Category Archives: Long distance backpacking

Y’all come sit by the fire now…it’s story time! (Tales, Poems, and Songs for the Appalachian Trail Hiker)

What’s a hike along the Appalachian Trail without a good fireside tale?  Let Robert W. Service (1874-1958), known as “the Bard of the Yukon,” warm your bones with this classic chiller poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.

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Filed under Adventure, Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Camping, Fear, Hiking, Long distance backpacking, outdoors, Poetry, stories

The Dare Out There

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“On the street of by-and-by, one arrives at the house of never.” – Cervantes

The pressure is strong; the urge unrelenting.  The demands of life – work, earning a living, plus a thousand other things – quickly jam into each nanosecond of our existence, leaving little time to catch our breath, plan meaningful futures, or nurture things which matter most, such as relationships and finding a life purpose to fully commit to.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to take a leap of faith.  You have to simply put all other things aside and go; even if you don’t know how you’ll get there or what will happen when your backpacking boots move beyond the starting line at Springer Mountain, Georgia.

You just know: “I’ve simply got to do this.  Now!”

Somehow you just know.  The food that will fuel your soul, the sustenance which will galvanize you into going inside and giving yourself time to think and get to know who you are – lies in the glory of nature.  Yes, there will be a price to pay in pain and hardship, loneliness and ache.  But if you cross the zone along the trail (for me it was about the fifty mile mark) where it feels something has shifted and that you’ve somehow “broken through” the majority of your resistance and second-guessing, you will know you can achieve what you set out to do.  Hike from Georgia to Maine!

That’s when things will get really interesting.

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine (or in any other configuration you choose) will always be a benchmark for the rest of your life.  Even if you should not succeed in completing the entire trail, you will discover your outlook is brighter, your spirit bolder, your boundaries of possibility expanded.

My advice is not to fuss too much about which gear to use or whether or not you should saw the handle off your toothbrush.  Not if it delays your setting out too long.  I spent a year in research, gathering equipment, and planning.  Even then, I hit the footpath with a pack weighing 55 pounds to start with.  By the end of my trip that weight had drastically dropped to about 30 pounds.  The thing to remember is that is plenty of room to learn as you go.  Stick with the basics and set out.

Treat the land as if it were your own back yard.  In recent years I’ve been dismayed to learn the trails has suffered from littering and graffiti.  If you care about stewarding the world you live in, leave shelters and campsites better than you found them.  You will be amazed at how good you will feel when you spend a few extra minutes sweeping out a shelter with a broom!

Take time to – as the old saw goes – “hike your own hike.”  Leave high-daily-mileage setting to those who feel the need for such accomplishments and focus on your own; the pace that enriches your soul and makes your spirits fly when you unload your pack at the end of the day.

Whatever date on the calendar you mark to begin your journey, remember that the dare out there will bring out everything that is within you, both good and bad.  And that’s OK.  You are about to grow in ways you could never imagine before.

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Filed under A.T., Adventure, Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Discipline, Dreams, Hiking, Long distance backpacking, outdoors, Transformation

Note To Self: When You Think About Quitting Your Thru-hike

20140721-201217-72737161.jpgNo doubt about it: you will have days during your thru-hike when nothing will be as tempting as the notion of bailing out. I first met hikers who quit the trail well before the NC/GA border. Some discontinued their hike because of injury, others were homesick. One hiker said, “It just wasn’t what I thought it would be.” He caught a bus home the next day.

Within the first ten days of my trip I “enjoyed” nearly overpowering Georgia heat and humidity (and I’m from North Carolina!), discovering springs filled with brackish, un-potable water. Fifty-cent-sized blisters plagued both heels. The stinging nettles went on for miles, and drove some hikers nearly mad. One hiker made the habit of screaming aloud at the top of his voice as he plunged through them. Muscles and joints screamed for relief; moving gingerly first thing in the morning took persistent effort and ibuprofen became known as the “hiker vitamin.”

So, how can an aspiring long-distance Appalachian Trail backpacker up the odds of finishing atop Katahdin in autumn? There are as many answers to this questions as there are summits along the trail. But I recall in an old 1989 edition of the “Philosopher’s Guide,” some genuine advice. It suggested that if one feels like cashing in the trip they get off the trail and hold up in a motel for two or three days. If they find they aren’t missing what’s happening on the trail within that span of time, perhaps the hike is not for them and it’s time to set sights on a new goal.

I would add a simple suggestion; a “note to yourself.” Before you set out from Springer Mountain, jot down on a slip of paper the “why” which brought you to hike the Appalachian Trail. Make your reason as honest as possible, and retrieve it from your pocket to read during “those moments” — because you will have them, and that note to self may be the anchor and powerful motivation which keeps you hiking along the trail.

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking, Long distance backpacking, Timothy J. Hodges

Guiding Light – A song for the trail

One song that haunts me wonderfully as I hike and backpack the trail is this one by Irish worship leader Robin Mark.  Ponder the lyrics; enjoy the video.

 

O the road is wide,

And water runs on either side.

My shadow in the fading light

Is stretching out towards the night.

 

For the sun is low,

But I still have yet so far to go.

My lonely heart is beating so,

Cause I’m tired of the wandering.

 

There’s a sign ahead,

but I think it’s the same one again.

I’m thinking about my only friend,

so I’ll find my way home.

 

Chorus:

When I need to get home

you’re my guiding light, you’re my guiding light.

When I need to get home

you’re my guiding light, you’re my guiding light.

 

And the night is cold,

and yonder lies my sleeping soul

by all the branches broke like bones,

but this weakened tree no longer holds.

 

And the night is still,

but I have not yet lost my will.

So think I’ll keep on moving still,

til I find my way home.

 

Chorus:

When I need to get home,

You’re my guiding light, you’re my guiding light.

When I need to get home,

You’re my guiding light, you’re my guiding light.

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking, Long distance backpacking, The Appalachian Trail, Timothy J. Hodges

Breaking News: Liebster Award Nomination

liebster-award-main1Thanks first of all to Rockin’ www.ladyonarock.com for this unexpected and humbling honor!  Rockin’ has, I believe, the most cutting edge, practical blog out there when it comes to backpacking and the outdoors.  Jam packed with incredible photography and blog entries that take you out of your day-to-day and to wherever she is in the wild, “Lady On A Rock” is a unique, informative, beautiful blog.  Gear reviews are not merely interesting here; they are practical  reports which allow the reader to evaluate whether the same gear would work for them.  Reports from the field on her journeys bring fun and excitement to life.  You really feel like you’re hiking right alongside her and it’s a refreshing read.  There are very few writers whose posts I really look forward to reading, and this is one!

In keeping with the rules…

#1 –  My answers to Rockin’s questions.

Favorite outdoor guidebook?

I grew up with one book which put the hiking hook in me; “The Complete Walker,” by Colin Fletcher.  I even read lengthy passages aloud to a hiking friend, and we both smiled and enjoyed Colin’s sense of humor and exploits.  Even years later the advice on many issues Colin touches on still holds true.  I would also mention two books which, while not officially practical trail guides, still opened the Appalachian Trail to my thinking.  The first, which I ready before my hike and which compelled me to tackle the A.T., was “Appalachian Hiker II,” by the Ed Garvey.  I read it twice before my hike, and it made the impossible seem possible for me.  After hiking the trail, I read “Waking With Spring,” by Earl Shaffer, a wonderful window onto the early backpacking days of the Appalachian Trail.

Why do you walk? The answer cannot be “Because I am crazy”.

Nothing strips away the gunk from my heart and soul like walking; especially in wilderness.  I believe my Creator designed every aspect of the wild to draw me closer to Him.  I am “called” to walk there, and when I cannot walk my life loses some of the richness and luster I think was intended for me to have.  I walk to see, and to see what I see.  To sharpen my perceptions, to take my place in the created dynamics of nature.  Plus I simply feel exhilirated, fit, and healthy when I walk the long distances.

Having a stressful day at work? what gets you through? an outdoor experience perhaps?

Stepping outside.  Breathing in…

I am a peak bagger. Do you have any recommendations?

Living in New England, I would certainly recommend Katahdin in Maine at the northern terminus of the AT.  Mount Washington in New Hampshire is a challenge in any season, with weather unlike anywhere else.  Being a southerner by birth, I have to nod strongly to the entire mountainous range of the Great Smokies, especially during the spring wildflower bloom in May.  Just thinking of that makes me tear up.

What gets you through the last miles of a hard day besides crying? Again selfish.

That cold, clear spring waiting at the end of the day.  Of course, being sentimental I am apt to cry in any case.  Dressing an unexpected, deep blister is also going to do the trick!

Your favorite trail food? It would be great if you could recommend a gluten and dairy free option.

I have a few.  I take along some olive oil and tabouli mix, make it up, and chill it in a spring.  Great on a hot day!  On some morning when my tastebuds require decadent fare, I will break out indian red corn fry bread mix.  In a pinch, bannock on a stick over a fire in the evening with a spot of Irish tea is a nightime treat.

I have to ask…what are 2 of your favorite funny hiking quotes? Shamelessly selfish again. I am gathering quotes for this summer’s blog entries.

