Wednesday, October 31, 2007

15 Minutes

Yesterday Lauren and I appeared in her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester County Times. The columnist, Bob Shyrock, heard about our trip from friends (Jack and Jean) who have been faithful followers of our trip blog.

Bob regularly highlights local people and places and gave us a call last week. Our phone interview lasted about 45 minutes and we thought he did a nice job composing the article.

Our only footnotes would be that we slept mostly under our tarp on the trail, not in shelters - and that my sister Hannah is actually 9-years-old. But overall... very accurate!

You can find the article here, if you want to take a look.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Shenandoah Ranger Photo

Shenandoah Ranger

We have a Google alert that automatically notifies us any time someone posts the phrases "Stitch and Figgy" or "Figgy and Stitch" to the web.

This one was kind of interesting: I guess the guy in the green shirt in our photo posted this image to his web album here.

Be careful about what you write about “Stitch and Figgy!”

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I am writing this post as we traverse Pennsylvania by train, en route to my parent's house in Pittsburgh. Lauren and I have been reading our trail journals to each other, sharing with each other our notes and perspectives from the trail for the first time. So far we're two weeks in, just reliving some of the emotional and physical highs and lows of the Smokies.

Today's train route was something I hadn't given any thought to, and was overjoyed when I looked out the window to see the Susquehanna River and the familiar views of Duncannon, PA. I couldn't contain my exclamations and pointing when I saw the Doyle Hotel, the old sled factory, and the exact underpass where our footsteps crossed these tracks just three months earlier.

Each time we encounter the trail I am overcome with a flood of emotions, and a sense of nostalgia one might expect from an old-timer telling stories of "back in my day..."

So far we've intersected the A.T. four times since completing our thru-hike. First in Killington near the Inn at the Long Trail, and again near the Clarendon Gorge in Vermont. A few weeks ago we crossed at the southern end of Harriman State Park near Tuxedo, New York, and now again today on our Amtrak rails.

Appalachian Trail Drive PA-76

Before hiking the trail I would drive the PA-76 turnpike and daydream about the A.T. passing by on the concrete bridge above. Now I know.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Remembering the Hikers of 2007

Smoky Mountain Diner

One of the main attractors (or detractors) of hiking the Appalachian Trail is the number of other long distance hikers out there. Even if you start out late, as we did, you're bound to run into the 'herd' of hikers at some point. For us, that began around the halfway point, when we reached Boiling Springs, PA.

If you prefer solitude, the A.T. is probably not the trail for you. But if you can drop some of those expectations and embrace the unique traits that distinguish A.T. from other trails, interacting with the hiking community can be enjoyable.

As a fun challenge, last week Lauren and I began compiling a list of every long distance hiker that we personally met on the A.T. this summer. Our list of trail names can be found here.

Some of these were section hikers and some were aspiring thru-hikers. Some we met for 5 seconds, a few became recurring parts of our journey, and with some we shared a deeper connection.

We were actually surprised by how many hikers we met over the summer, probably because we were covering slightly more mileage than most. In total we were able to remember over 225 people that we met on our journey, simply because they adopted a unique trail name.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Adjustment - Part 3

Lauren and I are down visiting her sister and husband in Virginia, where I spent the better part of the day helping to install new windows into their townhouse. Being engaged in something constructive felt decisively good.

We've been in contact with trail friends and we're certainly not the only ones facing transitions, sometimes awkward ones. I've compiled a short list of some recurring themes that I've experienced or heard:

Jumping back into an old routine, where everyone is doing the exact same thing they were doing before. Unspoken expectations resulting in tension or disagreement. Well-meaning people concerned about thru-hiking as an irresponsible lifestyle pattern. Automobile traffic. Finding people generally can only relate on the topics of buying things and what job is next. Superficial conversations.

The post-trip adjustment period is one that faces all thru-hikers, yet resources and information regarding the subject are few compared to the abundance of pre-trail and on-trail material.

My friend, Crow, was on the PCT this year and I appreciated her brief reflection on reentry from the trail.

Personally, I think the important thing is to not get hung up on the "trail life vs. the real world" mindset, and to embrace each day we're given.

On the trail I improved my ability to live in the present moment, which is a mindset I'll continue developing. The so-called "real world" is whatever we make of it, each and every day.

Books About the Trail

For better or worse, Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods is the highest selling book about the Appalachian Trail. Many thru-hikers come out to the A.T. because of that book, and for many other non-hikers, it is the only source of information that they have about the trail.

While a humorous and often interesting read, Bryson's aim was to sell books, not necessarily present an accurate picture of the trail or thru-hiking. If the cover is any indication, it features a sensationalized man-eating Grizzly bear, which aren't found anywhere east of the Mississippi let alone on the Appalachian Trail.

Although I am not as critical of the book as some, I am unimpressed with some of Bryson's decisions in presenting the trail. Here are a few of my objections:

  • Bryson hiked less than 800 miles of the trail, mostly as day hikes, yet postures himself a thru-hiker.

  • Bryson perpetuates cheap-shot negative stereotypes of southerners that are unnecessary.

  • Bryson purportedly admits that bumbling sidekick, Katz, is made up - created from pieces of his own personality - and included for comic relief.

  • Their actions on the trail are frequently disrespectful to the landscape and to other hikers - setting a poor precedent for those unfamiliar with proper backcountry practices.

  • Bryson profits immensely from the book, but has not donated any proceeds back to the trail unless done anonymously.

The exposure his book brought to the A.T. has been dubbed as the "Bryson Effect." In the years following publication in 1999, more people attempted thru-hikes than ever before, leadng to overcrowding and poor trail conditions.

Since 2005 I have been following the buzz about the book being adapted into a movie with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Last I heard there is still no script, but hikers on the A.T. this year met crews who were filming establishing shots and landmarks. I can only imagine the mixed blessing that such a movie would bring to the Appalachian Trail. I am just glad to have hiked it before the circus, if it ever does become a movie.

If you're curious about the book, I'd advise checking it out from the library and saving your money for a donation to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy - just be aware that his story is a humorous embellishment, with loose creative license, and is not representative of a real thru-hike experience.

Recommended Reading

For something more substantial, I heartily recommend Earl Schaffer's beautifully written Walking With Spring - a reflection of his 1948 hike as the first person to walk the A.T. from end to end.

As Far as the Eye Can See by David Brill, is another good choice for a trail memoir about his 1979 hike. I enjoyed how it was organized in topical chunks, rather than the default (often dry) chronological account.

Blind Courage by Bill Irwin, a legally-blind man who walked the entire trail with his guide dog. I can't remember how many times he said he fell down, but the trail is difficult enough to complete for sighted people...

and one bonus:

A Blistered Kind of Love by Angela and Duffy Ballard. This well written account of their thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Lauren and I enjoyed reading about another couples' experience on a long distance hike.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Photographic Prints

AT in the Moss

Several readers have contacted me about the possibility of purchasing enlarged prints from our A.T. trip photography archives.

Now that I am back from the trail, I am in a position to explore the quality and cost of enlargements, as well as framing options.

I will post in the future confirming details of pricing and availablity. Please contact me if you already know you are interested:

thompson {dot} ben {at} gmail {dot} com

Let me know:

  • the title and description of photo(s)
  • framed or unframed
  • desired size: 4x7 , 5x9, 8x14

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Adjustment - Part 2

Our current state of not being "productive" or actively doing something is a strange adjustment. On our adventure we were without many responsibilities, but we were still walking 20 miles per day. Sitting around reading or watching a movie just feels foreign.

Last night I tossed and turned all night, awake for most of it. I discovered that since I did not walk yesterday, although I was sleepy when I went to bed, my body was too restless to get much sleep. Good to know. Today we went for a hike with Lauren's parents and sister.

Several toes on my left foot continue to be numb, a condition caused by pounding that is not uncommon among long-distance hikers. I understand it is usually temporary. It doesn't hurt, but just feels weird. It is also still uncomfortable for me to walk around barefoot, since the bottoms of my feet are a bit tender. I heard from another hiker that this might last about a month.

Unfortunately Lauren's blood sugars are still running high. A transition period can be expected, but she caught a cold that was going around and that certainly did not help because it only elevates them.

Final Night at Gorbo's

I have heard from our friends He-Man & She-Ra, Gorbo and Turbo Turtle. It seems that they each are experiencing similar transition hurdles. And a big congrats to He-Man and She-Ra who got married a couple days ago - something that didn't pan out for them at the base of Katahdin - but must make for another layer of post-trail transition!

This week I mustered up the courage to sort trip boxes, re-connect our cell phones and tackle the pile of bills and correspondence that need attention. I feel back in the swing of things a bit.

My friend Will, who has thru-hiked the PCT encouraged me in an email saying, "I hope your reentry will forever be superficial." After the thrill and clarity that comes with an epic adventure, that's what I'm hoping for too.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Adjustment - Part 1

We successfully caught a ride from our friend Tom down to PA where Lauren's dad picked us up and brought us to their home in New Jersey. During the 8 hour ride we discovered that if we banged on our knees with empty glass bottles it relieved the aching, and provided amusement for Tom.

Somehow summer still lingers here in NJ. Seems like the same story everywhere... what's going on? The late finishing thru-hikers must be enjoying some favorable October conditions.

I feel exhausted. Each morning I want to sleep in, by the afternoon I want to take a nap, and at 9pm each night I'm ready to turn in for bed. Walking and being active seems to help, though.

We've been taking daily walks through the farm country of southern NJ and even took an afternoon hike on Saturday with Lauren's parents. Four to eight miles per day is what we've been averaging. This morning I did some yoga stretching and took a nap in the sun.

Lauren's blood sugar levels have been far too high, waking up each morning above 400 and rarely coming down below 200 (normal levels are 70-120). We changed out her insulin yesterday, hoping to see improvement, but sometimes her body takes over a full week to adjust to new diet and activity levels. Her birthday is tomorrow and we have not figured out how we will celebrate.

Our boxes are piled in the spare bedroom. Backpacking gear, unused trail food, stacks of letters and bills, town clothes and other miscellaneous items need our attention for sorting. I feel a bit overwhelmed by the task, but expect to start tomorrow.

Right now I'm uploading photos from the final leg of our trip and hope to comment about them on the blog this week, as I have internet access.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Maine in the Fall

Two words sum up our experience of Maine in the Fall: Leaves and Moose. During our hike we had the good fortune to enjoy both.

Looking up from the Trail

Although September has been unusually dry, and the leaves did not change as vibrantly as they sometimes do, it made up for some of the falls we've missed on the west coast.

Patches of Color

We were not hiking during the peak color - which surprisingly still has not arrived - but that also meant we never had a below-freezing night on the trail.

Our Own Red Carpet

While hiking the Appalachian Trail through New Hampshire and Maine, we saw a trip total of 5 moose. But when we hit Abol Bridge, the northern border of the "100 mile wilderness," we saw at least that many, this time lifeless with tongues hanging out.

Moose Check Station Ahead

In late September and early October Maine has a 2 week lottery-system moose hunting season. We arrived at Abol Bridge on the second day of the season and watched a half dozen proud hunters bring their moose in for registration.

Moose Season in Maine

The clerk at the country store walks out to each truck and takes a few measurements to document the moose for state records. The climax is when they tear out a tooth with pliers or screwdriver so it can be analyzed by a biologist for research purposes. We watched this procession repeatedly through the afternoon, from our front row seats at the picnic table.

Interesting, but we certainly preferred our previous moose encounters.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Back in the Land of Cotton

Hitching to Millinocket

After our five month excursion, our bodies tell us they want to be in motion. It is very difficult to sit still for more than an hour. I find myself wanting to stretch, walk, do push ups, or calf raises on a step. This condition is exaggerated when travelling in a confined space, which we've been doing lately.

After a shuttle from Millinocket to Medford and then a bus on to Bangor, ME - we split a rental car with some fellow hikers who drove to New Hampton, NH where we stayed with our friend "Gorbo" (his winter hiking website). In the morning we rode on with "Safari-26" and "Turbo Turtle" to a quick stop by the Inn at the Long Trail to see what hikers had signed in after us. Shortly after they dropped us off in Rutland Vermont, as they continued on to the mid-west.

We've been spending a few days in Rutland, VT with friends from the Twelve Tribes who we originally met at Trail Days and then stayed at their hostel when hiking. Lauren and I have been learning how to make Spelt bread in their bakery and are decompressing from our summer at the café. It is enjoyable to work together learning something completely new. We look forward to continuing the momentum and unity we've experienced and discover how that develops in the chapter of our lives.

Later this week we're planning to reconnect with Sally and Ellen from the Mahoosucs Boundary Project and see our friend, Tom, who is also in the general area. If he is still headed down to the ALDHA (American Long Distance Hiking Association) convention, we're thinking we may be able to share a ride with him - although we won't be attending.

Many people have written us with congratulations and asked about how we're feeling. So far, we are feeling relaxed, satisfied and proud of completing such a rewarding undertaking.

What a treat to be clean and wearing cotton again, which we picked up at the thrift store in Rutland. Now I just need to find some comfortable shoes so I can destroy my wretched hiking shoes and also get out these $2 flip-flops.

Thanks Again For the Generosity

We are grateful to the companies that helped propel us along the way and wanted to say thanks again for the generosity and nutrition. Lauren and I are both deeply appreciative.

In particular, the folks at Valley Fig Growers have been amazing, mailing to us in whatever town and in whatever quantity that Lauren needed them. Unbelievable, really. Linda, Julie and everyone else back in California - Thank You!