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.

A Salty Side Trip to Key West

Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.

Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida.  My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).

Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.”  (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.)  In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States.  Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism.  Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.

For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it.  Here’s a quick tour:

L to R: Dave, Robin, Lynn, Anonymous

We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year.  I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.  (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.)  Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.

The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters.  The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.

Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots.  First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.  His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks.  Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.

Truman Little White House

Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit.  Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen).  Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.

(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green.  Don’t get the wrong color!)

The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.  We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around.  The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow.  (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).

Musician Jimmy Buffett…
…and Margaritaville. Anyone seen a shaker of salt?

It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S.  (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.)  It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes.  (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.)  Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.

Tourists lining up at false southernmost point

As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”

But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.

Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island).  Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS.  It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.

Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire.  Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.

I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.

***

The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street.  Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39.  “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline.  She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property.  (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.)  And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats.  It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”

A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway study. He wrote in a separate annex.

Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house.  We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.  Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.

That’s about it, mainlanders.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.

Coastal scene, Key West

A Scouting Trip to the Sunshine State

Sunset at Humphris Park, Venice, Florida

We’re finally narrowing it down…our final destination, that is (short of the graveyard).

Lynn and I just returned from a whirlwind visit to Florida, U.S.A., and we think we know where we want to retire.  Florida actually is not at the top of our list.  Neither of us is enamored with the goofy politics, and I can do without quite so many OWFs (Old White Fuckers) from Ohio and Michigan…people like me, in other words.

But Florida has sunshine, ocean, zero state income tax, and is far more affordable than Hawaii.  And since we both suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and are inveterate beachcombers—and I’ll have the opportunity to kayak, snorkel, and kitesurf—this state may be in our future, assuming housing costs don’t continue to skyrocket.

Here’s a quick synopsis of our trip:

St. Petersburg/Clearwater: if I had to choose one major city in Florida, this would be it.  It gets high marks for retiree living.  Lotsa water and sun, recreational opportunities, good medical facilities, and urban action.  We stayed two nights in a condo on a narrow peninsula called Pass-A-Grille, easy walking distance to the beach.

Wild parakeets at Pass-A-Grille

My favorite moment was kayaking offshore.  I paddled past the tip of the peninsula, and came close to petting two dolphins that were surfacing in perfect synchronicity.  But whenever I paddled to where they’d submerged, Flipper and friend popped up somewhere else.  It was like playing Whack-a-Mole.

My idyll in the sea was rudely interrupted when I spied flashing colored lights on the beach.  “Oh God, what did she do now,” I muttered while finishing off my illegal Budweiser.  Sure enough, she’d called the rescue squad after losing sight of my kayak.

People, I love my wife, but this is exactly why I disappear for months at a time in the mountains.

Complimentary kayaks. I borrowed the green one.

Sarasota: a smaller urban area, and we talked with a realtor, but unfortunately weren’t able to visit any neighborhoods.  The big attractions are Siesta Key and Largo Key, the former consistently ranked as the top public beach in the nation.  Good school system, too, which always enhances a place.  Lynn doesn’t like larger cities like Tampa Bay/St. Pete (she’s a country gal), but she’s open to Sarasota.  Might need to take another look.

Venice: this was our favorite spot.  It has a cool historic “downtown” area (mainly a collection of trendy shops, cafes, and restaurants, with a modest park separating traffic lanes); lots of waterways (which is why it’s called Venice); free but well-maintained public beaches; and an abundance of condos, villas, and houses for the many OWFs. 

Another perk is the Legacy Trail, a running/biking route which begins at a historic railroad depot in town and combines with the Venetian Waterway Park Trail to course northward 20 miles to Sarasota.  I jumped on it one evening from our efficiency rental in Nokomis.  Having to pass through several back streets to reach the trail, it wasn’t five minutes before I realized I was no longer in Kansas.  The houses and people changed, and I suddenly heard the booming sound of Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.”  The Land of OWFs had become the Land of a Thousand Dances.

“I haven’t heard that one in years!” I yelled over to two elderly black men drinking beer at a picnic table in their gravel drive.  They raised their beers to salute the bold OWF who’d infiltrated their turf.  I seriously came close to aborting my run and joining them.

Venice Harbor, Venice

But recalling the kayak incident at Pass-A-Grille, I continued on, only to encounter a large metal fence separating their neighborhood from the Legacy Trail.  It took me a while to find a gap in the fence, then suddenly I was back in the Land of OWFs.

It’s a good thing that metal fence is there to maintain the purity of the trail, not to mention the OWFs.

Estero/Fort Myers: Estero is probably our second favorite spot.  We reunited with good friends David and Melissa, who moved into a very cool condo complex after retirement in 2015.  They took us to Brio’s Restaurant the first night, then the original Tommy Bahamas in Naples the second, where I followed Melissa’s lead and indulged in the delicious crab bisque and breaded snapper.

In between restaurants they offered prescient advice during our visit to the planned community of Babcock Ranch, established by a visionary ex-football player named Syd Kitson (same age and birthplace as me) and which will be the first totally solar-powered town in America.  We liked the home prices and sustainability concept, but Babcock was too isolated.  It was also too new (lots of construction noise), and a hospital was only in the planning stage.

On our last day we glimpsed the beaches and downtown of Fort Myers, along with Sanibel island, where residents have successfully managed to protect the ecology by restricting development.  Perhaps the snowbirds were flocking heavily that day, but traffic everywhere was crowded and tight.  However, we’re definitely keeping Estero in mind.  (Just to warn you, David and Melissa!)

The original Tommy Bahamas, Naples

Naples: one of the most popular places in Florida for both snowbirds and year-rounders, but we’ve heard it’s somewhat overpriced and snooty.  But you can’t believe everything you hear, so it’s still on our radar.  And if we move to Naples, I can jam with my friend Jesus, who lives here (click here).

Everglades: not a retirement destination, but we passed through on our way to Key West, which is also not a retirement destination (but is exotic enough that it will be a separate longitudes post).  While in the Big Cypress National Preserve, we pulled into a wildlife viewing area where we saw native birds and alligators.  Lynn was on the other side of the bridge observing a floating gator while I snapped a photo of sun-worshipper Wally Gator.  (Anyone remember the Hanna-Barbera cartoon?)

Female anhinga, Big Cypress National Preserve

We also passed a number of fenced-off villages that had houses with thatched roofs, identified by road signs with the modest words “Indian Village.”  I first thought these were Seminole areas, but they’re actually Miccosukee, a tribe that emerged from the Seminole in the mid-20th century.  The Seminole/Miccosukee are supposedly the only Indians who never signed a peace treaty with the U.S.  This is significant, because most other Indian treaties were broken by the U.S.

Vero Beach: while we concentrated on Florida’s Gulf Coast, we wanted to at least take a peek at the opposite side, and we chose Vero Beach, which is almost the same latitude as Venice.  My parents honeymooned here in February 1957.  Lynn and I stayed at the throwback Sea Spray Inn near South Beach, which was built about the same time my folks had me on their minds.

We both loved South Beach, a very expansive beach with free parking that has a strong surf (good for kitesurfing).  I liked downtown Vero Beach (Lynn didn’t).  It supposedly has a good arts scene.  And Vero Beach is a great place to see gentle, herbivorous Florida manatees (sea cows), recently downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” status. But neither of us was impressed with the neighborhoods the realtor took us to.  Too many pickup trucks parked in grass.  I used to own a Chevy S-10, but these days I have an aversion to pickups.  And when parked in the front yard?  Forget it.

American alligator, Big Cypress National Preserve

Then it was back to wet and gray southwestern Ohio.  Other than the politics, absence of seasonal transitions, and prevalence of OWFs, about the only negative we foresee with a move to Florida is distance from our three granddaughters.

But when they visit (hint to our daughter), they’ll have a great destination vacation…although Avi got really upset when I told her that, if there’s one more “kayaking incident,” I’ll be feeding Gigi to Wally Gator.

