2013 Appalachian Trail Thru Hike
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.
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.
This is my first blog post by email! I enjoy the respite from technology that our long walks provide. I intend to do more writing, and wish to share of these dispatches on our blog during our PCT journey. I recently discovered the WordPress “post by email” function – which should allow me to create posts with the iDevice in airplane mode. Then, when I have service or wifi in town, I can “send” these prefabricated posts to Songs Out of the City. Post by email seems to provide the same functionality as the web interface, including creating categories, tags etc.
Our AT method was creating posts including photos/stories when we were in town, which meant many of our town days were spent in front of an old/slow hostel computer trying to download/digest the last 7 days of activity. I was usually so exhausted I didn’t feel like posting or digesting anything. I’m hoping the WordPress post by email functionality will help my stories feel more immediate, since they will actually be written in real time.
I believe the plugin is still in beta, so I will let you know how it works out!
Pacific Crest Trail: Barlow Pass to Timberline Lodge
Roundtrip: 10 miles
Elevation Gain: 1700 ft
Date: May 1, 2015
HIikers: Harpo + Groucho
We’re housesitting for two huge and adorable cats who need food and attention at least twice a day in Beaverton, OR. The PCT is only east about 60 miles as the crow flies, so yesterday we headed towards Mt Hood for day hike, hopefully to find snow for practicing self arrest. We got some ice axes this XMAS (thanks Sandy and Gerry!) and wanted to try them out before our southbound journey begins…
We drove out Highway 35 to Barlow Pass, where the PCT crosses the southern slopes of Mount Hood. Heading north we passed a few other trails available for winter snow shoeing or summer hiking.
Parking at Barlow Pass Groucho and I were on trail at 8:15 with day packs plus ice axes and our new microspikes. Blogger Rain Runner posted some snowy photos of this area just 10 days ago so we hoped we’d catch at least a little compact snow and ice to test our axes and traction gear.
The first three miles are a breeze – the trail winds along gently sloping second growth, as we ascended the trees got bigger and the forest more spacious. The trail was frequently blazed for the snowshoe and cross country ski trails which intersect the PCT. Aside from the 20+ early season blowdowns this section was easy peasy.
At 3.5 miles we were looking out over the Salmon River canyon to the west. Half a mile further we broke tree line and were gazing upon the southern slopes of Mount Hood, walking through the weirdly lunar / beach vibe of scrub brush and volcanic ash.
We hit an intersection with the timberline trail around mile 4 where we took a few flicks, but then continued up the PCT in a Northwesterly arch toward the now visible Timberline Lodge – a ski lodge featured in the movie adaptation of Steven King’s The Shining.
As we approached the lodge, we came upon a few gentle slopes with sufficient snow to practice self arrest – after 45 minutes of throwing ourselves down hills with axes we started to feel a little chilly and we found a sunny spot for a snack before heading back.
Last 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.
Mountain Laurel Designs
Spirit Quilt – 28 degree – size “regular”
WORTH EVERY PENNY.
Mountain Loop Highway snow adventure and gear test
April 10-11, 2015
Trails: Goat Lake, Icicle Caves, Lake 22
Miles: 18 more or less
Hikers: Groucho and Harpo
Recently, we ran up to the Mountain Loop Highway (MLH) for an overnight trip to check out our gear/systems for our upcoming Southbound PCT hike. We wanted to test: 1) our base weights; 2) the efficacy of our new 28-degree Mountain Laurel quilts; 3) one of our 2013 dehydrated dinners — to see if the 20 left-over meals we have are still usable; 4) our brand new Steri-Pen for water purification;
Our intended itinerary was to park about 30 miles into the MLH at the Goat Lake trail head… hike 5 miles into Goat Lake and camp overnight under a canopy of cedars. The next morning we would hike out 5 miles and drive 5 miles back down the MLH to the Monte Cristo trail head, hike up to Silver lake and then hike back and stealth camp close to the trail head by the river.
We rolled up to Goat Lake trailhead around 4:00 p.m. The trail was beautiful as always… we last did this overnight trip when we were prepping for the AT hike two years ago. It’s now becoming a tradition! The trail forks after the first 10 minutes – the trail to the right (along the river) is super scenic and peaceful. Although it was raining a bit, our Chrome Dome umbrellas and tree cover kept us relatively dry.
As the the two forks converge the elevation gain kicks in for the ascent to the lake. We arrived alone, with all the discrete stealth sites to pick from, at 6:00pm. We found a bed of needles, rolled out our Tyvek groundsheet and set up our tarp tent sans mosquito net – assuming it was too early in the season for skeets. We almost regretted this decision as a few HUGE mosquitos helicoptered down to greet us, but as temperatures dropped into the 30’s they disappeared.
We slipped something more comfortable – puffers and our new quilts worn as ponchos – our bedtime gear. Groucho rehydrated our 2013 couscous meal while I played on the new Garmin GPS and checked out our elevation, the temperature, and sunset times etc. We’re trying to learn how to navigate via GPS – one of our other PCT projects. We’ve been refreshing our map and compass skills, but GPS offers some new and interesting possibilities for data collection. There’s a lot of info on there if you know how to look for it, but the “instruction manual” Garmin provided for our 62SX is laughable. We’d loaded on some of the PCT waypoints so I was determined the PCT was only 10.4 miles due east, as the crow flies.
Dinner worked out pretty great. Some dried veggie soup mix from Winco’s bulk section took longer to hydrate than than expected, but the beans and couscous mix from 2013 held strong.
After dinner we enjoyed half a Franz dark chocolate easter bunny that I smuggled into my gear list as the lights went out. Then, bed.
For the PCT hike this summer we have upgraded to 28 degree quilts from Mountain Laurel Designs. As a 5’4″ female, mine is “regular” size and Groucho at 6′ tall, uses a large. They worked GREAT. My review here.
Around 9:00 p.m. Grouchy felt the mouse run across his face. The exuberance of mice at somebody not hanging a bear bag is uncanny. It ended with one goosing Harpo between the legs. At this point, Groucho hung the food.
At 10:00pm we woke again – this time to the exuberance of youth. A boy scout troupe of 8 arrived in the rain, headlamps like spotlights roving across everywhere. They approched our tarp –
“What is it? A camouflaged dumpster?
No dude, there are people in there!”
They took an hour and a half to find their spots, deploy their own tarps, and settle down.
We awoke promptly at 6:00 a.m. when the scouts realized with the joy of hardy adventurers that they had camped in a rain run off and were soaked. It had rained hard during the night…
Looking around and realized there were 4 – 6 inches of powdery snow. We were super warm and cozy in our quilts, so we dawdled. Finally throwing off our quilts we packed up, put pop tarts in our pockets (we recently discovered the strawberry unfrosted are vegan. What!) and jogged past the scouts crouched around a smokey fire.
In the heavily falling snow the trip back to the parking lot was rather magical – again we were happy about having our umbrellas. Then we started driving. The car started slipping on the way to Monte Cristo and the GEO doesn’t have the best record in the snow. Having been often abandoned, we worried it might give up the ghost if the snowfall continued all day and thru the night, so we decided to catch a couple other trails on the way down, and sleep in town.
We descended and the snow turned into freezing rain. We passed the trailhead for the Ice Caves and decided to check them out. Oh Boy! The trail is extremely accessible, only 2 miles roundtrip with virtually no elevation gain – an easy 20 minutes each way.
We returned quickly in the sleet and continued back down the MLH and passed my old favorite Lake 22. I hiked this a few weeks ago with dk and 3D, encountering conditions similar to July or August of other years, so we checked it out to see if any snow had stuck following last night’s storm. The 6 mile trail is always impeccably maintained. We passed a bunch of folks along the way, some over prepared for weather, some so totally underprepared it was ummmmm…. This isn’t usually a hike where this would be a problem, but as we ascended it began snowing again as the temperatures dropped and the sky was peppered with early evening lightning. The views at the top were outstanding as we walked the extra mile lake loop before heading back. We found a room at the Arlington motor inn and spent the night in style….