Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Years eve from the Andy Lane Trail

December 31, 2012

The Andy Lane trail is marked with yellow blazes. It is a 2.6 mile connector to the Appalachian Trail that I need to use to get to the middle of a twenty mile stretch of the AT with no road crossings. I had hoped that this would be a well marked and well maintained spur trail, and I was not disappointed.

The Andy Lane trail starts at a big parking area in the Catawba valley about ten miles north of Roanoke, VA. There's no better evidence that it's a seriously well-maintained trail than this major foot bridge that the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club built across Catawba Creek:
From there the ascent is steep - sometimes extremely steep - and often muddy (it rained for an hour last night). The Andy Lane Trail climbs 1400 feet to Scorched Earth Gap where it meets the AT.

The sign at the trailhead says it's a 2.3 mile hike, but my GPS measured 2.6 miles on the way up and the same on the way back. That's 5.2 miles of extra hiking I'm forced to do just to get to my starting point on Monday. But it's either hike those extra miles or try to do this 20 mile stretch of Appalachian Trail in two humongous day-hikes from either end. The Andy Lane Trail lets me add a third day to cover the middle. Better not to burn myself out. Once I'm in shape, after maybe a month of hiking, two consecutive twenty mile days would be doable, but not right out of the starting block.

So that's the plan: Hike maybe 8 miles out and 8 back from Troutville on my inaugural hike tomorrow, then come up the Andy Lane Trail on Monday and do maybe 4 miles of AT both ways, and finish up this wilderness stretch with another 8 out and 8 back on Tuesday.

Tuesday's hike will take me past the iconic McAfee Knob - possibly most recognized vista of any on the trail. This picture at left is from

My view of McAfee Knob came from the Catawba Valley this afternoon, as I did a bunch of sight-seeing and scouting road access and parking areas for the first week of my adventure. Here's the rustic view - the Catawba Valley is a little hidden bit of Appalachian paradise:

So tomorrow the adventure officially begins. After two days of warming up, I'm ready to go. Unfortunately, the weather is forecast to go in the other direction (cool down - in fact get downright winter-like). I'm ready for the cold, just hoping that not much more than flurries come with the arctic chill. Stay tuned ...

... and have a wonderful New Year's Eve celebration and a prosperous and joyful 2012. See you next year :-D


Here are the basic data: the GPS track and elevation profile of today's final shake-down hike:

Friday, December 30, 2011

At the trail - a shakedown hike

The adventure begins. Left the beach early this morning (yes, a day later than planned), and drove to Black Horse Gap (central Virginia) where the Appalachian Trail intersects with the Blue Ridge Parkway and with a horse trail. This is the point I've chosen to start a branch of my Personal Continuous Footpath that will link the AT with my new home at Topsail Beach. That's more than 300 miles of mostly road walking, but today's first leg east was on a pleasant trail, hiked in downright balmy weather (calm winds, temperature near 60, bright sunny skies).

I arrived at Black Horse Gap about 9:30 and hit the trail. The route was on a smooth graded horse trail converted from an old road. About half a mile down from the gap was a sign (shown in the picture) identifying the former site of Black Horse Tavern, which served travelers along the road (called the Old Sweet Springs Road) in the 1800’s. I'm posting more pictures from today's hike (mostly of signs) in my Panoramio album

On the way down I met a friendly talkative muzzle loader hunter who lives in Montvale at the base of the mountain. We must have chatted for twenty minutes. When I mentioned the tavern, he launched into a story about a cache of smuggled gold and silver that is supposed to be buried somewhere within ten miles of the tavern. Supposedly the native Americans indigenous to the area have part of a clue to the whereabouts of the loot, and descendants of the early settlers have another part of the clue, but each side refuses to share their knowledge with the other. True or not, it makes a good tale!

Down at the base of the ridge my trail emerges at a US Forest Service parking area called the Day Creek trail head. I hiked another half mile out to the paved road before turning around.

Then on my ascent I was passed by three mountain bikers climbing the trail barely faster than I was walking (the trail is pretty steep, climbing 1300 feet in about a mile and a half).

It was a pretty short day of hiking, just to stretch my legs. The total distance was a bit more than 5½ miles. I was back at my vehicle at 12:45 and it was only when I sat down that I realized I had spent a lot of energy—it seemed effortless when I was hiking.

The rest of the day I spent scouting parking areas etc. for the next couple of days.

Tomorrow I'll do another short 'warm-up' hike, and hope to post another entry tomorrow afternoon or evening.

Hope everyone is enjoying the week between holidays. Enjoy tomorrow evening's celebration!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Letting Go

Time to go.

Time to let go.

I'm heading off to the Appalachian Trail to begin my epic thru-hike adventure. So it's time to set aside all the touchstones of civilization that I've come to depend on. This photo is of my core comfort zone--my 'living room' in my tiny beach-front condo. The morning sun pours in off the sea - how I love to bask in the brilliant light as I sit at my laptop and work on my novel or simply browse the web.

Outside my sun-drenched patio door the irrepressible sound of the surf soothes and forever beckons me. But so do the subtle siren-calls of the deep woods sylphs who lurk just beyond touching in the soft moss and undergrowth along the Appalachian Trail. Now it's time to tune in to their addictive song. It is the call of the wild.

Tomorrow I head out to the trail to do a couple days of warm-up hiking and scouting. The time has finally arrived. The adventure formally begins on Sunday!

What I'm giving up: TV, lazy beach combing, regular showers and clean clothes, the certainty of being dry and warm, familiar relationships - the glorious and maddening (always vibrant and dynamic) daily entanglements with family and friends.

What I'm glad to be rid of: Negative Political debate and shameless, self-prostituting politicians (the 2012 election campaign and associated trappings of our decaying civilization), deciding what purpose today will present for me, personal complacency and its inevitable malaise.

What I'm blessed to be granted in simple abundance: The chance to reconnect with and commune with some of the primal elements of the natural world that our ancestors intimately knew, the space and time to come into harmony with these elements, the quiet calm to incorporate this harmony into my soul.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Final Gear Inventory - 10.8 pounds Skin-out

With just one week to go before I hit the trail, I've made final gear acquisitions and decisions and assembled it all for a weigh-in.

It's also been a busy week of holiday preparations and celebrating my son's graduation from the University of Maryland with a degree in Mechanical Engineering (photo at left, where you can also get a glimpse of the 2.5 month head start I've got on my 'trail beard'). I'll be spending Christmas with family and then spending a couple days back at the beach before heading to the trail.

"Skin-out weight" may not mean a lot to non-hiker friends and family who are casually following my Appalachian Trail adventure just to see how I'm doing. But for the ardent long-distance hiker, particularly those who aspire to go 'ultra-light', it's all about minimizing Skin-out weight (the weight of everything you carry with you above and beyond your bare-naked body). Consider that whatever weight you carry, you have to lift it each time you take a step. The Appalachian Trail is about five million steps long. Suddenly one pound becomes five million pounds. Even a quarter of an ounce can make a huge difference over the long haul.

