Thursday, November 24, 2011

Early Reviews

A few friends have offered comments on Speed of Foot. Here's some of what they said:
"An easy read"

" [I] feel like I’m walking down the trail with you. I’m really enjoying it....The sketches add a lot too, I like the size and the white space, like little windows through the words."

"Gives readers a real taste for the highs, lows and gritty in-betweens of the adventure with an emphasis on the companionship of the thing. Bravo!"
My Appalachian Trail companions, two people in a position to know, both offered kind words as well.

"It brought back many memories that I had lost,and I enjoyed the telling very much....Red is reading it now,and we're having some good laughs."
"I just finished your book and enjoyed the heck out of it....You brought back so much of the trail for me that I would have forgotten forever."
So...Don't just take my word when I say that Speed of Foot is good. My friends say so, too, and they are certainly objective about the whole thing. But if you want to see for yourself, just click the link above and I will get a copy to you forthwith. Our you can by the Kindle edition.

I am happy to have you read it in any form at all.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

More Names

As promised, here are some more word sketches of my fellow thru-hikers.

Little Bob was an attorney from Louisana, a short, wiry man whose black beard and hair were streaked with gray. He wa a determined hiker who described his approach to the trail as walking from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm and checking out everything along the way. I met him first at Laurel Creek Lodge, where he described himself as happy to get away from all the “kids” on the trail, and we encountered each other off and on through Grayson Highlands in southwest Virginia. We camped together at Saunders shelter, the first shelter out of Damascus. Like us, he was a refugee from Trail Days, happy to be away from a very large party. He had just switched over to a “bagel and peanut butter” diet and had gotten rid of his stove. He passed us a few days later and we never saw him again. We saw his shelter entries for a while but even these disappeared and we wondered if he was still on the trail. I saw his picture at Andover House in Maine in early September–he was almost a month ahead of us at this time and I have every reason to think that he had finished the trail by that time.

Bert caught up with me on the trail north of Watuga Lake shelter in north Tennessee. She’d camped at the shelter with us the night before but came in very late. The following day she blazed by me on the trail. I kept up with her for a while to chat but she was moving fast so I didn’t do so for long. During that time, however, I learned that she had skipped from Dennis Cove, TN to Damascus, VA and walked north to Bland, VA before returning to Dennis Cove. That way she could walk into Damascus for Trail Days. She hiked with her brother, Ernie (not sure if that was his real name or trail name) so they were Bert and Ernie for a while. She was a small woman, with short, dark hair and big eyes. Reminded me of a deer at times. Didn’t see her for a long time after Damascus and figured that she was long gone. But one Sunday morning in Massachusetts, she came up from behind much to my surprise. He parents had dropped her off after a short visit and she was slackpacking to the Cookie Lady’s place about 18 miles up the trail. The encounter was brief and she was gone again but it was fun to see someone from the earlier part of the hike. I saw her again Vermont and read her register entries off and on again into Maine. At Speck Pond in Maine, she noted that she had met someone special who was “easy on the eyes”. That some one special was Zeus. After that she (and Zeus) slowed down. They camped with us at West Carry Pond shelter and were with us waiting for the ferry across the Kennebec River. They were still in their tent just north of Caratunk, ME when I saw them last on the trail--reading to each other, I recall. I expected them to show up that night–both were strong hikers–but they didn’t and never caught up with us again. They finished the trail four days after I did and made it to Radar’s party late Saturday evening.

Zeus came bounding into camp the night before I reached Damascus, Virginia. Red, Gary and I were well settled into a campsite near route 421 after some wonderful trail magic. We thought we’d have the place to ourselves when Zeus motored into camp with two companions. He was a high energy hiker, his movement appeared to be on the double quick. Maybe that was to make up for his short legs. Zeus was a short man, with thick brown hair and beard. His voice was soft with a not too strong Massachusetts accent. He’d been laid off and had hit the trail. Didn’t see him again for a few weeks until he came by our camp at Laurel Creek just south of Bland, VA. He came motoring by, moving fast. Said he couldn’t stop or his leg would lock up painfully. The following morning he was in Smokey Jack’s van when we caught a ride into Bland. He was planning to see a doctor about his leg. Saw him again just outside Pearisburg, VA where he recounted his adventure in medical treatment that ended up with him driving the doc’s car into WV for additional tests. He was with me off and on throughout southwestern and central VA. He holed up with us at Bailey Gap shelter after a severe thunderstorm. When he took off his legs churned like a cartoon character as he disappeared up the trail. He was at the Best Western in Troutville when we zeroed there and camped with us many nights on the way to Rockfish Gap. After that, I saw him again in Vernon, NJ. He passed us near Harriman State Park in NY when we went to town for a mail drop. Next time I saw him was in Gorham, NH getting out of Southpaw’s car but he headed out while I took a zero day. When I saw him next he had linked up with Bert and the rest of his story is joined with hers.

Paladin first appeared at Helvey’s Mill shelter north of Bland, VA and hiked with him off and on till Rockfish Gap. He was a section hiker doing the trail in four years, 2002 being his second year. If one is going to hike the AT in sections, Paladin’s approach seems to be the best. Being on the trail for a long stretch gave him the chance to get to know thru-hikers and vice versa. Paladin was a short, stocky man with a southern accent and a taste for small cigars. He was a criminal defense attorney from SC who only defended “innocent” clients in his words. He wore a broad brimmed had and seemed pretty intense at first. His intensity dissipated as I got to know him, evolving into an acute sense of humor and sharp mind. Most of us thought his name referred to the 1960's TV character but his reference were to the knights of Charlemagne, which certainly seemed appropriate for a thru-hiker.

Kinky & Two Timer were a young married couple I met just north of Pearisburg and hiked with into central VA. I saw them again on the trail in Vernon, NJ and read their register entries for the rest of the trip since they were only a few days ahead of me. Both were tall with dark hair that they wore in pony tails. Two Timer was making his second thru-hike, Kinky her first. They were married after he completed his first thru-hike and apparently Kinky was sufficiently impressed with his feat that she wanted to do the same, so they were on the trail. That’s where Two Timer got his name. Kinky’s name derived from the fact that she was hoping to work out her “kinks” (allergies, etc) on the trail. Together, their names were more suggestive and they often were asked about it. They hiked with Radar and Zeus for much of the trip and went up Katahdin with Radar and were among the thru hikers at Radar’s party in Connecticut.

Pop Tart, whose name reflected one of the common breakfast foods along the trail, was one of the “characters” of our trail community. I saw his shelter entries containing the lyrics to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” long before I ever saw him in Virginia. Even then, I didn’t get to know him until after Pennsylvania. He was an elfin presence on the trail, short round, a wide smile protruding from a bushy black beard flecked with streaks of gray. He wore Mardi Gras beads as part of his hiking attire and always seemed to be in a happy mood. I last saw him at North Woodstock, NH. He went out ahead of us with plans to get off the trail at Pinkham Notch to attend a high school reunion. I assume he made it back and to Katahdin summit.

The Maryland-Pennsylvania Trail Family is a collective group that I met when I solo hiked from Front Royal, Va to Boiling Springs, Pa. It included Hoss,Razz, Snoopy, Uncle Jesse, Little Bo Peep and Kitchen Sink. I met Hoss, Snoopy and Razz the first day out from Front Royal early on and the rest as I neared Harper’s Ferry. WV. They hiked as a group. When I saw one, the others were usually not far away. Our usual encounter was passing each other on the trail. I would be in camp around 5:00 pm or so. They would roll by my camp, heading farther on. The following morning I would pass their camp, often before they were awake, sometimes they were already up. Either way, it was comforting to see people I know, even if it was only in passing. They were already at Pine Grove Furnace State Park when I arrived. Snoopy and Razz had successfully completed the “half way-half gallon” challenge and were lying on the porch of the camp store looking very uncomfortable for the experience. The rest had tried but stopped so they were still up and around. Their lack of success left uneaten ice cream on the table for me to graze upon. I knew that eating a half gallon of ice cream was not a good idea but was more than willing to consume calories and fat in moderate amounts. We parted the following morning when I jumped north to catch up with Red & Gary. In the short time I’d been with them on the trail, they had become important to me and I was sorry to leave them behind.

 Still more to come...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Trail Magic

“There’s magic at the next road crossing”. The words spread quickly among the thru-hikers. The day is transformed. An ordinary day on the trail now holds the promise of something different, an unexpected treat. I continue walking north, wondering what to expect. When I reach the road, I find a cooler of sodas and snacks put out by former thru-hikers for this year’s class. I grab a soda and a bag of chips and savor their taste and texture, so different from the normal trail food that I carry. Refreshed, I shoulder my pack and head north again, thanking my unknown benefactors for their kindness.

Trail magic is a well established custom on the Appalachian Trail and includes any kindness and assistance to thru-hikers from the outside world. Usually, however, it takes the form of food left along the trail or served by volunteers known as trail angels. At its simplest, trail magic is an untended cooler left near a road but it can also mean a full fledged barbeque. Any magic is a welcome event, an opportunity to relax and enjoy the hospitality of complete strangers. Sometimes it can be a lifesaver.

I encountered my first trail magic on my second day out from Springer Mountain. A volunteer from the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club put out soda and fruit for us. The cold soda was very welcome on a warm day. A few days later, a section hiker gave me a Snickers bar. Although the candy bar was identical to the food I was carrying, the gesture was a welcome sign. It told me that I was among friends.

Stories of trail magic also made the rounds during those early days on the trail. Some hikers told of trail angels serving hot dogs and full meals. The stories sounded the trail version of urban legend until I reached Brown Gap, NC. I was heading toward Hot Springs, NC on a dark, windy day. Hiking alone through the gloomy forest was a bit unnerving. Around mid-day I met a southbound section hiker who told me that people were serving food–major food–where the trail crossed a road at Browns Gap. Sure enough, when I reached the gap, I found a large collection of people cooking cheeseburgers under a tarp covered kitchen. They were the Blue Blaze Hobo Hiker Trash, a rough looking but very hospitable group who were enjoying themselves and the company of thru-hikers very much. Their three day cook out was an annual affair for this group of former thru-hikers. I ate a double cheeseburger, trail beans, salad and soda. I left the party so full I could barely walk. Somehow I climbed to the next ridge where lay down in the sun for a short nap. That evening, I read in the shelter register that the previous day’s hikers were treated to a dinner of salmon and baked potato.

A few weeks later in northern Tennessee, I crossed Route 91 to find Red and Gary sitting on their packs drinking–beer? They responded to my quizzical look by pointing to four beers and a soda cooling in the stream I had just crossed. I joined them in toasting our unknown benefactor and continued on. That night we camped at a site just before the Route 421 crossing. Our guidebook showed a spring at the road so, after dropping our packs, we headed the short distance to the road to fill our water bottles. We could smell hamburgers cooking on a grill as we approached the crossing. When the crossing came into view, there was Redwood, another thru-hiker, sitting at a picnic table eating. Two former thru-hikers, Strolling and Gambler, were serving cheeseburgers, chips and beer. We joined right in, delighted that we would not have to cook dinner that night or walk on a full stomach.

The next magic was a lifesaver. I was hiking toward Catawba, VA on a hot, muggy June day. I was dangerously low on water and was seriously considering detouring a mile down the next road to buy a soda and maybe find water. I sure didn’t want to walk an extra two miles but didn’t think I had a choice Just before reaching the road, however, I found a plastic tub with about five sodas remaining. The ice was long gone but the sodas were wet and saved me a long detour. At the road crossing, I met some day hikers who shared their water with me. Like Blanche Dubois in “Streetcar Named Desire” I was depending on the “kindness of strangers.”

Irish Creek in central Virginia was the site of the next major magic. A couple named Renegade and Tomboy had established a full field kitchen alongside the creek and were serving dinner and breakfast to hikers as they passed through. A southbound hiker told me about the food and soda there, which delighted me to no end since that was my planned destination for the day. I reached the creek around 3:30 and was greeted by Tomboy with an ice cold soda. While I savored its coolness, Renegade informed me that dinner was grilled Polish sausage, baked beans and salad. I set up camp, relaxed with other hikers and enjoyed the meal. After dinner, Renegade took Red, Gary and me into town so we could buy groceries. His kindness saved us what would have been a long hitchhike to town the following day.

Trail magic continued all the way to Maine. Occasionally, it was a major feed like Brown Gap and Irish Creek but most often it was just a small kindness by persons who wanted to treat thru-hikers. Rides, virtually free hostel space and food offerings were common along the entire route. On my last day before reaching Katahdin, I found a cooler of beer and soda at Abol Bridge, the last in a string of kindnesses that stretched back to the soda and fruit in Georgia. And it reminded me, once again, how wonderful people can be. Beyond the food, trail magic was a boost to my spirit knowing that others–complete strangers–cared about me. They may not have had me specifically in mind when they set out their treats but they knew some one like me was coming that way. And they knew how much I would appreciate their generosity.

Thank you all.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Names, Names, Names

At the Speed of Foot gives a fair amount of detail on a few of the thru-hikers I was close to on the Appalachian Trail but passes over many. There were just too many of them. I included a lot of their names in early drafts, when they were all still fresh in my memory but manuscript readers found them too much and too little at the same time. Too much in that without my perspective, they could not sort them out. Too little in that the names were just that, with no detail or characterization.

So now that the book is done, I can give them some space. Here's the first installment.

The Hammock Brothers: Brian and Eric were two brothers from Pennsylvania. They slept in hammocks slung under tarps from the outset. I met them at Tray Mountain Shelter on a very rainy day. They arrived after the shelter was full but managed to stay dry under their tarps and had ample room to pack, cook and perform all their camp chores. The brothers were with us the following day at Deep Gap shelter, where we all spent the sunny afternoon drying gear. We saw them occasionally on the trail as we headed toward the Smokies and camped with them three nights straight in the Smokies. Both had long blond hair and round, not quite chubby, faces. Brian was the older of the two, a bit shorter and more stocky. He was an ambler, usually wandering into camp after Eric. Eric was taller and more inclined to bolt ahead of his brother on the trail so that he could spend time photographing things that interested him. Our three nights together in the Smokies gave us a chance to observe their interactions, characterized by a long established brotherly rivalry. There was an edge to their rivalry but it was more of an intimate dance between two very close siblings. They headed into Gatlinburg, TN after our third night in the Smokies and I saw them again only in Hot Springs, NC and during my southbound trip through Shenandoah. I saw their picture at the ATC HQ, standing together looking confident. After that, I saw their names in registers while I was soloing up to central PA. They passed us in Hanover, NH. R&G saw them at Ben & Jerry’s. I did not but I followed their progress in the registers. I figure they went up Katahdin about four or five days ahead of me.

Flatfoot & Whisper: A couple of young self-styled ski bums who work in food service at ski resorts. Whisper managed serving staff. Flatfoot was a chef. They were hiking toward winter jobs in Vermont after working in upstate New York. They were a quiet couple. Whisper had a soft voice and manner that rendered her almost invisible in the gloom of a shelter. Flatfoot, with his dark hair, eyes and beard, looked more intense. They seem to have been together for a while; they were very attentive to each other and their camp routines well established. Being with them was one of the hike’s pleasures. They were not only very nice but I enjoyed sharing the company of younger hikers and knowing that I could keep up with them. I met them for the first time in Hiawassee, GA but got to know them better during the long afternoon at Plum Orchard Gap shelter. I saw them of and on again as we made our to the Smokies. They were stuck in Fontana Village, NC waiting for a food drop when we left to head into the Smokies. We wondered if they would receive the package in time to make the first shelter with us. They did barely, arriving not long before dark. We camped together that night and the next two nights, sharing shelters with the Hammock Brothers, Sylvain and Bill and Ursula. I saw them last at Newfound Gap in the fog, heading into Gatlinburg. I expected to see them in Hot Springs, NC but did not. The Hammock Brothers said that Flatfoot was ill but didn’t know what had become of them. We wondered and worried. I heard much later that they had traveled to New Orleans for the jazz festival, finished the Smokies and returned to Massachusetts where Whisper was helping her mom with a family matter.

Sylvain: Sylvain was a French-Canadian hiker who spoke limited English so he was hard to get to know. But over time, we learned to communicate well enough. Sylvain was a solidly built individual, heavy frame and bones. He had a broad face with an infectious smile. His camping style looked chaotic to me–he seemed to just drop into whatever place he found and exploded his gear around him. His tent was a real cheapie, with a tiny fly and too little space for him to fully stretch. He carried a can of mace in a holster. Every time I saw him, I would think the mace was a pistol. We met the first night out from Springer. He was playing chess with another Canadian, Medicine Man. We camped together most nights in the Smokies and I saw him again on the way to Damascus. At that time he looked like a real Voyageur(?), with his two wooden poles and red bandana on his head. He camped in the yard at The Place in Damascus and I gave him my bunk when I pulled out. I heard after Pearisburg that he was ill with something intestinal. I saw him last during my southbound through SNP. He was about a week or 10 days behind our original group. He said that his intestinal ailment had slowed him down a lot. He looked tired when I saw him. He’d had something done to his boots at Trail Days that resulted in poor fit, so he’d sliced open the toes for relief and taped the incision over with blue duct tape. As I headed north, I wondered how he was doing. He was in Gorham, NH the day before I arrived. Montreal had dinner with him. After Harper’s Ferry, Sylvain returned home for a few weeks and then returned to the trail at Katahdin, heading south. I assume he made it the rest of the way. I hope so.

One Gallon Bill & Ursula: They crossed our path at Wayah Bald just south of the Smokies. They looked odd together. Bill is a big man–over six feet and broad chested–who can cover large chunks of the trail in a single step. Ursula is much smaller and has to hustle to keep up with him. My first impression of Bill was not favorable due to his booming voice and enthusiastic talkativeness. He and Ursula camped with us at Wesser Bald shelter on the first day we met. His voice filled the shelter and carried some distance. I named him Bellowing Bill for that reason. But as time and miles passed, he was an interesting and pleasant companion. Our first night together also introduced us to their unusual diet: dinner was corn meal cooked with cocoanut flakes, pudding and maybe something else. It looked pretty gruesome, especially the idea of eating the left overs cold the next morning. Bill thru-hiked the trail in 1982 and got his trail name for eating a full, rather than a mere half, gallon of ice cream at the halfway point. He carried the same equipment he did in 1982, including a well used Kelty Tioga pack with metal buckles. His load also included some improbable items, such as a map of Canada, which he whipped out during a long discussion with Sylvain in the Smokies. Bill & Ursula were part of our shelter crew during the first few nights in the Smokies. After that, we saw them off and on along much of the trail. However, the rarely stayed in towns; I think they were on a limited budget so they would usually take care of business and get back to the trail. They were just ahead of us through much of Virginia but had to take a week off to travel to Canada so Ursula, a German, could re-enter the US for another six month visa. I last remember seeing them in Kent, Connecticut at the IGA. We crossed Schaghticoke Mountain together. Although I never saw them afterward, I saw their entries in the trail registers into Maine and am pretty sure they completed the trail.

Syracuse Pete: first appeared at Peck’s Corner shelter in the Smokies. He’d come in for water but decided to stay and dry out gear after a very wet night. He looked old when I first saw him: gray beard, braces on both knees. Took a while to get to know him. He kept to himself or the people he knew so my interactions were limited at first. He was part of the large crowd at Cosby Knob shelter our last night in the Smokies. He spent much of that time sitting on a log talking to Pushing Up Daisies, putting up his tent only at the last minute. A group of women section hikers saw him sitting by himself and were worried about him but he did finally find a place and set up. Got to know him most in southwest and central Virginia. Shared a B&B room with him and Radar and he was at the Village Motel two nights later when we pulled into Atkins. We leapfrogged and camped with each other all the way to Rockfish Gap, VA. Pete was one of the big slackpackers, especially on the section leading to Damascus He also slackpacked a couple days out of Troutville, VA. It always caught me by surprise to see him just appear on the trail heading south. I last saw him in Waynesboro, VA. He was having trouble with his boots and feet. I saw a shelter register in SNP where he said he was dropping out for a while and would return to the trail at Katahdin and head south but I never saw him again and don’t know what became of him.

Take Care: A young blond man from New Jersey (or was it New York). I first saw him on the last night in the Smokies at the “refugee camp” at Cosby Knob shelter. He was camped in what Gary called the mine field, where many previous campers had dug their cat holes. It was one of the few flat spaces available, so he and a few others had little choice. I walked with him a couple days later as we went over Max Patch and Roaring Fork shelter. He was a pleasant companion on that day. Never really hiked with him again–he was usually ahead of me, trying to cover 14 miles per day so that he could reach Katahdin on schedule–but I continued to see him occasionally and read his entries all the the way through Maine. He had worked as a consultant (in computers, I think) but was laid off and decided to hike the AT while he had a chance.

Redwood: A tall young man who stood about 6'8" who wore UNC-Asheville basketball trunks. He was hard to miss, with his head towering above everyone else and his frame pack poking over his head. First met him south of the Smokies and hiked with him in NC and TN. He had a smooth, deep voice, a southern accent, a very pleasant manner and was a genuinely nice guy. His long face, prominent nose and jaw and thick brown hair reminded my a lot of Al Gore. Redwood was a writer and had worked as a reporter in Asheville until he was laid off. That’s when he decided to hit the trail. We used to joke that, with his long legs, he could cover more trail in a single step than the rest of us could in several steps and he would reply that the trail was as challenging for him as any of the rest of us. This was particularly true in that he had knee problems that bothered him at several points in the trip. He pulled in to Laurel Creek Lodge in Tennessee for an extra day to recover at one point but the pain persisted through much of the hike. Spent time with him at the Dairy King in Damascus but saw him only a few more times in Virignia after that. We met again at Glen Brook shelter in Massachusetts. He was ahead of me after that until he showed up at Goose Pond cabin a few days later, heading south trying to intercept Tin Tin to arrange a place to stay in NYC for a concert. Last I saw of him was in N. Adams, MA where he was waiting at the trailhead to return to Dalton to pick up something. Never saw him again but I heard that he finished the trail a few days after I did.

Now or Never: He walked into the Duckett House B&B in Hot Springs, NC the day R&G left. He was traveling light and making good time, having started 11 days after we did. Now or Never was a businessman from Charlotte, NC who had decided that 02 was the year to hike the trail. It must have been a difficult decision because it meant that his income would take a real hit at the same time his daughter was in college. I saw very little of him for most of the hike, just his register entries. He was leaving Pearisburg, VA as we walked in. I saw him again in Shenandoah NP in June and again on the morning we left Kent, CT in late July. We camped with him that night but he pulled away from us until Bennington, VT where we encountered him at the Autumn Court Motel. After that he was a day or two ahead of us until we reached Katahdin Stream campground our last night on the trail. As a result, we summited with him, or more correctly, he was at the summit when we arrived. Being part of our summit crew makes him one of the special people on the trip–he was there for the final event of a long march. He was also at the motel–along with the rest of our summit crew–in Millinocket that night and the following morning when we all parted.

More to come.