Two Thru Hikes, 38 Years Apart: An Interview with My Dad

I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail earlier this year (2016).  My dad thru-hiked back before it was really even much of a thing, in 1978. Obviously, a lot has changed about the trail in 40 years, but just how much?  While we were on a little hiking trip on the AT in Georgia this holiday season, I asked him some questions to compile some comparisons between our hikes.
(Note:  I hiked northbound.  My dad flip-flopped somewhere in Virginia and walked south from Katahdin.  Also I didn’t record my dad speaking so I just paraphrased unless it’s in quotes.)

There aren’t many photos from my dad’s thru hike, but this is one.

Was hiking the AT fun?

Dad: “Yes.”

Me: Usually?  It wasn’t always fun, but I definitely had some of the best days of my life.  Not when I was so cold I started yelling nonsense at mountains or had poison ivy… but definitely when we were cresting the ridges in the whites or finding the hot tub in hot springs it was.  Maybe in 40 years I’ll think it was always fun.

How many people did you see?

Dad: There was a big northbound bubble, and I saw it coming south.  It didn’t last long, though.  I saw about 60 hikers a day for about 2 days and then no one.  When I was hiking north I sometimes saw 5 people in a day, but one time we fit 30 people in a shelter when it was raining.

Me: I thought it was super awful crowded in Georgia and the Smokies, then other times we would sometimes have around 20 people at a campsite or shelter, but never saw too many during the day.  Somehow even with crowd problems in some places there were also days-long stretches we saw literally no one.  It felt like when we got into town we suddenly had 50 friends.  Everyone told us we were ahead of the bubble, and somewhere or other there were over 100 people in one place, but that’s impossible to confirm.

What was your trail name/did everyone have one?

Dad: Pretty much everyone had one.  I started off with the name Semi, because I was slow going up hills and fast going down them.  I don’t remember who gave that to me.  Then I was Aznageel, because I wrote these stories in the shelter logs and that “seemed like a whimsical name” (it’s from a T.Rex song). They were the Snifforn Stories, some people I met would remember me by them.  The best trail name was probably Ann and Al Weed, who called themselves the tumbleweeds.  (When talking about people, he used their real names more often though.)

Me: Everyone except maybe 2 people I met used trail names, and I didn’t usually know their real name.  I was Mishap, because a guy named ETA said “after all your mishaps, you’ll be the first one on Katahdin if you make it through.”  We had probably 5 Tumbleweeds, and my favorite trail name was Sphagnum P.I., who spent a lot of time carefully inspecting mosses.

Where did you stay?

Dad: Hostels where we could, but there weren’t very many and they were usually something bare bones like an unstaffed bunkhouse.  We stayed in The Place in Damascus (it’s still there but there are other hostels too now), and the Jesuit hostel in Hot Springs (pretty sure that’s the Laughing Heart now, also Elmer’s was founded the year my dad hiked but he didn’t know about it), and somewhere in Rangeley.  We stayed in a lot of cheap motels and a BnB in Caratunk.  The shelters were there, some of them still had wire bunks at the time and almost no privies.

Me: We stayed in tons of hostels (at least…8?), in someone’s RV, in some random people’s houses, in some cheap motels, in a very nice cabin in Shenandoah as a treat, and in our friend Elle’s parents’ house.  A couple of times we paid more than I wish we did to go to a hotel and dry our clothes and not get trenchfoot when it rained for many days in a row.  People in New York were offering their houses to us with a frequency we couldn’t accept, for some reason. (Thanks, people in New York!)  Also, we obviously camped a lot, and toward the end I got over my aversion to shelters.

What did you eat?

Dad: So much macaroni and cheese.  Sometimes we put MnMs in it because we were desperate.  Oatmeal, peanut butter, always a block of cheese.  One time when my dad visited he brought these “Mormon dehydrated eggs” because, you know, Mormons have to dehydrate a certain amount of food to store just in case.  It was the best thing ever after oatmeal for so many days.  Also we picked so many berries we started carrying bags to put them in.

Me: My parents sent me boxes with dehydrated meals that were either homemade or Backpacker’s Pantry/Good-to-go meals.  I think they were all actually really good.  We ate a lot of tortillas and almonds, and I hate them now.  We didn’t bother to cook oatmeal anymore after a while, and ate granola with powder milk.  I ate so many snickers I think I kept them in business.  I think Wade ate a 1lb block of cheese all at once at some point.  I picked blueberries a lot, and put them in our granola.  We also ate ramps in the south.

What did you carry?

Dad: When we started, my pack probably weighed 90 pounds, but I had to go back and rethink some things. My pack was military surplus.  I carried a “crappy, no-name sleeping bag” and a wool blanket.  It was not great when it was cold, it was definitely a summer bag.  I had a Svea stove, some kind of old boy scout pot, a net hammock from K-Mart, a foam insulite pad, Georgia brand boots (with nails to hold the sole on).  For clothes I had a thin wool sweater and a windbreaker, and a single shirt and pair of shorts that I would just throw away and replace occasionally.

Me: At the start, my pack probably weighed 30lb, and Wade’s maybe 38.  They got probably 5 lbs lighter. My pack was an 8-year-old Kelty 40L thing I couldn’t part with, and I had a nice 20 degree sleeping bag with a liner.  I had a homemade alcohol stove that weighs nothing and started with a tiny, one-person pot for both of us, which we traded for something a guy at an outfitter gave us for free because he didn’t need it anymore.  I started with an air mattress, but it was about 3 times as big as me and I just got a 3/4-length thermarest instead.  I carried a down jacket, 2 shirts, shorts, a hat, and 3 pairs of underwear.  At some points I also had another thin jacket and long underwear, but I am more cold-natured and also started much earlier in the year.

Who were your friends?  What did they do in real life?

Dad: I don’t remember many. There was Lucinda and her dog Sunshine.  I almost didn’t remember her name, only the dog’s… There was a blind girl thru-hiking, who made us feel really bad when we took the easy way up Albert Mountain and we saw her coming up the steep side with her seeing-eye dog.  Helen and Jerry were some grad students, and Helen and I wrote a few times after the trail. I met Allen, who was a chef, in Maine.  He smoked so much pot. I specifically remember someone I met who was hiking north when I was hiking south, and we called ourselves the “thru-hiking slugs.”  I think we could have hiked together.

Me: We met a lot of other engineers, some retirees, some people who owned their own businesses and took time away, some people with seasonal jobs like a farmer and someone who packed boxes for Amazon.  We met a couple of people who just finished high school and some people who were about to go to grad school.  I don’t want to list a bunch of people’s names because I’m not sure if any of them would mind, plus there are so many!  We met so many wonderful people.  We hiked with some of them for a day here and there, saw some randomly throughout the whole trail, and stayed with some on purpose for weeks at a time.

Did people think you were weird?

Dad: Absolutely.  Most people knew what the AT was but had no idea how or why we were thru-hiking.  There was not trail magic.

Me: In so many places we felt expected, but random passerby would still ask us 1000 questions sometimes, and you would occasionally find someone who had no idea what you were doing. A lot of businesses were geared toward thru-hikers, though, and people went out of their way to give us free stuff, almost like we were travelling monks.

Do you think hikers followed Leave No Trace principles?

Dad: As far as I know, no, because it wasn’t even a thing at the time.  I just thought about not leaving an impact like based on the boy scout motto.  Most people didn’t carry cathole shovels because they were heavy, and there was always a decent amount of trash at shelters.

Me: So many hikers picked up a ton of other people’s trash, but because of the trail being so popular there was still sometimes trash at shelters.  I think most people tried to follow LNT, but there were some people who just didn’t care, and quite a few people got really lazy about bear bags, even in areas with a lot of bears.  There were a lot of bear problems this year.

What was your favorite thing about hiking the trail?

Dad: The exercise.  I had a lot of solitude and I liked that.  I also miss the smells.  There was a hail storm in the middle of a bunch of hemlock trees, and it smelled like Christmas.  I remember it to this day.  And earthy smells, even the smell of wet dog.

Me: I think I liked the simplicity of goals and routines, and the fact that everyone around you was doing the same thing.  Also I miss chipmunks, newts, and tiny snakes.  And my friends.

I also found some things that were still there after all of these years.  I ate at the same restaurant my dad did in Rangeley, Maine.  He also always told a story about seeing a sign for pancakes that were free if you broke the pancake-eating record (which of course he did), right off the trail in Maine.  It’s not owned by the same person, but I’m fairly sure it was what is now Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camps.  I also had pancakes there, but only twelve.
If you have any more questions, let me know. 🙂  My dad is just a call away.

My dad and his friend George, probably in NC somewhere.

Seattle’s Own ‘Peace Pilgrim’

While on a walk in downtown Seattle, I saw a cart that said, in bright red decal letters, “equal and unconditional love for all our fellow creatures” and “I am walking across the world.  I do not have any money and do not want any.  I just need food and water.”  I wondered whose it was and wished they were with their cart so I could ask them about it.  We kept on walking.

Eventually, we saw the owner of the cart ahead of us, pulling the heavy-looking green monstrosity behind him.  We asked him if he needed any food.  He said, “actually I am not hungry right now, but I can talk.”  He said he was walking across the world to encourage people to love each other and find peace, and that this was the only way to “get out.”  (He never actually said explicitly what we are getting out of, but I’m sure there are many things we can all agree we as a society need to escape.)

Despite my immense respect for the original Peace Pilgrim (actually also part of Appalachian Trail lore as well), I had cynically wondered if this guy would just be an incoherent crazy person, or someone making up a story to get attention. In fact, he was a clean, cheerful former aerospace engineer with a Canadian citizenship and Chinese accent who was very passionate and cogent about what he was doing, but who admittedly made it hard to get a word in edgewise.  His name was Bing Bing Lee.

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“Sometimes, I play music.  Sometimes I sing.  I’m not very good at playing music, but I have these maracas.  Everyone can play maracas.”

He had actually just started two weeks before, maybe 200 miles away in Washington.  He said he had originally wanted to start in China because it was his home, but he was afraid of “disappearing” if he disagreed with the status quo in China.  He said “America is the best country in the world, despite so many problems” and that he thought it would be easiest to spread his message here first and go to China last and live there.

His big plan was for 35 years, but he had planned only the first 5 years in detail, going down the west coast, then up the middle, then down the east coast.  “I won’t go to Maine,” he allowed. “I need to spread my message to as many people as possible and there just aren’t many people in Maine.” After he finished with the Americas, he was hoping he would have enough exposure that someone would lend him a sailboat.  It couldn’t be another kind of boat because he wouldn’t want to create any pollution.

The beautiful thing about his message is that, even if he only gives his spiel about how much better humankind was without money or how a silicon valley career isn’t the path to happiness to a few people in every city, his actions really do perfectly describe his message without many words.  He is giving up everything material, except his clothes and tent and maracas, to give himself to the world and live off of the kindness of others, with no expectation.  Of course he isn’t the first one to set out to do this, but this does not lessen the degree of commitment required.

It’s impossible to say whether Bing will actually make it around the world, but I hope I can find out what does happen to him.  As far as I can tell, he is fully committed to his journey and really doesn’t have a backup plan.  “If I die because I have no money, I guess that is just what will happen.”  I hope that the world continues to feed and house him as it seems to have been doing so far, and that he has a chance to share his story.

 (This guy did give me permission to share his photo and story.)

Why do We Walk? (Super Fun Survey)

This survey is finished!  Read about the results here.

Hey- I need your help!  If you fill out this survey, I can get more information to write about walking and its cultural importance and relevance to conservation efforts!  If that isn’t fun enough and you want it to feel more like a Buzzfeed personality quiz, you can tell me in one of the comment boxes and I’ll give you a PERSONAL AND HANDCRAFTED vague, generally positive assessment of your personality.  🙂  Click the cute button to participate!

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Anyone should fill out this survey, even if walking isn’t a big part of your life.  I can’t afford Survey Monkey’s logic options to not show you irrelevant questions, but none of them are required, so feel free to skip some if they are totally irrelevant to you.

 

You Should Go Snowshoeing this Winter!

I just went snowshoeing this weekend, and after seeing this article about the practical benefits of snowshoeing, I thought I’d add my own, less objective reasons to snowshoe.  I think it’s one of the most underrated activities out there, maybe because it seems like hard work (which it is, but it’s fun work!)

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  1. It’s cheap and low-commitment.  The Just Trails article covers this.  Snowshoes are not expensive, easy to learn to use, and not super huge, so it’s easy to try out snowshoeing or have it as a minor hobby without expending a ton of effort on it.
  2. You’ll see parts of nature you wouldn’t otherwise see. On this short hike, we saw bunny tracks going into holes!  We also saw some hardy birds and perfect snowflakes that looked just like miniature versions of the paper ones we made as children.  It’s another side of nature that comes out at winter, it’s quieter and pristine (and sparkly).img_20161210_122326614
  3. You can also build snowmen or have snowball fights!  If you live somewhere like Seattle where it doesn’t snow much in your city but there’s snow nearby, snowshoeing can be a great excuse to get out and do those things you want to do in the snow.  Make a snow angel, try to build an igloo, or build a weird animal out of snow!  We made a snow chipmunk.img_20161210_131436186
  4. It’s a great workout.  Seriously.  If you want to sweat the most you ever have on a hike, find some fresh powder and try to walk on it.  Even in snowshoes, your feet will sink over a foot.  It’s a little like trying to walk in a swimming pool.  Sure, you won’t go as far, but you’ll feel like you did!
  5. It’s build-your-own-adventure! Often, there is no trail.  You need to be careful of water or tree wells, and unless you are somewhere very popular (which is cool too) you will need a GPS, but you are more free than ever to explore the landscape because defined trails aren’t as necessary when deep snow is protecting all of the life from your impact.  Also, in many places you will see few to no other snowshoers, so it’ll feel like following your own path instead of a groomed trail. It is important to follow rules from the place you are snowshoeing regarding where you can go, heed avalanche warnings, and follow reasonable safety procedures as detailed here.
  6. But it also doesn’t have to be!  If you’re a beginner or have kids, you can snowshoe on super-well-established trails where you will see tons of people and have no danger of getting lost or caught in an avalanche.  A lot of cross-country skiing locations also have snowshoeing.  There is something with the right level of adventure for anyone.img_20161210_112912077
  7. It’s super meditative.  This is my favorite reason of them all.  Snowshoeing is more relaxing than hiking because the landscape becomes so visually simple and clean.  You hear so much less in the winter (so you really notice what you do hear) and you smell only that strange clean smell of snow.  And you are almost always alone.  Moving slowly through an entirely white landscape is a great way to clear your head and reconnect with your body.

Do you have any other reasons you love snowshoeing?  I hope you get out in the snow this season!

Also, if you like my blog consider joining the email list! It’s tailored to your interests and contains content not included on the blog! 🙂

 

Appalachian Trail Memories: Illustrated

When I was on the trail, I carried crayons and often drew illustrations in shelter logs.  I decided to memorialize some of my favorite memories in crayon form!

The One Where my Parents are the Best

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The One Where Bad Weather is Helpful

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The One Where Bad Weather is Just Bad

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The One Where Sphagnum Just Wants a Pizza

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(Don’t worry, she got one like 2 days later.)

Walking Around Puget Sound: Part 4

This is the last part of a series that starts here.
Also, since I am still so new at this, please comment anything you like/dislike about this series and anything else!  🙂

This is the day where I learned a lot about the difficulties of this kind of trip.

It started off promising, with a walk from Tacoma to Steilacoom, where I saw the mental institution featured in the book I was reading (which takes place in the 1800s, it’s really still there!) and another nice view of the sound, where I stopped and watched trains and boats go by. As I walked away from the water, I saw a woman come out of her restaurant and feed some seagulls.

Then, I began what I thought would be the worst part of my walk, passing miles of military property on either side. But in reality, it was just a beautiful, secluded forest road with plenty of shoulder and a lot of signs about unexploded ordnance. This part of the day was very very long, and it started raining a decent amount, so I was very happy when I got to town and could stop in a Starbucks to warm up.

Then things went a little south. As soon as I left the Starbucks, Google maps had me entering DoD territory, which was obviously impossible. I tried about 3 different routes before, frustrated, I stopped a cyclist to ask if he knew a way around it. He was very friendly but hard of hearing, so we were yelling street names by the road. He told me he didn’t know of a way for bikes, but that he thought the private roads of the golf course were maybe accessible on foot. I thanked him and headed in that direction, down a convoluted set of residential streets.

I saw a bunch of people putting up Christmas lights with Christmas music booming from their garages. Some kids asked their dad what I was doing. Eventually, I found the tight space by a fence that allowed foot traffic only, and was back on a wooded country road toward the Nisqually preserve.

The shoulder on this road, however, gradually got narrower, and the traffic got heavier. As I approached my pickup point, a bar that would allow a visit to the nature preserve while I waited for Rachel, I was running up a brambly hill to avoid cars that came around the corner. Someone honked. “What do you want me to do?” I wanted to ask. “Google maps sent me here!” But really I should have looked at street view more thoroughly. I tried to find another route, even tried to detour through a Christmas tree farm, but there were fences everywhere I went. Eventually, soaked and a little scared, I saw the bar. I went in a grabbed a table and asked if I could wait for a few hours. The girl said, in a faintly country accent that was unfamiliar to me, “sure honey, but the night girls are a little cattier than me.” I ate my mozzarella sticks very slowly, read, and waited for Rachel. I wasn’t going to see any wildlife in this heavy rain anyway.

The most important part, of course, is that I got to go to my favorite sandwich shop at the end with Rachel. On the last day I learned a lot about route planning, safety, and the absence of the alleged cattiness of night waitresses. Sometimes whole regions are just not walkable and you just have to go around them. I think in my case, I would have needed another day for a prettier, more circuitous route to Olympia. I ended the day with the lessons in mind and with excitement about other explorations of the many islands and peninsulas in the Sound. I bet the walk to Canada is pretty interesting!

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Walking Around Puget Sound: Part 3

This is part 3 of this little adventure story.  Part 1 is here.

The next day, I woke up after a necessary and refreshing 10 hours of sleep. I never set an alarm because I could really only walk around 15 miles today given the available places to stay. I ate an entire bag of lime flavored crackers and the rest of the cheese I had brought and got ready to go.
I couldn’t find my host as I was leaving, but I texted her thank you and said goodbye to her chickens. I walked back to the main ‘highway’ and the couple of miles through remote forested areas to the southern coast of the island. The ferry dock came out of nowhere. The sun was just coming up, the seagulls were seemingly fighting about something, and there was no one there. I could see the ferry arriving at the other side, so I sat in the tiny bus shelter to wait. It was raining lightly.

While I was waiting, somone pushed a man in a wheelchair into the shelter with me. When the ferry employee told us to get on, I was paralyzed with indecision. Especially after I realized the man couldn’t really hear me, I didn’t know if I was supposed to help him get on the boat or where his friend had gone. Eventually he slowly looked up at me and said ‘you first,’ with a big smile so I went to my seat.

The crossing into Tacoma was very short, and I was let off in a little park. I walked along the coast in the park, but then I was hungry and coffee-headachey so I found a cafe. I ordered a giant cookie and coffee, as well as some sort of breakfast enchilada to go. The way the enchilada was packaged made it really hard to get into my dry bag. Struggling with this in a crowded cafe made me grateful for my previous hiking experiences for making me insensitive to this kind of embarrassment.

Some of my walk into Tacoma took me through adorable neighborhoods, and I saw some more interesting roadside art. A man called from across the street, “getting in your walk today? Gotta get in that daily walk! I love it!” I don’t know why he thought I was carrying a backpack.

I saw the infamous Tacoma Narrows (the one used to teach engineers about how resonant frequencies can lead to disaster) bridge and then came upon a trail as I approached the city. I didn’t have too much farther to go so I decided to see if I could walk along the shoreline for a while. I followed some teenagers into the park until they all became fascinated by a fuzzy caterpillar, then I followed one kid with a hammer to the beach. At first I thought maybe he worked in the park because of the hammer, but he just kept walking down the shore, balancing on logs, as I sat down to eat my lunch of breakfast enchilada and carrots on a log.

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After I walked as far as I could on the beach, my boring walk through Tacoma to my Airbnb began. I bought a couple of Snickers bars because I was running out of food and called my parents for entertainment while I navigated the busy street. When I got to the house, the host talked to me for a bit about hosting international students and started to get ready to go somewhere. I took a shower because it had been raining all day.
The only place she could recommend for me to eat was a mile away, but I had nothing else to eat so I headed out after resting for a while. It turned out to be super worth it. It felt a bit sad walking through neighborhoods by myself in the dark, but I had the fluffiest omelette ever at a diner with tons of Christmas decorations and a very friendly waitress. Still no one asked what I was doing. After setting up a time and place for my friend Rachel to pick me up the next day, I went back to my room and went to sleep.