Because my plan is to complete the trail (twice) by out-and-back day hikes, I will not be carrying a tent, sleeping bag and cook stove. These are three of the heavier items a backpacker must carry. Below is an excruciatingly detailed list of what I will carry, with commentary on some of the choices:

  • Leki Makalu trekking poles (2)
  • a couple feet of Duct Tape wound around one of the poles (emergency repairs to clothing, etc.)
  • two large plastic trash bags for emergency ground cover
  • a Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil nylon combination tarp and rain poncho (11 ounces)
  • a length of cord (plastic bailing twine) to erect tarp into an emergency tent (about 50 feet length)
  • two tea light candles (each burns for about an hour and a half)
  • a box of wooden matches
  • zip-lock plastic bags in sufficient number to waterproof matches and other sensitive items, plus spares
  • a minimal first-aid kit consisting of band-aids and antibiotic cream
  • ball point pen and index cards (I opted not to carry a pocket voice recorder)
  • Katadyn Hiker-Pro water filter pump (11 ounces)
  • Petzl LED headlamp with 3 AA batteries
  • My trusty 40 year old REI daypack - still functioning perfectly
  • Asics Trail Sensor 5 Trail running shoes (less than a pound)
  • Columbia Titanium nylon cargo shorts (I carry a number of items in the pockets for convenience)
  • Athletic Works polyester t-shirt (from Wal-Mart)
  • Cotton briefs. Yes, cotton. Mandatory for me. (You want details?)
  • nylon liner socks and heavy Smart Wool hiking socks
  • cheap Casio digital day-date watch with wrist bands cut off
  • Swiss Army knife with 11 different tools, including file/saw, scissors, tweezers, and entirely unnecessary Phillips screwdriver.
  • nail clipper (more important than any of the tools on the Swiss Army knife. I have toenails that dig into adjacent toes when they get too long).
  • aspirin or ibuprofin - 12 tablets in a cute little pill container on the same keychain with the nail clipper. This waterproof (with an o-ring) pill holder was a drug store give-away, and the most useful piece of free gear I own.
  • cell phone. I'm debating whether to leave that behind. It's value is to signal for help in a dire emergency.
  • sun screen (just a small amount)
  • credit card, driver's license, and a $20 bill, all in a zip-lock bag
  • Garmin Oregon 550t GPS unit. More than half a pound, and a luxury item really, but I wouldn't consider hiking without it.
  • Canon Power-Shot 10x zoom camera. Totally a luxury item - so I can indulge my artistic urges when something photogenic comes along. This weighs close to a pound.
  • reading glasses - mandatory for my 63 year old eyes to work the GPS and read maps.
  • Spare batteries, two AA rechargables for the camera or the GPS.
  • toilet paper in zip-lock bag--small roll
  • Chlorine water treatment tablets for emergency backup--very light weight
  • trail map - the ATC official map of the section I'm hiking.
As indicated by the title of this post, the sum total weight of everything listed above is 10.8 pounds, and it includes a nearly one-pound camera that I may choose to leave out. The clothing included is only my summer outfit, and the weight does not include water and food (I plan to carry plenty of water, but because I'm doing day hikes, I'll only carry enough food for a single day's lunch and snacks). During cold weather (below about 55 degrees), I'll also carry extra layers of clothing.

Something that I do not hear hikers 'fess-up' about is their SKIN-IN weight. What body weight is optimal for long distance hiking? You've probably seen how scrawny marathon runners are. Well, there's no reason for a hiker who's walking that much distance every day to weigh any more than a marathoner. My advice is to eat the calories you need each day and don't carry *any* calories (in the form of body fat) that you won't burn before your next resupply.

What is a person's ideal Skin-In weight? Runner's World suggests that your ideal weight is achieved at a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 18.5. Your BMI is easily calculated based on your height and weight. I'm 6'2" and weigh 148 pounds, giving me a BMI of 19.0 - exactly where I want it to be (just a few pounds of cushion before I drop into the unhealthy range).

So I'm primed to hit the trail, both skin-in and skin-out. Let the adventure begin!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Temperature management during winter hiking

At 6'2" and only 148 pounds I have an exceptional need to conserve body heat - I have too much skin surface and not enough heat-retaining volume, so I quickly lose heat from my core compared to the cold-adapted barrel-chested Inuit people of the far north, for example.

And Because I'm starting my hike in the dead of winter (Just two weeks to go now!!), hypothermia is something I take seriously. One of my primary jobs, as I traverse the Appalachian Trail, will be to keep constantly aware of my core body heat.

Taking my cues from the Inuit, I'm planning to carry around an 'artificial barrel chest' in the form of seven mix and match layers of shirts, jackets and coats. With them all on, I look as puffed-up as a marshmallow. There are two shirts, two fleeces, two down-filled layers, and the item shown at left, which is my workhorse layer - a Gore-Tex wind/rain shell from Mountain Hardwear. This shell is actually more important to me as a wind-block than as a rain jacket (in any substantial rain, you'll get wet right through it, and/or around it, and/or by accumulating sweat from the inside out). It has proven its worth on Mount Washington, NH in March, at 20,000 feet in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, and here on the beach in the frigid December winds.

The beach? Yes, this week I'm back here on Topsail Island, NC, experimenting with clothing while beach walking to try to maintain hiking shape. The weather has ranged from almost summer-like with calm winds to this morning's upper 30's with steady north breezes.

(For more detail about the historic 1940's era Rocket Launch towers I've visited and and documented this week, give a look at This Facebook Photo Album, complete with extensive captions. You can see even more photos from this week's hiking at Panoramio.)

I've posted before about the inadequacies of hiking the beach as preparation for the Appalachian Trail. Yes, the beach is a good place for testing gear in windy conditions because the beach is so exposed. But the big problem is that there are no hills. You can hike the beach without ever raising your heart rate. You don't even exercise some of the key muscles used in ascending and descending. And now I'm learning that beach hiking doesn't help you practice active (adaptive) temperature management either.

On the AT, you're constantly switching from hard uphill slogs where you're generating lots of body heat, to level and downhill sections where you're 'coasting' and losing body heat. During long uphills, I shed layers, only to put them on again during the downhills that inevitably follow.

As I said, this constant adjustment is critical to me because of my slender build, and also because I just hate to get cold--I seem to be unusually sensitive to cold and like to keep my body heat 'reservoir' as near to full as I can without sweating. During winter conditions, these adjustments are more extreme and require more attention. You have to avoid sweating on the uphills so as to avoid the evaporation over-chilling on the downhills. This is a lot of work - mental as much as physical - I find I need to remain constantly alert to my body's signals so as to avoid both extremes.

And like everything else in life, practice helps. The more I work with my mix-match array of seven torso layers, the easier it is to keep temperature equilibrium. The more I experience different weather conditions, the easier it is to know what layers I prefer to use, what layers give me the most protection for the weight, what layers work best when wet, etc., etc.

Some of the choices that work for me in cold weather are:
  • wear torso layers with hoods. They seamlessly keep my neck out of the wind. Three of the seven torso layers I carry have hoods: a hooded sweatshirt, the hooded shell shown above, and my Sub-Zero mountaineering down coat with detachable hood.
  • shorts are usually enough. I can go bare-legged even with the temperature well below freezing as long as there isn't much wind. My feet don't get cold easily, and I find that my legs are almost impervious to the elements. (My hands are an entirely different story - see next item). So far, when the weather turns extreme, I've only needed one layer of long pants--my insulated Mountain Hardwear Compressor pants, shown at left. This is another one of my work-horse gear choices, used successfully at high altitude in cold weather, but not yet tested for wet conditions. I also have a pair of rain pants I've never used and a set of wool thermal leggings that I used successfully back in my bicycling days.
  • Keep hands warm. My hands turn out to be my most reliable 'canary in the coal mine'. The tips of my thumbs get numb quickly, followed by my fingers, whenever my body heat reservoir begins to empty. My torso may still *feel* comfortable, but I know I'm more chilled than I should be when my fingers get cold. Soccer players and marathon runners in cold weather often wear gloves accompanied by nothing more than thin t-shirts and shorts. That's how I know I'm not crazy. I actually prefer a thin pair of mittens rather than gloves, so my fingers can keep each other warm. I'll often keep these mittens on even with temperatures in the 40's.
  • Use head wear to fine-tune the rate of loss of body heat. How often have you heard the urban myth that half the body's heat is lost through an uncovered head? The actual percentage seems to be more like 20 to 30 percent. But whatever the exact percentage, the concept works, at least for me. When it gets below 50 degrees I wear a knit hat that I can pull down over my ears completely. When it's really cold, I pull a hood over that, eventually two or three hoods. When I begin to feel too warm, I remove the hood(s), then begin to roll up the knit hat exposing my ears. If I'm still too warm, I loosen the collar of the wind shell and lower the zipper to expose my neck. Short of actually shedding layers, these steps usually suffice for temperature control.
  • slow down on the hardest uphill pitches. Hiking the AT is not a race. It's easy to work up a sweat through a very short section of steep climbing. For me it can take as little as thirty seconds. And once you've got your inner layers wet, they're going to chill you--even the supposedly 'wicking' layers don't avoid this. (a 'wick' doesn't do any 'wicking' unless it's *wet*). It's so tempting to just power through such short sections of steep trail, but in cold weather, that's generally a bad idea. You'll either have to endure the evaporation cooling of your sweat, or have to stop and dig into your pack to adjust your layers--which, of course, totally negates the few seconds you 'saved' by powering through the steep grade. In this case the old 'tortoise and the hare' analogy truly applies.
I expect that as much as I've prepared, there will still be a steep learning curve as I hit the AT in two weeks. For one thing I haven't done enough wet weather hiking. The few experiences I've had hiking for hours in steady cold rain with temperatures near freezing were memorable for how cold I got, so I'm planning to err on the side of over-dressing and hope that I learn which of my layers work effectively when they are soaking wet.

But I'm not going out and deliberately hike in the rain just to experiment with gear. I'm not that much of a masochist. I'm going to rely on 'on the job training' for that. As the old saying goes: 'No rain? No pain? ... No Maine." When that third factor (reaching Maine) is added into the equation, I'll accept being miserable, but not before :-)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Prove it!

If I'm going to hike the AT end-to-end twice in 2012, as I hope, I want to be able to come away with some solid proof that I did it. I guess I'm a bit obsessed with that. I've been on the trail and seen other thru-hikers, who are clearly not purists, taking short-cuts. I want to pass every white blaze, and to the best of my ability I want to be able to prove it!

With today's high tech capabilities, it seems to me that it ought to be possible to prove 'beyond a reasonable doubt' where I walked and when I was there. To collect the data necessary, I'm relying on my new toy, the Garmin Oregon 550 GPS with camera.

But collecting the data isn't enough. My goal has been to make it available on-line. I've now finished exploring the options to do that, and have come to the realization that I'm just not tech-savvy enough to do everything I know is possible. Unfortunately it seems that one needs to be familiar with the internal workings of KML files on Google Earth and/or GPX files generated by the Garmin unit. I just don't have time or inclination to dive into the deep end of that pool right now. But I've got the basics nailed. Yes, I *can* prove where I've been.

The screen shot above is the result of my test case. While in Maryland visiting family for Thanksgiving and then having three teeth extracted and awaiting the follow-up visit to the oral surgeon, I made a series of hikes with my new GPS in which I extended my Personal Continuous Footpath south from Columbia Maryland to two places I once lived (Takoma Park and Savage, MD), and to my long-time place of work, Goddard Space Flight Center. My GPS recorded the tracks, and I have now learned how to upload those tracks to Google Earth. The screen shot is the result displayed on Google Earth--literally a second-by-second recording of my footsteps. (Note that I also started a leg off to the southeast, eventually hoping to extend it to another former residence down in southern Maryland.)

To get technical about it, what I can do is save the tracking information from my GPS unit to my computer and, using the Google Earth application (which you have to download from Google), convert the tracking data to a KML file for display. The image is the resulting raw display--I've yet to try to customize it or tinker with it. But I don't really have to. The point is that I can save the track data and I can share the KML files with anyone who wants proof so that they can view them on Google Earth for themselves.

What I cannot do (yet) is embed the photos I took with the GPS into this tracking information. Nor can I find a satisfactory way to take the Google Earth Track and display it in user-friendly fashion on Google Maps (the 'My Maps' option nominally lets me do that, but for all practical purposes it's far too clunky and inadequate).

Google Earth, on the other hand, seems pretty amazing. If you want to view my track files, it seems by far the best choice. I've only just begun to explore what I can do with Google Earth, but knowing I've got the basics necessary to provide documentary proof of my hike is good enough for now. I'd recommend that anyone who likes 'virtual travel' try downloading Google Earth, then you can come along with me virtually, step by step, on my epic journey.

If only you could seamlessly see the photos I've taken along the way as you fly along my Google Earth track! I tried embedding a test photo, but my attempt failed miserably. So for the time being I've had to go to the separate Google mapping application to display my photos: called Panoramio. There I have downloaded my photos from the Takoma Park-Savage-Goddard hikes and had them automatically mapped. If only that automatic map on Panoramio could also include my track! Grrrrr! I just can't seem to make these different Google applications work together. It's probably me - and my lack of tech-savvy skill. But time is ticking--less than three weeks to go now until I hit the trail--so I'm going to have to settle for this compromise.

And that's good enough. My mind is at ease ... got my gear ready (maybe I'll post a summary of that), got my supporting tech equipment ready, got my attitude focused, and got my body just chomping at the bit to start. AT here I come!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The mental hike - what's the destination?

I cannot fly
like this small guy,
who soars upon the gale.

But that's no shake -
I'd rather take
the Appalachian Trail.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, "Ninety percent of [a thru-hike] is mental, the other half is physical."

It's not all that hard for the average person to walk twelve miles a day, even carrying 30 pounds of weight. Once you get used to it, it's downright easy.

Human beings evolved to walk. We are uniquely adapted to a nomadic lifestyle. We became the 'bipedal, walking ground-ape' when the climate changed and the African forests gave way to endless savannah. Food got scarce, and we had to scramble to find enough. We became the pinnacle hunter/gatherers, omnivorous, foraging far and wide across the land for our subsistence.

So an AT thru-hike is built into our genes. In fact, our ability to walk relentlessly day after day defines the species Homo sapiens as much as our gregarious social nature does. These two characteristics embody our niche in the natural ecosystem.

Twelve miles a day ... that's all there is to it. That's the physical challenge. In the hunter-gatherer days of our Ancestors, we wouldn't give that a second thought. We would be on the trail our entire lives, keeping up with our nomadic tribe - our extended family.

And there's the real problem. The problem is not that you and I want to walk the AT from end to end in one calendar year. The real problem is that our 'tribe' - our extended family - *doesn't*.

The real problem is that our natural psychological support system will be sitting in front of the TV watching 'One Tree Hill' while we're slogging hour after hour, day after day, through the rain and cold.

The real problem is that our once proud and self-sufficient hunter-gatherer society has devolved into an unnatural, sedentary malaise - the result being epidemic obesity, diabetes, heart failure, cancer, and ubiquitous, unconscionable pollution of the mind, the body and the planet.

So take heart, fellow thru-hikers. You are the ones who've got it right. You are the ones who are taking back our heritage. You are the ones who are remaining true to the human mandate.

Our extended families will not hike with us. The whiz and frenzy of daily life has sucked them into a vortex of stress and entanglements. We, somehow, have managed to extract ourselves from that whirlpool to declare that our lives *will NOT suck*!. We have broken free, at least for a time. But the fact remains ... our families will not come with us.

The result: it's the loneliness, the monotony, the relative discomfort and deprivation that will be our greatest challenges.

Each of us will face these in our own way. We will substitute a new 'trail family' for our blood kin. We will extract moral support from each other and through high-tech contact with family and friends back in the artificial 'real' world.

