Outdoor Musings

It seems the drought in California is over for the moment, as we’ve watched snow and rain pummel the state in the past few months. While the water was much needed in the state, up to a point, it’s likely to make things a little more difficult for Pacific Crest Trail hikers in the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains. If you plan on hiking the PCT or JMT this year, you should read Andrew Skurka’s excellent overview of what to expect with the snow this year.

Hikers approaching Muir Pass in June 2010.

I won’t recap Skurka’s points, but I’ll add something that my partners and I have talked about frequently in the past few years.

2010 and 2011 were the last years with above average snow pack in the Sierra. In 2012, we released the first edition of Guthook’s Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail. Three weeks later, Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, was published. In the past five years, the numbers of hikers on the PCT and JMT have skyrocketed as a result of the book and movie, social media accounts from through-hikers, and an overall increase in popularity of through-hiking. At the same time, navigation became easier as the number of hikers with GPS units went from a small handful to just about everyone hiking the trail (regardless of which app they’re using).

Travel through the High Sierra section of the PCT in those years, from what we’ve heard from many hikers, has been vastly easier than what many of the 2010 and 2011 through-hikers experienced. With less snow, there was less need for difficult route-finding over snowfields and fewer dangerous stream crossings. When there was snow to travel across, abundant GPS options made finding the trail a simple task. And, whereas hikers in higher snow years strategized and schemed to delay their entry into the Sierra, recent hikers have had to pay little attention to timing when passing through the high elevations.

My fear, hopefully unfounded, is that after years of relatively easy hiking in the High Sierra, through-hikers this year may be a little too complacent of the dangers posed by above-average snow depth. Hopefully I’m just being a little paranoid, worrying without reason, but for everyone planning to hit the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, please be careful out there!

Crossing streams raging with snowmelt in the Sierra.

Remember, you will probably be fine as long as you spend a little extra time during your hike to prepare mentally and physically for the most dangerous parts of the trail. You don’t need to be an expert mountaineer for the Sierra section of the PCT in order to safely get through and have a great time, but be open to learning from others with more experience, changing your plans on the fly, and taking time to avoid unnecessary risks.

A few basic pointers to get you started:
1- Take your time in the beginning of your hike if you want to avoid hiking too long over snow. The longer you wait, the more will melt. You can always make up time north of the Sierra.
2- The PCT fords dozens of streams and creeks in the Sierra that will likely be raging with snow melt. Be extremely careful with these! Two of my friends in 2010 were swept downstream, and were lucky to get out without serious injury. It often pays off to scout up and down stream for better crossings, or to wait overnight to cross early in the morning.
3- Though an app will make it easier to find where the trail goes, if you’re walking across an expanse of snow, the exact location of the trail may not matter. Sometimes, where the trail goes under the snow is not the best place to walk. And sometimes it is. Decide based on the conditions.
4- Always have a backup plan. As they say in peakbagging circles, “the peak is optional, the car is mandatory.” For through-hiking, we can modify this to “moving forward is optional, getting home is mandatory.”
5- Know how to navigate without your phone. Bring maps, compass, star chart, whatever is necessary to navigate without the use of electronics. Whatever you bring, know how to use it because you may have to rely on it in unforeseen circumstances. Remember, your phone isn’t indestructible or immortal. Neither are you.

At the end of last summer, I spent a week on the Pacific Crest Trail with some of my old through-hiking friends. They’d all met me as “Guthook” long before I started making apps for the PCT and Appalachian Trail, but on this trip I tended to go by my real name rather than my trail name. In the past few years, I’ve started to realize that sharing my name with a series of popular apps can be a little awkward.

In the interest of keeping some anonymity, I usually put old pictures of myself on here instead of new ones.

In the interest of keeping some anonymity, I usually put old pictures of myself on here instead of new ones.

On the first night of the trip, one of my friends was talking with a through-hiker who was camping near us. He was more interested in telling stories about his hike than hearing what we had to say, but when she mentioned that all of us had hiked the PCT or AT in the past, he got more interested in us, so my friend introduced everybody. “I’m Dinosaur, that’s Kentucky Blue, that’s Guthook, that’s Cough Drop, Squirrel, Tau.”

“Wait, The Guthook?” was his response. I didn’t hear the end of that from my friends for the rest of the week. They thought it was hilarious.

Though we passed about eighty through-hikers during that week on the trail, only three found out that I was “The Guthook.” My friends introduced me to one, one recognized me from earlier in the year, and one asked me if I knew Guthook (he was referring to the app), to which I replied, “Well, actually…”

I’ve had plenty more funny meetings with hikers on the Appalachian Trail in the past few years, too. I particularly like the “I thought you’d be much older” reaction (I don’t know why they would think that). Or, “I pictured you as a balding, middle-aged, fat guy with Cheetos stains on his shirt.” (I really don’t know why they thought that!).

That’s always pretty amusing, but I usually don’t like to meet current through-hikers as “The Guthook” because it changes the power dynamic of our conversations. When I’m talking with another hiker who doesn’t know my trail name, they tend to look at me as more of an equal, or at least someone not unlike themselves. I’m just a former AT and PCT through-hiker. But when they find out I’m “The Guthook”, the tone changes a little bit. Some of that could be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

More than one hiker has called me a celebrity, which I totally disagree with, but that got me thinking of the nature of Trail Celebrities.

When I was first hiking the AT and PCT, there were Trail Celebrities like Baltimore Jack, Warren Doyle, Warner Springs Monty, Billy Goat– seriously accomplished hikers that everyone seems to know because they’re always on the trail and they are very involved in the trail community. Their celebrity is almost entirely limited to through-hikers and aspiring through-hikers, and they seem to really enjoy that. People enjoy hearing about them because they are so ingrained into the fabric of the AT and PCT.

Then there are the endurance athletes and adventurers, like Andrew Skurka, Jennifer Pharr Davis, and Heather “Anish” Anderson. These folks have wider appeal because they do things that are inspiring to the general public, but also to the specialized through-hiker crowd. Either way, they tend to be more focused on doing their own thing, rather than hiking the AT and PCT over and over again. People enjoy hearing about them because what they do is astounding.

Then there are three guys whose names everybody seems to know because our names are attached to maps and guidebooks, but very few people seem to know much of anything about us as people. AWOL, Halfmile, Guthook. We each have different levels of how much we let the public know who we are (I have this blog, AWOL has the book about his through-hike), but the average through-hiker seems to have much less knowledge about who we are than they would about Baltimore Jack or Billy Goat. I assume AWOL and Halfmile are perfectly happy with that. I certainly am.

When I first started this blog, almost seven years ago, I had dreams of being a “famous through-hiker,” known around the world for my epic backpacking trips. That didn’t work out. I don’t have what it takes to break records like Anish, or to trek alone for months in the Alaskan wilderness like Skurka– in fact, I haven’t been on a really difficult long-distance backpacking trip in more than five years, and I’m only now beginning to think of trying a few in the future. And, as my interactions with hikers in the past few years have shown me, I’m not really comfortable being any kind of celebrity, even if that means just sharing my name with my creation. Rather than becoming widely known for my explorations, a thing that I’ve created has become widely known for the usefulness it provides for thousands of other people. I much prefer it this way.

Bad behavior leads to consequences for the hiking community.

Bad behavior leads to consequences for the hiking community.

If you’ve been following social media about the Appalachian Trail over the past year, you’ve probably heard about problems caused by hikers behaving badly in towns or on the trail. It all culminated last fall when Baxter State Park Authority, the managing agency responsible for the northernmost 14 miles of the Appalachian Trail, sent an open letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy railing against behavior by many through-hikers. If you haven’t read the letter, you should, but here are a few of the issues it outlined:

  • Camping outside of designated sites, and/or avoiding the overnight camping fee in the Park, fully knowing that this isn’t allowed.
  • Bringing dogs into the Park, despite clear restrictions against them. This includes counterfeiting Service Animal registration in order to trick Park employees into letting the pets into the Park.
  • Flooding the summit of Katahdin in groups upward of 30 people (the Park’s group size limit is 12 people).
  • Drinking or doing drugs on the summit.
  • Carving names or initials into shelters and signs within the Park.

None of this behavior is acceptable. You’ve probably already heard that, because I’m not the first to say it. What I want to discuss is the reaction from the community at large.

The reaction from the hiking community has generally been split into three camps. The first set of reactions sounds like “we need to teach new hikers how to respect the gift that is the Appalachian Trail”, which I’ll call the “educators”, since their approach assumes the hikers with poor behavior just need to better understand the issues. The other reaction sounds like “we need to stop the hikers who are behaving badly”. I’ll call the second group the “enforcers”, since their approach is to fight against the behavior. The third sounds like “kids these days act like they own the world”, which I’ll call the “curmudgeons”. These viewpoints are very well displayed in the Spring newsletter from ALDHA (see the Letters to the Editor on page 8).

