Friday, December 12, 2008


WAY TOO LONG BETWEEN POSTS. My apologees, but been busy with the holidays and work, etc. Excuses, excuses. At any rate, its been 2 months since summitting Katahdin, and its interesting to note what aspects of the trip linger on. I have finally lost the "old man" walk when getting up after a long time seated or laying - though my knees and ankles did feel stiff well into late November. My weight has increased only slightly, but I can feel the muscles I had so wonderfully gained starting to atrophy into fat. Yum. The holidays are here indeed. The biggest physical remnant of the trail are the calluses on the sides of my toes and balls of my feet. Still large and knarly as of mid-December. Mentally, its been tougher. I expected to have a time rejoining this world, but I had no idea it would be this tough. I've forgotten so much, especially things at work - my account number for the carshare, how to use such-and-such a program, where these files exist on the network, how to fill out the TPS reports. Its very telling the things trail life completely eradicated or suppressed. I also find that I'm very easily stressed out - had to use a new program under deadline yesterday at work and could feel my heart pounding and breath shortening under the stress. Eight months ago, this was not a problem at all. My theory is that six months in the woods so completely destresses a person, that afterwards, anything slightly stressful becomes a major obstacle. Destressed life is amazing really. Simple pleasentries like good conversation and time with family are real joys. Fun things like cooking can be truly amazing. Of course there are some things in life like bills and grocery shopping that are torturous but simply unavoidable. But there are whole categories of things in life that seem so unnecessary, so painfully wastes of time. These I simply PREFER NOT TO DO. Not sure I've ever understood Bartleby the Scrivener as well as I do now.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Well, the savings account is finally running out and so it is finally time to head back to work. I started at my former job last week, but am only doing 3-4 days a week there, since our billable workload is not all that great right now. (While I was in the woods all summer, it seems the world economy has collapsed...) Part-time is really fine with me - gives me a little more time to finish the kitchen project and can better concentrate on my teaching gig at Penn too. Plus, I’ve become convinced (it wasn’t hard) that we Americans work way too much. Compared to the rest of the developed world, we get the least amount of vacation time and work the longest hours. As a result, we suffer the worst amounts of stress and sickness. I’m not against hard work – I’m all for it actually – but I want to have a life between bouts of intense work. My real complaint is that work takes up way too much time. Not just the 8-10 hours at the job every day, but the hour or two getting ready, and the hour or two afterwards it takes to unwind. And lets be realistic – its hardly necessary. Those of us in office jobs are lucky to get 4 or 5 productive hours each day, with the rest of the time spent distracted by the internet, phone and email interruptions, snack breaks, and conversations amongst the cubes. We even decorate our cubes as a result, trying to bring our lives into the space where we spend most of it. All this time spent at work hasn’t really earned us much either. Thirty years ago, when working-aged women often stayed home, a single salary could buy a house, one or two cars, three or four kids, and a vacation. You are fortunate if you can do that with both parents working today. And technology doesn’t help – despite all that has been invented to make our jobs more productive, the “curse of work” remains unrelieved, despite the promises of its inventers. If anything, new technology just promotes work-creep, as people are spend nights and weekends emailing and laptoping work. A friend of mine once worked for a huge accounting firm that favored this kind of over-work, promoting only those employees who fully gave their lives over to the company. How sad. The worst is that this overwork then ruins your “free” time too. You get home each night, you’re exhausted, and you zombie out in front of the TV. The weekend (all two days and one night) is spent mostly on ignored chores, and if there is time, squeezing in the sleeping, family time, exercise, cooking, dating, sunbathing, learning, drinking, sex, hiking, reading, volunteering, hobbies, worshiping, thinking, doing nothing, and everything else that makes life wonderful. Family time is minimal, and time with extended family is squeezed into the whirlwind holiday tours which are often more stressful than pleasurable. Once or twice a year (when you can fit it in to your work schedule), you squeeze in a vacation, and often these are spent doing some hyper-active travel, sightseeing, and sped-up relaxation. What goes missing is Play. Play is the anti-Work. Play isn’t video games or movies or sitting on your butt. Play can be hard work, but play is never Work. I consider myself an expert on Play, having spent the better part of 7 months at Play this year. I will write more about Play next.


Story-telling is a lost art. Out on the Trail, with no distractions around and only a campfire to stare at (we called it “Hippy TV”), hikers depended on stories and good conversation for entertainment. The best thing about story-telling is that it really requires two people – the person telling the story is important of course – but the listener is just as important. It’s in the listener’s head, fueled by imagination, that any story comes alive. The storyteller can supply just the thinnest of details, but within the listener’s head, the faces of characters and look of the settings become realized. It’s too bad that in regular life, people are too often content to simply be talked at for entertainment. Television especially ruins the story experience – you sit down on the couch and are talked to and shown all the action and there is rarely any participation required from the viewer. Just sit and absorb the simplistic tales, clichéd characters, and of course 30% advertising. How often will you sit and watch two hours of TV and then not remember anything of what you just watched? In trail life, even mundane tales and bad story-telling become memorable. This is important too – because stories are how we learn about the world, pass on our traditions, and explore ourselves. Everyone can remember the short tales of our youth and the lessons that were either obvious. (I once spent a whole evening with other hikers recalling Aesop’s Fables and their little summary lessons for fun.) But it works for adults too. Since humans started using language millions of years ago, we told stories to each other: about the animals we followed for food, the constellations that mark the seasons, the examples of famous heroes and heroines, and even stories about the world’s creation. Stories are still meaningful today, despite (and perhaps due to) the distractions of modern life. One of the reasons Obama was such a compelling candidate and McCain was not, was because Obama consistently portrayed his would-be presidency as continuing the story of America. That story – our founding break from tyrrany and our ever-upward motion towards equality and freedom and opportunity, a country that always has the power to reinvent itself in the name of progress – is a very compelling narrative. It is baked into every American’s sense of self, and that view of our history has always had appeal across the globe. As a result, Obama’s election was very emotional for so many people. It was an amazing experience to ride across North Philly after watching the returns at a friend’s house and see hundreds of people pouring into the streets to celebrate. The next day, it was like another Phillies victory - the whole city felt proud to be re-born Americans. (As my friend Frank pointed out, I got back in time for Red October and Blue November – too bad for us Iggles fans it’s not looking like a Green December.) Pretty electrifying, but since narratives are so memorable, it sets up some pretty high expectations for the new President.

Monday, November 03, 2008


One of the joys of the Appalachian Trail was spending six months living on mountain tops. Being that high up, for that length of time, allows hikers to escape the flatland and exist in a raised dimension. We enjoyed a perspective usually reserved for gods, and were able to experience and process and think about the world in a scale beyond what daily life affords. Getting into that philosophical mindset wasn't immediate - we had to learn to think about space and time from such a scale. It took several months to get the daily routine and physical requirements of hiking to a comfortable background state, and several more to fully cleanse the mind of long-held belief systems, influences of mass media, taught educations, and the daily distractions of normal life. I was lucky enough to share that vantage point with several other hikers who were open to thinking about our world and interested in its future. As we went along, it became clear to us that the problems now facing humanity are of a level never experienced before. I don't intend to spend time here lecturing about how we are disrupting the earth's natural systems to an extent that endangers life itself, or losing the resources that future humans will depend upon, or how so many of us are living lives without meaning while polluting our bodies and minds out of distraction or desperation. There's plenty of other places to learn about the bad news. Most of the time, we hikers didn't like to dwell on the bad things either. It should suffice to say that life as we live it, especially here in America, is simply unsustainable. The time for change is coming, but whether it will be a catastrophic change brought upon us, or a renaissance of thought and action that we create ourselves is our choice. What we hikers discovered this summer is the possibility for this renaissance. Americans have often led the way when it comes to revolutionary thinking - the AT itself is but one example of our capacity. It was fantastic to meet so many others this summer, who are already involved in this renaissance - people from every walk of life looking at improving life for others, for themselves, for the future. People who long for real community, for simplicity in living, for places and activities that support good lives, for a holistic approach to problem-solving and solutions that don't create more problems than they solve. It's a very encouraging sign that so many people like this exist, and were taking a summer to spend time thinking and discovering. Obviously, this post is timed with tomorrow's election in mind - it is one of the few times we Americans can directly influence events at a large scale. I'm not going to plug any of the candidates, but instead urge my readers to go into the booth tomorrow with wide minds, thinking about the world from the vantage of mountaintops, concerned with the global scale instead of the personal, looking for candidates who will put our future ahead of any selfish present, choosing leaders who will help us move towards a more sustainable world.

