Badger tag

Filling in the gaps: Badger’s Appalachian Trail Omissions (part 1)

Filling in the Gaps

For those who’ve followed my Appalachian Trail journey from the beginning, you may have noticed a couple of gaps in the story.  This has been confirmed by many of the questions I’ve received via Facebook and e-mail.

As I’m currently in the process of writing a pretty kick ass Appalachian Trail book for you all (subscribe to the Badger Book list for more info), I have been reaching into the depths of my honesty bank to best portray some of the mental challenges I dealt with during my journey.  I am doing this in hopes of offering learning lessons to help future thru-hikers successfully complete the AT.  The learning lessons themselves will be in the book, not the posts.

The following are re-worked excerpts from the (currently unnamed) book.   They should serve to bridge a couple of the biggest gaps in my story.

1) Google Giveth, Google Taketh Away

(a follow up from the post: “From Mountain Views to Mountain View)

Two weeks before leaving for the AT, I had managed to score a phone interview with a company I had dreamt of working for over the better part of the last decade, Google.

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Thank You

So, just a couple of days ago, August 22nd, 2011, exactly 5 months and 1 day from my start date, I completed my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Good stuff.

There will be more reflection and insights on my merging back into your crazy indoor universe in posts to come, but as for right now, I need to get to something very important off my chest.

It’s nearly impossible to recall all of the acts of kindness I have been the recipient of over the last 5 months.  Friends, family, and strangers have been absurdly generous throughout this entire journey.   To a weary hiker, receiving a mail drop means much more than the cookies, whiskey, or baby wipes that lie inside.  It serves as a reminder of the people who care and are pulling for you to persevere.  I have been running on a fuel source compromised mostly of your love (and high fructose corn syrup).

And because of this, I want to say  THANK YOU.

The following list of thank you’s attempts to cover all of the individuals who have been instrumental in offering a hand along the way.

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Last Lap-itis

I write this from the cement patio floor of a frat house at Dartmouth College. This is completely irrelevant to the proceeding post- but how could I not mention that?

You know that uneasy feeling you get when some significant stage in your life is nearing its conclusion? Maybe you’ve experienced this during your senior year of high school, or college, or before moving to a new city or leaving a job, or the end of a meaningful relationship. You’re still in the midst of it, but once you let your mind wander just a little bit forward in time, you can sense the end. I call this “Last Lap-itis”.

I have a severe case of Last Lap-itis.

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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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Aquablazing on the Appalachian Trail

Jeff was desperately fighting the river’s powerful current, saw in one hand, the other raised in the air to maintain balance to avoid falling back in. The exhaustion on his face was obvious. After what he had just been through, you couldn’t blame him.

As Jeff pulled himself up on to the river’s bank, I noticed a large series of cuts just below his right knee.

Me: “What happened?!”

Jeff: Breathing rapidly, “hold on, I need to shotgun a beer first.”

This was alarming. Not because Jeff doesn’t normally drink, but because he doesn’t normally require chugging a beer prior to telling a story. Jeff is the sort of guy who can keep a smile and steady heartbeat while swimming next to a great white shark. This was the first time I had seen him even slightly rattled.

Jeff chugs his beer.

Me: A little more anxiously, “so, what happened?!”

I was not so patiently waiting on the river bank on the other side of the bend for the first canoe to maneuver through what had been dubbed, the left turn from hell. We had approached some rapids set up in such a challenging configuration that an expert kayak’er would have had trouble navigating. A couple of 17 foot canoes operated by three novices and one Jeff, was a whole other level of intimidating.

Jeff: “So,” still panting heavily, “after Road Dog grabbed our boat to direct us through the first rapid, our canoe quickly got turned backwards. It wasn’t long before the current slammed us into the first big rock. Road Dog tried to grab the boat and reorient us, but I yelled for him to let go out of fear of the canoe snapping.”

“The way the boat was pinned, our canoe quickly began taking in a lot of water. After the boat sank down to the river’s floor, the canoe dislodged from the rock, both of us still inside, trying to paddle to safety. Within seconds, we slammed into another rock, this time shooting us out of the boat. We got up and tried to chase after the canoe, which eventually snagged on a downed tree further down the river.”

Me: In near disbelief, “is everyone alright?”

Jeff: “Well, Road Dog lost a Croc and cut up his foot on the rock bed trying to chase us down. Whoop too lost a Croc, also his glasses and trekking poles. All of his stuff is soaked. He’s assessing the damage now.”

Me: “What about you?”

Jeff: “Me, I’m alright.”

Me: “What about that ridiculous cut on your leg?”

Jeff: “That? Oh yeah, the saw got caught on my leg. It looks worse than it is.”

Me: Yeah, well it looks bad. So now what?

Jeff: “Now…. Well, here’s more bad news.” He hesitates, “now it’s your turn.”

——————————–

Aquablazing is the terminology used when Appalachian Trail thru-hikers canoe or kayak a portion of the trail’s length. It’s most commonly done through the Shenandoah River, just to the west of the Shenandoah National Park, a very beautiful stretch of the trail in northern Virginia.

I had gone into our mini-excursion expecting our 70 mile aquablaze to be a relaxing couple of days off. Man was I wrong.

Instead of boarding the Shenandoah river in Elkton and getting off in either the town of Shenandoah or Luray, which is the common aqua blaze course of action, we decided to take a slightly more uncharted approach. We decided to board in the South River, just north of Waynesboro, which eventually feeds into the Shenandoah River, where we would get off in either Shenandoah or Luray.

Jeff, as I’ve eluded to in the past, is a highly experienced outdoorsman. He makes all of his own gear, camps in the woods during business trips, he even has an entire room in his house dedicated to stockpiling his equipment. He’s hiked and boated every square inch of northern Virginia. Well nearly every inch…

Turns out the stretch of the South River was a portion he had yet to embark down himself, thus his excitement to coordinate our aqua-adventure carried a little more meaning to him. Whoop, Road Dog, and I were unaware of this fact going into the trip. It wasn’t until the second downed tree in the river in which Jeff had to either physically saw down himself, or we had to pull the boats onshore and carry our belongings around the obstacle, did someone think to ask: “so…Jeff, when’s the last time you canoed through here?”

Jeff: “I haven’t. But I Google Mapped it the other day. We should be good.”

Well, we wanted an adventure…

———-

Me: “….so now what?

Jeff: “Now…. Well, here’s more bad news.” He hesitates, “now it’s your turn.”

Me: “Wait…” completely stone-faced, “what? Is there no other way through here?”

Jeff: “Well, I noticed a path through the woods behind us earlier….I wonder how far off the nearest road is….”

Turns out the nearest road was only about 200 yards behind us. Instead of reproducing the sequel to Titanic, we carried the hundreds of pounds of gear to the road, and back down to the other side under a bridge where Whoop was sorting through all of his very wet belongings. Jeff and Whoop had the (mis)fortune of being the Guiney Pig (misspell pun) in this tragedy.

Assessing the Damage

Whoop definitely got the worst of the spill. Because most of his belongings were in his pack, which spent ample time under water getting slammed against rocks, everything he owned was wet. This included cell phone, guide books, food, first aid kit, etc.

To ease Whoop’s misery, the very next day, first thing in the morning, Road Dog and Badger had their canoe swept into a strong current where a downed tree quickly flipped their boat and also soaked all of their belongings. It just wouldn’t have been right otherwise.

Ruined gear aside, Aquablazing was a major win. I heavily recommend it to any future thru-hikers.

Just be sure to Google Map your course first.

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Appalachian Trail Shape

Here’s a challenge for you…

You have two hours to cover seven miles by foot.

Easy enough, right?

Okay now add 1,385 feet of elevation change.

Still very doable.

Now- tack 35 lbs. on your back and add unrelenting roots and sharp rocks along nearly every step of your path.

Okay- that’s a challenge.

Oh yeah, and, you’ve already covered 16 miles of similar terrain earlier that same day.

Holy. Shit.

This was how my day ended on Saturday.

I don’t know if you are capable of this physical feat or not (if you are, hats off) but I know one person who is not.

Me – two months ago.

And I went into this in what I thought was decent shape. I’ve done the marathon thing, I got to the gym at least a couple times per week, I even carried a small library on my back while hiking in preparation for this.

But as it turns out- 10 hours of hiking per day for two months is the only way to turn into a hiking machine- which is what I’ve become. Now, eight percent incline at 3mph for consecutive hours feels akin to casually walking down a sidewalk.

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I eat mountains for breakfast.

I don’t claim any special genetic predisposition to walking- everyone on the trail at this point is either a machine or in the metamorphosis process. The only real variance seems to be age and pack weight – and not always then. Last week I did a 26 mile day with my buddy Peregrine. Peregrine is 63 years old.

And there’s still more than 1,300 miles to go. This hiking bot is still only in beta.

Awesome Side Note

Remember our trail angel, Jeff? Taking a day off at his house today. This story has come full halo.

The Virginia Blues Look Awfully Green To Me

Trivia question:

Which state along the Appalachian Trail accounts for the greatest number of miles?

Answer: Virginia

Of the 2,181 miles that make up the Appalachian Trail, Virginia claims 550 of these, just over one quarter of the entire trail. And for this reason, in addition to the repetitive scenery throughout the state, the term Virginia Blues is commonly used to describe the situation whereby a hiker experiences an emotional low- an unusually long stretch of diminished spirits while passing through the Old Dominion.

The Virginia Blues were something I spent a good deal of energy worrying about prior to leaving for the trail. How would I handle 550 miles of repetition? If playing the same song over and over again is a tactic used against POWs, would this stretch cause a similar bout of insanity? A large portion of people who drop off the trail do so in Virginia. Would I fall into this group?

It looks like I’ve answered that question: hell no.

Granted I still have 250 miles of Virginia remaining, but in my humble opinion, the concept of the Virginia Blues has nothing to do with scenery…

When first embarking on the trail, everything about the adventure is exciting. It’s new. It’s invigorating. Even the hard times, although challenging, supply an element of surprise. You always come away from the experience feeling stronger than you did before. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

Every day presented a new challenge, a new terrain, a new group of hikers- every day presented a new experience.

By the time a hiker has reached Virginia, he/she has already set up his/her tent in heavy hail, slept through rapid lightning storms, gone extended stretches without a shower or clean clothes, and most likely dumped a half flask of whiskey all over the bottom of his pack (The Bourbon Blues), multiple times. The setbacks are beginning to lose their subtle charm.

And although the views from the mountain tops are every bit as beautiful, they too have entered into the routine. What once was breath taking, now seems to just make you short on breath.

There is no such thing as the Virginia Blues. What is interpreted as the Virginia Blues is merely the end of the honeymoon phase. It has less to do with state lines, and more to do with state of mind.

I came prepared for this. I’ve had my fair share of extended adventures in the past: from studying in London to moving to San Diego while knowing no one. If you’ve been in a long term relationship, gone away to school, or started a new job, you’ve likely experienced this feeling yourself. Eventually the initial excitement fades. It’s human nature.

Those who attribute their blues to the state of Virginia, are misplacing the blame. Although there is some truth to the expression “the green tunnel” which describes the thick overhang of dense tree coverage throughout much of the state, Virginia is not significantly more repetitive than any of the scenery in Georgia, North Carolina, or Tennessee. McAfee Knob/Dragon’s Tooth (near Catawba, VA) has been one of the best day hikes on the trail thus far. A couple weeks ago, I got to hang out with wild ponies for Christ’s Sake. PONIES!! If that gives you the blues, then we can never be friends.

McAfee Knob

No Tunnel Here

So what can an aspiring thru-hiker do to avoid these so called Virginia Blues? I don’t know if there’s one way to answer that, but this is what has helped me:

Every time the trail begins to feel routine or lacking stimulation, I think about what my alternative would be: sixty hour work weeks, undue stress, and the realization that my free time would likely be spent on a long hike. Quickly perspective is regained, the smile returns, and the temporary cloud of routine is lifted. If that doesn’t work, I meditate, I write, I listen to an audiobook (or the new Fleet Foxes album – so good). If that doesn’t work I get my ass to town and watch a few hours of bad tv, eat some bad food, and observe the many depressed people that populate these towns*.   (*please see comments below)

The tunnel suddenly looks a lot brighter.

Whoops Crosses A River

During the following video, you will laugh.

Scene:

According to our Appalachian Trail guide book, there’s a campground known as the ‘Captain’s” which is basically some former thru-hiker’s backyard. Amongst hikers, it is common knowledge that he intentionally leaves a fridge full of grape and orange soda out on his patio for hikers to enjoy. There’s one caveat, you have to cross a zipline across a river to get there….

When we approach what we assume is the zipline, it appears as though the transport unit is stuck on the other side of the river.

Enter our hero: Whoop(s).

In no mood to be denied a delicious orange soda, Whoop sees the zipline and decides to cross it Navy Seal style to the other side of the river (another hiker has this video and it has been debated that it’s just as, if not funnier than the following – I hope to get this for you soon).

After getting to the other side of the river, it turns out, there is no soda (the “Captains” was actually another quarter mile away). At this point Whoop(s) has already exerted all of his energy and decides to ford the river instead. Hilarity ensues.

Without further ado, I present to you:

Whoops Crosses A River

Thanks to John for being a good sport about his hilarity.

From Mountain Views to Mountain View

I took a quick detour from the trail last week.

This past Wednesday, I had a 2nd interview with Google (for those who know me, working for them has been a life long dream). Apparently they’re expressing interest in acquiring the Good Badger. I suppose due the sheer size, technically it would be considered more of a merger. The Google Badger.

But in all honesty, I have no choice but to keep my expectations realistically low. By the time you’re done reading this sentence, Google has received approximately 56 more resumes. Apparently when you have 20 complimentary gourmet cafeterias on your campus- people want to work for you. They have no choice but to be ultra-selective. My competition is Harvard grads. I went into the interview with a huge mountain man beard and a borrowed button up shirt and slacks a size and a half too big (Brandon- you’re too tall damnit). I already looked like a homeless guy, the sheer excitement in my eyes to be part of civilization only compounded this impression. Either way, I’m fortunate to have options available to me on the other end of the trail- one of which is being a professional bum (my current vocation).

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Regardless of the outcome, I am finishing the trail. I set out to do something. Damnit- I’m going to do it.

Because arranging the flight to San Francisco required a good amount of guess work in terms of pacing and ability to get to an airport- my current situation looks a tad different than before I left. I arrived into Damascus, VA Sunday- and didn’t get back onto the trail until Thursday afternoon. In other words, Whoop and the rest of the gang are long gone. Badger is flying solo.

Oddly enough, my first two days on the trail after losing the group, I didn’t encounter another human being. That’s the first time I can say that so far. A bit strange, but also strangely awesome. That 36 hour span felt a tad like Man vs. Wild (except I was equipped with 11lbs of Clif Bars and Snickers, and didn’t drink any urine). I have since found other people- but my time in wilderness without fellow human interaction has aroused irreversible animal instincts (I stopped wiping).

This update is brief not due to a lack of information to convey to you but because AT&T grants me 39 seconds of connectivity a week. 37 of those seconds are spent convincing my mom that I’m not dead. More to come later.

Life is good.