Sixteen Months of Wandering

It has been less than a year and a half, but every day it gets a little harder to picture how my day-to-day life used to look. It’s like trying to recall a face I haven’t seen in years that I used to see every day. I close my eyes, but can’t quite get a clear image.

Used to be, a year and a half would pass by frighteningly fast, but life doesn't seem as short anymore. I credit that to doing more in 16 months than all my previous years combined.

I backpacked through 3,000 miles of wilderness and the occasional small mountain town. That's over six million footsteps with nothing but the bare essentials on my back. These trails had a cumulative elevation gain of more than 675,000 feet or 130 miles, twice the distance to outer space, or more than the height of 23 Mount Everests.

I'm not sure which has received more wear-and-tear though, me or my worn-out Honda Civic. It racked up 26,000 miles on American highways since March of this year. The car is one of the few things in my life that hasn't changed, although we are much more acquainted now.

If you haven't read every post on my blog, here's what I've been up to. On June 10, 2011, I quit my job, packed a backpack, left everything else behind, and then....

  • Hopped on a train to Washington D.C.
  • Saw the Smithsonian, the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Memorial, the White House, the Library of Congress, the Capitol building, The Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and every other D.C. monument, artifact, and museum on my life list
  • Stayed in the first of many hostels and met people from all walks of life
  • Took a bus to New York City
  • Roamed aimlessly around Time Square and Broadway
  • Heard a never publicly performed piece of music played by a symphony in Central Park
  • Got lost in Central Park at night. It took a few hours to find my way, but after thinking about my upcoming hike from Maine to Georgia, you can rest assured, I fully appreciated the dramatic irony.
  • Then, at two in the morning, I went to the top of the Empire State Building to see the lights and bustle of the city that never sleeps
  • The next day, I took the subway to Ground Zero
  • Saw the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry
  • Unexpectedly witnessed Will Smith filming Men in Black 3 in Battery Park
  • Strolled down the "pre-occupied" Wall Street
  • Walked to Brooklyn on the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Watched a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman, with Eddie Vedder and Cameron Diaz
  • Took a train to Boston
  • Walked the Freedom Trail and saw every historical site I know of in Boston, and some I didn't know of
  • Bought tickets from a scalper in Fenway Park and watched a Red Sox Game
  • From my stadium seat, sang Sweet Caroline and yelled YOUUKK!, without understanding why
  • Helped a schizophrenic homeless man update his blog (I always knew I would someday)
  • Took a bus to Maine
  • Met my new friend Erik (a.k.a Red)
  • Hiked the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, through 14 states. On the trail I...
  • Met Sam and Liv (a.k.a. Bambi and Thumper), who became my favorite people in the world
  • Backpacked through the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine
  • Hitchhiked for the first time
  • Spent the night behind an abandoned bank, a city park dugout, and many other random places like a hobo
  • Backpacked through the White Mountains in New Hampshire
  • And the Green Mountains in Vermont
  • Hiked through Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee
  • Had lots of fun in random mountain towns drinking with trail friends
  • Hiked along the Housatonic River through Massachusetts and Connecticut
  • Then through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland
  • Slept under Jefferson Rock National Historic Landmark in West Virginia
  • Met my new friend Gregg (a.k.a Lightfoot)
  • Backpacked the length of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park during the peak of fall colors
  • And in the snow in Tenneesee and North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains
  • Encountered several black bears, a wild boar, and interesting mountain people
  • Fell in love with a new and exciting way of life
  • And a girl
  • Reached the AT's southern terminus in Georgia 183 days after leaving the northern terminus
  • I went back home for the holidays and recovered from injuries
  • Then I went to Kentucky to visit Sam and Liv on their family farm
  • I was lucky enough to convince Liv to quit her job and go on an 8,200-mile road trip on old Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. After an early morning start on March 3rd we...
  • Toured Chicago, Illinois
  • Visited Lincoln’s Tomb and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site
  • Accidentally went into a gay bar in Springfield, Illinois
  • Saw numerous aging roadside statues, attractions, and museums
  • Played legendary games of pool in the bars of Tulsa, Oklahoma with a level of skill that we have never been able to repeat
  • Trespassed on private property, so we could sleep in an 80-foot concrete blue whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma
  • Hiked into Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States, near Amarillo, Texas
  • Found Billy the Kid's Grave
  • But found no aliens while in Roswell, New Mexico
  • Sled down bright white gypsum sand dunes in Southern New Mexico's White Sands National Monument
  • Tossed a football on a vacant desert road in Southern New Mexico, and car camped under a dark starry sky
  • Explored the caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Had to deal with the exhaust pipe falling off the car in a New Mexico ghost town in the middle of the night
  • Found a saloon next to a mechanic's shop in Magdelina, New Mexico who we hoped could fix it, so we played pool, drank beer all night, and then slept in the car. 
  • Drove with a loud muffler-less car to the Very Large Array Radio Telescopes near Socorro, New Mexico
  • Stared out into Arizona’s Painted Desert National Park
  • Hiked in Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park
  • Climbed a volcanic crater in Arizona’s Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
  • Saw ancient ruins at the Wupatki Monument in Arizona
  • Watched the sunset while driving through the Mojave Desert in Southern California
  • Peered into the deep and magnificent Grand Canyon
  • Listened to Grand Canyon tourists mutter about "that crazy girl" (Liv) boulder scrambling so I could get a better picture of her
  • Lived in our car for a couple days in Southern California’s Slab City
  • Drove many miles in silence while Liv concentrated on writing an epic poem about the trip
  • Hiked around Joshua Tree National Park and climbed a mountain named Ryan
  • Arrived at the end of Route 66 on the Santa Monica Pier
  • Drove up the Pacific Coast Highway
  • Walked along the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur State Park
  • Had dinner with Liv’s sister in Monterrey, California who she hadn't seen in two years
  • Hiked on 3 feet of snow to see the world’s largest tree in California’s Sequoia National Park
  • And more giant trees in Kings Canyon National Park
  • Sat on the ground at the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level, in California’s Death Valley National Park
  • Backpacked in Utah’s Zion National Park and woke up with snow on our tents
  • Nervously watched Liv climb up rocks in Southern Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park without a rope, and had to have her rescue me when I got stuck in a “pothole”
  • Saw the rock formations in Utah’s Arches National Park
  • Then watched the sun set in Canyonlands National Park
  • Toured ancient cliff dwellings in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park
  • Climbed sand dunes in Colorado’s Great Sands National Park
  • Then, after regretfully taking Liv back home in Kentucky, I picked up my AT friend Red to hike Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail, from Massachusetts to Canada. 
  • But first I spent a few days in New York City to meet Red's friends and family 
  • Took a tour of Long Island's wine country
  • Then headed to the southern terminus of the Long Trail
  • Slept in stranger's homes and a college "social house" during pledge week, to get out of bad weather
  • Got a free night's stay and a steak dinner at a fancy lodge
  • Spent the night on a Big Lots department store loading dock
  • Arrived at the northern terminus of the Long Trail and stepped into Canada
  • Took Red home and went to visit Sam and Liv in Kentucky again, the closest thing to home these days
  • Backpacked in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge
  • Then my second westward road trip began
  • I camped at Badlands National Park in South Dakota
  • Hiked around Devil’s Tower in Wyoming
  • Backpacked for five days along the Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming’s Great Teton National Park
  • Saw Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and many other amazing natural wonders in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park
  • Backpacked a 75-mile loop in Montana’s Glacier National Park
  • Circumnavigated Washington’s Mount Rainier on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail
  • Climbed Garfield Peak for a bird’s eye view of Oregon’s Crater Lake
  • Drove down the northern half of the Pacific Coast Highway that Liv and I didn't get to see
  • Hiked while staring up at the towering trees in California’s Redwood National Park
  • Cruised down the “Avenue of Giants” in Humboldt Redwoods State Park
  • Watched Pacific Ocean waves crash on several beaches along the highway
  • Drove over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California
  • Visited Port Reyes National Seashore in California
  • Thru-hiked the 219-mile John Muir Trail. On that Trail, I....
  • Backpacked through Yosemite National Park
  • Sat by a campfire with a backdrop of a moonlit Half Dome
  • Then backpacked through Tuolumne Meadows
  • Then the Ansel Adams Wilderness
  • The John Muir Wilderness
  • And alongside Devil's Postpile National Monument
  • Got to hike with my AT friend, Lightfoot, again
  • Took a 30-mile side trip over Italy Pass to resupply in Bishop, California
  • Then backpacked through Kings Canyon National Park
  • And Sequoia National Park
  • Climbed above treelines and over mountain passes
  • Sometimes while the sun was setting
  • Once while lightning streaked through a dark anvil shaped storm cloud
  • Was brought nearly to tears from another mountain view
  • Never got tired of the miles or sleeping on the dirt
  • Summited Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the Contiguous United States
  • Hitchhiked, for the couple-hundredth time, back to my car
  • On my drive back I stopped to see friends I wish I could see more often, then went back to see the girls in Kentucky, and family in Indiana
  • And finally… spent many nights wondering how I could ever go back to that old day-to-day life ever again
I experienced a lot in these sixteen months, but also learned a lot. About myself and about the country I call home. I didn't always like what I learned about myself, but the country never disappointed. People have asked me if I plan on venturing outside of the United States on my future trips. And I do, but I'm glad I took the time to see America first. Knowing what I know now, I'm relieved that I didn't let my life go by without seeing it up close, slowly and on foot. The only way to really see anything. 

I thought I knew the country before leaving home last year, but I really didn't. I know now that it is beautiful beyond imagination. And even though bad things occasionally happen, its citizens are overwhelmingly good and caring. The number of people who went out of their way to lend a hand, a ride, a home, or home-cooked meal, were too numerous to count. They were people that knew nothing of me other than I was dirty, smelly, unshaven, and probably hungry or tired. And it seemed that the less they had, the more they wanted to help.

Ignore the news. Ignore the partisan politicians that get us worked up over nothing like they’re starving pit bulls just to win a dogfight. Ignore people that want us to believe we are divided. I learned that my favorite people and places align with me the least politically, scientifically, or religiously.

Ignore overzealous preachers and doomsayers. Our country is far from evil. I have to believe that anyone who believes it is has not made much of an effort to really see it. Other than on a television screen, which is a lot like listening to a symphony on blown-out cellphone speakers then believing music is a dreadful thing.

I've learned a few other things in these sixteen months. I know that I don't need much to be happy. I could lose all my possessions and be alright, and possibly happier because of it. And I learned that no matter how many unknowns my future holds, or how daunting something can be, I know I can get through it and come out just fine on the other side.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned in these sixteen months, is that you have to follow your bliss, whatever it may be. Life isn't permanent. I will continue to follow mine and continue to write about it.

I guess a better title for this post might be, "Sixteen Months of Wandering... and counting."

Our First Night in Andover

When we reached the summit of Old Blue Mountain, Red went to search for a cell phone signal. I found some exposed bedrock surrounded by spruce trees and laid down on my back. The sun warmed the bedrock all morning and now beamed in my eyes. I pulled my hat over my face. I was nearly asleep when I heard a familiar thump coming up the trail.

“I could hear those heavy boots of yours fifty yards away,” I said then put my hat on and sat up.

“That’s why they call me Thumper,” she said.

“Oh, so that’s why we call you that.”

Thumper loved her big Gortex boots that laced above her ankles. They must have weighed three pounds each, but she asserted that they would shield her from snakebites. Even though she was petite, the rugged boots matched her truer character, a kind of toughness or fortitude. By this point in the trip, both she and her boots seemed bulletproof.

Bambi reached the peak next, then moved on ahead. Her backpack, which always seemed to weigh as much as she did, disappeared into the pines, followed by Thumper then Red. We may have reached the summit before Bambi, but she was hard to catch on these steep descents.

Halfway down the mountain, the trees opened up to reveal the only sign of civilization for miles, a lonely stretch of road cutting through the dense trees in the valley. We needed a hitch to Andover to resupply, but the road looked seldom used.

I finally caught up to Bambi at the road. She was waiting by a car parked on the shoulder with the others.

“The day-hikers we passed said they would drive us to Andover,” she said.

This was great news. I loved spending night after night in the forest, but since we never had a plan, much less a reservation, the towns were always a mystery.

- - -

When I left home for Maine, I expected to spend most of my trip alone. Then I met Red on the bus to Bangor and we met the girls on our second day. We hit it off quickly.

I'm not a social person by nature. I've never been that great at making new friends and I rarely get close to anyone, but the trail's ability to attract like-minded people helped free me from that. We could gush about any aspect of the backpacking life and know we all understood each other. I miss that a lot, that connection with people. I imagine it's a lot like how those introverted Bigfoot enthusiasts feel when they walk into a Bigfoot Hunters Convention.

On the morning of that second day, before meeting the girls, we stopped to buy food at the Abol Bridge camp store, the final place to pick up supplies before entering the Hundred Mile Wilderness.

“You fellas heading to the Hurd Brook Shelter for the night?” an older hiker asked. The sixty-something man had one more day on the trail before finishing a multi-year section-hike of the entire AT.

“Yeah, that’s the plan,” Red said.

“There are two cute girls from Kentucky staying there tonight,” he said with a grin. “When I saw them coming down the trail I thought it must be my birthday!”

I wouldn’t know until later that he was talking about two people I would share some of the greatest months of my life with. Two people that I would soon care about as much as any lifelong friend or family member. I can’t point to a single moment when I started to feel that way, but when I reflect back on it now, I think of a specific moment Andover.

- - -

When the day-hikers who offered to drive us into Andover got to the road, we piled our gear into their car’s hatchback and the four of us squeezed into the backseat. We hooked arms in case a door decided to pop open. When we told them we were hiking all the way to Georgia, they asked, “Why? Are you from the south?” They weren’t the first to ask us that, as though being from the south made sense of why we would hike a two-thousand mile trail through the Appalachian Mountains. It seemed like asking a skydiver, "So, why are you jumping out of this plane? Your house down there or something?"

They dropped us off in front of the Andover General Store. We thanked them for the hitch and offered the obligatory apology for the hiker smell. The small mountain town didn’t have much other than the general store, but that was enough. There was an ice cream stand next door. Inside were shelves lined with essential junk foods, coolers of soda, and a deli that served short-order foods. In the back sat a diner-style bar and a few tables topped with sweeteners for coffee and stacks of assorted jellies. A chalkboard advertised the triple cheeseburger with fries as the current special. In other words, every thru-hiker necessity.

We propped our packs against the back wall and sat at a table. I remarked about people asking if we were from the south and Thumper suggested that, while in Andover, we should start saying yes, in ridiculous southern accents. This prompted another trail name change. I went from Cam to Nathaniel Hawthorne III, a native of Tallahassee, but no relation to the literary giant. I don’t know why. The name just flowed off my tongue when I started speaking with that Tallahassee drawl.

While we waited for our server, we asked Thumper to tell us one of her folksy tales. As a proud Kentuckian, she used her best Southern Kentucky accent.

“Did I eva’ tell you we had a great grandma from far far away, in that uh, Switzer Land?” she said. “Well, I only met ‘er once, but she kind of just up and died on us a few years ago. It was real sad like, but I guess she hadda bit a money—

“It’s always sad when they die like that,” I said with what I hoped sounded like a Tallahassee drawl, but my knowledge of that accent came mostly from slick Florida politicians in movies and Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.

“Yeah 'specially when they just up, and die,” Red said.

“Right, when they up, and die.” I said.

“Yeah she just up, and died,” Thumper said. “She was the oldest woman around, so a’ course that made her the most important person in the village. So, they gave her the house on the highest hill.”

“How’d she git up and down that hill?” Red said.

“Well you know, all the youngins in the village,” she said. “They just carry her up on they backs.”

“Oh, o’course,” Red said. “I mean that's how we do it down in Mobile, Alabama. I shoulda jus’ assumed that's how they do it over in that ah, Switzer Land.”

“Well that Switzer Land is kinda mountainous, you know,” said Thumper. “So, I reckon it'd be a lot harder to do it over there rather’n ah… Alabama.”

“Whew, sounds like she's a talkin' trash about Mobile, Red.” I instigated.

“You're damn right,” Thumper said then looked at Red. “You're damn right.”

“Well down in Mobile,” Red said. “We hafta carry our old folks over crocodiles, so it’s uhh, quite dangerous. I had tah carry me one of them Arkansas toothpicks.”

“Now see, what's the difference b’tween alligators and crocodiles,” Thumper asked. “I thought y’all had gators down there.”

“They're the same thang,” I lied.

“Oh yeah?” she said, playing along.

“Yeah, they're exactly the same thang,”

“Good to know I can lay that question to rest. It’s just one less thing to think about, you know.”

We kept our accents for two or three days before one of us broke character. Even weeks after Andover, we slipped back into them involuntarily.

“I guess we’re prolly annoying the hell outta everyone around here,” Red said.

“I reckon you're right,” Bambi said. “But who cares?”

“Oh we prolly sound like a breath’a fresh air in here,” Thumper said.

“A breath’a fresh air indeed,” Red said. “Up here in Maine they prolly don’t get many folks like us. I mean, I’m from Mobile and we got Tallahassee over here."

“And good ol' Kentucky girls!” Bambi said.

“From good ol' Kentucky,” Thumper said and gave Bambi a high five over the table. “Woo! Home of bluegrass, bourbon, and horses!”

“That’s right, yee haw!” Bambi said.

“How you doin'?” Red said to the waiter who came over to set silverware wrapped in napkins on our table.

“Good, how you doing?” he said. “Where are you from?”

"I'm from Mobile,” Red said.


“Alabama.” Red said.

“You sound like it. It's been a long time since I've heard that one,” the waiter said. “It's a great accent.”

It must have been an incredibly long time if he thought Red’s accent sounded authentic. I thought his accent had more of a “mentally challenged New Yorker pretending to be from the south” sort of quality to it. When he talked to people with his accent, they seemed to be thinking, "I don't know what it is exactly, but this boy's not right."

“Thank ya,” Red said to the waiter.

After eating a table full of triple cheeseburgers and deep-fried foods, we began to wonder where we were going to sleep. We asked one of the servers if she knew of any places that wouldn’t lead to our eventual arrest. We thought maybe she would invite us over to her house. It wouldn’t be the first time such a trick worked for us. She just suggested a field up the road out of town, so we left without a plan.

Red stopped at the ice cream stand for dessert. We hung back to wait for him.

"Hey, Thumpah,” Bambi said. “Tell th’ story ‘bout that time th' cows got loose.”

"Alright, well, I was up in mah room on daddy's farm in mah purdy navy blue cotton dress," Thumper said. "An' all a sudden, daddy yells, 'Girls, git yo' shoes on!'"

Meanwhile, as Thumper told her story, a girl walked up to take Red’s ice cream order.

"You want that on a cone or in a cup," she asked.

"Can I git that on a plate?” Red asked. “I’m so'ry. I'm from Mobile. That's just how we do it in Mobile."

Her glared proved our assumption that we annoyed the hell out of everyone around us. I don’t know what her problem was. We thought we were hilarious.

After some awkward silence he said, "Cone, will be jus’ fine ma’am.”

"So there I was,” Thumper was saying. “In mah purdy navy blue cotton dress, tryin’ t'usher a two-thousand poun' heifer this-a-way into a barn,"

Then Red showed up with a tall soft serve ice cream cone covered in rainbow sprinkles. He took a huge bite out of the top.

"Boy, you'll be shittin' rainbows fo' a week!" Thumper said.

Our search for a place to sleep wasn’t as successful as it had been in other towns. We walked up the road out of town, but couldn’t get a hitch back to the trail. We cut through the field our server told us about to get to a patch of trees on the other side. We picked wildflowers to garnish our hair, just because, and suddenly we were dive bombed by mosquitoes. After a few minutes of relentless biting, we gave up on that area and walked back into town.

The sun set as we strolled between rows of houses. I’m not sure what we thought would happen. Maybe we would start a conversation with someone taking out their trash and they would invite us into their home for the night. Or perhaps we'd find an abandoned building to crawl into like wild raccoons.

Under a full moon sky full of stars, we stopped at a city park that consisted of a baseball diamond, an old metal swing set, and a wooden playset with a plastic yellow slide. We stared up at the rainbow-colored canvas roof above the slide and contemplated squeezing together on the four foot square platform.

“That can be plan B,” I said.

“How ‘bout that’s plan F,” Thumper said.

I looked across the baseball field. “Hey look, there’s plan A,” I said and pointed to two dugouts. “They look like lean-tos to me.”

We walked across the baseball diamond to the dugout least visible from the road. We dropped our packs as if we were planting flags in newly claimed territory.

"If the police come, everyone pretend to be asleep,” I said. “And when they wake us up just say ‘Where’d everybody go? We was just waitin' for our turn at bat, officer. Musta fallen asleep.’”

We lined up along the bench happy to have found a home. The full moon lit up the baseball field in front of us. We chatted in southern accents while passing around a plastic soda bottle full of whiskey.

“I think I’m gonna hafta get off the trail for one of them root canals,” I said while tonguing the tooth I chipped a few days before. I took a sip of whiskey and handed the bottle to Red. “Watch them screw up a nerve and one half of my face gets all droopy?”

"Well I guess we’ll hafta change yo’ trail name to Two-Face." Thumper said.

“People would be like, 'so why do they call you uhh...', then they'll glance up at my half-slacked face, quickly look down at their feet, and say, ‘uhh, why do they call you Two-Face?'"

“Hah, that’s a belly-rumblin' knee slapper right there,” Thumper said and took the bottle Red handed her.

"Man, I would do anything for a joint right now," Red said.

"Oh yeah? Would ya wrestle a bear?" Thumper said.

"Would y’usher a two-thousand poun' heifer into a barn?" Bambi said.

We started to unwind, but we weren’t ready for sleep. At one in the morning, I invited Thumper onto the field for a game of invisible softball.

“How do ya play invisible softball?” she asked.

“Well, it’s just like regular softball, ‘cept we don’t have any ah them bats, balls, or gloves,” I said.

I jogged to the pitcher’s mound. Thumper was first at bat. I held the invisible softball up to my face with both hands, and peered over at Thumper taking a couple practice swings. I nodded at my invisible catcher then whirled the ball around and threw it underhand toward home plate.

The second invisible softball game the next morning
Thumper swung the invisible bat and cracked the invisible ball deep into center field. I sprinted after it. Thumper ran toward first. I reached down to snag the ball, fumbled it a bit, and saw Thumper rounding first toward second base. I bolted to tag her out. It would be close. Thumper slid boots first into the base. I looked at the invisible umpire, a portly man with chewing tobacco tucked in his lower lip, I assume.

“Safe!” he yelled. Actually, I yelled.

“Oh come on, ump!” I protested.

Thumper stood up triumphant, but looked down at red lines scratched into her leg. That intensity would eventually lead her to the first invisible softball victory in history.

A car engine rumbled. Our heads snapped toward the sound and we saw headlights coming down the road.

“Get down!” I said. We dropped to the ground and laid flat on our stomachs in dewy grass mixed with baseball diamond gravel. The car parked in front of a house across the street. The driver turned off his engine then headed inside.

“Alright, now don’t move,” I whispered. “Their vision’s based on movement.”

We stood up and brushed off tiny bits of gravel that clung to our skin. After my turn at bat, Red and Bambi finally understood the glory of invisible softball and walked out onto the field. Red joined my team in the outfield, Bambi joined Thumper's and got up to bat.

Bambi hit a long drive deep into right field. Red sprinted toward the fence, leaped into the air to catch the invisible ball then slammed into the fence. But it was too high for him to catch it. The girls won.

After our defeat, we headed back to the dugout.

I pulled out my journal to jot down all the memories for the day I didn't want to forget. When I finished I took the liberty of using my pen to write, “I heart Cam,” onto Bambi’s leg. On mine, she drew a smiling sun rising behind a fluffy cloud that read, “I heart Bambi.” Then she drew a fox in a tuxedo with a top hat and cane, and then a tree and mountains in the background. Thumper sat on my other side to watch Bambi create her masterpiece. By the time she finished I had a collage of random trail-related drawings covering my right leg.

By three in the morning, we were understandably exhausted and the dugout grew silent. The girls rested their heads on my shoulders and I put my arms around them.

“Nathaniel?” Thumper said. “Tell us about life in Tallahassee.”

“Well dah-lin’, let me tell ya. Life moves a little slower down in Tallahassee. With my granddaddy’s lemonade fortune--Wait, did you know my granddaddy was the great lemonade baron of the 1920s?”

"We surely did."
The dugout in the morning

"Well, with all that lemonade money, we never had to do mucha anythang. We just sat in our rockin' chairs, on our front porch, sippin’ that ice cold Tallahassee-style lemonade."

“That sounds nice.”

“Oh it was,” I said.

We sat huddled together like that for a while. Above the baseball field, clouds drifted under the bright full moon. We stared at them hypnotically until we were almost asleep. As I said earlier, I can't point to a single moment when the girls became like family to me, but when I reflect back on it now, I think of this specific moment in Andover. 

Creative Commons License
A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Tech Support for the Homeless

I've had a lot of free time while waiting for my back to get better.  I'm spending most of it writing about my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I decided to pick something out of those ramblings every week to post on the blog, until my next adventure begins.

Luckily, I've also been able to do some tech support on the side to pay for the medical bills. It's nice to have that to fall back on, but when I left my job last June to hike the Appalachian Trail, I wasn't sure if I'd ever fix another computer. Then a week later, while visiting Boston on my way to Mount Katahdin, I found myself in a fast food chain helping a homeless man with his laptop.

- - -

Given enough time, relentless rain can turn a peaceful brook into a raging river; it can have a similar effect on a person's mood. I needed to get under a roof. It poured for ten straight hours in Boston while I hopped from one historical site to the next. I went into a fast food chain to take advantage of their indifference to loitering and free Wi-Fi, which is also why the homeless man was sitting there.

I sat at the table behind him, so I could share the only power outlet.

"If you need an extra outlet, let me know," he said. "I have a three-way splitter." A baseball cap covered his long unwashed hair. His beard was dappled in gray. Every pocket in his cargo pants and vest, which he wore over a plaid flannel shirt, was stuffed full of who knows what.

"Actually, I don't think this outlet even works," I said. He was unknowingly running on battery power. My battery was dead, so I slid my laptop back in my backpack. He took it upon himself to see if the employees could get the power on for me, but didn't have any luck.

"Hey, maybe you can help me with something. Do you know anything about computers?" he said. His missing teeth gave his words an extra hiss.

"Fixing computers used to be my full-time job," I said.

He set his laptop on my table. "I can't get some of the pages on my web site to come up."

He clicked a link labeled "Definition of Akashic Records" and waited for it to load.

"My name's Bill," he said and put out his hand.