Friday, October 31, 2008


Maybe it really was the Curse of Billy Penn. The city's founder was apparently not happy about losing his statue's "tallest thing in town" status to some skyscrapers in the late 80s, and cursed Philadelphia to never win a championship in any major sport, despite our perennially great teams. (Last year, a miniature statuette of Penn was added to the latest and highest scraper as a CYA). But maybe it really required me not being here to see any games this summer. (I'm not being ego-centric, ALL phans here blame themselves for the teams' record). Either way, I can't tell you what a pleasure it's been to come home and watch the Phils make their way through the playoffs and win the World Series here at home. For a city that lives and dies via its sports, the mood here has been ecstatic this past week and the town is red with old and new baseball fans. I'm very lucky to have left the trail for a place like Philadelphia, and I'm constantly reminded why I love living here. It really is a rare place - a big city with all the entertainment and activity that entails - but also one with individual neighborhoods like Fishtown, where if I don't ever leave its boundaries (or leave the house in 3 weeks) I can pretend I live in a small town of 25,000. I feel for the folks who left the trail and went to live with parents or are stuck in cars in the suburban traffic lifestyle - believe it or not, that would be a harder transition than coming back to this metropolis was. To be sure, there's been a lot of change over the six months in town and some of it is disconcerting, like the best wig shop on Chestnut becoming another upscale coffee house. But the essential Philly-ness remains: less than 2 hours after winning Game 5, a guy came down my street pushing a shopping cart full of "official" World Championship merchandise for sale. So with civic pride, I'm heading downtown after this post to check out the big parade for the team, which will easily be the biggest gathering of people I've seen since walking through the July 4th festival when I stopped home this summer. At that point, I was halfway through the Trail and was wonderfully surprised by a cop who gave me an extra hoagie he had. (See above photo). Hopefully I can score a trail-magic pretzel today, but I fear I don't look so desparate without the beard. Why did I cut it off so soon?!
PS, finally got a look at my photos. I took a lot. And by "a lot" I mean an insane amount. More to come.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Risked losing my magical trail-given powers by shaving off the majority of my beard to its pre-trail conditions. Very weird to look in the mirror afterwards, even weirder to feel my chin with my hands. Hadn't realized how much weight I lost until that point, and I regretted doing it immediately afterwards. The shaving came out of boredom. I caught a throat cold a few days ago and it's pretty nasty. I think during my time away from civilization, I lost my immunity to your European diseases. The cold has meant no working on the kitchen, since I'm at the point of putting up insulation and it's probably not a good idea to be breathing fiberglass with this throat. So instead, I'm forced to do what I've tried to avoid - lay on the couch and watch endless TV and movies and video games. Add to it the cold rainy weather and the delayed Phils win, and its a very frustrating and somewhat depressing experience. Since we have on-and-off internet at the house, I've ventured out to the local hipster coffee shop at the end of the block to use their wireless connection. I can at least write on the blog, which I've avoided doing since I don't have any photos for you readers to see quite yet. (The photos are on Elizabeth's work computer - I hope to get some up tomorrow.) Novel things still surprise me. As I write this, I got a cell phone call. I feel so connected, perhaps too connected. One of the joys of the trail is communication done on a simpler, slower scale. Friendhips are made after brief conversations, and maintained by sporadic and unplanned run-ins. You'd hike with someone for a day and be great buddies from then on, even if you didn't see them for weeks. Here in the real world, phone calls and scheduled visits are necessary to maintain relationships of any kind. Its not a bad thing, it just means more work and more thought involved.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I’ve been home a week. It’s been almost two weeks since summiting, but my body is still very much in trail mode. I still have quite an appetite, though it’s nothing like it was during the day-to-day trail life. I will have to start watching what I eat, which is an odd sensation after eating whatever I wanted for six months – one of the biggest joys of the trail, really. My legs and feet are still recovering – I’ve gotten terrible cramps in my calves at night, and walking out of bed in the mornings is humorously old man-ish. Stairs are nearly impossible first thing in the morning. But once I’m up, I have newfound strength. I’m doing a major project in the kitchen which requires standing for long periods of time and holding arms overhead repeatedly – things I had trouble with before the trek, but aren’t a problem now. The kitchen project, which involves tearing down a wall, and installing new ceilings and wallboard, is a terrific way to adjust to homelife. As it progresses, my mood remains upbeat and the daily work keeps me from becoming melancholic about not being outdoors all the time. I did take an afternoon off yesterday to bike through town – I’ve forgotten how big a city Philadelphia is, and how quickly it can change in six months. Its also funny how my mental map of the city – where 3rd and Fairmount is, where such-and-such a store is – has been weakened. Ostensibly, I was looking for lighting stores to get ideas for the kitchen, but the ones I remembered are gone or now only sell high-end designer products. It seems the big box retailers have stolen all the business when it comes to normal consumer goods. I talked to Zen the other night, who has returned home to North Carolina and is in a little shock as he negotiates his return to work. He said it feels so static to remain in one place all the time. I understand what he means, but so far I haven’t felt it, despite (and perhaps because) my hiding out in the kitchen every day. The only truly irksome thing I’ve noticed is I get a lot less sleep here. On the trail, especially in the last month or so as the daytime shrunk, we slept for 10-12 hours every night, mostly in a satisfying and well-earned deep sleep. Here, the TV has you up til 11:30pm and the alarm has you up at 7am. No jumping out of bed in the mornings, excited for the day. So far, I’ve only had one trail dream that I remember – it was winter and I was with some trailmates and we had to cross a frozen lake, but couldn’t determine where the trail picked up on the other side. One final thought – before leaving the AT, we talked about what things back home would give us trail déjà vu. I finally emptied out my food bag yesterday and I can now say that seeing and eating slim jims and poptarts give me major trail déjà vu. Probably because I never ate these foul things before, but downed them regularly then.


This is long overdue, but I just wanted to say THANK YOU to everyone who helped out on this grand adventure. It’s really too long a list to name everyone individually, but you know who you are: family members and friends who sent food, money, and words of support, folks who visited me on the trail and provided magic for me and other hikers, my employer for offering work when I return and generously providing postage while away, and anyone who helped support Elizabeth and Camille while I was away. I also want to thank my mom and dad specifically for introducing me to the outdoors at an early age and always encouraging my adventures, and my grandparents for helping install virtues like self-reliance and a love of discovery and travel. And of course, I want to thank Elizabeth for allowing me to go and supporting me without hesitation the entire way – without her this trek would still be an idle dream. I also want to thank anyone who followed this blog and cheered me along. No matter how tough it got, quitting was not possible while so many people were behind me.

Friday, October 17, 2008

View From The Top

Shawn came into the office tonight, pre-happy hour, and we were able to download his trail photos, from about Virginia through to the end. Needless to say, it was a nervous moment when we plugged the camera card into the computer, hoping it wouldn't have somehow gotten erased!! So here are some photos from the summit of Mt Katahdin...

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Finally made it home two nights ago. We had aimed for the Gaspe, but nearly to the Canadian border, we learned some of the parks we hoped to visit and mountains we hoped to hike would be closed. Plus, it was getting downright cold, and a trip that far north would've needed a few more days to make the long drives worthwhile. So, another time. Instead, Zen, Elizabeth and I hopped down the Maine coast, visiting Bangor, Acadia National Park, and Portland. The trip was probably the best way to meet re-entry, giving us another adventure and taking our minds off the loss of trail life. The tough thing about leaving the woods is that the hikers who made it that far not only were surviving the experience, they were thriving. Zen and I and the others had really carved out a life on the trail, and it felt every bit as real as life back home. This may be why Elizabeth and I were so nervous upon meeting each other at Katahdin. Its tough on a relatively young relationship to sustain six months apart, and though we knew the end would come and we’d be back together here in Philadelphia, I think both of us had begun adapting to life without each other. The Maine trip gave us a chance to get to know each other again on neutral grounds, and I proved a good idea. In the meantime, the trail is slowly washing off. Everytime a “first” happens – the first time driving, wearing jeans, cooking with multiple burners, riding my bike, etc – its an odd experience, both exciting for the novelty and slightly sad since it means the trip really has ended. Zen and I both found ourselves talking less and less about the trail, and withdrawing away from it to focus on new tasks. Here at home, I’ve begun tearing down a wall in the kitchen and dealing with my overgrown garden. The first day back, I washed and put away my equipment, and made notes about what my final gear list looked like (which I will share later). The oddest thing has to do with seeing old friends and neighbors. I’ve been hiding in the house since getting home, but have seen some neighbors, and each of them has innocently asked, “So, how was it?” as their first question. It’s impossible to answer this question with the succinct answer that people expect in passing conversation. It was six months away from this life, six months without responsibility for work or other people, six months of new adventures every day, six months of exercising my body and mind, six months of trees and birdsongs and stars. “It was great” doesn’t seem a fair answer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Just a couple of photos

Here are just a couple of the photos from our trip/reunion this past week. This was my first view of Katahdin, taken while driving into Baxter State Park on Wednesday morning... Here's where Keychain signed in for his final hike... (down in the yellow smudge) This is what Katahdin looked like from the closest campground, where I waited with several other families for our thru-hikers to come down. Creeper's dad had binoculars, and we could actually see the a little of the festivities on the top of the mountain. And here was my first view of him coming down off the mountain with some of the 60-something hikers that summited that afternoon... More to come... stay tuned!

Friday, October 10, 2008


Hi all, heres a continuation from yesterday's post: Katahdin had indeed been closed to hikers for 4 days in a row. We heard reports of 50+ people waiting around Millinocket for days, the mood growing melancholy as some people had to leave without summiting. Fortunately for us, Tuesday was a beautifully sunny day with temps in the 50s and no clouds. We figured the snow and ice on top would melt and the mountain would be open for us the next day. (Most of the climb is on exposed boulders that were apparently covered with an inch or so of ice.) And to be frank, Zen and I were determined to make a summit effort on Wednesday regardless of the official rules. We had walked this far under our own effort and had no problem turning back if we reached a point where we felt unsafe. So, we entered the park and what an entrance! The trail at first follows an old road, enabling us to walk two abreast, with triumphal arches of birches lining either side. We passed a small pond with an incredible view of Katahdin, and then followed a calm wide river for a stretch. I couldn’t help but be reflective about all the amazing places I’d walked through, and all the amazing people who I shared those places with. We next ascended a series of waterfalls along Katahdin Stream and ended with beautiful ponds and views of the lesser peaks that surround Katahdin. Walking into the campground, a view of Katahdin’s shoulder let us know the snow was indeed mostly gone and the ranger there said he was sure it would be open tomorrow. We gathered around a fire for one last time, with some hiker friends who hitched out from town, telling our favorite trail stories and savoring our last night in the woods. No one slept well that night – too many Christmas Eve jitters. Upon waking, I could hear the sounds of vans dropping off hikers. The trails to the top were indeed open, and the flood of hikers began. The climb was pleasant until treeline, where it becomes a steep boulder scramble up and up and up. I could look up the ridge and see dozens of hikers ahead, all happy faces and shouting hellos to each other as the festive atmosphere overtook the moutain. I climbed over the false summit onto the flat tableland on top, and could see Baxter Peak and the famous sign about a mile ahead, with a huge crowd at the top. With the temps holding steady in the mid-50s and the wind all but dead, the sun was warm and no one was leaving. It really was the best way to summit – if we were going to have a bunch of people, we might as well have everybody. And what a party it was. The volunteer guide at the top counted 67 thru-hikers as we gathered around the sign, breaking out champagne bottles, passing around toasts and beaming with accomplishment. I knew most of the crowd, but it really wouldn’t be the AT if I wasn’t still meeting new hikers that morning. Everyone gathered for a group photograph, and a toast went up for all those fellow hikers who, for whatever the reason, couldn’t finish the trail. We each took turns getting our individual and small group photos with the “Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail” sign. We looked across all of Maine, shining lakes and smaller peaks below us, the gnarly Knife’s Edge trail curving away from us, and the kind blue sky above us. The trip down was fast, and everyone grew silent and lost themselves in thought, no longer thru-hikers. Elizabeth was waiting for me at the campground, all smile, and happy to be starting a new type of trail. We hung around for a while enjoying a beer and then drove into Millinocket to continue the party there. After 9 days, I was ready for a shower. I was the 432nd northbound hiker to register at the trailhead. If the estimates I’d heard earlier of 1300 hikers starting at Springer are correct, this is indeed a year for the record books. Over a third of those who intended to do the whole trail completed it – a huge increase in the completion rate, but still indicative of a tough trail to finish. The trail is a trial of physical and mental endurance, but everyone who sets out expects that. But no one expected it to be as much fun as it was. This will be the lasting character of the experience in my mind, and to repeat a quote I first heard months ago, the AT truly is the most fun I’ve ever had, interrupted by long walks.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


Lots of stuff to post about, but first let me tell everyone that this is one thru-er who is D-U-N, done. I summitted Katahdin just before noon yesterday, October 8, one hundred ninety-two days and 2,176.2 miles after starting up the approach trail to Springer Mountain in Georgia back on March 31. The 100-Mile Wilderness was a great stretch of trail that took us through the beautiful and endless north woods of Maine, but hardly a “wilderness.” More like a 100-Mile No Resupply. It is definitely a remote place, but there is a good amount of day trippers who come in via maintained dirt roads and since most of the area is owned by logging and paper companies, there is always the threat of development as these companies divest themselves of used land. In fact, a proposal now seeking approval from the state would bring a large resort and thousands of houses into the Wilderness area. Happily for those who would like to see this area conserved – it is really the last large undeveloped area in the east - organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club (the group that manages the huts and trails in the White Mountains) are also pushing for intelligent land management. (AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative is detailed here: For me, the difficulty of the Wilderness was centered on the time we spent without rest from the weather. It rained hard for three of the first four days, and then it was cold both day and night. Every day featured at least one large ford, which, with the rain, meant continuously wet shoes and socks. The treeline is fairly low, so even small mountains had us exposed to the mist, rains, and winds. My fellow hikers and I – Zen, Cookie Monster, No Amp, and Spidey – all prefer tenting, but spent most nights in shelters to share warmth and avoid putting up the tents in the mud. Related to the weather was the difficulty with food. I carried 8 days of food, with portion sizes that would have been perfect for an 8-day carry back in the South. But by this time in the hike, without body fat for insulation or backup energy, I start feeling decidedly weaker after three days of hiking and camp food. The temperature in the Wilderness didn’t break 50 degrees, and the lows were in the 20s and low 30s each night. Someone has told me you will spend an additional 1000 calories just keeping warm in weather like that – on top of the 5000 or so we spend doing the hike. By the fifth night, I was lying in my bag 2 hours after dinner, as hungry as ever and shivering. Very tough not to pig out on the rest of the food bag! To remedy the situation – I did want to actually enjoy my final week – I hit up Whitehouse Landing, a wilderness camp that caters to backwoods fishermen, hunters, snowmobilers, and of course hikers this time of year. Getting there requires leaving the AT and following a mile-long bushwhacked trail to a small dock on a vast lake in the middle of nowhere, sounding an airhorn, and waiting for a boat to show up to ferry you to the camp. There I had the famous one-pound burger and was able to purchase some more snacks and such. However bad the weather was during the Wilderness, it did set up a dramatic ending to this adventure. As we went over Whitecap, a 3600ft peak halfway through the Wilderness, we walked into hail, then sleet, then snow. The wind was strong and windchill was somewhere in the single digits – boy was I missing the gloves in that lost Caratunk maildrop! We began speculating – what would Katahdin be like, at 1600 feet higher? Did it receive snow too? Zen had the answer for us – he had run ahead to spend the night at Whitehouse Landing and took a floatplane ride from there. He got to see Katahdin from the air, covered in snow above treeline. After hearing this, we began mentally preparing for a cold winter climb at the end. However, it was tough to see Katahdin for myself and confirm the snow cover as we made our way towards the mountain. The weather started improving, but still Katahdin hid herself – the top half beneath clouds on Sunday, a little more revealed on Monday, and only the top peak covered on Tuesday. She was being coy! Zen and I camped on Rainbow Ledges Tuesday night – one of the last views of Katahdin – and that night she finally let down her guard and threw off the last clouds after the sun had set, showing us her sexy silhouette. The next morning, she was completely naked and welcoming, and we made our way into Baxter State Park. It was then we learned the trail to the top was closed, for the fourth day in a row. I will stop here and continue later – the check has arrived here at the AT Café in Millinocket, and Zen, Elizabeth, and I have “big miles” to do today as we drive north…

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I-95 is lovely this time of year.

Hello from my hotel here in Portland, about 4.5 hours from the trail, and from our favorite hiker. I got a call from Shawn this morning as I was preparing to leave, who reported that the trail to the summit was still closed ... so now there are even more hikers backed up in Abol Bridge waiting to finish! Hopefully tomorrow morning will be an all-clear and he and Zen (and many others) can hike on up. Either way, I'll be at Baxter State Park around 1 or 2 tomorrow, to either wait for him to come down off the mountain, or hang out with him in Millinocket until he can go up it. Hopefully the former, so we can go to Canada! The drive up from Philly was nice and uneventful - excellent leaf peeping along the way, and I was able to get a Connecticut and Massachusetts keychain to complete Shawn's set, courtesy of I-95 and I-90 rest stops along the way. I'll let everyone know tomorrow if the mountain is open or not, so stay tuned ... and keep your fingers crossed!!!! I know they all are anxious to finish. PS... on a total aside, after I picked up the car last night, I stopped by the Old Navy in South Philly, and saw Jay from season 1 of Project Runway. Random.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Text from the Trail

I received this text message this morning, from Keychain:

"@L.namahkanta. snow on k. closed for past 2 days says rumor!"

Translated, this means “I am at Lake Namahkanta. There is snow on Katahdin, and supposedly the mountain has been closed for the past 2 days.”

I sent him a message back to see when he thought he’d summit given the weather. Luckily, I got a call back! Apparently Zen got some kind of floatplane ride (?!) and saw a lot of snow on the mountain, and rumors from ahead of them indicate that people were stacking up at the park, waiting to summit. It did snow on them a few nights ago, but today is a gorgeous day in Maine, and they figure the folks that have been waiting to hike up will likely go today, leaving less of a crowd for them, and they still plan to summit on Wednesday.

So, the plan to leave Philly tomorrow is still intact, and I’ll hopefully be with Shawn on Wednesday!

Friday, October 03, 2008

You Know He's Almost Done When...

…the kitchen table has been reclaimed, and all the extra food your hiker didn’t need fits in one small bag. I haven't seen the top of this table in 6 months, and its quite exciting!

Just to keep everyone up to date, the "Getting Shawn from the Trail Plan" is to leave from Philadelphia on Tuesday, make the long drive up, and meet him sometime Wednesday when he is back from the Summit. I spoke with Shawn in Monson at the beginning of the week, and probably won’t hear from him again until I see him at the base of Katahdin since he’s going through the 100 mile wilderness as we speak. We picked out a meeting place at the base of the mountain, and if all goes according to plan, I’ll see him there! We will make calls to families as soon as we can, and I’m sure he’ll want to post about his summit here as well.

After the big reunion, Keychain and I (and Zen, too) are planning a short trip further north to see where the Appalachian Mountains end in Canada. We’ll be in touch with plans for a welcome home gathering (or two) with photos from his Thru-Hike once Shawn settles back into “real” life. Be glad I’m donating the extra food, or else the entire menu could consist of dried milk, tuna, and ramen noodles…

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Just a quick update - still here in Monson. My mail drop still hasn't arrived after a week (and Priority Mail sending) so I am assuming its lost and moving on. Luckily, there is a decent market in town - enough to do a resupply for the next eight days. Very frustrating since this is the fouth time a mail drop did not arrive, despite ample time and 2-day "priority" sending. (Atkins VA, Kent CT, Caratunk ME, Monson ME). Each time, it means wasted effort and money for both Elizabeth and me. At this point, I'd recommend to anyone planning a thru-hike to avoid using the Postal Service as much as possible! As soon as I buy food, my hiker friends and I will head out. We are still aiming for reaching the summit next Wednesday, but I will try and blog as soon as I finish. The weather looks good today and the rivers we must ford should be back down towards normal levels. Plus, we've given enough time for the large group of hikers who left yesterday to get well ahead of us. No sense in crowding in for the last section. Farewell, final town stop!

Monday, September 29, 2008


Hi from Monson, Maine a tiny hamlet in the middle of the northern Maine forest, mile 2060-ish. This is the end! I got in yesterday with friends and found a full circus of hikers in town, all stacking up while the rainy remnants of a tropical storm move through. Us hardier types were happy to brave the weather for the last few days - the trail up here is insanely beautiful now that we've hiked into the peak foliage and no rain can disturb that. If anything, the leaves are even more intense without sunshine to compete with. At times, its like walking under a huge stained glass ceiling, with the light streaming down in yellow or orange. Plus, the rain makes for adventurous river crossings - we've forded big streams each of the last two days, with water above my knees both times. The good thing about fording is that once the shoes are wet from that experience, there's no problem walking through other puddles and mud pits anymore. When we arrived yesterday, there was no space left in either of the hostels here, and I was a little salty with some of the hikers who I know yellow-blazed up to Monson to avoid the rain. But, luckily, space was found at the Lakeshore House, which also houses the only bar in town - how convenient! You can image the scene last night was pretty raucous - two dozen or more hikers enjoying their final town stop before completing this long adventure. There's lots of friends here whom I haven't seen since Central Virginia, and even thruers I've never met before. Amazing to think I'm still meeting new people that started within a week of me back in Georgia. We are hoping everyone moves on early today now that the weather has broken. Unfortunately, Elizabeth's final mail drop hasn't arrived in time, and so I will have to decide whether I leave later today or early tomorrow. I did receive notes from other family members - thank you all so much. Monson is the start of the famous 100-Mile Wilderness, a stretch of Maine woodlands without any serious roads until Abol Bridge, near Mt. Katahdin. Once you enter, its very difficult to get out since there is no cell reception and the one or two logging roads in there carry no traffic. It means a huge carry of food, and the trail through this part is known for being boggy and host to waist-deep river crossings. It should be a grand way to approach Katahdin, which will loom over us towards the end. The forest should be spectacularly colorful throughout the wilderness, and its possible we may even get some snow at the higher elevations. Oh boy! At the end of the Wilderness is Abol Bridge, a tiny convenience store. Hopefully they have champagne there, because its only a brief hike from there into Baxter State Park to the base of Katahdin. Baxter is a neat place - a former governor of Maine bought the land and donated it for preservation as a wilderness park. This is the park's primary mission, and human needs are secondary to resource protection. There are only one or two campgrounds, and they are kept small and remote. Climbing Katahdin can be tricky - we climb more than 4000 feet to its 5200-foot summit, making it the largest single climb on the AT. Save the best for last! The peak is well above treeline, which is around 2500 feet here, and the summit can be blasted by winds. If Baxter's rangers feel its unsafe weather to climb, they will close the trails until the situation improves - all northbounders have had in the back of their heads October 15th, the date when the park closes its gates because historically the weather is too bad for climbing past then. I have attempted to climb Katahdin once before, in July of 2004, and was forced to turn around. I reached Pamola Peak, one of the three summits, and was about to head out onto the Knife Edge, a thin, rocky slice with thousands of feet of drop on either side, that connects Pamola with the true summit, Baxter Peak. A storm was supposed to arrive hours later in the day, but as I started out, the wind picked up suddenly, rain began to fall, and the temperature dropped into the low 40s. Being an inexperienced day-hiker, I only had a thin coat as protection, but I knew enough to get down as quickly as possible. Hopefully, Katahdin will accept my 2176 miles of penance and grant me a summit this time. If all goes well, the weather will hold and I will summit next Wednesday and Elizabeth will meet me when I come down the mountain. At that point, we will head to nearby Millinocket to rest and catch the others who summitted. From there I will try calling parents and such. Afterwards, Zen and Elizabeth and I plan to drive north, following the route of the International Appalachian Trail to its end at the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec. This is where the Appalachians drop off into the Atlantic, a fitting end to a half year's walk. Obviously, the end is on everyone's mind these days, despite the partying going on in town last night. Most hikers are feeling ready to be done, especially with the recent wet weather. Myself, I'm ready to do something different too - six months is a long time to spend walking around the mountains. I don't think I would want to do this or any other long-distance thru-hike again. (Elizabeth says I'm not allowed to anyway.) At the same time, it is such a beautiful life out here and I'm not ready to leave the simplicity and freedom that exists on the trail. Re-entry into the normal world is going to be tough. I talked to a friend named Banjo, who summitted last week. She says it was very scary coming down from Katahdin, no longer a thru-hiker. Friends she knew deeply for months were suddenly whisked away by relatives, and within 24 hours, she was back in her home, overwhelmed by the stimulation and not sure what to do without a white blaze pointing the way. I can already feel the emotions welling up, and expect to be a blubbery mess on that final day. The road trip to Gaspe is intended to ease the transition, and I plan to take a few weeks at home to work on some overdue house projects as a way to move on from the trail. But there will be plenty of time to post about how the aftermath goes. For now, there is still 115 miles left that require my attention. Into the Wilderness and beyond!

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Greetings from Caratunk, Maine. I am staying at a deep-Maine resort that is between seasons and is offering hikers rooms for $10 a piece - the cheapest on the trail! Plus they brew their own beer and have a hot tub. This is the second-to-last town stop - only Monson lies between me and Katahdin. I crossed the 2000 mile mark two days ago, and at this point only 150 miles of Maine and the Trail remain. The Bigelows were an amazing range to end with, and we spent a very cold night at a campground in a small col between the two tall peaks to celebrate our last true mountain range. Since then, we've dropped lower and have passed by four huge lakes. Camped at one, which had a large sand beach - so I can now claim I did get to lie on the beach this summer; it just took me until late September. The days are getting shorter - even on the relatively low and easy terrain, its hard to make more than 13-14 miles each day. Plus, there is the timing of the ferry service across the Kennebec River. I hit the ferry this morning, which consists of a guy with a canoe. You'd have to be joking if you thought I might try to cross the river. I spent the summer hiking, not swimming. The river is as wide as the Schuylkill, six or seven feet at its deepest, but flowing faster than someone can walk. The ferryman told me only eight people attempted to ford the river so far this year - half came back and took the canoe, and the other half regretted it. Maine continues to amaze, though now that I'm back down below 2000 feet, its like I've stepped back three weeks or so in time. The trees are mostly green and its much warmer at night. There hasn't been rain for more than a week, but the ground still has plenty of water and is still muddy, though it tends toward tacky rather than soupy. We hiked part of the path taken by Benedict Arnold and 1200 other soldiers who in 1775 marched through Maine to invade Canada, hoping the French Canadians would rise up against the British too. Instead, they bogged down in the mud of Maine and showed up with half the men to Quebec City, a fortress atop cliffs with an uncaring population. Didn't work out so well. We have a few big hills and some more flatland before Monson and the 100-mile Wilderness. The end is near. A week or so ago, other hikers and I were ready and willing to talk about the end: what we'd miss (sunsets, the solitude of a tent); what we can't wait to get back to (eating fresh fruit and veggies, running water); and what would cause us trail de ja vu (tuna packets, hanging out with more than one bearded guy at a time). Now, the end is too close to talk about. Instead, we are having more and more quiet moments staring at the campfire, spending more time looking at the stars, and hiking in silence to better hear the forest. Trying to enjoy what we have taken for granted for so long.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Stopped into Stratton, Maine for a night while Zen and I wait for Monday so we can retrieve packages from the post office. The town has cheap lodgings and is a nice place to rest from a tough week of hiking. We went over beautiful Saddleback Mountain in a strong wind, well above treeline, making for a cold cold experience. The thought around camp that night is that at 100 miles further north, 2 weeks further in the year, and 1000ft higher, Katahdin is almost guaranteed to be freezing cold when we summit. We did spent the next night on Maine's second highest peak, Sugarloaf, which was also windy and cold at the top - but we stayed in the ski resort's open summit house with its wood-burning stove. From the summit, Katahdin is clearly visible, though still far away. We could also see that the next range of mountains, the Bigelows, will be our last large range. After that, the trail drops and stays fairly low, with an occasional lone peak to climb over. Between this town and my next stop in Caratunk, we must ford several rivers. One of these is the largest un-bridged river crossing on the AT, the Kennebec River. A canoe ride is offered to hikers crossing this river, as unpredictable dam releases upstream make is a very dangerous ford - a hiker died while crossing it in the 80s. Some hikers still attempt to ford it, with swift currents and water up to the chest. The weather has given us picture perfect blue skies for the last few days, and the forecast shows it continuing into this week. In good weather, Maine is a real treat. The birches are bright yellow, and the lower maple forests are changing more rapidly now that there's been a few frosty nights. Should be a good show by the time we get to the 100-mile wilderness. My body has recovered from the beating it took in the Whites and southern Maine. Feels nice to not hurt every time I stand up!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Hi all from Rangely, an attractive small town here in the wilds of Maine, where I'm stopping in for resupply. Its only the third day since resupply in Andover, but that town only offered snack food. One of the joys of thru-hiking is eating like a ten year-old, but two days of sugar is enough. We had a few days of rain as the remnants of Ike came by, but yesterday and today have seen gorgeous weather and the rest of the week looks beautiful. This state is tough when the weather is bad, but when the sun is out and the views are open, Maine is quite a place. We've been hiking past many lakes recently and its nice to see them left undeveloped with only a cabin or two on each. This area of the state is close enough to attract the crowds from southern New England, so its nice to know not everything is being built upon. I don't think we will spend the night, despite the strong temptation of karoake at the local watering hole. The weather is too nice to stay around town, and we're trying to take advantage of the woods while they last. Supposedly, on really clear days, the next mountain we go across - Saddleback - has views of Katahdin. So, literally, the end will be in sight. Lots of mud with the recent rain, though nothing like we experienced in Vermont. And the Maine ATC, which maintains the trail in the state, definitely likes their reputation as a wilderness. The few log crossings over wet areas are often broken and rock and root hopping is the norm. We've been lucky in that the rivers we've had to ford so far are all low, allowing us to hop rocks across. But soon, we will have to ford some more serious rivers, so I will have wet boot days to look forward to. My gear is starting to fall apart with the wear from 5 1/2 months. I've had to replace a second rod in my pack, my water filter, a broken pole tip, and repair some torn clothing in the last few weeks. I thought my second pair of shoes would make it, but they've become a liability with the wet walking, so I've asked Elizabeth to send up my old heavy boots. Hopefully, everything else will manage the next few weeks. The Maine forest has been a delight. The leaves are still slowly changing, but the forecast calls for a few nights of below-freezing lows, which should snap them into color. Really looking forward to that. Moose tracks and scat are everywhere now they are in rutting season, and we heard some coyotes barking at each other last night. No signs of bear yet, but they may be down in the lower areas, filling up on berries right now. Hope all is well, I'll write again from Stratton in a few days...

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Maine. For many months, its been a far-off destination - the answer to the question "where are you hiking to?" that other dayhikers and tourists always ask. And now I'm here at last, and have to answer the question differently, with "Katahdin". I crossed the NH/ME border a few days ago, passing a small sign posted to a tree in the middle of nowhere: Welcome to Maine, the Way Life Should Be. And by that, they must mean life should be exhausting. The transition into Maine from the Whites isn't "seamless" as someone suggested - in fact, it becomes harder. The mountains may not be as grandiose as the Whites, but they are more rugged and the trails are rougher and more unkempt. And as we get further north, the treeline drops and the temps become colder. No more camping on mountain tops! Two days ago, we went through Mahoosic Notch, often billed as the "toughest mile on the AT." For a full mile, the trail goes along the bottom of a big canyon, with steep cliffs on either side, and the bottom is filled with boulders ranging in size from tires to full tractor trailers. There's no real "trail" there, its more of a scramble over, around, and even under the boulders. Lots of scrambling up tilted rocks, jumping from rock edge to rock edge, climbing with hands instead of poles, sliding down rock faces, and even squeezing through holes under large slabs. Last year, a moose died in the notch, having broken his leg in a fall. Supposedly someone shot him before he slowly starved to death. My path took me next to his skeleton right at the beginning, which made for a "oh, what am I getting into?" moment. But I made it through, which is more than the moose can say. It took just about 3 hours to do the mile - a little slower than a more typical average of 2 miles per hour. Obviously its quite a challenge to do the notch with 40+ pounds on your back, but thru-hikers up the anty by challenging each other to NOT remove their packs at any point. Proud to say I kept mine on the whole time, despite having to go backwards through one really tight squeeze. Its only been a few days, but "wild" is exactly how I would describe Maine. The views from the peaks look out on a vast forest, disturbed only by logging roads. Its a rare treat to have such an amount of undeveloped land in the eastern US. Someone once described Alaska as Maine on steroids, but I would describe Maine as more like Alaska's grandfather. Old granite mountains only recently uncovered by ice, mature forests with huge birches and spruces, moss covering everything, and moose scat is everywhere (though I haven't seen one since NH). I am staying at a hostel tonight in Andover (mile 1,930ish), which has maybe nine other buildings - an old logging town with a definite frontier feel. The hostel is a great old wooden building with lots of different rooms upstairs, and when I asked the owner if it was always a hotel, he says he's looked at old pictures and there's always a few ladies in dresses hanging out on the upstairs porch. So yes, always a hotel of sorts. It rained most of the day today, which made for a muddy trail, and I earned a nice bruise on the knee after taking a spill. Nothing serious, but took a nice photo of blood running down my leg with the rainwater. The body is definitely feeling tired - the Whites and Maine are like a totally different trail than the rest of the AT. But nothing will stop me or any other hiker now with less than 300 miles (and perhaps only 3 weeks) left. Still a large stretch of tough going to get through, and then the famous 100-mile Wilderness at the end, but I'm coming for you Katahdin!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I'm tired just looking at the map...

Let's go back to the beginning, when we started with our ten feet of crazy map that gave its name to this blog. For some more perspective on just how far Shawn has come, take a look at this... and then read on to see what he's been up to lately!! His estimated end date (as of this morning, pre-rainy-day off in Gorham) is October 4th.


So, here we sit in Gorham. It is raining all day today and over breakfast Zen, Thinker and I made the executive decision to spend another night here in town. Later tonight and tomorrow will be clearing and we'll push hard this week to make up the miles. Rest is needed too. The rocky and steep trails of the Whites have beaten my body up. I've had no knee problems this whole trip until the Whites and my feet are meaty stumps at this point. It won't stop me, but it is kinda fun to watch them swell up overnight. The next bit of trail looks difficult too - someone asked a southbounder how the transition into Maine will go, and she replied "seamless."

It does feel great to be entering the final state of the AT. Autumn has already started in the boreal forest of the higher elevations - birches are turning yellow and dropping their leaves across the trail. Down the mountains a bit, in the mixed hardwood forest and some of the early maples are already turning red-orange. Of course way down in valleys like the one Gorham sits in, its still summery green. But the cold nights are giving us the signal that autumn is arriving even here, and pretty soon we'll be pushed out of the woods whether we are done the hike or not. Baxter State Park closes its trails to hikers on October 15th, but we should be done by the first week in October.

So, some chores and errands, but a mostly lazy day of sitting around and watching television. Its hiker Saturday!

Monday, September 08, 2008


Hello from Gorham, NH, mile 1880ish - under 300 miles are left. Most of these will be in Maine which I will enter in 2 or 3 days. For now, rest. Traversing the Whites was the toughest part of the AT and easily some of the toughest hiking I've ever done. The trails are steep and often require climbing sharply sloped rock faces, which can be slow-going - especially in rain. There are few flat areas, and climany ascents and descents along the ridges. Five major gaps, called notches here, mean huge drops and climbs of several thousand feet in short distances. We tended to average 1.5 miles per hour, about 10 miles per day. Here is a little more detail about the past week:

The weather started out iffy as we went over Moosilauke and the Kinsmans, which may be the toughest climb on the trail. We spent a night doing work-for-stay at the Lonesome Lake Hut and slept in their dining room. Then we spent a half-day and night resting in Lincoln, NH at a house whose owner invites hikers to stay. Chet is a former hiker who suffered massive burns in a cookstove accident and after a recovery that took years of surgeries and drugs (and millions of dollars), he now hosts hikers at his home. Very cool guy. My cousin Robert paid a visit and acted as trail angel for us thruers - thank you for the fun time and we'll get together for a hike at some point.

The weather cleared and was beautiful as we climbed Franconia Ridge, which peaks at the 5,200 ft Lafayette. The sun was great for warmth, but the wind was gusting up to 50mph along the exposed ridge. This was our first distance run above treeline and the views were outstanding. Lots of dayhikers were out on this Labor Day, and as tourist attractions, we got to answer many questions about our trips. The trail turns right onto Garfield Ridge, and after watering up, we spent the night on the lee side of Mt. Garfield's summit. Cowboy camped and watched the sunset and then the sunrise with an amazing array of stars between them.

The next two days continued the good weather and at the end of the second day we climbed onto the exposed Presidential Ridge. This is an alpine zone that is essentially tundra - you'd have to go a thousand miles north to find similar environments. We camped on Mt. Eisenhower, enjoying the sunset and the purple glow of Mt Washington, just 2 miles ahead of us. At this point the clear weather ended and clouds came in and dropped overnight, first covering Washington and the highest peaks and then lowering to our peak next. When we woke in the morning, we were in a dense fog and the wind had picked up to 25-30mph. No one wanted to leave their bags but they were getting soaked, as we had cowboyed sans tent here too. So, up and march through the clouds with 50ft visibility, looking for the manmade rockpiles called cairns ahead, since there are no trees to blaze and the path on bare rocks is easy to lose. Warmed at Lakes of the Clouds Hut and lunched at the cafeteria atop Mt Washington after the last grueling climb. On the way along the next ridge, the trail crosses the cog railway which takes tourists to the top. As per tradition, the shorts came down, and the full moon came early for some of the passengers.

The rest of the Presidential Range is exposed as well, making for over 12 miles above treeline that we covered that day. We spent the night at a very very crowded Madison Springs Hut and the next morning we decended back into the trees on a very windy and exposed ridgline that was above the clouds. Rested at M&M's house and then tackled another 3 days of big peaks, rain, and cold evenings.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Hi everyone - The Thinker, Zen, and I are resting here in North Conway, New Hampshire at the vacation home of a former thru-hiker named M&M. I met M&M and her boyfriend Pootz in Georgia on March 31, my very first day, while going up the approach trail to Springer Mountain. They had thru-hiked the AT last year (in fact they met on the trail) and were back to do the approach trail and provide some trail magic. I spent most of the hike talking to them, asking them questions, and was the first to benefit from their trail magic - two beers to end my first day with! M&M had mentioned a place I could stay once I got to the Whites, but of course I had forgotten all about it until she emailed me last week. So, here we are enjoying delicious home-cooked beef stew, beers, and ice cream and watching movies. Trail magic is a fabulous gift and I can't wait to pass on my good fortune to next year's hikers.

So this afternoon is a perfect time-off from hiking the Whites. The Whites are tough. Easily the most challenging terrain of the AT thus far, possibly of the entire trail. But the most rewarding too. We just spent 5 days going over Franconia Ridge and the Presidential Range, doing about 10-13 miles per day - the lowest mileage since the beginning. We were fortunate to have some incredible weather for most of those five days - the weather was so benign that we actually spent nights on Garfield and Eisenhower peaks, above treeline. I should warn any kids out there that it is not only technically illegal to camp above treeline, but its very dangerous given the changeable weather the Whites are famous for. Best to leave it to the professionals like us. I can't describe the incredible sunset and sunrise from Garfield but I can say that we received some comeuppance while on Eisenhower - the night started warm and clear with a fantastic view of Mount Washington, but we woke up deep in a cloud with 30mph winds. The mountains were clearly angry about our presence at night, because the bad weather continued all day, socking us in for our climb up Mount Washington (which is really rather typical - its cloudy there 80% of the time.) The weather broke this last night and this morning's climb over Madison had some stunning views once again.

The AMC, which runs the huts and campsites and maintains the trails in the Whites, does an excellent job with everything. Its amazing the Whites aren't a national park, given their beauty and history and natural importance. But the non-profit AMC and the Forest Service run the area as effectively as the National Park Service, and so it provides an interesting alternative in the world of recreation management. My only complaint is that the Appalachian Trail, admitedly a newcomer to the AMC and other entities in the Whites, is clearly of secondary importance. The trail is barely blazed and uses existing trails (and keeps their names), and there are few free campsites or shelters for thruhikers, who are unused to paying for nights in the woods. A few more facilities for us would've been helpful. We've stayed at two AMC huts - Lonesome Lake and Madison Springs - doing work-for-stay at both, which requires minor duties in return for sleeping on the floor. Both huts were very relaxed, albeit crowded, places. The "croos" who operate the huts and carry up supplies via trails are amazing to watch - they really are great teams and reminded me of the crews I've seen work on tall ships.

So, we will enjoy a rest here today and get back on-trail tomorrow morning to complete the Whites. Just a few more days left in New Hampshire and then the wilderness of Maine!

How much is left?

We have a map on the wall here at the office that I've been marking each time I talk to Shawn, or get an update on his location. From the picture here you can see the green thumbtack I marked on Monday, after I talked to Shawn over the weekend- they are almost through the White Mountains, and you can see very clearly how little of the trail he has left. Its only about 300 miles from where he is now, to the end.

Today's update: They are near Pinkham's Notch (a bit north of the green thumbtack), and got to spend two of the last 5 nights on top of mountains! A trail friend he met at the very beginning of his journey has offered he and his buddies a place to stay (and shower) tonight, and then its maybe 2 more days or less into Gorham, NH. And, he’s still right on schedule!!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Trail Update

Hello from Philadelphia - From what I hear, things are going well on the trail. The weather has improved, and with it, so are spirits. Shawn is somewhere between Lincoln and Gorham, NH, which leaves him with only about 4 weeks left. I spoke with him this weekend; he had the opportunity to have dinner with his cousin Rob on Saturday night, and they had a great time.

A BIG thanks to everyone for the continued letters and treats … as Shawn has been receiving them, he mails them home to me for safe keeping (the letters, not the treats unfortunately), and its been wonderful to read all the words of encouragement he's been receiving. So thanks, from the trail manager, for your help in keeping him on track!

These days Keychain is very close to his original schedule... putting him at the end of the trail on Mt. Katahdin on or near the 4th of October. So, if you're thinking of sending a last package or card to his mail drop in Monson, Maine, I'd make sure it was there by the 21st or so of September.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Hi all from the hamlet of Glencliff, mile 1,778. Less than 400 miles left! How small is Glencliff? There's four houses and one of them is the post office. I've received the last of my winter gear here and boy is my pack heavy. No more lightweight backpacking! In order to fit everything in, I've got to get rid of the accumulations of summer, so no more patchouli oil or town clothes. Zen and Thinker and I have had great weather since our 3-day stay in Hanover. We've been able to camp on top of mountains both nights out, with amazing skies overhead. Few things in this world beat watching the sunset on one side of your tent, seeing the Milky Way and an amazing amount of stars during the night and then viewing the sunrise from the other side of the tent. On one peak, we could see from Stratton Mtn back in Vermont to Mt. Lafayette ahead in New Hampshire - almost 185 miles of the trail! Tonight we are staying in Glencliff - one of the houses here lets hikers camp in the lawn and shower and gives rides to town. Tomorrow, we will climb Mt. Moosilauke, the first of the Whites and at 3,600ft, its the biggest climb of the trail so far. Immediately following the peak is one of the steepest downhills on the trail to Kinsman Notch, and then right up again. This is the pattern of the Whites - tall peaks and deep notches between ridglines. Within a few days I should pass by Lonesome Lake Hut, one of the first of AMC's huts and the one my cousin Amy worked at for a summer once upon a time. Health is good, though everyone has beat up bodies. My feet, particularly my right, is hurting. After 3 days off in Hanover, it was angrier than it was hiking day after day. It will last though and I'm not concerned about it. My spirits are doing fine too after the low point in Vermont. The weather is a big part of that and it looks good for the week ahead. Passing the 400 mi mark also helps get it in my head that the end is near. Thanks for all your well-wishes and all the other cheer and comfort that family and friends have provided. It means a lot to me to know everyone is watching, hoping for me to complete this thing. Slowly but surely, I'm getting there! P.S. Saw my first moose on the drive to the store tonight - a young male, huge, wandering around in the road. Hopefully I get to see one on foot...

