Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey: Chapter Ten

One of the first northbound views of cloud-crowned Mount Katahdin, Maine

What do we do given life?
We move around

Solitude, reach for light
Reach or slide
We move around

—Stephen Stills, “Move Around”

[On August 1 I summited Mount Katahdin in Maine to complete my 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail backpack trip.  Coincidentally, it was exactly a year to the day since my wife “rescued” me from thrombophlebitis near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, after which I was sidelined for nine months.  This entry effectively finishes my A.T. travelogue.  I’ll probably offer some sort of denouement later, a clean green ribbon to wrap up the whole series.]

The so-called “Hundred-Mile Wilderness” which extends from Monson, Maine to Abol Bridge at the foot of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park presented a few surprises.

First, it is not truly a wilderness as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964.  It is not federal land that restricts habitation and motorized vehicle activity.  There are private cabins, gravel logging roads, and even an active sawmill whose racket can be heard from the trail.

Second, it is more rigorous than I was led to believe.  There are two significant mountain ranges: the Chairback and Whitecap ranges, plus several individual, smaller mountains.  There is also much twisting, turning, and root, rock, and boulder negotiation, especially during the first 50 miles. 

Third, there were far more hikers than I envisioned.  I expected thru-hikers and sectioners.  But I also encountered day hikers.  Even a family picnicking on a sand beach at Nahmakanta Lake.

For someone hoping for peace and solitude on relatively easy trail, this was all a bit disconcerting.

Hundred-Mile Wilderness caution near Monson, Maine

The good news is that I maintained my daily hiking average of 15 miles, arriving at Abol Bridge in my predicted six-and-a-half days’ time.  I had more than enough food to sustain me the entire way (supplemented by wild blueberries and huckleberries for vitamin C).

A large number of veteran backpackers evidently didn’t feel confident about preserving a requisite quantity of food in their packs, since many relied on food “drops” by hostelries at one or more gravel roads.  This surprised me.  One of the appeals of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, in my opinion, is the challenge of shunning outside support and relying on your own preparedness.

I’m assuming there were the ubiquitous slackpackers using vehicles to haul their gear, since I met several northbound (NOBO) hikers with small packs headed in the opposite direction.

There were a few highlights.  I was reunited atop Little Boardman Mountain with old friends Hums and Checklist, a young married couple from southern Indiana whom I’d met just before the New Hampshire-Maine state line.  We later found great overnight spots at Antlers Campsite on Lower Jo-Mary Lake, replete with swimming, blueberry picking, and the eerie sound of a distant loon.  Thru-hikers Chef Decker, Pi (from Germany), and a southbound (SOBO) section hiker named Solo completed the Antlers group.

Hums (left) and Checklist (right) atop Little Boardman Mountain

Our tents flooded that night from a torrential rain.  Wet gear, especially wet boots and socks, is one of the banes of backpacking, but we had fun for at least a few hours.

For the second time I bumped into Warren Doyle, the dean of Appalachian Trail hikers, who has thru-hiked more than any other hiker (nine thru- and nine section hikes) and runs a school for aspiring A.T. backpackers. (He’s also controversial with some people, promoting athletics on the trail and violating regulations that he dislikes.) Doyle and a sweet woman aptly named Sweet Potato were at a gravel road and treating poor Pi, who had either tripped or fainted, then fallen, consequently restructuring her nose and left eye.

Another highlight was having Little Beaver Pond to myself for my final night in the Wilderness.  This pond was a quiet surprise.  It’s a concealed sub-lake that spills into the southern tip of larger Rainbow Lake.

There is no sign for Little Beaver on the A.T.  There is a sign for Big Beaver, but considering Big Beaver is 0.7 miles down a side trail, few hikers bother to walk it.  But just a tenth of a mile down this blue-blazed side trail is a tiny sign with an arrow that reads “Little Beaver.”

Little Beaver Pond tentsite and wild blueberries

I pitched my tent in a small oval of dry pine needles, the pond 100 yards below.  Surrounded by blueberry bushes, I devoted an hour to plucking ripe berries until my baggie was heavy.  These I gorged on later for dessert, then again for breakfast next morning.  In between I watched the sun set over the towering pines that rose over the shore of Little Beaver, while stoking a modest fire, smoking my “peace pipe,” and pondering the immensity of Mother Nature.

It’s a cliché, but out here your ego dissolves and you can feel your insignificance.  This is good.  It’s something one doesn’t often feel elsewhere, and it’s one reason why so many of us, ever since John Muir, flee to the mountains.

Rejuvenated by Little Beaver, I burned almost 18 miles next day to exit the Wilderness at Abol Bridge and reach base camp at The Birches campsite for my Katahdin climb.

Bulldozer, Heat, and me at Abol Bridge. Bulldozer was awaiting his family and summited Katahdin later.

The Birches is set aside for distance hikers intending to hike Baxter Peak, tallest point on Katahdin.  It’s located about a quarter-mile from family-friendly Katahdin Stream Campground.  This separation ensures the Griswold family won’t be disturbed by the sight of dirtbag backpackers getting wasted or peeing in the woods.  But for us hikers, it means a long slog to the stream just to fill our water bottles.

Only 12 hikers are permitted to camp at The Birches on any given night.  On the night of July 31, I was sixth out of seven hikers to sign up.  The others were Checklist, Hums, Heat, Chef Decker, Trash, and Wet Willy.  (The last-named was a really fun fellow, but he had two blown knees and had no business being with us.)

Around suppertime, Ranger Pete Sweeney dropped by to collect our registration cards and ten-dollar camping fee.  He also gathered us around the fire ring like a benevolent schoolteacher to discuss the sacredness of the mountain to native peoples…and to discourage us from celebrating too raucously at the peak.

I didn’t sleep much that night due to my excitement.  I’d come 2,185 miles and now had only five miles left.  So many times I’d wondered if I’d ever finish this Sisyphean venture, and it was hard to fathom the end was looming.

We rose from our sleeping bags with the first rays of sunlight (except Wet Willy), packed our gear, then hiked to the ranger station to trade in our heavy packs for lighter day packs.  I felt somewhat guilty about this, since I’d thus far prided myself on hauling my home on my back the whole way.  My justification was that a heavy pack up Katahdin could be extremely dangerous, plus there was no camping at the summit that required a full pack.  Also, with this short, five-mile “slackpack,” there would be no unnecessary burning of fossil fuels.

So I pulled out my Gregory day pack and filled it with peanut butter, tortillas, Clif bars, and my water flask.  Going suddenly from 40 pounds to five pounds felt like heaven, especially with all the adrenaline pumping through me.  I whisked through Katahdin Stream Campground, offered a knowing nod to Chef Decker (whose family was joining her for her final climb), and began my 5.2-mile ascent up the legendary mountain.

Cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa)

Katahdin is not easy.  The climb starts with a glide on gently sloping soil, then steeper dancing on rocks, then gymnastics on extremely vertical walls of boulders.  Some of the smoother boulder sections have rebar to assist climbers, this man-made addition courtesy of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.