Cruising With Peter Tosh, Jesus, and Syd Barrett

I did it again. I succumbed to another Caribbean cruise.

Cruises fascinate and frustrate me.  I love them and hate them. The complete and utter hedonism of these things is alternately seductive and disturbing. 

On a cruise ship, you don’t have to do anything. Just dress and undress.  The cooking and cleaning are taken care of. The staff pampers you. The food is delicious. The entertainment options are diverse. Relaxing at the pool, casino, bar, lounge, and library is at your fingertips. Depending on mood, you can cruise in warm sunshine or near Alaskan glacial ice.

But for all the positives there are negatives. The entertainment (music, comedy acts, games, trivia contests, Las Vegas-styled shows) is homogenized and cheesy and caters to the lowest common denominator (LCD) of tourist.  Our daughter Holly said it best: “Cruises are like a bad song you can’t get out of your head.  You just have to accept it and try to hum along.”

Tiki-tacky tourist trap that played awful music

And the physiognomy, fashion sense, and behavior of some of those LCD tourists can be a bit jarring, to put it politely. On the other hand, if you’re like me and enjoy scoping eccentrics, you’ll be in people-watcher heaven.

There’s also the incessant cheerfulness of the low-paid but extremely hardworking staff, most of whom hail from poor countries. It can be guilt-inducing to privileged Americans like me who are prone to cynicism.

And witnessing dirt poverty in certain ports of call, then trying to balance it against all the hedonism I alluded to earlier, can make a thoughtful person think long and hard about life’s inequities.

Even leaving out the guilt feelings, worst of all—for me, anyway–is awareness that cruise ships today are giant pollution factories, spewing massive amounts of carbon into the sky and treating the oceans as dumping grounds for their excess sludge.

Greenhouse Effect? What Greenhouse Effect?

I’ve written about the pros and cons of cruises elsewhere on longitudes (click here for starters), so I won’t belabor the negatives.  Suffice to say I’ve now done five cruises.  And once again I’ve sworn there won’t be any more.  The most recent was a few weeks ago.  Moping around the house after our beloved dog Sheba died, my wife, for whom a cruise is the ultimate vacation, suggested a Caribbean excursion as grief therapy.  On the heels of the worst days of COVID, they’re very inexpensive right now.  So in a moment of weakness, I sighed and acquiesced.

Surprisingly, this latest cruise to Cozumel, Honduras, and the eastern Mexican coast, on the Royal Caribbean ship Allure of the Seas, was slightly less guilt-inducing than I expected. It truly helped our mental state. Other than just a few moments of mistiness, we temporarily forgot about Sheba.

Looking down on Roatan, Honduras

The biggest surprise was the music. If you get one good band on a cruise, you’re doing well. This cruise had not one but three: the poolside reggae band Ignite which, every afternoon, honored my request to play Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” dedicating it each time to “PEE-ter” (no, not that Peter, this Peter). Last I checked, Ignite was still employed by Royal Caribbean.

Also the Latin lounge act Mirage, which subbed for Ignite at the pool one day and, during “Black Magic Woman,” boldly ripped into a six-minute guitar solo. (Of course, I and one other guy were the only ones who applauded afterwards.)

Four ‘n’ More: Valerio, Simone, Luigi, and Giovanni

And best of all, an Italian jazz quartet named Four ‘n’ More that played everything from Cole Porter to Antonio Carlos Jobim and were far too talented to be stuck on an American cruise ship. Despite only a few people in attendance, we caught their act every evening after finishing our Crème Brûlée.

(Question: why do cruise ship bands have such unimaginative names?)

Another surprise was the comedy show. I forget the name, but the Allure act was a male-female tandem who specialized in adult comedy. Now, my view is that most adult-oriented humor is either hit or miss. When it’s good, it’s very good. Think George Carlin or Richard Pryor. But most contemporary comedians fall way short of Carlin and Pryor, and when adult humor is bad, it can be a real turnoff.