"Hi Bill. I'm Ryan," I said and shook it.

"So, where do you call home, Ryan?" I didn't have to tell him I was traveling, my large backpack gave it away.

"Well, right now, nowhere," I said.

"Oh, a fellow poor man!" he said. "I spent a lot of years travelling too, but I have a room at a shelter right now."

I didn't mean to lead him to believe I was homeless in the way he had been homeless. He seemed happy to think I was a penniless wanderer, so I couldn't tell him I intentionally quit my job and became homeless. Besides, I kind of liked the instant comradery. And with my soaking wet clothes, backpack, and two week old beard, I looked the part.

"I got this computer for fifty bucks," he said. "All I use it for is updating my web site, but see, the page isn't coming up." He showed me how his essay titled, "Letter to Oprah" loaded just fine, but "Dreams of Prophetic Nature" did not.

"Can I get you anything? A hot chocolate or something?" he asked.

"No, I'm fine. Thanks, though," I said. "So, the problem is you’re typing out your web pages on a typewriter, scanning the pages into a PDF file, then uploading them to your web site. They'll load a lot faster if you just type them directly onto your web site."

"There is a typewriter at the shelter. I type up my essays there, and then go to an office supply store to have them put on CDs, so I can upload them to my web site," he said. "That usually works fine, but what I don't understand is why some don't come up."

"Well, it's because some of the files are really big. They come up, you just have to wait a long time for them to load."

"But they're all the same size."

"I don't mean they are physically bigger, like on the screen. I mean that some of the files contain more data than others, so they take longer to load."

"But look," he said and took control of the laptop. "My essay on the 'Definition of Akashic Records' has less pages than 'Baseball Stories #61', but it doesn't come up.

"By data, I don't mean words. There are other reasons the file size might be larger. The Akashic Records file has scanned images in it, which makes it bigger. Also, it may not be as compressed, or it may have been scanned with a higher resolution."

"I don’t understand anything you're saying. I’m not a computer expert. I need yes or no answers,” he said. “Why does a file with less pages take longer to load?" He was obviously irritated and raised his voice a little.

"That isn't even a yes or no question," I said. I gave up on explaining the problem and said, "Let's do this. I can install a free program that can make the files smaller."

"Okay, but it's free? It's not going to charge me a monthly fee or anything?"

"Nope, it's totally free."

"Hey I appreciate your help with this," he said and switched back to a friendlier voice. "Are you sure I can't get you something? A hot chocolate or ice cream cone?"

"No, I'm fine. I appreciate the offer, though," I said and continued to work on the laptop.

"Here, take this." He handed me three dollars under the table secretly, like it was a bag of reefer.

"I'm not going to take your money."

In a whispered voice he said, "It's alright, look, I'll still have this," then showed me a ten dollar bill. "I get money from the government because I told them I was schizophrenic, but I'm not really. I just said that to get money. I don't feel good about it, but a lot of guys were doing it."

I was touched that he would give me almost a quarter of all the money he had. I've given a few homeless people money, but honestly, I usually walk by pretending I don't even hear them asking for spare change.

While I installed and setup the software, he talked about why he created a web site. "I've had some experiences in my life of a prophetic nature that I have found coincide with Biblical prophecy. My web site is like a public diary where I report these experiences, so others can read about them."

"Okay, cool," I said, but was thinking, Okay, cool, this guy's crazy, I can't wait to read his blog later.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to tell you my testimony," he said.

"I don't mind. Go right ahead.”

"I believe that God is always trying to tell us things. We just have to figure out what it is," he said. "I think one way he speaks to us is through other people, like my ex-wife. She was a natural psychic. We had the same birthday, but I was two years older. When we met I was twelve and she was ten. She was outside playing with some other kids that were older than us. They said I was to be her horse. They were going to throw her onto my shoulders and I was to gallop away, but when they threw her up I did something I didn't plan to do, I ducked. She fell to the ground and didn't move. I looked at her appalled at what I did. I couldn't speak or think, or even breathe,” he said with wide concerning eyes.

“Then suddenly she was swept up onto her feet and was now bouncing back and forth on both feet prophesizing. She said, 'There would be a tornado in Massachusetts that will strike down the cross on a church's steeple. People will come to you, William, and they will tell you that you did it.'" He stopped to make sure I was paying attention. "Do you follow so far?"

I nodded.

"Then she said, 'That will be within three days of the Waco, Texas massacre. In that same weekend, during the O.J. Simpson trial, Superman will fall from a horse and be paralyzed from the neck down.' I want to point out now that, during that time, O.J. Simpson was only sixteen years old and had never met Nicole Brown. And Christopher Reeve had not yet, or even thought of, staring in the modern Superman movies."

I mostly kept my eyes on his computer screen, installing the software and compressing the files, but he kept his fixed on me as he revealed his testimony. People walked in and out of the restaurant, some glanced over at us when he talked loudly with his hands or said something like, "I had dreams and visions for the next few days about the coming rapture."

A man sitting on the other side of the aisle was tapping an empty coffee cup while he read a book. I wouldn't have even noticed since the noise blended into all the other sounds of the restaurant. People were talking, fryers were beeping, the door was constantly opening and filling the room with the sounds of the city outside, but Bill's eyes constantly flicked over to that tapping cup.

"When everything was happening in Waco, Texas, I was in prison for hitting a cop," he said. "But that's… Uhh." His eyes flicked to the tapping cup again. "Umm, what was I talking about?"

"Hitting a cop," I said.

"Yeah, but I don't want to get into that and get side tracked," he said, but realized I might get the wrong idea about him. "Well, I'll just say the cop touched my wife inappropriately. But not in a sexual way. She was running from--"

His eyes flicked at the tapping cup again. He glared at the man for a moment then yelled "Sir! Could you please stop doing that!" He turned back and looked at me as if to say, "Can you believe that guy?" I started to wonder if Bill, who had seemed friendly enough, was actually dangerous. His dark sunken eyes seemed pretty benign before, but now seemed like those of a frazzled insomniac, or Charles Manson.

The man tapping the cup looked around to see who Bill was yelling at. He never tapped it again.

"In prison, I saw on a newspaper, the picture of the burning building in Waco, Texas," Bill said, getting back to his testimony. "And under the picture were the words, 'Blood, Fire, and Pillars of Smoke.' Those words come from a prophecy of Joel in the Old Testament in the second book of Acts. It says, ‘In the last days, sayeth the Lord, I will pour out of my Spirit onto all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesize. Old men will dream dreams and young men will see visions. And I will perform great and mighty signs and wonders in the heavens above, and on the earth below blood, fire, and pillars of smoke.’"

He paused for a second. Perhaps to allow for my gasp of disbelief that never came, then he went on.

"I went outside of the prison and prayed very loudly into a storming sky, 'Dear Lord God Almighty, are you awake up there? What does this all mean? Do you know what time it is here on earth? Is this the end times?' He wasn't answering me so I began to yell at God and demand that he answer me. I told him that I would no longer follow him if he didn't answer. Just then, five men walked by and asked if I could knock a cross off a church with a bolt of lightning. Then they said, 'because you did!' While I was yelling at God, a cross on a church steeple was struck down by lightning. Those men were blaming me for the lightning strike because I was yelling at God. Then I remembered this was all in my ex-wife's prophecy."

Wow, I thought, this guy is bat shit.

"Johnny Carson said a joke once that was like, 'What is the difference between Superman and O.J. Simpson.' Johnny Carson answered, 'O.J. Simpson walks!'"

That's kind of mean, I thought. "Johnny Carson said that?"

"Here, now read this." He pulled out a dog-eared bible that was stuffed into his cargo pants pocket. The cover was old and worn and the pages had ragged post-it notes sticking out around the edges. He slid the bible to me, pointing at a verse he had highlighted in yellow. "Now, read this."

It said,

"Listen, O my people, to my instruction;
Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings of old,
Which we have heard and known."

"Do you see?" he said.

I really wanted to. I just gave him a slow noncommittal single nod of my head.

"I doubt Johnny Carson even knew how prophetic this was," he said.

That part I agreed with. This talk went on for over two hours. I finished with his laptop and told him I had to leave because the hostel closed at eleven, which wasn't true.

"Oh, I've stayed in some shelters like that too. Yeah, they'll lock you out. But the web pages are coming up now?" he said. "Let me just try one before you leave." He clicked on the link to his essay, "Goat and Dog Fight."

"This essay is another end times prophecy that my ex-wife foretold. She said that near the end of days there would be a highly publicized goat and dog fight. I didn't know what it meant, but then in 1998 Evander Holyfield fought Mike Tyson. Well, Holyfield did what a goat would do in a fight and kept butting heads with Tyson. Then what did Tyson do? He did what a dog would do in a fight and bit Holyfield's ear."

The essay loaded quickly. "Ah, there it is," he said. "Thanks for your help. Are you sure I can't get you anything, an ice cream cone or some French fries?"

"No, really, I'll be okay," I said.

"Here," he took out his wallet again and thought for a moment. "Take this," he said, but this time handed me the ten dollar bill.

"I appreciate it, but I have some money. I'll be fine."

"Hey, I know what it's like. You have to learn to accept someone's help now and again," he said. "I don’t know why, but I think God is telling me to give you this."

"I really do appreciate it, but I'm not going to take your money, Bill." I stood up to leave. "There's one thing you can do to help me, though." I said. "Do you know how to get to Fenway Park from here? I'm not sure how to get back to my hostel, but I know how to get there from Fenway." I walked around Boston so much it was like twisting a Rubik's Cube. I made so many random turns, that I had no idea how to get back to where I started. It doesn't help that streets in Boston will sometimes change names.

"I don't know, but I'll help you find out," he said. We walked outside. It was still sprinkling. The few city lights still on reflected off the wet street and sidewalk. A woman walked toward us with her head down.

"Ma'am, could you help us out?" Bill asked. She walked past like she didn't even notice we were there.

"Sir!" he yelled to a man across the street. "Could you tell us how to get to Fenway?" The man didn't acknowledge us either. "Let's go in here, they'll help us."  He went into the office supply store where he had his essays scanned into digital files. I wanted to make a comment about how those people just ignored us, but it seemed normal to Bill.

"Excuse me, I wonder if you could help this young man find his shelter," he said to two women behind the counter. I never called my hostel a "shelter", but Bill didn't seem to know the difference. In all honesty, there really isn't much difference between a homeless shelter and most hostels.

"I know it's by Fenway. If you can tell me how to get there, I know I can find it." The woman looked at Bill then over at me. Her eyes seemed to ask, "How did you get involved with this guy?"

"It would be a lot easier if you just take the subway?" she said.

"Oh yeah, why didn't I think of that? And you can just use my card." Bill said. "I have a card that lets me use the subway for free.”

“Are you sure that’s okay?”

“Yeah, I'll just have to wait twenty minutes before I can use it again, but I don’t mind,” he said. I didn't mean for Bill to go to so much trouble. I thought he would be able to just point me in the right direction.

In a way, this allowed him to give me money without me taking his money. The arrangement made us both happy. I followed Bill outside then to the nearest subway station. We passed two homeless men using the awning of a closed business to get out of the rain.

"Hey, Bill," one sitting in a wheelchair said. "The other day you said you wanted to talk to me about something, but you never told me. What was it?"

"I'll tell you about it later. Right now I'm helping this young man find his shelter."

"Which shelter you staying at, Sojourner, Nazareth?" the other man asked with a friendly tone.

"No, well, it's actually a hostel," I said.

"Oh," he said. I felt like an outsider now. For a moment, I had a feeling that if I was homeless like they were homeless we would have had an instant bond, like how Marines will treat other Marines they just met like they're family.

I wish I would have just forgotten about the hostel and seen what it would have been like to follow them to a shelter, but at the time I was only thinking about how I had already paid for the hostel and left some things in my room.

"The subway is over here," Bill said. "I'll get you on the train then go back to talk to him while I wait the twenty minutes when I can use the card again." We crossed the street and went down the stairs into the subway tunnel. "That man in the wheelchair wasn't always paralyzed," Bill said. "He had a house and a wife before he was hit by a drunk driver. He lost his job, then his house, and then his wife left him."

I think of Bill and the man in the wheelchair whenever someone complains about our welfare system or tells me not to give money to a homeless person because they will only spend it on booze. I'm definitely no expert on the best way to fix homelessness in America, but it only took a couple of hours with Bill for me to see the situation differently. Many homeless people are the products of devastating circumstances.

"What I wanted to talk to him about was the prophecy regarding Christopher Reeves."

And some are schizophrenics that nobody will ever hire.

Bill swiped his card at the subway turnstile and passed through. "Wait, weren’t you going to let me in with your card?" I asked.

"Oh, I forgot, you'll have to buy a ticket at the kiosk," he said. "It's two dollars, here let me give you the money."

I was not going to take his money. "It's okay. I'll just use my credit card."

"You have a credit card?" he asked surprised. I worried he might look at me differently now, like the man under the awning.

I pushed through the turnstile. Bill led me to the platform and waited for the train with me.

When my train arrived, I gave Bill a goodbye hug. “It was good to meet you, Bill. Thanks for everything,” I said. “You too,” he said and patted me on the back.

I saw every historical site in Boston. I heard tour guides tell stories of their significance, but what I'll remember most about Boston is Bill. He'll be written off by many people. The people who ignored him on the street won't be the last. I know he's only trying to find the meaning for his life like everyone else, but people will hear his stories and just think he's crazy, like I initially did. And maybe he is. Okay he definitely is, but he's also the man who had very little and persistently tried to help me out anyway.

It made me think of a story I heard years ago. It was about an old man who gave a homeless man ten dollars, even though he didn't have much money to spare. He turned to his grandson and said, "Son, today we are rich." This confused the boy, so he asked his grandpa what he meant. He said, "because we have everything we need, and still had ten dollars to spare."

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Trail Names

“What’s your name?” a guy at the 501 shelter asked.

“You want my real name or trail name?” I said. Trail name would have been implied if he was a thru-hiker, but he wasn’t backpacking, so I wasn’t sure if he would even know what a trail name was. 

Inside the 501 Shelter
Nobody really knows how the trail name tradition started on the Appalachian Trail. A pseudonym is common for hobos, or if you prefer: drifters, gypsies, nomads, vagabonds, wanderers, or tramps. It doesn’t matter to me what you call it, I’ll still romanticize the lifestyle all the same. I imagine the first AT thru-hikers also romanticized that life, so the tradition seems to have carried over. 

“Trail name,” he said. 

I deepened my voice slightly, held out my hand to shake his, and said, “Nancy Drew.” It’s important to lower your voice a little before saying something like that. 

Let me go back a couple of months and explain...

Red was always a faster hiker than me, but I could usually keep up. That is, if I wasn't taking photos. If you’ve read my blog or seen my Flickr page, you know I take lots of pictures. Since this habit slowed me down, Red gave me the trail name, Cam. A.K.A The Cameraman, or as Thumper and Sixgun would sometimes call me, Cam Cam the Cameraman.

I never liked the name Cam. Everyone assumed my real name was Cameron, and I wanted a name with a good backstory. One day, I told the group that I was going to just come up with a different name whenever someone asked for it. I gave them the responsibility to come up with the backstory on the spot if anyone ever asked, “Why do they call you that?” 

For example, someone asked me for my trail name after I chipped my tooth on a piece of candy. 

“Chip Drifter, D.D.S.,” was my reply. 

“He’s actually a dentist in his spare time,” Thumper said. 

“Well, I’m not a licensed dentist, but I dabble,” I said. 

It became a pretty fun game, so frequently changing names became our thing. One day, Red said he was going to use the trail name, “Whoopie Goldberg”.

“No wait, how about Sister Act, instead,” he said. “No, Sister Act 3, because there isn’t a Sister Act 3 yet,” he said. 

“There’s a Sister Act 2?” I asked. 

“Yeah man, it’s only the greatest film of all time. The Godfather, Citizen Kane, they have nothing on The Acts,” as he called them. “Seeing it for the first time was like looking into the eyes of God! Right then I knew I’d never be the same.” Actually Red didn't say any of the stuff in this paragraph. I just thought it would be funny to immortalize him (as much as a blog with a small number of readers can) as the world’s biggest fan of the Sister Act franchise.

Later, when a hiker introduced herself to Red, he said his name was Sister Act 3. I had a backstory ready to go. 

“Why do they call you that?” she asked. 

“Oh, he’s out here to write a screenplay.” 

We later found out the person not only believed us, but told other hikers that there was a guy on the trail writing the screenplay for Sister Act 3. Stories travel fast out here. 

Don’t let Red’s thick New York accent fool you. I would regularly get to a mountaintop and see him already there sitting on a rock singing bluegrass. He’d be swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed and an enormous grin on his face, like a white ginger Stevie Wonder. On a day someone would meet him on the trail for the first time, they might just assume it was on the best day of his life. He was always in a good mood, which made him a great person to hike with. So when his cell phone rang while we were sitting on a mountaintop, the girls and I were shocked to see him look down at the caller ID and say, “I’m going to take this over there. There might be some yelling.” 

He walked off and we looked at each other. “Yelling? Can either of you picture Red yelling?” 

“Cam, you need to find out what that’s all about,” Thumper said. 

“Alright, I’m on it,” I said. “It will give me a chance to show off my Nancy Drew skills.” 

When Red came back, I did just that. “So, Red, what was that all about?” That was all I had to say. He simply told us. 

“Alright, mystery solved. What do you guys think of my Nancy Drew skills?” I said. I don’t remember what they said next, but obviously they were impressed. How could they not be? “I guess you can start calling me Nancy Drew,” I said. And so they did. 

I went through many names: Cam, Bella Funk, Nathaniel Hawthorn III, Jackson Five, Diane Keaton, The Messiah, The Voice of Reason, Magnitude, U-turn, Quiet Thunder, and perhaps the second most frequently used name, That Guy Hiking with the Sisters from Kentucky. The name Nancy Drew, however, spread beyond my control. It made people laugh. Whether it was with me or at me, I didn't care. A few weeks later, a northbounder introduced himself. I couldn’t think of a new name fast enough, so I deepened my voice slightly and said, “How you doing? I’m Nancy Drew.”

“Oh, I’ve heard about you!” he said. 

Oh no, I thought. Once thru-hikers start talking about a guy named Nancy Drew when you’re not even around, your kind of stuck with it. The name was a lot more popular than I would ever be.

So, it’s a couple months later and I’m at the 501 shelter in Pennsylvania. I didn’t plan on staying there that night, but it was one of the few shelters close enough to civilization for pizza delivery. Also, there were lots of women camping there. It’s not what you are thinking, unfortunately. They turned out to be lesbians. That is, except for one couple. When I told the guy my trail name was Nancy Drew the girls all looked at him. 

This wasn't the reaction I expected. Sometimes, especially when I got further south, I got mixed reactions to the name. There were less laughs and more awkward silences. I was told I might have to be careful in the south with a name like that. People might draw their own conclusions about me. One guy actually said, "Ahh, you gotta change that, man." If I was talking to someone who I thought might have an uneasy reaction to a guy calling himself Nancy Drew, I would sometimes introduce myself as, Nancy Fucking Drew, and strengthen my hand shake. It was sort of a survival reflex. You can't be too careful.

The reaction at the 501 shelter was unique though. They were all laughing and looking at him instead of me. 

“Oh man, are you a fan of the books too!?” he said. I’m willing to bet he was the only twenty-six year old male to have ever said that.  He probably thought for a moment, See, you guys, I'm not the only one!

“No, actually I've never read any,” I said.

“My favorite thing about Nancy Drew,” he went on enthusiastically, “Is that when she was working on a case and needed to clear her head, she’d go to the mall. Also, I liked that she always ended up catching a truly bad guy. It was never just the owner of a haunted carnival that stole some treasure or something; it was like a guy that beat his wife.”

That evening, we all sat around a campfire while one of the girls played Ani Difranco, Melissa Etheridge, and Indigo Girls songs on her guitar. As it turns out, my musical taste is not unlike a young lesbian woman’s, because I knew the lyrics of most of those songs and sang with them. They gave me a few cans of PBR and a couple shots of whiskey. The next morning, they made me a breakfast burrito. I was glad I decided to stay.