I can only offer one, but it’s memorable.  When first setting out up the AT in Georgia, I met a fellow from the Boston area by name of Cronin.  At a shelter one night, he was grousing about how the trail up the Georgia mountains seemed to 1) lack switchbacks (which it did!), and 2) the trail would wind this way and that so much that when you would think yourself at the summit, you were crushed to find you were not.  As a result, the frustrated man coined “Cronin’s Law,” which I have used when appropriate.  Here it is: “Never assume you’re at the top!”

We are all bloggers. What keeps you motivated to keep writing?

I often believe I was born then paper and pencil were tossed in my crib, so it’s in the blood.  I am motivated by the hope that something I say will inspire or comfort someone, or that they will be able to relate to what I share.  Plus I simply love words and the use of them.

Since I loved this question I am going to ask. How old were you when you first camped? hiked? backpacked?

Oh those thrilling days of yesteryear!  At about ten years of age a friend convinced me to shoulder an army surplus backpack and hike with him into the posted land some three or four miles behind my rural home.  “Farmer Brown” never discovered us, and we didn’t burn down the acreage, but we made our own trails and camped in the woods for years.  Army surplus mess kits and canteens were among out equipment; cans of Spaghettios and foil packs of hamburger, potatoes, and onions were often stuffed among the coals to cook.  We had a grand time!  After my military stint, I got serious in the 70’s and bought a Kelty Tioga frame pack and ventured into the Uwharrie Mountains of central North Carolina, which were hilly and packed with eastern diamondback rattlers for some reason.  Later I expanded my explorations into the Linville Gorge area of the Blue Ridge mountains, the Pisgah Range, and Shining Rock Wilderness.  I was hooked.  Later came the AT and then Vermont’s Long trail.

Who doesn’t love a good sunrise and sunset? Where have been your favorites?

I took a basecamp trek at Mount Mansfield in Vermont, where I parked my pack at Taft Lodge for a week and daypacked many of the summit trails.  One August morning, cool and filled with the fragrance of conifers, I woke early and ventured outside where about eight other lodgers were sitting on an eastern-facing shelf of rock.  No one said a thing, as if it might shatter the moment.  Then through the reddish-gray striations of cloud on the east a striking sun broke through, crepuscular rays spitting out across the surrounding summits like lasers, and bathing our perch with golden light.  I have no photo of it, but I’ve never forgotten it.  It was a holy moment.

So what is your next planned adventure?

There are a number of short/long options I’m curious about doing.  I might re-hike the Shenandoah National Park stretch of the AT next summer.  Meanwhile, possibly a return visit to the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway which runs up the center of New Hampshire.  A dream trail would be the North Country Trail, and the Great Eastern Trail has caught my attention as an AT alternative.

Rule #2 – Nominate bloggers 

LADY ON A ROCK  http://www.ladyonarock.com  Following Rockin’s adventures will make your day!  (Reverse nomination alert!)

CHASING KATAHDIN  http://www.chasingkatahdin.com “Dairy Queen” is living the dream on the AT.

A FORK IN THE ROAD  http://jfetig.com  Yogi said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” So I’m following the white blazes.Rule (Jim Fetig)

WATERFALLS HIKER  http://waterfallshiker.com  Exploring the cooler, wetter side of western North Carolina.

#3 – Provide nominees with questions

What is the greatest danger/peril you have experienced or come close to?

How does your love of the wild enrich your life?

Which book, of all you have read, has affected your life the most?  How?

Would you be prepared, if necessary, to provide first-aid care to another injured hiker you came across?  What is the level of your skills/training in this area?

Which creature would you least like to encounter when outdoors?  (Excluding humans)

What is your threshold of risk in the outdoors; i.e., would there be a circumstance, place, expedition you would say no to?

If you have just one last walk you could take, anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Which is more important to you — physical stamina or mental toughness — when outside?

What’s the most hilarious thing that has ever happened to you when outside?

What do you value most in life?

Describe your philosophy of life?  Who are you?  Why are you here?  What legacy will you leave behind?

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking, Long distance backpacking, The Appalachian Trail, Timothy J. Hodges

Hiking in the year of discontent

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Photo courtesy alex_ford @ Flickr

I was discontent. Employed in a vocation I loved (radio broadcasting) at 30 years of age, with friends and a place to live, in a town I grew up in and loved – yet I was discontent. I wasn’t sure why. My colleagues even threw me a super birthday party at work; I felt surprised, humbled, and happy. Something else was stirring. It felt like someone had come into the interior of my life and was rearranging the furniture while I followed them around shouting “No! No!! Don’t move that! Don’t throw that out!” Good luck with that. The rearranging kept happening.

Until the following year, when I read a book.

Driving to Charlotte, NC, to a backpacking outfitter, I wandered the store. I was just looking. Plenty of new gear; packs, boots, stoves – all the wonder-toys hikers and backpackers drool over. I wasn’t looking to buy, just looking to dream.

On the way out the door I stopped in the book section. I saw guidebooks, how-to manuals, and a few personal experience backpacking memoirs (compared to today!).

I picked up “Appalachian Hiker II,” by Ed Garvey. I took it home and devoured it, looking for an empathic experience of what it would be like to backpack a long-distance trail. Until that time I had only engaged in long weekends in the Carolina Blue Ridge, Linville Gorge, and Shining Rock Wilderness. I was testing myself. Often I backpacked alone, since no other friends I knew either enjoyed hiking or had the same flexible schedule I had. I digress.

Garvey’s book put the hook in me. By the time I closed the cover I realized that his reality could be mine. Almost without thinking, I began to work toward taking the same journey from Georgia to Maine. I bought all the A.T. Guidebooks. I began assembling gear and saving money.

In the spring of 1985 I told my employer “I’m going to take a hike.” I meant it. I left for Springer Mountain in Georgia in mid-April and began walking to Maine.

Alex Banakas

Photo courtesy Alex Banakas @ Flickr

Over the years I have thought about the real “why?” of hiking the trail that propelled me to go. After all, I left employment, a home, family, friends all to do…what?

My reasons for hiking the Appalachian Trail go like this:

  • I felt I had “hit a wall” in my profession. The job I was in seemed to offer little room for advancement and openings elsewhere were sparse. Digging deeper I found…
  • I wanted “a change.” I yearned to understand what my discontent was, and felt the trail would give an answer. Then there was, even deeper…
  • Adventure! After all, what I had read in Ed Garvey’s book was enticing. There were colorful characters on the trail, wild scenery, unexpected surprises around every bend. But, the real, rock-bottom reason I hiked the trail, these many years later, is…
  • I wanted to go someplace wild and have the force of nature strip away everything in me – to give me a baptism which would hollow out my emotional and psychological insides, refine my physical outside, and prepare me to be filled with whatever was to come next in my life.

Those months on the A.T. and the visits back in these intervening years, have accomplished this. They have made me someone I would never otherwise have been had I chosen to stay the course I was on, and the discomforts and hard growth which have resulted from that choice I would not trade for anything.

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Decision making, Hiking, Long distance backpacking, The Appalachian Trail, Timothy J. Hodges

Five minutes that could change your Appalachian Trail experience

Bobcat courtesy Base Camp Baker at Flickr

Bobcat courtesy Base Camp Baker at Flickr

Over coffee one day a fellow backpacker commiserated about his recent Appalachian Trail hike.  “I really like being out there,” he said, “but I just seem to walk and walk without seeing any wildlife.  Where do the animals go?  Am I frightening everything off?”

I smiled and sipped my dark roast.  “I think I can help you change that in about five minutes…”

Here’s what those “five minutes” are all about.

Hikers and backpackers sometimes get caught up in putting down miles.  Certainly even competitiveness has arisen among long distance walkers, whose sights are on finishing trails in specified time frames or chalking up double-digit daily miles.  While reaching this goal they often miss seeing the animals who call the forest home.  Their single-minded passage alarms the greenwood ruminants, who take notice and scurry for protection.

Moose courtesy Douglas Brown at Flickr

Moose courtesy Douglas Brown at Flickr

The simple “five minute” secret to seeing the wild creatures involves breaking free of the mileage pressure and following these steps:

  • Pick a time of day for wildlife observation.  This can be during a rest break, at lunch, or after dinner.
  • Shed your pack and find a rock or tree you can sit against and become still.  If you’re in a group encourage your fellow hikers to join you in your wildlife watching time.  Conversation has no place here, just become silent and still.
  • Within a few minutes (about five) the wild things will become active again, since the disturbance and noise is over.  It usually begins with birds, whose songs may have ceased when you came near.  Take some time to enjoy the renewal of their songs.  It’s a good idea to check your bird identification skills from the calls they make.  Other forest residents will start to move, such as whitetail deer and smaller mammals.  Simply sit quietly and observe.
  • You’ll discover this exercise works best during times of good weather.  Heavy rain and threatening storms usually force animals to take cover, so you are unlikely to have as much success in your viewing.
  • When you’re ready to move on, try to ease into your backpack quietly.  Move down the trail as noiselessly as you can.  You will likely continue to be delighted by the song birds as you move through their home, and other animals may cross your path.Racoon courtesy Sherwood411 @ FlickrRacoon courtesy Sherwood411 @ Flickr

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Long distance backpacking, The Appalachian Trail, Timothy J. Hodges, Watching wildlife, Wildlife