appalachian trail blog 2011 tag

The War of Nutrition

You should definitely pay attention to this post if you are:

1) Planning on doing any sort of extended backing packing trip in the future, and

2) A sweaty individual

You can still pay attention if you are only one or none of these things, but you have less to gain (other than a sense of superiority over Badger).

So in the “Rolling with the Rocks” post, I lightly detailed some of the longer term physical ailments I had been battling. Admittedly, I had underplayed the degree to which I was suffering.

Starting in approximately mid to late May, when northern Virginia was hit by an unseasonable heat wave, I really learned that the Appalachian Trail is a three season sport. The temperatures during this stretch got into the mid 90’s, with the heat index (the feeling outside according to human skin) reaching into triple figures. Although it has cooled off a bit since, our average day has been in the mid to upper 80s.

A little biological background on Badger: I am a sweaty dude (I think it’s all the hair?). After going for a run, I have been questioned on multiple occasions if “I had just jumped into a pool, or something?” No. I perspire the same way I do most things in life, excessively and intensely.

So what happens when you put a 30 lb pack on a professional perspirer, tell him to walk up a mountain, and the outside temperature feels like 100 degrees? Funny you should ask- I will tell you.

Well for starters, a hospital visit.

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A Day in the Life of An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

Many of my posts attempt to paint broad strokes of life on the Appalachian Trail. Whether it be the social dynamics, the concept of trail magic, or the personal growth that comes from a few challenging weeks– I have a tendency to try and place all events into a larger, overarching theme.

But not every event on the trail fits under the category of a challenge, learning lesson, or cultural oddity. Some days- are just days.

And some days- are just good days.

Allow me to paint the picture of a good day on the Appalachian Trail for you.

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Rolling With The Rocks: Learning Lessons From the Trail

It was early February of this very same year. My mom, along with one of her long time friends, had come to visit me in San Diego.

Over lunch, we began discussing my upcoming, seemingly insane adventure of an entirely inexperienced camper going into the woods for a half year backpacking trip- covering the length of the East Coast.

My mom’s friend asked how I thought I would respond to the trail’s more challenging moments. A very fair question, and one I had spent the previous two months wondering myself.

Quickly my mom interjected, “you know Zach, if you end up hating it, there’s no shame in leaving the trail early. There’s no good reason to force something you don’t enjoy upon yourself.”

At this point in my life, any response other than the one I had just received from my mom would have been a major surprise. She wants nothing more than for her kids to be happy, comfortable, and above all, safe.

That’s why I knew my response to her would cause alarm.

“You know what the weird thing about this trip is? I hope parts of it suck…I hope parts of it suck beyond belief. If I come out of this without any struggle- I don’t think I will have received the full experience. I will have missed an opportunity for growth. To answer your question I look forward to the trail’s challenges.

Fast forward to June 17, 2011

The day began with stiff joints and sore muscles. Not uncommon following a 27 mile day, especially one covering some of the rockiest terrain experienced on trail thus far. Fourteen hours of backpacking doesn’t exactly leave much energy in the tank for the necessary stretching or care taking. Upon rising I was immediately paying the consequences. As I sat up in the crowded, mini-shelter (known to be the home of a nearby Copperhead Snake as mentioned in the trail register), the swollen feet pain was immediately met by the realization that I had scheduled another 24 miles for myself today. ShitFuck.

As is usually the case- a few miles of walking tends to numb any sort of pain you were experiencing to start the day. Today was no exception. I’m no doctor, but I’m guessing that the human body eventually gives up on sending pain signals once it realizes the individual is too stubborn to alter their behavior accordingly.

Before leaving the day’s first resting point- we note that the next spot to get water is 12 miles away. This span- would involve 85 degrees of direct sunlight and what appeared in our guide book to be a pretty serious climb- at least by Pennsylvania’s standards. I load my pack up with 4 liters of water (almost 9 extra lbs) to prepare for the upcoming stretch.

