Monday, November 17, 2014

Is That You, Jiminy?

Where do crickets come from? I don’t mean mom and dad cricket; I mean how do they get in? Just now I entered my master bath to find a big one clinging to a wall above the baseboard. I came back with a glass and managed to capture it, but I couldn’t help wondering how it came to share my living space.

It’s snowing outside. I wouldn’t blame any creature for trying to find shelter, but I didn’t put out the welcome mat for these beings I have mistaken for leaves or mud until they jumped in my face.  

My brother says that every woman he’s ever known covers bugs with drinking glasses and vomit with paper towels. I wouldn’t know about the vomit, but last week I had three glasses upside-down on my carpet, each one holding a darting cricket prisoner until I could safely retrieve it for disposal.

Personally, I endorse the drinking-glass method and plan to continue covering these little pests until they get the idea. Maybe, like ants, they have scouts that can pass the word.

Usually I talk to a cricket as I’m trying to capture it. I tell it that it’s made a mistake. Even so, many times I walk it to the front door and release it back into its own environment. Crickets are harmless to humans and are believed by some to bring good luck. They can’t help it if they hop. I still don’t want one for a roommate.

As a kid I thought creatures in nature would look like the Walt Disney versions. Jiminy Cricket, Disney’s version of the pesky critters I now chase with glassware, made his debut in Pinocchio, gracing the screen in a top hat, gloves, a little suit with tails, and shoes complete with spats, making me think now of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. Jiminy sang and even carried an umbrella. He wore a smile and dispensed friendly advice.

Though it has been many years since I saw Pinocchio or watched the Mickey Mouse Club on TV, I remember one song that Jiminy sang: “Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide.” That would be good advice for real crickets considering a home invasion. I suppose it could apply to those of us bearing tumblers and juice glasses, too.

Now to do something with the original subject of this post, "under glass" in front of my makeup mirror. Don't worry, I plan to release it on its own recognizance. Outside.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 5

I put up my one-person tent unaided, then unrolled and inflated my sleeping pad and laid my sleeping bag on top of it. All I needed to complete that theme was sleep. Next, with a friend’s help, I hung my backpack using the park’s cable system. I was learning the routines necessary for survival and comfort in the backcountry.

What do eight Women in the Wilderness do for fun? After supper we all walked to a nearby beaver dam. It had grown dark, so we wore our headlamps. The idea was to see the beavers, but they were not active. We then gathered firewood for a marshmallow roast. During that process, with our lights pointed at the ground, we were surprised by a black rat snake that slithered by and disappeared under a log. (Okay, maybe that last part should not be in a paragraph on “fun.”)

We sat around the campfire until bedtime, which was roughly 10:00 p.m. I mentioned that I had not slept well the previous night, and members of our group suggested a Benadryl tablet would be calming. I took one, lay down in my tent, listened to the creek a few minutes, and fell asleep for the next eight hours. When I woke up, it was light out, a great relief. I always dread being awake in the middle of the night, freaked out by forest sounds or needing to leave the tent in the dark to answer nature’s call.

TIP: Information about Benadryl products can be found at The company does not recommend its Allergy product as a sleep aid.

My sleeping bag was damp in the morning, as were parts of my tent. It hadn’t rained; I had failed to stake the rain fly away from one of the tent walls, letting condensation accumulate. I had to pack those items wet, which would have been more of a pain had I been on a longer trip. As it was, I’d be in the car in a few hours, heading home.

TIP: Stake your tent fly away from the tent walls on all sides.

Once again, resting had made all the difference in my attitude and my ability to hike. After a leisurely breakfast, our group formed a circle and did stretching exercises before packing up for the hike out. Our guide promised that our last few miles would be easy, even boring, as the trail flattened out to return us to the paved campground where we had left our cars.

That four-mile walk was a good time to reflect on my weekend: what worked, what didn’t, and what I would do differently next time. Yes, there would be a next time; I already had a two-night hike planned with friends for mid-October.

What Worked
I knew before this trip that most of my gear was just fine. I was testing my new, mostly self-inflating sleeping pad, the odor-proof bags I bought for my food, Fresh Bath Travel Wipes, and my new Darn Tough socks. I liked the Mountain House backpacker meals provided by A Walk in the Woods, though they are expensive to purchase. I took a few Clif bars among my snacks—always yummy.

What Didn’t
I had no mirror, which you might think was a good thing since I didn’t wear makeup or brush my hair for three days. I took a hairbrush, but forgot I had it with me.

TIP: Know your pack and what you put in it.

It took only a weekend to get sick of my favorite hiking pants, which I wore night and day. The camp shoes I got for half price are not good on uneven terrain; the soles are too thin. As for food, I took items I don’t normally eat. The smoked cheddar cheese and hard salami went untouched, as I didn’t feel like making a sandwich when we stopped on the trail.

I’m always conscious of pack weight. This time I misjudged my need for Kleenex and toilet paper. I ran out of both and had to be creative with paper napkins.

TIP: Take enough paper and consider adding unscented baby wipes for those tender areas.

Next Time…
I’ll take more paper products and buy a metal trowel (aptly named the U-DIG-IT Pro); exchange my tiny stove for a JetBoil, since my “cooking” will be limited to boiling water for instant meals; and replace my set of trekking poles.

It’s funny about hiking: from a distance, it seems attractive and doable. When I'm in the woods, putting one foot in front of the other with a pack on my back, reality steps in. Our guide told us we would remember the best parts of our weekend. The challenges would fade, and the camaraderie and beauty would stay in our minds. She was right.

We were almost back to the parking lot when the talk turned to animals. Our guide said, “You didn’t see a bear on this trip, but I will guarantee that a bear saw you.”

I can live with that. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 4

Do bears “go” in the woods? Of course they do (and may I never witness it). Only the bears in the Charmin commercials use the toilet. When we humans are in the woods, we adapt to our surroundings and “go” in a way that will leave no trace. Unlike the forest animals, we must bury our waste and pack out the paper we have used. One finds all kinds of uses for zip-style plastic bags on a hiking trip.

I didn’t want to do this. However, stuffing oneself at dinner with two helpings of reconstituted Chili Mac doesn’t leave much choice in the morning. Our backpacking meals were packaged for two, and we were encouraged to eat both helpings; otherwise, Mr. or Ms. Bear might want to finish our dinner.

Our guide told us what to do when it’s time to find a private spot in the trees. Before I tell you, I will advocate for taking along a shovel, which I had to borrow. Many hikers recommend skipping that piece of gear to save weight and using a stick instead to dig the required six-inch “cat hole,” but I’m not one of them.

A toilet area must be 200 feet (about 70 adult paces) away from any fresh water source as well as cooking and sleeping areas. Along with paper and the waste-paper bag, one should carry hand sanitizer to the designated spot.

It is wise to assume the position beforehand while clothed in order to correctly place the cat hole for solid waste. Then dig. Afterward, replace the dirt, making sure the shovel touches only dirt. You may want to mark the spot with a stick in the ground so that other hikers will know to choose a different location.

Now you know.

We left the shelter, hiking upward. This middle day would be our longest on the trail, and I had wondered if I’d have the stamina for it. Fortunately, a night off my feet--even without much sleep—and a Mountain House instant breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon had restored my energy. I was grateful to have gained a second wind.

I’d hit a low point the day before, believing I would never hike the Appalachian Trail or write a book about it. Maybe I’d write a book titled My Year of Hiking instead, and end it with the present trip. But that was yesterday. My perspective was constantly changing. Hiking has its challenges, but hiking in a group of women had replaced many of my fears with fun. I wondered how I would feel when our Smoky Mountain hike was over.

It was another gorgeous day in the woods. The temperature was perfect, and I have always loved the way sunlight dapples the forest floor. In late September the leaves had begun to turn and fall. Every curve, every waterfall, every vista was  a photo waiting to be taken, and the phone cameras were out. Mine was out, too, just not in the same way. The battery had died the night before.

“Did you put your Smartphone in Airplane mode?” our guide asked. No, I hadn’t even thought of it, and I’d left my camera at home after deciding it was too heavy. No pictures for me.

TIP: A phone camera is as good as a standalone if the battery is charged.

We hiked that day until we reached our campground, located in a valley beside a rushing stream. It was time to pitch our tents. Darkness comes quickly beneath a canopy of trees.

As I unpacked the components of my tent, I broke out my little bag of Tylenol to ward off the soreness I had come to expect and quickly popped two tablets into my mouth. Hmmm, they certainly tasted good. I was puzzled for a second before realizing that I had downed one Tylenol and my rogue breath mint from the night before! 

To be concluded…

Friday, October 3, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 3

Though no headlamps were required to light our way, we arrived at the shelter after the sun had set. If this were a Dracula novel, the coming darkness would be key in a whole different way, but to eight hikers coming off  the trail it meant we had to hurry through a short list of tasks before we could rest.

Our guide had thoughtfully arranged for us to spend the first night of our backpacking trip in a shelter and the second night in our tents, giving us both experiences.

Shelters along hiking trails are typically three-sided, open at the front. They are constructed of wood and stone, without electricity. Inside ours, a two-tiered sleeping platform went wall to wall at the back. A fireplace took up one side in front of the sleeping area, and a skylight defined the middle of the tin roof above us.

When we arrived, a group of male hikers had settled in. They kindly gave us room as we made camp, trying to beat the darkness. The process was new and thus chaotic. I found myself becoming disoriented as we scrambled to stake out sleeping spots and hang our packs. All I wanted was to exchange my boots and heavy socks for camp shoes, and then eat.

I felt like my mother in her later years and feared I was acting confused the way she had when we traveled together. In her eighties her mind had lost its sharpness; eventually she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mom would sit on the side of her hotel bed, overwhelmed and lacking the energy—or clarity--to unpack.

To claim my sleeping space, I had to stand outside on uneven ground and dig my sleeping bag and pad out of my pack so I could place them on the wooden platform. In addition, I gathered any other items I could need during the night. My food would be left in the pack and hung until we needed it for supper. There in the dusk of the woods, I was working a system I hadn’t fully learned yet.

I had come to trust our guide’s decisions and felt safe with her. She was emphatic that no food or other aromatic items be brought into the shelter at any time, thus the hanging of the packs. We used a cable system behind the shelter to haul our backpacks high off the ground, keeping our food beyond the reach of animals.

I changed my shoes and dumped my night items in the shelter. The men took the upper sleeping deck, and our group spread out on the lower level. After a hot meal, I was happy to crawl into my sleeping bag and hope to drift off, but I had bears on the brain. I realized that I had inadvertently brought a breath mint into the shelter. Would one mint attract a black bear? I would have swallowed it, but I wasn’t sure where it was. Once the headlamps were extinguished, we were in total darkness.

The soft snoring above me was a comfort; its rhythm ruled out the possibility of a bear, and I relaxed until a loud crash jolted me off my sleeping pad. It had to be an animal. Could no one else hear the racket? My sleeping companions were still as I inched toward the back wall, hoping to go unnoticed by whatever was invading our space. The men were still snoring. They can sleep through anything.

Two more loud crashes came from close by, and I was sure the killer bear that was banging around outside—if it wasn’t IN the shelter with us--could be reaching for me any minute. That thought was not conducive to sleep. In spite of a dozen other people around me, I felt scared and alone.

How I got through the night is anyone’s guess. If I slept at all, it was moment to moment. 