Sunday, August 24, 2008


I've made it to Hanover, just across the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. What a pretty town too, with lots of restaurants and outdoor seating and Dartmouth's beautiful campus right in the center. Its no wonder there's 50 or more hikers here right now, taking time off, resting up, collecting themselves before heading into the toughest sections of the trail. Collecting winter gear too. Almost everyone receives some additional gear in Hanover or nearby. And the new weight can be frustrating to bodies grown used to the low-weight summer packs. I've doubled the amount of clothes, and with the full food bag, I may very well be back up to 42lbs. And I haven't added my winter sleeping bag yet either. Yay! I am taking at least one full zero here for rest, fun, and to see my Grandpa and Aunt Sharon who graciously drove 2 hours just to take me out to lunch. And just like the other times I've met up with family and friends, I was reminded of how freakish my facial hair has become. I really am sporting one of the more impressively large beards out here! I am here with The Thinker and Zen, who are lounging at a cabin in Vermont right now before I join them this afternoon. We are probably leaving tomorrow at some point - don't want to stay too long and get too stuck in the town vortex, as some hikers find themselves. But we also want to let most of this group get out in front of us - it will be no fun to fight for spaces in the huts of the Whites later this week. Hopefully we can also slow down enough to let Labor Day crowds have their time on the big peaks before we come through. The White Mountains aren't a National Park, but they get more visitors than almost every true National Park. The Appalachian Mountain Club, an organization that's been around far longer than the AT has maintained trails and campsites in the White Mountains for over a century. They are probably most famous for running the series of "huts" in the high peaks - eight or so lodges that offer bunk accomodations and meals for guests. The only problem with thru-hikers is the price, which are somewhere around $90/night - way too high for a thruer's budget. So, most either skip the huts (hard to do in some sections) or try and do work-for-stay at them. AMC also charges for backcountry camping spots and shelters in some locations, another bone of contention with thruers who generally stay for free where ever we can. All the charges and rules and such are aimed at protecting the natural resources, but have the effect of "gentrifying" the trail as it goes through the Whites. The southbounders I've met said we will definitely feel like second class citizens. So, should be an interesting experience. The weather report looks great, and hopefully remains that way!

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Hello from the village of South Pomfret, VT - mile 1700ish. Zen and I stopped in to see about snacks at the local store here and found a cute library with dial up. The weather thankfully has turned and today was our best yet - 82 degrees and completely blue skies. But I got to tell you for a while there it has not been pretty. Temps in the 60s and rain for 12 out of 14 days at one point. Tons of mud on the trail, and unhappy stories from southbounders who have experienced New England's wettest summer on record. Vermont has ended a number of thruhikes this year - in fact my buddy Vachon has decided to go home after feeling like he's got what he wanted from the trail experience. A number of others skipped good portions of the muddy trail and waited out the bad weather in towns. I know my own low point came in the last few days, when a huge series of thunderstorms re-wetted the mud that had dried up a bit and I caught some odd cold that has given me a fever and chills. Plus I miss home, miss Elizabeth, miss Camille and all the normal things. Yesterday, I began planning how I could get a train to Philadelphia from Hanover. But it's amazing what good weather and improving health will do for spirits. The last week or so hasn't been all bad either - some fun sites and experiences despite the weather. My first reaction to the mud was to push hard. I did a 22 mile day, my largest since Maryland, and my third largest ever. It was all to get to Stratton Mountain, which I did, and slept in a firetower that night under one of the few clear nights we've had. Pretty cool experience. Climbing Killington, the highest peak on the AT in Vermont was a huge operation, but had an amazing 360-degree view as a reward, with the Adirondacks to the west and Whites to the northeast. We pushed hard to get off the mountain as the temps were falling (it was 43 degrees in the valley that night - would've been in the 30s up top) and ended up staying at the wonderful Inn at Long Trail. Great pub there and a swell hiker discount for rooms that included a yummy breakfast. We have now left the Long Trail and are headed east to Hanover, New Hampshire. Cutting across the ridges means more pointless-ups-and-downs (PUDs), but brings us closer to the farms and towns of the real Vermont. Today included a stop at a farm stand for a delicious pie and ice cream, and now this village. But the days are growing shorter, and everyone like myself who was once carefree and wanted to take the trail slowly is now switching gears and getting ready for the final few states. Hope all is well with everyone. Thanks for all the well wishes -- its nice to know you guys are watching closely. Makes me feel much better, or at least like I'm not doing this alone.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

75% done with the AT!

Another quick update from the trail - Keychain, Zen, and the Thinker spent last night just past Killington, VT, and will hike on today. The best news is that they passed the 75% mark the other day, followed shortly by the 500 miles to go mark. Shawn plans to be in Hanover, NH, this weekend... and once they cross into New Hampshire, its only two states to go!!!

Friday, August 15, 2008

More mud...

Keychain has reached Manchester Center, Vermont! I just had a very brief chat with him, and he's currently trying to find his way around town around to see if he can get to a library to blog. In the meantime, I'll update you with this tidbit: in the last 11 days, its rained for 9 of them. I get the feeling that morale on the trail is a little low.... I think I speak for all our faithful readers (hi families!) when I say, "Go Keychain!" "You can do it!!" and, of course, "Mud, shmud."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Hi all from an unplanned stop in Bennington, Vermont. 11 states down, only three left - of course these are three of the hardest states. Vermont isn't normally regarded as an ultra tough state, but this year it is. One word: MUD.

It rained every day I was in Massachusetts, but the trail there is newer and better made, so only small mud puddles exist. However, as soon as you cross the border into Vermont, the AT joins the Long Trail - the world's first long-distance hiking trail. The Long Trail runs from the Massachusetts line to Canada's border, and is a decade or so older than the AT. The AT shares 97 miles of it through southern Vermont before turning east to New Hampshire. As an older trail, the Long Trail doesn't have modern techniques to drain water from the trail and often times the trail itself becomes the drainage path for heavy rains. The trail is now a giant string of mud puddles in flat areas, and you walk through cascades of water on the inclines.

And rain there is. I saw on TV that Vermont usually gets 1.3 inches of rain in the first half of August, but has received 5.8 inches so far. Funny, I've heard there's a drought now affecting Virginia.

The hiking takes on a totally different aspect in these conditions, and the 17 miles I did yesterday were spent doing a continuous rock-hop and slog through ankle-deep mud and water. Its truly exhausting, and more than a little treacherous. At one point, the trail walks across a boardwalk on the side of a marsh, but the water is so high, the boardwalk was submerged under 8 inches of water. I took my boots off and did that part barefoot, but any effort to keep dry was truly pointless. Within a half-mile of starting, my boots and socks were soaked and by the end of the day, my feet were shriveled prunes. And you can imagine the smell this might produce.

None of us expected these conditions and all of a sudden, the normally skip-able town of Bennington has become filled with northbounders who are a bit shocked. Thankfully, this is one of the few towns in New England with reasonably-priced motels, and a group of friends and I split a room last night. Today was thankfully sunny and there were tents and bags and clothes and socks and boots drying all over the lawn of the motel today. Hopefully the trail has dried out a bit today - no one is in a big hurry to get back out there.

Its funny. For the last few weeks, most of us have noticed that the southbounders we come across are pretty dour people - very serious and quiet and not very joyful and social like the NOBOs tend to be. We just figured the SOBOs are a more independent type, but now we understand why - they've been walking in this rain and mud for 600 miles. One guy told me that in Maine they walked through knee-deep muck for four miles at one point, with no possible way around.

Already, a few NOBOs have called it quits. I know I've had thoughts of doing the same if the weather keeps up like this. For four months, I've been really looking forward to Vermont and northern New England, but this is not how I wished to see this part of the trail. But its a challenge to rise to, and I keep hope that conditions will improve soon.