Upon crossing Lehigh river it was quickly apparent that this climb was not only steep and into a looming dark sky, but the terrain was a sheer rock face, rendering my hiking poles useless.

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(the iPhone wordpress app doesn’t allow me to rotate an image. Get your shit together wordpress)

Much of the ascent was so intense that I had to throw my poles ahead of me because climbing required the use of all four limbs. A misstep or faulty rock meant a steep fall and a very bloody Badger. Add 40 lbs onto my back and a heightened state of alertness became an involuntary response.

To my surprise, I summit the mountain without breaking my face open. Because this particular stretch is so rocky- there are very few tress to obscure my view of the awesome lightning storm happening to the mountain range just to the west. I just hoped it was moving in any direction other than towards me.

I wasn’t so lucky.

As the lightning storm moved closer to me – and my metal hiking poles – my pace began to increase. It wasn’t until I hit the rocky descent that the rain and lightning really intensified. Perspective was gained that what I did on the way up the mountain was more challenging than it was dangerous. Now I was hopping from wet, jagged boulder to wet, jagged boulder with lightning striking in all directions of me. This was more dangerous than challenging- and still very challenging.

Before I know it- I’ve reached the gap (the bottom of the mountain). The whole experience was so intense it felt like it couldn’t have lasted longer than 30-45 minutes. In reality- I had just covered 5 miles- in just over two hours. Apparently time flies when you’re about to die.

….

This is just one challenging day of many in the recent past.

Add to the above that I’ve been battling pretty severe headaches for over a week (enough so that I made a hospital visit to be tested for Lyme Disease) – a near constant battle with Mosquitos, ticks, and gnats, and a brutal heat wave – and, well…

I got what I was asking for.

This stretch has “sucked beyond belief”.

Well, at least, it should have sucked beyond belief.

Despite all of the elements going against what would be considered “perfect”- I’ve managed to keep a clear, appreciative mind-state (at least relatively so).

I’m learning to roll with the punches- whether the punches be rocks, lightning, dehydration, or parasites. The woods have a way of keeping perspective. A perspective that life will deal to you what it will – it’s up to you to decide how these elements are perceived.

I perceive a life of walking in the woods. What more could I ask for?

Om nom report: The Half Gallon Challenge

2,181 / 2 = 1090.5

Yesterday, I passed the 1,090.5 mile marker- also known as the half way point of the Appalachian Trail. A thousand miles is a long ass ways to walk, and I get to do it all over again.

It is tradition that once a thru-hiker passes the half way point that they stop at the Pine Grove General Store (the nearest convenience store) to take part in the half gallon challenge– eating a half gallon of ice cream in a single sitting. Clearly- I was extremely excited to take part.

Since I’ve gotten on the trail back
in March, my appetite has been reminiscent to that of a pregnant Godzilla. Although a half gallon of ice cream is a tremendous amount of food- not to mention 2,240 calories- I was not only confident in my ability to complete the task, but expecting to do so with relative ease. As is often the case, my expectations were a tad misguided.

Less than half way through the giant brick of mint chocolate chip ice cream, my stomach began to send signals of “cease to continue stuffing or hurl will happen”. Luckily for me- I’m an expert in ignoring my stomach and continued to press on.

It wasn’t until the last quarter where I really hit the wall. Although I was eating something whereby “ice” was built into the name- I broke out into an intense sweat and full body discomfort. As I put another spoon full into my mouth, a tight knot in my neck refused to let it go any further. I was in trouble.

Unfortunately for my organs- I am excessively stubborn and competitive. Two of the hikers in our group threw in the towel with less ice cream remaining. I don’t throw towels- unless it’s a towel throwing contest- then I will throw more towels further than anyone else.

I tried deep breathing, doing push ups, napping, walking around the block, doing wind sprints- nothing would get the now green frothy blob to go down.

At this point Whoop had finished his half gallon 30 minutes prior and Bear Sweats had been done with his for almost an hour. This was getting embarrassing.

