Friday, November 27, 2015

Hiking home - a Personal Continuous Footpath

Two views of my boyhood home on a few acres of farmland near Landenberg, PA.  This was one of the first destinations in my "Personal Continuous Footpath" project.  See the map later in this report for the current status of this project, which is intended to take me far and wide across North America.

 

Hopping Rocks - following stepping stones that span the restless currents of one's life - can transform the simple act of walking.  Suddenly you're not just wearing out rubber on a treadmill.  Every step becomes an adventure.


On July 17, 2011, I finished a series of road walks that took me from my home about 20 miles west of Baltimore, Maryland to childhood homes in the Wilmington, Delaware area.

It was a small hike in terms of distance--a hundred miles or so--but it was huge in personal significance.

Not only did it expose me, unhindered by vehicular shell, to places full of deep memory, but it launched me into a long-term hiking project, the goal of which is to travel on foot to all the places I have ever called home.

The real goal, however, is the mindset.  It gives purpose and direction to my favorite sport--walking, or "hopping rocks" as I like to think of it.

Walking is healthy.  I'm convinced that there's no better exercise.

But doing "exercise" bores me to tears.  I cannot and will not waste my time and energy just 'staying in shape'.  People on exercise machines in gyms remind me of hamsters on spinning wheels.  They seem so self-absorbed - fixated on their own bodies and oblivious to the stimulating outside world that they're missing.  Even going out and walking the same circuit in a park quickly loses its appeal for the same reasons.  I need fresh new vistas.  I need a real sense of purpose and accomplishment.

My answer is to walk home.

Yes I know the old saying: "You can't go home again" - the place has changed and so have you.

It's true ... up to a point.  But the poor blokes who say that are pessimists, brooding over the dreary bottom of their glass through its half-empty swill and entirely missing the wider view.

In 1959, at the home where I grew up (shown up top) I planted a tiny sprig of a tree--a few inches high with maybe three or four leaves.  It was a fast growing Tulip Poplar.  I had my picture taken with my tree in 1963, and it was already twice my height.  The future seemed unlimited for both of us.


I have gone back to my tree many times.  Tulip Poplars live hard and die young.  This one is weakening from the inside.  The upper branches are dying now.  I may outlive my tree.   And there's a lesson in that.  Back then I and my tree were full of vigor and na├»ve enthusiasm.  Today I go back and I marvel at the scars and storms we have both survived.


Look at the front door of the apartment building where I lived from 1951 to 1953.  That's me on the right with Mom and my baby brother Jim.


And look at the same front door today - same trim, same light, same nine-panel window in the door.  These apartments are remarkably well preserved, and they're still desirable places to live sixty-five years after I lived there.


Back then I learned how to swing on a swing and I found my first four-leaf clover.  Now the swing is gone.  The whole playground is a parking lot.

But even if the swing was still there and I could sit in it and pretend ... even if I sat down in the lawn and started searching the clover ... I wouldn't be trying to go back to capture some lost essence of my youth.

When I visit my tree in the Pennsylvania meadow, I do not come to lament the ravages of age.  No, in both places I come to reinforce the fabric of the tapestry I wove back then.

I stand and nod and say "Yes, it happened right here.  Now I see.  This is how it goes because this is how real things go.  The little boy built strength here.  And he is still building it."

Then I smile and walk on, because there are many other places like this that I want to visit.

Sure as hell beats a treadmill.

* * *

Below is a map, continuously updated as I hike, documenting my "Personal Continuous Footpath" project.  Following that is a verbal summary of the destinations - the ones I've walked to and the ones still awaiting my arrival:


View pjwetzel's profile on EveryTrail

Map your trips on EveryTrail

The idea of a Personal Continuous Footpath project was hatched while I was living in Eldersburg, MD within sight of Liberty Reservoir--the big City of Baltimore Watershed lake that is surrounded by a publicly accessible buffer of woodland.  I had just purchased a hiker's GPS - an obsolete model on close-out.  But it was a good machine--a Garmin--and it faithfully recorded my mileage.

