Monday, September 30, 2013

Hiking NC's Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Pender Co

Entering Pender County from the east on NC 50, part of the proposed MST route
In early 2014 the powers-that-be at the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail are expected to announce a sweeping new re-route of their 1000+ mile long cross-state continuous trail.  The reroute extends hundreds of miles between the east side of Raleigh all the way to the Newport-Havelock area of Carteret County near the ocean.  Formerly it was hoped that the trail would be able to follow the Neuse River all this way, but a tangle of issues, including lots of private ownership of land along the waterway, have stymied those efforts.  The new route makes a sweeping curve along the ecologically diverse and geologically fascinating section of North Carolina called the Cape Fear Arch.

Because I live nearby, I volunteered to do some scouting of this new route, and this is a report of some of that scouting: the portion of the re-route that takes the trail east-west across the heart of coastal Pender County.

It's flat country, a mix of marsh, pocosin, and slow moving streams, pine forests owned by timber companies, private agricultural land, geologically curious elliptical lakes called bays, and a good string of publicly owned game lands, state forests and parks through which off-road trail can eventually be threaded.

Through Pender County, the highlights that the trail visits are several:  The huge Holly Shelter Game Land and adjacent Shaken Creek Preserve, Moore's Creek National Battlefield Historic Park - one of the smaller units of the National Park Service - and the Northeast Cape Fear River.

NE Cape Fear River as seen from the foot-traffic-only gated River Road within Holly Shelter property

On this blog I've already reported on my scouting of a slightly longer alternative routing for the MST through eastern Pender and western Onslow Counties that I think would add tremendous value to the hiker's experience at the expense of a few added miles -- for more about this alternative, look to previous posts with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail label

Example of the kind of sunrise the hiker might experience on the Pender County beach walk - the entirely unofficial alternate route that I'm lobbying for.  This was taken the same day I visited Moores Creek Battlefield.
1946 vintage rocket launch observation tower, part of the beach-walk scenery if the MST chooses my alternate route.

This entirely unofficial suggested route adds a soundside half-mile boardwalk, the historic Surf City Swing Bridge, one of the 1940's Operation Bumblebee rocket observation towers, the Surf City Fishing Pier and an 8 mile beach walk to the Pender County highlights.  I'd love to see this chosen as the ultimate route.

But enough lobbying.  Back to the subject at hand:

One of two badly rotted wooden bridges that take the hiker across Shaken Creek

With the exception of the Holly Shelter/Shaken Creek traverse on seasonally gated dirt roads (and a couple of bridges that I would not trust for anything bigger than an ATV - see above), the majority of the route through Pender County follows paved rural roads and a few more heavily used highways.  Even passing through Moore's Creek Battlefield, the hiker remains on NC 210 and would have to take a detour in order to enjoy the mile-long 'History Trail', which includes a boardwalk, and crosses the reconstructed old bridge itself.  But there is potential for a reroute that would swing the MST through the park, out the back and then return to NC 210 via Battleground Rd., giving the hiker a much more varied experience.

History Trail through Moores Creek National Battlefield
Boardwalk section of History Trail through Moores Crk Battlefield
Reconstructed historic Moores Creek Bridge

Similarly, there is a small loop off Shaw Highway along the gated River Road to the boat launch ramp that follows right beside the NE Cape Fear River for a mile of serene trail walking.  This is all public land and, though it adds a mile to the dreary eight miles of road walk along straight, flat Shaw Highway, it's well worth the detour.  For a full report and slide show specifically about that leg of my scouting see this blog post.

The entire length of the proposed MST route through Pender Co. NC is about 57 1/2 miles, which I covered in six hikes.  The detailed GPS data and photographic documentation - 80 photos for your viewing enjoyment - can be seen on EveryTrail by clicking the title/header above the map below:

Farewell to Pender County, passing west into Bladen Co. on a country road that changes name at the line.

MST thru Pender County, NC at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Wilmington, North Carolina

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review of 'Outlander' by Diana Gabaldon

I’m so ambivalent about this book that I had a hard time finding a balance between positives and negatives in order to come up with an overall rating.

At well over 300,000 words and written in the first person, and as an author's debut work, 'Outlander' (called ‘Cross Stitch’ in the UK) is a remarkable achievement. It combines elements of science fiction with adventure, historical fiction, and romance. In the end, it comes down as a romance, and that’s its fundamental weakness – Gabaldon’s taste in men, and her obsession with mingling truly sadistic violence with physical desire *and with affection* is seriously disturbing, at least to me--so disturbing that I have a hard time avoiding getting 'preachy.' I'll merely point out that if humanity is ever to escape its primitive roots, we have to stop glamorizing bloody, non-consensual violence as part of sex.  It is just a mere tiny step from that to rape, and who wants to be accused of promulgating that?

Yes, there is something fundamentally ugly about the personality of this book that gave me pause.  And yet, in another sense, I found something intangibly appealing about Gabaldon's craft. The basic plot is entirely mundane, and not well executed, and yet as an impressionist-style work of art, the landscape of depicted emotions offers a rich spectrum of human experience.

So here is how I resolve my conflicting reactions: I’ve decided to judge 'Outlander' the way I’d judge a symphony—how did it make me feel—and in the end, I have to say: ‘reasonably satisfied’.

Having said that, I have to return to one of my negatives: the occasionally inept level of storytelling. The best example is a pivotal escape scene that is so poorly choreographed and executed that I gave up caring about the story. Imagine our male hero shackled in a dungeon chamber deep within a large prison. The heroine somehow finds him (through dumb luck—always a good start), enters through unlocked door (?) and tries desperately to break the shackles. Suddenly the dastardly villain appears with massive troll assistant (brought in by the villain for the sole purpose of throwing two buckets of water on the prisoner, and later too stupid to even realize when his master is being attacked). Then the pièce de résistance: confronted with the heroine, the villain’s first move is to blithely unshackle the male hero, not having any reasonable motivation to do so even if the situation were fully under control. In the end, Gabaldon couldn’t even find a way to actually show the final escape. (Wait, what was one of the first things I learned about writing good fiction? Oh yeah: ‘Show, don’t tell.’) She resorted to a vapid second hand telling after the fact. This is writing at a shockingly amateurish level.

Yes, I gave up caring for the story. Just as well. It’s primarily about a woman’s personal obsession (would that be Gabaldon, or merely her character?) with a Paul-Bunyan style brute. The estrogen drips from nearly every page, and I found her portrayal of both of the two main characters turning me off: to Jamie because of his endless blathering about his emotional and psychological underpinning, and to Claire because of nearly a complete lack of internal narrative despite the story being 100% from her first person perspective.

And so as the sun sets on ‘Outlander’, we find our two characters sharing an intense explosive climax in a grotto hot spring, and me, as the onlooker, yawning. Good—easy to forget this one. Now on to the next book. And yet … Gabaldon’s artistry wouldn’t just fade from mind.  To my surprise, I want to read more.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hiking/Biking the C&O Canal Towpath, Central MD

One of the few mowed areas of the C&O canal watercourse, tow path at left, approaching Taylor's Landing.

This report covers the portion of the 187 mile C&O Canal Towpath between Weverton (about Milepost 58), to Taylor's Landing at Milepost 80.8). The way I conquered this stretch of trail/path self-supported is to bike one way and hike the other, leapfrogging my bicycle with my van (parking my van at various parking areas along the route).

The hiking portion of this adventure is the first part of my Personal Continuous Footpath route that extends west from the Appalachian Trail.  Its immediate, or first, destination is to hike to State College Pennsylvania.  The first leg of that hike follows the piece of the American Discovery Trail that is co-incident with the C&O Canal Towpath between the Appalachian Trail and the Tuscarora Trail, which I'll meet at Canal Mile Post 113.8 at Big Pool. At the other end, there's a three mile piece of the Appalachian Trail that also coincides with these other two significant trails - between Weverton and Harper's Ferry, at Mile 60.8.

Towpath and adjacent Potomac River, just north of Harper's Ferry

Okay - with all those details and statistics covered, what was the hike like? In a word peaceful.  Nearly all of this section of the Towpath runs through a wild section of the Potomac with no roads adjacent.  It was late summer and the weather was sunny and serene, almost no wind, so all the sounds that greeted my ears were natures sounds--birds and katydids and the occasional gurgle of a stream or the rush of rapids on the big river.

Being one of the flattest trails imaginable, the walking was easy and the biking equally so. The path is well maintained gravel with just a few muddy places - a result of an inch or two of rain that had fallen a couple days before. I met about ten bikers for every runner I passed, and about two runners for every walker.  But this is a very hiker-friendly route.  There is a biker-hiker-only official tent camping site every 5 to 7 miles along the trail, not accessible by motorized vehicle, with a water pump and port-a-potty. These campsites all offer access to the Potomac River and are all exquisitely remote and peaceful.

Looking across the Potomac valley to Shepherdstown, WV from the front yard of Ferry Hill mansion and visitor center.

I had a chance to ride a wonderful bike path - a side trail - up to the Ferry Hill historic mansion and visitor center across the river from Shepherdstown, WV, where I had my questions answered.  I learned about the devastating March 17-19, 1936 flood that washed away a railroad bridge that was all of 40 feet above the normal level of the river (the towering stone masonry piers on which the spans set are still there, and it's positively mind boggling to imagine the water was that high), and about nearby Packhorse Ford, which is normally only knee deep all the way across the river - one of the only places up and down the river where it can be so easily crossed. This ford figured in Civil War troop movements and has been in use by Native Americans since pre-Columbian times.  Nearby is Antietam and Sharpsburg, which have to be the very epicenters of Civil War action.  Roadside plaques abound on every street and thoroughfare in the area.

Lock 37, one of ten canal locks I passed on this segment of the towpath.  Each lock changes the elevation of the water by roughly eight feet.

Bottom Line: From a hiker's point of view, I have to rate this experience as one of the best I've had in my  7000+ miles of documented hiking. I give highest points for hikes that fulfill the mission of my 'Seeks It' trail name: I seek fellowship with the wilderness and a chance to commune with the forces and influences of nature. And the more the positive forces outweigh the negative ones, the better I like it.  Absolutely the only negatives on this hike were a very few biting bugs - not mosquitoes or flies or gnats, not even the no-see-ums that I'm familiar with, but something that stealthily came and went and left little red welts, mostly inside clothing. Weather couldn't have been better, and the benefit/cost ratio of taking in the views was nearly infinite, unlike mountain-top views where you have to pay the price of the climb.

Recommendation: If you're in the mid-Atlantic and want to do a hike, this remote central portion of the C&O Canal Towpath, easily accessible from Interstate 70 in the vicinity of Hagerstown, MD, rates a 'don't miss.'

Here's the GPS track of my wanderings, with a link to a slide show:

C&O Canal Towpath - Weverton to Taylor's Landing at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Maryland

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review of Hiking the Appalachian Trail, James R. Hare, ed.

At just under 2000 pages (almost five inches thick), these two hardback volumes are a real undertaking to read, yet I found nearly every page worth my while. This is a compendium of forty-six through-hike trail memoirs written by the hikers themselves. The list of authors is a veritable Who's Who of AT pioneers, including Grandma Gatewood who hiked the entire trail three times starting at age 66 wearing ordinary sneakers and carrying a denim sack slung over her shoulder.

Then there's Dorothy Laker, who did the trail three times also--first in 1957. Dorothy hiked alone and relates some worrisome experiences but also many joyous ones. Other notables who contributed include Gene Espy, whose stand-alone book is still a good seller (Gene claims his 1951 trek was the second through-hiker of the trail. He still does speaking engagements.) There's Ed Garvey, active in trail circles for many years, who has a shelter named for him here in Maryland. And the last I'll mention by name--Eric Ryback--who (not without controversy) claims to have been the first to through-hike both the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail. The hikes covered range from Myron Avery's 1936 completion through the 1972 season.

Writing styles are as varied as the characters who populate the trail itself. Some are lyrical, some technical, some fairly amateur, some very long day-by-day accounts, some short and well written summaries; but all were interesting because they relate memories that the writer clearly cherishes. One does not hike the entire Appalachian Trail without being changed by the experience.

If you want a compendium that truly gets you in on the ground floor and fully immerses you in the history and flavor of the priceless institution that the Appalachian Trail has become, then this work is the definitive one, and worth the time to read cover-to-cover.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Hiking Maryland, Central and South

This is a composite report of nine days of hiking through central and southern Maryland from the 1960's era planned city of Columbia, MD to a quiet sandy beach on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay:

The reason I hiked this route was to connect, via continuous footprints, several more of the places where I've lived and worked.  My route followed a number of local hiking/biking trails as well as pieces of the cross-country American Discovery Trail.  Here's an overview of the route, as compiled in a trip report on EveryTrail:

MD American Discovery Trail and southern MD at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Baltimore, Maryland

I accomplished five of these hikes in late November and early December 2011 as preparation for my Appalachian Trail thru-hiking, and the last four I just did at the end of August of this year.  The first of these hikes were also the very first hikes taken with my newly acquired Garmin hiker's GPS--the stalwart companion with which I documented every one of my 270 Appalachian Trail Day Hikes.  So these hikes were 'training' and 'shake-down' exercises not just for my body but for the technology I'd use.


Nov. 28, 2011:  Starting at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, MD, where I went to church while living in MD, I hiked the Patuxent Branch Trail end-to-end from Lake Elkhorn through Savage Park to historic Savage Mill and the town of Savage where I lived in an apartment on River Island Drive from fall 1980 to spring 1981.  Here's Lake Elkhorn and a look at the Patuxent Branch Trail map:

Nov. 30, 2011:  From historic Savage Mill I hiked south via Whiskey Bottom Road past the Nestle/Dreyer's Ice Cream factory and the Laurel Park horse racing track then along Brock Bridge Road until I took up the several-mile-long off-road (paved for biking and foot traffic) Chuck Rounds Exercise Trail wedged between Brock Bridge Road and the Baltimore Washington Parkway.  Beyond the south end of that off-road trail at Maryland City Park, I crossed the Patuxent River using Brock Bridge Road and then entered the quiet residential neighborhood of Montpelier, home of Montpelier Mansion where George Washington stayed May 9 and Sept. 21, 1787 on his way to and from the Constitutional Convention.  Shown below is Savage Mill and the old B&O railroad bridge--a short piece of the Savage trail system that I included in my hike:

Dec. 1, 2011: Immediately south of the Montpelier subdivision I entered the expansive Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, passing Capitol College, the US Army recruiting center, and the BARC Visitor Center where I took up the route of the American Discovery Trail, passed under the Baltimore Washington Parkway on Powder Mill Road and then headed south across the Beaver Creek watershed--an upper tributary of the Anacostia River watershed--photo of a pretty lily pond is included below.  I ended the day at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, a parcel given to NASA by BARC in the late 1950's.  Here is where I worked from 1980 when I finished my post-doc work in Colorado until I retired in April 2005.

Dec. 2, 2011:  From Goddard Space Flight Center I took a detour westward to connect with the apartment in Takoma Park, MD, where I lived for two months in 1979 while a visiting scientist at Goddard.  I passed the Sri Siva Vishnu Hindu Temple (photo below) and the Good Luck Community Center and Park (with roses blooming in December).  This hike also included parts of the Anacostia Tributaries Trail System (photo of map below), the campus of the University of MD (central mall pool also shown below), and Greenbelt Park.  The Anacostia and Greenbelt Park sections are off-road trails that are part of the American Discovery Trail.  The walk through U of MD campus is also effectively off-road and a personal must, since both my children were attending school there at the time:

Dec. 3, 2011:  I finished the Takoma Park detour, hiking a good chunk of the route on the off-road Sligo Creek Trail (off road paved biking and foot trail), visiting the Town Hall and the apartment building where I lived.  Then I jumped back to NASA Goddard and began the trek east, which included hiking a piece of the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Recreational Trail (off road, paved), part of which is included in the current American Discovery Trail route, and more of which is supposedly going to be.  I finished the day hiking off-road on a new 'trail system' constructed by the developer of the posh new Fairwood subdivision.  Look at this trail!

August 20, 2013:  Taking up where I left off at Fairwood, I hiked east to the off road town of Bowie trail that parallels Highway 197 and passes through Fox Hill Park and crossing over ten-lane US 50 on an impressive footbridge (shown below - not sure the name of this trail, but it's part of the American Discovery Trail.)  Then I continued east crossing the Patuxent River again on the closed Governor's Bridge Road.  A half mile of the road is closed to vehicles on either side of the bridge (shown below) but the bridge is part of the American Discovery Trail and will remain so as far as I know.

August 21, 2013:  Today was road walking from Governor's Bridge, leaving the American Discovery Trail and heading south then west to the town of Harwood on MD highway 2.  The hike passed Davidsonville Park which has a long paved off-road loop trail for foot and bike traffic only, but I wasn't able to incorporate that into my hike because it only had one access point in the middle (though it paralleled the road that I was hiking).

August 22, 2013:  Hiked one way and biked the other along a fifteen mile stretch of busy but wide-shouldered MD Rt. 2, a designated State of MD bike route.  I felt entirely safe, but was always flanked by noisy traffic.  This leg took me from the town of Harwood in Anne Arundel County to the town of Sunderland in Calvert County.  Along the way I stopped and rested on a bench at the very pretty St. James Parish cemetery--a shady respite on a hot day.  I intended to take a photo of the peaceful setting but must have forgotten.

August 23, 2013:  Country road walking from Sunderland, MD past the house I built myself on Hardesty Road - talked with neighbors and learned that the house had burned down in the early 90's so that all that remains of my original work is the foundation.  What a shock!  Rumor has it that the fire was set by the enraged husband as part of a divorce dispute.  Wow - not sure what kind of Karma is left with that house these days, but I no longer feel any 'ownership'.  Finally the hike ended at a bay front lot that I still own (and while down there I met a realtor, and am putting it up for sale).  That's the beach view shown up top.  I had a chance to walk a bit of the 3-4 mile stretch of sandy beach that is continuously 'walkable' between Breezy Point Marina where there is a bulkheaded private port on the north and the town of Dare's Beach on the south where people's yards are bulkheaded and there is no more beach.  Off Hardesty Road a quarter mile from the house I built there is a very interesting little dead end street.  It's name struck my fancy:

... and DON'T COME BACK :-)

So this set of nine hikes concludes my Personal Continuous Footpath hiking in Maryland.  Now 'all' that is left to complete this Bucket List project is to hike from the Appalachian Trail to State College, PA (see upcoming post--I did two days of hiking in that direction while in MD), and then hike a big chunk of the American Discovery Trial to Ft. Collins, Colorado with a side trip to Wisconsin.  Oh, I also still have to finish connecting from the AT through North Carolina to my beach condo.

I love hiking 'with a purpose'.  Somehow hiking up and down the beach or repeating routes in my neighborhood just isn't the same.  It's much better for my psyche if I feel like I'm really 'getting somewhere'.  If I ever actually make it all the way to Colorado and finish my Personal Continuous Footpath I'll have to come up with some new goals--like walking to every one of the 49 continental US states.  Can't wait!