Tuesday, September 14, 2010

AT 1: The Hike as Hike

It is in my typically over-ambitious nature that I plan at least three posts on the AT hike experience. The week in the woods had a profound effect on me and I think it's important to capture it from several angles. This first post, the simplest, depicts the hike itself, the physical, mental, emotional challenges of it. Post two will get into what the experience brought to light for me about my personality and the great group of guys with whom I shared the hike. The third uses the trail as an illustration of following Christ.

It is safe to say that I was a rookie among rookies in this undertaking. Thankfully, there were no grizzled Bill Dunigan-type outdoorsmen for life in our small band. Everyone was on the less-experienced side. My previous hiking exploits consisted of 1. A day hike at Redemption Rock, Fitchburg, MA, 2. A day hike along a small section of the AT on Mt. Greylock last spring and 3. A small handful of warmup hikes in my own backyard (literally, one from camp to my neighborhood, which is just beyond the Second Ridge/Hemlock Hill for all the Wonderlanders) on level terrain and of no more than three miles with a half-full pack. I was never a boy scout and my father's idea of camping was sleeping in a 15-passenger van or under a picnic table in a state park. Sleeping out one night at camp in a tent or teepee is not the same as carrying all the gear with you and leaving running water behind for a week.

So, on Tuesday afternoon, I left my car 40 miles north of our starting point, along with the other finish cars and went into the woods at Bulls Bridge, not really knowing if I was up to the demands of several nights plus one more day surviving only on what was in my pack. The pack, it turns out, was one of my mistakes. I hate to admit that it is my habit regardless of where I'm going to overpack, a pain when loading into a hotel or the home of a friend or family member. Unfortunately, this time, it was even worse as I overpacked to the point that I was carrying nearly double the weight of some of my fellow hikers. My overpacking consisted of an extra long-sleeve shirt and pair of socks I didn't end up needing, an extra pair of gloves, a stocking cap, a nylon cord that someone else had brought, a heavy leatherman I used only once, an extra pair of shoes and some pretty heavy apples, as trail food goes. Of these items, I would take the shoes, my Keens, again in a heartbeat. It was just so nice to take my boots and socks off in camp and the apples were worth the weight as they were so sweet and juicy compared with granola bars, oatmeal, horrendous instant coffee and other trail food. In terms of the extra clothing, it's important to point out that the packing list sent by our team captain consisted of the following for clothing:
1 tshirt
1 fleece (like Phil's)
1 pair of trekking pants with zipoff bottoms
2 pairs of wool socks
2 pairs of underwear
1 hat or buff

Hiking is a minimalist endeavor to be sure. I guess I have some things to learn about the simple life. My extra gear probably cost me 5-10 pounds on the trail and that makes a huge difference. The lightest load among our group was about 25 lbs. My pack weighed in around 40 lbs. and after miles of up and down hills it was extremely heavy.

Adjusting my pack was another challenge. A friend of mine leant me his Lowe Alpine pack, which was a great blessing, along with a sleeping bag that kept me toasty with Fall descending on CT at night. I had only been on the trail with it on light hikes with a light load previously. After a mile or two, it was evident that I needed to do something as a portion of the pack was punishing my neck and upper spine. Fortunately, the Kid realized that I had a very useful strap that was not even connected through its clip and it helped greatly. The rest of the week consisted of making fine adjustments to shift the pain of carrying such a heavy load. Note that I say shifting the pain. It seemed impossible to get rid of pain, but moving it to another portion of my body did bring relief. By the last day, I think I finally got to a set up that centered the weight where the experts say you want it, lower, near my center of gravity, relieving the load somewhat from my neck, shoulders, and collar bones. The early setup had these body parts in a vice grip for hours on end.

The hiking itself turned out to be very doable, not because CT is flat. The vast majority of the time we were walking uphill or climbing down. Apart from one level section of about five miles which we split over two days, it was all up and down. I owe gratitude for the ease of the hike to my three children who keep me constantly on the move and to the camp lifestyle in the summer which involves a sneaky amount of walking--because you drive nowhere on the grounds, a typical day at camp can amount to more than a mile of walking, more than most of us suburbanites tackle in a week, let alone a day.

We were afforded some terrific views. The trail felt deserted at times. Day 1-less than 5 hikers seen on trail, through hikers (hiking from GA to ME or vice versa, who wanted no part of conversation). Day 2 - same, if not less. Days 3 and 4, we came into contact with several groups of Princeton University freshmen on their outdoor orientation trip. One frustrated through hiker described the situation bleakly as he lay in an AT shelter yards from 20 exuberant Tiger fresh meat: "Every Ivy League school and the smaller sister schools have their freshmen (utter disdain in his voice) on this trail for orientation over this two-week period. There are hundreds of thousands of Ivy League students throughout these woods for like two weeks (mathematically impossible, but comically hilarious)."

Pretty Boy did a great job planning our route and though 10 miles was a challenge for a daily hike, it gave us something to shoot for and ultimately to achieve. One frustration I had was that I couldn't measure mileage on the trail very accurately at all. We did some mile-long stretches as you might expect to do on a walk by the lake at home, maybe 20 or 25 minutes, which isn't bad if you have all day to hike. Other stretches with intense terrain took us far longer. In the end, on our two full days of hiking, we averaged 1.25 miles per hour, discouraging to say the least. This included our breaks, which were much-needed and lengthy periods of filtering water from streams and brooks (and one nasty swamp).

I was surprised by how little leisure time there is on the trail. Every moment seems assigned to some task essential to the hike. Of course the hiking itself was a sort of leisure, although our group talked far less than you might expect, sometimes going 40 minutes without uttering a word. But it really was, wake up, boil water, pack up camp, eat breakfast, filter water, hike, check progress, eat at breaks on the trail--no real "lunch break", make camp, boil water, set up tents, filter water, go to bed by 9pm, repeat. The Rook cards Pretty Boy brought stayed in his pack as far as I know.

Given all this, it might be a surprise how relaxed I felt both during and following the trip. I think this owes to the lack of multi-tasking on the trail. It is nearly impossible to do more than one thing when hiking up and down mountains, carrying a huge pack and trying not to hurt yourself. That is trail multi-tasking and I can't remember how long it's been since I spent four sustained days with such single focus. I was so glad not to have email access all week and because of my service and my phone, my cell was basically inoperable in the CT woods. The off-the-grid single focus was really liberating and was the thing I missed immediately when I came off the trail.

I went in, thinking that hiking might be something I might do again, something I could really get into, but I was careful to borrow the expensive gear instead of buying it (thank you Phil Andrade for the incredible tent). It was on Saturday morning when I was home on my pillow top mattress instead of my 1.5 inch sleeping pad that I realized the most remarkable thing: I missed being on the trail. I was feeling melancholy to be sleeping in a non-bug infested soundly built house with a toilet and sink 10 feet from my very comfortable bed. Don't read anything into my marriage or family life here. I won't be going to live like a hermit in the woods any time soon, but the opportunity to get out there into nature and survive for a week with only what I carried in was a much richer experience than I ever bargained for. I think I'm in for life now. I'll get into this more in post two, but I think we should all consider how to unplug, turn off the noise and get quiet. Whether that involves communing with God or not, time off the grid is so rare in our experience these days and it is a unique gift.

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