Appalachian Trail Adventure 2013 – Connecticut, Part 3 of 3

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The Remainder of the Trip

Day 5 of 6 saw the absolute highlight of the trip, and was leading up to our last night in the woods. We got up and struck camp as quickly as possible.  We had both developed an unconscious twitching and moving around as a way to ward off the mosquitoes.  We had once again recovered more than expected from a rather poor night’s sleep on the ground.  Our first three miles went by in an hour and 45 minutes which was pretty good time considering that included a mountain.

By 11:00 we had hiked 6 miles and hit Falls Village, a quaint little hamlet on the Housatonic.  We decided to stop and eat lunch at a cafe.  The Toymaker Cafe is a rather charming little cafe that is very popular with motorcyclists.  Because it’s on the trail they also get a lot of hikers, so when we walked in smelling like hoboes they didn’t even flinch.  It was air-conditioned and so comfortable, but it was also nice outside so we opted for the front porch so as not to offend other diners.  A hamburger and an ice cold coke later we felt pretty refreshed, but the best was yet to come!

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The Toymaker Cafe, Falls Village, CT

We left the cafe and hiked through this small village.  Everyone we passed stopped to talk to us.  By now we looked dirty and tired enough that a few even asked us if we were through-hikers!

Along the banks of the river was a power plant and part of that campus was a small brick building covered in ivy.  We saw a few hikers resting in the shade of a tree and they yelled out to us that on the side of this ivy-covered building was an outdoor shower!!!  I cannot think of anything that would have been a more welcome sight!  There was a spigot below the shower and two outdoor outlets around the corner.  It was all on a beautiful, bug-free lawn that went from the road all the way down to the river.

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If you look closely at the ivy-covered building on the left you can see the shower head sticking out. It was on a beautiful lawn that went down to the river.

We were overjoyed.  We had plenty of time and only 4 more miles to go for the day.  We stopped and spread out our tarps and proceeded to wash our clothes and our bodies, fill up our water bottles, charge our phones and relax in the shade, listening to music.  It was heaven!

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We dried our clothes, rested in the shade, and enjoyed a mosquito-free grassy spot for a couple hours. Someone at this power company or in this town is a friend to hikers and I hope they know what an idyllic oasis they created!

A couple hours later we were back on the trail and had only four miles to go.  Once again we climbed up a mountain but we were now fortified with a big hamburger and a couple really enjoyable hours, and clean clothes!

There was, however, one last unpleasant surprise and that was our final campsite.  At 10 miles for the day, right where we expected the campsite, there was a sign that said the campsite was a half mile off the trail.  OK, not the best news but not the worst.  We were in a dry pine forest, high on the mountain and relatively free from bugs.

Then we hiked down.  We went down and down and down into a ravine.  It was a cliff-like set of rock steps requiring slow careful going as a steep mountain brook poured down the mountain beside us.  As we descended we could feel the air getting moister and cooler and we could hear the mosquitoes buzzing around our ears.

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The beginning of the path down to the campsite should have been all the warning we needed…

We couldn’t believe we had to not only spend another night with blood-thirsty territorial mosquitoes but that in the morning we would have to climb out of this malarial ravine!

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…but we forged on and had to descend a half mile of this!

Needless to say, we did not become fans of the Limestone Spring Shelter!  We were the only two campers dumb enough to go all the way down there that day but as we read the log book in the shelter, everyone who previously stayed there was bitter about the climb down and the mud and some got stranded an extra day when it started to rain and became too difficult to climb out!

We set up camp and got dinner started.  I was now wearing a fleece and my buff over my head and neck to ward off mosquitoes.  The fleece had me sweating inside it but my choices were sweaty or eaten.

Our final night’s dinner was a good one.  Brown rice with Pad Thai sauce topped with tuna and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.  We were so hungry that we quickly put away enough food to feed a family of four!  We had packed enough for 6 nights and now realized this 5th night would be our last.  There were a couple important implications to this.  The first was that there would be one extra homemade granola bar tomorrow for each of us.  These were not only delicious but offered a lot of energy.

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It may not look appetizing but our “last supper” of Brown Rice Pad Thai with Tuna and Fresh Lime was a delicious way to end our penultimate day on the trail!

The second and more immediate implication was that we had two night’s worth of bourbon to finish off!  This night we each had two drams of the fine Woodford Reserve that Brendan had lugged  across the state of Connecticut!

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This malarial hell-hole, the Limestone Spring Shelter would be the site of our last night on the trail.

For the last time we got the food put away, and settled in to rest for what would be our last day on the trail.

Both of us slept the best we had all week and we would learn that it was more a factor of cumulative fatigue rather than becoming accustomed to sleeping in the woods.  The dreaded climb out of the ravine was not so bad because we had a full night’s rest; and, for me, short and steep beats long and gradual.  At the top we filled our water bottles (an additional 5 pounds each) and got on our way.  We would have to do 12 miles to make it to the Massachusetts state line.

I had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at the state line at 4pm and drive us to our car.  Before we got there however, we would have to climb Bear Mountain, Connecticut’s highest peak.

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With three miles down and 9 to go, we stopped at a beautiful spot called Billy’s View. In the distant left you can see Bear Mountain, Connecticut’s highest peak. Our endpoint was at the foot of that mountain…on the far side.

We hiked for what seemed an endless climb.  Again we went up for so long that we had to stop and let our heart rates recover.  We drank and refilled our water at every stream and did nothing all day but climb.  At one point we had sat down on the ground to rest and a couple of day hikers came along.  We must have looked pretty rough because they produced two Granny Smith apples from their pack and insisted we eat them.  For the rest of my life I will remember that apple.  It gave me just enough energy to push on when I thought I was done.

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Cumulative fatigue had caused us to be near the point of exhaustion. We looked so rough that day hikers took pity on us and gave us their fruit!

As we reached the base of Bear Mountain, the temperature had pushed past 90° and it turns out that Bear Mountain is a giant rock!  Now we had to watch out for snakes sunning themselves on the rock while heat radiated off the ground like a griddle.  In the distance, thunder rumbled threatening a storm that would make a difficult day into an impossible one.

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We were near the top but the temp was over 90 and thunder was rumbling in the distance.

I am pretty sure we were plodding at a pace that one might use to melodramatically imitate someone stranded in the desert without water.  I finally resorted to pouring some of my precious water on my buff and putting it around my neck to try and cool down.

We reached the top and there was a massive rock structure with a plaque denoting the highest point in the state.  We could barely be excited because we had nothing left.  Our energy, our hydration, and our love of adventure had deserted us.

I knew we were near exhaustion when two cute college-aged women in gym shorts and jogging bras hiked by and asked us how we were doing and all we could say was, “Do you have any fruit?”

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This rock structure at the top of Bear Mountain includes an engraved stone designating it the highest point in the state of Connecticut.

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And this is the view into Massachusetts from the highest point in CT.

Once again, day hikers saved us, this time with an apple and a peach!  We ate the fruit, took a couple pictures, and looked at each other and said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”

As anticipated, we had a precipitous descent.  What had taken the last 4 miles to get up would go all the way down in just a half mile.  It felt almost vertical as we slowly picked our way down the steep rocky backslope of the mountain.  My legs had nothing left and had it not been for my hiking poles I’m pretty sure I would have fallen and broken bones.

We reached the state line and there was our ride.  We were done; it was 4:15 and were were just a little late.  We had gone 60 miles in 6 days and hiked the entire Connecticut portion of the Appalachian Trail.  We were so happy to see the guy who was going to drive us to the lot where Brendan had left his car.

We got in and he said he had to make a pickup on the way about 8 miles up the road.  When we got to the spot, who was waiting for us, but Magua!  He was doing a third night with this guy and had hiked 35 miles in the last two days with no pack and a good night’s sleep and shower at the Bunk & Dine!

A few minutes later we were safely in Brendan’s car, AC on, boots off, and a large order of McDonald’s fries in my hand.  We were so tired we could barely even be excited about it but we were headed to Brendan’s place in Springfield, MA for a shower, a clean bed, and a cold beer.

And then the skies darkened and a sudden violent storm descended on us.  We probably got an inch of rain in the following 40 minutes and the thunder and lightning had a biblical feel to it.  Somehow we had enjoyed 6 straight days of no rain–not a single drop–and just missed what could have been a disastrous end to the trip.  Filthy and exhausted, we still had one more lesson to learn from the trail–things can always be worse!

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Moments after finishing the skies opened up and a sudden violent storm dumped an inch of rain on us! Talk about cutting it close!

Thoughts on The Trip

Since this post is so long I have decided to write a 4th post with my thoughts and lessons learned about section hiking the Appalachian Trail.  While it was very physically demanding and pretty far outside my comfort zone, I’m still glad I did it.

I learned a lot on the trail and met some great people.  So look for one last posting on this trip, perhaps I’ll call it “Part 4 of 3”, or “Epilogue” or something!


