Friday, January 29, 2016

Southbound on the Appalachian Trail 2015: Connecticut

Relish, Eclipse, and Taco enjoy some down time out of the woods in Salisbury Connecticut.
 Summer was in full swing when we reached the state of Connecticut in August of 2015. I was hiking around a few hikers at the time in particular Taco, Spoon, Footloose, Relish and Eclipse. We were only in the state of Connecticut for a few days, as the trail cuts through the south western portion of the state before entering New York.

 Days were warm, nights as well. One night was filled with strong thunderstorms and heavy rain. One of the stormiest nights I can remember from the AT. Warm sunny days meant swimming was a high priority. There were three excellent opportunities to swim. The first was an ice cold spring fed creek along the Massachusetts/Connecticut border. The second was along a fantastic, flat, four mile section along the Housatonic, also knicknamed the Housatoxic River. The third was a swift creek near an old fashioned covered bridge called Bull Bridge. All three were extremely refreshing. There is nothing like getting a good bath that really lifts the spirits when hiking.
Trail register outside the Trinity Church along road walk detour

Some much appreciated trail magic
There also was a three mile road walk detour as a bridge along the Housatonic River was being repaired. I also was on a Ben and Jerry's ice cream kick around this time. It seemed as though I could not get enough of the stuff. The entire road walk I dreamed of finding a store to buy ice cream. There were none to be found, instead, a couple guys set up some trail magic before we re-entered the woods. They had coolers filled with snacks, beer, and ice cold milk. I hadn't had a glass of milk in years it seemed, and it hit the spot.
Misty, warm, humid morning after a night of thunderstorms 

Taco, Spoon, and Footloose check out rapids from covered bridge

Great spot for an afternoon swim

All in all, Connecticut lasted about 4 days. Flying through states was a new experience for me on this trail. The dog days of summer were upon us, and unfortunately we were also hitting some of our driest sections of trail as well...

Monday, January 18, 2016

Southbound on the Appalachian Trail 2015: Massachusetts

Vermont/Massachusetts border
 I crossed the border from Vermont into Massachusetts on August 8, 2015. It was safe to say I was now in the green tunnel. There were still really nice daily views, but the spectacular, rugged scenery was now behind us. The challenge now was to enjoy the daily routine of backpacking through less strenuous terrain. For me it was not a very hard adjustment. I really enjoy the hiking lifestyle and it felt great to be able to hike and walk at a normal 2.5 mph pace, not the 1 to 1.5 mph pace the tougher mountains inflicted.
Memorial on top of Mt Greylock, highest peak in Massachusetts

Dinner at Upper Goose Pond Cabin
 After buying the travel guitar in Rutland Vermont, I said goodbye to Lux. He is a very fast hiker and was pretty sure I wouldn't see him again. As it turned out, we would cross paths one more time near Pennsylvania. In Massachusetts, I was hiking near two recent college grads named Footloose and Spoon, and a musician named Taco. We would hike and camp together from time to time, and I always enjoyed their company. Taco is a very good guitar player, and played banjo in a band in his hometown.

Shay's Rebellion Memorial
Highlights in the state included Mt. Greylock, Massachusetts's tallest mountain. The morning I hiked to the summit was just one of those perfect days that only come once in a while. Crystal clear skies, and a cool breeze, and great views from the top. I met Footloose and Spoon at the top and we bought coffee at the Visitor center there. I unrolled my ground pad and sat in the grass at the viewpoint and enjoyed perhaps the greatest twenty minute coffee break I've ever experienced.

Pond near Everett Peak. One of the few spots I cowboy camped along the trail. Also one of the last nights for the Perseid meteor shower.
 Another highlight included spending the night at a free hostel called Upper Goose Pond cabin. There was a spectacular rainbow over the pond there after heavy rains fell that afternoon. When I walked into the cabin after hiking in the rain, there was a nice fire roaring in the fireplace. Pete, the caretaker of the cabin, made everyone blueberry pancakes in the morning. That along with great hiker company made for a memorable stay. The simple joys!
The Massachusetts section of the AT was only about 91 miles. Summer was in full swing and life was good...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Southbound on the Appalachian Trail 2015: Vermont

Crossing the Connecticut River into Vermont
I didn't do a lot of research before hiking the Appalachian Trail last summer so when I crossed the Connecticut River from Dartmouth New Hampshire, I didn't realize I had crossed into Vermont. I must have missed the sign on the bridge as well. It was pouring down rain when I crossed so that may have been part of the reason. I found out later that night when I read the trail register in the shelter that evening.

