100th Blog Post

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I started longitudes to try to sell copies of my book (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”). Well, the blubber book sales tanked, but the blabbering blog has taken a life of its own.

Someone said that blogs… (the word “blog” is short for “web-log”)… have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 years. Longitudes is now over 4 years young. So I’m actually beating the odds, which is rare for me.

To recognize the insignificant occasion of my 100th post, I’m attaching links to six of my older essays. These essays either got a lot of response, or are special to me… or both.

Since I’m honoring myself, I’d like to thank everyone who’s “liked” my stuff or offered comments: Tad, Mary K, Brian, Neil, Frank, Phil, Rich, Leah, Thom, Dennis, Cindy, Dean, and everyone else who drops in for coffee.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, so it’s a huge thrill to know someone has read and been affected by something I’ve written. Some of my thoughts may have struck a nerve on occasion. While I think it’s important to express opinion, and while I may not respect certain views, I nevertheless try to respect the reader (it’s an alien concept in these days of instant communication, but it is possible). Anyway, I hope I’ve never offended anyone. If I have, I apologize.

So here are six blasts from the past… just click the titles. Thanks again, everyone!

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It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Leaving (Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown)

I wrote this travelogue after visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. I used the present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like he or she was on the journey.

The underlying theme is how one person’s hero can have little or no impact on someone else. Also, that it’s difficult or impossible to identify genius or from where it arises.

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

I sent this essay to a National Public Radio (NPR) show hoping they’d publish it. Too much competition, I guess. So I submitted it to longitudes, and it was accepted! It’s about our family dog, Brownie, a rambunctious Australian Shepherd who didn’t exactly endear himself to outsiders, but was totally devoted to the family. His sudden death brought a lot of tears, but he gave us many good memories. The top photo was taken just before he died.

America and Guns

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit me hard, as it did most everyone else. How can something so horrifying happen? The answers are very complex. But to deny that one of the factors is firearms, and America’s refusal to address why it leads the world in per capita gun violence is, to me, ridiculous.

Remembering Biff

After I write something I usually forget about it. But I keep returning to this essay. It’s a tribute to a friend from childhood that I’d lost track of for many years. Then I suddenly learned about him. He’d taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West, doing things I’d always wanted to do (“living the dream,” as the cliché goes), but for which I never had the courage or ability. Then his life was tragically cut short.

Visiting the past has opened a few doors for me. Such is the case with learning about Biff. He reminds me that life is momentary, and we need to (try to) live it to the max while we have it… as Biff evidently did.

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking Glass

This is about an Appalachian Trail hike I took, and it got more feedback than probably any other post (which isn’t saying much!). I guess it’s because people enjoy reading about adventure and unusual experiences. This hike wasn’t all that adventurous or unusual, but maybe folks found a certain vicarious thrill. A lot of the “likes” and “follows” came from people who have their own travel-related blogs. After writing this, I realized that there are many vibrant people around the globe who are in constant motion, immersing themselves in the outdoors and different cultures, places, and experiences.

The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things

I created a sub-category called “50 Years” to highlight people or events on their 50th anniversary (and also because the decade of the 1960s fascinates me). I’m also real big on conservation issues, and these things came together with this Earth Day essay recognizing 50 years since the signing of America’s Wilderness Act. The title is a pun on an old Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”

At one time, there was a lot of wilderness but only a few people. Now, it’s just the opposite, and this paradigm is too often taken for granted. I believe it’s crucial to protect as many wild places as possible, for our spiritual well-being in addition to the well-being of other species.

This essay didn’t get a lot of views (I have an annoying tendency to sound like I’m preaching – see above). But that’s okay. Maybe Henry Thoreau and John Muir gave it a nod of approval, which is reward enough.

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A Wrong Turn: The Haunting Disappearance of Inchworm

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On Monday morning, July 22, 2013, a woman named Geraldine Largay vanished while hiking the Appalachian Trail in southern Maine.

To this day, the details of her disappearance are a mystery.

Largay, whose trail nickname was “Inchworm” due to her slow hiking pace, was an intrepid 66-year-old grandmother from Tennessee.  She was also a veteran backpacker. She and a friend had started their hike at the AT halfway point at Harpers Ferry, WV.  But her friend had a family issue arise and had to bow out in New Hampshire.  She tried to talk Gerry into also quitting, but Largay insisted on continuing solo to the endpoint of Mt. Katahdin in eastern Maine. Her husband had driven their car and was periodically rendezvousing with her at road crossings.