We will renew our spiritual touch with our primal Ancestor genes. We will make deep connections with nature's miraculous rhythms, long buried within us. We will relearn what's truly important - to live for today and embrace the moment - 'Carpe diem!' - to find the joy in the first fleck of sunlight at dawn, in the pure musty fragrance of damp moss after a rain, in the call of the wood thrush, in the crunchy sweetness of an heirloom apple fresh from a trailside tree. We will re-learn what it means to be human.

And this ... at least for me ... is the destination of my mental hike. It is a place I forever seek - and *the* place where I belong.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A (happy) day in the life ...

The pain from my tooth extractions is fading. I'm back at the beach for a while, and life seems newly rosy. So I thought I'd share my daily journal entry for today, starting with the photo:

What a fantastic December day at Topsail Island, NC! Amazing! Not just the weather was ideal—so was my beachcombing luck.

Weather first: It never got below 60° overnight last night, and this afternoon the temperature hit the mid 70’s inland and near 70° here on the beach where the winds were as close to calm ALL DAY as you’ll ever have, yet BETTER than calm, because there was a persistent drift of air onshore keeping a gloriously fragrant sea mist wafting over the beach strand. The dew point (measure of moisture in the air) was a summer-like 60° or higher even though the beach water temperature was 58°. The humidity had its origin off to the south on the tropical Gulf Steam, brought in by the gentle south winds. Finally there was LOTS of sunshine yet muted by enough cloud cover to soften it, keeping the low winter sun angle from producing an uncomfortable glare as it glances off the ocean.

To add icing on the cake, this morning’s sunrise was complex and interesting. I got up in time to watch it, going out on the beach barefoot to measure the water temperature as the sun made its first appearance above the patchwork of multi-layer clouds. Then I came back in and did several significant chores before leaving at 8AM for a serious beach walk during which I veritably soaked in the idyllic conditions.

I drove down to the Mile 17 pavilion to start the hike (I live at MP 20 but, for variety, I don’t limit myself to local hikes) and hiked north to the Sea View fishing pier (Mile 18) and then south on a longer leg to the beach access point for the Trailer Park and little convenience store at Mile 14.7. The beach was even emptier than I remembered it from my walks in November—literally miles of beach that I had all to myself. The only place I encountered other people was at the very popular Mile 16.4 parking area—always infested with off-island locals and assorted day-visitors because it is directly across the high bridge from the mainland.

Now … on to the beachcombing news: along the way I lingered at several promising shark teeth deposit areas and netted 69 shark teeth for the day, including the biggest one I’ve found in almost six months of beach walks, easily eclipsing my previous prize in terms of weight, though not in quality. This new 40+ million year old Megalodon tooth (shown to the right of the penny) has its tip broken off.

Oh, if only this tooth could talk and share the tale of its epic journey from the mouth of a living Megalodon (with a rich life surely full of intrigue and adventure so very, very long ago), through multiple cycles of sedimentation, deep burial, erosion and shoreline exposure before I finally chanced to find it today.

My imagination ran wild as I imagined the endless possibilities. To try to gain some perspective on how much time this fossil has experienced, my mind wandered toward the future. Where will this tooth find itself a thousand years from now—long after I’m gone and forgotten? The tough minerals of these shark teeth are built for endurance—not so for my frail human bones (especially since I'm asking to have them cremated). A thousand years from now, will this fossil be abandoned and discarded in some landfill, or buried among the decaying ruins of some abandoned and forgotten human settlement? Or will it be held as a prized trophy in an ornate teak cabinet owned by some distant wealthy descendant? What about TEN thousand years from now? One hundred thousand years? What significance would this fossil have to the beings who are our successors in such a remote future, if any have survived? What about one million years from now? Would anything we know and hold dear today have any relevance to life in that distant time?

And yet—daunting as it might be to imagine—a million years is insignificant compared to the span of time that this shark tooth has retained its identity in order to find its way into my hand.

To me, the measure of a successful species is how long it manages to prevail as a force on this planet. Sharks are a remarkable success story. Humans, by comparison, can (up to now) claim to be little more than an ephemeral blip on the radar.

Do we have any hope of surviving as long as the sharks? Or will mankind condemn himself to an early extinction?

When I hold a 45 million year old Megalodon tooth in my hand, and let my imagination soar, I feel truly alive--a participant in an epic 13.7 billion year journey that has fashioned this reality. How profound is that!?!?

It doesn't take a shark tooth. A rock will do--a plain, humble lump of stone whose composite protons experienced the first star formation, the super-nova explosions, aeons drifting as unconsolidated dust, then the magical consolidation into a solar system that somehow begat life.

I absolutely relish exploring the unspoken but starkly real tale that such artifacts could tell; and this is the most central inspiration for my writing. My ‘magnum opus’—the trilogy of novels that I now have 80% finished—provides my honest ‘best guess’ answer to the question: what is the long-term fate of humanity. (Hint: we adapt, we survive 630,000 years at least. But every one of those 630 millennia was an epic struggle—think of any 1000 year segment of human history, how we pictured ourselves at the beginning, how we transformed ourselves by the end. And in the end, after more than half a million years, success came in many unexpected guises, not all of which we would recognize as ‘human’.

But I digress. Forty-five million-year-old Megalodon teeth will do that to me. I finished my 6.89 mile hike at 12:30PM and headed back home. There I showered and sorted through the shark teeth and took and processed photos of them. The photo at the top of this entry shows most of today’s take of shark teeth along with the previous record holder, shown for comparison.

Now on to the subject of human teeth, or lack thereof: In response to my three extractions of a week ago today, I continued to take near the maximum dose of aspirin to suppress the ongoing pain. But, given that chemical aid, the pain was clearly diminishing now, and quite rapidly. Meanwhile as the afternoon came, I tuned the TV to soccer—pre-game coverage and then live coverage of some potentially interesting UEFA Champion’s League games involving English teams. Unfortunately the live game, which kicked off at 2:45PM, turned lopsided quickly, leaving me free to remain on the laptop to run through the afternoon rounds with the game on only as background (and thus this lengthy post was born).

Meanwhile (and this is the bit that is relevant to the Appalachian Trail journal), in Maryland (and all the way down the Appalachian Trail to Georgia) the weather today was unseasonably mild and humid (near 60 degree temperature and dew point), but intermittent rain started around midnight and persisted all day. So yesterday's decision to drive down to the beach was an obvious winner. It’s those kind of informed choices (after internet study) that I hope will enhance my effectiveness at hiking the AT next year. My plan is to remain flexible enough so that I can move (even a couple hundred miles) to where I can hike a section that is forecast to be dry and/or warm and avoid a section where it will be wet and/or cold.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Some progress, some setbacks - prep for the AT adventure

One of the high-tech cogs in my AT hike machinery is a wireless 4G hotspot. Just picked it up this week. With it I can check current conditions along the trail anywhere I can get a cell phone signal (not to mention uploading photos and blog entries). Since I'm starting my hike January 1st, knowing about snow cover conditions will help a lot with logistics. I've found some cool sites such as the one shown above from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. They analyze satellite data to get a virtually continuous map of snow coverage, but no information about depth. The Trail in VA and NC got a bit of snow at the end of December, and it shows up here on this December 1st screen shot. I can get snow depth information from National Weather Service sites, but only at reporting stations, and these are usually down in the valleys. But every little bit of info will help.

I toyed with the idea of getting a smart phone or even carrying a wireless 4G tablet with me on the trail to check weather and provide updates in near real time - a good 10 inch tablet weighs less than a pound - but I opted against these options in favor of the more versatile wireless hotspot because experience has shown that cell tower reception is very spotty along the trail. And that's kind of a good thing, when you think about it. It's nice to know that there's still some 'wilderness adventure' left in an AT thru-hike :-) So I'll be doing my internet connecting only from my vehicle.

Other than the visit to my local Verizon Wireless sales center, this week was very up-and-down. I managed several training hikes that extended my Personal Continuous Footpath to an old 1979 residence of mine in Takoma Park, MD and to my long time place of employment at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, MD, but had to cut the trekking short when my three tooth extractions all developed the very painful complication called 'dry socket' or 'alveolar osteitis'. Wow! That really knocked me back a peg or two for several days. I have a follow-up visit with the oral surgeon this morning, so I'm hopeful that the worst of it is over.

Had I felt better, I was hoping to download Google Earth and begin to learn to use it to import tracking data from my GPS, but that's going to have to wait a few days. Yes, the plan is to have my entire step-by-step track posted on Google Maps for the curious to see--and to keep me honest (As a trail 'purist', I plan to pass every white blaze twice during 2012).

All for now ... I leave you with one shot from the week's hiking: A little lake on the property of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center variously called Alter Pond or SCS Lake. It teems with wildlife all year, and in summer is almost completely covered with water lilies. I've posted a few dozen more photos from the week's hiking at Panoramio.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Patuxent Branch Trail: Extending my Personal Continuous Footpath and gear testing

Thanksgiving weekend was a wonderful break. I had a chance to visit with family and see a couple movies and eat out with my kids. Then came the business: for me, cyber Monday meant a dentist appointment. It was all part of the preparation for the Appalachian Trail hike, I had three teeth pulled because they could be potential problems over the next year. I'm headed toward getting dentures anyway, my teeth are so ground-down and ugly--so much so that I considered adopting trail names like 'no teeth' or 'the smile from hell'.

Being the pain-defying trooper that I am, I went straight from the oral surgeon's office to a local trailhead and headed out for six miles of hiking and six miles of biking (the return leg). I carried my new toy with me: My Garmin Oregon 550t GPS with imbedded camera. The photo above was taken with it. By taking a photo with this camera, a waypoint is automatically recorded, and the photo can be directly downloaded to Google's Panoramio web site with all the mapping information necessary for Google Earth.

The trail I hiked is called the Patuxent Branch Trail. It roughly follows an old railroad grade along the Middle Patuxent River from Lake Elkhorn in the Owen Brown village of Columbia, MD, to the historic Savage Mill, with its boutiques and shops, in Savage-Guilford, MD. The photo is the iconic one for this trail. It is the Pratt Truss Bridge, built in 1902 and now converted to a rail-trail bridge. The trail is a lovely walk, all paved except for a 1.5 mile gravel section just south of the pictured bridge, and open to bicycles and pedestrians.

At the south end of the trail, just a few blocks from Savage Mill, is an apartment complex where I lived from the Fall of 1980 to the Spring of 1981: my first residence after leaving my Post-Doc job at Colorado State University and starting my career at Goddard Space Flight Center. So with today's walk, I extended my Personal Continuous Footpath to another one of my former addresses.

What is a 'Personal Continuous Footpath'? Imagine a set of footprints that can be followed without interruption from Point A to Point B. That's all it is: a continuous trail that I've followed using no means other than my feet. When I quit the trail for the day and get in my car to go home, I come back to the same spot the next day and resume the walk.

Extending my Personal Continuous Footpath (PCF) has become an ongoing project for me, and the Appalachian Trail is just part of that project. To date, my PCF runs from Savage, MD, up through Ellicott City, MD and on north for 25 miles or so on trails through the extensive trail system of the Patapsco Valley State Park to an 81 mile circuit hike around Liberty Reservoir west of Baltimore. From there my PCF extends eastward 100 miles to my childhood homes in Wilmington, DE and adjacent southeast PA, and westward 50 miles via country roads and the Catoctin Trail to the Appalachian Trail at Raven Rock Hollow. From there I've hiked the AT north to Caledonia State Park in southern PA and south to Troutville, VA - about 350 AT trail miles.

The weather for today's walk was delightful for this late in the year. It was shirtsleeve weather. But there's a front on the way and the mild spell we've been enjoying for weeks now looks to be coming to an end. The harsh realities of winter look set to finally arrive. Still, I have plans to continue with my PCF project as training and preparation for my 2012 AT double thru-hike. One of the top priorities will be to do the 300 mile trek from the AT at Black Horse Gap, VA to my Topsail Island beach home--about 300 miles of mostly road walking, though the central portion of it will follow North Carolina's premier trail--the nearly 1000 mile long Mountains-to-Sea Trail. More about that as I begin to walk it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How I will document and 'report' my AT hiking experience

View Personal Continuous Footpath in a larger map

Isn't technology amazing! You can now embed photos in Google Earth that everyone can view with a click. This week I learned how.

Yep, lots of time hunkered down at my laptop in the past few days exploring the ways that I can share my adventure with interested followers in near real time and with as much realism and detail as possible. Of course I'll be regularly adding blog entries here, and I expect this is where the bulk of my 'text content' will appear. Facebook will supplement this, as will I've already set up those access points.

But there are three other potential places to add more richness to the posted info. These are largely map-based or location based. The Google Maps 'My Places' application allows me to create maps such as the one above, which documents some of the Maryland segment of my 'Personal Continuous Footpath', about which I hope to talk further in another post. Its strength is being able to mark routes (as with the red and blue lines in the map above. In my case these routes are walking routes that I've completed. The map is not complete - the application doesn't seem to like it when you add too many distinct items (things listed in the column on the list at left side of the page in the full version of the above map. So I will probably be creating a series of such maps.

Now for the photo part: you can pop open the selection/menu box in upper right (for type of map to view) and there you can check 'Photos'. When you do, if all works as they say it should, photos that I've submitted to Google Earth will appear (along with photos submitted by many other users). By clicking on the thumbnail, the full photo should appear in the map window exactly the way that a Street View image would. Voila!!

Another way to view only the photos submitted by me is to go to the Google affiliated photo site, Panoramio, which is where I actually submit my photos for approval by Google Earth. As you can see, the three experimental submissions (at the time of this writing that's all there were), were approved for Google Earth already - it took barely 24 hours.

Finally, another great online resource: In researching parking and access points for the day hikes that will make up my adventure, I discovered the Appalachian Trail Parking, Access, Maps and Pictures site. This is an amateur web site that has hundreds of photos arranged by location along the entire AT. It's big advantage is that it is AT specific, showing only trail views and views of parking and access areas related to the Appalachian Trail, and nicely arranged geographically by trail section and mile marker. I will be referring to this site constantly as I prepare the logistics for each day's hike, and I hope to contribute lots of my photos and info to them in exchange.

Soon I'll be off for a couple of days of hiking, not on the AT but to extend my Personal Continuous Footpath. More on that next week, perhaps. Then it's home for a big family dinner and visit for Thanksgiving. Hope everyone has a fantastic Turkey Day!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why I want to hike. Why I will hike.

Have you ever seen a puppy let out to run after a day locked in a cage? Have you ever been told something was impossible, then tried it anyway? Have you met people who were given a second chance in life, and seen how much zest and energy they bring to ordinary day-to-day life?

I am that puppy. I gave it a try. I have been granted a second chance. And that's why I hike.

The story goes back to the early 1980's when, as a result of a decade of intense amateur bicycle racing, I ruined my left knee. The orthopedist told me I had chondromalacia--a thinning of the cartilage on the inside of the kneecap causing painful bone-on-bone rubbing. I couldn't climb a flight of stairs. It was painful to walk ten steps. There was no treatment except ice and no cure except to avoid overusing the knee, which for me meant giving up bicycling permanently, and giving up all hope of any strenuous activity using my left leg. The doctor told me I could look forward to developing early arthritis in the joint, and prescribed me some Motrin (now known as 'Vitamin-I' in hiker parlance--ibuprofen--back then it was still only available by prescription).

