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.

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