Monday, March 31, 2008
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Friday, March 28, 2008
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Monday, March 24, 2008
Roland Mueser, AT ’89, handed out surveys to his fellow thru-hikers that asked them hundreds of questions about their experience. He catalogued the answers to his queries in a wonderful book, “Long-Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail”. According to his findings, hikers cite three basic reasons for wanting to thru-hike the whole trail in varying degrees: Escape, Adventure, and Nature. Strangely, no one cited the fine cuisine. I suppose for me it’s mostly the first two of those reasons.
Simply put, I wanted a break from regular life to do something different. I’ve been doing the same thing – working at the same job, living in the same city, thinking about the same subject matter, and participating in the same hobbies and activities for over ten years now. Not that I don’t enjoy all this, but the sense of adventure isn’t there anymore, which is something I’ve always considered essential in life. Heck, if I ran the world (!), we’d all have summers off where we’d move to the beach, or take another job, or just do whatever we wanted – just to keep our brains healthy.
So, if that’s the desire, the catalyst is the timing. I’ve read that it takes three things to hike the trail: time, money, and ability. Young people have time and ability, but no money; retirees find themselves with money and time, but a lower ability; and us middle-agers (egads, am I middle-aged?) have money and ability, but often lack time. In this I am fortunate, having an understanding boss, accommodating partner, and patient cat, and being at a point where I don’t have any responsibilities to children yet.
But why do the Appalachian Trail? Couldn’t I buy a sports car? The trail idea came about after some other adventure ideas were tossed aside – although someday, I swear, I will fly to Mexico, buy a car, and driving around Latin America for a few months. I first discovered the AT as a kid from a National Geographic book about the trail at my grandparents’ house. I knew then, at age 8 or so, that I’d do this trail someday – or so I thought then. The Trail dream went away for quite a while, but resurfaced in 2000 when my friend Jeff and I started quasi-planning a thru-hike. It never got off the ground, but I got a pack and boots out of it. (Of course, now that I know what I’m doing, I’ve had to replace these expensive items with even more expensive items to save a few pounds.)
Plus, hiking is something I love doing, as anyone who’s traveled with me and been dragged down some random path can attest. Thanks to my parents, I day-hiked and car-camped as a kid, but it was during my time as a Forest Service volunteer in Alaska that I picked up the addiction of climbing on top a crest to see the view. Juneau is not a bad place to get to know hiking, either. My fellow volunteers and I hiked every week on our days off – Juneau has dozens of amazing and challenging trails to mountain tops, alongside glaciers, and through old-growth temperate rainforest. Plus, I was volunteering, and hiking is free.
And even better, I escape contemporary society for a bit. I’ll miss a good portion of the election insanity, I’ll leave reality TV behind, I won’t have to think about Ed Rendell trying to put casinos in my neighborhood, and I won’t have to wear a suit for 6 months. Considering this, any of you up for joining me?
Sunday, March 23, 2008
I’ve been reading books by some of the earlier hikers to get a sense of the Trail’s past and see how it has changed. I just finished “Walking with Spring,” which details the first-ever thru-hike of the Trail, done by Earl Shaffer in 1947. Amazing how fast he manages to do the distance, especially given the equipment he carries, including a backpack with no hipbelt. It’s also amazing how much the Trail and America have both changed. Strangers have no problem taking him in and feeding him. There’s still backwoods farmers living in Smokey Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks and the rangers there actually hike and maintain the park, instead of managing traffic and crowds as they do today. In the forests, American chestnut trees are everywhere, though they are in the process of succumbing to the blight that will make them virtually extinct today. Because of the War and a huge hurricane in the mid-40s, the Trail is so poorly maintained that Shaffer looses his way often, forcing him to bushwack and roadwalk large portions. Earl Shaffer was quite the hiker – he went back and did the Trail north to south in 1965, and then hiked it again for a third time in 1998 – at the age of 79!
The book I’m into now is Ed Garvey’s “Appalachian Trail, Adventure of a Lifetime.” Garvey thru-hiked in 1969 and wrote a book about the hike, his preparation, and detailed descriptions of the gear he used and food he ate. The first how-to for the Trail, it sparked a lot of interest in the Trail when it was published in 1971, and the number of thru-hikers started growing from a handful to hundreds in the 1980s. Garvey is great, a true hiker nerd. He’s got detailed directions on cooking mundane things like pasta, he picks up every piece of litter he finds (amazing how Americans had little problem littering back then), and he even pleads for hikers to wear nice button-up Boy Scout style hiking clothes to present a good image to the rest of the world. Of course, at the time the trail was still on a lot of private land where hiking privileges could be easily revoked, and the typical unshaven and smelly hiker might smack of “too much hippy” for the squares of the time. Garvey’s best moment comes when he makes camp and goes for water, but looses the path back to camp. Dark comes and he has to sleep on the ground and cover himself with leaves for warmth. After he makes it through the night, he finds his stuff, and gets off the trail for a well-deserved day off.
I also recently re-read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” which is the book I would most recommend for novice Trail interest. Bryson is a travel and general interest writer, well known for his humor and his book is very popular. If you look at the stats on the numbers of thru-hikers, they peaked in the three years after his book came out, which suggests some correlation to me. The book tells of how Bryson attempts the trail, but he becomes frustrated with the various challenges, from dealing with Park Service bureaucracy to dealing with the other characters out hiking. Eventually, he becomes bored in Virginia, tired of looking at the unending “green tunnel” that can become tedious without milestones. This apparently happens to a lot of hikers in Virginia, where you are hiking for 500 miles without feeling any progress being made – the phenomenon is known as the “Virginia Blues”. One more thing to worry about.
One of the things about the Appalachian Trail that makes it unique is that it’s OLD, at least in terms of recreational trails. Vermont’s Long Trail, which goes up the spine of the Green Mountain State, is older by a few years, and the White Mountains and Hudson Valley have trail networks that predate both, but the Appalachian Trail is still the granddaddy of long-distance hiking trails.
The idea for it came about in the early 1920s, when a government forester named Benton MacKaye proposed it as a connector between a series of wilderness and farm camps set up in the mountains to provide rest, vocational training, education, and escape for America’s city dwellers. It’s a classic project from the age of regional planning, along with America’s first highways and regional park systems and such. And the amazing part is that it went from idea to actuality in just 16 years, being completed in 1937. Even more amazingly, it was built almost all by volunteer labor, with help from the Civilian Conservation Corp. In fact, it’s still maintained by volunteer labor.
Friday, March 21, 2008
So, the first mail drop has been prepared and shipped out. If I want to ever see the potato flakes, ramen, and peanut butter/honey spread that Elizabeth prepared again, I will have to walk the 39 miles to Neels Gap, Georgia. Four breakfasts, four lunches, four dinners – all for under seven pounds.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Absurd is how I felt about the trail today, which happens now and then since it seems so far away from day-to-day life right now. I spent the last 2 days in Savannah for work, a town I've been visiting for several years for a few different city planning projects. Savannah is gorgeous. No matter how stressful the projects there get, its always a delight to visit that city. This trip had especially beautiful weather, and the azaleas were in full bloom, and big public meeting went really well, and left me feeling especially good about career and city life, etc.
So, this afternoon, I was looking out the window of the plane as I took off from my Atlanta connection and could see the mountains I'd be walking through three weeks from now. And it all felt ABSURD. Not crazy or impossible, just plain absurd.
However, I know that ole Philadelphia will have me back in reality within 24 hours, and reading Earl Shaffer's book about his thruhike - the first ever thruhike - in 1948 will get me back in Trail mood real quick. But then I still have to go to Savannah two more times before the trail....