In person, you’ll usually find my reactions more on the “enforcer” side, but I try to keep a solid footing in the “educator” side, too. Enforcers and educators are both important in changing the culture of through-hiking, first by educating the hikers who don’t know that a certain behavior is harmful, and then by enforcing rules when someone continues with the harmful behavior regardless. Baxter State Park essentially threatened enforcement in their letter by stating they would consider closing the Park to through-hikers if behavior doesn’t improve.

The type of response to the new trends that has no place in the discussion, however, is the curmudgeonly response. When someone starts a complaint with “when I hiked the Appalachian Trail…” it’s usually about how things were better before lots of people started hiking the trail. As I pointed out last month, the number of people using the Appalachian Trail has been growing a lot, and it will never go back to the way it was. Just like people who wish for the days before computers and Internet and globalization, you can wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which hand fills up first.

The other common complaint of curmudgeons is the “hikers today have too much of a sense of entitlement.” These statements let the accuser dodge any responsibility, though the problem is really a cultural shift that has evolved over decades. If you want to get people to feel like they’re no more special than others, maybe you should stop treating them that way by giving them rides into town, free food, or places to stay. But it doesn’t matter what you do individually unless you influence other people as well. Otherwise, you’re just a complainer. Complaining doesn’t often influence anyone in a useful way. This is why the education component is so important.

I’ve mostly sworn off hiking on the AT during peak season because I know the crowds aren’t going away, and I don’t enjoy them. There are plenty of other places to go that are just as nice and have fewer crowds. And if I happen to see a through-hiker acting like a twit, I’ll be first in line to knock him down a peg or two, but until that time, that hiker is no different from any other hiker– whether he’s going 20 miles or 200 or 2000.

So I’ll say this to the curmudgeons who want to continue railing against a sense of entitlement or too many people on the trail: Find a way to fix the problems, or find another place where they don’t exist. You may enjoy yourself a lot more. Embrace change, and move forward.

As I’ve worked with maps of the Appalachian Trail for the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by seeing what the land around the AT looks like from satellite imagery. It’s often very different from what we, as hikers, realize is nearby. What you see from above tells a very different story about the landscape than what thousands of through-hikers have seen.

Logging
The mountains and forests surrounding the Appalachian Trail have traditionally been very busy with logging and timber cutting, although today the amount of logging is certainly less than it was a hundred years ago. Maine and New Hampshire, especially, were cut with wild abandon. Today, the aerial view of the AT shows that there is still plenty of logging in Maine, but not much near the trail in New Hampshire or anywhere else that I could find.

Land ownership is an important consideration in timber cutting near the AT– in Maine, the trail mostly follows a narrow strip of National Park Service land sandwiched between private land owned by logging companies. Further south, the AT mostly walks through National Parks (where logging is not allowed) or National Forests (where logging is regulated by the Forest Service). What surprised me so much about the aerial view of logging lands in Maine is how invisible they are from the Trail, despite being sometimes only a quarter mile through the woods.

A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close to the AT this cut comes, though you'd never notice it from the trail.

A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close this cut comes to the AT, though you’d rarely notice it from the trail.

Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company's land.

Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company’s land.

A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you'd never notice this from the Trail.

A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you’d never notice this from the Trail.

The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state's Bureau of Parks and Lands.

The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Farms
The other major business in the mountains and rural areas is farming. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the trail walks along long mountain ridges, and occasionally dips into valleys that are filled with farmland. Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts are also patchworks of farmland although nowhere near as completely as those two large, flat, rural states. I find the farmland to be very pleasing to walk through, almost as much as a deep forest. There’s just as much peace to be found in a pasture, unless you happen to be nervous around bulls.

A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.

A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.

Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.

Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.

A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.

A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.

Ski Resorts
The Appalachian Trail crosses over, or within a short distance of, more than a dozen ski resorts. From the sky, one can see just how much of an impact this use of land can have. In some cases, the clearcut ski trails make for a good view where there may not have been one on top of a mountain otherwise. Hikers also tend to enjoy the ski resorts because there may be buildings where we can camp on top of a mountain, or restaurants and stores near the trail. A less flattering look at these resorts is that they become essentially permanent marks on the landscape, and often go along with major housing and condo developments. Like logging, I see them as an important economic driver in rural mountain areas which can have negative impacts if not regulated and held in check to some extent.

Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.

Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.

Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.

Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.

Housing Developments
I expected to find suburban developments in droves in the far northern section of Virginia, where the AT passes very close to Washington, DC, and was not wrong. But there are many large developments very close to the trail in other places, as well. It’s hard to miss these when looking at aerial images. Messes of yards and roads in deep woods very near to the AT stand out like a sore thumb. In one case, where a planned development was cancelled and later turned into a National Recreation Area, you can still see the abandoned roads even decades later– a near-permanent mark upon the land.

In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.

In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.

In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.

In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.

In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned.

In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned (northwest of the AT, faint lines in the woods).

Even the high mountains aren't immune to vacation homes and real estate development.

Even the high mountains aren’t immune to vacation homes and real estate development.

Roads
I was surprised to see that Interstate 90 passed by less than half a mile from Upper Goose Pond Cabin, one of the quietest, most peaceful shelters on the AT. Roads are an interesting feature on the landscape, with thousands of miles of them winding all over the country and criss-crossing the Appalachian Trail. In some places I was surprised to see so few roads, though the Trail seems to cross them so often. In other areas, zooming in a little closer showed that there were many more small roads that weren’t visible from further out.

Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn't really so far from a major Interstate highway!

Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn’t really so far from a major Interstate highway!

In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.

In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.

But zoom in much further, and you'll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.

But zoom in much further, and you’ll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.

Wilderness
To find total wilderness near the trail, I had to look for areas with strongly protected public land. Shenandoah and Smokey Mountains National Parks had the largest uninterrupted road-free areas I could find. Baxter State Park was the only land I could find that wasn’t owned by the Federal government and did have deep wilderness. The National Forests along the Trail were hit and miss– many National Forests are filled with roads and logging, but some have heavily protected by Wilderness areas. After looking along the entire AT for visible human impacts, the truly wild areas seem scarcer and more important than ever.

Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.

Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.

The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by car-bound visitors and hikers, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.

The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by hikers and car-bound visitors, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.

Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.

Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.

In the last few weeks I’ve been working non-stop on the major 2015 updates to the iPhone versions of my apps, along with some trail data updates for the AT. With a bit of a break around Christmas, I took some time to look back at the past year— it’s been a mighty eventful one.

Looking at the newspapers, I was reminded that it was a pretty rough year to be a human on planet Earth. There’s been so much death and violence and injustice, from Ukraine and Syria all the way to Ferguson and Staten Island. That’s just the tip of the shitberg, but I’ll just assume you know at least some of what I’m talking about. The urge to drop everything and head out for a through-hike can hardly get stronger.

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But for me, personally, the year has gone better than any I can remember. The business and trail guides that I created with two good friends began to take off to the point where I can finally treat it as a job rather than a hobby. Having created something that people use and enjoy is incredibly gratifying, though I still can barely believe it when I see someone using the apps or mention them on their gear list. It feels a bit like a dream.

Of course, the stars have aligned pretty well to put me here. Being able to afford health insurance certainly helped, as did several years of experience living with next to no income. Mostly, I can attribute the success of the apps to blind luck, stubbornness, and lots of great friends whom I can ask for advice. Not a day goes by where I don’t feel thankful for at least one of those things.

This summer, I also finally fulfilled another dream by teaching for NOLS. I’d wanted to work for NOLS since the first course I took in 2005, but I’d been nervous about being able to live up to my own expectations. The first of two courses didn’t go so well, but the organization is filled with great people and has a very positive, feedback-oriented style, and I was able to learn from my experiences in the first course in order to improve on the second. I’m already looking forward to working more courses next summer, although there’s a lot to be done between now and then.

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Then there were some really wonderful backpacking trips (for work and play) on the Appalachian Trail and in Baxter State Park. While I can’t say the AT trip was as fun as my original through-hike, it did have some great points. The Baxter trip is definitely up there with the best backpacking trips I’ve ever been on, though. To top off the fall, I spent more time hiking in Acadia National Park than I have in years. And I finished my New England 4000 Footers, and thus ended my peak-bagging lists (for now). Hiking so many miles in two of the most beautiful places in the world highlights just how well the year has been.

So now, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m exactly where I want to be. I’m busy, I have a useful outlet for my creativity, I get to hike fairly often, I can afford to live on my own, and I feel like I’m doing something good. While I don’t harbor any delusions that I’m saving the world from any major problems, I know I’m making a few people happy, and at least that’s something. Hopefully, in the coming year, I’ll be able to put my skills to use in more productive and helpful ways. Here’s to a better 2015!