We went up to the AT Monday through Wednesday. It was wonderfully awesome, mosquitoes and all.
So, I uttered the words “Appalachian Trail” – which is a wilderness hiking trail running north-south along the US east coast, with a total of about 2100 miles – at work, and my colleague Chris perks ears, says “AT?”, and is all over me. I’m like “AT what?”, and before you know it, I am knee-deep in trail lingo and being offered a loaner of pack, mat, stove, water purifier pump and advice. I could hardly say no, could I?
I went to EMS – clearly a store designed to extract money from yuppies – and bought myself a sleeping bag (2lb), a two-man extra-long tent (5lb), a ‘water bladder’, and lots of trail food, plus some assorted knick-knacks. That set me back about $550.
Then I procrastinated and went to Walmart on Sunday evening to buy some more hiking shtuff that we hadn’t gotten round too, such as emergency water purifier tablets, fanny packs for me and Christopher, who wrote this trip up too , and of course granola bars, and that set me back another $80 or so.
The idea was that we would drive out to northern CT fashionably late on Monday, hike up to the AT, go south a lil bit and plonk in a shelter, then go north over Bear Mountain the next day, enjoy the awesome view, make camp again, maybe hike on to nearby waterfalls sans packs, then get back down to the car the third day.
So, Monday morning after breakfast, I’m all ready to pack the pack, just to find that I left it at EMS the other week! OMG! And I never noticed because I hadn’t bothered to take any of the stuff we bought out of the trunk. The embarrassment.
Called EMS – they did have my pack – showed up there, endured the sniggers of the staff along the lines of ‘we wondered when you’d come for this; didn’t you say you wanted to hike the AT? Don’t you need a pack for that?’ – and picked up a pair of hiking poles for myself and some Bodyglide for Christopher. There go another $160.
I mention all the monies so I can add it up now: That’s nearly $800 spent to get ready for hiking, and I haven’t even bought my own pack, mat or stove. Still – these are not recurring expenses, are they now, and no one forces me to buy at EMS. It’s just convenient.
Off to yet another store to pick up a sleeping bag, of the less-expensive and heavier (4lb) variety for Chris, and we’re ready to roll. Drive out to north-western CT, park the car at the trail that leads up to the AT, and – finally – pack the bag. Packing material and product tags everywhere. Oh, the humiliating unprepared noobness.
By the time we’re ready to hike up, it’s 4pm. Oops. That shoulda been noon. Ohwell. We’re just going up and south a bit to get us started, no long hikes for us today. Oh yeah, I’m wearing a knee brace because my left knee is none-to-good, and I’ll be thankful I have that brace come Day 2 and 3.
Shoulder the pack – damn that sucker’s heavy! – ‘Chris, heft this, how much am I carrying?’ – ‘Oh, about 50 lb’. – ‘Oh ok. Damn that’s heavy. Well I’m the man, let’s go’.
I weighed the pack when we were back, and added the weight of the trailfood we ate. It was actually closer to 30 lb when we set out. I’m not really The Man, and 30 lb is Too Fucking Heavy. More about what stupidity leads to a 30 lb pack at the end of this entry.
The first 15 minutes were murder. Keep in mind, I last did any hiking about 20 years ago, and my most strenous activity lately has been to ride my bike to the bread store. We’re grumbling and stopping frequently, I’m glad for the water bladder (Chris is carrying two half-liter bottles at his waist), and the hiking pole helps. Some.
It got a bit easier after that. The trail actually gets steeper, but you kinda get used to it. At some point, I also break out the second pole, and that _really_ helps. We meet a few other hikers, but not many. It’s Monday, after all. One older guy with granddaughter we meet tells us how steep Bear Mountain is on the backside, and that they turned around because of that. Two of their party went on and are now coming back through ‘Paradise Lane’ which skirts around under Bear Mountain. Good to know. He also asks about water on the trail and tells us that Sages Ravine, the campsite we want to stay at the 2nd day, doesn’t have any water. We’ll be worrying about water from now on.
By the time we reach the AT, we’re grinning like idiots and slapping each other on the back, telling ourselves how proud we are of us, and taking pictures at the AT trail sign. We’ve been going up for about 1.5 hours and are ready for a bit of easy hiking. .5 miles to the south is our shelter, and it’s all flat to get there. Yay!
It takes us about half an hour along a really narrow trail with dense undergrowth left and right to get to the shelter. There’s really nothing to tell of that part of the trip. When we get to the shelter, it’s double-Yay! time: There’s fresh running water, and plenty of. Goodie. I set to replenish our supply using handy water-purifier pump. How handy.
The shelter itself is a wooden blockhouse-style building, open at one end with an overhanging gable roof. There are two wooden table / bench setups just in front, and we promptly spread our stuff across both. There’s also a trail journal which we read through a bit – and leave an entry in of course. This journal is mostly for ‘thru-hikers’ – people who hike the entire trail south-to-north or, more rarely, north-to-south. This takes about 6 months, and about 4 months to get to where we are at now, 2/3 up the trail. This journal also provides us with more trail lingo courtesy of an entry by a thru-hiker who complains of living in the ‘trail twilight zone’, not having met any other thru-hikers, daypackers, section-hikers, slackpackers (?) or even sobos (?!?) in a good while. Intriguing terms, but what does it all mean?
Chris points out that not all is honka-dory on the trail – a ‘RidgeRunner Milo’ gripes about having had to clear away two firerings, one with poop in it (eee yuck), and that leads to a regular little flamewar over the course of the next 3 months (!) regarding the building of firerings and pooping into them especially for Milo, and how the journal is only for thru-hikers who know all about the evil of firerings, and not the lowly common daypacker or section hiker who may not know. Of course, others disagree that the journal is for thru-hikers and lower forms of life equally – at least true for this copy which is close to Undermountain trail – and so it goes. Fascinating. A veritable LJ thread, just over the course of months and written by hard-core hikers. People are people, no matter the medium.
RR Milo also mentions a Bear Hang near the privy, but we can’t find it. RR Zak will clear that mystery up for us the next day.
While we’re still putzing around, a girl breezes in with just a teeny rucksack and two hiking poles. She asks our names, and when we answer ‘Shawn and Chris’ instead of with thru-hikers trail handles, she promptly loses interest. My telling her that we’d “make room for her” might also have had to do with that. I meant on the tables which we spilled all over, not in the shelter – but with two males, I can see how it could be misunderstood. I ask her name: She’s ‘Peanut’. She asks us about the location of a nearby road, we tell her, and off she goes again.
When she’s gone, we peek into the journal to see what she’s written. She writes about wanting to hit Dalton, Mass by Thursday, which is Seriously Far, and that ‘the insanity must end’. The next day, we’ll learn that she does about 25 miles a day. When she’s wearing a full pack, that is. Crazy Woman.
We wonder how she can hike with so light and small a pack, the obvious answer eluding us completely. We eat supper – yay dried trailfood, actually not too bad, and the German-make Esbit stove works wonderfully well with the aluminium foil ‘screen’ that Chris the AT nut has loaned me, too. We make tea and count Esbit tabs – we’ll have enough for 3 days, but we’ll have to watch our Esbit consumption a bit. We also start wondering about caloric intake. One of these trail dinners has 330 kcal, which, while nummy, is a bit ludicrous. My daily throughput when sitting on my bum at a computer is about 3100 kcal, so I’m thinking 4000 kcal when hiking. How does one take in 4000 kcal a day while on the trail, where weight really counts?
We pack all food, hang it over a branch to discourage bears. Chris adds a PS to the journal entry, asking RR Milo where the Bear Hang is, and drawing a rawr!-ing bear jumping for an overhead food bag. The cuteness! Aah!
I break out the tent from its store-packaging so I can be slightly less noobie the next day when we’ll need it, and try to Follow Directions. I get as far as ‘poles go in here’ and give up at ‘now stake the tent to the ground’, as I can’t really stake anything to anything in a wooden shelter, which is where I unpacked the tent.
