Sunday, September 25, 2011

Maine: The Final Frontier

This has been a difficult story to conclude. Part of me doesn't want it to end. Each time I was asked when the blog would be finished was an opportunity to reminisce and maybe tell a story or two out loud, as they are meant to be shared. But, as we are off on yet another adventure, I suppose the time has come to bring this one to a close. Or this chapter at least. We intend to continue using this blog to record our various voyages, though it is probably best not to put any sort of a time frame on these sorts of things. So, where were we...?
We had taken a pass on the White Mountains in order to spare my deflicted shoulder the wear and tear of the seemingly most arduous summits of the trail. We found ourselves confronted by obstacles that paled in comparison to what lay behind us. What Maine peaks lack in elevation, they more than make up for with sheer number and sheer sheerness. As soon as we crossed the boarder into Maine, the trail took a rapid rise up and continued in this direction. We climbed on into the sub-alpine region, an area populated with low shrubs and Balsam Fir. The Firs would follow us up our assent and give forewarning of our arrival at one summit after another. As we reached a high point, the trees would get shorter and shorter. By the time we broke tree line, we would feel like giants, trudging upwards past ancient trees only a foot tall. Some of the oldest trees are those unassuming dwarfs on the tops of mountains, where their growth is slowed and stunted by the elements. It is from these trees that the practice of Bonsai originated. It is believed that insight can be gained from the contemplation of their gnarled forms, and so people wished to have a version in their own homes. Though I do not disagree with the art, I feel much of the insight is gained on the trek to such harsh environs and the miracle that anything at all survives there.
It was here I developed my List of The PHLO's favorite smells. 1. Balsam Fir on a windswept ridge. 2. Honey Locust blossoms in spring (Hot Springs, NC) 3. Bacon anytime. The balsam formed pockets beneath the bark about the size of a Lima bean. When pressed, the most fabulous smell would fill the air, a fresh evergreen aroma mixed with mystery and the promise of wild places, with just a hint of loneliness. All this blown into my face by the purest air, swept up from wooded valleys known only to squirrels and moose. I realize that some of the above description is not generally regarded as attributable to smells, suffice it to say it is an olfactory experience beyond words. The view shares this downfall. (change)
We would go up, up inclines better than 45 degrees. Up climbs I would have thought impossible, if not for 6 months of practice. Up and up. Up so steep that the trail two paces ahead of us was at eye level. Then the the trail would turn to living bedrock exposed by years of water running from the balds above. The rain cut a trail as much as two feet below the forest floor around us, though this difference disappeared rapidly on the accent, as there is little soil at all as one approaches the alpine region. And we would leave the last miniature sentinels of the Fir and scramble over bare rock. The first few peaks were rounded crags, a welcome break from elevation change and we looked out in wonder. No towns, no highways, only a single dirt road winding its way and tracing a thin brown line along the valleys below. And in place of villages and burroughs in the low places were multitudinous lakes and ponds. If there is one thing that may rival mountains for abundance in Maine, it is lakes. As I traced the path of the wooded road, I saw a house on one lake nearby and off the dock was not a boat but a puddle jumper, or pontoon plane. This was the first difference we saw between Mainers and people in other parts of the US, but not the last. And then, after taking in the view, we would proceed down downhills that felt more like controlled falls. Or uncontrolled falls. At one point, on such a decent, I lost my footing and saw the ground rushing up at me. I don't know what prevented the usual instinct to catch one's self, but I tucked and rolled instead. My shoulder touched lightly on the trail and my weight rolled on. Then my pack hit the ground and vaulted me back into the air, where I performed an unconscious flip and found myself landing nimbly on my feet. I doubt I could ever replicate the maneuver if I tried, but Julia was awestruck. Perhaps I was a ninja in a past life. Either way I saved myself from a broken wrist at best and a skull fracture at worst. Ah, the excitement of trail life. It was also on one of these descents that Julia made a key discovery. When demanding how I was able to sprint down the sides of these near cliffs, I replied that it was just one foot in front of the other, and you find the flattest point in front of you and step on it. She responded that she couldn't even make out these flatter spots and that the trail was just a blur when she walked. After a few miles of considering this and playing the “OK, can you see that (insert random far away thing)?” game, we realized that she needed glasses. Which would explain, at least in part, why she was always so much slower than me, especially on downhills and around twilight. Unfortunately we were in the middle of nowhere, and Lenscrafter's was a long way off. She finally got glasses in Long Island, and looks very professional, yet alluring in them, but at the time, we had no choice but to press on.
Then we left the 'foothills' of Maine and got into some real mountains. These were like the others, but when we broke treeline, there were no rounded tops, only bare rock ascents requiring the use of both hands to hold on. All the while we were buffeted by strong winds, and would look over our shoulders an know that one wrong step would equal a 200 foot unchecked roll over bare rocks, ending in a likely-fatal crash into the trees below. I was loving it. I'll attribute this to confidence gained while rock climbing. Julia was less enthused. But we survived each climb and were rewarded with views greater than before. We would look ahead and one of us would ask the other where they thought the trail went. And the other would point at every jagged summit, one by one, and sarcastically declare that to be the route. And it invariably was.
It was on one of these crags that we ran into a spry woman in her mid-fifties. Over the din of gale-force winds, she told us she lived a few miles from the bottom of the mountain and was training to hike Mt. Katahdin with some friends in 2 weeks. She then gave us some fresh veggies she had brought up in case she ran into distance hikers. I had only experimented with tomatoes occasionally on burgers up to this point; they were one of a very short list of foods I did not like. But the zip-lock of cherry tomatoes she gave us was a glorious discovery. They were little packages of juicy goodness, packed full of the vitamins and minerals my body was starved for. I think the 'list of foods I don't like' is now completely empty.
*A brief side note: In the previous blog entry I referred to The PHLO's eastern brewery tour as having 4 stops up the trail. It was actually 5. I forgot to count the Great Smokey Mountain Brewery in Gatlinburg TN which was excellent.
Eventually we fell into the rhythm of Maine, and noted considerable improvement as we trudged up one peak and and vaulted down the other side. We weren't even surprised to come across pieces of rebar jutting out of bare rocks to make some places negotiable. We did take a moment to appreciate a giant ladder-type structure leaning against a cliff face (i.e. trail) at one point. The ladder was made entirely of logs approximately 2 feet in diameter and reaching up at least fifty feet. Tricky to climb with packs weighing us backwards towards oblivion. I had already made it up, and Julia was about ten feet from the top when she remarked, “You know, I don't see anything holding this in place.” Huh. Well waddya know. Ah, Maine.
The ladder was just one example of the crazy feats the local trail maintainers pull off. In the final week we would run into a crew who would bribe us with Cliff Bars in exchange for help in moving giant logs into place, two side by side, and holding them while the crew leader sawed off a strip along their entire length. This is how they made the bridges we walked over in the swampy lowlands. They also tried to explain how they used a block and tackle to move rough hewn rocks the size of a conventional stove onto the trail to form a step in staircases that would go on for over a quarter-mile in a stretch. They tried to explain it, but I refuse to believe it until I see it with my own eyes. The trail crew was comprised entirely of LL Bean employees, who maintain the final 100 or so miles of the AT leading to Baxter State Park, home of Mt. Katahdin. I just got a new pair of LL Bean hiking shoes today, and they are awesome, as were all the other pairs of their shoes I have owned. I told them of my love for their company, now doubled after having met the people who make it happen. They appreciated it, and we swapped gear stories and ridiculed Patagonia for their insane prices and shoddy products. Their customer service is also crap.
But that run in was in the low lands of the Hundred mile wilderness, and we had far to travel yet. First we had to tackle the Mahoosic Notch. The Mahoosic Notch is listed in the Appalachian pages as either the hardest or most fun mile on the AT. That's all it says. So, knowing how we hike, we walked past the shelter and Cowboy Camped (under the stars, no tent) on a small flat patch near the last water source before the Notch. That night I was completely unable to sleep, a rarity on trail. I laid awake and watched a beautiful moon make its way slowly across the sky. As dawn began to break, I was finally able to end my contemplations and get a few hours rest. We roused ourselves early and headed down into the unknown.
The Notch turned out to be a huge boulder field and required some pretty delicate scrambles. On two occasions, we had to shove our packs through tiny caves, then wriggle our way through behind them. On either side were gigantic cliff faces reaching up to the clouds. In all, it took over four hours to travel the one mile to flat ground. Sore and exhausted, we grabbed a campsite immediately after the notch, probably created by weary hikers such as ourselves. As we made camp, we were harassed by an adorable chipmunk. We got some great pictures of him bear-hugging our plastic honey bear, but later cursed him for stealing some of our trail mix. It's hard to stay mad a creature that cute, especially one who would let you get less than a foot away and take pictures. We made an early night of it, and were asleep before the sun had set.
The trail in Maine was lonely, desolate, and stunningly beautiful. This was what I had expected, I think, when I set out on the trail. No towns, no friends, just us, our gear, and the unknown wilderness. It blends together in a mosaic of bogs and fall foliage, near falls and harrowing climbs. A departure from civilization unfound elsewhere on the eastern coast.

The Phlo's moose stories:
Soon after entering Maine, I began to see signs of large ungulates; hoof-prints as big as my hand and scat larger than marbles. One particular evening, as twilight crept in, we passed a series of wooded lakes on the way to the shelter. I had a strange feeling, and remarked to Julia that we were going to see a moose. For no reason, I was positive of this and continued to insist that,”Oh, man. We're going to see a moose today!” Within ten minutes, we reached the shore of a ~4 acre lake, and in its center was a female moose, mostly submerged. I excitedly tried to photograph it, but the light was too poor and the distance too great. None the less, I felt satisfied. One of my biggest hopes of the trail had just been satisfied. It was not the last time.
A week or so later, we were hiking the top of a barren ridge and came to a sign marking a side trail. It wasn't in our book, but having been living the trail life for so long, we felt confident the trail would descend into the valley and meet up with the trail again. More hiker's intuition than sound judgment, I suppose, but we set off down the trail anyway. There is a great joy to be found on Blue Blazed Trails. The moss grows thick and the leaves have not yet been trampled brown. No tracks mark the passage of man, and we have no trail guide to consult. As we continued on, there was a crash like a dump truck trying it trail legs, and we saw a gigantic brown butt disappearing through the undergrowth. We stopped and looked at each other. It was either the world's largest deer, or we had just been within 50 feet of a full grown moose. We considered ourselves very lucky, and doubly so when the trail rejoined the AT.
And then, a week or so after this encounter, we happened to be hiking a remote section of trail in the late evening. Twilight had given way to a star filled sky, and I was just thinking about taking out my headlamp, as the final traces of sunlight left the sky. I heard a noise off the trail a few meters, but assumed it to be a squirrel. A moment later there was a tremendous crash that could only be one thing. I stopped, frozen, then turned slowly to see who else was hiking at this late hour. Fifteen feet (FEET) behind me stood a full grown Bull Moose. It paused on the trail I had just walked and eyed me. I could see its steamy breath blowing in twin cones from nostrils above my head. I was in awe of the primordial beast, its great cyclopean hump covered in coarse hair reminiscent of mastodon exhibits I had seen in museums. It was the wildness of the landscape embodied, and it was staring me in the face. I could do naught but stare back. As our silent moment stretched on, I realized that this massive creatures horn's were easily wider than I was tall. I took a slow side-step behind a nearby tree. At that moment, a light came on 40 or so feet behind the moose. The monstrous mammal ponderously turned its head and looked agitatedly back. I prayed that Julia had seen the creature and wasn't about to startle it into charging. I felt the back of my throat tighten as I considered the possibility of doing battle with this creature of the Old World, to distract it, and hopefully save my companion. I can imagine worse deaths, for surely there would be no other outcome. The moose turned back to me and gave an irritated snort. Not wishing to be cornered, even by such insignificant threats, it shuffled off the trail and was gone, with all the grace of an avalanche. I let out the breath I didn't know I had been holding. On this trail, I had encountered bears and rattlesnakes in close proximity, but they were nothing like this. The moose could have killed me without a thought. It was more a force of nature than a single creature. It stirred some last vestige of caveman instinct in me, and left me dumbfounded. It was more like the feeling after experiencing a brutal lightning storm and living to tell the tale. Adrenaline pumping, but overwhelming any fear, the knowledge that I had just witnessed something truly beautiful. I will never forget that moment. Being face to face with Bull Moose and not feeling out of place.

And why were we out so late? Poor planing? A undue fondness for breaks? Maybe, but I think more it was a love of the experience itself. Just as the trail varies along it's length, so do night-hikes vary, and posses their own charm. From our early night hikes, rolling into shelters a little after dark and finding every occupant sound asleep, to rainy nights in Virginia, to cornfields in PA, each provided a break from the monotony of trail life. In Virginia, as we picked our way down a slope, the setting sun turned the heavy cloud cover into a roiling blood red sea. In Pennsylvania, we paused at the edge of a field so packed with lightning bugs that my brain ached trying to take it all in. I imagined I was staring at a vast and tiny metropolis, or maybe an electron field. I felt like a giant and a particle all at the same time. Mostly I felt lucky, and infinitely grateful to be exactly where I was. Night-hiking in Maine was no exception. We did this several times, and each time I was struck by how silent it was. Night fell like a soft blanket here, and even our own footfalls were swallowed up in the darkness. No town lights interrupted our vistas and no bugs dared venture so high up the mountains. We were alone in the darkness, picking our way along the trail we had followed so far.
We had the opportunity in Maine to stay at one of our favorite hostels. We came out of the woods and onto one of the very few roads, and met a hiker waiting for a ride into Andover, courtesy of the hostel. We figured hitching would get us nowhere and when the ride arrived, we hopped on and decided to make a day of our resupply. It was here we found the legendary ( at least to children of the trail) jewelry maker of the AT. He was a gentleman of Native American ancestry, and I guessed him to be around fifty. He was the one who gave us a ride into town, and assisted the woman who owned the hostel. I guessed her to be around a hundred. After we had gone food shopping and ate at the local diner, we lounged on the porch with a SoBo and a long-term hiker known as Stickman. The man who had given us the ride, and who's name I have regrettably forgotten, approached our group and said, “You guys wanna see my shit?” Huh? Beg pardon? “Oh yeah, I got a whole shed full of cool shit.” None of us wanting to miss an opportunity, we followed him to his workshop, where he showed us his full line of Moose Poop jewelry. That's right. Moose Poop Jewelry. As he showed us various necklaces and key chains, he educated us on the finer points of moose droppings. He explained that it's the cleanest poop there is, and he dries it and coats it with a sealant, then turns it into jewelry. My mother and brother's shared birthday had passed recently, so I bought them some souvenirs. Julia also got a set of earrings for her mother and they were mailed to Long Island. I don't know what happened to them, but Doris, if you're reading this and didn't immediately throw them away, please forward my family their one-of-a-kind AT keepsakes. Rob's key chain even had a little white blaze on it. Sorry we forgot about them in the post-trail chaos, but rest assured, they are something you can treasure for a lifetime. Not to mention being one heck of a conversation starter.
The other hostel we stayed at in Maine was nothing special, but the town of Monson was probably the coolest. That and Helen, GA. No phony-bologna Bavarian theme here though. Quite the opposite. There were two businesses we saw, one being a laundry mat / bar. The machines were in front, and down a tight hallway was a hidden speakeasy packed to the gills with about a dozen locals and hiker trash. We bought a drink for Patty-O, the truest trail angel we had met. More about him in a second. The other place of business was the General Store, and I mean General. It was also the only restaurant, serving awesome all-you-can-eat french toast for dirt cheap. It was also the post office, town notary, office of the Fire Marshal, movie rental shop, and hardware store. Our guidebook only marked it as a resupply and added that they held a Friday night jam session. I had assumed hippie, jam-band type music, and thought it might be a fun way to spend a Friday night. We stepped into the store at 10, well after closing time and after hikers bedtimes, and felt as though we were intruding on a very intimate scene. There sat the owner of the store (and postmaster, and fire marshal, etc) holding a guitar, along with two other guitar players, a banjo player, a fiddle, and a tin whistle(I think) player. I just re-watched the video and got goose bumps. There they were, playing songs handed down from times of antiquity, the purest bluegrass, with no audience but a few travel worn hikers and themselves. They welcomed us in and we stood by, unable to do anything but take it all in. They asked if any of us could sing and we said no. If I had only known they were about to bust into Johnny Cash, I would have answered otherwise, but we watched as they played on into the night. When they were finished, they packed up, wished each other well and made their way home. We told the owner how incredible what we had just seen was, and he seemed to share our feelings. He said they had been getting together every Friday for 6 years, except for one blizzard that snowed their doors shut. They're a hardy breed, Mainers. He said he was going to sell the place, and the weekly Jam session came with it. I think that alone would be worth the asking price, which was incredibly low. Anyone reading this who wants to make a change in there lives, I'd consider this one. This was to be our last night in civilization on the trail, and I couldn't imagine a more perfect send-off into the hundred mile wilderness.
But Patty-O. We descended from a mountain and came face to face with a large orange sign stating “Road work ahead.” Odd. Some worker with a sense of humor, I guess. Or a SoBo vandal. Either way, we were next to the third of five roads the trail crosses in Maine. One to Andover, a weeks march behind us, the Grafton Notch road, which we had stealth camped next to, and this one. We could hear a car or two through the trees, but we noticed a campsite along the trail, and decided to camp and go in to town the following day, as darkness was approaching. As we unpacked, we saw more tents farther back in the trees. Next thing we knew, Stickman was inviting us over to his campfire, where he introduced us to a pair of hikers on their second through hike; this time headed south. I can't remember their names, but they looked like the actors they have on Discovery Channel specials, the ones about neanderthals and early man. Except they wore dirty Goretex instead of dirty leather. They had something delicious cooking on the fire, and were all around good people. They clued us in to one of the ultimate cold weather camping recipes: AT Apple Jacks. In a steel cup or pot, mix two packets of apple cider powdered drink mix, 4 ounces of Bourbon, and 4 ounces of water. Heat uncovered until the first bubbles appear, and add one or two soft caramel candies. Hard candy may also work. Heat again, stirring until candy is dissolved. We sat by the fire and swapped stories as dusk closed in around us, diffusing through the northern woods like dye in clear water. As darkness became complete, our hosts asked if we had met Patty-O. We said we hadn’t even heard of him. We had been hiking pretty much on our own since we started Maine. The difference between the beginning of the trail stood out starkly. They told us that Patty-O was a first rate trail angel, though he didn't advertise. He was also the originator of the Trail Bomb. They couldn't remember exactly what it was, just that we should say yes if offered one. Just then, some headlights sent their shards out through the night, dodging between branches and stabbing the smoke of our fire with electronic power-glow. “That must be him,” one of the cavemen said. “He was bringing back Sailor and the rest of that crew. Let's go say hello.” So Graveyard and I got up and went with him and Stickman to meet Patty-O, leaving the cavewoman to tend the fire and Apple Jacks. Patty-O was a friendly guy in his late thirties, or so, who drove a large truck, loaded with odd boxes, hoses, coolers and gadgets, all mostly covered by a tarp. He let out the four hikers he had with him, and came over to say hi, having met our associates earlier. It all started casually, just chatting about this or that, weather, trail life, etc. Then, Patty-O would casually interject and ask if we wanted a soda. Then fifteen minutes later, “Hey, do you want a beer?” And he would reach under his tarp and produce a Budweiser. We continued talking; found out he was an engineer from New York who comes up here as his vacation for a week or two every year. He gave a thru-hiker a ride a few years back, and fell in love with the trail and its residents. He was also a huge fan of music, and several hours later, we were all singing along to Frank Sinatra and eating hot dogs with bacon while drinking trail bombs. The hot dogs and bacon were cooked out of the back of the truck on a propane grill, which explained some of the piping. I assume Patty-O is a pretty excellent engineer. The trail bombs were similar to an Irish Car Bomb, except with Wild Turkey 101 instead of Jameson. Quite a luxury in the wilderness, and thanks to the climate, cold and refreshing too. So we called it a night. The next morning, we packed up, said goodbye to our site-mates, and started hitching. It was a lousy spot, and about 45 minutes had gone by when Patty-O pulled in. He gave us a ride to town, and dropped us off at a little pizza place. As we tried to hitch back to the trail, we see Patty-O again, and he picks us up again. We then went on to the next town, a three hour drive, but about 80 miles of trail. After settling in to the hostel, we ventured out again, and ran into Patty-O, dropping off a hiker at the bar/laundry mat, and that ends the back story of Patty-O. We had a great night's sleep at the hostel, after familiar episode of the Simpsons (funny the details that stick with you over a year later). We ran into Moe! again that morning, as she sorted through a mail drop outside on the lawn of the hostel. We spent the morning talking with her and a few others about life and the trail. It's end was drawing near. This was our last town before the Hundred mile wilderness, and we sat outside the Last Homely House and reflected. We had come a long way since meeting Moe! on the northern side of the Great Smokey Mountains, and we all had innumerable stories, but we spoke more generally at our last meeting. Things such as life after the trail, lessons learned, and our view on the rest of the world. We had dropped off the map, and the rest of the world was a little different than we had left it. You don't really notice the trends at the time when you're in society, only afterward when looking back. Oh, the music changed, the styles changed. But the change is counted by decade. After six months of having our fingers off the pulse, we realized the beat had changed subtly. It was on these things that we spoke, until the morning had passed and afternoon was well underway. We knew it was time for us to shoulder our packs and throw out our thumbs for one last hitch on our quest for Katahdin.
This turned out to be easier than expected when 10 minutes later Patty-O pulled up, and off we went. He dropped us of as the sun dipped below a mountainous horizon, and treated us each to a parting hot dog with bacon. Patty-O is the Merlin of trail magic. We watched him depart and used the last remaining light to pitch a stealth camp on an old logging road a few hundred yards in. The next morning,we broke camp, walked 50 paces and ran into the following...

A nice cheery message to start the day.

The Hundred Mile Wilderness:
The first thirty miles was high elevation hiking much as before, but significantly colder. A strong wind blew constantly, and the sun refused to show itself, but there was no precipitation, just early morning fog that chilled to the bone and made an early start a foreboding prospect. It was relatively uneventful, until we got to the next to highest peak we would climb. You see, the trail drops to almost sea level in the last 70 miles before Katahdin. We were to reach the pre-Katahdin zenith on a cold and misty day. “No view of Katahdin today,” we lamented, still wrapped in or sleeping bags. But we rose and hiked on. As we drew near to the pinnacle, the skies cleared, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped. A few hikers sat huddled out of the wind as best they could. “Where's Katahdin?” I cried against the wind, and they pointed to a path amongst some boulders that led to the windward side of the mountain. “Don't get your hopes up, it's not the close one,” they called after. I emerged from the rocks and looked across a vast plain with the most enormous mountain I had ever seen directly in the middle of it. That's not it? The mountain in front of me appeared no more than 30 miles off as the crow flies, so I strained to see Katahdin. I took some pictures of a distant mountain I hoped might be our mountain. I had forgotten 2 crucial things about hiking. Never assume that 'as the crow flies' has the slightest bearing on 'as the hiker hikes,' and two; never trust anybody's word on on anything related to time, distance, or location while in the wilderness.
We descended from the barren peak, and found autumn laid out before us in full splendor. A view presented itself a few hundred vertical feet above the plains. The temperature had climbed 20 degrees and the wind was no longer howling. It was a pleasant breeze that smelled of pollen and living things. We took in the view and were joined by Sailor J, one of the hikers we had seem disembarking from Patty-O's Patty Wagon. As we looked out on the final stretch of our six month endeavor, we didn't swap stories, or say much of anything, just looked out on the flat terrain of the great wilds of Maine. Small ponds abounded and there wasn't an elevation climb in sight. The weather was gorgeous, and we sat in silence, taking it in. We crushed the last 5 miles as if they were a stroll. We walked through tunnels of brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows, highlighted by fringes of green in the undergrowth. Sailor J had hiked on to meet his trail crew, and we made camp in a shelter less than 70 miles from the pinnacle of Mt. Kahtadin. That night we heard a tale of love from a traveling poet who met a woman speed hiking the Long Trail in Vermont. They had hiked together for days and vowed to reunite after their respective journeys. He shared with us and our shelter mates some of his poetry, and we were reminded that beauty and wonder abound in many places and in many forms. The next morning we took water at a pristine stream and resolved to set off at a rugged pace. We hiked hard, our trail legs stretching out as we left the hardest section of trail for the easiest. The ground was wet, and at times we walked on well-maintained wooden walkways. As Graveyard demonstrates below, the walkways were essential.

We killed the first ten miles before lunch, and it was on this day that we ran into the trail maintenance crew from LL Bean mentioned earlier. We hiked on, less than ten miles from a hostel that offered 1 pound burgers. We were on pace to reach there well before sunset and Graveyard sang a hiking tune centered around the deliciousness of a one pound burger. And then she made the punt of her life. She slipped on a patch of trail and swung her other foot to catch herself. She succeed in not falling, but broke her toe in the process. After venting and walking it off, we set out again, and realized within 100 yards that we were done for the day. We rested her huge purple toe and lamented on our meal of noodles and the lack of burgers. The next day we tried to hike the remaining four miles to the hostel, but only made it three. We rested again, and that evening Julia elevated her feet on our backpacks while I made a cold compress by dipping a bandana in the stream. We made it to the hostel the next day, blew an air horn, and waited while a man made his was across the slow moving river to our location. We ate our burgers gladly, cheers-ed our friends from our last shelter, and inquired about a ride to Abol, given Graveyards deflicted toe. They wanted us to stay at their place over night for $80, and then pay further for the ride. We considered having Graveyard go ahead, and I would meet her in in Baxter, but we started this trail together, and we weren't about to separate now, so we spent the last of our money on extra rations and went back across the river. We kept our mileage to 5 or so a day, and Julia's toe slowly started to heal. We were able to get a call out to Julia's Mom, and she gave us the nurse-ly advice that there is nothing a hospital can do for a broken toe, and we should just Rest it. Plus Ice, Compression, and Elevation. RICE. Easy to remember. Fortunately, as we drew within two days of our Katahdin assault, her toe was feeling up to snuff. We rolled in to Abol bridge at the boundary of Baxter National Park. We “resupplied” (mostly Snickers, more Snickers, and a Three Musketeers bar for variety) and took in the spectacular sight of this mountain we had pursued so long. Outside, two hunters from New York were checking in a moose they had shot. They were stoked about their 500 pound catch, but the owner of the store whispered to us that it was “a little one.” We ate dinner, and decided to take one last night hike. We entered Baxter as full dark came on. After pondering the entrance sign to the park, and the accompanying weather forecast, we knew that tomorrow would be our day. We left the white blazes again, taking a shortcut to reach base camp. But how can you pass up something called the Blueberry Trail? And as all blue blazes, it was great. The stars are beautiful when you're 20 miles from the nearest residence.
Just as we began to fear we had lost the trail, we heard voices echoing through the woods. After 10 minutes of pseudo-bushwhacking, we came to the Birches; last shelter of the Appalachian Trail. Sailor J was tending the fire, and the rest of his crew had just retired. We exchanged a warm greeting, made camp, and fell asleep immediately. I had expected to be anxious and too excited to sleep, but physical exhaustion took over.

The next morning we awoke at dawn and joined our fellow ascenders around our last campfire of the AT. Sweet Lou made us all some pancakes and we enjoyed them with the last of our oatmeal. I would swear off oatmeal for quite some time. Actually, I don't think I've had it since. Same with Ramen noodles, which was now the culmination of our rations in addition to 2 Powerbars and 4 Snickers, destined to be eaten on the side of our final climb. As we left camp, a British hiker rolled in to camp, with the intention of taking the summit tomorrow in spite of the foreboding forecast. I'm not sure, but I do believe he was the hiker we encountered outside of Bear Mountain. The one with a cheap dollar store 'torch' and no idea how to set up a tent, who had just set off to take a walk. If it was him, he had come a long way. Literally and metaphorically.
We walked to the ranger check-in station with a spring in our step borne of anticipation. We gave our information to the lovely Rachel (all the more alluring in her neatly pressed US Forest Service Uniform). We told her that we had come from Georgia over six months ago, but we had hitch-hiked some large stretches and couldn't call ourselves thru-hikers. She marked us as Long Distance Section Hikers with a notation of 1400 miles. Roughly two-thirds of the trail, or three times what Bill Bryson hiked, for those keeping score. That is how we are classified in the official records of the Appalachian Trail Association. I give much credit to purists, despite poking fun at them sometimes. They are hiking their hike, and they have more perseverance and tolerance than I. But I can say that, thru-hike or no, I hiked my hike. We hiked our hike. And I wouldn't change a single step. Julia might change the one that shattered her toe, but aside from that...

So we ditched almost all of our gear at the ranger station. Two hefty bags with small bundles of rancid clothing and stale spices in zip-locks, a paper back or two, and our minimal stove. Some chipped cookware stained by alcohol flame and campfire alike. A sheet of nylon packed down to the size of a softball and about half the weight. We called it a tent. These meager possessions were our necessities and our companions over long miles. We left them on the rangers porch, certain no one would want to steal them, yet well aware of their pricelessness to us. We had six bars, 3 liters of water, rain coats, and an emergency blanket. Also, a camera and a game called Cosmic Wimpout. The day had begun, and we lighted off in high spirits.

Mt Katahdin is almost exactly 5.2 miles from the Ranger station to the summit via the AT. There are other trails, but this one was ours. The first two miles were joyously easy, and we joked as we climbed, making excellent time. The trail gradually grew steeper, but we were prepared for such gain. We left Katahdin Stream and climbed up through thinning fall foliage. As we approached tree line, the trail became difficult. The grade increased dramatically, and we had to use our hands at times. This didn't continue for long, as we soon hit cloud line and the trail took a dramatic turn. An upward turn, to be specific. The hiking turned to climbing, and I was glad for my time spent at Seneca Rocks. I had learned balance and how important one's center of gravity is. Julia, however, got to pick it up on the go. And it was slow going for the both of us. We certainly weren't prepared for the number and difficulty of the scrambles before us. After a heroic struggle, we reached a flat point of the trail. A sign was just visible through the fog; I mean clouds. We had reached “The Tablelands”, and were only a mile from our destination across relatively flat terrain. We approached the sign, tired but not beaten. Or so we thought. “The Gateway”, it read. 1.5 miles to the top, which may not seem like a big difference, but it is the most difficult half mile of the climb. We stopped for a break in a sheltering rock. The temperature had dropped dramatically from the mid 70's below, and the mist chilled us as we ate a candy bar and reflected on our position. This position was particularly unnerving because the trail was no longer only a cold, foggy boulder field with a treacherous drop. It now became a colder, foggier, boulder ridge, with a treacherous drop on both sides. We had about fifteen feet to play with, and then the trail area just dropped off for 50 feet before being lost in the fog. We were pretty sure the drop continued for some way. At this point, Julia decided she had had enough. We were way behind schedule, and weren't even half way yet. But we were here, and there was no turning back. We struggled on.
We then came to a large wall of rock, with two boulders on either side. I pulled myself up, and vaulted up to a decent position through an act of contortionism and flexible joints. Julia was dubious about following, but I assured her it wasn't as impossible as it looked. She disagreed. She was quite sure there was no way for her to get over this. I lowered myself and offered her a leg to reach up to and I would pull her up. We tried this for a quarter of a second before she told me where to stick my ideas and walked away from the bottom of the trail/cliff. I don't remember what I was yelling when I was cut short by Julia standing about fifteen feet above me. “There was a trail around the side,” she stated, and disappeared up the trail while I struggled after. We crept up this dicey trail slowly and cautiously, well aware that our day was slipping away, and we had far to go yet. About a tenth of a mile after our strength and spirits gave out, we came to another sign. The Tablelands. These were a flat harsh stretch covered in low plants and bent shrubs. The leafless branches were iced over on one side, and my beard was beginning to gather its own collection of alpine diamonds. I breathed a moist sigh of relief. Time to get to the top. That was my only thought. Julia was burdened by the thought of how long it had taken to reach this point (6 hours), and how much daylight we had left (3 hours). And how she was now exhausted and stressed. Of course this latter ailment only compounds itself and grows rapidly in the back of one's mind. But we pushed on. We saw three guys in the distance approaching us through the gray and burgundy dreamscape of the Tablelands. They were shadows at first, coming in and out of the mist, but they turned off on a side trail and were again lost from sight. We looked down the trail they had taken. So there are others lost in this ethereal realm. We turned our heads back to our trail and saw a shadowed teepee in the haze. What a strange place for something like that. It almost looks like the sign in all those pictures. All those pictures in all those hostels and gear shops. Pictures on postcards and pictures on faded old Polaroids. Pictures in fog and sun, pictures in ice. Pictures of smiling bearded faces and people holding Thank You signs. We had seen these for miles and months. Now we saw the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Our heart rates fluctuated, and we approached in slow motion. The last 50 ft of trail were 50 ft below the ocean. Only hazy light filtered down, only the sparest seaweed dwelt. There was no sound, and each movement met resistance. We stood silently by it for a moment. Graveyard reached out a cautious hand. She touched it, and a small choked sound died somewhere in her throat. I took a picture.

“Well, that's it, I suppose,” I said. Pictures were taken, though no postcards would ever be sent. Could we even send out such a thing in good conscious? We weren't “Thru Hikers” after all... But we had been walking for 6 months and 12 days, and now there were no more white blazes to follow. It was a surreal moment for more than just the setting. We were both a mix of powerful emotions, all of which manifesting themselves equally. So we spoke little, took our pictures, did our meditations, and set off the way we had come. I was dazed as we trekked back across the tablelands. Graveyard was in a funk, but I wasn't sure why. When we stopped at Thoreau Spring, we paused to rest and to find some water to bring back to Gravey's Father. He's a fan. But there was no flowing spring. Just a muddy puddle that we dipped our fingers in and licked, hoping the wisdom was in greater concentration than the Giardia. That's when Gravey confessed how worried she was that it had taken 7 hours to get up there, and we only had 2 hours of light left and hadn’t even started the hard part. I said there was nothing to do but keep going, and it was a good thing we brought headlamps. So we approached the crux of our descent with more than a little anxiety. It took hopping down approximately 30 feet of boulders before I heard a laugh behind me. A turned and saw Graveyard making her way easily down to me. “ I was so worried we were going to get stuck on the side of this mountain! I was just so exhausted, the whole way up, all I could think about was having to huddle in one of these rock crevasses with our emergency blanket til morning. But now I'm using totally different muscles!” And I started to say, “That's great, babe!” But she was already past me and out of sight.
We made awesome time on the descent, laughing and joking for the first time since entering the boulder field. It was certainly getting dark, and we were still scrambling, but we didn't care. We came again to the first boulder of the journey up. It seemed much easier now by comparison. And as we left that stone, we broke cloud line and looked out over the flatlands of Maine. The world below shone with pale white lights; many small ones, but also larger ones that made it clear that what we were seeing was no illusion. And to add to the strangeness, a brighter pale line extended at the far edge of our vision, with a glowing center, as if we were viewing the Milky Way from its side. We gasped as our brains processed this reality. the setting sun was a perfect slender line between distant mountains and low-hanging clouds. This dying light in the west illuminated the multitudes of lakes dotting this open landscape. Even after months on the trail, hiking the most scenic areas the East Coast has to offer, the world could still take our breath away and show us unimaginable beauty. A toast; To the Right Place, at the Right Time. And so we finished the trail with one last night hike.
Poetic and appropriate as this was, it did mean no hitch hike out of Baxter State Park that day. We gathered our gear, and ate 2 packets of Ramen noodles as our victory feast. I think this was the coldest night of the trail, and I got little sleep. The next morning we started early and found a hitch halfway out of the park almost immediately. In another 20 minutes, we had a hitch with a gentleman from Canada who's daughter was also hiking the AT. “Do you know Chef?” Small world. “Yeah, we know Chef! We haven't seen her since Virginia!” So we palled around with him while he found Chef outside of Baxter at Abol Bridge. It was good to see her and swap a few stories, then she had her resupply sorted and took off for the foot of the Mountain. We took off for town, the only certainty for us was a large meal cooked by someone else. So we ate with Chef's Dad, thanked him for the ride, and left to see what the last town of the trail had to offer. A decent hostel, for one thing. We paid 4 dollars each for showers; the last of our cash. We had $50 total, wait, scratch that. We spent 15 of that on lunch. So things were looking a little rough. We asked the owner of the hostel what the odds of hitching outta town were, and he just gave a shrug. Not an optimistic one though. He laughingly agreed to knock $4 off the $12 a person rate if we came back, since we had already paid for showers. We walked to a 'busy intersection' in town. It had a car drive through every minute or two. After about two hours, as we began to become discouraged, a car pulled over and we hopped in. The driver said he had seen us as he was giving his ride a wife to work, and they agreed we should get a lift if we were still there on his way back. He was a metal-head, and we bonded over the way people sometimes think tough guys with shaved heads are white supremacists. We're not. We're going bald. Jerks.
So he dropped us off at the interstate, and as soon as he pulled away, a (very) old gentleman pulled over and offered us a lift down the road. He was on his way to a church choir recital about 20 miles down the road and felt it the Christian thing to do to lend a hand. We were thankful to be making progress, and were enjoying the variety of people who will offer rides to strangers. We got to his exit, and he dropped us off. It was under serious construction, and not near a town. We were more than a little nervous as he pulled away; we had never encountered this particular dilemma. But fate smiled one last time on our long voyage home. The first thing to pass our way was a semi who immediately stopped for us. He later told us that it was only because we were a couple and we looked so happy. So a lesson to all you would-be hitch-hikers: Smile! Not only was this truck going to Bangor, Maine; our chosen destination for the day, he was on course to pass through Wilkes-Barre, PA the following day; just a quick hop up I-81 from my parent's residence. I won't rat our driver out with too many details, as his wife doesn't like him picking up hitchers. Suffice it to say, he was a fascinating character. A true political centrist who spent his days hauling freight and listening to Fox News, NPR, and CNN. He and Julia had some intense debates, while I tried to mediate and not get us kicked out. We spent the night under the trailer that night, after repeated assurances that he wouldn't forget about us and drive over us in the morning. It rained that night, and as we huddled in the orange sodium lights of a truck stop under a big-rig, Julia realized she was living yet another childhood dream. Childhood is a strange time.
We were not run over in the morning, and made it safely to our destination, where my Mother and Father met us. We bid farewell to another awesome driver and an epic hitch of 580 miles. That's a return option they don't put in the guidebooks. But we were off the trail now. No more white blazes to follow, so we've been forced to bushwhack for the last few years. The trip has been amazing, and is certainly not over. Thank you for sharing in this piece of the life of Graveyard and the PHLO. We love you all.

Appendix I:
The PHLO's book review.

We were on the trail for six months and eleven days, I believe. The speed record is 44 days, last I checked. What did we do with all that extra time? Well, enjoyed it. I personally spent a fair amount of time reading. The following are the books I read and my thoughts on them. Also, used book stores are awesome.

1. The Teachings of Don Juan – Carlos Castaneda
This book will find you; if it's supposed to. A friend of mine holds that Castaneda is a charlatan. I cannot speak one way or the other on this. I will say that I think it is the readers duty to not take written things at face value, but to extract their own meaning based on themselves and their place in life. An author is writing from a particular place, the reader reading from another. If you read the right books, they should be a jumping off point for your own thoughts and ideas. In this way you grow and develop, instead of merely being entertained or informed.

2. Jaws – Peter Benchley
Well, we all know the story. The book unfortunately spends most of its time ashore, and throws in an uninteresting affair with Hooper and Sheriff Brody's wife. It was still epic, and also neat to see where the movie diverged from the book. In conclusion, Jaws the book: pretty good. Jaws the film: A Masterpiece.

3. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
I had read this before, but it's still my favorite of the genre (1984, Brave New World, Alas Babylon, etc) It carried special meaning, given our removal from contemporary society for a bit. I remember writing the following quote in a trail journal at some point: “He felt as if he had left a stage behind with many actors. He felt as if he had left the great seance and all the murmuring ghosts. He was moving from an unreality that was frightening into a reality that was unreal because it was new.”

4. Welcome to the Monkey House – Kurt Vonnegut
This was my first introduction to Kurt Vonnegut. I somehow missed out on Slaughterhouse 5 in high school, and am glad of it. Nothing ruins a good book like being forced to read it and them fill out worksheets on what it all means. Each reader must find their own meaning, and the better the book, the more personal and complex that meaning. Anyway, this is “a collection of short stories written to pay the bills so better projects could be undertaken.”

5. Candide – Voltaire
My favorite of the trail. Read it to find out why. This is also the book that taught me that it's a bad idea to read while hiking. This lesson took less than a quarter of a mile to grasp.

6. The Importance of being Earnest – Oscar Wilde
This book included the title play as well as two others. I've never really liked reading plays, but these were to good to be annoyed by formatting/syntax. Oscar Wilde is the hilarious Dandy his reputation implies, twisting wordplay, flights of fancy, Victorian Morals, and bawdy coarseness into a single story of irony and improbability; tie up neatly into a bow of truth.

7. Ellen Foster – Kaye Gibbons
Worst book I read on the trail. Just not my thing, I guess. Dizzybat loved it though. Its about a girl with a tough childhood named Ellen. She moves in with 'The Foster Family'. Hence the name, end of book.

8. Prey – Michael Crichton
MC's last book. This time the world is going down thanks to nanobots. A gripping story as always, but the “Man destroys self through arrogance and ambition” theme has been done, and T-Rex is way cooler than Micro Machines.

9. Demien – Herman Hesse
I lied. This was my favorite book on the trail.

10. Hocus Pocus – Vonnegut
A book written while Vonnegut was living off short story money and Pall Malls. This may be my favorite of his books and is definitely a better starting place than Slaughterhouse 5. But you could never read it in school, because it talks about school, and heaven forbid students should think about their own situation, or anything applicable to their lives. One thing is for sure, I shall always remember the Alamo.

11. Call of the Wild – Jack London
I haven't read this since I was a kid. Actually, I don't think I've ever read it. I think my Dad read it to me before I could read on my own. It's great, by the way. A killer story from the perspective of a dog. It was made all the cooler by being out in the woods with trail dogs. Dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors really are different than house dogs. Hang out with a few and you'll see what I mean.

12. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louise Stevenson
A good book, but [spoiler alert] the big surprise ending is that they're the same person.

13. Nemesis – Issac Asimov
My first Asimov book, and it was great. Describing the plot couldn't do it justice, as Asimov's dialog and subtleties are what make him the Godfather of Science Fiction.

14. Return of the Jedi – James Khan
Well-written, unlike the other two books in the series, which Julia read. Well-written, but exactly like the movies. Still, it was pretty awesome to have on the trail.

15. A Brief History of Time – Steven Hawking
This was the most fun book to read on the trail. Julia or I would read a section out loud. Then we would both reread it a few times silently. Then we would spend the next half hour figuring out what it meant. There are no cool pictures like in Universe in a Nutshell. And I still don't understand how/why time is not Absolute. I do get why it probably doesn't exist, but I do not understand why it is so inconsistent in relation to our perception of it.

16. Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse
Another piece of brilliance by the Man. I really enjoyed this one, but didn't relate to it in the same way as I did with Damien or Siddhartha. In many ways, it was a cautionary tale, lest I turn into a Madman in my old age. Or perhaps I am a Pablo.

Thanks for letting me engage in a bit of hero worship, and provide a bit of my own literary context on this voyage. As Newton once said, “ If I have seen farther than most, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

I think a lot of hikers saw themselves as John Muirs or Bob Marshalls. I always saw myself as more of a Socrates or Candide.

Thank You!
This blog is dedicated to The Grandparents. We couldn't have done it without you.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Rapid Travel Through New England


They say that West Virginia is the shortest state on the trail. Connecticut and Massachusetts seem pretty short, however, if you're asleep in a car doing 70. After my brief trip to one of Long Island's fine medical establishments, we were headed north to rendezvous with our long lost hiking buddies; Dugout, DizzyBat, her dog Boo, and of course the irrepressible Einstein. Gravey's parents were nice enough to jet us up to a little hostel on the border of Conn. and Vermont. We had already accepted that we would be skipping these states due to time, and I still do not regret that decision. This feeling was further reinforced by all the south-bound hikers we met in New york and New Jersey who advised us to skip them, regardless of necessity. And so, after being treated to a lovely dinner by the Muench's, we went to the hostel. While walking to the ply-wood 'cabin', I managed to slip down a grassy incline and land on my tail. This was far superior to landing on my still disabled shoulder, but was both painful and embarrassing. The embarrassment factor was increased by the fiery, five-foot-nothing owner of the farm/hostel, who insisted that I take her arm and have her escort me the rest of the quarter mile to the cabin. A lovely woman, but a somewhat emasculating experience. Ah, well. The cabin was cozy, if sparse, and we awoke feeling refreshed. A few hours later, we were reunited with our tribe and headed off to Vermont. Dug & Dizzy had discovered a great free campground next to a great restaurant and we made it our home for several days. While we were there, waiting for my body to heal enough to carry a backpack, we soaked up the surrounding area. Dugout and I hiked 200 yards to some abandoned cabins nearby, and then later that day, we drove to the top of Mount Washington. There we made our perilous assent to the summit from the parking lot below. The treacherous climb required all of our skill and training, as we scaled no less than 40 feet of elevation. The view of the trail both ways down was incredible, and we vowed to climb this mountain range one day. We then toured the gift shop, passed on the snack bar, and drove back down. The next day, we caught lunch at the Long Trail Brewery. The food was terrific, as was the beer. This stop marked the end of The PHLO's Eastern Brewery Tour, with four stops in total. Sweetwater, Flying Dog, and Long Trail were all excellent. Screw you, Yuengling. I'll still drink your beer, but I hold no love for your operations. Afterward, we climbed to the top of the large mountain near our campsite. As we took in the view, a man came jogging up the trail and ran up to the edge of the cliff facing our campsite some 300 yards below. He marveled for a moment, then turned and asked if we were from around here. We replied no, and explained that we were refugees from the Appalachian Trail. After a bit more conversation, we found out that he was in fact the owner of the Long Trail Brewery and jogged to the top of this mountain every day after work. Small world.
That night, we saw the new Quentin Tarantino movie in the nearby (15 miles) town. As we returned to our campsite, illuminated by the restaurant's security light, we saw a familiar looking tent that had appeared while we were out. It was none other than Chinese Tourist, not seen since the Aqua Blaze. It was a fantastic impromptu reunion, and the next day he was gone, disappeared up the trail. Small World.
We left that day and drove on to New Hampshire. We arrived in Gorham New Hampshire near the border of Maine and took a campsite at The White Birches campground and Hiker Hostel. We were surprised to run in to Lucky Joe and Moe!, still heading North. Moe! had been unfortunate enough to get the Hiker's Triple Crown, or Giardia, Lyme Disease, and a Staph Infection. She seemed ready to be done, but was still glad to be on her journey. They headed back to the trail soon after we arrived. That night we ate brats around a fire and talked long into the night. Dugout and DizzyBat took off the next morning and we bid a sad farewell. We knew it would be a long time until we saw each other, but knew also that we would be reunited again. The trail had blessed us with good company throughout its course, and DizzyBat, Boo, Dugout, and Einstein were chief among these. We packed our belongings slowly, now in the final stretch and feeling alone again. After catching a ride to town, we picked up the last mail drop, sent home everything that was not absolutely essential, and I finally replaced my crappy, heavy headlamp. Better late than never, I guess. A short hitch later, and we were home. After long hiatus, we were back on the White Blazed Trail.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where are we?


Graveyard is busy helping at her church's fundraising fair, so I will do my best to pick up where we left off. I hope people have noticed that there was a post just before "What's in a name," which was just a brief aside to anyone who was curious. I also hope someone is still reading these, as there have been no comments on the four previous posts over the last 2 months.

So we hiked late into the evening for a view of NYC. The trail was long and made longer by the multiple trails running on the same trail. There was the blue blazed trail, which was almost impossible to see in the dark, but also a yellow reflective trail that we could see. The reflectors were a blessing except for the points where they joined and left the blue trail, plus we constantly worried that the trails had parted without our knowledge. They hadn't, and we finally reached our destination. There were no clear skylines or tall buildings poking up as we had expected, but instead a huge dark valley and lights of various concentrations all around it. As we made dinner, we watched flashes of lightning in the distant clouds. After dinner, the storm had intensified and to our right (west) the flashes of lightning were leaving their cloudy birthplace and crashing down in spectacular arcs. The lightning came at shorter intervals as it moved to the east across our vista. These bolts came from far up in the atmosphere, but were so far removed from us that these enormous static discharges made not a sound to our ears. This surreal silent lightshow moved until it was across the darkened valley, and then a monstrous bolt amongst giants flashed down, while an opposing streak shot up through the valley. It was then that we could see that the valley was in fact the Hudson River, reflecting the sky's own fury back at it. These two immortal elements exchanged volley upon volley while two fragile mortals could do naught but gaze in wonder. Meanwhile, in the city, millions of mortals sought shelter from a storm that ravaged Manhattan and dropped countless trees through Central Park. The devastation would later be compared to tornadoes, but on that silent hill, we watched in awe as blinding white bolts flashed earthward and turned rusty red as they broke through the dense atmospheric bubble that surrounds all cities of that size. As we sat, watching hundreds of dichromatic flares flash downward with icy silence, we could not avoid a thought. If we had hiked at any different pace, taken one more or one less shortcut, or given up entirely, we would not have been the trail's only witnesses to what Gravey described as,"The most awesome thing I have ever seen in my life, ever." So I suppose there is a reason for everything, though often not apparent. Even now that it has ended, I believe we hiked our trail and I would not take back a single step. Well, maybe the step that broke Julia's toe, but even that put us on top of that great beast of a mountain on the only 'good' day in to weeks of 'bad' days. And when a good day involves 15 ft. visibility and thick ice formations in a man's beard, it makes a person thankful to not find out what a bad day is. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We were awakened by day hikers out for a jaunt, but they did not linger at the shelter once they realized it was occupied. Thank you. As I looked around this shelter so far off the beaten path, I recognized familiar designs on the wall. Shelters often bear graffiti, but it's usually crap like: 'Bobby luvs Susie', 'Jordan was here', or 'Troop 25 was here' a dozen times (nice LNT skills, guys) but almost every shelter has a few gems. There was an '08er named The Treat who drew landscapes and cartoons from NC to mid-Virginia. My personal favorite,though, were a pair of NOBOs from our year called UFO and Droid. They were some of the first to set out this year and they were from Brooklyn. That's about all I know. They also built mouse exclusion devices (string hung with a can preventing mice from crawling down to protect food bags) with their personal designs, which were quite cool. This morning, though, I noticed an entire wall covered by UFO. Same design, but instead of 'UFO NOBO 09' there were UFO 01 through 08 plus this years. So this was our artistic trail-brother's (or sister's) hang out. Good choice, UFO.

We made good time that day and in the days following. We kept a good pace because, for the first time in a long time, we had an appointment. The Metro North line has a train stop on the trail that only runs on weekends and we were determined to reach it on time. Of course, things are never as easy as you would think. Thursday signaled the death knell of my hiking pants. Coming around a rock that morning, I ripped a hole in the one pocket that was still intact. Fearing for our valuables, I gave my 12 cents and our $9 Walmart watch to Gravey for safe keeping. (The watch band had broken in Southern Virginia) Two hours later, the watch was gone. I blame the tiny pockets on girls pants, even the outdoor brands. In the woods, form should always follow function. So for the first time since my Dad visited, we needed to know what time it was. Of course the trail gremlins would take our watch. The next day we got an unfortunate late start. A passing hiker told us it was about noon. That meant we had 31 miles to hike in 34 hours. No problem, right? So we set off. The next 20 miles were a blur, but a good-natured one. We reached the shelter before the train station around 3 am, having hiked 21.5 miles. It was destined to be our only 20+ miler, though we would come close in the later part of Maine. Ours was not to be a hike of high mileage days; I have no regrets. Somehow we woke up the next day and hoofed it the last 10 miles through rain showers to a wooden bench by the tracks and huddled under a tarp to stay dry. We had made it our 31 miles in a day and a half with an hour to spare. A cold, wet hour, but excellent for its sheer ridiculousness.
When the train came, we boarded, along with three day hikers from the city. We were not prepared for the air conditioning on board, however, and we immediately put on all our dry warm clothes over our cold, wet ones. We were entertained for this leg of our journey by the conductor ragging on the ticket taker for being Australian over the intercom. "Here comes Crocodile Dundee to take your tickets. Hey, what's a roo-burger taste like?" Hilarious. When we got to Grand Central Station, we were, well, a little overwhelmed. There we stood, in jackets and beanie hats in a 90 degree building, backpacks hung with dirty socks, and me gripping a large wooden walking stick. A young girl of about 14 with braces approached us and asked politely if we needed help. Julia answered in a thick NY accent that we were trying to find the transfer to Penn Station. The girl seemed surprised that we spoke English and said that there was an information kiosk right behind us. Thanks. At least she meant well. I guess she thought we were from the 1600's. As we walked towards the transfer train, people continued to stare at us, even when walking behind a man in a wheelchair with no legs and a bag of golf clubs in his lap. And we're the weird ones. When we got on the sweltering subway train, everyone immediately backed up about five feet. I'm assuming the smell had something to do with it. A girl next to Graveyard asked if we were skiing in the summer. We were as confused as she was, until we realized she was looking at Gravey's trekking poles. "Oh, no. These are for hiking. We walked here from Georgia." A double blink and many turned heads. "You what?!?" So we explained that we had been backpacking for the last 4 and a half months. I overhear a girl say, "That must be why he has a beard." The fact that I have it because it grows out of my face obviously was lost on her. I later realized that her ignorance to men's general ability to do this was not unfounded. No one from Westchester east has a speck of facial hair except for Arabics and some (but not all) homeless people. As we rode the train, I looked out the window and saw a huge alien face on the side of a buiding staring at the train. Underneath was the familiar script: UFO. Good show.

We intended to stay on Long Island for a short time, but a dislocated shoulder interceded. The first time in three years and inflicted very benignly. Ah extended vacation was perfectly acceptable, sling and all.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What's in a Name?

So where did our trail names come from? I can only say, straight from the aether. But here are two things that may give an insight into Graveyard and The PHLO.

First off, The PHLO. When given the name, I was simply told to think about it. Here's a poem found at The only other mention was a beverage corporation.

Who can free himself from achievement, and from fame descend, and be lost, amid the masses of men? He will flow like Tao, unseen, he will go about like Life itself with no name and no home. Simple he is, without distinction. To all apperances he is a fool. His steps leave no trace. He achieves nothing, has no reputation. Since he judges no one, no one judges him. Such is the perfect man: His boat is empty.

-Chuang Tzu

As for Graveyard, here is a lengthy description of Oakwood Cemetery that I wrote in 2006. It may provide some insight as well as a history lesson from Syracuse. If you want the full version with color pictures, I have provided the URL.

By: Jess Rumburg
Prof. Hosmer-Briggs
CLL 290
April 13, 2006
Inspired by and dedicated to Jeff Nugent.
The Duality of Oakwood Cemetery

Jess Rumburg is a student at the State University of New York’s school of Environmental Science and Forestry. He is an undergraduate in environmental science and plans to pursue a carrier as a High School teacher. He is an avid outdoorsman, as well as an active member of the Boy Scouts of America and a Leave No Trace trainer.

The Duality of Oakwood Cemetery

When one thinks of a graveyard, a vast flurry of images and emotions are called to light. Our media and culture have ingrained a portrait of cemeteries in our collective mind that stirs fear and sacred avoidance. It is the setting of so many horror films and the stomping ground for forces not of this world. Only the manliest man would take a drunken dare and walk its hallowed trails at night. And yet there is another side to this piece of Syracuse that many are unaware of. During the day, it is not mourners who occupy its fields, but those out to enjoy a leisurely
stroll. At night its grounds are not stalked by spirits and serial killers, but people without ill intent. The cemetery is indeed a place to mourn those who have left this world, but it is so much more. For many, it is a gorgeous park for dog walking and early morning jogs. To others it is a place rife with history; the final resting place of thirty thousand fascinating lives. To the Universities that border it, the cemetery holds special significance. SUNY ESF uses the wide variety of flora and fauna for many classes and research projects. To those who live in the dormitories, it is their backyard. Whatever else it may be, Oakwood cemetery is Syracuse’s misunderstood jewel.
From the time they arrive in Syracuse, freshmen are warned to keep their distance from the Cemetery. They are told of the danger involved with setting foot on its soil; the armed robberies, the drug deals, the bizarre and terrifying people that one might meet day or night. From the stories told by the campus administration, one expects to look out their dorm window and see mafia stereotypes dumping lumpy garbage bags into holes in the ground.(Muench) There is reason
for the warnings given, though. On the far side of Oakwood from campus there is a rather seedy neighborhood, and strange things have been known to happen within the graveyard, but from literally hundreds of hours of observation over the last two years, I feel I can lay many rumors to rest. During the day, it is very unlikely that any misfortune should befall anyone. Oakwood employs a full-time staff of groundskeepers, and the scariest thing one would encounter is a group of large dogs with an elderly woman in tow. Night is a slightly different story. There is
an inherent risk involved with walking the graveyard after hours. Robberies have occurred, and far worse crimes. For this reason, the person most likely to be encountered is ‘Johnny Law’. Police cruisers often peruse the evening, warding off wrongdoers, most commonly college students. It would be foolish to think that many people in the graveyard at night are up to anything good, but seldom are they causing harm to the living or dead. They simply seek solitude or a macabre social atmosphere, which may be found if one knows the right people. If anything, these late night adventurers are more of a safety measure than a cause for alarm. These strange taphophiles (Webster) cast too many eyes on unsavory doings. Besides, they often travel in groups and don’t take kindly to those who would cause misfortune to others.(Muench) People have said to me that they will not venture into the graveyard, lest they encounter one of the multitude of odd strangers they imagine within. I cannot help recalling at these times the Cheshire Cat’s response to Alice when she told him that she did not wish to speak to mad people. “But it can’t be helped. We’re all mad here. I’m mad, you’re mad.” (Carroll)
People rarely delve into the rich history of Oakwood cemetery, but since it’s opening in 1859, it has accumulated many stories and seen many changes since NYC landscape architect Howard Daniels designed its elegant curves. (Nugent) It’s naming alone was a highly debated topic, but it was finally decided on Oakwood. The newspaper article announcing the decision on August 15 of that year, admitted, "We can't say that we like the title, but it might be worse."(Shades) From it’s beginning, Oakwood has held a rigid policy of environmental consciousness.
After only 9 months in operation, Oakwood cemetery announced that those caught
trespassing would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It also announced a $10 reward for anyone with information leading to the prosecution of anyone who willfully injures the trees or causes other forms of malicious mischief.(Shades) This provision was certainly more for the scenic beauty of the grounds and the wallets of its patrons than enacted out of any concern for the plant life and its intrinsic value, but one shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, as it were.
Vandalism has been a constant problem for Oakwood cemetery, but one can’t but feel their reaction was a bit extreme when in 1863 Julia Gallagher, age 15, was locked in one of the buildings for the crime of maliciously plucking the top of a shrub. In addition to this detention, she also was accountable for a fine not exceeding $150.00, or six months in prison, or both.(Shades)
Unfortunately, far worse acts of destruction have been perpetrated without apprehension of those involved. Reports are vague, but allude to prostitution among other things and in 1869, a full time sheriff was appointed to watch the grounds. As one walks the older portions of the cemetery, the damage of vandalism and the wearing of the ages is displayed in the marred and toppled markers. They lend a surreal and eerie quality to atmosphere within the depths of the cemetery, where nothing is visible but expanses of stones paying homage to the dead. The most disturbing example of this vandalism occurred in 1988. A Syracuse University art student was found boiling the skull of John Crouse, father of former mayor John J.
Crouse and founder of Oakwood, in his dorm room to use in a sculpting project for class. He was discovered when a student noticed a foul smell coming from the kitchen of Flint Hall and found the skull in a pot of water. He alerted the authorities, who arrested the student, and made a search of the graveyard. They discovered that several mausoleums had been disturbed over the past several years and also found a second skull wrapped in a paper bag that someone had removed from one of these.(Moriarty) The history of Oakwood holds other interesting tales, although few as grim. Another tale of vandalism has a happier ending. Near the center of Oakwood are buried 231 veterans of the Civil War. For many years, they were watched over by a beautiful bronze cast of a Union army sentinel, and their 231 headstones stood in ordered line, as the men themselves had once stood while in service to their country. In 1951, the sentinel was stolen, presumably to be melted for scrap metal. Also in the fifty’s, all of the white marble stones were knocked over. The markers of these venerable Americans adorned the hillside like a mouthful of broken teeth; their sentry gone and their eternal barracks pillaged by marauders. But there were those who still remembered the soldiers past sacrifices, and in the fall of 1998
the 122nd New York State Volunteer Infantry, a Civil War reenactment group petitioned the National Veterans Administration to replace the headstones that had fallen so far into disrepair. They sent the stones, and members of the 122nd began placing the stones by hand in June of 1999. On Veterans Day 2000, the site was finally renewed and members of the 122nd gathered along with a large crowd of spectators for the rededication ceremony complete with cannon salute in tribute.
So far, the bronze statue has not been replaced, but the 122nd Infantry is
working to raise the $35,000 needed. With the help of some concerned citizens, the hill shall once again be ordained with its sentinel. (Tyler) Not only do people come to Oakwood to mourn their dearly departed, or study the rich history behind the place. Many come for reflection, seeking the solitude and pensive atmosphere.
There lies a place within its bounds that provides this in abundance. It is one of the least known places to casual visitors, but the best loved to those who know of its existence. In front of the entrance to the abandoned church, across the street and up a trail there stands a lion. Its emaciated form stands watch with sightless eyes across all seasons, watching over a boy named Michael Haggarty. The sculpture embodies the dedication to a life lost tragically. In 1974, Michael Haggarty was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 14. In 1981, his younger brother Thomas was an art student at Syracuse University. At his mother’s request, he began to create a memorial for his brother, who was buried at St. Mary’s cemetery in Dewitt. A year later, his 620 pound bronze guardian was completed, but the cemetery refused to allow the memorial, and so Michael’s body was moved to a secluded part of Oakwood. There amongst the trees stands the lion; its haunting face unmovable, forged from a brother’s love. There are many legends as to the nature of the place, but this is the truth, no less macabre or meaningful. Over the years, many have found there own meaning in that place, of the lion and themselves as well.
For me, the Haggarty lion stands stoic vigil for all those not with us, remembering always those who are lost from us. (Shades)

Quiet reflection and study comprise a more traditional side of cemeteries as urban parks.With Oakwood cemetery sharing a boundary with two universities, it also has another side. The free-spirited exuberance of college life stands in stark contrast to the tombs and sanctuaries. The two stand on opposite ends of life’s road, yet they blend with sometimes bizarre, but generally positive ease. The proximity of the cemetery tempers the students with a slight somberness, and they breathe life into its rolling fields. Thanks to them Oakwood is able to serve more as a park
than one would believe. I can only imagine the thoughts of the families come to visit their Grandparents and find hippies playing Frisbee and banging drums in a graveyard, of all places. Let us not point out that they only visit once or twice a year, while the regular graveyard denizens are to be found in any weather at any time of day. Oakwood now finds more use as historical site and a park than as a depository for bodies. Not only do college students enjoy its open spaces, but a wide variety of people can also be found using the cemetery recreationally. The
majority of people in Oakwood who are not students are out walking their dogs, with a handful joggers as well. In autumn, people come for its diverse tree life, which displays spectacular colors at this time of year. The trees in Oakwood represent a broad cross-section of local species, as well as many exotic species, all planted for their ornamental value. This is why ESF dendrology students are able to see most of what they are learning without ever having to travel. Oakwood serves as ESF’s own private tree museum.(Borker) It also has an equally diverse animal population. It is a haven for bird watchers, although the ratio of crows to other birds is badly
askew in the crows favor.(Borker) In addition to these residents, the cemetery provides a habitat for many ground creatures as well. Skunks and deer often come out at night to feed, and a pair of gray foxes have made it there home for the past two years. Toads, mice, bats, squirrels, snakes and chipmunks are to be found as well. One only needs to take a closer look at Oakwood to see that it is teeming with life more than it is haunted by death. Oakwood cemetery is either Syracuse’s most active graveyard, or its strangest park. It is a beautiful resting place for the dead, where families can come to give their respects. It is a backyard and leisure ground for college students. With 172 acres of property, Oakwood is able to accommodate both of these groups. Oakwood cemetery is a valuable part of Syracuse for many
reasons, and few ever appreciate its full scope. Graveyard? Park? Both, and an amazing one at that.

Works Cited
Borker, Abraham. Personal interview. 11 Apr. 2006.
Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: the Definitive Edition. Ed. Martin Gardener. 2nd ed. W.
W. Norton & Company, 1999
Moriarty, Rick. "SU STUDENT ACCUSED OF BODY THEFT -." Post-Standard, the
(Syracuse, NY) 19 Oct. 1988, Metro ed., sec. News: a1.
Muench, Julia K. Personal interview. 14 Apr. 2006.
Nugent, Jeff. Discovering the Central New York Outdoors. 1995. Part One
Shades of Oakwood. 10 Apr. 2006 .
"Taphophile." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. 11th ed. Merriam-
Webster, 2003.
Tyler, David. "Civil War Veterans Honored with Gravesite Rededication." Oakwood Cemetery
Sentenal Project. 10 Apr. 2006 oakwood.html>.

Points of Interest

It is interesting to observe the progression of this blog in retrospect. They show not only our experiences but moreover that which we deemed notable, the detours and people that we have met as opposed to our journey itself. As our trek continued over long months and through varied climates, many of the interesting places and things that we saw stood out less poignantly and simply wove themselves into the beautiful background tapestry of our journey of forgotten places. Moreover, these multitudinous moments of joy and wonder at our world defy all description. To truly appreciate our journey and the motivation behind it, I can only recommend a trip to a mountaintop or secluded monument, preferably one that requires walking at least 100 feet. You don't need to stray far to find hidden wild places, nor is lengthy exposure to the elements required to find peace of mind and a reverence for existence, but it certainly drives the point home. After the Aquablaze, I thanked Lenwood, a lifetime farmer who worked on the property of our friend's friend's cousin's family. He said that it was his pleasure, that we were, "Doing things that needed to be done and seeing things that need to be seen." And he is right, for if people stop appreciating the natural and historic beauty all around them, we surely risk their irreparable loss.

This post is a backtrack of the last two posts to fill in some blanks in the 3rd quarter of the trail. Maryland, my home state was sweet. First, the forest composition was different than when we had last been 'on trail' in Waynesboro. This was great for 2 reasons: it was different than the hundreds of miles we had done in Virginia, and it was the type of mid-Atlantic hardwood that I had roamed like a tyrant in my youth. After a few days we emerged into a clearing with an old mausoleum labeled GATH. We found ourselves in a park called Gathland, after the pen name of an eccentric but successful journalist and war correspondent. On site was a huge stone arch serving as a monument to all war correspondents. There was also a flush toilet and vending machine. Several days later we stumbled across a sign declaring the approach of the Washington Monument. We looked around and were indeed still on the AT. Either this was the most devious reroute ever, or I was about to learn something new. Fortunately it was the latter. Apparently the people of whatever town we were near decided back in the day (early 1800's) to build a sweet stone monument to ol' George. It looked like a three story stone thimble with a rough-hewn spiral staircase through its center to an observation platform that had been used during the Civil War. Understandable, as the view was incredible. The next point of interest was an isolated trailside campsite for backpackers, fully equipped with showers. Maryland, home of the clean hikers. We also got to cross the footbridge over I-70. I had frequently driven beneath it and had always wondered what it was like on either side. It was neat, but this is a mystery I will perpetuate. Sorry. I will say there is road access nearby, as that is where Jen picked us up. At the MD-PA border we met with my cousin Angela who hooked us up with Sheetz Sandwich and water, which we desperately needed at the time. Our meeting point was a place called High Rock. The view was excellent, and it was doubly cool because it was a hang-gliding site. No one was gliding, but there were signs about it and the rules, precautions, and certifications required. Unfortunately there was a direction snafu and the park closed soon after Angela arrived, so we were denied a longer visit.
As for Pennsylvania, yes, the midpoint didn't have quite the same impact for us as others. It was, however, next to a cool 2-story stone wall described as a WW II camp in our book. What kind of camp? No idea. Barracks? Internment camp? Resort-style camp for Generals? More mysteries.

I did in fact eat a half gallon of ice cream in PA. It was delicious and far too easy. Plus, we hiked on an additional 8 miles afterward, and I do believe they were the easiest miles of the trail. I guess 2,300 calories of chocolate-marshmallow goodness is the appropriate amount of food to eat for lunch if you are a hiker. I'll spare you the gastro-intestinal details of that evening, but I will say that there are always consequences of our actions.

We were also blessed from PA to New York with an abundance of blueberries and the odd raspberry bush. Delicious but distracting. True, we didn't need snack breaks, but our pace was cut in half to one mile per hour. The blueberries harbored many cute little woodland creatures and they would often scurry at our approach. As we gorged on fistfuls of berries, Julia called up to me, "Hey PHLO! Come check this out." I walked back and as she got to "I think its a..." A roar/buzz filled the air. I had never heard a Rattlesnake that I can remember, but this was unmistakable and deafening. It was hidden in the brush but i could see a good 3 feet of it, all tapering to the tail, so less than half of it. It was as wide as my calf, which by now equalled a huge snake. We moved on, having seen part of a snake of proportions outside the normal range for that species.

After a ride from the excellent Lynn, we were in Jersey. It was hot, but it was not the cespool of medical waste and burning tires that usually come to mind when one thinks of New Jersey. Supposedly that's only the Newark/Jersey City area, but I had always assumed this was disinformation on the part of the State Tourism Board. There was in fact more wildlife in that area than anywhere else. We did not see the mythic Jersey Devil, but it was a short state and we spent little time there. We did however see 5 bears in three days. First two youngsters who fled at our approach then turned and stood looking at us as we looked back. A non-threatening interaction at the top of the food chain by four creatures observing each other with curiosity and respect. Later we saw a large bear prowling around a SOBO's bear bag, but he also ran off as we closed in. That night we experienced more mosquitoes than I had in my life previous to that point, including the Everglades, huge painful suckers that were relentless in their pursuit of our blood. The next day we were hiking when we heard a loud crash in the tree canopy 40 ft. above our heads. A gigantic bird, we assumed, but when we looked up we saw two black bears in a tree about ten paces off trail. One of the bears forced the other out of the tree and we got some great pictures as he left the tree. To see this and more pics, check out

I'll continue to put that link at the beginning and end of all the upcoming posts, because I can never find it.
Julia already described the meeting with her friends, bona fide hikers now with trail dirt on their shoes to prove it. After they left, we continued up and down MUDS (mindless ups and downs) interspersed with rocky outcroppings. This includes 'The Lemon Squeezer' and the rock obstacle where Julia's second camera died. Things tend to fall out of ones pocket when technical climbing is involved. Ah well, we still had my camera, which was shipped to Long Island by our crack resupply team (aka Mom). We hiked on, running into SOBO's but no northbounders. We also encountered many snack stations in the numerous parks and towns of New York. Bear Mountain was cool, but a high litter area. I picked up 6 empty water bottles, several wrappers and a broken hoola-hoop in the 1/4 mile from the top of the mountain to the bottom. And what was at the bottom? A snack bar and a zoo. Thanks to the zoo, no one hikes the AT without seeing a bear. And there was a Rattlesnake. Much smaller than the first one, but about the same size as the one I narrowly avoided stepping on in New Jersey, which I forgot to mention. I saw it at the last minute and jumped over it. It was quite docile, but we still tried to keep our distance; difficult,as it was in the middle of the trail.

After Bear Mountain, we hiked on, destined to reach West Mt. shelter, purported to have fantastic view of the city. Unfortunately it was .6 miles off the trail and we were once again hiking at night. After a particularly steep uphill, we decided to just keep going uphill and find a stealth camp site. And lo and behold, a blue-blazed trail! And so the trail rewards those who go up. Next followed Julia's favorite part of the trail, which I will let her tell in her own words.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

New York New YOOOORK!

I broke these up (I've heard these blogs are a little long lol), but I (Graveyard) haven't moved or taken a break, so I'm just going to keep prattling on if you don't mind:)

We got to Delaware Water Gap with 5 days left till my Long Island amigos came to meet up with us - and, as we had already picked the location (a nice, flat-looking stretch just inside NY complete with a water fall and a high point from which you could see the City), we had to hike 20 miles per day every day to kill New Jersey and get there in time. We made it 18.5 the first day, and hiking in NJ was suprisingly beautiful - we were up on a nice ridge. However, in that 130 mile jump east (the Trail swings east for that section, rather than north), the temperature had risen into the 90's, the humidity had grown 10000%, and the mosquitoes had multiplied into the thousands. It was pretty miserable. No matter how much bug spray you slathered on, the mosquitoes would hover inches away from you and the buzzing literally threatened to drive us INSANE!! That night I called my parents, and was quite happy to discover that they had a few days off and wanted to come visit since we were so close:D So, not only did we not have to hike 20 miles a day everyday to catch my friends, but we could escape to the comfort of a real, air-conditioned hotel! I was very happy to see them - this was the longest stretch I have gone in my entire life without seeing my parents! They dropped us off on the side of the road by an abandoned building in Bellvale, NY, where my friends were meeting us.

A few hours later, Jenna (aka Castro), Rachel (aka HardRock), Gail (Mansion), Pacik (Porta-Pond), and Tom (WoodStock) arrived in dress clothes totally unprepared for a hike! But, they were just messing with us lol. We camped behind the abandoned building, Jenna almost cried because of all the bugs but successfully managed not to, Gail successfully scared Jenna half to death, and we called it a somewhat early evening in preparation for the next days hike.

I'll note here that 4 of these people have never been hiking in their lives, let along backpacking. Gail and Tom were the only ones with real packs; the others had school bags. Gail had brought a giant tent fit for 4 people, which we were able to replace with a GoLite we found on the trail in PA. Rachel and Pacik brought only canned goods and the DintyMore microwaveable beef stew dinners. I asked what they were thinking with the microwaveable goods, especially since I had sent them an email containing detailed instructions on what to bring and what not to bring, and cans were definately on the NOT list, and Rachel blamed Pacik, and Pacik said he had a plan. Gail and Jenna brought p.b.&j. and a loaf of bread each and nothing else. And, now that I think about it, I have no idea what Tom ate. I went through the girls' packs and tossed the body spray and other assorted goods they wouldn't be needing - Pacik insisted he needed everything, including his giant knife for who knows what and other such just-in-case gear, and Tom... well... he's done this before, and he's a beast anyway, so I figured he'd chug along all right. We had a breakfast of dry cereal, or, in Pacik's case, a can of oranges and instant coffee, which he promptly threw back up. After he recovered, we set off into the woods.

Tom knew what he was in for... Gail and Jenna seemed to have expected to have their butts kicked... Pacik might have... Rachel, however, certainly did not. I guess she was expecting something along the lines of the nature walks on Long Island. In case you don't know, Long Island is essentially a sand bar, with no hills, let alone mountains. They all walk a lot - Pacik and Rachel just had jobs going door-to-door, requiring 8 or more miles a day. And though I had picked a flat looking section according to our elevation profile, our profile is not detailed enough to reveal, say, hundred or so foot climbs - it shows little bumps at around 200 ft climbs or more. So, we climbed up to the ridge line, not too slowly, but requiring many breaks, and I was quite happy to see that there was a very nice view at the top. The top was the kind of ridge that's made of rocks, meaning that instead of there being a "trail" in the traditional sense of the word, there's some huge boulders and a white blaze at the top of them. So we had to scramble up and over boulders, often climbing strait up for ~10 ft (enough to be scary, but not enough to die - unless you fall of the ridge to your death into the forsests on either side 50 ft below). I think that's when Rachel decided we are out of our minds, and that she was never backpacking with us again. Despite this, she bravely soldiered on to the shelter, 2 miles from where we started. Pacik, still feeling quesy, decided he would not be hiking to the waterfall (2 miles and 600 ft down from the shelter), and Rachel and Tom quickly agreed to stay at the shelter with him. Jenna and Gail decided to get a little more in, especially since we could leave our packs with the others. The hike down was kind of hilarious, because at every steep part they would both say something along the lines of "we are going to die on the way back". But, they made it safe and sound there and back again, and promptly passed out, waking up again a few hours later for more hang time.

Meanwhile, Pacik had constructed his Porta-Pond. Apparently, on an episode of Survivorman or Man vs. Wild he had seen the guy cook a meal in a pool of water using rocks he heated in a fire. He was hoping this would be a microwaveable enough kind of action to work. Well... it wasn't. But it was highly entertaining. They ended up heating their meals right next to the fire, as the rocks weren't heating the water nearly fast enough for their appetites.

The next day we walked back to the road, all escaped unharmed, and my shuttle back to the trail is leaving so peace and love to all:)

Mediocre in the Middle

Sorry to all followers for the long delay! These blogs always take so long to write; it's hard for us to sneak them in:( As you may have seen from Lorri's comment, Jess dislocated his shoulder recently, but it has healed quite well, and we are currently in Maine. But, I don't want to give too much away. Back to Harpers Ferry!

After the Aqua Blaze, we went to Frostburg, MD to visit with The PHLO's family. We spent a week there repairing the boats that we could - one was unsalvegable, but that was because of damage it acquired prior to our use, so we inflicted no permanent damages in the end (although the canoes are quite a bit uglier). Then we went with the Kennedy clan (Phlo's mom's family) to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and spent a lovely week soaking up the sun on the beach:) Although we were a little sad that we had to spend 2 full weeks away from the trail, knowing how far behind that would put us, by the end of the vacation we were very happy to have had the opportunity - my knees finally stopped hurting, and we were back in full-fledged hiking spirit!

Phlo's parents dropped us off in Harpers Ferry at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters. We made the mistake of telling the lady in charge just how much we had yellow-blazed (we just did the math, and were shocked to discover that we had skipped 422 miles out of ~1,000 of trail!), and she marked us down as section hikers and not thru-hikers:( As we walked back onto the trail, NOBO Hobos again, the Phlo came to feel very... dissapointed. He began talking about hitch-hiking home, and eventually even threw off his pack in frustration. "If this isn't a thru-hike, what's the point of hiking on?" I spent the rest of the night trying to convince him to carry on - "What, did you do this just to get your name on some list?" "We came out here to live stress-free after college, and it looks to me like white-blazers have a lot of stress" and so on. I had already made plans with friends from Long Island to hike a small section with them, and I sure wasn't going to give up before I got to hike to and in New York New York! I think this fact was what finally convinced him to soldier on.

The AT we hiked onto was a different trail than we remembered. We were, quite possibly, the last northbound thru-hikers - we had already been behind when we finished the Aqua Blaze, and the two weeks with the Phlo's family sure didn't help. There were no thru-hikers, only section hikers, which to a thru-hiker means lots of identical boring conversations - "yes, we hiked here from Georgia" "we carry about 40 pounds when full on food" "yes, we're going to Maine" "I'm from Long Island, he's from MD" and so on. And they all seemed dissapointed that we weren't doing 20 miles a day and that we had skipped sections - I think section hikers like to fantasize that they couldn't possibly hike the whole trail, and seeing us makes them realize that it is possible, so the only reason they won't is because they don't want to abandon their worldly comforts for so long. We started avoiding shelters, and were generally alone. Which was just dandy for us - it was the first time on this whole hike that it felt like just the two of us were doing this journey together, the way we had expected.

The trail in MD was beautiful and short. It was always two people wide, so we could actually walk next to each other and hear each other when one spoke, and it was nice and flat, with just enough hills to keep it interesting. We were able to meet up with Phlo's cousin, Angela, and his/our friend Jen, who live near the trail, though they didn't do any hiking with us. Then we hiked into PA. We knew by now that we were so far behind that we'd either have to hike 20 or more miles per day everyday for the next 3 months to get to Katahdin before the October 15 deadline... or skip more. It became quickly clear that, despite our best efforts, we are not capable of 20 miles a day everyday. Or, I should specify, I can't. The trail in PA continued to be generally flat and beautiful, so it was easy hiking, but we still couldn't manage to get more than 17 miles in a day.

We arrived at, and passed, the AT midpoint with a kind of melancholy feeling of semi-failure since we hadn't actually walked 1,089.1 miles yet, and were greeted by a laminated piece of paper attached to a sign post that said "AT midpoint. Permanent marker coming." The next store on the trail (in MD and PA and NJ and NY, there are lots of these) is the location of the half gallon challenge, were thru-hikers attempt to consume an entire half-gallon of ice cream in a single sitting. I did not attempt, but The PHLO did and succeded after 51 minutes (Heavenly Hash). Instead, I read Hermann Hess's "Wandering", a short book of his reflections on being a nomad in Europe, which may have been the most well-articulated thing I have read about being a nomad, and if you want to understand our motivations somewhat better, I reccommend finding that manuscript.

Next stop of interest was in Boiling Springs, which was a beautiful small town. We stopped at the tavern, planning on hiking out from there. One guy bought us a round, and we ended up having lunch and chatting it up with a lady sitting alone at the other end of the bar. We came to learn that her mother had just passed and that they had enjoyed this tavern together often. After many laughs had been shared, we told her our plans from there - by now, to hike to Duncannon and skip from there to Delaware Water Gap (as we were so far behind, we figured that we would skip the rocky, nasty part of PA rather than have to skip better miles later) - but we had no idea how we were going to accomplish that, at which point she offered us a ride! We're so good at yellow-blazing that we don't even need to stick out our thumbs! We exchanged numbers with Lynn, and made plans to hike on, at which point the bartender told us that there was a resort down the road offering a $25 thru-hiker rate (hard to find this far north), complete with a swimming pool, so we went there instead. Really nice place! The next day, knowing that the stretch out of Boiling Springs was really flat and mostly in farmers' fields, we spent the day watching VHS in the basement of the resort after check out, and then hiked out at 5:30 pm. This 8 mile night hike was incredible - rather than dealing with the scorching sun and no shade in the fields, we instead were accompanied by fire-flies streching for miles, as far as the eye could see. It was magical, and definately the most enjoyable hike through this section.

A few days later, we arrived at the shelter before Duncannon, planning to stay there for the night, when in the register we saw a note from Jen and Ninja that they had been there 2 days earlier, at which point we hiked right into Duncannon and, sure enough, found them sitting in the Doyle, a thru-hiker hostel/bar landmark. They were taking off for Philidelphia the next day to hang out with his sister, and also planned to skip the rest of PA after the short visit. We had a great night hanging out with them, the first friends we had encountered in 2 weeks. The next day we called Lynn and made arrangements for her to pick us up and bring us to Delaware Water Gap, 130 miles (yea, she's awesome)! She said "I hope you don't mind, but I'd really like to stop at Yuengling Brewery on the way, it was my mom's favorite... and I'd really rather take the scenic route than the highway." Well, isn't that just perfect! The scenic route, conveniently enough, also took us right past Columcille, the park The Phlo & I are getting married at next April 17 (heads up!), so Phlo was finally able to see the place I've been dreaming of for so long, so it's official - he loved it! Yuengling Brewery was a dissapointment because they don't serve people who don't take the tour, and the last tour was at 1:30 - who goes to a brewery at 1:30 anyway?!? We went to a local pizza shop and got a taste of Chesterfield Ale anway, their lesser known and quite tasty label, which pleased Lynn because that was her mother's absolute favorite brew. Thank you so much Lynn!!

So the middle wasn't great, but it was great:)

[I can't help but add this note - Lynn told us that she saw a sign in front of someone's house that said "Government stay out of my Medicaid!" Isn't that sick? Don't they see the note on their paycheck - x% taken for medicaid!?! I'm glad we're only getting glimpses of that debate, the frustration of it all might make my heart explode!]