Friday, June 19, 2015

ghost town

Day 37, Afternoon: The sun beats down on Rockfish Gap. I’ve hiked twenty miles through forest and field, over hills and out of Shenandoah National Park to get here. My destination, King’s Gourmet Popcorn Stand, appears before me in a vacant parking lot. According to my guidebook, it should be open today, selling the delicious kettle corn, hot dogs, ice cream and other snack foods that I’ve been fantasizing about for several hours. But it’s not.

I should’ve known. A couple nights ago, while refining my resupply strategy, I stumbled onto information about this stand. I remember thinking to myself, “Really, there’s something in Rockfish Gap?” Over the past twelve years, I’ve passed through the gap on several occasions. On each successive visit, I found everything further along in a state of decay. But for one foolish reason or another, I counted on picking up half of today’s provisions in this ghost town.

Heat radiates off the pavement. I retreat to some shade to sit down and ponder over my conundrum. I could tap into the food that I’ve budgeted for tomorrow and hike on, but that would just pass this caloric deficit on to another day. With no stores near the trail for the next 140 miles, this would be a mistake that I can’t afford to make. As I debate over my limited options, I catch sight of a vending machine shimmering in the distance through the tremulous air.

It could very well be a mirage, but I’m willing to take the risk. Shouldering my pack, I emerge from the shade and cross a cracked blacktop desert. I expect a tumbleweed to blow by me any minute. Passing a boarded up convenience store, I begin the scorching climb across an apocalyptic landscape to the top of a far off hill. The mirage has yet to disappear. It could very well be real. Skepticism gives way to eager anticipation.

Shivering with excitement, I fumble for a couple of crumpled up dollars in my pouch. I desperately try to stick one into the machine. I try again and again. Finally, the flaccid bill gets sucked into the mechanical slot. But it comes back out, rejected. Eventually, I get two dollars in this cursed contraption and push the button for a coke. I hear a whirring motor inside. A plastic bottle heavy with corn syrup falls to the bottom opening with a loud thump. Success!

Feeling the need to repeat this exacting process in order to obtain another soda, I smooth out two more dollars with my hands. Some five hundred calories later, I continue south tanked up on caffeine and sugar. Although sheltered from the sun’s fury under the viridescent dome of a rich cove forest, I’m still chased into Mill Creek by the afternoon heat. I find a hole deep enough to submerge my entire body under the cold refreshing waters. I emerge a new man.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

santa fe to suwanee

1 dog, 3 days, 5 boats, 9 humans, 10 springs, 40+ miles 
Good times

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

feet first

Day 18, 5:15 am: The only sound I hear is the rushing water in Stamford Stream. I quietly take down my tarp in the morning twilight. A damp darkness pervades the crowded camping area around Congdon Shelter. Most every other hiker is asleep. I need to get moving. Today is a critical day. I want to keep as close as possible to my schedule and hike 38 miles into Dalton. A motel room, soft bed and hot shower await. But first I need to deal with my feet.

For the most part, it’s just walking. That’s what I like about being out here, the simplicity. But occasionally, there are days filled with uncertainty and doubt. Today, I need to take care of a nasty and potentially debilitating foot fungus. My best shot at foot care is at a supermarket 14 miles in at North Adams and half of a mile down the road. Afterwards, I need to hike 24 miles further over Mt. Greylock and into Dalton for dinner, preferably before dark.

9:19 am: Already ten miles in at the Massachusetts border, I can feel the day smiling upon me. I’m on track to make it to the store by 11 am. There will be time to eat and tend to my feet until noon. From there on, if I can average three miles-per-hour, I will reach Dalton before dark. The sun shines down through a thick green tunnel of mountain laurel. Brilliant white bouquets of happiness bloom everywhere around me. My stress melts away. I can’t help but smile.

11:10 am: I’m an amnesiac in an artificial world. Fluorescent lights fiercely illuminate the plastic products on either side of an endless aisle. I feel inefficient and out of my element inside the Super Stop and Shop. I’m aware of my unkempt appearance and want to get in and out of here as quickly as possible. What exactly am I looking for and where is it? Toothpaste, tampons, cotton balls, multivitamins... I’m not sure, but I think I’m in the right aisle.

“Can I help you find something?” An older employee pauses from restocking shelves to offer his assistance.

“Well, I’m looking for something to help my feet. They’ve developed some itching and irritation. Maybe a foot powder?”

“We’ve got that over here.” The employee leads me down the aisle to a shelf. I pick up a bottle of Gold Bond Foot Powder and read the label.

“Hiking the Appalachian Trail?” He asks me.


“Did you hear about that woman who hiked it really fast a couple years ago?”

“She’s a friend of mine,” I say.

“Wow, that was really something,” he says. He gazes down the aisle and shakes his head. “Really something.”

I thank him for his help. Walking towards the deli with the foot powder, I stop to pick up a bottle of Neosporin spray and a small box of epsom salts. These three items will have to do the trick. If not, my hike may soon be over. I order a foot-long sub with lots of veggies. I also pick up a bottle of Kefir to drink and a few snacks to get me through the rest of the day. Outside and around back, I find a water spigot to fill my bottles. I rinse off my feet and socks.

While they dry out in the hot sun, I sit on the curb and lunch in the shade. After I’m finished with half of my sub, I spray Neosporin and foot powder on my feet. I powder the inside of my socks, too. By noon, I’m packed up and ready to go. There’s plenty of opportunity to eat the other half of my sub on a six mile and 2,700-foot ascent up Mt. Greylock. I climb slowly in the afternoon heat. I eventually make it to Bascom Lodge and refill my water on the summit.

5:00 pm: Shortly after descending Saddle Ball Mountain, I’m back beneath the boreal crest and crossing the quaint New England countryside into Cheshire. I stop at a small trailside shop named Diane’s Twist and order a large bowl of chocolate ice cream. I eat the soft serve and follow the trail through a neighborhood back into the woods. Only after finishing my bowl do I realize that I’ve left my hiking poles sitting outside at the shop. Talk about a brain freeze!

These poles were a gift to me from Greg and Geri at the White Mountain Lodge. Having seen me safely through New Hampshire and Vermont over the last nine days, they now wait on a northbound hiker in need at Diane’s Twist. I don’t miss the poles, the terrain is really beginning to mellow out. A rolling ridge walk leads me through a pine forest and into Dalton by 8 pm. While checking in to my motel room, I’m able to borrow a wash tub for my feet.

9:30 pm: Before the restaurants close, I walk over to a nearby pizzeria and order a salad and calzone for a late dinner. Back in my motel room, I shower and eat. I heat water in a coffee pot and mix it with the epsom salts in the wash tub. I study my infection. Rashes are visible between my toes and along the flexor tendons. It’s time. I plunge my feet into the scalding solution. Sweat beads up on my forehead. I grit my teeth and grunt, “This is the way.”

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

time slips away

Day 7, Afternoon: My digital watch is no longer any use to me. Rain has gotten inside. The display now reads “L o’clock.” What time is that? Whether or not I can read it, the clock keeps ticking. Whenever I turn on my cell phone to take a picture, record a video journal, or make a call, an LED clock stares back at me. I can’t escape time, but I do feel some facsimile of freedom as I remove the watch from my wrist and tuck it into my pocket...

The watch was a gift from a good friend and ultra marathoner, Carl Laniak. On a training run in the Southern Appalachians earlier in the year, he caught me admiring his incredibly sleek and lightweight timepiece. “Man, I got this watch at Wal-Mart for ten bucks. If you need one, here you go.” I wore the device with great pride on all subsequent outings. I knew my split from point A to point B. I could calculate my pace. I loved my watch.

I now catch myself looking down at a pasty white band of untanned skin on my left wrist. “Oh, it’s only a freckle past a hair.” I laugh out loud to myself and agitate a red squirrel who now chatters at me from a perch high up in a nearby tree. I've seen very few hikers today in the northern woods. The sky darkens, I’m going to get wet. Up here in Maine, wet means cold. I now know what time it is: time to put on my wind jacket.

A steady rain falls and slowly begins to soak everything around me. I feel as though I’m standing still. Terrain washes towards me like waves in the ocean. I lift my legs in rhythm with the rocks and roots. They pass underneath me. A large wave approaches. I know what to do. I reach down and grab a good stick. Pushing off with this stick, my vessel stays afloat and rises to the crest of another muddy wave. I hear myself breathing.

I come back down into my body. I feel the cold creeping into me. My energy is waning. Hall Mountain Lean-to appears ahead. I duck into the dark shelter and out of the rain. An older hiker sits in his sleeping bag eating dinner. We greet one another. I light my small stove to begin heating water for a warm meal of black beans and crumbled-up corn chips. In a gruff voice, the hiker starts up, “this weather will get to you.”

I nod. The two of us sit across from one another and listen to the rain pelting the roof. As soon as my water is heated, I pour it into a Ziploc bag with the dehydrated beans and seal it closed. I tuck the bag into an insulated pocket and massage it with my hands, working the water and meal together. After a few minutes, I open the bag to add chips. I can feel the hiker watching me. I get out my spork and eat my meal quickly and quietly.

“Well,” I say, “I’m going to keep on hiking.”

“You’re going back out into this?”

“Yes, I have something warm in me. I’m good to go.”

“Do you know what time it is?”

“Not exactly.”

“It’s six-thirty at night!”

“Thank you.” I now know the time, which can be hard to guess under an overcast sky. For a minute, time got away from me. Hiking from the shelter, I take the opportunity to pull out my phone and record a video journal. The LED clock stares back at me and I blink. “6:40 on day 7, climbing up Wyman Mountain, 252 miles in. Made it to Piazza Rock shelter and tarped nearby, 218 miles last night. Got a little less than ten miles to go.”

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

lightly on the land

Day 2, 5:57 am: Morning comes early in Maine. The sun has been up for over an hour. I've been hiking for half of that time. I stop at an outcrop and breakfast on granola and coffee. Looking back across the flat lands to Katahdin, I hear the distant cry of a loon. A low veil of stratus hints at rain. The air is still. I reflect on how I got here.