It was then Whoop walked out of the general store holding a hot dog (personally, I think he was rubbing it in). Strangely the idea of the sodium-rich wonder meat seemed to be the perfect palette cleanser to the cream and sugar barrage I had just experienced.

“Hey Whoop- can I get a bite of your hot dog?”

He obliged.

Turns out, that was the answer. I was able to get a few more bites down. I ran inside and got a wonder meat for myself. Twenty very painful minutes later- great success.

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I then went on a quick 20 mile walk into an intense lightning storm.

This is my life.

Appalachian Trail Magic and Trail Angels

(Warning: this post is long.  If you’re pressed for time, skip to the last section to get the best bang for your buck.)

This is Bruce. 

Appalachian Trail Magic | Bruce

Bruce.

Bruce is not your average dude. Bruce, is a trail angel

Trail Angel: a person who delivers trail magic. 

Trail Magic: a random act of kindness uniquely provided to long distance hikers (mostly the Appalachian Trail) whereby an individual delivers a good deed to a hiker in need; most commonly in the form of food, beverage, and/or transportation. Trail Magic has a knack of occurring when a hiker’s spirits are approaching the danger zone. Pure serendipity. (source: Zachopedia

After the day’s largest ascent immediately followed by a steep downward shimmy- I could feel my legs beginning to signal fatigue. We were already on mile #12, and with it still being the first week of the trail, I was ready for the day to be over.  Unfortunately we still had three miles to our intended destination. In relation to 2,181 miles, three seems almost too insignificant to mention.  When your legs feel like jello + fire, however, three miles is nothing short of an eternity. 

As occurs from time to time- the trail calls for you to cross the occasional country road before proceeding back into the woods- and back onto the next ascent. As I raised my slouched head to find the trail inlet on road’s other side- I noticed something in my path: an older gentleman, his sedan pulled off into the ditch, some lawn chairs, and a couple of storage tubs. The only visual stimulus I had seen for the previous three days were smelly hikers, tents, and woods. Needless to say, the sheer newness of this scene immediately grabbed my attention- especially in the middle of no where Georgia. 

Appalachian Trail Magic | Bruce Image

To a hiker, this sight = heaven

As I walked closer- I finally grasped what was before me: FUCK YA TRAIL MAGIC.  Bruce, our trail descendant from heaven, had taken a few days to provide the masses of thru-hikers (since it was still the first week, even the wanna-be hikers have yet to drop out), with pop (soda for you weirdos), beer, cookies, fruit, water, and trash bags (try carrying all of your own garbage with you for a three day span, and you’ll understand how beautiful this really is). 

As I’ve mentioned in the past – the whole concept of the AT is built upon the highs and lows.  Just when you’re reaching your peak misery level, something will happen to remind you of life’s simple beauties.  This might range from the sun breaking from behind the clouds on a cold, windy day, to cookies and beer (I prefer the latter). 

Trail magic acts as a quick shot of life energy to help an irritable hiker get through a challenging day. 

Chillin with Bruce the Trail Angel

Laying back is the only option after eating 18 cream cookies

I assure you, trail magic gets even more elaborate. 

Last week, we had been warned that a cold front was rapidly approaching (which turned out to be our coldest trail day to date).  To someone who hasn’t spent much time sleeping outside, it may be hard to grasp the degree of how bitter this information is.  To help gain some perspective, it’s sort of like being told, “you’re probably going to get kidney stones tonight.”  Needless to say, our moods were soured. 

And then right on cue, approximately three miles prior to arriving at our intended shelter for the night, we encounter this: 

Trail Magic | Grits

From left to right: Mehap, Whoop, Road Dog, Grits

Grits (pictured to the right), a former thru-hiker himself, took an entire week’s vacation to cook burgers, hot dogs, and supply fruit, pop, and beer for all thru-hikers that came across his food circus.  Not only did he stuff our large group full of warm food and beverage (+47 points on a cold day, as demonstrated by Whoops highly contracted posture), but he also shed a good deal of valuable trail information regarding the upcoming towns and terrain.  Nourishment for the mind, body, and soul.  Mostly just the body though. 

(Side note: Grits is a great guy and big fan of Big Agnes tents.  If I were an employee of Big Agnes – I would definitely supply him with more quality Big Agnes gear so he can continue his angel like behavior for frigid hikers.) 

Appalachian Trail Magic | Grits and Big Agnes

Grits Loves Big Agnes

Of course, not all trail magic is as glamorous as Grits’ food circus.  Sometimes, this good deed is as simple as a garbage bag propped on a rock along the trail, filled with trail essentials (e.g. Ramen, oatmeal, dried fruit, etc.).  Although in comparison to a hot meal and High Life, dried goods may seem second rate.  Don’t let the relative comparison fool you; a hiker still very much appreciates these seemingly simple acts. For someone who has under budgeted four days worth of food, 900 extra calories from the mystery garbage bag may very well be the difference between hiking hungry and hiking perfectly satiated. 

Random Trail Magic 

Trail Magic  

After the long and hot ascent to the summit of Max Patch, I come across a group of people enjoying a picnic.  From a distance, nothing of this scene seems out of the ordinary.  As I draw closer, however, I realize many of these faces are of familiar thru-hikers, including Whoop.  One of the only two people amongst the group that I don’t recognize, interrupts their conversation, looks up at me and says, “hey thru-hiker…would you like some pizza, beer, or champagne?”.  Almost instictively, I respond with, “you just said all of my favorite words.”  My only other option was to cry.

Kathy and Robert were celebrating their 40th anniversary the only way proud parents of a thru-hiker knows how- in case you didn’t guess, trail magic

Taste Science: Pizza + Beer + Hiking > Pizza + Beer + Not Hiking

Appalachian Trail Magic 2011

Happy Anniversary Team

I save the best for last. 

Scenario

It’s 6:30 pm.  The sun is already getting close to tucking away behind the mountains.  We had just completed mile #19 in order to get away from another hiker who has consistently and independantly scared the bajesus out of numerous fellow thru-hikers with his erratic and fugitive-like behavior (demanding pictures of him be deleted, keeping his contents locked inside of his backpack, eye color: black, etc.).   I kid you not when I say this guy is by far and away the most widely talked about individual on the trail this year.  Apparently giving off serial killer vibes is good publicity.

Just as we drop our packs in a state of complete exhaustion (but mostly relief to have escaped) and start to mentally prepare for our short 4 mile jaunt into Franklin, NC the following morning, there, in the distance, heading toward the very same shelter is none other than Captain Crazy himself.  I had hiked an extra six miles already to avoid becoming the sequel to Deliverance.  

At this point, we realized there were two options: 

1) Force a few extra calories into our system, ignore the our body’s signals of over-exhaustion, and go the extra four miles into Franklin. 

or 

2) Fall victim to RapeMurder 

…. 

So, as we’re hiking back to Franklin, Badger, Whoop, and Road Dog (who has formed the third head of our hiking trio of late), unpleasantly discover that the majority of these four miles are uphill.  For those who have never tried hiking uphill with 30 lbs on your back, after already expending all of the day’s energy, you can experience this pain for yourself by having someone push a fully stacked library bookshelf on your defenseless body.  And the bookshelf shall remain there for two hours.  And then you must birth octoplets.  Five of these octoplets must go onto be offensive linemen in the NFL. 

Two hours of hyper-misery later, we arrived to our destination, the highway – but we’re still 12 miles outside of Franklin.   It was now time to find a hitch into town.  Again, there were a few problems: 

1)  There were three of us.  Three people + three packs is simply too much matter for most vehicles. 

2)  It’s dark.  Not only has the traffic flow dropped drastically, but cars usually can’t see you until it’s too late to pull over. 

3)  We’re too tired to get up from the lone patch off grass which sits about 30 yards off the road. 

There we are, easily the three most pathetic guys on earth at that exact moment, hopelessly waiving our thumbs at the rare occurence of a car racing by.  None of us get cell service, and quite frankly there’s not enough bloodflow left in our brains to brainstorm options. 

Then arrives Jeff. 

Out of nowhere a hatchback sedan bypasses all the parking spaces in the lot, and pulled his car directly in front of us the small patch of grass we had sprawled out across.  A gentleman in his late 20s/early 30s steps out of his small car. 

“Hey guys.” 

(Whoop, Road Dog, and Badger share a general sense of confusion.) 

Jeff chuckles to himself, “You guys sure look tired.  How far did you hike today?” 

“23 miles.” 

Whooaaa.  That’s crazy!  You guys are insane.  That’s way too far!”

We offer a mixed bag of chuckles and shrugs.  Too tired for anything more.

Hold on one second.”  (Jeff goes to his car to get something.  He starts passing us business cards.)  “Here, take these.  My name is Jeff.  I live in Waynseboro, VA, which as you probably know, is right on the trail.  My wife says that I’m ‘allowed to’ take in one group of hikers each year.  You’re the first group I’ve come across and seem like a good group, so definitely let me know when you’re in town.” 

This is awesome.  Awesome in the way of future events though.  Our current situation was still broken so we couldn’t yet fully appreciate how awesome this was.  And then right on cue…. 

“I’m guessing you guys are looking to get into Franklin, right?  I just came from that direction.  Boy, I wish I didn’t have all that junk in the back of my car.”   

There was a lot of stuff (from a guy’s perspective, definitely not “junk” though): a kayak, a fully packed backpack, cables, and misc. boxes.

With that said, we wished so too.  

At this point, it was apparent that Jeff was seriously perturbed by the dilemma that lay infront of him- as was clearly demonstrated by the intense head scratching.

You know what, let’s see if we can’t make this work.” 

I don’t know how, but Jeff made it work.  He took what was already a very small car with a very large amount of “junk”, tied some things to the roof, waved a magic wand, did a tribal Indian dance, and voila– we piled our bags and extra-smelly bodies into the perfect Tetris shape needed to fit our total mass into the car.  There wasn’t a square inch of available space left in the car.  It smelt as if port-o-poty was hosting a burnt hair convention.  I’m guessing he has since torched the car.

It was at this point, it occurred to me… 

“Wait, didn’t you say you just came from this direction?  Where were you headed?” 

“The other way, but that’s fine.  Don’t worry about it.  I was just going to go camp somewhere closer to Asheville. I have a flight to catch tomorrow morning.” 

“Are you sure?” 

Enthusiastically, “Yeah! I love helping hikers.  Not a problem.” 

Not only did Jeff take us to our motel in Franklin (a half hour out of his way, after getting lost a couple of times due to not knowing his way around the area), he waited for us to check into our room so he could join us for dinner. 

As any decent human beings who have just received the world’s largest series of favors would, we insisted upon buying Jeff’s meal.  When the waiter arrived to our table, Jeff immediately announced our meals were going on separate checks.

You guys need to save that money for beer.”  He was right.  He’s so wise.

At 6:30pm we were living with the very real fear of MurderRape.  By 9:30pm we were eating burgers the size of our head, slathered in pimento cheese, and BBQ sauce, drinking cheap pitchers of extra cold beer, and having passionate conversations about frisbee golf and sociopaths with our new friend, Jeff

We all got a tad drunk, Jeff included.  To err on the side of not getting a DUI, Jeff sheepishly asked if he could crash on the floor of our motel.  We were negative 94 in the favor department so not only did we oblige, but we forced him to have his own bed (also we were tired enough that we could have easily slept on a mattress made of chainsaws, sandpaper, and Draino). 

Jeff’s flight was extra early the following morning, much earlier than three exhausted bodies were going to wake up.  By the time the first person finally arose, there was no trace of Jeff to be found.  We wondered if perhaps Jeff was some sort of exhaustion induced delusion, a hiker’s mirage.  Then, when I walk into the bathroom, this is what I see:

 

Even Angles Like Whiskey

Even Angles Like Whiskey

How fitting the term trail angel is.