The Maine section of the AT is known for having long stretches of isolated, rugged, and densely forested country.Print

On the night of July 22, Largay shared a lean-to just east of Saddleback Mountain with five other hikers. The following morning, one of them took her photograph. The photo shows a lean, muscular woman with a beaming smile almost as big as her backpack.

Largay was to meet her husband at a road crossing the next day. She was looking forward to a hearty meal and a soft bed. But she never arrived.

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After George Largay reported his wife missing late on July 24, the story spread like a brush fire. Hundreds of volunteers and search and rescue workers fanned out to search for her. The Largay family posted a large reward. But for over two years, there was no trace of Inchworm. Authorities were baffled. Although they publicly denied foul play, this was only because they had no tangible evidence. It was as if Largay had been swallowed by the earth.

Then, on October 14, 2015, an environmental impact researcher found human remains inside a tent in a thicket of woods near an overgrown logging road. The site was only a half mile from the AT. It was a hundred yards inside a restricted area of forest owned by the U.S. Navy. The navy uses this area for P.O.W. simulation training (and, according to the alternative Maine publication The Bollard, some of this training involves torture).

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(photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

Medical analysts eventually confirmed that… yes… the remains were that of Inchworm. Police say there was no evidence of crime. (But after two years in the forest, how much evidence would there be?) Her death was officially ruled as “inanition.” It’s a rarely used term that means “a state of being empty.” Empty of food… or, perhaps, empty of will.

How could a woman totally disappear for over two years despite the largest manhunt in Maine history??

I ask this question because it makes no sense why Maine authorities could not rescue her in time, and her family should have to suffer so long without knowing anything. Their grief at her disappearance was bad enough without having a huge question mark hovering over it.

But I guess I’m also asking for selfish reasons. One is, I hate to admit it, morbid curiosity. But the other is that I plan to soon hike the White Mountains in New Hampshire, very close to where Inchworm disappeared. If (heaven forbid) something happens to me, I would want my family to immediately know the whys and the wherefores.   One of the appeals of solo hiking in the mountains is the challenge. Although not considered an “extreme” sport, there is an element of danger. But at the same time, I don’t want my family being interviewed by “Inside Edition.”

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Gerry Largay disappeared on a sunny day only three miles from the lean-to where she was last seen. The Maine Warden Service now believes she descended Poplar Ridge, crossed Orbeton Stream, then strayed from the main trail on either an old railroad road or logging path.

The AT guide that I own calls either the railroad road or logging path a “Woods road.”  It’s at the 1982.3 mile mark (northbound) on the AT.  The guide also has an instruction to follow this road a short distance east.  It’s not uncommon for the trail to coincide with a road like this.  But the Woods road soon veers north.  It’s possible Inchworm wasn’t paying attention, missed the sign to continue east on the AT, and followed the Woods road north a great distance.  Then when she realized there were no white blazes painted on the trees, instead of backtracking she panicked and headed into the brush in hopes of a shortcut.  When a person does this in the unforgiving Maine woods, unless he or she is proficient with a compass, well…

The following day, Tuesday, July 23, it poured rain all day.

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Old railroad road that Inchworm may have mistakenly taken (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

If it’s true Gerry got lost, God knows the terrors she experienced while awaiting the end. She undoubtedly heard the helicopters whirring overhead. Maybe she also heard distant bloodhounds. Hopefully her final hours were peaceful.

But there are many gnawing unknowns. The Appalachian Trail is well-marked, and Inchworm was an experienced hiker, having trod the southern half of the AT and most of the northern half.  If she chose the wrong trail at some point, why didn’t she backtrack?  Didn’t she have a GPS, or compass and map to use once she got lost? Why did she pitch her tent in such a thick, inaccessible patch of forest? Didn’t she have enough food and water to last for at least several days, more than enough time to relocate the main trail? Didn’t she have dry matches to create a smoke fire? Was she able to write a last message?

Another mystery: at the beginning of the investigation, police reported a strange phone call to the Stratton Motel, where George Largay was staying. The receptionist claimed an unidentified person called saying that Gerry was delayed and would be arriving late. This call came on Wednesday, when only her husband knew she was missing.

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And there was a police report of a man leaving threatening messages in AT shelter logbooks in Wyman Township, directly adjacent to where Largay disappeared. The police report was dated July 6… only twelve days before Largay went missing.

But most annoying is why the Maine Warden Service was unable to locate her in time. Largay’s remains were only thirty yards from the logging path. It beggars the imagination why search parties weren’t instructed to flare out from this path.

Mysteries have intrigued us for centuries. But some mysteries are more unsettling than others. Such is the case with Inchworm’s disappearance.  From all accounts, she was a wonderful person.  What happened makes no sense.

NOTE: Since this essay was originally published, several extracts from a journal kept by Inchworm were made public.  It appears she stepped off the AT to relieve herself somewhere east of the Woods road, then was unable to relocate the trail, became lost and plunged further into the thick woods, then eventually set up her final camp, where she died.

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Location of Gerry Largay’s final campsite. The white cross was placed by her family (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

 

On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner

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“Aren’t you worried about bears?” (my boss)
“Oh no. Now I have to worry. Aren’t there bears and wolves in those mountains?” (my mom)
“Why do you do these things to me?” (my wife)
“Are you gonna pack a sidearm?” (my friend Dave)

These are a few of the reactions I got this past summer when I announced that I’d be doing a solo hike through Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s something about camping in the woods that scares the bejeebers out of people. It might be the stories we read as children: Hansel and Gretel, Peter and the Wolf, Where the Wild Things Are. Later on came feature films: The Wolf Man, The Night of the Grizzly, The Edge. Be it bears, wolves, cougars, giant venomous snakes, bloodthirsty bats, witches, goblins, headless horsemen, Texas chainsaw killers… dense, dark forest has become a metaphor for danger and fear.

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American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The reality, of course, is that our cities – and increasingly, our suburbs – are far more dangerous. But humans can’t seem to shake certain embedded fears. And of all creatures in the woods, nothing seems to worry people more than bears.

Bears are big. An adult American black bear (Ursus americanus), averages 125-550 lbs. Its cousin, the more aggressive grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), averages 400-790 lbs. Some freak grizzlies grow even bigger. Both species are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. But a grizz standing on its back feet can reach over nine feet in height, and can take down large mammals such as bison, moose, elk, and caribou. His claws can grow to four inches in length.

Also, although extremely rare, bear attacks do happen. The most infamous occurred in Glacier National Park on the night of August 12, 1967. On that night, two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were dragged from their sleeping bags by two hungry grizzlies… unbelievably, in separate incidents nine miles apart. Their bodies were eventually located by searchers. Helgeson hung on for a few hours before succumbing to blood loss. Only portions of Koons’s body were found.

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Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus)

But horror stories like this occurred back when little was known about bear behavior, and campground bears were still feeding at open-air garbage dumps. The two grizz that killed Helgeson and Koons were later tracked down. One had glass imbedded in its molars, and the other had a torn paw pad, probably from stepping on broken glass. Wildlife officials speculate they were in extreme pain when they attacked.

But I didn’t need to worry about grizzlies when I began my hike. The only grizz in the lower 48 are in Yellowstone and in small pockets of Montana and Idaho. However, there are a lot of black bears along the AT, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, which has a number of public campgrounds (“Hey, hey, hey Boo-Boo, do I smell a pic-a-nic basket?”). Like many people, I was hoping to see a bear on my hike. But I never thought I’d share my campsite with one.

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I started my hike at Rockfish Gap, outside Waynesboro, Virginia. The first day I covered six miles, some of which found me slogging through a relentless rainstorm. I camped near a large cairn at the top of Calf Mountain. It was a good campsite, right next to the trail, with good, flat stones for setting up my campstove, and enough tree branches on which to drape my soggy clothes.

I got an early start the next day. Watered up at a spring near the shelter halfway down the mountain. While filling my canteen, I met a hiker coming from the shelter. She was a middle-aged woman who was trekking 100 miles to Manassas Gap. She called herself “Owl.” Hmm. Shouldn’t she be hiking at night??

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Scenic overlook at Sawmill Run

At the base of Calf Mountain at Jarman Gap, I officially entered the park. It was at a fire road near a huge gnarled tree, maybe the oldest I’d see on the entire hike. Later, at Sawmill Run Overlook, I gobbled some trail mix and provided a curious spectacle to a few tourists who were cruising along Skyline Drive.

Then at Turk Gap, I met my first thru-hikers, a college-age couple who’d started way up in Maine months earlier. They were headed for the Springer Mountain trailhead in north Georgia. They represented the “advance guard” of southbound thru-hikers, and they had the lean, muscular look of swift, veteran hikers. Surprisingly, they gave off no odor, and they also looked really clean and manicured – even the man’s red beard looked shapely.