Appalachian Trail Adventure 2013 – Connecticut, Part 2 of 3

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The Hike

On the Appalachian Trail everyone takes a trail name. For the thru-hikers this becomes an identity that grows as they make their northward progress from Georgia to Maine. My trail name is “Dirty Rice” and Brendan went by the name “Wet Whistle”.

Day 2 was a long but good hike. We did 10 miles that day and it included a number of highlights such as the spot where the Ten Mile River meets the Housatonic. After crossing small streams all day to see an actual river with mad rushing currents was exciting!

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After crossing small creeks all day, this was a major river with swift angry currents!

Along the way we stopped at a shelter for a lunch break. Ten Mile Shelter was a pleasant spot in a small meadow and there we met Wolf Shadow and Crazy Legs. They had been hiking from Georgia since the end of January! They had seen a lot of winter hiking and were taking their time (most thru-hikers begin in late March) and were stopping in small towns and keeping reasonable mileage goals each day.

This was contrasted by Jericho who passed us on the trail like a sports car. He started on March 31st and was roaring past us in an effort to clear Connecticut in two days…a goal for which we set aside 6 days! All of the through-hikers had a certain profile. They travel extremely light, many wearing light footwear such as sandals, and they hike very fast. If you saw the picture in the previous post you know that Brendan and I could have stood to skip a meal here and there but these guys were lean and wiry, every last one of them. Consequently, nobody was asking us if we were up from Georgia!

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The CT portion of the AT has some unique features. For example we entered the only Indian Reservation through which the AT passes. The Schaghticoke Indian Reservation was a rugged mountain area that we entered right after crossing Ten Mile River. They own about 400 acres. It was a long steep climb that required frequent breaks for water and a bite of something. It seemed like it would never stop going up and just as you thought you were cresting the summit you would find that it was a “false summit” and there was plenty more beyond that!

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Long hard climbs were always rewarded with fantastic overlooks!

It turned out the climb was up the Schaghticoke Mountain and we made it to a locally famous spot called Indian Rock. Now we knew it was just a short trip down the hill a bit to our campsite. The Schaghticoke Mountain Campsite was a charming little spot in the woods with a loud babbling brook running by, no serious mosquitoes, and no other campers. We had the place to ourselves.

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This icy cold mountain spring was the best therapy my feet could have received!

The first thing we did was get our shoes and socks off and soak our aching feet in the icy cold stream! It was therapeutic and I think my foot size returned to the normal size!

We got dinner going. As we hiked that day, we began discussing dinner early on. The decision was curried lentils with chicken. This would turn out to be the best meal of the week in my opinion. I cut up a scallion, a chili pepper, and a clove of garlic and sautéed them in oil before adding the lentils and the sauce mix. To that I added water and simmered while we bathed in the stream and washed our clothes. The foil pouch of chicken was already cooked and got added at the very end.

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Madras curried lentils with chicken – our best meal of the week!

Refreshed, somewhat clean, and starving we feasted on those lentils like it was the first time we’d eaten in weeks! They were spicy and lively on the palate and made for such a bright spot in what had been a long day of hiking!

Brendan had brought along a small flask of Woodford Reserve Bourbon and that night we began the evening ritual of a “thimble” of bourbon while dinner was cooking. It seemed so civilized to be enjoying some semblance of cocktail hour out here in the woods!

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This noisy brook near our campsite would drown out all the other noises in the woods. Turns out white noise in the woods is good for a night’s sleep!

The hike had been long but good. No blisters, no real problems other than sore feet, and we would be ready to do another 10 miles tomorrow.

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Food hung out of bears’ reach, laundry drying on the line, today had been a good day and we were waiting for the sun to go down so we could go to bed!

We awoke the next day having slept a little better than the night before. This would be the case each night. We were excited for the day because Connecticut hosts the longest level stretch of the entire 2100 miles of Appalachian Trail, 4 miles along the Housatonic River and our day would end in the middle of it. So the day would end with 2 level miles and the next day would begin with 2 level miles. Looking at the elevation on the map it looked so beautiful!

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We were excited that the day would end (and the next one begin) on this long level stretch of trail. Our campsite was the Stewart Hollow Brook Lean-To, roughly in the mid-point.

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But first we had to hike some mountains! We started at the Schaghticoke Mountain Campsite (mile marker 8.5 on this map) and had to go to Stewart Hollow Brook, mile marker 18.5.

We set out and immediately tackled Mt. Algo. I was again surprised at how well a night’s sleep can restore the body. We were nervous because we had greatly underestimated how much bug spray we would need and already we were out! We considered a trip into Kent to get more but it was .8 miles away for a round trip of 1.6 miles and we decided to forgo those extra miles.

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St. John’s Ledges offered the standard reward for hours of climbing, a gorgeous overlook…

In the afternoon we again hiked upward for what seemed an endless amount of time. Several times I had to stop and rest just to get my heart rate down. It’s easy to say just drink lots of water but I’m pretty sure I was sweating it out quicker than I could drink it in. The mountain portion of the day ended with a truly wicked descent. It was so steep and rocky that volunteers and some professional trail builders have built a series of 95 steps down this mountain. These are not steps in the sense of a stairway, they are rocks that allow the hiker to go from one to another. Brendan bounded down these like a big family dog just happy to have the challenge and once again I was quaking and fatigued as I carefully picked my way down this precipice.

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This was the sort of “steps” we had to descend…90 of them! This was a knee-jamming–and in my case–heart pounding half an hour!

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…but this was the alternative!

At last we reached the flat stretch of gentle path that went along the banks of the Housatonic. It was so pleasant that we felt we were practically sprinting! (We were not!)

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At the 8 mile mark for the day we finally got to enjoy a long gentle level path along the bank of the Housatonic River.

We got to the Stewart Hollow Lean-To and discovered that a group of locals had staked out the shelter and appeared to be settling in for a night of partying. They cannot have come from too far away because they had a case of beer and several large bottles of liquor. All I could think was how heavy that beer would be to carry!

We opted for tents in the campsite and probably would have done that anyway due to the bugs. We began our routine, set up tents, get dinner started, get water from the brook, clean up, get organized, enjoy a quick bourbon toast and eat.

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Barley Chili with beef jerky, Pecorino cheese, served over white rice.

Dinner that night was Barley Chili. We served it with some beef jerky, chili peppers, and Pecorino cheese over white rice and for the first and only time almost couldn’t finish all the food! By the way, here’s a tip. When you feast on Barley Chili for dinner, you want to be in the front on the next day’s hike!


As we were preparing dinner, another hiker joined us and asked if we minded him setting up in our campsite. He too recognized the makings of an all-nighter back at the shelter and needed a good night’s sleep. He introduced himself by his trail name “Magua”.

Magua is the villain in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. In books and movies he is portrayed as fierce, intimidating, and cold. This guy looked and sounded like a 6’6″ Ray Romano! We chatted a bit and traded tales of the day, discussed how far we would go the next day and talked about food. He was doing a much larger section hike than us, starting at the Delaware/New Jersey line and trying to make it to New Hampshire. He was a school teacher and school had just let out. He had one month and was making the most of it.

We had no idea that our path would cross Magua’s numerous times and we grew to love this guy, actually brightening when one of us would hear the other yell out, “Holy shit I think that’s Magua!”

The next day Magua was up and out earlier than us. We had a routine and we usually left camp around 8:00. The day began with a nice 2 miles of level hiking but that quickly ended. The climb was once again brutal. It was compounded by the fact that the 10 mile mark for the day was a shelter called “Pine Swamp Shelter” and surprise surprise, the mosquitoes were rumored to be legendary. Thus, we decided in the morning to hike 12 miles instead of 10 to get past that.

At Cornwall Bridge we decided to hike the half mile into town to a gas station and get some bug spray. As we approached the gas station, there was Magua! He asked if he could hike with us for the afternoon and we gladly accepted. The addition of a third person helped make the time go by as we asked questions and learned about each other.

My neighbor in Arlington, VA told me of his wife’s cousin who owned a liquor store in Cornwall Bridge and would give us a couple of free beers. I thought this was a privileged hook-up trading on a family connection but it turns out the Cornwall Package Store offers a free beer to all hikers!

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Magua and Wet Whistle. Although tall, I must point out that in this picture Magua is standing on a step, lest you think that Wet Whistle is 4’11”

It was 11:00 am and a beer was the last thing we needed so we decided on Gatorade instead of the beer and that remains one of the best decisions I have ever made. I wish I’d filled my water bottles with it because it really restored me (along with a Snickers Ice Cream bar!).

The gas station where we bought the Gatorade was out of bug spray; but, it was here that we experienced our first “trail magic”. A guy pulled up with a small fishing boat on a trailer and we asked him if there was anywhere we could walk to buy bug spray and he said no, the closest place was more than a couple miles away. Then he dug through his tackle box in the boat and threw us his bottle of bug spray! The kindness of strangers.

