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 hearty 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 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 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, and realizes just what an a-hole fellow Kentuckian, 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.

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.

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!

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!”

A Wrong Turn: The Haunting Disappearance of Inchworm

Trail leading to Winding Stair Gap2

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.

________________

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).

navy sign

(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.”

________________

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.

railroad road

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.

map

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.

largay_site

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

yogi_sign

“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.

black bear

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.

grizz

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.

____________________________

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??

Sawmill Run Overlook2

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.

Blackrock Mtn summit2

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.)

boo-boo

Forever Green: Voices for the Wilderness Act

50 years

tree silhouette

Fifty years ago Wednesday the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The act gave a legal definition to the term “wilderness:”

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Nine million acres of public land were initially designated as wilderness. The act is one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in American history, because it concerns land and water already designated as national park, forest, or wildlife refuge, and forever protects these wild areas from damage due to logging, grazing, mineral extraction, road-building, construction – or any human manipulation, good or bad. The act essentially says “Enjoy these places and life forms, but don’t alter them.”  Keep Them Wild.

Last spring I touched on this anniversary in a couple blog posts (The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things and Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight). Not everybody is as ardent about conservation as I am. I’ll just offer some pertinent quotes from a few friends of American wilderness. Voices, more impassioned and eloquent than mine, that helped bring the Wilderness Act to fruition and are intent on making it work. Like Ed Abbey says, we need more voices like them.

yellowstone

 

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

– Gary Snyder

 

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

– Wallace Stegner

 

“Without enough wilderness America will change. Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication, must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths — animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies — or it will dwindle and pale.”

– Walt Whitman

grizz

 

“The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts.”

– John Muir

 

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”

– Ansel Adams

 

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.”

– Rachel Carson

desert

 

“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.”

– Bill McKibben

 

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

– Aldo Leopold

 

“Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise, what is there to defend?”

– Robert Redford

 

“We humans are a funny species. We can’t look death in the eye, yet we accept the environmental degradation and poisoning that breeds cancer… Something isn’t working.”

– Walkin’ Jim Stoltz

 

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.”

– Edward Abbey

 

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

– Wendell Berry

 

coral

 

“There is just one hope for repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every inch on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom and preservation of the wilderness.”

– Bob Marshall

 

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are, in fact, plans to protect man.”

– Stewart Udall

 

“All good things are wild and free.”

– Henry David Thoreau

 

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

– Lyndon Johnson

 

HAPPY 50th ANNIVERSARY TO THE WILDERNESS ACT!

sky