And so we go to sleep, feeling wonderfully good and energized. The crickets are noisy, the woods are all around us with the night wind rustling through the trees, and we are Away From It All. Around 1am, it gets seriously chilly. I feel a cold oncoming – Not Good!! – remember colds caught when sleeping outdoors as a kid, and put a T-Shirt on. That helps a little, but there’s still drafts coming into my sleeping bag. Not so comfy. Luckily, it gets warmer later on, and I can sleep OK, not catching any colds. Phew.
Around 4am, I am woken by abdominal pain on my left. Which is getting worse, and increasingly tender to the touch. I am now picturing myself with infected appendix – is that left or right anyway? – wake and worry Chris, and then decide to get up and pack. If it’s my appendix, I’ll be packed. If it’s gas, moving around will help it to come out. Get socks and shoes, get up and out of the shelter – prrt – aha, get toilet paper – prrt prrt – walk to the privy, get eaten by bugs on the way there – should have re-applied the deet, dammit – and do my business. Prrrrrrrrt aaaah. Not the appendix. Just beans and Trail Digestion: Ultra-dry and small turds, as the body hangs on to all water and nutrients it can.
Back to sleep. With all the false scares and shivering earlier, we’ll sleep in to about 8 am. Breakfast is not bad at all, and has 550 kcal. Better. Add a Granola bar (180 kcal), grab water for the day, and off we are. It’s about 9:30 am. Day 2.
We meet our 2nd and 3rd thruhiker, thoroughly bearded fellows. We don’t ask names, which proves to be a silly thing not to do, later. We also meet RR Zak, who wears a RidgeRunner uniform, asks where we’re just from, where we’re headed – Sages Ravine – and tells us he’ll be at Sages himself tonight. We ask him whether there’s water at Sages. There is, though the spring dried up. That’s a worry off our chests. He heads off south to do whatever it is RidgeRunners do – which is keeping the trail in order, as far as we can tell – and we head north to Bear Mountain.
It’s an overcast day, which makes for pleasant hiking. The climb up Bear Mountain isn’t too bad. We’re feeling good and loose. The views are beatiful, we finally get to _see_ what’s around us, not just underbrush left and right. We take more pictures, or rather Chris does. The reason why there are no pictures in this LJ entry, BTW, will be made clear on Day 3.
We reach the summit of Bear Mountain at around 11:30 am. There’s a huge big twice man-height pile of rocks that one can clamber up onto, and so we do. Chris takes a panorama picture, I make lunch. Then promptly spill the water when trying to add another Esbit tab. Dammit! Water’s precious, Esbit tabs moreso. Chris reassures me that accidents happen, and we heat a second batch. Don’t get it quite to boiling, but I won’t fuck around with it. Good Enough. Lunch is Trail Lasagna and more Granola Bars, actually not too bad.
After lunch, while I am lazing sunbathing and pondering whether to strip to take in the sun more directly, a girl – another thru-hiker – reaches the summit. Timely save, there. She asks us who we’ve met. We answer, but we didn’t get names, did we. Silly us. She really wants to know who’s ahead, so I try to describe the two. Seriously bearded they were. Yes, I am told, that describes about all male thru-hikers. Oh. Yeah. Of course. We try to remember colour of beards, whether there were dreads in evidence – I don’t think so – and finally give up. We’re also told about Jack LeRoo, a Japanese journalist who’s writing a book about the trail. He comes up next.
We don’t get her name. Of course. Got to get into the Introduction business more seriously, next time on the trail. She’s wearing some sort of light-weight trail outfit, and a bathing suit underneath. Smart girl.
So anyway, some conversation ensues. Jack has two bad knees because his pack is so heavy, and just got new knee-braces. They help, but he’s still struggling. She wears a brace on one knee, but isn’t saying anything about it, so it can’t be that bad, I guess. I don’t ask Jack why his pack is so heavy, but I do ask her about trail lingo. So we learn:
A slackpacker is someone who has sent the pack ahead, so they hike with just a day’s supply of water and food. Relaxing, and one makes good time that way. We also learn that Peanut is slack-packing right now, and that she covers 25 miles a day even when she’s not. The average thru-hiker does 15-20 miles at this point.
Oh, for the reference: We two are at 1.4 miles for the day so far. Yay us!
