Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Appalachian Trail: Summary of a hiking day

Sorry for the mistakes, I'm writing this on a phone.

I had known things would be different on the trail, but it's still amazing to me the clarity that physical labor brings. If you ever want to know if you really need something try carrying it around on your back for a few days.

My keyboard is gone. So is my neatly crafted spice cabinet. As nice as it was I wasn't using curry powder enough to justify the ounces.

I'll walk you through a typical day. In the morning I'll wake up to the chirping of birds, usually between 6 and 8. Bear Squad sets alarms but rarely heeds them if we hear them at all. Sometimes our technologist, Highlander, will wake us up with the Indiana Jones theme or Rachmaninoff.

Bear Squad is always tired. You'd think it would be easy to sleep after walking fifteen miles uphill with forty pounds on your back, but you would be wrong because the trail is home to the most shameless degenerate snorers on this earth. Many nights I lie in my sleeping bag, breeze tickling my face, lulled by the whisper of rustling leaves, peace mutilated by the saw, bark, and roar of a dozen snores. It is laughably awful. Never have my thoughts dwelt more on homicide (note: this is a joke and I would be way too tired to execute these murderous fantasies, but really I think when I take a sleeping pill and put in ear plugs and I can still hear you chainsawing a cat with your lungs then it becomes your responsibility).

After dragging myself up I quickly unscrew the cap of my inflatable sleeping pad. This brings my butt into contact with the cold ground and prevents me from falling back asleep. I stuff my sleeping bag into its waterproof stuff sack and roll up my sleeping pad. A thin layer of sweat and grime covers everything.

If I'm tenting I'll unzip the door and the rain fly and then usually trip on my way out. If I'm in a shelter, which is like a three-walled structure that resembles a stage, I'll usually trip getting down. In either case I'll trip over the first five tree roots to present themselves on my way to get water. Water comes from a stream if your lucky and a trickle of damp if you're just average. I'm using a Sawyer to filter the water, viz, I squeeze it through a small tube with all the strength I can muster and then it's safe to drink. I have my doubts. Most people on the trail have filters, but they don't protect against norovirus. I am experimenting with different water purification systems.

Once I've fetched about two liters of water (two nalgenes) I'll lug it back to camp and join the other members of Bear Squad in making coffee and grunting. (Apparently I look like a pickled old man when I wake up but my companions don't look much better.) To make coffee we use camp stoves, which are basically valves soldered onto metal stands that we screw into small containers of flammable gas. They can pretty reliably heat two cups of oatmeal. My companions eat oatmeal but I don't because it is disgusting. Instead I'll shovel pb&j into my mouth until my gag reflex shuts it down. We all eat as much as we can. Our hunger is immense. We can never get enough calories. We are always eating. I ate a whole pizza about an hour before writing this (I'm in town) and I am already starved. I've lost weight.

To take down the tent I first unclip the rain fly an hang it up to dry. Even if there was no rain the condensation on the inside is enough to soak the rain fly on cold nights. I then pick up the tent and shake out all the dirt that snuck in overnight. The tent fabric is attached to the poles by clips, and once I remove these the tent loses shape and collapses. Depending on the weather and terrain the tent and tarp it sits in May also need to be dried. I'm sharing my tent with Cici, Bear Squad's marine scientist, and her help with all this is invaluable.

After stuffing our faces, we all cram our tents and miscellanea into our bags and stand around waiting for the last person to be ready, who is often I. This is due to my neurotic need to constantly double check my pack and see if I've left anything crucial behind. We also spend time attending to our feet, which are always bruised, sore, cut, bandaged and bug bitten.

We all stink. We smell awful. Just really bad. And I even wash whenever I can.

Then when we're ready, usually an hour two behind the "planned" departure time, we set off. Starting is the worst part. Your stomach is bloated. Your feet and and legs ache. Your blood moves slowly. Your pack straps cut into the grooves of rubbed skin on your chest and hips. Each step is murder and the slowness if your progress is impossible to ignore.

Slowly, the pain recedes. Your lungs remember how to work. Your blood speeds. Someone cracks a joke and you laugh. A conversation starts and more jokes and laughter. You barely notice the pointless ups and the pointless downs and the winding rock-treacherous flats. Sometimes you stop for wter or food, or to change the bandage on your toe. Before you know it a mile has gone by and then two and then ten and then two more and you're at the next campsite. You stop and take off your pack, and it's the greatest feeling in the world.

When we arrive in camp for the night we first set up our tents and then do laundry, if there is enough water or the water is close enough. We cook on or little stoves and scarf as much as possible to feed the Charybdis of our hunger. My favorite food is instant mashed potatoes. Four hundred calories, just add water, and you can eat them in the bag so I don't have to clean my pot after. Once we've eaten we shove anything that smells, food, deodorant, toothpaste, into waterproof bags. We walk around the woods looking for strong, high branches and then throw rocks ties to strings over them. This allows us to tie our food bags to the string, and then suspend them in the air so that bears cannot eat them. If there is a fire we sit around it and gossip. If not we crawl into our tents and try to fall asleep before we are overrun by snores.

For more about the trail, check Highlander's blog www.highlanderstravels.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Appalachian Trail week one

Where to begin?

I sleep on the plane, head against the window, teeth rattling in my mouth like bingo balls. A brief train ride later and Survivor Dave ferries me to Amicalola Falls and the start of the approach trail. I enter the visitor center and register as a thru hiker. The park ranger is skeptical. "Did your ride leave already?" She asks. "Yep," I say "Good luck," she says. It dawns on me then that I'm alone in Georgia with only my legs to take me to Maine. The approach trail begins with anywhere between a hundred and a million wooden stairs straight up a waterfall. It's beautiful. It's murder. Beatles songs find their way into my head, and I sing to keep up my spirits. After passing a few tourists I am alone for hours in the woods. It is very quiet. But there is no rain and for that I am thankful. Around six I reach the summit of Springer mountain and the official start if the Appalachian Trail. There is a plaque to commemorate the occasion, and a vista to greet me. I take a step forward and a snake darts away from my impending footfall. I yell. He hisses. We scare the shit out each other. He slithers away. I sit to enjoy the view. There is a metal slot in the rock next to me. I open it and pull out a notebook. It's the trail journal. I flip through and read messages from people who came before. I see there are people who signed in just before me and create imaginary personas based on their messages. Then I go to meet them. The first shelter is just a few yards ahead. I still can't believe how lucky I am to meet these people. We have in our crew a scientist, a business man, a Connecticut survivalist, a techie, and a poet--yo. We call ourselves variously Bear Squad, Bear patrol, awesome Squad, and loser Squad, depending how the day goes. I'd like to write more but for all the down time there is little free time in the trail. There are always chores to be done--hanging your socks to dry in the trees, water to be fetched, tents to be erected, rain flies to be wrestled into place, ropes to be tossed over limbs to dangle away from the reach of a bear. Most important is the task of sitting around the fire with your companions, laughing and joking to buff your morale against the eroding forces of wet and cold and soreness and itch. I sent my keyboard home first opportunity, not because of the weight, but because it was too isolating. WiFi is also rare, and battery life is precious. Updates will be sparing. I love (almost) every minute. It is a grand adventure.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Appalachian trail leaving day

I'm up until 2:30 a.m. doing God knows what. Seconds after my head hits the pillow my alarm blares and I shake myself awake. My brain is pudding.

Dad is already downstairs. Mom has made coffee. She's left a note directing me to some leftover sandwiches and cookies. This, along with a bag of chow mein noodles, I throw into a plastic bag to serve as my carry-on.

It's pouring rain. The roads to the airport are surprisingly busy.