Come on sunshine!

Mud, Mud, and More Mud

Word from the trail is that Vermont (where Shawn is now) has experienced almost double its usual rain fall in the past month ... which apparently is making for some muddy hiking, wet shoes, and pruney feet! The hikers (Keychain, Thinker, Brama, and some others) made it to Bennington, VT, last night. It was an unplanned stop for Shawn, but he decided to stay over last night as a treat after a few days of walking in the at-times calf deep mud and water. I say good call! They're heading out today, and on towards Manchester Center, VT.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Hi all. The drive due north continues as I am now in the former mill town of Dalton, MA - mile 1560ish. (Don't have my guidebook on me right now). I am staying at the house of a gentleman named Tom Levardi here in town. His house sits right on the trail as it passes through Dalton and for more than 30 years, he has been kind enough to let hikers tent in his yard and sleep in his basement, take showers, and use bicycles to get around town. Trail magic!

I entered Massachusetts five days ago, and the trail has become increasingly mountainous as we go through the Berkshires, with muddy and rooty pathways typical of northern New England. In many respects, its been a nice change from the low elevations of the mid-Atlantic, and our legs are being reminded what real mountains feel like. We are also slowly getting away from the gentrified area of western Connecticut, with its cute but expensive towns. Places like Salisbury didn't have a grocery or a pharmacy, they had an epicure and an apothocary. Though I admit it was kinda fun to walk around with my giant beard and suntanned skin, filling my water bottle from a public fountain while Wall Street wives drive by in porsches.

But the biggest change is the weather - no more heat and humidity, and the highs have dropped into the low 70s, upper 60s. I'm sure we'll experience hot weather again before the summer really says goodbye, but its a welcome change. Still, the skin is not used to the cooler weather, and without any body fat to insulate me, it can be pretty chilly at times. In fact, everyone is now wondering just how cold it may get in northern Maine in late September.

The other big change is the mosquitos, the latest pest to accompany us. They were hinted at in Connecticut, but are in full force here in Massachusetts, with its many bogs and marshes. You can read my arms in Braille. We try to get a fire going each night to smoke them away, but sometimes the wood is too wet and you have to cook dinner inside the tent.

There's been several highlights from the past week or so: Before leaving Connecticut, I had the best burger of my life at Toymaker's Cafe in Falls Village, and spent the night stealth camping on a high meadow with a view straight from a Hudson River School painting. Climbed out of Connecticut on Bear Mountain, the state's highest peak, and camped that night in Massachusetts in gorgeous Sages Ravine, a deep cleft with a beautiful creek and lots of swimming holes. Up and over Everett Mountain the next day, with views of the Catskills to the west and Mt. Greylock far to the north. After that, the trail crossed a marshy low-lying area where mosquitos attacked with no mercy. I slept in a greenhouse at the Corn Crib farmstand near Great Barrington, where another trail angel allows us hikers to stay for free. Further on across more mountains, we stayed at a pre-war cabin on Upper Goose Pond, given to the Park Service by its owners and operated by the AMC and ATC free for hikers. It reminded me very much of the my grandparents' camp on Pleasant Lake in New Hampshire, and was even painted in the same dull red color. A storm came over that night, and there's nothing like a fire in a big stone fireplace while it pours rain outside. Yesterday, we stopped by a great pick-your-own blueberry farm and grabbed two 20oz bottles' worth of delicious blueberries.

One other interesting thing: Connecticut and Massachusetts is where we encounter lots of the southbound thru-hikers. Most of these hikers started at Katahdin between mid-June and mid-July - late enough to avoid the worst of the muddy thaw and black flies in Maine. Its a hard way to start though, and there are far fewer SOBOs, as they're called, than us NOBOs, which makes for a more independent and possibly lonely thru-hike. They start off in the hardest area of the trail, and the success rate amongst them is lower than ours - some say only 10% of SOBOs will complete the whole AT. Those who make it will probably reach Springer Mountain, Georgia in early December.

Physically, everything feels fine now that the weather has calmed down. My leg rash has healed, with the help of a diaper rash cream. The legs muscles are gearing up once again, and the tougher hikes have sparked my appetite. The feet are tired though, and I'm taking a "near-o" here in town to rest them, having done only 3 miles into town this morning. I haven't had a full zero-miles day since Duncannon, PA, and I'm feeling it.

Sensing the end of the trail is somewhere now on the horizon, many of the hikers are pushing hard for to get north and finish. For my last month and half on the AT, I've decided to slow my pace down and really soak in as much of the trail as possible. Its caused me to loose track of some of my faster hiker buddies, especially those from New Hampshire and Maine who are gunning for home. But I know tons of people behind me as well, and meet new people almost every day - its always amazing to finally meet someone who started 2 days after you. Plus, there is a large crowd of thru-ers ahead of me right now, heading for the Long Trail Festival in Vermont. While it was fun in the begginning, I'm not into the crowds anymore. Besides, for practical reasons, its not a good idea to go through the Whites in large numbers since places to stay are few and far between - so its a good idea to start spacing out now.

And by slowing down, I get to have some really interesting conversations. I've spent most of the last week with an guy named Vashon, who is a dairy farmer from the Shenandoah Valley - his trail name is French for "tender of cows". He tells me all about organic farming practices and the need to "buy local" while I tell him about best practices in urban planning. We've been doing a moderate pace of about 14 miles a day, but this will probably slow as we go over Massachusett's highest peak (Mt. Greylock) and into Vermont's bigger mountains. I'm looking forward to Vermont in particular, as it's supposed to be one of the most beautiful sections of the trail, with great towns to rest in.

The library is full this Saturday, so I must move on. I will try to write more in a few days, since we pass through a few more towns before leaving Massachusetts....

Friday, August 08, 2008

Guest Blog!!

Our guest blogger today is Kim, Shawn’s sister. She (along with her husband Daryl and sons Gavin and Carson) hosted Keychain, Zen, and Donnie, as well as the whole Keychain family, when the hikers came through the Delaware Water Gap in July! (p.s. if the photos look blurry on your screen, click on them, and you can see them in a little higher resolution!)

Hi everyone! … I'll share with you all that we had a great time when Shawn passed through our area on his journey hiking the Appalachian Trail...he looks great and seems strong and healthy (in body and mind). We met him in the Delaware Water Gap on Thursday around noon...actually spotted him and a bunch of other thru-hikers sitting outside a local bakery...what a reunion! Gavin and Carson had made some poster board signs for him saying 'Welcome Uncle Shawn'...let me just say before going any further, that the anticipation of waiting for Shawn to reach the DWG had been mounting for months, so for Gavin especially he was so excited the whole time Shawn visited...and it took Carson a good couple of hours before he felt confident that the guy with the beard (and body odor) was really his Uncle Shawn...

Anyway, we took him and two other thru-hikers (trail names, Donnie and Zen) back to the house for food and shower and we washed their clothes twice over...sat and had some beers (well some people had beer) and talked and talked about the trail...Shawn and the others shared so much interesting stuff about their experience and on a personal note I'm a little envious...just a was great just to sit and listen...we had an awesome dinner that night, steak, chicken and fish (caught by Daryl) along with salad, pasta salad and fruit and ohhh ice cream and pie and brownies for desert...the hikers did not leave a mom said, it was like feeding growing teenage boys...after dinner we went for a quad ride where Daryl hooked up the trailer to the back of the quad and we had five kids and six adults on the you can see from one of the pictures Daryl let Dad drive the first part of the trip, it was a little bumpy going and coming back home was even more bumpy...we came home in the was awesome to just let go and have a great time with everyone...Daryl and the boys and I camped out that night (all four of us in the tent was a first time experience)...poor Carson didn't make it to the tent before he fell asleep on the dining room floor......

The next morning we all found food and the got ready to go swimming down at the Kittatiny visitors center on the NJ side of the DWG...we packed lunches, took a blow-up tube and had an awesome time...although we did hike from the PA side to the NJ side, therefore we had to cross over the river using the Rt 80 bridge...ummm...a little long, a little scary and it was extremely hot and humid...but it's all part of the trail experience! The river felt so good though....

So, then after sometime, we said good-bye to Shawn, Zen and they left for Sunfish Pond up the NJ side, where they were planning on camping that night...and we hiked back over and went home (they boys fell asleep before my car even left the DWG). It was such a great feeling to be able to host Shawn and his friends and our family...and then to be able to accommodate sleeping arrangements for seven people inside our home was awesome, something Daryl and I had never done before....During that week before Shawn came on Thursday I had prayed...and my prayer was kinda simple just asking God to bless the time that we had with our family and with Shawn (knowing it was going to be short) and to make it something that would leave a great memory for everyone...of course then I prayed for the safety of the hikers and Shawn as I'm still doing today...enjoy the pictures...