Far From Home

After a day off in Roanoke, I was doing much better than when I’d arrived. My aching and blistered feet were well rested. I had a new pair of sneakers, purchased at the wonderful Walkabout Outfitters (whose manager had driven all the way to Harrisonburg to fetch the right sized sneakers for me, which is pretty amazing). I’d filled myself up with good southern food, loaded my pack with six days worth of trail food, and hit the trail once again. The humidity and awful heat of the previous days was now down to a very manageable level, and I was feeling good.


I was now in the section of the Appalachian Trail that runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway, with a few long climbs up to the ridge before walking easily alongside the road. This is a funny section of trail, since many of the best views are roadside pullouts on the parkway, but I’ve also found plenty of gorgeous mountaintops when the trail wanders away from the road. The first few days, though, I could safely tune out while in the woods, then get the views when I got near the road. That’s kind of unusual for the AT, but it’s a nice that this section has some kind of local flavor.


With my new feet and my new plan to cut my hike short at Harper’s Ferry, I was back to enjoying the trail and just relaxing, even as I averaged about 22 miles a day. I would get up early each morning, walk all day, and arrive in camp around 7 with plenty of daylight hours to rest before bed. I mostly met new groups of hikers each day, since many of the through-hikers seem to be going a little slower at this point. This surprised me a bit, but it has allowed me to meet a lot of new people, most of whom are pretty awesome. Halfway through this stretch of trail I met No Plan B and Torch, a father and son duo who were hiking together until NPB injured his foot, so now he’s driving up the trail providing road support for Torch. They’ve both been using the AT Hiker app extensively, and made me really happy when they told me how useful it has been for them. Check out their website sometime– they’re raising money to build a veterans’ rehab center, and they’re super dedicated to the cause as well as the hike.


My plan for this 150 mile stretch of trail was to stay in the woods for six days and have the full wilderness experience. Things didn’t quite work out that way, though. After three days, I realized I wasn’t feeling very connected to the trail, partly because of the number of people I was running into. Last year, while mapping much of the northern section of the AT, I was alone most of the time and really enjoying it. This time, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being out there, but the connection to the trail wasn’t so strong. I decided I might as well head into town on the fourth night for some burgers and extra snacks. The decision was made a little easier since my food bag was looking just a tiny bit light for the next few days. I made a last minute decision to go into the town of Buena Vista, and arrived at the road to town after all of the day’s traffic had stopped heading over the pass. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought. After half an hour at the road with almost no traffic for hitching, though, the trail provided. A carload of hikers arrived from town to start hiking out at night, and there was my ride into town. It was too late to get a spot at the hostel, but No Plan B and Torch had a campsite at the town park with extra space, so everything worked out just fine. I got my burgers, then a big breakfast in the morning, and an earlier than expected ride back to the trail, and all was well. The only real backfire of the plan was that with all the town food now in my belly, my food bag had a little too much food. I’d been hoping to walk into Waynesboro with an empty pack. Oh well. Sometimes when things don’t go according to plan, they work out better than anticipated anyway.


The last few days to Waynesboro were smooth sailing over some of the last big climbs in the south. The Priest, Cold Mountain, and Three Ridges seemed daunting to everyone out here, but a little time and a lot of sweat were rewarded with much nicer views than I remembered from my last time here. The temperatures fell steadily as well, making the hiking more pleasant. In the last few miles to the town of Waynesboro, the foliage and undergrowth got thicker and thicker, cutting down on the views, but the surroundings still overwhelmed my senses– the sounds of songbirds singing were louder than ever, and the smell of flowering plants was so thick it seemed like walking through a bouquet.


The final leg of this trip will take me through Shenandoah National Park, and then to the town of Harper’s Ferry, home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The terrain is supposedly much easier in the park than elsewhere in Virginia, and with my feet feeling better than ever I could probably be done in less than a week. I’m planning a few extra days, though, just in case I find some interesting side trails or people to spend the last few hiking days with. As eager as I am to get home, I can always spend a day or two more on the trail.


When Joe and I left Damascus, we started into the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, one of the busiest parts of the AT in the south. It was an early spring weekend, Trail Days was happening just a few miles away, and hundreds of hikers were swarming into the woods for the weekend.


We hurried into the highlands surrounding Virginia’s two highest peaks– Whitetop and Mt Rogers– just after a cold front had moved through and dumped a few inches of snow. Hikers everywhere were bundling up and hunkering down with the cold and wind. We just hiked a little harder over Mt Rogers and the Grayson Highlands.


After the open ridges and wide views of the highlands, the trail through VA turned into more rolling mountains at slightly lower elevations. We also entered the notorious green tunnel, with no open views for days. For many people, that would kill the fun of the hike, but there was plenty of gorgeous scenery, even if it didn’t come from the top of a mountain. Blooming rhododendron groves, quiet mountainside pastures, and long stretches of deep forest were plenty scenic in my book.


We kept up a blistering pace along the trail, passing dozens upon dozens of through-hikers, but the blistering mostly happened to my feet. More specifically, five days in a row of huge miles pounded my feet until they were swollen and bruised, which made walking agonizing. It turns out that my leg muscles get in shape much faster than the bones of my feet, so while my legs felt great, my feet did not. Luckily, we were able to take a restful day off high in the mountains at Woods Hole Hostel, one of the most relaxing and idyllic trail stops I’ve had. It helped that there was no cell signal or internet access, so I was able to spend an entire day lazing on the porch, icing my feet, and eating. It was perfect.


After plenty of rest, I had another hundred miles through terrain that I remembered as being uneventful, but it was anything but. The long ridge walks with rocky outcrops and mountaintop meadows had plenty of views, and the rhododendron groves continued on. The company along the trail was pretty great, too. I’ve been hiking off and on with several through-hikers, getting a taste of the hiking community. (Shout out to Aloha Niceshirt, since I hear his wife reads this blog)


Unfortunately, the heat and gravelly trail didn’t let up on my feet. Maybe they hadn’t healed entirely during the stay at Woods Hole, but I think that even if they had they wouldn’t have done so well with these conditions. The day before reaching Daleville, the temperatures were in the high eighties with humidity so high I couldn’t see more than five miles from the mountain vistas. Now that I’m in town, it’s time for some more rest before the next stretch. I’ve got a new pair of shoes, a full belly, and a stack of New Yorkers to read. Life is good!


I didn’t really plan to go to Trail Days this year, but the timing of my hike put me right in the middle of it. This was my second Trail Days (the first being in 2008, the year after my through-hike), and I was kind of dreading it from the start.


First, let me start by saying my distaste for Trail Days has nothing to do with the quality of the festival, or the people there. The people are great, and the festival is one of the most amazing experiences you can have as a long-distance backpacker. I don’t like being there because I’m a very introverted person, and big crowds make me very uncomfortable. When the population of Damascus swells from less than 900 people to around 20,000 people for the weekend, that crowd is bound to be overwhelming.


So let’s start with the really great things about Trail Days. My favorite part is that almost every cottage industry in the backpacking world has a booth set up to show their wares that you can otherwise only find online. Six Moon Designs, Mountain Laurel Designs, ULA Equipment— everybody has their packs and tents on display and for sale.


Then there’s the general community of weirdos. Say what you will of the hiking community, with its party animals, grumpy old men, social outcasts, and oddballs of society, but it’s refreshing to see such a large group of people with a shared love of the trail and general distaste for the normal world. I’ve always been among the part of society that is less accepted by the mainstream, so seeing so many like myself, letting their freak-flags fly, gives me a bit of a sense of community. I may not feel any connection to sub-communities like the traveling frat party or the Whiteblaze forums, but they’re still a part of the overall culture.


I stuck around to meet my good friend, Tom, and then to meet Damien, who is hiking the trail with his wife and three children. It was a great relief to meet close friends amid the crowds, like spots of calm in the sea of craziness.

But I can only take the party in very small doses. I get freaked out by crowds of even 10 or 20 people at campsites on the trail– a crowd of ten thousand or more is a living nightmare. I hightailed it out of town on Friday afternoon, hoping to beat the crowds that would soon be swarming out of town. I missed almost all of the official festivities, including the hiker parade, film screenings, free hiker buffets, and more. But that also let me miss the massive crowds of hikers and trail groupies swarming the town. There would still be hundreds of people on the trail in the next few days, but most of the crowd stayed in town, just the way I like it.

The plane leaves in less than three days, and I’m barely ready for it. The a past few weeks have been a blur of loading food drops, gathering backpacking gear, fixing app bugs, traveling back and forth from Portland to my parents’ place, saying farewells. Time has lost most meaning except as a way to know I’m behind where I need to be. I don’t remember my other big trips being so frantic in the days before leaving home. Somehow, despite the stresses, I feel great.

Not the worst mess for packing, but far from organized.

Not the worst mess for packing, but far from organized.

A few weeks ago, two app users alerted me to a bug in the apps that occurred when starting the app in an area of low cell signal. My crash reporting software showed no trace of these crashes, but as I searched around for the cause, I realized the problem was more widespread. How frustrating. I searched frantically, two weekends in a row on the trail so I could experience the same conditions that caused the problem, but again and again I failed to understand the cause.

Finally, a lucky break, I found the exact problem during my hours of poring over code and software developer forums. It was only three days ago, leaving me less than a week to fix the apps and send them out to the world. I don’t like cutting things so close, but I hate the thought of leaving any major bugs in the program while I’m away for the summer. The past few weeks have been bad for sleeping, with possible reasons for the bug flowing through my mind. And they’ve been bad for my eyes. Too much screen time makes my eyes itch.

Starting to sort the food packages.

Starting to sort the food packages.

But I’m done with the programming for now, at least as much as I can be. Now it’s time for hike preparations. Next week begins the most ambitious backpacking trip I’ve ever planned for myself. Nearly 1000 miles, and no more than 45 days from start to finish. This may not be the smartest decision. But the challenge is pretty exciting.

For the past few weeks, in what little downtime I could find between programming, I’ve been buying loads of hiking food, organizing gear, testing new equipment, packing food boxes, studying maps and guides, planning logistics, and trying to organize the things I’ll leave at home. The mess in my room is smaller than it could be, but I have to wonder how it compares to my previous hikes. This is the part I always seem to block out of memory. Is getting ready for this kind of backpacking trip always this chaotic?

Soon enough, I’ll have to let go of all the anxieties and just get on with the hike. And everything will work out just fine.

After twelve hours of travel by bus, train, and car, I finally arrived in the small town of Blairstown, New Jersey, to start my three-week backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. The hike’s main purpose is to map out a few more states for my AT app, but it’s also a good way to beat myself into shape for the hiking season, and to clear my mind before the summer and all the uncertainties ahead in life.


I was all ready to begin the hike on Friday morning, but with over an inch of rain in the forecast for the day, I didn’t mind one more day of rest. So on Saturday morning, I hit the trail at Delaware Water Gap, ready for just about anything. Except the beating my feet took. Apparently (as is so often the case) I wasn’t so tough as I’d thought.


The first fifty miles of New Jersey follow the ridge of the Kitatinny Mountains, which was amazingly gentle as far as the climbs, but tough on the feet. The rocks and ridges quickly ate up the bottoms of my feet. By the end of day two, my poor ankles and soles were very unhappy. Add to that some nasty sunburns because the leaves weren’t out to block the sun yet, and there was plenty of pain for a week on the trail.


But there was plenty of joy to go around, too. From day one, when I met “Oboe Hobo” (finishing his 2012 through hike) to later days meeting section hikers, there was no shortage of people who were just happy to be on the trail. That’s something that is often missed in the through-hiker crowd, when months of fatigue start to take their toll. The hikers I met this week were all so relaxed, so joyful. I camped for a few nights with two retirees from Georgia, doing their annual section hike, and it reminded me that the trail community isn’t just limited to the through-hikers. You can meet people on the trail and hike or camp with them for several days, and it gets to be like a traveling family.


Three days of pretty brutal heat were followed by a day of wet and dreary weather, just in time for the second part of the state. After dropping off the state’s high point, the AT hugs the New York border through farmland, low hills, and marshes. A few miles of this aggravated my sore feet, and I was ready to add a day off to the plan for the end of the week. No matter how many trips like this I go on, I always think I can do without a day off in the beginning, and I’m always wrong.


After a day and a half of lowlands walking, I had some more clear views and steep, rocky climbs at Wawayanda Mountain, where I was able to look back on several days worth of hiking. There was a fine view at Pinwheel Vista where I could see back to the New Jersey high point (easily visible from a distance because of the 200 foot obelisk on top), and as far north as the Shawangunks. The AT goes nowhere near the Gunks, but looking at them looming over the New York countryside brought back plenty of memories from college, and thoughts of another eventual backpacking trip. The Long Path runs up to those mountains, then beyond to the Catskills, another of my college haunts. I wonder when I’ll get back there.

Yesterday morning, I moved pretty slowly since my feet were beat up and aching, but I managed a full day of walking. I’m taking a day off at Greenwood Lake, staying with one of my friends from the Appalachian Mountain Club who helped me out back in 2007 when I hiked the AT at a much faster pace. I have to remind myself that I was a bit younger then, and I kept my pace below 15 miles per day for the first month on the trail. That may explain why my feet are getting so torn up on this trip. A little rest and relaxation should help with the healing, and I’m not even a little bit behind schedule yet.

One state down, three to go!