Reasons for Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

At the dinner table the other day, the subject of my pending thru-hike came up.  My three-year-old granddaughter Avi wanted to know why I would soon be walking alone through the mountains.

My mind spun a few seconds.  “The best response is an honest response,” I thought.  So I told her what I usually tell adults when they ask.  “I want to go to a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.”

After a pregnant pause of about nine months, my wife grunted “What’s that supposed to mean?”  While I ignored her vaguely hostile question, I couldn’t ignore my daughter’s more reasoned remark: “You should just explain to her that you like nature.  She knows what nature is.”

Point taken.

There are a lot of reasons to deprive oneself of adequate food, water, shelter, companionship, and Netflix for five months.  I’ve been mulling over some of them, and I’ve come up with six reasons why people thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (or slog along any other line of dirt for months on end):

  1. To get to something.  My response to Avi falls in this category.  I like nature and the spiritual cleansing you might find if you open yourself up to it.  I know this last sentence is pretty lame, especially since I’ll be hurling four-letter words, oh, about 10 miles into my hike.  But it’s as close to Thoreau as I can get for a blog post.
  2. To escape something.  I haven’t read her bestselling book Wild, but author Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail to escape drug addiction and domestic abuse.  Others want to escape the couch, the TV, the cubicle, Wall Street, Big Brother, unrestrained development, toxic chemicals, plastics, politicians, Bible thumpers, terrorists, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, political correctness, identity mongering, violence, heartless people, brainless people, social media, leisure technology, and any of a hundred other glaring trademarks of the 21st-century.  I’m ready to escape this, too.  Big time.
  3. To deal with something.  This is related to the above.  The first person to thru-hike the A.T., WWII vet Earl Shaffer, did it to “walk the army out of (my) system.”  Today there’s a veterans group called Warrior Expeditions that does long-distance hikes, including the A.T., as a way to deal with shell shock.
  4. To challenge oneself.  Some people are athletically inclined and enjoy tackling something difficult, in setting goals, training, then accomplishing their goals.  I’m partway there, being a casual marathon runner…although I get slower and slower every race.
  5. To hike for a cause.  While I’m trying to raise money for suicide prevention (click here if you want to help), truthfully my charity effort, despite AFSP being such a prodigious cause, was an afterthought.  Those folks who are as committed to good causes off the trail as well as on, I take my bandana off to them.
  6. To be part of a subculture.  There wasn’t much of a club until recently, since there were so few thru-hikers, but now thru-hikers are as prevalent as the Deadheads of yore.  They bond on trail, and (assisted by social media) have even developed their own code-speak.  Know what a “LASH” is?  I didn’t till recently.  It means “Long-Ass Section Hike.”  Ha ha.  My impression is that most members of the Tramily (Trail Family), similar to Deadheads, tend to be younger, as in twenty-something, with time and money on their side. And maybe likeminded in practice and outlook. Which means I don’t think I’ll be on the Tramily Tour.  Is there a Curmudgeon Tour?
Fellow curmudgeon Ed Crankshaft

UPDATE: in my last post I decided to switch from Potable Aqua iodine pills to a standard filtration device. However, I just discovered Aquamira drops. These drops use Chlorine Dioxide instead of iodine to kill Giardia protozoans. And unlike iodine, Chlorine Dioxide also kills equally nasty Cryptosporidium. Aquamira drops get great reviews. They’re inexpensive, lightweight, easily packed and easy-to-use. The only downside I can see is that it takes a few hours for the drops to fully purify water that’s close to freezing. My throat will just have to be patient.

Has anyone used these drops?

Greenpete Goes Ga Ga on Gear

Since deciding to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, it’s been a fraught couple of weeks.  This post is devoted to sharing some of the fraughtness.

Most backpacking shit I currently have is fine for a three to four-day trip.  But with a looming 150 consecutive days and nights on all types of terrain in all kinds of weather, a few upgrades were advisable. 

The biggest item is a tent.  The tunnel-shaped two-person jobbie I bought at Morrie Mages Sports in downtown Chicago in 1983 is still holding up, but the rain cover has a tendency to collect puddles, and it’s incredibly heavy in these days of lightweight options.  So I sprung for a $325 Nemo Hornet I.  Like many modern tents, it’s dome-shaped, and it weighs less than a bag of frozen peas (slight exaggeration).  I had to special order it and haven’t yet set it up, so it remains to be seen if I can adequately squeeze my fat ass inside.

Also bought a high-tech rain poncho.  Rain is one of my big miseries while hiking, and I wanted something reliable.  Considering I forked over a hundred greenbacks for this piece of plastic, it better be good.  Also got a rain jacket, which should offer protection plus warmth when I hit that chilly New England weather in September.

