Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Irony of Dozing Off in Starbucks

I had two cups of coffee when I got up at 6:30 this morning (my day off).  I headed out to a local deli for breakfast and had another cup with my eggs and hashbrowns.  But since I couldn't get their free wifi to cooperate, I walked down the block to Starbucks.  And I've had a large (Tall? Venti?  Hell I still don't understand their post-modern metric system they use here) hazelnut latte, and I swear I could doze off in this chair right now, but I worry that the people in here might draw on me with Sharpies.

I don't know why I'm so tired today, but the caffeine just ain't cuttin' it for me this morning.  It may be the last month of work catching up to me, but I'm not sure.  I'm still fighting mild cold, and I guess that has worn me down a bit too.

Aside from being tired, I'm feeling pretty damn good today. I got a lot done at the house this morning--every stitch of clothing I own is clean, hung up, or folded and put away (except for what I'm wearing right now), I organized my closet, and my to-do list is surprisingly short.  The afternoon is mine!  Of course, I had to vacate the house for a few hours--the maid service is there, and while they do a GREAT job, their approach to housecleaning is to burn down the village in order to save it, and I want no part of the chaos that goes down while they work.  So I grabbed my laptop and backpack and I'm taking advantage of the free wifi at my local Starbucks.

Of course, I'd rather be sitting in the Fireside Lounge at the Peppermill, smoking a cigar and tapping the keys while Krista the bartender pours me free drinks, but Monday mornings in Vegas were a lifetime ago. 

At least then, things were settled, well, as far as I could tell.  My life right now is completely unsettled.  I have no idea what I'll be doing or where I'll be living in May.  I may still be here doing the same job for the same company, I may be in another city working for them, or I may be looking for something else.  I may be back in Nashville, I may be back in Vegas, or hell, I may even become an honorary Canadian and move to British Columbia.  I just don't know.  My life is like a spinning plate right now--lots of movement but not really going anywhere, and it's gonna fall off this balancing stick in a few months.  I just have no idea where it's gonna land when it does.

Kind of unsettling, but I always manage to land on my feet.

On the other hand, I have something good to look forward to in the meantime.  My gal Nancy arrives in less than two weeks for a nice lengthy visit and we're going to narrow down our choices as to where life is going to go from here.  It'll be great to have her here instead of 3500 miles away, and maybe, just maybe, we can get a clearer picture of the future.

Those of you that know me know that I always wanted to live by the ocean, but now that I do, I really miss the mountains and the woods.  Besides, life in Florida is TOUGH.  Jobs are hard to come by, and well-paying jobs are EXTREMELY hard to come by.  I really like my job a lot, but it's the least amount of money I've made in almost 20 years.  I need to have a better income.  It really makes me miss the short hours and the good money that came from dealing poker in Vegas.  I easily work ten times harder now for about a third of the money.

That being said, my job at the airport has been a wonderful blessing for me.  I'm on my feet literally all day, and I use that Ten Thousand Steps app on my phone to measure how much walking I do every day.  Most days are at least seven or eight miles, some days stretch out to thirteen or fourteen.  It sure beats sitting on my ass in an office cube or even at a poker table.  I've got to find a better balance of income and exercise somehow, although I'd love to stay with my current company forever.  So who knows how it's all gonna happen.

But at the very least, it has improved my health--I posted a couple of pictures on Facebook of me wearing a coat I bought last year.  I thought I was in good shape last year (well, compared to what I was before 2012), but this coat was a 2XL down jacket I needed for hiking.  It didn't fit very well--I couldn't zip it up, and in fact, it wasn't even close--the gap was at least six inches across the front when I wore it last spring up in the mountains in Georgia.

Today I took it out of the closet and tried it on for the first time in almost nine months.  And I could finally zip it up.  Although it's still a bit snug, it's quite a victory.  I haven't fit in *anything* size 2XL since like 1992.  Of course I still have a ways to go, but I'm getting there.

Maybe on my next attempt of the AT, my knee won't blow out like it did this past year.

Yeah, that's still on the horizon, and I still have that book I want to write, so wherever I land, it may be just temporary again.  My outlook on life/work/career has been completely turned upside down by the events of the past few years.  While it's nice to make good money and live comfortably, I now look at life differently.  Work is just a means to an end and I don't let it define me.  Back in the day, I absolutely loved loved loved working at Charles Schwab.  Great people, a great company, and I enjoyed my daily routine immensely.  But when push came to shove and times got tough, I was kicked to the curb, with no consideration given to my dedication or the fact that I gave my heart and soul to them.  Every other job since then hasn't been quite as enjoyable, although I really liked the poker gig in Vegas.  But even then, five years of dedicated service doesn't mean too much when the people in charge were complete buffoons.  The poker room I worked in doesn't even exist any more.

Nowadays, I just do my best and remember that loyalty is a one-way street.  I try to make myself an asset instead of a liability, and then I suppose I'll move on when the time is right.  Besides, you'll never get rich punching the clock for somebody else.  I just need to make enough of a stake to do the things I want and still be able to invest a bit.  So while whatever lays beyond my horizon is a big unknown, I'm pretty sure that it'll all work out okay.

At the very least, I'll be able to sleep at night, no matter how much caffeine is in my system.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Twofer Tuesday on a Wednesday

Oh yeah, I had every intention of putting up a second post yesterday, but the time just got away from me.  I had that first one up and going before 9:00 and then had the whole day ahead of me to do with as I pleased.

Pretty much all my chores were done and I had no errands to run,  so I decided to go catch a movie--something I hadn't done since last May.

I really wanted to see American Sniper since I'd heard nothing but good things about it. And although I'm not sure, I *think* I may have read the book a couple years ago.  I honestly don't remember. 

What a drag it is getting old.

But since I had the entire day to myself, and it was a Tuesday, I figured I'd make it a twofer and hit two movies...

I drove over to Bell Tower in Ft Myers, and the tractor beam of Grimaldi's was indeed hard to resist.  Yes, Grimaldi's is right across the parking lot from the movie theater. But since I'd made myself a homemade egg McMuffin for breakfast just an hour before, I was able to steer my feet towards the movieplex instead of the pizza parlor.

Big line at the theater on a Tuesday morning.  And oh by the way, this being Ft Myers, I was the youngest person by a good thirty years.  Which reminds me--if I somehow manage to make it past 75 years old or so, I'm totally gonna hang out down here and pick up chicks, because the old women down here outnumber the old men about five to one.  But I digress...

Anyhow, it seemed that most folks had the same idea yesterday--go see American Sniper at the matinee.  They had it playing on three screens, and the one I got into was pretty full, not many empty seats at all.  And yeah--it was a great movie, totally worth all the hype.  Bradley Cooper does an excellent job and it was certainly an Oscar-worthy performance, although I have absolutely no idea who or what he's up against this year.  The thing is, just last week I re-watched Silver Linings Playbook (my brother had never seen it before), and caught myself thinking he (Cooper) is really an excellent actor. 

If you haven't seen the film yet, I'm not here to do a long review or give away any spoilers, but it's a damn good movie, and at times very intense.  And it'd been a long time since I'd been to a movie that got applause at the end, too.  Well worth seeing if you haven't already.

When it ended, people were lined up outside all the way to the front door waiting for the next showing, so the word is out.  Go see it if you get a chance.

I had about forty minutes to kill before my next flick, so after waiting in line behind all the old codgers to use the facilities, I went over to one of the smaller theaters on the other side of the complex to wait for the next movie to start.

My choice for round two was Wild, with Reese Witherspoon.  It's also gotten a lot of hype, at least in my extended and far-reaching circle of hiker friends, because it was based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, her autobiographical tale of trying to get her head right by dropping everything and hiking most of the Pacific Crest Trail.  It was better than I expected and I think it struck a good balance between chick flick and adventure movie (unlike f*cking PEARL HARBOR, but don't get me started on that rant...)

I have to say that I was a little surprised at the nude scenes--of course I'm totally cool with seeing Reese Witherspoon nekkid, but I honestly don't think it really added any value to the story.  It would've been just as good without it, but hey, I guess you gotta sell tickets.   Still a pretty good movie, not so much about hiking as it is about taming your demons, but I really enjoyed it.

After the mini film festival, I texted my bro Tim to meet me for dinner up at a little hole-in-the-wall joint called Jalapenos.  Good Mexican food is *tough* to find here in southwest Florida, but everyone around here says that this is the spot, and it's been on our to-do list for awhile.  Besides, I've been craving a carne asada burrito--I haven't had one in like three years.

It's a small and divey place, so we knew it had to be good.  But there was no carne asada burrito on the menu.  They had a carne asada platter, but said that they could make it a burrito, no problemo at all.  Sold!  It came with rice and beans of course, and while I went with a side order of beef taquitos, Tim had the same thing except with a side of house-made tortilla chips and pico de gallo.

It was all pretty good, although my carne asada burrito wasn't exactly as I'd hoped--they put the lettuce and tomato and such inside, so while I was craving an Alberto's Taco Shop style burrito, it was more like 'combinacion numero ocho' wrapped in a tortilla.  Still pretty damn good, but I think next time I'll just have the carnitas.  On the other hand, we both agreed that the beans were the best damn beans we'd ever had in a Mexican restaurant, anywhere.  Yeah, they were that good.  If we weren't so stuffed (we took half of our meals home in to-go boxes), we would've ordered a couple of pints of beans just to eat with tortillas at home.  I'm not sure how they cooked them, but they were like a magical hybrid of charros and refritos.  So damn tasty.  Tim and I both gave the place an enthusiastic thumbs up, so we'll be going back.

Once we got back home, it was a Moonshiners marathon for a couple of hours before bed.  I don't watch much TV anymore unless it's live sports or Netflix, but somehow I always manage to get sucked in to watching the hillbillies law-dodging shenanigans.

Today, I have no plans at all to go anywhere or do too much.  We're having the neighbors over for dinner tonight, so my contribution is Scottie's roasted-garlic and caramelized-onion mashed potatoes.  They're so good, people want to just eat 'em in a bowl like ice cream.  Tim is making his famous cow-pig-turkey meatloaf (the next step in the evolution of the Turducken!), so tonight's meal shall be epic.

Maybe I'll take a couple of pics.  Since it was Twofer Tuesday and all...


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Oooooooh That Smell


You know how it's been said that if a butterfly flaps it's wings in China that it'll cause a tornado in Texas? (Or something like that--my Google-fu is not strong today)  Well, at this point, I tend to agree, but I'd change it to say that if an airplane breaks down somewhere on the other side of the country it'll eff up my whole week, because that's the absolute truth. 

My new job, working for an airline, has kept me super super busy for the past few weeks, and this morning is my first two-day break in the action since before Christmas.  And even though I'm in sunny Florida with no weather delays, the rest of the country, well, not so much.  Basically, my point is, yeah I'm getting back to writing on a regular basis, but I've felt like I've been living at the airport like Tom Hanks for the past month, and my time at the keyboard has been severely limited.  Plus, the more I think about it, I work about two or three times as many hours a week as I did back in Vegas dealing poker, but I make less than half of the money I used to, so there is obviously a glitch in the Matrix somewhere...

Anyhow, I hope y'all enjoyed my story about my Memorial Day hike in the mountains, because if I had myself a DeLorean with an aftermarket flux capacitor installed, I'd totally go back to that point in time and take a do-over on 2014.

I ain't gonna lie--it's been a tough year.

After busting up my knees on Blood Mountain in April and deciding to come to Florida, things haven't quite worked out the way I've planned.  It took me FOREVER to get a job down here, and yeah, I've got a job that I really like, but the money is about as low as it gets, and I'm just on a contract anyways--I may be out of a job completely in May, or I may be offered a permanent, but part-time position, or I may get another position somewhere else in the country.  I honestly have no idea.

But the desire to complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and write a book about it still burns within me, and somehow I've got to make that happen--sooner rather than later.  Jobs and moving and all other real-life issues somehow have to fall into place, and I still can't see the forest of that particular goal due to all of these pressing and unknown trees.  And once I got here to Florida and settled in last May, I put up all of my backpacking gear in the storage unit and have kept it compartmentalized, tucked away and kept secret, like Mel Gibson's footlocker with the combat tomahawk in The Patriot.

So right now, my life is pretty routine--wake up early, drive an hour to the airport, spend all day on my feet working my arse off, drive home, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat...  Most days I feel like a zombie on autopilot (with a mild-to-moderate case of road rage, of course, because these fools in Florida are the worst drivers ever, and I spend entirely too much time behind the wheel of my truck).

Anyhow, yesterday, while I was driving to work, sitting in traffic, I reached up and scratched my chin for no particular reason, and was mildly grossed out because there was a bunch of un-rinsed shaving cream gooing up my beard.  I felt around behind the seat, looking for a napkin or a towel or even an old t-shirt to wipe my face with, but came up empty.  So not only was my face a mess, but my hand was all sticky too.  Not good.

I flipped open the center console, hoping to find something in there I could use to clean myself up before I got to work, and underneath the pile of junk like old pens, stray batteries, a pocketknife, a flashlight, loose change, a year-old cool ranch Dorito, I found a packet of moist towelettes, specifically a travel pack like the one pictured above.

A word about them--they are a PERFECT accessory for camping and backpacking. When you're sweating your you-know-what off and wearing the same stinky synthetic clothes for days on end, one of the few luxuries you are afforded in the woods at the end of a long day is a wet-wipe hooker bath.  I always carried a pack with me in my toiletry kit, and fifteen moist towelettes will last several days on the trail.

But since I've been back in civilization for so long, I'd forgotten about the simple pleasure they afforded--until yesterday with my gooey beard and sticky hand.

And everyone knows what an amazing psychological trigger that scent can be.  Well, I opened up that package to tidy myself up there at the stoplight, and as soon as the smell hit me, I was taken back to a much happier place.

I was lying in my tent at the end of a very hard day, at a place called Lance Creek.  My hiking partner 'Itchy' was a few feet away in her own tent, and we were laughing our asses off while writhing around taking our nekkid wet-wipe hooker baths before changing into 'clean' dry clothes and making dinner.  Such good times and such good memories, even though I was as tired and beat as I'd ever been.  It also reminded me of a freezing cold morning changing clothes and using the facilities in the privy at the Stover Creek shelter a few days before, while a line of hikers waited outside to do the same thing.

I honestly hadn't used one of those wet-wipes since then, and when the smell hit me, it just took me right back to the trail.  Sitting in traffic, swearing at other drivers, spending the day at the airport, all of that disappeared for a few minutes while I wistfully cleaned off my beard and wiped off my hands.  I missed the cold and the misery of Blood Mountain.  I missed the camaraderie of sitting around the firepit with ten or eleven other random hikers at night eating dinner, but having no fire because everyone was just too damn tired to gather wood and start one.  I missed the first drink of cold clear water from a mountain spring after running out a couple hours earlier.  I and really missed how excited I was to crawl into my tent just before sundown and think to myself that I earned every minute of sleep I had planned for the next eleven hours.

It turned out to be a very long day at work yesterday, and as much as I like doing what I do, it was nice to be able to revisit old memories to remind me of what I'd rather be doing.  And yeah, I'm definitely going back at some point.

Wet wipes.

Seriously, inspiration comes from the strangest places. 


Thursday, January 08, 2015

As Promised...

I know it's been a long time, and yeah, I've had the writing itch, but y'all know how life can get in the way.  So much has happened in the past year and and a half and there has been so much chaos, boredom, frustration, happiness, etc. etc. etc.

For those that don't know, I am no longer living in Tennessee, and I ended up living outside of Ft. Myers, Florida, in a nifty little community called Cape Coral.  I thankfully no longer have that horrible job at Comcast that I hated so much, and I'm lucky to have a fun job working at the airport.  But I'm on a seasonal contract, so chances are very high that once the busy season moves on, so will I.  So my life is still a bit unsettled, to say the least.  I have no idea where I'll be living six months from now and I don't even know if I'll be working for the same company. I just have to ride it out.

But I'll fill in the details as I can. In my head I've played out all the different scenarios hundreds of times, and like an equation with too many variables, it's an unsolvable problem right now.

In the meantime, I realized that my last post from May of 2013 talked about a Memorial Day weekend trip and the chances of me winning the $600 million Powerball.  Well, I took the trip, but didn't win the lotto.  And as promised, what follows is what I said I'd write way back then...

Weekend in the Mountains

I hated my job--it was just a means to an end, and I took advantage of every chance I had to get away from that toxic environment.  I had scheduled five days away over Memorial weekend--usually it was a camping trip with family and friends on tap, but this time around, I had a grander scheme in mind.

I'd gotten into hiking and backpacking, and had been planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail for 2014.  But I'd never really been tested on a long trip all by myself.  I had all the gear, read all the books, taken a few short overnight trips and done lots of dayhiking, but I wasn't sure I had what it took to do actual backpacking. So instead of the usual  car-camping trip with the hippies, I decided to head for the Georgia mountains for a few days to see about this whole Appalachian Trail thing for myself.

It's about a four-and-a-half hour drive from Nashville to my dad's house on the outskirts of Atlanta, and on my first day off I slept in, made a pot of coffee, and loaded my new Osprey backpack with all of my latest gear, plus food for four days on the trail.

I left Nashville around 11:00 that day, which in hindsight was a mistake--that put my in Atlanta at the peak of rush hour.  I totally remember sitting in traffic that day, as the XM satellite radio was featuring an all-Tom Petty station that week.  So I spent the entire drive listening to nothing but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I had dinner and a nice visit with my dad and step-mom, and the next morning my dad drove me about 45 minutes away to the visitors center at Amicalola Falls State Park, the gateway to the Appalachian Trail.  I signed in at the ranger's station, and weighed by pack.  With all my gear, food, and two liters of water, I would be carrying 37 lbs with me.

My pack hanging from the scales at the beginning of my adventure.

After changing out of my street clothes into all-synthetic hiking gear, we drove around the park a bit to take a few photos, plus the requisite picture of me under the arch at the beginning of the Approach Trail.

Your humble scribe at the Arch.  I had no idea what I was in for.

Amicalola Creek,  below the falls. It was absolutely gorgeous.

What is the Approach Trail, you ask?  Well, the actual Appalachian Trail (we'll call it the AT from now on) starts at the summit of Springer Mountain, Georgia, which is eight-and-a-half miles uphill from the Arch, which is just outside the back door of the aforementioned ranger station.  My plan was to hike from Springer to a place called Neel Gap, which is 32 trail miles away.  I knew I didn't have enough time to add another eight-plus miles to the hike, plus I just didn't want to climb all 600 stairs up the side of the falls, not to mention a full day of nothing but uphill hiking.  Deep down I knew I just wasn't in good enough shape for it.

You can still get to Springer without walking all the way, as there is a dirt Forest Service road that will get you almost to the top at a place called Big Stamp Gap.  I'd arranged for a shuttle driver to pick me up at the ranger station and drive me up as close as I could get.  Now, it may be an eight-and-a-half mile walk, but the road doesn't go that way--it has to wind all over the surrounding mountains to get to Big Stamp Gap and it's a 45 minute drive up a steep and narrow dirt road that's carved out of the side of the mountain.

My shuttle driver, Ron Brown, showed up as promised, so I said goodbye to my dad, with plans to meet up with him the following Sunday afternoon at Neel Gap.  It was an interesting drive with Ron--he told me all about his experiences on the AT and the people he met while running his shuttle service.  Plus he had every phone charger ever invented wired into the dashboard of his vehicle, so I charged up my iPhone one last time while we drove.

We got to the turnout at Big Stamp Gap a little after 10:00 am, I paid him his $60 and he pointed me in the right direction.  I stopped to take a picture or two, stretch, and chat with a couple of other hikers, and then I was off.

Now, the BSG parking/drop-off area is right on the AT, but you have to backtrack almost a full mile to get to the summit of Springer Mountain  (9/10ths of a mile according to the data book).  Everything I'd read about it said that it was 'an easy walk, shouldn't take more than twenty minutes or so', and even my shuttle driver said it would take no more than fifteen minutes to get up to the top of Springer from parking lot.



It took me over 45 minutes to get to the summit.  It was no easy walk--it wasn't that it was so steep, although it was all uphill.  It's just that it wasn't a smooth easy path in the woods like I'd been led to believe.  In a lot of places it was rock-strewn gulley, and with all the loose rocks, one has to pick their way across carefully and pay attention to each step, especially if one is not a seasoned hiker. Luckily I was using trekking poles (absolutely essential!), but it was exhausting and mentally taxing to just do that first mile--you couldn't just hike along and enjoy the scenery, you were watching your feet the whole time and concentrating on the next step so that you didn't turn an ankle, trip and fall, or blow out a knee.

The trail heading south to the summit of Springer Mountain.

I don't think the pictures do it justice, but imagine doing that with almost 40 lbs on your back.  I'm not gonna lie--I stopped to rest several times.  Plus, my backpack was brand-spanking new--I'd just gotten it a few days prior, and I had to adjust it constantly.  It was a difficult first mile, and I realized just how tough it was going to be.

Eventually I made it to the summit, and I was thrilled to be there. I'd heard so much about it while doing my AT research, and it seemed like some far-off place where amazing adventures began, yet there I was, at the Southern Terminus, thinking that if I just followed this trail long enough, eventually I'd end up in Maine.

The summit.

This is one of my all-time favorite pictures--my foot at the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, right next to the first white blaze.  The trail is 'blazed' on trees and rocks every few hundred yards all the way from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine.  No map needed--just follow the white blazes.

I spent a little time at the summit, taking pictures, signing the register that's hidden under a rock, and resting.  I had a snack and drank some water, chatting with the occasional hiker who happened by, a couple of which had come up the Approach Trail from the south.  After my brief rest, I hauled my butt up off the rock I was sitting on, strapped on my pack once more, and headed back down the mountain the way I came.

Getting back down was a little easier than coming up, although not exactly easy.  Climbing up is tough on the heart and lungs, climbing down is tough on the knees and ankles.  About that time I realized that listening to nothing but Tom Petty for the entire drive down was a bad idea--I had 'You Wreck Me' stuck in my head all day, which was oddly appropriate as I picked my way slowly down the mountain. When I finally got back to the parking lot where I started, I tossed my pack on the ground up against a large boulder, pulled out my water bottle, and laid back and dozed in the sunshine for almost a half an hour.  I was beat and hadn't even gone two full miles yet.  I had no idea how I was going to make it to Neel Gap in three days, or even four if I had to.  My only option was to just get up and walk.

From Big Stamp Gap, the trail is much easier for a couple of miles.  Flat, smooth, and it was a nice sunny day, not too hot.

Looking back, I should've appreciated it more, because the AT in Georgia is almost never smooth and flat.  But it was a great day to be hiking and I was happy to be alone in the woods, enjoying the sights and sounds of the forest.  Even though I'd run into hikers at the parking lot and at the summit of Springer, while walking along the trail for those first couple of miles, I didn't see another soul for a couple of hours.  But then I happened upon this:

There on the side of the trail, hanging from a small tree, was a mesh duffel bag.  I stopped and looked around, thinking it belonged to somebody who might've been off behind a tree taking care of business, but then again, I could see a roll of toilet paper inside the bag.  Investigating further, I could see that there were some weird odds and ends inside--cans of tuna, toiletries, a pair of socks, and random other assorted goodies.  Not knowing what to make of it, I just shrugged my shoulders and hiked on.

My original destination was a place called the Hawk Mountain shelter, which was seven-and-a-half miles from Springer, meaning an eight-and-a-half mile hike.  I was already exhausted and knew there was no way I was making it to Hawk Mountain that night, so I set my sights on a place called Stover Creek.  It was only a four-and-a-half mile walk, and I knew I'd be good and ready to call it a day when I arrived.

There was a fairly new three-sided shelter there, with bear cables, a picnic table, along with a water source nearby.  A moldering privy completed the list of amenities.

The Stover Creek shelter

My favorite thing about this shelter was the fact that it had a bench with a back on it.  It's amazing what we take for granted in civilization, and seats with backs on them is the first thing I realized was an ultimate luxury.  Resting on  logs and rocks is nice, but after a long day of walking, nothing beats a chair with a back on it.  Nothing.

There were a couple of guys there at the shelter already when I arrived, although it was only around 2:30 in the afternoon.  I dropped my pack and took advantage of the bench.  I was spent and didn't move for almost a half hour.

My shelter mates were friendly guys--one guy was a chain smoker carrying a 45-lb hockey bag as a backpack.  He told us that he'd just heard about the Appalachian Trail a week earlier, decided he'd had enough of working for awhile, turned over his stucco business to his daughter, and then went to Walmart and bought everything he thought he'd need from the sporting goods section the next day.  He'd driven up from Florida and left the ranger station at Amicalola Falls at 6:00 pm the night before, hiked all night, and got to Stover Creek a few hours earlier.  He said he was too tired and out of shape to keep going at that point, so after sleeping for a few hours, he decided to rest for another day before continuing onward.

Turns out that he was the one who left the goodie bag on the side of the trail that I'd seen earlier in the day.  He wanted to lighten his load and figured other people may want tuna and toilet paper...  He also told us that he was down to his last pack of cigarettes and that he was going to stop smoking while out on the trail.

The other guy was about 5-foot 4 inches tall but had legs like tree trunks.  He introduced himself as 'Littlefoot', being a section hiker from  Pennsylvania.  He'd hiked the entire trail in sections, all two-thousand-plus miles of it, over the past three years, and wanted to come back and do it again.

We hung out and talked for awhile, and once I had the energy, I started doing camp chores.  Instead of pitching my tent, I decided to just sleep in the shelter that night, giving me an earlier start the next day,  so I inflated my mattress pad and rolled out my sleeping bag in the corner of the shelter.  While doing that, a couple of women came by saying they were missionaries of some sort, and dropped off all kinds of stuff in the shelter for other hikers to take as they pleased.

Some stuff was useful--I pocketed some Werther's candy and a couple of granola bars, but I didn't understand the pair of jeans and the large bottles of hand lotion.  And our buddy who was on his last pack of Marlboros helped himself to a bag of loose tobacco and a packet of Zig Zags.

As the afternoon wore on, more and more hikers showed up to stay for the night. Most tented or hung up hammocks, but a few opted for the shelter because there was plenty of room--it even had a loft that could hold about eight people if needed.

One thing that's always needed while hiking is water--but at eight pounds a gallon, it sucks to carry.  So one always has to be on the lookout for good water sources throughout the day.  Luckily, a place with a name like Stover Creek has good reliable water nearby. So I headed down to the creek that afternoon with my filter pump and water bottles to resupply.  The creek isn't really that far from the shelter, just down the hill behind it, but it offered a bit of solitude compared to the activity of a couple dozen hikers milling around up at the firepit and picnic table.

As I was sitting there pumping my water, I felt like I was being watched, and sure enough, I looked up and about twenty yards upstream, the fattest deer I'd ever seen was staring me down.  I said hello (really) and went back to filtering my water and she went back to drinking.  Once I finished, I watched her watching me as she circled around behind me and headed up the opposite hill.  We must've watched each other for twenty minutes or so.

I headed back up to the shelter and told everyone about my encounter as I cooked my dinner.  Mealtime is a nice time in camp, usually because it's the social hub of the day.  You may not see anyone all day long while hiking, but people congregate around shelters and water sources, (and comfy places to sit!), and mealtime is a natural gathering time.  Conversation was of course about gear--that's a given, but everyone at the shelter had walked by the mysterious bag hanging from the tree, so that drove the discussion, too.

I boiled my water for my Mountain House freeze dried chili mac, and I was extremely popular because I had spare packets of Tabasco sauce I'd been lifting from Panera Bread for months, and everyone loves Tabasco sauce to spice up their bland pasta sides or freeze-dried boiled dinners.

'Tree Hugger' filter water for cooking.

Food bags were hung from the bear cables with care, in hopes that hungry critters wouldn't be there...

I met a lot of interesting people that night, including a couple of kids from New Jersey who were carrying 70-lb packs, most of which was food.  After a day on the trail, they realized the folly of their ways and started giving it all away. I availed myself to a ziplock bag of trail mix, while others helped themselves to a few granola bars and such. Most people didn't take much--it was the first day on the trail for almost everyone, and food bags were still pretty heavy all around.

Once the sun goes down, pretty much all activity at the shelter ceases.  They call it 'hiker midnight', and everyone is just so exhausted that sleep is the only thing anyone wants to do.  It took me a couple of hours of tossing and turning to get comfy on the hard wooden floor of the shelter, even with my inflatable mattress pad, but I eventually dozed off for several hours.

Some folks were up before dawn, cooking breakfast or making coffee, trying to get a head start on the day.  I kept the hood of my sleeping bag over my head to filter out the light from the headlamps and also to muffle some of the conversation, but it was a losing battle.  Eventually I decided to get up.  Breakfast was a Clif bar and a packet of hot chocolate mixed with some Starbucks Via.  I honestly had no appetite for the actual breakfast I'd packed, but knew that I needed to eat something--I'd need the energy.

After waiting in line at the privy to do one of the three S's, I packed up all my gear, did a few stretches, and headed off down the trail. A word about the wilderness privies--they're not nearly as gross as I'd imagined.  They're basically a raised outhouse with a huge bucket of mulch and wood chips next to the hole, so it's kind of like a human-sized litter box.  And there's usually a broom handy, so there aren't many spider webs and other nastiness you'd expect, either.

It seemed to be a pretty nice day--there was plenty of sun out, but it was quite breezy.  The first part of the trail goes downhill for a bit, then a rockhop across a good-sized creek, and then mostly it's small ups and downs for a couple more miles.  A few people passed me because I'm the slowest hiker in the world, but I was enjoying myself, if a bit sore.

They call the Appalachian Trail the Green Tunnel, and with all the rhododendron blooming everywhere, it's easy to see why.  Many times I was walking in a dimly lit path that was completely covered overhead.

It was kind of eerie at times because I was out there in the middle of the forest all alone, just imagining what kind of large furry claw-having critter might be walking through there, too.  After a couple of miles,  I came to one of my favorite spots, Three Forks.  The trail crossed a pretty big creek on a large wooden footbridge, and then crossed over another Forest Service road.  It was a great place to stop and rest, refill my water, and look at the data book again.  I remember thinking how awesome it would be to camp there, and told myself that next year I'd stop there instead of Stover Creek.

After Three Forks, the trail started to climb.  Again, everyone said that the first eight miles to Hawk Mountain was an easy stroll and again they lied.  It wasn't that steep, but it was constant uphill and it didn't seem to end.  I found myself gasping for breath and wishing to stop and rest, but the wind was just relentless.  It seemed like a warm day, but I was freezing because of the breeze.  And as much as I wanted to stop and rest, it was just too cold to stop moving.

Eventually, after what seemed like forever, I saw the turnoff for the side trail to the Hawk Mountain shelter.

The exit ramp to Hawk Mountain

I walked that last two-tenths of a mile to the shelter, thrilled to reach it. It seemed like I'd been walking all day, when in truth it was only about five miles.  And I couldn't stop shivering.  My teeth were chattering, and I could barely function.  Luckily, the two guys in the picture sitting at the picnic table were 101st Airborne out for a weekend of hiking, and as soon as they saw me, they sprung into action, insisting that I get in my sleeping bag, put on a hat, drink something, and eat as much trail mix as I could.

Even though it was 70 degrees outside, I was suffering from hypothermia.  I'd heard of people getting it in warm weather, but I never imagined it happening to me.  I was sweating a lot from the hiking and climbing, the wind was blowing so hard that it was cooling me off really fast, and I was running a huge calorie deficit, so my body just couldn't keep up.

I literally spent almost three hours in my sleeping bag, and it took almost an hour to stop shivering.  I'll admit I was a little concerned, but after drinking a bunch of water and getting some protein in me,  I started to feel better and actually got a nap.

My hypothermia selfie.

I wasn't able to sleep for very long, as there was a large lump in the corner of the shelter who started snoring like a freight train in the middle of the afternoon.  Once he woke up and realized I was awake, he refused to stop talking.  He seemed like a nice guy, but he was a genuine weirdo.  Once I was feeling good enough to get up, I gathered all my stuff and set up my tent out behind the shelter in one of the several tenting areas.  I later found out that hikers along the trail that week referred to the guy as the Mayor of Hawk Mountain, because he'd been living in the shelter for at least nine days. 

It turned into a nice afternoon, and once I got my tent set up and water refilled, I laid back down for a bit until I got hungry enough to make dinner.

My one-bunk Hilton
Eventually, more people filtered in to camp, and there was quite a gathering of cool people around the campfire.  I met some really nice people from a church group in Tennessee, and an attractive girl who had thru-hiked the Pacific Coast Trail (2700 or so miles) the summer before.  She was just starting her AT thru hike that day, and had left from the arch at the park that morning, doing in one day twice as much as it had taken me two days to hike.  I was impressed, and she had a lot of great stories, too.

That was a great night but again, a half hour after the sun went down, everyone was in bed and fast asleep, even though the Army Rangers were doing full-on mountain warfare training in the area, gently lulling us to sleep with machine gun and artillery fire for several hours.

That next morning, I still had no appetite, but I forced myself to eat two Clif bars with my hot cocoa and coffee mixture.  It took me a lot longer than I expected to break camp, too.  I think I got moving by like 9:00 am that day.  It was Saturday, and I was now under a time crunch.  I was 24 miles away from where I was supposed to be the next afternoon, and there was no way I was gonna make it.  I knew that the trail crossed the Forest Service road a few times that day, and if I could just make it a few more miles, I might be able to get a hitch.

So I started walking.  Hightower Gap was only a half mile down the trail, but it was too early to catch a ride, so I kept walking, and climbing, and descending till I got to a place call Horse Gap.  I was pretty tired by then, so when the trail popped out at the road, I sat down on my pack to finish off one of my bottles of water.  I could hear the sound of a truck coming down the road, so I stuck my thumb out.

I needed a ride to Neel Gap, but the guy was only going to Dahlonega.  I took that, and he was kind enough to drop me off on the side of the road that lead to Neel Gap about a half an hour later, and I stuck my thumb out again.  It only took about five minutes for a kind soul to take pity on me, and I had a ride.

Neel Gap is a very famous place on the Appalachian Trail.  It's the first 'civilization' on the trail, and the trail actually goes right through the building.  It's a general store/outfitter/tourist attraction on one side, and a bunkhouse/hostel on the other.  The establishment itself is called Mountain Crossings, and every single hiker on the AT has to pass through it.

I went inside and secured myself a bunk and a shower for $15, and then a hot dog and a coke for a couple bucks more.  I went downstairs to the hostel, peeled off my stinky clothes, took a luxurious hot shower, and then laid down on my bunk and dozed for a bit.  I had no idea that the trail would be as hard as it was.  It was *all* hills, and walking a mile in Georgia mountains with a 37-lb pack is not one bit at all like walking a mile around the office park on your lunch break.  I was completely exhausted.

A little while later a group of loud, stinky hikers came tramping through, and high-fives and greeting were exchanged as we'd all met earlier in the week.  Stories of the weirdo at Hawk Mountain were shared, along with stories about the bear that came into camp up on Blood Mountain the night before.  It was getting late in the afternoon, and while all those guys were getting cleaned up and settled in, I took my pack upstairs to the outfitter for a free 'shakedown'.

Josh from Mountain Crossings gives me the shakedown. I feel bad for the guy, because everyone that comes in has gear with at least three or four days worth of trail funk stinking it up...

Basically they dumped it out all over the floor and gave a little tough love about stuff I could change for lighter weight or didn't need at all.  It's a humbling experience because there's usually several other people watching.  But he said mine wasn't so bad--I only had about 2-3 lbs worth of stuff I could change out.  There was one guy there who had a 70 lb pack and was carrying three full jars of Ragu sauce in his food bag, among other ridiculousness.

That evening a local church group brought over dinner for all the hikers--mac and cheese, potatoes, and pulled pork BBQ.  It was awesome, and a great time to sit around with all these other people who where complete strangers earlier in the day, but due to bonding of shared experience, were now fast friends.  After dinner, the caretaker of the hostel, 'Pirate' took the padlock off the beer fridge, and several of us sat around till the wee hours drinking cold PBR and passing around the flask, telling tall tales and listening to Pirate's endless supply of stories of people who'd passed through.

It was a great time.

I crawled back to my bunk sometime after midnight, a little tipsy, extremely tired, and much wiser about just what kind of experience hiking on the AT was going to be.  I couldn't wait for the next nine months to pass...

The bunkroom at the hostel. Just be glad this picture isn't a scratch-n-sniff.

My trail buddies--Ragu, Tree Hugger, Jackrabbit, McSomething, and Huggy Bear. They bestowed me with the name Blueberry, but that's a story for another time...


Post Script: To this day, every time I hear 'You Wreck Me' I think of this weekend...

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Back From the Dead

Guess who's making a comeback.

Yeah, it's been too long and I haven't written anything in over six months and anything good for far longer.  I kind of missed it, and it seems that most of the blogs I used to read have disappeared into the mist.  Everyone seems to just post on Facebook now, which is cool and all, but reading Facebook every day is like being on an episode of American Pickers--you wade through a barn full of junk to find a couple of interesting things, but then when you look back and realized how much time was wasted, it just doesn't seem quite right. Besides, with the new year and resolutions and all that, I've decided to spend more time at the keyboard. While I don't have the free time nor the everyday adventures I had while living in Las Vegas, life right now is barely controlled chaos, and I might as well keep score.

Speaking of new year's resolutions, has anyone else noticed that the Girl Scout cookie sale is aligned perfectly with the timing of most of the world saying 'screw this New Years diet thing'? Those girl scouts are tricky little temptresses like that.

Anyhow, there's more to come.  I'm not quite sure what I'll be writing about--I usually don't until I actually sit down at the keyboard--but bear with me as I get back up on this horse and try to scrape the rust off.  (Apparently, I still have the gift of mixed metaphors).

More soon!