Friday, September 28, 2012

The Loon's Nest

According to Wikipedia, loons need “a long distance to gain momentum for take-off.”  I’ve even read that loons can become stranded on small ponds that aren’t long enough for their needed “runway.”  As a fledgling hiker, I am exercising my wings in preparation for flight by testing and familiarizing myself with my equipment as well as the preparing of mind and body.  I do not want to find myself stranded by faulty equipment. 

The other day, my new tent arrived.  So after dinner, I anxiously went out in the backyard to set it up.  Generally speaking, setting up the modern day tent doesn’t require a lot of skill.  Still, each design varies somewhat and I was curious to see how much time it would take to pitch my tent and how much room my new ultra-light 2 person home was going to provide.  My mate was by my side to observe the building of my nest.

From previous experience, I automatically flipped the folded material so that the darker color was facing the ground assuming this to be the floor.  The instructions stated that the guy lines were set close to the ideal length with a pre-established loop to be attached to the notched stakes.  Eagerly, I stretched forth these 6 lines and hooked them to the stakes which I pressed into the ground.  The next step was to un-zip the door to insert the poles inside.  Uh oh, the door zipper was definitely going the wrong direction and that sunny yellow material that I thought was my ceiling is actually my floor.

Feeling slightly embarrassed in front of my witness, I proceed to disconnect the guy lines, flip the tent over and reconnect the lines again.  Un-zip the door, crawl inside and insert the support poles.  Ah, yes, that’s looking better.  All that is left to do is to tighten the guy lines so that all is taunt and anchored well to weather any storm. 

Oh, and there’s these vestibule flaps; something I’ve not had on any other tent I’ve owned, but also one of the features that I liked when researching this product.  The key features that my tent must have, in my mind, for a long distance hike were a light weight, ease in set up and as much room as possible to allow for some personal space and comfort.   These vestibule flaps provide an additional “porch” space outside of the sleeping area which I thought would be excellent for storing gear or even providing a somewhat protected space for cooking in inclement weather.   As this is considered a two person tent, I actually have a door and porch on each side of my tent and when ordering it, I must say, I felt like I was going to have some pretty deluxe accommodations on the trail.

Well, as I’m circling the tent and trying to adjust the guy line tensions, my husband remarks, “THIS is a two person tent?” I answer, “Yeah, now you understand why I ordered this instead of using the single tent.”  The single tent we own is barely long enough for my body and the support pole was right by my feet.  Knowing my sleeping habits, I easily envisioned myself kicking out the support pole during the night and having the tent collapse in on me.  Not what I have in mind for a restful night’s sleep, so I decided to go with something a little bit bigger.

I’m not exactly a small girl.  I’m 5’8” and a good 20” broad at the shoulder, not to mention the width of my lower regions.  My sleeping pad is also 20” wide and I’m sure I will roll off of it many times until I learn to stay more still at night.  Actually, I’m hoping I’ll be so tired from the day’s hiking that I will lay still from sheer exhaustion. 

The advertised width of my tent is 37” which does not allow for two 20” pads to lie side by side, yet this IS considered a two person tent.  The length of the tent is a more reasonable 87” or 7’ 3” for those who don’t want to do the math.  The illustrations included with the tent also show the two sleeping bags snuggled very closely and lying at angles that allow the legs and feet to taper into the narrowing point that is the foot end of the tent.  All this is done, of course, to conserve weight just as a mummy sleeping bag is tapered to conserve body heat. 

Also in the interest of conserving weight is the material of which the tent is made.  Let’s see, how should I describe this to you; oh, I know…can you imagine a plastic Wal-Mart shopping bag?  You know, that thin recycled plastic that tears the minute any semi-sharp object comes in contact with it.  Now, imagine it’s yellow and you have a good idea of what my tent material looks like.  I certainly hope that it holds up better than the shopping bag or those thunderstorms I expect to encounter are going to make for some interesting evenings.

As I continue to adjust lines and struggle with the sliding tension holds, which are of a design I’ve not encountered before, I am catching the subtle smirks that cross my husband’s face from the corner of my eye and I’m noticing the twinkle in his eye as he holds in the humor he is finding in my learning process.  I don’t mind; he’s a good man and he’s doing his absolute best to be supportive of this endeavor despite not quite comprehending why I would want to put myself through this extreme camping/hiking experience.  I have no doubt in my mind that he secretly suspects that I’ll quit before I get anywhere near Maine.  But, true to character for him, he will state that he believes in me and wishes me the best in my endeavors.  He is a good husband and I’m very thankful to have him.  We both know that the odds are against me, but we both also know that I have a stubborn streak that has carried me through more than one challenge in my life. 

While inspecting the fit of my proudly erected abode, I noticed that the guy line to the “back porch” wasn’t quite to my liking, so I crawled toward the door and was just beginning to adjust the tension on the line when the stake on the opposite side of the tent, which was not secured tightly but wedged into a crack in this Oklahoma red clay, came flying out of the ground from the increased pressure.  The sudden release caused the support pole to come down and suddenly, I find myself on all fours inside a half collapsed tent.

I crawled out the door to see my darling husband struggling to hold back his laughter.  As I walked around the tent to stand next to him, I tripped over one of the guy lines which became entangled in my flip-flop.  This proves to be too much for him and he tries to graciously excuse himself so that he won’t be laughing directly in my face, all the while doubling over with that silent, I-can’t-breath-and-am-turning-red-in-the-face laughter shaking every fiber of his body.

I stand there feeling somewhat embarrassed by my clumsiness and assess the situation.  I make a mental note to add some small pieces of reflective tape to the tops of the stakes and perhaps on the guy lines themselves.  Or maybe I’ll attach some small lengths of the bright, hunter orange poly cord to make the guy lines more visible.  I say to my husband, “Well, this is exactly why I’m testing everything out now.”  He jokingly responds, “And in 6 months’ time, you’ll be setting up like a pro.”  I certainly don’t blame my husband for laughing at my comedy of errors and I even join in with a few chuckles of my own.  Our own form of the loon tremolo which writer John McPhee called “the laugh of the deeply insane.”

Yes, loons are considered clumsy and have difficulty walking on land.  To land on water, they glide in on their bellies in an awkward manner, doing a modified belly flop, as it were, because their legs are placed too near the rear of the their bodies to land like other water birds. Yet the loons are excellent divers, swimmers and migrate 100s of miles every year, eventually reaching their goal despite what might be considered a handicap.  My migration begins in 183 days.  Looks like I’m going to need every bit of that runway to gain momentum, but how wonderful it will be to reach the goal.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Just for Fun

As we are getting to know each other and preparing for our thru-hike, my new hiking companions and I were sharing our previous hiking and Appalachian Trail experiences.  Several of the group have completed sections of the A.T. and as a little, fun tribute to all those who have set foot on a section of the trail, I created this little poem.  Thought I'd share it with you.

The A.T. Buffet
Ah, bits and pieces,
Tastes of the pie;
A slice here and there,
A treat to the eye.

But the pan is much bigger;
There's more to consume.
The belly's still hungry;
Now make much more room!

Time to indulge fully
In the sights, sounds and tastes;
The sensory buffet
Of the A.T. awaits. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012


If you are the passenger on a long road trip, you often find yourself gazing out the window watching the scenery pass by in a blur after the conversation has hit a lull and the music has faded into the background.  This has an almost hypnotic effect on you and before long everything seems to be outside of some invisible bubble you’ve created and you’re alone in your own thoughts. 

While traveling home from a recent trip to Iowa I was alone in my thought bubble and was thinking about changes.  I had taken a picture of a tree that was changing into its fall wardrobe at a rest stop and it occurred to me that by this time next year, when the trees again begin to change their greens for reds, oranges and yellows, if successful, I will have already summited Mt. Katahdin in Maine and will be back home.  Would I see the beginning changes of the fall leaves in New England?  I’m sure I will have already felt the colder temperatures, but when exactly is the prime “New England in the fall” experience?  Will I have the opportunity to see the multi-colored quilt of color from the peaks of the Appalachian?  I made a mental note to research this matter and I thought about the other changes that will have taken place over the course of my journey.

There will be, beyond a doubt, physical changes.  You cannot hike 2,184 miles without having improved your muscular strength and endurance.  The weight loss that will occur varies for each individual based on the amount of calories an individual is able to consume in relation to the number of calories being expended, age, metabolism rates and other such factors.  It has been said that you will be in the best physical condition of your life after completing the trail.  The physical changes seem to be the first thing to come to one’s mind and they will probably be the most obvious, but what else will have changed?  What about the changes that don’t appear as visually obvious?

Over the course of 5-7 months of living a relatively primitive existence in the forest, there are bound to be some changes in your perspective of the things that are NEEDED and things that are WANTED in your life.  It is my opinion that the line between needs and wants is way too blurred in our current society.  Obviously, food, clothing and shelter are the minimal things needed for survival, but there are more than physical things needed for a healthy and good life.  Things like love, acceptance and social interaction are extremely important to one’s mental health and add tremendous value to life as well.  The majority of the time on the trail will be survival with the minimal physical elements and although there will be times of aloneness, and possibly even loneliness, there will be plenty of opportunity to have the social interactions that are required for good mental health as well.  Still, I assume that there will be two possible responses to living such an existence, either one will return to their former life and realize how much they own that they don’t really need and may even decide to reduce some household clutter or they will embrace all that they own as riches beyond measure and relish their luxuries with a new level of appreciation.  As for the social side of things, I’m sure that everyone who returns home from the trail will cherish the time with their loves ones even more and will have been enriched with the new friends and acquaintances they have made along the way.   So it’s probably safe to assume there will be changes in perceptions concerning physical belongings and new appreciations for the persons in our lives.

What about the people in our lives?  How will they view us after accomplishing such a feat?  Will their perceptions of who we are and what we are capable of doing change?  I think it is safe to assume that most people in our lives will have a positive view of our accomplishment.  Some may be awed, some inspired and some surprised.  Some may be jealous or envious.  Many will be congratulatory and give us kudos for a job well done even if they don’t understand why we did it and that’s ok too. 

So, yes, probably most people we know will have a slightly different view of us, maybe even more appreciation for us than before we hiked the trail, but more important than how others view who we are is how we view ourselves.  How will our perspective of who we are change after the summit at Mt. Katahdin?  We should have an enormous amount of confidence in ourselves when this trip is over; hopefully, not in an arrogant manner, because we certainly will not accomplish this journey on our own by any means.  Oh, we will be the ones to put one foot in front of the other, but we each will have a certain level of support from our home bases and others who assist us along the route.  However, I believe that we will come away with a healthy confidence and strength that comes naturally from facing and conquering the obstacles and trials in life.  Even as I am writing this, I have noticed how I transitioned from “I” statements, i.e. “will I see…” to “we” statements.  This trip is not a sole endeavor.  My fellow hikers, who I have yet to meet face-to-face, have already become a part of this journey and I find I cannot think about the trail without thinking about all the hikers, as if we were all one entity.  I have already begun to change.

So these all appear to be positive changes, better physical fitness and strength, new perspectives with regard to the luxuries and creature comforts of this life, a deeper appreciation for loved ones, new friends and acquaintances, a renewed sense of confidence, so is there anything negative that could come of this trip?  Are there negative changes that will or could occur while on the trail?

If you spend any time reading trail journals or blogs or books of the experiences that previous hikers have had on the Appalachian Trail, you will soon realize that every day is not going to be “sunshine and lollipops” with flowers blooming, birds chirping and Snow White skipping through the forest with all her little animal friends.  The trail slogan of “No pain, no rain, no Maine” alone makes you stop and take notice.  There are going to be difficulties and struggles.  There is going to be pain, sore muscles, joint aches, and the possibility of blisters, shin splints, sprains or even worst injuries.  There will be gnats, mosquitos, biting flies and possibly ticks or snakes that could bite you.  The weather can and will range from sub-freezing temperatures and snow to triple digit highs with booming thunderstorms and lightning.  You will have to protect your food from marauding bears and rodents.  You will have to protect your shoes or hiking boots from porcupines that like to chew the leather to obtain the salts that are dried on your shoe or hiking boot.  Salts and dissolved minerals that have been left behind after the shoe dried from the last stream crossing or from the sweat from your feet.  You will not have the daily convenience of a warm shower, a nice big bed to stretch out in, a refrigerator filled with your favorite beverages or food or easy access to most of your electronics.  There will be times that you will leave the trail or that it will go through town and you will have a temporary reprieve from the primitive life, but the majority of your time will be spent living in this other world of challenges and minimal conveniences. 

What about the world back home, the world outside of your primitive reality?  Life still goes on and time stops for no one.  There is the possibility of bad news reaching you while on the trail; a loved one is injured, sick or dies while you are “out there”.   Children and grandchildren will continue to grow and you may miss those first steps, first words or first lost tooth moments.  Some relationships may be strained by the absence of the partner; some may even break.  These are definitely things that must be considered before deciding to take on the Appalachian Trail or any long distance hike.  Yes, the possibilities of injuries, the daily survival challenges, the loss of conveniences and the strain of separation can all take a toll on the long distance hiker and their family; there could be negative changes.  One must consider this carefully and seriously before taking off on this adventure.  
So after weighing all these possibilities and changes in the balance, which way do the scales tip?   Are the struggles worth the rewards?  As I think about all these potential changes, I remember reading about the butterfly emerging from its cocoon.  The struggle the butterfly goes through to break free from the cocoon is what pumps the blood into the veins of its wings to allow it to fly.  Without the struggle to free itself, the wings will not unfurl and the butterfly will be doomed to starve to death or be readily picked off by a predator.  It is the struggle that enables the butterfly to flutter from flower to flower.  It is always the trials along the trail of life that enables us to grow and change.  There will be changes that occur in me as a result of hiking the Appalachian Trail and I believe that the positive changes far outweigh the possibility of the negatives.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Heart & Soul of the Matter

Last evening over dinner, a friend made an astute observation.  While I was enthusiastically describing some of the sights and smells that I was looking forward to experiencing again while on the trail--things such as the mountain laurel in bloom, the smell of the wet leaves and earth, or perhaps even the taste of wild berries--she said, "It sounds like being in the mountains feeds your soul the way being at the beach feeds mine."  I believe my friend has hit upon a truth that I can't deny.  I don't know that there is anywhere that I feel as great a peace in my soul then as when I am in the mountains.  
In general, most everyone has an infinity in their nature for either the mountain or the sea.  I'm sure there's even been psychological studies done on why and what personality types tend to lean to each environment.  I have no real desire to delve into those topics right now.  All I know about myself and this desire is that my youth was filled with wonderful memories that revolve around my time spent in the Appalachian mountains and the valley fields and small towns lying at their feet .  The sights, sounds and smells have somehow become a part of me--a part of my heart and soul--and I can hardly wait until I can spend time there again.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Serious Prep Time

I have just started reading Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis to help in my mental preparation for this journey.  In the last several days I have been priviledge to meet several other women (most in my general age bracket) that are also planning to take on the trail this coming spring.  Some are obviously very experienced hikerd.  Some have attempted this trail before and for reasons I have not discovered yet did not complete it.  Some are first-timers like myself.  I am very happy to meet these women who are physically scattered all across this country but who are already beginning to bond into a sisterhood of sorts.  We are sharing in the planning, preparing, dreaming and excitement of our future adventure.  It will be an exciting day when we meet together on the trail.
This sisterhood of hikers has also enabled me to make a change in my original plans and provided me with the buddy system I needed to become a single-season thru-hiker.  Now that my husband knows I'm not hiking alone, he is feeling a little better about the trip.  I am planning on taking a little time off in PA while hiking through my hometown areas and visiting with family.  That area of PA is also about the physical 1/2 way mark and I hope that my husband will meet me there during my down time.

So, now it all has become very real to me mentally.  The gear is arriving, connections are being made between fellow hikers, meals and supply stops and drops are being planned, physical and mental preparation has begun.  Somehow it still seems a bit surreal and probably will continue to seem so until several steps have been taken from Springer Mountain, but the excitement that is brewing inside thinking of taking that first step of the 5 million steps that are needed to complete the trail is almost too much to contain.  Again, I am very thankful for my new hiking companions who are able to understand and are sharing in this obssession.

Friday, September 14, 2012

New equipment

Today I have taken a leap into the modern century and have purchased a smart phone.  I don't usually use my phone very often, but just as necessity is often the mother of invention; she often is the cause behind puchases as well.  I know that I have a few people in my life that are concerned about my time out on the trail, and I know it is because they love me that they worry. So I am making every effort to give them as much peace as I can regarding my safety, so I have been forced into learning new technology that should allow me to keep my loved ones, and everyone else who may be interested, a current update on my location and condition.  May this reduce stress on those who worry and provide enjoyment for my other observers.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Meet the Walking Loon

I guess I should begin with an introduction, of sorts, so I give you this information; originally I was born and raised in southcentral Pennsylvania about a mile from the Appalachian Trail.  I spent a lot of time in the great outdoors as a child and dreamed of one day hiking the entire trail.  After high school I joined the navy and served for 5 years before getting out to follow my army husband around until his retirement.  Let's just say that raising 6 kids and moving as much as we did and then eventually settling in New Mexico for quite awhile didn't exactly make achieving the hiking-the-Appalachian-Trail dream something feasible for me. 

To be totally honest, I had actually forgotten about it for some time and probably threw it on the once-upon-a-time dream pile like we do so many things from our childhood; dreams that don't come to fruition for a vast number of reasons.  However, every once in awhile, something reminds us of those long ago wishes and just occassionally, we pick up that dream from off the pile and dust it off with all the awe and excitement of finding Aladdin's lamp.  And then, the genie billows forth and grants us our wish.  That is probably the best description I can give of how this idea, this dream, has sparked anew for me.  See, my dear friends recently moved to a new home in Colorado and their new address is on a street named Katahdin.  Not, the easiest word to say if you're not familar with it, so the suggestion was to look up the pronounciation online and I was informed it was "some mountain in Maine". 

Yes, it certainly is SOME mountain in Maine.  It's the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and the goal of all Northbound (NoBo) hikers on the Trail.  It is a symbol and the pinnacle of the accomplishment of completing 2,184 miles of hiking from Georgia.  As I was reading about Mt. Katahdin, suddenly, that old childhood dream rose like a phoenix in my mind.  I found myself longing again to passing through those wooded areas of my youth and to challenge myself to accomplish something dramatic in my life.

Oh, but time has taken a toll, and I certainly am not what I once was.  It's wonderful to dream, but one must take into account reality and my reality is that I have put on extensive weight since my high school days and my body just doesn't perform like it used to.  I've grown soft.

The arguments that take place in your head sometimes make you think there is a crowd residing inside your skull.  One voice will argue for all the reasons you shouldn't even consider attempting this endeavor.  Another will encourage you to "go for broke" and spur on the desire.  Another will try to reason both sides of the argument and come up with a practical and satisfying solution for both of the earlier parties.  Then inevitably, as you bounce the idea off family and friends, there are the added echoes of their opinions.  Eventually, you have to come to a decision about the matter or risk going insane from all the voices in your head. :)

They say the biggest question is "WHY are you doing this?" You will be asked "Why?" by family and friends. You will ask yourself "Why am I doing this?" before you take the first step if you've given any serious thought to the matter. And you WILL ask yourself "Why?" again when you are out there...when you are tired and struggling; when it gets difficult. It's important to know the answer for those times.

One wise friend questioned if this wasn't some sort of mid-life crisis.  I had considered that idea prior to her mentioning it and admitted that it was probably part of the explanation for this intense desire.  But it's also something more.  it's the desire to just live.  One of my favorite movie scenes is at the end of Secondhand Lions when the young boy asks, "You mean the men in grandpa's stories really lived?" and the main character answers, "Yes, they REALLY lived."  May we all REALLY live in the lifetime we've been given. 

But more often than not, a lot of us get bogged down into a routine that isn't necessary healthy for us.  We spend an enormous amount of our free time in front of one video screen or another and even a lot of our jobs involve a desk and chair.  Of course, there are lots of people who pursue physical fitness at the gym or maybe some other sports activity, but overall, we are a nation of spectators watching other people put out the physical energy to play and compete while we sit and fill our mouths with more junk food. 

Now obviously, there are other ways for me to shed pounds and get in shape if that is the driving force behind this hike, but again, that is just part of the reason.  And when it comes to the issue of motivation to accomplish weight loss, everyone has something different that will be their driving force to assist them in accomplishing that goal.  No, it's not just a mid-life crisis.  It's not just weight loss motivation.  It's not just fulfilling a childhood dream.  So what is it?  Some people claim they go to the A.T. to "find themselves".  I pretty much know who I am, so I'm not looking for a grand discovery there.  Some go to enjoy the time communing with God and nature.  Absolutely, I'm looking forward to this aspect of the hike, as being in the great outdoors always replenishes my spirit and I DO enjoy the quiet time alone with my Father God.  So, I can add this ingredient to my list of reasoning.  But it's something still more, something very personal.  It's a self-challenge.  

The Olympic games just recently ended and while watching the stories of triumph and failure of the athletes you can't help but to admire the amount of dedication and work they have put into their respective sports.  I've not thought about being an Olympian since I was about 15 and I realized that I would never accomplish that feat; not because I couldn't, but because I knew I would never commit to the time and effort it takes.  I would never stand on a podium and receive a medal that would symbolize all the years of work and dedication.  So, is there some grand medal or award for hiking the A.T.?  No.  If you accomplish this feat, you send in an application and receive a certificate and a 2,000 miler patch.  There is no fan-fare nor television crew filming.  There is nothing but your own memories and some snapshots you've taken with your own camera.  And you'll be added to the list of over 12,622+ persons who have completed the A.T. in it's 75 year history.  But what you will have gained is something that can't be taken away from you.  You will have accomplished a personal goal through perserverance, endurance and effort.  Whether your personal goal is physical, spiritual or mental, or a short or long term goal, whether you required assistance or did it on your own, nothing feels as good or gives as much satisfaction as accomplishing a task that you've set your mind to completing.

This can be viewed as a selfish idea and task, unless, of course, you are sharing this journey with a family member(s) or friend(s).  But, I don't believe that there is anything wrong with doing something for yourself now and again.  As a matter of fact, if you don't take care of yourself, you can't be there for others.  Now, I am a believer in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and I truly believe that we can do nothing without him.  I look forward to his empowerment to complete this task and I pray that through this journey, he will use me as a vessel of blessing to others along the way.  Jesus, also, took time away from the crowds and his work to rejuevenate setting an example for us to follow.

So, the answer to my "Why?" is multi-faceted and probably is best summed up by saying "I want to REALLY live!"  Currently, I am planning to section hike the trail for about a month at a time over the course of 6-7 years. I may eventually escalate that schedule and would love the opportunity to thru-hike, but don't think the family can support that idea. Time will tell.
For some unknown reason, my first account & blog was disabled and removed by Google.  Currently, I'm waiting for a reason for this, but I'm not really anticipating a response from remarks I've seen from others.  Anyway, I'm going to try this again and hopefully they won't close this one down.

As for why I've chosen "Loon" as my trail name, well, I was thinking to myself about all the remarks I had received about this being a crazy idea and that a lot of people think that I'm just looney for attempting such a thing.  I've only once seen a loon in the wild on a reservoir in the Appalachian mountains near my home and it was a wonderful experience.  The loon doesn't walk well on land and I'm not the most graceful creature God ever created, so it all just seemed to come together for me as the ideal trail name.

'Til later...