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Despite the physical challenges, the hike covered some really beautiful territory such as this old farm field and stone silo.

As we hiked, Magua told us that he was availing himself of a place known as a “Bunk & Dine”. The only one of its kind, this place would pick up hikers from the trail, and for $50, give them dinner, a shower, laundry, a bed, breakfast and then return them to the trail. I thought this sounded pretty good, but on a six day trip seemed a little unnecessary. Magua would, in fact, avail himself of three nights of their service, each day going out without his pack and hiking 17 miles!

Many of the through-hikers look down on that with the derisive name, “slack-packing” but we spent the night in a mosquito-infested camp and the next day Magua overtook us on the trail looking fresh and vigorous!

After bidding Magua farewell to be picked up for his luxurious evening, we hiked on, making it to the 10 mile mark, the Pine Swamp Shelter. This is a rare highland swamp, fed by the glacial waters of the Housatonic Highlands, hundreds of feet above see level. We stopped there for a break and met a volunteer with the Appalachian Mountain Club called a Ridge Runner.

Leanne Holland is a graduate student working on her PhD at Columbia but in the summer lives on the trail and swings an ax to clear away windblown trees. She was also an ambassador of the trail. We had hardly seen a female for four days and here was this capable, intelligent and adorable trail angel just chatting with hikers and making sure everyone was having a good time!

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Ridge Runner Leanne Holland with Brendan (“Wet Whistle”). She was out there clearing away blown down trees and making sure everyone was enjoying the trail. Leanne was an unexpected bright spot in a long difficult day!

She warned us of Timber Rattlers on an upcoming rocky outcrop and cautioned that the bugs at our site 2 miles up the trail would be no better for mosquitoes than the Pine Swamp. Nevertheless, we were committed to that 12 mile day.

We pulled into the Sharon Mountain Campsite around 6:30. We were not rushed but we did have to get our routine going before the sun went down. The bugs were indeed so fierce I had to resort to wearing my buff over my head and neck to ward them off.

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On this night the bugs were so thick and aggressive that we had to eat dinner in Brendan’s tent, which accommodated two people.

Dinner that night was Red Quinoa cooked in Fajita seasoning and topped with Albacore tuna and lemon juice. Quinoa is a fantastic food and quite restorative. It is a great source of protein, long-term carbs, and it has a great texture.

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The bugs were so aggressive that protection from them trumped looking ridiculous!

We ate, prepared for the next day, and watched a beautiful sunset before diving into the safety of our bug-proof tents.

From our respective tents, we talked about our schedule and decided that we needed to reach the Massachusetts state line by Monday night because we could only take one more night of this malarial environment. It was easy enough to do, 10 miles Sunday and 12 miles Monday. That’s when it hit me, it was Saturday night, the second longest day of the year, and I was lying in a tomb-sized tent zipped off from the bugs waiting for the sun to go down so I could go to sleep, sore, and filthy. Yeah, two more days would be enough!

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Appalachian Trail Adventure 2013 – Connecticut, Part 1 of 3



Last week I completed a 60 mile section hike of the Appalachian Trail.  I hiked this year with my cousin Brendan who read of my adventure last year and said he’d love to do one with me.  Brendan lives in Springfield, MA and when we considered logistics of getting there, we decided we would hike the Connecticut portion of the AT.  The Appalachian Trail in Connecticut covers just over 50 miles and is surprisingly mountainous!  They may not go as high as the mountains in NH, or in VA, but you are constantly aware of either climbing or descending!

Brendan positioned his car in a trail parking lot in Massachusetts and got a ride (thank you Andie, his mom and my aunt) to Pawling, NY.  I took a train from Washington, DC to Pawling and met him.  We set out from there, doing about 7 miles in NY before hitting the CT state line.


We had conferred in the days before the hike, using FaceTime to compare gear and food.  I loved the irony of using a leading edge technology like video conferencing to prepare for the ancient activity of walking in the woods!

The food we chose had to be lightweight, but nutritious and flavorful.  I went with grains, brown rice, quinoa, fortified pasta, lentils, and barley.  For flavorings I chose lightweight items that would have high flavor impact.  Powdered sauces, chili peppers, garlic, soy sauce, etc.  For protein I packed foil pouches of tuna, salmon, and chicken.  These would be our dinners.

Lunches and snacks would be quick and easy carb-driven items such as peanut butter and crackers, pretzels, trail mix, and sports bars.

For breakfast my neighbor and friend Miriam once again made her homemade granola bars.  These bars would sustain us for the first 1-2 hours in the morning.  They were hearty, easy to eat, and delicious!  We would begin each day with one of these bars and a cup of Starbuck’s instant coffee.  After sleeping on the ground and trying to recover from the previous day’s hike, that strong, hot cup of coffee had amazing powers!

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Dinner would be grains, fortified pasta (Barilla Plus), brown rice, quinoa, lentils, and barley.

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Powdered sauces would make the grains more interesting without adding weight. We would also carry small containers of salt and pepper, lemon juice, soy sauce, and olive oil.

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Additional protein would come from foil pouches of tuna, salmon, and chicken.

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A few non-perishable and lightweight items with high flavor impact would also make for more interesting meals.

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Lunches and snacks would be primarily carbohydrates!

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Just because we were living in the woods did not mean we had to live like barbarians! Each day began with a cup of Starbuck’s coffee.

The Train

The day began on my front lawn in Arlington, VA in what for years has been the site of “first-day-of-school” pictures.  My son gave me a ride to Union Station where I got a train to New York.  In New York I had to get from Amtrak to Metro North, which meant getting from Penn Station to Grand Central Station.  It was a beautiful day, I had time, and it was only 10 blocks so I decided to walk.  I know that nothing in New York seems unusual, least of all a backpacker; but, I felt so out-of-place, waiting at an intersection to cross the street with 100 other people with everything I owned on my back!

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Day of departure, Arlington, VA.

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An urban hike in New York City to get from Penn Station to Grand Central Station.

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Grand Central Station, the iconic measure of a busy place,

Metro North Railroad runs right up Manhattan through Harlem and into the I-684 corridor of New York.  Stops like Brewster, Katonah, and Pawling were previously only exits on the highway to me.  Now I was seeing these cute New York suburbs and thinking another time I’d like to visit some of them.  Finally I arrived at Pawling and Brendan and Andie were there to meet me.

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Our departure point for the Appalachian Trail.

We filled up our water bottles at a local pizza shop, drove a short distance to the trail, took a few pictures and we were off.  My aunt watched us walk off into the woods to emerge six days later in Massachusetts.

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With the trail names “Dirty Rice” and “Wet Whistle”, we were off!

Day 1

The hike began pleasantly enough walking through open fields before entering the Pawling Nature Preserve, a 1,000 acre wooded mountainous area on the CT-NY border.  The trail was a bit washed out due to the previous week of rain.  When we hit particularly muddy spots we would do our best to walk around it but sometimes thick vegetation prevented that.  We had all the excitement of the first day and had not seen each other in a while so this first few miles were underscored with excitement and anticipation.

The Pawling Nature Preserve is a wonderful 1,000 acre wood that offered a cool and remote get-away with only occasional reminders of civilization such as the occasional train whistle in the distance.

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The beginning of the hike went through an open field headed for the Pawling nature Preserve in the background. Once in there we would only rarely leave the woods.

That day we only did about 6 miles, having started late in the day due to travel.  We made it to the first AT shelter, the Wiley Shelter.  The shelter is a 3 sided structure that offers good protection from rain but is otherwise exposed.  There was a nice big fireplace in front of it and a water source, picnic table, and privy nearby.  We set up camp, deciding to sleep in the shelter that night.  It would turn out that this would be our only night in a shelter because fierce mosquitoes made it impossible elsewhere.

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Wiley Shelter, site of our first night’s lodging.

We replenished our water and almost made a mistake that would have ruined the rest of the trip.  The nearby stream was fed by a mountain spring and to one side was a large pump like you might see over a well.  My first instinct was that this would be clean ground-water or well water and it would not require purification.  Fortunately Brendan spotted a sign that mentioned Coliform bacteria and the need to purify all water!

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Pump or stream, all water had to be purified!

Dinner that night was pasta in a Balsamic Red Wine Sauce with bits of dried sausage, and shreds of Pecorino Romano cheese.  As good as it sounds it was all made in a small pot on a camp stove but it was delicious!

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This pot and stove would be the kitchen set-up for the next week.

...and it would produce great meals like this on on our first night.  This was pasta in a red wine (powdered) sauce with dried sasuage, and Pecorino cheese.

…and it would produce great meals like this on on our first night. This was pasta in a red wine (powdered) sauce with dried sausage, and Pecorino cheese.

The first night was not a restful night of restorative sleep.  The shelter takes a little getting used to.  Spiders were unusually large, there is a lot of noise out there in the woods, and my sleep pad was not a great barrier between my hip bones and the hard floor of the shelter.  This would get better as we went on, partly due to getting used to it and partly due to cumulative fatigue.

The next day we would hike 10 miles including some fairly large mountains.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this great AT section hike!

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Appalachian Trail Adventure 2013 – Connecticut

35 lbs before water!

35 lbs before water!

My stuff is packed, and tomorrow I board a train to upstate NY.  I will meet my cousin Brendan for a 6 day backpacking trip through the Connecticut portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Last year I did a trip on the Virginia portion of the AT in Shenandoah National Park, and I hope to do sections each year until I have completed the entire 2,000 miles. At the present rate it will take me until I’m 90, so I’d better not leave the hardest portions to the end!

There was supposed to be three of us.  Lisa, my hiking partner last year had to drop out due to a family emergency.  After a week with me in Virginia, she continued on for three weeks on her own.  We will miss Lisa and I was hoping to learn from the experiences she had on the trail.


Lisa and I at the start of last year’s Virginia section hike.

I do hope to learn from my own experiences last year.  When I finished I wrote a post called 10 Lessons Learned.  I have reviewed those definitely made some changes.  My pack last year was 50 pounds.  It was unnecessarily heavy.  This year I have lopped 15 pounds off that!  This is thanks to packing less stuff, and getting lighter versions of many items.  On Father’s Day, my wife presented me with a new 2 1/2 pound tent!  That made a huge difference!  It also highlighted another of my 10 lessons, appreciating a loving support network!

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It may look like a lot of stuff but I managed to lop 15 pounds off last year’s load!

We have also set a more modest goal for daily mileage.  Our plan is to enjoy the hike and if we get to a beautiful spot, we will stop and enjoy it and not worry that we have 7 more miles to go for the day’s goal.

I will keep a journal, and take some great pictures so stay tuned for the blog posts to follow!


My Appalachian Trail Adventure Conclusion – 10 Lessons Learned

This is the final posting of a 5-part series on a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

At many points during my 4-day section hike of the AT I asked myself, “Would I do this again?” and each time the answer came back YES!  Even during the low spots I still loved the experience.  It is intoxicating how beautiful and removed it is out there!  Would I do it again?  Hell yes.  Would I do some things differently, most definitely.   There are also a few things I feel I got right and would repeat.

Here is my “newbie’s guide” to 10 Lessons I learned on the trail.

Lesson-learned #1: The trail is a lot like life itself. There is beauty and challenge at every point along the way and passing that by in an effort to reach the end is a mistake.

1.  Mileage.  There are two types of Appalachian Trail hikers, those out to simply enjoy a portion of the trail and through-hikers.  This is not to say the through-hikers are not enjoying themselves; but they are–above all else–on a mission.  Section hikers can easily get caught up in the through-hikers’ mentality and feel they need to pile on the miles.  People set out on an adventure like this for different reasons, but just checking off  the “bucket list” is not a good one.  The Appalachian Trail is far too grand to hike the whole thing simply to say you did it.

If your goal from the start is to enjoy your trip, do not make daily mileage your primary goal.  You must decide up front whether your trip is about the destination, or about the journey.  I did not realize going in how much focusing on the destination could rob one’s enjoyment of the journey.  Next time I would set more modest daily goals and when I found a magical spot, not rush away.

I compare it to the beach.  Most of us have a favorite beach or beach town and we go there and enjoy our time for a day or weekend, etc.  Imagine if we got there and someone said, “We don’t have time to enjoy this spot in Myrtle Beach because we have to start walking to Maine!

Items like lentils made for a hearty meal. Small items like garlic cloves and chili peppers made the lentils more interesting.

2.  Food.  This is an area which I think I got right and would likely repeat.  There is a trade-off of calories, weight, and fuel.  I packed a combination of foods that gave me a strong balanced diet, while remaining relatively lightweight.  Sure a pre-packaged container of Ramen Noodles would be lighter, but when you’re burning 4,000 calories a day, eating a container of Ramen is like tossing a piece of paper onto a forest fire.  It just burns instantly.  I brought foods like lentils, brown rice, oatmeal, and whole wheat pasta.  These foods gave me more calories, protein, and staying power.  It was more like putting a log in the fireplace.  All of them were dry items and thus still pretty lightweight.  Even though these items cook for 30 minutes, the tradeoff of more fuel was worth it.  I did pack some small fresh items for flavor and that too made a huge difference.  These were things like a few scallions, a chili pepper, and a couple of cloves of garlic.  As the hike wore on late in the day, I found myself eagerly anticipating the one time all day when we would just sit and relax, the evening meal.

A checklist is a good idea but if it has 50 items and sub-lists, then a critical evaluation of the list is a good idea.

3.  Clothes.  This is just a matter of experience.  The simple fact is that you could put on a fresh clean set of clothes every hour and you’re still going to sweat and get dirty and smell bad.  I brought a change of clothes for each day and that was clearly unnecessary.  Another time I will bring fewer clothes and add a lightweight fleece!

4.  Duplicates & Non-Necessities.  Preparation is important and anticipating challenges is a good idea but the weight of that pack is critical.  I had a headlamp and two small flashlights, AND a set of backup batteries!  That was crazy.  The headlamp and batteries would have sufficed.  I brought three canisters of fuel and never finished the first one!  Next time I would consider the fact that my hiking partner has backups of everything.

I had two huge tubes, one bug spray and another sun-screen.  I never used either!  The breeze in the mountains kept the bugs away and the canopy protected us from the sun.  At the very least I would bring significantly smaller containers.  Another good example is the first aid kit.  It’s important to be prepared but I could have treated an entire village.

5.  Lightweight Gear.  On my dry run camping trip I slept on a lightweight thin sleep pad and was very uncomfortable.  I switched to a self-inflating pad that while quite comfortable, was also 5 pounds.  What I did not realize at the beginning of my trip was that 5 pounds on the trail is like 100 pounds in normal life!  Another time I would sacrifice money over comfort and weight.  That is, I would go to the camping store and drop $120 and get a sleep pad that was both lightweight AND comfortable.

6.  Free Time:  This is apt to sound crazy but you get no free time on the trail!  You get up in the morning, make breakfast strike camp and hit the road.  Then you hike all day and stop only for short breaks and a lunch break.  Each day we got into camp just in time to make dinner and collapse into our tents.  This sort of goes along with setting modest mileage goals, but it would have been nice to pull into camp at 4:00 and have time to sit and relax a bit.

The one thing you seem to constantly do on the trail is completely empty and repack your pack.  This is mostly because you use everything in it each time you camp.  Having an extra chunk of time to get organized would have been welcome.

The shelters are simple and exposed, but nearly always dry, and a great way to meet other hikers.

7.  Shelters:  We used tents and another time I would get used to the shelters and use those.  Looking back, the argument was that the tents afforded a slice of privacy, and sealed you off from what was out there.  Each night I would drag my pack into the tent and create what I now realize was my field version of the comfort zone.  Thing is, setting up that tent after walking all day was a chore I could have lived without.

The argument against the shelters was that it was exposed, you would find yourself sleeping next to a stranger, and there were mice running around.  In retrospect this was just one more expansion of the comfort zone.  Sure it would have been uncomfortable the first night but clearly people get used to it and prefer it.  The next time I will plan to use the shelters as much as possible.

Lisa on her return to the trail where she would hike 3 more weeks on her own.

8.  My hiking Partner:  This is definitely something I did right and would repeat.  Lisa was the perfect hiking partner!  Our fitness and experience was equally matched and more importantly our temperaments complimented each other.  Whether we were getting up and ready in the morning (we were both quiet and not particularly talkative while packing up in the morning) or hiking for hours together during the day we got along incredibly well.

Lisa is hiking a full month and after the week with me she would go on for 3 more by herself.  As I write this she is still out there!  I have received a few messages from her and she is doing really well, having learned the lessons listed here and put them to immediate use.  It was a bit sad when, after a night off, I returned her to the trail and said goodbye.

I mentioned in an earlier post that we had met two cousins, a man and a woman who had a mutual love of backpacking and had, over the years hiked the entire AT together.  Each had their own family but each had recognized the value of a good hiking partner.  I will definitely return with Lisa to do more sections of the trail.

My wife Alice was my biggest cheerleader for this trip!

9.  Support:  I am very fortunate to have the time and the means to do this sort of adventure.  This is not critical but in my opinion makes all the difference.  My son Andrew had accumulated most of the gear I used and he not only lent it to me but taught me how to use it.  That alone, as I write on Father’s Day, was a great experience!

What Andrew did not have I borrowed from my friend and companion-to-my-mom, Joe McGonagle.  A few years ago at the age of 68, with the trail name “J-Walker”, Joe hiked from Georgia to North Carolina before a knee injury forced him to end his through-hike.  Joe shared his advice, guidebooks and maps, his water filtration system, and numerous little items I would not have thought to bring.

My neighbor Miriam found a recipe for homemade granola bars that used wheat germ, oatmeal, dried fruit, almonds, honey, and coconut.  They were amazing and special and a great source of energy.

My son Andrew was both my camping outfitter and instructor!

Many of my friends, co-workers, and family followed along with my practice hikes, preparations, and planning.  They have been reading my blog postings and offered warm and loving support.  None of them more than my wife Alice.  She was initially just happy she didn’t have to do this with me; but, as it got closer to the trip she became my biggest cheerleader and has been marketing my blog to everyone she talks to.  She really has made it possible for me to pursue activities like this and for that I am very grateful.

10.  The Unknown is the Boundary of the Comfort Zone:  Through many discussions with Lisa and many actual examples on the trail, I learned that often what puts something outside our comfort zone is the unknown.  The difference between lying awake in the tent the first night hearing every leaf rustle and sleeping like a baby on the third night was really a reduction in “the unknown”.  This is what defines our comfort zone.

I came to see the comfort zone as a balloon which we have to blow up to expand.  When we return to normal life the air goes out and the balloon goes back down, but not quite to the size it was before.  Each time you blow it up it stretches a little bigger than it was before.  For this reason, a friend of mine pushes himself outside his comfort zone at least once a year.  I think this sort of personal challenge can only make us better.

I came to see the concept of “the bucket list” as a list of things that have been far enough outside one’s comfort zone that they have not gotten to them.  I have been thrilled to hear a few friends inspired by my doing this trip to go off and pursue their own bucket list items.  You have to pursue those challenges, the bucket list does not come to you.

This summer I will return to passionate blogging about food; and since my return I have already purchased a new bicycle–a road bike which goes faster than any man-powered vehicle I’ve ever seen– from which I will see many “bloggable” sights.

But I will also continue hiking for I have come to love what I see and learn on the trail.


Appalachian Trail: Virginia – Part 4 of 5

This is the fourth in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Each morning we took a picture just before heading out for the day and in my opinion the pictures grew progressively more tired.

On Sunday we awoke to discover the nearby spring was dry.  I had walked about a quarter mile down the mountain and was very disappointed that there would not be coffee before departing!  We packed up, ate a quick bite and headed out.  Once again it was a beautiful crisp day and once again my body had made a miraculous recovery.  When I think of how rough I feel sometimes after sleeping in a comfortable bed I couldn’t get over how much rest I was getting sleeping on the ground!  Of course it is possible that I was beginning to respond to this level of exercise, and to be sure the absence of alcohol didn’t hurt!

I mentioned in my last post that three hikers had arrived at the shelter at 1:00 in the morning.  They had hiked 30 miles the day before!  They were just sitting up in their sleeping bags as we rolled out of camp and I half jokingly said, “We’ll see you guys again when you overtake us.”

About a half mile away from the shelter we heard a noise and there were these three hikers gliding past us!  These were some badass warriors.

90 minutes into our hike for the day we came across this pristine stream. It would serve as a great location for breakfast!

We hiked about an hour and a half, keenly aware that we had no water.  There was no reason to panic because there were streams and springs along the next 3 miles; but, nothing makes you more thirsty than knowing you have no water!  We came to a wide clear stream that looked like a spot you might film a commercial for bottled water.  There was a nice sandy bank and the spot was so pleasant we decided we would stop here for breakfast.  Lisa got water going for coffee and I got water going for oatmeal.  We sat and basked in the sun and enjoyed a hearty breakfast and large mugs of strong coffee.  We got more water and washed the dishes from the night before, and restocked all of our water bottles.  Again, all of this water was treated through a filter pump as there is no guarantee that even a fast flowing mountain spring is free of bacteria.

We were now getting closer to civilization.  We were seeing more day hikers (you could tell by the size of their packs) and could hear a highway and lawn mowers now and then.  Sure enough, a half hour after leaving the stream we emerged into an open field with a panoramic view of some sort of campus.  It was very large and the buildings were all uniform.  I later learned that this was the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  Previously part of the National Zoo, it now conducts research in the areas of biodiversity, animal care, conservation and sustainability.  There were fields planted and numerous buildings over what appeared to be hundreds of acres.  A little research shows they are doing a lot of research based on the Appalachian ecosystem.

Everything visible in this picture, the fields in the foreground and all of the distant hillside was part of the vast Smithsonian Front Royal campus!

As we walked along the perimeter of the campus, we came across a little bench with a huge ice water dispenser like you see on the sidelines of football games.  There was a note pointing to the back yard of a house that said, “Welcome hikers, come in for a drink and a snack and feel free to camp in our yard.”  It was signed, “She-Bear & Sweet Tea”  We looked over and the woman working in the yard beckoned us over.

“She-Bear” is basically a friend of the hiker.  She herself has hiked the entire trail and was very proud that her 18 year old daughter had just finished a “flip-flop” through hike in which she hiked VA to Maine, and then traveled to Georgia to complete the southern half.  The man and the woman there could not have been nicer.  They offered whatever they could do for hikers, rides, a spot to camp, use of a bathroom, whatever we needed!  Lisa and I enjoyed some sweet tea and chatted a bit and were on our way.

At around 2:00 we arrived at the Jim and Molly Denton Hut.  This was a nice spot!  There was a solar shower!  It was an outdoor shower stall like you might see at a house at the beach and there was a large barrel on top that was pumped full from a nearby spring.

In my next and final post on this trip I will go over things I would do differently and this would be one of them.  What we should have done was stop right there and call it a day.  We had one last day of hiking planned and we should have taken solar showers, cooked up a nice meal on the deck and enjoyed this naturally peaceful spot.  It would have been essentially an afternoon off.  (spoiler alert:  this is one of the things I would do differently!)

That would not be what we did however.  We had already taken a lot of time at the stream and at She-Bear’s house so we had to push on.  We had 5 more miles to get to our destination and it would take all of 3 hours.  Live and learn!  We did stop and eat at this shelter and rest a bit but then we hit the trail and hiked for another hour.

In this high mountain meadow I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out singing!

We came to VA Rt 632, a point She-Bear had told us would look like “Little House on the Prairie”.  It was indeed a spectacular wide-open meadow.  As far as you could see was green grass, mountains, and blue sky.  We hiked to the top of a very steep hill which sliced through the center of the tall meadow grass.

As we ascended, a thought came to me.  The Manassas Gap Shelter was now about 3 miles off, we would easily make it there and recover for one last day of hiking together.  But Lisa was going on to hike for three more weeks by herself.  I felt I had proven all I needed to prove to myself for one trip and further thought Lisa might benefit from a night off.

I said, “I’m just gonna’ throw this out there, but in 2 miles we will cross under I-66.  That’s about an hour from my house and I could call my son and he could be there when we emerge from the woods.  I’m fine with doing one more night at camp and one more day hiking but this would be your chance for a night’s sleep in a bed, a shower, fresh food and laundry.”

One last turning point, from this little bench in a warm sunny meadow we decided to cut the hike short by a day and get back to civilization.

Lisa agreed that this would be a good idea before she headed out on her own.  She was rightly a little apprehensive about going alone and a night off would help.  We got to the top of the meadow and there, as if positioned for this moment was a little bench under a shade tree.  It was a beautiful moment.

I called my family and Andrew agreed to come get us in the tiny hamlet of Linden, VA.  We sat at this bench and I half expected to see the von Trappe family come out of the woods singing.

We would hike another hour down a steep difficult mountain and our feet were once again killing us.  It was ok though, because we were a couple hours away from a fresh meal and a real shower.  We emerged from the woods on VA Rt 55 which parallels I-66.  I called Andrew and he said he was getting off the exit.  minutes later we were in an air-conditioned car (with Andrew complaining quite justly about how gamey we smelled!)

It was nice to kick off the boots and then Andrew told me to look in the bag on the floor.  My wife had sent along two cold beers!  As with all the meals we had eaten the previous 4 days, that was the best beer I had ever had!

We got home and ordered kabobs, took showers, told stories and that night everyone slept on a nice soft mattress.  As I lay there though, I realized the transition had been so fast that it hadn’t hit me yet.  I had just spent 4 days challenging myself physically and mentally.

I had met a moderate amount of difficulty and handled it and my comfort zone was now expanded.

In my final post I will go over lessons learned, what I feel I did right and what I would do differently.  It was a great trip and already I am sure I will return to hike more of the Appalachian Trail!


Appalachian Trail: Virginia – Part 3 of 5

This is the third in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

To fight the cold temperature Lisa wore socks on her hands. I was just ready to get out of the site that had been our low point in the trip.

Day 3 began in the low 50’s and neither of us had brought a jacket!  That stupid pack of mine was 50 pounds fully loaded with water and there was no jacket in there!  We were very happy to see our food was still in the tree; but, when we saw the massive branch that had fallen during the night we realized it could just as easily have fallen on one of our tents!

My neighbor and friend Miriam had made homemade granola bars for me to take on the trip.  They were perfect for the calorie demands we were placing on our bodies, they had oatmeal, nuts, and dried fruit.  I realized that I had one bar left and that the energy I would get from it would warm me up enough to pack up camp.  I made a quick cup of coffee, polished off the bar and packed everything up.  The weather looked promising but we were shivering so it was hard to appreciate.

This “ocean of ferns” was one of the more beautiful things we saw! In every direction the floor of the forest was covered with soft 3-foot ferns.

As we began to hike I was once more stunned to see that my body had recovered during the night from the 10 hours of hiking the previous day!  My shoulders felt great under the weight of the pack (which by now was starting to be a little lighter as food was consumed.)  My feet, though held together with duct tape seemed to be strong and pain-free for the moment!

As it had been throughout the trip, the hike was strikingly beautiful.  I couldn’t believe how often the scenery changed!  On this morning we came across a section of the forest in which the floor was all 3-ft ferns.  Like rhododendrons, I have tried to encourage large pretty ferns on the shady side of my house and it’s just too hot and humid.  Here was an endless ocean of them in every direction!  They looked like you could dive into them and be carried across the top of them like a rock star crowd surfing!

This large deer escorted us for a ways down the mountain, walking in the path about 30 yards ahead. She was huge, approaching the size of a pony!

We did not see much wildlife during the trip.  We saw plenty of evidence that they were nearby, but despite all our precautions we never saw a bear and only a couple of times did we even see deer.  (It should be noted that when my wife dropped us off on the first morning she turned the car around and there were two bear cubs playing on the side of Skyline Drive!)

In this first morning section of the hike however, we were greeted at the top of a mountain by a really large doe.  She was approaching the size of a pony!  The trail zig-zagged down the mountain and she was escorting us down.  She would wait until we came around the switchback to her section, and then bolt directly through the woods onto the next section.  She did this several times, each time waiting until we got to the section she was on.  Near the bottom she stepped off the side of the trail and watched us pass.  I half expected her to say, “OK, from here just go straight and if you pass a big rocky overpass you’ve gone too far”!

Looking north over the Shenandoah Valley toward Front Royal, VA

We warmed up quickly and were buoyed by the fact that our bodies had recovered from the previous day’s hike.  The weather was shaping up to be a beautiful day and at the top of the next mountain we got a view to the north that showed Front Royal, VA, and blue skies.  Our next stop was the Gravel Springs Hut, what should have been the previous night’s destination.  This too would be a turning point in our trip.

The Gravel Springs Hut was supposed to be last night’s destination but would still serve as a turning point in our trip and one of the sweetest highlights.

Gravel Springs Hut was, I suppose, a standard Shenandoah shelter; but it seemed like a resort hotel as it came with all the amenities, the weather was beautiful, and we had it all to ourselves.  First of all, there was a privy.  A privy is essentially an outhouse but when the alternative involves a shovel it might as well be the Four Seasons.  Secondly, there was a spring–Gravel Springs as it would turn out–right there near the shelter.  The fire ring in front of the shelter had a large stone wall around it and this would become our dryer!

We pulled out all of our wet gear, ponchos, tents, clothes and laid them on this stone in the sun to dry.  I was not conscious of it at the time but that simple act changed the entire pace of our trip to a more reasonable one.  For something to dry in the sun, one must sit, relax, and not be in a rush and that is what we had been doing since we began, rushing!

Lisa had some sort of instant mocha cappuccino mix ( I would eventually learn that she had an entire barista kit in her pack!) and she made us a couple of cappuccinos while I went to the spring and filled our water.  We heated some of the water to make a nice warm sudsy bowl and used it to wash the previous night’s dishes.  Those too got lain out in the sun to dry and we sat at the picnic table of this quiet shelter and talked about our trip.

Our goal of 20 miles per day was unrealistic.  Many people told us that, but many also told us 20 was reasonable in Shenandoah.  As it turned out 20 is reasonable…if you started in Georgia in February!  What we had done was the equivalent to going to the beach for summer vacation and getting sunburned on the first day!  You have to start gradually.

We looked at the guidebook and recalibrated our goals.  It was like a huge weight had been lifted because now we could enjoy the trip a whole lot more.  The mileage goal had been arbitrary to begin with and there was nothing sacred about getting to Harpers Ferry by a certain date.  Moments like this one at Gravel Springs was what the trip was really about.

We felt lucky to have figured this out and now had a completely different outlook on the remainder of the trip.  We had a new and very achievable goal for this day and already had 5 miles of it behind us.

After the very challenging night before, we also had the additional confidence of having made it through the worst and turned the corner.  We were truly uplifted and this time our optimism would last!

The cement marker with yellow band meant a spring was nearby. Usually this was a large pipe driven into the side of the mountain (always at the bottom) that tapped into an underground reservoir.

Before leaving I refilled our water.  The spring was within 50 feet of the shelter and not the usual half mile down a mountain.  With all water I pumped it through a filter to remove dangerous bacteria.  I am pleased to say I drank water from streams and springs throughout the entire trip with no ill effects.  The pump is simple, one end goes into the stream and pumps into a cylinder that filters silt and bacteria and pumps it directly into the water bottle.

When you saw the cement post with a yellow band around it you knew you were at a spring.  Sometimes you would need to calculate whether you needed water because taking on water meant taking on weight and the spring was always at the bottom of a mountain.  So if you were ok on water, you had to consider, do I need another 6 pounds to go up another mountain?

As we were packing up one of the more comical events took place.  The packing is a slow deliberate process because along the way you have to be able to reach  certain things quickly and those need to be packed for ready access.  It’s also challenging to fit everything.  We were in the midst of this process when two Asian men approached.

One looked somewhat nervous and questioned us as to how long we planned to be here.  We told him we were packing up to leave and he seemed greatly relieved.  “Oh good, this is good because we have many people coming!”  He wasn’t kidding!  The next thing that happened is that a large group of older asian hikers began to flood into the shelter.  The first guy said something to them in what I think was Chinese, and I think he said, “These folks are just leaving, form a semi-circle around them and quietly put aggressive pressure on them to hurry it up!”

A water filter pump enabled me to take water directly from streams and springs without chemical treatment or boiling.

They were day hikers, and Lisa asked where they were from.  I think we both expected to hear “China” or something like that and the first gentleman said, “Here.  We live here and come to Shenandoah every saturday for a day hike and lunch”.  My first thought was, “It’s Saturday?”  Suddenly we were surrounded by 15-20 people talking amongst themselves in Chinese, snapping pictures and standing by waiting for the use of the shelter for their lunch.  We felt like we had been caught trespassing and were given 60 seconds to pack up and get out!  We did, and we laughed for the next mile about how out-of-place the event seemed with the rest of the trip!

In the upper left was a section of Skyline Drive that we had crossed about an hour earlier.

We hiked now with new purpose.  We would enjoy the trail along the way and not worry about mileage.  This approach was rewarded handsomely when we climbed a large steep mountain to see a glorious overlook back at the point where we had crossed Skyline Drive about an hour earlier.  It had been a lot of work to get to the top of this one and as we watched along came our friends the “Slack Packers”!  They were fresh as daisies having stayed another night in a hotel and driven to the trail head!  Still, it was good to see them and they complimented us on making good progress and looking strong.

The overlook gave us one of the finest views we had seen and one reason for that was that it was out on a very high cliff.  As I looked down, I could see treetops about 50 feet down.

The view straight down from the overlook. This was not a spot for someone with a fear of heights!

It would still turn out to be a long day.  While we were smart enough to figure out that 20 miles was unrealistic, we still hadn’t grasped the fact that the 13-15 miles a day we were doing was too much!  At about 3:00 we hit a milepost that told us we still had 5 miles to go to get to camp.  This would put us there about 6:00.  That was still a long 3 hours of hiking and there was just no avoiding the fact that by that point in the day the shoulders were screaming, the feet were swollen and tender and fatigue was setting in.

I noticed that in addition to the general funk of the woods, I had this sweet, almost vinegar smell about me.  It was in my breath and I realized that I was in a state of ketosisThis is when your body has burned through all the ready supply of glycogen (the quick burning energy we get from carbohydrates).  Now it was boosting the level of ketones (which create the sweet acetone smell) in preparation to go to backup power…fat!  It only took me 3 days of hiking but I was finally burning my stores of body fat!  I ate carbs all day long in the form of pretzels, flour tortillas, and dried fruit but it just wasn’t enough to keep up with the 4000 calories I was burning each day.

This is hard to see through the trees but it a rocky cliff down which were treacherous steps that went on forever! Going down was the final test of the day before arriving at the Tom Floyd Wayside shelter.

We hiked along a gentle fire road for almost an hour.  It was so nice to walk on level ground side-by-side!  We eventually came to a large sign that informed us we were departing Shenandoah National Park!  This was a big milestone!  From there we had to descend a huge rocky cliff.  There were steps built into it and they crisscrossed many times as a set of switchbacks.  Each step felt dangerous and one misstep would have been disastrous!

Finally, we reached the Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter.  Again, we were the only people there!  It was a charming spot built onto the side of a hill with a large inviting deck.  We considered staying in the shelter but had such good luck with the tents that we stayed with what worked.  There was a perfect tent site complete with its own fire ring, bench area for cooking, and perfect view through the woods of a rich orange sunset.

The Tom Floyd Wayside shelter was again like a story book setting. A quaint cottage nestled in the woods and completely uninhabited.

We set up our tents and started dinner.  Tonight it would be brown rice.  I cooked up my last scallion and last clove of garlic, added the rice and simmered it while we relaxed and watched the sun setting.  When it was ready I topped it with tuna from a foil pouch and a squirt of lemon juice (I know, this is why my pack was too heavy!) and we dined on what had to be the best brown rice and tuna ever!

That night we stayed up till a reckless 9:00 because it was so pleasant out.  When we turned in, there was still nobody at the shelter!  The next morning there would be three people who had arrived at 1:00 in the morning!  They had descended those treacherous steps in the dark using headlamps!

Our tent site was perfectly situated to watch the glowing sunset through the trees.

This would be my best night’s sleep yet.  There could have been bears scratching at the tent door and I would not have heard them.  I slept soundly through the night, proud of having conquered the previous night’s storm, and pleased that we had scaled down the mileage to enjoy the trip more.

In my next posting I detail my final day on the trail and re-entry into civilization.


My Appalachian Trail Adventure – Part 2 of 5

This is the second in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

6am, Day 2 ready to hit the trail and try to outrun a storm.

After the first night’s sleep I woke up surprisingly fresh!  I felt I’d been awake all night.  The night before we’d heard  weather warnings from several people along the trail and at the shelter.  Serious thunderstorms were rolling in around noon.  We got up early (which is not hard when you retire at 8:30!) and after a couple cups of coffee and a quick breakfast hit the trail. 

We had heard the storm was coming from south to north and we were headed north so we would do our best to outrun it.  Your best bet out there is to simply look at the sky because as the day went on we heard the storm was coming from the East, from the West, and from the South.

The skies were overcast but the weather was still nice. No rain, still beautiful views, and cool.

We hiked for 3 hours feeling strong and perky.  We were chatting as we hiked and the scenery was gorgeous!  We passed Thornton Gap the point at which entered the park two days earlier by car.  Now we could feel weather rolling in. 

By now we could see clouds rolling in from the eastern valley. At times we could tell that we were in them!

At one point we watched a cloud move through and shroud the woods in which we were hiking.  It’s a very ominous feeling.  One minute we’re hiking along and suddenly a smoky mist glides in from the east between the trees.  The temperature, amount of light, and humidity changed instantly and a feeling that we were “not in Kansas anymore” crept into our minds!

Way up in this rocky peak was a handsome rhododendron in center, full bloom and thriving. Note the leaves and bushes in the foreground…you can tell there’s a storm approaching!

The natural beauty, however, was not diminished by approaching storm.  At one point we came across a rocky summit that rose about 4 or 5 stories above the rest of the mountain.  Centered in the cliffs of this summit was a huge wild rhododendron bush in full flower.  I am a huge fan of the rhodo but have never been able to get them to grow at my house because it’s just too hot and humid in the DC area.  Now we were surrounded by them everywhere, growing wild, unpruned, unfertilized, and in full bloom everywhere you looked!

Thornton Gap, the point where VA Rt 211 crosses Skyline Dr. Two days earlier we had entered Shenandoah National Park here by car.

Around late morning we reached the Pass Mountain Hut.  It was so cozy!  There was a privy nearby and a spring right near the hut.  We filled our water bottles and got a snack.  We took this opportunity to prepare for rain.  I covered my sleep pad with trash bags, and had a rain fly to put over my pack.  Ponchos were donned and laughing ensued!  Mine was essentially a trash bag with arm and head holes.  Lisa had a very nice large poncho designed to cover both her and the pack.  It was bright orange and when she put it over the pack, she looked like Quasimodo directing traffic! (I am under oath not to show a picture).

It was difficult to leave this cozy shelter with a spring and a fire ring right in front of the opening but it hadn’t started raining yet and we were only to last night’s destination!

We set out ready for rain, and it never came.  That’s not entirely true but the canopy is so thick in the forest that we heard a good deal more rain than we felt.  The plastic poncho was likely creating more moisture from the inside!  This meant the hiking was still quite pleasant.  We had hiked 6 miles and were on our way to the next milestone, the Elkwallow Wayside.  Today we would make up for the short hike yesterday and now we were on our way…we thought.

My rain gear was not something you’d see in the LL Bean catalog but it was effective!

The forest was misty and lush and this stretch was not as challenging as the day before.  Elkwallow Wayside is sort of a mountain convenience store.  There are gas pumps and a camp store and bathrooms.  It would only be a rest stop and it was seven miles away.  From there we would have 6 more to our destination for the night.

With a light rain falling on the canopy and little of it making it to the ground, the trail was lush and misty and the hiking was almost surreal.

We hiked, and we hiked, and we hiked!  We still hadn’t realized yet that our hiking speed in the morning was about 2 mph and as we tired in the afternoon it slowed to about 1 mph!  From the Pass Mountain Hut we failed to realize that we had picked a destination that would be about 9-10 more hours of hiking!

The Pass Mountain Hut was, by AT standards, cozy and dry and would have been a great place to wait out a storm, but we didn’t have a storm yet!

We had targeted 3:00 to reach Elkwallow and we got there at 3:30.  It was like an oasis!  Picnic tables became instant couches!  There were bathrooms and though I had only been in the woods for two days I felt like an Amish man in New York City.  I came out of the bathroom and said, “Lisa!  There’s a knob in there and you turn it and hot water comes out!”  It was so nice!  We rested, doctored our feet for new blisters, ate and refilled our water. 

You might think a long hike in the forest would be a monotonous day of sameness but it was surprisingly diverse.

We met three young men who had just graduated from Brown University and were celebrating with a bike trip through Shenandoah.  They seemed ill-equipped even for this and when we arrived they were slicing at a tree with a bottle of beer trying to get the cap off.  They said they had spent the previous night in their car because they thought there would be more hotels here.  Ivy League grads poised to lead America.

Elkwallow Wayside is little more than a convenience store but with actual bathrooms, manicured grounds, and picnic tables it looked like an oasis to us!

We set out again hoping to find a place to stay.  Our feet were really hurting by this point.  I would no sooner repair a blistered area on my foot that it would shift the load to another area and a new blister would develop.  On top of that, my feet just ached.  I thought back to a movie of my teenage years, Midnight Express when a young American is imprisoned in Turkey for drugs.  At one point they club him on the soles of his feet so he won’t try and run away.  I was beginning to feel like I’d had the Turkish pedicure!

Once we decided to simply camp on the side of the trail, we would walk another hour before finding a level spot to accommodate two tents. This spot at the top of a ridge would be our home for the night.

We saw a sign about a mile and a half past Elkwallow for the Rangeview Cabin.  This was a pristine cabin in the woods, the setting of fairy tales.  We knew from the guidebook that the cabin was locked and is rented out to members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club but we thought we might be able to camp nearby.  When we got to this idyllic spot there was a sign that said, “No camping within sight of the cabin”. 

We now understood we were not going to make our intended destination.  We would have to just find a nice spot on the side of the trail and camp.  This would not have been a big problem except that we would hike another hour before we could find a level spot to accommodate two tents!  Again, you’re always either climbing a mountain or descending one so “level” is rare.

We got the tents up and had just started dinner when the skies opened.

By the time we reached the top of a ridge and found a suitable spot we were again exhausted.  We had hiked for 10 hours for the second day in a row and were farther behind our goal than the day before!

We set up our tents and I started dinner.  I was recreating the pasta dish I had made on my dry run camping trip.  I had just started sautéing a garlic clove, some dried salami, and a scallion in my pot when the skies opened up.  The storm we had avoided all day was now upon us.

I got the water and pasta in there and covered the pot.  While that simmered Lisa and I threw our gear into our tents and threw a rope over a tree limb.  We did this by tying a baseball sized rock to the end of the rope and throwing it over the limb.  The first time I didn’t hold the rope and all 50 ft sailed over the limb with the rock.  It would have been funny except it was pouring rain.

The next try I held the rope but I held it too close to the rock and when the rock went over the limb it accelerated around under the limb right toward my face!  Fortunately I ducked just in time because that would not have been funny in any circumstance!

After eating in our separate tents we jumped back out in the rain and hoisted our food, toiletries, and dishes into a tree to keep away from bears.

When the pasta was ready I tossed the contents of a powdered sauce envelope in and dished out half to each of us.  We each retreated to our individual tents and ate in the pouring rain.  Lisa yelled at one point, “This is really good!” but the rain was so loud I couldn’t hear her! 

When we finished eating we had to get back out in the rain to put all the food, toiletries, and dishes into bags and hoist them by the rope into the tree.  Then it was back to our tents for the night.  It wasn’t even dark yet.

As I lay there I questioned for the first time what the hell I thought I was doing.  The wind was making my tent ripple like a kite being flown at the ocean.  The rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t hear myself think.  I was filthy, exhausted, my feet hurt and nobody in the entire world, including us, had any idea where we were. 

I started to think about home.  I remembered that this was the night I had been invited to a Nats game in DC.  I pictured my wife with friends enjoying a lovely night at the ballpark with a cold beer, clean and rested.  I never considered that the same storm was raging in DC.  In fact, it was much worse 2 hours away where the Nats got rained out and numerous tornadoes touched down around the metro area.  Little did I know that my family and friends were thinking about me as they huddled in their homes!

This pack was killing me! We had now named it Bernie because it appeared to have a dead body inside and reminded us of the movie Weekend At Bernie’s!

In addition to my feet bothering me, my shoulders were suffering from the weight of the pack.  We had now named it Bernie, after the movie Weekend at Bernie’s where a dead body is concealed in a number of ways.  I lay in that tent wondering how in the world I would recover in time to start hiking all over again.  I would later learn that Lisa was doing pretty much the same thing a few feet away in her tent.

At about 4:00 in the morning, a huge branch blew off the trunk of a tree and fell a long ways to the ground.  It slammed to the earth about 20 or 30 feet from out tent.  I went from a sound sleep to a state of high alert in an instant!  A second later I heard Lisa say, “Tooonnny?????”  I had adrenaline pumping through my body and I said, “I heard it!”  It was still dark and we both thought that somehow a bear had gotten to our food. 

I lay in my sleeping bag all zipped up because behind the storm and heavy winds had come cold temperatures.  I was definitely not going out there in the dark but I wondered for an hour what we would do with no food, and a mess that would surely get us in trouble with park rangers. 

At 5:00 I peeked out the tent to see that the food was still in the tree and a huge branch was on the ground nearby.  I would have gotten up but I hadn’t brought a jacket and it was in the low 50’s!  would I have to stay here until July?

We finally got up, had a quick bite, packed up and headed out.  Miraculously, my body had recovered during the night to hike again! 

Things would get much better from this low point and in my next post I will paint a much drier, sunnier picture of our AT adventure!


Appalachian Trail: Virginia – Part 1 of 5

This is the first in a series of 5 posts about a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Sunset from the Skyland Lodge the night before our departure.

Last Wednesday after months of preparation my wife Alice drove me and my hiking partner, Lisa to the Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park.  We had a nice dinner, a great sunset, a last beer, and a last night’s sleep indoors…in a bed!

Lisa and I about to set off on our AT Adventure.

The next morning we were all up early for a huge breakfast and it was off to the trail!  We drove about 9 miles south on Skyline Drive to an access point called Fishers Gap.  We took some final pictures and at 9am we set out on our adventure…the wrong way!  From the very start we followed a map that sent us down a fire road.  We walked a few minutes when Lisa said, “I haven’t seen a white blaze yet.  The white blaze is a trail marking that lets you know you’re on the AT.

Our departure point was Fishers Gap Overlook in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park.

We checked GPS on my cell phone and sure enough the map was a bit outdated and the access point was on the other side of Skyline Drive!  15 minutes later we were on the trail headed north for what we thought would be 20 miles a day for five days.  Boy was that an unrealistic number!  More on that later.

The day offered perfect weather.  It was cool and dry and there was a nice breeze blowing up in the mountains.    Since Fishers Gap is over 3000 feet we were immediately rewarded with a spectacular view of the Shenandoah Valley, looking westward over the town of Luray, VA.  My friends from the western United States will scoff at 3,000 feet, but this was the view that kicked off the trip!

The view of the Shenandoah Valley and the town of Luray, VA from Fishers Gap Overlook.

I really could hardly believe it, here I was hiking the Appalachian Trail!  it was a path, a seemingly endless path through the forest.  At higher elevations it is more rocky, and it is almost always going up or down.  If you’re not climbing, you’re descending and when you occasionally find yourself on level ground the walking gets noticeably easier.

At over 2,000 miles between Maine and Georgia the AT is a seemingly endless path through the forest.

When you completed a climb you were almost always rewarded with a spectacular overlook.  Then you might walk along the ridge for a while, or skirt the summit of a mountain and soon be headed down again.

We used hiking poles which very closely resembled ski poles.  On the rockier surfaces (higher elevations) they were particularly handy on the descent.

One thing I learned early on was that my pack was too heavy.  Fully loaded with water it was over 50 pounds.  I knew by the end of the week I’d have figured out what I didn’t need in there!

The hiking poles were useful for that reason.  The heavy pack accelerated your steps on the descent and when it got rocky the added balance of two more touch points often made the difference!

A long climb was usually rewarded with a spectacular view!

At one point we reached what appeared to be the sight of a massive rock slide.  There were watermelon-sized rocks covering a 50 yard wide section of the mountain from top to about midway down and no trees or plants grew there.  It opened up quite a view but it made for a tough crossing!

We came upon what looked to be the sight of an ancient rock slide!

We hiked for a long time.  Every half hour or 45 minutes stopping for water or a snack to keep our energy up.  It would be about 4 hours before we were back to Skyland, where we’d had breakfast and immediately after that was the highest point in the park, Stony Man Peak!  That was a tough one and by this point the heavy pack was beginning to make itself known to my shoulders.

The view from Stony Man, the highest point in the park.

This was one of the best views all day because when we reached the Pinnacle Picnic Ground I dropped my pack and lay on the bench of a picnic table!

We had identified a point at which we wanted to break for lunch.  It was called the Pinnacle Picnic Ground.  Fortunately we didn’t wait that long to have lunch because we didn’t get there till 3:00!  Our anticipated progress of 3 miles an hour was way off and we would eventually learn that we did about 2 mph in the morning when we were fresh and slowed down to near 1 mph in the afternoon when we were tired!

We had passed a couple guys during the day who were hiking in a method they called “slackpacking”.  This involved two cars and day packs.  They would park one car at the end of the day’s hike, drive back to the beginning and hike it.  When they got to the end they would drive car #1 back to the beginning to retrieve car #2 and retire to a hotel and restaurant for the night.  They told us they would see us again before the day was over and they did indeed.

We must have looked pretty tired because they said just about a mile ahead was a really nice shelter and we should plan on staying there for the night.

The Byrd’s Nest #3 shelter was 4 miles short of our intended endpoint for the day but it was after 5:30 when we got there.  We had hiked for nearly 9 hours and were exhausted and needed daylight to set up camp.  Byrd’s Nest #3 would have to do.

Byrd’s Nest #3, our first night’s destination.

The AT shelters although rustic are generally pretty charming and this one was indeed a welcome sight.  We decided we would camp in tents nearby but this would be the gathering spot to meet other hikers and dine together.  We set up our tents and proceeded to fix dinner.  This first required a trip to the spring to get more water.  The spring was about a quarter-mile down the mountain which meant an additional half mile round trip for water!

This charming little hut would be our camp for the night…

…although we chose to camp in our tents behind the shelter. We weren’t ready to sleep in the open among strangers.

Dinner, however, was fantastic!  This is doubtless one of the reasons my pack was so heavy but we had curried lentils with salmon (from a foil pouch) over them.  After a long day of hiking this was just about the best meal I’d ever had!

Dinner was curried lentils with fresh jalapeno and garlic and foil pouch salmon over it. We needed a dinner that would give us energy the next day!

We watched a gorgeous sunset from the top of the ridge, hung our food up in the “bear pole”  and got into our tents and waited for it to get dark.  A good night’s sleep was going to be really important.  Important, yes but easy?  Not so much.

The sunset through the woods meant we could get in our tents and go to sleep. We were exhausted! I’m pretty sure we were asleep by 9:00!

I heard every leaf rustle.  At points I swear I heard something sniffing around the tent and all night long I waited for some critter to cause trouble.  It never happened, and that discomfort would dissipate a little each night but that first night did not include a lot of deep REM sleep!

Nonetheless our first day was over and other than fatigue, it had been a great day.  We were 4 miles behind our goal already, but we’d worry about that later.

We had already met a few characters and traded trail names.  “Strollin'” was a through-hiker who had started in Georgia in February.  In our shelter was a pair of cousins who had, over the years hiked the entire trail in sections.  “Shag-Bark” and “Katydid” were both from Pittsburgh and each had their own families but shared a love for hiking and had done trips like this for decades.  They had a son and a nephew with them.  One had the trail name “Moby” and the other had an actual name that beat any trail name, Forest!  They were nice and were sleeping in the shelter in hammocks.  In the morning when we woke up we discovered another guy, “Sparrow” had glided in during the night and was through hiking at a rate of 25 miles per day!

My next post will detail Day 2, which marked the “low point” of the trip.  Stay tuned!


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