An Appalachian Education

A lifetime of dreaming, a year of planning and months of training were safely tucked in my back pocket the day I started my flip flop hike of the Appalachian Trail on May 2, 2016 in Harpers Ferry, WV.

I read ‘Appalachian Trials’ (the holy bible for A.T. hikers), poured through The A.T. Thru HIker’s Companion and joined every A.T. hiking Facebook page I could find. After only a few days on the trail I realized that a 2,200 mile hike is much like having your first baby; no matter how much you want one, how much you research and how often you talk to friends who have one, absolutely nothing can completely prepare you for what awaits you on the trail. Dreams are fulfilled and dreams are shattered, sometimes in the same day.

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Being a life-long hiker and camper, I was raised to explore and respect the outdoors. Many woodsy visits fill my travel journal and nothing quite describes the glory of getting ‘lost’ within the sights, sounds, smells and souls of the trail. However, as beautiful as the boonies are, Madre Tierra can turn ugly and has little cause to treat you gently if she doesn’t feel like it. In a heartbeat, she will chew you up and spit you out like a plug of Red Man Chew if you’re not careful and prepared.

For my trek, it turns out that with Momma Natures’ occasional lack of humor and a few newbie mistakes, I found myself learning (and relearning) valuable lessons that will stick with me like a tick in New Jersey.

  • Lower mileage – With the vision of Katahdin dancing in my head, I headed along the C&O towpath outside of Harpers Ferry with unreasonable mileage for the early stages of the hike. The phrases ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’, ‘Slow and steady wins the race’ and ‘Patience, grasshopper’ will be my next tattoo purchases to remind me to chill out.
  • Drink more water- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. I’m mean, really.
  • Eat!- ‘Why stop for lunch when I can get to my sleeping bag that much quicker’? You can’t pour from an empty cup. I’ll make a note of it.
  • ZZZZZ- People snore. Most nights I found myself in a shelter fighting the cacophony of the A.T. Snore Choir on it’s summer tour. Even though I held a conductor’s position in the middle of the ensemble, none of them followed my gestures to decrescendo. Camping at a shelter is never considered antisocial.
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away- You’re outside. It will rain. A lot. The first two weeks saw me  splashing along the trail like a puppy in a puddle. My 3 oz. rain jacket and 4 oz. pack cover went a long way to keep things dry but my boots acted like a sieve. Never underestimate the power of dry socks.
  • Life Lesson- I’m around 5’2″ but only if i’m feeling ‘sassy’ that day. The trail name ‘Too Damn Short’ seems apropos even though it’s more a statement of fact rather than a name. Regardless, stream crossings are inevitable on the trail and as I approached my first one, conveniently placed rocks appeared to make the dance upon the waters a no-brainier. Within 2 hops the distances between them were obviously calculated for hikers with much longer gams than mine and I hiked the rest of the day with one wet boot. Don’t walk in the footprints of others, make your own.

Luckily, for even the uber light hiker, a ton of experience weighs nothing at all and that means I’m going to need bigger pockets.
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Why?

Perhaps the biggest question I’m asked about the trail besides ‘Where do you go to the bathroom’ is: Why?

It’s a fair question. I usually just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know’.

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Hiking in Glacier National Park, USA

Loads of hikers have a reason to thru-hike the AT and some do not. For me, right now, it’s ok not to have a formal reason. Sometimes the reason comes at the trail head, in the middle of that boulder field, the end of those 5 million footsteps or not at all.

Escaping past trauma, pain or injuries are a common thread among hikers. Some cite enrichment, personal growth or searching for something as a popular goal.

I suppose if I had to attach my hike to something, it would be a combination of all of these.

My first camping trip was when I was 6 weeks old and from that very young age, I was taught by my parents to respect the outdoors for its beauty, ruggedness, tranquility and its ‘teachable moments’. Both national and state parks were always on our summer vacation list and we could often be found camping, hiking, fishing and attending nature programs as well as shooing away an endless amount of mosquitos. Even though we’d abandoned a trip or two due to blood loss from these suckers, it never spoiled the love of the outdoors for me.

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Hiking in Machu Pichu, Cuzco, Peru

Even if the purpose for my thru hike is unclear at this point, I know whatever happens, this will be the trek of a lifetime. Even with the physical and emotional aches and pains, remaining open to all that the trail has to offer is what it’s about.