Hiking southbound, the entry into Vermont is about as welcoming as it gets. Before entering the woods, hikers must walk down Elm Street. We had heard about this street several weeks before from other hikers. "It's like Christmas morning..." one north bounder remarked. The reason being, is that several of the residents on the street put out coolers of drinks and snacks for hikers, it seems as if each house tries to out do the other.
Trail magic on Elm Street
For me, The welcome into Vermont was sweet, but it was also wet. I had just met Lux for a beer in Dartmouth. Lux and I had started the AT on the same day, and we were leap frogging each other for the first 500 miles. He's a fiercely independent free spirit from New Jersey, and this was his first thru hike. After leaving the bar, the rain started pouring down. I brought an umbrella for the first time on this hike and it was quickly becoming my favorite piece of rain gear. On this warm July day however, I decided to put the umbrella away and allowed myself to get absolutely soaked while hiking to the first shelter in Vermont. It was probably the first time I ever did that. Since it was warm enough, it felt absolutely refreshing.
AT merges with the Long Trail
Vermont was also quite crowded on my hike. I had been seeing a slow trickle of northbound hikers every day since day 1. In Vermont however, this was where the northbound "herd" and I crossed paths. There were several days where I must have crossed paths with over a hundred northbound hikers a day. Also, the AT fuses with the Long Trail for a hundred miles or so. As a result, there were also dozens of long trail hikers thrown in the mix. Shelters were usually packed with hikers at the end of the day unsurprisingly.
Southbound hikers "Los Sobos Lobos" eat lunch in shelter

Speaking of the Long Trail, this was the first trail I have ever hiked back in 2001, and where my passion for long distance trails ignited. I felt a strong wave of nostalgia where the AT first merges with the Long Trail. Interestingly though, this was one of the few times I felt that feeling. I was kind of amazed and a little disturbed how little of the trail I recognized and could remember. There were a couple spots I did remember however. One was a small peaceful spot along the trail where someone called the "Trail gnome" leaves cold sodas in a cold stream. Back in 2001, this was the first time I had ever experienced "trail magic." Although the sodas were all empty when I crossed the spot this time on the AT, I was happy to know the trail gnome is still out there.
Trail Magic courtesy of the hiking gnome
The second such spot was the white rocks sculpture garden. I remember having a hard time with a personal issue back in 2001. I met an older Long Trail hiker named Coyote back then who told me to find a white rock, put my prayer into that rock, and leave it up there when I passed the sculpture garden. So passing the spot on the AT this year, I had to wonder if my rock was still up there.
White Rocks sculpture garden

Vermont was also the first state where I found a tiny deer tick embedded in my knee. I would eventually find three deer ticks embedded in my body at different spots along the trail. It was a miracle that I was able to spot them in the first place because they were practically microscopic. I was able to remove all three successfully, and I never felt any lyme symptoms. From what I hear, lyme disease is becoming a serious, serious issue on the trail these days, every hiker I talked to knew someone who came down with lyme during their hike. Lux would succumb to lyme disease in New Jersey, but he was able to get treatment right away. Unfortunately it put a dent in his bank account, but he was able to still rebound and finish his thru hike strong.

The state of Vermont ended before any of us knew it, as was the case with many of the New England States. For me personally, I still felt great. My hiking legs were strong. I bought a small travel guitar in Rutland which gave my hike a new flavor. Music was becoming a central theme. I was quick to discover how conducive the Appalachian Trail was to songwriting, to memorizing lyrics, and the joy of sharing the guitar with other musicians on the trail. Many nights around the fire were enhanced by someone playing a song they had learned somewhere in their past....

