Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ben and Jerry's next flavor? Vermud

A persistent underlying theme of my thru-hike? ICE CREAM.  What better place to be than Vermont, home of Ben and Jerry's?

I love Vermont. The Green Mountains are more rugged than mountains we have seen lately, yet beautiful. Beaver-dammed ponds add something new to the scenery and there have been some amazingly crisp mountain lakes for swimming.  The weather has been mild and there are few pointless ups-and-downs.  There are lots of ups-and-downs, but they lead to fire towers and views and lakes and things worth hiking for.

The only problem lately has been MUD.  Thru-hikers have nicknamed the state Vermud because the trails are very, very muddy.  Immediately after crossing the MA/VT border we were slogging through mud.  For a while we tried to avoid it by hopping across rocks.  It reminded me of that game that we played when we were little- the one where we jumped on furniture and tried to avoid the "hot lava" or carpet.  We jumped on rocks, logs and roots to avoid slimy mud.  Eventually that got frustrating and I just started walking straight through the mud.  I heard Day Tripper cuss for the first time, thanks to Vermud.

One positive aspect of the mud is that it preserves moose tracks!  I have seen dozens of huge tracks so far but have yet to see the moose itself. Unfortunately my camera is dead and I won't be charging it until New Hampshire, so I will have no pictures Vermont.  I'll come back someday though, because this thru-hike is really just an adventure along a narrow corridor of the Appalachians.  There is so much more of these mountains that I have yet to explore.  Plus I need to try my hand (or feet) at some of the Vermont ski slopes that I've been hearing about.

Day Tripper had to leave the trail AGAIN after just two days in Vermont, so I'm tackling most of the state solo.  But not really, because I am in a little cluster of other hikers, most of whom I really like.  I have been hiking around two especially interesting women lately- Wild Poodle and Cahoda, both in their 60's.  This is Cahoda's 5th thru-hike attempt.  These women are examples of persistence on the trail and how all-consuming this dream can become. I think this is their year.

I should be in New Hampshire in about a week. New Hampshire is home to the hardest section of trail- the White Mountains.  So I still have a lot of challenges ahead of me.  Also,  I am taking a week off of the trail in the middle of August to go to Day Tripper's brother's wedding, so that puts my Katahdin summit date somewhere around mid-September.  Less than 600 miles to go from here, but it feels within reach.

Time for some ice cream!


Thursday, July 22, 2010

High Points and Northern Hospitality

I'm in Massachusetts. Not sure how that happened, but the miles are flying by.  As of today I have less than 600 miles left! This morning I honestly considered taking a hike on the Long Trail, which runs over 200 miles from the AT in Vermont to Canada, to make this last longer.  That's on my list of future trails though, and for now I have to live in the present and savor this as much as possible because I know it will be over soon.

Connecticut was quick and awesome. It was my last state in the Mid-Atlantic portion of the AT, which meant the last state with wimpy mountains.  The highest point in Connecticut is Bear Mountain, which Day Tripper and I just happened to be on top of during the scariest thunderstorm of my life.

The trail passes through or near some very quaint cities in Connecticut, and it seemed like we were on a travelling tour of Connecticut neighborhoods for a while.  We are definitely in New England!  One thing was very noticable about mountain towns here- rich people live in the mountains in the North, while poorer people live in the mountains in the south.  Interesting observation.

We also did something that I vowed to never do but I couldn't resist- an aqua blaze! Aqua blazing is floating down a section of the trail instead of walking, and in Connecticut near the Housatonic River the AT parallels the river for ~6 miles.  At first I felt guilty about not walking those miles, but we could see the white blazes as we floated, and I promise I won't do it again! It was amazingly fun though and a great break from our normal routine. So we rented tubes from a local outfitter and aqua blazed thanks to our new friends Dave and Nate.  They are a father and son duo that we met at a grocery store in Kent, CT and they helped shuttle us for the tubing trip.  They seemed eager to help, probably because they needed a break from their cross-country trip, the purpose of which was to research hot dog stands because they are opening one called Little Chubby's Weiners.  If you are ever in Wichita, Kansas I suppose you should go.  They even gave Day Tripper a shirt because he lost his in the river- great trail magic!

Massachusetts has been amazing for a few reasons.  First, we finally met up with Conan and Backwards, some of our favorite hiking partners.   We had been chasing them since Virginia, and Backwards got giardia so we actually passed them without realizing it.  We met up at Benedict Pond in a state forest in MA, where we were celebrities for the day.  Somehow word got out among families swimming at the beach there that we were walking from Georgia to Maine, and we spent the afternoon chatting about our trip in exchange for lots of delicious food and drinks.  The best part of the day was when Andrew, a five-year-old kid from New Jersey looked at us with big blue eyes and said very matter-of-factly "Hopefully you won't starve on your way all the way to the corner of the United States".  Hopefully we won't, but with the obscene amount of money I have been spending on food lately I think I'll be ok.

This state has offered some amazing views and scenery, something that was missing in the Mid-Atlantic.  A hightlight was Upper Goose Pond, where the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a cabin next to a pond for swimming complete with canoes and kayaks and topped off with a pancake breakfast.  Yesterday we summited the highest point in the state, Mt Greylock, and had a sneak peak at the White Mountains, theinfamous mountain range that awaits us in New Hampshire. It's hard to believe that we're getting so close to the Whites, and so close to the end.

People in Massachusetts are much, much more friendly than I had expected.  I had heard rumors of "Massholes" which basically are snobby, arogant New Englanders.  I have yet to meet them.  Maybe it is because we are friendly and kind, and we know the importance of respect to local residents in town and on the trail.  Take-home point of Massachusetts- kindness encourages kindness. 

Now I'm going with Backwards to visit the Crane Museum, a museum at a famous paper factory where all the money in the US was once made.  Random, maybe, but it's free and who knows when I'll be back in Massachusetts?  Vermont tomorrow will be the first state on the AT that I have not yet visited, so it will definitely feel far from home. Farther from home every day, but closer to Katahdin.


Monday, July 12, 2010

One Thumb in the Air for the Big City

Here I am, sitting squeaky clean in my friend's apartment in New York City.  You may be asking yourself "How on Earth did Thunder get to New York City"?  Sure enough, the trail doesn't go through Central Park, but I am going to be walking through it in a few hours. It's an interesting story, but the fully understand my New York state of mind we have to go back a few days to the New Jersey/ New York line.

Numerous people have warned me about the often overlooked difficulty of the Appalachian Trail in New York.  It's short, just like New Jersey, but it's steep and rocky.  Remember my description of the Roller Coaster, a section of trail in Virginia that is difficult due to its pointless ups and downs? If those hills in Virginia had a baby with the rocks in Pennsylvania they would name it New York.  I should give it a break though, because under normal circumstances it wouldn't be too bad.  It was just HOT. Again, 100+ degree days on the trail are no picnic.  The heat just zaps all of our energy and causes dehydration and sickness.  Every day during this recent heat spell was harder than the previous, and it definitly took a toll on us.  I was reluctant to go to bed every night because I dreaded waking up in the morning and walking.  That's not how it's supposed to be.  I found myself fantasizing about playing Flash games in an air-conditioned office cubicle.  

So in an act of desperation, another thru-hiker, Heads Up, and I hitched into Greenwood Lake, NY.  This was the one time on the trail that I most wanted to stay in a hotel.  I almost threw my budget into the wind and said screw it, it won't matter if I'm broke if I die of heat exhaustion.  But I really do want to make it to Katahdin, so we did the next best thing.  We went to Subway in an attempt to sit in the air conditioning all day.  Just our luck- the AC was broken, but it was a cool 86 degrees and we were able to drink gallons of fountain drinks to rehydrate. It was actually a blessing that the AC was broken because it was easier to start hiking again.

Heads Up and I hiked some big miles together to make it to the train station by Sunday.  I was planning on a trip to NYC to visit my friend Mallory in Manhattan and pick someone up at the airport.  There is a train station on the trail near Pawling, NY but the train only runs on weekends.  After three 20+ mile days pushing for the train station, Heads Up gave up and hitched a ride from the trail to the bus to the city. I was on my own to finish two more 20+ mile days

I made it to the train station, only to find that the schedule was wrong and I was three hours early!  I was starving and fantasizing about ice cream.  The station was actually just a platform next to the train tracks and there was no TCBY for miles around.  Well the second-best trail magic of my hike occured.  As I was sitting in the shade, a day hiker came to the platform.  I thought she was taking the train into the city, so we starting talking.  She was actually just waiting for a friend and was then going to drive into Manhattan.  She offered me a ride and said "as long as you don't mind stopping for ice cream first".  Was I dreaming? Nope.  I had lunch and ice cream with Cathy and Khristine.  Then I rode with Cathy to Brooklyn and we took the Subway to Manhattan.  It was wonderful to have someone help me navigate the Subway and point me in the right direction in the big city.  The universe provides!

The city has been unreal, but I am really enjoying it.  It's nice to walk around and see so much going on around me- these people are much more entertaining than the chipmunks and squirrels I have been watching lately.  One thing I have noticed is that people really don't pay attention to anyone but themselves.  I was nervous about being so dirty and smelly in the city, but aside from one girl who moved away from me on the Subway, no one has even looked at me.  It's kind of sad after experiencing the instant connections that I have with other hikers when I meet them.  Also, I am reminded of what I love about the woods in the first place.  It's a simpler life with less things.  But I'll admit, I did enjoy seeing people wearing cute clothes, and Mallory even let me borrow a dress to wear for the day.

Now I'm off to navigate the subway/bus system alone so I can go to the airport to pick up Day Tripper.  Yes, he is coming back to the trail!!! Unfortunately only until Rutland, VT- about two weeks.  Then I'll be on my own again for the White Mountains and Maine.  We're going to walk around Central Park this evening, which I'm not too excited about because I don't want to walk anywhere but north on the AT.  My feet hurt.

No wonder they hurt, another milestone has been reached.  I am officially 2/3 of the way from Georgia to Maine!


The Garden State? More Like the Black Bear State

I left Palmerton, PA after saying goodbye to Day Tripper, but I wasn't alone.  I hiked with Grolar Bear, whom we nicknamed Grumpy Bear, because he complains so much.  Nevertheless, the hike out of Palmerton was FUN.  It was a lot of rock scrambling on a pretty exposed face, the temperature was cool, and Grumpy Bear didn't even complain!  Those are the best moments these days.

After a few more days of rocks in Pennsylvania, we hiked down into Delaware Water Gap, PA.  I stopped at the hostel and saw a familiar face from Springer Mountain- Gutsy! The woman I hiked with on the very first day of the thru-hike.  She was section hiking and slack-packing her husband, so it was just a coincidence that I ran into her.  We walked across the Delaware River together, which was kind of cool because Washington crossing the Delaware River was a historical event during the Revolutionary War, and it was the weekend of July 4th!  I walked across the bridge that they have built since 1776 and through a park full of families having picnics.  A snapshot of America.

Crossing the Delaware also brought me into New Jersey!  The state was short and relatively uneventful- the thing that I will remember most was the HEAT.  High 90s, sunny, and miserable.  Without Day Tripper I could slow my pace a little so that helped.  One thing it didn't help was the water situation.  Most of my water comes from springs and streams, and 90% of those sources in NJ and NY have been dry.  It's very stressful not knowing where your next water is coming from, and a liter of water is over two pounds so I have had to carry a lot more weight than I would like.  Fortunately, a few kind souls or "trail angels" leave gallons of water at road crossings.  Some even leave coke, which is like rocket fuel on the trail- caffeine plus sugar plus hydration.  I would like one IV of coke, please!

New Jersey was also interesting because of the bears.  There are more bears per square mile on the trail in New Jersey than any other state, and they are not timid.  I have to admit that I have an irrational fear of bears, epecially when I am camped alone.  Especially on the 4th of July, when I saw two Mama bears and four baby bears in a single day.  So, I used an empty Gatorade bottle as a beer alarm by putting coins and batteries in it and shaking it every time the bears came near my campsite.  It worked, and I got a little bit of sleep although not much because it was very warm that night and I was really missing Day Tripper.  This seems a little ridiculous because black bears very very rarely harm people.  I later found out that I wasn't the only thru-hiker who was scared of bears in New Jersey.  SpringKat, an older Irishman, used firecrackers to scare the bears away from his campsite.  I heard it worked well- I may have to try that trick next!

More on New York soon!