I learned that iodine in large doses can adversely affect one’s thyroid gland.  Therefore, gone are the Potable Aqua iodine pills I once used to sterilize water on short section hikes.  Still debating on what type of filter I should get, since there are so fricking many of them.  As Jethro Tull once sang, Nothing is Easy.

Also pending are backup boots for when those jagged rocks of eastern Pennsylvania chew up my current pair.  I usually wear Vasque, so I’m deciding on either Vasque Breeze AT Mid GTX or Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX.  Both get stellar reviews.  Don’t ask me what “Mid GTX” means, or why a ski equipment firm is in the hiking boot business.

Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX ski hiking boots

Reading material: I decided on Marcel Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past.  If I can get partway through the second volume by the time I reach Mt. Katahdin, I’ll be happy.

There are lots of little things still to acquire, but I’m in no big rush for moleskin.

I’m not a “gear head” or fashionmonger, so I think I’ll stick with a wooden stick instead of buying a pair of flashy trekking poles.  This despite my neighbor, Curt, raving about his own poles.  Speaking of Curt, he’s been enormously helpful.

In my book Evergreen Dreaming I briefly mention Curt.  He and his wife Brenda live behind us.  I see him occasionally—usually pushing a lawnmower—on my evening runs.  He’s tall, stocky, with a bushy beard and hair down to his waist.  After getting out of the army, Curt (trailname: Lonewolf) solo-hiked the A.T. in 1997, then did the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) four years later.

When I told him I’d decided to literally follow in his footsteps, Curt got real excited.  He was not only nice enough to share with me his ’97 hiking journal (They Spoke of Damascus), but he volunteered to get me in shape with some hikes at nearby Caesar Creek State Park and Shawnee State Forest.  He’s also advising me on important matters like choosing a good trail name, how to properly wipe my rear end in the woods, and where the best trailtown bars are.

Last Sunday, Curt and I (trailname: either Greenpete, Peat Moss, Omoo, or Stinky Old Man) rose before dawn and drove up to Caesar Creek for a pleasant 13-miler.  We plan to do a two-nighter at Shawnee once my Hornet arrives.  The cool thing is, Curt likes to pound beer as much as I do.  So when Shawnee rolls around, I’m debating whether or not to skirt park regulations and use canned Budweiser instead of rocks to weigh down my pack…with the thought that my return hike will carry less weight.  On second thought, forget the debating…it’s a done deal.

That’s it for now, fellow Longitudinals.  Oh yeah, if you would like to contribute to my charity, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), you can click here.  Many people today suffer depression, especially since the pandemic hit, and AFSP is a great cause. I’ve already raised close to the halfway mark of my goal of $2,189, so I’m now thrashing around northern Virginia.  And to those of you who have already contributed, a huge MERCI BEAUCOUP.

Happy Trails!

Longitudes on the Appalachian Trail

I guess it was a matter of time.

Last Sunday evening I was cozied up to the fire pit in our backyard, enjoying a cold Yuengling and warming myself with one of the best conflagrations I’ve ever fashioned.  As often happens when the flames are dancing and wood smoke caresses my olfactory receptors, my mind drifted to the trail.

“How nice it would be to be transported to the mountains right now,” I thought.

Well, one musing led to another.  I thought about how Lynn and I had flight credits with Delta, accrued from somewhere back in the early COVID days, and which we would soon lose unless we used them.  Then about how I’ve been unemployed since last summer (with a couple disconcerting stabs at galley-slave work).  And about how, based on our recent discussion with our financial adviser Mandy, I could probably join Lynn in retirement or semi-retirement if I really want to.  And about how I feel fully healthy right now—lower back stiffness notwithstanding.

I realized I’m tired of chirpy recruiters asking me “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and managers telling me “Pete, you’re driving the bus on this project,” when I’d rather be puffing a Romeo y Julieta cigar under a full moon in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The only perceivable obstacle might be Lynn.  But when I proffered my idea to her, I was flabbergasted when she replied “You should!  It’s something you’ve always wanted to do, and right now is the perfect time!” (Her response has a lot to do with our daughter’s family moving only a few miles away, so she now has a support system while I abandon her for five or six months.)  Thanks, dear!

So—after multiple section hikes over the last eight years—I decided to finally thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

If you’ve read my memoir Evergreen Dreaming, you know a little about the A.T. and its colorful subculture of thru-hikers: those who walk the entire 2,189 miles between Maine and Georgia.  And about how I marvel at this feat, while telling myself “No way could I ever do that!”  Supposedly only twenty percent of those who start a thru-hike ever finishes.

It remains to be seen how successful I am at this nutty endeavor.  But you’ll never realize your potential until you try.

My launch date from Amicalola State Park in northern Georgia is May 2, so I have time to prepare.  A new tent, cookstove, extra pair of boots, and rain poncho will be necessary.  Guess I’ll have to join the 21st century and get one of them thar fancy filtration devices instead of using iodine pills for my water.  Need to decide on some good books for headlamp reading in my tent.  For starters, I’m thinking of Walden and War and Peace.

Until May 2 I’ll be updating you loyal readers with how I’m progressing.  After that, there will be only brief computer activity, since I’m carrying a flip-phone and will be jumping online only during occasional motel respites.

Since this is kind of a marathon endeavor, I thought I’d try to raise some funds for a good cause.  The organization I chose is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).  I’m aiming to raise a buck for every mile of the trail…$2,189 total.  If you’d like to help out, please visit my Facebook fundraising page by clicking here.

A hundred percent of your donations go to this organization, which uses its funds to help survivors of suicide loss and for mental health and suicide prevention policies.  I realize COVID-era is a difficult time to ask people for money.  But whether it’s $5 or $500 (and whether or not my thru-hike stunt is successful), your generosity will not go unrecognized.

Finally, anyone who wants to swing by to say hello, or even hike a few miles with me, is more than welcome to.  I enjoy peace and solitude, but it can get terribly lonely out there.  As launch date approaches I’ll give more details concerning my estimated whereabouts and contact info.

Thor Heyerdahl, John Muir, Roald Amundsen, Meriwether Lewis…here I come!

New Murder Mystery Unveiled!

Any James Bond acolytes out there? Any fans of the movie Deliverance? Ever wonder what it might be like if Bond was dropped into one of those canoes in Deliverance? Maybe sipping shaken martinis between Jon Voight and Ned Beatty?

Hard to envision, I know. But I made an attempt (sort of) in my latest book, called Black Jackknife: A Nick Montaigne Mystery, my first attempt at fiction. I’m not presuming to imply my main character stacks up with an Ian Fleming creation, nor that my Georgia Appalachian Trail murder site can rival the harrowing, claustrophobic Southern woods feel of Deliverance. But I think my book has at least a few good moments.

Intrigued? Cool! I’d love for you to read BJ and let me know your thoughts. Just click the link below or top right for either a paperback or ebook copy. It might make a great Christmas present for someone…including yourself!

And I’ll tell you what: to sweeten the pot, I’ll mail a free updated paperback copy of my hiking memoir Evergreen Dreaming to the first reader who correctly guesses the identity of the killer (or killers) BEFORE chapter 18. No cheating, now!

Lastly, I welcome reviews of BJ on either Amazon or Goodreads, either positive or negative. Even if only a few words. (“Thumbs up,” “Best book I ever read,” “Only book I ever read,” “Beats a sharp stick in the eye”…whatever.)

Hope you enjoy my book. And thanks, fellow Longitudinals!

Here’s the link:

An Ohio Yankee Searches for Food and Nudists on Scotland’s Trails

Sometimes I want to murder time
Sometimes when my heart’s aching
But mostly I just stroll along
The path that he is taking

—from “October Song” by The Incredible String Band

Last time, I was on the lookout for a rumored nudist colony along the West Highland Way (WHW) in Scotland.

Strolling along the southeastern shore of Loch Lomond with my hiking companion Johannes, I kept glancing at the forested island to my left. A flash of white?! Maybe not. I’ll scope it out again on my return trip.

We pitched our tents at Milarrochy Bay campground, only a hundred or so yards from the loch. We’d hiked nearly 20 miles that day. I was exhausted and turned in early, although Johannes struck up conversation, auf Deutsch, with several other camping groups, all of whom happened to be younger Deutschlanders like him.

adam and eveI enjoyed Johannes’s hiking company. Intelligent and affable, he had a unique and enviable way of weighing his words before voicing them…maybe because he was a professor. And we hiked at the same pace. So he was the ideal hiking partner.

We said goodbye next morning, Johannes continuing northward, me turning back to Milngavie. I’d been warned of midges, which are tiny gnat-like insects that can consume a human in five minutes. Unzipping my tent, a small cloud of them drifted inside and began munching on my arms. So I packed up quickly and immediately hit the trail. (Scotland’s midges play fair, though. They won’t bother you if you maintain a 7-mph pace, or reach a certain elevation. I wasn’t timing my stride, but I skedaddled and headed for the hills.)

Conic Hill was most important. We’d bypassed it yesterday to make time, but today I was hoping for an expansive view of beautiful Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Great Britain in surface area, and dotted with many islands shaped like green puzzle pieces. One of them, Inchcruin, was used as an insane asylum in the 18th century. Another, Inchmurrin, is today used by sane people to “appreciate nature.”

conic hill1

Loch Lomond, from Conic Hill. Inchmurrin is the farthest island. Inchcruin is further north, to the right of the photo.

Arriving at the top after a short climb, the view of Loch Lomond was beautiful. One of those larger islands down there is Inchmurrin. I’m too far away to spy nudists, though. But, really, why would I want to invade their privacy? I guess because their lifestyle is different and, in a way, admirable.