But I had time and adrenaline on my side.  Each day throughout my hike I had one song that I would whistle or hum to help my frame of mind.  Today I gustily sang out loud about a dozen of my favorite tunes—from Burt Bacharach to The Byrds—not even caring if anyone else heard me. 

About a mile from the summit begins The Tableland, a sea of rocks where the A.T. (here known as “Hunt Trail”) is delineated by stone cairns.  This is cloud country, and the wind and chill increase dramatically.  Suddenly, I see a group of hikers gathered near what looks like an oversized wooden sawhorse.

“Omoo!”  “Omoo!” they shout.  Heat, Hums, and Checklist have already arrived.  There are hugs and congratulations all ‘round. We collectively soak in this magical moment.  

As William Clark wrote in his journal when the Corps of Discovery first laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean in 1805: O! the joy.

We spent about an hour at the summit, taking pictures and responding—with as much humility as we could muster—to the day hikers’ many questions.  Hiking compatriots Lobo (a biology teacher from Richmond, Virginia), Zippy Morocco (a Triple Crowner from Missoula, Montana), Rabbit, Trash, and Chef Decker arrived later. Cell reception was no problem at 5,300 feet, so I called Lynn to let her know I was okay, and I’d soon be home to take care of the moles tearing up our lawn.

A bobcat posing in clouds with alma mater, Ohio University

Although I could have hung around the peak all day, I knew the climb down would be equally treacherous and cumbersome, plus I planned to thumb a ride into the town of Millinocket, so I reluctantly descended.  A few hikers were still ascending.  The last one I saw was Wet Willie.  (It turned out he did reach the peak, despite the admonitions of his partner, Trash.  However, on the descent he fell, gashing his head and breaking his glasses.  He didn’t reach the hostel in Millinocket until well after dark.)

All of the August 1 summiters reunited at the Millinocket hostel, except Heat and Lobo, who were elsewhere with their families.  We shared three large pizzas at Angelo’s (their white pizza was exceptional) and also, of course, shared our thoughts about the trail.  Next day I joined Checklist and Hums on a shuttle/bus trip to Bangor.  They flew home to Indiana, but I stayed over another night to decompress and celebrate with Maine lobster roll.  (TIP: if you visit Maine and want fresh lobster, it helps if you’re near the coast.)

***

Since my start at Springer Mountain, Georgia on May 2, 2021, I spent over 160 nights on the Appalachian Trail, most of them in a one-person tent.  About once a week I got either a motel room or stayed in a hostel to shower, eat, buy provisions, and clean my clothes.  The animals I encountered included one bear, four beavers, two porcupines, two foxes, one rattlesnake, one copperhead (whose head I stepped on), one water snake, several black snakes, one bald eagle, one Northern goshawk, several grouse, and dozens of whitetail deer, red squirrels, chipmunks, orange newts, and toads.  I hiked around multiple piles of moose scat but never saw one.

I met hundreds of distance backpackers and liked almost all of them.  They ranged in age from 19-year-old Cole, whom I encountered north of Buena Vista, Virginia, to intrepid 80-year-olds.  Women hikers were just as prevalent as men.  A few hikers were transgender.  Many backpackers like me walked solo, while others found security in a trail family (“tramily”).

Only one backpacker my entire hike recognized my trail name, asking “Isn’t that a book by Herman Melville?” when we identified ourselves.  It was in southern Virginia at exactly the one-quarter mark.  He was about 30 years old, a former thru-hiker now doing a SOBO section.  His name was Deep Roots.

Sunrise at Jo-Mary Lake

I met a number of eccentrics and heard about others.  They ran the gamut from the motor-mouth ex-boxer at Niday Shelter to a man named Leafblower, who hiked with a large…what else?…leaf blower, and always rented an extra hostel bed for his machine. 

My emotions also ran the gamut.  Hiking alone, I often mulled over my past: vacations I took as a child, old friends.  I constantly thought about my loved ones, especially my deceased parents.  I’m not religious—in fact I’m agnostic—but I could sense my parents’ spirits being with me.  Once, while alone atop Mount Washington in early morning, the grey clouds broke briefly to reveal a layer of blue sky with higher, wispy, white clouds.  This serendipitous event coincided with my thinking of Mom and Dad.

But despite my sentimental moments and occasional bouts of loneliness, only once did I get choked up.  It was on top of Katahdin while talking to my wife.  I told her that hiking this trail was the hardest thing I’d ever done, physically and mentally.  It was harder than leaving home, than any job, than any marathon race.  Raising a family was difficult, but she helped me with that.  This thing, however, was all on me.  I told her there were times of discouragement when I wondered if my hike would ever end.

Now…it was finally over. And I really felt it.

For my next adventure I’m planning a solo canoe trip on the Charley and Yukon Rivers in north Alaska.  After all…we move around.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Nine

Yesterday morning I arrived in Monson, Maine. Monson is a small lakeside town of about 600 people in the center of the state, and a major hub for Appalachian Trail hikers. To give an idea of Monson culture, the lone gas station sells bumper stickers that read “Kids Who Hunt, Trap, and Fish Don’t Mug Little Old Ladies.”

I estimate one more week to complete my solo thru-hike odyssey.

Between Monson and Mount Katahdin (highest point in Maine, northern endpoint of the A.T., and centerpiece of Baxter State Park) lies what is known as the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. This is a spectacular area of scenic wonders almost completely void of any semblance of civilization.

Omoo at NH-ME line, middle of one of the most difficult segments of the whole trail

It is also one of the more challenging sections for A.T. hikers, featuring both mountains and rugged terrain. Hiking the austere Wilderness requires a stockpile of a recommended 10-days’ rations.

So I’m taking both a “zero” (no miles) and “near-o” (minimal miles) day in Monson to rest and prepare. My oasis is Lakeshore House, located on the northeastern tip of Lake Hebron. Upon arrival I indulged in a hot shower followed by a “Famished Farmer” sandwich at the only grocery and deli in town. I’m now spoiling myself with cappuccino crunch ice cream before it’s back to ever-monotonous trail food.

The vast majority of hikers, mainly younger, stay just down the road at Shaw’s, which is run by ex-hikers Hippie Chick and Poet. (Crunchy granola, anyone?) Lakeshore seems to be the quieter, more low-key alternative, which suits this old guy fine.

Hiking friends Ice Cream and Memories at Grafton Notch. From Germany, they’re spending part of their honeymoon on the A.T.

So far there are only five of us at Lakeshore: me, Silver Bullet, Dozer, Boston, and Double Vision. Not surprisingly, all of us have either silvery hair or bald spots.

When Vision walked through the bunkhouse door, my jaw dropped. We last saw each other over a year ago on a cold, rainy night at a shelter in North Carolina. Vision is now trying to complete a series of section hikes, and the Wilderness is his last stretch. But he’s not doing well. At Carlo Col he suffered second-degree burns after spilling boiling water on his leg. Now, in the heat of mid-July, at age 67, he’s on the verge of heat exhaustion. Like me, he’s spending two nights here. He’s also debating going home. With age comes wisdom. (Often.)

Trail at Poplar Ridge, near where hiker Inchworm stepped off to go to bathroom, got lost, and disappeared for over two years

Despite its hardships, particularly the rocky, rooty section around the NH-ME line, Maine is my favorite A.T. state. For one, Maine-ers don’t believe in asphalt or billboards, a welcome alternative to my home state of Ohio. The A.T. here is referred to as a “Green Tunnel.”

Bald eagle soaring over East Carry Pond, where four of us took an afternoon dip

Although I’ve yet to see one, moose thrive in Maine. Water abounds in the form of lily-padded ponds, lakes, and wild rivers. The mountain vistas offer stunning 360-degree views. And although a relatively rural, under-populated state, the residents have their own unique style (and accent). Living “off the grid” raises few eyebrows in Maine.

As Katahdin approaches, I’m feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety. My journey started May 2 of last year. Sometimes it feels like a shotgun marriage between me and the A.T. Will we ever divorce?

West branch of Piscataquis River, which requires fording. My new Crocs came in handy.

Other times, usually in early morning light when I feel strong and confident, hearing the sticks and crumbled rock crunching under my boots, I feel a deep satisfaction. I’m accomplishing a significant feat, and doing it my own way: wooden walking stick, paper guide/map, full backpack the entire distance, completely solo but nonetheless making trail friends…and lifetime memories.

And lest I forget, this project began with a cause in mind: raising money and awareness for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  Thanks again to those of you who have helped. (R.I.P. Biff, Ben, and Peter.)

Monday, July 25 begins my final launch. As hikers often remark before parting ways (most totally unaware it’s the title of an old song written by television cowgirl Dale Evans):

“Happy Trails”

– Omoo

Sunset at Pierce Pond

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Eight

Sunset at Lakes of the Clouds Hut in the White Mountains

[UPDATE: I’ve reached Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, about 37 miles shy of the Maine state line.  I left the trail there to fly home for a family wedding get-together.  On July 6 I’ll be flying back to resume my hike for the coup de grâce in Maine.]

The White Mountains of New Hampshire periodically pop up in news stories.  Sadly, the stories often have to do with death.

The Whites are the most rugged mountain range in the state.  They extend from Kinsman Notch, New Hampshire into western Maine and include the Presidential Range, a series of 4,000-foot-plus peaks named after U.S. presidents.  The granddaddy is Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the second tallest peak in the Appalachians after Clingman’s Dome.

The Lookout is a once-private cabin in Vermont I had to myself one night

Mount Washington is notable for having some of the most unpredictable weather in the world.  For 62 years it held the record for the highest wind velocity: a phenomenal 231 miles per hour, recorded on April 12, 1934. Frigid temperatures are common even in summer.

Last Saturday—two days after I trod the same path—53-year-old Xi Chen of Andover, Massachusetts succumbed to hypothermia.  It was on Mount Clay, just north of Washington.  Chen was an experienced hiker who had already summited 19 mountains over 4,000 feet.  Chen’s wife said “he’s not a quitter—that probably got him into trouble this time.”

Porcupine near Lyme, New Hampshire

This is something I’ve noticed with many A.T. thru-hikers: a propensity to continue no matter what.  Last year I met Gravy, who had a torn ankle ligament but was adamant he would go all the way.  When I last saw him in Tennessee, he had just hiked back-to-back 21-mile days on his bad ankle.  This year I met Runner, whose hike was curtailed in 2021 due to contracting Lyme Disease, a horrible disease caused by infected tick bites. Runner is now back on trail, ticks be damned.  There have been many others who, despite health setbacks, insist on doing the whole thing.

I don’t know if this is a distinctly American trait (“Never give up!”) or distinctly Appalachian Trail.  I’m inclined to think the latter.  Surmounting serious health issues to “go all the way” seems to be ingrained in the A.T. subculture. And the thinking is, if you can go all the way in one haul, you’re that much more special.

Boulder slide on Mount Pierce, especially dangerous when slick after a rainfall

I see comments on hiking social media sites all the time like “Don’t give up!” “You can do it!” “Just one foot in front of the other!” These people mean well, but they’re unknowingly creating pressures that could have unintended consequences.

As a marathon runner, I see a similar tendency. At first we ran for exercise and enjoyment. Then for speed and medals. Then came ultra-marathons and triathlons. Now it’s running through Death Valley. The bar is always being raised.

The “Croo” at Madison Springs Hut in the Whites. They gave me free shelter and leftover lasagna in exchange for washing dishes.

A.T. hiking wasn’t always like this.  Benton MacKaye, the forester who in 1921 conceived the idea of a long trail through the Appalachian Mountains, saw the A.T. as a way for city dwellers to temporarily escape urban sprawl.  The first thru-hike (covering the entire length, Georgia to Maine) wasn’t until 1948.  Most hikers in the early days were content to traverse pieces of the trail, to take in nature and temporarily escape industrialization.

But in recent years, thanks to cellphones, several popular hiking books and movies, and improvements in backpacking gear technology, thru-hiking has mushroomed into an industry.  For many it’s an athletic endeavor, and nature appreciation has taken a back seat. Trail congestion is now a real problem. I’ve hiked from Georgia to (almost) Maine, and I’ve yet to overnight in a shelter, or tent-camp near a shelter, where there wasn’t at least one other person.  What’s the point of escaping one “sprawl” only to find another?

Branch of the Pemigewasset River, New Hampshire

Completing a thru-hike of any of the Triple Crown trails (A.T., PCT, or CDT), or other long trail, is an epic achievement and something to be proud of (even if the majority of thru-hikers these days frequently use a vehicle to transport their backpacks to make their hike easier—a practice known as “slackpacking”).  But as impressive as a thru-hike is, it doesn’t qualify one for sainthood.

If you’re thinking of doing a thru-hike, make sure your heart is really in it and you’re not doing it merely because it’s cool or fashionable.  Make sure you do the necessary homework. And if you begin one, nobody will think less of you if you choose to quit.  (Nobody worthwhile, anyway.)  Too many people have died trying not to be a “quitter.”

Words of wisdom, south slope of Mt. Washington

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Seven

Little Rock Pond, Vermont

Arrived in Killington, Vermont yesterday for a two-day R&R at beautiful The Inn at Long Trail. (The Long Trail stretches the length of Vermont, ending at the Canadian border, and shares the A.T. over its southern half.)

It’s good timing. Not only am I nearly halfway (for this year) to my climax at Mount Katahdin, but I depleted all my resources: trail food, clean clothes, cell charge, boots, and calories. Yesterday I took care of the first three; today I bought new Merrell boots, and I’m stuffing my pie-hole with an Italian sub, chips, and Powerade as I write this.

When your bones protrude enough to interlock with the tree roots under your tent floor, it’s time to build some fat.

