Tuesday, March 16, 2010

AT Part 1

We arrived at the hostel to find the host Dad had made all the arrangements with had left due to a family event. He had left some close friends in charge with our reservation information. We met the temporary host and hostess, for the sake of the story, let’s call them Adam and Eve (they are the ones that have already eaten of the forbidden fruit, you know the clothed ones). Eve asked us if we have not made dinner plans yet, they would like us to join them for burgers.

Eve said it was not normal practice for the hostel to provide dinner but they planned to bend the rules while they were in charge. We were a little hesitant until she informed us it would not be any extra charge for dinner. My father responded quickly, “We love burgers, we will be glad to join you and Adam.”

As we talked, we found out that she and her husband were experienced AT hikers. Adam had completed the trail from start to finish. Together they had spent nearly a year on the trail. They currently had no home to speak of just a Toyota truck and a dog. Completing the entire AT is a feat that is only performed by less than 6% (I think that is right) of the hikers that start out with the intention of completing it in mind. It takes a normal healthy person about six months to complete it. The goal for the thru hiker (somebody that wants to complete the trail in one continuous outing) is to start at one end or the other in the spring and try to finish in the fall. Why do they not finish? According to Bryson, most get injured or get so lonely they cannot take it anymore.

To hear Adam and Eve talk about their experiences was like being the same room with a NFL Hall of Fame member or a Jack Nicklaus. Adam had completed the trail. He must be in the AT Hall of Fame. We found out he took it to the elite level; he did it on bad wheels. We noticed he had something wrong with his feet, but thought whatever it was had happened after his trek. Not so according to them. I cannot remember his condition but I can remember that he had a noticeable limp, closer to a waddle, and Eve later told us that each step he took was painful. He was also missing a portion of a calf muscle. Neither one of them explained this injury, none of us asked. My guess was he had had a run in with a bear. I will go out a short limb here and say the bear probably lost that fight.

Eve asked if we had been on the AT before. “You can spot beginners quickly can’t you Eve” my brother asked. She was very gracious in her response. She was thankful we were there. She said the number of hikers over the past few years has been dropping significantly. Without the hikers and volunteers she was afraid the AT may not be around much longer. She changed the subject back to dinner. She said they were expecting two hikers that were almost through with their trip tonight. She explained the importance of a cooked meal for hikers that had been on the trail for more than a week. They needed to eat something that was not freeze dried and out of a bag. The interaction with others typically improved spirits from the lonely days on the trail.

Adam left to pick up the other expected guests from off the trail. He returned about 30 minutes later. We were sitting out on the front porch discussing our expectations and excitement of being on the brink of our excursion. We heard the Toyota pull back up in the drive way. Adam was the first to show up. He waddled by and nodded. The first weathered hiker we saw was an older man. He could have passed as Grizzly Adams. He was wearing his steel framed backpack with the sleeping bag rising over his bowed head. He was wearing a safari type hat, the soft kind. He was watching each step intently. He was wearing workout gloves and had a walking stick in each hand (they look more ski poles). He was habitually keeping his walking sticks in sync with his steps. He was wearing a t-shirt and Columbia type shorts that had been zipped off at the knee. His boots were covered over with the hard plastic snake bite protectors (they probably have a cooler name like “Fang Away Boots”). I remember thinking how weary and fatigued he looked. He did not look up at us as he passed. He walked just beyond the hostel and removed his backpack. He appeared to be arranging some items. Then he picked up his pack, brought it to the porch and set it by the front door. He finally looked up at us and said “Hello gentlemen.” We said “Hello”. He removed his boots then stepped into the hostel. We heard him greet Eve.

The next man that came walking up the sidewalk was much younger and in a lot better shape. The exact opposite of what we had just seen. He was holding his head up looking forward. His back pack was barely visible. He was not wearing a hat but a bandanna. He too was using walking sticks but did not need to be as careful as Grizzly Adams. His shirt looked like something from the Tour de France. His shorts looked more like he was ready to run a marathon. He was wearing hiking shoes with low cut socks. As he approached he spoke to my nephew first, “Hi young man, are you ready to go hiking?” “Yes sir.” He introduced himself to us as Lightfoot (or maybe it was He Who Hikes with Short Socks). OK I thought the first guy was weird because he did not say anything. Now we have this guy calling himself Lightfoot. I am thinking this guy has been smoking his pipe out there on the trail. My nephew (Runs on Leaded with Eight Sparkplugs and Never Stops) asked him exactly what I was thinking. “How long have you been on the trail?” Lightfoot replied “Six days.” “Ran out of your special wacky tobacky did you?” No, no, my nephew did not ask that. Dad asked him.

Eve came out on the porch and gave Lightfoot instructions as to where his bunk would be and informed him that dinner would be served in 30 minutes. She also let him know dinner was on the house tonight. He thanked her kindly and headed straight for his bunk room.

About 30 minutes later we all met in the dining room and introduced ourselves properly. The shower had evidently rinsed out some of the loose impediments between Lightfoot’s ears and refreshed Grizzly Adams mood. They provided their real names and were very cordial. Lightfoot, the younger of the two, turned out to be a Navy Seal on leave from Iraq. G. Adams was retired Army. [Side note: we found out later that one of the traditions of the AT is to be given a trail name. You cannot issue one to yourself; it has to be given to you by another hiker that you come in contact with on the trail. With what we saw when Lightfoot came walking up it seemed to fit him.] We gave them our real names and explained we did not have trail names yet. We let them know it was our first trip, as if it were a secret. We wanted them to know what type of advice they could provide. They could have ripped us apart with sarcasm or bursts of laughter, but they responded like true gentlemen. Almost simultaneously they said “How much does your pack (backpack) weigh?” Our response of “They aren’t too bad.” returned an immediate grin from Grizzly Adams.

Adam, the AT legend, jumped in and said “You guys need to weigh your packs. It should not be more than thirty-two pounds. The young one should only carry about twenty pounds. By the looks of your packs, all of you are over thirty-two pounds. After we eat, go weigh them with the scales on the front porch. I will then go thru your packs and help you reduce the weight.” You do not argue or question a legend. “Yes sir.”

Dad and my brother’s pack (the brother who does not want to be named on my blog) were the heaviest. Dad’s was about forty two pounds and Lord Knobhead (Kipp Not On your Blog; “head” just to add some fuel to the brotherly love fire) was about thirty eight pounds. Sparkplugs (the name my nephew got stuck with before we even got on the trail) pack was just about twenty four pounds. All of the packs weighed thus far were over the established weight limit. My pack was the last to see the scale. It registered a cool thirty-two pounds. Adam had followed us out on the porch to witness the weigh-in. He seemed to be shocked one pack actually weighed correctly. Lord Knobhead immediately says “You can carry Sparkplugs tent for him, and I have some pots and pans you can carry…” Thank goodness Adam spoke up, “Guys take your packs to your bunk room and I will help you reduce the weight. There may not be a reason to redistrib...pots and pans, are you serious?”

We grabbed the backpacks and headed up stairs. Adam met us in the room. “Who wants to go first?” Dad volunteered first. Adam began plundering his pack. “OK your sleeping bag weighs about three pounds. Your tent weight seems to be about five pounds. This is weight you have to have. So now we need to look at what you do not need.”

As Adam starts unzipping pockets, Dad decides to explain how weight conscience he was picking out the food he brought. “I made sure to bring instant oatmeal for breakfast. Tuna packs for lunch and these freeze dried dinners.” Adam pulls out a quart size zip lock bag full of mixed nuts. “Good energy boost.” Adam pulls out another zip lock bag, then another, then another. “I figure you have about four pounds of nuts here.” He unzipped another pocket. Another zip lock bag. This one had snickers candy bars and granola bars. He pulled out two more zip lock bags with the same contents. “There is another four pounds in here.” He unzipped another pocket. He pulled out about a half dozen packs of tuna. “That is about three pounds. What is that, about 12 pounds of food? How long do you guy’s plan on being out?” Dad answered three days. “Three days! You have enough food here to feed all four of you for a week!” He opened another pocket. He found a full size flashlight, hunting knife, compass, radio, cell phone, a sleeping mat then he stopped. He looked at Dad and said. “Sir I think if you will take one oatmeal pack per morning, one tuna pack per afternoon, one freeze dried meal, one snicker’s per day and one bag of mixed nuts you will be fine. Plus it will reduce the weight of your pack by about eight or nine pounds. It will make your hike a lot more enjoyable. If this is the only type flashlight you have then reducing the food will allow for the flashlight. You must have a flashlight. You should not need the hunting knife. The bears will either attack you while you are sleeping or run from you during the day from the noise you will make on the trail. The blowup sleeping mat with solar powered pump is a good idea, but a foam mat would have worked much better and weighed a lot less. You should not need your cell phone. The reception is poor at best and there is a payphone at most road crossings. If not, you can flag down most any car.Folks around typically know an AT hiker when they see one. They know all you need is a phone or to hitch a ride to the nearest store.”

I had been following along with what Adam was telling dad. So far I had been on target. But I of course only had a sleeping bag and no tent (Dad and I were going to share a tent). I had the four oatmeal packs, the three tuna packs, the two dinners, and the six granola bars for a snack. My flashlight was a small pocket size with fresh batteries. Other things I had brought were a change of clothes, a back pack cover, toilet paper (TP), baby wipes, deodorant, a sheet and a blanket for my sleeping bag. I was feeling confident I had packed correctly.
“Who is next?” Adam asked. Lord Knobhead requested to be next. “I have the same food minus the mixed nuts. I also will carry the gas burner and gas cans, pots, pans, water filter and the things those guys don’t.” So Adam starts in on the tent and sleeping bag. “These are nice and lightweight, good. You only have about three pounds between the two. Why do you need three gas cans? One should be enough for the two nights you will be out. Are you kidding?! Is this a coffee pot!? I think you can do without coffee for a day or two. The water filter is good. Let me say this about water. When you guys get up in the morning you need to hydrate. Drink about twenty or thirty two ounces before breakfast. Hydrate as needed as you hike. When you stop for lunch; hydrate. Before you leave lunch fill up your water bottle again with fresh water. When you make camp for the night, hydrate again before you eat, hydrate before you go to bed. Repeat the process the next day.”

Then Adam made a discovery he was not impressed with, “What is this; a first aid kit?!” “My wife made me bring it” said Lord Knobhead. After he looked around as if to say I do not see your wife here now Adam says, “Like I told your father about his hunting knife, if you get hurt out there, nothing in this kit is going to help. Do you have duct tape?” “Yes I read somewhere it can be useful.” Lord Knobhead pulls out a brand new roll of duct tape. Adam ripped open the tape and grabbed Lord Knobhead’s walking stick and started wrapping a band of tape just under the handle. He put about a quarter to half inch worth of tape on each walking stick. He then pitched the roll toward the closet. “If you get a blister cover it with duct tape. If you cut yourself, cover it with duct tape. If a binder breaks on your pack, use the duct tape. If your tent zipper breaks use the duct tape. The duct tape is your first aid kit, get it?” He grabbed the first aid kit and pitched toward the closet.

He told Lord Knobhead to go thru Sparkplugs pack and only put in the necessities (toilet paper, food, change of clothes, flashlight). Re-evaluate his pack after the first day and see if he can handle any extra weight you do not need (water filter, burner, etc.). Adam took the extra two gas cans and tossed them toward the closet.

Then it was my turn. I admit I was nervous but confident. After all I was the only one that had been dead on with what Adam the AT legend has said was the ideal weight. Dad and Lord Knobhead had practically busted the scale. Adam started opening pockets on my pack here and there. “Um hm. Um hm. Good. Good.” My nervousness was dissipating. Until Adam said, “What the heck is this?” He pulled out my folded back pack cover. Course it was a dark green shower curtain. I informed him that my back pack did not come with a water proof cover. I further explained that my plan was if it rained I wanted to make sure I stayed dry. Me and all my belongings, sleeping bag, clothes, food, toilet paper, heck the whole tent if rained hard enough. “Might be a miserable trip if the TP gets wet” I said with a smile. I had not purchased this shower curtain new, it was an extra from when we last painted the house…it had a few ivory white paint spots on it. He was looking at me like I had first looked at Lightfoot, “Have you been smoking wacky tobacky?” He looked at it, looked at me, looked back at the shower curtain and tossed it toward the closet. As he rolled his eyes he says, “It’s not supposed to rain.” He was finished reviewing my pack.
He told all of us to go back down to the porch and reweigh our packs. Dad had dropped his pack down to thirty-three pounds (thirteen pound difference). Lord Knobhead had dropped about six pounds from his pack. Sparkplug’s pack dropped down to about twenty-one pounds. My pack with the addition of Sparkplugs and Lord Knobheads tent, gas can, a bag of mixed nuts, and a bag of snickers had increased to thirty-five pounds. Everybody was so excited about the new weight on their packs. For once I had somewhat followed directions and brought only what I needed. Why is it, the ones that follow the rules have to pay for those that cannot?
It was about 8:30pm now and the first shuttle left at 5:30am. We got back to our bunk room to prepare for bed. We chatted about our experience thus far and the excitement of finally being here on the brink of starting our trip. Dad cut the lights out and told everybody “goodnight”. As we shuffled around in our bunks and things got a little quiet. I hear Dad mumble something about needing to pee. He gets up and stops by the closet before going to the bathroom. After he comes out of the bathroom he stops by his backpack. He crawls back in his bunk.

Lord Knobhead was next to mumble something about needing to brush his teeth and peeing. He comes out of the bathroom and stops by the closet then swings by his pack. He zipped a few pockets mumbling something about if his wife found out then I thought I heard first aid kit. Then he crawls back his bunk.

I am thinking “I must have been adopted ‘cause I do not have to go to the ladies room before bed.” Then it hit me what was going on. I mumble something about washing my face before bed. I go in the bathroom and splash some water around in the sink. Then use one of Dixie cups to pour water in the toilet to simulate peeing. I come out of the bathroom stop by the closet and pick up my shower curtain. But I was little smarter than the others, I just brought it back to my bed and waited to put it in my pack while they were at breakfast the next morning.

There is more to this story...but I just wanted to give you an idea of how easy it is to make a story happen and live it.

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