I became a couch potato, doing nothing beyond casual walking, relying on upper body activities like gardening and brush clearing for exercise. I always favored the left knee--babied it. After a few years the discomfort in the knee subsided. It still felt 'there'--I don't know how else to describe the feeling. I knew it was still not right. But it didn't cause me pain as long as I didn't do something stupid like try to run--even ten yards. (Because the few times I did, the pain returned and stayed for days.)

Fast forward to December 2006. I was approaching 60 and was watching the Discovery Channel's multi-episode coverage of an expedition to climb Mount Everest. I was moved--inspired. I don't know why. The movie 'Bucket List' with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson was still a year away from release, but I was at that age--time to start thinking about doing things on my bucket list before I was too old to try.

I had always wanted to climb a mountain in South America that was higher than 20,000 feet.  It was the one item that clearly sat at the top of my personal 'things to do before I die' list.

I decided to give it a try.  I would begin to train to make that climb.  I made a pact with myself before starting that I would jump in with no expectations, and that if the 'there' feeling in the left knee ever became 'pain', I would quit immediately and go back to the couch.  I did *not* want that debilitating pain to rule my life ever again.

I started training by repeatedly hiking up Bob's Hill, in the Catoctin Mountains near Frederick, MD.  (I've posted about that hike before).  At first I carried no weight and went very slowly--a mile and a half in around an hour.  The knees objected, but only in the normal way, not in that special awful way that I remembered.  The chondromalacia seemed 'in remission'.  Later I read something on the internet that suggested that it was one of the few joint injuries that can heal (I can't find that reference at the moment, though).  I worked up to climbing the hill three times consecutively, in under 45 minutes each time while carrying fifty pounds of water in my pack.

Every day I marveled at the lack of knee pain.  Every day I was pushing it harder.  Every day it was responding positively.  I could barely believe it.  I honestly felt as though I had been 'let out of jail' - felt like that puppy freed from its shackles and bounding gleefully, inexhaustibly, at breakneck speed round and round the park.

Long story short, I checked off the 20,000 foot mountain item from my bucket list in early 2010, and just kept walking.  Since then I've retired from the intensive aerobic aspects associated with serious mountain climbing, but have steadily increased my daily horizontal mileage.  The knee remains stable and I feel in better shape than I have in thirty years.

And so it was inevitable.  Living on the east coast of the US and doing lots hiking, I 'used up' all the local trails.  I can only hike the same route a few times before I crave something new.  So next up was to start ticking off bits of the Appalachian Trail.  I quickly fell in love with it--meeting and talking with other enthusiastic hikers, appreciating the high level of maintenance, and just knowing that those white blazes extended continuously for a thousand miles in either direction.

Doing a thru-hike was never on my bucket list.  It still isn't.  I'm doing this hike because it's THE hike - tops in its class - and because however far I end up going, the experience will give me joy.  The puppy is out of the cage!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Five days of intensive training/testing on the AT

In hopes of getting a 'full immersion' experience of what it will be like next year, I spent five days on the Appalachian Trail this week, working my way south from sections previously hiked.  The week was a weather 'sandwich'.  The first day was cloudy with snow and ice on the trail, and the last was cloudy with strong wind-chill and some spits of rain.  In between were three beautiful sunny days.  I visited a handful of shelters along the trail, but none I've visited in my nearly 400 miles of AT hiking can compare to the palatial Bryant's Ridge shelter with massive roof overhang encompassing the picnic table and multiple levels of living and sleeping space:

For descriptions of the five days of hikes in excruciating detail see the following five entries on

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tech tricks and treats, plus why beach hiking fails

I want to go high tech for my AT hike, and there's so much great stuff out there to sort through--it's like trying to decide on a Halloween costume.

I have three basic tech desires:
  1. I am using the AT Conservancy's maps, guidebooks, on line interactive map, in combination with the Delorme topo map books and Google Earth's mapping and street view applications to do advance scouting of trail crossings and parking areas.  In some cases it's actually easier than scouting by car, trying to stay on the road while craning your neck to see where the trail emerges from the woods at an obscure crossing, etc.
  2. I intend to carry one or two high-tech gadgets with me that take geo-tagged videos and still pics and record geo-tracking info, with the goal of posting all this on line using map-based software such as My Maps on Google Earth.
  3. In some ideal user-friendly universe that doesn't seem to exist in this dimension (yet), I'd hope to integrate all this info seamlessly, with a few clicks, into a single link to which followers can go and be able to post it in real time right from the trail.

For item 1, pre-hike scouting, I'm afraid it's just a matter of slogging through all the data.  But what's available online has great potential.  Witness this screen shot, taken from  A Google Maps Street View, of a small AT crossing and parking area near the Blue Ridge Parkway above Buchanan, VA (a place I plan to be hiking next week):
(Note the white blaze on the big tree at the woods' edge, right center.)  Since my hike will consist of individual day-hike Yo-yo's (back and forth from road crossings where I'll park), this advance work can save me time and headaches.  It won't tell me if a muddy Forest Service road is impassable, but actually there may also be some on-line help with that (National forest web sites, etc.) - OK, yet more layers of on-line research to consider!

Item two, choosing the right gadgets to carry, is far more tech-intensive.  For those few of you even more tech-bewildered than I am, my hope is to provide a link to a detailed customized map of the AT based on, for example, Google Maps, for use by those who want to follow my progress.  Instead of using the map to find the nearest restaurant that sells a Virgin Daiquiri smoothie, you use it to search for my photos, videos and information I've posted from my gadgets, all organized precisely by their location along the trail.  Google Maps has the software to do this, but it appears you still need to be a serious geek to understand all the ins and outs.  Even understanding what gadgets are most user friendly is a ghoulish proposition.  There is an increasing number of hardware devices available that provide geo-tagged photo and video data--everything from your Smart Phone to rugged head-mounted light weight video equipment such as this GPS-integrated video camera from Oregon Scientific.  I spent all day today researching other such specialized units and found half a dozen.  They are available from several manufacturers, and I won't go into details.  Suffice it to say that none of them does exactly what I want, and each one has strong points and weaknesses.  There are even geo-tagged Sony Handi-cams and Garmin GPS units that take photos.  The trick is to sort through these various tempting treats and figure out which, if any, I want to spring for.

Item 3: how to get the info on the web:  With the advent of smart phones with cameras and wireless internet access, a good chunk of the trail is potentially connected.  But is a Smart Phone all I need to post frequent photos and video *and* GPS tracking info?  Ideally, the answer is yes.  Practically the biggest issue is battery life.  Other issues I have are the limited features of the camera and near inaccessibility of the GPS info for any practical trail use (compared to my Garmin hiker's GPS).  Lastly, is there a "helmet mount" for a smart phone???   On the other end of this high tech info stream (the target site on the internet to post my information), there are other issues.  I'm already posting here on Blogger, and also on Facebook (I can share these Blogger posts to Facebook directly but what Facebook posts is only the title line and then a clunky and repetitive reference to the blog in general--none of the content of the actual post).  I am also regularly posting on the especially thru-hiker friendly AT journaling site,, which is even more clunky to integrate with the other sites (you need to 'code' links by hand using HTML for example).  And it gets worse ... For items 1 and 2, I'm likely to want to add more target sites to the mix: a map-integrated photo site, probably Panoramio, and the 'My Maps' application under Google Maps.  Again, there's nothing that perfectly fits my vision (that's how start-up tech companies came into being, isn't it!)  But I'm just a retired old geezer, well beyond wanting to start a business.  So this Halloween bag full of tech-candy puts a lot of tempting but stomach-turning sugary-sweet calories on my plate.

Still, I'm doing pretty good, dontcha think?  Remember, I'm 63.  I went to school in the pre-computer slide-rule era; and despite a high-tech science career, I still have a hard time keeping up with the break-neck pace of developments.  Wish me luck!