Skin and bones hiker smiles while finding sanctuary at The Inn

I’ve always loved Vermont’s Green Mountains from a distance. Inside, on trail, they are more menacing, but the dense red spruce/balsam fir forests make for a stimulating olfactory experience…Killington Peak, the second-highest summit in the Greens (4,229 feet) is the best-smelling mountain I’ve yet hiked.

The ski resort town of K-ton is also impressive. They just had a Memorial Day trifecta event of golf, bicycling, and skiing (still happening!) at one resort, and unlike what might occur in my home state of Ohio, golf was the least popular event! (I love Vermont.)

The Inn might be my favorite R&R spot this entire thru-hike. It’s a time-tested rustic ski lodge, with ski superstars like Mikaela Schiffrin and Petra Vlhova dropping in during the World Cup, but which I have to myself, now, with a lull between ski season and the bubble of distance hikers. The Irish Pub and draughts of Guinness downstairs might have something to do with my enthusiasm.

The trail itself has been a joy compared to WV, MD, and (much of) Rocksylvania. Lotsa quiet mountain ponds, vistas, and wildlife. My last day in Massachusetts presented a porcupine, and first day in Vermont graced me with four fat beavers lazily swimming across their watery estate.

Two other highlights include the surprise I had on top of Black Mountain in upstate New York. Gazing out over distant peaks, my knees almost buckled when, swiveling my head left, I caught the distant skyline of New York City. Surreal is the word. Hard to imagine the riot of activity, noise, smells, and powerful deal-making in that tiny, smoky sliver of spires in the distance. I could almost see my uncle pouring vodkas through the window of his Upper East Side apartment. Yet here so solitary and peaceful.

The other highlight was my side-jaunt via thumb to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to visit and tour Arrowhead, where Herman Melville wrote America’s greatest novel, MobyDick. (Some of you know that Omoo, a Polynesian word for “rover,” was used as a title by Melville for his second semi-autobiographical book.) From his upstairs study he could view double-humped Mount Greylock, largest peak in MA, which supposedly seeped into his conception of the white whale. The view seeped into me, too.

Arrowhead, one-time home of author Herman Melville

Nice trail friends, too. Two include L.A., a veteran hiker who is actually from Nantucket and suffered heat exhaustion around Greylock, and with whom I shared burgers ‘n’ brews with in Bennington; and Golden, a UMass-Amherst kinesiology student on her first solo thru hike (Long Trail) and on whom I actually bestowed a trail name, based on her golden hair and personality.

Golden on Bromley ski slope, which the A.T. crosses

Well, it’s Guinness time, after which I have one more comfortable sleep before newly commencing my roving…hopefully with a bit more cushioning around my bones. As always, thanks for joining me, trail and non-trail friends.

Till next time…

Omoo (and his mute hickory trail companion, Queequeg)

Murray, owner and bartender at The Inn

Return to the Appalachian Trail

White Mountains, New Hampshire, where I section-hiked in 2016. I’ll soon be returning.

He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.

Forrest Tucker

Where the hell did I stash those rolling papers?

Omoo

Last August 1 at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania my Appalachian Trail thru-hike was sabotaged after three months.  Thrombophlebitis in my right leg was the culprit.  (You can read or re-read about my trials and tribulations here.)

According to Dr. Kuhn at the Vein Center, there are still “old clots” (whatever that means) but nothing serious, and since my knotty calf veins are now just faint shadows, I certainly look prettier.  What I didn’t expect was another, more serious health scare, and it happened only a month before my scheduled A.T. re-launch at the gap this coming May 1.

I won’t go into the details.  It’s a long-term issue that I don’t think will affect my hike.  However, things will be different, mainly diet.  No more Snickers bars for sugar, packaged Idahoan potatoes for carbs, or McDonalds for fats.  I’m not sure how I will eat healthy and still maintain a decent weight, but I’m going to try.

Here’s the good news:

  • With “only” 911.4 miles remaining, I’m not rushed.  I have a whopping five months to reach Mt. Katahdin in Maine before bad weather hits, and assuming I maintain last year’s pace, I should get there in 65 days
  • The June/July temperatures should be more forgiving in New England
  • The smaller states will get scratched off much quicker, a great psychological boost
  • More towns in which to find a healthy meal…at least until Maine and its ominous 100-Mile Wilderness

I expect the first few days will be rough.  I’m hitting maybe the rockiest section of the rockiest state on the entire Appalachian Trail, a section called Wolf Rocks.  All those foot callouses I carefully and painstakingly developed last year are gone, so there will be blisters.  Due to recently being sick, I haven’t been able to train like I wanted, so there will be soreness and fatigue.

I’m also testing out a new water container.  It’s a two-liter bag made of thermoplastic polyurethane—looks like a colostomy bag—and it will hang on carabiners attached to my pack.  It replaces last year’s bulky, hard-plastic Nalgene bottle that I had to secure with bungee cords.  I also bought some gaiters to limit the amount of wet socks I’ll have to air-dry on my pack.

Northern Great Smoky Mountains

My tent reading material is another skinny, lightweight book: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  (Did I just say mice?)

Again, biggest challenge will be food.  Our daughter Holly is almost a vegan, so she’s helping me choose the healthiest breakfast bars and dinner fare.  One evening repast will be green lentils and red quinoa…healthy, packable, short boiling time, boring flavor.  My lunch fare won’t change: trusty peanut butter on tortillas!

As I did last year, I will try to update my blog, but no guarantees.  Those who know me know I hate writing on cellphones, and I can only do it during sporadic town breaks, when I’m pressed for time with eating, buying groceries, doing laundry, phoning loved ones, and airing out wet gear.

Nonetheless, I do appreciate connecting with you good folks who have to deal with that crippled “other” society (the not-so-real world).  So I’ll do my best to keep one toe on the grid.

Even if I don’t update longitudes, I plan to continue my evening diary dribblings, and once this damn thing is finally history I’ll send a PDF of my entire journal to anyone still willing to indulge in my narcissism.

Okay, Lonewolf (A.T. thru 1997, PCT thru 2001).  Okay, Queequeg (Pequod, 1851).  Ready for a road trip to Stroudsburg, PA?  Flutie you noisy sonofabitch, Omoo is headed your way…with a large colostomy bag and a few less varicosed veins.

New England shelter journals may never be the same.

The last photo from last year’s hike. I was on a mushroom photo kick. And I was cursing the rocks.

Thomas Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty

This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

John F. Kennedy, during a 1962 Nobel Prize dinner

The title above is a biography by John B. Boles that I just finished. Normally I’d do a book review, but the subject himself is so fascinating I’d rather just riff on Jefferson than critique the book. Buckle your seat belts.

Suffice to say, Boles’s book is a good one-volume treatment of Jefferson.  It’s easy to read and well-sourced.  Fairly comprehensive. Maybe a bit too adulatory, but at least honest.

Before discussing Jefferson, I have to say I was somewhat surprised by what I learned about several other “Founders,” or sub-Founders.  Although popular today because of that Broadway play, I had no idea that Federalist and Jefferson nemesis Alexander Hamilton was such an outright bastard.  His poisonous lies and relentless invective make Trump look like a Cub Scout.  (Okay, maybe not.)

I also had no idea that the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s first-term vice-president), was such a self-centered, scheming treasonist.

And I especially didn’t know that Jefferson hated fellow Virginian Patrick Henry.  Although a great orator (“Give me Liberty or give me Death!”), Henry evidently didn’t read books and wasn’t very smart.  He actually proposed imposing a dictatorship when the American Revolution began going badly.  For years, Jefferson ridiculed him mercilessly at the dinner table.

Aaron Burr (left) and Alexander Hamilton (right)

But back to the dinner topic at hand…there are some things most of us know, or should know, about Thomas Jefferson.  He was the third American president and a Founding Father chosen to author the United States Declaration of Independence, the iconic written diatribe against King George III detailing why American colonists chose to break from England to form their own country, and which was signed by 55 other congressional delegates from the 13 colonies.

More than any other Founder, Jefferson exalted the ideas of democracy and individual conscience. Along with fellow Democrat-Republican and protégé James Madison, he conceived the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and which separates religion from all levels of government. (Government-imposed religion was an absolute given in the Old Country.) He modeled it after the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he’d also authored three years earlier as Governor of that colony.

As for his own religion, although considering himself a Christian, Jefferson was a deist who felt the Christian faith had become corrupted by disciples after Jesus’s death. Jefferson was a leading light of the Age of Enlightenment, an admirer of philosophers John Locke and Thomas Paine (Common Sense, The Age of Reason).  Throughout his life he was fascinated by science and adhered to reason and rationality over superstition.  He considered Jesus the most moral philosopher the world has known, but did not believe in his divinity.  He created his own Jefferson Bible by excising everything supernatural from the New Testament.  (Printings of his bible are available at a bookstore near you.)

Jefferson lived at a plantation he called Monticello, which he carved out of a mountain outside Charlottesville, Virginia using slave labor. He developed it over a period of 40 years.  (Monticello is pictured on the U.S. nickel, the flip side of Jefferson’s profile.)  Here, he established a 1,000-foot-long terraced vegetable garden that grew 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits.  As a politician he championed the small farmer, was a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, and was one of the country’s great epicures.

As president, Jefferson doubled the size of America by overseeing the purchase of the western Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte of France.  It cost the U.S. all of four cents an acre.  He then organized a successful exploration of the unknown lands by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, exponentially increasing America’s knowledge of Western geography, archaeology, flora, fauna, and Indian tribes.

Meriwether Lewis

After the Library of Congress was burnt by invading British during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6,487 volumes to restart the library.  They replaced the collection that Jefferson had earlier recommended the library acquire.

Just before his death in 1826, Jefferson conceived, founded, was principal architect for, and chose the curriculum and faculty for one of America’s most respected public universities, the University of Virginia.  He was “convinced that the people (white males) are the sole depositories of their own liberty, & that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree.” (I tried to gain entrance to UVA in 1977 but was rejected.  In 2005 I visited Monticello, and revisited the campus while our daughter was touring colleges.  Everyone at both places politely referred to him as “Mister Jefferson,” as if he was still alive.)

Along with designing the university, Jefferson also oversaw the layout for the nation’s new capitol grounds at Washington D.C., and his neoclassical architectural designs set the precedent for future U.S. federal structures.

Jefferson was probably the most intelligent and worldly of all the Founding Fathers. (Benjamin Franklin is up there, too.)  Although ambitious, his patience, even-temperedness, humility, and knowledge were renowned amongst his political peers, including George Washington, who made him Secretary of State and often consulted him.  Like so many in the 18th and 19th centuries, he experienced profound death and tragedy, losing his wife Martha at a young age, along with children and grandchildren.

Jefferson lived 83 years, dying the same day as his onetime rival but beloved friend, second President John Adams. It was 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote his own epitaph.  It was simple and reflected his humble public persona, stipulating what he was most proud of: Author of the Declaration of Independence (and) of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.  Of his being president for two terms and his presidential accomplishments…nothing.

Monticello

As exceptional a human being as Jefferson was, his enlightenment was tempered by his place and time.  Even during his lifetime rumors swirled of a slave concubine (in today’s parlance, “sex toy”) known as “Black Sal” or “Dusky Sally.”

For 200 years historians have grappled with whether slaveholder Jefferson fathered children with a quadroon “servant” named Sally Hemings.  A DNA study in 1998 concluded there was a high probability he was the father of at least one of Hemings’s six children.  However, that study also said Jefferson “can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated…”

Presently, most Jefferson scholars and historians, including the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—through combining the DNA findings with written evidence—conclude he did father children by her (not surprisingly, Hemings descendants do as well). Biographer Boles goes further to suggest their “relationship” was “founded on shared tenderness and love” and that “the sexual attraction between Jefferson and Hemings was likely mutual…” 

I find Boles’s suggestion of romantic love between master and slave plausible, but unnerving, and it’s one of the few criticisms I have of his book [in addition to some qualified language such as “Jefferson rarely (sold slaves),” “he made an effort (not to separate mothers from their children),” he “(only sold his slaves) out of economic necessity,” and “Jefferson’s theoretical opposition to (whipping)”].

It was in Paris between 1787 and 1789 while Jefferson was American minister to France that their (probable) intimacies probably began.  Hemings was a teenager who was acting as companion to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Maria.  By several contemporary accounts, Hemings was extremely beautiful, with “very light skin; long, straight black hair.”

Slavery had been illegal in France since Louis X in 1315. Was Hemings technically free while on French soil despite being owned by an American? If so, did Jefferson think this mitigated a middle-aged widower like himself having sex with a young, uneducated, recent ex-slave? Did love blossom either before or after she agreed to return to the states with him? Can love even exist between a master and servant/slave, or is it always rape?

Soap opera aside, bottom line is Jefferson owned people. Any additional moral crimes stem from that original sin.

Sally Hemings was born in 1773. Her white father, John Wayles, was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She died in 1835 and there are no photos or drawings of her. This is a detail from a Monticello “Farm Book,” displaying her four children: Harriet, Madison, Eston, and Beverley. Notably, all were named after friends or relatives of Jefferson (Madison after James Madison).

In his meager defense, Jefferson successfully banned American importation of Africans. And despite unenlightened views on racial equality/inequality, he opposed slavery throughout his life and, at least at the start of his political career, tried to abolish it through state and federal legislation.  Of course, his efforts were fruitless, primarily due to violently intransigent southern politicians who, two generations later, would finally have their apocalypse. Of the roughly 200 slaves owned by Jefferson during his life, he freed only two.  He freed five more in his will.  Three more left Monticello with Jefferson’s consent.  All except two were domestic help and part of the Hemings family.

As I expected, while Boles justifiably devotes extensive print to slavery and Jefferson’s immersion in it, his coverage of Jefferson’s American Indian policies and affairs, including their removal, is woefully inadequate. So I’ll offer a few paragraphs on that subject.

Jefferson the amateur anthropologist admired Indians and believed they were superior to blacks physically, intellectually, and culturally, and also that they might eventually become ingratiated into white agrarian society as equals.  But even here there was a great hypocrisy.  He stipulated to Meriwether Lewis that the Corps of Discovery restrain from any acts of hostility toward Indians they might encounter…but he also hungered for the land they inhabited. 

In an 1803 letter to William Henry Harrison, who was then the territorial governor of Indiana, President Jefferson outlined a devious policy of using government trading posts to drive Indians into debt so they would more easily “lop (the debts) off by a cession of lands.”

And when a patronizing Jefferson addressed a delegation of Shawnee and other Indian tribes in 1809, hoping to win them over from the British, he threatened that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate (exterminate) from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.”

Then, as now, enlightenment only goes so far.

Indian Head nickel and Jefferson nickel: opposing views of Liberty

Originally, I ended my post with the pithy statement above. Then I thought, who am I? Thomas Jefferson deserves better. After rereading the Introduction in Boles’s book, I landed on this excellent paragraph, which perfectly summarizes how I feel. Anyway…thanks for taking time to read all of this. Peace.

We should not expect (Jefferson) to have embraced the values of a cosmopolitan, progressive person of the twenty-first century. How could he have possibly done so? Instead, we should try to understand the constraints—legal, financial, personal, intellectual—under which he lived. To understand certainly does not mean to approve or even forgive; rather, it means to comprehend why Jefferson made the kinds of decisions he made and saw the world as he did. He was a gentle, well-educated, idealistic man who sought—by his lights—to do right. Yet at times he acted in ways we now find abhorrent. Appreciating how this can be so is the task of the Jefferson scholar, the student of history, and perhaps every American citizen.

Critiquing the Critics

The Wall Street Journal not only honored Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday (see my last post), but the same issue had an article entitled “Why Millennials Want Their Parents’ Vinyl Records.” The sub-title was “Sales of LPs soared during the pandemic as younger listeners discovered their nostalgic and sensory appeal.”

For years I’ve tried to get my millennial son to understand this. Maybe it’s finally kicking in.

On that note, when I was even younger than Nick is now, I made the discovery of music appreciation books, guides, and encyclopedias. They assisted me when, as a teenager, I began compiling my (now massive) record collection that I hope to one day bestow on Nick.  They helped me peel back layers to reveal all sorts of juicy musical fruit under the outer skin.

Paul Gambaccini

Just recently I revisited an old book that I’d once pored over while wasting time in Walden Books at the local mall.  It’s called Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. It was compiled way back in 1978 during the Pleistocene Age, when the publication of rock music books began catching up with magazines like New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem. The compiler was a venerable BBC presenter named Paul Gambaccini (an interesting man, in more ways than one).

Rock critics you say?  Someone once called them frustrated rock musicians.  Musician Lou Reed was more succinct.  He called them “scum.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but as with everything, there are good ones and bad ones.  In their defense, rock critics provide potential purchasers with insights into music that circumvent “record company advertising (and) the squeals of the loudest fans.”  It’s nice to have a temperate and unbiased guide before one contributes one’s hard-earned cash to Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records. 

Most rock fans, especially in the U.S., get their music from the radio or television.  But deejays and “veejays” have always been at the mercy of their employer, or corporate wankers like Fufkin.

Rock critics cut through the hype (sometimes) and were helpful when I became a serious listener in the 1970s. Rock Critics’ Choice in particular introduced me to artists I might otherwise never have heard.  The other book so beneficial to me over the years has been The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden of New Musical Express.

(Last month, during one of my late-night vinyl appreciation sessions, I joyously re-listened to Edgar Broughton Band’s album Oora, which Illustrated Encyclopedia had led me to.  Talk about a great unknown record.)

Anyway, back to Rock Critics’ Choice…compiler Gambaccini queried about 50 of his print and radio colleagues, asking them to list what they consider the ten greatest rock albums, in order of greatness.  He defined “greatness” as whatever criteria the particular critic wanted to use.  He permitted “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections. (Not sure I’d allow that.)  For fair and diverse representation, he consulted critics who were male, female, young, old, white, black, American, British, Canadian, French, Jamaican, and Eskimo.

He then tallied the results and assigned points to each album.  (I assume an album in the first position got 10 points, and tenth position got one point.)

Unlike those ubiquitous Rolling Stone lists, quoted everywhere and which are heavy on mainstream rock and dripping with set-in-stone conceit, Gambaccini’s book is looser and more democratic. It permits diversity (both critic and music) and honors both rock establishment (i.e. classic rock) as well as cult artists.

I found his ultimate Top 200 list predictable in some ways, but surprising in others.

Predictably, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones dominated the top positions.  Also predictably, older critics leaned toward early rock ‘n’ roll (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the like).  There were a lot of soul records, ala Otis Redding, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, etc.  Some choices teetered over the boundaries of rock (Huey “Piano” Smith, B.B. King, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew).

The book also had some truly oddball choices.  For example, a minor South African actress named Genevieve Waїte (note deliberate umlaut over the “i”) made one and only one album in 1975 called Romance Is On The Rise.  It made two critics’ lists, clocking in overall at number 98.  It’s actually more of a John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) album with his then-wife doing the singing.  She sounds like a disco version of Cyndi Lauper trying to imitate Billie Holiday.  I concluded Genevieve must have been a flavor of the moment.

Michael Nesmith, who got off to a dubious musical start with the Monkees, actually had talent. One critic, however—as his number one greatest album of all time—selected Nesmith’s solo country-rock effort And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘.  Though I’ve yet to hear it, this offbeat choice also raised my incredulous eyebrow.

Another critic chose as his list topper a collection by the R&B group The “5” Royales (note deliberate quotation marks around the numeral). I appreciate certain fifties music from a historical perspective, but this elicited more head scratching. My guess is that the Royales’ song “Dedicated to the One I Love” might have been playing in this particular critic’s Buick Roadmaster the first time he got laid.

One cheeky rebel without a cause listed a bootleg album, by Bob Dylan and the Band.

The book’s lone Canadian critic, for both his number one and number three picks, listed Supertramp albums.  Yes, you heard right. Respectfully, sir, I have to take issue with your thinking.

Another critic, the late Robert Shelton, had no less than three Bob Dylan albums in his top ten.  But considering Shelton virtually launched Dylan’s career in 1961 with his New York Times review of a performance at Gerdes Folk City—and considering it’s Bob Dylan, not Supertramp—I can forgive Shelton’s zeal.

Rock Critics’ Choice is an enjoyable little book—great bathroom reading—and like I said, when it came out in 1978 it prodded me to explore music I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.  The book’s only negative is its vintage.  Although punk bands like the Clash and Ramones are represented, it was published before new wave, alternative, indie, thrash, grunge, rap, hip-hop, and other assorted popular flavors of rock.

