The End of a Journey

September 8, 2009
Clockwise from me: Scout, Pusher, Left Toe, Snake Eyes, Lulu, Maggie, Triple -C, Chris, FeelsLikeToday, Bojanges

Clockwise from me: Scout, Pusher, Left Toe, Snake Eyes, Lulu, Triple-C, Maggie, Chris, FeelsLikeToday, Bojanges

The A.T. journey has been complete for a week now and I think I’m ready for a reflection. Since finishing, I’ve been sitting in chairs, sleeping in beds, and eating in restaurants – all novelties for me at the moment. Reading everyone’s blog and facebook comments has been really enjoyable and I want to thank everyone who followed along and offered their words of encouragement. I’ve spoken to some of you on the phone and a general theme of conversation has been “ok, so you walked 2000 miles and lived (mostly) outdoors; what did you learn?”

The first thing I learned is that the A.T. is the most ineffecient and ridiculous way to travel from Georgia to Maine. Seriously – I google mapped driving directions between Amicalola State Park, Georgia and Baxter State Park, Maine and driving distance is only 1000 miles, less than half the distance of the A.T. Not to mention all the ascents and descents on the trail! But of course no one undertakes this journey to simply get from point A to point B.

I learned that I will never ever tire of Snickers bars. I tried many energy bars but ultimately Snickers won out. Best boost of energy. Most calories/per weight. Tastiest. I think I was up to one or two king-size bars a day by the end of the trip.

Kidding aside, what I really learned is how lucky we are that the Appalachian Trail exists. It’s pretty amazing that in the span of the last century the Appalachian range has transformed from a polluted, over-logged, and economically depressed area into a beautifully protected and managed forest. It’s a ‘green tunnel’ through the heavily developed eastern U.S. Many people criticize the National Forest and Park Service, but ultimately I was walking through older and healthier forests in 2009 than the politicians and volunteers who came together to create the trail over 70 years ago. We are a lucky nation – and I’m a lucky generation – to be able to take advantage of the conservation and park movement of not just the Appalachian Trail – but of all our national and state parks.

I don’t think I learned anything new about myself. I didn’t have any kind of philisophical breakthrough, nor was I expecting to. I enjoyed my time living in the woods and out of a pack, but I’m also pretty excited to move back into a walkable, exciting city. The A.T. was something I thought I would enjoy and now I’ve checked it off the ‘bucket list.’

I learned that it was physically hard, but mentally harder than I ever expected. And I thought I was prepared mentally. When considering whether they will make it all the way to Maine, many thru-hikers have the saying “I’ll hike until I’m not having fun anymore.” Well I’m here to say if you actually abide by this philosophy, you’re never going to make it to Maine! Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast on the A.T., but just like normal life there were days that just plain sucked. It may have rained like hell all day, I might have have tripped on every rock and root one day, or maybe I woke up and just didn’t want to hike. But I simply had to because if I took a day off I would run out of food before I made it to the next town. I also missed people who I didn’t have the option to see and sometimes didn’t have the option to call when there wasn’t cell coverage. But ultimately, the fun days far outweighed the bad ones and I would do it all again. The beautiful vistas, the sense of setting and reaching small goals everyday, and the incredible people who I shared joy and hardship with along the way made it all worthwhile. Pacific Crest Trail 2015 anyone?

Throughout the trip, day hikers and people in trail towns would see my beard, tattered hiking clothes, and perhaps my general lack of shower stench, and ask me “are you a thru-hiker?” Concerned with jinxing my trip, instead of saying “yes” I always returned the question with “I’m trying to be.” I even said this when people were giving me premature congratulations on the last 50 miles of the trail.

For most thru-hikers, the defining ‘end moment’  is when they finally see the Katahdin summit, take the last steps of the trail, and snap celebratory photos at the terminus sign. The defining end moment for me was after the celebratory activities. I was climbing down the mountain when I passed a day hiker who predictably asked “are you a thru-hiker?”

I responded “Yes. I am.”


Katahdin

August 28, 2009

Yesterday morning I summited Mt. Katahdin, the highest point in Maine, completing my Appalachian Trail journey.

