You’re not really backpacking!

August 29-30, 2017

“I wish I could have backpacked the AT,” a senior citizen friend told me.  “But it’s too late for me.”

“It’s never too late,” I responded.  “Jay and I met a man named Graybeard, age 82, who is setting the age record for thru-hiking the AT this year.”

“I could never carry the weight of a big pack now,” my friend lamented.  “And I couldn’t stay out that long, weeks and weeks of sleeping outside!”

“Hmmm, well, Jay and I almost never carry more than four days of food, and we get a real bed and a shower at least once a week!  And my backpack only weighs about 20 pounds,” I laughed.

“20 pounds!  That’s not possible!  And only four days of food?  You’re not really backpacking,” my friend accused.

Since entering Vermont, and rediscovering sloped (not vertical) trails with dirt (not rocks), our trek has become easier in many ways.  But come walk with me, and judge for yourself…

The weather is cloudy, with temperatures in the 50s as we climb a total of about 2,000 feet in elevation going up and over several humps in the terrain, then ascending and descending Quimby Mountain.  The top of the mountain doesn’t have much of a view, but the air feels fresh, and daylight filters more strongly through the smaller trees near the summit.  Huge boulder erratics, left from the last ice age, dot the mountainside as we head down.

At the bottom of the mountain, I am delighted to see a lovely new boardwalk, leading us across a flower-strewn bog.  Orange jewel weed, purple joe-pye weed, white and yellow daisies, and tiny sapphire bluets are tangled together in an awesome autumnal display of color!

Thundering Falls feeds the southern end of the bog, and I stand in enchantment for a few minutes, enjoying the play of roaring water and spraying mist.  No camera can catch the joy of such a moment!

A mile and a half later we round a corner and see Kent Pond, with green grass running down to the edge of glassy, calm water.  A side trail leads us another half mile to the small town of Killington, where we have planned to resupply.  At the convenience store/deli, we order food for dinner (marinated summer vegetable salad and tri-tip for me), buy trail food for two more days, then eye the Killington Motel.  Hmmm, it IS almost time to stop hiking for the day, and a hot shower sounds wonderful!

The next morning, after eating a bountiful hot breakfast at the motel, we hike the blue-blazed side trail back to the AT.  A lingering dawn mist rises from Kent Pond.  It seems a magical place as we orient ourselves and head south again.

The trail leads us around Deer Leap Mountain, through an old growth forest.  We enjoy the gently sloping path as it climbs a ridge, then traverses across the side of the mountain.

Three miles later, the 270-mile Long Trail joins the AT.  We will now be meeting Long Trail hikers headed north, as well as AT thru-hikers.

One mile later, the AT crosses VT Hwy 4.  As we hesitate at the trailhead, a red and white bus pulls up and opens its doors.  Obviously, this is another AT adventure calling us!  We board the bus, giving the driver $1 each, then ride 8.5 miles into the town of Rutland, getting there just in time for lunch at a Burger King!  We enjoy the fun of an unexpected meal of fast food when just a few minutes ago we were surrounded by forest.  At the end of our meal, we realize that we have no idea where or when to catch the bus back to the trail!  Fortunately, my cell phone holds the answer with its eternal connection to the internet.  We consult, and realize that we have just missed the bus!  The next one will be in an hour.  So, what does a thru-hiker do with an unexpected hour in an unexpected town?  Wander around and see the sights?  Not us!  We stay put, and eat a second lunch!  (Oh, my stomach is sooo happy!)

We finally pry ourselves away from this source of easy food, and catch the bus, arriving back at the trail 2.5 hours after leaving.  The hike up Pico Mountain, then Killington Mountain (2,000 feet elevation gain), fueled with two lunches and lots of caffeine, is painless!  Pine trees put springy needles across part of the trail, making me feel as if I am walking on a trampoline.  More flowers dot the trail, especially orange jewel weed.  We even come across one slope of a different variety of jewel weed – bright yellow!  A recently uprooted tree holds dirt in its rootball, making an eight-foot wall of rich black dirt, with jewel weed growing at its base, and raspberry bushes on its top!

We reach the Cooper Lodge Shelter on top of Killington Mountain at 7:15 p.m., with just enough daylight to put up our tent and brush our teeth before tumbling into our sleeping bags.  I realize, as I hang our food bags, that we never ate dinner!  I guess those two lunches in town were enough fuel for the rest of the day!

So there you have it, in two days on the trail, we have climbed over 4,000 feet in elevation, seen four mountains, enjoyed millions of wild flowers and trees, AND scored a lovely hot shower, a soft bed one night, and an unexpected meal of fast food!  Are we backpacking?  Yes, for we carry all we need upon our backs, and we continue hiking, no matter what distractions slow us down!  We’re not out here to see how much pain our bodies can endure.  We’re here to enjoy the forest, to have fun in nature.  I know hiking the AT now is easier than 30 years ago.  There is much more support for the hikers, and the trail is much better marked and maintained.  But we still walk through the forest, and we still carry gear.  Yes, we are backpackers!


The Half-gallon Challenge

June 20, 2017

Hikers enter Pine Grove Furnace State Park just a few miles past the halfway point on the Appalachian Trail.  This beautiful setting is home to the Appalachian Trail Museum (a museum dedicated solely to hiking!), a self-guided historical trail (Pine Grove Iron Furnace built in 1764!), Fuller Lake (swimming and showers!), and incredible bird habitat (160 species of birds!).

But the one feature of the park that occupies the thoughts of many AT hikers is the Pine Grove Furnace General Store, home of the half-gallon challenge.  Here, time honored tradition compels scores of hikers to gladly pay $10 for the privilege of making themselves half sick from eating a half-gallon of ice cream.  If successful, the sugar-bloated hiker wins a tiny wooden spoon with the half-gallon challenge logo stamped upon it.

I must admit, Jay and I talked and dreamed of this indulgence for many miles.  On those hot, humid days, I was convinced I could demolish a half-gallon of ice cream with ease.  Fortunately for my blood sugar, the thunderstorm the previous day had broken the heat, and drowned my dreams of sweet indulgence.  By the time we arrived at Pine Grove Furnace General Store, the hiker burger held more attraction than two quarts of frozen confection.  (The hiker burger consists of a quarter pound beef topped with double cheese, egg, avocado, mushroom, grilled onion, tomato, and lettuce.  Yum!)

Another hiker, Dundee, had dreams made of sterner fiber.  Jay and I enjoyed watching him attack the half-gallon challenge.

Dundee chose vanilla for the first quart and a half.  He told us it was easier to eat ice cream without extra fillers such as nuts or fruit.  The first quart went down pretty fast, but his rate of consumption slowed during the next pint.  “This is beginning to affect my brain,” he told us.

“Oh boy,” we teased.  “The moment of truth has arrived.  We could ask you anything, and you’d reply.  You’re ready to reveal your deepest, darkest fear!”

“Ice cream,” Dundee mumbled.  “I’m scared of ice cream.  I can see it now, the torturer bringing me a pint.  I’d be moaning, ‘No, no!  I’ll tell all!  Just don’t make me eat that!’  Anything but this stuff!”  He dug out another reluctant spoonful and looked at it mournfully.

Dundee got to choose different flavors for the last pint.  By now, thoroughly sick of vanilla, he choose chocolate, topped with a dollop of moose tracks.  The first few spoonfuls were obviously delicious, then the tempo of ingestion slowed to a snail’s pace.  “Oh man,” Dundee whimpered, “chocolate was a mistake.”

“What’s wrong?” we asked.  “Don’t you like the taste?”

“Oh yeah, it’s good and all.  Just rich.  Way.  Too. Rich.”  Dundee grimly scooped another blob of the umber confection.

With a great deal of determination, the cup of chocolate was finally emptied.  Dundee threw it away, then waddled off to claim his tiny wooden spoon.  He returned to proudly show us his trophy, then collapsed into a chair as sugar took free rein over his body.

Another hiker, Blue Deer, arrived with ice cream on his mind.   He paid his $10, and brought the first quart and a half outside on the front porch.  “Hey, Dundee, I’ve got Neapolitan!  I won’t get sick of the vanilla taste this way,” Blue Deer gloated.

“Take my recommendation.  Eat the chocolate first,” Dundee groaned.

“I’ve hiked one thousand one hundred miles without your counsel.  What makes you think I need your advice now?” Blue Deer teased.

“Experience,” Dundee sighed as his head went down to the table.


 From beginning to end!  Half-gallon challenge!!


Protecting Food

June 7, 2017

“How do you keep your food safe from bears?”  The day hiker has an intensely interested look as she asks me that oft-heard question.

Well, there are many answers…

First of all, I’m more afraid of marauding mice, squirrels, and raccoons.  Bears are not encountered very often, and problem bears are reported quickly.  It’s the little guys one has to watch for daily!  A mouse once chewed a hole in my backpack in broad daylight, with about eight people standing around talking!  Rodents know no fear.

However, if a hungry bear does come along, it is tough to completely protect a food bag.  Bears are as smart as humans, and much stronger.  The only thing we have going for us is a superior knowledge of technology.

So… four ways to protect a food bag.

Bear Vault

Some hikers carry a plastic canister designed to keep all wildlife out.  This works very well, and can also double as a stool in camp.  However, it is heavy and bulky.  I’m sorry to say that Jay and I are too lazy to carry it often, and we have not carried it on this AT hike at all.  (Yosemite requires the use of bear vaults, and we carry ours when we camp there.)


Bear Resistant Food Storage Locker

A bear locker is a heavy steel box with a door latch that is physically impossible for bear claws to manipulate.    Provided by the US Forest Service, the box is usually cemented to the ground.  This is the only sure way to protect one’s food.  It is also rodent proof, which, in my eyes, elevates it to a wonder box.  Unfortunately, only a few shelters on the AT have this storage container available.  I use it whenever I camp near one.


Bear Pole

A bear pole consists of a tall metal pole with y-shaped arms supporting hooks at the top, and a long metal rod with a hook on the end.  One puts one’s food bag on the hooked rod, lifts the bag high in the air, and loops it over a hook at the top of the pole.  This keeps it safe from bears.  It also keeps it safe from mice, short hikers, and hikers who don’t have much upper body strength.  It is a challenge to lift a fully loaded food bag with a long metal rod and have any control over it!

However, a ridge runner told us that a particularly athletic raccoon at Rock Springs Hut in the Shenandoah National Park had learned to jump and climb the bear pole, thus earning itself a hiker-sized feast each evening!  She recommended using the bear locker provided at that hut.

Last night, we camped at Rock Springs Hut.  I duly repeated the ridge runner’s advice and warning to the other five hikers there.  One other hiker used the bear locker with us.  Three hikers chose to sleep with their food.  (This is NOT EVER recommended, but hikers do it nevertheless.)  One hiker hung his food on the bear pole.

At 4:30 a.m., we all heard the clank of an animal messing with the bear pole.  At 6:00 a.m., the hapless hiker saw his shredded food bag and the remains of his food on the ground around the pole.  Rocky the Raccoon had struck again!

When I asked the hiker why he had used the bear pole, he said, “Well, it worked for the last four days at other shelters.  I figured nothing could actually climb it!”

I guess some people learn from their own mistakes, and some learn from other people’s mistakes.

Bear pole with many hiker food bags at Calf Mountain Shelter.

Tree Branch and Rope

This method is the most easily accessible to all kinds of wildlife, and yet it is the method we still use 85% of the hike.  When camping away from shelters, or even at shelters which have no food storage method available, a rope and a high tree branch are the next best options.

I have to admit, I enjoy tossing a half-filled water bottle connected to a rope over a tree branch, then hoisting our food bags aloft.  Sometimes it is a challenge to find an appropriate tree branch, and sometimes it is a challenge to get the rope exactly where one wants it.  But challenges can add excitement to a day, and after 900 miles of hiking, I’m not too bad at this skill.  (Jay is better at it!)

The general rule of thumb is to hang the food bag at least 15 feet off the ground and 6 feet away from the trunk of the tree.  Bears can still get it, if they are determined.  Ditto for athletic rodents and raccoons.  But so far (knock on wood), our food has stayed safe.



May 13, 2017

My sister informs me that I need to let friends know “the end of the story” of my collarbone.

“Oh no,” I protest.  “Surely everyone is sick of reading about that broken bone.”

My sister’s voice takes on a patient tone.  “People want to be reassured.  Are you truly all the way healed?  What’s happening with you?”

So, I’ve decided to do a bit of housekeeping, letting friends know what’s up in my life, and answering “behind the scenes” type questions about hiking the AT.

1.  Clavicle – I broke it six weeks ago.  Spent two weeks camping near the Dismal Swamp of North Carolina during the most fragile part of healing.  Then spent two weeks hiking in a sling, going slowly, grateful for Jay’s help.  Two weeks more of hiking without the sling, slowly regaining the use of my arm and shoulder.  Today I gave the sling to Goodwill.  Hurray!  Just a normal hiker now!

I’ll be swinging from vines soon!

2.  Food – We resupply every four days, whenever we come near a store.  We don’t carry a stove, and we eat the same food three times per day, every hiking day.  This simplifies our life tremendously!  Other hikers do not eat like this.  Many carry stoves, and most seek variety.  However, being bored with our food has so far been impossible when hiking eight to ten hours per day.  Hunger is the best sauce!

What do we eat?  We eat a mostly paleo diet on the trail.  Sardines packed in olive oil, extra sharp cheddar cheese, dark chocolate, cashews or pumpkin seeds, and raisins.  We also sometimes carry one unusual item for a leg of the trip.  One week it was toasted coconut from my parents.  Once it was a bag of figs and dates from a hiker box.  A small bottle of home-made molasses from our friends, Alan and Mary, lasted five days.  Yum!

Sardines, raisins, cheese, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and one spoon! The ultimate hiking diet and utensil!  (This is enough food for one person for three days.)

3.  Sleep – The Appalachian Trail has shelters about every eight miles.  These three-sided structures are used by many hikers.  We prefer the comfort of our tent, which is bug-free, rain proof, and private.  Every 100 miles, we stop in a town and stay at a hotel or a hiker hostel, doing laundry, getting a shower, and sleeping in a real bed.  Ahhh!

Home sweet home!

4.  Shoes – We hike in zero drop trail shoes, light weight and with no built up heel.  Our old shoes have now hiked nearly 700 miles of the AT, and more than 400  miles in Nevada.  They are done for!  Hurray for new shoes!

These shoes are done with walking!