Yikes! Beware the Creepy Critters!

Oh sure, some reptiles found along the trail are harmless. It might be startling to almost step on slow-moving, bright orange eft, but it probably won’t hurt you. critters_orange eft

Seeing a huge snake in the trail is another matter. First, it makes one’s heart stop! Then there are mind-racing decisions to be made: what kind of snake is this? Is it poisonous? Will it be aggressive? What should I do? EEEEK! (We saw a number of harmless black snakes and racing-striped garter snakes crossing the trail this spring. Other hikers found rattlesnakes in the path.) critters_black snake

But the scariest critter of all? Be very, very careful if you head for the resupply town of Glasgow, VA. There is a giant dinosaur in a field in the middle of town! critters_apatosaurus_dinosaur guard

Fortunately, I hike with a elven warrior. She usually carries her (stick and string) bow. But she’s had plenty of practice fighting with her staff. Whew! critters_dino attack_elven warrior

(Check out a news story about the Dino April Fool’s prank HERE.)

The M&M Test

There is a story frequently told among AT hikers. It explains how to identify the type of hiker (day hiker, section hiker, long distance/thru hiker) using the simple M&M test: When three M&Ms are scattered along the trail, what does the hiker do? M&M Test_the settingThe day hiker walks right past the candy, never noticing it. M&M test 1_day hikerThe short section hiker stops and picks up the candy. Following “Leave No Trace” principles, this hiker puts the M&Ms in her trash sack to carry out of the woods. M&M test 2_section hikerThe long distance hiker, always starving, throws off her pack, grabs the M&Ms and pops them into her mouth. M&M test 3_thru hikerThen that long distance hikers scrambles to find any other candies that might have been dropped! M&M test 4_thru hiker

(Are you wondering which type of hikers we are? If we drop our own candy or trail mix, we pick it up and eat it. After all, we need every calorie we can get! But no, we don’t eat trash candy left by others. Perhaps that is the difference between long-distance section hikers and thru-hikers?!)

(Thanks to daughter Nettie for taking the photos and daughter Andowen for being the model.)

Are we THERE yet?!

Those dreaded words intrude on every family vacation: are we theeeerrre yet? But this whine is not limited to cross-country car trips. Nor is it limited to kids. Some days these seemingly innocent words sneak into a hiker’s brain, then play on repeat.

The day starts off brilliantly: blue sky, strong legs, happy thoughts. The trail goes up (and up and up), but there are glorious views and sun-dappled forest glades to enjoy along the way. Every hiking day should be like this one! Happy blaze

Eventually, the clouds descend, the misty drizzle begins, and the murmurs sneak in. (Shhh! are we there yet? Hmmm?) Surprise! Even the trail betrays the hiker: getting steeper, and steeper, and steeper! No fair! We are carrying heavy packs…not bounding along like mountain goats!

Surprised blaze

Ahhh! The trail finally relents and heads back down. Surely things will be better now! We should get to the shelter soon (won’t we?) But…the trail is unrelenting. It goes down, down, down…steeper and steeper. Blergh! Hurting knees, aching ankles, fiery feet. This is not the plan… Blah blaze

ARE WE THEEEERRRE YET? When will we get there? Will this day never end? I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! (please stop soon…)

(PS: I know these faces scratched into the painted blazes on the trail are graffiti…but they made us smile on a very long hiking day!)

Exploding Packs!

BEWARE…backpacks may explode!

Too many wanna-be hikers are unfamiliar with the true dangers of backpacking. They imagine injuries or encounters with bears. They worry about stranger-danger or about getting lost in the woods. They eventually purchase a pack and fill it with everything needed to walk in the woods for weeks at a time. It seems so simple while still at home: find a pocket or place for everything, then bring order to the chaos of the piles of supplies. first explosion_at home

They are quite proud of how neatly everything is finally stowed in that oh-so-innocent bag.

But then…that newbie hiker gets to camp, tired and weary after a long day of hiking. The backpack is dropped into the tent, or onto the floor of the shelter…and…BOOM! The pack explodes! Belongings are thrown everywhere… Backpacks_in tent

Oh sure…some folks try to explain away the dangers. They claim organization and patience are all that are needed to maintain order. And sometimes their pack plays along. For a few days, belongings are neatly stowed and retrieved by the complacent hiker.

Even with the best of intentions and keeping meticulous habits, the day comes…the trekker is excited to catch up to friends and hurries to grab dinner ingredients…or is cold and just wants to quickly change to dry camp clothes. Then, suddenly…WHAM! The pack explodes! Belongings are thrown everywhere… Backpacks_in shelter

This dangerous situation can occur anywhere: in a tent, in a shelter, in a hostel. Explosions occur in the woods…and happen while in town. Backpacks_in town

Please protect yourself and your hiking companions. Anytime you touch your pack, do so gently. Patiently lift out each bag and stuff-sack. Avoid the dangers of a pack explosion…

Signs and Symptoms of Pre-Hike Jitters

Everyone knows this condition is common before a newbie hiker’s first multi-day backpacking trip. No one is surprised to hear that the hiker is feeling anxious in the weeks leading up to D(eparture)-Day. Friends and family are happy to contribute to the Pre-hike Jitters: pointing out dangers, asking how the hiker will deal with emergencies, hoping no one gets lost, wishing them “Good Luck” as if no amount of preparation will alleviate the need for luck to survive the walk in the woods.

But experienced hikers know this condition is not confined to the early days of adventuring. Symptoms seem to creep, slowly overtaking even the long-time hiker. It starts so innocently: making lists, then compulsively checking them over and over. 20160422_225448_WEB

Next comes spreading out gear and dreaming of new items that would make the trip “safer” or would be more “comfortable.” (Beware gear envy which is a very expensive, highly contagious disease among hikers! But that’s another topic for another day…) jitters_gear

Checking the weather forecast makes sense. But then the ATweather site becomes a fixation, and the hiker clicks on location after location, needing to be assured there won’t be storms or cold snaps. (And what about hurricanes?? They are not just an imaginary danger…read about that HERE!) Jitters_AT Weather

Soon that ace-hiker is grinding teeth all night long, worrying even while sleep. Owww! jitters_grinding molars_ow

And stress-caused bubbles and blisters may erupt on hands or face. Sigh…jitters_skin conditions

Even the family dog is infected…worrying about the full pack with portends extended separation. jitters_family dog

DON’T WORRY! Pre-hike Jitters are absolutely NORMAL! There is only one sure-fired cure. Get out there and start the adventure. It’s miraculous how stepping into the woods with pack on back turns jitters into excitement. Let the adventures begin! AT ADVENTURE begins

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Just like the main character in Judith Viorst’s classic children’s book, we had a day where everything was frustrating and we just wanted to quit. On this particular day, we were attempting a longer than usual distance for us which made it even more challenging to continue putting one foot in front of the other. In talking with other hikers, these are common feelings during the first few weeks of a long distance hike until one’s mind and body both strengthen…

I went to sleep in the Ed Garvey Shelter but the owls were so noisy I didn’t sleep all night. When I got out of my sleeping bag this morning it was really cold and by mistake I slipped on the fancy stairs and hurt my broken toe and I could tell it was going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. steep steps

At breakfast my daughter had her favorite breakfast drink and another hiker fixed an omelet rehydrated meal that smelled yummy but my breakfast bars had been crushed to crumbs so small they couldn’t hold the peanut butter. I think I’m gonna quit hiking and go on vacation in Tahiti.

When it was time to leave, one hiker was already packed up and saying good byes and my daughter was still slowly sipping her hot chocolate. I said, “I could use some help.” I said, “this stuff won’t possibly all fit back in my pack.” I said, “we are always the last to leave.” No one even answered. I could tell it was going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

When we finally got on the trail, my daughter hurried ahead and took the lead. When I wanted a break, she said I walked too slow. When I looked at the map, she said I was ignoring the side trail to an interesting overlook. Who needs overlooks? I could tell it was going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. trail

I could tell because when we finally took a break and got our snacks out of our packs, I dropped my bag and the M&Ms fell on the ground and my daughter said I was obviously not a long-distance hiker because I didn’t choose to eat dirt-covered M&Ms. I said, “I hope the next time you open your pack your Snickers bar falls out and lands on the beach in Tahiti.”

She still had dried mandarins in her fruit mix and pop tarts in her snack bag and a day hiker gave her a bottle of flavored water. I had only peanuts and crumbly granola bars left for snacks and plain spring water that wasn’t even cold anymore. It was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. break

That’s what it was because I was already exhausted and we weren’t even halfway through the downhill climb. My daughter was still full of energy and we met a trail-maintainer going the other way who climbed up the rocks like a mountain goat. “The ‘Roller-Coaster’ is a few days from here and it’s even harder than this,” he said. “Next week,” I said, “I’m going to Tahiti.”

On the way down the steep mountainside, I was afraid I was going to slide off the edge of the trail and there were so many rocks that even the tree roots had to wrap around them and the path kept going down and down forever. My knees started aching and my broken toe hurt so bad even ibuprofen didn’t help. I started crying and then that squirrel up in the tree laughed at me so hard he dropped the nut he was carrying and it almost hit me on the head. rocks

I am having a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day I announced. No one even answered.

When we finally got to where the Appalachian Trail follows the flat C&O Canal towpath, it was boring. The trees all looked the same and my pack was so heavy I couldn’t skip and I was tired of walking. My daughter thought the turtles sunning themselves on logs were cute but all I noticed was how disgusting the scummy water smelled. turtle She said the whitewater rapids of the Potomac River were beautiful but the glinting sun hurt my eyes. Potomac River I tried calling my husband when we took a break but the reception was bad. I think I called Tahiti by mistake. When I finally got through, it was so static-y that my husband suggested I try again later when there was better coverage in town.

When we finally got to Harper’s Ferry, the outfitter didn’t have the small fuel canister I wanted and the meal my daughter ordered at the café tasted better than mine. I thought I knew the way to the hostel but we missed the trail and had to turn around. (Who puts the white blazes used to mark the way on lampposts and walls?!) I was so tired I thought I was dead. But someone said I couldn’t be dead because I was still walking. food

It was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Nobody told me the hiker hostel was a zillion miles up the hill from the historic town. When we got there I was excited that there was frozen food available to purchase for supper (no further walking needed). But there were no pepperoni pizzas left and I hate plain cheese pizza. There was a choice between vanilla or cookies-n-cream ice cream and I hate both of them. The shower at the hostel was too hot, I got soap in my eyes, I slipped on the wet bathroom floor and all the other hikers had used the thick towels. I hate thin, scritchy towels.

When I went to bed, the mattress was too soft for me to get comfortable and my headlamp batteries had run down so I couldn’t read and somebody was already snoring so loud I couldn’t get to sleep. It has been a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. My daughter says some days are like that. Even in Tahiti. soft bed

If you want to read the original book by Judith Viorst, you can find it at your local library or you can buy it HERE. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

(Note: We finished this year’s epic hike–filled with good days and a few terrible ones–on October 21. We will continue to post photos and stories for a few more weeks.)

It’s a Nutty World!

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail in the fall means beautiful views and bright colored leaves. No one warns you it also means NUTS: walnuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts, and acorns. The leaves are certainly lovely…but the nuts are maddening!

At first the nuts are fascinating. “Oh look, there’s a walnut!” “Awww, that acorn is so tiny it’s cute!” “Oh look, I’ve never seen an acorn that huuuuuge!” Then irritation mounts, as individual nuts cause problems. “Yuck!”—walnut husks leave big black stains on whatever they touch. Stepping on a nut startles the hiker with a loud “crack!” or could leave a bruise, even through heavy boots. Eventually, those innocent looking nuts become dangerous. When the trail is filled with fallen acorns, walking over them becomes an exercise in keeping ones balance on a slippery, rolling, sliding surface. This is similar to trying to keep a 2 liter bottle of soda upright on the metal rollers at a grocery store checkout lane—easier said than done. innocent acorns

Staying in shelters in wooded areas along the trail has its own challenges in the fall. When a nut falls off an overhanging tree onto the metal roof, it lands with a crack like a rifle shot. At first, the hiker sits up in terror each time, heart pounding with a rush of adrenaline. A windy night sends many nuts onto the roof at the same time, sounding more like machine-gun fire. Yikes! The good news is that after a few nights of interrupted sleep, the exhausted hiker eventually learns to ignore the explosions.

In one area of the trail in Virginia, daughter and I kept seeing spiny green balls. We couldn’t figure out what they were. (We knew our initial impression of lime green baby hedgehogs was unlikely to be correct. HA!) Eventually, we found out these were chestnuts. Yes, nuts from genuine American Chestnut trees which were wiped out by blight more than 100 years ago. Apparently some sturdy roots continue to put out new shoots that grow to as much as 20 feet tall and drop nuts before eventually succumbing once again to the blight. lime green baby hedgehogs!

chestnutThe combination of critters and nuts is another challenge in the fall. One night daughter and I were woken up by weird noises. It was not the usual able-to-be-ignored “BAM!” followed by “shhhhhhhhh…plop!” as the fallen nut hit the roof then slid down and fell to the ground. This time we heard a “clicking, clacking, skritch, scratch” sound. Suddenly there was an unexpected explosion immediately above our heads! Daughter jumped up and turned on her headlamp. There was an acorn on the top wooden bunk platform. A mouse popped through a hole in the roof, scurried down from the ceiling, grabbed the nut, and climbed back up. It then tried to shove the nut back out through a hole. That didn’t work well as the acorn fell out of its mouth, “BAM!” back onto the platform. Daughter grabbed the nut and threw it outdoors. Whew! We were able to sleep in peace for the rest of the night.

(drawing by Andowen)

(drawing by Andowen)

The next morning, we hustled through our usual morning routine, in a hurry to get back on the trail. Everything was finally packed. I slid off my camp shoes and tied them to my pack. I put on my first boot and tied it tightly. I shoved my foot into the second boot…oops! Someone left me a gift during the night! (Or else that critter somehow thought my smelly boots made a good pantry for his winter food supply…) That hickory nut soon followed the night-time acorn into the woods.critter pantry

It’s a nutty world in the fall on the Appalachian Trail. However, as my parents discovered when they left a car parked for a number of weeks in their suburban driveway, it can be just as nutty in the city…

(photo by Bob Fischer)

(photo by Bob Fischer)

(Note: we finished this year’s hike on October 21. We continue to post photos and stories from our adventure…)

The Red Carpet Treatment

Only VIPs get to walk the red carpet…

While hiking the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, we spent days shuffling our way through a thick carpet of leaves covering the trail—shhish, shoosh, crinkle, crackle. It was not a quiet hike! Most of the blanket was made up of brown oak leaves or a variety of golden leaves. We joked about someday being important enough to walk a red carpet… a carpet of leaves

And then we found a section of trail surrounded by maple trees. Woohoo! Does walking this red carpet prove that we are VIPs? the red carpet

We are certainly Very Important People to our friends and family. And it could be argued that we are Very Interesting (back)Packers. Just for curiosity I did an internet search for alternate meanings of VIP. Some of these definitions also apply to us:

  • Value in Partnership – we are in agreement that it was much better to hike with two of us rather than alone.
  • Ventures in Peace – we both found a new level of peace and contentment while spending our days and nights outside in nature.
  • Versatile Individual Program – this is the only way to succeed at a long-distance backpacking trip. A common saying along the AT is “Hike your own hike!”
  • Very Into Pizza – true confession time: after days of trail food, hikers crave a big hot pizza loaded with meat and dripping cheese. A burger and fries runs a close second.
  • Very Important Princess – haha! We joke that I’m the Queen and daughter is the Princess.

Under any of these definitions, we certainly deserved to walk the red carpet. And yes, we did feel extra special while doing so! walking the red carpet

(Note: we finished this year’s hiking adventure on Oct 21. We continue to have posts and photos to share with you for a few more weeks.)

Bear Pole?

When backpacking in bear country, it is important to hang all smelly things in a “bear bag” each night. This includes all food, trash, and personal care items. (Don’t worry, apparently even bears want nothing to do with sweaty, smelly, hiking socks and boots!)

In the past, hikers had to try to find the perfect tree…at least 200 feet from the tent with a branch 12 feet above the ground that is strong enough to hold all the items hanging at least 8 feet away from the tree trunk. Yeah, right. Not so easy to find in real life! (See more detailed instructions HERE, if interested.)

Because of the lack of perfect bear trees, most shelters and official campsites along the Appalachian Trail have installed “Bear Poles.” These metal trees have multiple hooks 12+ feet above the ground. The goal is to use the attached metal pole to lift the bear bag into the air and slide it onto one of the hooks. HAH! Bear Pole

I am hardly coordinated enough to do this at chest height where I can clearly see what I’m doing and where the weight of the bag is manageable. Trying to manage this feat with a heavy pole unbalanced by the weight of food bags becomes a comedy of missteps and errors. Hooking bear bag

I’ve decided these contraptions are actually “human torture devices.” Better yet,  they are probably secret “candid camera” set-ups for the entertainment of bears. Hanging bear bag

Yep, I can hear that young black bear snickering right now, and I’m sure granddaddy bear is guffawing at my pathetic attempts to master the seemingly simple “bear pole.” Wish me luck, folks, I think Yogi is about to have a picnic with my food!

(Note one: these photos are not representative.  They were taken at the shortest bear pole we have seen so far. Many posts are more than 12 feet high!)

(Note two: it is stacking the deck against me to have to reverse this process in the morning BEFORE I can get my hands on breakfast and morning caffeine…)