It was by far the steepest and rockiest climb of the trail but I felt like I was floating on air the whole way up. Five of us thru-hikers summitted together in a tandem train-like fashion and we practically ran up the 5 miles and 4000 feet of elevation change in under two hours. Adrenaline carried us to the top and the perfect weather allowed us to stay for a couple hours. Usually it’s too windy and cold to hang on top for very long.

I plan to post a more detailed reflection, but for now enjoy the photos!


Maine, The Way Life Should Be

August 20, 2009
Sunset at Pierce Pond

Sunset at Pierce Pond

Vacation-land; The Great North Woods; The Way Life Should Be.  Maine sounds so pleasant and, despite some occasional rough terrain, it certainly has been. When a potential thru-hiker gets the idea to walk the Appalachian Trail, they tend to overlook the hardships and dream of blissful days on bald mountaintops, daily swims in pristine lakes, and extraordinary wildlife sightings like moose, fox, and eagles.

Of course not everyday on the trail is so idyllic, but Maine seems to be fulfilling these blissful visions more than any other state.  Fortunately there are many miles of trail here, in fact, Maine has the second-most miles of the AT (280), behind Virginia (close to 500). The first 100 were by far the most difficult, including very steep and rocky mountains as well as the infamous Mahoosuc Notch, the ‘hardest mile on the trail.’ I had heard many horror stories about this mile and went into it with very high difficulty expectations.

Fellow hikers on the Bigelow Range

Fellow hikers on the Bigelow Range

The notch is about a mile of scrambling, over, under, and between huge boulders and caves and lives up to its reputation of difficulty. Despite taking nearly two hours to crawl a mere mile, I actually enjoyed it. I felt like a kid in a big jungle gym. Out of the notch it was sunny and 80 degrees but inside some of the boulder caves, ice was still on the ground and the air temperature dropped dramatically – I felt like I was in a big refrigerator.

Another unique thing about Maine is river fording. To keep Maine more ‘wild’ the local trail clubs rarely build any bridges, forcing hikers to ford through the streams and rivers. The only exception is the Kennebec crossing, where a canoe ferry is offered because dam releases make the river depth and current very unpredictable (hikers have died trying to ford this river). The deepest ford I’ve encountered was waste high, but generally the river crossings never go above my knee.

Fellow hiker Lulu maneuvering Mahoosuc NotchA funny story of karma, the other day I was walking and saw that someone dropped a candy wrapper on the trail.  Being the model citizen that I am, I picked up the trash figuring one tiny wrapper wouldn’t add too much weight to my own trash bag.  Well about a half mile later I found another wrapper on the trail.  I was thinking, “jeez, I’ve got a real litter bug walking ahead of me!”  Well, about another mile further, lo’ and behold anotherwait.  “That’s a still-sealed and wrapped Power Bar!”  Oh yes!  Finding an energy bar on the trail is like gold to an AT thru-hiker.  I promptly ate it and knew – just knew – that karma really does exist.  Either that or the hiker ahead of me has a loose drawstring on their pack :)

Currently, I’m in Monson, ME with a mere 113 miles left of the trail. Tomorrow I’ll be entering the ‘100 Mile Wilderness’, the longest stretch of the trail which does not cross any towns or improved roads. Fortunately I’m ahead of schedule with plenty of time to finish. I’m quite happy about this because many fellow thru-hikers have tight deadlines to complete the trail and are marching through the final miles like pack horses with blinders on. Like anyone after walking 2000 miles, I am starting to obsessively daydream about summitting Mt. Katahdin, though I try not to get too excited about finishing. I really want to savor this last section so I’ve been slowing down my pace, taking more breaks, and enjoying the scenery instead of worrying about miles or schedules. And Maine couldn’t be a more magical place for a slow and steady finish to this journey.

Next time I update, I hope to have a picture of me at Katahdin, the highest point in Maine and the end of my Appalachian journey.

Taking a break after climbing Mahoosuc Arm

Taking a break after climbing Mahoosuc Arm

    Tent City! Fellow hikers (from left): Triple-C, Chris, Steam, Darkness, Lulu

Tent City! Fellow hikers (from left): Triple-C, Chris, Steam, Darkness, Lulu

View of Flagstaff Lake from atop Avery Peak

View of Flagstaff Lake from atop Avery Peak

The Pristine Horns Pond

The pristine Horns Pond


The Whites

August 3, 2009

After a break to visit Christy and attend her sister’s wedding in D.C., the vagabond beard has been trimmed! I had to look somewhat presentable for Janice and Dan’s wedding. Don’t fret, I have another full month to grow it out again.