But if you’re a baby boomer like me whose era was the late fifties through the mid-seventies, this book provides pleasurable non-think entertainment, and spurs one to make one’s own list.  My own top 10 “greatest” list had five albums that made the top 20 of Rock Critics’ Choice: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (ranked number 3 in RCC), Rubber Soul by The Beatles (number 5), Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys (number 12), The Velvet Underground And Nico by the Velvet Underground (number 14), and Forever Changes by Love (number 16).

My champion pick, The Velvet Underground And Nico, was listed by many of Gambaccini’s cohorts and made number 14, but only one picked it to top her list: New York critic Lisa Robinson.  Lou Reed and I like her.

Of course, the term “greatest” is entirely subjective (excepting Muhammad Ali, who truly was The Greatest). But if you have a pre-1979 rock album or albums you consider deserving of this descriptor, and wish to share them here, leave a comment and I’ll see where they rank in Rock Critics’ Choice.

(And the vinyl just keeps on spinnin’…)

Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

Confessions of a Running Junkie

[UPDATE, April 2022: this post is more about my running fixation than my health, but just recently I had a CT scan of my heart and learned I have signs of atherosclerosis (calcium plaque in my arteries) and unless I take steps I could have a heart attack. I thought my diet was good, but maybe not. Although both my parents lived long lives, it could also be heredity. Anyway, regular exercise and low cholesterol levels are not necessarily a guarantor of a healthy heart. I urge everyone when they get older to have a heart CT scan. They only cost about $100 and could make a big difference.]

Last week I donated blood.  The Blood Center folks always check vital signs before inserting the needle.  For the third visit in a row after taking my vital signs, the nurse had to phone the doctor to “clear me.”

Although my blood pressure was slightly high (blame coffee, age, and Washington D.C.), that wasn’t the issue.  It was my pulse: only 44 beats per minute.  Halfway to dead.  A minimum pulse of 50 is required to donate.

Before phoning the phantom doctor, the nurse tried to get it up.  “Think of something exciting,” she instructed me.  So of course I concentrated on hardcore sex.

“I can’t believe it,” she said after taking my pulse a second time.  “It actually went down.”

Fortunately, my visit to the bloodsuckers wasn’t wasted, because Dr. Mysterioso “cleared me” after hearing that I was a daily runner.  Evidently runners and other athletes have lower heart rates.

This latest longitudes yammer isn’t to puff myself up.  No athlete am I.  Like my man Lou Reed, I’m just an Average Guy.  But running is a big part of my life, as you’ll soon see.

Back in high school, inspired by running icons like Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine, I ran cross-country for one season.  Then in college I got sidetracked with my studies: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.  (The sex part was a distant third.)  Then I continued my studies while living the single life in Florida, but also began jogging along the beach.  I needed to work off the cheap beer from the previous weekend. 

I didn’t commence a regular jogging routine until 1992 at age 34.  I’d been laboring several years at a strenuous outdoors job, then suddenly found myself behind a desk doing sedentary work.  This abrupt venue change triggered some long-suppressed anxieties.  Then the anxieties triggered depression. 

Running helped lessen my mental struggles.  I found that—once I dragged myself out of the recliner and stepped outside—the sustained cardiovascular activity provided by running helped me escape the inside of my head.  And during the in-between times, the bleak moments weren’t quite so bleak.

Therapy and benzodiazepines also played a role, but there’s no doubt running helped pull me out of my deepening funk.

In 1993 I got hired by a company that co-sponsored a popular local road race: the Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon.  I’d been jogging regularly now for a while, so I registered.  This race was the turning point.  It was like a giant party without the booze.  And instead of a hangover afterwards, I experienced the oft-cited “runner’s high.”  I had so much fun running those 9.3 miles downtown, I began doing smaller 5-kilometer races (3.1 miles).  Then 10K races.  Then marathons (26.2 miles).

At this stage—before age began chipping away at my testosterone level and male ego—speed was paramount.  Pushing myself to set PRs became a minor hobby.  Sometimes, the night before a race, I dreamt of being pulled by a giant conveyor belt strapped around my waist.  (And sometimes I was sprawled on the edge of the freeway and clawing gravel with my hands.)

My speed peak arrived in 1998 at age 40 when I qualified for the Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of road races.  In Boston the following year I set a personal best time of 3:11 (three hours, eleven minutes). 

After Newport (RI) Marathon, October 2013 (photo by Mom)

My times soon slowed, but the marathons continued.   Altogether I’ve run 32 marathons in 22 different states.  (It would have been more, but I had two multi-year marathon layoffs due to back trouble…probably running-related.)

These days I average about 18 miles a week.  This includes an eight-mile run every Saturday morning on the nearby Little Miami River Scenic Trail, where I’ve co-adopted a four-mile segment.  I supplement my volunteer hours by scooping up litter that the fair-weather slobs have discarded.

My weeknight runs are two miles through my neighborhood.  This is also social time.  My wife asked me recently, “How did you get to know this person?”  I told her to join me on a run and I’d show her how.  (She declined.)

Running is my TM and yoga combined; it strengthens both my body and brain.  I can’t imagine what my BP reading would be without it.  Also, as with mountain backpacking, I like the outdoors solitude.  I get a lot of writing ideas while running alone.  The first few paragraphs of this essay came while running along Little Miami.

There have been occasions when I couldn’t run, such as after breaking my ankle in 1995, or after surgery in 2019.  The sudden indolence actually brought on physical withdrawal.

So that’s where the “running junkie” in the title comes from.  It’s an addiction.  I realize running isn’t for everyone.  Some people can’t run due to bad knees or back or other health constraint.  Others, like my brother, claim running is “boring.”  Some have exercise alternatives like walking, bicycling, swimming, or weightlifting…all good. 

Still others enjoy massaging their gluteus maximus with a recliner cushion.  Hey, I figure if you remain undistracted, that’s good too.  In these digital-compulsive days, doing absolutely nothing is vastly underrated.  As we say on the Appalachian Trail, Hike Your Own Hike.  As we said in the Sixties, Do Your Own Thing

My thing is running.  See you on the sidewalk.

A Young Person’s Guide to Progressive Rock

February was a somber month for fans of the progressive rock music genre.  Both Ian McDonald of King Crimson and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum died.  Although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aims a jaundiced eye at progressive rock (fondly called “prog rock” or just “prog”), this music coincided with my hormones becoming jumpy and has enhanced my life. 

Brooker was the lead singer and main arranger in Procol Harum, and multi-instrumentalist McDonald was the chief musical force behind King Crimson’s first and best album, In The Court Of The Crimson King.  (He later helped start Foreigner.  For me, that’s like going from champagne to club soda.)

Prog rock might loosely be defined as music that evolved from Sixties psychedelic and that mixed straight rock with classical, jazz, folk, ambient sounds, or tape looping, often with an English or European veneer.  Arrangements became longer and more complex than previously, and lyrics—if there were any—flowed with florid poetry, science fiction, fantasy, and the mythological.  Electric guitar was still prominent, but keyboards, Mellotron, brass, woodwinds, and strings became equally important. 

