My book review of “A Long Way From Nowhere: A Couple’s Journey on the Continental Divide Trail”

21898991      This co-authored husband and wife book bears considerable resemblance to the last married couple thru-hike book I read-I Promise Not to Suffer- A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail. That book was about the Pacific Crest while this one is about the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). In each book, the husbands set the pace, the wives suffer, with both women maintaining their connections to their steamrolling partners in spite of overwhelming stress, discomfort, and self-deprecation.
I was shuffling along the CDT in 2013 ( the same year detailed in this book) myself, where I eventually reached Canada but never encountered Optimist and Stopwatch, the “trail names” of Matt and Julie. They were probably walking through the night when they passed my tent. I also suffered through my own thru-hike of this “ shim sham of a trail,” but the Urbanski’s journey bears little resemblance to mine.
These Urbanskis are superhuman. With a self-imposed schedule of just 118 days to hike over 3,000 miles, they needed to backpack 25.57 miles every one of those days-day after brutal day. If they take a day off for any reason, their daily average goes up- so they don’t take days off. If you count the frequent episodes of “lost” or off trail the Urbanskis walked the equivalent of a marathon a day, day after day, while they were carrying their world on their backs. That’s a lot of miles, and an incomprehensible accomplishment.
Why this story was not covered on the sports pages of every newspaper in America beats me. It’s as much an achievement as running a marathon in record time, for sure.
Matt and Julie took turns penning chapters. Julie is the better writer, and works as hard at writing as she does moving through the challenges of the CDT. Julie’s writing conveys her nearly constant pain, anxiety, and what appears to be depression- which began on day one when she took sick in the unrelenting heat of the southern New Mexico desert.
I have never encountered any thru-hikers who are as hard core as the Urbanskis. They are extremely focused and unrelenting in their approach to thru-hiking. From the time they take their first steps away from the Mexico/New Mexico border, their first CDT evening camp fire was in Canada, at the end of their journey. They are so spartan in their approach that they shun little stoves. Ho hot cups of tea or coffee for them on the trail. They are hardened veterans of previous long distance thru-hikes. On their three previous long distance trails they didn’t take a day off in over 4,500 miles. Yikes!
I was incredulous to learn that when the Urbanskis reach a grocery store they include eating 4 cans of vegetables, and that they prefer Subway to any of the local eateries one encounters in over-the-top rural America. I looked at their long detailed lists of town food, and most don’t include any protein. It wasn’t until page 74 that we learn that they are on a vegan diet for this trip, posing additional challenges in actually find vegan options in some of the stripped-down convenience stores and gas stations that only rarely pop up along the way. The northern part of the CDT passes through meat street- Wyoming and Montana. Up there, I was compelled to order the largest steaks and burgers i could find when I reached that part of the CDT, after losing 33 pounds of body weight, which definitely included loss of muscle mass, particularly from my upper body.
Optimist and Stopwatch depend on prepared boxes of vegan foods that they mail to themselves along the way- lots of packages. Its great to have your own food choices, but even the US Postal Services takes days off- on the weekends, a practice that forces the Urbanskis to double down, hike through the night, or push through unimaginable mileage challenges so that they don’t have to “ lose” a day while they wait for their food resupply boxes to arrive.
It was a suffer fest for Stopwatch (Julie’s trail name), who reveals as the book goes on that she generally doesn’t like backpacking. Sheesh!
This book is painful to read. However, it’s a great account. I could not put it down. It’s brutally honest, and one of the rare opportunities a reader will ever have to get the full picture of the dirty laundry that a couple has to deal with on a real, month-long, backpacking trip across the spine of the Rocky Mountains. That laundry is a spare, but burdensome load- only the clothes on their backs. They have nothing left at the end but this incomprehensible achievement for these young folks to list on what must be the most impressive pair of vitaes in America.
I hope the Urbanskis can patch things back together after this crazy smack-down and continue to make it together on the Big Trail that we all are walking in the years to come.

Riding Mountain Bikes on Mt. Rogers, VA

Last weekend I was down in the southern Appalachians.  The first 5 days, I was there, I walked 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.  It was glorious.  The wildflowers were in abundance,  and were prolific . There were times when I was backpacking, sometimes over 5,000 feet in elevation, while at the same time inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of woodland plants and trees. It was a healing experience.

Flame Azalea

Flame Azalea

Rhododendron in full bloom

Rhododendron in full bloom

After my backpacking segment, I stayed at my friend Mike’s mountainside cabin that I reported on in my previous post about my week down south.

 

One of the activities that Mike and I shared was a 14 mile mountain bike ride from the cabin through the Mt. Rogers Wilderness, where we pushed our bikes uphill toward the Grayson Highlands.  Our ride then followed an abandoned railroad grade to the top of our ride, where we intersected the Appalachian Trail at a corral known as the Scales.

The Scales

The Scales

The other geographical feature of this area are the Balds,  which are large mountaintops that are devoid of trees.  here’s a panorama of a bald that I visited.

Bald near Mt. Rogers

Bald near Mt. Rogers

Riding bikes here was a unique experience.  My friend Mike owns two Diamondback bikes.  He rode a later model with a front suspension fork, and I chose a 1986 vintage Diamondback Apex for the day.  I have an 1985 Apex at home, that I have converted to a road bike.  On this ride, I was forced to remember why modern bikes often sport front AND rear suspensions. The ride up was not so bad, because it was a steady climb of 1600′.  The ride down was a real suffer fest, due to the constant pounding of the front end on the numerous rocks and ruts that littered the trail.  My forearm and wrists were toast.

The next day Mike, his wife Susan and I went uphill again, walking a new route.  The real treat of the walk was encountering two black bears.  Mike’s Blue Heeler Jackson had run ahead of us and treed them.  The dog came right back to us when Mike called it, when we were able to watch this giant fat black bear drop like a stone down a tall tree with it’s little cub doing likewise on an adjacent tree.

 

 

Time for backpacking again

I have come alive in these past couple of weeks again after a tough winter. The snow is gone, and even the mud is firming up. In the past week, I have enjoyed some mountain bike trail rides with The Bubbas and also started some longer backpacking excursions in Camden Hills State Park. I can’t say enough about how enjoyable the hiking was here on the coast of Maine this week where it is still cool out, the black flies are not much if an issue ye, and the views through the bare trees allow glimpses of the Atlantic waters in unexpected places.
It still rains, but not enough to stop me from going out.
Two nights ago a dozen of riders took to the Rockland Bog for a couple of hours’ riding bikes. It was still raining when we started and there were a few serious mud pits that I splashed through. When go got back to the parking lot, my feet were soaked but I forgot to bring dry socks, so I changed into a pair or bandannas. Stevie Hawk tried to make fun of me, but I knew I enjoyed dry feet, mo matter what the social cost.

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An app that I have been enjoying lately is Fitbit, which normally links to a wristband that costs $100. Those of us who have an iPhone 5s can forgo the purchase, and utilize the phone’s motion sensor to track movement related to walking. I tracked yesterday’s 12 mile backpacking hike in the Camden Hills and ended up with these results for the day:

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It’s reinforcing to see this type of screen at the end of the day, and the ease of entry for foods consumed that day allows me to make progress in keeping my weight down some 10 pounds below normal for me this time of year.

Strava also works into the mix, tallying mileage from my walks, hikes, and bike rides. It all adds up to motivate me to do things outside again. I love generating the elevation profiles, too.

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Here’s yesterday’s alternative to the Stairmaster- actual walking in the spectacle of an awakening forest.

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Big life, big bike- Bubba style

I joke about attending the Church of Two Wheels on Sunday mornings.  But it’s no joke.
Riding with my long-time friends from the Midcoast Maine never ceases to amaze me.  Week after week, the bikes don’t break, we don’t crash (much), and we experience the pure joy of playing around in the woods, challenging ourselves on repeated sections of terrain.  This has been going on close to 20 years, all year round!  This past winter was a great one for riding these same trails when they are covered with packed snow and ice.  Today, my fat-tire Pugsley stayed home and my full suspension Santa Cruz Tallboy was resurrected  back into action.  The bumpy ledges and long  downhill from the top was kinder to my deteriorating shoulders than the rigid framed Pugs.
A bunch of The Bubbas have downloaded the Strava app on our phones or via our GPS  devices.  We encourage each other and share rides that we’ve completed with the rest of the the guys (and gals now) !  We now have maps!
 Pleasant map

Pleasant map

We get elevation profiles, like this one from Sunday’s ride on Mt. Pleasant !

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Here’s me jumping on the Tallboy, and following Rigger’s line for the ride down from ” the Blueberry field” to the ” Three way”.

photo by John Anders

photo by John Anders

3 minute video of me descending Mt. Pleasant <<– Click to view three minutes of pure joy, complete with me chuckling as The Hawk and I jockey for the right side into the singletrack.  Thanks to The Hawk for sending me his clip, and The Bubbas for being there for me, week after week.
Sanctuary.

My New Gym – Outdoors!

I was complaining to My friend  Frankie the Tax Dude  about my feet, back, and neck after I got back home from 5 months of backpacking the Continental Divide Trail.  Frankie recommended that I have a few sessions with William Armstrong, up to Belfast, ME .

Just three sessions with Bill did it for me. I  found his approach fresh and useful.  My neck problem is gone.  Bill also assisted me in making the switch from the gym to the outdoors as well.  I have been a gym rat for the past 40 years, but no more.  I can’t stand spending sweat time indoors when I can be outside, with trees, streams, and rocks around me.

With just a foam roller, a couple of solid rollers, two dumb bells, and an eight pound medicine ball , I’m good, even if it’s too miserable to get out.  I can use this stuff at home too, if I  am watching backpacking or music videos on the TV.  20140412-095635.jpg Bill also suggested specific exercises for me to try, garnered from a variety of sources.  I am now engaging in backpacking and biking specific routines.

Some of Bill’s simplest recommendations surprised me. For example, after 6 decades of wear and tear on my body, I assumed that one needs some assistance with balance.  Bill was observing me put on my socks after one of his sessions.  I had one hand out against a wall to keep myself steady on one leg as I aimed my other foot into my sock.  “Bad idea”, he said.

“Don’t hold onto anything, keep wobbling.”  Interesting.

Bill also suggested that I could make several adaptations while I was hiking outside.  For example, with the deep winter snows now almost gone, I am able to  go into the edges of the woods lining the road and do some things that helped me, like using a natural chinning bar.

Here is a map of my outdoor gym.  It is a three mile out and back ciruit, and gains some elevation going up Moody Mountain at the end point.  If I have enough time, I keep going to the saddle at the top, where I do a turn-around :

The path, out and back

The path, out and back

I found my chinning bar today!  It was not 10′ from the side of the road at the 1.1 mile mark. It’s   a maple limb, about 8 and a half  feet off the ground, just at the right height for me to stretch my arms over head and leap up  and hang off the ground.  I could only do two chin-ups , and hope to work up to 10.  Yeah!

Next, I’ll make a final selection of a big rock that I can jump up and down from.  Then a distance from that would be a slightly elevated rock that I can step up and down from.   I started jumping a couple of years ago, after I learned that non-impact sports like biking do nothing to keep our bones strong.  It’s a good thing to do to keep osteoporosis at bay.

“Breeze”-Maine Triple Crowner, in AT magazine

In the current issue of AT Journeys ( April 2014),  Maine’s Brendan Drapeau ( aka Breeze) gets some well deserved  press coverage.  Download a PDF of the full article/with photos here  -Courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s official membership magazine A.T. Journeys  (http://www.appalachiantrail.org). The latest electronic issue is not yet available on the ATC’s website, but thanks to Wendy Probst, Editor, the article can be viewed here in its full format  (please respect that it is not to be copied , or altered in any way).  If anyone has a better solution for me to get this this to you, let me know.  As it stands, the first link above will result in  you downloading a PDF of the article (complete with photos) onto your device/computer, where it can be opened with Adobe Reader.

I briefly corresponded with Breeze before we both started our thru-hikes and was hoping to meet him on the CDT.  Breeze eventually surprised me by walking up to me at the decidedly funky Gila Hot Springs campground, just down the hill from Doc Campbell’s post.  Here’s a few pics from our rendezvous.

Mainers meet in New Mexico

Mainers meet in New Mexico

 

Uncle Tom and Breeze sporting their Appalachian Trail tattoos

Uncle Tom and Breeze sporting their Appalachian Trail tattoos

Breeze hiked with MeGatex for a few weeks, before he turned on the accelerator and took off.  He taught me to leave a motel room cleaner than when you entered it, a most unique practice among the normally messy stuff that Hiker trash normally walk away from after a night of copious cleaning, washing, and consumption.

Breeze and and I were both in the habit of rising at daybreak.  Breeze has a huge long stride.  He makes his mega mileages by walking early, walking all day, and then usually walking a bit later after supper.  His through hikes of both the AT and the PCT were done in a startling short number of days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing About Hiking Again

It happens to me every springtime, since 2007 when I set off on my first long distance backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. It’s the compelling desire to be on another long hike. But, I’m not taking a long hike this season. So what ?

This year’s alternate plan is to hike (except for one bicycling/camping trip in Maine) for one week every month from now until October. I am really pleased to report that I have walked some 250 miles in the last two months, mostly on trails and roads around my home town in Lincolnville, Maine.

This morning I have started to write more about one of my thru-hikes hikes. I put in two hours revising the first 2.5 days and 57 miles of my 2013 Continental Divide Trailjournal, the section from the border at Palomas, Mexico to Deming, New Mexico. If you want to read the revisions-  the hotlink about takes you right to my first day of hiking.

There are not many hikers who opt for the Columbus alternate, and I thought it might be useful to future hikers  to have someone lay down details. I have added additional sections about prices,  geographical locations, and had data that I am extracting from hand-written logbooks and references that I did not have the time for when I created by daily posts in the tent each night, where I was under the influence of a blend of fatigue, stress, and general catatonia.

I also want to add additional photos to the CDT Trailjournal, and am not having much luck in remembering how to to that, so if there are Traijournal wordsmiths out there who have it down, hit me up.

Plus, here’s new photos from those first three days.

We find the water cache !

We find the water cache !

Shade but tanks are empty

Shade but tanks are empty

Train, the General, and Wizard striking off toward the Floridas

Train, the General, and Wizard striking off toward the Floridas

 

 

some things change

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I rode my Diamondback Apex for the first time in over a year yesterday. It still had the repair tag on it from April 1st 2013. I had purchased it from Bath Cycle in 1986. It cost me about $800 and it was the top of the line back then, before the days of suspension forks, carbon fiber, and fat tire bikes were even imagined. Three or four years ago I rebuilt it, had it repainted as close to the original green as I could get. I use it as my road bike now, with upgraded rear hub, cassette, but with the rest kept original. I stick with old stuff, and tend to purchase few things, but my decisions let me have relationships that last.

It’s been a tough winter up here in Maine. I’ m down to my last sticks of firewood. Hard-cased snow is covering most of the fields around my house. I wrecked by VW diesel Jetta’s engine on a double frost heave in Appleton. It’s sold and I am down to driving my gas guzzling Plymouth Voyager while I wait for the snow to melt so that I can rotate my three motorcycles into my summer driving routine.

Four days ago, I took my worst fall in twenty years in my own driveway when I slipped on the lubricated ice in the rain and landed on my back full-force on the edge of a short wall of railroad ties. Thank God I didn’t land or my spine or my head. If that happened, I think I would have much more serious repercussions to this April aberration of a countryside. I took a direct hit on the side of my back, where I am now sporting a sick yellow and blue bruise. I have fallen many times before, and this time avoided triggering a nerve to add to the pain. I screamed loudly when I bounced off and landed again on the ice in front of the retaining wall. I limped back into the house where Auntie Mame guided my sorry ass to the couch where she gave me 800 mg. of ibuprofen and a laid a big bag of ice on my back.

So my ride yesterday was a celebration of sorts. It felt good to do an old familiar loop of 13 miles- with my old green pal.

I’ m blessed again to be able to say yes.

Embracing Mistakes

Happening, right now- UNEXPECTED EVENTS

“Fail boldly…..If you don’t mind failing, you’re never going to succeed—there will be nothing there to make you want more….Failing makes you see yourself as you truly are, and where you can take yourself.”  from:–>Why Dean Karnazes Is the Most Successful Runner On Earth | In Stride | OutsideOnline.com. While this Outside magazine article is mostly true, one caveat- a life punctuated by repeated failures is maybe not so good these days. I heard on the radio the other day part of a TED talk that described America right now as a country where everyone has an equal chance as we line up at the starting block of our ” race”, and at that brief moment, everyone is equal, anyone could win, or place well but as the race progresses we then are characterized as winners or losers. In America right now, it’s too dangerous to lag behind. Losers are castigated for not trying hard enough, for being too fat, or too lazy to make it to the podium.

Even so, I am surprised that I’m re-re-reading Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, a slim hardcover book that is one of only two books that I bought in the past year. (The re-re- is not a mistake) The book was first given to me to read by my friend and frequent mentor- Brad Purdy.  9781400081882_p0_v1_s260x420

A couple of years ago, I was in Tanglewood 4-H Camp’s kitchen, cooking for a group of 40 men, under Brad’s direction. Brad had placed posters with pages from the Imrov book around the kitchen. Me and the other sub-cooks learned lots from Brad- this time that there was more to cooking than reading the list of items and measurements in a recipe and mechanically creating tasty food.

Then and now, Brad encouraged us to feel fine about screwing up- he told us to embrace the mistake- announce it publicly and take a bow, even !

Even to the point of this—Mistakes may actually be blessings

The Others

For the past 36 years I’ve been walking up the driveway to get the Bangor Daily News that gets delivered to me sometime around 5:30 each morning.  Today, like no other day, a majestic bald eagle greeted me-  circling not 50 feet above my head as I reached into the newspaper box up on the road.
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I don’t work on my birthday anymore, and try to let the day unfold a bit before I go hiking.  It’s a tradition that I have started in 2008, on the one year anniversary of starting out walking from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Maine.  I know that the new year is something that is thought to start on January 1, but for me it starts on my birthday, just a few days after the Spring equinox.  The light is brightening now, the days most years are warmer already. It’s time to walk again.
I wanted to backpack at least half the day today, but sometimes we have to improvise.  Improvisation is one of my major lessons this year. The Improv Wisdom book is a big help these days.
Yes, it’s just as good as it ever was- the hiking today. Maybe not as long a walk than I first wanted, but it’s what worked out. I loved the feeling of stretching out my legs, kicking forward, and leaning toward the horizon a bit- saw no one.
The trail ahead is slippery

The trail ahead is slippery

What a privilege it is to have the miles of trails and warm shelter to myself right now. The sun is setting, skies are clear and it’s definitely back into the 20′s tonight.
Just as I was walking, someone sings  “Sorrows are flowing downstream down the mountain”on the iPhone that I’m listening to . I was in the process of taking this photograph at that exact moment- I’m not kidding.

Flowing but mostly frozen

I just set up final details to do a 100 mile hike down on the Appalachian Trail in May to hike into Trail Days. I’ll be in Tennessee,  North Carolina and into Virginia ! I hope hike a few of those miles with Duff, who is setting out on a thru-hike of the AT this season. Plus Guthook will be breezing through at autobahn level mileages as he storms through Virginia as a total act of devotion to updating his ever popular AT Hiker app. Bob Peoples is helping me with logistics, and I’ll be sure to stay at his place- Kincora- the best hostel of the whole AT.

I am hoping see Crazy Horse down there. When he had the Captain America Corvette he was easy to track down. Now his car is nothing flashy.

It’s not that big a bunch that hikes a lot. These people tend to get to events like Trail Days  and AYZPCTKO ( PCT kickoff).   I will likely spot a few folks that I have not thought about in years but, when I do run into them, I’ll be filled with excitement instantly due to some deep connection we made between each other while out there with The Others. That’s who I belong to- the ragtag bunch of backpackers who do not have upward mobility anywhere even close to their home screens.  These noble folks are the masters of forward mobility.

I started hiking north on the AT on my birthday in 2007.  One thing I really enjoy right now is reading my original Trailjournal from that long hike.  I start reading about today on today, just 7 years later.  And over the next few weeks, I wake up and re-read that day’s journal, reliving the past, refreshing my outlook for the coming season.  No thru hikes for me this year, but I am excited about my progress in completing Cary Kish’s “1000 miles of hiking in Maine in one year” challenge.   I put in six more miles today.