Category Archives: Appalachian Trail

Gear Shakedown: Darn Tough Socks

   
Ok so I actually LOVE Darn Tough wool socks, so the above might not be the best representative photo. Darn Tough are made in America, and are overall the best constructed wool socks currently on the market. I finished my AT thru hike in these, and they seem to be the socks of choice for thru hikers on the PCT as well. The photos detail how the Darn Toughs wear when, after an unexpected sock failure, I ended up with a single pair of socks for over 300 miles. They got a little thin on the balls of the feet, but otherwise great!

Wool sock on general are my everyday jam – I started rockin Smartwool in the late 90s (probably about when REI started carrying the brand) and haven’t really gone back to cotton ever. Sadly, I think Smartwool’s quality has slipped a bit over the years – I started my AT thru hike with a couple pairs and burned through both pairs within a hundred miles. I still use their thiny thin running sock, tho I don’t expect more than 50 miles without some repairs.

 I also tried out Icebreaker socks, which are better manufactured than Smartwool, but still don’t hold up to the rigors of the trail. That said, I do love the Icebreaker merino tank I’m hiking in this season… I used a customized Patagonia silk weight base layer for the AT. I’m interested in how they compare at 2200 miles.

And don’t get me started on REI store brand… I’ve been through more than a few pairs of them – the thinner socks’ elastic falls out almost immediately and the thicker socks are too thick to breath. Harpo and I do love the REI generic merino sock liners tho – she’s been sporting those on the PCT. the pair pictured below is one of three after 500 miles. Not bad for lightweight liners. They’re not intended for serious hiking, but are great inexpensive (and well made) all around socks. 
So yeah. Darn Tough. Love. And at the end of the day your feet don’t small like death when you take off your shoes, which is about the best you can ask for. Tho I’ma go straight Ray Jardine in Oregon and wear nylon thiny thin socks for better ventilation and quicker drying. I’m a little afraid you’ll be able to small my feet coming. We’ll see how it goes… 👍

Trail Snacks: PCT First 500 Miles

Store bought dehydrated split pea soup with spinach powder, soy sauce, nutritional yeast,tabasco,pepper and potato flakes. Topped with sprouts and Scoop crumbles…

Harpo and I are always tinkering with our food systems. As any hiker knows, a major topic of discussion is ALWAYS food – how heavy it is, do you have enough, when you get to eat again, food fantasies and of course TOWN FOOD.
Our approach for the first 500 miles of our PCT theu has been a hybrid of our AT food system (we still had a few homemade dehydrated meals so we used them to cut costs) and some experimentation.

We  included a stove (we’re using a canister stove due to extreme fire danger, rather than the alcohol stove we used on the AT) so we can utilize our dehydrated meals, which has also helped speed up rehydrating ramen, miso, and dehydrated beans. We have hot food once a day, usually during our afternoon break. Breakfasts are a bar and some homemade HARPOW – a powder mix made of 1/3 coconut milk, 1/3 vegan chocolate protein powder, and 1/3 ramon (a Central American foraged superfood – we picked up a bunch when we were in Guatemala for yoga teacher training – it tastes kinda mocha like). Dinner is trail mix. During the day we have dried fruit & trail mix and maybe a bar for snacks.

We were happy with our AT food system, and ate well for sure, but wanted more flexibility as the hike evolved. We dropping the stove with Harpo’s parents who are visiting us at Cascade Locks and are moving to cold hydration, which should suit the hot days ahead. We’ll keep eating ramen (with Edwards & Sons powders miso packets rather than the msg heavy and culturally insensitive ‘oriental flavor’ packets) and add in powdered hummus, beans, and soups. Also, we need to eat 2 jars of chocolate peanut butter in the first 2 days – these are our new ‘cook pots’ as our aluminum pot & cozy goes with the stove.

Overall we’re following our original plan for PCT meals, and we haven’t starved yet! 

i tried to get a shot of the full bag, but forgot and Harpo and I ate it. HIKER HUNGER IS SETTING IN…..🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕🍕


Also, Can I give a shout out to whoever engineered Fritos Scoops? They’re the perfect scooping solution for rehydrated beans and soup. Like any chip they crumble in the pack (the crumble topping reminds me of the vegan Frito pie my friend Pol fed the entire artist population of Pioneer Square when we worked at Elliot Bay Cafe)  but when they’re good, they’re great.

Tale from the Trail: Getting Found


2013 Appalachian Trail Thru Hike
Mid-October
Middle Virginia – Mile 1477

We reach McAfee Knob in late morning – I’ve been waiting for this photo op since I saw a hiker’s jubilant photo here on a postcard in Millonocket, Maine on Day 1 of our AT thru hike.

Groucho is grouchy, brooding and snacking, but consents to take the photo.

Even though the air is brisk, I take off my wind pants emulating the carefree look captured in so many NOBO summer photos. Feeling vain and proud I realize we made it. I can send my folks a picture of beautiful me in beautiful Virginia, my dad’s home state. I contemplate going off trail right then and there. This photo is proof of my accomplishment. What more do I have to do or to learn after 1477 miles?

We start down the mountain. Groucho always walks faster than me, but today I feel light and keep up. I stop to tie a shoe and look up. Groucho has disappeared around a corner. Darn. I’d tried to keep pace, willing my steps to bring us into harmony after a difficult and divided morning.

I step lively and reach a clearing where power lines cuts through the forest. Animal paths weave through the open meadow and I see an opening in the trees beyond where the wide path continues. I continue, lost in thought and bathed in a blaze of sunlight for a moment.

Groundscore! Back in the trees I find a pair of sunglasses. I put them on and jog down the path wanting to share my tiny joy with Groucho, who must be just around the bend. Feeling confidant and light on my feet I head down a gentle slope. I cross a gate blocking the path and look back at the sign on the gate “no motor vehicles” says the sign.

Odd.

My steps slow as I reach T in the path. I could go right or left but not straight and there are no white blazes to indicate which way to turn. Typically on the AT there are friendly 2” x 6” white vertical blazes spaced about a minute apart. Blazes fade or flake off trees occasionally, but are reapplied by volunteer crews. When a major or confusing turn is coming in the path, they paint two blazes askew but side by side. If the Righthand blaze is higher, turn right. When the left is higher turn left. Some parts of the trail, like just outside Dartmouth, the trail is almost over-blazed at the frantic collegiate overabundance of the DOC at marking every tree for the last 100 years. What I’m saying is, it’s hard to lose the trail…

My throat tightens. When was the last time I saw a blaze? How long have I been walking alone? Did I miss a turn? I felt like I was right behind Groucho, but was I?

Unease sets in as I realize with irony that there was a gap in our map set, and this is the blank space – my first time without a map in 1400 miles. The maps we’ve been cursing carrying because it’s so hard to lose the trail, even on a moonless night in deep forest. And this is the first time I have actually needed it.

I check my watch. 4:00pm, with sunset in about 2 hours… there’s time. I stop and breathe I plan to turn right at the intersection and walk for 5 minutes – if I don’t see a blaze I’ll backtrack and take the left turn for 5 minutes. If that doesn’t work, I will backtrack further… maybe I missed something at the power lines.

Then I see the craziest spider right on the path. Large and in charge – with a huge orange pumpkin butt. I stop to take a photo. If I die out here will they be impressed with my huge spider picture?

I walk for a couple more minutes and realize it’s been too long. Even night hiking in Vermont we saw blazes every 40 seconds or so. When hiking alone I rarely feel fear, but as I head down the fire road fear starts to creep like vines into my consciousness.

I turn back with a sinking heart, taking the other branch of the T for a few minutes, finding no blazes there either. I must have missed a turn, but where? If I go back to the power lines, will I see the AT this time? What if I sprain an ankle or see a bear? If I die out here, alone, would anyone find me?

Without my map, I don’t know where these old fire roads lead, or which direction I’m supposed to be going. And even if I find the right trail, how far ahead of me is Groucho? I check my watch again. About 4:30. I am, at minimum, half an hour behind him, and his phone only has service sporadically.

I try to text anyway “Thought I wasn’t getting enough miles in today, so decided to trail blaze on a forest road or something. Trying to find the AT now”. Fingers crossed he will get it. Fingers crossed that I am right and that going back was going to take me closer to Groucho and the AT.

Jogging back up the road I scour the trees for blazes or possible side trails, nothing, nothing, nothing, and more nothing. Nothing even looks familiar. Will this road even lead me back to McAfee’s Knob?

I sing songs. I sing loudly. I sing to erase fear so I won’t make stupid mistakes. I make up lyrics when I didn’t know them:

“Under Pressure, pushing down on me, pressing down on you, no man has fallen. It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching some good friends screaming ‘let me out’. Tomorrow you’ll get high high highhhhhhh. Turn away from it all like a blind man, get on the floor but it don’t work. People under pressure they get crushed and torn, Why? Why-ieeeeee …” In moments of desperation I turn to Bowie.

I turn a corner, seeing the powerlines. This must be the AT junction. I scour the rock structures and trees and there are no blazes and no alternate paths.

Am I going crazy?

I cross back across the power line and to the path I thought was the AT where I last saw Groucho. I start to panic, and things are starting to feel a little Labyrinth for me. Flushed and heart pounding, I wonder about who has the tent? How do I get in touch with Groucho? Should I hike all the way back to the Knob? All these thoughts churning, sucking me further into a vortex of despair….

I look up, and suddenly I see a northbound blaze.

Relief. I spin to see where the southbound blaze is… and finally I see it, leading to a tiny bit of trail leading off the forest road.

Curses. This IS marked, but I feel like there should be a freaking beacon or something. I TOTALLY missed the blaze before and I can see why; 30 meters away the power lines cut a bright, sunlit swath through the dense forest. It’s as alluring as Odysseus’ sirens – the sunshine and signs of civilization had called me off course.

I turned onto the proper and super well blazed AT southbound and quicken my pace. How far ahead is Groucho by now – an hour or more? Will I have to run to catch up to him by dark? Does he even know I am missing?

10 minutes later I find Groucho rolling a joint, sitting on a rock. Having noticed my absence he stopped, and sat. Knowing he was on the AT (as evidenced by a nearby blaze) he decided to wait for me.

I feel so relieved at being found. And, despite moments of panic, having kept my cool. All of the worry and fear of the last hour begin to melt away. I feel foolish, but also jubilant. I found myself!

Groucho walked for a bit, stopped for water, and waited for me to catch up. He almost immediately realized something was wrong because he had only just seen me ten minutes before. He decided to stay put, but after about an hour of smoking joints he was feeling a little anxious and about to come looking for me.

I feel great – with the weight of uncertainty vanished, and my hiking partner found. We are both relieved. Despite our individual strength, stamina and endurance, and despite our independent natures, our ability to hike whole days without talking to each other, and despite the everyday annoyances that sometimes drive us apart — we are a team, and there is comfort and sweetness in our camaraderie. Sometimes you don’t know what you have or need until you (almost) lose it. The trail would provide this lesson in a myriad of ways on our journey. We are a great team.

We stay close, talking, and arrive at the Catawaba Mountain Shelter. The spring is dry, but a trail angel left gallon water jugs, and hey – a fire pit! We’re both emotionally exhausted, so we end the day a little early here. I collect wood, and Groucho cooks over an open fire. We eat chocolate, drink water and relax. Everything feels easy after this afternoon. I read Agatha Christie in front of the fire until I get tired and we go to sleep with quiet efficiency.

 

Tale from the AT: Cold Snap!

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Appalachian Trail: Southern Virginia
Late October, 2013

Walking along ridge one afternoon we see black clouds on the horizon. An unexpected storm approaching?

The trail descends, and as we cross under power lines the sun suddenly streams in and my mood brightens. We pass an enormous tree, maybe the oldest on the Appalachian Trail says my guidebook. We continue among comforting signs of civilization: fences, cows, and a road in the near distance. It’s warmer at lower elevation, and I’m tempted to stay for the night. But with a hour of light and a shelter just in 3 miles we press on.

We cross the road and immediately run into a beaver dam that has flooded the makeshift foot bridge. Ankle deep in freezing water as the sun begins to wane I’m mad at the farmer, the beaver, and the water sloshing in my shoes.

The sun slips behind the horizon. Night falls as the trail begins to climb. And then, is this rain? Yes… tiny, cold, piercing drops. The umbrellas come out. I consider whether I should take my puffy jacket off? The air has a bite, and if the coat gets wet I’m screwed. But I need to stay warm because it’s much easier to stay warm than to warm up later – so I gamble and leave it on.

The clouds black out the moon and stars. The blazes are sparse and there are lots of blow downs and game trails – we’re using our headlamps and flashlights to navigate.

And then, yes, snow. The temperature suddenly drops into the low 30’s and we gain elevation, losing heat. I keep looking at the map – we should be at the shelter, and I’m getting cold. We come to the creek, which the map says should be after the blue blazed trail heading for the shelter.

Did we miss the turn?

My fear sets in a little bit. We’ve been on trail for almost 4 months and are feeling pretty confident about both hiking and sleeping outside. But we’ve never been out in sub 30 degrees or snow and haven’t tested our gear in this weather. My toes are numb in my soaking shoes. I feel like an amateur hanging my hopes on the shelter for safety (or at least the feeling of safety.) I am cold. Also, scared.

I keep looking at the guidebook – we’re supposed to see the turn off before the water source. Maybe we missed it? There are so many blow downs, and we backtrack for 5 minutes searching for the shelter turn off. No luck… We walk back up to the stream and it’s freezing rain now. My breath is visible in my headlamp. We discuss our situation. I really want to be in the shelter, eating snacks, in my sleeping bag, right now.

I’m doing jumping jacks as the truth sets in… this is going to be a really cold night.

We hike for a few minutes. I look at the data pages again almost crying. We come up with a plan –  look for the shelter for 10 more minutes, if we don’t find it we will find a place in the thick tree-filled slope to pitch our tent. We’re going to be fine. I don’t know we will be fine, but I convince myself. I am freaking cold.

So we head uphill and finally, after what feels like forever, we see blue blazes like beacons, leading to the shelter off to the left! There was an error in the data pages.

We are stoked – and have the shelter all to ourselves. I put on every single piece of clothing I have minus my soaked socks as Groucho cooks. We eat wearing our quilts and make our plan for the night. This is the night we develop our “stay alive in the f***ing cold” checklist.

If it grows too cold to sleep:
#1 sleeping bag sit ups
#2 spoon. also combine quilts.
#3 another hot meal (we put the stove, fuel, and water in our bags, keeping them warm)
#4 pack up and start walking

We’ve survived many freezing nights since then, and fortunately we’ve never been forced to resort to any more than #1. Though we will sleep with Clif bars. Also spoon…

Gear Shakedown: Mountain Laurel Design SPIRIT 28 Quilt

IMG_0216Last week, Groucho and I tested our new quilts for the PCT. I recently upgraded to a 28 degree, “regular” size spirit quilt from Mountain Laurel Designs.

I love quilts. Or at least I love the idea of quilts.

A backpacking quilt is basically a sleeping bag with no back. The insulation in the back of a traditional bag is compressed as you sleep, compromising it’s insulating properties. This is more pronounced over time, as all insulation eventually loses it’s insulating loft after repeated compression, and on a thru hike happens for 150 days straight or so… So you end up with extra weight an no extra warmth.

The MLD SPIRIT quilt is a shell of lightweight black ripstop nylon filled with Climashield Apexa insulation. The bottom of the quilt has a cinchable elastic base, velcro closure and snaps which form a temporary toe box, keeping the feet toasty with a small breeze blocking pillow – the quilt can also be used fully open during warmer weather, as a flat blanket. The SPIRIT comes with a nylon ‘waist’ belt (one elastic, one nylon – choose based on your preference) which keeps the edges of the quilt tucked – a handy feature. The neck opening is cinchable with a snap closure, allowing adjustable thermal regulation, and also allowing you to wear the SPIRIT as a camp cape (see photo.).

For my SOBO AT I ordered a 28 degree bag. I was totally convinced I ordered a 28 degree bag. I realized I actually a 38 degree bag while looking at my old order receipt. Ha ha ha. No wonder I was sleeping cold…

I found the 38 degree quilt worked great when it was warm. Once the temperature got to the 30’s I paired it with a liner which kept it fairly comfortable, especially as I modified combinations of base layer, puffer and wind pants and jacket. In November on the AT we had a month of 20 degree nights with at least one sub zero. These nights not ‘comfortable.’ Folks say you can wear more clothes to make a 3-season bag work in the winter… in this case each night I wore my hiking dress, two base layer tops and bottoms, a fleece hoody, puffer, silk balaclava, wool hat, XL fleece hat, wool socks fleece booties gloves liners and fleece mittens. EVERYTHING I had.

I didn’t die AND as a bonus, I kept all my toes. But the gram-counter in me thought there must be a better way, weight wise and comfort wise to stay alive…

For my Southbound PCT hike, I’m starting with cold weather in the north, then encountering 14,000 foot peaks, and early fall desert nights. Sleeping at below 20 degrees is unlikely tho, so I aim for a system comfortable to 25 degrees. I thought a 10 degree upgrade might do the trick, so in February I ordered a 28 degree SPIRIT quilt from Mountain Laurel designs.

MLD can take up to 8 weeks to deliver in peak season. They’re a small shop, so I ordered early.

We hiked up to Goat Lake (elevation 3200) in early April, the pm forecast predicting 30 degree weather. Perfect. I slept in my hiking dress, lightweight base layer, fleece booties and hat, puffy jacket, and the new 5oz fleece smock I jerry-rigged from a goodwill fleece sweatshirt (more on that later). So at least half of the clothes I needed to sleep in with the 38 degree bag.

And I was super comfortable. In fact, I was the warmest I’ve slept outside. I felt heat radiating from my core. I took off my gloves. And I’m psyched to say I stayed that way all night, even when we woke up 10 hours later to 6 inches of snow. I actually slept and entire night without doing sit ups.

Hooray.

Mountain Laurel Designs 
Spirit Quilt – 28 degree – size “regular”
21 oz
$215

WORTH EVERY PENNY.

No Return, No Regrets

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When I returned from the Appalachian trail it was easy to feel. My emotions, like my body and breath, ran strong and deep. Emotions surfaced suddenly and ran their course like summer storms. I was an empty vessel, quickly filled with feelings without notice; and just as quickly they poured out…

“I am large; I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman

The meditation of thru hiking stripped away patterns of normalized anxiety. I had constructed my behavior, and my emotional self, on my ability to engage with work, email, social media and to-do lists. Outside these dominant forms I found myself rich in emotion – overcome by abundant wonder, fear, sadness, humility, excitement, laughter, gratitude and love. I realized I had been using the crutch of anxiety, the “glorification of busy” to define my whole identity. Busy-ness had overridden the diversity of my person – my body, emotion, and intellect. I had allowed my mind, and my wandering thoughts to take over completely.

The meditation of walking allowed me to release myself from this egoistic pattern, and experience again the full spectrum of human emotion in an immediate way, becoming emotionally available to myself and those around me.

Being back in the city now I’m trying not to fall into the trap of wandering stress, aimless anxiety and endless to-do lists. I fought so hard to free myself of this anxiety on my first thru hike, and again on our trip to Guatemala, but it’s not unlike depression or addiction, where the pain itself is known, and it’s familiarity has become comforting.

And here it is. Returning to the city I return temporarily to the shackles of perceived productivity, busy-ness, email chains and social obligations. I am awake now to the trap of these samskaras (negative patterns of thinking) and know they don’t define me. Yet I am still temporarily enthralled by their siren’s song… fooled into thinking they are important somehow.

I hike, meditate, practice yoga – I do all these things to preserve the purity of what I accidentally experienced on my first thru hike; a true unmediated vision of myself. A comfort in a mind that has burned out all thoughts. An experience of joy in my body, my breath and movement. Mind, body and emotion inextricably connected.

I want to make this my new normal. I want to return to the state – where through physical exhaustion, the magnitude of nature, or the quiet of purpose – I understand that everything I need is inside of me. Where I can finally release my addiction to the stresses of civilization, realizing they are just my ego distracting me. My truest purpose; just being. Myself!