Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Week on the AT

Some time last year I received a phone call from my father. My nephew S and he were driving around in North Carolina doing some sight-seeing in the Appalachians, and they had hiked to the top of one of the balds [1] out there. "You and S ought to come out here and do some hiking on the Appalachian Trail," he said.

"I'm in!" (I don't take a lot of convincing when it comes to invitations to adventure.)

I spent the winter doing research and planning the trip. S is attending university in Kentucky, so in addition to taking the weather into consideration, we had to schedule a time when he would not be in class. The break between Spring and Summer semesters offered the perfect time to make it happen.

My dad offered to provide logistics, ferrying us to the trail, after which he would stay in the town of Hot Springs, NC - at least until after we passed through - and then pick us up when we were done.

The goal was to spend one week on the trail, hoping to covering about 100 miles from Waterville School Road to Erwin, TN. Based on the mileage I was covering on my day hikes, that sounded attainable. Circumstances didn't entirely allow for it, but we did 77 miles (124 km), which we felt was pretty good. We put in on Sunday, May 20th, 2012, and left the trail on Saturday, May 26th.
Day 1: S and J, about to set out from Waterville School Road
This was my longest backpacking trip to date, and the first for S. It was absolutely amazing, and I think we both came away with a lot of good knowledge and experience and the inspiration to do more of it. A recount of the hike would be tedious, but here are a few things that I learned along the way.

The AT is a community

Upon setting foot on the trail, we were instantly immersed in a community of hikers. There were people from all parts of the country, from all walks of life, and with all sorts of goals. But we were bound together by the thread of the trail which wound its way through the forests and over the mountains of the Appalachians.

The AT must be one of the most heavily-traveled backcountry trails in the nation. We frequently hiked for several hours without seeing anyone, but there were always a few neighbors when we stopped at shelters for the night. We frequently found ourselves camping with the same folks for two or three nights in a row.

I've heard people say that they would enjoy hiking the AT, but would be unwilling to do it alone. My experience was that you're never really alone out there. They say that if you run into any kind of trouble, the best piece of equipment you can have is a deck of cards. That way you can keep yourself entertained while waiting for the next passer-by.
Day 5: A lush view from White Rock Cliff

Shelters are nice

The AT has shelters set up every 5 to 8 miles or so for housing hikers. We opted not to actually sleep in any of them, but we mostly camped next to them. The shelters of the AT are notorious for being visited by mice, and they lack any kind of shield from insects. But they have some nice peripheral features such as water sources, privies, picnic tables, and cables for suspending food out of reach of the local wildlife [2]. And they all had sites for pitching tents.
Day 3: Early morning at our camp site at Walnut Mountain Shelter
The only night we slept at an isolated camp site was on day 4. We had planned to bypass Spring Mountain shelter to get in a few extra miles, but found ourselves in a torrential downpour shortly after doing so. Had we known that it would rain that hard, we would have stayed in the shelter.

Go light

I've read plenty of times that carrying less weight will do more for your enjoyment of a backpacking trip than could be gained from most extra recreational items you might want to bring. This proved to be more true than I'd imagined. Especially with my plantar fasciitis giving me grief.

We heard many tales of through-hikers who had to jettison gear in the first days of their hike. One guy said he had to give a nice fishing rod away to somebody at a trail head parking lot. Another said he was given a samurai sword in exchange for cigarettes on some Georgia mountain top. Fortunately, meeting Dad in Hot Springs at the end of day 3 gave us an opportunity to drop some weight without losing anything permanently.
Day 4: Hot Springs, NC, and the French Broad River
Having the official AT map and guide book for our area was essential. But if I'd been thinking ahead, I would have transcribed or photo-copied the pages from the guide book for the sections we were hiking and left the book itself at home. That would have saved a fair amount of weight and bulk.

I hit the trail with three different knives! I had my Swiss Army pocketknife, a Leatherman, and a larger camp/bushcraft knife. When we met up with my dad in Hot Springs, I left all but the pocketknife with him. I would gladly have traded my 4-piece eating/cooking utensil set for one titanium spork. I also started out with a rain jacket, rain pants, and a warm puffy jacket. After HS, I just carried the rain jacket and used it during the chilly hours of the morning.

My DSLR camera didn't make the cut either. Photos from the second half of the trip were taken with my phone. Incidentally, I took more pictures that way than I did with the big camera simply because it was more convenient. A good compact point-and-shoot would have been the best option.

I can't go camping (nor otherwise get to sleep) without a book to read. This time it was book 1 of The Mongoliad, a collaborative work by several authors, including Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. By the time I got home, I was well on my way to finishing it. But much of that progress was made on the return flight. I could have gotten by with a much smaller, lighter book on the trail.

Do your homework

As a vegan, I've become accustomed to mistrusting the availability of food at most small stores and restaurants. So I hit the trail with a full week's worth of food in my pack. It was by far the heaviest part of my load. If I'd known more about Hot Springs, I could have carried far less and resupplied half-way through the hike. Hot Springs has a Dollar General store with a good enough selection for most hikers. And there is a store which specializes in backpacking food where I could have gotten additional vegan items.

With a bit of research, I could probably also have figured out that much of the sun protection equipment I had with me was superfluous. I know it's part of the 10 Essentials, but the hat, sunglasses, and sunblock were all unnecessary beneath the canopy of trees that shades the vast majority of the miles through this region.

Tap water sucks

I'm not usually a water snob. And to be honest, my sense of smell and taste are usually pretty dull. But after a week without carbon monoxide or Sriracha, a week of drawing water from mountain streams and springs, civilization smelled pretty bad. Granted, I wasn't smelling like a bouquet of flowers, but at least it was a natural smell. After getting to a hotel room and showering, I was walking around in this choking cloud of perfumed soap fumes that I could almost see.

And the tap water... I can't believe how bad it was. It smelled of chlorine and made my tongue and the roof of my mouth go numb. 

Good stories don't always happen on the trail

Though he never set foot on the trail, my dad came away from the trip with plenty of good experiences and stories as well.

Within a few minutes of being on the trail, a woman passed by us going the opposite direction with her arm in a makeshift sling. The man with her said he believed her wrist was either broken or badly sprained. They were making for the Standing Bear hostel just up the road from where we were dropped off. My father had gone up there to kill some time, so he ended up giving her a ride to the nearest hospital, some 30 miles away.

During his time in Hot Springs, Dad hung out at the diner and other hiker haunts, talked to folks who were passing through, and gave some guys a ride when they needed it. He thoroughly enjoyed himself. And he also took in a soak in the mineral springs for which the town is named, followed by a massage.


[1] In the Appalachians, a bald is a mountain top whose summit is clear of trees. This isn't due to elevation, as would be the case here in the Rockies, but the exact cause isn't well understood. We saw signage which suggested it was done by Indians to aid in their hunting. See

[2] The Walnut Mountain shelter lacked a picnic table, and the privy was full to the point of unusability. Jerry Cabin Shelter had no privy. All of the other shelters we stayed at had those features.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Planter Fasciitis

There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.

-- Winston Churchill

I've always been somewhat the opposite of a hypochondriac. My self-diagnoses tend to range from "it's nothing" to "I don't have time for that." But over the past couple of weeks, a menace has been looming in my right heel. (Can something loom from underneath?) And I seriously don't have time to be immobilized. Not right now. There are major adventure plans afoot.

Planter [sic] fasciitis [1] is a painful condition in which the bottom of one's foot - specifically the connective tissue in the heel and arch - is invaded by authoritarian peanuts. I want those little bastards to know that I shall fight on the beaches, I shall fight on the landing grounds, I shall fight in the fields and in the streets, I shall fight in the hills; I shall never surrender! [2]

But I am going to have to take it easy for the next week and pay more attention to stretching. And no more riding my bike in flip-flops.


[2] Everything I know about history and classic literature I learned from listening to Iron Maiden.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fudge brownie oatmeal

I've mentioned in the past that I have no real desire to do a cooking blog. There are too many people out there doing way better than I could do. But posting the occasional recipe can be a fun change of pace. Especially when it's something as delicious as desert for breakfast.

I'm calling this my fudge brownie oatmeal. It's a pretty obvious recipe, so I won't pretend like it's the most original thing ever. But it tastes great and is a pretty healthy way to start off your morning.


  1. 1/2 cup rolled oats
  2. 1 cup water
  3. dash of salt
  4. 2 tbsp. cocoa powder
  5. 2 tbsp. blackstrap molasses
  6. 1 (small) handful of walnuts, chopped
  7. 1 1/2 tsp. Truvia OR 1 tbsp. raw sugar OR 1 tbsp. maple syrup. Adjust to taste.
  8. About 1/4 cup almond milk
One of the reasons I'm not a good food/cooking blogger is that I'm very imprecise when I cook. The oats and water are the only things I actually measure. All other amounts are eyeballed. So just take those quantities as general guidelines.

Put all of the ingredients except the almond milk into a microwave-safe bowl. Mix it up as well as you can and microwave on high for 3:30 [1].

After cooking, stir it some more. Different oats will absorb different amounts of water, but this usually turns out pretty thick for me. If it seems a little watery, let it sit for a minute to thicken. Then add just enough almond milk to give it a nice smooth texture.

This decadent bowl of yumminess has lots of good things going for it.

The oats provide about 5 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. There's a healthy dose of calcium and iron, thanks to the molasses. The walnuts give you Omega 3 fatty acids, along with a number of other antioxidants and vitamins. The cocoa powder gives you another dose of antioxidants.

This recipe is vegan and, if you use the right kind of oats, gluten-free. With a stevia-based sweetener, the total calorie count comes in around 400 kcal. Oats and walnuts are best bought in bulk at your local health food store. I think we pay about $1 and $10 per pound, respectively, at Sunflower.

[1] Cook for 3:30 if your microwave has a quick-start feature that makes it easy. Otherwise, you'll save valuable effort by cooking for 3:33. It's easier to push the same button 3 times than to have to search all over the touch pad for that zero. I think I learned this trick from my old friend Kai, but it's been many years ago, and my memory is imperfect.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Adventuring with Kids

My kids at an age right now where it's a little tricky to include them in many of my outdoor adventures. They're too old to be carried in one of those baby-hauling backpacks, and they're too young to hike all day and put in big miles. But they're also at a crucial formative stage where they're building memories and gaining experiences which will help determine the kind of people they will grow to be. So I sometimes try to forgo my longer treks and plan something we can all do together.

Last week was National Park Week (9 days, actually), where all of the US National Parks had free admission. It was a perfect opportunity to load the family up to visit some places in the Rocky Mountain National Park that I don't get to very often.

Bringing kids along on a hike can be a lot of fun. It gives you a chance to experience the outdoors through a fresh set of eyes, as well as an opportunity to show off and pass on some of the backcountry wisdom that has been accumulating in your mind when you're out there alone. All it takes is a little forethought and planning, and everyone will have a great time.

On the Bierstadt Lake trail, RMNP, 2012-04-22

0. Be prepared.

Going out with children isn't all that different from going solo or with other adults, but there are some extra things you'll have to take along.

Plan to have a picnic while you're out. Kids aren't as good at postponing meals when you're on the trail. Also bring plenty of extra snacks help keep their energy levels up. These can also serve as motivators. Bring some wet wipes for clean-up.

Diapers and/or toilet paper are also an important consideration. Children are often unaware of their bodily needs until they're reaching the crisis stage. The chances of making it back to the trail head in time for a number 2 is pretty slim. Bring a large zip-sealed freezer bag to pack out any trash and waste.

Hiking toward Copeland Falls, RMNP, 2012-04-29
I have a bad habit of paying too little attention to the practical implications of what my 6-year-old daughter is wearing. On an ordinary day, that's fine. I'm happy to let her pick out her own outfits for school, and it's a delight to see what she comes up with sometimes. But we've been on a couple of hikes where I've failed to notice the shiny black slippers she has on her feet until after we've started hiking. This is an area in which I'm trying to improve.

Extra jackets and socks are always a good idea, too.

1. Scale it back a bit.

When you're used to going it alone, it's easy to forget what kind of physical limitations little ones are working with. So it's better to err on the side of caution and have fun than to be too ambitious and make everyone have a bad time.

This probably means forgetting about that favorite trail you've been dying to share with your family. It probably means car camping instead of backpacking. It probably also means keeping the trip close to home. Nothing kills excitement like a two-hour drive to get to the trail.

But it doesn't have to mean boring. Be creative when choosing a location, and the kids' excitement will be infectious.

F and friends near Copeland Falls, Wild Basin, RMNP, 2012-04-29

2. Have a goal.

Having some kind of goal for the outing - something that gets everyone excited and motivated - can work wonders. It might just be a great picnic spot, or it might be a mountain lake or a waterfall. I wouldn't count on the promise of spectacular views from a mountain top working out for my kids. I think it takes a long time of seeing the same old stuff every day before you really start to appreciate those kinds of rare moments.

Playing and making friends at Bierstadt Lake, RMNP, 2012-04-22
Other kinds of goals might include identifying plants or wildlife. A bit of research before hand could yield a checklist of things to look for. Some trails or parks may have such a list ready-made.

3. Be flexible and adaptable.

The whole point of taking children out on an adventure is to let them explore and discover. Your job is to facilitate that process and help keep them safe. So try to get comfortable in that role and set your expectations accordingly. Let them stop on the side of the trail when they see something interesting, or when they need to sit and rest for a minute. In a worst-case scenario, be prepared to take that goal we talked about a second ago and throw it out the window.

There are times I've changed plans at the last minute and gone to a closer trail when the troops were starting to get mutinous. I've had to abandon hikes altogether after getting no farther than the distance between the truck and the trail because it was too windy or cold. It's better to bail out than to give your kids a bad experience. And try to stay positive about it. No good can come of making them feel like it's their fault that things didn't work out.

Flexibility isn't all bad, though. It can be impulsive. On our way to the Bierstadt Lake TH in RMNP, we drove by a large stone outcropping on the side of the road. I quickly pulled off of the road (too quickly for C's liking), and we all got out and scrambled around on the rocks for a little while. It didn't delay our hiking much, and it was one of the highlights of the trip.

F climbing in impractical shoes, RMNP, 2012-04-22

4. Heap on the encouragement and praise.

Taking children out on an adventure of any kind is a lot of fun, but it also demands more from them than they're used to. Especially at the tail end of a long hike, they feel the pressure to keep going despite their exhaustion. It frustrates them. Be sure and let them know that they're doing a great job and that you're proud of what they've accomplished. Let them know that you're glad they're there with you. If you make it rewarding for them, they will want to do it again.

The family at Bierstadt Lake, RMNP, 2012-04-22