Near Riprap parking area I met a young woman. She was an emergency nurse from nearby Charlottesville, out enjoying a sunny day hike. Then I lunched at the edge of the parking lot, where I met another solo day hiker. I would bump into him again, the following day, at Loft Mountain campground. His name was Jackson, and he was a high school senior from Richmond, Virginia. He was just bouncing between campgrounds, doing short hikes on the AT, and squeezing in some summer kicks before the school year started. Nice kid, long blonde hair, really laid back. I noticed his truck had a plate that said “Don’t Tread On Me.” I wondered if his parents might’ve named him after exalted Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

As I approached Blackrock Mountain, I started to get really thirsty. Also, worried, since I only had a few drops left in my canteen. Two years earlier I’d hiked the AT through Georgia, and I’d crossed a lot of mountain streams and springs. But Shenandoah was extremely dry. Climbing the straight ascent up the side of Blackrock was taking a toll.

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Summit of Blackrock Mountain

Help came in the form of two more thru-hikers coming down the mountain. They were a married couple, the “Honeymoon Hikers.” They’d already done a northbound hike on their wedding honeymoon, and were now hiking southbound. Amazing! Mr. Honeymoon told me the summit wasn’t far ahead, and after that it was smooth sailing. He said Dundo Picnic Grounds was only a few miles ahead, and it had a water pump.

Blackrock Mountain summit was aptly named: huge, dark boulders stacked a hundred feet high, like a scene from Planet of the Apes. I rested on one of the rocks, then savored a smooth downhill trek into Dundo Picnic Grounds. At Dundo, I replenished my water at the pump, and took a refreshing sponge bath. There were lots of picnic tables here, but the only visitors were an elderly couple enjoying an early supper at one of the tables. Before exiting the grounds, they circled their car over to the water pump and kindly offered me some granola bars and bananas.

Now it was time to find a campsite. I was hoping for a nice, quiet, trailside site similar to Calf Mountain. But at Browns Gap, where Skyline Drive again crossed the AT, there was just an empty parking lot and a couple lonely fire roads that meandered into the woods. It was getting late. A few cars whizzed by on Skyline Drive. I started to clear out a primitive tent site near the parking lot. But it just didn’t feel right.

When all else fails, hit the trail. So I started up another incline. About a half mile up… voila! There, on the left, was my home for the night: a clearing, moderately used, with flat ground for my tent. And at the far edge of the clearing were two skinny trees, about ten feet high. A horizontal log beam was resting on two forks carved at the tree tops. It looked a little like a pole vault bar. Someone had built this thing to hang his or her food bag so marauding bears wouldn’t get it.

Usually, backpackers will seek out a single tree that has a high, horizontal limb on which to hang their bear bags. So this designer bear beam was really convenient. Surely this construction project took a lot of time. But why would someone devote so much time and energy to building it? Maybe a ranger built it.

Was Yogi or Boo-Boo in the vicinity??

(If you want to hear the rest of my bear encounter, please check out my book Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker.)

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Six Degrees of Hypothermia

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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.

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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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A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking-Glass

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When I was about 15, my family went on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  Our campsite was near where the Appalachian Trail climbed a mountain called The Priest.  We had some time, so my brothers and I attempted to climb it.  They were younger and became tired, but I managed to get to the top, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view.

While admiring the vista, I glimpsed a tall figure moving slowly along the path behind me.  It was a lanky man with a full beard, ponytail, and a huge pack on his back.  An Appalachian Trail distance hiker.  I watched him disappear from view as he slowly started to descend the mountain.

I never forgot the sight of him, and I swore that I would one day return to the AT to hike it myself.  It took 40 years, but a few weeks ago I finally did it.

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The Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile footpath through the rugged Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine.  It was conceived in the 1920s by a bookish forest official named Benton MacKaye, who envisioned a series of hostels and wilderness workshops connected by a path.  A young Washington lawyer named Myron H. Avery, more pragmatic than MacKaye, advanced MacKaye’s idea without the hostels and workshops.  Today the trail is a monument to public activism and wilderness protection.  Though the route is continually changing, the terminus points now remain fixed at Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.

There are different types of AT hikers: day hikers, overnighters, section and thru-hikers.  Thru-hikers are a breed apart.  They attempt to do the full 2,100 miles at once, which takes a lot of planning and about 4-6 months actual hiking.  Supposedly less than one-fourth of thru-hikers who start ever finish.

A thru-hike was not for me.  I decided to do a northbound (NOBO) section hike of Georgia.  Though most thru-hikers are NOBO, some begin in Maine and hike south (SOBO).  I would be hiking in early September, so it was possible I’d encounter at least one of these intrepid SOBOs.

After a nervous goodbye to my wife, I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Dalton, Georgia, where I met up with my shuttle driver, Ron Brown.  Ron’s an ex-park ranger and native of New Hampshire who now lives in Ellijay, Georgia, near the Springer Mtn. trailhead.  He makes his living shuttling people like me to and from various points on the trail.

I loaded my backpack in the back of Ron’s Toyota Rav4, and we set off in early morning darkness.  During the drive, he told me about some interesting people he’s shuttled, such as the guy who insisted on carrying his heavy, cast iron skillet.  Also, the obese man who managed only one or two miles per day at the start, but made it all the way to Mt. Katahdin.

“I know he finished because he sent me a photo.  I barely recognized him, he’d lost so much weight.  But it was him.  He was holding up the pants he had when he started, and you could’ve fit three of him inside.”

Ron had all sorts of helpful gadgets in his car, including a charger for my cell phone, and a GPS voice that groaned “Things are getting very strange” as we plunged deeper into the forest.

Ron dropped me off at a forest service road parking lot, 0.9 miles north of the trailhead.  I unloaded my pack, he filled my canister with camping fuel, and we shook hands goodbye.

On the hike south, I found a slightly bowed, chest-high tree branch.  I adopted it as my walking stick, and christened it after a childhood camping buddy.  I also passed a few hikers, the first being a blonde woman who said she was doing a short section to Neels Gap (wherever that was).  I arrived shortly at a large rocky clearing shrouded in fog: the top of Springer Mountain.

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Appalachian Trail bronze plaque from 1933

This was it.  I’d dreamed about this place.  Sure enough, to the right was the 1933 bronze plaque showing a hiker with a hat and backpack.  On the left was a large boulder with a more recent plaque.  Inside the boulder was a metal drawer, which I opened.  I found a slightly damp notebook that contained brief entries of those who’d reached this spot.  I wrote a short blurb about my hiking inspiration and signed it with a trail alias.  Trail aliases are colorful names that hikers make up, or which are bestowed upon them.  I really liked the name that followed the entry directly above mine: “Rainbow Slug.”

Unfortunately, Springer Mountain was so foggy that I couldn’t take a photo of the view.  But at least it wasn’t raining… yet.

Man, it felt good to start hiking.  Just one foot in front of the other, get into a good rhythm, take in the mountain scenery.  I had nine days to reach my destination of Franklin, North Carolina, where I was to meet my wife and daughter, and I calculated I needed to do about 13 miles per day.  Easy.  Heck, my marathon training runs are longer and only last a few hours.  Of course – as I soon found out – hiking on rocks and roots for ten hours, up and down mountains, with 35 pounds on your back is a lot different than running a couple hours on a flat, paved bicycle path with nothing at your back except breeze.

I crossed the gravel parking lot where Ron had dropped me off, and saw a few other hikers unloading their gear.  After a couple hours, feeling pretty good, I started singing an old Bob Dylan tune.  I’d only done a few verses when (as always happens) I noticed someone close behind me, and felt slightly embarrassed.  Should I let him catch up, or keep walking?  What the heck, might as well be sociable.  I walked a little slower, then turned around.  It was a young guy with long hair.

“Thought I heard someone behind me,” I said.  “How far you headed?”

“I’m hiking to Neels Gap.” (Must be a popular spot, I thought).

“My name’s Pete.”

“I’m Dylan.”

“Hey, I like that name!”

Dylan was a 24-year-old from Augusta, Georgia.  Like me, hiking the AT was a dream of his.  His parents had dropped him off at Amicalola Falls, a park 8.8 miles south of Springer.  I later found out that Dylan enjoyed hunting, flounder fishing, and he made the best cherry-blackberry wine this side of Napa Valley.  He also had a girl back home who was pressuring him to get married!

We hit it off, hiked at about the same pace, so we ended up hiking together the next several days.

(If you want to hear about the rest of my hike, and a whole lot more, please check out my book Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker.)

 

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Remembering Biff

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I left the town where I grew up several decades ago.  But last week I visited my mom, who lives in a retirement village there, and I decided to have an early Sunday morning jog through one of our old neighborhoods.  If you’ve ever re-visited a place from your childhood after a long absence, especially if little has changed, you know what a strange and exhilarating experience it can be.  Memories trickle in like dappled sunlight: the park where my dad taught me how to ice skate; the hill where my bike skidded on gravel and sent me tumbling to the pavement.  And you wonder if the houses might contain familiar faces.

As I approached our old house, I passed by a well-kept, single-level, yellow house with two front doors.  This was where Biff Schlossman had lived.  Biff was one of my childhood friends.  He was the only kid who was in all my classes from kindergarten through 4th grade (when we moved out of the neighborhood).  He was also in my Cub Scout den, and I’m sure we exchanged a couple birthday parties.  Physically, he was very striking, with brown skin and hair as black as night.

I’d passed by Biff’s house maybe a half-dozen times since we moved away in the late ‘60s, with only a glancing thought about him.  This time – with the tang of March chill on my skin, fresh air in my lungs, and a sudden feeling of nostalgia – I whispered to myself “I wonder whatever happened to old Biff.”  He was pretty bright, so I figured he’d joined the professional ranks as a doctor, lawyer, or successful businessman.  Thanks to the miracle of cyberspace (and to Biff’s unique name), I made a mental note to find out.

When I later plugged his name in the search engine, I discovered a few things.  One was that a very successful novelist had borrowed Biff’s name for the main character in one of his books.  We both knew Biff from grammar school, but neither of us knew the other (yes, it’s a small world).

The other thing I learned was that Biff wasn’t a surgeon, defense attorney, or bank president.  In fact, he’d apparently shunned the standard American Dream to pursue his own dream.  He’d become a classic back-to-nature hippie troubadour.  He’d moved to the mountains of Montana to ski, hike, and sing and play guitar in local bars and ski lodges.  And in the process he made a lot of friends, and became sort of a local legend.  It didn’t surprise me.  My biggest memories of Biff (besides his Indian looks) are his sparkling eyes, impish smile, and soft-spoken manner.

Sadly, I also learned that Biff died unexpectedly at a young age.  Looking into the past can have its sorrows.

I wish I’d have hooked up with Biff long ago.  I think we would have clicked even beyond childhood, as we shared a certain idealism and a lot of the same interests.  Sometime during our raucous post-pubescent years, we separately kindled a passionate appreciation of music.  And after college, I made my own trip out West, to backpack in the Cascades, and I drove right past where Biff may have been strumming guitar.  If I’d have turned left at Bozeman – the “road not taken” – who knows?  I didn’t have his musical talent or performing confidence.  But if not pulling up a stool with him onstage, maybe I could’ve tuned his guitar or offered a lyric or two.

Two memories stand out about Biff.  Both of them coincide with pivotal moments as I grew up.  If Biff were around now, I’d share both memories with him.  The first occurred in kindergarten.  Biff was Jewish, and I remember him talking about his faith during Show-and-Tell.  He brought in matzo crackers to share with the class.  Even though they were unsalted and unlike our regular diet of sugared cookies, we all liked them.  More importantly, Biff’s presentation was my first awareness that people could have differences beyond the physical.  And that this was a good thing.  It’s a lesson I’ve had to relearn time and again.

The other memory was when we were nine and attended summer camp together.  Our moms signed us up to go as buddies and cabin bunkmates for two one-week stints.  It was the first time either of us had been away from home for longer than a night.  I was pretty homesick, but Biff, being more outgoing and adventurous, made friends with another kid in our cabin.  This kid (I’ll call him Eddie) was maybe a year older, from the rougher side of town, and he had a swagger.  I didn’t like Eddie, but he liked Biff, and they kind of teamed up.  Of course, my homesickness was even worse after this.  But I distinctly remember Biff approaching me later in the week and saying “Pete, I don’t think Eddie likes me anymore, he hasn’t talked to me in a while.”  Maybe it’s rose-colored glasses.  But this may have been his way of trying to make me feel better.

I didn’t return for that second week of camp.  I was just too homesick.  In hindsight, I wish I’d have forced myself, because my copout probably started a pattern of avoidance.   But Biff did return.  I’ve always wondered how he fared.  Our family moved only a few months later, so I never found out.  For all I know, those wooded hills of north-central Ohio helped inspire Biff’s later migration to Big Sky country.

I never saw Biff again, either.  But friends from youth have a way of searing themselves into your consciousness.  Maybe because, when we’re kids, we’re not aware of the concept of time.  When we’re kids, neither the past nor the future are relevant.  We haven’t yet learned how to reflect on things, good or bad.  And we don’t worry about what’s in front of us.  We only live in the present.  For most of us, it’s just a brief period in our lives.  But it’s where you can find true happiness.

Here’s to you, Biff.

centennials