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Summer Heat

I am sitting in the Outdoor Club of Dartmoth College, enjoying air conditioning after walking into New Hampshire on one of the most blistering hot days of summer. I am now two states away from the end of this journey, and some of the most exciting sections of the Appalachian Trail lie immediately before me–the White Mountains and then, Maine. I have been loving the experience every day lately, but I had to come through some hard passages to get here. In the past month of walking from New Jersey to New Hampshire we’ve had long stretches of swampy, muddy trail, days on end of horrendous mosquitoes, withering heat and soaking rain. We’ve also had a few wonderful, cool days of rest in between, but there has been plenty of challenge along the way.

When Sunshine joined me in southern New Jersey for her last visit on the Trail before the end we were just getting into the bad heat and mosquitoes that I had been dreading. We enjoyed three days of hiking together, ending in Greenwood Lake, New York where we rested and cooled off in the lake. Shortly after she left for home I entered one of the lowest phases of my hike. I was weary, mosquito-bitten, stumbling through days that baked like an oven, through stretches of swampy trail where the blood-sucking bugs would not let you to stop for rest. Relief came in the evening when I would camp near a creek, drench myself in cold water, then do my mosquito dance–keeping every limb moving so they couldn’t land–as I dried off and rushed for the protection of my tent. One day in upper Connecticut the cloud of mosquitoes got so bad that I began actually running down the trail to get away from them.

When I came into town and heard folks talking about “how bad the bugs are this year,” I wanted to tell them they had no idea. They didn’t know how bad it was up on the wet ridge above the Hoosatonic River where the mosquitoes flew so thickly that if you stopped suddenly you would feel a hundred little bumps as the cloud enveloped you. Huffing and puffing up the ridge it was not uncommon to inhale a mosquito up your nose or rattling down your throat. It was bad, and when I asked other hikers how they were fairing I usually got one of two responses: “I feel like I’m about to go crazy” and “This is the closest I’ve come to quitting.”

What kept me going was a matter of assumption: I was hiking the Appalachian Trail; this was what it meant to hike the AT; I was going to do it. But I was miserable. And I held onto the hope that there would be a change ahead. The mosquitoes reached an unholy climax on East Mountain outside of Great Barrington, Mass, and I was wondering how much more I could take when I crossed a state highway and walked up to a dry ridge where there was instantaneous relief. The mosquitoes were miraculously gone. A breeze cooled my skin. I walked to Bear Mountain Lake and laid down in the shade, truly resting for the first time in weeks. It felt like a giant sigh of relief, and even though the bugs would make appearances down the trail we were past the worst of it. The following day I would lower myself into the cool water of Upper Goose Pond and wash away weeks of fatigue and stress. It was the 3rd of July.

That is how the trail goes. The lows accentuate the highs, making the moments of luxury and relief all the more vivid and wonderful. Since leaving Goose Pond I have enjoyed some of the best stretches of the trail thus far: the dark spruce woods of Vermont; the stormy peak of Mt. Stratton where Benton MacKye first imagined a trail stretching from Georgia to Maine; a wonderful rest stop in Bennington where I paid a visit to Robert Frost’s grave (thank you trail angel Steve!). This morning we walked off the last section of trail in Vermont and were greeted by Diana and John who were providing trail magic: blueberry cobbler with whipped cream, lemonade, cokes–wonderful! There is so much to look forward to on the trail ahead: hard climbs leading us finally above treeline in the White Mountains, mountain lakes in Maine, and at the end, Kathadin and Sunshine. She’ll be meeting me at the Trail’s end a little over a month from today, and that fact makes me feel divided: eager to hurry through the weeks ahead to see her but also wanting to slow down time so that I can enjoy every last moment of this wonderful journey.

 

Pennsylvania rocks!

* Note: This website is experiencing some buggy-ness that I will not be able to address until I am off trail in the fall. Images associated with posts are not longer loading in the header above, though they are still viewable by clicking on individual thumbnails at the bottom of the post.

Walking into Pennsylvania was a treat: lush, piney woods, soft trail to walk on, and some of the best shelters I’d found on the trail yet. The caretaker at Quarry Gap Shelter (my first stop in PA) was anticipating a big crowd the night I arrived and left pizza in the bear box, but I was the only one to stay. I happily sat on a bench and began chowing through slice after slice as darkness fell. On my third slice I heard a rustling near my feet and looked down at what I took at first for a raccoon. Closer inspection revealed it to be a porcupine headed on a bee-line for my feet. As this was my first encounter with a porcupine hurried thoughts raced through my head: “Are they aggressive? Can they really shoot their quills?” I sat up straight, and my abrupt movement brought the porcupine to a halt. Unsure of what to say in this situation I spoke the first words that came to mouth, “You can’t be here.” The porcupine did an about-face and scurried into the woods.

I’d heard plenty about how rocky and hard the trail in Pennsylvania can be, but my first few days in the state were ideal. I passed the half-way point on the trail near Pine Grove Furnace, and I ate my way through the half-gallon challenge (a half gallon of ice cream consumed in one sitting). A tip to future thru-hikers: select a light and simple flavor for this challenge, not peanut butter cup. Just before the town of Boiling Springs the trail descended into corn field bottomlands, and I walked through a long afternoon of pouring rain and soggy trail. The first taste of rocks came before Duncannon, and a few miles past the Susquehana River things began to get things, as they say, serious. The trail through the last eighty miles of PA can feel like one long, dried-up river bed. Sometimes you walk across fields of large boulders, hopping from one to the next on increasingly tired legs. Sometimes the dirt path is peppered with sharp little rocks that wear down your soles (and soul). And there were snakes, plenty of snakes. One morning I saw two timber ratters and a copperhead before 10 AM.

As with most adversity on the trail, the challenge of the rocks drove us thru-hikers together. We bonded over the pain in our feet and the fatigue we felt from day after day of jumping our way down the trail. It felt like the most exhausting round of the lava game we had ever played–no touching the ground! Pennsylvania was beautiful in it’s own way, though, and I met some good traveling companions along the way. Coolie McJetpack and Ambassador kept the conversation going through the end of a long twenty-four mile day. Sugar Bombs and young married couple Atlas and Glover kept spirits high with their dry humor. Goose and All the Way were a duo of hikers from Ohio: a forklift driver and a Vietnam Vet who’d been hiking together for a while. All the Way had fallen and lodged his forearm between rocks bashing it black-and-blue. When I met him the arm was gingerly lifted in a sling, but he was upbeat and planning to continue his hike regardless, citing his trail name, All-the-Way, a motto he carried from his days in the military.

Yeah, Pennsylvania was pretty great, but something was compelling me to walk faster despite the tiredness in my feet. Sunshine would be joining me for one last visit on the trail (the last before Kathadin), and I wanted to get past these blasted rocks before she came. On a cool morning in late June I climbed a wide, shady trail into New Jersey, my seventh state on the Appalachian trail and a welcome change of scenery!

Trail Logs

One of the great pleasures of life on the trail is reading trail registers. You get into the shelter after a long day of walking and sit down with the log book in your lap to read notes left by friends who passed this way before you. Many are humorous; some give  a simple account of the conditions on the trail that day. Often times words of encouragement have been left for those who will come after.

Pennsylvania was a challenging state to walk through with its miles and miles of rocky trail stretching from Duncannon north to New Jersey. The trail often resembled a dried up river bed with boulders lined up as far as the eye could see–an obstacle course of slanted, sometimes slickly wet surfaces to balance across. When the rocks were not large and filling the trail they would be small and pointed, wearing down the soles of your feet and poking them painfully. But as with all adversity on the trail, the discomfort produced another highlight along the way: humorous log entries about how much the rocks suck. At the last shelter in Pennsylvania I spent a long morning laughing over the musings left by friends before me: graphic representations of why Pennsylvania did not fit humans, a wonderful break-up letter to the state, and perhaps my favorite, Punkin Pie’s brief sarcastic remark: “Goodbye to my home state of PA. I’ll miss you like I’ll miss a boil on my butt.”

