supposed to have been. I wasn’t about to go back looking for it, so I continued on. It was only a few miles to the town of Boiling Springs, PA, where I arrived at 11:00 PM. In the town of Boiling Springs there weren’t any all night motels, so I had to figure something out. I checked a message board for the Appalachian Trail and happened to notice someone’s open invitation to camp in their yard…or to sleep in their kid’s playhouse. As it was threatening rain the playhouse would have been perfect. When I arrived at the house though, the playhouse was already occupied. They had a hammock in the yard as well so I opted for that. If it would have started raining I would have put on my rain jacket and pulled a garbage bag over the rest of me, but I lucked out, as it stayed dry.

As promised, the trail has become rockier in Pennsylvania with the prospect of it becoming more so as I continue north. I have been putting in the miles (1,135.3 to date) and am trying to coordinate a few things further north including a bike race, some fly-fishing and a wine festival. And you thought I was just hiking. While it certainly is about hiking the Appalachian Trail, there are a few nice diversions along the way to keep me sane.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Back on the Trail

Well, I have taken care of business back in NY. I have gotten the ball rolling as to planning the kayak trip, which was one of the main reasons I took some time off the trail. True, I got to go to a family barbecue, spent some time with some family that was in town from Germany and saw my Goddaughter, but the kayak stuff…that’s moving along.

My first day back on the trail was a fairly easy one, possibly one of the easiest sections to date. It did however take my body a little time to get back into the swing of things. I had initially planned on taking it easy on my fist day back, but I managed to knock off thirty miles without much difficulty. Not much has changed on the trail. The wildlife is still abundant, with today being turtle day. I must have seen 50 of them. Ticks were out en masse as well. One thing that has changed however is that the temperature has cooled off significantly since last week. I hardly broke a sweat hiking today; it was glorious.

I am also hiking solo once again. While it does offer flexibility, I now have no one to bounce my thoughts off of. I also found myself singing on the trail again. Fortunately there were few people on the trail, so I don’t think anyone heard me.

If all goes well, I should be in Pennsylvania tomorrow. Rumor has it the trail becomes significantly rockier, which means it will slow me down, but it is all part of the trail.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ninety Eight Degrees...and I Don’t Mean the Boy Band

The mercury made a hard push up the thermometer in the last week. The entire east coast has been hit with high temperatures and the Appalachian Trail was no exception. I will say though, that having tree cover and not being anywhere near black pavement does offer some relief. It doesn’t mean that I don’t chug water at every opportunity or take a ghetto bath in each stream that I cross, just to cool off.

I have been hitting the trail hard over the last week and in one three day span, hiked 140 miles. No, that is not a typo, 140 miles. It involved hiking 24 hours straight on one instance, some sleep, a short day hiking, some sleep and then hiking another 22 straight hours. Imagine your favorite activity, whether golf or perhaps some two person indoor pursuit and then think about engaging in that activity for 24 hours in a row. Gets you thinking doesn’t it?

The first 24 hour session wasn’t really a big deal. I felt much better than I thought I would, both while hiking and also the next morning after some sleep. The following morning I wasn’t sore and my feet were in good shape, or as good as I could have expected for having hiked for 24 hours straight. It was the 22 hour hike that I found really challenging. There were one or two times that I thought to myself. “It would be so easy to just lie down on the side of the trail and sleep”. I banished the thought quickly each time. It’s when those small thoughts have a chance to fester that they take root and I didn’t want any part of that. After having walked 15 hours and knowing I had about another seven to go, it was a big mental obstacle. Much like all my other trips though, I just broke it down hour by hour, step by step. I knew that as long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other I would eventually make it. Everything does become an effort though; from filling up on water, to having to scramble over a rocky section of trail.

This last weeks hike made me realize several things. First off, I didn’t go nearly as hard as I could have on the cross-country bike ride. I am disappointed I didn’t do a 24 hour ride on the bike. I am pretty sure I could have logged a 400 mile day on the bike in a 24 hour run. That being said, I am not entirely disappointed with a 232 mile 13 hour day.

The hike also made me realize that blisters are like lightening. People think it can’t strike in the same place twice, but it certainly can. Same with blisters. Blisters just tend to be deeper under the skin. When the surface of a blister hardens, the new blisters just form underneath the hardened skin. I don’t think I can really complain about blisters though as my feet are in relatively good shape. My feet do however swell significantly. I usually wear a size 8 ½ shoe, but my trail shoes are a size 10, which my foot fills entirely. My feet swell to an almost abnormal size. When the opportunity presents itself I soak my feet in a cold stream to try and keep the swelling down. Well, that and I dose up on ibuprofen.

