It is a Sign…

This is a short post, but I have to share. When Beth and I were discussing the possibility of my retirement and Gavin and I hiking the Appalachian Trail, I found a quarter in the floor of my classroom. It wasn’t just any quarter, it was one of the 2016 series America the Beautiful quarters featuring John Brown’s Fort from Harpers Ferry, WV. This is significant, I told her, because Harpers Ferry is the symbolic half-way point of the AT, and also home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. This was surely the sign we needed to know this was the right decision.

Fast forward to today. We were fortunate to go see a movie with our friends Matt and Katie and we wound up at Ruby Tuesday for supper. Guess what I found on the floor on the way out? Hint: there is a photo above. I suppose it was probably a small part of someone’s tip to the waitress, but I couldn’t bear to put it back on a table because of its significance (sorry nice waitress). The last two quarters I’ve found have been of the Harpers Ferry variety. I take this as a definite sign that Gavin and I are supposed to be taking this trip!

What is the Appalachian Trail, anyway?

When I share with folks that Gavin and I are planning to hike the Appalachian Trail, you can see the look come across their faces. Most folks know that the AT is a really long hike in the woods, but unless they’ve read Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods or have seen the movie (please, read the book– the movie is abysmal), their knowledge of the trail stops there. In this post, I’ll try to answer some of the questions that most folks ask about the AT. The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile “footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness” that stretches from Springer Mtn., GA to Mt. Katahdin, ME. The elevation gain in hiking the AT is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times. Along its course, the trail traverses 14 states, requiring more than 5,000,000 footsteps to complete. Fitbit Challenge, anyone? The average hiker takes about 165 days to finish the trail. Gavin and I plan to start in late February and finish up in August or early September.

One of the most popular questions is, “Will you ever go into town?” The answer is definitely, “Yes!” Throughout most of the trail, we’ll never be more than 3-5 days away from a trip into town to resupply or sleep in a real bed, or, most importantly, find an all-you-can-eat buffet. Though town life can put a drain on both your wallet and hiking pace, I expect we’ll plan for at least one zero day (a day where you hike 0 miles) each week or so. An alternative to a zero is to plan to end a day only a few miles from a town so that the next day you can take a nero, or a day when you hike nearly 0 miles. You might stay in town that night, and get up bright and early (yeah, we’ll have to work on that) and hike out the next morning.

Wise Shelter at Grayson Highlands St. Pk.
Wise Shelter at Grayson Highlands St. Pk.

When we’re not in town, which will be most of the time, we’ll either be tent camping or staying in one of the more than 260 shelters spaced out along the AT. Generally, shelters are basic, 3-sided structures designed to provide respite from the elements (as long as they don’t attack the open 4th side.) The good thing about shelters, especially in inclement weather, is that you don’t have to worry about pitching a tent in the rain (or packing one up wet.) There are down-sides to consider too. Because they are frequently populated, there are lots of crumbs which attract mice. Nearly every shelter I’ve visited has dangling strings with a tin can or plastic coffee can lid from which to hang gear. Since shelters may accommodate 6-20+ hikers, it is difficult to get sleep there because of all the snoring. I don’t expect to be part of the solution on this one.

Many hikers will mail themselves packages along the trail (or have their lovely spouse do it for them.) This used to be one of the primary ways to resupply. For whatever reason, be it the increased popularity of the trail, or the kindness of strangers, though, it is now easier and more cost effective to go into a town to buy whatever food items you are hungry for now, rather than taking your chances that you’ll still be craving what you sent yourself weeks ago. Though we’ll no doubt have to swap out winter gear for lighter weight summer stuff and order replacement gear (i.e. shoes = 3-4 pair each) by mail, most of our resupply items will come from local towns along the trail.

Speaking of towns along the trail, two of the closest “trail towns” to us are Damascus, VA and Hot Springs, NC. These, and most other towns along the trail are hiker-friendly. That means that there is no shortage (I hope) of inexpensive hostels which provide a cot/bed, and often breakfast for under $20. Towns along the trail are accustomed to hosting thru-hikers, and residents of these towns often provide shuttle rides from town back to the trail and/or vice versa.

People frequently ask me if I am planning to carry a gun on the trail. The short answer is, “No.” For a variety of reasons, I don’t believe a gun would be useful on the trail. First, I don’t own one, and second, they’re very heavy. Most importantly, the biggest danger that I hope to run into along the AT is ticks, and I think a handgun is overkill for those (and my aim isn’t that good anyway.) We will likely see rattlesnakes, but you don’t gain any Leave No Trace points for walking up and down the trail shooting wildlife. We’ll have to remember that we’re guests in the wildlife’s home, and will have to behave accordingly. If it means taking a wide berth around a snake, or waiting for it to move along on its own, that is what we will do. You might be thinking that I’ve avoided the #1 reason for having a weapon along the trail, Bears! Yes, the entire AT runs through the habitat of the Black Bear, but all the research I’ve done indicates that they’re more scared of me than I an of them. I just hope they’ve done the same research. Kidding aside, Gavin and I will hang our food bag and “smellable” items high in a tree away from camp each night, so bears will not be drawn to our campsite. Also, we’ll be mindful of not crossing between a mama bear and her cubs. If we encounter Black Bears, we both know how to behave, so I’m not really worried about them. I guess that is easy to say from the comfort of my recliner.

For the final question, and you know what it is, the answer is, “We’ll do what the bears do.” Seriously, if we’re fortunate, we’ll be passing by shelters that have privys when Nature’s call arrives, but otherwise, we’ll follow the Leave No Trace practice of Disposing of Waste Properly by burying it in a small “cathole” 6-8 inches deep. Can’t wait for that balancing act.

This wraps up the answers to most of the questions that we’ve gotten so far. If you have other questions about how we will deal with life on the trail, please comment below. We’ll look forward to hearing from you.

 

Awesome Trip!

My Scout leaders and I took 9 boys on a backpacking trip Wednesday thru Friday to the Grayson Highlands State Park area of Virginia. It took us only about an hour and fourth-five minutes to get there. It is a fairly easy drive and the park has incredible views.  There are tons of day hikes that aren’t too difficult. It is certainly worth the trip to visit.

Before getting into a day-by-day description of the trip, I want to thank Danielle, Melanie, and JT for coming along. It was the ladies first backpacking experience, and they did great! We sort of split off into two hiking groups. Gavin and Joy lead the way, and I did my best to keep up with them and some of the faster scouts. JT brought up the rear to make sure nobody got left behind. It really worked out well. The front group did a good job stopping every little while so the second group could catch up. After socializing a bit, the lead group would break off and head on down the trail. I was really proud of the whole crew, as we hiked at a pace of 2 mph, not counting rest breaks. This was pretty close to what I thought we’d do.

Day 1: July 18

We left Bethlehem heading north, and after a brief stop at Cook Out in Wilkesboro, we headed on up Hwy. 16 into Virginia. We got on the trail a little after 5:00, hiking from the backpacker parking lot up to Massey Gap. We joined the Appalachian Trail heading north to the Wise shelter area. No camping is allowed in the area just around the shelter, so we crossed Big Wilson Creek to be just outside the state park boundaries before making camp. Most of the boys were hammock camping, and there were plenty of trees available. Everyone had a great supper and I’d like to say “settled in for the night,” but that was just the adults. The boys were restless and told jokes like you’d expect middle school boys to tell. Eventually everyone got a good nights rest.

Day 2: July 19

This was the most difficult day of the trail. We started out going up, and continued doing so for most of the day, though there were some level areas and a few downhills. The hike wasn’t difficult, but it was a long day of about 6.5 miles with almost 1,100 feet of elevation gain. The hike was highlighted by many nice views, as well as the sighting of a couple of deer and several of the famous Grayson Highlands wild ponies. We even got to watch one take a mud bath on the trail. I thought only dogs did that.

We stopped to eat lunch and “sit down” at the Scales, an old livestock corral. There is a two-room privy and there was supposed to be a spring, but we never did find it. After leaving the Scales, we also left the AT, heading along the Crest Trail. This was essentially a one-lane gravel/rock/boulder road and horse path. It wasn’t tough hiking, but I could have done with fewer rocks. The highlight of the day was passing by the campground because it wasn’t where I thought me map said it should be. I insisted on going several tenths of a mile farther in search of the “real site.” The lead group finally stopped and dropped their packs and I headed on ahead alone looking for the site, but after 0.5 miles or so, I realized that the kids were right, and that we had passed the site (sorry guys, I was wrong!) We headed back the way we came and set up camp for the night. The first order of business was searching for the water source that I had been told about. After a text and a phone call to a friend, we still didn’t find it, so I headed down the trail to see if I could find a usable spring close by. I did manage to dig out a place to get some water, but it was pretty murky. Then I heard someone shout, “We found it!” Funny thing is, we had all walked past the spring which was protected from the horses and cattle by a split rail fence. Duh. 0 for 2 today, I guess.

We had beautiful views from the campsite, but we also got colder than expected temperatures. We had been forecast for 60°, but I think it was closer to 55°, and on the ridge there was definitely some wind chill in play. The boys had a good time exploring the area and climbing on rocks, but the adults were freezing. I tried going in my tent to get out of the wind, which was nice, but Joy was whimpering because she had been abandoned. I zipped the legs on my pants and  got back out of the tent to read and play with her for as long as I could stand it. About 8:30, I called all the boys in and suggested that they should hop in their hammocks and settle in and warm up. I’m pretty sure I was asleep before the sun set completely.

Day 3: July 20

We started breaking camp around 7:45. Actually, it may have been earlier for some, but I don’t respond well to alarms and tend to hit the snooze button multiple times. As we were packing up and having breakfast, JT told us that he had a bear sniffing at his hammock during the night. The boys found some footprints, but I was too focused on making coffee to go look. I wish I had. Just as we were about to pack out, a herd of 5-6 ponies galloped through what had just minutes ago been our campsite. They stopped in the clearing and hung out for a while. Two of them even went over and inspected my pack. This was our closest and best pony encounter of the trip.

The hiking this day started out with a steady uphill climb. Did I mention that yesterday there were rocks? Never mind. Today, there were ROCKS!  The trip down the mountain was treacherous! Looking back, I realize that I had been concentrating so much about maintaining my footing that I hadn’t taken any pictures of the terrain we were traversing. On the way down we met up with 76-year-old Pathfinder, a NOBO thru-hiker who started the trail at Springer Mtn. on March 23. She was struggling with a bum knee and was trying to navigate the descent. Another hiker had already taken her pack to the bottom of the most difficult area. I sent the boys on and hiked with her for the next hour or so. Her knee had reduced her pace to a crawl, especially trying to navigate the huge rocks and steps going downward. She had treking poles, but I took one or both of her hands to help her down some really difficult parts of the trail. We had a lovely conversation, and I told her that Gavin and I were planning to start our thru-hike in February or early March. She was insistent that it was too cold in February, and that we should wait. She also said that she’s probably the last NOBO thru-hiker going up the trail this year, and she is probably right. She had to miss the Smokies because of a fall that resulted in a dozen stitches in her forehead. She was adamant that she would have to come back and do that part of the trail later on. We were met by a local not far from where the trail difficulty eased up a ways, and she hiked the rest of the way into Massie Gap with Pathfinder. I hope that she was able to get her knee iced and looked at, and that she is back on the trail heading North.

Our trip this week was truly a marvelous experience, for both the young and the older. I appreciate Paul for suggesting this route as our first backpacking excursion since I’ve been with the troop, and for trying to help us find water at our night two campsite. The boys are already talking about going on another trip like this one as soon as we can. I know that I am ready. I believe this trip, especially meeting Pathfinder, made me more ready than ever to get out on the trail. I can’t wait to start!

Be sure to check out the photos of this experience, which are linked in the menu above.

 

Fooled Me Once…

Okay, twice. Yesterday Beth suggested that we go to Rocky Face for a hike. Gavin and I quickly said that we were NOT doing the VMC trail and she said that was okay. We hiked the Hollow Rock Trail, which, after a moderately steep climb up the rock, has switchbacks to make the climb easier to deal with. Joy went with us as well. I’m not sure whether she enjoyed the hike or not. Towards the end, she had several episodes of just stopping and laying down in the trail. She had some shots yesterday morning and I wonder if that left her hip muscles sore which may have contributed to her lethargy. Gavin did a really good job of looking out for her, though. He insisted that we stop several times to give her water, which she gratefully accepted. I suppose that even for a dog, hydration is the key.

The highlights of this trail are the two overlooks near the peak of Rocky Face. We stopped for an extended break to let Joy rest.

After a bad foot pad experience, we decided that since Joy spends all of her time on carpet and grass, that she needed hiking boots. I don’t know if she fully understands how well they protect her feet, but she seems to tolerate them pretty well. Here she is resting on the trail, showing off her fashionable and protective footwear.

I am experimenting with trail logging apps. For this one, I used AllTrails. I like the stats that it provides about the hike. This trip was 3.3 miles with a pace of 23:11/mile. I found it interesting to see the hike plotted on a topo map, and the elevation profile was a nice touch. Check out the trip statistics on AllTrails.com.

Short Trip Coming Up Next Week

My Scout Troop is going on a 3-day backpacking trip next week in the Grayson Highlands State Park just across the state line in VA. In preparation for the trip, Gavin and I sat down at lunch today and planned out our menu. Here is what we came up with:

Food Items
Menu for Next Week

Here is what we have, in detail…

Breakfast
Oatmeal
Dried Fruit
Granola
Breakfast
Oatmeal
Dried Fruit
Granola
Lunch
PB & Raisin Tortilla
Cheese
Lunch
PB & Raisin Tortilla
Cheese
Supper
Mashed Potatoes
Chicken
(probably need some spices?)
Supper
Rice with Bouillon Powder
Spam or Pepperoni
Snacks
Snickers
Dried Fruit
Almonds
Snacks
Snickers
Dried Fruit
Almonds

Our goal was to come up with foods that have plenty of protein and calories that will also be easy and lightweight to pack. One comment Beth had was that the Snickers bars might melt, and she’s probably right. I also realized after taking this picture that I don’t have any coffee. I’ll have to go fix that immediately. I usually use the Folgers individual “tea bag” coffee when hiking. They’re individually wrapped and taste more like “real” coffee than instant. Note, too, that this food is for two of us. My portion is ~5lbs, and Gavin’s is a little over 3lbs.