Looking Back

As I mentioned on Friday, it’s a weekend full of goings-on, most of which is family related.  I have a break this afternoon before the next event this evening, so I’m taking the time to write this post while I can to update everyone on what’s happening in my hiking life.

Last night was the Annual Meeting and Awards Night for the AMC Four Thousand Footer Club and I was one of a large number of awardees receiving recognition for completing one list or another.  There are four lists which the Club recognizes both general completion and separately for winter completion:  The Northeast 111 Club, the New England Hundred Highest, the New England Four Thousand Footers, and the White Mountain Four Thousand Footers.  I should also note that the club recognizes canines for the White Mountain Four Thousand Footer list (winter and regular).

For me, I completed the White Mountain Four Thousand Footers which is the “easiest” of the lists.  It’s definitely a worthy accomplishment, so being the easiest doesn’t diminish from the work required to complete it.  I’ll be working on the New England Four Thousand Footers this summer as part of my conditioning program.  The NE4k list is the WM4k list, plus the 4,000 foot peaks in Vermont (5) and Maine (14), so I have 19 to go.  There aren’t any 4,000 foot peaks in Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts.

I knew that the lists were popular.  In fact, when I completed my list on Mt. Carrigain in the fall, there were almost a dozen people on the summit at that time who had just completed their lists as well.  I was made aware of how popular the lists really are when I drove into the meeting location at Exeter High School in Exeter, NH and saw a packed parking lot.

The entire evening is a great celebration of the accomplishment of completing whichever list(s) you have completed, but the highlight of the night was the slideshow presentation.  It was exceptionally moving and well done.  I could relive the joy and pride of summiting many of the various mountains pictured in the show, followed by deep compassion of hearing the stories of others who, after significant lows in their life, pulled themselves to the top of mountains to succeed where they previously felt like a failure.

Completing these lists is so much more than checking a box next to a mountain and saying “Done”.  It means a lot to each of us, often in different ways, but we’re all part of a hiking family now and that means the most, in the long run.

For me, while going through the emotional ebbs and flows of the presentation, I realized that it had steeled my resolve to section hike the AT.  Not just to start section hiking it, but to actually complete it.  If I could find a way to thru-hike the AT, I think I would plan to do that, but I don’t see that possibility in the cards at this time.  Maybe later in life, but not now.

I also came to an understanding within myself that I need to slow down and enjoy the experiences on each hike.  Toward the end of my list, due to a variety of self-imposed reasons, I hurried through the tail-end of my list to get it completed.  I hiked to a schedule, rather than hiking to experience the hike and the natural surroundings.  It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy the hikes, but I definitely didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have.  I’m going to make sure that my scheduling on the AT leaves plenty of time for enjoyment of, and reflection about, the trail, its history, and the wonders around me at the time.

As things stand, next weekend looks like it will be open to allow me to go hiking.  The weather looks good for both Saturday and Sunday, but the weather in New England is notoriously fluid, so we’ll see what the forecast looks like come Thursday or Friday.  There’s been a ton of melting in the mountains over the past week and there will be a lot more snowmelt over the coming days.  Trail reports will do a lot to determine my plans, but I definitely need to get out and put some miles and elevation on my legs to prepare for a real push this summer.

Now, it’s getting close to time to prepare for the next, and last, event of the weekend.  I’m planning to start the scripting of the various sections of the AT, beginning with the southern terminus at Springer Mountain.

Building the Plan

Based on everything I’ve read about hiking the AT, there needs to be a lot of pre-planning involved.  Planning is in my nature, so it shouldn’t cause much problem.  My basic plan for this year is: (i) to lose weight; (ii) to improve my physical conditioning; (iii) to research, select, and acquire needed gear; and (iv) to develop a general itinerary for the first two or three sections that I will be hiking.

In late February, I stepped on the scale for the first time in a while.  The display gave me a number I wasn’t expecting:  242 even.  I knew I had crept up to the low 230’s in the fall, but I didn’t realize I had grown so much over the winter.  I’ve been in the upper 220’s often enough in the past, and around 230 occasionally, but I’d never been close to or over 240.  While this is part of the drive to get myself back into shape and ready for the challenge of the AT, I’m also going to use it to my advantage in the planning process.

Since I’ve regularly hiked in the 220’s, I’m going to use that as a base weight for calculations.  Some articles I have read use 20% of body weight as a guide for the max weight of your pack on a thru-hike, including food and water.  To keep things at round numbers, I’m going to use 225 as my calculation weight, yielding a max pack/gear weight of 45 lbs.  I’m also going to approach this from a little different angle than the articles I’ve read.

Every step up or down, your legs are lifting or lowering your entire body weight, as well as everything you’re carrying.  With this in mind, I’ll be targeting a total hiking weight of 270 lbs. for training purposes.  My theory being that as I lose body weight and add weight to the pack, my legs will be conditioned properly for that weight.  If I select gear appropriately, I will hopefully be able to hike at significantly less than that 270 total, making the actual AT hikes easier from a conditioning standpoint.

Beginning in late February, I started by changing my diet in order to lose some initial weight.  Right now the “shoulder season” of hiking is in full swing and a hike right now in the White Mountains (“Whites”) can have you hiking in anything from dry trail to trail with running water to ice to three feet of snow and periodic post-holing, even in snowshoes.  These trail conditions are more difficult to hike in than true winter or summer hiking and with my lack of physical conditioning over the winter, the hiking would have to take a lower priority to dietary changes to start.

A couple of weeks ago I took a vacation day from work and headed to the mountains to get a hike in and boost my metabolism a bit.  I’d lost about 6 or 7 pounds at that point and my weight had started to stabilize at that level.  I needed to get some exercise to kick my body back into calorie burning mode again.  The weather had not been particularly great with warmer weather and periodic rain making trail conditions less than favorable as the snow pack on the trails softened up and less supportive of weight.  However, I chose the day I did based on the weather forecast of a nice clear sunny day, but, more importantly, a crisp cold night before.

The cold night would solidify the trails and make hiking easier until the temperatures warmed up enough to turn the snow mushy again, hopefully avoiding the need for snowshoes for the bulk of the trip as well as post-holes.

The hike I planned started out at the Lincoln Woods parking area on the Lincoln, NH end of the Kancamagus Highway.  This Scenic Byway is sometimes referred to as “The Kanc” locally, and definitely shortens the typing time for blogging.  Knowing I had nowhere near enough conditioning to actually summit a mountain, particularly in the changing trail conditions I was going to run into, I chose a route to accomplish what I needed to accomplish, while giving me the flexibility to extend or shorten based on trail conditions or how my body felt.

Starting at the Lincoln Woods parking area, I followed the Lincoln Woods Trail, which follows an old logging railroad line for nearly five miles.  I started off bare-booting from the parking lot, but quickly put on microspikes, as there was quite a bit of ice and hard pack on the trail right from the beginning.  There is very little elevation gain on the Lincoln Woods Trail.  I think it is about 200 feet total for the entire length.  The trail is wide and heavily traveled, making it an easy walk along the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River.

At roughly the 1.5 mile mark the Osseo Trail splits off to the left, which is the route had chosen to take.  The temperatures remained below freezing at that point, and the lesser traveled Osseo Trail had a solid packed foot path, but only one person wide, rather than the sometimes 4 to 5 person wide Lincoln Woods Trail.  For another quarter mile or so the trail remains mostly level with minimal gain, winding along the Osseo Brook through bare-branched hardwoods.

At this point, I started the section of the hike that was my main goal.  I knew I needed to work on elevation gain, but I also needed to get some mileage on my legs.  I had done an easy hike of just under two miles so far and would have to hike those same miles out again.  Now came the part to work on my climbing.  Having not been out at all since December, and even that was more of a light hike instead of a mountain, I chose the Osseo Trail due to its long, moderate climb with minimal steep sections until getting close to the summit of Mount Flume.  It gave me what I needed, at a rate which would be good for my present condition, plus, if everything exceeded my expectations, I could continue into the steep section and ultimately summit the mountain.

I started the moderate climb and I could tell from the trail conditions that the temperature had gotten above freezing, even if only a bit.  The sun was well up and without leaf cover, the snow was getting the full brunt of the spring sun.  I ended up climbing for a mile, maybe a bit more.  The trail mostly ranged from one to three feet of snow and traction was sufficient.  I had my snowshoes with me, but hadn’t needed them to this point.  I did run into a couple of small areas where the trail was open to the sun for long periods of the day and had actually melted down to bare, albeit muddy, ground.

I started to find myself needing to stay in the very center of the trail or else I started to break through the snow crust.  I never really post-holed, but that was only because I quickly shifted my weight back to the other foot when I started to sink in.  I even started sinking into the trail’s monorail a bit at times as well, but never broke through.  My legs were starting to feel like they were reaching the end of their day, at least for going up, and the temperature had continued to climb, so, with about three miles to hike back to the car I turned around and headed back, hoping that the lower elevations hadn’t warmed up enough to require snowshoes before I got back to the almost pavement-like Lincoln Woods Trail.

Thankfully, the trail remained firm enough, since I don’t think my hip flexors were in any condition to do any snowshoeing at that point.  I was able to return to the car without any issues, had gotten a good early season conditioning hike in, and tried to kick my body into gear to help lose more weight.  In the two weeks since, I’ve lost another few pounds and I finally dropped under the 230 mark, down to 229.4, however my weight is back to fluctuating up and down with a very slight trend downward.  It’s definitely time to get out on the trails to boost the metabolism again.

As for gear, I have some work to do.  Over these past 8 summers, I’ve hiked a lot of trails and completed the 48 4,000 footers in New Hampshire.  I never spent the night on the trail for any of them.  For one long traverse I did sleep in the back of my SUV and start my hike at 4 am to avoid the 2.5 hour drive to start the day.  With this in mind, I have a sleeping bag, a self inflating pad, and all the necessities for day hiking, plus some extra preparedness types of things for emergencies.

One of the major items I need to get is a tent.  I need to research it, buy the right one, and go out and use it a few times to get comfortable with setting it up, taking it down, and packing it away.  Doing this will also let me assess my current sleeping bag’s usefulness on a backpacking trip, as well as the inflatable pad.  Some of my reading suggests I should go with a foam pad, with similar weight, but without the risk of leaks/repairs, and more easily strapped to the outside of a pack for space concerns.

I also know I need a backpacking pack instead of the day pack I have.  My pack is on the large size for a day pack, but it isn’t large enough to handle the gear and food for a week or two.  I originally chose large so I would have room for the extra layers needed for hiking during the winter, but that still doesn’t compare to the 45+ Liter capacity of backpacking packs.  I should be able to make due with it for an overnight or a weekend during the summer, until I get a new pack and trial run a several-day hike, hopefully mid-to-late summer.

Lastly, itinerary planning is something that I’ll be able to do during evenings and bad weather stretches where I can’t, or don’t want to, get out hiking.  My intent is to have a number of hikes planned in advance, starting with the hike up Springer Mountain in Georgia.  I’m planning to have a 1-week plan for each section, as well as 2-week plans for upcoming sections.  In that manner, I can mix and match the plans to be adaptable to the amount of time I might have available to me when I’m able to take time off to hike the AT.

For these 1-week plans, I’ll be assuming a 9-day week, containing two weekends and a full work week in between.  Initially, I will be estimating a 15 mile day, but I’ll adjust that based on how campsite options present themselves in each section.  The benefit to living where I do and hiking the Whites is that I have probably the best training ground in the east.  Realistically, I reach almost any part of the AT from Hanover, NH to Mt Katahdin in approximately 3.5 hours or less.  Many thru-hikers feel that the Maine and New Hampshire sections are the hardest part of the trail and this is where I’m conditioning myself.  With that in mind, I think 15 miles a day will be a good starting point.  I know I can do 20 miles when I’m in decent condition and that will leave some flexibility for trail conditions and camping locations.

As for me, I’m ready to get out for another hike, but I don’t have time this weekend.  I have some family things going on and I also will be driving to Exeter, NH on Saturday to celebrate my completion of the New Hampshire 4000 footers with lots of other people who completed their list last year and many previous members of the club.  For those in the northeast who are interested in this achievement, you can visit http://www.amc4000footer.org/ for more information.

Where Am I Going?

Now that you know something about me and my hiking plans, I wanted to explain more about my blogging plans in this post.  Part of that is to give a bit more background on my hiking adventures to date and another part is to lay out my ideas for where this blog will be headed.  That isn’t to say that plans won’t change, but I at least have an initial plan of what I want to do and accomplish.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently 47 years old.  As life progresses, the time available for fun activities dwindles as the day to day responsibilities of family, home, and career weigh you down.  In college, at a Division I school (and probably similar for Division II and III schools), playing a sport is close to the equivalent of a 24-30 hour a week job, and that’s before factoring in classes and homework.  It’s also a 12 month activity.  Playing baseball in college started with fall practices in September as soon as students arrived and continued into December when we stopped to prepare for finals and the holiday break.  We started again as soon as we returned from break and didn’t stop until the season ended in May (or hopefully June).  Once the season was over, we departed school to join a summer league and continue playing for the 2-3 months before we headed back to school and started the cycle again.

Then comes graduation.  For most of us, that means entry into the real world of adult life and responsibility.  The rare few that move on to big signing bonuses and huge paychecks in professional sports may be living in a real world, but it isn’t the same world the rest of us have to live in.  For me, this meant baseball was no longer a 12-month, 6 or 7 day a week activity, for the first time since middle school.

I also got married that summer.  The combination of all these things meant a massive change in my lifestyle and hence my activity level.  For a while this wasn’t bad.  I’ve been blessed with a fairly high metabolism rate, and combined with my activity levels through college, I used to consume more than 3000 calories per meal and only weighed 150 lbs.  Over the years, as most of us who have lived through it know, your metabolism slows down at various ages and mine was no different.

Over this winter I peaked at 242 lbs.  Over the past year there have been massive amounts of turnover at management levels above me, creating a shift in the culture at work which I haven’t been entirely pleased with.  All of this has been the basis for the “midlife crisis” I feel that I’m going through.  “Crisis” is probably too strong a word, but we can use the term for what it represents:  a need to make changes to one’s life to better it and make life happier and more fulfilling.

This crisis is what has driven me to commit to myself that I will start and attempt to accomplish the sequential section hiking of the Appalachian Trail, rather than just toying with the idea of it.  And as part of that commitment to a goal, I wanted to blog about my journey.  Not just the section hiking.  Lots of people blog about their actual hike and many of them are very interesting blogs.  I wanted to start blogging at, basically, the inception of the decision to hike the AT.

I have a desk job.  That’s one reason for my weight.  My work schedule is also typically heavier from December through March, making it difficult to get outdoors to do things.  Weather plays a part in it as well, as I don’t like to drive into the mountains on a snowy or icy day when wrecking the car would be far worse than not getting exercise.  I HATE using the gym.  I hate workout machines, weights, stair masters, and treadmills.  I can’t stand it and have never made it through two months utilizing a membership.  I can’t make myself do it.  This winter, I managed to get out and hike twice between December 1 and today.  It’s been a bad winter.

I plan to share my experiences and adventures getting myself into shape this year, reviewing and selecting gear that I will need to do my section hikes, and map out my itineraries for actually starting out at Springer Mountain sometime in spring of 2020.  I know I won’t be starting out with the early thru-hikers at the end of April, but initially I’m targeting sometime in mid-May, prior to Memorial Day.  That’s just a rough plan and there’s a lot to do before that becomes more concrete. So, I hope the premise of this blog interests you and I hope that my experiences will ultimately help others to make that decision and work on preparing for that great adventure that awaits us on the AT.

It’s All About Me

It is now the (early) spring of 2019.  I’ve passed my 47th birthday and statistically, at least, I’m on the second half of my life.  I’ve been hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire regularly since 2011 and I finally finished my New Hampshire 4000 footer list last fall.

I’ve been toying with the idea of thru-hiking the AT for a few years now.  It’s a challenge I would love to undertake, but I also am a realist.  My career and household finances won’t allow that kind of a commitment.  Even a record setting 40 day thru-hike would not be feasible for work.  With those barriers to a thru-hike, I’ve come to the decision to section hike the trail, but with some self-imposed criteria.

My plan is to hike the trail from South to North, by sections, but in order, as if I thru-hiked.  This would give me the sequence of a thru-hiker on the trail, but allow for my “real life” commitments to be maintained.  Vacation time isn’t generally a problem for me.  I usually have a hard time taking it all each year and lose some.  The problem is the schedule and deadline responsibilities I have to maintain throughout the year.  As a section hiker, I can take a week or two to hike as my work schedule allows and then return a few weeks later where I left off.

I’m normally a pretty introverted and private person.  I often hike alone, after my wife’s knees progressed to the point of being unable to hike and requiring surgery.  One has been done and she’s at the point where she could return to easy/moderate hiking with that knee, if it weren’t for the other one causing pain and problems.  I’m happy hiking alone and many times I try to select trails which are less popular and are likely to have less traffic on them to enjoy nature and the sights and sounds that accompany the wilderness.  There are definitely benefits to hiking this way.

On a hike early last December, I was doing a snowshoe warmup to try to get into some semblance of shape before the real winter hiking season started.  I always have the best intentions of doing a lot of winter hiking, but inevitably I fail, whether it is from a heavy work schedule, family commitments, or weather conditions.  However, on this hike I started out shortly after a group of almost a dozen hikers.

The trail was fairly solid and pretty well packed after some early season snowfalls, but it still hadn’t consolidated much and bare booting or microspikes seemed to churn up the trail quite a bit, even if I didn’t punch through the surface.  With this in mind, I opted for snowshoes.  The group ahead of me had also chosen snowshoes and they were taking a while to find the proper pace for the group as well as selecting the right layer combinations for the temperature and the activity level.

We leapfrogged each other for a little while, but eventually I found a spot where the trail neared the brook which it ran parallel to for most of its length.  The brook had only partially frozen, primarily along the sides and around rocks in the occasional calm pool.  I just stopped and listened to the gurgling of the water over the rocks.  It was peaceful and quiet and it also allowed that group to gain some distance ahead of me so we weren’t constantly trying to pass each other in the soft snow to the side of the packed trail.

After a period of time listening and relaxing, but not so long that my body started to cool down too much, I began to move forward again.  A few minutes after continuing my hike, I caught a quick glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye.  Not ten feet from me, ghosting over the top of the snow, was a pine marten.  The only reason I managed to catch his movement is that he was only about 75% covered in his white winter coat.  The tip of his tail was still very dark, and his back was a very light gray, but well on its way to being fully white.  He definitely seemed curious about me and my presence.  He was also brave enough for me to slowly pull my cell phone from my pocket and take his picture after he caught himself a nice mouse for breakfast.

Pine Marten with a Mouse

This is a prime example of why hiking alone provides some excellent experiences.  He never would have shown himself this close to the trail while the large group was going by and even the noise of a two or three person group is typically more than most wildlife wants to be around.  I was fortunate to see such an uncommon critter along the trail and really enjoyed my time watching him.

However, despite being introverted and a private person, I often find myself very chatty on the trail.  I seem to talk with other hikers more extensively and more often than I do with strangers in other areas of my life.  Maybe this is a sign that I should be more involved with hiking groups and hike with others more often, even if they aren’t close acquaintances.  The fact that I’m writing a blog about myself and my plans and experiences may be an indication that I’m not as introverted as I accuse myself of being, but instead just don’t find a connection with most people that makes me want to converse with them.

I also tend to be a very self-sacrificing person.  My wife will back me up on this, since she accuses me of sacrificing my own needs and wants far too often for the benefit of her and our daughter.  This includes both time and money.  However, I will freely admit that hiking the AT is entirely about me.  It’s something I want to do and I know that my wife, considering her knees, will be incapable of enduring that kind of activity for a week, let alone nearly 2,200 miles.  She has offered up ways that she can help support my efforts, such as driving me to a starting point and meeting me at various road crossings along the section and restocking food in this manner.

Since I hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, it’s obvious I at least live in the northeast.  Specifically, I live in southern Maine and have easy access to most of New Hampshire with a reasonable drive.  Hiking throughout the White Mountains, I believe I’ve hiked more than half of the New Hampshire portion of the AT already, but it doesn’t seem as if it’s been part of that ultimate goal.  The hikes are disjointed and, without that continuity, those sections of the AT have been just portions of those other various hikes utilizing a trail blazed in white instead of the usual blue or yellow blazes used in the White Mountains.

This is the crux of the goal and the methodology I plan to use to achieve it.  I want the continuity of the trail through this adventure, even if life won’t permit the continuity of time.

Now, this being my first post, it’s pretty clear where the “Hiking” part of the title comes from.  As for the “Center” part of the title, I could just stop and leave it to you, the reader, for interpretation.  There are hints above, but since this is an introduction of myself and the blog itself, and not some great literary novel where the author leaves lots of areas for interpretation and reflection about what he/she really meant when they wrote that memorable story, I’ll actually explain my choice of title.  There won’t be Cliff Notes for this, so I won’t make you think and ponder the meaning of life.

I’ve never been a yoga person, done meditation, or anything like that.  My stress relief has always been good, solid, physical activity.  I played two sports in high school (baseball and soccer) and continued baseball into college and beyond.  At least through my college years, no matter how stressful my days may have been, it never seemed to bother me, whether that was because of age or the endorphin generating exercise, I don’t really know for sure.  Even for the many years after graduation from college, whether it was continued baseball leagues, golf, or some other routine sporting activity, life seemed fine for me.  I was slow to anger, rarely did stress affect me, and I could handle the twists and turns of life without problem.

Now, I’m approaching my 14th anniversary at my current employer; I’ve been married to the same wonderful woman for almost 23 years, and we share the wonderful experience of raising our daughter who is almost 5.  However, for whatever reason, I find myself easily angered at things which never used to provoke me.  I sometimes dread going to work, even when there is nothing on my calendar to worry about and deadlines are suitably far in the future to allow the work needed to easily be completed.  I find myself much more frustrated with unplanned changes in schedules and problems disrupting my plans.  I feel it is time to shake things up in my life.

In the context of this blog, “Center” refers to a few things for me at this point:  (i) the center of my statistical lifespan (i.e. midlife); (ii) centering my spirit in the yoga, meditative, or religious sense; and (iii) placing hiking, and specifically this goal, near the center of my daily priorities.  I’ll clarify a bit about (iii) to say that my daily priorities will not ever exclude my family, which means I will continue to make a living and support them and continue to spend time and resources to make them happy and nurture them.  Hiking won’t ever take priority over that, as it just isn’t in my nature to abandon them, but I will be making the effort to put more “me” in my life and make it a priority. Now, as I look back, this turned into quite an introduction post and in my next (probably shorter) post I’ll explain my plans for this blog, at least to start with.