In 1990, a hiker named Ward Leonard backpacked the Appalachian Trail in 60 and a half days. I learned of his feat during my first thru-hike at the age of 20. It took me over a decade to work up the courage and strength to try it myself. By way of many adventures, I built up the skills and confidence to go the distance, self-supported.

Since 1990, a handful of great athletes have broken the 60-day mark. Each of them doing so without carrying his, or her own food and gear. On these supported hikes, crews met them along the way to provide aid. In contrast, Leonard traveled as a backpacker without any pre-arranged support from a crew.

In the world of rock climbing, there’s a similar distinction between aid climbing and free climbing. In aid climbing, artificial support gets hammered, drilled, or placed along the route. In free climbing, only natural holds in the rock get used. The hiking equivalent of a free climb is to go self-supported, solely by foot.

It starts to rain. My mind wanders as I hike through a relatively flat, muddy and monotonous pine forest. The mosquitoes are unfazed by this steady drizzle. I keep moving, there are miles to go. I cross the logging road to White House Landing. I wave to a couple of poncho-clad hikers walking towards me on the road. At a nearby unmarked junction, I walk past a Ziploc stuffed with tuna wrappers and other such trash.

I ponder over what it will take for me to succeed on this hike. Success requires efficiency. Efficiency requires harmony. Harmony requires listening attentively and moving lightly on the land. The trail bends sharply at Potaywadjo Spring. Before I realize it, I’m wandering down a spur to the spring. Oh well, I take the opportunity to fill up on water. Back on track, my mind continues to wander.

I splash through the puddles along the trail for another mile and pass a couple of guys in ponchos hiking the opposite direction. Everything seems familiar. Another mile goes by and I pass a bag of trash on the ground. Wait. Something clicks, but I refuse to accept it. I hike on. Shortly, I come upon a muddy road with a sign to White House Landing.

I can no longer deny it. I've just hiked two and a half miles in the wrong direction. This means I get to add five bonus miles to my 38-mile day. Fuming, I scold myself. “This is great! About-face and back to it, then! Too spaced out, huh? Living in harmony, right? Listening to the trail? Okay, what’s the trail saying now?”

I stop in my tracks and stare down at the familiar Ziploc of trash in front of me. Without the loud slosh of footsteps, everything grows quiet. There’s only the gentle hiss of light steady rain atop my hood and the surrounding leaves. Bending down to pick up the trash, I now know the answer.

To move lightly on the land, to leave no trace… And to listen the first time.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

across the valley

Day 30, 8:30 am: Given the summer heat, it’s rather late to begin hiking out from town. With two back-to-back forty-mile days behind me, time well earned is time well spent. Leaving the Doyle, I’m a new man in new shirt and shoes. I've had a rejuvenating stay complete with hot shower, self-administered “foot spa” and soft bed.

Thanks to the replacement gear in my drop, I can trash the dirt-stained shirt that I've been wearing for over 1,000 miles. I’m not such a big fan of throwing anything away. I certainly can’t bring myself to dispose of the shoes that I bought so recently at Delaware Water Gap. They’re clunky, but they have a lot of life left.

I wait for the post office to open so I can mail the shoes home. Meanwhile, I load up on biscuits, gravy, eggs and coffee at the diner across the street. I feel a little more welcome indoors with my clean white shirt. After breakfast, the postmaster greets me as she unlocks the office. I hand her my package.

“Anything liquid, fragile, or potentially hazardous?”

“Just some old shoes,” I say.

 “Potentially hazardous, then?”

We laugh. Duncannon is a good hiker-friendly town, but I’m happy to leave the hustle and bustle for the rocky ridgeline to the west of the Susquehanna. Today I will traverse the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania and like a needle across the groove of a vinyl record, move along to a new song. Everything is starting to feel a little different. No doubt, the fast-approaching half way point is a huge milestone for this journey.

Clouds block out the sun as I descend into the fertile green fields. With miles and miles of exposed farmland ahead, I’m thankful for this timely turn in the weather. As I climb over the wooden stiles and make my way across the valley, my mind begins to wander and I begin to reminisce about my two previous crossings…

On my 2001 hike, I gratefully accepted an invitation to join former thru-hiker “Lorax” at his family’s home for Easter dinner. As we hiked down a country road, I was amazed to find his home less than half of a mile off the trail. More amazing still was the spread of ham, potatoes, asparagus, salad, bread, carrot cake, lemon meringue and coconut cake that filled the table.

I remember the unkempt fields back in May of 2007. Uwharrie and I waded through waist-high grass all day. At no point could the poor dog see over the greenery. I eventually got to wondering what it must feel like for her. Judging by her happy panting, she didn’t seem to mind the lack of views. Just being outside and walking was good enough…

I smile at the memories. Not only does the trail feel soft and gentle today, it feels like home. In Boiling Springs, I take a short side trip over to a convenience store to pick up a sandwich, chips and ice cream. I sit outside on the porch of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s regional office and eat the meal. Soon I’m across the valley and back into the forest. As the light fades, I scramble around interesting rock formations to find a nice campsite on the ridge.

Click here for the full story.