Greetings from the Great White North

Man, I was just reading through several of the past few blog posts here, and it reminded me why I don’t have any tattoos. I’m apparently unable to produce a single thought that isn’t embarrassingly cringe-worthy when I look back on it later. Thank goodness I haven’t ever inscribed anything permanently on my body. No doubt by now I’d be a glorious canvas of 90s rock, video game references, and insipid poetry, if I headed to the ink shop as soon as I was able.

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Too angsty?

I suppose I should apologize for not writing any updates on our life till now. To be honest, it’s weird and annoying to feel obligated to give anyone (and in this format, everyone) this window into our lives. It made sense when we were hiking. Our family got the news they cared about, our friends got some vicarious knowledge or thrill of what it was like to be profligates, and we had something to ease the boredom while hiking.

But then we finished hiking, and I kept writing. Jotted down a blog on our changing surname, another one about moving to Alaska, and now here I am with some kind of ultra-pretentious Facebook update replacement. It made more sense when we had an experience that was unusual. It’s getting difficult to justify, with no extraordinary circumstances to report, no expertise with which to teach anyone, no words of wisdom that aren’t just a mishmash of things smarter people said. It feels like an exercise in vanity.

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And I hate vanity.

But, luckily, I predicted that it would be exactly that, in my very first introductory post. So, since I like to write, and I know at least 2 people who want to read what I write (because they’re genetically predispositioned to endure all my crap), I guess I’ll write.

Life has been wonderful here in Alaska. I think it’s my favorite state in America so far. There are some things to get used to, of course, but it has been excellent, and right now it seems like our biggest problem is that we can’t seem to experience every good thing as fast as we would like.

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For instance, Connie got to build snowforts with the rest of the neighborhood kids.

 

For one thing, there are tons of moose. And bears. Of course, we saw a couple dozen bears while hiking in Virginia, but it’s one thing to feel as if you’re passing through bear country, another thing to feel as if you’ve settled down in it.

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Here are a couple of our neighbors to the south.

And the moose are adorable. They’re basically roaming, fearless, giant cows. We see them strolling across our yard, walking into the road, standing in bushes and nibbling on trees, walking into the hospital where Connie works. It seemed crazy when I read before moving here that an average of 2 people per year are trampled to death by moose in the Anchorage city limits, but at this point we’ve seen so many enormous moose that I could believe 2 people get casually sat on every time one backs up.

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Connie took this photo from the window of the hospital where she works.

The daylight here is every bit as crazy as everyone knows. Nothing too extraodinary that I can comment on, because it’s really impossible to understand what it’s like to be out walking along the ocean, passing children on scooters and old couples holding hands, watching the sun set, and then to realize that it’s after midnight. The word midnight is meaningless to an extent. It seems especially bizarre given that Connie and I have mostly kept to a night shift schedule. And winter wasn’t too bad. I constantly felt like I was waking up bright and early, before the sun came up. The day and night cycles here are just facts of science, but they’re constantly startling when you live them.

Our outdoor activity hasn’t been as extensive as Connie would like. I think that after hiking so much last year, I have a certain reluctance to go outdoors and do things as much as I used to. Truthfully, I enjoy it more when we do, but it’s hard to break the inertia. Life comes in seasons, and I think that right now is supposed to be a season of Jacob not hiking every weekend. That isn’t to say that we haven’t gone out and seen things, though. We have taken several hours- and days-long roadtrips, and they have all been fantastic. Driving in any direction longer than 20 minutes always yields scenery that reminds me of the times I’ve driven through the Rocky Mountains. The mountains are dramatic, with steep slopes and sharp edges. It always seems mythical to glimpse some of the valleys beyond the first lines of mountains, where everything remains frozen and unreachable.

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Or maybe just frozen, not unreachable.

We have done some hikes, don’t worry. We’ve seen a wildlife conservation center, eaten at the lodge in the shadow of Denali, drunk whisky at the top of one of the Chugach mountains, etc. As Connie likes to say, we’re not in a rush to be tourists. We live here, so we can take our time. Soon we’ll be showing my parents-in-law around, and a lot of the things we’ll be doing will be firsts for us as well, like seeing the Exxon Aquatic Center, taking an Alaskan cruise, walking along the Matanuska Glacier (maybe).

 

Speaking of living here, we’ve settled in very happily to our apartment here in Anchorage. A lot of people warned us about how expensive housing and the cost of living in general would be in Alaska, but the funny thing is, housing can be had for all sorts of prices, and when you’ve lived six months in a tent, you don’t need to spend a lot to feel luxurious. Much has been said about our generation, and how we millenials need to give up our avocado toast if we ever want to own houses. I won’t participate in a discussion made up of exaggeration and epigrams, so I’ll just stick with saying that Connie and I have no problems spending less than we make, and learning to talk together about money and how to use it to live the life we both want has been one of the most rewarding things we’ve done together. Plus, we know tons of different ways to make ramen noodles now!

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I love this ramen noodle dish. While the tenderloin is braising, you cook ramen noodles, then throw them out and give thanks you have beef.

And now it’s getting to be time to board our plane. We’re flying to Boston tonight, and then we’ll take a bus to New Hampshire and take on the remaining 306 miles of the Appalachian Trail. We have about 19 days to do it, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to knock it out this year. If not, I suppose it isn’t going anywhere, so we’ll just keep chipping away at it. I’m sure that hiking will catalyze me into updating this blog again, so I hope you all are looking forward to some more of Connie’s photos.

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Connie’s photos/photos of Connie

Cheers.

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Boissons Chaudes

You know what I haven’t written about in a long time? Drinks.

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¡Las bebidas!

It’s been made clear to me in the past month that I’ve entered into some sort of obligation to my friends and family (more accurately, my wife’s friends, family, admirers and even distant acquaintances) to keep everyone continuously updated on our life. Since I am a person who rarely updates Facebook (which still says I live in Tennessee) and could do better to maintain communication with even my parents, hopefully you can bear with my lassitude.

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This is a latitude, which is different from lassitude. Still relevant, though.

Of course, since I have to write, I intend to write about the things that interest me. I will not sterilize for my audience, not when this window into my life is starting to feel like an imposition. So instead of treating it like that, I invite my readers to join me in discussing my interests and passions. Two of those I’m writing about today are traveling and drinking.

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Hasslehoff and I know that drinking and traveling are activities that go great together.

Connie and I will be moving soon (knowing my track record of posting blog posts in a timely manner, it may have already happened). We come from a cold place, but we’re taking on one even colder. With that in mind, let’s talk about hot drinks. Apparently Doug Ford of cold-glass.com thought it was a bit funny last year when I was making tiki drinks in contempt of the blizzard outside; perhaps he will find some more appropriate selections here.

Let’s start with hot chocolate. There a few lessons to be learned with such a common drink. In my opinion, it’s a drink that everyone loves, in spite of the fact that it’s often not very good. There’s no balance, and half the time there’s barely any flavor, just an impression of how good things could be. We drink hot chocolate (more commonly, hot cocoa) because it’s comforting. We drink it in response to outside conditions. So I have two observations before I give the recipe:

1. Any drink that is taken for granted is an opportunity and a challenge, if one applies time, skill and effort.

2. If hot chocolate is drunk in response to outside conditions, then I better have some good hot chocolate to withstand Alaska.

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If no hot chocolate is available, substitute one nephew-heater.

…If I didn’t mention, Connie and I are flying to Anchorage, Alaska on January 4, 2017.

Anu Apte’s Hot Chocolate

5 ¾ cup water
¾ cup demerara sugar
2 vanilla beans, split
6 medjool dates
zest of 1 orange
½ cup strong coffee or espresso
salt to taste
13 oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped
½ cup cocoa powder (not Dutch)

Combine water, sugar, vanilla, dates and orange zest in a saucepot and bring to a gentle boil. Remove from heat, cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes. When you are ready to make the drink, strain the mixture and bring the remaining liquid to a simmer. Place the dark chocolate and cocoa powder in a large bowl. Pour one cup of the simmering liquid over the chocolate and cocoa and wait about one minute. Whisk vigorously until the chocolate and water mixture is homogenous and smooth. Continue to add the water in one-cup increments, whisking after each addition, until all of it is incorporated. Add the coffee and salt to taste. Strain the mixture.

Ms. Apte adds an ounce and a half of Branca Menta to each cup to make a mint hot chocolate.

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Branca Menta is just one of many ways you can embellish this recipe.

So then, moving on, we come to some enhanced cider drinks. Living in Michigan, I have enjoyed an abundance of apples and related products, and I have made many a drink featuring apple. My first bit of advice when using apples is to make sure you actually understand what the flavor of apple is. It can be difficult to separate our notion of the way something tastes from its balance of sweetness and acidity, which is to say, we tend to associate apple in America with overwhelming sweetness, and it can be off-putting to taste it in a drier presentation, like certain Calvados.

It’s important, because if you try to feature apple in a drink when it’s already supplying a lot of sweetness, you have very little ability to add depth unless you only add bitter elements, or try to balance with something sour and risk smothering the apple. You see orange liqueurs around every corner, because the orange has such a strong trifecta of sour, sweet and bitter. The apple has not so firm a foundation on its own.

Luckily, Connie and I have an excellent foundation on which to build a home in Anchorage. Connie has entered into a contract with the Providence Alaska Medical Center for the next two years, working as a Registered Nurse in their Progressive Care Unit. The hospital has not only provided us with significant financial security while we will be there, but it has gone to extremely generous lengths to help us relocate up there. Our possessions are currently headed up in a truck, our car will soon be following on a flatbed, and our plane tickets are bought, all courtesy of Providence.

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Our house-hunting trip to Anchorage several weeks ago was also courtesy of Providence.

Curbside Cider

1.5 oz Rye Whisky
.75 oz Elderflower Liqueur (St. Germain, Pur, or d’Arbo syrup to taste)
.25 oz Fernet Branca
4 oz Hot Apple Cider

Combine all ingredients in a toddy mug, stir and serve. Garnish with fanned apple slices.

It’s true that this drink can threaten to be too sweet, so have a light hand with the liqueurs. The Fernet Branca is the truly clever touch that elevates this drink beyond a spiked apple cider with its herbal influence and hint of menthol. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the elderflower liqueur is only there to save the cider from losing dominance to the herb bomb that even a quarter ounce of Fernet brings. It bridges the two without having too loud a presence, and its vague, citrus sweetness and acidity lend a little depth to the cider. The rye whiskey is the backbone of the drink, but don’t be too heavy with it. Heat makes alcoholic drinks taste more strongly of alcohol, and the cider should be bracing, not abrasive.

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Bracing, not abrasive.

Sometimes an apple cider drink is meant to showcase the apple. Other times, cider makes up the body of the drink to contrast and highlight other flavors, a bit like reverse drawing, or erasing a portrait into a canvas of charcoal.

In many ways, we intend for Alaska to be the canvas on which we draw the scenes of our next adventures. In case you haven’t figured it out, Connie and I both love the outdoors, and we love to discover new vistas. Alaska provides that in abundance, from the Pacific Ocean just beyond the Cook Inlet, to the Chugach Mountains that are a magnificent backdrop to most of Anchorage, to the wildlife and endless sunsets and nights. We are excited to see places that we haven’t, and to do things that we couldn’t do anywhere else. We are ready to make new friends, build on our shared experiences, and grow in our relationship. It seems like a lot of people that we talk to can’t imagine why anyone would ever go to Alaska, particularly in the dead of winter. I don’t think I can make you understand if you don’t already, but here’s my best try: We seek experience and adventure. What we will get by seeking those things will not be necessarily a better life, but it will be different. We choose the highs and lows, not the comfort and safety of familiarity.

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Mountains before and behind.

Bourbon Furnace

1.5 oz Cask-Strength Bourbon
.5 oz Allspice Liqueur
5 oz Hot Apple Cider

Combine ingredients in a toddy mug and stir. Garnish with a decorative apple slice.

As you can imagine, the cask-strength bourbon shines through this drink, in spite of the earthy spice of the liqueur and 5 full ounces of apple cider. I prefer Booker’s, because it can be found nearly everywhere. Considerations like that become more important when you travel.

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These Bourbon Furnaces kept us warm at a time when we had no other furnace.

So there you have it. A quick report on our lives and what the future holds, and a few tools in my arsenal to keep us, not just alive, but thriving, in Alaska.

Pilgrims

Connie and I are changing our name. Rather than one of us taking the other’s surname, we will both be changing our last name to “Pellegry.” It is an anglicization of a Catalan word meaning “Pilgrim.” We have a few different reasons for doing this, mainly too personal for a blog like this, so instead I’d like to talk about why we’ve chosen this particular name.

Dictionary.com defines the word “pilgrim” as “a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.” One of the first things we both looked at, when thinking of a new surname, was Henry David Thoreau’s excellent essay on walking, with his long discussion of the etymology of “sauntering.” He described a purposeful manner of walking, walking toward a goal, the “Saint-Terre,” or Holy Land, in the case of the “saunterer.” I think that resonated with both of us.

Many people have asked my wife and I how we changed from hiking the Appalachian Trail, and it’s been hard for me to explain to them what they’re asking. You can’t take a regular person, put them through an experience like that, and then measure for the result. People aren’t static characters in a novel. More importantly, many people resist change, and are extraordinarily resilient in their resistance. And the truth is that the Appalachian Trail might not change you at all.

All of that to say, Connie and I did not choose a name meaning “Pilgrim” simply because we were hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was a good experience for which we are very grateful. But life is long, and it would be very sad if that hike was the defining feature of our lives. Not to belittle others’ experiences, but the trail isn’t holy land. More to my point, I can’t imagine any walk so important to my experience in this world that I would name myself after it.

One of the first things I told Connie when we first started dating was that I wasn’t a good man. But I promised that I would try to always do better (in C. S. Lewis’ words, “better than I used to be; not as good as I will be”). I’ve long held the belief that complacency is worse than willful failure.

And that is touching on what we mean when we call ourselves Pilgrims. We are journeying, not toward a physical place, but towards a constantly-improving state of being. There is always an opportunity for better thoughts, better words and better deeds. And we intend to strive to be better, even if it’s only one small step at a time. I’ve heard it said that the only true way to fail as a parent is to stop wondering if you could be doing any better for your children. I believe that one of the worst ways you can live life is to stop wondering how to be a better person.

I don’t believe there is any holy land in this world. I don’t think pieces of earth have any special properties from one place to the next. Maybe my lack of faith comes from my technological generation, absorbed in our artificial places and disconnected from, as Pearl S. Buck would call it, the Good Earth. Maybe it comes from my heritage as a descendant of the white invaders of this continent. Maybe it comes from my Christian faith, which teaches that everything will ultimately be destroyed and recreated. I don’t care why, to be honest. I don’t see it as a problem and therefore don’t try to find a solution.

The word “holy” literally means “set apart,” usually in reference to God. It has an implication of being not of this world, not made from the same stuff or belonging to this human experience. Connie and I are Christians, which means we try to emulate our God, Jesus Christ. Since we are trying to be like something which is definitively different from the way we naturally are, I feel that journeying toward a holy land is an appropriate metaphor for our intended way of living. There is an implication that we will never arrive, since we will be pilgrims as long as we live. But there is also a promise that we will never stop moving forward. As Dan Haseltine has said, “Even though I barely move, there’s no turning back.”

And so here we are, declaring ourselves to be pilgrims. We may find a home in this world, maybe even soon, and become established. But our journey will only end when we arrive at death.

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I’m glad we have each other.

Ithaca

Hey everyone.

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Remember us?

I know that it’s been a while. If you only knew the trouble I’ve had writing this blog post…between a lack of time, a lack of cell service, a phone update that made me unable to write on my only writing tool, two false starts, and a nearly-finished post that was somehow deleted…well, it’s been a challenge. I apologize. Please bear with me as I write this; I usually prefer to talk about events when they’re fresh in my mind, and the events I need to record here get less fresh every day.

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If you look closely, you can see that I am rapidly becoming an extremely old man.

Connie and I flipped in Massachusetts. At Jerusalem Road, in Tyringham, Connie’s mother, sister, and our new nephew came to pick us up and drove us to Maine. On September 11, we climbed up Katahdin, touched the iconic sign, and continued our now-southward journey. Katahdin was our first true experience in the alpine zone above treeline, and it left a deep impression on both of us. We were not at all prepared for the weather and conditions we encountered there, and it taught us some fundamental lessons about, as one teacher of ours would charactize it, “unreasonable fear versus reasonable fear.”

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From Katahdin we continued South through Maine. Maine finally replaced Tennessee as Connie’s favorite state of the trail, with magnificent views almost the entire length of our time there. Maine was also, for us, by far the hardest state of the trail to traverse. We had reached a level of conditioning where pure physical exertion never bothered us. But the terrain in the North is much more akin to an obstacle course many times, and in particular the smooth, slanted rock faces that you have to climb up and down constantly in Maine were the biggest delay for us. It was on one of those faces that Connie slipped and sprained her ankle, just before Rangely, Maine, and it was the constant pressure of standing on the slants that made her develop new blisters on her arches that worsened every day until she was hiking on bleeding feet.

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The beer helped, at least.

It seemed like Maine didn’t want us to leave. While we never again encountered anything as difficult as Katahdin, the terrain seemed to just get harder and harder as we got toward the South, and we were delayed much more than we had hoped. But eventually we came to the border of New Hampshire. Suddenly the trail was easier, and we were hopeful that it wouldn’t be much longer till we were done. The final major obstacle was a hundred-mile section from Gorham, NH, to Glencliff, NH. In that section lay the White Mountains, with notoriously bad weather and a few tricky sections.

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Pictured: A “tricky” section.

We arranged with a hostel in Gorham to drop us off at Pinkham Notch, in order to hike North back to Gorham and not have to carry 8 days of food from Gorham to Glencliff. We hammered out that section pretty easily, in sharp contrast to just a few days earlier, when it took us 10 hours to finish a 6-mile day (the Mahoosuc area). This was very encouraging. But the weather on the Presidentials was turning.

Mount Washington, highest of the Presidentials, has a weather observatory on its peak. It is famous for its terrible weather, called the worst in the world. Until very recently, it held the record for the highest windspeed ever recorded, at more than 230 miles per hour. Winds higher than 100 mph are common, and on neighboring Mount Madison, the wind only rarely drops below 40 mph. Because of how quickly the weather can change in an alpine zone, our hope was to pass through the 13 miles above treeline in a single day, from Osgood Tentsite to Mizpah Shelter. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the hostel where we stayed, we were able to wait for a day of good weather. It took almost a week to find a day with winds under 100 mph, but by then it was too late.

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We didn’t encounter this sign until on our way down.

Starting out at Pinkham Notch the day before our supposed good weather, it was ominous to see snow at only 2,000 feet. We made it to Osgood and settled into the snow for the night, still 4,000 feet below our goal.

The next day started off with the predicted good weather. We had sun and mild breezes until we got on Madison. The sun remained, but it couldn’t fend off the cold. Apparently it’s extremely rare for the wind to abate on Madison along the ridgeline, even for a moment, and that day had a reported -16 degree windchill. I’ve lived in Michigan for many years and dealt with windchills much lower than that, but never had I experienced a wind like that: just a constant pressure of cold, hammering into the right side of my face so firmly and evenly, without a single pause. It was as though acid were quickly eating through the skin and settling deep into the bones of my face. The wind made your eyes tear up constantly, then instantly froze the tears.

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It instantly froze the snot, too.

The heavy, frozen snow made our progress up Madison very slow and full of slips and falls. This was especially tough for me, since 2 days earlier I had broken 2 ribs in a fall at the hostel. We reached Madison Hut, 3 miles from our start that morning, at 12:30 PM, and I knew our attempt was finished. The day before, while trudging through the snow at Pinkham Notch, Connie had looked around a moment, then asked me if we were being idiots. “We may not succeed,” I replied. “But I promise that we’re not going to die up there.” We both recognized at Madison Hut that the conditions required different gear than we had, if we wanted to survive. We admitted defeat, took a side trail straight down off the ridgeline, and hitched a ride back to Gorham.

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Just looking at this photo makes me shiver.

We decided that the weather was not likely to take any major turns for the better, and so we skipped the 68 miles of trail between Pinkham Notch and Glencliff. We did this with the open and honest understanding that we were forfeiting the title of “through-hiker.” I still believe from the experience of climbing Madison that terrain-wise, it was relatively easy after Maine, and that with weather-appropriate gear we wouldn’t have a problem. But to completely overhaul our gear–a four-season tent, a warmer sleeping bag, boots for Connie, coats for both of us, appropriate gloves, balaclavas, crampons for both of us–would easily cost us in the thousands, and we decided together not to sacrifice the future plans we had after the trail in order to make up for starting the trail late.

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We did attempt to continue on from Glencliff after that. We had the hope that the snow and cold would be less severe at the lower elevations after the Whites. On the first day, we were soaked in a rain that froze that night. We were anxious at seeing snow still at 2,000 feet. And finally, I lost the impetus to continue suffering through the final 240 miles back to Massachusetts. I could have endured much more, I think, if it were in order to succeed. But after skipping the Whites, I couldn’t justify the misery anymore, not if it still resulted in not finishing. On the third morning after Glencliff, Connie and I had a talk about this, and eventually agreed to end our hike for the year. We hiked to Lyme-Dorchester Road in Lyme, New Hampshire, called a shuttle, and stayed at an inn that night. The next day we rented a car and came back to Michigan.

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Obviously, we returned home with the panache befitting a Pirate and Wildflower.

We walked 1,890 miles of the Appalachian Trail this year, leaving 299 miles left to walk. As I have said elsewhere, we are undeniably disappointed that we didn’t complete the entire trail in one go. We started too late and hiked too slow. But I am extremely grateful to have spent the last six months in a way that few can. I have been humbled by the extraordinary beauty and vastness of the world that I have seen during our hike, and I am incredibly privileged to have spent that time in such close proximity with the woman I love. I have been left with many thoughts after this hike, and I think I will try to organize some of them into some future posts. But for now, all I want to say is that Connie and I are thankful to all of you for your support, for the prayers on our behalf, and the constant encouragement.

It may take us a while, but we will finish the trail. For now, though, we turn our attention to the next adventure.

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Even the cold just made her more beautiful.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

-Ulysses (excerpt), Alfred Lord Tennyson

Our Appalachian Soundtrack

I bet some of you are wondering, “If Connie and Jacob’s through-hike of the Appalachian Trail were a movie, what songs would be in its soundtrack?”

No?

No one wonders that?

Well, we do, so we’ve taken the time to think up some songs. I doubt anyone besides my sister-in-law will actually listen to them all, but that’s okay. We’re being selfish in this post. Connie and I have both really enjoyed spending time picking out songs together while we walk, so honestly it’s been more of an exercise for us, to combat boredom.

If you are at all interested in giving any of these songs a listen, let me first assure you that a LOT of thought went into every single choice. The tone is important, the lyrics are all important (and free of vulgarity); no detail of any song was overlooked. I’ll put in explanations for each as well, and pictures and such.

*Songs with an asterisk are still free of explicit lyrics, but may be louder or more “hard rock” than some people prefer to enjoy. I still highly recommend that you give them a listen anyway.

1. Jacob the Wet Blanket (“Nude” by Radiohead)

My wife is an optimist. Most mornings, I wake up, and she’s been up for an hour already, looking through the guide book, and trying to figure out how to convince me that this day is the day that we finally pull our first 30-miler.

Now, most people who know me don’t think of me as a morning person. So generally, my response to Connie’s grand designs goes a little bit like—

“Don’t get any/ Big ideas…”

2. Bipolar (“Skyrim: Song of the Dragonborn” by Jeremy Soule/”Sad Clown” by Jars of Clay)

This one has two alternate tracks. These songs illustrate the way we feel when we leave our tent in the morning. Basically, when the weather is nice, we step outside our tent and feel ready to climb mountains, fight dragons and Fus Ro Dah black bears into the stratosphere.

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Pictured: Connie pushing two mountains apart so she could pass through.

But if we have to leave the tent in the rain? Basically there is nothing worse in this world that I have ever experienced. Mornings like that make me wonder if heroin really is the answer after all.

3. The Deadline (“Hysteria” by Muse)*

This one might be hard to understand even for fellow through-hikers. But here’s the deal: Connie and I are currently jobless, homeless, and newly-married. We do not know where we will live after we finish hiking the trail; we don’t even know what state. Many people seem to think of hiking the AT as a vacation from the boring routines of everyday life. We, on the other hand, have no solid idea of what life will be like when we finish, and that’s REALLY exciting. Imagine you have nothing better to do all day than plan out your dream home, your future career, the names of your future Saint Bernards. Then spend four months doing that, all the time. We do enjoy the hike and the present experience. But the future?

We want it now!

4. 3 MPH (“Mombasa” by Hans Zimmer)

3 mph is deceptive to non-backpackers. Runners think 6 mph is jogging speed, bikers laugh at a twenty-minute mile and most cars can’t detect such a low speed. I got the hiking merit badge in Boy Scouts, and on my required twenty-mile hike, 3 mph was my baseline. It was embarrassing to go under that.

But that was without a pack. That was on even ground. That was a single-day effort. Toss on a 30-pound pack, get out in 90+ degree heat, clamber up and down boulders and mountains, and maintain a 3-mph pace the whole time. I promise, it’ll feel like you’re flying.

Or it’ll be easy and I’ll look like a loudmouth weakling. One of the two. Either way, this song illustrates how we feel when we’re cruising along at 3 miles per hour.

5. Gettin’ Sweaty (“Gasoline” by The Dead Weather)*

There’s no polite way to say this. My wife and I stink. The smell of my socks at the end of a day could probably actually kill an oenophile. When my wife and I get a rare night in a hotel room, after breakfast, we both gag the minute we return to our room and smell our sundry clothing and backpacks. What I’m trying to say is, we sweat a lot.

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Steve was actually crying in this photo because of how bad his daughter smells.

This has the effect of making us pariahs, to a certain extent, when we are in Civilization. We know we smell bad, when we’re sitting in fancy New England cafés and Holiday Inns. So it’s bred a certain affinity in me with the sweat. We have embraced our “status” as people who see sights others don’t, and hike miles others won’t, and consequently we consider the sweating to merely be the worthwhile price we pay for entrance to our own society. We work hard, together, and neither of us cools our engines for the other.

6. The Ascent (“One Final Effort” by Martin O’Donnell)

This song is all about the climb. Most of the time on the AT, if you’re not descending, you’re heading up. Not every climb leads to a peak, but on the other hand, it’s rare to see a peak that you don’t go right over. To illustrate this, have a look at this photo Connie took from a bridge near Palmerton, Pennsylvania. See the mountain? Guess where the trail leads.

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No joke, this was immediately after Connie asked me, “Who would do this for fun?”

Here’s another picture, about an hour and 2.7 miles later. See that bridge, 2.7 miles away and 1,600 feet below? If you look really close (and go back in time one hour), you can just make out two poor luckless fools who were hoping the uphill was over for the day.

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Shirley Manson would say, “It’s all over but the crying.”

But honestly? The uphill isn’t that bad anymore. Sure, there was a conditioning period in the beginning where we gasped and slowed to a crawl and cursed every uphill. Now we barely slow down, and we anticipate the really good views some peaks have to offer. It’s still hard work, and we always pant and drip with sweat, but it feels good and purposeful and accomplishful. Turns out there’s a really good song that gets what I’m struggling to say, so you may as well give it a listen.

7. The Descent (“Take It All Away” by Red)

The descents break us. This is another thing that non-hikers can know in their heads but never truly understand. The downhill parts of the trail are the hardest, physically. One long downhill can completely derail our plans for a day. The toll that it takes on our knees and feet is devastating. Words don’t really encapsulate how I feel about descending terrain, so I’m going to let the song speak for me. Pay special attention to that relentless drum, and imagine that instead of hearing it in your ears, it’s emanating from your knees. You begin with the whispered pleas to the trail for the downhill to stop, but it won’t and doesn’t, it just keeps going, and your legs start shaking, and the pain in your joints builds, and the balls of your feet can’t keep taking the impacts, and—

(Connie’s Note: Jacob is curled up in a ball, rocking back and forth and whimpering.)

8. Filthy Casuals (“We Are Not Your Kind of People” by Garbage)

All right, so in this section, I’m in danger of, as Connie calls it, “gettin’ all ranty.” I’m going to do my best to remain civil, but look, I’m only human.

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The secret’s out.

There’s a very specific sort of person that you encounter occasionally on the trail; often this person has not themself hiked the trail, but has a relative or friend who has. For whatever reason, these people believe themselves to be trail gurus, and Connie and I, as aspiring through-hikers, are practically obligated to report our progress, receive their critique of our progress (always negative), and are highly encouraged to think about whatever issue they feel ought to be on our minds. Earlier today, a very concerned man assured me that we were in no way prepared for the White Mountains, that he had been blown off the peak of Mount Garfield by a 95-mph gust of wind, that we would never make it in time, and that we had better be very careful because the last six miles of Connecticut had absolutely no water, not a drop. I could have taken the time to explain that we had just fully hydrated and had a full 3 liters of water with us, that we were flip-flopping and so time constraints aren’t an issue, and that it was obvious he was just trying to alarm us about the Whites (sorta like when a woman is pregnant, and every mother in the city has to tell her horror stories about pregnancy), but why waste time? It was so apparent that he had no real desire to communicate, he just wanted to appear informed.

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One time at a supermarket, an elderly woman shuffled up to us, shouted “Check for ticks!” and then shuffled away before I was sure of what she said.

I think my absolute favorite must be when I have my headphones in, and a passing casual hiker ignores that and starts talking at me, because they are sure that I’m desperate to learn every last detail of the next three miles. Or when someone asks where we’re staying for the night, and we answer vaguely (because we don’t tell total strangers where we plan on sleeping), and so they begin telling us about all the campsites and shelters in the opposite direction of where we’re headed…halfway through the day. They think they are helping in the best cases, in the worst I’m certain it’s just people who crave that feeling of superiority that comes from knowing something someone else doesn’t.

Every time I meet one of these filthy casuals, I have this song running through my head for hours afterward.

9. Food Packaging (Cannot Withstand Us) (“Rules of Nature” by Jamie Christopherson)

Connie has a full-tang sheath knife with a 5″ blade that you could shave with…to open her packages of cheese. I have my bare hands.

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And this tiny spatula.

What I’m trying to say is that we’re complete savages when it comes to getting at our food. It’s frightening to watch. The frail wrappers don’t stand a chance.

10. Pumpkin Time (“Lozenge of Love” by Radiohead)

There comes a time, every day, when Connie decides that we’ll never make our goal and we might as well give up. It’s important to note that this happens whether or not we’re on pace or behind schedule, and it comes between 6 and 7 at night like clockwork. I call this “pumpkin time.” Much like Cinderella’s carriage, for whatever reason, Connie’s gumption ceases to function at this magical hour. Luckily, Connie has me, to keep us moving at this crucial junction (in the same way, we would never even leave the tent in the morning if I didn’t have Connie). And luckily for me, Radiohead wrote a song that perfectly illustrates what Connie sounds like when the day is winding down, her gumption is slipping away, and pumpkin time is upon us.

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There are a few antidotes to pumpkin time, like sharing milkshakes along the Hudson River.

Our Daily Adventures

Hey! So the most recent blog post was kind of a bummer, and I thought it might be nice to lighten things up and talk a little bit about our crazy life right now. Ever wondered if birds of prey are a problem for us? Or wanted to know what our secret to weight loss is? Well, wonder no longer. I’ve put together a quick post to help you get to know our daily schedule, and some of the routines and realities of life on the Appalachian Trail.

 

Beginning Bothers

Our days start around 6:00 AM when my first alarm goes off. I have another alarm that goes off at  6:30 as well, but I always let that one go off too, because Connie and I are honest with ourselves these days, and we know that a few minutes of wakefulness don’t always guarantee a successful launch from our campsite.

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Honestly, describing anything we do as a “launch” is probably exaggeration at best.

Basically, all of my least favorite parts of an average day happen in the first half hour. Perhaps it’s merciful that I experience these dark moments in a haze of sleepiness, but I dread them all the same. The first and worst is putting on my pants. The revulsion I have for this process cannot be overstated.

This is not an exaggeration. My pants have been washed a grand total of three times since beginning this hike. That means that on average, they’ve been worn for almost a month between washes, a month of strenuous, daily exercise. When I take them into my hands in the morning, I’m always struck by the thought that they feel similar to playdough. One time recently, we were hiking near Mount Vernon, and got caught in a sudden and torrential downpour. I noticed after it subsided that I had a sort of whitish paste streaking my pants. Connie thought that it might have been pollen getting pulled down by the rain, but upon close inspection, we realized that it had to be sediment left behind by my sweat evaporating. It was so thick that I could scoop up a decent amount of the sludge in my hands and smear it on tree trunks as we walked by.

All of this to say: My pants are truly vile. Putting them on every morning is a psychological ordeal. Connie can attest that sometimes the process takes several minutes, with many disgusted looks and groans and pauses at the ankles, knees and hips.

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My wife has her own ways of dealing with sweatiness.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, my shirt is always just as sweaty as my pants. But I don’t have to put it on before leaving the tent, and once outside, my shirt becomes my refuge from cold, rain, or mosquitoes, and so the psychological trauma is lessened.

The second torture I face every day is something that affects Connie as well, and seemingly every other hiker we’ve seen in the mornings. Stiff feet. It’s hard for me to explain to someone who hasn’t felt it, because it’s always expected now, but always surprising in its intensity. It also carries the paranoid fear that now you’ve really done it, the hike is over, your feet are ruined. And it hurts, in case you missed that part.

Inevitably I am forced to endure it in the morning when I have to go out of the tent to pee. Slipping on my socks and shoes gives no hint that anything is wrong. But the first step feels like I spent the previous day playing hopscotch on a vast pile of Legos, barefoot. It rarely lasts much more than twenty steps or so, but every time, it makes me wonder, for just a second, if I can stomach another day of getting my feet tenderized. Connie and I instantly recognize other hikers in towns when we see them hobbling around like they’re walking on coals. As I said, it usually lasts just as many steps as it takes to stretch out the arches that have stiffened over the night, but it’s a painful process that I dread every morning.

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Human heels aren’t supposed to look like this.

 

 

Hydration Headaches

A lot of people have asked me what we do for water, so I suppose I’ll take a moment here and talk a little bit about how we go about obtaining water.

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We don’t. I only drink rum.

We’re pretty comfortable going up to 10 miles between water refills, provided that we start that distance fully hydrated and with full water containers. For most of the hike, we carried 3 quarts of water at maximum, but for a section from Pennsylvania through New Jersey, we carried a full gallon at all times, due to the scarcity of water sources along the trail. For the same reason, we’ve both gotten pretty good at gulping down water quickly. There was a time, going through Pennsylvania, when it wasn’t uncommon for me to drink a half-gallon of water in a single go at a water refill.

The amount that we both sweat on the hot days is just unbelievable. Annoyingly, our bodies have adapted to the need to cool down quickly, and so we both start sweating profusely these days at the slightest hint of exertion; I can only assume that we’ve trained our bodies to expect a lot more heat at the first sign of any. It’s handy on the trail, but not so much when climbing down the stairs at a hotel makes you soak through your freshly-laundered clothes.

 

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I got this sweaty just from carrying the plates to the table.

 

As for actually getting the water, well, we pump it through a filter. The AT is just lousy with streams and springs, so until recently, it was actually pretty unusual to go more than 4 miles without any kind of water source. And we have access to two excellent guidebooks that list water sources along the trail, how long until the next one, what sort of source to look for, and whether or not we need to treat the water. Lots of methods exist to make water potable, but Connie is a nurse, so we use what would probably be considered the most stringent. We have a Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter that we use to pump water out of whatever source we find and into our clean bottles. On top of that, we’re fairly picky about what sources we’ll draw from, though we don’t always have the luxury of choosing (especially lately). We have once had to resort to pumping water out of a ditch next to a road, replete with floating trash, and we just hoped that it wouldn’t give us dystentery. Thankfully, it didn’t, so we get to carry on trekking up the Oregon—er, Appalachian Trail.

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“Oh no! A falcon took yer kids!”

 

Digestion Dilemmas

We generally plan to have our lunch around 11 AM. The actual time varies based on whether or not we started the morning with water available, whether or not we got an early start, and especially whether or not we can find a nice, comfy log or rock to sit on together. Our current lunch is one jar of Nutella, that we share together with a spoon, and about 500 calories each of carbohydrates. For us so far on this hike that means bagels, crackers or cookies. Sometimes we’ll toss in some raisins or a beef stick for some variety, but the Nutella is the crucial calorie anchor. At 2,000 calories of sugar and palm oil, it’s the element of our meal that keeps us full for hours and allows us to power on till dinner.

Dinner is usually around 5 PM. Again, it’s subject to basically all the same variances as lunch. Currently for dinner, we eat about 1,800 calories of Peanut M&Ms, and little else. That has all the protein of a comparable serving of peanuts, and even more calories, which are the biggest concern while we’re hiking.

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In case you’re not jealous yet, you should know that we’ve both lost about 10 pounds on this ‘diet.’

Other than our two mealtimes, the only real reason that we’ll stop during the day is to refill water. So we fall into a nice rhythm of taking breaks every two hours or so, and in that way the day passes pretty pleasantly. Typically, I enjoy listening to podcasts or music earlier in the day, and then later on Connie and I pass the time by discussing what I listened to, or whatever is on our minds. When we were just planning the hike, I was often concerned that boredom would be a big struggle on the trail, but that hasn’t been the case. Generally, there are so many different logistical things to think about all throughout every day, that having time to think about other things at all isn’t easy. We’re constantly preoccupied with thoughts like, “How did the previous section of trail affect our pace, and by extension the likelihood of making our goal?”; “Will the water at the next shelter be dried up?”, or “Does that rock over there look shady enough and large enough for us both to sit for lunch?”

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“Are you sure this boulder won’t crush me?”

 

Evening 

So the end of the day comes around, and our thoughts turn toward finding a campsite for the night. We have never stayed in a shelter while hiking on the trail, and at this point, I am certain that we never will. Connie is terrified of mice, and they are basically considered a given at every shelter. For every hiker who is responsible and packs out everything they carry into the wilderness, there are at least a dozen who behave like children and consider the trail to be a magical place where they can throw trash on the ground and never worry about it again. Obviously this means that the shelters along the AT are well-known to all the vermin in the area as a plentiful supply of human food scraps (and sometimes to the bears, too).

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Thought I was kidding about the childishness?

And so Connie and I usually find a spot somewhere else for our tent. The vermin problem is so bad at the shelters that we usually don’t even like to set up our tent near one, but in some states, no camping is allowed except at approved sites, so we’ve done it plenty. Our preferred spots are far from other people, away from streams, and in high places. There are good reasons for each of those criteria, and believe me when I say that we’ve learned all of the reasons the hard way. Whether waking up to a tent that’s become an impromptu waterbed, staying up all night courtesy of a fellow-hiker’s music, or being awoken by deer loudly coughing as they come for a drink, the trail has been nothing if not educative.

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I don’t always want to learn what it has to teach.

And once we’re in the tent, that’s our “free time” for the day. That’s when I try to put some work in on this blog. Connie likes to use the time to talk to her family or play Angry Birds. That’s exactly what time it is right now as I write this, and it’s nice. You really learn to appreciate the places where you lay your head when they come at the end of a very long walk.

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Or sometimes halfway through a long walk.

And there you have it. That’s our life at present. It’s hard, and it has a lot of unexpected privations, but we’ve come to peace with it.

In closing, let me leave you with a story. Not long ago, while refilling our water from a stream halfway down a steep, rocky descent, we met a man who was hiking the opposite direction, who told us he lived at the bottom of the mountain. The heat index that day was over 100 degrees. As he passed by, my wife turned to me and said, “What kind of crazy person does this for fun?”

And on we walk.

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The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/ But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.

We Swing Both Ways?!

Connie and I have decided to flip-flop.

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And that’s the end of the blog post, folks!

…Whew, this is going to be a tough post to write. I need to make sure everyone knows what a “flip-flop” is, the pros and cons of doing one, and why we’ve decided to do it, which will also touch on some of the reasons we’re doing this hike in the first place. I usually try to be informative and interesting, and I may need to sacrifice one of those facets of my writing in service to the other, but I’ll do my best, I promise.

 

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Connie is ready.

Hikers develop a sort of vernacular borne out of the fact that most of what we think and talk about are trail-related subjects. After a certain amount of immersion in this culture, I have to remind myself to define the slang to ordinary people who don’t instantly grasp terms like “yellow-blazing,” or “Nobo,” and similar pieces of through-hiker parlance. So let’s start with the basics.

The Appalachian Trail stretches from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. It’s my understanding that the majority of through-hikers begin at Springer and go North toward Katahdin, but there is no set beginning or end. The Northward trek is more popular for a number of reasons, but they mostly have to do with weather and difficulty of terrain. Basically, starting in the North and heading South means that you have very little time to get in hiking shape before tackling the White Mountains of New Hampshire, generally regarded as the most difficult part of the trail. It also means that you must start later in the year, since Baxter State Park (where Katahdin is located) doesn’t open until the end of May, and most Southbounders start closer to July.

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In fairness to Southbounders, July is my birth month, so it’s hard to go wrong there.

Many people travel from Springer to Katahdin, and likewise, many people travel from Katahdin to Springer. Then there are those who get even more creative. Some people start from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (about halfway), head from there to either of the termini, then drive to the other terminus and proceed back to Harper’s Ferry (called a “Wraparound”). Others start at one end, hike to Harper’s Ferry, then “flip” up to the other end and hike the opposite direction back to the ATC. This is called a “Flip-Flop.”

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And this is called “fun.” We hikers are a funny lot.

 

 

 

 

All of this to say, many people have found many different ways to walk along the Appalachian Trail. The ATC considers every method of through-hiking the trail legitimate, in large part because they rely on testimonial evidence to determine who has hiked it (and honestly, the benefits of hiking the trail are fundamentally tied to the experience itself; most people have very little to gain in comparison from just claiming to have finished the trail). Actually, the ATC doesn’t just consider each method legitimate, they encourage a variety of different hiking routes, since that will ultimately cut down on the sizes of various groups of hikers along the trail, and lessens the impact that we have on the wilderness.

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In an actually serious picture, this is what happens when “trail magic” goes wrong, and the trail suffers.

Connie and I began our hike with the intention of beginning at Springer Mountain and hiking North to Mount Katahdin, in a continuous Northward journey. There were a number of reasons we wanted to do this.

The Northern part of the trail is reputed to be hard, in every sense of the word. There is a high chance of injury in some of the rougher parts of the Whites. A slower pace is necessary, even after 3 months of conditioning. The North is also reputed to be beautiful. Many of the accounts given by people who have finished single-segment Northbound hikes talk about the incredible climax of seeing Katahdin days before reaching it, then finally arriving and climbing to the top to see the famous sign that has featured in so many emotional photos.

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This is a totally unrelated sign, but it was emotional for us nonetheless.

We wanted to give ourselves the best chance at succeeding in this endeavor. We also wanted the best experience we could glean. To us, starting from Georgia and heading North to the harder and more rewarding sections seemed like the obvious choice.

Unfortunately, due to a situation Connie had with her job, we started our hike on May 2nd. That is unusually late in the Spring for a Northbound through-hike. Baxter State Park, in which falls the final 14.4 miles of the AT, closes on October 15, or the first major snowfall of the Fall, whichever comes first. Starting out, Connie and I had a pacing guide that was very useful, which guided us through the initial mountainous regions in the South, our slow conditioning phase, the flatter and faster portions in the mid-Atlantic, and finally lets us slow down in the North. The only flaw with our plan? We started one day late, and had less than no room for error. The guide is accurate, maybe a little too accurate to our abilities.

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Oh sure, pacing guide, like we’re going to make good time on THIS section.

As I write this, we are 110 days into our hike. 46 days ago, we lost two more days on top of the day behind with which we started. For every one of those 46 days, we have tried and failed to make up enough extra distance to balance out the progress. And the most frustrating part is that 2 of the 3 days we’re behind came from circumstances totally out of our control. And realizing that caused us to understand the reality that in these next 800 miles, we are likely to come up against another situation that costs us time, whether injury, bad weather, or just the logistics of getting transportation in and out of tiny towns for resupply.

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Luckily, if we get in trouble, we have all these different numbers we can call, depending on the emergency!

The probability that we would fail to reach Katahdin before October 15 is probably the most compelling reason why we’ve decided to flip-flop (especially since our schedule didn’t even account for the possibility of an early snow). But the decision to abandon our goal of through-hiking in one segment was hard for another, more powerful reason: Pride.

The truth is that I’ve never once doubted that Connie and I could finish this journey. Sure, injuries happen and bad luck is a thing, but as far as quitting goes, well, I’d much sooner break both my legs on purpose than admit to my wife that I wanted to quit. I’ve heard it said that stubbornness and masochism are extremely common traits in successful through-hikers, and I don’t doubt it for a second.

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I am basically a hiking machine.

But somewhere along the way, I narrowed my definition of “success” from “hike the entire Appalachian Trail in a single year” (which is the ATC’s definition of a through-hike), to “hike the entire AT from Springer to Katahdin by October 15.” A large part of that narrowing was caused by other people, I’m sorry to say.

For one thing, all AT hikers are certain that their way is best, to the smallest detail. Even people who should know better will say casual things like “if your pack weight is above ‘X’ number of pounds, you’ll never make it,” and other absurd opinions, presented as fact. And worse, people who have never hiked the trail, but only know of it casually, seem to be the most eager to pass judgment on every decision we’ve made from the first day. Sometimes it’s easy to shake off, but often it’s extremely frustrating. I can recall a specific example of a lady who was helping her parents run a hostel near the trail. She didn’t know much about the trail itself, but felt the need to let us know that we probably wouldn’t finish in time, since most Northbounders had already come through. I don’t want to get too much into ranting, but when a person has a dream that will take months of work to accomplish, perhaps the best thing to do is not flippantly mention that you doubt they’ll succeed, especially when you don’t actually care one way or the other about their success, and your opinion wasn’t sought in the first place.

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I would rather squeeze through this a hundred more times than hear one more person say, “You know, I’ve heard that some people flip-flop,” as though it isn’t the only thing we think about every day.

In any case, to some degree we’ve tied our success in finishing the trail in a single Northward hike, to our overall success, and it has taken a major toll on us. We haven’t taken a single day off in almost two months. We have skipped some scenic sections and local attractions that are typically a part of the trail experience. We have been in danger of reducing the Appalachian Trail through-hike to nothing more than an ordeal to be endured and accomplished, instead of an experience to be lived and enjoyed.

Perhaps the strongest reason I have found for flip-flopping is that it takes pressure off our relationship. We’ve realized that we’ve fallen into the mindset of prioritizing our goal, our ambition, above our marriage. If this were a career, or a hobby, or working toward some material possession, it would be a clichéd movie about rediscovering the importance of family. This hike is no different—a life goal, a dream…but nowhere near as important as my relationship with my wife. And I refuse to let it be a reason for the straining of that relationship, anymore than I would a job or other goal.

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We’ll leave the speed records to other people. We’re having more fun anyway.

Anyway, I hope that somewhere in all my rambling you were able to understand the important bits. We do not think that we will be able to reach Katahdin in time to avoid the deadline of the park closure. In order to keep that from preventing us from finishing our hike, we will be driving up to Maine in early September, climbing Katahdin, and then hiking South from there until we reach the point at which we flipped (likely Vermont).

This does not make the hike easier. It also doesn’t remove all time constraints. Winter is coming. We have to hurry if we want to avoid the onset of cold and snowy conditions. But it will give us the ability to finish, and the freedom to avoid injury or dangerous weather.

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Still walking.