Theodore Roosevelt Island

This post is one in a series of Ten 3-Mile Walks Around Washington, DC.  The pins in the map below show where I stopped to take pictures but also serve to outline the route!

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 1.15.31 PMTheodore Roosevelt Island is in the Potomac River between the Arlington, VA neighborhood of Rosslyn and the Washington, DC neighborhood of Georgetown.  A footbridge takes you from the VA side to the island and once there you are in a different world.

A footbridge brings you from the Virginia side of the Potomac to Roosevelt Island.

A footbridge brings you from the Virginia side of the Potomac to Roosevelt Island.

For a city park, it is remarkably peaceful!  The stretch of water by the footbridge is narrow and calm and often hosts kayaks, canoes and on this day, a paddle-boarder.

The stretch of water by the footbridge is calm and often hosts paddle-boards, kayaks, and canoes.

The stretch of water by the footbridge is calm and often hosts paddle-boards, kayaks, and canoes.

The island is filled with gentle hiking trails and different eco-systems.  Marsh, swamp, and soft green forest are all found here.  At the edges of the island the urban cityscape is plainly visible but for most of the walk you find yourself in a different world.

A view of Arlington, VA's Rosslyn neighborhood from under the Roosevelt bridge.

A view of Arlington, VA’s Rosslyn neighborhood from under the Roosevelt bridge.

For this 3-mile walk I did a wide circuit around the perimeter of the island, and then wound in to the interior.  In the center is a plaza and monument to Theodore Roosevelt, including a 15-foot statue of TR himself.

The center of the island has a charming plaza, featuring a 15 ft statue of Teddy Roosevelt .

The center of the island has a charming plaza, featuring a 15 ft statue of Teddy Roosevelt .

The plaza is a pleasant park with fountains and different levels.  It is an idyllic spot for picnics, families out for a hike, and joggers.

Though the city is not far away, you would think you're in the middle of nowhere!

Though the city is not far away, you would think you’re in the middle of nowhere!

One of the many eco-systems found on the island is a wide marsh.

One of the many eco-systems found on the island is a wide marsh.

There is also a swamp, ebbing and flowing with the tide and rich with various creatures.

There is also a swamp, ebbing and flowing with the tide and rich with various creatures.

It’s a little tricky to get there because you have to be on the north-bound George Washington Parkway–which sounds easy enough, but try it!

Most of the island is accessible by a network of gentle hiking trails.

Most of the island is accessible by a network of gentle hiking trails.

A wide boardwalk takes you through marsh, swamp, and forest on the back side of the island.

A wide boardwalk takes you through marsh, swamp, and forest on the back side of the island.

Once there you can hike in any direction.  On the DC side of the island a wide boardwalk keeps you out of the swamp and marshy areas.  Along with ducks and wildflowers you will also see great views of Georgetown, Key Bridge, Rosslyn, and the Roosevelt Bridge.

The view of Georgetown’s Washington harbor on this day included a glimpse of the Pirate Ship.

Georgetown's Washington Harbor.

Georgetown’s Washington Harbor.

The view of Georgetown from Roosevelt Island.  At top is the skyline of Georgetown University, with Key Bridge in front and under that, the boathouses that host crew teams.

The view from the western tip of Roosevelt Island. Georgetown University, Key Bridge and the crew team boathouses.

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Glorious Colorado!

IMG_0993My company has an office in Broomfield, Colorado, halfway between Denver and Boulder, and that gets me out there a few times a year.  Last November my son Andrew had both vacation time and a birthday coming up so he joined me on a trip and we stayed the weekend.  What a glorious place that state is!  Here is a quick tour of what we did over the weekend.

Mountains

Unless you look directly east, you can’t escape seeing the mountains.  Living in the Washington, DC area, to get a view from your office of one of the monuments you’d have to be a vice president and not even all of them have great views.  In our Broomfield office ordinary everyday people sit at their cubes looking out on spectacular mountain views!  Hell, the copy machine has a spectacular mountain view!

