The Smokies in October

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Water. Shelter. Rain. There is nothing like a hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail to remind one of the basics that, in our off-the-trail lives, we take for granted.

After hardly a month off the trail, my hiking buddy, Ted Gregory, and I headed south to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike through the park on the AT over 5 days. Alerted by the National Park Service just before we departed from Maryland that the availability of water presented a real problem in the southern end of the park, we decided we could still meet the challenge, albeit with perhaps a significant dose of water discipline our last 2 days.

Starting at I-40 just north of the park, our first day was a steady but moderate uphill climb to Cosby Knob Shelter in ideal hiking weather, cool and clear. Our second day was more challenging -- a 20.3 mile section that we started with headlamps at 6:30 AM in order to make sure we could make it to Double Spring Shelter by dark. We were anxious throughout the day because we did not have a permit to shelter there; the park's registration system had shown it to be full. So we faced a night with a tarp (the registration system prohibited us from using tents or hammocks), but our worries were needless; there was plenty of room in the shelter. And we enjoyed the astonishment of younger hikers once they understood that the 2 old guys had come 20 miles that day.

On our third morning, downhill to Newfound Gap, we ran into numerous day hikers streaming up from the large parking lot that sat astride of the North Carolina-Tennessee border and delineated our halfway mark. After lunch on the 8-mile climb to Clingman's Dome -- the highest point on the entire AT -- a steady rain began, leaving us with a 360-degree fog-enshrouded vista once we ascended the observation tower. 

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Day 4 arrived with a relentless 15 to 20 mph wind kicked up from Hurricane Matthew, which made for a miserable morning. After being pounded for two hours by wind-driven rain, we took our usual mid-morning break, but made sure it was at a shelter. Now that the exertion of hiking had halted, I started shivering and immediately understood the danger. In short order, we had both pulled out our sleeping bags and pads and stripped off wet clothes in order to prevent hypothermia. We waited 3 hours in our bags for the wind to abate. It didn't. But fortunately the rain finally stopped, though wind-driven moisture from the trees still made it a wet afternoon. With just 2 others braving conditions in that night's shelter, we had plenty of room to lay out and try to dry out. But the night was our coldest — in the 30's — and the wind continued to howl.

Our final day's hike started with a temperature of 38 degrees and a chilly wind still blowing. But by mid-morning, the wind was finally down and the temperature up. Stripping to our usual shorts and T's, the afternoon was lovely, made even lovelier by virtually all downhill hiking. The highlight was a side trail to a 6-story fire tower that provided 360-degree views of the now-clear skies. As we reached the last mile — a forest service road to Fontana Dam — we passed a younger hiker beginning what we had just ended. After exchanging pleasantries, we walked away from each other, but he stopped about 50 feet on and said, "Did you guys say you did it in 5 days?" "Yes," we bragged, "But if it's any consolation, we're really tired and sore!"

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The next day, having eaten pizza and drunk beer at Anthony's in Bryson City, and having gotten hot showers at Standing Bear Hostel, we day-hiked an 18.7 mile section just north of the park, cresting Max Bald on a beautiful day where we could see perhaps 75 to 100 miles in different directions. Passing only 3 hikers all day, we enjoyed the TN/NC woods of the AT in a way that had been a little missing during our rain-laden days. It was a wonderful pay-off for 5 days in the park, and capped a 93.7 mile journey. As we motored back to Maryland, we were sore and satisfied by having met another AT challenge.

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Back on the AT, and dare I say it? Back hitchhiking!

We couldn't have picked a weekend with better weather — Labor Day weekend, 2016 — or a more congenial spot — Shenandoah National Park — to have a great 4-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. I had hiked this portion of the AT as a day-hiker in 2012, but my hiking partner, Ted Gregory, had not, so I joined him as he added the miles to his AT section hike.

The distances were very comfortable for us — 12 and 13 mile days — which meant we didn't hurry to depart in the morning, and by late-afternoon, when we are typically hot and and tired and footsore and ready for the day to be over, we were already at the shelter area.

We enjoy the shelter areas, even if we rarely sleep in the shelters. I pitch a tent. Ted strings a hammock. (OK, I did so one night, only to be reminded of the snoring, the jostling, and the early-morning departures that interfere with my uninterrupted beauty sleep.) We enjoy the camaraderie of other hikers, and this trip proved unique in that 5 other hikers were sharing our same itinerary; so we saw them each evening, and occasionally during the day. One retired USAF officer, a World Airways pilot, hiked with us at times for two days.

The young people are particularly fun to talk to; their ambitions and accomplishments are always impressive. On our third night, I had to coax two young couples, who had tented away from the shelter, to join our now comfortable and noisy group of middle-agers. But we were pleased that they did, because they added an enjoyable element to our gathering. One married couple, recent graduates of Washington & Lee University (Ted is also an alum), were second-year teachers in a nearby public school system.

I often get annoyed with the chitchat of shelter groups because it focuses inordinately on camping and backpacking and cooking gear and technique. How about some knock-down, drag-out discussions about religion and politics? To steer away from the usual talk, I recited poetry to the group: I started with "The Bear" by Robert Frost on our first night (which seemed appropriate for Shenandoah N.P., and we did indeed see two bears during the weekend); switched to Robert Service's Klondike saga, "The Cremation of Sam McGee," for our second night; and offered up "Song" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow our third night (three facetious verses about staying home and not ever taking any chances, the irony of which seemed fitting for this group of AT hikers). I was flattered when an encore was requested our last night, and I cremated Sam McGee for a second time.

And hitchhiking? The AT parallels Skyline Drive all the way through Shenandoah N.P., so it was a no-brainer to park our car at Rockfish Gap and see if we could catch a ride to our starting point, near Swift Run Gap. Traffic was sparse on a weekday (Friday) morning, but I doubt it took 15 minutes for the fourth car by to stop and take us all the way — about 40 miles — to our trailhead. The driver worked at Ft. Meade as a civilian for the U.S. Army, and he was also former Army, having met his Korean-American wife during his tour of duty in Korea. We chatted the hour away, then plunged into the woods and started south, where a three and a half day journey took us back to Rockfish and our car.

As always with our hikes, I come back talking more about the people we meet than the beautiful mountain vistas, bucolic woods, and wildlife — including songbirds, bears, and even two timber rattlesnakes. We head for a wilderness getaway, but are happy to strike up new acquaintances and hear new stories from our fellow hikers as we enjoy the natural world around us.

 

 

Tanned, rested and ready...

As a family, Ann and I always set going on a summer vacation as a priority. My parents did the same thing when I was growing up, and the tradition has continued in the same place — Pawleys Island, South Carolina. As a result, Pawleys Island has become a blissful place for each member of my family, and there have to be exceptional circumstances if one of us misses our usual two weeks there. It's a somewhat expensive luxury, but I feel like it is an investment that has paid rich dividends over the years in providing shared experiences that hold our family together. 

This summer I was also fortunate to spend the week before our annual Pawleys Island get-together in the Appalachian Mountains along the North Carolina/Tennessee border hiking 6 sections of the Appalachian Trail, in my role as an AT "section hiker." It was a week of great hikes — about 85 miles worth — with stays in Erwin, TN and Hot Springs, NC, the latter lacking cell phone service for 4 days — a mixed but welcome blessing. On 3 of the 6 days I hiked, I ran into no one all day long, a contrast to the spring when the area is inundated with thru-hikers making their pilgrimages northbound from Georgia to Maine. That horde of hikers had passed weeks ago, so the AT was now largely vacant.

At first, after I'd hiked several hours and run into nobody, I felt a little spooked. I don't consider the AT hazardous per se, but there are plenty of treacherous stretches that require concentration and sure-footed-ness to avoid trouble. I knew that a simple twisted ankle, let alone a major injury, could easily leave me stranded overnight. (I'd packed a flashlight, a jacket, and a little extra food as a general precaution; yet I also avoid setting a mindset where I expect the worst.)

But the spookiness quickly left me as I contemplated my wilderness surroundings and thought: "This is all mine today, and I don't have to share it with anyone."

The timely juxtaposition of mountains and beach also reminded me of what I love about each. There is a moment (after the 500-mile drive from Maryland) every summer after we get to Pawleys Island when I cross over the wooden walkway and see and hear and feel the sand and the surf for the first time; I smile and take a deep breath and release it, and the cares of the world are magically released from my being.

Similarly, there is a moment (after catching a ride to the trailhead for an AT day-hike and winding round the switchbacks of rural roads up the mountain) when I step into the woods, and I see the path stretching before me, and the green canopy blocks any harsh sunlight, and the cool of the woods rises up; I smile and take a deep breath and release it, and the cares of the world are magically released from my being. 

There is a certain pattern to a day at Pawleys Island and to a day on the AT. At Pawleys, I wake around 6:30 AM and walk on the beach to the north inlet and back, climbing over the wooden groins, passing under the fishing pier, taking note of the loggerhead turtle nests that have been staked off by the SCUTE turtle volunteers, reciting poetry to myself, and watching the sun rise ever higher over the Atlantic. Later, I'll nap and read, read and nap, and partake in one of the extended family's annual traditions scheduled for that day — creek float, sandcastle build, Hog Heaven lunch, talent night. Two weeks linger by and two weeks fly by; we head home to our regular lives.

On the AT, I try to get to the trailhead by 9:00 AM. I set a relaxed but determined pace, sucking on Vitamin C lozenges, reciting poetry out loud, listening to songbirds, admiring mushrooms, taking time to visit with whomever I cross paths with, limiting my breaks for water or lunch.  The miles plod by and the miles speed by; I reach my car and re-enter the regular world.

 

And the next steps are...

For the weeks and days prior to publishing, my mood was generally that of anxiety. It felt a lot like a political campaign — getting my book published was the last thing I thought about while lying in bed trying to get to sleep — and it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning. Finally published, it took a few but not too many days to switch to a reasonable sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. That was quickly replaced by: OK, what do I do next?

For a self-published author, the steps seem straight-forward: Start small and local, and take additional steps as I am able. I was pleased as punch when Gerry and Clyde Hicks at The Trail House in downtown Frederick agreed to have their business sponsor my first author presentation. I was equally pleased, when later that day, Marlene England at The Curious Iguana, Frederick's independent bookstore, also agreed to sponsor the event and make the connections with C. Burr Artz Library. Come 3 PM on Sunday, September 11, I'll be telling hitchhiking stories and fielding questions and hopefully entertaining a crowd in more ways than one. I was also pleased when both a men's group and a reading club asked me to come make fall presentations.

Of course, any self-published author wants to test the waters and see if there is some prospect that their work of love may have some broader appeal and bigger paying audience. How do I put my book in the proper hands to find that out? Are there connections or relationships I can take advantage of to boost the book's readership and circulation? Such challenges will consume my time in the weeks ahead.

 

Published, at last...

Even understanding that self-publishing would require some learning steps, I was surprised at the effort required to finally get my book into print. Hiring an experienced firm to help design a cover, as well as to put the manuscript in good order, was an obvious need this first time around. But I got frustrated by the time required to produce, then meld sketches and maps with the manuscript — more than 6 weeks later than the firm's original estimate. Meanwhile, "helpful" articles for first-time authors suggested I should have developed a marketing plan a year ago! That's a tall order when my focus was on writing and revising to put the manuscript in final form and get it edited and proofread properly. Finally, who said I'd have to design my own web page? But an author page is essential these days, and unless I wanted to fork over additional dough (one firm said their standard fee was $5,000) it was trial and error again. Fortunately, Squarespace ended up being mostly intuitive (with a little assist from others), and I was able to produce a content-oriented site. (My sense is that too many sites — be they author or political candidate sites — focus on bells and whistles, but forget the importance of providing substantive and hopefully new information, and present it in an interesting manner.) Anyway, as Longfellow would say: Excelsior! (i.e., Onward and upward!)