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.