However, this cruise apparently wasn’t afraid to deviate from the Branson, Missouri formula and to actually challenge its audience with sex-related jokes. Were they good? I don’t know. The act came on after our bedtime.

Formal night. The privileged American relaxes and anticipates Crème Brûlée and Italian jazz.

All cruises offer “shore excursions,” like snorkeling, sunbathing opportunities, jeep or bus tours, and bicycle trips that, for an extra fee, enable one to “experience the local culture.” Translated, this means “helping a few industrious brown-skinned locals try to earn a living wage through servicing the wealthy and overweight Caucasian tourists.”

Lynn and I skipped these. Not because we didn’t want to help the locals who lined the street trying to sell something, but because, as our Venezuelan-born, ukulele-strumming friend Jesus (pronounced Hay-SOOS) said with a smile, “They want to hook me! Jesus is not the fish, I am the fisher man!” So although we didn’t get hooked, we did buy some gifts for our granddaughters from those few locals licensed to operate a stall near the dock.

Lynn and our pal Jesus conversing while returning to ship. A true eccentric, Jesus carried his blue ukulele and harmonica everywhere, even into the dining room.

Back at the pool by noon, we were usually able to find unoccupied outdoor recliners close to Ignite.

I always bring a good book on vacation. For a Caribbean cruise, you want something light and cheery. This is why I brought a biography of Syd Barrett, the tragic leader of Pink Floyd who lost his mind and ended up living alone in his mother’s Cambridge basement for three decades before dying of pancreatic cancer.

I kept hoping some ancient English acidhead would see my book, start raving about Syd, and we could then strike up a lifetime friendship. But it was not to be. There were many “ancients” on board—the number of military veteran ball caps was astounding—but only a few English accents, and I don’t think many ex-acidheads go on cruises. I know that poor Syd never did.

***

Our adventure in paradise lasted six nights. As I said above, after losing our dog it was just what the doctor ordered. It also coincided with our 35th anniversary and my formal retirement from the nine-to-five. (And unlike some of those characters trying to hook me on the streets of Puerto Wherever, I feel lucky I can retire.) So Allure of the Seas did allure us, and did serve a purpose.

However, while Lynn plans many more cruises with her friends (the “Cruise Chicks,” I call them), my cruising days are over. For good. I swear. Just knowing that those fumes belched out of those stacks, even while the ship was in port, while all were at play, turned my stomach. I think it was Jesus who said, “They know not what they do.”

No, not that Jesus. The other one.

The ingredients for a great vacation, even on a cruise ship: beer, book, body lotion, and willful forgetfulness

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey- Chapter 6

Near Carlisle, Pennsylvania

I’d reached Wind Gap near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania for 2 1/2 days’ rest, recuperation, and rendezvous at the Hampton Inn with my wife, whom I hadn’t seen (in person) for three months. It was going to be a nice mini-vacation from the goddawful knife-edge rocks of the previous week. I’d completed 1,281 miles and was one day’s hike shy of the New Jersey state line. Mount Katahdin in Maine was in figurative view.

Did you notice the past tense “was?”

In the past three months I’ve seen many thru-hikers younger than me have to quit the trail due to injury or illness (fractures, sprains, tendon tears, kidney stones, fatigue, etcetera). Others mysteriously disappeared, or resorted to “slackpacking” (using a vehicle to haul their gear). One man I hiked with and sheltered with, a friendly, self-deprecating guy named Faceplant, died in his tent.

A.T. halfway point south of Pine Grove Furnace, PA, where a lot happened all at once. The Scotch flask is courtesy my old school chum Tad, who drove clear from Pittsburgh to meet me, and helped re-charge my batteries.

I wasn’t immune to my own less-serious problems. Here’s a short laundry list: vasculitis (“Disney Rash”) in both legs. Mysterious calf ache. Hyperextension of knee. Scalping (twice) by low-hanging tree limbs. Four rock and root stumbles that laid me horizontal. Four ticks whose heads penetrated my flesh, precipitating a visit to Urgent Care in Waynesboro, Virginia. Allergic reactions to Permethrin insecticide to ward off ticks. Stingings by five hornets. Excessive weight loss, exacerbated by intense heat and 95 percent humidity. Broken backpack hip belt. A punch-drunk ex-boxer who wouldn’t leave me alone at Niday Shelter. A disturbed OCD woman and her hunchback son at Maupin Field Shelter. The Rollercoaster. Shelter journal entries that sounded like they were written by eight-year-olds. Meralgia paraesthetica.

Second scalping, Exhibit A. Bandanas have many uses, but they are mediocre bandages. I didn’t notice there was blood until I removed this in my tent.

In the end it was blood clotting of the gorge-ous varicose veins in my right leg, inherited from Dad, that did me in. St. Luke Hospital in Stroudsburg diagnosed my condition as “thrombophlebitis.” They put me on blood thinners and recommended I consult a vascular surgeon.

So it was either get off trail, or risk a pulmonary embolism near an isolated privy, alone, in northern Pennsylvania. Or even worse, New Jersey.

So I’m writing this post while Lynn chauffeurs me home…ahh, Home, Sweet Home…on Interstate 80. I’m slouched in the back seat with my leg elevated over the passenger seat backrest. The good news is that I did manage a couple all-you-can-eat hot breakfasts at the Hampton.

Despite its many rocks, the Pennsylvania A.T. is chock full of colorful and unique mushrooms, like this white and rose-colored, cottony ‘shroom

Ironically, the clots flaired up only days after a minor crisis. While struggling heavily before and after Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, I considered quitting. (See paragraph 4 for my reasons.) I was actually planning an airplane trip from Harrisburg to Cincinnati.

But near the halfway mark a chance meeting with a Maine hiker and ex-cop, ex-fireman named Bilbo changed my mind. Bilbo is a stroke survivor. Seven years ago he was on life support for 15 days. Now, his right arm is paralyzed and his brain is at partial capacity. But he’s committed to going all the way for brain trauma awareness…hiking solo…with no slackpacking.

After hearing Bilbo’s story, and watching him struggle to open his bag of freeze-dried rice just so he could eat…and while I later mused in front of campfire sparks while sucking in some choice C. indica (medical, of course)…I chose to soldier on.

Limenitis arthemis. Beautiful butterflies are found up and down the A.T.

And through a careful program of trail-town gluttony, I’d even managed to add some weight to my bony frame.

But my 63-year-old body had other ideas. The first clotting symptoms appeared at Ironmasters Mansion Hostel in Pine Grove Furnace, amazingly within hours of telling Lynn I’d decided to continue and would not be flying home. I’m convinced Flutie and the Trail Gods are vengeful creatures. (Let me explain: Flutie is a male wood thrush I encountered at Beech Gap in North Carolina. He tagged along with me off and on, periodically singing out to reassure me. Thoreau loved his music, but to me he sounds like an impertinent child learning to play a flute, and not succeeding.) Flutie is my guardian angel. Or, at least, I thought so until Ironmasters Mansion.

O, Flutie, why hast thou forsaken me?

But as Arnold Schwarzenegger once said in a movie he starred in: “I’ll be bock.” I’ve got, as they say, unfinished business to attend to. Whether it happens this year or next, it will happen. When it does, I hope you’ll join me again for the second half. The Appalachian Trail may sound like a Trail of Tears, but there are also amazing and beautiful things that happen there.

For the immediate future though, I’ll be playing with my dog Sheba, savoring Seattle’s Best coffee once again, pulling weeds, popping Eliquis pills, and reading some material that is written by people who are able to construct coherent sentences…like here on WordPress.

Ahhhh. As Bilbo says, “Life is good.”

Bilbo and breakfast in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. We ended up hiking together for a week. I hope he survived the rock face north of Lehigh River.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 5

View of Maryland Heights from Harpers Ferry

Quick update before launching into today’s topic: I just left the Quality Inn in historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, after much-needed R&R. I just broke the 1,000-mile barrier and finally left Virginia, the trail’s largest state, then West Virginia. Now in the border state of Maryland. Just a short time longer and I’ll be bagging the halfway milestone in southern Pennsylvania.

But things are not so rosy in Omoo land. Two days ago I considered going home. The last stretch was very taxing: a particularly rough section known as “The Rollercoaster”; unbelievable heat and humidity; bugs, including a prevalence of ticks (one hiker I met yesterday at breakfast had to quit after contracting Lyme Disease); rocks at practically every step; and most significantly, weight loss. I’m now down to 135 pounds. I decided if my weight starts hovering around 130, I’m throwing in the towel. Wish me luck, as I truly want to do this hike in one take.

Anyway, here’s a continuation of profiles of those in the hiker community whom I’ve met. Round two:

Rabbit: trail name of a former thru-hiker who runs the last hostel in Tennessee before the Virginia state line. Rabbit always goes barefoot, has a pet terrier that would intimidate a grizzly, and seems a little scatterbrained (he alluded to some LSD dropping during his younger days). But he’s a really nice guy. Originally from New York, Rabbit became so enamored of the trail after his southbound 2016 thru-hike that he decided to open his own hostel. While the bunkroom is clean and comfortable, Rabbit Hole’s specialties are delicious homemade milkshakes and morning eggs (“They’re farm fresh!” Rabbit explained to me, while I plucked a tick from his bare back.)

Rabbit of Rabbit Hole Hostel

Quarters: I met Quarters after Trail Mix (a thru…or at least she was a thru) and I stumbled onto Overmountain Shelter at Yellow Mountain Gap, which Revolutionary War volunteers had once marched through. An avid section hiker from Spartanburg, South Carolina (he knew several members of the Southern-rock group The Marshall Tucker Band), he was surrounded by overnighters (including a young family) and was stoking a large campfire. “I’m getting burgers and beer for later,” he said. Needless to say, Trail Mix and I beamed with delight at the prospect of fresh food and alcohol. Though a little chilly, we all had a great time that night, telling stories, eating, drinking (and some toking). The next day, Quarters surprised me eight miles later at the next road crossing and shuttled me to Mountain Harbour Hostel for snack food. I think Trail Mix may have still been sleeping.

At Yellow Mountain Gap. Quarters is wearing the baseball cap. Trail Mix is to his right.

Chicago: we hiked together sporadically through North Carolina and Virginia. I left Chicago behind in Atkins, Virginia when he did an overnight, but another hiker said he wafted through Harpers Ferry earlier today, so I anticipate seeing him again up the trail. Chicago’s a regular guy. Unlike most younger thrus, he has no affectations like tattoos or facial jewelry…in fact, he’s used his real name for most of his hike. He’s out here, like many of us, due to a dead-end job. My favorite anecdote of his relates to his mother: while marking his progress on a large wall map, she informed him over the phone that he was only a few inches above the bottom of the map and had several feet to go to reach Maine.

Chicago at one-room schoolhouse near Atkins, Virginia. Inside were hiker goodies, plus various Christian icons. Wonder what Thomas Jefferson would say about this violation of church/state separation!

Geo and Jeff and Crew: I met these folks at the trailhead above Buena Vista, Virginia. Geo was doing a 300-mile stretch, and her husband Jeff was meeting her at road crossings and sharing “trail magic” with other hikers. Accompanying Geo were Radar, Jive Turkey, AKA, Research, and Karma. Karma is older and closer to my pace, but the others are young and very fast. Initially I questioned their judgment and maturity. (I tend to have “reservations” regarding millenials, having had some negative experiences.) But these folks proved first impressions are deceptive. Similar to the Black Mountain Gang (see Chapter 1), they’re not only bright and curious, they’re also friendly and unafraid to engage with curmudgeons like me. And without Jeff’s pizza, sub sandwich, Gatorade and fruit on one of the most beastly hot days yet, I’d have melted into Tye River Gap, never to emerge again.

L to R: Research, Radar, AKA, Jive Turkey, Karma, Geo, Jeff at Tye River

Catnapper: I met him down a dirt road from Standing Bear Hostel. I was tenting next to a stream, and he was nearby, reading in a collapsible chair next to his car. From Albuquerque, Catnapper is a grandfather and retired physics professor who lived, taught, and volunteered in post-Berlin Wall Russia and who has hiked the A.T. twice. He now drifts between trailheads, talking to hikers and bagging various side trails that pique his interest. The night we met, he brought some trail food to my tent, and we talked long into the night. Through Catnapper I learned just how horrifying Russia treated its own children. When ideology supersedes compassion, anything can happen. The U.S. is no exception.

Bruiser: Bruiser is the oldest thru-hiker I’ve yet met, at age 74. He’s from Honolulu, and like Catnapper, has thru-hiked the A.T. twice. Why vacate Hawaii for five months of masochism? Bruiser does it, so he says, to stay in shape! A couple hikers dislike him for being a know-it-all, but I find him generous and helpful. When the hip belt threads on my Gregory Contour 65 pack broke, Bruiser let me use his curved sewing needle and dental floss for a temporary repair. Though my amateur sewing job only lasted a half-day, Bruiser advised me on contacting Gregory, the result being I now have a brand-new Baltoro 65, the company’s top pack. Bruiser might be outwardly gruff, but I sense a soft side to him. At one of the shelters we shared, I noticed him reading a biography of Frederick Douglass. And when I asked if he had family, he said his wife died several years ago. “I miss her very, very much.”

– Omoo

Bruiser, relaxing in middle of trail while perusing his trail guide

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 4

Writing from Mountain Home B&B in Front Royal, Virginia. An easygoing, somewhat quaint, vaguely progressive town, ironically where Stonewall Jackson won a significant battle in 1862.

Just exited Shenandoah National Park and only a few days from a new state (West Virginia) and historic town of Harpers Ferry, which is the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference (THE governing body of the trail). I look forward to meeting those responsible for turning me into a Sisyphus and carrying me over a sea of jagged rocks. And look forward to revisiting where John Brown became a martyr, albeit a shortsighted one.

Sunset in Shenandoah

I’m at mile 972 of 2,190 miles…almost at the halfway point and nearly back “home,” in the North, where the Union won a war to end slavery and keep the states glued together. Gettysburg and Antietam are in my sights. I’ve visited these battlefield locations many times, but this time I’m marching by foot. Thank God I don’t have to trudge barefoot or eat maggot-riddled hardtack. How did those soldiers do it?

Can you tell I’m excited about these links with U.S. history? These kinds of milestones help keep me going. Later, I plan to revisit Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the author of “Omoo” later wrote “Moby-Dick.” Also, Williams College, where my great-grandfather graduated Magna Cum Laude, and the small village of Stamford, Vermont, settled by my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather Josiah “Rock” Raymond when he camped against a boulder (damn those rocks) in the mid-18th century.

Copperhead snake. Note his cocked head and blank-looking orange eye. I stepped on his head accidentally while trudging up Apple Orchard Mountain. We were both a bit shaken.

And it will also be interesting to train into Manhattan, subway to the Upper East Side, and walk down Lexington Avenue, full backpack and greasy beard, and ring the buzzer of my uncle’s eighth-floor apartment, where he’s lived since…wait for it…1960.

The word “surreal” is an understatement.

Thanks for traveling with me…

Omoo

The new Omoo at Mountain Home hostel: clean-shaven, locks shorn, smiling with banana split on mind. And possible turntable action. Trail towns are nice.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 3

Looking down on New River, near Pearisburg, Virginia

I’m at mile 635 and taking a “near-o” day (partial mileage day) at Angel’s Rest Hostel in southern Virginia. Only 100 more miles and I’ll be at the 1/3 mark of my hike.

Last time I promised to describe some of my fellow hikers and hiking hangers-on. Folks, it is quite a colorful circus out here. Here are a few (aliases and first names only):

TOBY: Toby was made of wood. He was my first hiking stick on this hike. Most folks out here use expensive trekking poles. Although Tobe was wooden and he came at a bargain-basement price (he’d been orphaned alongside a stream), and he benefited me at the start, I noticed that as I lost weight his hefty girth began weighing me down. So two days ago I exchanged him for thinner, lighter Doctor Long Ghost. Long Ghost has been a vast improvement. Sorry, Toby. Maybe I’ll visit you one day in your roadside ditch.

Fat Toby, resting against the one-quarter mark

CARMEN (Ramblin’ Rose): Ramblin’ was the first thru-hiker I met, just north of Springer Mtn. Georgia. She’s a 20-something barmaid from Austin, Texas. She has dyed dreadlocks, facial jewelry, and a bubbly personality. She told me she likes the Grateful Dead, but when I asked her about several songs, she didn’t seem to know them. Maybe she just wants to fit an image? I don’t know, but I like Ramblin’, and named her after a Dead song due to her rosy personality. Ramblin’, don’t know if you’re still hiking, but I’m pulling for you.

GRAVY: I met Gravy at Lemon Gap, south of Hot Springs, North Carolina. In his late 60s, Gravy is a retired roofing co. owner from Gainesville-area, Florida. He’d initially planned merely to hike to Virginia, but later decided to do all 2,190 miles. Gravy was homeless for 6 months after all his belongings were stolen after getting out of the army, and we bonded after discussing why hikers are showered with so much “trail magic” from strangers, but the homeless are usually shunned. Why is this? I have several reasons, but I won’t conjecture. Last time I saw Gravy he was nursing a torn ankle ligament in Erwin, Tennessee after pulling two 21-mile days in a row. But he still planned to reach Maine. I think his trail name should be “Superman.”

Gravy, at cave south of Hot Springs

DUNGMAN and PADDLER: two more “old” geezers I met in the Smokies. They hike slightly faster than me, but they take more time off. We had some great conversations, and they don’t sprinkle their words constantly with “like” and “literally.” Last I saw them they were taking a “pleasure” hike southward, believe it or not, with Mrs. Dung, then continuing to Maine. Hell, I can’t even think south.

CRUSH: Crush and I hike at about the same pace. Actually, he’s faster, but hangs out at hostels, trail towns, and fully indulges in the A.T. experience. He’s from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, but wisened up and moved to Colorado. I like Crush. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a fan of The Band.

Clocks, Crush, Too Early, me (Omoo) on top of Max Patch Bald (photo by Pilgrim). They’re all, like, really young, dude. Literally.

MACGYVER: met him at a shelter nursing his back just three days ago, but we hit it off. From Pikeville and Lexington, Kentucky, he claims to have had more women and more prison terms than you can count. A former Forest Service employee, he recently dropped out of med school osteopathy due to racking up $100,000 in debt, and also because his spinal stenosis was making him suicidal. Mac is extremely smart, an engineering whiz, and rigged a front pack to lessen the load in back. He also discovered the nutritional values of nettle soup and sundry wild mushrooms. He carries a large machete, but only uses it on obtrusive maple seedlings. I kept a healthy distance from him on trail, however.

MacGyver and me at Rocky Gap, Virginia (graveled Rt. 60)

These are just a few of the backpackers I’ve met on this odyssey in the woods. Will try to profile some others later. Right now I need to consume more fat then crawl into a damp sleeping bag. Happy Trails! (Song by Dale Evans.)

– Omoo

P.S. Of the 50 or 60 hikers whom I’d given my trail name to, several days ago, at exactly the 1/4 mark, I finally met someone who knew that “Omoo” was a novel by Herman Melville. I was flabbergasted. He’s about 30, trail name Deep Roots, a former thru-hiker doing a southbound section. At a hostel a short time later, I read one of his journal entries, and his eloquence puts my writing to shame.

Yes, exactly at the 1/4 mark. The trail gods are indeed benevolent, and the stars are aligned.

(Dedicated to the memory of Faceplant.)

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Me and non-hiker, old friend Robert Campbelle at Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol, Virginia. Robert, wife Susan, and Bridgit Bardog were so nice to host a weary, hungry hiker.