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Southbound on the Appalachian Trail 2015: New Hampshire

It's true, New Hampshire is pretty fantastic. After a week or so of grueling hiking in Southern Maine, I crossed the border into New Hampshire in July of 2015. Of course it's all a matter of opinion, but I thought southern Maine was the most difficult hiking on the AT. Once we entered the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the terrain was still very difficult, especially in the Presidential Range, but the trail seemed a bit more groomed.

I was still hiking around Mismatch, Skunkbite, and Lux. Skunkbite had hiked from Georgia to Vermont a few years ago and was finishing his AT by hiking from Maine to Vermont. As you can probably guess, he earned his trail name by getting bit by a rabid skunk while sleeping under his tarp during his first AT thru hike attempt a few years ago, requiring rabbis shots and hospital visits. While hiking in southern Maine, Skunkbite and I met a day hiker at one of the shelters who had a passion for the AT. During our conversation, the day hiker asked Skunkbite,

"What are you going to do after you finish the AT?"

Skunkbite replied with all seriousness, "I want to sail around the world."

I loved that answer.
Skunbite at shelter in Maine
While hiking with Skunkbite, my first week in New Hampshire, the day before we entered the White Mountains was marked by one particular incident. While hiking down one of the steep, granite bouldered mountains, I slipped on a rock. In my attempt to regain my footing, I twisted my knee in such a strange alarming way, ran down the rock about 10 feet out of control, and fell into a patch of small fir trees. I thought for sure my hike was over. After a minute, I stood up and realized that the pain was subsiding, but my knee felt really strange. I hiked on it the rest of the day until reaching the town of Gorham, by this time it was swelling up. I spent two days in the White Pines hostel by myself, icing my knee, and reading a stack of Appalachian Trail magazines called "Journeys." While reading the magazines I was filled with an appreciation of the trail I was on. There were several articles about hikers who had injured themselves on the trail and had to leave it and come back to it years later. I still wasn't sure whether my knee was going to hold up, since it was still swollen and tender while resting at the hostel. I realized I had been taking my hike for granted.
Resting in the town of Gorham
By the second day of rest, I was feeling anxious to get going and test out my knee. I was entering the Presidential Range, one of the toughest sections of trail. On the first day, my knee felt pretty good, I was grateful for every step, and I was hiking extremely cautious, especially on the down hill sections.
Before long, my knee felt just about back to normal, and just in time. The trail meandered over the Wildcat Ridge, 4,000 ft peaks. The weather was absolutely perfect, one of those clear crisp sunny days where you just feel happy to be alive. Mount Washington was in view, in fact in crystal clear view, although stormy weather was predicted to arrive the following day, the day I was to summit Washington.

Mt Washington
By this time, I was hiking solo again. Lux, Skunbite, and Mismatch were all nearby on their own independent schedules. The clear skies from the day before were replaced by howling winds and clouds the morning I was to hike over Mt. Washington, the 6,228 ft. monolith with the world's highest recorded wind speed at 231 mph. I was camped just below Madison Hut off a side trail just below tree line. My first attempt to hike up to Washington ended in a retreat back to camp as there was so much fog and wind I could only see from rock cairn to rock cairn. I was too scared that I might get lost which one does not want to do up there in bad weather. After resting under my tarp for a couple hours, I decided to just go for it, especially since weather was not supposed to improve for several days. It seemed like now or never.
A couple enjoys the view north towards the Wildcat ridge. I was on my way up to find camp near Madison Hut, 6 miles shy of Mt. Washington summit.
Once above tree line, the fog and wind returned and once again I was walking cairn to cairn. Thankfully, it was not raining, just sprinkling at times. When exposed, the wind was pretty fierce, and then when the trail led behind rock outcroppings, the wind would cease. After a couple miles, I started seeing other hikers, and my anxiety decreased. Before the summit of Washington, I was amazed how many people were braving the elements up there. Some people were incredibly under dressed, including one group of about 6 teenagers peak bagging in khakis and sweaters and turtlenecks. What they lacked in clothing they made up for in bravado.
Fog and wind hiking up Washington
Once Mt Washington's summit was reached, the circus atmosphere continued. There is a road that leads to the top, and there were people everywhere getting photos at the summit sign. After getting a photo I couldn't wait to go inside the visitor center and get some hot chocolate. It's hard to put into words the two opposite extremes of hiking to the summit in questionable circumstances and then all of a sudden entering a massive cafeteria jam packed with people. Suddenly I saw Mismatch and another hiker named Snow. Mismatch suggested getting some food and heading downstairs into the hiker room. It was a small concrete compound away from the huge crowds, a perfect spot to regroup. With pizza and hot chocolate, we were happy campers.
A line for summit photos on Mt. Washington

That evening, Mismatch, Snow, and I along with several other hikers were fortunate to secure a spot for a "work for stay" at the Lake of the Clouds Hut, a few miles south of Mt. Washington. The Hut system in the White Mountains serves backpackers who make reservations beforehand to stay there. Many backpackers will plan trips where they hike hut to hut, for a price, but also for a nice combination of mountain scenery combined with a little comfort and camaraderie at the end of the day. For thru hikers, the huts offer an opportunity to escape the elements for a short while, perhaps a chance to buy some coffee or cookies, and sometimes a chance to spend the night in exchange for a little work. While at Lake of the Clouds, we were asked to wash dishes after the hut cooking crew served dinner to the paying guests. Not only were we treated with a comfortable place to spend the night, but we were given dinner leftovers, as well as treated with one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen in my life.             
Sunset at Lake of the Clouds Hut
The Whites were definitely pretty spectacular, one of the highlights of the AT. It was also a turning point on the trail. Shortly after Washington, it was the first time I noticed my hiking legs had returned, I felt really strong. It was strange to receive congratulations from a couple of day hikers who had been AT veterans. They seemed to be implying that the difficult stuff was now behind us. We still had at least 1,700 miles to go. I was feeling some "Post White Mountain Blues" kicking in. I was not ready to leave the grandeur of the area. The Whites were the last place I would see Mismatch and Skunkbite. Mismatch went on a hiking tear from this point, hiking many 30 mile days. Skunkbite was somewhere behind and I can only assume he finished his trail in Vermont. Lux was one of the few familiar faces I would see in coming days...
Saying goodbye to the Whites from the top of one of my favorite mountains on the trail, Mt. Moosilauke. The trail visibly changed to gentler terrain south of this mountain.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Appalachian Trail 2015: Maine

6 months ago, I arrived in Baxter State Park on June 29, 2015. My dad drove me to Millonocket Maine from Maryland, and we had spent the night before in the Baxter State Park Inn. I felt strange, almost like a child. I was nervous and filled with the anxiety of beginning a long distance trail. Despite having been through this before,  I was worried about the unknown, and wasn't feeling very confident or talkative when interacting with the hotel staff that morning. I ate some cereal and drank some orange juice for breakfast. I chuckled knowing that there was going to come a morning very soon where I would be able to absolutely DESTROY a continental breakfast buffet such as this. Not this morning, I was eager to hit the trail. Before long, I said goodbye to my dad at the trail head after driving to Baxter State Park that morning. Waves of emotion flowed through me as I realized where I was standing. There is nothing like the feeling of beginning a thru hike. I had 2,160 miles before me, hopefully five to six months of freedom, and the realization of a dream. First I had to start walking.

