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.