"When did you get up?" I ask dad.
"Around three," he says. "I woke up and I couldn't fall asleep again. I had that song uptown funk stuck in my head. It kept repeating over and over again."
"I can see you lying awake, your analytical mind stuck in the hopeless task of analysing that song."
"What does it mean to funk you up?"
"Sounds dangerous."
"I guess it's a good thing, get funky, to make you funky?"
"But it happens against your will."
"What's the weather like in Atlanta?"

We arrive at the airport and say goodbye.
"Want to hear a joke about Spirit Airlines?" I ask.
"Sure," dad says.
"Well when you get on the plane you're a body and when you get off you're a spirit."
"That is not a very good joke."
"A Jesuit in the Philippines told it to me."

The people behind the check-in counter watch me as I wrap my hiking bag in plastic trash bags.
"It's to keep the straps from flying out and getting caught," I say.
"Uh huh."

Bag weighs in at 38 pounds, in line with my foot-scale measurements. What the hell did I bring? Already haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes.

The exhaustion and adrenaline render me manically polite. I smile and chitchat with everyone in the TSA. No bombs found in my bag of chow mein. Whew.

I'm dressed in my hiking outfit. I couldn't bring any superfluous clothing because I'd have to either carry it or throw it out. I'm cold.

I eat my sandwiches and cookies. Airport soundtrack is r&b and soul classics. Pretty sure Cat Stevens snuck in a couple time too. Ready for silence of woods.

Why did I get here so early?

Airport PA announcement REALLY wants you to park in the garage.

Bathroom towel dispenser jealously guards its hoard.

I got sunshine on a cloudy day. I guess you'd say, what could make me feel this way?

Flight delayed 40 minutes. Called Survivor Dave to let him know. Nightmares of setting up tent in the rain and the dark.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Tick Advice, a rash that looks like a bullseye

If you get a rash that looks like a bullseye, get doxycycline, for treatment of early lyme.

An inauspicious beginning

It's two a.m. Something I ate gave me food poisoning. I've uncurled myself enough to write this in the hopes it will serve as a distraction. The pain in my stomach is immense. Tonight I will pray to the toilet.

Somehow, knowing I was to depart the 3rd of May, I convinced myself that was Wednesday instead of Tuesday. I've been looking at a calendar every day and still my brain was convinced of this lie. The loss of tonight to illness, and the loss of sleep, and the loss of the imaginary day are sores of worry. Still, the pain in my stomach makes it hard to think of anything else.

I've been sick before, and injured, many times, in lots of places, in ways that made think long and hard about mortality, even if there wasn't any real threat of shedding this mortal coil just yet. It's something that must come across in my writing, the attention to the visceral. (I can feel my own viscera right now, writhing around like snakes inside of me.) It always bugged me in shows and things I would read, when people would get seriously hurt and the next scene they're limping along, gritting their teeth and wincing, but still able to perform. I never thought they were capturing just how debilitating, how all-controlling physical pain can be. Though I guess I'm still able to write these words.

The plan for Tuesday and the start of my great Appalachian Trail Debacle:

1. Wake at 4:00 a.m. Dad is kindly driving me to PHL.
2. Spirit airlines flight from Philly to Atlanta at 6:30. The ticket was about $30 and $30 to check my bag. If they lose it I'm SOL.
3. Arrive in Atlanta 9:00 a.m. Take the train (MARTA) from the airport to the furthest station north, North Springs. ETA 10:30 a.m.
4. I've hired Survivor Dave to drive me to the Amicolola Falls and the head of the AT approach trail. Should arrive there around 12:00 p.m. Weather forecast is light rain until the afternoon.
5. Hike 8 miles to the Black Gap Shelter. Pitch tent. Fetch water. Experience intense wave of regret. Regret expected to last days until routine of forest takes hold.

I'm worried if I don't sleep tonight I'll do something stupid. Already wasn't planning on sleeping the night before the flight. So many things to do beforehand, tasks swimming in and out of my head.

