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.

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