Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We're Having a Heat Wave, a Fourth Tropical Heat Wave

There are so many reasons that this hike has been intensely difficult,
and why I've thought so many times about cutting it short. One of the
big ones is the sheer intensity of the heat this year. The temperature
has ramped up significantly yet again, as well as the humidity, as I'm
sure most of you have seen in forecasts over the last week or so. I
hiked up 700 feet from Hawk Mountain Road (after getting a hitch in a
cop car from Hamburg, by the way) and the heat and humidity were like
a punch in the face. I wasn't sure I was going to make it up the hill.

The biggest issue is that this isn't the first heat wave I've had to
hike through this year. Instead, it's been heat wave after heat wave,
all including massive amounts of humidity. The weather is sucking the
life out of me. I talked to a friend yesterday and told him to just
come down to PA from VT to pick me up and take me north. I was only
maybe 25% joking. I'm considering pretty seriously doing a flip-flop,
or just actually getting that ride from somewhere slightly closer to
VT (like, 100 miles closer?), hanging in VT for a bit, and then just
continuing on from there. I keep spending way too much money in towns
because I just don't want to go back outside, and my own financial
situation is starting to get dicey.

Basically, I'm a shitty hiker is what I'm saying.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Flying Solo...Well, Perhaps Hobbling Solo

I have been slow. Sooooo slow. Since Grace left I've done 15-16 mile days, but I've done exactly two of them, back to back out of Harper's Ferry, and then zeroed at a hostel. The next day I did 5 miles. The day after that, 7.3. But I'm in Duncannon! Because I yellow blazed here for a hiker feed. 75 miles of yellow blazing; that's hitchhiking, for you non-hiker folk. You dear, gentle, clean, sane people.

I've been adjusting since Grace left. I had, and still have, mixed feelings about being on my own now. Grace was, in many ways, a fantastic hiking partner. We're great friends, and have the same level of maturity when it comes to humor and conversation: read, none. It was an endless stream of "that's what she/he said jokes," with conversations about men, life, and free will thrown in to mix things up. She did a lot of planning, both before the trip and day to day to figure out where we were going at any given time; but, I have a tendency to feel cooped up after spending so long with a person or with people. I need alone time, and to be able to make my own decisions without thinking about others. I felt, by the end of that two and a half months together, that it was a bit like being in a relationship, but without some of the good parts that keep you together. So, I was both sad and glad to see Grace leave.

Every time I either say or write that I feel like a total douche. This was, after all, Grace's trip when it came down to it. I'm here because she wanted to be here, and now I'm the one still here. I knew that telling her how I felt might push her to decide to leave. I think that if I hadn't thought that she was ready to be done, or at least very close to being ready to be done, I wouldn't have said anything. Everything that she was saying in our discussions about getting back on the trail after DC, however, led me to believe that this really wasn't where she wanted to be, and that the only thing keeping her going was guilt. So, I did the selfish thing, the thing that I wanted to do, which was to tell her how I felt, and see if that would push her over the line. I almost never feel guilty, but I still feel guilty about that; what's done is done, though, and here I am.

I have definitely been blazing a different path since our parting. As I said earlier, I haven't actually hiked all that much in the last week. I've hiked about 45 miles total in the last week, and then skipped 70-something miles, reeled in by another hiker friend to a hiker feed here in Duncannon. That was quite a day of hitching, too. It was relatively easy to get a ride from where the trail crossed Rte. 16 over to Rte. 15. After that, however, was not so easy. I stood on the first on-ramp for about an hour and a half, building up a nice, crisp sunburn, before a man and his wife picked me up. I hopped in the back of their truck, cuddling up to the lawnmower and the old typewriter so that I could keep my head down and not get pulled over by cops.

Did I mention the words "first on-ramp" already? Yes, yes I did. Because they only took me about 15 miles before getting off at their exit. Apparently...oh, who am I kidding? Obviously I look homeless; when they dropped me off the man asked me why I was going to Duncannon, and if I had a place to stay when I got there, and if I needed any money. It's nice to know I'm giving off the "this man needs serious help" vibe. After explaining to them that I was a thru-hiker and that I had plenty of money but thank you so much anyway, they turned right and drove off home. I looked both ways before crossing the road...and then looked left again as I crossed over to the on-ramp where a state trooper car was sitting, waiting for soon-to-be-surprised speeders. I waved at him, he waved back, and I set my pack down. As soon as I put my thumb out for the first car to pass me without stopping the Trooper pulled up to me and rolled down the window for a little chat (no, not the "blow me or I'll arrest you" chat). The first thing he told me was that it was technically not legal to be hitching there, but then asked me where I was going. After explaining to him where I was going and why, and being disappointed because he couldn't take me much more than a couple miles, he mentioned again that it was technically not legal for me to be hitching there, but that he wasn't going to bother me; I was delighted to see him drive away without me in handcuffs in the back.

Sadly, I then had to take stock of where I was, which was not a good place for a hitchhiker to take stock of. This was an exit to a tiny little town, meaning that I wasn't going to be in much luck of a quick ride. So, I made sure I was in as good a spot as possible, and returned to crisping my now sunburned face (I did, finally, think to put on the sunblock that I had sitting in my pack; I'm not always quick on the uptake). Hour one passed with maybe 15 cars passing me by. Maybe 15. A bazillion motorcycles, however, for all the good those did me. After another half hour I was getting desperate, and started searching furiously for any piece of paper or cardboard large enough to write a sign on. No such luck. So, I used the only thing I could find: 

A piece of bark that had fallen off a log. Okay, yes, I officially crossed over into looking utterly homeless at that point. But, after another half an hour, it got me a ride!

So, here I am. Not much hiking done in the last week, but still about 125 miles farther than I would be. Hopefully I should settle back into a hiking rhythm of my own making soon; surely, I will. On to Maine!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Home, Sweet Home?

It's official. I'm off the trail. I don't like saying that. In fact, I'd kind of like to disappear to a place where no one knows me and I can pretend that I didn't just "fail" at my next big adventure.

I know some of you won't consider it a total failure. Plenty of people have been telling me that it's about the journey, not the destination. That I accomplished something by hiking 750 miles, that a quarter of the Appalachian Trail is farther than most people get. That I should hike only as far as I want and to hell with everyone else's opinions.

In a better world, I would be able to guilt myself into continuing. I'm a big believer in duty, sticking to your word, and forcing yourself to do things you don't want. I feel as though I let myself and a lot of other people down because I don't have the strength to force myself right now.

Part of the reason that I left the trail is financial. I'm scraping the bottom of my money barrel. I got back from Armenia 11 months ago, and moved back to New York, which, in retrospect, was not the best decision. I was unemployed for two months, and resorted to charging everything on my credit card. I've been doing the same thing for most of the hike, and, while I still have some money, it is beyond time for me to get a job.

The other main reason for ending my hike is that I feel ready to move on (which is a new-agey way of saying that I'm bored). As John said in a previous post, anything looks more appealing than hiking right now. Finding a dead-end job to pay off my credit card bills seems more enticing. That probably says something about my readiness to complete this hike.

I've given up on the goal of hiking all 2,181 miles this year. It's difficult to admit, but I've moved on from what I wanted three months ago. Or, I've modified my goal. I do want to keep hiking the trail. I'd like to some day be able to say that I hiked the whole thing. I may even do some more hiking this year. But I'll never be a thru-hiker.

John is continuing the hike by himself. I'll still be contributing to this blog, since I feel I have some more things I could say about this experience.

To the people who supported this venture, with their gifts, kind words, trail magic, care packages, and money, thanks for believing in this adventure. I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me make this hike a reality. Sorry it didn't turn out the way I'd planned.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ignore Everything Your Parents Taught You about Stranger Danger

Trail magic has two definitions. Basically, it's used to refer to any gift a fellow hiker or local gives you. In a truer sense, it means getting something at the perfect time, when it's exactly what you need.

We've been the recipients of trail magic multiple times. Often, it's something small, like a cold soda, but sometimes it's a ride or a place to stay. We're often surprised at how people will go out of their way to help us out. In many ways, walking the trail has shown us that there is goodness in our fellow citizens. However, you have to trust other people in the first place in order to accept the kindness that they offer. This experience is, in fact, a reversal of everything we were taught about interacting with strangers.

First, feel free to eat food you find sitting around.

The most basic idea of trail magic is food left on or near the trail. It's usually something we can't or don't pack with us, such as cold drinks or fresh veggies.

For example, John and I were hiking up Clingman's Dome in the Smokies, and feeling pretty tired and beyond ready to get to the summit. I looked down at one point, and noticed a bag of kid-sized Snickers bars. We squealed in joy and wolfed them down without a second thought.

But I can't help thinking of that other time we gleefully inhale candy: Halloween. People of our generation were carefully instructed not to eat things that weren't in the wrapper, to only trick-or-treat at the houses of people we knew, to inspect every piece for tampering. Hikers? We just eat everything we can find. We don't question people's motives.

Get in cars with strangers.

Hitchhiking is a practice that one doesn't often see in America anymore. At least not where I grew up. It's even illegal in some places. It's certainly associated with danger (thanks, Jeffrey Dahmer). Everyone has heard stories of people getting into a car with a stranger and never being seen alive again.

For John and I, hitchhiking is an integral part of this experience. We're on a budget and can't afford to pay $30 for shuttles to and from towns when we need to resupply. Plus, we're cheap. We don't want to spend that much money on principle.

We probably hitchhike two or three times a week, and every time, it's been a positive experience. We've met some awesome people. Often, they aren't the type that inspires confidence. We're hiking through mostly rural areas, and some of the people who pick us up are clearly living below the poverty line. Many of them don't have teeth. But they take a chance on us, letting us stink up their cars, put our dirty packs on their seats, and drip rain water on everything. Some of them drive miles out of their way to take us where we want to go.

Just the other day, we were picked up by a guy who immediately informed us that his truck was a mess because he and his wife were getting separated. She had busted out one of the truck windows earlier, and he said, "It hadn't been a very good day." But he picked us up, and when we got out at our destination, he asked that we mention him in our journal. So here you go, Pall-Mall-smoking-mountain-dude. Thanks for giving us a ride. My feet were killing me.

In fact, just go ahead and go home with strangers.

This is rarer than the other trail magics, but on one occasion so far, we stayed with a couple of strangers. We met them on the internet, and they invited us to spend the night at their house. I'll admit, this did make me a little nervous. What better way to satisfy your serial-killing fetish than bringing home a couple of hikers who wouldn't be missed for a month and then burying them in the backyard? And these guys had a big backyard. Plenty of room for murdering. No neighbors to hear our screams.

Instead, they made us dinner. They lent us their clothing to wear while ours was in the wash. They gave us clean towels, razors, soap, and the use of their guest bedroom. They drove us to the grocery store to buy supplies. I have friends of ten-years' standing who wouldn't do all that for me.

In most ways, this trip has been an experience completely different from my everyday life: I spend most of my time walking; I don't have a job; I don't bathe; I consider rhododendron bushes to be excellent bathrooms; And I depend on the kindness of strangers who have no good reason to help me out. Thanks, strangers. I wouldn't be able to do this without you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Case of the Lazy Hikers. Or, How To Get Passed by an 88 Year Old...50 Times

Southern Virginia started out really nice. There's a lot of interesting country to be seen in the first 50-60 miles, with stunning views. I'm always excited to realize that I'm emerging out of the forest onto a bald mountaintop, because I know that when I get to the top I'm going to have sweeping views all around me, and so VA was treating me well for a while; the Grayson Highlands have easily been the most beautiful and interesting part of the trail so far. The Highlands are high, rocky grasslands, unlike anything I've hiked through, anywhere. Sun and windswept, stunted, gnarled trees all around, boulders strewn across the landscape, rocky peaks, and mile after mile of scattered shrubbery.

Also, wild ponies!

Unfortunately, that's given way to some of the most boring country yet. Virginia is supposed to be where we start making high mileage. And no doubt, we've been doing a lot more miles in a day over the last couple of weeks, because we're getting close to optimal hiker's shape and the terrain has somewhat flattened out. What we're doing now is a lot of ridge walking, which means there are some long, steep ascents, but it's mostly little ups and downs (those little ups and downs do have a tendency to wear you down over the day, however). Instead of several 2000 foot ascents in a day, it's a long series of 100 foot ascents and descents, and sometimes just several miles of almost flat trail.

The problem is that this has become really, really boring. Combined with higher mileage, the hiking has started to wear on me. I know this is especially bad, because we keep getting stuck in towns. We are finding excuse after excuse to get off the trail, whether it's for a resupply stop that was scheduled, to hitch into a town and have lunch, stopping at a cafe near the trail for coffee, or any other reason we can think of. For about a week and a half we've been passing, and getting passed by, an 88 year old thru-hiker. Though he doesn't do high mileage, we keep stopping places and getting passed by him, then passing him again a day or two later. This has happened more times than I can count at this point; I think we may have finally passed him for good, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see him again tomorrow.

As further indication of how tiresome this hike has become at this point, I keep envying others their dull or uneventful work. We stopped at a motel in Bland, VA the other day (yes, Bland) and all I could think the next day was "wow, I really wish that I could be one of the cleaning people at this motel so that I could just clean up the place once a day and then sit around and do nothing the rest of the day," or "working at Subway seems awesome." Imagine the dullest job you've ever worked, and then add a hard labor component to it. That's what this feels like to me. Day after day I lug this 40 pound pack up and down hills for 8-10 hours, with maybe 2 or 3 snack breaks, a lunch break, and water resupply break, stop at a shelter or campsite, cook dinner, and go to bed. All I'm doing is walking through trees, without any views or differences in the landscape. It's the same trees, shrubs, rocks, and animals every day.

I feel as if all the fun has been sucked out of the hike. I crave town days just so that I'll have time to hang out with a bunch of other hikers, and enjoy being around people, talking and relaxing. I dread getting back on the trail, and we end up staying another day because neither of us wants to leave. I'm having to do some serious reevaluation of the point of this hike; my original goals are no longer enough to motivate me. Yes, getting to Katahdin is the final goal, but I'm not really all that interested in it from day to day; getting in great shape is nice, but I keep thinking about how I could do that just about anywhere, even if this is a particularly good way to lose weight really fast and build serious strength in parts of my body; traveling to see friends is fantastic, but, again, I could take a bus to see them and be there much faster. It's frustrating to experience just how little enjoyment I have come to gain from this experience anymore.

There are, of course, still some fun things every now and again. My friend Morgan came to visit us on the trail the other day, and it was refreshing to have him out there with us. He's going to visit some serious trail magic (Grace or I will explain that later) on us this weekend, and so we'll have good food, and be able to walk with light packs for long miles for a couple days as he drives to meet us at points where the trail crosses roads. I'm really enjoying the people on the trail; it's fun to meet new friends and relax with them in towns, getting to know them as we talk.

I know that eventually the scenery will get interesting again. Another friend, Casey, who is living in NH, keeps telling me how beautiful it is up north and I'm looking forward to that. But that doesn't help with the current dilemma; it doesn't give me any satisfaction over the course of the next month or two as we finish VA and go through a couple other flat states. So I'm really looking for motivation to get up and hike every day for long miles with a heavy pack. Outside of stubborness, I haven't yet discovered it.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I am Hiker, hear me complain!

I have been miserable for most of the past three weeks of hiking.

I find it harder to get up in the morning, harder to get up from a break, harder to leave town after a resupply. I've started to come up with wild ideas, like, "We could get a work-for-stay job in this town and wait out the heat wave." Or, "We could hitchhike into town and then slack-pack the miles that we missed." Or, "We could yellow-blaze to Maine and hike in the cooler weather there and come back to the South when it's a reasonable temperature again."

Part of my problem is related to the heat. All of a sudden, it's summer time. We went from temperatures in the 50s-70s to temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Even in the mountains, under the trees, it is hot. After ten minutes of hiking, the sweat is pouring off my face. I can't even see for the sweat that drips into my eyes and coats my glasses' lenses. It's more like swimming uphill than hiking. My clothes are so wet, they don't even dry before the next morning.

I know, I should have been expecting this. What did I think May-August was going to be like anyway? I went into this knowing that I was going to be unhappy in the heat. What I didn't fully appreciate is that heat is my Kryptonite. Each foot suddenly feels like it weighs 20 pounds. I feel constantly thirsty. My thoughts dwell on whether or not I'm running out of water, getting a hellacious sunburn, or perhaps about to die of exposure. I get dizzy, nauseated, and have a hard time walking in a straight line. Have you ever seen a picture of a dripping wet cat? That's pretty much the expression on my face for ten hours a day.

The second reason, and the real crux of my misery, is that my feet hurt. A lot. No, more than you think. Not only do the balls of my feet ache with every step, but my feet have been getting chewed up with blisters. My blisters have blisters. Some of the blisters have merged with nearby blisters to form monster blisters which I'm pretty sure are plotting to take over the world.

I am so unhappy that I need to change some things about how I'm hiking, or I'm not going to make it through Virginia.

Escaping the heat isn't much of an option, but I have started to notice that John and I have very different hiking styles. When we were just getting going, and the weather was more reasonable, these weren't very apparent. I now know that John is a power-througher. He likes to go, all day, not stopping for water, food, or rest. He likes to get the miles in. I'm not like this at all. I'm a self-coddler. If I don't feel well, I don't want to do anything until I solve whatever is bothering me. No stopping for rest, water, or food, while hauling my sweaty butt up and down mountains for 15-18 miles? My idea of Hell.

My new strategy is not to try and keep up with him anymore. If we're going the same speed, great. If not, we're heading in the same direction; we'll meet up at some point. I'm trying a regular break routine, and so far it's working for me: I hike for an hour, at least an hour, no matter how terrible I feel, and then I can have a ten-minute Real Break (which means I get to take my pack off, sit down, and wipe off a little of the torrent cascading off my eyebrows, nose, and chin). One hour is a lot more tangible and real to me than "I have to do six miles and then I can rest," or "The next shelter we're going to stay at is 15 miles away." Also, because I feel like I earned it, I don't feel guilty or weak for taking a break. I can enjoy my water, a granola bar, and wiggling my toes, and when I get up, I tell myself, "Just one hour, and then you can sit down."

The solution to my foot problem isn't as easy to pinpoint, but I'm hoping that the new shoes and socks I bought in town yesterday will help clear up those blisters. The owner of the outfitters is a past thru-hiker, and he was confident that I had completely wrong socks and shoes, and that even the pain and tendon problems I've been having can be helped just by getting a different size.

My fingers are crossed.

We're Lazy Bloggers

It's true, we are. So lazy, that all I'm going to do is give you a bunch of pictures today. Enjoy!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Most Beautiful and Most Miserable Day So Far

This post will start in earnest shortly, but I want to write about something else briefly. You may have noticed the widget on the right side of this blog linking to our IndieGoGo campaign. One of the ways we wanted people to be able to share this journey was, of course, through our blog; however, we also wanted people to have the chance to experience it more fully. So, we created a campaign on IndieGoGo to allow people to really commit to this experience.

For a donation Grace and I are sending our supporters a variety of mementos from this trip: postcards, quilted coasters, framed pictures, and more depending on the donation level. We've been able to defray some of the costs of the trip in this way, but far more importantly we've been able to give our supporters a piece of the trail that they wouldn't have otherwise gotten just from reading the blog. We have just a few days left in our campaign, so consider becoming a larger part of our journey. Follow the link below and choose a donation level; we want you to be able to experience this trip as fully as possible.

Now on to the real post.

As of today I've walked 35 days without interruption. There have been days where I took neros (near zeros) of a couple miles, but there has not been a single day in the past 35 that I haven't been walking. To tell the truth, as much as I'm enjoying it, I'm truly exhausted. I started feeling the exhaustion pretty intensely the last few days. To be fair, the last few days have been very tiring. They've been long days of 14-16 miles, with a lot of steep ascents and descents, in hot and humid conditions. But I can't help feeling that as much of my feeling of being wiped put is just that I've been hiking so many days without rest. Grace and I are leaving the trail for a few days starting on Monday for her mom's wedding in Virginia. I'm really looking forward to the rest and hope it rejuvenates me.

Speaking of challenging days, in a single day I saw easily the most beautiful country that I've hiked through so far, and also had the most miserable day on the trail yet. All made possible by the Smoky Mountains.

On May 3rd, I rolled out of the shelter late, around 10:00 am (I'm not good at mornings). I made the 4.5 miles to Newfound Gap in decent time, took pictures of the NC-TN border and the sub-2000-miles-left sign with Avalanche, Smoke Bath, and Jackrabbit (some cool hikers from Wisconsin that we get along really well with), and knocked out the last 3 miles to the next shelter.

I had decided that I was going to put in 15 miles that day, and since it was only 2:00 by the time I finished lunch I continued on. The next few miles were stunningly beautiful. I walked through tall pine trees and stared out over the nearby mountains, rugged and steep, the mist rolling over them and pouring into the valleys below. It reminded me a bit of the mountains near Halidzor, this village in Armenia where my friend Sean lived.

Then the rain started.

For the next 4 miles or so I was utterly and completely  miserable; I felt more defeated than at any time on the trail so far. One of the things I hate most in the world is hiking in the rain; even with rain gear on I was wet, outside from the exposed parts and inside from the sweat. I just felt depressed and despondent for several hours; the only thing that kept me going was repeating the words "just keep walking--just keep walking--just keep walking" ala Dory from Finding Nemo. It was the only thing that stopped me from thinking about how shitty I felt. Then I got to the trail leading to the shelter...another 0.4 miles away. That was the longest 2/5 of a mile I've ever walked in my life.

Thankfully, these days are fairly rare. Even though I'm exhausted, most days are at least beautiful and full of incredible views; I'm normally incredibly content to just be in the wilderness. In fact, the day after that miserable day was another stunningly beautiful hike. It got so cold that night that the rain turned into freezing rain; when I got up to the ridge north of me all the trees were bathed in white ice crystals from the mist flowing over the mountains in the cold. The beauty of the contrasting greens, blues, and whites was almost indescribable; I just hope the pictures I took do it some justice.

We're at a little over 300 miles as of today. I'm looking forward to a rest in a few days, and then rejuvenation for the next ~1800.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Coming to Terms With My Limitations

I've injured my Achilles tendons on both feet.

Now, from what I can tell, from my brief perusal of the internet, this isn't a huge deal. It's actually more uncomfortable than it is painful. Most of all, it's worrisome. I have a fear, which I like to tell myself is irrational, that someday my Achilles tendon will rupture and snap back into my leg. Don't ask me where this comes from; I don't know anyone this has happened to and I've never had any reason to think that it would happen to me.

Now that I feel this discomfort with every step, it's what I dwell on almost all day.

When I first started planning this trip, I counted on my stubbornness to get me through. I was confident that difficulty or misery wouldn't be enough to make me quit. I said to myself, "Only running out of money or an injury could send me off the Trail permanently."

Of course, being healthy, lucky, and never seriously involved in athletics mean that I have never really been injured. I've never had a broken bone. I've never had surgery. I've never had a hospital stay. So when I thought of an injury that could send me off the trail, I was thinking of a freak accident like falling off a mountain and breaking a leg.

Definitely nothing so mundane as a repetitive stress injury.

Thanks to the the time-honored tradition of self-diagnosis and the internet, I know that what I need to do to treat this is only the three least satisfying treatments ever: Rest, pain medication, and stretching. I found myself thinking, "Isn't there a magic pill or a brace that will fix this? I want to be better NOW."

I'm going to give it my best shot with the stretching, but unfortunately, rest isn't much of an option right now. We're heading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park today, and park regulations require that we stay only in shelters. No camping allowed. This means that we will have to hike ten to fifteen miles a day for the next week. Not exactly what the WebMD ordered.

We're just going to have to go ahead and see what happens. Hopefully stretching will clear it up. We can try taking more frequent breaks or going at a slower pace to try to provide some relief. In three weeks, we'll be in Northern Virginia for my mom's wedding, so this will give us a good long break and the time to visit a doctor, if it comes to that. I just have to make it that far.

I'm going to keep telling myself that there's no way this could be the stumbling block to reaching my goal. Denial can be a good thing, right?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Few Pictures

We're finally at a computer and have the opportunity to post a few pictures. Forgive the poor quality of some of these. I won't have a chance to go through and tweak the brightness and color of these photos until the end of our trip, so for now you'll have to make do with these. No particular theme to these photos; just a random smattering that I like so far.

Breakfast! Sans horrid, awful, revolting PopTarts.

This is where our tent floated, and thankfully remained dry inside.

Please don't run the hikers over. Please?

We not-so-affectionately call these "hiker's hurdles." With a 40 pound pack on, they're some serious glute workout. They're also entirely the opposite of helpful, and a long string of them makes me want to shoot someone.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tales From Our First Week in the Woods

Our first 100 miles is already behind us and it feels like we've been out here forever.  Sometimes, it's like any other life was just imaginary, impossible that we could be doing something other than walking all day, planning our mileage, looking forward to having instant mashed potatoes and tuna for dinner, checking the  elevation maps to try and determine exactly how painful our near future could turn out to be.

We've already had a few adventures in the short time we've been out here.

Our very first day, our friend's car broke down about 30 miles from Springer. We had to leave her in a Moe's parking lot, waiting for the tow truck, to start hitchhiking towards our starting point. It was a narrow, twisty mountain road, with no shoulder. It was hot. Our packs were at their heaviest, loaded with water and food for two people for seven days. Car after car passed us. For my first hitchhiking experience, it wasn't one to inspire an opinion that it was at all an effective or convenient mode of travel. Finally, a car pulled over. We didn't even believe it was for us at first. Turned out that the guy was the trail caretaker for Springer and the nearby trail. Not only would he give us a ride, but he would bring us to exactly where we wanted to go: Up the forest service roads to within a mile of the summit. A more perfect first trail magic couldn't be imagined.

Day two. We strolled (limped) into Hawk Mountain Shelter around one o'clock for lunch and valiantly decided that there was no way we could waste the rest of the day lounging around. Not on our first full day on the trail. We knew from our ride the day before, and from the guide books, that there wouldn't be any water for a few miles after the shelter, and we decided that we were up to hiking to Justus Creek, where there was water and a campsite. Just five miles away. No problem.

Except that it was. It was, for my tastes at least, brutally hot, and the sausage and parmigiana lunch wasn't sitting well. We had to go up steep ascents that left me nauseated and gasping for breath, and down equally steep descents that made my knees cry for mercy. The sun was setting, we were almost out of water, and about two miles from our destination, I sat my sweaty self down in the dirt and despaired. I said that I didn't think that I could make it.

But then I took some ibuprofen and decided that I had to do this. The second day was not the time to start being a quitter. John led the way as I stumbled after him like a zombie, not even lifting my eyes from his feet in front of me, until we got to the creek. The next morning, we found out that we'd accidentally walked 11 miles.

We took it easy on day three and found a nice camping spot near water and chemical toilets. We had heard that there would be a storm that night, and although we both noticed that our tent was in a slight depression at the foot of three inclines, we didn't care enough to move it.

I woke up at midnight to find that our tent, thankfully waterproof, was floating in two inches of water. It was like a water bed. When John rolled over, I felt a wave push up under me. We didn't get much sleep during that storm, but when we woke up, everything, including our packs, which we'd left outside, wrapped in their rain covers, was dry.

On day four, we weren't so lucky. We climbed to the top of Blood Mountain, the highest on the Georgia AT, and decided to take the risk of staying there despite stories of a lot of bear activity in the area. The sun was setting, our feet were hurting, there was a view. We tied up our food using the proper bear bagging techniques and went to bed confident that our food would be there in the morning. Nope. No trace of our bags the next morning. After climbing on rocks and peering under bushes, we found the sad remains of our food, toiletries, and dishes. That, and a lot of bear diarrhea.

Nothing for it but to hike the 2.8 miles down the mountain to Neels Gap where we could get some breakfast and supplies for the rest of the week.

Those were just the first five days of this six month trip, and even since starting to plan out this post, we've acquired some more stories. Those will have to be shared some other time, since I'm disgustingly longwinded and I think the other hikers in this shelter are starting to get irritated by the iPhone typing noises. And after sunset is well past my bedtime.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Moisture and Mountain Views

I'm sitting in a Ramada Limited in Helen, GA (hooray discount coupon from the Welcome Center, making it affordable!), and I feel dry for the first time in 7 days. I've taken a long shower, eaten a lot of food, and am watching as a big thunderstorm dumps rain down outside. There are so many ways to be wet in the woods (mom alert: don't read the lines between the dashes)--get your minds out of the gutter...we're too dirty to be wet that way--and for the past 7 days I've been all of them.

I'm not terribly sore. I don't entirely mind being filthy. I can deal with heat and cold. The worst part is never really getting dry. I get wet because it rains on us. I get wet because I'm sweating all day long. I get wet because it's humid inside the tent. I get wet because I'm walking through the clouds. I get wet because I'm walking through the fog. I'm damp inside my sleeping bag, even without anything on but underwear. I think maybe one day, outside of today, I've been anything approaching dry.

It's not really awful. To tell the truth, it mostly frustrates me at night, because sleeping in the damp sucks. Sweating throughout the day isn't that bad; I'm exerting a lot of energy, after all and so sweating is fine and keeps me cool. The constant wetness is really just an ever-present annoyance, a burden to bear along with my pack.


What I love, however, are the views. I can be constantly wet just as long as I get to keep reaching spots that make me stop, dumbfounded by the beauty. We had one day in which we stopped about 7 or 8 times just to look out over the valleys and mountains (pictures to come when I'm not posting from my iPhone). We walked through the fog all morning today, surrounded
by the contrast between white mist and verdant green leaves and mossy rocks. We camped on top of Blood Mountain, 4,450 feet up, and watched the sun set. As tired, dirty, and wet as I am, every time I get to yet another beautiful place, I think "worth it."

7 days and 50 miles down. Hundreds of days, thousands of miles, and thousands of views to go.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Reflections on Getting Ready

We have finally finished organizing and packing and buying last minute things. Neither of us had fully appreciated just how much would be involved in buying and packing food for two people for six months, although it should have been obvious. There’s just something about spreading it all out that makes it more concrete for you.

We also had to resign ourselves to the calorie deficit we’re going to be experiencing. It’s one thing to read in all the books about how hikers lose too much weight, how they constantly talk about food, and how they eat their own body-weights when they can find an all-you-can-eat-buffet. However, when we actually looked at the food spreading out across three of the rooms in my dad’s house, when we realized that food for two hikers for a week weighs about 20 lbs., we had to just get over it. There was no way we could find enough food, and carry enough, to fuel the amount of physical activity we’ll be undertaking.

Something we both commented on while shopping was how it was such a turn-around from what we usually buy. We were searching out the foods that were non-perishable, highly processed, and high-calorie while still being reasonably lightweight. Much like trying to find clothing that was all synthetic fibers, when I normally try to buy as much natural fibers as possible. It brought home to me how much of the next six months are going to be entirely different from the way I usually live my life. I won’t be reading any books either, which is already making me feel antsy and a little desperate.

One of my final acts of preparation was to cut off all my hair, to make it easier to care for when I won’t be showering on a daily basis. I did the same thing when I moved to my village in Armenia, where we had no running water for the first four months, and it was a very good decision. John was inspired by my radical new hair-do:

He managed to convince me that I should leave behind my shampoo and conditioner, which I had carefully measured out into 3 oz. bottles, and wash my hair with the half bar of soap I’m bringing. Having battled with my hair for most of my life, this idea horrified me, but I couldn’t argue with his flawless logic.

We’ve been staying with a friend in Athens, Georgia, for the past couple of days. This mini-vacation has had two affects on me : Partly, it’s been a break that’s slowed my momentum and distracted me. I feel like this is just another vacation and soon I’ll be flying back to Providence. At the same time, the weather is beautiful. Unlike in New England and New York, everything is green and blossoming, the air smells of mulch and flowers, and it's the perfect temperature. All this makes me want to be out there, in the woods, on the trail: I feel ready.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


That number, ladies, gentleman, and the gender non-conforming, is approximately how many calories Grace and I will burn between us during the duration of the hike. That's an incredibly daunting number. That's also just sort of a guess. The guides tell us that we'll each burn 4000-6000 calories a day, so I just went with 5000 for an average.

We've spent the last two days in RI at Grace's dad's house, putting together things that we still need and prepping our food drops. When we added the calories of the food we already have we realized that we only had somewhere around 450,000 calories worth of food. At this point, of course, we've resigned ourselves to the fact that there's simply no way we can eat enough calories to replace what we burn (that's good for me; I'm gonna lose some weight! I'm very sad faced to realize how much of that will be muscle weight :-/ ). But we still have a ton of food to buy.

It's good to sit here and go through all our food, and get to reality about what we need to get, but it's definitely a lot of work. We spent hours tonight bagging vitamins and meals together for each package, and didn't even manage to get one package put together. Granted, that's partially because we made our glorious trail mix, which took a while considering how much we made.

Trail mix

Sadly, I suspect that even this ridiculously huge bag of trail mix is not enough, and that we'll be buying more supplies for trail mix at Costco. I don't look forward to all the chopping and mixing I'm going to have to do again. Also, for reference, here's what's in that: walnuts, pecans, dried apricots, dried cherries, dried blueberries, peanuts, chocolate chips, dried mangoes, and raisins. Goddamn delicious is what that is.

As I look over what we have already for food, I'm also resigned to the coming monotony in our palates. There's a whole lot of Easy Mac, Lipton noodle/rice dishes, Asian noodle meals for some variety and flavor, granola bars, Nutrigrain bars, hot chocolate, Tang, and a few other things. Here are a couple pictures of our food (remember, the amount in the pictures is still inadequate).

So much food 3

So much food 2

So much food 1

Just a week left, but so much to do. So many calories to try to buy. So much nutrition that we won't be getting, no matter how hard we try.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

That old feeling

We're about two and a half weeks away from setting out on the trail. Two and a half short weeks. This Friday is my last day at my job, which somehow seems like a point of finality. As if that's when the hike becomes real, even without a foot stepped on the trail. But somehow that still doesn't make it feel real to me, or at most only slightly so.

When I talk to people about leaving soon for the Trail I get this sense of amazement from them, a sense in their minds that this is a big, unimaginable thing. They usually want to talk about it, they want me to explain the logistics of it, and they sometimes tell me they've always wanted to do it. I can see in their eyes and hear in their voices that this trek has a size to it that is almost unreal. Meanwhile, I'm plodding along buying gear, making plans, reading books, and generally preparing to leave, yet I don't really feel the immensity. Somehow, setting out to hike the Trail and doing everything necessary to successfully accomplish it makes it smaller and less ethereal.

This is almost the exact same feeling I had before I left for the Peace Corps. I remember telling people that I was going to be leaving to live and work in Armenia for two years, but I never really felt the immensity of it, even though I knew that it was two years of my life in a place not much farther away from home than I could get. It's amazing to me that the only times that that experience was big in my mind were the day I got my country assignment, and after it was finished. Now I look back on it as this huge, monumentally enriching thing (which it was; I miss it dearly); in some way, I think that makes me more confident about this trip, because I know that this will be a thing that I look back on and say "wow, I did that!"

Other old feelings are less helpful. One of the things about both having been a Peace Corps volunteer and about being a life-long outdoorsman is that I've had a lot of experience of mental and physical hardship. I remember the depths of depression I was in during parts of the Peace Corps because I felt purposeless; I remember taking no comfort from day to day knowing that at the end it would feel like an accomplishment. I remember even more viscerally hiking through miserable conditions on more than one occasion.

One of the strongest memories I have of hiking is from a winter camping trip I took years ago. It was February in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, incredibly rugged and unforgiving terrain in that season. I was on an eight day snowshoeing trip with some folks from my college's outdoor club; half of those eight days we were hiking through a blizzard that dumped probably 6 or so feet of snow, in addition to sometimes painful wind. I think particularly about the section where I was hiking up a steep, rocky ridge with wind blasting me, and my snowshoes slipping back because the angle of the ridge and the wind allowed only a thin coating of snow to collect, one that didn't provide good traction for snowshoes. I can feel even now in my chest the deep exhaustion, the sense of despair as I cursed and wanted to give up with each near-futile step. I was close to breaking down on that ridge, and probably only made it up thanks to the patience of my fellow hiker plodding along behind me.

Remembering the pain of that journey scares me more than a bit for this one. I don't relate that story to show that I'm hardcore and totally prepared for what comes my way. I tell it because that's what parts of the Appalachian Trail are going to be like, for much longer than eight days. There's five months of this ahead of me, and I can feel a sense of dread at times when I think about that, knowing in very small part its pain. I know that I will want to give up at some points, and just hope that having Grace along, and being able to convince myself that there are more beautiful days of trail even when one or several are shitty, will keep me going.

Even knowing some of that, I'm still excited to go, and I'm still confident that I'll finish it. Though it doesn't feel right now as big a journey as I know it should and as I can see others feel it is, it does still feel like an adventure.

Two and a half weeks.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Our itinerary is posted!

At the top of this page, there is a tab to view our itinerary. Keep in mind that this is a very tentative schedule, subject to change, which I’ve mapped out based on average reported mileage. We don’t really know how fast we’ll hike, and our time is contingent on everything going to plan. Which we all know never happens. However, we are hoping to make better time than this, as Baxter State Park, where Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus, is located, closes to overnight visitors on October 15th. We definitely don’t want to be sprinting up Katahdin on the final day.

What I’ve typed out is all the stops we expect to make. If there is a zip code listed, it means that we will be stopping at the post office in that town.

In the hopes of saving some money, we are going to buy food in bulk and mail it to various post offices along the trail, care of general delivery. The post office will hold it for us until our expected date of pick-up. We will also be doing this to resupply for various first aid and hygiene materials, as well as “bumping” our winter clothes ahead.

You’re welcome (of course!) to send us care packages. The only stipulation is that you send us the most caloric things you can find.

If you’re interested, address packages as:

Hiker’s full (legal) name
c/o General Delivery
City, State, Zip Code
Return Address
“Please hold for thru-hiker”
Expected date of pick-up

We’ll be sure to update here as we change our plans.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sure I'd like to go hiking with you...

Unlike Grace, my motivations for the trail are not long-held. You see, it's only because of Grace that I have any clue what the Appalachian Trail is. Not being from the East Coast, I'd never given any thought to the Appalachian Mountains at all, really. So, whatever pain and discomfort I encounter on the trail I get to blame solely on her, even if she doesn't know that yet.

You see, this starts with a throwaway conversation that I was having at the Peace Corps office in Yerevan--well, I thought it was a throwaway conversation at the time. Grace was dating a PCV at the time who I was good friends with. I knew Grace, of course, but since we hadn't had the opportunity to interact a whole lot during pre-service training (the 2 and a half months we spent training before we actually became for-realsies volunteers) we weren't terribly close. He and she and I were all sitting in the Peace Corps office, and somehow it came up that Grace was planning on hiking the AT after service. Adam (the friend), knowing that I'm an avid hiker, turned to me and essentially said "Grace can't go on the hike alone; you're going with her."

To which I responded "sure, why not? How long is this trail?"

"From Georgia to Maine"



"Huh. Well. Alright."

To tell the truth, I didn't think much more about it. But Grace and I--due to our proximity--became very good friends over the next two years. And after a while she brought it up again and again, and so my agreement solidified into a real plan to do this. I've had my doubts over the course of the last year or so as we've talked more about it and it's come closer to reality. For a while I kept vacillating with the excuse that I didn't know if I'd be able to afford it. But then, I realized that if I was actually going to do it that I had to plan everything in my life around it, which meant looking for work and a cheap place to stay that would allow me to save the money I needed. I'm still trying to save that money, by the way, but am bound and determined to have enough to not have to drop out.

Moral of the story: don't agree to go hiking with Grace.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Why do I want to do this?

I'm pretty much a rookie at backpacking and hiking and saying that I am going to hike the Appalachian Trail generates a lot of eye rolling and amused condescension from family members and outdoor sports store employees. Even my dad, usually the most supportive parent in the world, took a while to come around to the idea. The first fifteen times I mentioned it to him, he'd say, "Wait....are you still talking about doing that?"

So I feel like I should give a thorough explanation of why exactly I hit on this plan. I can't remember when I first heard about the Appalachian Trail, but I do remember that my first reaction was a response to the very challenge of its existence. I mean, 2,000 miles? People walk that far? In one go? I've been accused of being unhealthily competitive before, and that certainly seems to be a factor in my original interest. I wanted to see if I could do something like that, if I was as tough and determined as these other people.

Five months ago, I came home. I was in Armenia for two years and two months, as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I can honestly say that it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I don't regret doing it, but I know I would've gone home in those first six months if it weren't for the fact that I'm extraordinarily stubborn and proud. I couldn't bear going home and looking everyone in the eye and telling them that I'd failed.

That's a pretty stupid reason to do anything, but I'm still pleased that I made it, that I completed my service. At some point, I hit a runner’s high. I started to appreciate the pain and how I had to push myself to keep going. I loved that I was strong enough and I wanted to hold on to that feeling. As much as I wanted to be home, it felt like a letdown to go back to a normal life. I wanted another challenge.

During my service, I started to think about how this would be the perfect time in my life to do a long hike. I have no career, no house, no car, no pets, no children, no significant other. I'm young and in reasonably good shape. In the midst of my extended adolescence is the perfect time to be yet more unstable. My Peace Corps service was an emotional challenge, and now I want to do something that will be difficult in another way.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Wander Begins Somewhere

First of all, welcome to our Appalachian Trail blog. From time to time you’ll see a post from both Grace and John—trail names to come eventually—indicated by the AT Trekkers moniker seen below; the main content of this blog will, however, be individual posts from each of us. We hope you’ll enjoy reading and following our journey.

Let us introduce ourselves.

John is a 26 year-old gay guy now living in DC, but originally from Idaho. John’s spent a great deal of time hiking and camping in the rugged beauty that is Idaho, since hiking and camping are the regional pastimes of the West. He just moved to DC after finishing a Congressional campaign in New Mexico—sadly for him and all involved, a losing one—and is now working as a media monitor for a communications company until April.

Grace is 25 years old, currently living in New York, but a Rhode Islander born and bred. She spends her days answering the phone at a doctor’s office and daydreaming about being in the woods. When not working or traveling, she likes reading books and cooking fattening foods to feed to other people.

Both John and Grace recently returned from 2 years spent as Peace Corps volunteers in Armenia, which is where they met and became fast friends, seeing as they lived only a couple hours from each other. Grace plied John with incredibly delicious baked goods and John let Grace use his shower since she didn’t have running water in her village; a better basis for a friendship there never was.

Over the next several days you’ll see a post from both John and Grace, describing our reasons for hiking the Appalachian Trail; in other words, what foolishness got into our heads to make us hunger for 2200 miles of wilderness. We’ve already begun planning and gathering gear, reading books about the AT, plotting our mileage, working out to get our bodies as prepared as best we can, and making money to be able to afford to do this. It’s estimated that the trail costs somewhere between $2000 and $3000 each when all the gear, transport, and food is added up. It is not an inexpensive venture. Well, perhaps considering the amount of time we estimate to spend on it—4.5-5 months—it’s cheaper than living in either NYC or DC (where Grace and John live, respectively).

For those of you who don’t know much about the Appalachian Trail, it’s the nation’s most heavily trafficked footpath and its longest. Stretching from Georgia in the south to Maine in the north, it spans the Appalachian Mountains, coming in at around 2200 miles. Every year, a number of masochists like Grace and John start out in either the south or north and attempt to walk end to end; a good portion of those who start don’t finish, leaving the trail at some point. We, of course, intend not to give up partway through. Since we both lasted 2 years in the Peace Corps in Armenia, we feel that we’ve at least got the stubbornness quotient needed.

In the coming months and throughout the hike we’ll be posting a variety of things to this blog: gear lists; travel plans; our thoughts and emotions; pictures; videos; and more. Once on the trail we’re hoping to be able to post at reasonably regular intervals, as we will be bringing along an iPhone for video and pictures, and can also use it to draft posts. Hopefully, we’ll occasionally get a cell phone signal in towns to be able to utilize all that functionality.

Again, we are pleased to have you, our friends, family, and denizens of the internet, here reading about our journey. It’s an adventure we’re looking forward to, and one we want to share as much as we’re able.