Day 95 – Family Focus

It’s wonderful to have something special to focus on when your slogging through the miles everyday, and my favorite is meeting up with Marc, Davis, and Ann. They visited in Harpers Ferry last weekend and my excitement built as the weekend neared.

There are many hours during some days when hiking is simply pushing yourself to keep going, rather than feeling the miles fly by. That’s when it’s especially critical to feel the pull of something good to keep you moving along. I had these three to keep my focus positive:

We all pick daily mileage goals and usually have a couple spots picked for camping that night. Basically, you can pitch your tent anywhere along most of the route, so its enticing to stop early some days. Knowing you have someplace to be by a certain date on down the trail can make it easier, as long as you don’t make it into a grind.

I had to let go of my goal to reach Harpers Ferry by the time they arrived and instead figure out how to find a shuttle driver to Harpers Ferry once I was out of Shenandoah National Park. It was so much more fun to hike after I reduced the pressure on myself, had the shuttle lined up, and could enjoy the hike while anticipating their visit.

One lesson made clear on this journey is you can easily turn your dream into a trap by making up rules and schedules which are only in your head, like “I must be there by….” The reality is I can usually jump off trail at the next road crossing by having a shuttle driver meet me there, and then drop me back when I’m ready.

It’s a great life lesson, too. Much of the pressure I feel, is put upon me by myself. I don’t need to add pressure to my journey or arbitrarily create schedules when they aren’t needed. Right now, I’m trying to remember that wherever I am on the trail is exactly where I need to be, and no other expectation really matters.

In the meantime, I’m glad to have perks and extra encouragement from friends and family to help me stay focused on moving forward to Katahdin. It sure helps the daily grind be the daily hike instead.

Day 83 – Rainy Days

Today is the first day I actually came off trail because of bad weather. I hiked 7 miles before I came off and was thoroughly soaked and cold. It had been raining since 1 PM the day before, and I decided to go to a hotel where I would be warm and dry. It turns out many of my hiker friends did almost the exact same thing today.

Hiking in the rain is okay. Being soaked all the way through your rain gear and having wet shoes to wear and a wet tent to sleep in is not so much fun, especially when you’ve been in rain nearly every day of the last 49 days – since the middle of April.

It’s far easier to think of all the miseries associated with constant rain, so I challenged hiker friends to come up with things we like about rain:

1) No snakes when it’s raining, including timber rattlers

2) It’s usually much cooler too, which is terrific for hiking as long as you stay dry enough not to shiver when your core cools down after you stop. (Three of us were shivering so much today we had to pick up the pace.)

3) It keeps the mosquitos, gnats, no-see-ums, sweat bees, and all those other pesky flying insects from swirling around your head and biting you.

4) We don’t have to wear a brimmed hat or sunscreen, but we do pull on the hood of our rain jackets.

5) We are grateful for the additional water sources, as every spring and wet weather creek is full of water. Here in Virginia we have had longer mileage between some water sources, so having unexpected refill spots is very nice.

One of my friends back home suggested quiet time contemplating, which is a plus. However, we usually hike alone for hours and hours every day, so we have lots of thinking time, rain or shine.

Even though we had four days without rain last week and a couple days that it only rained right as we set up camp, when the rain started back again three days ago it was very discouraging. Let me give you some background facts to set the stage:

  • A part of I-40 by the Great Smoky Mtns was closed due to mudslide from rain a few weeks ago.
  • The highway I was picked up from today was closed two weeks ago, because of mudslides across the highway.
  • Virginia set its record rainfall for May this year.
  • Four miles of the AT near Harper’s Ferry, was five feet under water several days ago.

This is my typical day in multi-day rainstorms:

I awake and look around at the wet clothes hanging in my tent. The smell of mildew hits me full force as I dress, but thankfully some clothes are just damp and I put them on hoping body heat dries them quickly. I unzip my rainfly and look out at the mist and fog, glad it isn’t actually raining because I need to run out of the tent for a potty break.

Hurrying back, I carefully plop my hind-end inside the tent door, leaving my feet outside until I can take off my mud covered camp shoes. I try in vain to wipe the dirt and wet leaf bits off my feet before pulling them inside the tent. If it isn’t raining yet, then it’s back outside soon to cook breakfast and coffee, where I huddle on a foam pad placed on a rock or log to keep my shorts dry.

Then I pack up my stuff and put it into my backpack, covering it with it’s rain cover in case it starts raining before my tent is down. Then I take my soaking wet rainfly and stuff it into its bag with the tent, where all will be thoroughly wet until I (hopefully) have a chance to dry it when the sun comes out. Finally, I put on my last dry socks and then put on my wet boots, knowing the boots may soak my socks all the way through.

Now I am all set to make another crucial decision: raincoat or no raincoat? Going uphill in a raincoat is like being in a sauna. Leaving off my raincoat with a gentle rain is the best option, but if it suddenly downpours…, then I am as soaked as if I fell in a river.

Finally I start hiking. It’s 8 am and I am stepping in mud right away, hopping around puddles and looking for high ground when the path is completely flooded. Much of the time I walk straight up running water as the path is now a little creek. Lately, I notice lots of newly fallen trees across the path, tumbled when the saturated earth could no longer hold them. I climb up and over the branches and trunks, thankful none fell as I hiked along.

Rocks and tree roots are especially slippery, so I hike slower than I would like, to keep from twisting an ankle or knee, or stepping into a hole covered by water.

Squish, squish, squish go my feet. I come to a view point. It’s fogged in and I see nothing. Squish, squish, squish and I arrive at a shelter and sit for awhile wondering if the sun will come out so I can dry my tent. I didn’t take earlier breaks because everything was soaking wet, and it’s no fun opening your pack in the rain. Scooting back against the shelter wall, I eat lunch and ask other hikers if they have an updated weather report. Everyone hopes the sun will come out. Then I close my pack, make the raincoat decision for the umpteenth time that day and keep hiking.

As I near the place I want to camp, I mentally go through my packed clothes, assuring myself I have something dry to wear that night for sleeping, and hoping the rain will stop long enough to set up my tent. Muddy boots come off and wet camp shoes are put on. Dinner is made. I check the weather report and say goodnight to fellow hikers. It’s 8 pm and I’ve hiked fifteen or more miles through another wet and foggy day. As I lay down to sleep, I think about how lucky I am to be able to do this hike and am still glad to be on the AT.

Day 47 – Bears

We have been warned about bears pretty much consistently by every Ridgerunner, park ranger, and other experienced person along the trail for six weeks now. We diligently hang our food bags (even though it’s really hard sometimes to hang on a high branch), and use the bear containers or bear cables whenever they’re available. One time we used a very secure back door to a trash bin to keep all our food. Mice were our primary concern at that shelter.

These videos show you how much work it is to hang food bags, which for some reason we call bear bags. Ironic, isn’t it?

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Sometimes a Shelter area will have bear cables, which make it much easier to hang the bags well. They are on pulleys and have handles to pull them up and down, with clips to hold them in place. Bears haven’t figured out the pulley system yet. Look closely and you can see the cable system in this photo after a freezing rain.

I have to admit most the time I think I’m hanging my food bag to keep the mice from getting my food more than worrying about bears. Still, all those past stories of bears dragging hikers out of their tents because they had a candy bar in their pocket come back to haunt me as dusk settles and I snuggle into my sleeping bag.

A couple of days ago we were near an area closed due to aggressive bear activity, and when we stopped to pick up a friend’s mail drop at a nice hostel and campground, we decided we would just camp there. It would be 7 miles before we were completely out of the bear zone and we didn’t want to hike that far after 4 o’clock.

A fellow thru hiker, Smoke, decided to hike on and made it to the outer edge boundary of the Bear zone. He was the only one camping at his campsite, and in the middle of the night he heard something large moving around his tent. It became pretty plain it was two bears circling his tent and looking for something to eat. While he frantically googled what to do about bears, they continued sniffing around until they found the source of the smell that lured them to his site.

It was his food bag, which was not too close to his tent and hanging in a tree about 10 feet off the ground and a few feet from the branch and trunk. He thought he had done a pretty good job of hanging his food bag, but in the morning it was gone – not a trace of the bag, the food in it, or even the rope he used to tie it off. The bears had snatched it all and taken off.

Although there was much consolation that they just took the food bag and didn’t bother him, he was about 17 miles from a road. His guidebook listed a barbecue place that would deliver meals to that road crossing, so his plan was to hike as hard and fast as he could and make it by dinner, order two meals to be delivered and hike on to Damascus the next day, another 21 miles.

Fortunately for him, there were trail angels at that highway who had tons of food, fed him well, then gave them a lift to town where his dad could come meet him. He must’ve been doubly lucky, because his dad had already planned to come meet him the next day and wasn’t too far away. Many dollars later, he had a new food bag, cook stove and food, and his dad was bringing him back where he left off just as we were enjoying the same trail angels’ generosity the next day.

We all quizzed Smoke about how he hung his bag, where he was, and what it sounded like. You can believe we are much more careful to hang our food bag according to protocol now.

I’m glad we hung our bag so well that next night, because although nothing happened on the forest service road trail where we were camped, two other friends who camped right on the trail had bears prowling around their tent that night. They didn’t have their food bag stolen, so I guess we are becoming better at hanging food bags!

Day 36 – It’s Tough

We interrupt this regularly scheduled post to bring you an important announcement about upcoming weather on the AT:

Rain and more rain. RV’ers east of us are being evacuated right now as rain continues. We’ve been hiking in it three days and were glad when Wingman told us there were bunks still available at Greasy Creek Hostel. We cut our hike short a couple miles and took the side trail .6 miles to the hostel, and we are drying out quite nicely. Stud has his truck here, so he took us to a diner where we filled up on a good hot meal and came back to a fire in the wood stove and movies on roku in CeeCee’s main house. CeeCee even offered free glasses of Merlot. Great idea!

Tomorrow we plan to slack pack 12 miles and stay here again as the rain is predicted to be even harder and all day.

Slack packing is when you take only what you need for a day hike and a shuttle picks you up and brings you back to your stuff. At this hostel, they drop you twelve miles north and you hike southbound back. It’s much faster, and we are excited to have a chance to make miles in less time.

I can now say only 6 days of the 36 I’ve hiked have been the kind of weather someone at home thinking of hiking would actually say “Yes, let’s go for a hike!”

There were two nice days I was off trail to meet Melynn and to watch my niece, Charlotte (#17), play lacrosse at college not far from the trail. They are first in their conference and whooped the opposition. Great game! The other 28 days…. let’s just say if I invited you to hike any of those days you would have said “Heck No!”

Never the less, most thru hikers still come to camp happy they are hiking the AT and I am definitely in that group!

I just know the trees on top of the mountains will eventually leaf out with warm spring days. Right now the trees are not even pushing bud. One day soon I won’t believe it was cold for so long, but now the last freezing night was only five days ago when we awoke to 27 degrees, frozen water bottles and wind so cold and harsh I thought the left side of my face was heading for frostbite.

So, the rain is terribly unpleasant and it’s hard not to be too cold or too hot as you fend off rain in rain jackets and pants, while your inner core temperature shoots up with the effort of hiking mountains, but… it hasn’t been lower than 43 degrees or so since that last very cold night five days ago. The “warmer” temps give me hope we will soon be hiking in sunny days with spring all around us.

In the meantime, I hope Melynn isn’t too bummed out about the rain as it looks like we have a few more days of rain before the sun will come out and give us a day anyone would be glad to say “Yes, let’s go for a hike!” If anyone else wants to join me for a few fun days in the trail, check out my tracker on the mail drops page and let me know when to look for you!

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