Along with the increase in temperature has come a significant increase in the number of insects. Black flies are a major nuisance and drive me to the point of insanity. Granted, it hasn’t yet been as bad as when I was in the outback of Australia. In Australia, while eating, I couldn’t take a bite of my food without also consuming a few flies. While initially on the trail I was annoyed by the insects that made a buzzing noise in my ear, the worst offenders are now those who dive bomb my eyes. Without fail there are tens of some type of flying insect or another each day that seem to think flying into my eyes would be a good idea. At times it gets to the point of frustration where I yell out loud. I am hoping a head net is going to remedy the situation in the future.

While flying insects usually aren’t much more than an annoyance, a more serious issue is the presence of ticks. Ticks are found all along the trail and I usually pluck off about a half dozen a day. They are difficult spot as my legs are generally filthy. I can hardly tell the difference between dirt and a tick until it starts crawling. Whether true or not, someone mentioned to me that Lyme disease is the number one disease along the trail.

Also along the line of living creatures, I had my first bear encounter. I hiked 950 miles without seeing a single bear and then in one day saw five of them in three separate instances. The first encounter was the most disconcerting of the lot and also followed a main rule of bears: Stay away from a mother with cubs. Along with the mother there were two cubs running along and playing near the trail. I was hiking with Aphex and Chili Pepper, another guy we picked up along the trail. We stopped for only a brief moment to check out the bears and the mother seemed somewhat disgruntled. While Chili Pepper was pulling out his camera the mother took an aggressive stance and we were out of there. The bear was probably 35 feet away, but we still wouldn’t have been able to outrun it. The best shot we would have had would have been to try and outrun each other.

The second bear encounter was harmless and proved another adage when it comes to wildlife, “they are more scared of you than you are of them”. There was a small male that stayed around only long enough to take note of us and run off. I was able to snap a picture of the bear as it started walking off.

The fifth bear, had he been looking for clothes, would have had to shop in the big and tall shop. It was probably the largest bear I had ever seen in the wild. Again, it was the three of us hiking along, but this bear had no interest in running off. We yelled and screamed as one should do in an effort to scare the bear off, but the bear wasn’t going anywhere fast. Fortunately, the trail lead somewhat away from where the bear had taken up its position, so we walked along looking cautiously over our shoulders.

My last stop on the trail was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. While it is not quite half way, it is 1,010 miles and the psychological half way point. It has been 39 days hiking since leaving Springer Mountain in Georgia. While my initial goal was to hike on average 22 miles a day, I am currently at about 26. I am now thinking that I would like to bump up the average just a hair to 26.2 miles a day, or a marathon a day.

I am currently taking a few days off from the trail to do some planning for my next trip, paddling a kayak from Winnipeg, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It takes time to get registrations, permits, order maps, etc., so I needed to take a couple of days off to begin those processes now. The kayak trip will be very different from hiking the Appalachian Trial as it is not an established route. There are no hotels along the river, no easy places to resupply and relatively little documentation concerning a large portion of the route I had chosen. I am confident however that it will all come together.

I was fortunate enough when ducking off the trail in Harpers Ferry, WV to catch a ride with Aphex, whose girlfriend picked him up as he was only hiking half of the trail. They were kind enough to give me a lift to the Washington DC area where I was able to catch a train back to NY and my interim home base. The nice thing about taking a few days off is that I can scrub myself with a wire brush and bleach, repeatedly. There was one point on the trail where I thought to myself, “I don’t think I have ever in my life smelled worse than I do right now”.

In my short time in New York I am hoping that I can take care of all the things that I need to. It always seems that while I start out with a limited number of engagements, my social calendar quickly grows. I tend to think that one way or another it will all work has to.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Heat is On

In the last few weeks the rain has stopped and the mercury has risen. Sure, I don’t freeze at night in my lightweight sleeping bag, but it makes for a sweaty day. It takes all of 15 minutes in the morning to work up a solid sweat and start thinking about how good a cold shower would feel. Lakes and streams large enough to swim in have been virtually non-existent so far. I would settle for a little of that cold rain that plagued me a couple of weeks ago.

I am still taking the opportunities to stay in hotels/motels/hostels wherever available. There seem to be places to get off the trail and stay in a comfy bed every hundred miles or so. It is always nice to get out of the woods and once again have all the things man had earned over thousands of years, such as: electricity, plumbing and of course pizza.

One of the drawbacks of staying in town is that on the morning when I am leaving, it practically takes an Act of Congress to get me out of bed. When leaving town I also tend to fill up on breakfast; the last real food I will have for the next several days. The best (or worst) places to stay are those that offer a home cooked breakfast. They are so tasty and I eat until I can barely move. The grits, biscuits and gravy are fantastic. The gravy is so think I have to cut it with a knife. Eating as much as I do isn’t really conducive to getting a fast start on the trail in the morning. I seems that I just sort of waddle along. Most people tend to lose weight when long distance hiking. The last time I checked my weight I had gained six pounds.

On the trail the flora and fauna has been unbelievable. Flowers are in a fragrant bloom. There are times where I stop and make myself lightheaded by inhaling so deeply. Animals are out en masse and running around with their offspring. I had come across feral horses that had their foal nearby. I have seen numerous grouse protecting their chicks, putting on one heck of a visual and vocal display trying to scare me off. I also see a good number of deer each day and have seen a large number of fawns as well. On one unfortunate occasion I came across a fawn feeding off a doe, but the doe freaked out when it saw me and trampled its fawn as it ran off. The fawn was just sitting in the middle of the trail, quivering. I thought about putting the fawn out of its misery but wasn’t 100% sure it was curtains for the animal. I figured that if the fawn were still there at dark, a coyote would come by and continue the circle of life.

I have been hiking at night on a fairly regular basis. One particular night hiking session led through a large field. As it was overcast there was very little ambient light other than from my light. That being the case, it just made the situation far more amazing. There were millions of lightening bugs out in the field. I have never seen anything like it. It looked like blinking white Christmas lights were strung all over the place. The sheer number of flashing lights was overwhelming. It was like a great sports moment being captured on film, with thousands of flashbulbs going off. I thoroughly enjoy hiking at night, not least of which because it is much cooler than the day.

For many people, camaraderie is part of the enjoyment of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I hadn’t really had that as I hadn’t hiked with anyone for more than a few minutes, given the distance I try and cover on a daily basis. That changed however with a guy by the name of Aphex. He too embraces that fast and light mentality. Our hiking styles and thoughts about how we want to hike the trail are quite similar. If we end up sticking together for another week it will be the longest period of time that I had traveled with anyone over the last three years. The current record holders are my friends Rob & Amanda, who I met up with in five different countries. Unfortunately, I will miss their wedding while I am out on my kayak trip.

The best part of hiking with Aphex is that he is ten years my junior. Not only does that keep me moving along, but I also get a kick out of talking with someone a half a generation apart. We already did the compare and contrast of the things we remember while growing up. There is a sizable disparity in the TV shows, movies, games and current events that took place in the 10 years that separate us in age. Aphex never had the pleasure of taking a good whiff of a school test paper that had been copied on a Ditto machine. I will never forget the smell of the paper when being given a freshly copied handout in school. The chemicals used in Ditto machines was found to be toxic, so with all of the good inhales I had taken, it does explain a lot. Another difference between Aphex and I is that he wasn’t even born when Ronald Reagan was elected as the President of the United States.

I have been putting in more miles over the last week than I had anticipated. There was one particular day where I understood that if I got to a Ranger Station 35 miles away, I would be able to have a pizza delivered there. Surely I had to go for it. I got my $24 pizza from Pizza Hut and each three-dollar slice was worth it. Over the last few days Aphex and I have been pushing it rather hard. In one three-day span of hiking, we covered a distance just shy of 120 miles. While we are making great time, we talked about toning it down a bit over the coming week. The temperature is supposed to be north of 90, so I can see 25 miles a day being a more reasonable pace.

Hiking long days seems to be worse than when I was cycling long days. The punishment on the body seems to be worse. Not only that, but on the bike ride I had a shower and a bed every night. On the plus side, it is much easier to plan distances while hiking as the variance in speed is significantly less. I am now dealing with one to four MPH as opposed to 10 to 40 MPH.

I am still thoroughly enjoying being out on the trail. In those rough times, one thing that helps is a concept known as “trail magic”. Some folks, many who have hiked the trail themselves, take it upon themselves to engage in random acts of kindness for hikers, called trail magic. It often takes the form of a cooler full of cold drinks or fresh fruit near a road crossing, but could be any number of goodies. It is always when it is totally unexpected that I enjoy it the most.

There have been the few minor hiccoughs on the trail, but it has largely been limited to: heat rash, a broken water bottle and the half dozen times I stub my toe in a day. One of the more comical things is that the hair abraded off my legs where my shorts rub on them. As I had mentioned, each day is the same in that I hike through the mountains, but each day is so entirely different in the way that day unfolds. Each morning I wonder what the rest of the day will have in store.