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!