Thursday, June 30, 2011

What state were you born in? Infancy.

On most days my logic goes, stay on the trail, don't do anything stupid, and you'll probably not die. This thinking is complicated when the thing most likely to kill you, is the trail.

Leaving a place called Lehigh Gap, between the towns of Slatington and Palmerston, you climb a little over 700 feet up from the river on the valley floor. After the southern portion of the trail 700 feet isn't a big number, however in this case the series of signs entreating you to not leave the trail lest you kill yourself or others, and the fact that the trail is a series of unevenly spaced white blazes painted on a field of boulders and skree, at times steep enough to have an overhang, and occasionally loose underfoot to make you feel like an extra in a platform based video game, ups the ante a little. I'm including some photos, and I've done my best to get the perspective right, but it's hard to get across the vertiginous effect of a slight change in the breeze, or a shift in how the pack sits on your back.

It's probably not that dangerous and, probably, almost no one ever dies, but at the time you'd be hard pressed to convince me of that.

In related news, when, under a period of stress is it ever good that your palms become sweaty and slippery? What evolutionary terror were we saved from by being able to say, "Well that was close but at least my hands were too slick to grip".

Pennsylvania is done. I'm .2 miles from Jersey and I'm betting I can walk that after I finally post this. PA's been mostly OK, beautiful views of pastoral valleys, nice ridge walks, and enough sharpend stones to leave your feet battered and broken. The average piece of trail in PA is full of sharp of rocks, protruding about the length of your finger, but large and immobile below the surface. Walking, even on the relative flat, is exhausting, and I won't regret leaving it behind.

It's interesting to watch the small changes happen as you come north. Somewhere along the way they stop leaving the Bible open at a particular section in the hotel room, and start leaving out an envelope to tip the hotel staff. The first Obama bumper sticker you see is somewhere mid-Jersey, and it's at least 100 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line before it's legal to show anything other than NASCAR in a building with beer for sale.

Then there are the things that don't change. If you say you live on Manhattan, they ask the same question.

Me : I'm an Axe-Murderer in New York.
Everyone : Really? What do you pay in rent?

As of tomorrow I'll be out here 3 months, and while I'm less plugged in to the tech world than I usually would be, here's what's happened, to just my phone, since I went on the road:

The Blogger app added rich text editing.
The following things launched:
-Video/Voice chat.
-Netflix (Movies on demand).
-Latitude (location) history.

Lots of other things have improved too, these are just the things that make my life better at least once a week.

I'm glad I've moved back just far enough that I can have a little perspective on the change, but stayed close enough for the slipstream to pull me along.

Talk soon.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

One night in Lickdale.

What do you do when you're writing something and fate gives you these:

I slept in Lickdale last night.
There's a place called "McQueen's Knob"

Do you keep it quiet? Yes they are jokes, but if you can't keep up with 18th century geographers do you really have a place being funny on the internet?

I have decided that I don't have the right to keep this gold from you, even if the rest of this post lives far from the center of Lickdale, forever in the shadow of McQueen's promontory, the jokes must flow.

The couple of days in NY took their toll.

If you don't train, you atrophy. There were times where, with only eight drunkards shouting at each other, I had to concentrate to force a fifteen minute anecdote into conversation.

I've lost a step.

You close a couple bars, a small house party, 11 hours driving, and you're not even fit to hike.

The two days out of New York left me emotionally refreshed, if slightly physically drained. I took it easy, slowly returning to my previous pace.

The sudden withdrawal of stimulus was a bit of a shock, to go from sitting in a circle of almost 40 years of friendship to sitting alone on a cliff face, sun setting, miles from the nearest mind was an adjustment, and not an easy one.

As if to emphasize the difference between NY and the trail I've dropped into a less populated bubble as I go along. I've camped alone a couple of nightsand the silence and space, particularly after the city, swings from boring to exhilarating and back again, like my adrenal system doesn't know what to do with it.

I'm keeping good pace since Harper's Ferry, West Virginia and Maryland have been dealt with and I'm more than halfway through Pennsylvania.

Someone said to me today we've less than 999 miles to go, the odometer rolled ovee a few miles back and I didn't notice.

When you pass halfway you've less to do than you've already done, I realize that's excruciatingly prosaic, but until our destination was only three digits away it hadn't registered.

I should say more about the traditions that accompany getting past halfway, or the changes in gear that happen when summer, and the bugs, arrive. But if I try and write all that, this'll never be sent and you'll think I'm still lost somewhere off Broadway.

While the trail's end is not yet in sight, I'm beginning to believe it exists.

Finally, to those I missed in NY. I was there to celebrate someone else, my attendance was the gift, not the point, staying below radar was the thing to do. I'll be back when I walk a little closer to the city and you better believe it will be heralded, and there will be a party!

Goodnight my friends, I miss you all.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Who ordered the Irishman, well done, stewing in his own juices?

Ponder for a moment the insane luxury of a cold shower. Not just cold water pouring over you, because while that's nice, it can be achieved with a bucket and no sense of decorum. A shower, on demand, when you want it. To almost everyone reading this, a shower, particularly a cold shower is beyond basic, it's part of the framework that's there before we even think technology has helped us out. 

I woke this morning, in NY. (Well in New Jersey, but for the people reading this in Ireland that's not the mental image they need.) It's hot, that special, muggy, miasma, walking through a stew, hot. Anyway, I had a shower.  I walked 10 feet, I turned a knob, cold water fell on me from high.

Till very recently I was miles from the next water source, serenaded by the hum of the horseflies (with the mosquitoes doing overtime in the rhythm section.) it's nice to have a shower.

That may have been my only point.

One morning last week a black furry blur bounced across my field of vision. About the size of a large pig, but moving faster than any pig I ever saw, a bear cub crossed the trail from right to left. This leads to the very important question, 'Is it running to mama, or away from mama?' If it's running to mama, then I can safely use the path. However, if it's running away from mama, mama is about to come tumbling out of that underbrush in a hurry and standing between her and her cub would be inadvisable.

To the detriment of this narrative, but the improvement in my quality of life, mama never appeared and I, with some trepidation, continued down the trail. 

Because of the ever escalating heat I've started trying to avoid hiking in the early to mid-afternoon, combine this with the fact that I don't get out of bed early and you end up hiking quite late into the night. Here's a safety tip, the grey stony thing that reflects the light from your headlamp is probably the path, the infinite blackness to it's immediate left, is a cliff. Don't step in the dark. While it wasn't why I was doing it, the night-hiking has lead to some of the most spectacular views on the trail. 

Shortly after sunset, walking along the western side of a high ridge, I came upon a rock outcropping. Standing on the rock, heat finally ebbing out of the day, I looked down to the west. Lights from the town silhouetted the hills of the park. Beyond them, the streets and buildings, all perspective broken by the darkness, looked like a spiderweb covered in sparkling jewels of dew. Civilization gets to be pretty too sometimes.

After you come down off the ridge line and out of the park the scenery calms down and you're back in the 'long green tunnel' the A.T. is known for, while there are fewer big climbs in this bit of Virginia it still has the capability to kick your ass. Introducing, The Roller-coaster.

Originally, when the A.T. was started long stretches of it ran along the road. In the parks, along Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and sometimes, between parks, just along the highway. In the 70's after the trail was designated a National Scenic Trail they had the power to use eminent domain (compulsory purchase orders.) to acquire land to move the trail off the road. 

The part of northern Virginia that the trail runs through was quite developed by the 70's, so there wasn't a lot of space to run the trail. Efforts were made to buy enough land for the trail but not ruin anyone's property, say by taking all the land up to their back door. The strip of land they ended up with runs along a line of hills near the area of Bear's Den Rocks, and while it has no mountains to speak of, it's one of the most punishing sections of the trail. Too narrow to run switchbacks, it contains thirteen consecutive steep 500+ foot climbs and descents in the space of 10 miles. If you take the precaution of combining this with heat, humidity, and a McDonald's lunch and attempt it at the end of a 22 mile day, you get something approaching heat exhaustion. I don't think I've ever been so in need of a hostel. Luckily, the trail provides.

The Bear's Den Trail Center and Hostel is highly recommended and well used to people arriving having been beaten up by the trail. Nice bunk rooms, good facilities, and run by lovely people, a great place to stay.

After Bear's Den I hiked into Harper's Ferry, bringing me over the 1000 miles mark.

In light of this accomplishment I've decided to take a few days off, and as it was timed perfectly to coincide with a friends last night out in the US, I rented a car and drove up to New York.

That, my friends, is where you find me, and where, as there is coffee to drink, movies to watch, and brunch to consume where I will leave you.

Thanks for listening.
(P.S. My phone is dead, totally, caught in a thunderstorm, dead. If you're looking to reach me email is the best, probably only, option for now.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Momentum brings a better mood.

When I whine, god, I whine!

Feeling slightly like the toddler who's thrown a tantrum and comes back in to the room to apologize, I return to the blog.

I'm feeling much better. Three days, 60-ish comfortable miles later, it's coming together and I've a bit of momentum again.

Having met some friends on the trail who had the same chaffing problem I'm significantly less scared than I was. It appears to have happened because too much washing detergent was put in too small a load of clothes (it happened to us all in the same circumstances, at the same hostel).  This meant that when I began to sweat, a fabulously abrasive substance was released from the shirt yet trapped between my skin and backpack. This lead to the redness, welts, pain and whining you all know so well.

While that episode was unpleasant, there's a big difference between a one-off, and the potentially hike-ending thing I thought had happened.

I'm now most of the way through the Shenandoah National Park, tonight will be my last night here, and I should be in Fort Royal by tomorrow night.

The park is beautiful, and while my small country sensibilities caused me to laugh at the guy who said 'it's only 10 miles across' I can now see what he meant. From the high lookouts you can see the woods give way to rolling fields whereas from the same height in the Smokies the primeval forest seems to stretch on forever.

The human patchwork of farms reminds me of hiking at home in Ireland where we've few enough forest left that the view is usually of farms and towns.

As it happens I've been hiking through the park on a weekend and I have to say there's something endearing about wading through scouts and being asked by a dying day hiker with shades on, hand in pocket, trying to effect an aura of sweaty nonchalance 'is there a shelter around here somewhere' like he thinks he missed the freeway exit.

We can go days between talking to non-through-hikers and it's good to remember there's a world out there.

I've scheduled the days since the last post, through to Harper's Ferry (the nominal half way point) and am sticking to it. This makes me stop after 20 miles even if it's still early enough to do another 5. Because of this, I'm more rested and in much better shape.

It's getting late in the morning here and I'm burning daylight, I'd best get going but I wanted to inform you all of on my improving fortunes.

Thanks for the messages and well wishes, they mean a huge amount to me. I'd love nothing better to sit and reply but I'd best be hiking.

<p>(PS sorry for the relative lack of photos but I soaked the phone in a thunder storm last week and it's become incredibly flaky) </p>

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Soaked, sore, chaffed and grouchy.

[A second attempt, the first, few hundreds of words in, eaten by the blogger client ]

I'm tired. It's been two months, I'm worn out, right now the chance of finishing, never mind getting to Australia for September seems remote.

After I checked out of the hotel in Daleville I ran some errands. The shimmer of a 90F (32C) degree heat off the blacktop kept me from being in a hurry out of town.

It was my sister's birthday, so I sent her a card and present. This was complicated slightly by the absence of 'other countries', or 'places without zip-codes' from the world view of the person behind the counter at Fedex. (I swear I was 90 seconds away from looking for a globe as a teaching aid.)

I then settled down in a coffee shop to watch the Rugby final. OK, so 'settled isn't a good way to described someone as animated as me watching the most exciting final ever. I think the guy beside me was considering calling 911, though whether it was for ambulance or police I'll never know.

I left Daleville late, with a view to night hiking. Even in full dark it's not usually that hard. Unfortunately, after a couple of miles the path changed from clear forest trail to a field of clover and long grass. The mixture of lenght between grass and clover, and the lack of other landmarks soon left me without a trail. I climbed to the top of the low grassy hill and slept there, under a goldfish bowl of stars till dawn.

Dew came with the dawn, my sleeping bag and pad doused. I packed up, the path clear in daylight, and continued to Buchanan.

Buchanan is right on the James river, and I stayed in a bunkhouse in the stone basement of an old house on main street run by the local outfitter and river guides. That night I ate in a German restaurant in the town. Good fare, goulash, a little sweet for my taste but a nice change of culinary pace. That night there was another thunder storm, and I was glad of the stout stone walls for their protection and their tendency to leech the heat out of the otherwise stifling air.

Back on the trail I think I stayed at Cornelius creek shelter.

After all this time I have to admit the shelters, towns, trails, and motels are all blurring together.

Next I stopped in Glasgow. Glasgow has no indoor accommodation but does have a shelter in town built by a local eagle scout which has a (cold) shower.

Buena Vista was next, a biggish town home to the 'Budget inn', arguably the grottiest building, of any type I've ever been in. And still delightfully expensive. Some Mexican food and a couple of beers with a friend made it a lot more livable.

It was supposed to be a shorter day out of Buena Vista, but a sudden, incredibly heavy, thunder storm pot paid to even that goal. Ninety seconds from 'is that rain' to holding up your now sodden shorts. I hid in a shelter and went to a B&B, only 11 miles, to dry out the next night.

The Dutch Haus B&B is the nicest place I've stayed on the trail. Great people, food and hospitality. It's a high end B&B with a bunkhouse for campers. Fabulous, with a million little touches; When you get there you strip off, put on a bathrobe they give you and they wash everything. Simply excellent.


Unfortunately, not everything went perfectly while I was there. While I was jumping out of the back of a (stopped) pickup truck, I clipped my trailing ankle on the tailgate and landed hard on one foot. This hurt my right heel quite badly. Hobbled, the next day I decided to rest.

To continue the rest I did a slackpack 25 miles, dripping rock back to the Dutch Haus, a long day who's broken rocks and big climbs did my foot no favors.

The beer I was handed as I stepped off the trail was about as sweet a beverage as I've ever had.

From there I  got to Waynesboro, where you find me today. The hike into town, relatively short and flat as it was, was murder. The display in town read 105F (40C), and the combination of heat and humidity lead to my back and waist being very badly torn up by chaffing. Even after applying Calamine lotion and burn cream numerous times last night and this morning it's still to tender to put on a pack.

So I'm taking another zero. My schedule is in tatters and I'm somewhat burnt out.

I'm 160 miles shy of the nominal halfway point, Harper's Ferry the terrain between here and there's not too bad, but the act of putting the shoes back on to do it is far from easy.

I know this sounds bleak, but hopefully the photos and the mention of friends shows that while I'm frustrated at the moment, I'm still experiencing moments of joy. (See the photo of the butterfly eating the sand off the handle of my hiking poles. :))

I'll go treat my wounds and eat some food with an eye to rising again.
Talk soon.