Monthly Archives: July 2013

False Summits

A Hard Day's Night
We climbed and climbed, seeming never to reach the top. The previous night having slept near the summit of White Cap, we knew we had a day of significant ups and downs, but weren’t really prepared for the straight scramble up Chairback mountain. We moved slowly shrouded in clouds, the dew was heavy laden on the trees keeping the rocks and roots pervading the trail wet and dangerous – it never really rained, but the humidity was high enough to keep us soaked all day. We were certainly glad when, after a 12 hour/15 mile day we climbed our last 250 feet (straight up, of course) and were welcomed by a fire outside the lean to set by some lovely Canadian section hikers.

The Economics of the Appalachian Trail: Part 1

Happy Tom & Ms. Sara

Tom was a systems engineer escaping preparations for his daughter’s wedding with a 6 day section hike in the 100 Mile Wilderness.

We started early discussing why we decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. Even before we left Seattle people began asking us; why hike? why the AT? and why now?

Our initial reasons centered around what we considered an ‘authentic’ American experience – one that exists outside the commercial superculture defined in America by consumerism, overconsumption, mediated isolation, overwork, and the crumbs offered us by late Capitalism.

One of the truly great things about the Appalachian Trail is the inclusiveness of the experience. Basically anyone can participate – young and old, rich and poor, working class or bourgeois. And after even 10 days in a wilderness the grime and sweat make it difficult to discern someone’s income, age or regionality. Furthermore, the quality of experience is not dictated by age, class or expensive equipment – Grandma Gatewood┬áhiked the trail three times starting in 1957 with an army blanket, homemade shoulder bag and a pair of Keds.

Gatewood was a farmer’s wife from Ohio, not an expedition leader, and certainly not part of a ‘cultural elite’ to whom America now offers it’s most rarefied experiences. Nor was she a freakish reality show TV contestant – a Hollywood manufactured caricature of herself, a human desiccated by the pursuit of fame and fortune at the expense of dignity. Rather, Gatewood represents a genuine American narrative – someone who wanted to see the country around her, to meet people and explore the world, to see the small towns that define true American culture, and be immersed in a transcendental experience (even without defining it as such). Her story is our story – an American story.

We’ve already seen many types of people on the trail – recent graduates, retirees, veterans, lovers, idealists, cynics, Americans and foreigners. The diversity is surprising and in some ways stunning. From the German with the newest camera and fancy ultralight backpack, to a fresh smelling and well groomed older Southern gentleman wearing a twisted bandanna and an external frame pack, all are bound by their willingness to participate in a singular experience.

We all have our own questions and problems, and our own reasons for undertaking this arduous journey. Yet something beyond the material binds us and provides the substance of the experience. Every spectacular view has already been photographed, and words have already been written describing the difficulty and scenic beauty of this particular experience – the value of the experience is not the product, which in some ways defies commodification.

The Appalachian Trail appealed to us as a genuine experience – a chance to experience a sincere Americana unadulterated by advertising culture and as individual as the people who hike it.

Biblical Plagues and an Angel Named Michael

We are just about to leave the delightful town of Monson and get back on the trail. Our last leg rendered us nine days out without phone service, wireless, texts, meetings, netflix and email chains. Although it has felt surprisingly lonely and/or isolating being without these threads to our friends and family and community/work lives, it also has been pretty liberating.
I’ve listened to my thoughts a lot.
They often weave toward gratitude for these things I am missing and a desire to share them.