The next morning I asked our guide if she had heard the noise. Yes, she had heard the three acorns hitting the roof during the night, one at a time.

To be continued…

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 2

It was mid-morning. Seven women about to be in the wilderness sat in a circle with our gear as our guide explained the next order of business: “I’m going to show you how I pack a backpack.” The thought of that brought memories of my morning in the hotel room. I had already packed and repacked my own backpack, trying and failing to fit everything I needed in it.

How did people take layers of warm clothing? I couldn’t even cram my lightweight wool sweater in the remaining space. Where did they put enough food for several days? I’d barely found a place for my snacks. I hadn’t even brought my sleeping bag liner, or a stove, or fuel. Even though I’d purchased lightweight gear and clothing, packing it had been such a struggle that I dreaded this next activity. I wanted to sit in the sun and watch. Instead, I emptied my pack.

Our guide distributed huge black trash bags and told us to line our packs with them, and that was the moment the light clicked on for me. Yahoo!

The main cavity of a backpack has an opening with a drawstring at the top. That top section is made of soft material. On my pack it’s squished down under another pouch. I knew it was there, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it because my pack also zips open from the front like a suitcase.

I pulled up the top section, opened the drawstring, and stuffed the deep trash bag down inside to fill with my gear and food. It was going to work! Until that minute, I’d had no idea how to pack a backpack.

TIP: Even the basics must be learned.

When everyone was outfitted and packed, we caravanned to a campground in North Carolina. There we parked and rode a shuttle to Newfound Gap, a popular trailhead on the AT. I already knew that I was fortunate to be in this group. As we entered the woods, I looked around in wonder at the beautiful trees, clear sky, and sun-dappled path. Despite the wording from the Frost poem, I remember thinking I love this.

We were maybe one-fourth of a mile in, hiking single-file, when my left foot slipped on a wet rock, throwing my body off balance and setting my 28-pound backpack in motion. I fell backward from a standing position with both arms outstretched and a trekking pole strapped to each wrist. The fall seemed slow, yet I was helpless to stop myself.

I’d given my age when I had applied for this hike, along with the assurance that I was in shape. At 69, I wasn’t surprised to be the oldest member of our group, but I was determined to keep up. What must our guide be thinking now, to see me topple over like the trunk of a tree?

Luckily, I fell on my fat pack and was not hurt. Perhaps I had screamed a warning; the women behind me were in the clear when I landed. A fall can happen in a second, and it isn’t necessarily age related. We all have to be alert to what’s under our boots. My one casualty was a trekking pole that snapped in two. Our resourceful guide fixed it with duct tape. Awesome!

Note to self: Never be without duct tape on a hike.

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” They also go up and down mountains for miles, as we did on our first day. During the uphill climb I looked ahead to see if or when the trail would level off to give us a break. Our march seemed relentless, and I had to request a few stops. Occasionally our leader paused to point out a plant or creature endemic to the Smokies. With every step of my boots I began to pray that she would discover another flower or mushroom to stop and show us.

I reached a point that day when I asked myself WHAT IN THE WORLD I had been thinking when I told people I was going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Was I crazy? I didn’t even want to be here. My legs were shaking, my shoulders ached from carrying my pack, and all I could see ahead was more trail. Now I knew: My little hikes around the lake at home, and even in the woods, had been nothing compared to this. 

Our destination for the night was a shelter our guide had reserved. Because it was afternoon before we began hiking, we had to cover ground. I was already walking like a zombie, the result of sore muscles in my legs. Could I make it?

Yes. Yes, I could. All I had to hear was the possibility that if we didn't stay on task, we could be breaking out our headlamps and finishing the hike in the dark

To be continued…

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 1

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” Robert Frost may not have been referring to the Smoky Mountains when he wrote that line, but it was all I could think about as our group of eight entered the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a clear September afternoon.

“Women in the Wilderness” was the name of our adventure, a two-night backpacking trip for seven paying guests and our guide from the award-winning nature guide service, A Walk in the Woods. The company’s mission is to raise environmental awareness through “direct, fun, positive experiences with nature.” As a person considering a thru-hike of the AT and sometimes wondering why, I needed a dose of that.

I had found “Women in the Wilderness” on Facebook within a day of arriving home from a week of day-hiking the AT. Someone had cancelled after this Smoky Mountain trip was full, and the opening seemed meant for me. I signed up to gain more practice, but also to soak up some positive vibes about the wilderness. Anyone who doesn’t feel that way will have a hard time in the woods, because Mother Nature isn’t one to hold back on the challenges.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 816 square miles. Its more than 500,000 acres are almost equally divided between Tennessee and North Carolina. Much of the park is back country, full of creeks and trees, wildlife, and trails both primitive and maintained. It is an amazing ecosystem, bursting with unique plant life and loads of animals. Scientists estimate the park is home to 100,000 different organisms.

I drove to Gatlinburg, Tennessee on a Thursday, arriving at a hotel I’d chosen on the Internet. In real life it was a disappointment, years beyond its heyday. One of the two lamps didn’t have a switch. The furniture was outdated, and no one would have stolen the TV; only Hercules Unchained could have lifted it. I was suspicious of the bedding, preferring to curl up in my sleeping bag on top of the covers. But at least I wasn’t bothered and my room had a lovely balcony overlooking a creek. The next morning after a freebie breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, I made the short drive to A Walk in the Woods.

We met each other and our guide on a sun-washed deck outside Gatlinburg. Most of the women taking this trip were renting their gear, so the preliminaries included our guide fitting each one with a pack and handing out tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads. I’d brought my own backpack filled with gear. One item was still in the trunk of my car: the $46 can of bear deterrent spray with its special holster I’d bought to quell my panic regarding the scariest of wild animals. I’d read it somewhere: "We pack what we fear."