The trip back to D.C. was incredibly fun and busy. I discovered that when you are dating the sister of the bride and maid of honor, you are quickly put to work with various wedding tasks. The best of which was ringing the church bell – I’m talking Quasimodo style. I was up in the church loft in charge with pulling this long rope connected to the belltower. It was fun to be involved in such a beautiful ceremony. Thanks so much Taylor and Lauffer families for including me in all the festivities!

I’m back on the trail now and just finished walking through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Unlike my first two days of cold rainy weather, I lucked out and experienced the most spectacular section of trail yet in fairly sunny weather. As promised in my last entry, I want to explain the White Mountain hut system which is run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). The AMC is one of the oldest outdoor clubs in New England and they have built several huts throughout the Whites. They typically cater to weekend hikers who don’t want to ‘rough it’ in a primitive campsite and carry food, tents, etc in a big pack. The seasonal huts are run by young college-ish age ‘croos’ who cook the hut patrons a hearty dinner and breakfast and typically perform some sort of skit in the evening. Yes, I do know how to properly spell ‘crew;’ for some reason all the AMC hut workers are a ‘croo’ and none of the croo members knew why they spelled it this way, “it’s just tradition” they told me.

Now when I first heard of these huts I was imagining something fairly old and rustic that would hold maybe 20 people. I was blown away with how large and nice the huts actually are. They can hold a range of 60-100 guests a night depending on which hut. There are no private rooms, it’s all bunks and cots so space is utilized very effeciently. Also, they are extremely nice and clean. Fully enclosed wood and stone lodges (a much better word to describe them), they utilize all the earth’s resources for power. Completely ‘off the grid’, all the huts have solar panels and windmills on the roofs. One hut even had a water tubine that used a nearby waterfall to provide power. The power is used mainly in the large kitchens which feed the many guests throughout the summer. Each hut has a large common room where guests socialize, eat meals, and take advantage of the books and board games from the tiny corner libraries. A typical stay at a hut is around $80-$100 a night including dinner and breakfast. Some people gasp at this price considering you don’t have a private room or full-size bed, but I think it’s a pretty good deal considering the remoteness of these huts, and the fact that croo members pack in all the food and pack out all the trash via the same trails guests use to hike up the mountains.

Thru-hikers have mixed feelings about the AMC and hut system. Because they existed before the Appalachian Trail was blazed, the AT is kind of a secondary trail to the other trails in the area. This means the AT runs along pre-existing routes through the Whites, is barely marked with the usual white blaze, and if you aren’t careful it’s pretty easy to get ‘lost’ and follow a different trail that actually isn’t the AT. Many hikers did this, some for several miles. Fortunately it only happened to me once and I realized it quickly enough that I didn’t hike a long distance out of the way. But there have been several frustrated register entries from thru-hikers that go along the lines of “the Makaye trail is NOT the AT! I just had to climb that mountain TWICE! Fu@$ the AMC!”. Such profanity! But if I had to scale a 4000 foot ascent twice in one day, I’d probably have the same feeling.

Also many thru-hikers are on tight budgets and can’t afford to stay in the huts. Unfortunately the terrain through the Whites (above treeline, too exposed to tent in most places) forces hikers to stay there. The solution? Work-for-stay. In exchange for some dishwashing or sweeping chores, croos will allow thru hikers to eat any leftover food (there are always leftovers) and sleep on the floor in the common area. I paid to be a guest in one hut, and I did work-for-stay in another. For my work-for-stay at Lakes of the Clouds hut, I offered to give a short presentation on the Appalachian Tail and my thru-hike experience thus far. I selfishly figured this would keep me from doing dishes and allow the croo a break from entertaining the guests. So around post-dinner time when most of the guests were still in the dining hall socializing, I whipped out those public speaking skills developed at UNC and announced I was giving a talk on the AT in 5 minutes. Well much to my surprise, nearly the entire hut of around 60 guests assembled to listen. I was expecting maybe 10 would be interested. Just this once I’m going to brag – I was quite proud of myself. I definitely ‘had the room’ discussing the thru-hiker experience, passing around my gear like the ‘show-and-tell’ days of elementary school, and facilitating a Q&A session. I had to cut off the guests because I would have been there all night they had so many questions. It worked out really well because not only did I earn my stay at the hut, I felt like a celebrity – all the guests were offering me wine and various foods after the presentation. This actually lasted about two days because many of the guests were walking sections of the AT, and people I barely remember seeing would come up to me and say “hey Bojangles, come have lunch with us on Mt. Washington,” or “will we see you for dinner at Madison hut?” etc. It was wonderful, I barely touched my food bag for two days.

Needless to say, I had a very positive experience through the Whites. I had great weather on Mt. Washington, New England’s highest summit known for it’s consistently bad weather and world record wind speed at 230+ mph. Franconia Ridge in particular was breathtaking; a very narrow, ridgewalk above treeline where you could see the trail’s path ahead and behind you for miles. My friend Kristen who is from New Hampshire joined me for two days and provided a couple of the photos below…not to mention some great homemade chocolate chip cookies. Thanks Kristen!

Right now I’m relaxing on Christine Lake, at fellow thru-hiker Lulu’s bandmate’s lake cabin. Lulu’s banjo pickin’ friend gave five of us hikers a seriously nice off-trail experience – comfy beds, wonderful food, musical jam sessions, and a beautiful lake for swimming. A nice break for the legs today. Only 17 more miles and I’ll be in Maine!

Mobile Blogging from here.

Adieu Vert Mont

July 23, 2009

I recently finished Vermont and was blessed with beautiful weather the entire time I was in the state. The infamous mud wasn’t that bad and I managed to make my way without sinking into anything above my ankles. Vermont originally was ‘Vert Mont’ which means ‘Green Mountain’ in French. The trail in Vermont runs along the beautiful Green Mountains and for 90-some miles coincides with the Long Trail. The Long Trail was the original long-distance footpath in the U.S and runs almost 300 miles from MA/VT border north to Canada. Near Killington, the AT splits to head east into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. So while in Vermont I’ve been ‘multi-tasking’ trails.

In Vermont I met up with several hikers I had not seen since Virginia. One was ‘Smiley’ a residential building contractor from Colorado Springs. We entered New Hampshire together via the town of Hanover, home of Dartmouth College. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect – the town was having a street festival complete with live music! Beautiful campus and town; a wonderful introduction to New Hampshire.

Speaking of which, New Hampshire has the best state motto. “Live Free or Die!” Sometimes they take this to the extreme. For example, they are the only state where you aren’t required by law to wear a seatbelt in a car. You’re ‘free’ not to wear the seatbelt, but you’re going to ‘die’ if you get into a wreck. Brilliant.

So with only two states left, many people are asking if I’m beginning to see the “light at the end of the tunnel?” The answer is “no, not at all.” While the book says I have only 372.7 miles left, I know it is by far the hardest section of the Appalachian Trail. The White Mountains are known for their difficulty. Just yesterday I met two summer crew members who work at the tourist huts (more on this next entry) in the Whites. We were on top of Kinsman mountain and I told them I was heading to their hut for lunch and asked them how the trail conditions were descending from the summit. They laughed and said they never take the AT down because it is too steep and slippery, they instead take a slightly longer but more gradual trail back. Ahh yes, the AT usually never fails to find the most difficult way up and down mountains.

Much to my displeasure it was incredibly steep and slippery. I never fell but definitely slipped several times. Falling while hiking may not sound too scary but trust me, it is. When you fall on the trail it isn’t in one spot. You typically then have to slide 10-15 feet down the rockface from which you slipped. Or, you have multiple sharp rocks and roots that will break your fall. With a big pack on your back, manuevering these sections is even more difficult. A fellow northbounder this year made it 1800 miles – so close to the end – then slipped and broke two ribs. Not sure if he can finish the trail this year. I’ve heard of many northbounders in previous years who made it all the way to New Hampshire and quit out of sheer frustration with the trail difficulty.