Every day I look forward to getting a brief insight into the experience of friends who have moved ahead of me on the Trail. I leave my own notes and hope they are of benefit to those behind me. It’s one more way in which the Trail functions as a vast community of fellow travelers.

* Click the thumbnails below for some colorful examples…

Mile 413.6: Slow Down

This episode is only available for viewing to backers of the AT movie feature film production. If you have contributed to the film and would like a password to view this segment, please write to thelongstart@gmail.com.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

I must admit I had low expectations for the state of Virginia. After hearing plenty about the “Virginia blues” that plague thru-hikers as they walk through this state that constitutes fully a quarter of the entire Trail I had my hopes set low. I was pleased and surprised to discover how much Virginia had to offer. The historical insights along the trail, the wildlife (especially in Shenandoah National Park), the bounty of wildflowers and wild produce (ramps!)—the Trail was constantly engaging and the countryside beautiful. I had my down moments of physical pain and discouragement, but over all I have delighted in this long stretch of the AT.

Leaving Virginia I walked down into the town of Harper’s Ferry, the mental halfway point of the journey. It felt like a triumph and a fresh challenge: 1,000 miles down, 1,000+ more to go. Not long after crossing the Maryland line the Appalachian rocks made their appearance in the trail bed, a foretaste of what was to come in Pennsylvania. My feet were already feeling tired.

I’ve received a lot of help here at the midway point of my hike: strangers have welcomed me into their homes, friends have hosted me for days on end while I edit video and then joined me for a cold, wet hike to the Pennsylvania line. This is the farthest north I’ve ever been along the eastern seaboard, and every state I enter from here on out will be for the first time. I have two more episodes to post in my video journal before I conclude that project and turn my focus entirely to hiking. It’s been a challenge and a delight to share this experience with others as I go, but I am eager and excited to focus my energies on just the hike from here on out. There will be so much to take in along the way, I know, and I hope that I will have a good story to share after finishing (assuming I do finish!). Thanks for following along in the journey–I look forward to sharing more on the far side of this hike.

– Frost

 

My partners in the hike…

I have a few select partners who are supporting me on this journey. As opportunity presents itself, I will offer reviews and insight for the gear I’m using on the AT. I don’t pretend to impartiality–I’m just thankful to work with outdoor gear makers who I believe in and rely on. These articles are offered to provide insight into what works for me on the trail. Let me know your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

Gear Spotlight: Choosing a Backpack

There are many, many varieties of backpack out there, all different types of sizes, styles, and yes, colors. This video is our attempt to break down three levels of backpack that would be appropriate to take on a thru-hike. We also highlight some of the features specific to the Osprey line of pack (our partner on this journey). Please enjoy, and chime in with your thoughts and comments!

The Astral Brewer

The Brewer is a shoe that was developed for kayaking and other water sports. It has a sticky rubber sole (5.10 Stealth Rubber, the best for traction on slick rock), and it’s built of lightweight, durable materials that drain water and dry quickly. For me, these shoes were a perfect solution to my search for a camp shoe. In the past I had used both Crocs and Chacos for secondary footwear on the trail. Crocs were very comfortable to wear in camp, and they were light to carry; but they didn’t provide much support and would not make a good backup shoe should my boots fail. Chacos were sturdier and could be used in a pinch for hiking, but they were bulky and heavy, a real load in my pack when I wasn’t using them. By contrast, the Brewer is a lightweight, minimalist shoe that provides comfortable support for the whole foot. I use my Brewers for especially gnarly stream-crossings, and if my hiking shoes break or get soaked with water, I can comfortably spend a day or two walking in the Brewers. In camp, the heal of the Brewer folds down to make it a slip-on shoe: much easier for middle-of-the-night restroom breaks. And in town, these shoes bring great style and comfort. I’m not usually noticed for my fashion sense, but I’ve been surprised by how many comments the Brewers have drawn.

The bottom line is that after a long day of hiking I want to get my smelly boots off and put on some different footwear. It’s one of the areas where I choose luxury over lightness on the trail, and the Brewer brings all of the comfort I could hope for while backing it up with great utility.

Tarp Tent Stratospire 1

In selecting a shelter to carry with me on the trail, here’s what I had on my mind:

1. Weight — It needed to be light to offset the extra load of camera gear I was carrying.

2. Roomy — I like to spread out, especially on long rainy days when I decide to sleep in or read. I don’t want to be sleeping in a coffin.

3. Belly-sleeper — Hammocks were not an option for me as I like to spend much of the night on my tummy.

4. Bug net — I wasn’t going to go for the simple tarp set up; because I have a slight horror of things crawling across or biting me in the night.

DSC_5538

The shelter that seemed to fit all these parameters was the Tarptent Stratospire 1, and after using it for a few months on the trail I am very happy with the purchase. Tarptents (by Henry Shires) are very intelligent and efficient shelters. The model I selected was a bit more tent than most thru-hikers carry (the Contrail weighs a half-pound less and is more popular), but I justified the extra weight for point #3 above. The Stratospire 1 weighs just over 2 pounds, and it has afforded me a comfortable night’s sleep every time I’ve used it. After seem-sealing it’s held up quite well to even heavy rain storms.

There are drawbacks to every type of shelter, and for tarptents they are as follows:

– Not as user-friendly as free-standing commercial tents. These designs require a modicum of handiness and rigging knowledge. They are relatively easy to set-up, but not as simple as the mainstream dome-style tent. And because they are not freestanding, once erected most tarptents are fixed in place unless you break them down to move them. Also, these tents do not come seam-sealed, though you can pay for that service from the maker.

– Condensation: I have found the tent to be very effective at keeping the rain out, but the interior does easily collect condensation which results in a wet tent body after rainy nights. I think this is a negligible point, though, since every tent is going to get wet to some degree when it rains.

– Durability: Tarp-tents are built to be light, and I think this will have an effect on long-term durability. I’ve already found a small tear in my bug mesh, though thankfully it’s not in a place where it will spread. This is a compromise you have to make with most light-weight gear–it’s going to be easier on your back but have 70 to 80 percent of the life span of mainstream, manufactured gear.

Overall, I’ve been very pleased with this shelter. It pitches relatively easily, and I can rig it taught for windstorm and heavy rain. In fair weather it’s easy to fold back the doors for maximum ventilation. Perhaps my greatest difficulty with this tent is packing it up in rainy or windy conditions–it’s simply an awkward design to fold up, and I usually have a hard time making a neat job of it. I would recommend it to other hikers, though. It comes in a larger floor-plan for couples who are hiking together and want more elbow room.

 

Dirty Girl Gaiters

In mid-winter I wore thick, water-proof gaiters to keep out the snow and wet. When the weather warmed, however, I wanted a lightweight/breathable option to keep the twigs and rocks out of my shoes. An extensive search led me to Dirty Girl Gaiters, a cottage industry run out of Arizona by long distance runner Xy Weiss. I’ve been super pleased with these gaiters: they’re lightweight, relatively cool, and they do their job. I like the fact that these attach to your shoe with adhesive velcro rather than a strap under the sole that will wear away over time. Perhaps the only inconvenient thing about these gaiters is that they’re not machine-washable; so every few days you have to scrub them in a sink or a creek. They clean off easily, though.

DSC_7548

Dirty Girl Gaiters cost $20 and come in a variety of loud colors and patterns (I was sheepish and selected a tame, solid color). When I placed my order they shipped the same day and were waiting for me in the next trail town. I have no complaints with these gaiters, and I highly recommend them if you have any issues keeping debris out of your shoes. Here’s the website: http://www.dirtygirlgaiters.com/

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