To me, the trail represents a life encapsulated into 6 months. Ups, downs, sprained ankles, big muscles, happy days, hard days, new friends and foes. Knowing when to push your body and mind and when to take that ‘zero’ day.

It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to laugh and enjoying the views are their own reward even though you know there will be other rough times ahead. Think of your family, think of your friends, contemplate how you got to this moment in time.  Question where you are, question where you’re going or clear your mind altogether. There is no wrong way to ‘hike your own hike’.

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Somewhere in Alaska

A friend of mine in Mexico mentioned the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in Spain. It’s a large network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretch across Europe and merge together at the tomb of St. James Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. He said ‘I would hike that as a christian pilgrimage, but I don’t know why you’re hiking’. I laughed and said, ‘José Louis, neither do I’.

One thing is crystal to me, though. I’d be a fool not to try and find out.

 

Weight, Weight… don’t tell me.

Weight.

It’s one of the first utterances we hear as we enter the world: ’6 lbs. 4 oz’. Or, in the case of my son, Jason, ’9 lbs!’ Rejoicing to have that chunky monkey off my bladder was sweet and no small miracle. Now, 26 years later, I seem to be reliving the preoccupation of how much ‘extra’ weight I’m purposely putting on my body.

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The life of a backpacker extends the concept of weight to almost obsessive proportions as the never-ending quest for the lightest hike possible churns on in our hearts and souls, day and night.

Charles Lindbergh was so dedicated to the subtraction of weight that in preparation for his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris in 1927, he went so far as to cut his maps down to include only those reference points he would need and wrote notes between the lines of his journal to save the weight of extra paper. Every ounce mattered.

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Likewise, to an ultralight backpacker it seems as if ‘Lucky Lindy’ was not so crazy. Putting your entire world on your back for any length of time is certainly a challenge (and insane behavior to many) but one that offers the ability to wend through forests, mountain tops and valleys with a freedom and joy only known by the long-distance hiker.

Researching gear for a thru-hike is like the ultimate lesson in ‘less is more’. Sleeping bags with ultra small zipper pulls, sawing off the handle of your toothbrush, taking the cardboard tube out of your toilet paper roll and cutting the tags out of your clothing are methods I’ve come across while learning the ‘ropes’ of ultralight backpacking. And when I say ‘rope’, I mean 50 ft. of 3mm Zing-It paracord that weighs .5 oz, of course.

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I’ve always been a big fan of not accumulating a lot of ‘stuff’ to make things easier in my life but I’m still learning that our emotional backpack can deter the joys in our lives as well. Doing a ‘shakedown’ of our packs can help shed those unwanted and often unnecessary items. Carrying a backpack too heavy can cause plenty of problems:

* Slow, tedious hiking
* Exhaustion, irritability, and low spirits on the trail
* Increased chance of injury–sore back, sprained ankles, blown knees, sore muscles, bruised and blistered feet, sore hips and shoulders.
* Increased risk of poor foot placement and falls.
* The need for heavy boots (to support heavy loads)
* Tired, angry people who make bad decisions, sometimes with serious consequences
* Long hiking times that mean less time for the fun stuff
* Exhaustion upon arrival at camp for the night

Putting this in the context of life’s journey can make all the difference. A cardinal rule of backpacking is that if you carry the weight of your pack on your shoulders, there’s a problem. Instead, get a proper-fitting pack that puts the weight on your hips where the weight is appropriately distributed for easier mobility and a more enjoyable hike.

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So, as they say: Lighten Up! Put that weight were it belongs and hike on!

The journey is too fine to make it more difficult than it is.

Donde esta el Inodoro? (Where is the Toilet?)

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Ok. So. I’ve been doing an insane amount of reading in prep for my thru-hike on the AT next year. Like many things, it’s a true ‘rabbit hole’ of information; maps, weather, gear, resupply, day trips, shuttle runs, water filtration, on and on and on…

One of the biggest topics of trail talk is the potty issue. Style and technique is hotly debated among women AND men but it all boils down to this: Does a hiker sh*t in the woods? Yes.

During the seemingly infinite planning of the structure and up keep of the 2,200 mile trail, someone forgot to include the idea of the ‘elimination station’. While most established campgrounds provide toilets of some sort and shelters may have a compost toilet, the majority of the trail for the average thru-hike is absent of those porcelain gods.
humanWaste-300x190This leaves the only alternative and that’s the cat hole concept. The thought of dropping trou in an area filled with passers by, wildlife and little critters may not be everyone’s cup-a-joe, but it is a reality of hiker life. Like the book says, ‘Everyone Poops‘. To get in the right mindset, it helps to adopt the hiker mentality of ‘let it all hang out’. that comes in very handy in these rather ,*sigh*, crappy situations.

 

The back side of the topic is: Paper? No paper? Drip dry? imagesPee rag? (i’ll let you google that one). While it is certainly a matter of personal preference, serious hikers adhere to the ‘Leave No Trace‘ pop protocol principles and pack out what they pack in and that includes the paper. Hey, nothing is perfect.

 

Due to, eh hem, logistics, women’s ability to urinate to relieve themselves poses a special acrobatic style of positioning. Even the seasoned hiker has had an accident a time or two and ended up trekking through the forest with damp drawers. There are a few devices that enable a female to eliminate man style and while these may be an oogey topic of conversation, women hikers are not afraid to get into the nitty gritty of the process and most swear by them. Bottom line (pun intended): You’ve simply got to ‘go with the flow’

Gotta go…

Llano to Celaya

flight homeStopped at McCreery Aviation (I really need to be better about mentioning those people, good outfit. They are busy enough to be a full service FBO, but still have prices that make it reasonable for normal people) in McAllen for fuel, then Tampico gave me their typical good level of service. The bit of a challenge came after Tampico (click the flight plan above for a larger view). The issue was that the coast was pretty hazy with scattered as low as 2,000 feet and no other weather information available until deep into the mountains (Bienvenidos a Mexico!). So I launched and headed into the hills and was able to pick my way through until the rain rain shadowshadow effect kicked in and it was clear sailing from there.

Saw an absolutely beautiful waterfall that I hadn’t noticed before. Makes me want to get a group of local friends together and do some camping, but it’s pretty far from home. I have discovered in the process of writing this note that it is called Cascadas de Tamul (http://is.gd/42dcuL).

Mexican ATC Tried To Kill Me (Again)

Santiago picked me up at about 9 to give me a ride to the airport. He’s a cool guy. Has lived in US, Mexico and France, trilingual. Flew ultralights for decades and finally got a private pilot license just recently and is a partner in a 182. He’s done tons of flying in Mexico, including a lot of cross country trips in ultralights, and we’ve been talking about destinations we might check out.

Got to the airport and finally met the owner of the hangar I’ve been keeping my plane in. Nice young guy named Abraham. He runs a spray operation and owns a couple grass strips near Puerto Vallarta that he says we can use anytime. That could be an interesting option!

The planmaps was three legs. First, Celaya to Saltillo. In Saltillo clear customs and get a final load of cheap fuel ($3.60 a gallon, about $1.50 a gallon cheaper than the US average). Then stop briefly in Laredo, TX to clear customs into the US. Finally, Austin, TX for a couple nights of visiting and music.

The weather gods smiled on me this trip with hundreds of miles of the best tail winds I’ve ever flown with. The Maule is about a 120kt aircraft. You might be able to go a little faster at full blast, but in a comfortable cruise that’s a good compromise to keep from burning fuel for no good reason. At higher altitudes you can’t get enough oxygen to go any faster anyway. From Celaya to Saltillo I had a few times where my ground speed was over 170kts, so a tailwind in excess of 50kts. Makes the flight a lot shorter for sure!

Arriving in Saltillo, COA the control tower told me that winds were calm. I found this surprising given the winds aloft. I’ve also learned over the years not to trust ATC in Mexico when they give you a wind reading. I don’t know if the official placement for the wind gauge is in the tower or the equipment breaks and no one notices, but people flying in Mexico should be advised to never trust the wind information given by the tower. Look for wind socks, smoke, flags or anything else you can think of for wind information, just don’t trust ATC. The actual winds were 12G18.

Having survived another attempt by Mexican ATC to kill me, I departed for Laredo. Strong tail winds continued and I arrived nearly 30 minutes ahead of schedule, a shocking if not completely unprecedented occurrence in general aviation. I’ve complained about US Customs in the past. Least importantly they just always seem to be an odd combination of really, really bored and really, really full of themselves. Just unpleasant to interact with. More importantly, they have lost my paperwork then threatened me with a $5,000 fine. They have lost my amended arrival times and greeted me as I walked into the building with “It’s about time, I was just about the shred your paperwork”.

Given my previous complaints, I feel compelled to share my latest experience. The guys at Laredo this trip (notably, the location where I was threatened with a fine some time back) were fabulous. One came out on the ramp and explained the process to me courteously and quickly, the man at the desk was equally quick and pleasant. The entire thing was done in 10 minutes and everyone was very helpful.

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The wildcard this trip would be the final leg to Austin. When I left Mexico there was a huge storm over the town. I knew that the storm would be gone by the time I got there, but there was a good chance that the weather would still be low clouds and strong winds. Plan B was to stay in Laredo overnight, but when I did my flight planning in Laredo it was clear that everything was going to be ok. The biggest challenge, as it turned out, would be selecting from the thousands of similar restaurants in Austin.

When I first came to Austin ten years ago I constantly heard people say that they regretted how Austin had changed that that it wasn’t the same city it was in the 80′s. One of my friends in San Miguel de Allende says something similar about when he moved out in the 70′s. Of course I never doubted them, but it’s really striking to me how much the town has change even in the past 10 years. I still like the city a lot (though not the heat!), but having walked around since arriving yesterday I have to say that it no longer feels “weird” in any meaningful way. Walking down 6th street I found restaurant after restaurant that were minor variations on a theme. All had extensive outdoor seating (because why sit inside and be comfortable when you can sit outside in the humidity and sweat while inhaling exhaust from the passing cars), all had well appointed bars, most had some southwest/texmex/fake mex kind of a thing. All were very well done, don’t get me wrong, but if the weirdness of Austin was mostly gone 10 years ago when the long-timers were commenting, it’s almost completely gone now.

Still a lovely (expensive/hot/crowded) city, but no longer weird.

Lone Star Maule Roundup

IMG_1589-smI’m starting preparation for the Lone Star Maule Roundup today. It starts a week from tomorrow, so you might be wondering why someone who sometimes posts photos of an empty suitcase 15 minutes before catching a ride to the airport is starting so early.

In 2013 when I attended the first Maule Roundup I shot a video of the event. The organizer and I have become friends since and we recently did a formation flight to take photos of his Beaver. He was also kind enough to buy some Plane Perfect to raffle off and we matched his donation. He asked if I would do video again in 2015 and I agreed. Which is why I’m getting ready for the event a week ahead of time.

Tomorrow I will fly the Maule from San Miguel de Allende, GTO to Austin, TX and leave it there while I go to Chicago for a few days of work. Since I’ll be flying commercially to Chicago I can’t bring all my gear along and need to get things ready today.

I’ll be bringing three gopros, two video cameras, two video lights and a still camera. Between them I have nine batteries that need to be topped off. Overnight I downloaded the latest US charts and approaches into ForeFlight.

I’m also excited to see Mingo Fishtrap Saturday night. Haven’t seen those guys in a bit over a year.

The ‘Bucket List’

What’s on your ‘Bucket List’? We’ve heard the term many times before and there’s even a bucketlistmovie about the subject. Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson play two terminally ill patients who escape from their hospital cancer ward to experience a to-do list before they die. The glory in all of this is that we don’t have to wait until we’re terminally ill to have, or do, a bucket list.

In 2010, MTV produced a program called ‘The Buried Life‘ that featured a quartet of twenty-somethings who created a list of 100 items they wanted to accomplish before they died. As dedicated martini drinkers will tell you, everything is better with a twist and this show had a lovely one: For every act they crossed off their list, they had to help a stranger accomplish something that was on their dream list.

How do you make a bucket list?

list.2Take 30 minutes out of your day and sit with your trusty Word Doc, or paper and pen if you’re old school, and create a list of all the goals you want to achieve, dreams you want to fulfill and life experiences you desire to experience before you die. Your list length is completely up to you. If you have only one thing, go with it. If you have 1,000, you’d better get started! Be silly, be serious but be sincere.

Want to travel? Volunteer? Learn a new language? Go for a hot air ballon ride? Write that down…

Something on my bucket list, you ask? A Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail.