Friday, February 28, 2014

135. Blue Blazing

"Oh come on," Hotdog says with a big smile on her face, "the sign warns you to 'Closely Control Children.' It sounds dangerous. We have to do it."

Apollo shifts his weight from one foot to the other uncertainly and consults his map.

"But... it's 0.1 miles parallel to the trail. If we take this blue blaze, it'll connect us back with the AT on the other side. Then we'll have missed 0.1 miles of the AT."

"Yeah, but it's still the same distance, there's supposed to be a wicked cool view, and Whistle's already gone down it," I explain, trying to entice Apollo, "It's only like a couple hundred feet to the left of the actual trail. It's still in the spirit of the Appalachian Trail. I'm sure Benton Mackaye won't rise from the grave and send smoky mountain zombie bears after us. It won't kill us."

"Well, it might kill us," reasons Dumptruck.

"If you really want, you could come with us, and then double back to take that same 0.1 miles down the AT. You're such a fast hiker I'm sure you'll still get to camp an hour before us anyway," Hotdog offers.

"Okay, okay," Apollo agrees. "I'll come. But I'm doubling back afterward."

"Fair," we all chorus together, and then head off down the blue-blazed side trail to "Charlie's Bunion."

We are in the Great Smoky Mountains, and our merry band of 5 hikers has been traveling together for a few days. This is our first encounter with a side trail that could potential cause us to "skip" a section of the AT. We have gone down some blue-blazed trails before, like in Georgia when we went a mile off-trail to see the second largest Poplar tree in North America, and it was totally worth it. But with that small blue-blaze, we knew it was a dead end, and after we marveled at the monstrously huge beauty of the tree, we could hike back up and join onto the trail where we left it.

Some folks that hike are purists, in that, they feel that they must have their feet touch every single part of the trail. I completely admire their dedication, and think that it is the most legitimate way of hiking. In this particular case, I feel like it's alright for me to sway a little non-purist, because I will be still walking the same amount of distance. I believe that in either scenario, both people are still thru-hikers. Or rather, this is what I tell myself so that I don't have to double back. I would also respect that if someone felt that damaged some of my thru-hiker cred. That's fair.

This is the tricky part about blue-blazing. There are a lot of delightful blue-blazes that lead you to something gorgeous, like the tree, or a waterfall, or a park that has public restrooms with toilets that actually flush. It is easy to take those side routes without any sort of crisis of conscience, because you know you will just turn back after you enjoy the scenery, and then rejoin the AT where you left it. But sometimes there are blue-blazes that run parallel to the main arterial flow of the true trail, and then hikers have a choice whether to just jump back onto the AT at the conclusion of the blue-blaze, or to walk all the way back to the diversion point.

I am not a purist. Not on the trail, and not in regular life. I wear white after labor day, sit like a dude with my feet planted a meter apart if I'm wearing pants, and even if I am eating in a fancy restaurant, I will push the last bite food on the plate onto my fork using my fingers. This is because I am a monster.

We start off down the trail toward "Charlie's Bunion" and all I can picture is a mountain-sized man who wore pointy-toed shoes one time too many, and now has to reap the consequences. This is not what we find.

Instead, we find a craggy rock outcropping, so treacherous that no plants can grow taller than a few feet. The lack of plant-life allows us a view that goes for miles across the landscape. The clouds pull away from us, curling through the valleys below and stretching backward for what seems like forever. It feels like we can see the entire Smoky Mountain range, and we become aware of our presence on the back of an ancient, sleeping giant.

I gasp as I see Whistle clambering over the rocks like a lithe monkey. She suddenly disappears from view and I let out a squeak of fear, certain that she has fallen to her death. Instead, she pops up a moment later, her cheeks flush with the excitement and physical exertion of climbing around.

"Oh my goodness!" I cry, pointing at her, "We have not closely controlled our children!"

She sticks her tongue out at me. The rest of us drop our backpacks and head out onto the rocks to explore.

This is one of my favorite memories of the Smoky Mountains, and it wasn't even technically on the Appalachian Trail. Sometimes a blue-blaze is just a blue-blaze, and sometimes it takes you on a wonderful adventure.

If you're wondering - as far as I remember, not only did Apollo double back, but so did Whistle (I think). I can't be sure. I was too busy, skipping merrily off down the trail with my heathen non-purist self.

Worth it.
Clever Girl

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

136. AYCE

"You mean... it's just 6 dollars, and I can eat until I'm full?"


"But. But I don't understand."

"What don't you understand?"

"I don't understand what it means to be full anymore."

I stand with an empty plate in my hand, the underside of my chin glowing red from the reflected light of the heat lamps. The lamps are heating buffet vats of day-old food that nonetheless look like gourmet paradise. None of it is identifiable. It's just lumps of this thing, covered in that sauce, deep-fried in god-knows-what and sprinkled with this whatever-it-is. It's an All You Can Eat Chinese Food Buffet in Pearisburg, Virginia, and it smells like a college student's fridge, if that fridge was filled with all of my hopes and dreams.

I am a vegetarian, which can sometimes make AYCE Buffets a little tricky. As I mentioned earlier, all of the food looks the same. This is not a phenomenon unique to Chinese Food AYCE places, no, not at all. Every single AYCE place I have encountered, regardless of cuisine, has food that all looks exactly the same. You could be holding what looks like a french fry and be convinced it's a fish stick, meanwhile it's actually some bastardized version of a cannoli and you don't figure that out until you bite into it. So as I let my eyes graze hungrily all over the steaming trays of something-or-other, I let myself wonder if it would actually bother me if I accidentally ate some meat.

My stomach growls and I decide immediately that I do not care, and that I will bite-test everything. This is not to say that I take bites of things and put them back. Not even hikers are that unruly. No, to the contrary. I pile my plate high with a dangerously teetering heap of whats-all-this-then, and then wind my way back between the tables to my seat.

One by one, I lift differently shaped globules to my mouth, sinking my teeth into them and savoring the delicious flavor of never-heard-of-it. After a chew, if I figure out that it's meat, I take the rest of that particular food and scrape it unceremoniously across the table onto Grim's plate, whereupon it is immediately devoured. After about 10 minutes of this, I make my way down through the towering plateau of bertie-botts-every-flavor-chicken, I am able to finally decipher what I can actually eat more of.

Now I am ready for my second round. I leave behind the first plate, because AYCE places frown upon the reusing of plates. I grab a second empty plate. I would not want to be a dishwasher at an AYCE restaurant in a trail town. You'd be up until 3 in the morning, sweat pouring off your brow, up to your elbows in endless chinese-food crusted plates and soap, wishing that you were more than just a small town girl, living in a lonely world... specifically, Pearisburg Virginia. And even if you took the midnight train, you'd probably only make it as far as Roanoke, which would be alright I guess.

My eyes alight upon the festival of food, now having a vague understanding of what is available to me, and what will end up putting me in the bathroom for an entire evening. This, as you can imagine, is the trap that all AYCEaters fall into: believing that they are smart enough, clever enough, prepared enough, to be able to select several rounds of food that will not later trap them in a bathroom, screaming: "MISTAKES WERE MADE."

I know that I will make this mistake. And later, as I sit in the bathroom of our motel room, trying to go as fast as I can, while Dumptruck, Whistle and Grim pound on the door, caterwauling and hollering away about how "It's my turn now!" and "We're all in so much paaaaaaaain!" I know that given the choice, we'd do it all over again. Just to be able to eat 4 plates of food in one sitting, to be able to finally feel full, even if it's only for an hour, before it all comes back out again.

Clever Girl

Monday, February 24, 2014

137. Slack Packing

At some point we become one with our backpacks. When we take the pack off, it feels like we've removed some essential part of our bodies. Hikers have the same kinesthetic understanding of our bodies as turtles do. We are graceful in certain environments, while appearing bulky, awkward and out of place in others. We carry our homes on our backs, and we have an enormous appreciation for pizza. I'm starting to think there was some hidden hiker agenda hidden in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I got so used to the weight of my backpack that I felt light and frankly a little naked whenever I took it off. The shape of my hips even started to change slightly over time, allowing a space for my hip-belt to rest. It was a little like when a sign is nailed to a tree, and the tree slowly and steadily grows around the sign. Our bodies morphed to become one with our packs. It was a little creepy. It was creepier to catch a glimpse of myself in a photograph not wearing my backpack. I really did look like a turtle out of its shell - if that were even possible, which it's not, because SCIENCE.

If you have ever gone hiking carrying only a little jaunty Jansport pack with just a few essentials in it for the day, you have been slack packing. The idea is that you are carrying some important things with you, but you are lacking the required equipment to be able to live long-term in the woods. Unless all you have is a hatchet, and then you can be like that hardcore kid in that book Hatchet that everyone in my generation read in 3rd grade, and subsequently figured out that all of our lives were extremely boring by comparison. That was back before every awesome young adult novel immediately became a high-budget movie. Don't get me wrong, I love young adult novels turned into movies, it just seems like a more recent phenomenon. The only good part about the lack of book-to-movies back then is that books like Hatchet were freed up to be as insane and badass as my imagination could conjure, and didn't have to fit any MPAA ratings.

Every once in a while in the midst of a long-distance hike, it is delightful to be able to slack pack. You get an entire day of being the weird little turtle outside of its heavy shell, free to do somersaults and cartwheels and dear god don't do any of those things on a trail you could seriously injure yourself, WHERE IS YOUR COMMON SENSE. JEEPERS.

Slack packing can only be done with the generous aid of people who love you, who are willing to schlep your stinky backpack 17 miles down the road to the next crossing. Or alternatively, you can give all of your worldly possessions to a complete stranger you met only minutes previously, and then tell them where they can meet you on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere at the end of the day to return your stuff. Choose Your Own Adventure! 

The one dark and dangerous pitfall of slack packing is mistakenly believing that the terrain will be somehow easier without your backpack. This is a filthy filthy falsehood, a dirty trick that your mind plays on your body. Hiking with a slack pack isn't any easier. It has the potential to be a little bit faster, but not necessarily. Hard terrain is hard terrain, regardless of how big or small your turtle shell happens to be. But you might feel a little lighter in general, and going up a steep incline or a rock scramble without a pack is definitely a bonus. It lowers the likelihood of you falling backward to your doom.

If you are someone partial to hiking poles (which I am), and you slack pack, you may decide to leave your hiking poles behind. This is your choice, but Be Ye Warned: after 17 miles of your hands dangling idly by your sides while you hike up and down mountains, your fingers will be swollen, waxy and stiff with all of the collected blood (ew, gravity blood). The only way I found to combat this affliction was to hike with my hands sticking straight above my head, do routine jazz hands, or just flail my arms around like the wiggly waving wacky-armed tube-men outside of car dealerships. This helped with the swelling problem, but hindered my efforts to not be seen as a crazy person.

At the beginning of the day, you are glad to be rid of your pack. But by the end of the day, you realize how unsettling it is not to have immediate access to anything your might want/need. It's funny because most people live their lives without their homes on their backs, but once you do it for a little while, it's weird to leave your home behind. At the end of the day, your happy to slip back into your turtle shell, and find your way back to the sewers to get more training from Master Splinter.

Clever Girl

Friday, February 21, 2014

Interview with 2 Hikers

Clever Girl: What was your main inspiration for hiking the Appalachian Trail?

Whistle: All the salamanders. Well, the truth is I don't know. I hiked out West last year, and I knew that I wanted to keep doing it for as long as possible. I found out about the AT, and it was pretty long, so I figured that could work. Also, I needed 6 months to figure out how to get a job I didn't hate, and I wanted an excuse to live in the woods for 6 months. That was imperative.

Dumptruck: I wanted to live simply. I wanted to get out of New York City, and rediscover myself. I think my real inspiration for hiking the trail was to have an excuse to be in nature all the time. I love hiking and I love camping, so why not do it for 6 months?


CG: When did you decide you wanted to hike the trail?

W: When I was a small child growing up in Virginia, I thought that hiking the Appalachian Trail was just a mandatory part of life, like finishing high school and then going to college. I decided I was going to hike the AT once I was about a week and a half into already hiking the AT. Well, actually, maybe it was Pennsylvania. Wait, no, maybe... Massachusetts? Even the night before summiting Katahdin, there was a little part of me that was like "I'm not going to make it." But then there was a more powerful part of me that was like "Well, even if you don't make it tomorrow, you can still try again, and it'll still be a thru-hike."

DT: I think I first heard about it in 2004. I don't remember how I learned about it, but it had been in the back of my mind since then. I was obsessed with it. I bought the hiker guide, and I drove from Illinois out to the East Coast to hike for a week on the trail. I remember I went on CampMor and bought a cheap out of season tent and some ridiculous cook pot. That's how it started.


CG: What was the first thing you wanted to do when you got to a town?

W: Toilet, pizza, shower, sleep. Oh, and soda.

DT: Eat. Eat food I didn't have to make.


CG: What injury did you find most annoying?

DT: Does chaffing count? If not, then the strained tendon in my foot.

W: Man, the look in your eyes when you say that. I also agree with chaffing. Also, jellyfish back. Jellyfish back is when you sweat, and all the salt comes out and dries on your back, and it feels like insane, terrible electricity going all over your skin. It was the most annoying thing because it wasn't actually an injury, it just made everything awful.


CG: What was your favorite gross food that only hikers wanted to eat on a regular basis on trail, that you don't miss at all now?

W: The velveeta cheese toppers. They were these foil bags of squishy processed food product. So good.

DT: Clif Bars.

W: Eeeeewwww.


CG: What was the weirdest dream you had on trail?

W: I had a dream when we were in Massachusetts, around the 4th night we hiked with Catch. We were on the top of a tree in a giant eagle's nest. We were these giant cartoon vultures, like the ones you might see in the New Yorker. We were just squawking and squawking at each other.

DT: I would dream about food all the time. Food in soft focus, like a soap opera, with Barry Manilow playing in the background.


CG: How far were you able to launch a snot rocket? Give me average and your best achievement.

W: Average 3 feet. I think maybe 12 feet for a record.

DT: Average 4 to 6 feet. I was standing on a cliff once with the wind, so I think my record was maybe 48 feet.


CG: What is your favorite color?

W: Green.

DT: Orange? I don't know, I'm not sure I have a favorite color.

W: Also, by the way I'm colorblind. So I also really like yellow and red.


CG: Would you eat your favorite color for breakfast?

W: Yeah. What? Yeah.

DT: Nah, it'd be too citrusy.


CG: If there is a train traveling at 85 mph, and there is another train traveling at 100 mph that is 300 miles behind the first train, which train would you choose to moon?

W: I would moon them at the point of intersection. Unless my dad was on the train.

DT: I think I would moon the first one immediately, then enjoy the breeze until the 2nd one passed. It would only be 3 hours [mathematical jargon supporting his argument].

W: ....How did he do that math that quickly?

DT: [more math jargon]

W: ...Perfect.


CG: If you had the choice, what piece of nature would you most enjoy sticking in your hair and then walking into a mall?

DT: Twigs?

W: A moose. Upside down. Flailing.


CG: Do you believe in a thing called love?

DT: Yeah, Cher told me so. She doesn't lie. She just lives alone in a big empty house in California. I've been there, it was really sad.

W: I guess I just don't know anymore.


CG:  How old were you when you learned how to tie your shoes? Was this important for your hiking experience?

W: I never had shoes until I started hiking the Appalachian Trail. That's why I switched to Chaco sandals. I guess I never really learned.

DT: I think I was like 5 or 6 when I learned? I was way older than I should have been. My dad had these work boots with those metal gromits instead of regular lace holes, and he told me to try with those because they were "much easier." They were so frustrating. Sometimes when I tied my hiking boots, and they also had those metal gromits, and I would think about my Dad and his work boots.


CG:  Banana.

W: Yes, but only recently. I used to hate them.

DT: Actually this happened today. I had a banana flavored Tootsie pop. I'd never seen a banana flavored tootsie pop. I was all by myself, driving a car, and I took the lollipop out of my mouth and said to no one at all: "You know what? I like the taste of artificial bananas." And then I put it back in my mouth.

W: We learned how to make the ester to make artificial banana in organic chemistry lab, and I hated bananas, and it was the worst 4 hours of my life. I was trapped in a hot room full of nervous undergraduate chemical engineering majors, and artificial banana smell, as well as burned artificial banana. Because it was so "yummy" we got to keep little bottles of the artificial banana ester. ... it was horrible.

DT: That's brutal.


Clever Girl

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

138. Hiker Language

There are a lot of mysterious slang words known only to long-distance hikers, friends of long-distance hikers, and traveling hobbits. At the beginning of my hike of the AT, I didn't know any of these words, and yet they were tossed around by all the hikers around me like they were normal lexicon. It made me feel very much like an exchange student, lost in a country where the language sort of sounds like English, but is actually some form of highly evolved Pig Latin. Or perhaps it was a little like being a muggle overhearing a bunch of wizards talk about Quidditch. Erd-Nay Ert-Alay!

Once I started understanding what people were saying, and could use the words on my own without having to riffle through a mental dictionary or sound like a big dumb idiot, it actually felt pretty cool. It was like being part of a secret society that spoke in code words. Or like being James Bond, if James Bond didn't spend so much money on suits and instead of living a life of luxury and beautiful women, he dug holes to poop in the woods.

The only way to learn this language was via full immersion, i.e., I just had to hope that things were said enough times that I could start to figure out what they meant by contextual cues. For example, the only way I figured out what "Banana Blazing" was, was by first learning the meaning of "Pink Blazing" and then using my smarty-brain to work backwards. Come to think of it, there are a lot of different types of "blazing" that people talk about. Let's start there, in our hiker dictionary!

Here is a short list of "blazing" definitions, by color:

White Blazing: Following the Appalachian Trail. Named as such for the white "blazes" of paint put onto trees by trail maintenance folks to mark the trail.

Blue Blazing: Side-trails were often given blue blazes instead of white blazes. Therefore, Blue Blazing was taking a side trail, perhaps to go on a fun side-quest adventure like visiting a pond or a national park campground where nice people will take pity on you and give you food, before you hike back up the blue-blazed trail to the AT.

Yellow Blazing: The fact that this exists is a point of great contention and debate among long-distance hikers. But it's something that is spoken about on a regular basis, so it's only fair to let you in on the knowledge. To put it simply, Yellow Blazing is hitch-hiking past a section of trail, i.e., you skip miles via a car, semi-truck, helicopter, horse carriage, teleportation, etc. etc. Basically, it's the use of anything other than the strength of your own body to get down the trail.

Aqua Blazing: Taking a canoe or kayak down a river that is parallel to the trail you were traversing. A fair amount of people will Aqua Blaze through the Shenandoah Park because there are easy entry and exit points along the way, and it's a lot of fun. Dumptruck and I did not Aqua Blaze because it was too expensive for us, but a lot of other people did.

Pink Blazing: Hiking faster that your usual pace in order to keep up with, or catch up to, a lady who you happen to fancy.

Banana Blazing: Hiking faster that your usual pace in order to keep up with, or catch up to, a gentleman who you happen to fancy. .... I suppose that one's a little luridly blush-inducing.

Black Blazing: Hiking with determination directly off a cliff, into the dark, black abyss. This was not encouraged.

I think that's all the typically used forms of Blazing. I don't know of a common usage of orange or green, though I suppose someone somewhere probably has come up with a definition for those colors.

Let us continue down the merry path of hiker language, and my own definitions!

Slack Packing: When some kind soul with a vehicle offers to take your heavy (30 - 50 pound) backpack from you and shuttle it down the trail, so you can hike for a full day carrying only the essentials (water, water treatment, snacks, headlamp, rabid armadillo, Faberge Egg collection, rain jacket, map).

Zero: A day when you don't hike at all. These are the days that reveal that hikers are actually, counterintuitively, the laziest bags of bones on the planet. We will lie in our motel beds, whining about how far away the TV remote is (2 feet) because we can't move a single aching bone to get closer to our desired object. Zeros are spent dedicating a lot of energy trying to become telekinetic, have go-go-gadget arms, or using all of your skills trying to convince other people to do things for you.

Nero: A day in which you hike comparatively fewer miles than usual. Near + Zero = Nero. At the beginning of the trail, a "Nero" was thought of as a day in which you hiked 2 or 3 miles. Later on, a "Nero" might be 6 or 7 miles. Hikers are a bunch of weirdos.

Trail Angel: Miraculous, generous souls who hang out at trail crossings and give free food or other necessities to ever-indebted hikers. There are some famous trail angels that are on the trail ever year (Miss Janet, Beth + Bernie!), and those that might only help once or twice or every once in a while. Regardless of the amount of time they spend helping out hikers, they are all angels. Or angles. Or anglers. Catching a fish on the trail would be like a miracle.

Flip-Flop: Some hikers hike directly North to South, or South to North, if they are hiking the Appalachian Trail. Some people Flip Flop, which means they hike a section of the trail going one direction, and then flip around to hike the other direction. The most widely understood Flip Flop is wherein someone will hike North from Harper's Ferry, WV, to Katahdin, then go back to Harper's Ferry to hike South to Springer. Flip Floppers don't necessarily wear Flip Flops, but they might. Also they might flippity-flop around a lot like a jumpin' bean, but this is not a requirement.

Trail Magic: This is food from the real world, magically transported onto a trail. Sometimes there will be a trail angel there to hand out the magic, but sometimes it's just a large cooler at a road crossing, full of treats and a note of love.

Vitamin I: This is Ibuprofen, which is eaten on such a regular basis early on in the trail that it's just like  a vitamin. A vitamin that could eventually cause stomach bleeding! This fact did not stop me from taking probably 8 a day for the first 2 weeks.

Yogi: This is just like it sounds. This is when you "Yogi Bear." Meaning, you look as adorable as possible, and hope that someone will give you food, or a different hiker's visiting parents will give you a ride into town and back so you can do your laundry. This is when you get a bit out of someone else's pic-a-nic basket, with their permission of course.

AYCE: ALL YOU CAN EAT. Some daring restaurants in trail towns have AYCE buffets, which are descended upon by hikers like locusts descended upon Egypt. I do not know how these restaurants stay in business with all-consuming food vacuums (hikers) as patrons. I suspect they're probably all fronts for the mob.

Bounce-Box: Nonsense, you say! That box can't bounce! Well that is accurate, my friend! But it can be bounced ahead from post office to post office via the USPS. I just tried to think of a clever acronym phrase for USPS, but apparently acronyms are not my strong suit. My strong suit is clubs, at least when I'm shooting the moon in Hearts. A bounce box is a priority mail box with several essentials in it (extra batteries, extra ziploc bags, extra supplies for fixing your tent, extra underpants, extra googly eyes) that you can continue to mail ahead to yourself at post offices in trail towns. If it's a priority mail box that hasn't been opened, you can continue to forward it for free!

Cat Hole: This is the hole you dig in the ground to leave your creations inside of!

ME-GA GA-ME: Mega Game! This stands for Maine to Georgia or Georgia to Maine, depending on your direction of wandering.

LNT: This stands for Leave No Trace, which means that you respect the environment ALL THE TIME. You clean up after yourself, you leave a campsite looking better than how you found it, you leave no trace that a human has been there. This does not stand for Leave No Trees, or Leave No Tigers. You should always leave trees and tigers where you found them.

Clever Girl

P.S. I'm sure there's more than I have listed here, but some of the other ones aren't as fun!

P.P.S. A lot of these will probably end up being their own entries at some point.

P.P.P.S. If you make those sounds really quick "puh-puh-puh-essss" you can pretend that you know how to beat box! You're awesome.

Monday, February 17, 2014

139b. Shelter Logs, Part Two

Another inexplicable gem from Cody Coyote

Doc + Boon: Stopping to look at everything, all day, everyday

"Wanted a privy. Needed water. Found neither. God Save the Queen."
Entry on 7/4 from Smiles, somewhere in New Jersey

In Maine, after Dumptruck and I crossed paths with Sunshine, Grim and Whistle

Sometimes we rode unicorns? 

Just after Dumptruck dislocated his shoulder and Hotdog got her strange skin disease, while we were slack packing with the assistance of Otto.

When Grim's friend Chilton hiked with us for a week in Virginia

Drawing all of us as witches riding brooms!

Clever Girl

Friday, February 14, 2014

139. Shelter Logs

On the Eastern Seaboard there is a trail. On the trail there are tiny wooden lean-to's called "shelters". Inside each shelter, there is often a mangy-looking half-ripped apart gallon-sized ziploc bag. Inside that ziploc bag is an equally mangy-looking half-ripped apart standard composition notebook. Inside this notebook there are notes left by current hikers, leaving their mark for upcoming hikers to find and read.

Shelter logs have the equivalent entertainment value as television. Sometimes we would only have time to stop and write our hellos before moving on down the trail, but if we stayed near a shelter at night, we would spend some time sitting and reading back through the damp, smeary pages of the logs. Most folks would just leave their name and the date.

Very early on in the trail, I decided that I probably wasn't going to always want to think of something witty or fun to write in the logs. So instead I decided to create drawings that I would leave in each and every shelter we passed. I drew a velociraptor for myself, a dump truck for Dumptruck, a reaper for Grim, a hot dog for Hot Dog, an apple for Apple Butter, a moon for Apollo, etc. At first, I drew musical notes for Whistle. Then when her name got the addendum "Ralph" for the number of times she barfed on trail, we humanized the musical notes by turning them into little pac-man faces violently hurling.

I have requested photos of shelter logs from my fellow hikers, so there will definitely be more of these as they are sent to me. But to begin with, here are all the ones I took photos of:

Somewhere in the Roan Highlands. There were a lot of ramps (onions). Cody Coyote was an excellent, interesting fellow that we were several days behind for a long time. His entries were often to the point.
Just before Dragon's Tooth in Virginia
Somewhere near the Halfway Point
Somewhere in New England
The night that Whistle and Catch were trapped in a fire tower
Everyone needed to go at once.
Somewhere in Maine, while Dumptruck and I were Flip-Flopping.

When Dumptruck and I were Flip-Flopping, we were going South through Maine while Whistle and Grim were going North. Accordingly, I wrote a story for them, backwards as I hiked, such that it would read correctly as they came across the logs. I have them here for you posted in the correct "read-able" order, but you'll notice the dates go backwards. It's about a man in love with a moose.

It definitely doesn't make any sense. 

Lastly, here is our entry at the ATC in Baxter State Park, at the base of Katahdin.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

140. Hiker Perfume

As I have previously mentioned, long-distance hikers can smell day-hikers from a long way off. But it's quite likely that they can smell us, too. It's no secret: hikers are smelly. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about that end of things because frankly that's going to be its own post. 

No, instead I want to talk about the beauty of Hiker Febreze. It's not the sort of febreze that you see in commercials, used by harassed-looking parents trying in vain to pretend that they don't have any teenage sons. In my experience with that chemical stuff, all it does is make everything smell very distantly like a burned-down body spray factory. I remember once spraying it all over a pair of pants in college, and being followed by a stray dog across campus, sniffing madly at my ankles. In retrospect, these two coincidental events may have nothing to do with each other. 

The only smell powerful enough to overcome hikerstench is campfire smoke. This doesn't stop the hiker from stinking, it just changes the nature of the smell. Instead of the fragrant ambiance of ripe green onions, it's more like mild green onions wrapped in cedarwood-smoked bacon. On another note, I could always tell that I was hungry if I caught a whiff of another hiker and felt my mouth water. Is that weird? Yes. Yes that is weird. Not as weird as using a piece of flavored string to dig partially-masticated food bits out from between your teeth. That's weird. But it's called flossing, and your dentist wishes you would just do it.

Over the summer, just sitting by the fire didn't soak up enough of the scent. Also, if it was a hot night, the last thing we wanted to do was sit in the glow of nature's furnace. Lastly, after a day of sweating, our clothing was often quite damp. How to solve these problems all at once? Build a small fire and setting a clothing line over the heat. I wish I had more photo evidence of this, but it happened frequently throughout the sweatier months. 

If you're really desperate, you can also try just rubbing the smoke around on your body like soap. It might not make much of a difference, but hiking for the first hour of your day with woodsmoke smell perfume is how we hikers feel fancy.

Clever Girl

Monday, February 10, 2014

141. Salt

I stood at the wooden fence, my small fingers curled around a post, framing my view of the field beyond. The ram was still a little too close, so I had to bide my time. I looked down at the salt lick I was holding, narrowing my eyes and pursing my lips. I'd never licked a salt lick, but something about it seemed enormously appealing. It was a hard white hockey puck of minerals, and it made my mouth water just to look at it. Glancing furitively left and right to make sure no one was looking, I stuck out my tongue and slowly moved the lick toward my face.

"Whatcha doin'?"

I froze and closed the lick in my fist, looking over my shoulder.

"Nothin'," I said in the completely unconvincing way of all 9-year-olds, trying to look innocent while avoiding eye contact with my fellow 4th-grade classmate. He was holding the bag of feed for the sheep, and he raised an eyebrow at me.

"The ram's still too close..." I began, but as I looked back out over the fence, I saw that the ram had finally wandered far enough to the opposite side of the large field. There was no more time for excuses, it was time to act. I breathed in deeply, shaking out my arms and legs and doing a few tiny jumps to loosen myself up.

I was at my farm montessori school in northern California, and I was a skinny, scruffy 9-year-old who thought she had a cool attitude but was really only as sassy as a block of warmed butter. It was my turn to "help feed the sheep" which meant it was my turn to distract the ram while my classmate dragged the bag of food out to the feeding bin in the center of the field for the kind and gentle lady sheep.

I launched myself up and clambered over the fence, dropping down into the field. Even though the ram was a few hundred feet away, he immediately looked up at my movement. Somewhere in my mind, someone played a dramatic minor chord on an old saloon piano, as flames erupted from the ram's eyes. I didn't hesitate, I ran.

I was sprinting as fast as my tiny 9-year-old legs could pump, my long stringy brown hair streaming out behind me. I didn't look around to see how close the ram was. I was completely focused on the pole with the loop onto which I had to string the salt lick. My breath echoed in my ears, the salt lick clenched in my fist, my world zipping by in cinematic slow motion. 

I slammed into the pole, immediately unlooping the string, threading it through the hole of the lick, and reattaching it. I turned and started to run toward the far side of the field, but only made it about 5 steps before an insane cannonball of force CRASHED into my lower back. I was launched forward into the open air, my arms and legs bent backward like my body was a drawn archery bow. I sailed through the atmosphere, free of gravity and consequence.

I came back down to Earth with an ungraceful thud, rolling a few times through the coarse California grass. I coughed and sat up slowly, taking a few moments to pick the grass out of my mouth. I was no longer hurried, as I knew the danger had passed. 

The ram was standing stock still, staring at me with the imperious glare of a galactic emperor. I dusted some dirt off my hands, and the ram, having asserted itself, lazily walked over to the salt lick to enjoy his treat. My classmate, who had finished dumping the sheep feed into the bin, gave me the thumbs-up from across the field. 

This happened every single day, every member of the class having to take turns with the farm chores, meaning that each kid got Ram Duty once every 2 weeks or so. It was a badge of honor. Sometimes a kid could outrun the ram, and they were celebrated like a hero. No one was ever hurt at all- the ram just wanted to assert itself once a day. But it wasn't pleasant. It's definitely one way to teach humility.

But strangely, every time I would pick myself up out of the dirt and slowly make my way back to the fence, the emotion I would feel most powerfully was jealousy.

I wanted my own salt lick.

Even though salt is a pile of delicious magic food snowflakes, set on nearly every restaurant table in the USA, tempting us and being perfect, we are constantly told NOT to use it. Everything's oversalted already! Salt will murder you! Salt makes bad investment decisions! Salt never calls back!

But when you're a long-distance hiker in the summer, salt consumption is necesary for health! When you are sweating constantly for 8-10 hours in a row, day after day, you are losing water and salt at an alarming rate. It's not enough just to drink liter after liter of water, because then the salt is never able to be balanced back out. Then everything gets all out of whack! You get all rubbery and wet and then melt away like that poor guy in the first X-Men movie that started out as a man and ended in a mop bucket! Do you want that?! 

Instead, when a hiker sits down to eat, a hiker has no choice but to add salt to her meal. Even better is that when you have to eat bland boiled packaged food, it actually tastes edible with a good dusting of salt.

The worst part of this is that you might get used to the magical mouth delights of salted food, and when you return after your hike, you have to physically restrain yourself from the salt shaker. But while you're a hiker, salt to your heart's content.

Clever Girl

Friday, February 7, 2014

142. Snot Rockets - An Illustrated Guide

There are no tissues for long-distance hikers. They'd get wet in the rain, you'd have to carry them out, or you'd just have it eat the used ones to hide the evidence. No one wants to do that. Why? Because there's not nearly enough calories in a tissue to justify that type of licentious behavior.

I suppose you could carry a hanky, but imagine having a hanky that you can't wash for a week at a time. I had a hanky at the beginning of my thru-hike, and after 3 days I deigned to call it my "nightmare rag."

 So instead it is common practice for hikers to "Snot Rocket."

I had never heard of this before I hiked. And it took me a solid 2 weeks to be able to learn how to do it without getting snot all over myself. In order to save you the heartache and inevitable embarrassment of having mucous all over the one and only shirt you have to hike in, I have spent some time drawing out a handy-dandy illustrated guide for all your Snot Rocketing needs!

Step One is to notice that you have something that has formed itself inside of your nose. This is your Happy Fun Friend. But don't be fooled or get attached- this is not going to be a lasting friendship. You may notice yourself wrinkling your nose, sniffling, or just a dawning horror that you are producing a steady waterfall of disgusting.

Step Two is to stop hiking. Once you have become a more advanced Snot Rocketer, feel free to live dangerously and let fly while in motion. I will caution you against doing this against the wind, on mountaintops, or if someone is standing directly in front of you. Lean over at approximately 45 degrees, off the trail. Find yourself a bush to aim for. Do not Snot Rocket onto porcupines, pheasants, or other woodland creatures. It is rude, and they WILL form an alliance to seek revenge.

Step Three is to firmly but gently place your finger against the outside of your nose, pressing down the nostril that does not contain your Happy Fun Friend. This will allow all of the air you're about to expel to be forced down the blocked nostril. This is raw physics here, people.

This is a cross section of a Hiker's Skull, offering a rare and beautiful glimpse into the serene, philosophical pondering that often takes place in the mind of a forest pilgrim. This is also a completely accurate, 100% medically perfect, no fudging at all drawing of your sinuses. They're generally pretty gross. Notice the location of your Happy Fun Friend. You want to be able to have all of your Carbon Monoxide Tornado to come up your windpipe, bypass your mouth, and go rocketing out the one open nostril. 

Step Five is to BLOW AS HARD AS YOU CAN. Keep your mouth closed. If you haven't done all of the steps properly, or if your Happy Fun Friend has grown far too large, nothing will happen, and your ears will pop. However, if you have followed all of the previous steps properly, your Happy Fun Friend will be expelled in a lumpy mass of glory that will probably find a bush or leaf to cling to while it slowly degrades into oblivion.  

Even though you raised that Happy Fun Friend, gently nurturing it from a small booger to a catastrophic ball of slimy nose jello, it's time to let it go. Let it be free. Let it fly.

It's happier this way.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

143. Bears

I don't have any photographs of bears from my thru-hike. I like to think that means that I am an ecologically-minded, conservation-oriented and overly-hyphenated woods-woman. In my mind I am a superhero for nature, a respectful steward of the forest who needs not take photographs of the wildlife because I can appreciate it in the moment. That's absolutely the reason I don't have any photographs of bears. It's definitely not because seeing a bear makes me freeze quicker than Han Solo in carbonite. I absolutely don't get that same open-mouthed look of horror with my hands flapping around up in front of me, stunned forever in an expression of silliness.

Yes. Bears are Jabba the Hut in my brain. Except they're a little fuzzier and 100% more adorable.

Actually, I don't want to lie to you. Along the Appalachian Trail, there are only black bears, which really aren't that scary. I like thinking that I am totally spineless because it's more fun to write about it that way, but I'm not really a wimp (yes I am). I'm super brave and I've never felt my blood run like ice through my veins when I've come around a corner to see a gigantic black bear standing in the middle of the trail less than 5 feet away from me (yes I have). I am a force to be reckoned gently reasoned with!

In reality, in the several interactions I had with black bears, I reacted in the appropriate way. I clacked my hiking poles together and yelled some vaguely offensive rabble about bear politics and my opinions about the bear mayor doing a bad job with bear school tax levies. And then they would run away. It wasn't until later that I would realize that I had been in close proximity to a gigantic toothy mammal, and then I would feel a little faint.

I think the biggest reason that black bears weren't all that scary in the moment is that they're really not that dangerous, so long as they are respected and left alone. I knew the right way to react, so I felt safe, and we never had a negative interaction. Meanwhile, I had heard tale of the innumerable grizzly bears out in the West that Whistle had to encounter during her solo hikes through Glacier National Park. She once had to slowly hike backwards for a mile, pointedly avoiding eye contact while a gigantic mama grizzly bear paced toward her, huffing and snorting. When you encounter a grizzly bear and it decides that you would look better as a dead person, there's not a whole lot you can do.

Thus, by comparison, the black bears of Appalachia aren't quite as terrifying. They are wild animals that shouldn't be trifled with, and you should under no circumstances ever feed them, but they aren't looking for trouble, so if you are a respectful hiker you'll be alright. The reason I really wanted to write about bears is that they are, in a word, cool. There's not a lot of times that we as civilized humans get to see wild animals up close. But now I've gotten to see bears up close. Not by my choice (or theirs), but just by coincidence of being mammals sharing a habitat.

Bears have a very grounded, solid presence. Watching them walk feels like watching a roving mossy boulder gently padding its way through the piney landscape. They have bright, intelligent dark eyes that can probably see and understand way more than I could possibly describe without toppling into blatant anthropomorphism. Being eye-to-eye with a bear feels like being given a momentary window into the spirit of the forest. There is a truth to it, and it smells of dirt and earth and autumn.

That fraction of a second that you might spend with a bear is timeless, especially because it will quickly be followed by some explosive type of energy involving either you or the bear sprinting very briskly away from one another.

Clever Girl

If your long distance hike involves going through any type of bear country, you should always be prepared and know how to react to the types of bears you might encounter! Have your deck of cards handy, because most bear disputes can be solved with a quick hand of Black Jack.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Halfway There (Again)

Some months ago our "Halfway There" video disappeared from YouTube because copyright music something something. Who knows! The video was never officially taken down, but it just couldn't be seen. It was like a ghost! An internet ghost! These are the things that will haunt the next generation. No longer will it be things that go bump in the night. We will be plagued by the spirits of emails, facebook posts and tweets that mysteriously evaporated after the "Submit" button was pressed. THE HORROR.

Anyway, I've finally gotten around to re-uploading it to Vimeo instead! And here it is, in all of its trail glory.