It's not the end of the world.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Appalachian Trail socks

Socks. We all wear them. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re barefoot or you wear flip flops. I think barefoot is the way to go, but there are some situations where you just need some padding.

These little foot robes are especially important when hiking, as they’re your main defense against blisters (assuming you have comfortable shoes).

In general you want something that wicks, that moves the moisture away from your skin. Wetness causes discomfort and abrasion and blisters. You probably also want something that’s durable, and comfortable, and if you’re in cold or wet weather you need a materiel that insulates even when wet. As far as I know that rules out cotton of any kinds (and I can attest that cotton socks are nightmarishly uncomfortable when soaked in foot sweat) and leaves you with either wool or a synthetic blend.

In the past I’ve gone with a system of two pairs of wool socks and two nylon liners, which are just super-light socks that go inside your socks and assist the mission of wicking. Liners also take on your foot funk to lessen the stink of your main sock. It’s easier and faster to wash and air dry a liner than a wool puppy.

This time around I’m going with three different types of socks. The first (left) is an REI merino wool liner. It’s comfortable and light, and can be used as a sock in its own right.

The second is a darn tough merino wool sock (center). This is mostly wool with some nylon blended in. It’s guaranteed for life, which I like, and it fits comfortable. There’s also something about the design which keeps the sock from moving around too much, preventing the material from bunching.

The third sock I’m bringing (right) is an interesting species. It’s a combination of liner and regular sock, made of pure synthetic materials, namely a special polyester and nylon. The idea (as far as I can tell) is that by having two layers built in you get extra wicking, and extra dry feet. I’ve taken them on a few runs and they’ve been comfortable, though with two layers the material tends to wander and bunch in the toes. The packaging guarantees they’re blister free, so if there were ever a way to put that to the test a 2100 mile hike would be it.

All the socks are light gauge. I’ve found on other hikes my biggest problem has been hot, sweaty feet, rather than cold, and if I do get cold I can stuff ‘em all on together. Why three different types of sock, you ask? Well maybe I’m nuts but I think it’s good to vary the material and pressure going on my feet however slight. I don’t want to put too much stress or friction on any one area, in order to prevent blisters. Hopefully, it’ll work.

Appalachian Trail Weight

If you aren’t familiar with hiking and camping it can seem bizarre how much attention is paid to weight. Seemingly innocuous comforts like sunscreen, deodorant, an extra mug for your coffee, are superfluous (well, depending on where you’re going you can make a case for sunscreen) and they can harm you more than they help just with the few extra ounces that they add. All of these ounces turn into pounds and then pounds then bcome ten or twenty or thirty or forty pounds that you’re carrying on your back. (My typical weight is between 30 and 40, which I think is heavy but I’ve seen a lot heavier). When you first put it on your back it might not feel heavy, it might not be that difficult to start. But it will weigh on you over miles, and tens of miles, and hundreds, and thousands of miles that extra weight will drag you down and drain your energy and your moral and increase the wear and tear on your body.

As an aspiring ascetic, I find the process enjoyable (sometimes). You judge every item in your pack in terms of the benefit it will bring, versus its cost in weight. Some are obvious--tent, sleeping bag, rain gear shelter you and keep you dry and warm. And some items are there for comfort and moral, keeping your sanity in the middle of the woods, with ten miles ahead before the next rest. Candy, a nice hat, notebooks, books, keyboards. All weighed. All judged worthy. And sometimes abandonned.

