Tag Archives: Outdoors

Hiking in the year of discontent

alex_ford_flickr

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

The hike toward Autumn

Photo courtesy Nicholas_T at Flickr

Photo courtesy Nicholas_T at Flickr

It’s bittersweet and sad, the hike toward autumn.  Yet, it’s part of the journey.  Necessary.  Painful.

My hike toward autumn was more challenging by my choice to “flip-flop.”  Those backpackers who “flip-flop” the Appalachian Trail have run out of time.  Dallying and delaying in the southern Appalachians results in their realizing that reaching Katahdin before snowfall is unlikely.  They travel to Maine, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and hike south from Katahdin.  The “flip-flopper” has leapfrogged hikers going north, and is now backpacking toward Springer Mountain in Georgia.  It’s a lonely choice, as he passes those he once walked with who are nearing Maine.  A “flip-flopper” is also lagging well behind those who set out for Georgia in June.

After I “flip-flopped,” and was passing through the 100-mile wilderness in Maine in late August, the air was already chilled with the foretaste of wintry days to come, and the leaves were turning in many places.  While it was glorious to see early color, I wished things would have remained green.  The autumn palette only foretold of a dying summer, only spoke of endings, and my journey winding down.

Weeks later, standing at Pinkham Notch Camp waiting for a ride to Boston and then a plane home, I weighed my pack.  46 pounds — the lightest it had been all season.  I kicked up gravel, paced,  and re-read pages in my tattered journal.  I wanted to go — I didn’t want to go.  I was relieved to finally rest from the wear and tear of trail life — I dreaded having to readjust to the day-to-day pace of urban living.

Photo courtesy maine_mike at Flickr

Photo courtesy maine_mike at Flickr

Still, autumn was coming and with it inclement weather.  Having no wish to continue under the capricious, near-winter conditions the White Mountains could deliver, I made for home.  At the time it felt like my heart was being left behind.  So much accomplished!  So many things I had done and risked that I’d never done before.  I enjoyed a new charge in my  confidence, self-esteem, and bolstered adventurous spirit!  Would that now be lost?  Would moving back to “the real world” drain away the person I had become during those months from April to mid-September?

Happy to say that wasn’t the case.  I did return to complete the Appalachian Trail section in the Whites, and walk many more miles.  But leaving the footpath in autumn, where I had spent the better part of six-plus months of my life, was one of the loneliest choices of all.

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

Bluegrass music on the Appalachian Trail

It might happen anywhere — on the street, someone’s front porch, or in the parking lot downtown.  You might even (if you’re very fortunate) hear the sound of it lilting through the Appalachian hills.  It’s the sound of a bluegrass jam session, which could break out just about anywhere along the southern range of misty blue peaks.

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s Photo courtesy MTSOfan at Flickr

I remember sitting by a fire on a blanket of grass along the Nolichucky River in Erwin, Tennessee listening to the picking, watching the grinnin’, and singing along with the songs whose lyrics I knew.  It was a memorable summer night, with the moonlit sky, and the stars were bright diamonds above in heaven’s vault.  It’s just something that lifts up the heart.

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

5 Anchors for the Appalachian Trail

Photo courtesy talksrealfast at Flickr

Photo courtesy talksrealfast at FlickrWill you anchor hold in the storms of life,

An anchor is defined as “a person or thing on which something else is based that can be relied upon for chief support, stability, or security; a mainstay.

The greatest anchor is Katahdin, whose looming summit entices when you first see it.  If the spirit of this summit doesn’t burn within you from the time you leave Springer Mountain your chances of becoming a thru-hiker diminish.  This is the “grail anchor,” and its majesty is compelling.  But Katahdin is many footfalls distant.  One needs other anchors — other goals — to guarantee a successful hike.  Let’s look at other anchors you can use to propel you to Maine

Towns.  Whether it’s to resupply for the next stretch of trail, or to find that all-you-can-eat restaurant you’ve been reading about in the trail registers, towns are significant anchors along your journey.  Town post offices also offer another drawing power as effective anchors.  Once I hiked 7 miles before noon to reach one in Stratton, Maine.

States.  The wonderful, bucolic hills of Virginia.  The rugged character of Pennsylvania.  Entering the magnificent Green Mountains of Vermont.  The remote north woods of the great state of Maine with its 100-mile wilderness.  Looking forward to hiking the trail through the wonderful terrain and characteristics of specific states is something to anticipate.

Peaks or mountain ranges.  I was passionately looking forward to climbing into the Great Smokies and standing atop Clingman’s Dome.  Being a native North Carolinian was one reason, plus I spent some memorable childhood summers vacationing there.  Mount Washington in rugged New Hampshire was also appealing for its volatile weather, grand views, and legendary history.

Parks and national forests.  Beside the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia can be a great anchor.  Thru-hikers often simply cruise through the park  due to the agreeable grade of the trail, but Shenandoah offers great views, Civil War history, and abundant wildlife.  I enjoyed the Green Mountains of Vermont so much I later went back and hiked the Long Trail through to the Canadian border.

Geographic features.  Rivers and stream crossings, like the mighty Kennebec in Maine, were things I looked forward to.  The waters of the Kennebec were low enough for me to ford on foot early one morning.  I’ve never forgotten that experience.

You get the idea — so look at the map and guidebook and considering drawing up a list of “anchors” to galvanize your journey to Katahdin!

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking, Timothy J. Hodges

Trodding in “thin places”

It’s happening.  I’m picking it up reading the blogs of a number of hikers along the Appalachian Trail.  Here’s what I see:

Mid-May has arrived.  Those who began from Springer Mountain in Georgia in March have passed through.  Some have continued on and are now in Virginia.  Others have left the trail.  Reasons are many: physical injury, lack of funds, getting fed up with the early snows and heavy rains, or simply realizing that the trail wasn’t all they hoped it would be.

Photo courtesy Stuck in Customs at Flickr

Photo courtesy Stuck in Customs at Flickr

Then there are the blue-blazers who feel the need to mix it up and rearrange their journey.  That’s as it should be.  There is never any shame in a change of plans.  In fact, I believe that it’s been beneficial for some — because they’ve broken open like an egg, fractured like a brittle chrysalis.  It comes through in the words they use when they write.  No longer are they setting down a chronological journey.  Things have changed.  They’ve allowed themselves to be drawn into small towns, to gravitate toward people, to stand still, magnetized in the moment.  They strip themselves naked and look in the mirror.  The self they gaze upon is wondrous.  Like the surge of life  which emerges with spring, their anima is wandering in a land which cannot be fully apprehended.

Photo courtesy Skinnyde at Flickr

Photo courtesy Skinnyde at Flickr

They are in the “thin places” — the places the Celtic Christians said were so ephemeral that the barrier between the real world and the spiritual becomes blurred and ill-defined.  Bodies and souls and spirits move between places.  Paradigms are shattered.  Once-beloved goals are wrecked and reforged on the anvil of new determinations.  Dreams are flung to the ground and left in the dust of the trail as they open themselves to embrace something new, just beyond the bend, or at the moment they take a deep breath upon a summit.  The throw away the paper trail map and draw a new one to suit who they’ve become.

It is beyond spirituality or abstraction.  Call it a body-mind-soul-quake.  They matured past the identity they assumed when they took a trail name.  “There and back again” does not apply here.  Only the reaching of a hand through the “thin places” into what lies beyond.

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking, Timothy J. Hodges, Transformation

AppalachianTrail — Track of the cat

The cry was piercing, raw, and close, echoing through the humid late spring air of the Stecoah Mountains.  I was in my tent, which was pitched in a glade.  I sat up quickly, my heart hammering.  A chill ran through me.  I stopped breathing and listened, fearing there might be another — nearer — dreadful encore.  Nothing.

I’d never heard the creature before, but had read a description of its cry — “the sound of a woman screaming.”

Bobcat

Bobcat (Photo credit: Len Blumin)

Bobcat.

I parted my lips, exhaling slowly as the adrenaline kick fizzled out.  My afternoon siesta over, I packed up my tent and continued to the next shelter.  There I shared my experience with other backpackers, but chalked it up as just another “A.T. Adventure Moment.”

Now, years later, I wonder — was it a bobcat?  Might it have been a larger, more controversial and formidable animal now reportedly being seen in some places along the Appalachian Trail — a mountain lion?

Some website research recently revealed a page where debate rages in Connecticut.  There are reported sightings of mountain lions (puma concolor) over a wide area around Farmington (www.ctmountainlion.org).  The map on the site is of particular interest.  Comments there show how contentious the issue has been.

When I backpacked the Long Trail in Vermont I would hear rumors of mountain lions in the Green Mountains.  Vermonters call them catamount.  I never saw evidence for them, but then I wasn’t looking.

Encounters with mountain lions (also called panthers, painters, catamount, and pumas) reach back to the early settlement of America.  Their habitat, once abundant in the eastern range, dwindled, and they were considered extinct due to the encroachment of the logging industry as well as having been hunted.  Still, reports that they survived persisted among some scientists and locals, though definitive evidence was lacking.

Today, wildlife officials at the local and state levels agree that cougars exist in the Appalachian range, at least to some degree.

Which leads to the obvious question: what should you do if you saw a cougar along the trail in the wild?

First, do not run.  Cougars, though shy and wary of people, may chase anything that flees from them, including people.

Cougar / Puma / Mountain Lion / Panther (Puma ...

Another technique, sometimes used when meeting with bears in the wild, is to make yourself look bigger than the animal confronting you.  Stand up tall, raise your open arms in the air.  Stay calm, backing away slowly while maintaining eye contact with the cat, and talk loudly.  If you are attacked, fight back furiously.  Use your fists, any available weapon, tree limbs, rocks.  Putting up a fight can deter or drive the cougar away.

In my estimation, I believe it would be unlikely that I would see a mountain lion when backpacking the Appalachian Trail, nor does current news and reported sightings deter me from venturing onto the trail.

Still, when I look at that map of Connecticut sightings it makes me wonder.  What if?

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

Warrior Hike — The Appalachian Trail — A Healing Journey for Veterans

I believe in the power of the Appalachian Trail to facilitate  healing at some level in most everyone who has hiked it.  Please check out warriorhike.com to learn about this vital non-profit whose work is supporting wounded veterans who are in transition from military service.  Some of those veterans are set to leave Springer Mountain for Katahdin.  According to their website:

June 3, 1948: Earl Shaffer

June 3, 1948: Earl Shaffer (Photo credit: national museum of american history)

“In 1948 Earl Shaffer told a friend he was going to “walk off the war” to work out the sights, sounds, and losses of World War II. Four months later, Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

Recognizing the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of hiking the Appalachian Trail, Warrior Hike has partnered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to create the Walk Off The War Program. The Walk Off The War Program is designed to support wounded veterans transitioning from military service by hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

www.warriorhike.com

As a United States Navy veteran, I salute their cause and their efforts.

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Hiking, Timothy J. Hodges