Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How to have a successful hike

It’s not about planning.  It’s not about food.  It’s not about gear.  Sorry.  Those of you who are planning a thru hike of the PCT might want to click on those links if you want to be directed to blog posts that I’ve already written about tangible things to do to prepare for your hike.  In contrast, this other stuff is not so easy, especially for someone who, like me, organizes everything with spreadsheets and to-do lists.  But it is valuable to examine what it means to have a successful hike.  My hope is that some things I’ve learned could help you.

What I thought before:
I used to buy into the myth that a successful hike on the PCT meant hiking all the way from Mexico to Canada in a single year.   I really should have known better.  I am aware that not everyone thinks this way.  Some people still take HYOH to heart, but this is rare.  Being immersed in backpacking culture, it was hard to not believe that messages around me that said:

    - Faster meant better.
    - Keep going no matter what.
    - Thru hikers were superior to section hikers.

I idolized thru hikers.  I wanted to be like the strong women whose trail journals I’d read.  I saw how thru hikers proclaimed their daily mileages- success quantified in a way I could understand and measure myself against.  I wanted to be successful just like them.
I wanted to be just like this badass PCT hiker- strong & confident.  Wait... who is that? Looks kinda familiar...
What actually happened on my PCT hike was this:
I got a stress fracture that forced me to step back from my hike.  That stress fracture was a powerful teacher.  When I finally got back on the trail after my foot healed, I had lost a lot of strength in my foot and I could no longer physically do the number of miles I had been.  That meant I couldn’t complete the PCT in one year.  According to what I though before, I was an “unsuccessful thru hiker.”  I could have just given up and tried again for a “real thru” the following year.  Instead I changed my mindset.  Hiking the PCT wasn’t a sports event.  It was not a race where I could DNF.  I was freed from measuring the worth of my hike by the number of miles that I accomplished.

The first 2 miles back on the PCT after my stress fracture were full of so much joy and wonder, that I knew that the miles weren’t what mattered to me.  But what did matter?  I struggled with finding something to replace the satisfaction I used to feel for doing miles and to redefine what I was doing out there.  My second day back on the trail, I wrote:

"If I took a good photo, would that make my hike more meaningful?  What about if I saw a cool flower?  Learned some new skill?  Swam more?  Stopped at more vistas?  Or had some insightful realization?  Those things are so much harder to measure and put a finger on than miles per day displayed with pride at the top of a blog post.  Do badass hikers take the time to sit and watch every moment of a sunrise or sunset?  How will I tell if I’m really having a meaningful experience out here?" -from my blog on 8/25/2014
I captured this sunrise in a photo AND got to go for a swim in that lake.  Is that enough to make my day meaningful?

Look I found a flower.  Is this photo good enough?  Do I need to find one without brown spots on the petals?  Would that be better?
That was the crux of the problem- to find meaning in my hike.  I couldn’t just copy what everyone else was doing.  Success was something that couldn't be quantified.  I was forced to re-prioritize my hike on my own terms.  I had to find happiness and joy from within.  I discovered (as my friend SlowBro puts is), that “the journey is the reward.”

This turned out to be a pretty profound way to live.  It meant I was out there to live each moment fully.  It meant I was in it for the experience, not to achieve anything.
Does that mean I can just sit here and watch the sunset?  I don't have to make more miles tonight?
What about these clouds?  Is it enough to simply watch them float by?
I think I'm catching on: time to go for a swim and then wiggle my toes in the soft grass.
In all seriousness, coming to this realization was not easy.  Success is something that is so important in our culture.  We are taught at a young age how important it is to get good grades, to win, and to achieve.  It turns out there are actually two definitions of success: (1) achieving high social status and (2) achieving one's goals.  It helps to examine each of these in turn. 

The first definition of success: status
In terms of achieving high social status, I’ve lived my life being goal-oriented and seeking validation of my accomplishments by others.  I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a slacker who was out there goofing off.  I was a serious hiker.
Working diligently on becoming a serious hiker.
But of course you probably already can see where this is going.  To find meaning in my hike, I had to realize that I was backpacking the PCT for me, not to prove anything to anyone else.  I had to learn to ignore these comments about “unsuccessful” thru hikes and dismantle the notion in my own mind of a backpacking hierarchy with thru hikers superior to section hikers. 

The second definition of success: achieving goals
The second definition of success is achieving one's goals.  I listed a few goals in this pre-hike blog post.  When I was writing my list before my hike, my wise friend said, "Write out those goals, but then take them and burn them.  Let them go."  I had no idea what she meant because I thought goals needed to be achieved.  But now I get what she was trying to tell me.  Goals may be limiting if they prevent us from seeing beyond them, or seeing exactly what is in front of us.  I learned not just to let go of my goals, but a few times, I even learned to live without goals.

One thing about goals is you can outgrow them.  Sometimes the goals you have at the start of the hike just aren’t important anymore.  I know other hikers who got off the trail, people who hiked over 900 miles on the PCT, when they came to realize the trail was not serving their needs anymore.  They had made important self-discoveries, learned valuable lessons already, and outgrown their need to be on the trail.

I also had goals that I clung to that turned out to be harmful.  One of my unwritten goals was to be a strong, bad-ass hiker.  I remembering thinking before I started that I would crawl my way to Canada if I was ever injured.  That being strong meant hiking through the pain.  The danger of thinking that was that I hiked on my stress fracture for 100 miles, through the snow and rocks of the Sierra, because I didn’t want to quit.  Sure, I proved I could deal with physical pain.  But I was taking the maximum dose of ibuprofen and still feeling like a knife was stabbing through my foot with every step.  So following through on that goal was causing incredible damage to my body and not allowing me to have any sort of meaningful or valuable hike.  I needed to let go of that goal.
This is me in the Sierra saying, "I'm going to keep icing my injured foot with snow and then I will hobble all the way to Canada.  Because I'm a tough thru hiker! GRRR!"
Another one of the goals that I wrote about before my hike was avoiding injury.  By that account, I failed.  I know people think that injuries are avoidable because I thought that myself when I started.  I am a planner so I like to believe that I have some control and can always plan my way through anything, but that’s just not true.  I found on the PCT that some things just happen.  Once I let go of my goal and the disappointment I felt, then I could see how much I had learned from my injury.
What?!?!  Isn't the answer to everything careful planning and calculations?
What it looked like for me to have a successful hike
What does it look like to have a meaningful hike?  It is completely up to you- that’s the beauty, that’s what’s also difficult to figure out.  250 miles after getting back to the trail after the stress fracture, I wrote:

“I’m completely free of the self-imposed constraints of a thru hike.  I don’t feel at all guilty of not doing a certain amount of miles every day.  Which means I can swim in as many lakes as I want, spend time taking photos, hike as much or as little as I want, and it’s all OK.  In the end, I know I won’t have the accomplishment of a thru hike, but now I think that is something that I don’t need right now.  I used to think that if I were a thru hiker it would mean that I had achieved success in hiking.  Now I aim for a colorful sunrise, for making a connection with a fellow hiker, for being observant.  I define my own priorities and sometimes I even throw out any goals and I just am.  Each day that I am on the trail, I win.”   -blog post from 9/19/2014
It was great to rest, and it was also great when my foot finally got strong enough that I could hike as many miles as I wanted.  I hiked 26 miles to get to this view so I could wake up and have a good sunrise for my birthday the next morning.  I call this a "win!"
I got to talk to inspirational hikers like this couple who were setting out to hike the Sierra High Route. Win!
I marveled at the wonder and beauty around me each day. Another example of living in the moment.  Win!
I saw a bobcat.  And a mountain lion.  Plus bears.  And some frogs.  Not that I set out with any intention to see any of this wildlife, but it was amazing to see all nontheless.  Win!
 It's not that I didn't plan anymore.  Just that I met each day with an open heart.
So… How do you have a successful hike?
If I could go back and give myself some pre-hike advice, it sure wouldn’t be to train harder or to plan more.  Instead, I would say:

   - Quit striving for (someone else's definition of) success. 
   - Be authentically yourself and accept yourself for who you are.  

   - The journey is the reward.

Here are some suggestions for avoiding the mental traps I fell into:

(1) Don’t believe the nonsense that thru hikers are superior to a section hikers.  The beauty of backpacking is that there are so many wonderful ways of doing it.  Respect the record-setters and thru hikers because they really are incredible.  But also celebrate the section hiker that tackles the trail over the course of her lifetime.  Seek out and talk to the weekenders that may explore parts of the trail that run through their backyards over the entire season.  If you are lucky, you may also find a few of those wonderful hikers that set off on their own routes off-the-beaten path.  Remember- the important thing is to get out on the trail.

(2)  Define your own hike.  If you want to do an end to end hike, then go for it by all means.  But realize that there are other paths.  Flip-flops, chunk hikes, section hikes, routes, multiple trails, continuous or not.  Get creative!  It’s all arbitrary anyway.

(3) Redefine your goals as you go and acknowledge that sometimes goals change over the course of your hike.  Burn your list of goals.  Allow yourself to grow and learn.  Be curious about everything.   Discover what brings you joy.
And if all else fails, then get up early and watch another sunrise.
Further reading

The Hoofist- Great hikes I have never done (and don’t care about)

PMags- Hike My Hike- Damn it!

Semi-Rad- The Hierarchy of Camping

Halfway to Anywhere- The Thru-hiker Superiority Complex 

Zen Habits- The best goal is no goal

The Minimalist- Moving beyond goals

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dayhike with the Trail Dames, and more PCT reflections

Waiting for everyone to arrive at the trailhead the morning of our Trail Dames dayhike, I go through my pre-trip checklists yet again.  The skies are brilliant blue but the temperature is around 18 degrees and rhododendron leaves are curled up tight against the cold.  It is winter, and I know it pays to be extra careful.
Icicles along Martin Creek.
I think about the list of who is on this trip, the strengths of the other hike leaders, and how many first time hikers we are taking out.  The hike is one I’ve done more than any other- the Bartram Trail north to Martin Creek Falls in Georgia- but still, I review all the road crossing and side trails that could be used in case of an emergency.  I have extra gear in my pack- space blanket, handwarmers, extra gloves, first aid kit, and even a stove (yes, even though I go stoveless while backpacking, I do have one for winter dayhikes).  We’ve provided pre-trip advice about winter hiking but I think about what to go over before the hike.  Satisfied with the preparations, I breathe in the crisp air and exhale slowly.

There is another list that automatically flashes through my mind when it is this cold- a list of memorable trips where people have gotten sick, hypothermic, or been exhausted.  Trips that I’ve analyzed, and from which I’ve learned valuable lessons.  I used to be horrified when things would go wrong on the trail, but I try to remember that only when I made mistakes or experience problems and learn from them, can I grow.

I greet one of the first-time hikers and she shares her dreams of hiking the AT.  As we wait for the others to arrive, I tell how I got my start with Trail Dames, on a sunny crisp day like today, and how I’d gone on to hike part of the PCT this year.
First time hiker using poles.
Fortunately, despite the cold, there are no problems on this hike.  In fact, everyone has a wonderful time, and we were delighted by the incredible icicle formations along the streams and waterfalls.  We shed layers and put them on again, and my coleader keeps a great pace so that breaks weren’t too long that we’d get cold.
Taking a moment to listen to the quietness.
At lunch, I even got teased about how I had to take off my gloves to prepare my food when I told everyone to have meals that were already assembled and easy to eat with gloves on.  My pre-trip advice had been heard, even though I was an example of what not to do.
Lunch break under the hemlocks.
One of the first-time hikers tries out hiking poles and is a convert by the end of the trip.  After lunch, everyone shared what they like and dislike about their hiking poles, and offered her advice on where to buy poles.  Moments like this of spontaneous sharing and learning are true magic.
What a great group of Trail Dames! Photo by Diana.
When I got home after the dayhike, I saw that SlowBro (a friend that I hiked with on the Pacific Crest Trail last summer) had left a comment on my blog that brought tears to my eyes.  He wrote:

 "...it was so great to be able to hike with you, MeToo, and Blue Yonder out of Kennedy Meadows. And kudos for hiking back to KM with MeToo and me. No one could have faulted you for continuing North, but I think it speaks volumes about the kind of person you are and it helped the "professional me" more than you know. Should "our patient's" condition have worsened, the additional person to go for help could have made all the difference."

OMG what a compliment, and also what a coincidence- he referenced one of those memorable times when someone got sick that I'd just been thinking about that very morning when I’d been preparing for our Trail Dames hike.  It was when MeToo fainted and collapsed in the snow as on our second day out of Kennedy Meadows when we were heading into the High Sierra.  That incident was why I'd packed my stove that morning!
Back in May 2014, SlowBro (left) and Blue Yonder (right) care for MeToo on the PCT.
I will never forget how we covered MeToo in a space blanket and how SlowBro (a doctor) fixed him a hot drink as he assessed his condition.  How we turned around and hiked back to Kennedy Meadows together.  It was the second time I’d turned around with a friend that was sick, the first time being with Pathfinder when we were near Big Bear City.  At the time, I didn’t know anyone else on the PCT who’d turned around to stay with someone who was sick, and I’d done it TWICE.  

Clearly there was a lesson there I needed to learn.  What I learned was that I really take the Trail Dames motto to "never leave anyone behind” to heart.  Even if everyone around me has tons of experience, I still feel the need to do everything I can to help.  It was also a lesson in just how important it is to me to be part of a group of people in the backcountry who I can trust.  Teamwork, counting on one another, being there for one another- those are all things I value being part of and strive to build.

Even though I've been off the PCT for a few months, these experiences from the PCT continue to  inform how I do things like prepare for dayhikes with Trail Dames and they continue to teach me about who I am.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review of what I did to prepare for the PCT: physical and mental prep and skills

This is the time of year when many of the 2015 hikers are preparing for their long-distance hikes.  Last year, I had a tough time prioritizing my preparations for the PCT.  It was my first long-distance hike, and I was trying to figure out what I needed to do to transition from a weekend backpacker to long-distance hiker.  So much is written about gear and resupply, and I remember I found less information on physical and mental preparations, learning skills, and how to get help.

Here,  I describe what I did to get ready physically and mentally, and how I learned skills, what worked for me, and what I’d do different.
Feeling overwhelmed on a PCT training hike.
Other people did significantly less planning than me and were equally happy with their choice.  It really depends on the type of person you are- I am a Planner.  This article is intended for other planners as well- if that’s not you but you already have significant backpacking experience then don’t worry you’ll be fine when you get out there.

1. Physical preparations

What I did before the PCT:
My goal was to get in the “best shape of my life” before I set out on the PCT.  I’d already built up my fitness by hiking every weekend for about four years, increasing my mileage over that time.  I began more serious physical prep about 6 months prior to the hike.  During the week, I woke up every morning at 5 AM, and I carried my weight-filled backpack around the neighborhood (or local trails) for 1.5 to 3 hours.
Tire chains simulated the weight of extra food in my pack for training hikes.
I also went on weekend trips so I’d know I’d be comfortable doing back to back 20 mile days and 3,000 foot climbs.  Finally I cross trained by practicing aerial dance which strengthens my core and muscles in different ways.  Two weeks before my hike, I tapered my activity to avoid injury and give my body some rest.

What worked:
Hauling my pack around in the dark, cold and rain turned out to be excellent mental training.  My training gave me excellent cardio and leg/back strength.

What I’d do different:
Focus more on training with a heavy pack.  Since I got into lightweight backpacking and only did weekend trips in the southeast, I wasn’t used to the weight of five days of food or carrying more than a liter or two of water.  Even though I did I calculate how heavy my pack would be that first day on the PCT (base weight + food + 6 L water), I only slowly built up to carrying more weight, and I never got to that full amount. 

I’ve wondered if I should have strengthened my feet more, but that problem didn’t manifest until 800 miles into my hike, so I doubt any more training would have prevented the stress fracture.

2. Learning skills

What I did before the PCT:
I wrote out a list of skills I though I would need for the PCT, and developed a plan to learn each of them in turn.  Because most of my backpacking had been in the southeast, the skills had to do with  the conditions I’d encounter on the PCT: snow skills including self arrest with an ice ax, hiking in the desert including carrying lots of water, and packing and carrying a bear canister with 6 days food.  I took a snow skills course with Stacy Boone of Step Outdoors, (read more about that here).  Stacy also included other key topics in the course including foot care, menu planning, and navigation.  Renee “Pathfinder” and I went on a trip to Arizona and Texas (including Guadalupe Mountain) where we practiced long water carries.  We also did a practice trip with our bear canisters.
Practicing self-arrest with an ice ax.  Photo by Stacy.
What worked:
I was so glad I took the time to learn these skills before going on the PCT.  Other people learn as they go, but I am the type of person that feels more safe and have a better time if I know I have the skills and training before I am in a situation.

The snow skills course with Stacy especially provided me with the skills and confidence to enter the High Sierra early, and see the beauty of the snow and experience the satisfaction and thrill of snow traverses.  I was so glad I had experience making kick steps, knew basics of how to read the snow from taking an avalanche awareness course, had discussed safety and decision making, and that I’d developed mental strategies to get over the passes.  Taking this snow course made my experience on the PCT much better (and safer), and Stacy is a positively awesome teacher.

I had a blast doing all my training courses and trips too.  I loved having an excuse to go on our Southwest tour, and I really enjoyed finding new skills to try, and having trips with a goal and purpose made them more challenging in a fun way.  It was also good mental preparation in pushing myself (like on my trip to Canyonlands) and in troubleshooting.  On the PCT, everything constantly changes, and it isn’t the specific skills that were needed so much as a generally being able to cope with being uncomfortable and being adaptable and flexible.

What I’d do different:
In retrospect, I might have learned enough of what I needed to know from more experienced hikers that I met and hiked with on the PCT, and from trial and error.  I hadn’t anticipated that I would find so many experienced backpackers out there who always seemed to show up just at the right time, and were happy to share their knowledge and were also very patient.  For example, MeToo taught me a lot about strategies to do the long water carries in the desert and how to plan for and find water.
In SoCal, MeToo describes a plan for the detour and where we will get water.
Matt "DoubleTap" Parker, who had experience in the Sierra, informally led a group of us over Forester Pass (highest point on the PCT).  He was a wealth of information and I know made it much safer for all of us.
DoubleTap gave a group of us help and encouragement over the snow.
Also, I was really fortunate to hike through the Sierra with Arizona who stuck with me especially through the descents down the passes.  In retrospect, I had no way of knowing I’d meet all these incredible people and I think I ended up being better prepared to learn from them because I had some background knowledge to build upon.  So, I wouldn’t have done any less preparation knowing what I know now.
I still felt scared coming down Glen Pass, but I knew what I needed to do to keep going.
3. Enlisting the help of support people and mentors
What I did before the PCT:
I talked with my resupply people (Still Waters and my parents) about expectations on how to communicate while I was on the trail and what it would be like to meet me on the trail.  I talked to them about how I'd be using my SPOT messenger.  I organized and labeled my gear and made up spreadsheets on how to send me resupply boxes and gave them a rough idea of how my timeline worked (more on that here). 

I also enlisted the help of support people.  I made up lists for them of phone numbers and other important information, and put this and my itinerary on a google doc.  I arranged for my friend Brenda to store my car in her garage, and Susan stored my other belongings.  Kellye and Janet took in my mail, and did things like make sure my car registration got renewed. 

I (informally) enlisted a handful of experienced backpacker to act as my mentors, and I identified specialized people to answer particular questions.  It was sort of like how when I was a PhD student, I choose committee members that I respected, looked up to, and trusted to help me in different areas.  For example, my friend JJ (and fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador) helped me with my gear and even subcontracted out to get the help of her friend Amanda to answer questions she didn’t know about the Sierra and desert.  Through Hammock Forums, I found Jim (PITA) who answered my countless email questions about bring a hammock on the PCT and about maps (more on that here).  I found other mentors to help me with food/ resupply planning, electronics, and my physical prep.

What worked:
All my support people were AWESOME!  I had no trouble with resupply boxes or logistics.  My resupply people seemed to enjoy being part of my journey too.

I was so glad I had mentors!  They were helpful because they knew my background and personality, and they were people that I looked up to so I valued their advice and perspective.  When I had the stress fracture or ran into trouble on the trail, they provided incredible support as well.  I got a lot of information about the PCT from blogs, Yogi’s book, facebook, and other websites, but my mentors could help me sort through the information and help me decide what would work for me.  They also helped me realize that I knew way more than I gave myself credit for, and the quality of their knowledge and advice was much higher than any other source.

What I’d do different:
I wish I could figure out how to show the people that helped me out just how much their support meant to me and how wonderful they are.  I cannot thank them enough and should figure out some way to repay them but I have no idea how I could possibly do this.

4. Mental preparation

What I did before the PCT:
I defined my goals and reasons for doing a long distance hike.  I wrote about this in my blog here.  I also read and reflected on my values and put my personal philosophy into words both on this blog and in writings that I will probably never publish.

I got a lot of experience being physically uncomfortable, which turned out to be good mental preparation.  I did trips where I was cold, wet, tired, and sore (like this one).
Getting experience being cold and wet, and still maintaining my positive outlook.
What worked:
I was glad I established my goals and examined my reasons for doing a long distance hike before I got on the trail.  Developing a regular writing practice put me in touch with my priorities.  When I was on the trail, I never wavered in knowing that I was on the right course for me.  My heart was always in it and I could maintain that awareness and appreciation.  There wasn't anywhere I’d rather be than in the trail.

It was great that I never had any expectation that I would be comfortable on the trail.  I already knew that wasn’t what backpacking is about, so that allowed me to maintain my positive outlook during my hike.

What I’d do different:
I wasn't mentally prepared for my injury that would take me off trail- I think that's why I kept hiking on the injury for 100 miles.  I knew how to hike with physical pain but I wasn’t prepared for getting off the trail and I wasn’t prepared for “failure” in not completing a thru hike.  It took me much longer to heal from the stress fracture mentally and to come to terms with my injury.  However, I don't know how I would have prepared for this.
Nothing had prepared me for the mental pain of having to get off the trail due to my injury.
In the end, I learned valuable lessons from my stress fracture, and when I got back on the trail and hiked another 550 miles, I learned so much about life and hiking, and when I look back on the whole thing, I wouldn't change my experience for anything else.

I also could have done more to ask other hikers about their backpacking philosophies and how those influenced their hike, and how they changed over the course of their thrus.  On the other hand, during my hike I was able to ask this of many of the hikers I met, and I feel like I have developed a better understanding through those personal interactions than I ever could have any other way.

I really enjoyed preparing for my trip on the PCT.  I learned nearly as much before my hike as while I was on it.  Having the goal of hiking the PCT allowed me to work harder on many things I’d been wanting to do for a while, and was time very well spent.

If you want to read more about my preparations for the PCT, check out my PCT 2014 page where I have all the links to my posts about "Before the hike."

Good luck to the Class of 2015, and remember to enjoy the time before you hit the trail- it can be a wonderful and fulfilling time in its own right!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reflections on 2014

2014 was the best year of my life because it was the year of my first long distance backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail.  The first three months of the year focused on preparing for the PCT.  My hike encompassed six months including the 10 weeks in the middle when I recovered from a stress fracture of my foot.  Since getting off the trail, I’ve traveled and backpacked, spent time with family and friends, and tried to figure out what I’m going to do next. 
Starting the PCT at the Mexican border on April 9th, 2014.
There are two big reasons 2014 was such an awesome year.  First, I got to experience what it is like to “live your dream.”  Hiking the PCT had been a long-time dream.  Backpacking has been my passion in life: I’d been going out every weekend for years, leading backpacking trips and teaching backpacking skills to others, and writing about backpacking here on my blog.  When asked what I believed in, my answer was “getting outdoors and backpacking.”  My ex told me that I loved the Trail more than her when we broke up.  Everyone has their own reasons for embarking on a long-distance hike- some are taking a break or transitioning in life, others are escaping something in their past.  For me, there were many reasons and hiking the PCT always felt like I was finally doing what I most wanted to do, that I was moving towards my passions.  By hiking the PCT, I got to live my dream.
My last day at Castle Craigs/ I-5, after I hiked 1500 miles of the PCT.
It is so easy to put your dreams on hold, to write a bucket list and then keep on going with your regular life, never taking the steps to make your dreams a reality.  There are many good reasons to put off one’s dream until circumstances are different.  I’ve wondered about all the things in life I’ve missed out on to pursue my dream- not having kids or a house, relationships, my scientific career.  There’s no way to know if pursuing my dream was worth all the sacrifices.  But what I do know is that it felt incredible to be doing what I most wanted to do in life. 
Watching the moon rise on the PCT. Photo by Susan.
My heart swelled with joy to wake up every morning on the PCT.  I was so appreciative of every moment, thinking constantly “I’m living the dream.”  Even when I was experiencing pain, fear, despair, extreme discomfort— all of that was OK because I was exactly where I most wanted to be, doing what I believed in. I felt such purpose and meaning.  If I had won the lottery, I knew I would change nothing because I had won already by being on the trail. 
Waking up on the PCT.
Living like that changed me in ways that are hard to describe. I realized I could do anything if I put my mind to it and believed in it with all my heart.

The other reason 2014 was so incredible was because of the friendships I made on the trail, because of the support of my friends and family “back home”, and because of the trail community.  The connections I made were powerful and indescribably wonderful.   Unexpected connections with people happened exactly when I needed them.  So many friends and family supported my hike and gave me so much love.  Comments on my blog made me feel like people cared and that I could share the joy of my experience with others.  I felt the warmth and kindness of community that was beyond anything I’d ever imagined.

The reason this was profound was because when you are the recipient of so much kindness, it becomes clear how much basic human goodness is out there.  Realizing this made me see beyond superficial differences and things that keep us apart.  It made me believe in our common humanity.   It made me feel like I belonged in a deep and meaningful way.
Feeling like I truly belong.
Beyond these two things, I learned so much this year and I know that hiking the PCT will continue to influence my life in more ways that I know.  I’m grateful for this year and for everyone that made it possible.

Section Hiking the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama- Part 2

"Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike.  And I know you'll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are." - Dr. Seuss

Over Christmas, I went on a  69 mile section hike of the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama between High Point and Cheaha.  I already wrote about my first three days of that trip in Part 1.  On my fourth day, I met Fireflo and her dog Buddy at the Talledega Shoal Creek Ranger Station.  Fireflo had previously completed the Alabama Pinhoti Trail, so I was excited to hear about her experiences.  Our plan was to hike to Cheaha State Park and spend one night out.  The forecast called for rain and thunderstorms, but we decided to go anyway for the adventure. 
Buddy sporting a pack and blaze orange too.
Fireflo is a lightweight backpacker and was testing out some new gear including a tarp made by her friend Brawny and some Gossamer Gear items I’d never seen- a Solar Light (that doubles as a pillow) and a warm sak pot cozy.

Despite our mutual lightweight gear philosophies, it wasn’t long before both of us confessed we’d chosen to bring two sets of raingear- raincoat and rainpants AND ponchos!
Wearing my poncho over my other raingear.
We sure had a laugh about how we both had made a gear choice that could raise some eyebrows.  I've always heard people talk about either a poncho or a raincoat, but not both.  But I've backpacked in the southeast in winter thunderstorms enough to know how cold it can get.  In winter, rain out here is quite different in intensity and duration than what I'd encountered on the PCT (though granted I haven't done the Washington section yet).  Here, I’ve had mild hypothermia more times than I care to admit.  I know that a poncho over my raincoat and rainpants keeps me warm because I've tried many other combinations that haven't worked.  Other times of year and while I was on the PCT I loved my umbrella, but it doesn't provide warmth like a poncho.  And at night, I use my poncho as a cover over my underquilt of my hammock as extra protection from horizontal rain. 
Fireflo wears a rainhat and packcover when the rain is very light.
After some early sprinkles, the sun made a brief appearance and the majority of the rain held off until evening.
This waterfall was one of the prettiest places on the trail.
Anticipating thunderstorms, we choose our campsite for the evening carefully-  a spot that was high enough to have good drainage but low enough to be protected from the wind by surrounding hills.  I tucked my hammock against a slope, and pitched one side of the tarp nearly to the ground in the direction I thought the wind would come from.  

Fireflo’s tarp was large enough that we could hang out for a little while as the evening rain intensified.
Warm glow of Fireflo's new light under her tarp.  There's plenty of room for Buddy too.
Rain fell all night.  By 1 AM the wind shifted direction.  I woke to thunder and lightening and felt my back was soaking wet.  I hoped Fireflo was faring better in her tarp (turns out she was doing great!).

Water was streaming down my hammock from the head end, the down underquilt was wet inside and out, the down jacket I use as a hood was partially soaked.  I sprung into action, stuffing my still-dry top quilt into my stuffsack, taking off my sleeping clothes so they wouldn’t get any wetter, and getting up to find the problem. 

I saw that the rain was blowing in from the side through the doors of the tarp.  I had oriented my hammock so the broad sides of the tarp faced the wind when I’d set up (this setup has kept me dry for many years in previous storms), but the wind shifted so it was blowing in from the ends.  Normally, the tarp doors provide protection, but gusts of wind were stretching the shockcord I used to hold the doors closed and the doors opened to let the water in from high up.  Rain was streaming down above the poncho that I was using as an underquilt protector. 

My solution was to lower the tarp a few inches and tighten the doors so they wouldn’t flap in the wind.  I also zipped my rainjacket around the top of the hammock and tucked the poncho underquilt protector under it so that any more rain that did get through the tarp would be shed off.  I couldn’t think of anything else to do- it would be too difficult to totally take down the tarp and hammock to find a new set of trees oriented in another direction- so I dried off and got back in my hammock to assess my insulation.
My white raincoat rigged over my green poncho underquilt protector at 1 AM.
The DWR fabric on my underquilt had done an excellent job shedding the water, and the down loft hadn’t been compromised.  The hammock itself was still wet, so I spread out my rainpants to act as a vapor barrier and laid down on top of them.  I tucked my top quilt around me and waited to see if I could get warm again.  As I listened to the thunder, I realized I wasn't very cold. 

When I made mistakes as a beginning backpacker, I remember I’d lie awake at night running over what I should have done differently and worrying about what might happen.  I realized how far I’ve come mentally in how I cope with problems in the backcountry.  I can improvise even when I’m half-asleep.  I don’t stay awake worrying needlessly.  I accept that I will make mistakes sometimes and that it will make me a better backpacker because I'll learn from my experiences.  I fell fast asleep until morning.

During the night, my bodyheat worked to dry off much of my clothes and gear.  My middle of the night fiddling had worked!  And I’d used all of my raingear not just for hiking but for my sleep setup as well.  Sure it would have been better if I’d rigged my tarp better to begin with, but I felt pretty thrilled to know just how wet my setup could get, at least under those warmer night temperatures.

More challenges awaited.  Significant rain had fallen during the night.  Fireflo knew that a stream crossing lay ahead that was normally quite high, and it would likely be in full out flood stage.  We made a plan to hike out a road to avoid the potentially very dangerous ford.
Overflowing stream after the storm.
Between us and the road was a stream that had flooded its banks.  We spent about an hour hiking up and down looking for a safe place to cross the swift water, finally choosing a relatively wide spot.  Buddy was reluctant to cross with his pack, so Fireflo brought him across first without their packs, and then came back across to bring their gear so she got in extra adventure by doing the crossing three times.  It looked pretty scary, but once I got going, I remembered all the times I’d done similar stream crossing in the Sierra when I was hiking on the PCT.  We all made it across safely!  Yay!
Fireflo fording the creek.
Roadwalking is always hard on the feet.  We stopped after a few hours of walking at an overlook, and just as we were taking out our lunches, a father and son stopped in their pickup.  They had camped out the night before too, and we exchanged stories of how we’d weathered the storm.  We ended up yogi-ing a ride with them back up to my car at Cheaha- THANK YOU for the ride! 

We finished off the trip with a satisfying lunch at the AYCE buffet at the Cheaha Mountain Restaurant.  The gorgeous stone building was decorated for the holidays- including a Christmas tree with beer can ornaments.   That sure was something else!

I hope to be back to the Pinhoti to finish the other sections someday- it was a great trail.  It felt good to experience the satisfaction of facing challenges and enjoying the camaraderie of hiking with a kindred spirit.  Overall, this was a fun and memorable trip. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Section Hiking the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama- Part 1

The Pinhoti Trail extends 335 miles through Alabama and Georgia along the southern tip of the Appalachian mountains.  It is part of the Great Eastern Trail, and connects to the Benton Mackaye Trail to the north.
The symbol marking the Pinhoti Trail is the turkey foot.
My five days and four night southbound section hike of the Pinhoti in Alabama took me from High Point (about 10 miles from the Georgia-Alabama border) to Cheaha State Park (highest point in Alabama).  I ended up hiking 69.6 miles of the Pinhoti (plus about 5 miles of roadwalking).  This included section 7 (at CR 24) to section 12. 
Winter views from the Pinhoti Trail.
I hiked solo for the first three days.  On the fourth day I met Fireflo and her dog Buddy at the Talladega Shoal Creek Ranger Station and we hiked the rest of the way together.  I’ll describe the first solo part of my hike and give an overview of the trail here (Part 1) and the last two days in the following post (Part 2).

Why the Pinhoti
I choose this trail for two reason.  First because it is a good place to hike in winter.  It is lower elevation and has more mild weather than other places in the southeast. 

I’ve also heard this trail offers quiet and solitude.  My experience confirmed this- I only saw other people a few times- one family out dayhiking and another family camping at a shelter.  Though there were the sound of gunshots from hunters in the distance and one time uncomfortably close (so wear blaze orange if you go).  Other than that, no one.   The solitude of the Pinhoti Trail seemed to facilitate a spirit of reflection and contemplation.  Something I tend to seek out this time of year. 
Crossing a meadow on a frosty morning.
Trail conditions and terrain
The trail itself was well marked and signed.  Shelters in this section were spaced about 10 miles apart.  I looked forward to reading the shelter registries telling stories from dayhikers, section hikers, and even a few long-distance hikers of the Great Eastern Trail.
Shelters and trail signs.
The forests the trail passed through were more variable than I anticipated.  There were restored longleaf pine forests that are home to a rare species of woodpecker and many birds and wildlife.  I startled ducks and great blue herons near mist-shrouded lakes.  River bottom land made for easy walking.  Pine trees, ferns, and evergreen bushes make the scenery greener than North Georgia this time of year.  The Dugger Wilderness portion climbed up to a ridge with lichen-covered rocks and winter views. 
Leaf-covered path through the boulders.
Compared to the Georgia Appalachian Trail or the Foothills Trail, climbs were more gradual and shorter, and the trail generally followed contour lines.  Sometimes, it was even flat.  However, the tread could be narrow and slippery so shouldn't be underestimated.  Bridges were infrequent, and wet-foot fords were required.  Most weren’t too difficult, but I was glad for my hiking poles.  On the last morning after major thunderstorms, streams surged to flood-stages and required road-walking to bypass the dangerous water levels.

My hike
I met Bob and Sue at Cheaha and they drove me to High Point.  They provided a wealth of information and I was delighted they could shuttle me- they are no longer doing this service except rarely to friends (or friends of friends).

Weather was variable.  Rain fell on and off the first day.  At night temperatures dipped below freezing and when I woke my tarp was coated in a thick frost, even though I'd done my best to camp high up near the top of a ridge away from water.   My feet got so cold and numb on the fords across the streams that I began to wonder what the heck I was doing out there.  I imagined there might be less painful ways to have fun.
One of many chilly wet-foot fords.
On Christmas day, the sun finally came out and the afternoon warmed up into the mid-50’s.  A patch of birdfoot violet was blooming on a sunny slope.  Flowers in December!  I could hardly believe my eyes.  Guess it really was more mild in Alabama.
Birdfoot violet.
This time of year so close to the winter solstice, nights are long.  By 4 PM, the light began to fade.  Depth perception become problematic by 4:30.  Darkness fell by 5 PM.  Following the narrow, leaf-covered trail in the dark was time consuming and ended up not being worth it to me.   So I didn’t do much nighthiking like I’d planned.  Instead, I set up camp early for the night.  13 hours of darkness. 
Sunset comes early.
So often, we hikers tend to focus on movement, on traveling, on being fast and efficient.  But in winter, resting and settling into the night can become something to be practiced and enjoyed.

As I relaxed into my hammock each night, I could feel my tight muscles slowly release.  Coyotes howled back and forth, then there was quiet.  Clouds blocked out the stars and sliver moon.  The darkness was thick.  I thought about how different life must have been before artificial light.  About how rare it is to have extended times to be still.  To go within.  To just be out there.  This appreciation for darkness is what I’ve come to love about winter trips.  The Pinhoti Trail is a great place to just be in winter.

The trip continues in Part 2...
For more information:

The forest service map of the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama has been updated in 2014.  The elevation profiles are a bit annoying because points of interest aren’t marked on them, only section mileages, which are not marked on the map.  (Guess I’ve been spoiled by these features on PCT maps.)  Reliability of water sources are also missing from the map, though these are given in the Alabama Trail Alliance’s Pocket Guide.

Alabama Trail Alliance- the Pocket Guides had information about water sources, road crossings, shelters, and directions to trailheads.  I printed them out and found them handy and reliable.

Pinhoti Trail subform on whiteblaze.

Christine (German Tourist) describes her thru hike of the Pinhoti here.