Sunday, July 31, 2011

VERMONT!

It is impossible to say this without emotion, so please excuse the capital letters. I am excited to report that VERMONT HAS MOUNTAINS!

(Even better than the mountains, however is this: I saw my PARENTS today for the first time in OVER FOUR MONTHS. They met me at the top of Stratton Mountain and brought me all my favorite things to eat and something new to read. I cried. It was all kinds of perfect. It feels SO DAMN GOOD to be this close to home.)

(Also: FIVE weekends in a row seeing people I love. How awesome is that?)


Friday, July 29, 2011

UH-OH

For the record, the internal frame of my backpack is not supposed to look like this. My duct tape supply is wrapped around my trekking poles (which are waiting for me in Manchester Center, VT, after I accidentally left them in the trunk of a friend's car over the weekend), so I borrowed some from a fellow thru-hiker. Three days to a new backpack!


Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Thoughts Exactly

Greetings from Mount Greylock, the highest point in the great state of Massachusetts. I found both of these monuments on the summit, and thought them to be quite beautiful, in very different ways. Tomorrow: VERMONT!



Saturday, July 23, 2011

Moving in Massachusetts

A small part of me was hoping that the Boston Red Sox would meet me at the border with a six pack of Sam Adams, a lemon scone from Sherman Cafe in Somerville, and a welcome home hug for Massachusetts' prodigal daughter.  Unfortunately the only thing that welcomed me into the current state of my (homeless) residence was a brutal heat wave, which, to put it mildly, was a bit of a bummer.  Thankfully my restful stay with my wonderful aunts, uncles, grandma, and cousins well prepared me for the heat, and gave me this to think about when I was starting to have difficult moments coping: my family contains some of the greatest people on Earth, and I am so deeply thankful to have them in my life.

I've been hiking like hell since the start of the heat wave, and am looking forward to taking tomorrow off at Upper Goose Pond, where there will be much swimming and revelry.  After that it's back to work for me, and time to make miles.  As it turns out, I have less than 650 miles until I'm done with the trail... and it feels rather funny to think that I'm almost done (although 650 miles is still Virginia + Georgia + Maryland, which is a lot).  How did that happen?

Anyhow, in case you want to send me a letter, here are my next couple mail drops.  Send letters to: Bree Carlson, Thru-Hiker; General Delivery,
  • Killington Vermont, 05701 (by August 2nd)
  • West Hartford, Vermont, 05084 (by August 6)
  • Hanover, New Hampshire, 03755 (by August 8)
WOAH!  NEW HAMPSHIRE!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Creepy Guys, Part Two

It's been a while since I wrote about the creepy guys on the trail, so in order to balance the overwhelming stream of positivity that I've been blasting you all with, I figure it's about time I brought you all up to speed.  Before I go any farther with my story, I want you all to know this: my Uncle Mark gave me a small knife.  Now, I doubt very much that I'm going to use it for anything other than cutting neat slices of cheddar cheese (and I doubt that I'll even be doing that much, as I've been eating cheese directly from the package like a savage animal), but I thought you all should know.  I started the trail with both a trusty knife and a can of mace, but when I didn't use either for a week I sent them home.

One of the things that I heard a lot in my first week on the trail (and in some of the books I read before I started) was this: watch out for the town guys.  The idea was that guys from the towns I passed through weren't part of the thru-hiker community, and consequently could be planning nefarious things for all of us delicate-as-a-flower thru-hiking women. Well, my friends, as far as I can tell, that advice is bullshit. Bad guys are everywhere, and being a thru-hiker doesn't mean that any guy (or woman) is automatically safe for me to be around. (Furthermore, thru-hikers tend to smell... uh... unpleasant, and no townie, male or female, really wants to be around that kind of odor.)

I've noticed in the past few months that I'm getting a lot harder.  I've stopped giving guys second chances: you say something creepy or act weird around me, and I'm getting the hell away from you, immediately. I got into a conversation with a thru-hiker I met two weeks ago who told me that he started on January 1st (red flag: why aren't you farther ahead?), was hiking in jeans (red flag: cotton kills!), carried a BIG knife strapped to his hip (red flag: not necessary, unless you're completely paranoid), and who kept mentioning that he's spent a lot of time in town lately trying to get "medicine" (red flag: most people don't tell strangers about the "medicine" they need).  Anyhow, I recognized right away that I was supposed to be asking about this "medicine," but instead of playing along, I left as soon as I filled my platypus with water.  I didn't want to know, I didn't care, and I didn't have to ask.  So I didn't.

Back in North Carolina a thru-hiker in the bar was chatting with a group of us, when all of a sudden he looked me in the eye, said "I'm sorry, but I can't help it" and ruffled the stubble on the top of my head.  At first I laughed it off, but then I got royally pissed.  What right did he have to touch me?  None.  When he came over later to apologize I had one of those moments of clarity: I don't HAVE to be nice, I don't HAVE to smile and look pretty, and I don't HAVE to accept his apology.  So when he started to say he was sorry, I tore into him, telling him to keep his fucking hands to himself, and to get the hell out of the bar.  I said a couple other things too, which caused him to back up and leave the bar so quickly he didn't even say goodbye to his friends.  I haven't seen him since.

The creepiest guy I ran into out here, however, was a guy whose name is synonymous with those overnight flights from the west coast (I'll call him "RE").  I first met RE in Waynesboro, VA, when I was camping at the YMCA. I heard through the hiker gossip grapevine that he'd tried thru-hiking in 2009, but was arrested on a drug related charge, and when he tried to complete the hike in 2010 ended up locked up in a mental institution, which he had recently sprung himself from.  Now, I don't know if any of that is true, but I do know this: I don't like people who talk non-stop, are very twitchy, drink too much, and periodically break out into freestyle raps about the Appalachian Trail.  I hiked like hell to get away from him, but two weeks later I came across him at a shelter at lunchtime.  I kept my distance, setting up a good 30 feet away at a picnic table to start pulling together my lunch. He was acting a bit odd, but when he started having conversations with invisible people, giggling maniacally, and then barking (while all the time not noticing my presence) I packed up my lunch and left immediately.  If my phone had still had battery life I would have immediately called the police, but instead I hiked fast until I found a friend, and warned away everyone who was hiking south towards the shelter.  The next day, when I did have a working cell phone again, I texted all of my friends who were behind to give them a heads up.  At no point did RE bother me directly, but I sure as hell wasn't going to give him a chance to do so.

When I told these stories to my Aunt Margi today, she suggested that perhaps it isn't that I'm losing my niceness on the trail, but that I'm losing my naivete.  And I think she's right.  While there are lots of people who are absolutely amazing and wonderful and who consistently demonstrate the absolute apex of humanity, I'm recognizing more and more that there are also people with whom I do not want to give any of my time. So I don't.  And that's been fantastic.

Monday, July 18, 2011

When Animals Attack!

Okay, not really, but I've been having a couple of wonderful interactions with animals on the AT recently.

While in New Jersey I saw 8 bears, and had a couple visit my tent site after dark. Sparky and I were camping soundly in the vicinity of Island Pond, in NY, and he woke up at 2 am and heard a couple of them moving around.  He made some noise to scare them off, and I woke up to hear a high pitched yowling as they moved away (I sleep REALLY well on the trail, apparently, if I don't hear a 400 lb bear nosing around my tent at night).  It makes me wonder how many other animals come near my tent at night while I'm sleeping.  Incidentally, there are only a couple of photos of the 14 bears I've seen total because, hey, they're big and they're bears, and as soon as I see one I tend to back up really, really fast.

This young bear was eating his way through a blueberry patch (which was 
also what I was doing, until I ran into him).

I got within six inches of this guy. I am the FROG WHISPERER!

This video was taken about a mile before the William Brien Memorial Shelter. (Amber, if you're reading this, you might not want to watch or listen to this video, and also might want to ignore the next couple photos.)

video

Apparently rattlesnakes are considered endangered in New York, and messing around with them or killing one can bring along a hefty fine. I know that some of you are worried with how curious I am about the rattlesnakes, but you should know that the thought of the fine is keeping me in check. This is not the case with the Eastern Hognose Snake, shown below.

 
An Eastern Hognose Snake that curled up as if he were going 
to strike me after I gave him a pat on the tail. He also rattled his tail
against the dry leaves to mimic a rattlesnake.  COOL!

Apparently the Hognose Snake will play dead if you mess with them enough.  
Hey, Frodo- you might not want to hike with me for a while, because I 
want to check that out.

The next video is from Nuclear Lake, near Pawling, NY.  The lake is man-made, and was near a former nuclear experimental facility, which was shut down in the 1970s after several plutonium spills.  Apparently the area has been adequately remediated and is safe to visit, but still... one of those things you'd like to know BEFORE you stick your feet in the water.
video 

At any rate, I wasn't sure what kind of fish these were.  Logically I knew that they weren't phiranna, as I was hiking in New York, and not South America, but their agressive pursuit of my feet made me feel a bit nervous about them.  Oddly enough, they were not as interested in my hands, although a couple of them did nibble on my fingers.
 She looks so grumpy!

At one point I had about 20 of these guys hanging around, 
waiting for a chance to nibble at my toes.  CREEPY!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Into New England

I'm in danger of providing an endless stream of positivity that will make even the most soft hearted of you start to gag.  Every time I leave a state I tend to start a new post with "Why hey there, STATE! You were awesome! I loved you!" and I recognize that for some of you, this might be getting a bit old.  But, sadly, it's both earnest and true.  Having had no expectations for any of the states other than New Hampshire (which I've hiked extensively in), I've been finding myself pleasantly surprised all the time by the topography, diversity of scenery, and flora and fauna.  New York was no exception, and I encourage you all to go hike the section of the AT between the NY Thruway 87 and the Bear Mountain Bridge.

 
Island Pond is one of the most beautiful places to camp that I've seen.
I wanted to take a photo of the pond at sunset, but unfortunately the 
bugs got BAD.

 Island Pond Mountain at 6:15 in the morning.  I wanted to stop to camp, 
but didn't think it prudent to call it a day after 25 minutes of hiking.

Volunteers must have put in thousands of hours to create the well graded and 
beautiful hiking trails up and down Bear Mountain. If you've ever volunteered
with a trail crew before, thank you! 

 Crossing the Hudson River on Bear Mountain Bridge.

One of the things I've loved the most about New Jersey and New York was the ability to camp in unusual places (having, ahem, decided to willfully ignore the camping restrictions described in my guidebook).  I spent the night at an AMC camp, a fire tower, on 80 acres of private property (with an awkwardly placed outdoor shower- Hello, people sitting on the shelter porch!  Don't mind me!), a park in the middle of a village, at the fringes of a remote pond, and on a Franciscan monastery ball field.

I'm currently holed up in Connecticut, having crossed the border into New England yesterday afternoon.  I'm taking two days off to visit family and rest my body (and, hopefully, let some friends who fell behind catch up).  My uncle Mark and cousin Chelsea met me near Kent with a large cooler filled with things they thought I'd want: sandwiches, sushi, juice, fruit, vegetables, etc.  And while that was certainly wonderful and extremely thoughtful, my favorite part is getting to spend time with my family, relaxing and laughing.  Tomorrow I'm heading over to see my aunts and to put in some time in the pool, hopefully evening up the weirdest tan lines I've ever had.  I hope all of you are having a similarly wonderful weekend.

Beautiful Bad Idea

Close your eyes, and imagine this.

Actually, scratch that.  If your eyes are closed, you can't read what I've written.

On Friday night, I arrived in Pawling, NY, with a terrible idea in the back of my mind.  The idea had been placed there by some other thru-hikers who had come across me relaxing on the sunny shores of Nuclear Lake (more on that, later).  While they stripped down to their shorts for a dip, they told me of their plans: camp at the garden center in Pawling, NY, and then night-hike under the full moon the 18 miles to Kent, CT, where they would get breakfast and then fall asleep in the library air conditioning until they got kicked out.  Both Big Ben and the unfortunately named RawDog had one question for me, "Was I in?" My response was about what you'd normally expect for a person whose feet were so swollen and painful that she was wondering if she needed a new pair of shoes, again: "Hell no."  However, as I hiked away from the lake I started thinking about it more and more, and since bad ideas are something that stew in the back of my mind before blossoming into what eventually turns into THE BEST IDEA EVER, by the time I arrived in Pawling I had changed my mind.  I set up my tent at the garden center (a run of the mill garden store that provided a tap and a place to camp for thru-hikers), between a busy road and the train tracks, and tried to get some rest.

In case you've never camped near the train tracks, let me summarize it for you: imagine laying down in your tent, trying desperately to get some sleep before you're scheduled to wake at 11:45 pm to start night hiking.  You've gotten everything in order, so that when you're woken up you can pull your gear together and hit the trail as quickly as possible.  Your toes are taped, you've selected your snacks and filled up your water bottle, and you've preemptively laid out your hiking clothing: you're set.  And just as you're about to drift off, all of a sudden the ground starts shaking, a loud whistle sounds, lights start approaching your tent rapidly, and a train barrels by, 15 feet away from your head.
 Terrifying.

Now imagine that happening every 30 minutes until 11:45 pm.

Between that and the traffic I didn't get much sleep.

Six of us hit the trail around 12:20 am, walking first across the road and then up a small hill through pastures.  The full moon was high in the sky, casting a silver hue across the landscape.  We climbed over fence stiles, and marched single file across moonlit pasture.  I took it easy at first, letting my feet warm up, listening to them sharply complaining about the lack of rest from the 18 miles I had done just hours before, and easing them into the task set ahead.  As I slowly made my way up a grassy field, I could see a giant black water tower and the bodies of my fellow thru-hikers ahead, all silhouetted black against the the sky.  At one point we passed a group of cows sleeping in the field, the moon reflecting off of their black fur.  A low bellow told us that at least one of them was awake, and knew that we were moving by.

We left the field and began ascending the first mountain of the evening.  The moonlight only occasionally spilled through the trees, leaving small sliver puddles on the forest floor and the leaves, and I turned on my headlamp for the first time since waking. I recognized the people ahead of me, not based on their faces or clothing, but on the shape their bodies made when illuminated from the front by their headlamps.  We stopped only twice before the first shelter, once to forge a path around a massive spiderweb, and once to spend a moment listening to coyotes howl and the hoot of a nearby owl.

We arrived at the first shelter at 2:30 am, six miles in, and I decided to call it a night.  My feet were aching, and the lack of sleep had finally caught up with me.  As a crawled into my tent I could hear the stillness of the evening and the faint snoring of nearby campers. The coyotes moved closer and began yipping and yowling, and I drifted off to sleep to the sounds of their symphony.

Yet another perfect night on the Appalachian Trail.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ten-four

Ten border crossings down, four to go! Hello, New England. You're a sight for sore eyes.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Nom nom nom...

Calories = energy.

It's a simple enough equation, but one that I am still continuing to struggle with. In the real world, after all, calories are something we tend to avoid. Given the excessive amounts of 'diet' products for sale and women's magazines hawking "Top Ten Tricks to a Skinnier You!" it's no wonder I can't get the food thing right. Now, don't get me wrong: I am not out here to lose weight (although I definitely have. Hello, legs that I don't recognize!) and I love eating whatever I want (Hello, ice cream for second breakfast!), but finding the balancing point between starving and gluttony is hard.

The past few days I thought I had been doing well with food, eating just enough to keep me motivated and feeling good, while not carrying too much weight (food is HEAVY). When I arrived at Bear Mountain Recreation Area and saw a consession stand, I decided to pick up a snack to get me through the remaining six miles. It was late in the day and the only thing left for sale at the concession stand was chicken tenders, and since I've stopped being fussy about meat for the duration of the trail, I bought them.

There must have been about 2 pounds of breaded and fried meat in the carboard tray I was given, and I remember thinking that there was no way I could eat that much food, as I had eaten lunch two hours previously. The daily recommended portion size for meat is about the size of a deck of cards; this was the equivalent of four or five decks.  While figuring out how to pack out my leftovers (emergency ziploc bag located in hidden top flap pocket of my backpack) I ate the whole thing. In ten minutes. Without even noticing.

I took that as a sign that I haven't been eating enough.

Yesterday I ate an entire pizza for dinner. This morning I finished off a jar of Nutella that was supposed to last a week (it lasted three days). I'm currently at a deli, resupplying (and eating second breakfast), because I've eaten all the food I had figured would get me to CT.

As it turns out, when I have enough food in my belly, I can MOVE. (Which is what I need to do if I'm going to make it to CT tomorrow afternoon... once I pick up an ice cream treat for the road, that is.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Direction

Twice in the last two days someone has asked me for directions.  Normally I'd be all about helping people figure out how to get to where they're going, except that I don't have a clue where I am. For a person who usually has a good sense of direction and who has, on more than one occasion, displayed an abnormal affinity for maps, this utter lack of place baffles me. I keep wanting to justify my inability to help by explaining that I'm not from around here (just look at the enormous pack on my back), but instead I just shrug and move on. It's odd feeling so lost; until last night I didn't realize I was so close to New England and my family and friends. In the mean time I'll continue to follow the white blazes, and hope they lead me in the right direction.


Monday, July 11, 2011

I'm not sure I want to be a part of it...

For the next 100 miles I will be telling anyone who asks that I am from New Hampshire. As Mayor Mike from Unionville, NY, said the other day when I answered the question honestly, "A Masshole, eh? We don't want your kind here."

Well, then.


On The Boardwalk

I'm back after a lovely weekend eating lard based food and wearing cotton clothing provided by my friend Bonniejean.  I'll be walking out of New Jersey this evening, and am hoping that the mosquitoes will not be following me into New York.  Wishful thinking, I know...


Playing in Pennsylvania


Hello, Pennsylvania.  I didn’t see you there.  You kind of slunk in the back and showed up one day, with a sly smile and a quiet demeanor.  I wasn’t expecting you so quickly; having spent nearly a month and a half in Virginia, my short time through West Virginia and Maryland seemed to be over abruptly and all of a sudden I found myself within your rocky boundaries.  And yes, I think the phrase ‘rocky boundaries’ is appropriate, Pennsylvania, because you do have rocks.  You and I both know that you’ve got a terrible reputation regarding those rocks-  I’ve heard thru-hikers joke about how the Pennsylvania residents come out in the off season and sharpen them.  I’ve also seen multiple shelter log entries say things like “Well, I never expected to get this far, so I’m calling it quits here in PA before it gets bad,” or, “I’ve just about had it with these damn rocks,” or “My body can do the miles, but I wish my feet would get on board.  OUCH!” (Full disclosure: I wrote that last entry.)  People are quitting, Pennsylvania, and I know some of them are blaming you.

This is the trail, in PA.  It goes over these loose and tippy rocks.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

I was sitting in Boiling Springs, PA, at the Allenberry Resort and Playhouse, with my hiking partner Frodo.  We had come into Boiling Springs that morning early, gotten a room (with a significant discount for thru-hikers), and were feeling a little overwhelmed by staying in the lap of luxury (hot tub, swimming pool, tennis courts, restaurants, and a theater all on the premises).  We were in the theater, at intermission from a production of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ when Frodo turned to me and said, “AWOL was hiking too fast to write about this in his book, and Bill Bryson was going too slow to have seen this.  And honestly, neither of them could have described this moment.” And he was right; how does one adequately express how delightfully odd it was to be in the middle of a theater, wearing semi-dirty clothing, surrounded by well dressed senior citizens, watching a play where the only goal the main character has is to get married (why Hello, character motivation that I don't understand AT ALL!), along with the sensation of being EXACTLY where one wants to be? 

The following day Frodo and I booked it 25 miles to get to the Doyle, in Duncannon, which was just about the exact opposite of the Allenberry.  The old hotel was four stories tall, with a bar and an excellent restaurant on the bottom floor.  The top two floors were for lodging, both, it seemed, for permanent residents and for thru hikers.  The Doyle is legendarily hiker friendly, and just about as close to a trail institution as you can get.  On the upper levels, however, the windowsills were rotting, the sheets on the bed were torn (and the comforter was located, bafflingly enough, on the floor of the closet), there was no screen in any of the windows, I found what appeared to be dog food under my bed (but I didn’t look closely), and the shower was one where shower shoes were not optional.  (Speaking of showers, the third floor shower leaked directly onto the second floor shower, which was a rather unpleasant and distressing discovery.) 

 The main entrance to the Doyle.  Off to the right is the Ladies Entrance, 
which does not immediately dump you into the bar.  (Guess they weren't really
thinking about thru-hiking ladies when they designed the hotel...)

The fourth floor (which was called the third floor for reasons unknown to me).  
The photo is a bit brighter than the reality, which looked and felt like a place where 
you'd wake up in a horror movie involving axe murderers and maze like hallways.

Two days later Frodo and I found ourselves in Port Clinton, taking a day off, waiting for the local Enterprise dealer to show up with a car for us to rent.  While entering the Post Office, we were invited to the local barbershop, where Frank, the proprietor, set out cookies and coffee for guests and thru-hikers.  We ended up spending about an hour and a half there, chatting with him, his customers, and the accordion player who was providing background music.  It was wonderful and completely odd and random (I mean, when was the last time YOU hung out in a barbershop for an hour and a half and didn't get a haircut?).  From there we picked up three additional thru-hikers, and had a lovely day and evening at the Yuengling Brewery, the town of Hershey, Amish country, and the Blue Ball Bowling Lanes.

 Yuengling Brewery is about to be entirely women owned! 

I realize I’ve spent the past three paragraphs talking about my off-trail adventures, Pennsylvania, so let me quickly discuss the ones I’ve had on the AT.  First and foremost, you’ve been flat, either through level farmland or on the high ridges.  Both areas have been periodically rocky, but with the rocks have come the most amazing snakes.  I’ve been waiting my whole trip, a good 1,200 miles so far, to see a rattlesnake, and much to my delight, I saw two in one day.  When added to the copperhead I saw the previous day, I was pretty much in heaven (Frodo, not being much of an appreciator, was less so).  Now, I know that not everyone enjoys the presence of a snake (or two), especially the poisonous ones.  However, when I was a child, my dear dad would rescue snakes he found at his construction sites and release them in the stone wall outside of our house.  One memorable day, he brought home a baby gardener snake, and let me and my sister keep it in a tank in the house overnight.  In the early morning, we snuck out of bed and got the tank, and brought it back to our room.  We made tunnels out of the sheets and covers, and played with the snake for several minutes, until we accidentally lost it in the bedclothes.  Several terrifying seconds later we found it again, put it back in the tank, returned the tank to its former location, and nobody was the wiser (until now). So yeah, running into two rattlesnakes in a couple hours was kind of amazing.

 Full disclosure: I did not poke the snake with my hiking pole to see it move,
but I really, really wanted to.

 Not a snake, but a really cool dragonfly.  Anyone know what this is?

The other thing, Pennsylvania, is that you surprised me on my way out.  Now, I was aware that the trail passed by a Superfund site (in Palmerton), but I didn’t realize that the trail actually went THROUGH the Site.  While I don’t want to completely dork out on all of you with what happened, in short summary there was a smelting plant with poisonous fumes which caused the destruction of vegetation on the top of the mountain.  The trail passed through some of these areas, and provided excellent views of the devastation and revegetation.  (I should mention that the blueberries and black raspberries at the Superfund site looked AMAZING, but I decided to leave them alone.) (Full disclosure: there was a NASTY thunderstorm coming in, and I was trying to move quickly, which lessened the temptation of the beautiful berries.) (Question: Why do thunderstorms always seem to be rolling in when I’m going uphill?)

 Palmerton Superfund site at Lehigh Gap.  In the very faint background you can
see the remains of the smelting plant.
 
AWESOME!

The final thing I want to mention, Pennsylvania, is that I got to see two of my wonderful friends while in your borders.  My dear friend from college, Erin, and her father picked me up not too far from Palmerton and brought me to Maryland to recuperate and rest my feet for a couple of days. We spent time playing with her two gorgeous daughters (one of whom decided I looked French and would speak to me in no other language), visiting Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, and getting our Civil War groove on at Gettysburg.  Erin all but dared me to mention this, so I will: the park rangers at Gettysburg are extremely knowledgeable, are very good at spinning the stories of the battle at Gettysburg, and are incredibly good looking.  Do what you will with this information (I, for one, will be returning to Gettysburg next year).  Erin’s parents provided me with excellent food and accommodations, and by the end of my visit I was well rested and ready to return to the trail. About a week later I was picked up in New Jersey by my good friend Bonniejean, and brought back to Pennsylvania to her father’s house.  There we ate food fried in lard, hung out in an Amish market, went briefly to the Cabela’s retail store (which I was told is the most visited place in all of Pennsylvania), and had a nice and relaxing weekend.  Some highlights for me included eating the best pretzel of my life (and then eating two more), riding on the back of a motorcycle for the first time in my life, and singing in the car with a very close friend, but my very favorite moment was when Bonniejean drove up in her car, got out, and gave me a hug (and didn't even complain about my odor).  It was wonderful.

 Gettysburg.  That sign in the foreground says something along the lines of
"Don't be a disrespectful idiot and climb up on the rock with General Warren."  
(That's why I'm not in this photo of the view from Little Round Top.)

 Erin, me, and her two little girls.  Note: Laura is rocking the Elmo backpack.  
(I think she's gonna be a thru-hiker when she grows up!)

 Cabela's Retail Store where they have about a gazillion stuffed animals (not the cuddly kind).

 Me and Bonniejean!

So, Pennsylvania, I’ve got to say this: you may be rocky and my feet may be swollen, but I’ve had the most amazing times within your borders.  My friend Brazil Nut told me recently that when she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last year, she only had one goal: to have a six pack from laughing when she finished.  It’s a good goal to have, and I’ve definitely gained some wonderful laugh lines since I left Harper’s Ferry.  I’m not sure exactly what changed in the past month, but all of a sudden, instead of having a quietly wonderful time, again and again I find myself in the midst of surreal and hysterical moments. 

Pennsylvania, you’ve been beyond amazing. Don’t listen to the haters.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Notes on New Jersey

Thru hikers are an oddly dramatic lot. Nobody really complains about the rain, mosquitos, or ticks, because they suck for us all, equally badly. (Except for me. I complain about the ticks. I'm up to 15 now, and have named the scissors part of my leatherman "Sting" because it has dispatched a number of them.) But the terrain, now, that's a different story, as everyone seems to handle it differently. Largely trail rumors blow everything way out of proportion, as evidenced by "You can do 30 miles per day in Virginia" (not true), "Pennsylvania is horrible and rocky and everyone hates it" (again, not true, and besides, Maryland was rockier), "New Hampshire is wicked steep and your daily mileage will be cut in half" (okay, that's true, but its so pretty you won't mind), and "Vermont is full of mud" (unconfirmed, but will keep you posted).

Nobody talks about New Jersey, and I don't understand why they don't. The Appalachian Trail section of New Jersey has been outstanding (for the record,  Pennsylvania was also outstanding,  but that's a longer post and blogging about it from my phone would be inefficient and would kill my battery). Here are a handful of reasons why my first 50 miles in NJ have been great:

1. I've seen ridiculous amounts of wildlife, and I'm not even counting the man with the plumbers ass and the terrible atomic bomb mushroom cloud back tattoo.  In my first 48 hours in the state I encountered 8 bears (two of which were cubs), 15 deer (including one itty bitty speckled fawn), a curious bunny, a knot of baby toads (and a couple of adults), and a gorgeous brown and tan rattlesnake who rattled at me multiple times as he went on his merry way.

2. The scenery is wonderful.  There haven't been a lot of sweeping vistas since the Smokies,  but what Virginia and Pennsylvania have lacked, New Jersey is making up for.  And when the views from the ground aren't good enough, you come across a fire tower or two to give you a higher perspective.  And if sweeping views of gentle topography aren't your thing, New Jersey provides untouched ponds, silent forests,  and smooth granite rocks surrounded by sun touched tall grass.

3. I've been in New Jersey for three days, and have had an opportunity to go swimming each of those days. (Back when I was in high school daydreaming about hiking the AT, it was the swimming holes that I was thinking about, not the hiking part.)

4. There are a lot of young backpackers on the trail, ranging from scout groups to YMCA groups and the like. I ran into a group of about 20 ten year old boys couple days back, and such a fun time chatting with them for 5 minutes. (Incidentally, nearly all of them want to hike the trail when they get older. I'm sorry to all the parents of those NJ boys for maybe putting that idea in their heads.) Yesterday I tented near a girl's YMCA group, and loved sharing trail stories with them. (I'm not apologizing to their parents, though, because there needs to be more women on the trail.)

5. There are a lot of interesting places to camp. My first night I camped at the Mohican Outdoor Center, which had a very informative display about rattlesnakes.  Yesterday I camped at the base of a fire tower, watched the sun set, and saw fireworks. Tonight I'm camping in a huge field set aside for hikers, which has a shelter, good water, and a hot outdoor shower. (It also has a plethora or lightning bugs who are illuminating the field in a lovely manner.)

In that vein, the lightning bugs need some watching.  Goodnight, everyone!


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Can You Feel The Love Tonight?

Since I couldn't safely shower my love on the 8 bears I've seen in the last 24 hours, I had to pick a surrogate.

He wasn't too happy about that turn of events.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

HALF-WAY

This is a week overdue, but I'd like to present two "Half-Way to Maine" victory poses:
Victory Pose #1: Me, at the Half-Way point, wearing my
autographed shirt, which contains such relavent advice including
"Don't eat bear scat," "Don't eat mushrooms," and "Don't poke snakes." 
Thanks for your vote of confidence there, guys. 

Victory pose #2: The end of the Half-Gallon Challenge.
The advice on the shirt should have said, "Don't eat a half-gallon
of ice cream in one sitting."  Errrp.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Mason Jars and Dixie Cups

I've officially left the South, and have entered the land of no eye contact among strangers.  I like to laugh about how reserved the North tends to be, how we tend not to talk or look at each other on the Subway, or approach people we don't know.  When I was still in graduate school, I went to Salt Lake City with my friend Bonniejean for a conference.  As we were waiting in line for a buffet lunch, the woman in front of us heard us chatting, and turned around.  She started the conversation with, "So, where are you from?" and I swear, I just about panicked.  I can't speak for Bonniejean, but my thought process went a little something like this: "Who is this strange woman?  Why is she talking to me?  Is she crazy?  Does she want something? What's wrong with her? Oh.... wait.... she's being friendly." 

At first, being in the South reminded me a great deal of that moment.  I just couldn't get over how nice everyone was, offering me food, and help, and rides.  I think I wrote about it on my blog before, but when I was at Newfound Gap, in Tennessee, a woman came up to me and offered to make me a sandwich, out of the blue. And while I haven't been offered a home-made sandwich in a while, I did feel a bit sad walking out of a region of the country which has so thoroughly transformed the ways in which I interact with strangers. 

As such, I'd like to present a short list of things I hope I never forget about the three months I spent south of the Mason-Dixon line.

1.  There are churches everywhere.  Logically, I understood that there is a 'Bible Belt' but I didn't understand quite what that meant until I got to Damascus, VA, where there are at least five churches within four blocks in a town with a population of less than 1,000 people.  In that vein...
1a.  The Ten Commandments.  As a secular northerner, I was surprised to see the 10 Commandments prominently displayed all over Pearisburg, on yards, in business windows, and on the rear-view windows of cars and trucks.  As it turns out, there is a perfectly good reason for this: there is an ongoing court case involving hanging the 10 Commandments in the local public schools. When I asked a local man about the issue, he explained it as such, "Well, an atheist wanted to take the Commandments out of the schools, so now we're hanging the Declaration of Independence up next to the Commandments to make everyone happy."  It was an interesting take on a complex issue (and one I was not prepared to debate as the man in question was a shuttle driver who was helping me get the hell out of Pearisburg for the final time), and one which further underscored to me that I was still in the Bible Belt.
2.  Grits are good.  (Actually, I'm not sure if the grits were so good, or if I was just delighted to have another way to legitimately and appropriately eat cheese in the morning.  Guess I still have to do more soul searching on this issue.)
3.  There don't seem to be any coffee shops.  The first time I saw a Dunkin Donuts in the past three months was... well... actually, I'm in Pennsylvania now, and I still haven't seen one.  So maybe it's not just a Southern thing. 
4.  Mr. Black told me a while ago that the true border of the South was determined by the line at which Sweet Tea was no longer sold.  As this seems to directly correspond with when diners switch from serving whipped spread to butter, I'd like to propose these as a more relevant alternative to the Mason-Dixon line.  While I will miss Sweet Tea tremendously (although my teeth are thankful that I've walked out of that zone), having real butter on my toast in the mornings where I'm lucky enough to wake up in town is wonderful.
5.  Trains.  They're everywhere, in almost every hill town, blowing low, toothy whistles in the middle of the night.  Harper's Ferry was the ultimate for me in terms of the trains; I stayed at the Town's Inn, which was almost directly across from the railroad tracks.  Between the freight trains and the commuter trains, I was in absolute heaven.
6.  The music.  I didn't get off trail to listen to live music on purpose, but every time I stumbled into it I was blown away.  Between listening to a country western/bluegrass version of "I'll Fly Away" in a bar in Damascus, to overhearing "John Brown's Body" sung at 10 pm on the streets of Harper's Ferry, I've never before so strongly connected music with my physical location.  I doubt I'll ever be able to listen to those two songs again without being transported back to both of those nights, feeling overwhelmed with the lyrics, and the tune, and the location.
7.  My inability to get anyone to give me a quote on how much it would cost to get a shuttle.  Trying to get from Pearisburg (that sinkhole of a town) to Bland, I called three separate shuttle drivers and asked them how much it would cost.  Each time I was told the same thing: I don't know, but I charge such-and-such amount per mile.  Now, the route from Pearisburg to Bland isn't ALL that uncommon, and getting a price estimate should not have been hard, but it was all but impossible, each and every time I called.  Re-reading A Walk in the Woods confirmed that this was not just my issue: Mr. Bryson had the same problem trying to get a cab in Tennessee.

I'm sure I'm leaving out a number of wonderful things, but I'm going to end this list here, as I'm currently in Maryland visiting my friend Erin and her gorgeous family.  The last few weeks have been magical, and I'm in the process of writing a very long post about the beautiful and surreal moments I've had.  To the South, and everyone I met within its loosely defined geographic features: thank you for your hospitality, your kindness, and the way in which you helped me start to lose some of my cynical northern sentiments.