“I have bear spray,” I said to our guide. Will I need it?”



About 1,500 black bears reside in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are known to avoid humans, and visitors who hope to see them are often disappointed. I was a different kind of visitor, hoping to be spared the tiniest glimpse of fur during our three-day adventure. With that in mind, I addressed one of my challenges--focusing on the positive--as our orientation continued.

To be continued…

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Nerve Center

When I committed to hiking the 2,000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2015, my mind flew apart like a scattering of birds. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with things to do. Never mind that I had spent a year collecting and reading books about the AT, buying gear, and signing up for “practice experiences” in the woods. I felt the weight of the preparation that was still to come.

Planning the hike would be logistically complicated until I hit the trail and began to live simply, because I also had to manage what I was leaving behind. The first order of business was to organize my growing collection of backpacking gear, books, and clothing. The items were stashed in different locations around the house, making me nuts when the time came to go hiking. I would forget something every time. Once it was my water supply—not a good thing to leave at home.

I needed a nerve center!

As opposed to a place to work up my nerve, this nerve center would be a location in my home for all of my hiking paraphernalia, where I could see what I had in order to fill my packs intelligently as I prepared for every practice hike and then the Big Hike. (I know, don’t capitalize for emphasis.)

I chose my linen closet, a double-wide with sliding doors. Several years earlier I’d had it customized to hold not just my sheets, towels, and table linens, but also a variety of suitcases. It has one narrow section for hanging clothes and the rest is divided by shelves. The space would be perfect for my two packs, their contents, my hiking clothes, and my books.

I wanted to see all of my gear and my full range of clean outfits at once. The goal was efficiency. I could dress quickly and learn to load my backpack consistently so that my movements would become automatic on the trail. A pack is a complex piece of equipment when you consider its inner cavities, pockets, loops, and network of straps. It has to hold everything you need for a hike, yet be light enough to carry mile after mile. Loading one is both science and art.

So, out came my bedding, towels, place mats, and luggage, to find another home; into the closet went my hiking gear, books, and outdoor clothing. I have a shelf for my tent, one for my sleep system, another for footwear. There are spaces for stuff sacks, trekking poles, laundry, and smaller items--socks, whistle, bug net, emergency blanket, matches, and so on. My hiking books are in one place.

I’d recommend this system to anyone. There is one little hitch. I haven’t yet found a new home for my extra curtains, comforters, scatter rugs, shower curtain rings…

Friday, July 11, 2014

Carpet Cleaning

Housework requires a jump-start at times, for instance in the dead of winter when productivity can seem impossible. My friend Betty K. had a four-season excuse for household tasks she didn’t want to do: “Who sees it?”

People do see dirty carpeting; just watch HGTV. No House Hunter lets a square foot escape a snide remark. So, when my brother offered to shampoo my carpets while I was on a trip, he didn’t have to ask twice. In my absence Joe was able to work at his own pace undisturbed, and the carpets had time to dry--undisturbed.

Joe repeated his offer a few months ago, with the difference that this time the job would be easier, just a touch-up. Most of my carpeting had remained pristine through the holidays and even during the harshness of January.

“Even with all the company you had?” Joe joked. I rarely host anything.

After I’d fortified him with a cup of coffee, he readied his cleaning equipment. “Let’s make this as easy as possible, I said. “You don’t need to do everything. Let me show you my path.”

“You don’t need to. It’s a shining beacon.”

I walk most often on the carpeted areas between the kitchen and my office, bedroom, and bathroom. If anybody wanted to trace my daily movements, it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes.

Joe started in the hall between the bedroom and master bath. Off that hall was my walk-in closet. I didn’t want him to overdo it, so I said, “You don’t have to do the entire closet. Just go down the middle, where I tend to stand. It smells like feet.”

“Have you considered slippers?”

I tried to stay out of the way, but it wasn’t long before I had to peek. “This is what killed me the last time,” Joe said as I rounded the corner and stifled a scream. The section he had cleaned looked like “attack of the black spiders.” The wet carpet was dotted with dark shapes the size of quarters that seemed to be advancing.

“That’s what the shampooer pulled out of your carpet. It’s dirt,” he said. I was glad to know that instead of an army of evil arachnids, I was looking at wet dust bunnies. “When I did your floors the first time,” Joe said, “it took me an hour just to pick them up.”

“Skip the stairs this time,” I said a few minutes later in spite of the trail of coffee stains leading up the steps to my office. “Maybe you could just shampoo the landing.”

“I can’t stop now,” Joe said. “Now that I’ve seen it, I have to clean it. Do you use a pogo stick when you carry your coffee upstairs?”

When he was done, he called me into the bathroom to see the murky water he was about to discard. It reminded me of the chemical spill that polluted the Elk River in West Virginia in January 2014.

“When I was still working as a school custodian,” he said, “I always showed the teacher the dirty water afterward. ‘What does it look like?’ I would ask, and they knew I wanted them to compare it to coffee: was it black or “with cream”?

He didn’t ask me, but “black with spiders” is what came to mind for the water. The carpet was pure cream. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Into the Woods: Day-Hiking the AT in West Virginia


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Had I actually slept eight hours? Yes!

As usual, I’d nodded off a few times during the previous night’s program, a movie about the Appalachian Trail, but who wouldn’t after seeing the AT in person for six hours?

Today, for our West Virginia hike, we had two choices. One was shorter than the other, and I wondered if the first alternative hike of the week had been offered in consideration of our sorry state after three days of hiking. The weather report promised another wet day, but I would not take the alternative hike. How could I skip hiking in my home state, even drenched to the skin? If it rains, you hike.

Only four miles of the Appalachian Trail pass through West Virginia. In order to extend the hike to 6.5 miles, we would begin in Loudon Heights, in northern Virginia. The hike would end in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The temperature that morning was in the 60s. As we approached our starting point in the vans, the mountaintops were fogged in; we might have been in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. I had dressed appropriately for the temperature, but I didn’t want to hike alone in foggy conditions. Would I ever stop being afraid?

As it turned out, the fog was not an issue, but rain dripped all day. I wore my rain pants and jacket and protected my pack with its bright yellow rain cover. Underfoot the ground was slippery. Remember the little boy in The Sixth Sense who said, “I see dead people”? My version was “I see mud.” We had to sidestep the large puddles and respect the roots and rocks.

Our guide for the day stopped often to point out historical sites in the woods. He explained how coal had been converted to coke there in years past. He showed us the foundations of homes built in the valleys and now long gone. In order to do so, he would stop and wait until the entire group had gathered around him, a contrast to previous days when each person hiked at his or her own pace. I liked it.

My comfort level increased on this hike; in fact, it was my favorite hike. I didn’t even mind the rain.

Our guide split up the men and women for a group nature break in the woods. The men disappeared around a curve, and we women went behind a boulder to pee. “Watch out for snakes,” one called. “They like to hide in rocks.” Thanks for the warning, I thought, but at that point I couldn’t run if one jumped out at me.

The cliffs above Harpers Ferry gave us a wonderful view of the town, located at the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Harpers Ferry is also a national park. We walked toward it on a long bridge, and I thought the people speeding by in trucks and cars might feel sorry for us, trudging along in the rain, but they’d be wrong.

We ended our hike by eating lunch on the porch of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy sheltered from the rain. Perhaps the weather was to blame for a slow day in the shops, but we did our part. I bought two gifts, one a wooden sign for my brother’s apartment: “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere.” A similarly named chapter in his memoir, Mr. Joe, describes the little boy’s wait for his father every evening.

Our dinner was a farewell banquet. For our evening program we were leaving the premises to hear a group of local musicians. I knew I had to fortify myself against sleep, so I had a cup of coffee. I was still awake at midnight.

We attended a concert at O'Hurley's General Store in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. A group of musicians play there on Thursday nights in a big room with chairs set up so that people can come and listen. That night there were 11 musicians. The performance was amazing: Every one of those musicians could sing and play at least two instruments. I discovered that Irish music moves me. I wouldn’t have needed the caffeine.

Our group had been exchanging contact information and saying good-bye. After a tour of Antietam Battlefield the next morning, we left for home.

One day when I was on the computer I saw a post on Facebook from a company called A Walk in the Woods. It seemed a place had unexpectedly opened for a weekend backpacking trip in the Smokies in September. I took it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Into the Woods: Day-Hiking the AT in Virginia

Fourth in a series

May 28, 2014

4:35 a.m.: Not again.

After a trip to the toilet I decided to lie down, turn out the light, and try to fall back to sleep. It was simply too early to be awake. There in my single bed, covered by blankets and NOT climbing a mountain, I thought to myself over and over, like a mantra: I’m here, not there.

Life at the conference center was fun. I was glad I had signed up with this group. Everyone was friendly, and four other women had come alone. By midweek I was getting to know all of my companions, enjoying the meals, and trying like heck to appreciate the evening programs. Last night’s subject had been edible plants. I made it to the end, but don’t ask me what to eat or avoid in the forest.

5:15: As it had the previous morning, my mind drifted to livelier thoughts, for instance, the red marks on the insides of my legs around the sock line. They were back after yesterday’s hike, and the left one looked to be forming a circular pattern. Was this the bulls-eye that signals...I couldn’t remember what; was it Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? No. The shape was a sign of Lyme Disease, though I had seen no ticks. If I had, I would have used my Tick Key to remove them.

When it rains, you hike. Today was that day; we had expected thunderstorms on our Maryland hike, but they had come later in the day. According to last night’s posting of the weather, the chance of precipitation during our Virginia hike would be 70 percent.

Today’s little jaunt in the woods was described on our information sheet as a “Strenuous Hike.” If they thought Monday’s was easy and Tuesday’s was moderate, we were in for a workout. I didn’t want to psych myself out sitting there on the edge of my bed in my fleece pajamas, but that ship had sailed.

The section of the AT chosen for our Virginia hike was a portion of the “roller coaster,” so named for its undulating elevations. We would cross four mountains for a distance of 7.3 miles. The terrain was described on the sheet as “Very Rocky.”

Try “merciless.” We were still in the van when one hiker read that description aloud from a book. He was referring to one of the mountains we would climb. How can you reconcile “merciless” with “Snicker’s Gap”? That was our starting point. We would end the hike in the afternoon at a road, VA 605.

A few members of our group left the rest behind every day. I would never be in that elite cluster. I was good at walking, but I tuckered out going up the mountains and had to rest. I decided to hang back with a slower group for the day. The hike became grueling, but my companion of the moment and I were feeling proud of ourselves because we were doing all right at age 68. When a guide caught up to us on a mountainside, he told us he was 73. Need I specify that both of them then passed me? That must have been the merciless mountain; at least, it proved so for me.

It did rain. At times all we could hear were the raindrops and the points of our trekking poles hitting the surface. We encountered rocks and more rocks, no surprise, and forded a few creeks. At the deepest one, a group that had gone far ahead of us waited to help us over. I didn’t fall all day, but I slipped a couple times and landed funny on my feet. Still no blisters from my trusty boots.

For the last hour and half, I hiked with a different companion through the rain. The temperature was in the 80s, and once I put on my rain shell my sweat output was worse than usual. The insides of my sleeves were slick with it. When I got back, I would have to turn the jacket inside out to dry it.

My friend and I reconciled our hiking styles—she had trouble on the downhill slopes--by staying within sight of one another, but at times it was like hiking alone. The sky was overcast and the forest, soaking wet. I thought every black shape I saw ahead was a bear, but I kept my thoughts to myself after telling her I thought I saw one of our white vans up ahead and it turned out to be a boulder.

Wildlife spotted: a black caterpillar on a stone; a butterfly

Tip: If you carry a water bladder, consider also carrying a bottle of water to drink at lunch. Drinking from the bladder is difficult once you remove your pack to eat.

Toward the end of the day, I peed just off the Trail. My friend said, “Go ahead. I’ll walk just a little ways ahead.” No one came along and nothing bit me from behind.

“Vanity is the first to go,” I said.

I heard her answer from down the trail: “Modesty is the second.”

By the end of the day, my hiking outfit was so sweaty and the pants so muddy that there was no hope of washing them in the sink as I had done with my previous outfits. Those clothes would require lots of Spray & Wash at home.

I was glad to emerge from the Trail and see our vans parked beside VA 605. Everyone else cheered as we made our way to the road. To top it off, treats were laid out, and guess what they were: Snickers!

Next: Hiking in West Virginia

Monday, June 23, 2014

Into the Woods: Day-Hiking the AT in Maryland

Third in a series

May 27, 3:00 a.m.

I knew I was awake; my mind was racing all over the place. Could I get back to sleep? Only hours before, I had been nodding off in a presentation. I’d hated to do it, but I got up and left before I fell completely asleep. Now I longed for that sleep.

I curled up on my side, listening to the pre-dawn quiet. The latest weather prediction, a 40- to 60-percent chance of thunderstorms, meant rethinking the contents of my pack. I would put the rain cover on it before we started out. That should keep the pack dry. I would need to take my rain jacket and pants, my all-season gloves, my SmartWool® sweater, and my emergency blanket. The books say you can get hypothermia by being wet in any season.

I didn’t want to be alone when the thunderstorms came. I wanted a guide nearby to tell me what to do. What I knew about hiking in a storm was all from reading: Drop anything metal, meaning your walking sticks. Even though mine have cork handles, I thought, they’re hitting the ground. Don’t be in the open if you can help it. Don’t head for a cave or a grove of trees. What’s left? Crouch down low and balance on the balls of your feet. If you’re in a group, spread out to reduce the chances of more than one person being struck by lightning. Oh, fabulous, my own lightning bolt.

I needed to calm my mind. Thinking of thunder and lightning on top of some bald would not put me to sleep. I thought of the thru-hiker I had sat next to at lunch the previous day. He told us he begins hiking each day at 3:00 a.m. with his headlamp to guide him. He would be setting out about now.

I lay in the dark, aware of the irony that would play out later on the Trail. If I were in the forest instead of here in my room, I would be wishing for this bed and the toilet a few steps away. I’d be longing to stop walking. Well, now was my chance. I was warm and safe. Before I faced the day in the woods, I wanted to appreciate my trauma-free surroundings.

At 3:50 I gave up on sleep and made my first cup of coffee. With the lights on, I took a physical inventory. My feet seemed all right: no blisters or hot spots. The strange red marks on the insides of my legs up to my sock line had faded overnight. My calf muscles were sore, and I had pulled something in my right thigh or groin during our Pennsylvania hike when I turned to hold back a branch for someone and lost my balance. I didn’t fall, but that brief body twist had made its mark. I hoped I could take two Tylenol and “walk it out” on the Trail. I didn’t want to be a whiner, even joking.

The Appalachian Trail in Maryland looks a lot like the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania: lots of rocks, some mud, and miles of green. The surrounding area was attractive and well maintained, something I had noticed immediately upon driving into Maryland. There was no road clutter; in fact, by the time I saw a sign for a gas station, I wondered if it was a mirage. Of all my impressions, this took the cake: I was surprised to be driving over mountains! Hello. Appalachian Trail? Four states?

For our second day on the AT, we would be hiking from Washington Monument to Crampton’s Gap. At 9.7 miles, it would be our longest hike of the week.  Described in our handout as “Moderate,” the hike was sure to present a challenge, because yesterday’s hike had been described as an “Easier hike.” Easier than what? Oh. Easier than the next three hikes.

Washington Monument is a rugged stone tower located at the top of a mountain in Washington Monument State Park. It was erected in 1927, the first completed monument dedicated to the memory of our first president. Maryland is steeped in history, particularly that of the Civil War. Crampton’s Gap, where our hike would conclude, was the site of another skirmish between Union and Confederate soldiers. Our conference center was just a few miles from Antietam Battlefield, scene of the bloodiest single day in American military history.

We hiked over three mountains and crossed a few gaps and knolls in between. I think we ate lunch at Rocky Run Shelter, around the halfway point, but all I remember is the fat log I had to sit on because the other seats were taken.

Wildlife spotted: A few minutes after I sat down, another hiker said, “Oh, there’s a caterpillar…ON YOU.” The thing was two or three inches long.

Tip: Watch where you sit.

Later we thought we were going to get caught in the rain, so my hiking partner and I stopped and got out our raincoats, which meant taking off our packs to put them on. I had my pack covered as well. It barely rained, and then the sun came out. Our ounce of prevention may have saved us from the storms, the way carrying an umbrella will sometimes do in town. To avoid the trouble of taking it off, I continued to hike in my raincoat and sweated like a pig. I’ve rarely had to worry about perspiration, but on that trip I sweated with the best of them. Just a preview of life on the AT.

I tried my bug net in the woods of Maryland. Made of fine netting treated with insect repellent, it fit over my head and hat.

Tip: Remember to lift your bug net off your face before you blow your nose.

I hiked alone for a while, not the most comfortable of arrangements for those of us dreading a wildlife encounter, but pace dictates our hiking partners or lack thereof. I slipped in the mud and fell onto my left side, hitting my shoulder. No one saw me, but the other side of that coin is that if I had been seriously hurt I would have had to wait for help. Luckily I was fine, except for being muddy and having a scraped knee.

Wildlife spotted: a spotted frog

The weather was great and the scenery beautiful. The hike ended at 3:00 p.m. when we emerged from the woods to meet the vans. It had been 12 hours exactly since my first thought of the morning, and I was beat.

Someone asked me at dinner, “Are you still thinking of hiking the AT?” We were cleaned up from the sweaty day, and the big rains had come after we were off the Trail. I’d heard the rain banging on the window of my room while I was lying down, but I was too tired to see if it was leaking in.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling like last year’s meat. “I don’t know. After today, I’m not sure I could do it.”

“Oh, you absolutely could do it!” my table-mate said, and her husband was nodding in agreement.

“Look at me,” I said. “I’m a zombie.”

“You’re not alone. The trail beats everyone up for the first few days.”

I was thrilled to realize that I wasn’t a zombie from hiking; I was a zombie from waking up at 2:45 a.m. I didn’t have to give up hope.

Next: Hiking the “roller coaster” of Virginia

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Into the Woods: Day-Hiking the AT in Pennsylvania

Second in a series

May 26, 2014

The Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania is known for its abundance of rocks. When I’d read that in book after book, I had pictured a long valley with the mountains wide apart, the way they were in my hometown of Glen Ferris, West Virginia, with the Kanawha River running between them. In my mind, the floor of this long valley would be littered with rocks and little else. Some would be boulders; others would be the size of footballs or what one hiker called babyheads: rocks the size of a baby’s head. But the section we hiked in Pennsylvania wasn’t the way I’d imagined it. That was the reason I had wanted to hike the AT in four states: to see it for myself.

Our group of twenty-plus assembled outside the conference center at 8:30 a.m. After an hour-long van ride, we stopped for a nature break at the Caledonia State Park visitor center and then were driven to a trailhead in the park, where we met our guides for the day. I would not see most of them again until lunch, a result of our group becoming spread out during the hike.

To me, hiking from Caledonia State Park to the town of Pine Grove Furnace was like walking in a creek bed for eight and one-half miles. The Trail led us up and down mountains where the rocks were slick and the ground was muddy. Wet tree roots curled in our path like snakes. Training yourself to be alert for wildlife, take in the scenery, and look for white blazes on the trees while watching your feet is a good skill set to develop on the trail. Most of us carried trekking poles to aid our walking.

Along our stretch, the AT ranged from two or three feet wide to the size of a two-lane road. The forest was unbelievably green. Sometimes the vegetation in the woods was so thick that we would have missed a bear in the bushes ten feet away. At other times, we could look off to either side and see the tree line past fields dense with ferns. We passed sections more reminiscent of autumn than late spring, thanks to thousands of fallen leaves.

We didn’t have to worry about getting left or lost. The last guide in the group was called the sweep, and his job was to make sure everyone made it to the end. If we had to go into the woods, we were instructed to leave our pack beside the trail so the sweep would know to wait. Fortunately for my goal of avoiding critters, I did not have to answer nature’s call off the trail.

Wildlife spotted: None

The official halfway point of the Appalachian Trail is marked by a sign. I would have liked to have my picture taken there, but I couldn’t reach my camera without removing my backpack.

Tip: The side pockets on a backpack are still behind you.

I didn’t want to take the time, as ours was a fast-moving group. Besides that, I would have had to explain to everyone who saw the photo that, in fact, I had not hiked halfway from Georgia to Maine.

The thing about hiking is the relentless nature of it. After the first four miles my pack felt heavy. My boots felt heavy, and I had begun to stumble. We were going from Point A to Point B, and I felt the need to maintain a certain pace. The climbs were hard, however, and I was forced to stop and allow others to pass. Supposedly thru-hikers get their “hiking legs” about three weeks into the trip, and that wasn’t going to happen to me after a half-day.

We stopped at mile 4.5 for lunch at Tom’s Run Shelter, which also boasted a roofed picnic area, flat spots for tent camping, and a privy. It was the first shelter I’d ever seen. It was made of wood, raised a few feet off the ground. Tom’s Run, located in a valley, is one of the better shelters on the Trail, according to a NOBO (northbound) thru-hiker we met.

Several young thru-hikers joined us for lunch. I sat by the bearded guy in black who had politely passed me on the Trail. Thru-hikers have a reputation for strong odors, the result of hiking for days in the same clothing, but his tuna fish smelled stronger than he did. He had left Springer Mountain toward the end of March and hoped to make Katahdin by the 4th of July. Most hikers are only halfway there after three months.

At lunch I had a chance to examine one of my trekking poles. The lower lock wasn’t holding, and that had caused a section to collapse repeatedly while I was walking—not a good thing when you’re using the pole for support. I figured out a screw had loosened and used the screwdriver head on my new knife to tighten it, but I did not have time to check the remaining three screws until the hike was over. I told you this was a fast group.

Pine Grove Furnace is a pretty town and home to a hostel, a general store, and the Appalachian Trail Museum. The store is known for the half-gallon challenge, in which thru-hikers try to eat a half-gallon of ice cream. I paid no attention to that, interested only in a bench and my delicious cone of Cookies and Cream. The museum display includes a bust of Earl Shaffer, the first man to thru-hike the AT, and  one of Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to do so. Her hiking shoes and one of her homemade duffel bags were in a glass case, along with a collapsible cup and a few other items she had used on the Trail. Emma Gatewood was about my age when she completed that first hike, and I felt a kinship to her.

A couple people fell asleep in the van on the long trip back, but no one complained. I was pooped, but I wasn’t going to be the one to crack.

I shed my sweaty clothes as soon as I got to my room. You would have thought I’d been on the Trail for days; the thought of a shower, a couple Tylenol, some foot powder, and a change of clothing was simply entrancing. I showered and washed my hair after checking myself for ticks (none found). I noticed red marks on my shoulders from my pack, though I had not felt pain or known that the straps were digging into my skin. I changed clothes and hand-washed the ones I’d worn on the hike. If I were backpacking instead of sleeping indoors, what would I do with my wet bra, underpants, shirt, socks, and liners? I knew that one: I wouldn’t wash them in the first place.

Before going to dinner I put on a little makeup. I was going to skip it, but the mirror told me to think again. I had hiked in full makeup, but after my shower I was so tired that I reduced the process to the barest necessities for the remainder of the evening. Vanity was falling away.

I ate like a hiker who’d been on the Trail for two months. The “hiker hunger” I had read about came early, but I was still recovering from my stomach trouble. I had vegetables and tortellini in cream sauce. The other people also had bread, salad, and fruit. The zucchini and summer squash were especially delicious that night, and I went back for seconds and then had peach cobbler for dessert.

We had another program after dinner. I was so sleepy I was afraid I’d nod off and fall out of my chair.

Every evening our program leader posted a weather report for the following day. The latest: 40 to 60% chance of thunderstorms for our second hike. I hoped I could start the second day as energetic and physically ready as I had the first.

Next: Hiking Maryland

Friday, June 13, 2014

Into the Woods: Day-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

May 25, 2014

I left the interstate for the backwoods (or so it seemed) of Maryland on a Sunday afternoon, easing my way along curving two-lane roads surrounded by green. Twice I had to ask directions, the first time flagging down a car going the opposite way and the second time idling outside a yard to call to the owner. Finally I spotted the turn for my destination, a conference center situated on two hundred acres an hour and a half northwest of Washington, D.C.

I had signed up to hike the Appalachian Trail in four states. It was a six-day program designed for 24 of us older people. The activity was rated “Challenging,” but what did that mean? Was it simply an oxymoron? How fit did I have to be in order to hike the Trail in a group of senior citizens?

I had been fascinated with the Appalachian Trail for a year, hooked initially by Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s tale of hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d subsequently collected and read more than 25 books about the AT and had spent a weekend backpacking in the woods of Georgia in a guided group. I’d registered for this group hike in Maryland months ago.

In this instance, “hike” meant that we would day-hike, leaving the conference center every morning at 8:30 to be driven to a different trailhead. We would hike until 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. and be picked up by the vans at the other end. The hikes for the week were from 6.5 to 9.7 miles each.

Our meals were provided, including lunches we packed ourselves from a food selection laid out every morning on one of the round dining tables. Breakfast and dinner were buffet style.

Supper the first night was two kinds of fish, broccoli, mac and cheese, and pumpkin pie for dessert. A salad bar was a staple for those with better constitutions than mine. I’d suffered intense stomach cramps before the trip and had barely eaten in three days.

Every evening after dinner we were treated to a program. The first night it was a talk by a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Before that talk began, we took turns standing in front of the group to introduce ourselves. Each of us put a push pin in a U.S. map to mark our town or city. My group for the week consisted of three couples who signed up together, five single women, and a few couples who did not know one another before their arrival.

Before registering for the trip, I’d wondered about my ability to take on this series of hikes. I wanted badly to experience the Appalachian Trail, so I signed up and then began walking at home. In March I started weekly physical fitness sessions with a trainer. “Get me ready” was my simple plea. She worked on my core strength as well as that in my arms and legs, with less than two months to make me hike-worthy.

Maybe you’ve sized up the other members of a group and compared them to yourself for reassurance. I already knew my co-hikers were nice people, but what was their potential to climb mountains, compared to mine? Some were experienced hikers. I didn’t want to be the one they waited for once we got on the Trail.

You know how this goes. You look at your hike-mates and think, landing on one: If he or she can make it, surely I can. We all do it, but in reality—and in a group as fit as ours--it is difficult to tell another person’s level of stamina. You might be dead wrong, as I was. Every day some of those folks passed me like I was standing still. Okay, I was standing still.

Stay tuned for the next installment: hiking the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, a state known for rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Our first hike would begin at Caledonia State Park and end at Pine Grove Furnace, a distance of about 8.5 miles.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My First Blog

So Write! is my second blog ever. My first was titled Jane’s India Trip.

In 2008 a colleague and I took a business trip to India. I was an editor; Sally was, and is, a techie. These are simplifications. We, and others, traveled 8,600 miles to approve a product for our company.

We were in India for a total of 16 days, based in Bangalore but traveling to Mysore, Delhi, and Agra. When Sally told me she intended to keep friends and family informed about her trip by posting a blog, I had to ask her what a blog was. Remember when people had to explain that blog was short for weblog? I didn't even know what a weblog was. She, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do.

Sally's idea to write about her experiences excited me, and she offered to help me set up my own blog. In just a few hours, Jane’s India Trip was real and my first entry, “Invitation,” was posted.

I recently thought about my India blog and tried unsuccessfully to find it online. At one point--years ago, before my three computer crashes--I could access it on the Internet even though I’d stopped writing new posts once we were back home.

A few weeks ago Sally came to the rescue again, locating the link, and then I lost it a second time in a morass of old e-mail messages. I had to ask her to send it once more. Now I’m saving it as part of this post, hoping I won’t lose it a third time.

Why do I care so much about accessing that old blog? Sentimental reasons; the trip was an amazing opportunity and a memorable time. Thanks to Sally, I also found out in India how much fun it is to blog. That discovery eventually led to So Write!.

If you’re curious about the impressions and adventures of two Americans in India, you’re welcome to check it out. (Begin at the bottom of the list of posts.) And thanks again to those who read my first blog the first time.