Appalachian Trail food: super coffee

I don't usually drink hot coffee in the morning (too lazy to heat water) so I devised this little concoction to sneak in extra calories and protein. I call it super coffee--name suggestions welcome. Not too complicated, chocolate whey protein mixed with instant coffee. Proportions are about fifty fifty. I throw it in a water bottle and shake it up and it tastes like chocolate iced coffee.
Shaking it all up in the coffee container.
Was going to keep it in the coffee container, but decided to switch to a plastic Ziploc. It holds more and shrinks with consumption to make more room in the bear bag. It's important to double bag this puppy so it doesn't leak. Might ditch the oatmeal now and just go with this for breakfast.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Appalachian Trail food

Went to Walmart for supplies and wound up buying way too much food.
My eyes are bigger than my bear bag it seems. But food is a real weakness for me on these expeditions, always having to eat the same bland, processed crap so I usually go overweight on the stuff to keep my sanity.
I’m going to try to go a week before a major resupply, so I pared down to the essentials for seven days. That would be breakfast, clif bars (ugh) some random cookie bars, and either hot lunch and dinner or a skipped lunch and a double dinner. Yay! I gought oatmeal again too for breakfast. I hate oatmeal but can never seem to remember that fact in the store when I look at how light and cheap it is. A week of gruel will surely jog the ‘ol noggin.
Look at that, it fits. You’re impressed, I can tell. Even room for some extra stuff. Gummies and fruit snacks I think it should be. I consider myself a genius for the way I tucked that pot in there. No need to keep that gas and the pocket rocket in the bear bag. I won’t be able to fit the medicines either but I reckon they don’t smell too strong.
Scale says about 10 pounds for the whole shebang. I’ll take it. Might even bring some extra stuff and eat like a king the first day.

Blogging on your phone with google docs, photos, and the blogger app

I use blogger to blog and I have the app on my phone. The plan is to continue writing posts in the blogger app and publish as I go. I thought it would be simple, but boy was I wrong.
Blogger as an app works well enough, but is inconsistent and unstable. I would write an entire post only to have the text disappear after leaving the text editor. I cannot stress the danger of this enough--draft your posts in another editor before copying to blogger. This problem occurred every time I used a bluetooth keyboard with my phone.
In addition, it is surprisingly difficult to attach photos to posts. If you select a photo from the wrong folder, using the wrong program, all you get is a black box that then causes blogger to crash when you try to remove it.
I then tried drafting posts in google keep and using the export feature to send them to blogger. Keep saves your work as you go I this was ideal. It is also easy to add notes via voice command, which could later serve as the germs of future posts. In addition it is possible to select multiple notes in keep and export them into a single google document. However when exporting the notes from keep to blogger the pictures never tagged along, turning into black boxes that rendered the post itself a minefield of potential crashes.
After much trial and error, I believe I have found a workable workflow for blogging on my phone, which is a Moto 3G running Android with the latest version. It uses the following three google apps: documents, photos, and blogger.
Create a new google doc and draft blog post.
Use photos to edit the photos you want. Photos has an excellent editing tool. I use it mostly to crop and rotate. Make sure the photos are on your device. If they are not download them or they will not transfer to blogger.
Add the photos to your blog post. It is much easier to do this in docs than blogger itself, and you can position them better.
Select all and copy your blog to the clipboard.
Open blogger and paste into a new blog post. The text and photos should carry over. The photos will appear as small gray rectangles until you exit the post content editor.
Save as draft or publish. Photos should show as attached.
However, this does not appear to work in airplane mode so I wonder if these operations occur off the device. Will need to investigate further. Lists do not appear to copy.

Update: An annoying limitation. Although photos appear nicely formatted in documents, it appears that copying them to blogger they copy as the original size. Changing the setting to upload pictures as a default size in the blogger app has no effect on this. So unless I figure something out the photos will appear gigantic on the blog. Guh.

Introducing my dog Skywalker

I'm mostly glad he didn't asphyxiate himself. Trying to figure out where he got all these plastic bags.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Appalachian Trail First Aid and Pharmacy

My first aid and pharmacy kit for the hike. A little more bloated than I wanted, but as I perused the Walmart shelves I kept seeing items that reminded of all the lovely pains one can accrue in the wilderness. Maybe after few days I'll ditch some of the pills, but at least this is how I'll begin. From left to right:

  • Moleskin, for blisters.
  • Hand sanitizer, for the obvious.
  • Stomach relief, pepto-bismol, bismuth tablets. I can't recall using them on a hike before but they've always come in handy traveling to strange lands so they'll get a spot in coach. Likely candidates for abandonment. (Fun Fact: my auto-correct is dying to change this to pesto-mismol, which I am totally willing to try)
  • Vaseline, for moisturizer, lubrication, chafing relief, and occasionally kick-starting a fire. I wanted plain but all they had in baby size was what I can only assume is peach flavor.
  • Goldbond, if your feet get soggy.
  • Campho-phenique. No idea what this is, but it looked like a good idea to have a strong pain and itch reliever for insect bites, skin irritation, and burns—all of which I've experienced abundantly. Campho-phenique won my selection by coming in a small, travel-sized bottle. A cursory google search appears to indicate efficacy. I'll let you know.
  • Merthiolate, antiseptic. Another mystery selection. Google reviews said that farmers use it and it burns like hell so it must be good. Also chosen for conveniently sized bottle.
  • Red pills, ibuprofen, anti-inflammatory and pain relief. In a cute little nalgene bottle that an REI representive upsold me hard on.
  • Hydrocortisone, more anti-itch stuff. Last time I did a big section hike I put a plant in a very tender location (my butt) and discovered new worlds of discomfort. So this might be redundant, but gosh I'll let it tag along a little while.
  • Blue pills, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) 25mg tablets. Antihistamine and sleep aid. Why would you need a sleep aid on the trail? Have you ever heard some of these mountain men snore? And of course the antihistamine is for allergy relief.
  • Antibiotic ointment, so I don't die of an embarrassingly small cut. Fights infection.
  • Bandages of many sizes and shapes. Pleased with the variety, especially the itty bitty blister-sized babies. Might ditch some of the larger ones.
And it all fits nicely in a zip-lock: 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

New Release: Cloud Country


Well, that could’ve gone better. Saru had found the blue-eyed girl alright, but she’d blown up half of Philadelphia in the process. Whoops. Now she was a fugitive, robbed of her implants, relying on her “wits,” hunted by aliens, Gods, and the monstrous spawn of fornicating universes. It was a crap deal, but it wasn’t all bad. She’d stolen a plane, a luxury model with a fully stocked minibar. And she had company, a rogue Gaesporan named John. And there was something strangely liberating about having screwed up so badly you couldn’t really do worse.  

I'm pleased to announce the release of the latest book in the Special Sin series, Cloud Country. It was a hell of a time finishing this sucker, a lot of jittered coffee hours smashing my face against the keyboard. Maybe I'll expound on the particular agonies later, but for now, hurrah, hurray, and huzzah.

The Appalachian Trail: Prologue

In a few days, I am beginning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. There's a why in there somewhere, the same why that you could slap on any human endeavor.

When I roll the idea around in my head, I think of how lucky I am to even be alive and to have the health and ability to hike the trail. There's something inside me that needs to do it. I would be failing in my mandate as a full spectrum human being if I left that need unfed.

Plus you can pee wherever you want in the woods.

Details to follow, as well as a breakdown of my kit, helpful advice, and a full catalogue of the many mistakes I will make so you don't have to.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: The Martian

1. Red
2. Breathing
3. Nice bod
4. Performing surgery on self. Martian Obama care?
5. Disco is bad music
6. Eating only what you can grow in your own feces, new weight-loss fad?
7. NASA relevant? What's Beyonce up to?
8. Glad to see Donald Glover's astrophysical genius is finally being recognized.
9. Would have been nice to see at least one movie without a reference to the Lord of the Rings or Iron Man but hey I put salt and pepper on all my food.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Five ways to tell if your dog is actually an opossum

Baby opossum

1. She looks, acts, and smells like an opossum.
2. Baby possums suckle at her opossum teats.
3. Her name is Ms. Virginia Opossum
4. Nocturnal garbage raids.
5. Upon being bitten by Virginia, you develop the super-human ability to play dead.

Saturday, April 16, 2016