Thursday, March 31, 2016

Racing to resupply!

Hoping for an early start on the trail today, but -- even without chatty neighbors -- I wasn't able to start floowing the white blazes until 8:30. On, on! Weather forecast is for rain this afternoon and tomorrow. Back up to the ridgeline and the boulder fields. 

This is starting to work pretty well. I made Pine Knob (no pines, and not much of a knob, either) set up camp, and gratefully greeted my close friend and Resupply Manager.

Custom mixed dried meals, homemade snack bars, oatmeal, a fully charged USB battery, and dry socks. I'm set to shelter in place until the storm passes.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Crossing the line

I walked into Maryland today, crossing a train track and the Mason-Dixon Line.

There is a largish wood sign just north of the border that marks the location of the old trolley station, the city post office, and John's Store. The store, the sign said, sold ice cream, and also hot and cold sandwiches. This was in the 1900's ... disappointing, I could really have gone for an ice cream cone. Or three.

After a stiff climb back up to the Appalachian ridgeline, I climbed back down a few hundred feet of the "Devil's Racecourse", filtered four liters of water from a spring, and then climbed back up ten ponds heavier. Commiserating with the father of an unappreciative son doing the same, I suggested we should write a letter to the Management.

His son surfaced from his phone and said "You should just put in a motorized zipline - use solar panels to power it."

Okay, it's a solution, and it's more practical than mine. Advantage, youth.

I pushed on another seven miles carrying the water in my pack to camp at Ensign Cowall Shelter. Got lost along the way, and wound up bushwhacking up a boulder flow for two hours to regain the trail. GPS, very useful.

Very tired.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Back into the woods

Southbound into and across Maryland this week; first stop, Deer Lick Shelter. The forest isn't awake yet, but the creeks are running full and clear, burbling their spring song.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Amateur Day in the kitchen, continued

Savory trail bars. Questionable ... but after a couple of days, almost anything different tastes good.

A thru hiker I met suggested that we pack a variety of foods in our resupply packages. She made the mistake of filling all of the boxes she mailed to General Delivery along the way with her favorite -- and after five months of it, she can't even stand the smell of Indian curries.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Amateur Day in the kitchen

Trail bars -- second attempt, and much better consistency!

I plan to head out again on March 29, walking 48 miles south across Maryland until April 6 ... by car, a little more than two hours.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Appalachian Trail's Virginia Roller Coaster


Departed Ashby Gap at the side of US 50. My mentor tried to help me heave the 45 pound pack onto my back, but I declined -- have to do these things myself. Up the hill, avoiding gasping for breath until I was out of sight.

Up, up, down down and then up -- the Roller Coaster is well named. The tongue-in-cheek sign posted at each end titled  "HIKER WARNING" identifies the trail maintainers as "Trailboss" and his crew -- Trailboss being in real life an intensely cheerful Englishman who I have dragged along behind as he rushed into a patch of briar, wearing shorts and swinging a machete while the briars drew streaks of blood from his calves. He and his equally energetic spouse are well loved by all.

As the trail approached the northern end of the Roller Coaster's first section, the number of people heading south increased -- usual friendly greetings, with one of the standard phrases: "Great weather!" "Isn't it great to be outside!" "Nice looking dog!  How old?" "Are there more uphill climbs?" "Do those poles help?" Just conversational sound bites.

Fourteen day hikers, one trailrunner, and three backpackers with shiny new hiking gear, greeted me and passed on southbound.

The elder member of the group of three greeted me with the question "How far is it to Harper's Ferry?"

"Uh -- about 30 miles back the way you came from?" A short course in map reading followed; at least they had a map!  The AT is notorious for drawing less than knowledgeable hikers out on the trail with fashionable exercise clothing, flips or similar footwear, and a twelve ounce bottle of water.

Yeah, they're ready ....

First evening's stop -- Sam Moore Shelter. One other occupant ahead of me, who introduced himself by his trail name "Poacher", had a fire started in the pit, so I got my bedding and dinner set up and then joined him in foraging for downed wood. We spent the evening until hikers' midnight (9:00 pm) ritually bemoaning the various things that would draw us back out of the beauty and quiet of the wilderness, back into so-called civilization.


After an early wakeup and breakfast, I dawdled over tea to chat more with Poacher and did not get back on the trail until 8:45.  Another three hours of up and down brought me to Bears Den, a large stone hikers hostel where bears apparently used to roam (These days, the bears would have to be in the top 1%, it's a very upscale neighborhood.)

As I was working my way north from Bears Den through a cluster of day hikers, a young woman greeted me by exclaiming that she could never carry such a large pack, this South trail was too rocky. (In those tick-bait shoes, child, I wouldn't worry about the pack or the rocks.)

"South trail"? Right, the sign. With an attentive and quiet fellow of her generation listening, I politely explained -- this is the Appalachian Trail, "AT South" is pointing toward Georgia, a thousand miles away. Turn around, walk a thousand miles the other way? New Hampshire. Although fascinated by the idea , she again claimed that she would never be able to do such a thing.

Barbie Doll reflex, I thought to myself, and asked her to reconsider, if only as a way connect with nature, to improve her physical fitness, step away from the distractions of city life, and be reasonably safe -- if the two of them hiked together.

Well, he looked interested at least.

After scampering across the four lanes of Route 7 -- ever tried to scamper with a 45 pound monkey on your back? -- I entered the northern part of the Roller Coaster and headed for the Blackburn Trail Center. Our crew visits once a year to help Trailboss and his spouse, who are the center managers there. The tasks involve no more than lightweight house maintenance on doors, gutters, and the like, and nobody really minds if you break a PVC water line or two (as long as you repair it afterwards).

They feed us well.

Although my joints were blessedly pain-free, the thigh muscles started to object to the uphill parts as the afternoon shadows grew longer, and insisted both on a slower pace and a dose of hikers' vitamin I (ibuprofen). Sunset arrived before the turn towards Blackburn, so I pitched tent in open land about 30 feet away from the trail.

Fighting exhaustion ... pitch tent, make dinner, pull leftover food items up into the trees to avoid animal interest, and curl up in my tent.

A word or two about hiking technology, which was part of the conversation that Poacher and I shared. Some things are a tremendous improvement -- frame packs that weigh less than 20 pounds, water boilers, and GPS; others are of questionable value. I found, for example, that the Katadyn (r) water purifier was difficult to use and not sturdy enough for the trail; it me failed after the first day.

Sleeping bag liners are definitely a big plus that allows comfortable sleeping at subfreezing temperatures without needing to pack a bulky zero degree bag. Downside? Those predawn needs to step out and answer nature's call ... getting back into the liner while half asleep and cold, not so easy.

The Katadyn filter did lead me to my closest non-human animal encounter of the trip. While I was quietly frustrating with the device by the side of a spring, a racoon came walking up to get a sip -- but my attempt to get my camera out startled him, and he went away. Damn paparrazi ...

While gulping down a double serving of hastily warmed chicken chili this evening, I looked out over the street lights of Round Hill below in the valley.  Tonight, I thought, I could be eating a healthier and tastier salad dinner, grabbing a hot shower, and retiring to sleep on a cushioned bed -- but I can do that any time. All in all, this is a better place to be.


Blackburn Trail Center was only an hour further up the trail; could I have made it in the dark? Possibly. I chatted with the overseer at the center, filled up on water, and headed north. Five hours later, including an hour long lunch/nap, Keys Gap -- 28 miles, nearly twice the originally planned distance, with sore muscles and a smile.

Walk in the woods enjoyed, good people met, lessons learned. On to the next backpacking adventure, in April!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Before the dawn

Tomorrow I begin a three year effort to walk the Appalachian Trail, section by section.

My landlord/ shuttle driver confirms that she will deliver me to the trailhead, and off we go into our separate days, and I ask her help to finish up baking my homemade trail bars. Good taste, but sticky enough to use as flypaper.

It's a two hour drive to Fredericksburg, but a friendly couple invited me for a company's show of the latest outdoor products, and it seemed a better option than staying around the house worrying -- and it was.  The riverside tables were staffed by experienced hikers who offered demos of new toys, tips on using time tested (less costly) alternatives, and tales -- the thru hiker told us that she burned through three pair of boots on her scramble from Georgia to New Hampshire. She wore the best of them so long that she could poke her hand back out through the toes from inside, and -- TMI alert -- pull the dead toenails off without removing her boot.

"How many nails did you lose?" Wry grin -- "Oh, a few. Kinda grossed out my sisters." "Hey, seven out of ten's a passing grade, you know." Thru hiker humor ... this is fun? I'll pass, thanks.

She also suggests glycerine, fish tank cleaner, and magnesium shavings as a firestarter. Another veteran hiker suggests HEET brand deicer as a low cost fuel for ultralight alcohol stoves made from beer cans, noting that it does take about 12 minutes to boil a cup of water, vice 2 minutes for the heavier isobutane systems.

Time to retreat, get ready for reality on the trail.

Carl's Frozen Custard on the way out of town. How many years? Lines just as long as always.

Back at Round Hill ... pull the pack apart again, looking for a few more pounds of unnecessary weight. Nope, not with a reasonable amount of safety.

Almost too tired to repack. Weigh in time -- 45 pounds, yes! Set everything by the door for departure at 0700R.

Why am I doing this?

The white trail blaze calls.
Ready at Ashby Gap!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

It's a dangerous business, going out your door

From The Lord of the Rings, of course.

Stepping out northbound from Ashby Gap (US 50) Monday, taking an easy three day stroll to the Blackburn Trail Center. Thru hikers do it in one day, I'm told.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Roads Go Ever On

Valhalla Ranch lodge east
Valhalla Ranch
Roads Go Ever On -- J.R.R. Tolkien
Winter's irons and chains are melting; mud, potholes, and determined thoughts of escape remain.
Should I pack up, or stay? Here, comfort and familiar faces, established morning and evening rituals -- the bowl on the top left shelf, the tea on the bottom right, in the back, buy more dish soap, more honey --
But those places beyond the horizon are calling: Kahtahdin, Key West, Kitsap, Kilimanjaro, all  offering vague promises of enchantment -- tasteless meals scratched together on cold mornings, tendons made sore by hard ground that was a bed ... discomforts that irritate, demanding the sleeping bag unzipped, the blankets pushed back. 
Stagger out into the day to greet the dawn. Another day, alive. Deo gratias!
Still, too-frequent decisions to move on risk exhaustion. An accomplished and trail-wise friend describes her decision not to do long hikes on the Appalachian Trail, saying that she might discover in the numbing endless days of fifteen-mile slogs and damp clothes that she actually does not like backpacking after all. 
Should I go, or should I stay? Another year of rest -- or two, or more, stretching into the twilight mist?
No. There's a cliff ahead, but it deserves no fear. All that's necessary is the confidence to stride toward the edge, eyes on the stars, singing.