On balance, our journey through the 100 mile wilderness felt rigorous, exhausting, inspiring, fun. The second day was by far the worst. The day after our Katahdin summit, it was also the day we entered the “Wilderness”. First thing in the morning we took an accidental “blue blazed” side trail for an extra two miles – and realized it, but were like “oh well it meets up with the AT soon” and then when it did meet up with the AT, we took a left instead of a right, and after another mile we ended up back where we had started that day. Literally back at the campground we had slept the night before. *EXPLETIVE* That mistake added 3 miles to our 13.5 mile day. 16.5 miles was more rigorous than we had hoped for the beginning of the journey.
We stupidly blew off food all day – we were too anxious to get where we wanted to be that night. At the last store before the 100 mile wilderness we had 2 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon for dinner. PRIORITIES. We entered the 100 mile wilderness at 5pm and were IMMEDIATELY SWARMED by mosquitoes – not unlike a Biblical plague. There were 30-40 landing all over our necks and faces and hands and ankles. We had put on 70% DEET to virtually no effect, so had to put on windbreakers, long wind pants, silicon mittens and head nets in the 85 degree heat and hike the final 3.5 miles to our campground.
When we arrived at Hurd Brook Lean-to we were, as they say, unhappy. We set up and finally made dinner. Every time we raised the head nets to eat we were swarmed and getting bites on our faces. We also noticed some toilet paper strewn around our site, the last one available since we rolled in so late. We christened it the Poo Site. We finally attempted to hang the bear bag which weighed too much with 10 days of food, and the branch broke on Nko’s head.
It was a laugh or cry situation, so I cried.
We went to sleep around 9pm and honestly the next days were so much better. We now believe this was our biblical test.

We’ve seen some lovely views and SO MANY TREES… unbelievable numbers of trees. And most of all have met really generous and kind people.
The two little small towns that cap the 100 mile wilderness (Millinocket and Monson) are great – old historic buildings, charm, open and public spaces, small businesses, but the best part really is that the people are rad. So kind. They make eye contact with strangers, ask how things are and maintain that eye contact. Are unpretentious and open and warm to everyone.
When we finally were leaving the 100 mile wilderness, we hiked 10 miles before noon and were on Maine highway 15 trying to hitch a ride into town. About 20 cars passed us up, so we started walking. After about a mile in the blinding heat we stopped in the shade and put on sunscreen. We were bummed about the blazing heat and semi trucks blazing by.
I looked up the drive where we were stopped and there was a white van. The guy in the driver’s seat waved, then held a cold Budweiser out window. He offered us two beers and a ride into town. at that moment he was literally an angel… weirdly his name was Michael. Michael my guardian angel. Salt of the earth. He was so nice and chatty. A Vietnam vet who said he was hard of hearing because of riding his Harley the last 36 years (his longest term relationship he joked) and also his years with Nascar.
Monson holds 600 souls and a handful of buildings that must be around 150 years old. The town was founded in 1822 – and there’s zero new development. The hostel is in a huge old house and has a restaurant and bar, and is right on the lake with free kayaks to borrow and a warm lake to swim in. There’s a historical society across the street and sweet old church steeples framed by American flags running down the one main street.
Today we begin leg two of the hike – approximately six days to Stratton where we’ll quickly stop in to get a mail drop with new snacks!

Continuing to Begin Again, Again…

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The irony of climbing Katahdin for AT thru hikers is that you only get to count half the mileage and elevation towards your trail miles, as the summit functions as the northern terminus of the trail. We were happy to forget the 4267′ of climbing, though the descent was no walk in the park either.

Fortunately, our friend Rie made us some delicious savory granola snacks which buoyed our spirits for this arduous task.

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Out of the Wildeness

20130712-171859.jpgThe “Hundred Mile Wilderness” is one of the largest wilderness areas left in America, and doesn’t offer any services for hikers – not to mention no motorized traffic and absolutely no development beyond crude lean-to shelters. After packing in 10 days of food, we made it out in 7 with our spirits high and our feet relatively dry.

Including Katahdin (Maine’s dignified 5267′ slab of granite), we climbed 16500 feet and lost 17000 feet of elevation, summiting 12 peaks along the way.

Our journey began with an auspicious start – a beautiful 4th of July on Katahdin and good weather throughout the wilderness. Now in the lovely town of Monson, we’re looking forward to a day of rest and a few cold ones…