No views on Katahdin on day 1 of my Southbound AT thru hike
When I think back on the state of Maine, I'm reminded just how tough the trail was there. It may have been the toughest hiking I have done anywhere. It is true that the trail literally seems to go straight up and straight down the mountain in places. The trail in Maine includes iconic spots and areas including the 5,270 ft. Mt Katahdin, the "100 mile wilderness," the "Mahoosuc Arm" (an insanely steep section of trail,) and the "Mahoosuc Notch" ( a mile long boulder field called the AT's toughest or most fun mile). Not only that, the weather was unpredictable, alternating between too cold and too hot, throw in mosquitoes and black flies, a trail covered in roots, rocks, and blow downs, mud, numerous streams and creeks to ford, and you are in for one heck of a challenge.
"Skunkbite" hiking through the Mahoosuc Notch
That being said, Maine was also insanely beautiful. I remember being struck with the skies of the east coast summer. We had many days of summer sun. The forest was a treat. I enjoyed looking at the hemlocks, firs, and cedars. Mossy woods, giant boulders, some of the most refreshing, glorious, ice cold spring water I have ever tasted, mud, bogs, fascinating plants, one moose sighting, frogs, snakes, squirrels.  There were ponds and rivers everywhere, perfect for swimming on a hot sunny day. There were enormous fern covered rocks. I remember listening to the fascinating howl of the loon, that I mistook for a coyote. The cool wind, bright sun, and clear skies with views all the way to New Hampshire. I also enjoyed the hiking camaraderie of new friends on the trail including Skunkbite, Mismatch, and Lux.
Dinner time at a shelter in Maine
Another unexpected treat was being able to see two of my CDT hiking friends David "Manparty" and Rachel "Lush" in Stratton Maine. They are currently hiking the Te Araroa in New Zealand, and their blog "Hobos in Love" can be found here. Rachel was a ridge runner near Stratton over the summer, and they were gracious enough to give me a roof over my head while hiking through the area. Rachel and David have both triple crowned and David has hiked the AT twice.
David Rachel and I near Stratton
One day in southern Maine I was hiking with Mismatch who loved to do big miles. At this point in the hike, I also enjoyed putting full days in, waking up at 5:00 or 5:30 (when the sun came up), and walking most of the day. It was still almost impossible to put a 20 mile day in, usually I called it quits around 17 to 18 miles, due to the difficulty of the terrain. Mismatch and I were just about to hike over a 4,000 ft. mountain called Avery peak in the Bigelow Range. We saw a northbound hiker just ahead of us with ear buds in his ears. As he passed, he casually commented "Welcome to the mountains boys..." I got a big laugh out of this statement, but it was absolutely spot on. Avery Peak was the beginning of tough, tough, hiking. When Mismatch and I reached the top of Avery Peak, we met a Continental Divide Trail legend named "Starman." I was thrilled to meet him in person because I used his alternate way points in my GPS on my CDT hike in 2013. He was finishing up a northbound thru hike of the AT. Mismatch and I were curious about the trail ahead. We asked StarMan what he thought. He said,

"I just want to stretch my legs! I feel like I haven't been able to hike and hit any kind of stride in the last three weeks!"

Starman continued with a far off look in his eyes that I never will forget,

"I'm ready to be done. I'm ready to go home..."

Mismatch and I on Avery peak
Our hike was just beginning, we still had just under 2,000 miles to go...

Monday, January 4, 2016

Northwest Branch

Northwest Branch
While in transition, I've been re-connecting with the woods where I grew up in Maryland. At the moment I'm just trying to get acquainted with the trees and plants I can see. Right now I am really only familiar with the sycamore, tulip poplar, and mountain laurel. There are several types of trees that I am completely unfamiliar with and will have to look up the species at some point. I had some redwood forest flashbacks just looking at a small fern garden on a rock today...

Saturday, January 2, 2016

John Kirk Townsend: Across the Rockies to the Columbia

National Gazette article on John Kirk Townsend. The newspaper was saved by my grandmother for some unrelated reason.
Happy New Year! A few days ago, my mom showed me an old newspaper she found preserved in a dresser that belonged to my grandmother. The newspaper is called the "National Gazette" and its dated November 22, 1837.  My mom pointed out a small article I might be interested in about a man who traveled across the country named John K Townsend. He had just returned after 4 years of exploration with Mr. Nutall, a "well known biologist," and Capt. Wythe. After a quick google search, I discovered that his book/trail journal is published online: "Across the Rockies to the Columbia by John Kirk Townsend."

It's a fascinating account of his journey, his observations and opinions on the land, the Indians, the wildlife, and a few of his own personal struggles. I'm only about half way through at the moment but it's very reminiscent of the Lewis and Clark story. It's amazing how much the land has changed in just a couple hundred years.

For those interested, here is an account of a few of my thoughts along the CDT in 2013, when the trail crossed Lemhi Pass, where Lewis and Clark reached the "source of the Missouri River..."