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.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Footcare basics for the Pacific Crest Trail

I am a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador, and I wrote an article for the Gossamer Gear blog about Footcare basics for the Pacific Crest Trail.  I describe causes of common foot problems, and things you can do before you start the PCT and while you are on the trail to prevent and treat issues like blisters.  Click here to read the article.
Click the link to read this article.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A feel for the Ozark Highlands Trail

The Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail (OHT) extends 218 miles through northwestern Arkansas through much of the Ozark National Forest.  I’ve had my eye on this trail for several years because it can be hiked in winter and because of its remote character.
Rocky outcrops and gorgeous streams on the Ozark Highlands Trail.
On my drive between Georgia and Colorado over Thanksgiving, I stopped by the OHT for a short hike and stayed the night at the campground at the trailhead.  I wanted to get a feel for the trail and area to find out if it might be worth a return visit for a thru hike. 

The view from the trailhead at the Fairview Campground provided a highly favorable first impression.  Rolling hills expanded in waves, and forested land had fewer signs of development than you’d think.  These weren’t high rugged mountains like you’d find out West.  These ancient mountains worn down by erosion into gentle curves had a special beauty.
I headed west on the OHT, descending past rocky outcrops and rock-hopping over a small stream until I reached a hollow and the tumbling waters of Hurricane Creek.  Water is one feature that makes this trail special. 
Unbelievably blue water of Hurricane Creek.
The thing that won me over though was something more subtle- the character of the trail.  Trails aren’t just about the scenery they pass through.  There is the element of how they get you from point A to point B.   Trails can highlight the special features by detouring over to an outcrop or routing you through a grove of witchhazel.  Hiking this trail, I got the impression that the trail builders really loved this area and wanted to provide a special experience for us hikers.

 Some parts of the trail were rugged and overgrown.  More like following a deer trail than following a well-beaten path.  It took a bit longer because I had to be careful about watching my footing with all the rocks and leaves.  But I love the feel of narrow trail because it make me feel like I’m on a bushwhacking adventure.

When the trail eventually joined an old road, there was lovely old stone bridge over the creek that made me think that I’d been brought to that place for a reason- so I could get a taste of the history of this region.
Old stone bridge.
Finally, I got to a deep blue swimming hole just as the light was beginning to fade.  It was too cold, even for me, to take a swim, but I hope that someday I’ll be able to return and be able to dip more than just my toes.
Dipping my toes along the Ozark Highlands Trail.
It was a very cold night back at the campground.  I would have preferred backpacking in a few miles and choosing a more sheltered campsite away from the road, but I was reluctant to leave my car overnight.  It was packed with boxes and boxes of my stuff that I’d picked up from storage, and my computer.  Still, I had an awesome view of the sunset from high on the ridge.  And fell asleep dreaming of future hikes along this wonderful trail.
Blazing sunset makes my hammock glow.
For more information
Ozark Highlands Trail Association  

Trail description and maps for the Ozone to Fairview section

GPS tracks download for the OHT

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dayhikes in the Colorado snow

Over Thanksgiving, I visited the Four Corners area, which is where Still Waters has recently taken a job.  The high peaks of the La Plata Mountains in southwestern Colorado were covered in snow, but the lower elevation trailheads in the Transfer Recreation Area, 11 miles northeast of Mancos, CO, were still accessible.
Still Waters on the Aspen loop (an ATV trail).
The Transfer Recreation Area has an incredible network of trails that allow lower-elevation loops as well as access into the high country, including linking to the Colorado Trail.  Still Waters drove us up to the Transfer Campground in her truck.  Following an ATV trail provided an easy option for one dayhike.
Snowy La Plata Mountains in the distance.
For my second dayhike, I parked lower down near the Doc Lowell Flat to avoid the snow and mud up at the Transfer Campground (since I drive a small civic and was going by myself this time).  I slogged on muddy ATV roads to the Box Canyon Trailhead (8900 feet).  From there, the Rim Trail, West Mancos Trail, and Transfer Trail form a nice little loop.  I descended into the canyon and then I turned onto the West Mancos Trail to follow along the river.  A left turn brought me back up the canyon onto the Rim Trail, and up to the Transfer Campground, with lovely view across the canyon to the 13,000 foot peaks of the La Plata Mountains.
Along the West Mancos Trail.
There is nothing like walking in snow.  It smells fresh and crisp on the breeze.  There is the crunch underfoot.  You can feel your core tighten and all the smaller muscles of your legs engage. 
Time for microspikes.
Increasing snow at higher elevations.
I longed to follow the path that led up to higher elevations, but I had reservations about going out past where the other footprints stopped when I was by myself.  Hopefully, some other time...

Overall, the Transfer Recreation Area was a lovely place and it'd be wonderful to explore the area more.

Trail and Route Information:

Guide to the Scenic Hiking Trails in Mesa Verde Country” - excellent brochure listing trail descriptions and with (rough) maps.

Trails Illustrated #144 Durango Cortez - topo map for the region.

Directions to the trailhead on the FS website