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 Luray, 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 earlier post), 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 1st 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 was a 20-something barmaid from Austin, Texas. She had dyed dreadlocks, facial jewelry, and a bubbly personality. She told me she liked the Grateful Dead, but when I asked her about several songs, she didn’t seem to know them. Maybe she just wanted to fit an image? I don’t know, but I liked 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 outside 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, and realizes just what an a-hole KY Senator Mitch McConnell is. He also is an engineering whiz, having rigged a FRONT pack to evenly distribute weight, and having 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.

***

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

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.

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.)

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!

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…)

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

 

 

An Ohio Yankee Rambles on Scotland’s Trails

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!”

Six Degrees of Hypothermia

blizzard

On December 23, 2010, a 7-year-old girl fell into a lake outside Orest, Sweden.  No one knows what the temperature of the lake was.  But it was very, very cold.  When pulled from the lake, the girl had a body temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Much of the United States is currently in the throes of a winter deep freeze, with wind chills reaching at least 30 degrees below zero in many highly populated  areas of the Midwest.  Hopefully there will be few if any fatalities.  But this is serious and dangerous weather.

***

I am just going outside, and may be some time (Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates , of Robert Falcon Scott‘s South Pole expeditionary force, as he walked into a blizzard to his death on March 16, 1912)

Each person’s body insulates itself differently.  Fatty tissue, muscle, age, and internal organ health influence how soon the body’s heart and brain will shut down from what’s known as “hypothermia.”  Mental condition also plays a part.  Buddhist monks in Tibet use meditation to raise the temperature of their extremities as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  But every body goes through specific stages of progression to and during hypothermia, or “subnormal body temperature,” before death occurs.

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Doomed 1912 Scott Expedition to South Pole (Oates is back left, Scott is back center)

100.8 degrees:  When one feels cold, body exertion is the logical way to heat up.  One can raise one’s core temperature to 100.8 degrees through exercise.  When I go for a run in the winter, I like to feel a little chill at the start, since I know I’ll be snug and warm after about 5 minutes of running.

98.6 degrees:  But exercise also dilates the capillaries, which transport this excess heat to the skin, then to be expelled from the body.  This is exacerbated by wet clothing.  Body temperature then drops back to the normal 98.6… then lower.

95 degrees:  At 97 degrees, neck and shoulder muscles constrict in what’s known as “pre-shivering muscle tone.”  The brain’s hypothalamus has been signaled to constrict all surface capillaries, sending warm blood to the internal organs but pulling heat away from hands and feet.  At 95 degrees, the muscles contract, causing the body to shake uncontrollably in an effort to preserve warmth.  This is considered mild hypothermia.  Many of us have experienced this state at one time or another.

93 degrees:  Now it gets serious.  Core body heat declines rapidly, with the head alone releasing 50 percent of the heat.  Amnesia sets in, because for every one-degree drop in body temperature, cerebral metabolic rate also drops by 3 to 5 percent.

90 degrees:  Severe hypothermia.  At this point a victim falls into a drug-like stupor.  Below 90, the shivering stops, because the body’s automatic heat-generation system gives up.

86 degrees:  The heart becomes arrhythmic and pumps less than two-thirds the normal concentration of blood.  Due to the brain’s continued metabolic apathy, hallucinations occur.

Below 85 degrees:  At this most extreme stage of hypothermia, people have been known to rouse from their stupor and tear off their clothes due to feelings of intense heat.  The phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.”  Scientists believe this may be the result of constricted blood vessels near the skin that suddenly becoming dilated, causing a severe burning sensation.

There is no exact temperature at which the human body “dies” from cold.  Numerous people have recovered from extreme hypothermia if rescued in time.  Extreme coldness slows the brain’s metabolism, so it needs much less oxygen to survive than when warm.  In many cases, the only long-term consequence of extreme hypothermia is frostbite (the freezing and destruction of tissue), which might, at most, require amputation of fingers or toes.  But this assumes the victim receives immediate medical treatment.

The little Swedish girl miraculously survived.  She was pulled from the brink of death by a combination of slow heating and a heart-and-lung machine.  Her doctor also attributed her survival to her young and developing brain.  Her body temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit was the lowest ever recorded for a living human being.

NOTE:  Much of the information here is derived from the chapter “As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow: Hypothermia” from the book LAST BREATH: THE LIMITS OF ADVENTURE by author and Outside Magazine correspondent Peter Stark.

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