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…