(If you’re still curious about Inchmurrin naturists, click here.)

Conic Hill wasn’t as high as Ben Nevis, but the view was just as scenic. The Conic descent was a bonus, because for perhaps a mile ahead I could trace the WHW path, a beige scribble that swept and swooped over the rounded pastures. Passing bleating sheep then crossing a stream through a shaded wood, I met a friendly guy from Croatia who was striking camp. You’ve got a great view ahead of you, sir.

While exiting the last sheep-grazing meadow, I saw a large sign that encouraged people to keep their dogs leashed. The sign had a gory photo of a mutilated sheep. Supposedly, 50 privately-owned sheep are killed every year by unleashed dogs on the West Highland Way. What struck me, though, was the polite wording. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

Do keep your pet tethered whilst walking though these fields. This will prevent unnecessary distress for all. Thank you.

The U.S. equivalent would be POSTED: ALL DOGS MUST BE LEASHED!! VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED!!

The troll lives in the little dark area on the left.

Approaching the rowhouses on Gartness Road where Johannes and I had rested and enjoyed ice lollies the previous day, I passed by a stone bridge almost totally obscured by dense foliage, with a small sign reading “Trolls Bridge.” If you recall from childhood the fairy tale “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” you might understand why I paused here and listened for an irritated “Who goes there?!”

Then I arrived at the rowhouses. Now, remember, I’m a stupid Yank, and an even stupider Ohio Valley Yank at that. So I know little about stone rowhouses (townhouses). Anyway, I was hungry, and between the size of the building and the many cars parked outside, I figured one of the doors would open to the restaurant that I knew was there, and where I could get a hearty lunch. The question was…which door was the entrance?

Door number one—it might have been the one with the nameplate that said “Wilkie Watters”—was locked. But door number two did, indeed, open. However, I didn’t expect to see a half-dressed woman, on a couch, with a phone at her ear, with bulging eyeballs, who yelled “What are ye doin’?! This is me hoose!!”

Uh, sorry, ma’am, just a blockheaded Yank looking for a hot meal. I abandoned the restaurant idea and had a Clif bar instead.

The last significant stop for me on the West Highland Way was Glengoyne Distillery (est. 1833), only a quarter mile from the trail on the other end of a large field. I’m not a whisky man, but I was distressed after the rowhouse incident. Also, when in Scotland do as the Romans do, so I swerved my rubbery legs offtrail to the distillery’s gift shop, where I bought a souvenir bottle of Glengoyne’s 18-year-old single malt Scotch whisky. I figured the liquor would give me a shot of much-needed energy, as I was fast losing strength in the July heat, a blazing 92 degrees Fahrenheit, way excessive for Scotland.

Of course, the booze didn’t have the same effect as Popeye’s spinach might. But it went down like liquid velvet. I took a few luxurious swigs and saved the rest for my whisky-drinking son-in-law.

I dragged myself past The Shire, Mugdock Castle, and arrived at my trailhead turnoff about 4 p.m. I’d hiked approximately 40 miles with backpack in two days, a personal record. But my geriatric legs paid a heavy price.

glengoyne1

Glengoyne Distillery in Dumgoyne, Scotland

The final insult, after the Gartness Road rowhouse, was encountering two drunks on a bench in the middle of the trail turnoff to my daughter’s house. Arms embracing each other, laughing uncontrollably, they told me I still had a mile to go to Milngavie center, and that I was…get this…cheating.

Can you imagine? I tried to explain, but they kept me there for a full five minutes, laughing the entire time, while I wilted in the heat.

Actually, these two were pretty hilarious—God’s holy fools—and an appropriate ending to my troll…I mean, stroll. Now that I think of it, I should have gifted them my Glengoyne bottle.

(I made one other side trip while visiting my daughter and her family, this one to neighboring England and the port city of Liverpool. I’ll write about that next. If I recall, there was a little band from Liverpool that made a few records…)

troll

West Highland Way troll, who looks like he’s had some 18-year-old single malt

 

 

An Ohio Yankee Rambles on Scotland’s Trails

scotland

This is the third installment in my travel-to-Scotland series. Most travel essays read like toothpaste commercials, so I’ve tried to jazz up mine with some subjective asides. After all, it’s not just about geography, food, culture, and hotel accommodations, it’s also about how all these affect each personality, and personalities are different, including distorted personalities like mine.

With Longitudes, you get the good, the bad, and the self-indulgent.

While in Scotland, I tried to mix town with city with country. I’ve already discussed Milngavie (“Mull-guy”), Glasgow, and Edinburgh, so now I’m leaving the pavement and discussing some trails. Specifically, Ben Nevis and the West Highland Way.

Ben Nevis: Mr. Nevis isn’t a person, he’s a mountain. His name is an anglicization of the Gaelic Beinn Nibheis, which means “malicious mountain.” Having summited Mounts Whitney and Washington in the U.S., I didn’t find him malicious at all. In fact, he was more like a large teddy bear. My old school friend Tad had summited him years ago, and since we Kiski boys (“Faith, Humility, Tolerance”) are a competitive lot, I felt compelled to plant my own invisible Kiski flag alongside Tad’s.

I struck out early Sunday morning with my son-in-law, Mike. We drove from Milngavie to Fort William, a several-hour-drive (see map below). Ben Nevis Mountain Path starts at a car park outside Fort William, and meanders across fields of grazing sheep, gradually rising up toward the clouds.

Big Ben is the highest mountain in the British Isles, at 4,411 feet (1,345 meters). Most hikers summit and return in a day, so there are no camping areas, huts, signs, or other evidence of man’s tinkering. Just a gentle, rocky trail and a few cairns for directional help. The only eyesore was a clear-cutted mountain slope to the southeast, but we soon left this far behind us.

ben nevis

View from about halfway up Ben Nevis

Mike was much faster than me, a Ferrari compared to my Ford Fiesta. But he waited at the top, waving me over to where he sat amongst a small crowd at the base of a large cairn near an emergency shelter. We peeked inside this shelter, intended for climbers who might be stranded atop during bad weather. Pretty dismal; nothing more than a coffin-like hole in the rock to protect from wind and rain.

Also atop Ben Nevis: “…(A) piano that had been buried under one of the cairns on the peak was uncovered by the John Muir Trust, which owns much of the mountain” (Wikipedia). Amazingly, the piano was evidently carried up 20 years earlier as a charity project by some enterprising men from Dundee. This stunt sounds suspiciously like a Monty Python skit—I picture Cleese, Idle and company with red beards and kilts—but it’s a fact. “And now for something completely different.”

We returned to our car in late afternoon, a perfect day hike. Our muscles ached for several days afterward. But it was a good pain.

whw map

West Highland Way and Ben Nevis

West Highland Way (WHW): there are many hiking trails in Scotland, but this is the longest and most well-known, with distance backpackers arriving from all points on the globe. The trail starts in Milngavie (where our daughter lives), north of Glasgow, and runs northward through western Scotland to Fort William, a total of 96 miles, or 154 kilometers (see map). It encompasses farmland, forests, lochs, villages, and mountains.

I allowed myself a good week to recover from Ben Nevis, and planned a two-day solo hike. Luckily, it coincided with the two warmest and sunniest days of my whole visit.

It was only a ten-minute walk from Holly’s house to the trailhead, located about a half-mile from the official start in Milngavie. Though my standard practice is to hike alone, at the trailhead was a young man adjusting his pack straps, we got to talking, and we ended up hiking together all day. His name is Johannes, and he’s an environmental microbiologist originally from Heidelberg, Germany. He had just finished attending a nearby conference, and wanted to explore most if not all of the WHW.

Johannes on WHW

Johannes, taking the lead on West Highland Way

Unlike Ferrari Mike, Johannes was closer to my cruising speed. Leaving the environs of Milngavie, we passed by Mugdock Country Park, the side trail to Mugdock Castle (see my August 1 post) …then practically bumped into River and Alistair (River is Holly’s golden retriever, and Alistair is a retired gent who regularly walks him). We were a good two miles from Holly’s house, and I was impressed with Alistair’s devotion to his job.

One thing I learned about the Scottish is that they not only love dogs, they love to ramble. The U.S. is one of the most corpulent societies on earth (28.8 kg/m2 body mass index), and I’m convinced we’d be a helluva lot healthier—physically and mentally—if we rambled more.

After coming in view of the Campsies Fells (hills) and passing Craigallien Loch, a small lake that looked ripe for some fishing action, we took a short break where a road called Ballachalairy Yett crosses the trail. Near the Yett is a picturesque cottage painted in brown and red called The Shire. I’d seen it earlier in the week while on a morning run. Although I think it’s a hostel of some sort, I’ve been unable to find any information on it. (If anyone knows anything, please leave comment.)

While resting and munching on snacks, Johannes and I met Timothy, who was making a delivery to The Shire. When Timothy found out we were from outside Scotland, he asked us our views on controversial Brexit, which Scotland is overwhelmingly opposed to. This topic led to Boris Johnson, then Trump, then the far-right German AfD party, then climate change, then Native Americans.

The Shire_on WHW

The Shire

In the states, I avoid verbal political conversations with people, whether friends, neighbors, or co-workers. We’re so polarized in America, these talks invariably result in blood pressures rising, or worse. So I was amazed at, not only Timothy’s cheekiness, but also how the three of us had consensus. I may have to leave my home country; there are actually people with clear heads! Needless to say, it was very refreshing. If a Scotsman, German, and American can break bread like this, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for our planet. And it’s yet another reason we Yanks need to ramble more.

(You can pay me later, Rick Steves.)

Later in the day, Johannes and I made a second stop at a collection of rowhouses along Gartness Road near a stone bridge. Someone had placed a cooler outside one of the houses, stocked with refreshments for hikers, with payment on the “honor system.” We rested here about 15 minutes, listened to the trickling waters of Endrick Water stream, and I had a refreshing watermelon ice lolly (popsicle). Not a single vehicle or person in sight. Ahh, such peace!

Watermelon ice lolly at Wilkie Watters'

Enjoying a watermelon ice lolly outside Wilkie Watters’ place on Endrick Water

After this came a long trek along Gartness Road, where we shared cramped space with several ultra-modern and ultra-large farm tractors. Then Garadhban Forest, where we lunched in a shady grove and met a winded hiker about my age from Perth, Scotland. Both Johannes and I were also feeling tired, so we decided on a shorter alternate route to the main WHW, our intended destination a public campground on Loch Lomond shore, northwest of Drymen (see map).

This alternate trail followed a boring road stretch through the small village of Balmaha, and bypassed Conic Hill, one of the higher points along the southern WHW, and which (I found out the next day) offered a stunning view of south Loch Lomond.

Loch Lomond has many irregular-shaped islands, and I’d heard rumors about an 11-acre nudist colony on one of the largest. Since I was doing an out-and-back hike, I vowed to determine the naked truth of this tomorrow.

Next time, I’ll share my discoveries.

An Earth Day Tribute to Wallace Stegner

Photo by Mary Stegner

While laid up after my surgery, I read several books. One is a biography of writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. This book was sent to me by my WordPress friend Cincinnati Babyhead. (One day I’ll have to ask about his pen name, considering Cincinnati is a long way from his domicile in Vancouver, British Columbia.) Babyhead had read my magnum opus Evergreen Dreaming, and saw that I had included an epigraph by Stegner.

(This is one of the great things about blogging: establishing a “cyberspace” relationship with a stranger based on a mutual interest. Not to mention sharing, and learning. Not to mention that, occasionally, some strangers will urge me to place my head in closer proximity to where my surgery was.)

Anyway, when I inserted that epigraph in my book, I knew very little about Stegner. My only prior knowledge came from the pages of Sierra Magazine. I’m a member of the environmental organization Sierra Club, as was Stegner for many years, and the club’s member periodical often features perceptive essays and quotes by him.benson book

I find it a minor crime that the name “Wallace Stegner,” and his achievements, are not known to more people…including me, for a long while. So here’s a short tribute to him, with gratitude toward Vancouver’s Babyhead.

***

Most people have heard of Ken Kesey. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then gained infamy as a Merry Prankster riding a psychedelic bus through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But many don’t know that Kesey studied creative writing at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner (as did writers Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Evan S. Connell, and many others).

Other than producing some of America’s finest literature, Kesey and Stegner couldn’t be more unlike.

Wallace Stegner was born in rural Iowa in 1909. He had a brutish, bullying father who yanked the family from one place to the next in search of quick, easy wealth. (Stegner’s 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain examines this restless quest.) Stegner’s most vivid childhood memories were formed in an isolated town called Eastend, in flat and rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned hard work and how to hunt and fish. He learned how a cold prairie wind could slice through a person like a sickle through a snowdrift. He learned loneliness and deprivation, but also resourcefulness. A small boy on an immense prairie under limitless sky, Stegner early on gained a respect for the awesome majesty of the outdoors.

George Stegner zigzagged his family across the American West until settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Young Wallace was able to find some permanence here. He excelled in school and on the tennis court, and loved to hike and camp in the sagebrush canyons and gingerbread flanks of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. Although taking a dim view of the Mormon faith (and “denominational narrowness” in general), he made many Mormon friends and gained a lifelong respect for their solidity of character, love of family, and emphasis on roots, eventually writing two acclaimed books on Mormon history. This idea of the importance of history and roots would crop up again and again in Stegner’s work.

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

The young writer (photo: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)

He attended University of Utah, then earned a master’s and doctorate at University of Iowa, where he met Mary Page, who would be his wife for 60 years. While in school, he learned his father had left his mother while she had cancer. (George Stegner later killed himself, after murdering his mistress.) For the rest of his life, Wallace battled the ghost of his father, while simultaneously drawing on memories of his mother’s affection and strength.

Wallace and Mary eventually moved to Vermont, where he honed his writing at the famous Bread Loaf writers retreat, which also counted Robert Frost, Willa Cather, and Bernard DeVoto among its faculty. He fell in love with the untrammeled green beauty of Vermont and simplicity and self-sufficiency of its residents. He became close friends with the prickly but brilliant DeVoto, and later wrote an acclaimed biography of him, The Uneasy Chair (1974).

