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 trailjournals.com. 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 TrailJounrals.com: