Tag Archives: AT

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…

Lost Letters

The homies Sam and Rie sent us some of the most beautiful and thoughtful resupply packages - complete with powdered miso and chocolate.

The homies Sam and Rie sent us some of the most beautiful and thoughtful resupply packages – complete with powdered miso and chocolate.

As Harpo and I prepare for out southbound PCT this year we’ve been going through some ephemera from our 2013 Appalachian Trail thru hike – sorting, reminiscing, recycling. In many ways, this process makes us hopeful for the experience before us, while allowing us to reflect on the love and generosity we experienced while on the AT. These images represent just a few of the lovely missives we received from friends when we were so far away from home… these things which continually draw us back, and which bathe any thought of return in golden light.

The cover of our half priced AWOL guide, which we switched to in Virginia after realizing it was a far superior tool compared to the traditional data book. Note: we burned the rest of the pages, as one does...

The cover of our half priced AWOL guide, which we switched to in Virginia after realizing it was a far superior tool compared to the traditional data book. Note: we burned the rest of the pages, as one does…

A congrats card - which we suspect of being an actual graduation card - was waiting for us at trail's end thanks to Sandy and Gerry.

A congrats card – which we suspect of being an actual graduation card – was waiting for us at trail’s end thanks to Sandy and Gerry.

Arts! An altered flyer from OnTheBoards - a venue we had recently performed at just before leaving for the AT. This accompanied a bottle of delicious whisky thanks to the lovely Ms. Jorgenson

Arts! An altered flyer from OnTheBoards – a venue we had recently performed at just before leaving for the AT. This accompanied a bottle of delicious whisky thanks to the lovely Ms. Jorgensen

A letter from our friend and fellow adventurer Tessa Hulls. It was always awesome to have a few words here and there to remind us of the comforts - and friendships - we had left behind. The letters reminded us of the possibility of return on the hard days...

A letter from our friend and fellow adventurer Tessa Hulls. It was always awesome to have a few words here and there to remind us of the comforts – and friendships – we had left behind. The letters reminded us of the possibility of return on the hard days…

A crown for every king, or queen - sent from Harpo's niece and nephew. We wore these for a full day hiking.

A crown for every king, or queen – sent from Harpo’s college friend Liza’s — made by Liza and Jason’s son Emmett. We wore these for a full day hiking.

The delightful Ms Tania Kupczak sent us our first real re-up surprise package. We were so overwhelmed with gratitude when we opened this in Connecticut outside the package store and found new socks and Arnicare and Emergen-C with inspirational messages written on them!

The delightful Ms Tania Kupczak sent us our first real re-up surprise package. We were so overwhelmed with gratitude when we opened this in Connecticut outside the package store and found new socks and Arnicare and Emergen-C with inspirational messages written on them!

Groucho and Harpo in City Arts Magazine

Harpo & Groucho

Harpo & Groucho at the summit of Springer Mountain, GA

City Arts Magazine asked us to contribute a piece for their January edition, reflecting on our Appalachian Trail journey. Copies of the free publication just hit the streets of Seattle, or you can read it online. Thanks to Editor in Chief, Leah Baltus, for the opportunity.

Read “On Wasting Time”

Tale from the Trail: the Coldest Night

COLD!This week, as the arctic cold snap sweeps the country, my facebook blowing up with extreme weather stories, it seems an apropos time to share a tale from the trail – our coldest night:

November 12, 2013
Somewhere in North Carolina

We woke up before dawn at a stealth campsite shared with Taxi, Potato Shake, HeRoMate and Icepack. The forecast called for arctic winds at 3am bringing sub 20 degree temperatures and a 70% probability of precipitation. Wet clothes and freezing temperatures = hypothermia. We planned to hit the trail by 6:30am, moving quickly to keep warm and “outrun” the oncoming storm.

As we started up Flint Mountain at 10am the temperatures dropped (you lose 2.5 degrees for every 1000 feet you gain). The high winds showered us with frost from the trees above. My knee was injured, so we traveled a slower than usual, and reached Flint Mountain Shelter around 12:45, just as it began to snow. How do you know when a sprinkling of snow might turn into inches? At what point do you turn back? The cold, wind and snow heightens everyday thoughts and I worked hard to calm my mind and keep panic at bay.