A sobo is someone who is south-bound, and a nobo is someone who is north-bound. It’s all starting to make sense.
We ask about food, offer Granola bars. They don’t want any. My Suckers / Snickers T-Shirt drew a comment earlier on – Snickers is like the trail food staple. I ask about calories. She tells me people burn 4000-6000 kcal on the trail a day (hot damn!), and that the best kcal-to-weight ratio is to be had with Little Betty’s Brownies. If I remember that completely. They have about 660 kcal. Wow. “That health stuff is nice, but everybody switches to junk food soon enough. You need the energy. It’s all empty calories, but you burn it right away anyway.”
I also learn that protein powder is indeed a great way to stay nutritioned on the trail. If you can get it. Her dad sent her powder to mail-drops, but he’s in Europe for a month, so now she’s out of it. Thru-hikers get strong around the lower body, but often scrawny up top. Some look malnutritioned, which we’ll see later. She tells us ticks are much in evidence, everyone gets them, and that they can carry Lyme disease, the symptoms of which are exhaustion and being muscle-sore, which is the condition of every thru-hiker. Lyme disease is just even more so, to where you have to stop several times every mile. Oh haha. Guess I wouldn’t notice catching it then. And I’m cautioned against the evils of cotton, cotton being the reason my pack is so heavy.
I notice that she has lots of parallel scars on arms and legs, looking a few – 3 to 6? – years old. I conclude she must have been cutting herself at some point in her life, but I’m not going to be a crass asshole and ask about it.
Off we are again, that is, we start packing. She goes, Jack stays a bit, tells us how he’s writing for a Japanese Internet magazine and uploading his text and pictures day-by-day so his Japanese readers ‘can share my experiences 4 hours after I had them’. Ah. A blog, cool. Other thru-hikers tell him he’s doing something revolutionary, and he’s proud. I was pondering blogging the AT if I ever get to thru-hike, too. Going to be less of a revolution if or when I get round to that, though.
He also obsesses about the safety of his laptop, which he sent ahead. I enquire as to packaging and reassure him it should be fine. He’s got a thumbdrive backup of his book and blog entries, so that’s all good then.
Down Bear Mountain is brutal as it is really rocky and really steep. Jack, with his two bad knees and pack heavier than mine, fairly hops down the mountain and is soon out of sight. I struggle down, saved from sprained ankle on the left (trying to favor the knee) only by the poles. Yay poles! Still hurt my knee when having to put weight on it. Ow that smarts. Yay for brace though, wouldn’t have made it down without.
Once down the mountain, the going gets easier. RR Zak overtakes us at some point, we’ll meet him again at Sages Ravine. When we arrive there, we’ve hiked 2 miles, and we feel done for the day.
We pitch tent – I learn that the tent, which is an extra-long, can’t be pitched on designated tent sqares as it is, well, too long – leave our packs, and head further south with just a bit of water. Oh, nice to walk without weight for a change.
Now and later I’ll ask lots of questions of Zak. I learn where the bear box and the wash pit is. I learn that RidgeRunner is a paid job – paid to be outdoors and hike. Not a bad gig at all. We agree that This Is It and This Is The Life. Zak mentions that he eats doughnuts in the morning to get the caloric boost he needs for the day. Good for him. He’s got a big-ass caretaker’s tent, a radio and gas lamp and all, and probably a king’s ransom of supplies stashed in that tent, he can afford the bulk of donuts up here. Lucky bastard.
Along Sages Ravine is a pretty nice stretch. We meet another thru-hiker – again not asking for name – and meet him again .5 miles later at the Mass border. Where we stop, chew the cud with him a bit – Chris showing off his new vocabulary like an old trail-hand ‘Oh yeah, we met Peanut, she was slack-packing, you know’ – and observe his somewhat malnutritioned-looking upper body. I take a picture of him at the Mass border with his camera, as he’s from Mass. We are told about how horrible the trail is in Pennsylvania and what assholes Pennsylvanians are, which leads to Chris defending his home state. And then we head back. I wanted to go on to waterfalls another 1.4 miles down the trail, but I’m beat. So is Chris.
On our way back, we meet a woman with boy-child, he wearing a boy-scout scarf and keeping shyly behind his mom. They left their gear at Sages and plan to camp there too. Later on we’ll meet them again, when they’ll tell us that they left the water purifier in the car, so off they’ll go again. No camping for them that night. We don’t meet them again, so they might have gone around the next day or given up on the idea entirely.
Oh yeah, RR Zak clears up the mystery of the missing bear hang: It was stolen a week previously. Apparently bear hangs are made from really expensive mountaineering rope, and someone coveted it and absconded with it. Dude.
My knee’s feeling great, I’m feeling great. Chris is telling me about drugs the body pumps out. Probably true, I am feeling on top of the world, not to say high on life. We eat double dinner – later deciding that’s silly, you need the calories in the morning and during the day, not at night. And tea again.
The night is uneventful, and _much_ warmer thanks to the tent. Which is nice and roomy and has rain-protected space for gear due to wide outside flaps. It also has glowy zipper tabs. Fancy.
Oh, and we make passionate – if carefully quiet – love while RR Zak walks past to the bear box, shining flashlight to see that we’re properly set up. Whoops. Let’s hope the tent is as opaque as it appears, and we are as quiet as we think we are.
The next morning, we get up at 6:15 am. Between breakfast, tea again, and taking the tent down again and getting packed, it’s 9 am by the time we get going, though.
This day’s hike is glorious. We’re heading back along Paradise Trail, aptly named. There’s less dense underbrush, and sunlight slanting through leaf-cover throwing speckles on ferns, with views to mountains opening up unexpectedly. Wonderful.
We only meet a woman jogger with dog that day. She’s wearing out her dog. What’s with all the fit people around here?
The fun stops for me when it starts going downhill. My knee really does not like downhill, and the poles and brace are what keeps me going. I want to be back at the car and call it a day, and it’s not even noon yet. This stretch is hard on Chris too, and that’s why no pictures: The camera is taken off and not picked up where Paradise meets Undermountain, in an oops moment. Chris goes back for it when he realizes this, back down at the car. He puts in a heroic, record 1.5 hour hike without water (!) up and down Undermountain, while I stay in the car and snooze, but the camera’s gone by that time. Damn.
Chris leaves notes on cars. We’re hoping the camera will still be returned. It would be a criminal shame to lose all those pictures.
Now that I’m back home, I’m starting to obsess about weight, as anybody who’s not a total noob will. First off, carrying 6 lb of heavy cotton clothing is silly. One issue of quick-dry clothes worn, and one change + socks safe in a ziploc just in case the other stuff gets wet, and that’s it.
I can also cut down on the weight of food by leaving off some of the packaging – our waste alone was 1 lb when we were done – and the borrowed pack + mat is 4 lb. That can be 3 lb.
Here’s my weight-obsession notes so far:
Weighed in at 25lb
Pack 4lb with mat
Sleeping Bag around 2lb
Misc shit 3lb
So — 23 lb more like? Or I misweighed something above.
Food before we started eating, not counting granola bars which were in fanny pack:
4lb camelback when full, adds to a around 30lb pack.
Lady said hers was 22lb with full week’s supply of food.
Sleeping Bag around 2lb
Camelback full 4lb
12lb before pack, food and misc
Light pack + mat 2lb? 3lb?
Light clothing, one change 1lb
I am sure I overestimate the clothing. The filter’s a luxury, as tablets will do, but it’s _nice_ to have. I’ll shop around for packs, but I got time. Will see a knee doctor first. I need that knee better if I am to do any serious hiking.
I’m also thinking that if I can find a hammock that’ll hold a 6’5″ person, I can carry mat + hammock for about 1.5 lb instead of mat + tent for currently 6 lb. _Big_ difference.
As the thru-hiker we met at the end told us: 2lb of beer is a lot of weight to carry. I did not appreciate _how_ much until I tried hiking. Now I understand why tents can be successfully marketed as ‘with ultra-light poles for a 1/4 lb savings’. Thru-hikers will cut extra straps off their packs to save weight. Obsessed people. :,