While many writers concentrate on one form—fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, biography—Stegner refused to be limited. He won three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976 novel), and a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971 novel). His biography of Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1953), has been called “one of the most influential books ever written about the West.”

In 1946 he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, and mentored hundreds of student-writers for the next 25 years. He retired in 1971, wearied by students (like Kesey) who he felt undervalued the virtues of diligence, and who were obsessed with the “Now” and had scant appreciation of history, tradition, permanence, and place, in either their lifestyles or writing.

Alaska 1965_Wisconsin Historical Society

With wife Mary in Alaska, 1965 (photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Some have ranked Stegner with John Steinbeck. He’s been called the “dean of Western writers.” His admirers argue he’s not better known due to an elitist Eastern literary press. For years, The New York Times snubbed him. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, the newspaper clumsily hinted he was undeserving.  (On the 100th anniversary of Stegner’s birth, the Times did offer a small mea culpa.)

And while Wikipedia lists Stegner’s many awards and publications, its biography of him seems woefully brief. For proof, compare Stegner’s Wikipedia bio to 25-year-old pop star Justin Bieber’s. (On second thought, don’t ruin your day.)

While this woeful scribbler has shamefully yet to become acquainted with Stegner’s fiction, biographies, or histories, I am familiar with his articles, having read his collection, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). One of the essays here is Stegner’s famous public letter urging passage of the Wilderness Act, eventually made law in 1964. In this letter, Stegner—who in the 1950s assisted David Brower of the Sierra Club in blocking construction of Echo Park Dam and saving Dinosaur National Monument—writes eloquently:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Wallace Stegner’s accomplishments during his 84 years are beyond impressive. He was the first person to destroy the myth that the West is a land of rugged individualists, instead arguing it is a cooperative idea, and should be cherished and preserved rather than exploited by private interests. mountain waterHe was a novelist, biographer, Western historian, seminal environmentalist, and beloved teacher. He was special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He had a work ethic that makes most of us look like panhandlers.

He was also a man of principles. A liberal of the old-fashioned variety, when Stegner received a National Endowment for the Arts award not long before his death in 1993, he refused it on the grounds that the NEA was being manipulated by political conservatives. “People like Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms have been attacking it for a long time,” he said, “and the (G.H.W. Bush) administration played into the pressure…You can’t conduct arts with censors…”

Those who block dams, shatter myths, and spurn awards while standing on principle are rare birds, indeed, and deserve to be celebrated.

Happy Earth Day, Professor Stegner

STEGNER

(Photo: Associated Press)

 

Breaking News: EVERGREEN DREAMING Gets Notice in “Publishers Weekly”

Book Cover

I’m pleased to announce that my recent book, Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker (aka “Ed”), was selected for a review by the venerable trade magazine Publishers Weekly. Only a small number of self-published books are selected for such a review.

Publishers Weekly (PW) has been around since 1872 and primarily serves booksellers, libraries, publishers, and agents. The reviews are generally short plot summaries, and can be favorable or unfavorable. Fortunately, Ed’s review was favorable.

While I’m grateful to whomever read and reviewed Ed, I wish he or she had read the entire book instead of just the first section (my hike through Georgia and North Carolina). I also wish the reviewer had been more careful with relating the narrative, since there are a few mistakes.

Despite the mild quibbles, I’m still grateful for a positive review, and here is a replicate of it.  Thanks to all of you who bought Ed, for those who plan to, and for those not interested but who still visit longitudes!

Kurtz, a 55-year-old technical writer (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”), hikes from Georgia to North Carolina along the Appalachian Trail in this entertaining travelogue. His love for nature started as a teen camping with his family in the Blue Ridge Mountain; now, his wife, Lynn, supports him in his hiking endeavors, but worries about his quest at his age. Kurtz makes several friends along the way (among them, Dylan, a 24-year-old realizing his dream to hike the entire trail, who joins Kurtz for a couple days), and describes the scenery (“a long, flat stretch with lots of overhanging rhododrendon that offers a nice shady canopy”). Along the way, he argues for wilderness conservation, noting that only 3% of the 2,200-mile trail is designated wilderness and warning that open spaces are threatened. Kurtz also discusses his affinity for reading (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), his love for the Beatles, his desire for hot water, and his reliance on sturdy walking sticks (one of which he names “Kip”)—and he always makes sure to call Lynn to share his experiences. Kurtz’s charming memoir encourages wilderness purists to chase their dreams, regardless of age.

PW

On Top of Mount Whitney

View from Mt. Whitney

Just a few pics from my recent hike up Mount Whitney.  I think this may represent my last strenuous hike.  It was a great experience, but it was also an ass-kicker.  Going straight from the Ohio Valley to 14,500 feet can wreak havoc with your brain and lungs.  But, I summited…and survived to tell.

(Next year, I’m limiting it to a couple days in the Scottish highlands.)

Mt. Whitney Portal road

The Whitney Portal Road from Lone Pine, California looked innocent enough.

Sunset at Mt. Whitney Trail Camp2

Base camp (“Trail Camp”) was at 12,000 feet.  Rock everywhere, a narrow crevasse between cliffs that created a howling wind chute.  No rest for the wicked when 50 mph winds whip your tent all night, and your skull feels like it’s being squeezed in a vise.

 

Trail partner A.J.

On the summit hike, I hooked up with a 39-year-old guy from Daytona Beach named A.J.  Equally fatigued, we doubled over every 300 feet or so to catch our breath, allowing the stronger hikers to pass by.

Climbing toward Whitney

In addition to altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness, or AMS), I suffer from vertigo.  There were several massive drop-offs where I forced myself not to look down, leaning into the mountain, grasping the rock, and praying that my footing was solid.  Many hikers, unbelievably,  follow this trail at night (using headlamps).  Guess there’s a reason why people have died trying to summit.

Mt. Whitney shelter

Mt. Whitney plaque

Mount Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States.  The only signs you’ve arrived at the top are a plaque, an old stone shelter littered with graffiti, and your fellow hikers, celebrating in their own ways.

I stayed a second night at Trail Camp on the way down.  The wind was just as vicious, and my headache was only slightly better.  Blood was now clogging my sinuses.

On the way back to Whitney Portal, and Lone Pine, I hiked with a retired 67-year-old man named Dennis.  He and his wife had driven up from Phoenix (his wife stayed in a B&B at Lone Pine).  Dennis was a veteran backpacker, but was unable to summit due to allergies and lack of sleep due to the wind at Trail Camp.  He, too, admitted he was retiring from strenuous hikes.

After returning to Lone Pine, I rested up in the Dow Villa Motel, which dates to the 1920s, then visited a nearby film museum.  I did not know that this area, with its scenic Alabama Hills, is legendary for providing the setting for hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, both silent films and talkies.  In fact, many of the greats at one time stayed at the Dow Villa: Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, John Wayne, among others.

Lone Pine Film Museum

Not sure if Humphrey Bogart stayed in Lone Pine when he made the movie High Sierra.  When I bumped into him at the museum, he wasn’t talking.

After a modest recovery in the relaxing and historic Dow Villa, I hiked for a few days in Yosemite.  Then hitched/shuttled to Reno, Nevada to catch a plane home.

***

In summation, I’ve always thought I was immune to altitude sickness.  But I learned otherwise.  If any prospective daredevil mountain climbers are reading this, make sure you become acclimated to higher altitudes before attempting any major climb.  Severe AMS can cause hospitalization, and even death.

Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to the gentler peaks of Scotland’s West Highland Way.

Top 'o the World, Ma

“Top ‘o the world, Ma!”

***** Birth Announcement *****

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Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker, a book that describes my mountain backpacking experiences of the last five years, has just been delivered via natural childbirth! (Twins, since there are both paperback and ebook versions.)

If you click here, or the link in “My Writing” above, you’ll be transported (beamed up?) to the book’s internet home. Once there, you can also visit my internet Author Page, which has some stuff about me, my other book, Bluejackets in the Blubber Room, and my next project.

I’ve listed various aunts and uncles in this book’s acknowledgement section. I wanted to recognize you who have supported my brain droppings for so long. (I couldn’t list everyone, and limited it to commenters, but I’m grateful to all who have visited longitudes in the past.)  And for you new folks…glad you dropped in for coffee, and I hope you stick around!

Suffice to say, this book is very “longitudinal.” I wanted Evergreen Dreaming to be enjoyable and easy to read, and I think you’ll recognize my voice and spirit. I’m not sure that’s good or bad. If it’s bad, please remember it wasn’t me, it was the muse that passed through me. (!)

Now, if you’d like to order and are conflicted on light-fantastic digital versus down-home paperback, here’s my view of the two formats, pros and cons:

Ebook: less expensive for you, convenient for transport and storage, and saves trees. God knows, we need trees. But cold and impersonal.

Paperback: puts more $$ in my pocket, and has the fonts and graphics I intended, plus a soft and velvety matte cover. You can also add an additional digital copy for only $1.99. Uses paper (trees) but it’s minimal due to print-on-demand. Adds to your “stuff” quotient, but more warm and personal.

Folks, I’m just appreciative of anyone who buys this book, new-style or old-style. I really hate this marketing stuff, since it’s not me, but my goal is to break even on this thing. (Unlike what happened with my more eggheady blubber book.)

Lastly, if anyone knows any qualified magazine or newspaper book critics, please let them know about Evergreen Dreaming. I think there may be a few magazines and newspapers that haven’t yet folded.

Now, I’ll try to get back to my regular rambles, reviews, and rants, with only sporadic info-mercials. Thanks again, everyone!

Pete (greenpete58)
Longitudes Press

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