Groucho and I threw on our puffy jackets and quickly ate some trail mix . Ice chunks already floated in our water bottles. On our one break, Groucho used a shelter floor for his requisite push ups (a heat building measure) and we left after only 10 minutes… too cold to stop moving.

As we climbed further up the mountain the dusting of snow turned into a blizzard. Perfect snowball quality, the snow stuck to our shoes and faces, melting slowly into our socks, but walking kept us mostly warm – a sensation we realized would cease as soon as we stopped moving.

As we crested the ridge, the AT wandered between a flat forest road and some rocky forest paths. Scant blazing and falling snow made the trail difficult to see. We faithfully followed our friend’s footsteps. As we crested a hill we saw a historic grave site situated in the middle of a clearing – an ominous sight on such a frigid day.

Finally we reached the stone shelter 90 minutes before sunset, surprised and delighted to find a built-in fireplace, where Icepack, Shakes and HeRoMate were gathering and breaking down branches. A frozen water droplet hung from HeRoMate’s nose, and Groucho sported icicles in his beard. Our shoes stiffly cracked on our quickly freezing feet. A mild panic set in… we felt really cold, and the snow continued to fall.

In discussions on our way up the mountain, Groucho and I planned to get immediately in our warmer clothes and sleeping bags, and then cook food from bed. The allure of a fire threw a wrench in that plan, but we hoped it would be worth it. We gathered wood for the fire and went for water, filling up everyone’s bottles while they manned the fire.

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I quickly realized how my body was cooling off. It was time for more clothes, quilts and food. I removed my wet socks and shoes, then put on all the clothes I was carrying – my hiking dress, two base layers wool pants, two base layer wool shirts, wind pants, two pairs of wool socks, puffy jacket, balaclava, fleece hat, gloves and later mittens over my gloves. Still feeling windchill, I put my sleeping quilt over my shoulders like a cape and looked up to check on my teammate. He was sitting where I left him…

When you stop hiking in weather this cold, your metabolic temperature falls quickly. The mind and body consort to produce the worst impulse to stop moving completely, conserving energy. Things that sounded comforting moments earlier (the idea of dry socks, more layers, warm food) seem distant and unimportant. It takes an enormous amount of energy to accomplish the simplest chore, even one designed to make you warmer. This is how people succumb to hypothermia. It simply feels natural and easier to do nothing…

I huddled next to Groucho, helping him to stop shivering. We knew warm food would help, and slowly began the process of cooking our food. Meanwhile the other three cooked, tended fire, and set up Shake’s tent on the shelter platform.

The thermometer on the shelter read 20 degrees at 5pm, just before sunset. The blazing fire just took the edge off the chill. The wind poured in the front of the 3-sided shelter and HeRoMate suggested hanging our tarps up to cover the opening to the shelter. Although this cut us off from the waning light of day, it helped tremendously with windchill. Another hiker, Stinky Jesus, arrived with more icicles in his beard then I had seen before or since. He claimed the last spot in the six-person shelter.

Hot dinner provided a burst of warmth and we hunkered down into our sleeping bags to make the most of it. We kept fears at bay with little jokes and commentary. I used the fire to boil water, and then poured it into the Nalgene for an impromptu hot water bottle. Groucho recovered from his chills and changed into base layers. As dark fell around 6pm, we cuddled close for warmth.

I fitfully drifted in and out of sleep all night. At one point I blissfully dreamed of a hot shower, before rudely awakening to another temperature drop. I covered my whole head and face, leaving a tiny ventilation by my mouth… At this point I really wished we’d gone with a two-person quilt instead of each having our own – human to human contact is where it’s at, but I needed heat wherever I could get it. I did crunches to keep my core warm, but my toes were painfully cold all night.

Stinky Jesus made a big ruckus in the middle of the night wrapping himself in his tent. Icepack asked if he was okay and he responded negatory. The condensation from his breath, frozen on his bag, left him shivering. Dehydration led to muscle cramps, and his water bottle was frozen solid. In fact, every water bottle in the shelter was frozen solid except for the Nalgene I kept in my quilt. I gave him the little water I had and encouraged him to cuddle up closer to me and Groucho.

