Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Magic Within Magic

Trail Magic in Pennsylvania was unlike any I experienced. As Southbounders, we got used to meager and sometimes exhausted caches of Magic. Finding a Keystone Light or a Mountain Thunder in a small trickle-fed pool in the woods certainly felt magical. Adding a couple child-sized packages of peanut butter crackers to a quickly diminishing food bag usually put an extra zip on one’s pace. Ultimately, finding a gallon of gas-store bottled water bound to a cattle stile deep in a dry stretch gave one the courage and the strength to push that extra 3 or 4 miles to get out of the biting wind, and into a comfy, three-sided, and only slightly breezy home. While Magic for NOBOs often became a nuisance and a possible distraction, for SOBOs it was a different animal. Elusive, sometimes mean-spirited, and seldom enjoyed, Magic kept itself hidden in the bare trees; keen on surprising the NOBOs in the Spring.

Pennsylvania was different. Amidst the rocks and the whines and the day hikers and the FLATNESS, Magic appeared frequently, giving us shock after shock. First it came in the form of beautiful weather. Water began materializing at stranger’s homes steeply off the ridge. Brand-new, free, and extremely chill hostels appeared on flyers that caught our eye in the middle of a plate of fries. Duncannon fell in our laps. Rides, pizza delivery, ice cream pit stops, trips to Philly, incredible angels, and drunken moments carried us from shelter to shelter as we cruised through PA on a hot Magic streak. Hungover, exhausted, and ready to hike, we left Duncannon feeling a need to reconnect with our ‘wilderness experience.’ Our SOBO train was then treated to the longest stretch of flat trail on the AT. As the bubble seemed it MUST be close to bursting, we received news of an Angel named Ishmael in Boiling Springs.

Ishmael’s place was beyond incredible. Normally, when taken in by a friendly townie, it is expected that you might get space on the garage floor (probably space in the yard), possibly an outlet to charge your phone, perhaps a take-out menu, and a spigot on the side of the house to fill up. These are a thru-hiker’s dream accommodations. This is what we were expecting. This is not what we found. Ishmael had over 15 acres of land including a huge, unspoiled ridge on which to camp. He had a gorgeous rustic home. He had another building in process which included a loft and a hammock. He even had an AT shelter in his backyard. Ishmael not only invited us to stay indefinitely, he invited FIFTEEN of us to stay. We were given food, space to crash, drinks, and genuine hospitality. We were given rides in and out of town. We were witness to some extraordinary live bluegrass music. We met some fantastic folks involved in good causes. We even met WeatherCarrot, the famous PCT-hiking, AT-hiking, wandering rock genius. Magic abounded. It meandered in and around us. It swelled in waves, and crashed over us again and again and again.

Now, as wonderful as Magic is, finding Magic within Magic is the White Whale. After such a stretch of luck and general merriment, I was so surprised when I encountered this White Whale that I still get chills. Here is how it went down: we were sitting around a fire on a particularly chilly evening in Ishmael’s backyard. We has just been given an impromptu concert by a stand-up bass extraordinaire, and were now enjoying our company, our beers, and our collective shithousededness. After much provocation, the conversations halted, and Runway began to speak. It began as a poem, built around structure and disciplined rhyming. Slowly--as we all watched, mesmerized--her stressed articulation became a drum, and her lyrics began to flow off her tongue. Her deeply personal criticism of a dysfunctional relationship began to take form. We winced as she wound through various rounds of heartbreak. We smiled as she carried us into her world of revenge. Her lyrical genius aside, Runway’s storytelling ability was staggering. In three minutes, our small group became insiders in her complicated and criss-crossed web. We found ourselves getting more and more entangled in her world as she ripped off razor-sharp lines. At the end, we just stared. Some were confused and a tad shocked, others were waiting for others to react. I, on the other hand, smiled broadly and gave my quiet respect for not only the absolute skill just demonstrated, but also for the accomplishment of the impossible--a one-up on the Magic. A real moment of Trail Magic within Trail Magic.

While I never became particularly close with Runway, I do feel like this moment connected all of us to her. She gave us a glimpse of what she had in store, and she gave us just a moment of her capabilities. But, I will remember this moment for what it really represents: a blissful and serendipitous display of Magic within Magic. Eat your heart out NOBOs.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Nitro (Pt. 2)

Vermont is glorious in the summer. It blooms out of a cold, enduring winter and surprises even the most seasoned New Englander. In sharp contrast to the jagged peaks of the New Hampshire Whites, the Green Mountains offer a pastoral beauty reminiscent of my childhood before suburban sprawl inevitably revealed itself. The trail follows crisscrossed farmland and stretching pastures, and elevates gracefully into the unassuming Greens. After the rugged and difficult trail in Maine and New Hampshire, Vermont guarantees that each day will be fulfilling, peaceful, and restful. On a particularly clear and warm afternoon, Seaweed Sally and I were coming over a bright green ridge when we noticed a lone Adirondack chair about fifty yards off the trail. Some industrious soul had carried this beast up the mountain to simply rest comfortably in admiration of the view over a valley of pastures. We indulged.

That moment capsule served as the jumping off point for our Vermont voyage; a memorable excursion that is so often characterized by the presence of the Nitro. After the initial thrill of driving it subsided, the road trip from Rutland to the Canadian border became another wonderful hike through Vermont, but in fast forward. We chose to take back roads, and spent nearly the entire trip on a highway that followed a young and boisterous river. We passed through small town after small town, and stopped often to bask in the stereotypical general store experience. While the drive itself was a pleasure, music suddenly became a priority.

Most of us had been deprived of extended sessions with music--either intentionally or unintentionally--and the sudden accessibility of it (with the help of satellite radio) amused us to no end. Similar to our pre-AT adventures, Blake and I were at the helm forcing our anything-goes musical preference. Blake and I have a theory that EVERYONE loves pop music; some just choose to repress their feelings. Males especially. The intimate relationships that we developed with our fellow hikers skipped the usual pathways of friendship, and led to a more honest sharing of ideas, loves, hates, and opinions. As such--and without the normal barriers in place-- our theory (at least in our small sample) held up. We all sang Madonna and Britney Spears. We all sang Grateful Dead and Alphabet Soup. We all sang Fergie and Jack Johnson. We attempted the harmonies on Bohemian Rhapsody. We belted out ABBA and gave our best shot at the whistle register when Mariah Carey came on. We sang to no one, we sang to each other, and we serenaded the passengers in other vehicles. And we sang every song at the top of our lungs. The joy that was expressed in that four hour car ride I can only equate with certain moments while performing in my gospel choir.

We spent that night in a cabin that our hotel owner graciously offered due to a lack of tenants. We loved that it had four walls. But--mind-boggling to us at the time--the cabin also had two bedrooms, a full kitchen, a full bathroom, a living room, a loft, and a front porch. It sat on the bank of the very river that we had followed all afternoon. There was also a pool directly in front of our home. We stocked up on beer and food, and prepared ourselves to spend the night frolicking in our amazing new digs. After about an hour or so, we ended up in the Nitro. All five of us. Why? Music. Again, we were enraptured by the lovely sounds that we all missed so thoroughly. We spent the night talking about future adventures, past relationships, current relationships, political views, academic goals, life goals, and absolutely everything in between. All the while, our soundtrack blared at full volume into the otherwise quiet Vermont darkness.

Why was the Nitro such a pivotal piece of gear? Sure, it gave us a well-deserved road trip. It provided a very different mode of traveling, and a completely fresh experience after nearly two months of arduous walking. I suppose it was an escape. But, more than anything, it brought us together in a manner that is hard to capture in everyday life. It gave our minds time to catch up to our muscles. The Nitro supplied an environment in which uninhibited expression and joy flourished. I think that the rarity of that kind of experience elevated its importance. There is something priceless about the way in which people interact when drastic and highly deserved change occurs. Or, maybe it was simply because the Nitro could effortlessly carry Styrofoam coolers filled with cheap beer.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Nitro (Pt. 1)

After spending two months in the woods reinventing the way in which I approached daily life, coming into civilization was an experience completely independent from the rest of the journey. We considered ourselves ‘wildlife’ among the everyday Americans going about their lives--on their lunch breaks, perusing the local classifieds for apartment listings, analyzing stock prices and changes in the commodities markets, arguing over sports, complicating uncomplicated matters for the sake of causing trouble, and generally buzzing about. Entering a new town was not only strange in that it was a completely foreign community, but also because inevitably we were received in vastly different manners, and predicting those receptions was difficult at best. Some towns had nasty reputations due to either eminent domain issues, or simply a general feeling of disgust toward disgusting hikers. Some towns had overwhelmingly strong reputations for generosity, friendliness, and acceptance. Regardless of the reception we were granted, it was usually fairly different from the reputation that it carried on the trail.