I began hiking the local trails and fire roads around the Reservoir and soon realized that I could, with just a little bushwhacking, circle the lake completely within the wooded buffer.  Between June 16th and July 25th, 2010 I hiked that circuit - 81 miles of perimeter trail plus many more miles of side trails to viewpoints and other spur trails.

I liked it--the feeling of exploring new ground with every step--walking new places every day.  I liked it so much that when I finished the Liberty Lake loop, I wanted more.  I had been hiking the Catoctin Trail in the mountains thirty miles west of Eldersburg since 2007 and I had been falling in love with the Appalachian Trail--doing more and more day hikes along that.  The Catoctin Trail doesn't connect to the Appalachian Trail, but the connection can be made at Raven Rocks Hollow with less than three miles of road walking.  I hiked that connecting route on August 7, 2010 and went on down the AT for eight miles or so.

That's when it happened -- the Personal Continuous Footpath idea unfurled its petals and blossomed.

Between August 8th and August 16th 2010 I did the forty mile road walk between the Liberty Reservoir circuit trail and the Catoctin Trail, and knowing that I would want more, I decided to connect my current residence not just to the Appalachian Trail, but to other past places I've lived.

I hiked in nearby MD first--to two other former homes west of Baltimore.  Then on July 11, 2011, as reported in detail above, I hiked to my childhood homes in Wilmington Delaware - all the places I lived between 1951 and 1966.  Also in 2011 I hiked 250 more miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland and northern Virginia.

There were three more Maryland hikes to do, and they're now done—to Blue February Way in Columbia, where I lived from 1986 to 1989, to Savage, MD (1980 to 1981) and on to Calvert County (two days of hiking or more – where I lived from 1981 to 1986) with a spur going to Takoma Park where I lived for two months at the end of 1979 while visiting Goddard Space Flight as a post-doc.

Still in the works, as of late 2015 is the moderately long hike north and west of the AT via the C&O Canal towpath, the Tuscarora Trail, the Standing Stone Trail, and a spur and short section of Pennsylvania's Mid-State Trail that will connect me with Penn State University where I went to college 1966 to 1970.

I prefer to hike on 'foot travel only' trails to get to my destinations.  I did not do that when I connected to Wilmington, DE, although there are continuous Trails connecting the AT in Pennsylvania with Wilmington (The Horseshoe Trail, the Mason-Dixon Trail, and the Brandywine Trail).  I may go back and hike those some day, as a more satisfying 'hopping rocks' route.

Also on the 'to do' list is the long hike on the American Discovery Trail (ADT) from Maryland to Fort Collins, CO (where I lived in four places between 1970 and 1980 except for the two months in 1979 and the summer of 1977 when I rented a house in Limon, Colorado during a field project – not an insignificant side spur hike south from the ADT).

An even more significant side trip from the ADT will be a detour on the northern loop of the Grand Illinois Trail and a spur off of that north on the Jane Addams Trail to the Wisconsin line, which becomes the Badger Trail from the Illinois-Wisconsin border to Madison to touch the Meriter Hospital where I was born (but never actually set down footprints) then a road walk to Jefferson St. in Sauk City, WI where I did take my first steps.  That's where I lived from my birth in 1948 to 1951.

It’s delightful to find so many established trails that take me to, or close to, all these old homes.

In 2012 I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail.  That was a goal in its own right, but it became the 'backbone' of the Personal Continuous Footpath hiking project when, in 2011, I bought a condo on Topsail Island, NC and moved there.  So of course I had to hike there.  It was five hundred miles as the crow flies from the nearest point on the AT.

I became aware of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) across North Carolina.  It connects the Appalachian Trail with the ocean at the Outer Banks.  At the time, the eastern part of the MST came as close as New Bern--about sixty miles from my new place in Topsail.  It wasn't a very appealing route.  All of the 'trail' between Raleigh and the outer banks followed state bicycle routes, so it was on paved roads.

But the MST authorities were considering a new route with more off-road potential that would come much closer to Topsail.  I called Kate Dixon, Executive Director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and got involved.  That new route is now open, and it comes to Topsail Island, within four miles of my condo.  It's called the Coastal Crescent route, and it connects with the old original route near Raleigh.  The MST had become an ideal set of new stepping stones for me to hop!

I hiked 900 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in early 2014--everything from the eastern terminus at Jockey's Ridge State Park in Kitty Hawk to Linn Cove viaduct visitor center and the nearby Beacon Heights trailhead.  But from there, rather than hiking on to the MST's western terminus at Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I hiked a 20 mile short cut through Linville to the AT at Yellow Mountain Gap and Hump Mountain.  I'm still working on full completion of the MST.  As of the end of 2015 I still have about 100 miles to do.

Do you remember what I said above, about not wanting to walk the same trail over and over?  Well, I've learned that that's true for me no matter how wonderful the trail is.  Between 2011 when I moved to Topsail, and 2015 I hiked the 26 mile beach strand of Topsail Island end-to-end at least four dozen times.  At first I thought I'd never get tired of walking that beach, but I did get tired of walking the *same beach*.  Although my Topsail Condo is directly on the ocean, by early 2015, I no longer felt like I was living a continuous vacation.

And so I'm moving on.  In late 2015 I bought a place along the Florida Trail in Keystone Heights -- about half way between Gainesville and Jacksonville.  I have other reasons for moving to Florida besides wanting to hike there, but there is no question that my Keystone Heights home is the first one I bought *in order to hike there*.

And so, as of this writing (the end of November, 2015) I've been on the trail south.  I've hiked from the southern Terminus of the AT to the Florida Panhandle via the Benton MacKaye Trail, the Pinhoti Trail, and the Great Eastern Trail's Alabama road walk, and now I'm working my way eastward (trail-south) on the 1100 mile-long Florida Trail.

When I reach my home in Keystone Heights, about half-way along the trail, I'm not likely to stop.  It will still be winter.  The trail continues south into the warm sun.  Key West is calling.  Stay tuned.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Blackwater State Park and the dreaded road walk on US 90

The Blackwater River at Deaton's Bridge.  Trail walkers have their own dedicated walkway, then pass the sandy beach seen at left.

"Key West or Bust" - Days 54, 55, and 56

I've made it to Crestview, FL and am holed up in a motel.  I will be getting off the trail for the Thanksgiving break, taking more zero days than I'd like because of real world snags and snafu's.  I don't bother readers with this sort of stuff unless it makes an entertaining story.  In this case it doesn't.

So as usual I'll stick to describing the trail and my experience with it - who and what I saw and what they made me think about.

I saw Blackwater River State Park and hiked the last of the Blackwater Spur Trail.  The park was far more humdrum than I expected - really quite an anticlimax.  There was the view of the river from the walkway over Deaton's Bridge shown above, but otherwise there was just routine woodland and a boring walk along a service/maintenance road. The river was high but not so high that I had to get my feet wet anywhere.  It did, perhaps, help make this little hidden reflecting pool a prettier sight.


The most interesting part of the 'foot traffic only' part of this hike was the man-made stuff, specifically a freshly clear-cut Longleaf Restoration area with tiny little Longleaf seedlings getting themselves established.


Then I began the road walk.  Almost immediately, in the little hamlet of Harold, I came upon the first real orange blaze at the junction of the Blackwater Spur Trail with the honest-to-goodness Florida Trail.  Not much to look at, but this was a 'Florida Trail or Bust' milepost for me.


I had not been looking forward to walking along busy US highway 90 with its 60-mile-per-hour speed limit and the roar of log trucks and other eighteen wheelers, but there was a surprise waiting for me, and the orange blazes helped me to understand and utilize it:


There is a very wide public right-of-way beside the highway.  It's grassy and consistently well mown except in a very few wet spots.  It's level and easy to walk, and it's well away from traffic ... that is, from rubber-wheeled traffic anyway.


They're building a new bridge over the Yellow River, but getting through the construction zone was no hassle.  It appears that the new bridge makes no special accommodation for foot or bicycle traffic, and that's a disappointment.

The Yellow River

Finally I got to Crestview and walked their 'historic' downtown.  2016 marks the 100th anniversary of this city's incorporation - an interesting co-incidence with the 50th anniversary of the Florida Trail.


It's a quiet downtown - not a lot of tourist hype.  Honestly, most of the action is on US 90 and FL 85, and there's a big mega-church in downtown that treats Main Street as if it was a back alley.  But farther north they've spruced up the street with ornate lamp posts and nice brick paving.


The north end of downtown is where the government buildings are, and the war memorial.  It's the elegant part of town - for me it was the best part of the 4.2 miles of sidewalk walking that Crestview provides.


I'll be back in Crestview in less than a week, and starting the walk though Eglin Air Base - more foot-travel-only trail!  Yay!

Below are two maps of the hikes covering the western and the eastern half of the road walk, and there are a few more photos to see.



Florida Trail - Blackwater River to Holt at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find hiking trails in California and beyond


Florida Trail road walk through Crestview at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find trail maps for California and beyond

Forest Fire! Hiking the blazing inferno



"Key West or Bust" - Days 52 and 53

 
The Firemen of Blackwater State
Have a rather unusual trait:
It's their fondest desire
to set Forests on Fire!
(And to let the poor thru-hiker wait.)


Sandra Friend and John Keatley warned me in their Florida Trail Guidebook:  Beware the Firemen of Blackwater State Forest.  They're likely to burn the trail any time of the year with little notice.

That was their plan on this day, and I was totally oblivious to it.

I was hiking directly into a death trap.

Fortunately one of their advance-men - they guy with the bulldozer who's responsible for putting in the fire lines - passed by and noticed me parked in a spot that would be nothing but cinders and ash two hours later.  He guided me to a safe place to park and pointed me in the other direction along the trail - away from the prescribed burn - because the section I wanted to hike was going up in flames.

That was Day 52.  I hiked just five miles - all north of the fire zone that day - then checked out the progress of the Fire Men's work (photo up top and below), deciding to take the rest of the day to scout ahead and rest, so that I could hike through the fire zone the next day rather than do a boring road walk around it.


So the next day I got the reward - a hike through still-smoldering woodland. 


Longleaf Pine trees, as a species, depend on fire.  It suppresses their competition.  They've learned to tolerate fire better than most other tree species.  But this day I learned that not all individuals benefit.  I passed two mature Longleaf trees like the one shown below, that had some vulnerability near ground level.  They burned and fell over in the night.  They were still burning when I passed.


The occasional individual is sacrificed for the good of the community.  That is one of nature's tough lessons.

The rest of Day 53 was equally rewarding.  I hiked the Juniper Creek - Red Rocks section and encountered what surely must be some of the most rugged terrain that Florida has to offer.  This is Florida's answer to the Grand Canyon--thirty to forty feet of vertical drop!


I hiked past some late season carnivorous pitcher plants, still trying to lure bugs into their trap with gaudy coloration:


And I hiked many miles along the shores of Juniper Creek.  It is a wonderfully clear stream, with a white sandy bottom.


And the white sandy beaches abound - there's one at every bend in the stream.


It felt like a very rewarding day.  I felt fulfilled ... satisfied ... even lightheaded, as if I had crossed into some timeless realm where I could witness the master builder him/herself at their eternal work.  But in the end he/she brought me back to reality with one simple expressive sight.  "Be not content at what has been shown to you, for it is not the end of wonders.  Seek on, young pilgrim.  There are many more questions you must answer," declared this modest young Longleaf Pine.


And I walked on in silence.

------------------------------------------------

Below is the map of these two days of adventure. 




Juniper Creek and Red Rocks, Blackwater State Forest at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find trail maps for California and beyond

Hiking Blackwater River and Hurricane Lake

Evening Primrose growing in Longleaf Pine Savanna, with glimpses of Hurricane Lake in the background.

"Key West or Bust" - Day 51

It's great to be hiking in Florida, finally, after anticipating it for so long.

And now that I'm here, Florida is delivering pretty much everything I expected.  The weather is Florida-like--warm and humid even here in mid-late November.  The flora and fauna are reminiscent of my coastal North Carolina haunts, but even more 'southern', the sandy 'geology', and the general flatness of the trail are typical for Florida.  But was not typical for me, after 180 miles of road walk through Alabama, was the chance to spend an entire day hiking in the wild, away from vehicles and civilization.

I hiked about sixteen miles today, and my path took me alongside Hurricane Lake, where the trail walks across the dam and provides views like this.


It's a peaceful place, surrounded by peaceful woods.  Here's my favorite view;


Then later in the day the trail came within touching distance of the Blackwater River itself. 


There were big cedars that seem to grow only along the river banks, and every bend in the River has big white sand 'beaches' - sand bars that invite the hiker to lounge and take a dip, though the water was a bit too chilly for me.


In terms of special interest sights, the fall bloom of wildflowers has not abated, as shown up top.  And I continue to be impressed by the sculptures that fire creates in the woods.  Here is nature's version of a 'Totem Pole'.


The Florida experience is just beginning.  I'm sure there will be ups and downs, sections that seem boring and tedious, and sections full of surprise and adventure.  But if the first full day is any indication, it should be a memorable walk.

Below is a map of today's route, with links to some more photos:


Blackwater River and Hurricane Lake at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find hiking trails in California and beyond

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Made it to Florida! - hiking Conecuh National Forest

Kiosk with Florida Trail information at the state line.  But there was no 'photo-op' - no 'Welcome to Florida' sign.  And the blazes were blue, not the famous Florida Trail orange - read on for a discussion of whether this is the Florida Trail or just a spur trail.  What's beyond dispute is that I'VE MADE IT TO FLORIDA!!!

"Florida or Bust" - Days 49 and 50

It took fifty day hikes for me to travel on foot from the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain to the start of the Florida Trail.

When I reached the state line I found no 'Welcome to Florida' sign so I had to settle for a selfie facing back toward Alabama where the first yellow blaze is accompanied by a National Forest Boundary sign.  South of there I'm in Florida's Blackwater State Forest.


The hike through Alabama's Conecuh (pronounced 'ka-NECK-uh' by the locals) National Forest was mostly on lightly traveled forest roads, and nobody here mistook me for a 'broke down' ne'er-do-well.  One gentleman driving by did stop, but only to declare "Great day for a walk!" to which I heartily agreed.

The best part was the 2.2 miles of real Conecuh Trail - a 20 mile loop of footpath built by the Youth Conservation Corps starting in the mid '70's.  The part that the Alabama Hiking Trail Society designates as part of the walk from the Pinhoti Trail to Florida passed through Longleaf Pine Savanna - always a pleasure to walk:


But the road walks in the National Forest were far better here than on paved residential roads.  I especially enjoyed very lightly used FR 355 near the north end.


When I got on FR 305, which I was obligated to walk for eleven miles, there were some very pretty places.  Take this 'oak bower' for example.


And there was a short side trip to picturesque Otter Pond


But by the time I got near the end, it just felt like a long, straight slog.


The next day, too, was just ordinary road, including a mile of paved road, before I reached the state line and the ... well, is it the Florida Trail or isn't it?

There seems to be significant confusion about that.  I've started down the Blackwater Spur trail.  The trail itself is now blazed blue, clearly recently overpainted from the original Florida Trail orange.  And there's a significant orange blaze right at the state line, even before hikers reach the welcoming Kiosk, visible in the background in this shot:


All the signs along the way--and there are big diamond signs at every major road intersection--say 'This is the Florida Trail'.


What's more, according to the Florida Trail Association hiking the Blackwater Spur instead of hiking the final western section to Fort Pickens counts toward their 'End-to-End Certificate.'

And yet the blazes were changed to blue.  That makes me feel like it's not a legitimate part of the FT.

Feeling legitimate means more to me than it might to some.  My sense of purpose is what drives me.  I'm 'hanging my hat' on the fact that if I hike Blackwater and then pick up the orange blazes at the trail junction in the little town of Harold, and head east, skipping the orange blazed section west along the beaches to the western terminus at Fort Pickens, I will, in fact, still be considered to have thru-hiked the Florida Trail.

My next immediate goal is to hike to my new residence at Keystone Heights, about halfway through the Florida Trail.  But my hope and intent is to go beyond.  In fact I hope to continue past the end of the Florida Trail to the end of the Eastern Continental Trail - to the end of US land itself, by hiking the Overseas Highway to Key West.  So from now on, my introduction to these reports (the day numbers will continue the same) will declare:

"Key West or Bust"

This will be a new adventure.  If the weather continues wet, there will be significant wading through swamps--and there may be impassable sections.  Let the fun begin!

Below are two maps of the days reported here, with links to more photos:


The Conecuh Trail - Eastern Continental Trail portion only at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Crossing into Florida via the Great Eastern Trail at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The LBWCC Recreational Trail - an alternative way through Andalusia

View of the Evans Barnes Golf Course and the Lurleen B. Wallace Community College Recreational Trail (foreground) as seen from the Andalusia, AL, Walmart parking lot.

"Florida or Bust" - Days 45 through 48

Andalusia, Alabama is a quiet southern town surrounded by beautiful farm and ranch country.  Its southern charm is infectious.  Hiking through here will be a pleasure no matter what route you take.  I chose to scout a route that was different from the one suggested by the Alabama Hiking Trail Society, and in doing so I found that I could include a true gem of a one-mile off-road trail in my thru-hike.

My logistics, traveling with two vehicles, favored a route that included the big Walmart in Andalusia.  And to my delight, this Walmart happens to be strategically located right next to Lurleen B. Wallace  Community College Andalusia Campus, and to the 1.8 mile Recreational and interpretive nature trail (tree species are labeled with signs) that loops around campus and around the Evans Barnes public golf course that is included on campus.

As you can see from the photo above, the views from the trail along the golf course are 'killer'.  Here are a few more views of and from the trail.


This off-road respite lasted about a mile, but it made the four day road walk I'm reporting in this post all worthwhile.  North of Andalusia I walked quiet roads along the 'official' route, passed through the little town of Dozier and down past Straughn School.  Then just before reaching US 29 I deviated to go down Sutton Road.  I've prepared a map of my route (in orange) and including the 'official' route (in green).  The official route also uses a bit of off-road trail through Robinson Park, but it's much shorter.


I've divided the above map into three more readable pieces:


Here's an areal photo view of the detail around the LBWCC Recreational Trail and the adjacent Wal-Mart parking lot.  The off road portion is in yellow dots, with the less attractive part of the 1.8 mile LBWCC loop trail, which goes around the sports complex, indicated in orange dots.


On the south side of Andalusia there are some beautiful homes and huge farms.  I met Tammy Wiggins Holt there, on Beaver Dam Road - her husband farms several thousand acres.  I passed a gorgeous cattle ranch with expansive pastures, several huge ponds, and a true work of art over their entrance gate.  There's even a tornado included in this sheet metal art work.  Can you spot it?


Then I really got out in the country.  The last mile of Bay Branch Road is not paved, and goes through a sand-clay canyon.


I spotted a pond turtle -- Eastern Painted Turtle, to be specific -- trying to get between ponds, so had to disturb him briefly to get a shot of his true colors, since his back was so featureless
.

And I ended that day with a spectacular sunset.  I will miss Andalusia!


Here are a set of four maps from EveryTrail trip reports.  They include quite a few more photos taken along the way.


Florida or Bust - Day 45, Hiking along CR 77 in Crenshaw County at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Florida or Bust - Day 46, CR 77 to Dozier, AL at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Florida or Bust - Day 47: Dozier to Andalusia at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama


Florida or Bust - Day 48: Andalusia to the Conecuh trail at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama