Tag Archives: Appalachian Trail

What I learned from hiking (in 2010)


I let my beard grow while hiking in 2010. I shave it these days to hide the gray! I hadn’t been on a long distance hike like this in ten years, at the time. The summer for me was a series of section hikes while got in shape to accompany my younger daughter on her through-hike.

The guy who played accordion for my old polka band, Tom Jamrog, is also a long distance hiker and backpacker. He’s done the “Triple Crown” – the AT, PCT, and CDT. He blogs about his trips, and has a vigorous writing style. He recently posed a question on his blog; “what have you learned from Hiking?”  and I decided to answer.

Troop 4 Marlboro, Algonquin Council B.S.A., Camp Resolute

I have been a hiker and backpacker all my life, ever since Boy Scouts. Growing up, my mom generally refused to let us ever play inside the house, even in winter. “So what if it’s cold, put on some mittens and your winter boots and go outside and play!”  and I vividly recall games the neighborhood boys would play in the woods around our house or on the nearby golf course. Usually some variation of Capture The Flag.

As a youthful prank, my friend Kenny Paul and I once threw some firecrackers at the house of a neighbor boy.  (Yes, it was us – the Statute of Limitations has run out, and besides, I think I was eleven years old.) The boy’s mom called the police.  Ken was the star of the crosscountry team, and when the cruiser pulled up with blue lights blinking, I was surprised that I could keep up with him. Two cruisers spent some time in our neighborhood while Kenny and I spent the next three hours eluding them in an apple orchard. hmmmmm……. Later this inspired me to join the cross country team. I ran the the half mile in spring track.  (2:14 was my personal best, if you really must know).

Kenny recently retired from his position as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, and he still is a runner.  My older brother finally rediscovered Kenny’s whereabouts after thirty years. Ken was also an excellent baseball pitcher. Once while on a training run though the neighborhood, a dog came out to chase. Kenny picked up a rock and beaned the dog from fifty feet away, knocking it unconscious. What coordination. I laughed when he told me his USMC specialty was artillery. He spent his adult life throwing stuff at people…..

Misery in the Great Outdoors

Camping with the Boy Scouts included a lot of miserable experiences amidst the fun. I never cooked for myself at home before going camping and trying it there. Baking my first potato in a campfire was half-burnt/half-raw, for example, and one memorable hike during a winter weekend, our patrol ploughed our way through thighdeep snow for three miles on a hike to nowhere. Ultimately I got Eagle Scout. why? mainly because my older brother had done it, and I looked up to him ( still do!).


every Eagle Scout has a merit badge sash. I got twentyone as you can see – the exact number required for Eagle. For each, I can remember who the counselor was, what the activities were, and other trivia.

Other experiences

To answer the specific question, It’s hard for me to separate hiking from Boy Scouts, in terms of what I learned. Don’t disrespect the Boy Scouts – I have some philosophical differences with their current leadership, over their policy toward gay persons and atheists (each of which are just fine with me) but overall the Boy Scouts  fill an important  need. Paul Theroux summed it up for me when he described his experience with the Boy Scouts.

Taking a side trail

During the time I was in Maine I did all the outdoorsy stuff – crosscountry ski, canoe ( the Allagash and Upper West Branch of the Penobscot) , hike, telemark, etc. I climbed Mt Washington and Katahdin in wintertime more than once…. but by comparison, the last few years in Hawaii I went through a period of not doing nearly much adventure-type stuff in the outdoors. Oh well, yeah, I was spending every summer time in rural Nepal teaching with Christian Medical Missionaries and taking day  hikes, doing the Asian Travel thing (no, I did not climb Everest at any time…….that’s the usual Nepal question I get from fellow backpackers…)  and here in Hawaii I was going to the beach (Sandy’s) and dayhiking… but .. it wasn’t the Real Thing. And the weather here is so nice that it’s missing an element …….

Passing it on

I always took my kids on outdoorsy adventures. Glad to have two daughters because then the pressure was off and I knew I would never have to be an adult scout leader. I was saved from having to spend any more weekends with bunches of eleven-year-old boys. (thank you God!) but taught both my girls all the skills anyway. Yes, both my kids learned to make a fire, paddle a canoe, predict the weather by looking at the clouds, and read a topo map. When they were six and eight, we took them on a weeklong canoe camping trip, retracing Thoreau’s path on the Upper West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine.  When the younger one announced her intention to do a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2010, I was reminded of  long-ago solemn promise made at a campfire,  that I would join her on that quest, should the day ever come.

My daughter, “Whoopie Pie,” on the trail. Much of the A.T. is a long green tunnel. After only a few weeks, Whoopie Pie was doing up to thirty miles a day, often four or five days a week (!) – It’s never been about mileage for me.whoopie-pie-on-trail-2


My 2010 hike

When the summons to hike long-distance came, I was old. And fat.  But this served as a personal challenge to get into enough shape to be a respectable hiking buddy. And that’s where the learning began again. In order to keep up with Whoopie Pie, I decided I would do my own solo hike for a few hundred miles and get in shape before hand. And besides, she didn’t want to do the whole thing with me, she was going to hike her own hike. So in May I started off in the hundred or so miles that traverse Massachusetts, averaging eight miles a day through the Berkshires. A few days to recuperate and restarted in Vermont, about two hundred miles through the Green Mountains and into New Hampshire, by this time averaging eleven miles a day.  Another hundred through Shenandoah National Park, and finally co-hiked with Whoopie Pie. By the end of the summer I was not so fat; and I learned that I was not so old, either. I hiked 475 miles in that summer.


I think most writers focus on the physical challenge of doing this,  but most of the highlights for me were a bit of the meditative variety, and a good hike serves as a daydream for a long time afterwards. A variety of mountaintops in seven states. Hearing loons on a pond on Vermont, for the first time in five years. The night at the Tom Leonard Lean-to listening to nesting hoot owls.  Cleaning the dead leaves from a mountain spring, and the wonderment of finding a fist-sized jellylike clump of frog’s eggs. The evening Julie and I lay in our bunks in a cabin in Vermont listening to the soft conversations of other hikers during six days of cold rain in the Green Mountains. The “problem bear” at Shenandoah when I was the only person in the lean-to that night. Having heatstroke on two occasions. The bedazzlement of thousands of  butterflies, a cloud of butterflies, in a dewy meadow of wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park. Being sick with bronchitis and experiencing SVT overnight after taking cough medicine, wondering how I would get evacuated from such a remote place. Walking out on my own the next morning.

And of course – Smarts Mountain

The people who comprise the subculture of the Trail are always a highlight, and I learn a lot from them. One day’s hike sticks out.  I got to the FireWarden’s cabin at Smart’s Mountain New Hampshire at the end of a fourteen mile day, knowing for the last five miles that I needed to beat an oncoming thunderstorm. The approach from the south is very steep, with iron rungs forming a sort of ladder over the steepest sections. The rain pelted down, forming a waterfall on the trail as I ascended. At one point my heart sank when the clouds parted and I realized I was nowhere as close as I thought I was. Darkness was approaching and I needed to skedaddle. Lightning was hitting less than a halfmile away as I got above timberline, dashing the last half mile like a frenzied animal.

To get there I had elected to hop past the Trapper John leanto, but to my surprise I was passed from behind at the last minute by Roaring Lion and Snow White,  a pair of through-hikers who had hopped past two leantos, and come from six miles even further south than me that day. I was sprinting after a fourteen miles day, but they were sprinting after a twentymile hike. wow.

On the porch, one other guy who’d come from the north, was already cooking dinner.  The cabin smelled of dead porcupine but the roof was intact. RL, SW, and I each got out of our clothes and did what all long distance hikers do – get into the dry sleeping bag, eat something, and regain some strength. As we lay there we agreed that the lightning was – exciting. Thank God I was smart enough to know how to keep the bag dry.

Everything I learned in Boy Scouts told me not to do what I just did.

Then we had dinner, and the usual bull session as we got to know each other. We shared that special  cameraderie of people who know that what they just did, (hiking uphill into a lightning storm,) was crazy; and yet, who know they are also in the company of others equally crazy.

Best summed in a saying

A friend is somebody who will bail you out of jail. A best friend is somebody who in handcuffed on the bench next to you saying “man, that was awesome”

(with kudos to my buddy Cameron Allen in Pueblo). Later that same summer, I did a 22 mile day in Shenandoah National Park. And a few other feats in which I picked up the tootsies and put them down. The highlight was to hold my own when I finally caught up with my old hiking buddy, Whoopie Pie.

From then on, for the rest of that summer, I knew: I can still push myself, further and harder than I thought. Miles, time, space, vertical elevation, weather: meaningless.

And I have some best friends. On the Trail.


If you got this far, and you want to read an adventure tale that starts with a trek in Nepal that went horribly wrong, check out my second book:


If this were a bookstore, you would read the back of the book-decide to buy. Find this on Amazon at https://goo.gl/PGTW30




Filed under Appalachian Trail 2012, Maine

How “Whoopie Pie” got started with backpacking

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Ever since they were little, I took my kids hiking, camping and canoeing. I was (still am…) an Eagle Scout.

Ten days in the summer of 2000.

Many of the readers of this blog will know that my younger daughter Amy, also maintains a blog, and she often writes about outdoorsy stuff.  Amy has many accomplishments in the area of camping/hiking/backpacking/canoeing, not the least of which is that she did a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2010.  For the  uninitiated, this is a marked footpath through the mountains of the eastern USA which is 2,170 miles from Georgia to Maine. She started Jun 1st and finished Oct 29th.

“Did she do it alone?” is always the first question any woman asks.

Um, sort of. She was a party of one, but I would say she was not alone for very long. How do I describe the cult-like traveling community of fellow-hikers that forms, re-forms, and mutates along the way? Amy was “Whoopie Pie” and joined the cult. No, she was not alone. But as to who she was “with” –  that’s another story. Amy’s sister joined her to traverse New York; her mother joined her in the huts of  the White Mountains; and though our paths crossed in Glencliff New Hampshire, my own co-hike consisted of the section between Bellview New York and the Susquehanna River – in other words, about ninety miles in the Great State of New Jersey. (which was nice – please refrain from the New Jersey jokes. the A.T. in NJ does not go through Newark… we did climb the highest point in the state, aptly titled “High Point, NJ”).  This was considered to be a bit odd. Most through-hikers have a support team of sorts, but the support team evidently does not join the pilgrimage, most of the time.

The through-hike is best told by Amy. For me, I was flattered recently when she wrote about a previous hike she and I shared, the Hundred Mile Wilderness, in 2000. Back then, I had ten days off and decided I needed to do a trip. She came along.

Trail Stories

There are too many favorite vignettes of the y2k trip to tell them all. How we got our Trail Names. The secrets of the logbook. Spending five of the ten nights as the only people at whichever lean-to we bunked in. The night some sort of Creature approached Potaywadjo Spring Lean–to and we prepared to fight it off. The lunch on the flat rocks, an hour gazing at a micro-universe of tadpoles in the shallow water. The people we met. Crossing rivers, climbing mountains, surviving the weather. Obsessing about the chimney at Chairback Gap. Standing on Little Boardman Mountain looking south and using my walking stick to say “see that ridge in the distance? That’s where we’ll be in four more days of continuous walking.”  Almost burning down the Cooper Brook Fall Lean-to. Chances to just sit on a high place and dream about the world. Meeting the other long distance hikers and realizing that 98% were male.  Meeting and sharing a lean-to with through hikers who had come all the way from Georgia already….

But one story I will tell.

The second night of the trip we spent at Wadleigh Stream Lean-to, partway along Nahmakanta Lake. When I was there in 1982, it was brand new; I dunno why I expected that it still would be, eighteen years later. As the trail approached the lean-to, it was obvious that it was occupied. Lounging on the wooden floor,  five women casually played cards while singing a folk song  – in harmony. I said hello, and they greeted me with a chorus of southern drawls….. “are you ladies from the South, by any chance?” they all gave the “oh puh-Leeze” gesture at once, and the oldest  batted her eyelashes as she said “we don’t go divulging our secrets to any old YANKEE!”

I took off my Stetson cowboy hat and held it over my heart with a flourish, silent for a moment. I tried to sound like Colonel Sanders as I intoned “I do believe there is a standard of northern hospitality which I will endeavor to follow and I am honored to make the  acquaintances of five southern belles such as yourselves”

And with that we settled in. I got a space near the wall, and Amy would sleep between me and the five ladies, two of whom decided to move to their small tent. I knew Amy would now have some role models for women hikers. Turns out three were from Tennessee and two were from Utah. They all talked with Amy. Good. One of the Utah girls sported a black-and-blue on her thigh the size of a tea saucer, now turning green.  Amy listened wide-eyed as the hiker told of her fall coming down the chimney of Chairback Gap,  and how she was too hurt to hike anymore that day. The young lady had pitched her tent at that spot and stayed a day til she decided she felt better. Dad, how many days til Chairback Gap?!?!?!?!?!

The evening was pleasant. In the middle of the night there was a burst of torrential rain, and I got up, took everyone’s clothes off the clothesline, and brought it all in.

 Breaking Camp

Morning starts early on the Trail, and my habit on that trip was to get up and boil water so as to hand Amy some cocoa and some oatmeal while she was still in the sleeping bag. I was determined to show her some small luxuries and consideration so she would enjoy backpacking. Next to her, the Utah girl with the bruise was preparing her pack for the day.

First, she rolled up the sleeping pad and the sleeping bag in a very particular way. Just So. The she made her breakfast and ate it; but afterwards returned every single item to the exact place where it belonged in her pack. Meticulously.  It was crystal clear that she had a system to locate each item and that she had practiced this setup dozens of times, if not hundreds. I could see Amy’s eyes widen as she watched.  Wordless. But taking it all in. The Utah Girl was doing her daily routine but I wonder if she knew that she was performing for a highly discerning audience (of one). Amy and I shared one of those long silent pauses holding eye contact that told me we would dissect this at length later. Which we did. From then on, Amy sharpened her observations as to any little  technique of backpacking shown by others.

And that was the beginning.

Now, I am asked sometimes what is the appeal of backpacking? Why go through all the hardship and privation? Well, there are joys involved, the camaraderie of the Trail, and all that. But I have come to realize that a person needs to have a sort of compulsive streak in order to do this sport. That morning I watched Amy as she watched the Utah Girl assemble her kit for the day. I knew at that moment Amy possessed the type of focus (yes, you could call it a compulsive streak..) that would make her want to go deeper into it.  And excel. People take up backpacking as a way to tweak their compulsive gene.

Okay, just one more

One of the shining moments of the trip came close to the end. We’d eaten most of the food, and both packs were considerably lighter.  We got to the ford of Long Pond Stream, and the water was a couple of feet deep there. Too lazy to take off out boots, the water was slowmoving  and we could have waded across, about thirty feet, holding the packs above our heads. Too much hassle. So we searched upstream for a better crossing point. There was a place about ten feet across where two large flat boulders fronted each other. If only… if only we could get a running jump, we could make it across.

And yes, without a backpack there would have been no doubt. I went first. Uff. Landed on the rock on my belly but slipped in slo-mo fashion into the water, unable to grip the smooth rock to stop myself. Still about four feet deep, but I went all the way in and got my hair wet. Back pack soaked of course. Hat started to float off.

And there was Amy, standing on the rock, laughing at me. “Smart Aleck. Now I will show you how it’s done”

Okay your turn. Loosen your waistbelt. I got out of the way. And she did the exact same thing. She looked over at me as she scrabbled to find a grip on the rock, but she slowly slipped into the stream. Years later when I saw the scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf is dragged to his doom by the balrog, I got a flashback to Amy’s crossing of Long Pond Stream.  She come up for air cackling like a bedraggled chicken.

We both slogged to shore, took off out boots and socks, drained the back packs and decided the only logical thing was to have a snack. Ordinarily getting soaked by accident this way might be viewed as a crisis by some people, but what made it so memorable was as we were putting everything back together, we were chuckling and giddy about it. What fun.

I told Amy that ordinarily, people only did stupid stuff like that if they had been drinking.

There were other times that week when I thought about Amy as a lifetime Trail Buddy, but at that moment I knew. Amy was going to thrive as a backpacker. She had discovered her lifetime sport.

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The Way – Oct 22 2011 – summer 2012 plans?

So the deal was, let’s go see The Way.

It’s about the pilgrimage to Campostella through the Pyrenees and into Spain.

Europe in summer 2012?

A faculty colleague, Estelle Codier, has done this pilgrimage three times, has wonderful stories and photos. Her husband is a minister and they have the summers off, of course. I had spoken with her about this, since I have been thinking of whether it is time to got Europe and hike there. Last year I even bought a guide book to the Pilgrimage, it was fun to read about and to daydream.

Estelle and I have schedules that seem to be exactly opposite, so it’s unusual for me to see her  in Webster Hall at the same time.  I’d been on the look out for her… so when I saw her in the elevator it was funny that we both blurted out the same thing – ” have you heard about the Campostello movie????”

Trendy and anti-trendy

I told her that now the pilgrimage would be ruined, it would be overflowing with trendy types and maybe I would not want to go. ;-(

“Joe, it’s been trendy for fifteen hundred years” she said. then after a short pause “and are you trying to say that going to Nepal isn’t trendy? don’t you go to Nepal because it’s cool?”

okay, she had a point. Yes, I go to Nepal, and yes, i know it’s wicked-ass cool. But once I am there I try to do the anti-trendy thing. I don’t stay in Thamel with the rock jocks, I go for long periods of time without seeing the tourists,  only hang out with NGO -types in Jawalekhel, make my out-of-the-Valley trips to the Terai as opposed to Everest Base Camp….. but yes, I have an internal meter that gauges how cool it is.

Moving right along….. any way yesterday was the first day the movie showed in Honolulu and there I was, in the theater. with popcorn.

The Solitude of the trail?

Any body who takes a long journey on foot, or who goes on an expedition of some kind,  knows that solitude is not what it’s about, not really. Not for most people. Oh, you have to learn to be happy being with yourself, and happy walking, but the big memories are more likely to be from the people you meet and the relationships that form. You can make lifetime bonds with people you share this kind of experience with, events take on a vividness that makes home life seem boring and colorless. Before any such trip I always used the say ” I know that epic things will happen. I just don’t happen to presently know what they will be.”

Guava Boy and Gummi Bear, summer 2000

I remember doing the Hundred Mile Wilderness with my fifteen year old daughter a dozen years ago. During the day, we hiked our own pace, just walking alone for long sections. That waswhat she expected. In the evenings, the hikers arrive at a lean-to, a designated shelter spot with water supply and privy, these are all on the map. When you get the last twenty yards, you come around the corner to find up to a dozen complete strangers who have each done the same thing all day. They will be your sleeping companions.  Now you are in a hugger-mugger social situation, sleeping like sardines in a can at times. My companion on that long-ago hike was nicknamed Gummy Bear, and she was astounded at the social scene, I realize now that I initiated her into a cult of which she longed to be a member. In the evenings, if there is a campfire, a sort of “hail fellow well met” camaraderie develops, throwback to an earlier time when storytelling and sharing was more the norm. If you are headed in the same direction, you rendezvous with the same crowd every evening for awhile. The setting amplifies the attributes of the participants so that even the quietest person takes on attributes of a colorful personality.

Long Trail Inn

The same is true for any expedition, in which the team dynamics play an outsized role in the events. we all crave the opportunity to run with a pack of Big Dogs, and form a surrogate family. In Vermont in 2010, even though I was a slowpoke, I found myself travelling in the same direction as about a dozen people and we seemed to leapfrog for a hundred miles. ( Idid my first eighteen-mile day of the summer, in Vermont, in the rain…) I got to the Long Trail Inn and shared beer and dinner with the travelling cohort, and we were able to discuss long distance hiking strategy of the previous hundred and twenty miles. It was great, and when they were doing  this in the movie, I thought they captured it.

During the day, you do have time to reflect. You may be on a marked path but your mind is free to wander in any direction it pleases. Thoughts churn. Over time, the thoughts disappear and you learn to stop thinking and just be.

The Way

I guess I’d have to say the movie was – “nice.” Light escapism. Lots of scenery. snippets of the actual activities, such as what the hostels look like, the activity in the mornings, and the rolling hills. Scenes where the little group sleeps outside a barn, where they meet a sketchy eccentric hostel owner, and the towns along the way, such as Pamplona and Burgos, made famous by Hemingway. Yeah, I guess it has been trendy for a few years…… the pilgrims in the movie looked older than say, the A.T. crowd.

World Heritage Experience

The main character stumbles into three traveling companions, each one colorful. A bit of a descent into stereotype takes place here, as the screenwriter was attempting to draw each person with sharp lines, and make you fall in love with their endearing charms. the movie compresses a two month trip into a hundred minutes, and so we skip major sections of walking, portrayed periodically by updating the map like a   travelogue.  Despite the need to highlight the eccentricities of each character,  I thought this was okay.  There were some crowd scenes, such as coming upon a group dining al fresco where the Europeans derisively sing the Star Spangled Banner, that conveyed the perspective of travel in a cosmopolitan setting such as this. And of course, the Martin Sheen character ends up relying on his mates, this boundary is overcoming in believable fashion.

There are touching scenes along the way, harbingers of which are revealed very early in the film. The main guy decides to complete the pilgrimage his son started, and at times he sees his son, out of the corner of his eye, as if he was alongside during the events, just for a second. I could relate to this. In 2010 my 475-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail was mostly for the purpose of getting in good enough shape to hike with my daughter, now travelling under the assumed name of Whoopie Pie. We spent a week hiking through New Jersey, the culmination of months of effort, and a surprisingly fun section of the Trail. During the run-up, my daughter was an imaginary travelling companion.  The mind plays tricks with you on such a journey. The things that well up in your consciousness are the things you long for, and if your mind becomes trained, you can conjure them up almost as if they were real, in front of you and tangible.

Roma, not some other name….

My favorite scene in The Way, of course, took place in the Roma neighborhood. I have had some travel experiences in Nepal that were just like that, and I cherish those.

The only thing that I found annoying was a group of four people who sat right behind me. Evidently they had made this pilgrimage, and they felt the need to comment “yes, I remember that” every now and again. It reminds me that I too can be insufferable when reminiscing about past adventures.

All in all,  an okay movie.

Summer 2012

I will soon be thinking of plans for summer 2012. If you have gotten this far in the reading, I invite you to submit ideas.

My summer break goes from May 18th or so, to August 10th or so.

My nephew “Doc” gets married, in Texas, June 3rd. I will be there.

Plan A – Nepal. Summer 2011 was a hoot, lots of fun. meaningful contribution. Would love to expand on that work.If I go to Nepal, it won’t be for as long as last summer. disadvantage – the cost of airfare.

Plan B – Hiking again maybe the Appalachian Trail starting at Springer; maybe the John Muir Trail and then north through the Sierras; the idea is to cut down on air travel, and once I get to the mainland, to stay there.  I think if I did it right, I could bite off about six hundred miles of the Trail  during that time.

I have also always wanted to canoe the Boundary Waters Region or the Temagami region of Ontario. why not?

Plan C  – Europe once I am on the mainland of USA, europe is not that far…. Compostela?  Jerusalem? the U.K.?

I will get more serious about these ideas in the next three months…..


Filed under Appalachian Trail 2012, Uncategorized