Northbound A.T. backpackers are nearing the New England wilds and, with it, evenings around the campfire as the nightly chill sets in. What’s more appropriate than a ghostly tale well told!
Category Archives: Backpacking
Y’all come sit by the fire now…it’s story time! (Tales, Poems, and Songs for the Appalachian Trail Hiker)
In our age of distraction it’s more important than ever to slow down and pay attention — especially to where we’re going!
If I had kept my eyes lifted and looked straight ahead of me, I would never have become lost. But since the sweltering blaze of a blistering midsummer afternoon in August on the A.T. in Pennsylvania kept my head down — literally — I must have missed the turn.
Time has wilted with my motivation. A long roadwork through a dusty valley seemed at first an easy endeavor. An early start to beat the rising sun, to outrun its zenith, was the intention. Never made it. Lots of “cameling up” kept me alive, but pouring sweat and drenching humidity did their evil best to sap my energy. Despite many stops to rest in what shade I could find, I ended up in a late afternoon slog. The white blazes had directed me through some newly sown fields and alongside a two-lane asphalt road, now redolent with the smell of cooked…
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I never thought the day would come when I would say this, but the world has changed.
Never, ever, hike or backpack alone.
I say this as someone who has spent countless hours in the deep wild, thrilled by the solitude and awed by the silence. It has always been my intention to encourage the soul that is drawn to the stillness of the forest and the trail which takes them there to answer that call; to go and experience something rare and breathtaking and enriching.
I know it is sometimes difficult to find one or more persons who have the time to venture on a hiking trip with you. I had that challenge, but I went anyway. In fact, I preferred being alone on the trail, and relished the unknown difficulties of each day.
Most days, these barriers consisted of where to find water, or how to ford a river. Others might be getting a hitch into town or finding a store to resupply.
It’s different now. The factors have changed, and not always for the better.
I still hear it, as I did today when I read the news; the trail (Appalachian) is safe — but there are no guarantees.
The story this date (May 12, 2019) https://bit.ly/2HfXT8j is one where a loner attacked hikers using a machete, leaving one wounded and one dead. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard of such an act of violence intruding upon such a marvelous hiking path. Still, this time it seems different. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s because things have changed along the trail in the past dozen plus years. Overcrowding of shelters, incidents of norovirus affecting hikers in greater number, the popularity of the trail compared to twenty years back. Easy accessibility to the footpath, and plenty of media exposure seem to have only led to a more crowded outdoor experience.
What was once a near-hidden gem has become stained by the stress of over-use and violence.
Am I saying not to go? Never!
But, I am saying one should be in a group of at least three or more. I am saying, sadly, that more attention should be paid to other hikers and their mannerism and behavior, especially loners who seem not to fit in.
Use your intuition, your gut, your suspicions and, if you feel the least bit of doubt, avoid questionable company. Report such individuals to rangers and trail officials.
The old saying is true: there’s strength in numbers.
For me, I grieve the loss of those attacked, who were enjoying the wonder of the wild in innocence. I also grieve the loss of safety which I felt years ago, when I could walk the footpath without undue concern about my safety. That does not mean I didn’t run across the odd character; I did, and more than once. But I grieve the ability to enclose oneself in the emerald fastness of the forest without having to look over the shoulder to see who is following.
For me, the days of solo backpacking have ended. I do not look down on those who feel the confidence and fortitude to venture out alone. I only wish I could.
Instants have come and gone, though I think Trader Joe’s Columbian instant would do in a pinch. I’ve tried funnels and gadgets of various sorts. I will not take an espresso maker; too much to fidget with.
A few years ago I found a lightweight, convenient method of taking fresh-ground coffee on the trail and brewing it with as little fanfare and difficulty as possible.
Enter – the coffee sock. No, it’s not a “recycled” tube sock (ack!) It’s a wooden handled gadget with a muslin “basket” which holds grounds through which hot water if poured. Quick on the brew, good on the palate. I can amp the coffee with as many grounds as I like and cleanup is a simple rinse. Occasionally I will use some soap and water to wash out the oils which accumulate.
Viola! Easy, fast, and most of all – effective!
I just couldn’t resist dicing up your hiking Halloween without revisiting the chilling tale of this most unwelcome trail denizen! Trick or Treat!
Consider this the “Halloween” post for Write In Front of Me. It’s not my intent to fuel undue anxiety or alarm but I would be less than upfront if this side of backpacking the Appalachian Trail wasn’t addressed. Specifically, I’m talking about safety in dealing with other hikers and people you will meet.
First a tale…a true tale.
Cold Spring Shelter along the Appalachian Trail was home for the night for myself and a handful of other backpackers. We’d left Springer Mountain mid-April and were among the rear guard bound for Katahdin. Most of us were getting our “trail legs” and starting to feel we were managing the tests the trail set before us pretty well.
What we weren’t prepared for was “Night Hatchet.”
“Night Hatchet” was a young local man, about his early twenties, who was hitching from trailhead to trailhead, hiking in to shelters…
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Wild. Wilder. Wilderness.
Three words from one.
Wild…what I have always been seeking. Since I was a child and could sit in Granddad’s back yard, feeling the roaring summer heat; reaching out, sensing the touch of a firefly at evening as it lit upon my small fingers (we call ’em “lightning bugs” in North Carolina).
Wild…what I saw as a young boy at the state natural history museum. Wild, but wild that was “preserved,” with all the life-energy drained away. Still, echoes of life abounded in the bones and skin and stuffed display. Wild was always there — never to die, though the animal was but preserved carcass.
Wilder…when I was in my early 30’s and visited a zoological park. Real wild — more so than in the museum — yet caged, restricted. Wilder…looking me in the eye. Wilder…telling me it would be a wondrous freedom to raise the latch and let it go; a foreign creature roaming free in the land.
Wilder…as I roamed into the forest and had a nerve-shaking encounter with a rattlesnake. Wilder, fiercer, rattling rage which said “stay back, beware!”
Wilder…encircled while in camp by a black bear, who wandered around my tent coming ever closer. I remember striking the cooking pan with a stick, blowing a whistle, all to no avail as wilder came…nearer. Only striking the earth with my hiking staff in a desperate attempt to drive the creature off met with success.
Wilder…jangling the nerves. Storms ambushing me while I scaled great heights, pummeling the ridges with rain, savaging the peaks with lightning, causing me to pause and duck and dart beneath sheltering trees for fear of being struck.
Wilderness…in the deep balsam forest, amid a million mirroring lakes and ponds, across land studded with peat bog and few signs of human activity. Wilderness at last…home in the deepest sense. Wilderness! What I had been walking for, seeking for, ever thirsting for.
Wilderness…atop the high-winded peak at velocity enough to tip me over. Elemental threats amid the glory of sailing clouds and bright sun and deep cold. Wilderness that pounded my soul and heart with a message: This is life! Breathe in, feel the caress; embrace the moment as the space between you and eternity becomes thin enough for you to reach beyond daily cares and concerns. The mundane will soon return…but or now…
Point, focus, click. Blog, take a selfie. These are just a few of the ways to document your hiking and backpacking trip. None of these methods existed when last I did an extensive trip around 1989. The dawn of the worldwide web and the Internet was just breaking. Now, with so many technological means of recording your trip, you might think it’s the best way to go. And there’s nothing wrong with using tech to tell your tale.
I would like to suggest, however, what I think is the most powerful and personally meaningful means to putting your story down for posterity, and it involves not new, edgy innovations — it’s distinctly and intentionally “old tech.”
I had recorded my journey using pen and paper. Not longer after “re-entry” when my trip was over, I looked over the water-spattered and smudged pages. I noticed my entries were sometimes lacking detail and somewhat sketchy. So, I decided I would do a complete revision of my journal, before the “little gray cells” lost their grip on the memories.
Here’s what I did.
First, I got a headquarters; a place I would go at least one or two days a week to get comfortable, grab some coffee, and have space to write in. I chose a Dunkin’ Donuts. I would camp out there about one or two hours, coffee and donuts at hand, and with a fresh, new notebook, I would transcribe my old journal into the new one. At first this felt awkward. But, then things began cranking along and I was remembering things I had forgotten which happened to me on the trail, and I also discovered that as I rewrote paragraphs I was expanding them, which made them more memorable and made for richer reading.
Next, I said I did the work by hand — yes, longhand! That slowed my brain down and gave ample time for the memories to sort of re-process and for forgotten episodes to be remembered. This was exciting and engaging. It felt like I was reliving the trail adventure, which I was, but in a way I had not anticipated. I used a pen and paper, not a laptop, so I could spend the time I needed to make the memories indelible in a way only handwriting can do.
The entire process took about three months, and I ended up with more than a record, more than a journal. I created a keepsake that will be part of my legacy, and will have my own personal stamp of effort on it.
I suggest you try it. Nothing will make your re-entry from the trail to daily life more meaningful, and process the experience at the same time, than revisiting those glory days on the trail in this way.
Try it and see!