A season walking southbound on the Appalachian Trail
August 14, 2015Posted by on
Now I’m into it, deeply and thoroughly. The milestones are beginning to click by already. The first 100, 200 and 300 miles. The first state line crossing. My first, second and third resupply stops. My trail name (Deja) sounds more natural to me and is used more often than my real name. I’ve hitched to towns. I’ve been part of a bubble (a group of hikers that stays together) and already lost my bubble. The routines have been established and the weekly shower is just one part of it. The trail is hard. I’ve fallen countless times, been on the verge of hypothermia, and had an afternoon of serious doubt about being out here. All of this is just par for the course on the AT. Nothing new under the sun.
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Mileage, Trail names, and Lingo
Every so often the length of the Appalachian Trail increases due to relocations. When the trail was completed in 1937, the trail was 2,058 miles. When I first hiked it in 1998, it was 2,168 miles. This year it is 2,189 miles.
After 24 days on the trail, I’ve taken three full days off (for rest and for teaching online). My highest mileage day was 21.5 miles on day 4. My lowest was seven miles on day 8. Everything else has been in the ‘teens.
Taking on a trail name has been a longstanding tradition on the AT, as well as on other trails. They’re simply nicknames hikers adopt, or are given, during their hike. In 1998, my trail name was Critter (short for Coffee Critter and a play on my last name, Crispe, as in Crispy Critter). When I returned to the trail in 2010, some hiker friends from ’98, suggested a new name, Deja-thru. Since I didn’t complete a thru-hike in 2010, but finished the trail in two sections (2010/2011), I just went with Deja. Most friends from my ’98 hike still refer to me as Critter.
Other hikers I’ve met so far include Float, Little Bird, Tank, Loon, Hands, Forger, Soynuts, Seaweed Sally, Metric, Bad Dinner, Brandon and Davis. (The last two are foregoing trail names, but get honorable mention because they’re great guys and part of the group I’ve hiked with recently.)
There’s a lot of lingo on the trail:
Sobo – Southbound
Nobo – Northbound
Flip Flop – To hike from one point to another (e.g. Georgia to New Jersey), then get a ride north and hike back to the last point (e.g. Katahdin to New Jersey).
Zero – No miles hiked.
Nero (a “near zero”) – To hike just a few miles into town or out of town.
Thru-hiker – Someone who completes the whole trail in one season.
Section hiker – Someone who hikes a section of the trail.
Trail angel – Someone who helps a hiker in some way.
Trail magic – Spontaneous acts of kindness and helpfulness directed toward hikers.
The 100-Mile Wilderness
After leaving Katahdin, I was in Baxter State Park for about nine more miles, then entered the 100-Mile Wilderness. Although not entirely isolated, the Wilderness includes some of the most remote part of the trail. There are a few logging roads, but access to the trail takes more time and effort than access to other sections. It took me a week to hike through the Wilderness. The trail in the southern part was particularly difficult and although I’ve experienced mostly good days, day 6 was frustrating and slow. That was my lowest point so far. It had been raining most of the day. The trail was muddy, the ascents were steep and rocky and the descents were slick and dangerous. As soon as I could find a suitable camping spot, I set up my tent and went to sleep. I don’t remember if I ate dinner. I couldn’t think about the option of quitting so soon, but I was tempted.
A Sobo Bubble Comes Together
The next day, the sun filtered through the trees and everything seemed fresh and new, but still muddy and boggy. After packing up my wet tent and everything else, I began walking, eventually reaching the top of the next peak, Barren Mountain, which rose above the clouds. I took out most of my wet gear and laid it out to dry in the morning sun. After a while, another hiker walked up and I had the happy occasion of meeting my first fellow southbound thru-hiker, Forger. We chatted for a bit and admired the view around us. Forger continued on and soon another southbound thru-hiker, Soynuts, came through. Suddenly I was in a sobo bubble! Later that evening we all met at a campsite near a river, and camped together. It was great to make connections with these guys and share the excitement of our journey.
The next day we hiked a rough, muddy and relentless seven miles to the end of the 100-Mile Wilderness, reaching the road that led to our first resupply town, Monson. It only took a few minutes of hitchhiking before a young man in a truck stopped for us. He was on his lunch break and said he often picked up hikers on his way to town. Forger, Soynuts and I were more than ready to get to Shaw’s Hostel, get cleaned up and eat some restaurant food. Here, we met another hiker, Saint, who is a “flip-flopper”. He started in Georgia, hiked to Waynesboro, VA, then, after working a few weeks, returned to the trail, summited Katahdin and is hiking south back to Waynesboro.
So our little sobo bubble grew to four! We celebrated our arrival in Monson by going to dinner at the Lakeshore House and indulging in “pachos” – a huge plate of French fries covered in cheese and bacon. It was the perfect hiker feast.
A Visit From Sly Jangles
During my hike, I had been in touch with my hiking buddy, Sly Jangles, from my 2010 section hike (Georgia to New York). Sly lives in Montreal and wanted to come hike with me for a while. I kept him updated on my progress and left the details of how he would meet me up to him. And then, one day, he magically appeared in the Bigelow Mountains. He met me on the trail, hiked up Little Bigelow with me, then, after a few hours of great conversation and lunch at the top, he simply walked back down the mountain and to his car. I was so touched that he would drive so far (three hours), just to spend a few good hiking hours with me.
My second town stop, after hiking 220 miles, was Rangeley. It was such a beautiful, neat little town. It’s a shame I had a trail to hike or I might still be there. I stayed at the 1950s-era Town and Lake Motel. My backdoor faced Rangeley Lake, where kayaks and boats were docked, loons called and occasionally a float plane landed. It was there that I met the intrepid, two-time (nobo and sobo) AT thru-hiker, Seaweed Sally, who was my next-door neighbor at the motel. Oh, and she also hiked the PCT back when everybody wasn’t hiking it. And she’s hiked a bunch of other stuff too, but you wouldn’t know it unless you turned the conversation in just that certain way so as to glean this critical information out of her. We sat in our chairs, watched the sky turn beautiful shades of night-blue and talked.
The next day, Sally left town before I did and made tracks down the trail. I thought I’d never see her again. But the next day, I took a break at a shelter where I was immediately befriended by two other hikers who had camped with Sally the night she left town. Apparently my name came up in conversation and Bad Dinner and Metric knew who I was when I introduced myself. Sally had just left the shelter before I arrived and the three of us booked it out of there to try and catch up to her. Soon, I was lagging behind and thought I’d lost all of my new friends for good. As evening came on and I was looking for a spot to set up my tent, I passed a small opening in the woods and there they were! All hunkered down in a cute little stealth site, eating and chatting. The new band was already back together again.
Breakfast in Andover
An evening, a hike and a mission. Sometimes it seems that’s all it takes for a group to bond on the trail. Seaweed Sally, Bad Dinner, Metric and I spent the evening around a small fire, telling stories about our hiking escapades and laughing until fatigue overruled. Morning came, a quick chat about second breakfast in Andover ensued, and we were off, hiking hard down the trail to a gravel road hoping for an easy hitch to town.
Bad Dinner forged ahead and as we got close to the road, we heard a vehicle, a holler from BD and down we ran to the road, to a waiting vehicle. Second breakfast was on at the Red Hen in Andover! We ate until we couldn’t move. Then Metric surprised us and paid the bill for our breakfast. Trail magic and a trail angel all in one go! Thank you, again, Metric!
Our reunion was short-lived as Bad Dinner and Metric were ending their section hike in Andover. Sally was skipping ahead to another section and I had to return to the road where we got picked up. The local hostel in town, Pine Ellis, offered shuttles back to the trail for a small fee, and soon I was back to my task alone.
Mahoosuc Notch and Crossing into New Hampshire
Two days later I began the only section of the trail I had been dreading: Mahoosuc Notch. This is a one-mile section that is traditionally considered either the most difficult or most fun mile on the AT. I find it mostly difficult and annoying, a little fun, and fairly dangerous, especially if it’s been raining. Fortunately, on this day the weather was great. The notch is a ravine that is filled with huge boulders that have fallen from the high cliffs above. A hiker is forced to climb over, around, under and through awkwardly-angled boulders jammed together. Most of it is okay if one goes slowly and carefully. But it takes a long time of careful maneuvering to not fall. Brandon is very comfortable with rock climbing and bouldering and he zipped through the notch in one hour. That is fast. It takes most people 1 1/2 hours, which is what it took me the last two times I went through. This time it took me two hours. There were a lot of people going both directions, and we all had to wait for each other at certain points. Most people I talked with really enjoyed it. I was just glad to get out in one piece and know I don’t have to do it again.
The reward for making it through Mahoosuc Notch was getting to cross into New Hampshire seven miles later! State line crossings are exciting. After hiking 281.4 miles through Maine, a simple sign welcomes southbound hikers to New Hampshire.
Gorham, New Hampshire
17 miles later, the trail leads the hiker straight to the doorstep of the White Mountain Lodge and Hostel. Marnie and her staff run a relaxed and cozy hostel which includes a wonderful breakfast and lots of room outside to organize and hang out. I’ve been here for two days and after a few errands will depart this comfortable place and enter the next big challenge – the White Mountains.
More photos on my Instagram link.
August 13, 2015Posted by on
As I write this, I’m sitting in my room at the White Mountains Lodge and Hostel near Gorham, New Hampshire. It’s a popular stopover for hikers located right on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve already hiked almost 300 miles since July 21 and have completed Maine. Lack of time and an adequate internet connection have kept me from updating my blog since I began. So I’m going to catch you up with two posts back-to-back.
This adventure began several weeks ago when I informed my good friend, Jamie, who lives in Portland, Maine, what I was planning – a possible southbound hike on the AT. I invited Jamie to accompany me to Baxter State Park and on my climb up Katahdin. Although she opted not to climb the peak, she earned her Trail Angel Wings multiple times over by helping me prepare for, and get to the start of my hike.
Getting to BSP in not an easy process and involves a series of buses and shuttles, if one does not have assistance getting there on their own. (BSP is in north-central Maine, and Mount Katahdin is in the park. Baxter Peak is the highest point on the mountain and the official northern terminus of the AT.)
On July 17th, I flew to Boston then took a bus to Portland where I was met by Jamie and taken to her lovely home. It was the perfect place to regroup and finalize my plans for my hike. She cooked amazing meals and provided a wonderful, cozy room for me to rest and organize. She and her boyfriend, Greg, invited me to go with them to a friend’s birthday party in the mid-coast area where I met some great people and enjoyed listening to live music.
Baxter State Park
The next day, Jamie and I began the four-hour drive to Baxter in her car. We stayed in a wonderful, rustic cabin on the edge of Kidney Pond. We canoed, went for a hike, played cards, ate great meals and listened to the loons. It was a perfect way to mentally prepare for what I was about to begin.
After two nights at the cabin, it was time to begin my hike. Jamie drove me to the trailhead at Katahdin Stream Campground. We said our goodbyes, she began the long drive back to Portland, and I was on my own. I left my fully-loaded backpack at the ranger station, borrowed a day pack for the hike to the summit and began my trek.
It’s 5.2-miles to the top of Katahdin, 10.4 miles round-trip. It’s also a dramatic start (or end) to the Appalachian Trail. This was the fourth time I’d hiked Katahdin, but the first time that I’d done it alone. I was surprised how much I’d forgotten about the exposure and intensity of this climb. The middle sections require careful footing and lots of hand-over-hand climbing. There is rebar in a few places to help climbers get up and over the vertical slab. I’ve read in some hikers’ blogs that they had to turn back at these sections because the effort and exposure were too much for them. Since I’d done this a few times in the past, I couldn’t understand how they could turn back when they were so far along, and relatively close to the top. But this time I completely understood. At one point I had to back down, steady my nerves and try again. I knew if I delayed too long I would psyche myself out. I had to keep going. I contained my adrenaline, regained my focus and pushed on.
Step-by-step, I slowly made my way to the top of the sharp, rocky precipices. Eventually, the terrain leveled out on the “tablelands”. From there it was an easy, one-mile walk to the summit. The weather was beautiful and it was a perfect day for beginning the hike.
When I was almost to the top I passed a group of young, energetic guys coming down the trail. By their thin bodies, and bearded, smiling faces, I knew they had just completed their thru-hike. “Just finished your hike?” I said as we passed each other. “Yeah!” “Congratulations! It’s day one for me!” “Yay! Good luck on your trip!” And we continued on in opposite directions.
I’m teary as I think about this exchange. In that moment, we shared each others’ excitement for the end of a journey and the beginning of another. These guys had just finished their epic hike, walking 2,189 hard miles through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, over the course of several months. They had endured bad weather, created new friendships and made memories they will have forever. As I continued on to the summit, I wondered how this trip would change their lives, what new goals they would set for themselves with the new-found confidence they had earned.
I also felt a giddy kind of exhilaration as I walked closer to that old, weathered sign that marks the beginning and end of the AT. I’d been here before. I’d experienced the end of a northbound trek, but this was the start of something different for me. I was blessed to have a chance for a new kind of hike: a southbound trip. I wasn’t ending a journey, I was just beginning.
July 19, 2015Posted by on
“I was wondering if you’d been to the Mountain, to look at the valley below?
Did you see all the roads tangled down in the valley?
Did you know which way to go?
The mountain stream runs pure and clear, and I wish to my soul I could always be here.
But there’s a reason to live way down in the valley that only the Mountain knows. “
– Noel Paul Stookey
* * *
I’ve been preparing for this moment, in my mind at least, since I last left Maine. I’m about to begin a southbound hike on the Appalachian Trail.
I’ve been organizing, packing and making lists for weeks. For months. This routine is familiar to me. But instead of preparing to live in Japan for several months, this time I’m getting ready for another hike on the AT. Soon, I’ll be in Baxter State Park, at the base of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. 5.2 miles up the Hunt Trail, at the top of Katahdin is the simple wooden sign designating the northern terminus of the AT. I know this sign. I’ve been there three different times: at the end of my northbound 1998 thru-hike; five years later with friends for a “trailversary” hike; and in 2011, at the end of my two-part section hike.
This week, I plan to once again touch that weathered, simple, beautiful sign, only this time it will be the beginning of a different kind of trek. This time I will be walking south.
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I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of going southbound. Northbound is the more popular direction to walk. Most hikers start in March or April and “walk with spring,” usually finishing on Mt. Katahdin in the fall. Baxter State Park closes in mid-October, so thru-hikers need to time their summit accordingly. Southbound hikers can start as early as mid-May (when the trails in BSP open), although black flies and high-water fords can be challenging. I will be starting the third week in July. There is no time limit for finishing at Springer Mountain, the southern end of the trail. This year the length of the trail is 2,189 miles.
My schedule has more to do with my teaching commitments. I just finished a 10-week, e-learning tutoring program for Westgate, and I’m also taking a break from tutoring for the Russian company I’ve been working with. I plan to hike for two weeks in order to get through the most remote part of Maine. After that, I’ll resume tutoring online on a weekly basis when I’m in town to resupply.
I was so fortunate to spend the last few months with my parents at their house. I taught online, spent time with my grandma and explored permanent work options. As I fine-tuned my online routine, I realized that with creative planning, everything I was doing at home I could do while hiking, and in a place that is incredibly meaningful to me. I’m attempting to do it all: backpack the AT, continue to work online and prepare for a full-time job.
My pictures will now be posted on Instagram, instead of embedded in the blog posts. (See the widget on the right side of the page).
I will be journaling as I hike, and will update the blog when I’m in town. I’m so excited to begin this southbound walk and to share it with you! Let’s hike!
April 2, 2015Posted by on
It’s been two months since I returned from working in Japan, even longer since I’ve written my last post and I’m more than ready to be blogging again!
I’ve continued to teach online for an international company and have really enjoyed the rapport with my students. In order to teach more and to reach a wider audience, I recently launched my own online English tutoring site: Open Roads English. This was a time-consuming project and I’m pleased with the results. As learning English – and specifically online learning – grows in popularity around the world, having an internet platform makes teaching possible from “virtually” everywhere. This is exciting to me and my challenge now is to learn how to market my online services better. (Feel free to send the link to anyone you think would be interested!)
I’ve been working on all of this from Basecamp (my parents’ house). The Camp Managers (my parents) have been very welcoming and are supportive of my online pursuits and are curious about other ideas I talk about trying. I’m constantly making new plans, then letting the idea perk or fade away on the winds of “reality”, which tend to be the sad sack of many exciting thoughts. Some of my latest plans: Getting an RV and teaching online from the road. Or perhaps there’s another thru-hike to be done and a book to be written. Or a walk/run/hike across America. I’ve analyzed, tested and, to greater and lesser degrees, semi-started all of these ideas. But as of this post, I’m still at Basecamp, which, by the way, is a fine place to conduct research.
There’s great energy in this unconventional life I’ve created for myself. Once I’m moving, I know I’m doing the right thing. It’s the transition stage that’s the bear. But the creative process is like that, isn’t it? Restlessness and angst form the crucible for creativity. It’s a time of deep thought, extravagant and impractical ideas. It’s the playground for audacious thinking and experimenting; for trying on the latest adventure to see how it fits.
But that pause can also be a place of self-doubt. Too much time allows the “what ifs” and the “that’s nuts” to creep in. Must keep moving. Set dates. Do something.
And pay attention – a holy kind of attention.
Because mediocrity and complacency are sneaky, and are willing to slide right in and make things just a little too comfortable for action. Ah-ha! Back, you, Mediocrity and Complacency! (They are also easily frightened.)
Teaching, hiking, running, skiing, walking, traveling, writing – these are the common modes of progress in my life. Being in motion is what generates the ideas. It’s the adrenaline. One example: Last week I decided to walk from Longmont to Katahdin in Maine (which may or may not be 2,290 miles). I dressed for the first leg of the walk, strapped on my CamelBak, packed it with snacks, my phone, wallet and started to walk east. I walked for three hours. As I walked, I imagined how I could continue, a few days at a time. What friends and family would be willing to shuttle me back and forth, out across the Colorado plains (I still had to be at Basecamp or somewhere with internet access to teach online).
By the end of my walk, reality (the sad sack) had overtaken my adrenaline-induced state and I understood the impracticability of this plan. For that day. It’s still possible. According to USA Crossers, 252 people have run/walked across the US. It’s possible and it’s in my sites.
My goals range from the short-term to the long-term, but the intertwining themes have remained constant: they have to be independent, growth-oriented and engaging.
Amid all the planning and contemplating, I’m always thinking about the trail. THE trail. The Appalachian Trail. The AT. I simply love it. It constantly calls and I constantly look for ways to answer. I always miss that rugged path, the trail culture, and the as-yet-unknown kindred spirits that are also called to that winding, rocky, unforgiving route. I know the trail will always be there, but that doesn’t help me now, which is when I want to be there.
It also doesn’t help that now is peak time for Springer Fever. That relentless pull that past hikers feel to be at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The trek northward to Katahdin and Baxter Peak begins in the spring at Springer Mountain, Georgia. It’s a crowded, nutty episode in March and April, and it’s hard to ignore. I’ve managed to resist the call to the southern end, but I keep thinking about the northern peak…Katahdin, where southbounders begin.
Fortunately, I have a temporary remedy for the Fever. I live near the foothills of Colorado, and my access to the mountains, trails and the peaceful western woods is a mere 20-minute drive from Basecamp. My running and hiking have increased, and I’m replacing and repairing my backpacking gear. Just in case.
Here’s a look at some of the places I’ve hiked and skied in the last few weeks…
Spring snow is common in Colorado.
January 29, 2015Posted by on
The goodbyes have begun. I’ve had a busy final two weeks and it’s all quite bittersweet. I’m ready to go home, but I’m already missing this city, my friends and my life here. My suitcase was picked up today and taken to Narita. I’ll go to the airport tomorrow and will fly back to the U.S. I’ve spent some great time with friends, mostly involving a fun hike and excellent Japanese food. The friendships in this international teaching field are ephemeral. We’re all used to forming bonds, such as they are, knowing they will be gently undone, yet with the potential to last, depending on the effort put into maintaining the connections, or the possibility of working together in future months or years.
My friend Tim, with whom I worked two years ago, still lives in Japan and teaches at a university in Tokyo. Every term he organizes a hike and it’s always a great time. Recently he led a winter hike to Sengenrei. We saw a waterfall, hiked in snow, ate lunch on top of the mountain and finished the day with shabu-shabu in an izakaya in Tachikawa.
Shabu-shabu is a traditional Japanese dish in which vegetables and meat are cooked in a pot at the table. It was so good and filling after a day of hiking.
We had such a great time that we decided to do an “encore” dinner the next week. Machiko organized our event at Okonomiyaki Honjin in Shinjuku. Okonomiyaki is another traditional Japanese dish that is also prepared at the table. We sat on the floor around low tables that had a grill in the middle. We ordered a variety of ingredients that were brought to us in bowls. We mixed the contents then spread it on the grill like a pancake. Then it was topped with different sauces and spices and cut into pieces. It was so good!
Our encore dinner turned into a bit of a going away event for me, which completely surprised me! Ikue, Machiko and Hiroko honored me with some very special gifts. They gave me chop sticks and holders, coasters with famous Japanese art, and a furoshiki – a cloth that is used to wrap bento lunch boxes. It was all so wonderful. I was especially touched by the booklet that Ikue made, which showed the various ways to tie the furoshiki. It was very thoughtful and special. I loved being with these friends and appreciated the gifts so much!
After dinner, we went to Golden Gai, a famous area in Shinjuku with over 200 small pubs and eateries within six tiny alleyways. We went to the Albatross, an old house that has been converted into one of the many pubs in the district. It was a fun way to end our night with good friends. It is a tiny place with three floors. We were on the top floor, which was reserved for bigger groups like ours.
After a most excellent evening, we said our final goodbyes at the station. This was the first time I almost missed the last train home! But I made it with a minute to spare. :)