I’m “In it for the long haul”

Check out today’s  Sports section of the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Retired psychologist from Midcoast amasses major hiking resume – via Portland Press Herald

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A big thanks to Deirdre Fleming, journalist/reporter, Gregory Rec for his photos, and anyone else who helped me keep walking!

Read on –>> Retired psychologist from Midcoast amasses major hiking resume – Portland Press Herald


When General Lee Saved Dreams – Pacific Crest Trail Journal

Axilla helping Train exit South Fork of the King River in June 1010
Axilla helping Train exit South Fork of the King River in June 1010

I just received a repost of a June 24, 2010 Trail Journal entry from Dreams.  Dreams hooked up with MeGaTex for a few days as we all were backpacking through the  Sierra on our 2010 Pacific Crest Trail thru hikes.  This part of the PCT is not much for solo travel, and is where even seasoned hikers who prefer to walk the trail alone often find themselves teaming up with other hikers for situations just like this one!

I agree that this was the scariest and most dangerous water crossing on the whole PCT. I still have mild PTSD that lingers on, still triggered by the unique deep bass roar of these overflowing streams and watercourses.

So, enjoy the following report from a day way back back in 2010.  Thanks, Dreams !

Click here—>>>Dreams – Pacific Crest Trail Journal – 2010.

Texas and New Mexico Welcome MeGaTex

Made it to our launch pad at the American Inn of Deming, NM in style.
I negotiated three plane flights to finally reach El Paso , where I was greeted by General Lee and Emily , our new trail angel, as I stepped off the plane.
Soon we were at her in-law’s house where we met her father-in-law and her husband Mike.

20130417-055628.jpgEmily is the daughter of my good friend Joe. They have been living and working in El Paso for the past seven years.
I was pumped to see TraIn and Richard Wizard (Louis), already at the house, who were dressed in the same hiking informs as I remember. Louis appears to be wearing the same green collared shirt that I recall from the PCTA IN 2010. Our hiking group of four is back for action.
Emily served me a fresh plate of Mexican that was definitely a cut above what we get in Maine. Then our little caravan of two cars meandered along the agricultural areas skirting Mexico and New Mexico where we saw miles of pecan trees and freshly planted onions.
The humidity here is between 5-14%, temps are in the 80’s, and there has been just 1/4″ of rain since Jan, making the desert a powder keg for possible fires.
High wind and fire danger advisories are posted for the next two days, with tomorrow the worst.
Here’s the weather report for tomorrow:
“A high wind warning means a hazardous high wind event is expected or occurring. Sustained wind speeds of at least 40 mph or gusts of 58 mph or more can lead to property damage.
A blowing dust advisory means that blowing dust will restrict visibilities. Travelers are urged to use caution.”

After Emily and mike treated us to green chili cheeseburgers at Blake’s Lotaburger, the welcome baton was passed in order to obtain local wisdom and support in the form of Keith Schwarzer, AKA El Coyote, (575) 494-4357, ks1007@aol.com, who visited us at the motel with cartons of food and gear that I shipped to him last week. Keith helped us kindly and thoughtfully here in Deming, and his hiker services should be supported.
Keith will be shuttling us some 56 miles south to the Mexico border tomorrow morning, for the most reasonable cost of $25 for the four of us. We’ll be able to also stash water in a useful spot on the way down. There are no natural water sources for the next 200 miles of trail. We’ll depend on solar- powered wells and stock tanks to stay hydrated.
I met with Keith at the little Mexican restaurant across the street from our motel, where he pointed out
numerous details and improvements to our navigation that I wrote onto the printed Columbus route maps.
After being awake for 20 hours, our auspicious and welcoming first day was greatly appreciated by MeGaTex, the name for our traveling band.
The lights are off, room is strewn with hiking gear and empty boxes, and the long walk has begun.

Guthook writes me up

Hey, ma, I’m in the news!

Uncle Tom’s Triple Crown attempt.<—check it out!

I had no idea that Guthook had saved these pics of me when we hiked together in Washington state in 2010.
The first pic hardly looks like me, because I weigh about as much as I did when I was 14 years old. I had lost 33 pounds, hovering at about 180. At this point I was crumbling up Pringles from two big tubes and pouring the them into one tube. I adding them to my lunches and dinners in an effort to stop losing so much weight.

Thru-hiking is the world's most unique weight loss program. You get to have fun, most every day, see the USA, and eat whatever you want, all day, every day. Can't wait!

Moving Out, Again !

The following article was just published in the Oct. 2012 issue of the Communiqué, the newspaper of the National Association of School Psychologists. Online access is limited to members, so I have listed the full article here.

I failed math but excel at backpacking.

Uncle Tom minus 33 pounds

While sitting in a presentation at the National Association of School Psychologists Annual Convention in Philadelphia last week, I learned that the foundation skills needed for student mathematics proficiency are “conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive disposition”. Hold on there!  Those skills that are critical to long-distance backpacking, not math!
I have been an active communicant of the “Church of Two Heels” since 2007, when I completed my 2,160 mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, where I acquired my alter of Uncle Tom. Since “A Trail of a Lifetime: Getting a Midlife Jump-Start From the AT” was published in Volume 36, #8 of the NASP Communiqué, I have been back at it again.
In 2010 I spent 5 months completing another continuous hike, this time over the Pacific Crest Trail, where I left the Mexican border in April and walked some 2,650 miles thru California, Oregon, and Washington, eventually reaching Canada in mid-September just before the early snows. Luck, my own “productive disposition”, and“Polish Power”, got me there.
In August, I spent another month thru-hiking the 272 mile Long Trail in Vermont, where I dealt with the devastation of Hurricane Irene before I was able to again reach Canada.
Why would someone subject themselves to such madness?
I treasure the stripped-down experience of walking north, where I trade in my school psychology routines for unexpected adventures. In thru-hiking speak, I do enjoy my periodic lapses into the “hiker-trash” lifestyle.  Long-distance backpacking embraces the best that America has to offer: freedom, initiative, creative planning, challenge, and total immersion in the healing powers of the natural world for vastly extended periods of time.
Walking forward happens within a framework of much simpler goals, framed by more expansive views (“ I have to get way up on that ridge today, then see where I might end up tonight”.). So much happens in a day when you wake up with the first light and move though the woods, desert, or fields and come across animals, insects, plant life, as well as others who are also moving about the countryside.
Long-distance backpacking demands a conceptual understanding of an array of survival skills. Life on the trail is easy when it’s pleasant and sunny out, but what about when things get downright dangerous? In the desert, it can range from a broiling 110 degrees to below freezing on the same day. How do you stay warm and what is more important not skid off a 13,000 foot ridge while walking over 400 hundred miles of continuous snow and ice in the High Sierra? How do you even find a trail when it is buried under 20 feet of snow, where you might be post-holing to your mustache in the melting afternoon footpath? How about avoiding hypothermia when you are walking in the Northern Cascades of Washington and it’s 40 degrees out, on the fifth day of continuous chilling rain, with a sodden taco of a sleeping bag to look forward to?
There is often no time in a thru-hike to adopt a reasonable, sloping learning curve.  Procedural fluency is essential, so that daily tasks are completed promptly. Walking on unknown paths is a primal, universal experience that ties the ordinary adventurer to Odysseus, Daniel Boone, Shackleton, and other explorers who inspire us to go places. I consider myself fortunate to be on the short list of individuals who seek encounters with nature on a twenty-four hour-a-day, all-day, months-at-a-time period. Cooking meals, setting up a tent, avoiding bears, getting out of bed, and walking all day, day after day, is only possible when these actions are competed efficiently so that the 24 hours that are allotted each day are not squandered.
I learned to deal with adversity thru adaptive reasoning to move ahead, even if it sometimes meant walking in circles or even backwards. I strive to reduce the time I spend in tension, indecision, and even pain, all of which sap energy and diminish one’s capacity to fully embrace the astounding panoramic beauty that one meets with on these National Scenic Trails.
Here’s an example of an adaptive skill, termed the “Daily Inventory of Pain”, which has yet to appear on the VIneland-II, that I learned from “The Burglar”, my Canadian hiking pal. Backpackers generally wake up either at first light or even just before sunrise, climb out of their sleeping bags, unzip the mosquito netting on their tents, and eventually right themselves to standing. Every long distance hiker engages in some degree, conscious or not, of becoming aware of body pain centers. For me it was generally a some combination of sore lower left back, forefoot numbness, fissured heels, tenderness or actual sprain of one or both ankles, tender shins, inflammation of one or both shoulders, a dull head, thirst, digestive distress, chapped lips, minor lacerations, sore or cracked fingers, and downright fatigue. The Daily Inventory of Pain would be a conscious accounting of the cumulative effects of all these sensations, which may be unconsciously endorsed on a Likert Scale, and assigned a General Suffering Quotient which might be framed in the following manner: “I feel like crap.  I am not going to be able to hike 30 miles over what’s coming, I‘ll cut it to 20, and pray for that.”  I might add that it would be an additional advantage to foster some measure of a “productive disposition” at this later stage of a thru-hike.
Cognitive flexibility and shifting mindset allow the thru-hiker to reap benefits from the unexpected “open doors” that present themselves at intervals during a hike. It’s has been said that the weight of an individual hiker’s pack reflects their personal fears.  I used to be a hiker who was locked into over preparation due to expecting a cascade of worst case scenarios, but have relaxed a great deal in my fretting about what could go wrong.  See that bunch of local campers off the trail over there who might be having a good time? I used to put my head down and avoid them. I now walk over to them, smile, and ask, “Hey, what’s up, what’s going on?” When people learn that you have just spent several months walking thousands of miles from Mexico, most instantly warm up, and often become a welcoming committee. Good things can happen. I have reaped many a hamburger, hot dog, cold drink, and more from these encounters.
There are two major approaches to dealing with a long distance backpacking trip.  The “be prepared” school of thought is exemplified by hikers like Terrapin Flyer and Granite, whom I consider paragons of executive functioning. They possessed the energy and forethought to cook, dehydrate, and pack 30 boxes of nutritious food for 175 days of walking, that were shipped to themselves along the Pacific Crest Trail.   While I wouldn’t go so far to consider it strategic incompetence, a differing approach is one taken by Richard Wizard, who shuns mailing himself food and supplies, and instead prefers the challenge of making do with what he can sift thru along the way. His choice is one that requires cognitive flexibility, making do with what he can find in gas stations and out of the way, understocked convenience stores. One of Wizard’s most creative food adaptations was first observed along the western edge of the Mojave Desert, where he transferred canned chili to a used paper coffee cup that placed on the outside mesh pocket of his backpack where the sun’s intensity cooked his meals to perfection. No water to wash out the cup?  No big deal, that sun will fry those germs!
Hiking is a hardware and software reset that restores my health and vitality.  Most of America is on some sort of weight loss program, with over 50% of Americans now considered obese or overweight..Losing weight is easy if you backpack enough.  A thru-hiker program is unique in that weight continues to drop despite consumption of vast volumes of food, up to some 6,000 calories a day. I have lost as little as 17 and as many as 33 pounds on my long hikes. I can remember times when I have felt like a superhuman, throwing down marathon length distances on a daily basis for weeks at a time. It just doesn’t seem like it could happen, but it does.
When we were in northern California and General Lee told Axilla, Wizard and I that we would not complete our hike unless we increased our daily average to 25 miles a day. I was crushed. I never conceived that I would eventually backpack thirty plus and more miles a day, on repeated days. It happened.  Lee and I even teamed up around Mt. Hood to walk 41miles in one 24 hour period.
Lessons learned on the trail extend to life off the beaten path.  Sayings that may ring hollow chime brilliant when you are walking all day long.  “Momentum helps”, “Just get moving”, “Stop and smell the roses”, “Share”, “Hike your own hike”, “Early to bed and early to rise”- the list is endless.  All of these aphorisms have deeper truths that reveal themselves with increased visibility under travel conditions. Every one of them also applies when off the trail.
People make the trail. I started the Appalachian Trail alone, on my birthday, on March 27. That night, at a campsite, I met several other hikers who eventually became my best friends. We reached the terminus of the AT on the Mt. Katahdin summit together on September 16, 2007.  Three years later, General Lee, Richard Wizard, and I walked together to complete the 2,760 mile PCT.  General Lee and I thru-hiked Vermont’s Long Trail this past August. My deepest memories are replays of scenes where there are other people present. My favorite AT photo is a blurry one taken into the setting sun in Virginia, with two men and a dog hiking in formation up a lushly planted hill. MeGaTex is what we  call ourselves, and we are planning another big one for 2013.  My conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive disposition will accompany me, along with my iPod and a bottle of Advil.
I continue to blog about the outdoors on https://tjamrog.wordpress.com/ .
Uncle Tom’s complete daily PCT Trail Journal can be accessed on the web at http://www.trailjournals.com/tjamrog/ .

-Tom has been the Maine Delegate to NASP, and is past President of the Maine Association of School Psychology.

Mt. Katahdin, summit hike #14

Tuesday , 8/5/08

Back on top again.

Nothing much more satisfies to me than being a resident of Maine, driving for free through the southern gate at Baxter State Park, and heading on up to the top of Maine’s highest mountain, Mt. Katahdin. Those first steps up the A.T. ( Hunt) trail are always deeply centering.

The initial purpose of today’s hike was to celebrate Birdlegs’ birthday.

Ms. Birdlegs invited a gaggle of guests to top out with her today. Birdlegs completed 95 % of her own AT thru-hike last year, only to be derailed in Maine by a bizarre incident around Caratunk , where an unrelenting backwoods stalker persisted in generating enough concern that the State police strongly encouraged her to leave the Trail. Her well-written account of her adventures ( and there were many) can be accessed at her Trailjournals website .
Joining us on the hike were Bad Influence, Ohm, Quartermoon, Mother Nature, and two young hitchhikers who accompanied Zar. Each one of these folks is already moving well into legend status, in their own manner.

It was also no coincidence that just before we pulled out of the driveway, I checked my mailbox and found a zippered brown canvas bag, fresh from the Maine State Library’s Books-by-Mail outreach program, for those of us Mainers who live in towns that have no libraries . Inside I found a worn paperback copy of Earl Shaffer’s Walking With Spring, where he recounts his experiences as the first person to thru-hike the AT, in 1948. I tossed it into the Caravan.

We assembled our group in various stages from Saturday, 8/2, to today, when Zar and the hitchhikers met us at Katahdin Stream campground at 8:30 AM. The rest of the group made it to Millinocket yesterday, where 20 miles later, we rolled into the Abol Bridge Campground and my reservations allowed us to take up the last two tent sites.

To me, there are no coincidences in this world, and our sites, numbers 38 and 39 were the exact same sites that MEGATex had on the night before own our summit walk of Sept. 14, 2007. The account of that day can be accessed at my Trailjournal entry for that date . My memories of that day, almost a year ago were, rekindled by our presence here. I replayed mental tapes of how different it was then, how much colder the temperatures were, and what the site looked like with all those personalities, tents, and Bird Dawg’s hammock in place.

Recently I have been reading several books either written by or about Henry David Thoreau. In Bridget Besaw’s newly published book, Wildness Within Wildness Without, I discovered that Thoreau spent a night at this exact confluence on Sept. 6, 1846, where he described an interlude of trout fishing in the clear waters of the Penobscot River, with the majesty of Mt. Katahdin towering in the background. (Two recently published, highly interesting books about Thoreau are described on my page on my Goodreads site).

We were packed up and ready to leave by 8 AM, when we drove over to the Baxter entrance via an unmarked woods road detour cutting through the puckerbrush from the Golden Road

Photo by Mark Shaw, Clearstream Sound
Photo by Mark Shaw, Clearstream Sound

Today, there were no more available campsites at either Katahdin Stream Campground or The Birches, where there is a thru-hiker-only pair of lean-to’s just outside of KSC. We actually had two reservations ready for this caper. After some discussion at the gate with the ranger, we decided that our group would camp at Foster Field, three miles north of Katahdin Stream Campground. I gifted up tent site #18 at KSC to a group of thru-hikers that we never did meet. The ranger pinned our reservation to one of the thru-hiker’s backpacks, which were left on his porch, by the hiker who had borrowed day packs to make a group ascent. I felt fortunate that I was able to dispense some anonymous Trail Magic to that group.

The massif of Katahdin was socked in with ominous clouds. The weather prediction was for late clearing, and that was good enough for us. No matter what, I was truly looking forward to the ride.

We signed in our party at the trail head and at 9 AM started up the 5.2 mile AT ( Hunt Trail).
I experience the Trail up as being divided into 5 separate zones, each roughly a mile long. We quickly moved up the relatively flat first section ( 400 ‘ elevation gain) when we ambled along the rushing waters, and eventually walked across the footbridge over Katahdin Stream. Normally, this is the last dependable water you’d encounter on the way up, but it would be a different story today, after a couple of weeks of regular rainfall . Quartermoon told us that on his way up last September he briefly bathed in the frigid deep pool just under foot. Today it looked like a frothing malestrom. The sheer hugeness of Katahdin’s presence manifests even here, as the roaring of the falls above told me that this could be the wettest of all my walks up to the top. We left the Trail and went over to get closer to the Falls. Unfortunately, I got tangled up in my Leki poles backing away from the slippery, rooty overlook and fell, breaking the second section of my left pole, and drawing blood on my knee. No big deal. I am sometimes a mobile Band-Aid repository.

Just 0.1 of a mile above the footbridge and up over a bare ledge the real work begins. This second zone leaves Katahdin Stream Falls and steadily ascends 1900 vertical feet in 1.5 miles, through increasingly stunted tree growth where tree line ends and the Hunt Spur begins. Almost a mile of this section was done walking in a stream bed, with clear cold water dumping onto the AT from numerous small rivulets above.

Now we are in the climbing zone, featuring another unique challenge thrown at us by this mountain. The first third of this section is following the white blazes that weave up, over, and around huge boulders.

At this point, I stash away the broken and the intact trekking poles and put on light gloves, mainly to prevent abrasion of my hands. There are several iron rungs permanently attached to some of the trickier sections to assist with the climb. It is real work to haul yourself up. After the boulders are left behind, all that remains of the very steep Spur is exposed walking, sometimes even crawling, over the jagged, worn granite spine.

Still no views. We are in Cloudland. The visibility made it impossible to anticipate reaching the Gateway, the entrance to the Tableland.
All these difficult step have their purpose, and eventually all of our group trudged up the last vestige of steepness and sat and snacked on the lip of The Tableland, a relatively flat area nearly 4 miles long, with drop- offs abruptly falling away away on all sides for at least 1,000 feet. Grassy areas predominate, but everywhere are boulders, the scattered remnants of receding glaciers. It was at this point that the clouds dissipated, and we could look most of the way over the mile long path ahead across the Tableland where Baxter Peak was still enshrouded in thick clouds.

On the way over, we passed Thoreau Spring, which was flowing strongly. The Trail for a quarter mile in either direction was inundated. Generally, when I have been up here, the spring is dry. I needed water, so I leaned over and filled my bottle from a tiny waterfall. I drank up immediately.

Baxter Peak seemed elusive today.
The last section is the one mile, and 1,000 foot elevation gain approach from Thoreau Spring to Baxter Peak (5,267 feet), where the skyline and Trail were punctuated with colorful moving dots of humanity. Toward the final approach we were back in the clouds, and thankfully free from the winds that normally accompany these cloudy conditions.

Eventually we all reached the top, where we viewed the ancient worn sign and 13 foot high cairn that brought the top of this pile of rock to the one mile elevation mark.

The requisite photos were taken, tall tales retold, new one reformed, and I connected to my repository of images of past ascents, and even some degree of hope welled up that this level of deep experience could somehow continue for me.

Birdlegs took her birthday photos.

Today had a special meaning, perhaps for others up here? Today was the 60th anniversary of Earl Shaffer’s historic first thru-hike of the Appalachain Trail.

Bad Influence persistently encouraged me to speak for Earl, to make a summit pronouncement to the some 75 hikers who were gathered up here at noon today. I was reluctant to do so. I respect that others may be deeply in thought or feelings and that they might not appreciate me directing their attention to my own possibly myopic agenda.

I eventually relented and shouted out.
“ Folks, today is a historic backpacking date that is being celebrated in other parts of the country! Exactly 60 years ago today something significant happened up here at this summit. Anyone up here know the significance of this date, August 5, 1948?”
“ Anyone here ever heard of Earl Shaffer?”

I spoke up again and told a very brief version of the saga of Earl. I was content to roust a cheer out of most of the group. Some returned to mumbling into their cell phones.
The long distance hiker community is a tiny one, and it took a call from Queso a couple of days later to remind me that only recently has the ticker registered the 10,000 AT thru-hiker. That’s over the space of 71 years! I understand that there were decades as recent as the 1970’s where fewer that 10 persons a year thru-hiked. I need to recognize that we are a tiny club.

On August 5 1948, Earl stood exactly here, four months after departing Mt. Oglethorpe in Georgia, a man on a mission everyone thought to be impossible. He was initially walking to shake off the negativity of the World War II. I read Walking With Spring before I thru-hiked the AT, and thought that read nothing special. In the past 2 days, I have re-read the book and found it impossible to put down.
Mr. Shaffer was a gifted writer and I particularly enjoyed charting his emergence as a man totally given up to wildness. As he moved North, he found himself increasingly drawn to stick to the Trail, and forgo towns, houses, and materialism.

As my benefactor and perennial Northeast Trail Angel Paddy-O has stated with tongue-in-cheek many times, “That damn AT ruins many people’s lives.” Paddy-O is exactly right on. In the process of change, we shed our our former beliefs, routines, and habits. For me and many others who have hiked the AT, not much of my old life is intact. I am still trying to figure out what happened to me during those five and a half months. All I know is that it is huge.
Walking way up here today was a big deal for us.

Despite his best intentions, Thoreau never made it up here to the top of Katahdin. For the rest of his short life, he longed to reconnect with the power and majesty he experienced on his frightening two visits up through the clouds. In The Wildest Country, Huber states that “Eleven years after his excursion to Katahdin- and after he missed his last opportunity to return- he revealed to a close friend that the experience was still very much apart of him; ‘I keep a mountain anchored eastward a little way, which I ascend in my dreams both awake and asleep’.”

The image of Earl standing here in 1948 needs to be recognized for what it truly is. Throughout history, we see solitary individuals standing on stage after their own dangerous and arduous paths through life. Earl Shaffer has made it possible for some of us to reach for undefinable gifts.