Debate continues as to when and where prog began, but I date it to the Moody Blues’ Days Of Future Passed album and Procol Harum’s grandiose single “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” both from the year 1967.

Prog fell out of fashion starting in the mid-1970s.  The biggest groups, like Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Genesis, began overreaching themselves.  Punk rock also helped deflate the balloon, with its return to short, fast-paced songs and simple chords and lyrics.  Today, there’s a small but enthusiastic cult of prog-rock fans who help keep the flame burning. Most of them, like me, have thick eyeglass lenses and thinning hair.

In honor of Messrs. McDonald and Brooker, here are my 15 favourite progressive rock albums, in order of increasing obscurity. (Note my British spelling of “favorite.”):

Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon (1973).  A powerful album, musically and lyrically, and a sonic wet dream that no respectable record collection should be without.  A rock-music masterpiece. If you’re a young person, DO NOT listen to this album with the songs digitally splintered up. It flows, like a river.

Genesis, Foxtrot (1972) or Selling England By The Pound (1973).  Peter Gabriel was still the focal point of Genesis at this time, especially onstage.  Early Genesis emphasized melody and were like a musical version of Lewis Carroll, which is why I love them.

Emerson Lake & Palmer, Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970).  THE supergroup of prog, with a sinister and heavy edge. Keith Emerson had fronted the Nice, Greg Lake was King Crimson’s original singer, and drummer extraordinaire Carl Palmer was with hard rockers Atomic Rooster.  ELP’s first four studio albums are prog classics.

King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969).  Some say true prog-rock started here.  Guitarist Robert Fripp was the only constant in the ever-changing Crimson, but arranger Ian McDonald is all over this stunning debut, which Pete Townshend of the Who called “an uncanny masterpiece.”

Procol Harum, Shine On Brightly (1968) or A Salty Dog (1969).  Why Procol isn’t in that museum in Cleveland is, well, “beyond these things.” Procol has a sound all its own. Imagine Mary Shelley married to Howlin’ Wolf. These two classic LPs feature guitar-god Robin Trower, who went on to a successful solo career.  (I saw him four times and my ears still ring.)

Renaissance, Ashes Are Burning

Renaissance, Turn Of The Cards (1974).  Renaissance came closer to a straight classical sound than any other prog band.  Lead singer Annie Haslam has a voice like a bell. Notable song on this LP: the timely ”Mother Russia.” I also recommend Ashes Are Burning.

Van der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts (1971).  Led by histrionic vocalist Peter Hammill, Van der Graaf was more dark and apocalyptic than other English prog bands.  Pawn Hearts was produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp.

Caravan, In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971).  Caravan was part of the “Canterbury Scene,” which grew out of a musical collective in Kent called Wilde Flowers.  The Canterbury Scene musicians were more ingenuous and witty than their non-Canterbury peers.  Serious prog fans know of them; why others do not is as mysterious as why David Crosby is still alive.

Soft Machine, Volume Two (1969) or Third (1970).  The first Canterbury band to record, they got their hallucinogenic start at Joe Boyd’s underground club UFO along with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.  Volume Two is more psych-sounding, while Third is a double album of very heavy prog.

Kevin Ayers, Joy Of A Toy (1969).  A founder of Soft Machine along with Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen (Gong).  Some Ayers fans think his third album, Whatevershebringswesing, is his best.  It’s excellent, but I prefer this solo debut, more whimsical and psychedelic than most prog, and with shorter songs.

Egg, Egg (1970) or The Polite Force (1971).  An organ-dominated three-piece (no guitars!) with a Goth sound not unlike ELP’s.  Bass player and singer Hugo Montgomery (Mont) Campbell wrote most of their best music.  They’re on the fringes of the Canterbury Scene, so they have to be good.

McDonald and Giles, McDonald And Giles (1970).  Very under-appreciated spinoff from King Crimson.  Crimson lost its melodic element when Ian McDonald split, taking inventive percussionist Michael Giles with him.  If you love Crimson’s first album (see above), you must get this, which continues the pastoral side of Crimson.

Curved Air, Second Album (1971).  Critics didn’t like this band much, but their second album is quite good, very dreamlike.  Key musicians were singer Sonja Kristina and violinist Darryl Way.  A later lineup included drummer Stewart Copeland of the Police.  (He and Kristina married.)

Jade Warrior, Floating World (1974).  A two-man group, their all-instrumental albums on Island Records are the best, with lots of Oriental flourishes.  Both Kites and Waves are also good, the latter with Steve Winwood guesting on ivories.

Gryphon, Gryphon (1973).  This unique and obscure band once opened shows for Yes.  Their musical zeitgeist were the Renaissance and Middle Ages, and they played every instrument in the cosmos.  (Ever hear of a crumhorn?)  I prefer the eponymous debut to their other records because it has playful lyrics and vocals.

***

Why no albums by Yes, some of you ask?  Good question.  Yes might be prog’s signature group.  I liked Yes in high school and college, especially the Close To The Edge album.  Maybe I became oversaturated with their music, plus I discovered lesser-known artists who intrigued me much more.  I will admit, they were masters of their respective instruments.  But these days, instrumental virtuosity doesn’t float my boat like it once did. I just like a good song.

There are many other progressive rock groups, most of them British: Moody Blues, Nice, Hawkwind, Family, Strawbs, Colosseum, Henry Cow, Slapp Happy, Eno, Phil Manzanera/801, Gentle Giant, Electric Light Orchestra (which evolved from the Move), Barclay James Harvest, Camel, and Canterbury offshoots like Daevid Allen/Gong, Steve Hillage, Hugh Hopper, Mike Oldfield, Robert Wyatt/Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, Gilgamesh, and National Health. 

Germany produced denser, more machine-like bands (not surprisingly): Nektar, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Faust, Can, and Amon Düül. 

Italy had Premiata Formeria Marconi (P.F.M.).

France spouted Magma (and Gong lived communally in France).

Holland had Focus, featuring guitarist Jan Akkerman.

Japan had Stomu Yamashta and Far East Family Band.

North America produced Kansas, Styx, and Happy the Man (all U.S.) and Audience (Canada). 

Johnny-come-lately progressive rockers include Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, The Alan Parsons Project, Kate Bush, Sky, Marillion (a Genesis clone), Klaatu, Starcastle, Porcupine Tree, supergroups U.K. and Asia, and Rush, who began as a hard-rock trio.

Some folks consider Jethro Tull, Traffic, and Frank Zappa to be progressive rock, though I might question that categorization.  Same thing with “glam” bands like Roxy Music, Queen, and David Bowie.  Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, and Lindisfarne might be classified as prog, but I’ve always considered them English folk rock. 

Did I leave any out?  What are some of your favorite progressive rock bands?

Lastly, thanks for the music, Ian and Gary. Here’s a prog-rock taste test: a demo of King Crimson’s beautiful “I Talk to the Wind,” written by McDonald and lyricist Pete Sinfield. The singer is Judy Dyble, formerly of Fairport Convention. (Greg Lake would soon replace her in Crimson.)