Last note:  Why Beach Hiking Fails:  I was out on the AT a few weeks ago (see earlier posts) after a couple months of hiking only my level beach strand (albeit long hikes of ten to fifteen miles daily).  But back on the AT I quickly found that the muscles used to ascend and descend had gone flabby.  I had some muscle soreness that surprised me.  Beach hiking works well to keep my feet accustomed to the long miles, but I need to keep in touch with the hills.

So ... This coming week looks like a great crisp fall week for some AT hiking.  I'm heading out tomorrow morning and may not leave the trail until Saturday (when I'll head up to Maryland).  Look for a progress report next week.  And meanwhile, Happy All-Hallowed's-Eve to one and all.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Random trail prep - a busy real life week

Took another trip from the NC beach to Maryland for a family party and to take care of car issues after my son's '97 Mazda died.  There wasn't much time for hiking but I did 'break in' my new Asics gel trail running shoes on an 8.8 mile out-and-back hike over Bob's Hill and on to Cat Rock in the Catoctin Mountains of north central Maryland.  The links above are courtesy of Summit Post where I maintain a page under my trail name, Seeks It.  There you can find some pics of some of my other adventures.

Another note on gear.  As long as the temperature is reasonable, I'll be hiking in shorts.  I have a great pair of lightweight 100% nylon Columbia Titanium cargo shorts (sorry, but it looks like they're no longer making these--bought them about four years ago).  I really prefer having lots of pocket space, so cargo shorts are ideal.  I keep my camera, cell phone, and other personal effects in plastic zip lock bags in the pockets as well as a half liter of water.  By properly arranging these I don't have any problems with chafing.

A note on temperature regulation:  Being skinny as a rail (6' 2" and under 150 pounds) I need to pay close attention to this.  I prefer to start out warmly dressed and shed layers on ascents when I'm on the verge of sweating, then add layers as soon as I begin to cool down on descents.  This constant adjusting is a real pain in the butt, but important for me.   Also ... I've started my "AT beard" in anticipation of winter conditions for the first few months of my thru-hike.  I think male AT thru hikers grow their beards more as a status symbol than out of necessity.  A quarter-ounce disposable hand razor in the backpack or a more robust unit mailed to supply drops and used only when in town (then mailed on) are easy solutions to stay clean shaven.  When summer comes, I may 86 the beard--we'll see.  Here I am with the first two weeks of 'fuzz':  Call it the "Before" shot:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Two AT training hikes, and bought some gear

Over the past week the AT beckoned.  Fall leaf peeping was an unexpected added bonus.  I hiked two sections - one atthe north end and one at the south end of my current completed segment of the trail.  The above shot is taken in the surprisingly level two or three miles in the middle of the James River Face Wilderness - ten miles of trail between Petite's Gap and the James River Foot Bridge (shown below):
This time of year, the AT 'green tunnel' transforms to the 'technicolor tunnel'.  I hiked this 10 mile section out and back (total of 20 miles), just as I intend to do with the entire trail starting January 1st.

The other section I hiked was in southern Pennsylvania from Snowy Mountain Road to Caledonia State Park - an out-and back twelve mile walk over some very rocky trail - what did I expect from a ridge called "Rocky Mountain"!  Here's a sample: I call this 'hole-in-the-rock':

On one 5.5 mile section here, I had the great pleasure of crossing paths with a group of about 80 first to twelfth grade kids from the Anchor Christian School, a Mennonite affiliated private school near Shippensburg, PA.  Virtually every one of the kids from the school were there, and completed the hike before being treated to a picnic feast at Caledonia State Park.  That's where I had my pic snapped with a few of them:
Gear discussion:  During the period of a few days between the two hikes on the AT covered above, I made some gear acquisitions:  Foremost among these was a pair of lightweight mountain running shoes:  12.2 ounce Asics Gel Trail Sensor 5's.  In addition, I splurged for a Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Tarp/Poncho, only 11 ounces.  It comes in a tiny 4 inch stuff sack.  At Dick's Sporting Goods I bought an UnderArmor hooded fleece sweat shirt (100% polyester).  I much prefer having a hood available to keep my head warm, and this was a top priority acquisition.  Finally, I got new carbide tips for my much-used and well-loved Leki Makalu Trekking Poles.  The original tips came loose more than a year ago down in South America and I didn't even realize I could get new tips!  I was prepared to buy a whole new set of poles.

Great week, great progress.  I'm stoked to start this adventure!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Itinerary: The 'Yo-Yo' my way

In 2008, Brian 'Yo-Yo' Doble hiked the AT both ways (4352.4 miles) in 181 days.

I have decided to do a 'Yo-Yo' my way: hike the entire trail twice in one calendar year.  Yep, I'm doubling my challenge.  The logistics work better for me because I love day-hikes but don't have any interest in camping.  So I will essentially hike daily out-and-back legs and return to my vehicle at the end of every day, when possible.  (Some places with limited road crossings won't allow that so I'll have to spend some nights on the trail.)

Hike the whole AT by day hikes?  Yes, that's been done too, and there's a book about it.

I stopped in at the AT Conservancy office in Harper's Ferry on Friday and picked up a bunch of maps, books, and valuable info and have been doing some itinerary planning since then.  My basic design is to try to be at various parts of the trail during the optimum times (best weather conditions), so I'm splitting the trail up into about seven sections:
  1. I will start in Troutville, VA as near to January 1, 2012 as weather permits.  Troutville is near the southern end of the 300 mile section of AT that I've already done by day hikes.  I plan to re-do this 300 mile section last of all (see below).  From Troutville I will hike south toward the Smokies (encountering much higher altitudes and presumably more snow as I go south and winter melts into spring).  I will take zero days whenever the weather is lousy, particularly if there's more than a few inches of snow on the trail.  This long leg will end at Davenport Gap on the north border of Smoky Mountain Park.
  2. Move to Springer Mtn. - southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and hike north to Fontana Dam.  Depending on timing, I am likely to be in the thick of the fresh-starting NoBo thru-hikers, so I'll have a taste of that unique human environment.
  3. Weather permitting I'll hike Smoky Mountain National Park.  If it's not yet April 1st, I'll delay this section, coming back do it later in spring.  I want to hike the park when the road to Clingman's Dome is open.
  4. Skipping north beyond the 300 mile section of the AT that I've already hiked, I'll pick up the trail 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line in southern PA and hike north from there as far as I can go until July 1st.
  5. On July 1st or thereabouts (perhaps after a few days off the trail and back at the beach), I'll skip north to Hanover, NH and hike north from there to Katahdin (the northern termius of the Appalachian Trail).
  6. Return to Hanover, NH and head South from there to the point where I stopped on July 1st.
  7. Return to the north end of the section I hiked in 2009 and 2010 (Michaux State Forest, PA to Troutville, VA) and hike south to Troutville, completing the trail there hopefully some time in the late fall.
Sounds a little complicated, I know, but with my trusty vehicle accompanying me along the entire adventure, the logistics of the various legs should not be a big deal.

I'm in Maryland this weekend celebrating my son's 22nd birthday, and on the way north I put in 20 more miles on the AT (which gave me the excuse to stop in at Harper's Ferry).  I forgot to bring my camera cable with me, so I'll put in a post about that AT hike when I get back home later this week.  Fall colors were developing, and the weather was beautiful.  More later ...

Monday, October 3, 2011

Major gear decisions: going semi-"ultra-light"

Beginning to line up my gear and make the major basic decisions.  Any decision can be reversed once on the trail, but to begin, I'm going the ultra-light but mostly inexpensive route, following in the tradition of the legendary female senior-citizen three-time AT thru-hiker Emma 'Granny' Gatewood.  Here are the basic gear choices:
  • Backpack: I own a real workhorse of a mountaineering pack: Osprey Aeather 70, which is great for carrying huge loads (60 to 80 pounds) *very comfortably* up mountainsides from base camp to high camp. But it weighs five pounds empty. Instead I'm going to use my 1.5 pound 40 year old REI day pack shown above. I bought it at the REI store in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1970 or 71 and have used it on thousands of hikes and outings, yet it still has no tears or holes and is as comfortable as an old shoe. It has about 1/3 the capacity of my Aether 70, but with the other gear choices, it ought to be sufficient--will be testing it in advance, of course.
  • Sleeping bag: none!  I'll sleep in extra clothes on my Therma-Rest closed cell ground pad.
  • Tent:  Large size 11 ounce rain poncho will double as a tarp and tent on rainy or damp nights, otherwise I'll sleep cowboy-style (under the stars).  Beneath me I will use a simple shower curtain liner as a ground cover--inspired specifically by Granny Gatewood.
  • Speaking of old shoes:  I'll be using running/walking shoes (about two pounds)--will buy one new pair of trail running shoes but also have three pairs that have already walked the AT extensively, including some very rocky sections.  They work fine for me.
  • Cooking gear: none.  I'll be going entirely with cold food, including staples like peanut butter, Oreo coookies, and (yes!) Spam - there must be a little Hawaiian in me: I love the stuff :-)
  • Hydration:  No heavy Nalgene bottles - will be using the commercial half-liter water bottles made of minimal plastic.  Nalgene is great if you want to pour boiling water into it and mix stuff (or use it inside the sleeping bag to keep your feet warm on a frigid high-altitude night), but otherwise it's just excess packaging.  I am going to 'splurge' and carry a water pump/filter rather than the much lighter alternative of treatment tablets--want to enjoy the taste of the pure mountain water that is abundant along the AT.
  • Clothing:  One change only--still debating whether to carry heavy fleece vs. ultra-light down.  The latter loses loft when wet and could be the express route to hypothermia.  I may experiment with both during the cold early months.  Down will be the clear choice for temperatures below freezing, but when it comes to cold winter rains ... well, I've experienced what it's like to be under-dressed and soaked to the bone during 40 degree unrelenting rain on the AT, and it's not something I want to go through again!
  • Weight concessions:  I will be carrying my Garmin GPS and a decent Canon digital camera with 8x zoom.  Each weighs about a pound, but I'm a data freak and also want a good documentation of the experience.  I'll also carry paper and pen for field journal notes to be later transcribed to my digital journal here (and my personal journal, kept daily since 1979).
More details on gear will follow.  Meanwhile I continue to hike the beach daily here in NC.  In September I logged 250 total miles of beach hiking, walking the entire length of Topsail Island (26 miles) ten times.  The only problem with beach walking is that I'm actually beginning to miss the thru-hiker's bane: the PUD's - "Pointless Ups and Downs" that the AT is so notorious for.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Taking the leap - planning an Appalachian Trail thru-hike

After hemming and hawing and hiking a big section of the AT, I'm taking the leap, deciding today to do a 2012 through hike (all 2000+ miles during a single calendar year).  One of the things lots of hikers do is keep an on-line journal.  So consider this the first entry!

Here at the beach in North Carolina, it's been a rainy dreary weekend, so I've had lots of time to consider this move as beach season comes to an end.  I've been regularly hiking the beach since moving here from Maryland in late July, so I'm already in good shape.  I hike 8 to 15 miles every day, and have traversed this entire island (26 miles) in sections sixteen times since I moved here.

Some details of my plan to tackle the Appalachian Trail--always subject to revision as I consider further:
  • Starting date:  January 1, 2012 at Springer Mountain, GA.
  • Will take many 'zero days' during the early season to avoid spells of bad weather and deep snow.
  • I have lots of cold weather gear from my mountaineering expeditions to South America (photos can be seen on my Facebook page) - that's one of the reasons I can start early.
  • I'm a purist.  Many AT hikers take short-cuts, do what's called 'slack packing', even hitch-hike past sections of the trail.  But I plan to 'pass every white blaze' and visit every shelter as I've already done during my section hike of the AT from southern PA to the James River in VA.
  • Will be doing lots of reading and planning in the next three months, and will continue training ...
  • One of my planned training activities will be to connect my 'personal continuous footpath' from here at the beach to the AT where I left off at the James River.  That's about 300 miles of hiking.  I've already walked to the AT from the Maryland condo where I formerly lived.  Ultimately, I intend my Personal Continuous Footpath to connect all the places I've ever lived (had a mailing address).  More on that in other posts.
This is one of my 'bucket list' items that has snuck up on me.  It isn't something I ever considered a high priority, but the lure keeps nagging at me, and won't go away.  I'm old enough to know that, for me, the only way to get that nagging 'voice' to shut up is to just do it!

My other ongoing and active bucket list item has been novel writing.  In some sense I accomplished that by self-publishing a full-length novel.  But that novel was only the first third of the entire story I want to tell.  Before I finish that full story, I hope to get some positive feedback on the work by submitting it to an upcoming contest -- Maryland Writer's Association novel contest -- for consideration.  I'll be preparing the submission to that contest, which has a due date right at the beginning of 2012, then will be off to the Appalachian Trail while I await that feedback.

So ... welcome to the first installment of my AT through-hike journal.  I hope to keep it updated regularly, and not to neglect this poor orphan of a blog any longer ;-)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen

Rhoda Janzen has several things going for her that made this an enjoyable read. First, she is an interesting person. Second, she has a talent for a familiar kind of humor that juxtaposes insignificant detail with excellent comedic timing and an air of elegant absurdity. Third, she is an English professor with a PhD in the subject, so she has the qualifications and connections necessary to pull off a well written memoir. Fourth, she has a reasonably interesting story to tell. And fifth, her background (the Mennonite culture) provides an opportunity to gently educate the majority of us in a relatively little-known subject.

The book was thoroughly enjoyable to read, though not particularly memorable, distinctive, or informative. The theme (or 'story') really didn't take you anywhere. The book started out discussing her divorce from a fifteen year marriage, and there it ended. In between were various vignettes from her life, arranged in no particular chronological order, and the main theme was revisited from various angles. I would recommend it for light beach reading, which is exactly what it was for me--a book found in the basket of paperbacks at the beach cottage where I'm spending nine days.

It's more of a gal book than a male-oriented one, but in no way did it put me off. My Mom read it before me and I'm now passing it on to my daughter who read an excerpt and insisted I finish it quickly so she could read it all, declaring that she 'loves anything written by an English professor'. ( )

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bucket List - Total Solar Eclipses

On February 26, 1979 I had one of the most profound experiences of my life: I witnessed a total solar eclipse just west of Williston, North Dakota.  The sky was a beautiful blue, wind was calm, and when the totality arrived, the sensation of heaven revealing its secrets amid a surreal calm was unforgettable.  The sky overhead is totally black, and yet light from the horizon, where the eclipse was not total, permeated horizontally so that there was a glow lighting the ground from all directions.  There's truly nothing like it.  This fish-eye photo gives an idea of what it's like:

That experience was so moving, that I've vowed to go out of my way to repeat the experience.  My next opportunity, in planning stage, is to combine three bucket list items in one.  Beside unlimited solar eclipses, I want to experience at least one ocean cruise, and I want to return to Australia (where I spent two weeks on business in 1992, but had little time for touring).  Well, there's an opportunity for all three in one on Nov. 14, 2012 off the east coast of Australia, near Port Townsend and Cairns (prime tourist territory).  Looking forward to it!

On the longer term, there's a great opportunity to view a total solar eclipse in the US mainland on August 21, 2017.  See this link for a map of the path, which crosses Oregon, Idaho, Nebraska, Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina.