Monday, January 9, 2017

The Appalachian Trail - Did it even happen?

Did it even happen? I can’t remember. Six months on the trail and it seems like another life, another lifetime, where everything was meaningful. I’ve been back in the “real” world almost three months and the time drips away like water from a leaky pail. Emails. Screens. Screens. Emails. Twitter and youtube and all good things. I hate them. I want to throw my phone into the sea but I cannot, I am an addict.

Holidays mean nothing to me, Christmas means nothing. It’s a day our ancestors chose to celebrate for political reasons. We follow suit in ever hollower fashion because it makes someone somewhere money. The ocean and the trees don’t care what day it is, except for maybe the pines.  

I picked up a tree with mom. It was the last tree at the only store within light years of our house that still had trees. Half price. Big gap in the branches. It looked eager to die.

“Most people get their trees around December first,” the very helpful tree wrangler said. He cut an inch off the trunk and then wrapped the tree in a plastic net so it would be easy for us to transport. I spent fifteen minutes cutting the net into little pieces so they wouldn’t entangle turtles or birds. The result was a pile of plastic hairs that will break down into morsels that fish will mistake for food. Eventually the fish will die from stomachs full of plastic. There is no way to win.

The family didn’t buy anything for Christmas, which made me glad. We all found things we had already and “wrapped” them for a yankee swap. Mom was the exception. She got me a framed picture of me on Katahdin. I didn’t recognize myself. I still have the beard. There’s still a kind of wildness in the eyes. But I’m tame now. Civilization has jammed its fingers in my eyes and ears and tempted me with all good things.

I spent the New Year’s drinking and writing a song. There it is below. I can’t go into music with intent. I can only play and then analyze the results. I was pleased with this one. There’s a wildness to it still, and an attitude, and an energy. The colors fit.

My plan was to stay home and maybe take a walk. But I caved, and went to a party. It was relaxed, in my old neighborhood in Philly, with people I hadn’t seen in awhile. I pet a dog. We talked about Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain.

A friend had brought knock-off chinese Star Wars toys, which we assembled and then studied, trying to figure out what the misfit pieces could be. It looked like Obi Wan was wearing a loin cloth and clutching a giant cigarette. When every single person on Earth has been asked to remake Star Wars and it eventually comes my turn, this is the vision I will execute for Obi Wan.

Someone starts the countdown early so we have to do two. The ball drops. We hum that song that I’m not even going to try and spell. No one knows the words. I sneak into the night. I haven’t given myself enough time to catch the train, and so I run. My feet hurt. That part of me feels real. That feels like the trail.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Joy and Misery of Salsa Dancing or Not

In a moment of weakness, I am convinced to go Salsa dancing. I have been once before, with disastrous consequences for my psyche. No lesson is too painful to be forgotten.

I arrive at the bar early but the beginner's lesson before the main event has already begun. I try to infiltrate the lines of newbies, and already I'm lost. People are spinning and twirling. I stand awkwardly to the side, trying to mimic the man next to me. It's hopeless.

I go to the bar and order a Dos Equis. I think it's my first Dos Equis draft. By the time the drink arrives the lesson has changed. The men and women have paired up in opposing formations and are repeating the most basic move—some fashion of reluctant shuffle. This is exactly what I need but it's too late. The partnerships have been formed.

I remain with the other cast-offs, sipping beer, wondering what elemental differences separate us from the graceful. I read the New Yorker on my phone. My feet ache from standing. They still haven't recovered from the Appalachian Trail. It occurs to me that Salsa Dancing is the opposite of hiking. Everyone is clean and dressed up; they have so much extra energy.

I want to sit down, but all the chairs are covered with jackets.

There are a lot of Justin Beiber types here.

The beginner lesson ends and the main event begins. The lights go down. The music is very loud. Good thing I brought ear plugs.

Man these dancers are good. I feel a pang of longing. Maybe I should grab a girl and head out on the floor. And step on her toes repeatedly. And hurl her into a table at the first attempted spin. I literally don't even know how to move my feet. What are they doing? It's kind of like stepping back and forth. Who invented this crap?

"This isn't Salsa," a drunk woman is saying to anyone who will listen. "It's Bachata. They do this every time."

Finished a whole issue of the New Yorker.

It's hot. I go outside and cool off. People are smoking. It's cold. I go inside to warm up. I have never wanted to be somewhere else more in my entire life. I go to the bathroom. A girl is helping a guy practice the basic moves in the hallway. 

The friend I am meeting arrives. I say hi and make an excuse for leaving. She heads onto the floor and joins the dancers.

An elderly couple is sleeping in the subway terminal. I walk past them and then backup. "Do you need some money?" I ask, stupidly. I give them all my cash: $6. They bless me.

When I get home I'm possessed by a roiling negative energy. I take off my pants and slip on my running shoes, and tear into the night. It's dark, and late; no one cares about the guy running in his dress shirt and briefs. My phone picks good music. I feel better. Some people eat their feelings, some people burn them. I reflect that walking and running are a much more liberating use of the feet.

But I know I'll try this Salsa shit again.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Appalachian Trail: Mission Accomplished

Well, there I am, looking like a crazy person on the summit of Katahdin. Just now noticed my under layer of puffy sticks out like a little fupa. I guess we can't all look like a North Face ad.

It was strange how quickly the end came. We had been so mission-focused for so long, had trained ourselves so well to break an impossible goal into days, that when the night before the summit came, we were ready to hike and totally unprepared for world without hiking. After getting nearly killed in the Whites (and this one is truly with minimal hyperbole), and nearly killed in southern Maine, and nearly killed in Mahoosuc Notch (seriously, google it), Katahdin had never felt further away. But the miles yield to determination. We hiked in the dark, and cold, and rain, and over rocks and boulders and roots and—oh my God the mice. We ate in the dark and the mice ran over our hands and our feet and tried to snatch morsels from our bags. They bounced off the tent and wriggled through bags. They rappelled down the lines of our bear bags and nibbled holes in everything. They shit everywhere. I don't believe there is a single second in a mouse's life that it is not shitting.

Our feet took us over mountains, and worming through caves, and along the shores of rivers and lakes. The scenery astounded, day after day. I ordered a battery for my phone to ensure it could weather the wilderness and capture the granduer of our walk.

And then it ended. We were so unprepared. I was so unprepared. We had hiked every day, woken to sunsets and watched birds frolic in the morning sipping bad coffee and choking down saccharine instant oats. We complained constantly, we were in near constant pain, and we didn't know how good we had it.

The morning of the summit was iffy. We had a day to spare, to wait, to see if the weather would improve. The weather report was unclear, not enough to make the decision for us. We shuffled our feet and discussed. We'd slept poorly the night before. We'd done 55 miles in three days to get there. We were sick with fatigue and ruined bowels. Another hiker, one we'd seen off and on was going to make the attempt, that day.

"C'mon guys," he said. "Just go for it."

We did. The nervous energy took hold. Katahdin wasn't the hardest climb, but it was the scariest, with the greatest drops, the most obvious plummets to oblivion, and some goddamn acrobatic demands that I still can't believe we survived. And then we were at the sign, the fabled sign, and we took a thousand pictures and laughed and celebrated (quietly). We walked down the mountain on a different path, one of the easiest but still hard. And it was done.

The car ride home was strange. The stay at the motel was strange. Being in a bed was strange. Sleeping in and not hiking was strange. The rhythm I had known was gone. It's still strange and I feel like a stranger.

There is a rudeness to the civilized world evident after living in the woods. Before the trail I saw nature as the backdrop to the suburbs, the human creations prominent and the nature as decor. Now I see the nature before all else. The human trinketry—the roads, the sidewalks, the houses, the poles for telephones and sieved electrons—appears crudely pegged and hammered and sunk. The sidewalk separating a line of trees from the front yard is straight and well set—and still crooked and cracked and so clearly an brief annoyance to the engulfing nature on either side. I had thought the cabins and privies of the trail to be crude invasions, but in fact all of our human invasions are crude and ignorant and blatantly so. Crude, crude, crude, the word pops in when I look around and everything we humans have built.

I took a walk today through a small woods and stopped at a bridge. A heron was there fishing. Cars and people passed by around me. I stayed and watched the heron for an hour. He stopped fishing and looked at me and we held a gaze. I felt like there was something there we both understood. In some small, but meaningful way, I had moved into his world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Appalachian trail: still alive

Despite its best efforts, the trail has failed to kill me. Nature is less and less idyllic the more time you spend in it. I'm pretty sure that if trees could wring any gain from our destruction they would prey upon us.

Many things have happened. We spent a week living with a pair of trail Angels. We built them a compost bin as thanks. At one point the rain came at us so strongly it brought the whole Atlantic ocean down on our heads. We learned what hiking uphill through a river feels like. I swear I saw a fish.

Our wizard friend carried eggs and bagels to the top of a mountain and cooked us egg sandwiches on a frying pan the size of a coaster. We slept in a garage that looked like an opium bin. We saw a naked man in a cowboy hat directing traffic. The sun rose and then it set. That happened many times. Sometimes it was beautiful.

We night hiked through a corn field under a full moon. Did you know the eyes of spiders reflect the light of your head lamps? They look like little green jewels, a thousand by the step, and then you realize that, by biomass, the world is 95% spider. This is their party, and it'll rage long after we're gone.

Heat is heavy. It weighs on you. When the temperature hits 106 (including humidity, which I do) then you may find the act of locomotion unbearable. We did. We stopped a lot, under the gaze of the heat, and lay down, and often feel asleep when the heat pressed down so hard on our brains and squeezed out consciousness like water from a sponge. The streams dried up, all but one for miles around, and the lone survivor lay at the bottom of 400 stone steps.

Now we are in Mass. The heat has flicked like a switch into cold. I am lying on my sleeping mat in the hall of a church. There is a makeshift shower, and the heat of the water, and the cold of the night, and the absurdity of showering in the courtyard of a church is the best feeling I'm the world. I walked here from Georgia.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Appalachian Trail: Fractures

We've reached the 1000 mile mark and now we are broken. Bear Squad has split into Shire Squad and Recon Squad. Recon Squad is doing what's called a flip-flop, where they will go to Katahdin (the northern terminus) from Harpers Ferry (the halfway point) and then hike south. I and the rest of Shire Squad--yes, that shire--will continue north to brave the coming cold. We're sad to see the group split up, but we all understand you need to hike your own hike.

Today Shire Squad is zeroing at the Bear's Den hostel, which has a computer with a seizure-inducing rave screen. I'm constantly moving the window around the desktop to avoid the AUTO CONFIG PLEASE WAIT message that appears without warning and is disinclined to leave. I must use the computer as a few weeks ago I broke into spontaneous free-from dance at the top of a ridge line and managed to shatter the screen of my phone. It has been difficult to coordinate a replacement from the middle of the woods.

Since last I wrote the rain has relented somewhat though still it still strikes with vengeance on occasion and soaks us to the bone. Other issues have emerged to take center stage in the drama of our misery. We wake at night to a burning throb in our knees and feet. Our feet swell into fat sausage parodies in the morning and the first few steps are agony. The pain dulls with the walk and then returns whenever we sit. I think it is our bodies taking any chance they can to heal. The pain and drudgery lead me to a minor breakdown in the Shenandoah Park. I missed the turn-off for a wayside grill and somehow the thought having to eat ramen again was too much for sapped emotional machinery to process. I took off my pack and sat down and gave up for about a half hour until I realized I was crying over a hamburger. The AT does weird things to you. Almost all of the thru-hikers who make it this far are worn down in some way.

Not that it's all misery. Later that same breakdown day we got showers and hamburgers and if felt so good to be clean and to have hot food and to feel like human being for a few hours that it was almost a high. Some people gave us ice-cold Coors Light on a hot day and it was the best beer I'd ever tasted. We did a marathon day, 26.2 miles, and though we got dumped on the last two miles and the shelter was full of giant spiders, pain doesn't survive memory, and all I can recall are the good times. The feeling of accomplishment that comes after a hard day is like a balm for the psyche.

A friend of mine came to visit us for a few days and it was an almost cinematic adventure as we had no modern means of communication to coordinate the rendezvous. We found her first tantalizing note written in a trail journal and then began the hunt, following her notes and the gossip of other hikers. Ironically the first people she talked to were the members of Recon Team that had gone ahead, and when she asked about me they figured out she was the friend I had mentioned a few times. No Boots, if you're reading this, thanks again for coming out (and for carrying a Budweiser for 30 miles just to surprise me).

Some minor plagues have befallen Shire Squad, leading us to wonder if we have offended a trail deity. Flint, our survivalist, found a two-inch bulbous spider building a web in his tent. Cici, our marine scientist, and I awoke one morning to find about fifty dead slugs in our tent. The other night the ground was swarming with millipedes so thickly they covered my boots resting in the vestibule of the tent. I discovered the small craters appearing on the fingers of my right hand were likely warts. Not a big deal--just another scoop of unpleasantness on the pie of our discomfort.

Today's zero is well-earned and much needed. Last night we gorged ourselves on pizza and played the most fun game of Bullshit I've ever had with some other thru-hikers staying at the hostel. There's an amazing amount of freedom among the people who choose to live in tents and pee on trees. Now we are watching movies and keeping off our feet. It's nice to lie in the tent and not have to go anywhere in particular. I'd say that 1000 miles in, with throbbing feet and warty hands and a stink so bad you can taste it, there's still no place I'd rather be.

Updates may remain sparse until a new phone is procured.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Appalachian Trail rain and storms

The last few days (weeks?) have been rough. Bear Squad has been doing a series of twenty plus mile days and the rain has been nearly constant. Rain isn't a problem if it comes and goes, but when it lingers it siphons morale. The clouds block the sun making it hard to dry tents and packs and gear and kill the odor causing microbes. Everything is damp and smelly. In the morning I drag on wet socks that squish with every step. My boots weigh twice as much when saturated. Our clothes are heavy and cold. Blisters and rashes proliferate. It is a malaise of unpleasantness that turns all the chores of camp life into burdens. We are slower setting up and breaking down our tents and crawling from our bags. We procrastinate. We force ourselves to eat and sip fluids. We move more slowly. But always we move on.

Once we found ourselves trapped on an exposed ridgeline in a thunderstorm with no choice but to lose altitude as fast as possible. We sang to keep our spirits up, but The wind stole our voices. We had to touch heads and shout at some points to be heard. For two miles we scrabbled down rocks. Some of our party lost the trail in the storm and were forced to bushwhack up the mountain. Another time we found ourselves climbing fallen branches in a furious downpour trying to free our entangled bear bags.

Then we make a fire and cook a hot meal, and the cold fades. We change into our carefully protected dry clothes and the damp is barely felt. We sip coconut Malibu from ninja turtle flasks bought at Walmart and imagine ludicrous back stories for characters we've met along the way. We read the graffiti on the shelter and the log book to see who's dissing whom. We get a hot meal at hostel or drink a bud light in agas station parking lot. The sun cuts through the clouds and we strip drown to dry what we can. For a few moments, we don't smell quite as bad.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Appalachian Trail ticks, blisters, balds, hostels

It has been a rough but rewarding week (I think it's been a week, we mostly measure the days by the amount of food we need to carry. Two of Bear Squad had tick scares. In one case a suspicious rash developed and then receded. In the other instance our biologist discovered a nymph-stage tick on her arm. We have been diligent about tick checks and so she knew the tick had been there less than ten hours. The tick tweezers could not grasp the tick due to its small size and the head broke off and remained lodged in the skin. Panic ensued. We practically dug a hole in the arm to get the head out and then cleaned and dressed the wound. Our worried was great until we met a day hiker who let us use his phone and we were able to get more information. No rash has developed since. The risk of Lyme disease is low.

Almost all of Bear Squad has blisters. Some of the blisters have been growing since the rainy days of the Smokies and they look like fat red caterpillars lounging on our feet. I am lucky that most of mine have shriveled into calluses. I am almost certain the pain in my leg is shin splints. The pain has receded beyond notice, though in the evenings it creeps back to remind me of my limitations. Ibuprofen is as much a staple as oatmeal. We have (jokingly) begun referring to ourselves as Bear Squad Rx.

There have been many beautiful balds (mountaintops not covered by trees) this section and we have been treated to fantastic views after the aggravation of many a false summit. You can see for miles and the mountains in the distance are like waves in a blue sea. Clouds loom and pile into space. The sky is so large I feel like a bug in a jar. You can see some examples in the photos tab.

Weve visited a number of hostels close to the trail. Cici and I each ate a pint of Ben and Jerry's at the Greasy Creek Friendly, which can safely be imagined as The Burrow from Harry Potter, but with booze. We passed through Uncle Johnnie's  in Erwin, which had a good resupply. We decided to move on since everyone on the porch was drunk or getting there and we sensed a doldrums vibe. A mile on we stayed at the Nolichucky Gorge Campground and had the entire 20 person bunk-house to ourselves. We used the industrial fan to dry our socks and slept on the screened-in porch. The sunset was phenomenal. A few days later we got a tip from a family camped next to us about the best breakfast in the trail at the Mountain Harbour hostel and I hiked ahead to make reservations. It was well worth it. That night the whole of Bear Squad reunited and we camped on the lawn of the Vango/Abby Memorial Hostel. We cooked frozen pizzas on a stove on the porch and watched the rain fail in sheets. It fell so hard we had to yell above the noise. The next day the owner, Scottie, slack packed (drone our packs ahead) us for a reasonable fee to Hampton Tennessee. I was ambivalent about slacking but the rain did not let up all day and it was a nice break to not have forty pounds on my back as I slipped and scrabbled up rocky hills. That night and today we stayed at the Braemer Castle Hostel, which is clean and comfortable an very nice. Bear Squad rented two rooms so we have a suite to ourselves. Today we are zeroing, which means we are hiking no miles on the trail. We are spending the time stuffing our faces, watching Harry Potter movies, and planning the next section. Most importantly we're letting our bodies rest.

Bear Squad, best squad

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Appalachian Trail bears, rain, snakes, hubris

About a week ago Bear Squad entered the Smokie Mountains. It was a steep climb from Fontana Dam and we got a late start as members of Bear Squad needed to pick up resupply boxes and secure permits to enter the park. At the park entrance there was a warning about norovirus and at that point I gave my Sawyer water filter to some passing day hikers. The sawyer is effective against cryptosporidiosis and giardia but doesn't stop viruses. Many people have said the springs are safe enough to drink from without treatment, but I use aquamira on all my water. As small as the chance of getting noro may be it's not worth spending three days evacuating all my vital fluids.

Midafternoon first day in the Smokies the rain started and it hardly stopped for two days. Our hiking clothes were soaked. A frigid wind in the mornings compounded our misery. Day one in the smokies we startled a wild hog that dashed across the trail and left me clenching my sphincter. At first we thought it was a bear. Everywhere we went were signs warning us about bear activity. Two shelters were close because if bear activity and one if the shelters had an electric fence around it. Getting good information was difficult. As far as we can tell, a man had forgotten coconut chap stick or another scented item in his pocket and a bear had bitten him through his tent. We were extra careful to clap and yell as we walked through the rain and to hang all our scented items in camp.

At one of the shelters a man had refused to bear bag his food and slept with skittles and bars. His behavior was erratic and he lobbed some f-bombs at the snorers in the shelter that night, briefly becoming my hero. When Cici and reached clingmans dome and the visitor center a few park rangers asked us if we were thru hikers and if we knew anything about a strange man making the other hikers uncomfortable. His description matched the man from our shelter and we all shared what we knew. Apparently the man had had confrontations with other hikers and made them nervous. At the next shelter a few Park Rangers came to ask us about the man. The consensus among their squad is that the man may have been a little unstable. It's unclear if he was a danger to others or to himself.

Outside of the Smokies the weather has behaved. Cici and I have run into enough rattlesnakes to last a lifetime. One night we camped on a bald and watched the sunset. It was peaceful until we heard a loud rustling in the treeline that did not stop at our yelling and clapping. I scrambled out of the tent in my underwear and built up a fire, pointing the bear spray at shadows for an hour or so until the rustling came no more. I don't my actions had any effect but the balm of taking action was enough to soothe my nerves.

An injury to my ankle and shin had me worried a few days and my pace slowed so that Cici and I fell behind Bear Squad. We became Shire Squad, a pair of hobbits on an adventure and eating ten breakfasts a morning. The injury was pure hubris, a result of running up a Mountain at full pack. Fortunately a hiker at one of our shelters was familiar with the ailments I described and the injury has since responded to treatment, viz, rest, ibuprofen, elevation, and compression. I think it will be a while before I am 100%. It seems that though our bodies grow lean and strong in the trail, the real gains are mental, learning how much to carry, how hard to push, how often to rest, and in my case not to run down the goddamn path at a hundred miles an hour for no reason whatsoever. I'm lucky I didn't hurt myself more.

Related to this luck is a hiking pole I found in a stream, jutting from the ground like Excalibur. It suits me perfectly and helps keep the impact of my bad leg. We often say the trail provides and it is true. Trail magic has been abundant.

We're in Hot Springs NC now, mile 273, about to head out for our next hundred or so mile stretch. Last night we had hot food, softs beds and a shower. We washed our clothes in machines. I sat under an awning and watched a few thunderstorm, happy not to be in it. This morning we had hot coffee that didn't come out of a little packet. Civilization has its perks, but the trail calls. Something I notice is how much more consequential every action in the woods can be, and how little stress I feel. The simplicity of walking and caring for your most basic needs is seductive. The nerve wracking part of the trip so far has been checking my email in town.

As always, battery life is rare and precious. Will write more when I can.


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.

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.

Appalachian Trail: 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: