Thinking of you old friend.
Finding The Trail
16 years ago today…
My good friend Comet Kid and I bushwhacked the last stretch of Maine’s “100 mile wilderness” with a napkin map we’d sketched out of someone’s guide book. We ended the night in an empty Baxter Park shelter, a few miles short of finishing the Appalachian Trail.
We’d had a couple dozen Jolly Ranchers and some peanut butter between us when we started our bushwack. The trail made a wide loop around our intended ‘short cut.’ As the crow flies our planned route was about eight miles, opposed to the fifteen official trail miles we would cut out. The trail made a wide loop around our intended ‘short cut.’ Our friends said we were nuts and declined, taking the traditional route. That pumped us and we set out to beat them to camp.
Along the way we found random boot prints in the mud. We found old rusted cookware and a crumbled stone foundation. We found short overgrown trails and ‘ancient’ cart paths with fat trees growing in their middles. We found our way very well at times. We felt invincible, bounding through the brush like plastic clad Native Americans on a hunt.
We also found impenetrable walls of entangled dead spruce. And impassable sweet smelling bogs. We found steep wet overgrown ravines, not on our map. For a while we followed a dusty logging road, also not on our map, past a rusted old chained up trailer, but, when it veered sharp east, we ducked back to the woods on what we’d hoped would be a northern path to Baxter. It quickly dead-ended. But we weren’t turning around.
We lost track of the peaks and bogs and streams and ponds we’d sketched. Or at least we thought we did, so our lack of confidence was enough to disable our map. We stumbled into the same types of obstacles again and again, sometimes the exact same ones, with our boot prints as evidence, trying to make our way by the sun as it moved through thick canopies.
The Jolly Ranchers went quick, like the time.
We’d found exhaustion, fear, hunger, uncertainty and almost our breaking points. But, it was just the woods. It felt like home.
And before we found the lichen crusted Rainbow Ledges and our blue-blazed* way out, somewhat on luck, somewhat on a newly found universal connection (if there’s a difference), I’d found the trail I’d set out to find six months earlier; and it wasn’t on a trail at all.
* (blue blazes are the official markers of Appalachian Trail side trails.)
I’m camped in a very wet tent on top of Trey Mountain, in a lightning, hail, wind, rain storm, after having been turned away from the shelter where we’d planned to stay. Derek’s tent is now next to mine and through my thin grey canopy I can see his light is still on. I hear the flicker of a lighter through the wind whipped trees and rattling, squeaking tents.
He wasn’t looking so good when he’d packed it in. His ankle is very swollen now, from its twist on the first day. It’s now day four, his pack is way overloaded and now even heavier from four days of rain. From the look in his eye, his shaking from the cold and his pale skin, I think he thinks we might die. But he seems rather calm about it and I’ve got to hand it to him, most people would have gone home after twisting their ankle; instead we just pushed fourteen rugged miles on only our fourth day.
The lightning is very close now. No time between the flashes and thunder. I’m not so sure we won’t die. But we probably won’t. Our tent poles are fiberglass and we’ve stashed our pans and metal goods about fifty yards away. What are the odds? What are the odds? I hope our stuff doesn’t get hit. I wonder how far it travels through the ground. At least it’s a quick way to go.
There’s loud muffled laughter from the shelter.
The rain is splashing in with the wind in random spots under my wildly flapping canopy which I’m afraid is going to tear in tonight, and everything is wet. Even if my stuff had been dry tonights setup in the rain would have squashed that. I doubt I’ll sleep.
Way too close. The ground is shaking.
I can’t help but remark on the way we where turned out at the shelter. We’d pulled a fourteen mile day on our fourth day out, and Derek with his ankle, and some of the folks that where staking it out had already stayed there the day before and where just waiting out the rain. “There’s some nice tent spots over there,” one of them had pointed out with a snicker, which would have been true, except for the raging lightning storm. Well, I suppose they did let us duck in under the eve long enough to cook our dinner with the others they’d also turned away. Truthfully I don’t really want to be crammed in there with all those wet people and the mice.
There’s way too many people out here. I imagine some will drop out soon with all this rain.
I should stop bitching now. I still can’t think of anyplace I’d rather be, as long as I don’t fry tonight.
The Georgian Appalachians are more beautiful and rugged than I expected. Lush green everywhere, spotted with a vast array of wild flowers. It seems there’re springs everywhere, though it could be the rain, and the rain really has brought out the beauty and wildness of the streams and cascades. And the bird song and chatter down here is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I feel like I’m in a rain forest. I think I might be.
I just hope the sun comes out tomorrow.
April 16, 1996
(From my AT journal)
Woke up to a dusting of snow this morning, which I never expected in Georgia. But the sun was shining bright by the time we reached the summit of Springer and the start of the trail, and we found ourselves in such high spirits to finally be starting, that we ran down the mountain… until Derek twisted his ankle. It was a tough hike for him after that. But we still managed fourteen miles on this, our fist day.
Personally, I feel good, but I’m a bit worried about the tendonitis in my knees. My pack is too heavy and I’m already thinking about what I can ditch. Derek’s pack has at least ten pounds on mine. I’m not sure how he’s carrying it.
We met a lot of people today, another thing I hadn’t expected. Mostly potential thru-hikers like ourselves. I never imagined there’d be so many. The first hiker, we met right at the southern terminus on Springer and hiked with him most of the day. And though he was thirty years our senior, it was tough to keep up. It wasn’t his first hike. He’d been all over the world hiking. He spends six months a year in Antarctica studying/tracking/weighing Penguins, and then six months traveling abroad, largely by foot.
All and all, it was a beautiful hike. Lush and green, popping with colorful flowers, and alive with bird song and babbling brooks.
Now we find ourselves camped in a deluge, in a steep wooded valley, in a crowded tent ‘city’, based around an over stuffed six person shelter that everyone, all thirty or so hikers, had been hoping to stay in. Not quite the wilderness solitude of my imagination.
The rain had started about an hour before we reached camp, so everything got soaked through good, and I have to admit feeling a little foolish in my cheep poncho, after seeing just about every other hiker clad in Gortex suits of armor.
Despite the weather and the crowds though, I can’t think of any place else I’d rather be. The sun will come out tomorrow.
Flashback to 4-15-12
16 years ago, right now,
camped at a freezing Black Mountain Shelter,
just South of Spring Mountain, GA
and the start of the Appalachian Trail,
big dreams on my mind…
Happy New Year Folks! Thanks for stopping by. Just wanted to share some thoughts on trail food with you all.
I’m not a big fan of beef stroganoff. Amy and I have been trying to make it at home for the last fifteen years and it’s always come out somewhat near the consistency of shoe leather, albeit in a tasty mushroom sauce. I’m told we need a pressure cooker.
But six years ago on California’s John Muir Trail, I couldn’t get enough beef stroganoff, Freeze-dried stroganoff. We didn’t need any pressure cooker for that. I remember giving that extra push at the end of a long strenuous day on stroganoff night; the same way we’d push into town for a burger and beer (well, almost the same).
It was simple.
Boil some water. Rip open the bag. Remove the Celica preservation pack. Pour in hot water. Stir. Ziploc the bag shut. Shake. Wait ten minutes. Shake it. Open it. Savor the rich beefy aroma. Stir once more and dig in.
It was really good every time. Really. Creamy. Tender. Warm. Almost filling even (you’re never really ‘full’ on the trail).
Oh, and no dishes either. Lick the bag clean and put it in your garbage bag to carry out.
Over the four weeks we spent out we learned to make it just right; noodles al dente and all the powdered gravy reconstituted evenly. We even had a method for turning the bags inside out to lick clean every crease without making a mess. We were instant dinner gourmets and eating champs all at once.
Mountain House was the brand. We’d taken a chance on a bunch of freeze dried dinners from several different companies (favoring the popular ones), only some of which we’d had time to try before the trip. We had one other brand of Stroganoff not worth mentioning here. It was on sale and we were glad we only bought one.
We’d rationed out the meals and mailed them to ourselves at points along the way. The chili mac was pretty good. The lasagna was descent, though it didn’t always absorb the water evenly so you’d get some powdery and crunchy (not good crunchy) spots. We got a couple of red beans and rice that I really enjoyed, though Amy wasn’t crazy about them. I suppose the beans never did really fully hydrate. And there were a few all out flops. I remember an exceptionally bad juevos rancheros; really disappointing because eggs are my favorite food and I like spicy, but it was not; just a bad chemical interpretation. I can’t remember the brand, but it was a bargin rack instant ‘breakfast’ at best.
Problem is, you can’t not eat a whole meal when you’ve burned 4,000 calories a day carrying it. That’s your ration. And extra scraps only attract animals. We wanted to see them, but not in our campsite. Several ‘thru’ hikers had already been rushed by bears that summer on the Muir Trail, so we licked those plates or bags rather, clean. Besides, each bad meal made the good ones taste better. Especially the stroganoff.
I’d eaten mostly Ramen noodles and Lipton pouch dinners for my six months on the Appalachian Trail in ‘96. That was my first thru-hike and I didn’t know any better. And, yet with all that experience I hadn’t gotten any more creative the following year when Amy & I made her first thru-hike on Vermont’s Long Trail. It was her first backpacking trip actually, and our first experience living together. We spent six weeks in a damp little tent, eating salty Ramen, slimy Lipton and oatmeal. Amy still won’t eat Ramen and neither of us can even look at a Lipton packet.
The epitome was one frozen night in the non-heated Stratton Mountain Summit Lodge, in the company of a couple AT thru-hikers we’d just met. Amy and I had a dozen or so watermelon jolly ranchers, some peanut butter, and one package of Ramen left. We were headed to town for a mail drop, but had decided to hold up on the summit for the night to catch the sunset, despite our rumbling tummies. Our new friends had spent nine months making gourmet meals for their hike and freeze-drying them, in carefully measured rations. They smelled very good. They looked like real food with good portions. We couldn’t watch or listen to their groans of pleasure any longer, so we stepped out into the bitter cold wind and waited.
The sunset was beautiful. It tasted like salty watermelon peanut butter chicken flavoring. Fifteen years later I’m still looking at that sunset in a frame on my wall. And after all that, Amy’s still with me. Not only that, but ten years after that Long Trail hike, she was willing to do it all again on the John Muir Trail… without the Ramen and Lipton of course.
So freeze dried meals were a big step up for us on this our second thru-hike together. Our only regret was that we hadn’t bought more stroganoff and less of the other meals. But how could we have known that that would become our trip favorite? We do now. Of course we haven’t been eating from bags lately.
And while I recommend the Mountain House Stroganoff very much, I do offer one warning. Make sure you have a well-ventilated place to sleep on stroganoff night; especially when sharing a very small tent with the one you love (or especially in a public space for that matter). Though it smells exactly the same later, the Mountain House Stroganoff aroma is much more enjoyable when you unzip it from the original serving bag.