After only two days in the Whites, I see why it gets such a reputation. My mileage slowed down to only 9 miles yesterday. In Vertmont I was clocking 20+ mile days, no problem. Steep, slippery, and boulder-laden trails in New Hampshire contribute to the slower miles. Definitely not a walk here…it’s a strenuous hike and boulder scramble!

However, the above-treeline scenery supposedly more than makes up for the trail conditions. With great challenge comes great reward right? I have yet to experience this. Both summits I’ve reached we’re cloudy, windy, and cold! When I reached the top of Moosilauke I couldn’t see 20 feet and had to put all my clothes on – it must have been near freezing with the wind chill. I’m hoping for better on future summits and will give a full report when I finish the Whites. Onward to Maine!

All pictures below are from Vermont.


Are you a Journey Man?

July 12, 2009
Foggy morning at Bascom Lodge on top of Mt Greylock

Foggy morning at Bascom Lodge on top of Mt Greylock

Last week I had the pleasure of being the first thru-hiker to stay at the recently renovated Bascom Lodge on top of Mt Greylock, MA. After a ‘soft opening’ July 4th weekend, the lodge is sort of accepting guests while they complete the new wood floors and install the restaurant kitchen. By sort of accepting guests, I mean I entered through the side door and asked the construction manager if the bunk rooms were open for hikers.  He said yes and quickly introduced me to John, the new caretaker of the lodge. After beating out 12 other company proposals, John and his partners were selected to take on the 25 year lease of the rustic lodge from the State of Massachusetts.  I was quickly shown the freshly painted bunk room that had by far the best mountain views I’ve seen since Virginia.  Mt. Greylock is the first sub-alpine terrain on the trail since North Carolina and it really feels like I’m getting back into true wilderness after trekking through the lowlands of the mid-atlantic.  John and his partners treated me to a wonderful dinner of leftovers from their opening weekend and we shared a bottle of wine after my day of hiking and their day of renovation work.  It was quite a fun experience, being the only guest surrounded by the four new caretakers of this historic lodge.  I enjoyed hearing ab0ut their vision for the lodge and their excitement for the new business venture rubbed on to me.  I wish them great success!

Williams College. Williamstown, MA

Williams College. Williamstown, MA

After Mt. Greylock, I walked to Williamstown, MA and toured Williams College.   A very quaint and fancy town, my vagabond-hiker look stood out like a sore thumb.  Speaking of sticking out, I’ve had a couple funny experiences lately where I felt like I was some sort of exhibit for the locals.  The first happened at Williams College when a group of three typical suburban mothers on a school tour with their high school sons called out to me “hey, are you a Journey Man!?”  I responded “uhh…not sure what you mean by Journey Man, but I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail.”  The normal questions ensued.  Yes, I walked here from Georgia.  No, I don’t hunt for food, I buy it in grocery stores, etc.  The second funny encounter was actually in the woods when a father and his three children spotted me walking towards them.  The father exclaimed “hey look kids, it’s a thru-hiker coming down the trail!  Did you walk here from Georgia!?”  Same normal questions followed and this time the father insisted I take a picture with his kids.  I felt like I was some sort of wildlife they had stumbled across and needed to document on their camera.     

After finishing out Massachusetts (one of my favorite states thus far), I have now entered Vermont.  Or as many hikers like to call it ‘Ver-mud.’  Vermont is really beautiful but also incredibly muddy.  Especially with all the rain the East Coast endured in June.  I’ve been able to tip-toe my way through the state without getting too muddy, but many a story has been told  about the knee-deep mud puddles I will inevitably step into.  One cool think about the trail in Vermont is that it criss-crosses lots of ski resorts.  Yesterday I was on top of Stratton Mountain and was able to ride the Gondola down to the village for lunch and resupply. 

Stratton Mtn Ski Resort

Stratton Mtn Ski Resort

I’m now in Manchester, Vermont enjoying a town break with hikers Chris and Lulu.  Chris is a chemist from Philadelphia and Lulu is a recent college grad from Maine.  Back on the trail tomorrow; New Hampshire in 90 miles!

 

 

 

Enjoying a swim in Upper Goose Pond, MA

Enjoying a swim in Upper Goose Pond, MA


The Revolution Will Not be Pasteurized

July 6, 2009

There is a saying among thru-hikers: “Don’t let all that hiking get in the way of your experience.” I decided to take this advice and called up an organic farmer close to the trail who I heard offered work-for-stay
to hikers. A gregarious man, “Dom” picked up the phone and immediately exclaimed “Your name means ‘quickly’ in Italian!” Apparently ‘presto’ had shown on his caller ID instead of my full name.

Thirty short minutes later I was at Moon in the Pond organic farm in Sheffield, MA being introduced to the farm apprentices. They were four 20-somethings who had not grown up on farms but had made the conscious decision to learn how to be a farmer. Two had just graduated from college, one was recently a bike messenger in Boston, and one had just finished doing environmental research in New Guinea. There were also three ‘house guests’ (temporary work for stay folks like me). One was the director of a community org called Slow Food, one was the recipe producer for the Martha Stewart show, and the last was a chef from NYC. Amongst this diverse crowd I was quickly put to work packaging recently-harvested vegetables for the local farmers market.

It was so interesting I decided to stay for four days. I learned so much. For example, did you know how much good vegetables rely on the waste of other farm animals? Dom explained to us, “as you muck out a pen and pile it for future use, you are creating the world’s best soil for our vegetables. Everything on a farm is a circle. The cows, chicken, ducks, sheep, etc all feed off the grass and hay. They in return dispense of their waste either in the fields or in their pens. The waste in the fields encourages new grass growth, and combined with field rotation of the animals, I always have healthy grass for my animals. The waste in the pens are mucked out into compost piles and make wonderful soil for our plants.”

The farm was small, but it had veal calves, sheep, oxen, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea hens. Plant-wise, they had everything from rasberries, garlic, and potatoes to lettuce, cabbage, and broccoli. My chores for the work-for-stay included mucking of animal pens, picking rasberries, weeding garlic fields, and coralling herds of ducks into their evening pens (all animals were free range during the day and stayed in mobile pens during the night).

I definitely have a new appreciation for the work that goes into quality organic food. Organic farming is HARD! The apprentices at the farm start work at 7 AM and finish at 7 PM with quick breaks for breakfast (9 AM) and lunch (2 PM). Everyday. No ‘weekends.’ Ok they do get one day off a week but can never all take the same day off because the farm must be functioning everyday. With so much diversity in animals and plants, and without the benefit of chemical treating of fields, the list of chores is long and complex! Do you think your normal beef is given free reign of a field and freshly mucked pen everyday? No way…it spends it’s life indoors in a cage, machine dispensed food into it’s trough that is far from natural. In an economy that thrives on effeciency, an organic farm is anything but effecient. It can’t concentrate on how to deliver the most beef per sq footage of land and resources it possesses. But it can deliver quality. I’m sure everyone has varying opinions on the politics of food in the USA, and I highly recommend ‘The Omnivores Dilemma’ by Michael Pollan to explore the issues. That book is one of the reasons I was inspired to check out this farm.

Beyond the politics of small organic farms vs more economical corporate farms, I can tell you with all certainty that the food at Moon in the Pond is amazing. Relating to the title of this entry, there is a big push against the current FDA regulation that all milk sold to consumers must be pasteurized. I’m in no way an expert on this issue but Dominic clearly is against pasteurization. Because it wasn’t being sold to me, but rather served in the privacy of their farm, I had the luxury of fresh milk every morning…straight from the cow and briefly chilled for breakfast. The picture below is me enjoying a big old jar of the creamiest, freshest tasting milk I’ve ever consumed. Fresh eggs from the chickens were scrambled. With biscuits we had fresh churned butter, still sitting in a pool of buttermilk. Evenings we had meat and vegetables, all from the farm. It was actually more physically demanding than a day on the trail, but I was rewarded with much better meals than my pre-packaged and dehydrated camp food. The apprentices and guests were wonderful to interact with and I can’t possibly put down everything I learned in this short entry.

So for this fourth of July I wasn’t enjoying the typical grill-out with friends and fireworks show. I was instead literally shoveling shit from an oxen pen into a compost pile. But you know what? When I think back to the 1700s era birth of our nation – when our economy was predominatly based on on the tilling of one’s own land – I can’t think of anything more American than mucking out an animal pen.