A few times during the night Groucho laid a bit of wood on the fire. It didn’t make a notable difference in temperature, but kept some embers glowing until morning.

After checking my watch a hundred times, morning finally came. Icepack braved the cold to stoke the fire and the shelter slowly came to life. By 7am the sun crested over the ridge and the mercury of the shelter thermometer had risen to 9 degrees. The low that night on the mountain was around zero… we slept outside in zero degree weather. In our quest as hearty outdoor survivalists, we had arrived.

Our shoes and socks were frozen solid – so solid we could clap our socks together. We had to thaw our shoes for an hour before we could put them on our feet.

Temperatures were supposed to remain below freezing all day. Groucho and I decided to hike into Hot Springs, NC – 27 miles over a ridgeline with spectacular views, frozen streams and six inches of snow. We decided to retro-blaze at the end of the day, following an old AT path into town that cut off four miles. We gratefully made it to town by 6:30pm and stayed at Elmers, a beautiful historic hostel. Just down the street at a delightful tavern, we ended the day reconvening with Taxi and other hikers. While the bartender “Deez Nutz” traded inappropriate one-liners with Stinky Jesus, we enjoyed wine, nachos, pizza and vegan chili. It was the best tasting vegan chili I have ever eaten.

Gear Shakedown: the Gossamer Gear G4 Pack

wooden sherpas
One of our goals was to assess what worked and what didn’t with our gear systems – clothing, cooking, shelter, sleep, packing and safety – after having experimented and revised them over the last 2200 miles. We had limited backpacking experience before the AT, so our gear configuration was based on research, educated guesses, suppositions and hearsay. We’re still alive, so it mostly worked out, I guess…

Packs
The Gossamer Gear G4 turned out to be a great sub 1lb pack at a super affordable price. It took a minute to figure out the best way to pack it – none of the ultralight gear we used came with user instructions – but the G4 turned out to be comfortable and durable. As long as you’re not looking for a extra features, hidden compartments, compression straps and whatnot the G4 is versatile and easy to use.

We never carried more than 30lbs per resupply – only tipping the scales above 25lbs for our first 3 resupplies, which were for between 7 and 10 days. We found the G4 was most effective at under 25lbs, which allowed us to carry between 10-12lb base-weight, about 6 days of food, and a liter of water.

The simplicity and price of the G4 was appealing. Sara’s G4 was 15.2oz, and NKO’s weighed in at only 14.5 oz after removing the optional waistbelt. This meant that with 2lbs of food per-person-per-day (pppd) we could carry 6 days of food, and 1/2 liter of water, at between 23 – 25lb. The most important thing for us was learning to resupply more often – we started the trip trying to stay out of town for 7 – 10 days at a time, but quickly found that towns were easy to get to and experiencing town time was an essential part of the Appalachian Trail experience.

As with much of the ultralight gear we experimented with on this trip, a bit of ingenuity makes up for fewer features:
– walking with 1/2 liter of ’emergency’ water in the pack, and keeping 1 liter of water in hand. Simply carrying drinking water made us more aware of how much we had and kept us hydrated. It also kept 2.2 lb/liter off our backs.
– Carring the pack on one shoulder during hot ascents provided great ventilation, especially after eating through a day or two of food weight.
– The deep mesh side pockets were annoying at first. We soon learned it’s easier to loosen a shoulder strap and swing the pack around on one shoulder while still walking – in this case, the higher mesh pockets ensured that nothing fell out during this maneuver. This ended up working great, and seemed like we had easier access to our everyday gear than many of the homies with more conventional packs.

The issues with the pack:
– The top loop and tiedown strap assembly failed on both our packs at 800 miles – not a big deal since we had a sewing kit, but funny that they both failed within 50 miles of each other carrying basically the same loads.
– The actual pack straps needed more tooth. The same nylon strap materiel was used throughout the pack, but we found it slipped almost constantly, especially at loads over 15lb. While we enjoyed being able to easily adjust our pack straps, it was frustrating to continually try and keep the pack positioned with even a nominal load.

Overall, we found these pack met our needs nicely. Many people were surprised we were carrying such small packs and light weight, but it proved essential for hiking comfortably over long distances. The quality of materials and manufacture were, for the most part, superb, and we’re both looking forward to trying more of the Gossamer Gear products on our future outings.