If you are interested to know what it feels like to experience a thru-hiker reception, take three weeks off from work and follow this list: lug on a 40 pound backpack, enter the woods, climb 7-8 mountains a day regardless of the weather, don’t shower, don’t do your laundry, sleep in the clothes and socks you hike in, walk through a truckload of moose shit, take a few spills and don’t wash off the dirt or blood, eat only noodles, peanut butter, flour tortillas, snickers bars, and water, don’t speak to any non-hikers, don’t listen to any music, sit next to a campfire every night, and don’t shave. Then come out of the woods and promptly visit your local grocery store. Hooooo boy.

After two months, this grocery store moment had only slightly lost its luster. We did, however, come to expect the aghast mothers, the not so subtle looks, and the inevitable thru-hiker presentations (see forthcoming ‘Thru-Hiker Presentation). It became hard to shock the thru-hikers even though it was easy to shock the general public. We fell into a pattern of searching, purchasing, and repackaging. It became both a tangible pleasure and a careful science. Things continued in this fashion until late August. In Rutland, VT, we got a shock that propelled our already hilariously fantastic adventure to a new stratosphere. In Rutland, VT, while we sat outside of the Price Chopper in the parking lot repackaging our mac and cheese, our Enterprise Rent-A-Car agent pulled up in our Dodge Nitro.

The Dodge Nitro is your typical gas-guzzling monstrosity that can been seen quite often cruising down the rugged terrains of Main Street in middle America. It is big, it is unnecessary, and it looks like a tank with jazz hands. We were heading to a reggae festival in northern Vermont, and mainly needed it to transport five bodies and five packs the size of five smaller bodies. The Enterprise agent assured us that it would suffice. Suffice it did. The Nitro, with its immense capacity for creating an environment that was the polar opposite of hiking, immediately relieved our knee pains, cured our irritable dispositions, and disposed of the literal weights on our backs. I begged the group to allow me to drive, and, while en route, I often glanced in the rear-view mirror and noticed one of the trail weary hikers grinning and looking over his shoulder at the passing highway framed by the mountain of packs and the chrome trim of the Nitro.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Prelude to 'The Nitro'

Driving is a strange privilege afforded to many Americans. In many ways, driving has become a national obsession: commuters congest the highways for hours and hours of each workday, only to pile back in the car for weekend trips with the family. In fact, I remember when I was younger our family used to get in the van and take drives to neighboring towns to observe and appreciate the beautiful upstate New York landscapes. This activity carried over to my own driving life. While in high school one of my favorite nightly routines was getting in my 1984 Cavalier with my best friend and driving around the Capital District until very early in the morning. Admittedly, this stemmed from boredom and a lack of other stimulating events, however, we both grew to enjoy simply driving and swapping stories and ideas. Many of the trips I have taken were initially developed around two in the morning on Interstate 87.

After college, when I began working for HSBC, I joined the commuter world. For nearly and entire year, I commuted over 100 miles each day from my college town to the North Shore of Massachusetts. While this undoubtedly took a terrible toll on my car, it afforded me the opportunity to spend one last year together with my college friends; an opportunity which I knew would never present itself again. After moving into Boston, I continued to commute a sizable distance to my office, yet managed to seriously decrease the wear and tear on my car. After nearly three years of following the packs of cars down the interstates, I developed my first distaste for driving. I learned that road rage is very easy to fall into, and difficult to contain. I also learned that I was rushing to a job that I hated. Again, a traveling decision made within the confines of the car was about to take place. And what better decision than the ultimate extreme?

After our initial physical struggles on the Appalachian Trail, Blake and I developed an acute taste for the freedom from technology, and the slow pace of our new lives. We woke up before sunrise and purposefully took our time preparing our breakfasts, breaking down camp, and packing up for a new day of walking. We both lusted and worried over maps and guidebooks; each mile presented both a new challenge and a new adventure. We, like new parents, developed an enhanced sense of insecurity when crossing a road, taking special care to look both ways and cross directly instead of at an angle. I became fascinated when an overlook framed a distant highway, remembering the stress I used to feel. The more we became enmeshed in the woods, the more we developed a mind for the undoable, the unimaginable, the unconquerable. The possibilities are limitless in a world where your greatest fear is a mouse in your hair or a spider in your sleeping bag.

Making friends along the way enhanced this perspective on the ‘real’ world. We often engaged one another on ways in which we could further remove ourselves from the accustomed. We decided not to shower for 21 days; we decided not to wash our clothes until it was unbearable; we challenged one another to battles of distance, speed, and mimicry. We made plans for huge days: a 20, followed by a 24, followed by a 21, followed by a 27 and here we are in fill in the blank in time for fill in the blank! We made terrible decisions and we made wonderful decisions. We laid out under the stars shivering and laughing and scheming recklessly and singing until we could no longer take it and collapsed in our sleeping bags. We made friends with strangers and day hikers and weekend warriors, we laughed at the NOBO’s who made cell calls in the shelters; we considered ourselves an integral part of the landscape, not merely visitors. One young girl upon seeing me on the trail exclaimed, “this is the Appalachian Trail! Welcome!” I smiled and thought, “This is my home.” I don’t think I thought about driving for a month solid. And I was at peace with that anti-thought. Until I met the Nitro.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Grease Monkey.

OK, here's the first installment. It was fun to write, and hopefully will be fun to read! Enjoy...

Gorham, NH wasn’t an ordinary town stop; this was the mother of town stops in the early stages of our trail journey. While in Maine, we had been treated to tremendous hospitality, and wonderful trail angels. We also got our taste for the hostel life; a mixture of interesting hosts and guests, and a small slice of small town America. Maine offered a miraculous picture of long-distance hiking: a slow meandering approach to life, a unobstructed and deliberate goal that manifested itself differently on a day to day basis, and a both uncomplicated existence and an extremely complex aesthetic experience. However, Maine was--as my sister would say--both cool and uncool. Maine was hard. Maine made me think that I had an incurable rash between my legs in an important area. Maine gave me so many mosquito bites that at one point one foot was visibly larger than the other. Maine made me appreciate dry clothes. Maine showed me that a staircase is not always convenient. Maine drove out the meek and the weak, and nearly drove me out of my mind. Maine destroyed my ideal picture of an Appalachian journey. Maine introduced me to real knee pain, not that crap that I suffered from after track practice. But, Maine gave me something that I will never forget: pure happiness. However, while Maine was extraordinary, it lacked one important and tangible element that Gorham, NH provided us: Fast Food.
Fast Food continued to both haunt and direct our lives in the earlier portion of the Appalachian Trail. “Is there an Arby’s in Hanover? I would kill for one of those disgusting-looking roast beef monsters.” “Oh my god, where the hell is the privy? I knew Taco Bell was a terrible idea with a 4000 foot climb standing in front of us.” “I have to say, KFC was amazing, but I’d love to get at a few of those personal pans from Pizza Hut. Let’s go in 2 hours. Or right now.” Zero days were organized not by the grocery store or the local outfitters, but by the location and walking distance of the Fast Food joints as wonderfully displayed on our guide book maps. “Yay! McDonalds and Burger King are literally neighbors! I’m thinking breakfast and brunch at BK--they have that amazing quad meat sandwich--and lunch and snacks at McDonalds.” Blake always happily agreed. I always happily agreed. And, despite what many granola-crunching folks may tell you, many, MANY others came along for the feast. I’m not saying that Fast Food was my sustenance goal in each town (actually, Coca Cola was), but not only were the calories hard to pass up, the draw was immediate and overwhelming. After noodles and mashed potatoes every night (replacing maybe 50% of the calories lost), the ease and almost instant gratification of Fast Food weakened my knees. As time went by, I learned to eat more appropriately in town (however, not on the trail), but I still indulged without guilt or regret of any measurable level. So yes, I’ll take my fruit salad and roasted chicken with a side of Big Mac. And don’t forget the 64 oz Coke.


Hi. I am Sam. This is my blog. I hope you enjoy it. I will update this blog whenever I feel like updating it. Mainly this blog will offer stories I write concerning my experience on the Appalachian Trail. Also this blog may have pictures. These stories are meant to primarily entertain me and a few others, but if they reach the depths of the internet, I hope they entertain others. I miss the AT tremendously, and recently I've realized that I need to write about this amazing journey. Hopefully, these short snippets will offer a window into both my experience, and into the experience of a long-distance hiker in general. It truly is a life worth leading, and I have the highest respect for anyone who drops their life, or places it on hold for a considerable period of time to attempt a thru-hike. Onward.