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As an example of the ever-present mountain scenery, this shot was taken from the parking lot of our hotel!

Flagstaff mountain

An hour’s drive will get you to parks and mountains above 10,000 feet but right in Boulder is a Boulder Mountain Park called Flagstaff Mountain.  At just under 7,000 feet it’s taller than any mountains in the east but out here it’s a bunny slope!  It has lots of trails, wildlife, and great views all the way to Denver.

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From Flagstaff Mountain, looking west to the Rocky Mountains.

On the day we visited, we hiked a couple trails that led us to views in various directions.  To the west was a sea of endless peaks, colors, and textures.  I looked out and wondered how settlers thought they could ever cross this range.  From this view it would have seemed impossible. To the east we discovered a charming outdoor amphitheater that overlooked Boulder and in the distance, Denver.  I later learned that a colleague in my office had been married in this amphitheater. IMG_0870 On our way out of the park we were driving down a very curvy mountain road and had to stop for a line–literally single file–of a dozen wild turkeys crossing the road.  They weren’t in much of a rush either considering it was November! IMG_0878 Nederland

I had heard from a few people that a nearby town called Nederland was worth the visit.  It was worth the visit just for the route we took.  The Boulder Canyon connects the two towns and for about 25 miles we drove through steep cliff walls on both sides climbing about 2000 feet in elevation in the process. “Ned” as they call it, is a laid back town at 8,200′, set between a lake-sized reservoir and a ski area.  It’s a bit of an old hippy town with some quirky and charming lore.  For instance there is the “Frozen Dead Guy“.  This is a famous deceased resident in Nederland whose annual dry ice packing became a winter carnival of sorts.  The “Cryonic Mardi Gras” features coffin ice races, polar plunging, and frozen salmon tossing!

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Nestled at 8,200′ between a large reservoir and a ski area, Nederland is an offbeat and charming little town.

Another typical spot is the Carousel of Happiness.  36 hand-carved colorful animals ride this restored carousel in its own building, complete with upstairs observation deck.  While we visited, it was packed with young children begging to go around again.

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Nederland’s Carousel of Happiness with its 36 colorful hand-carved animals.

Peak to Peak Scenic Byway

From Ned we headed to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.  To get there we took a road called the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway.  This was basically a long ridge line that took us up another 2000′ in elevation.  The route is dotted with interesting sites like old gold mines, ghost towns, and overwhelming natural beauty.

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A typical view along the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway.

At one point we rounded a corner and suddenly Long’s Peak came into view.  Long’s Peak is a “fourteener”, which is to say it rises over 14,000 feet above sea level.  In Colorado that’s not particularly impressive since there are 52 others with that distinction.  It is, however, the only fourteener in Rocky Mtn National Park and stands so prominently alone that the view is quite striking. For me, this mountain came alive when I read Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundreth Meridian.  This book is a literary masterpiece, a vivid history of the American west, a biography of John Wesley Powell, surveyor of much of the west.  In the book Stegner writes of Powell’s ascent of Long’s Peak.  This would be challenging for anyone but Powell had only one arm.  Suddenly, years after reading that memorable scene, here I was looking up at that very peak. IMG_0959

As we continued we came upon Lily Lake.  This gorgeous little tarn is surrounded by hiking trails and leads to some large mountains.  It is just one of many beautiful spots along the route.

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Lily Lake, just one of the many gorgeous spots along the Peak to Peak.

Estes Park

Estes Park, CO is a quaint summer resort town and headquarters for Rocky Mountain National Park.  Perhaps the most famous landmark there is the Stanley Hotel.  Built by the owner of the Stanley Steamer company, this upscale turn-of-the-century hotel once hosted novelist Stephen King and became the setting for his book, The Shining.

While Denver and Boulder have great views of the mountains, Estes Park is in them!  I couldn’t stop myself from taking pictures!  We stopped at a casual little drive-in called Baba’s Burgers and ate these phenomenal elk burgers!  I would recommend it to all meat-eaters!

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This highland valley is the entrance to the town of Estes Park. Beyond is Rocky Mountain National Park.

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The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, CO. This was the setting for Stephen King’s, “The Shining”.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is a vast wilderness among towering mountains.  On our very brief trip through we saw one spectacular vista after another.  We saw pristine lakes, broad open meadows, and rugged mountain terrain.  We didn’t even scratch the surface on our brief afternoon visit but what we saw was stunning.

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Bear Lake was a pristine mountain lake with trails to hike around it. This was one of many gorgeous access points to the vast wilderness of RMNP.

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Broad open meadows such as this one not only made for great scenery but also hosted wildlife, hikers, and campers.

At one point I noticed a lot of cars ahead and people were out of their cars taking pictures.  As we pulled up, there, in the field, were 6 elk, lying on the ground as casual as cows on a farm.  They had magnificent racks of antlers and were huge beasts!

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These six elk were just lazing about in a field by the side of the road!

Boulder’s Pearl St. Pedestrian Mall

The Pearl St Pedestrian Mall is one of those vibrant downtown areas that every town would like.  Tons of foot traffic, restaurants, shopping, street performers, and always, an inspiring backdrop of 14,000 foot mountains!  Many of Boulder’s best restaurants and brewpubs are right on Pearl St.–and Boulder has some excellent brewpubs!

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Pearl Street in Boulder

I can’t write about a tourist’s visit to Colorado without touching on legalized marijuana.  My friends who live there get annoyed when they travel because once people hear they’re from Colorado it’s all anyone wants to talk about.  I will say that it is weird to see something that has been illegal all my life (and still is in most of the country) be perfectly ok here!  When we checked into our hotel we were told that it is a non-smoking hotel so if we wanted to smoke weed we would have to go to the edge of the parking lot!

My company is a Federal contractor and marijuana use–even in Colorado–will still jeopardize a security clearance; so, partaking was not an acceptable option for me.  That didn’t mean I couldn’t at least visit one of the many dispensaries.  After all, it’s no different than wandering into a jewlery store!  Again, it was really weird to have something that has always been illegal suddenly be sold as if it were wine, being paired with a good meal.

The “budtenders” ask what customers are shopping for, whether pain relief, treatment of illness, or just recreational use.  Then they recommend something from the numerous strains, just like wine pairing!  Once customers choose their strain, they then choose the delivery system.  One can always buy just buds to bring home and smoke, but they can also buy vape pens, edibles, skin patches, and more!  It was all very civilized and friendly and honestly made me wonder what the big deal was!

While it is still illegal to smoke weed in public, we did frequently walk by small groups of people and get a strong whiff of the ganja.  The thing is, nobody really seemed to care.  It’s possible that restaurants are not quite as boisterous and noisy when everyone is stoned, and I did hear some legitimate complaints about wanting young children to be a little more shielded; but, overall, it seems to be a pretty smooth transition after a year.

One evening Andrew indulged me and we went to a little bar I had heard about in Denver called Sancho’s Broken Arrow.  This humble bar is dedicated to the Grateful Dead and the walls, furniture, and bar top were all adorned with Dead memorabilia.  The same owner has a nearby music venue that we went to as well.  That is called Quixote’s True Blue.  (someone has a Cervantes thing!)

Standing outside Quixote’s, was a small crowd openly smoking weed as if it were office worker’s on a smoke break in the designated smokers’ spot!

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Sancho’s Broken Arrow in Denver is an authentic Grateful Dead bar.

Weather

The weather is quite variable in Colorado.  Always dry, the temperature can swing a lot from day to night and a November day with sun and temps in the 70’s is no protection from a blizzard the next day. We were visited by both, gorgeous days of hiking with temps in the mid to high 70’s; and, on the day we were to leave, a blizzard!

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IMG_1075 The day before this we were slathering sun screen and hiking! We got out just in time.

This was one long weekend in this amazing state and there was so much more to see that we did not get to.  Fortunately I will be back.  It was a great father and son bonding trip and a really memorable way for Andrew to celebrate his 24th birthday.
tony and andrew π

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!

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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!

Magua

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

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Background

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.

Food

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.

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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!

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Hiking Roosevelt Island and the Key-Chain Trail

Looking up this stretch of the Potomac from Roosevelt Island you can see the National Cathedral and Georgetown University in the background with the Whitehurst Freeway stretching out below.

In late June I will be hiking my 2nd Annual Appalachian Trail Section Hike.  I have 6 weeks to get in shape and break in a new pair of boots.  Saturday was a gorgeous spring day so I hiked a local trail in right near my house.  I was once again reminded how easy it is to access nature right in the heart of  the NOVA-DC urban environment.  The route is called the Key-Chain because it crosses the Potomac at Key Bridge and then again at Chain Bridge.  One can still hear air traffic approaching National Airport, and car traffic on the George Washington Parkway, but even those fade as signs of nature take over.

The route as shown on the website WalkJogRun.com comes in at 10 miles (and 1450 calories!)

The route as shown on the website WalkJogRun.com comes in at 10 miles (and 1450 calories!)

I began my hike at Roosevelt Island.  This impressive park, dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, is in the Potomac River and partly under the Roosevelt Bridge.

I spend plenty of time navigating traffic on top of the bridge and it never occurred to me there could be a guy peacefully fishing beneath it!

There is a plaza and monument in the center of the island but there is also a nearly 2 mile trail around the perimeter that is a tribute to TR’s love of nature and the outdoors.  The trail proceeds on a wooden walkway through marshy swamps and undeveloped woods.  At times you get a glimpse of the river and across.  Georgetown University, the Watergate Hotel, the Kennedy Center are all right across the river but this quiet little enclave is a world away.

Raised Walkway through marsh at Roosevelt Island

Raised Walkway through marsh at Roosevelt Island

The vast watery marsh at Roosevelt Island

From Roosevelt Island my next steps were onto the Potomac Heritage Trail which runs up the Potomac River on the Virginia Side.  It gets hilly, often reaching points 50 feet above the river and then back to the water’s edge.  It’s a great trail to break in new boots because there is some minor rock scrambling, and often requires careful footing.  Most importantly, it offers quick easy access to relatively untouched nature right in the heart of DC.

This gorgeous green hillside sits right between the GW Parkway and the Potomac River!

A rocky waterfall that looks like it could be in a rain forest!

There was a lot of activity on the water. Across the river is Fletcher’s Boat House.

England? New Hampshire? Nope…Arlington, VA!

If you look at this picture closely you can see that the camera was trying to filter out the sunlight but this little water chute in the rocks was dappled by rays of sunlight as if an angel might come down any minute with a message! This did not happen but if it ever did I think it would look like this!

Honeysuckle perfumed the trail from start to finish!

Though the trail was not crowded, I did see a lot of people fishing along the banks of the river, as well as kayaks, paddle surfers, and crew teams.

The sky looked like a child’s drawing with a sky blue crayon and wispy white clouds. Across the river Georgetown University sat sprawled on the hilltop.

At the 5 mile mark I reached Chain Bridge and crossed into the northern tip of DC.  To return, I followed the historic C&O Canal all the way back to Key Bridge, back across that and back to Roosevelt Island.  The C&O is not quite as interesting visually but it is flat.  The hike took 4 hours.and though my new boots left my feet blister-free, it was a little ambitious and my whole body appreciated the easier walking.

The walk back is along the towpath of the historic C&O Canal.

In the coming weeks I will have to move to more mountainous training hikes, and begin carrying weight on my back; but, this was a great way to kick off the training and enjoy some great DC weather.

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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.

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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!

π

My Appalachian Trail Adventure – 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!

π

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