A few days later, I was sitting in the pub at the Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. A hiker, who I had passed a few days before, walked in. 

“Hey, you caught up,” I said. “So, how’s the hike going?“ 

“I was miserable. I’m done hiking," she said. "I hitched from the 501 shelter to here. Hey, did you know that after your entry in the 501 shelter log book, someone wrote, ‘We loved Nancy Drew!’” 

It made me feel good. Now that Nancy Drew had fans, I couldn't think about changing my name again. And I never did.
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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Thoughts About Death and Fun-size Candy Bars

(Photo: McAfee Knob, Virginia)
“Five people have died on the Appalachian Trail this year, did you know that?” a day-hiker asked me. He was hiking with his daughter to McAfee Knob in Virginia. I popped one of the fun-size Snickers bars that he gave me into my mouth and said, “hmm-umm.” 

“Yeah, I believe one had a heart attack. Another died in his sleep. I think it might have been one of those, what do you call it?" He looked down for a moment to think then said, "A brain aneurysm or something. Then there was a guy that slipped and fell in Maine. He died. Another guy had a stroke just twenty miles from finishing his thru-hike. The one everyone is talking about right now, though, is the hiker from Indiana that was beaten to death.” 

It's strange to imagine me as the Hoosier in that last headline, but this didn't make me feel any less safe. The Appalachian Trail is 2,181 miles long. It covers more square miles than most cities and millions walk on it every year. It would be amazing if nobody ever died on it. Besides, I know the stories that spread the fastest are about the rarest of incidents. Nobody bothers to say, "hey did I ever tell you about that hiker I never met that nothing out of the ordinary ever happened to?" And nobody ever clamored to get the movie rights from that hiker that didn't have to cut off his own arm.

Actually, a lot of day-hikers carried on about things that scared them about a thru-hike, like murderers and murdering. The thru-hikers, however, rarely talked about it. They spent far more time talking about how “fun-size” Snickers are actually less fun. Maybe this is what makes thru-hikers unique. I mean, to suggest that the fun in a Snickers bar is, somehow, not relative to its net weight... sorry, before I get all worked up I'll get back on topic...

“Have you ever heard of Randall Lee Smith?” he said. 

“Well, given our topic, and since you used his middle name, I suspect that he killed some people?”

“Yeah, in the early eighties," he said. "He shot two AT hikers near Pearisburg."

“Hmm, I’m two days away from Pearisburg,” I thought. 

“He went up to an AT shelter just outside of town with a shotgun. He shot one, then the other,” he said. “He went to prison for a few years, but got out on parole. Then in 2006, two fishermen were shot near the same spot near Pearisburg. A few days later, the police took Smith back into custody after he crashed a pickup truck that belonged to one of the two fishermen.” 

I don't know why he decided to tell this to someone who was thru-hiking. It almost seemed like he wanted to try to scare me or get me to question hiking the trail in the first place. I reached back to grab another one of those Snickers from the side pocket of my backpack. I suppose he was probably just looking out for me, to keep me on guard. I just refuse to believe that a man passing out free candy could have an ounce of menace in his heart. It’s surprising I made it into adulthood.

“Well, he went back to prison,” he continued. “And this time, he never got out. He died in there. If you ask me, he was murdered, but nobody really knows what happened to him.” 

When we were on the trail in Maine, Thumper asked me what my number one fear was. 

“Speaking in public probably, or dying,” I said. “Probably more the dying one than the speaking in public one.” 

I know I’m not the only one to have some anxiety about the inevitability of death. Unlike many people, however, I’ve never professed to know with any certainty that our consciousness continues after our brains die. Rarely, but on occasion, a thought would enter my mind that what I experience after death will be exactly like what I experienced before I was born. A lot of nothing. That idea could be almost paralyzing if I let it float around my mind for too long. 

I hadn’t thought about it much while hiking, but somewhere along the trail, the thought of death crept back into my brain. Actually, I remember the exact moment. I was in a shelter near Pearisburg, Virginia.

- - -

As the year progressed, the days became shorter. This meant more hiking at night to get the needed miles. I decided to stop for the night at one of the many three-walled shelters along the trail. I shined my headlamp inside. It was empty. I did what I normally did when I finished my day at a shelter. Before anything else, I sat down and made dinner. Actually, I typically shoved a honey bun into my mouth and then made dinner. 

I sat with my feet hanging over the side of the shelter and ate as I stared out at the dark moonlit woods. A flowing stream prevented a total silence. When I finished eating, I hung my food bag above the shelter floor away from rodents. Soon, I was wrapped snug in my sleeping bag and ready for bed.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I saw a yellow glow bob out of the shadowy trees. It was a man wearing a headlamp. There was a rifle in his hands. He walked across the front of the shelter. I tensed up. It happened too quickly to do anything, even if I wasn't constrained in my sleeping bag. Neither fight nor flight were options on the table. 

He turned and looked at me as he passed. His headlamp shined in my eyes. I said, “Hello,” because, you know, there’s no reason to be uncivilized. 

“How you doin’?” he replied and kept walking.

“I’m doing great, thanks, how about you?” I said, trailing off toward the end of my question as he walked out of earshot. 

It takes slightly longer to rationalize that a man walking down a trail at night with a gun is probably a hunter getting out of the woods late, than it takes to deem him a shotgun brandishing lunatic. I suppose there is some evolutionary survival value in that, so even though it only took a second to assume I wasn’t in danger, a part of me prepared for the worst. 

What would I have done if he was some kind of Randall Lee Smith copycat heading into the woods near Pearisburg with a shotgun over his shoulder? In that short amount of time, the only thing I could have done is roll back and forth in my sleeping bag like some carnival game duck with a target on its belly. Even if this was a cartoon, there wasn’t even enough time to plug the hole of the shotgun's barrel with my index finger. 

When he was gone, and I felt safe enough to consider falling asleep, I reflected about death again. I've heard people say there are no atheists in foxholes, but I think you'll find an equal number of completely confident believers in there with them. In the face of death, it wouldn't surprise me if most of the people in foxholes, regardless of their prior beliefs, are suddenly agnostic. I couldn't help but think, what if that man's sudden presence would have been followed by a bang and then dreamless sleep for eternity? Why should it be any different from the unconscious eons before I was born? Perhaps the more interesting question was, why didn't these thoughts freak me out like they have before? 

Of course, it should go without saying that I don't want to die, but there is a difference between not wanting to die and actually fearing death.While living the free and simple life on the trail, I came to accept this particular inevitability. At least to a point where I don't dwell on it anymore. I thought more about the misnomer "fun-size" than I did about murderers, falls, aneurysms, or bears. And it seemed, the other thru-hikers did as well. I think it's because my fear of death was largely a fear of never living the life I always dreamed of living. I was doing what I loved, I would continue to do what I loved for as long as I can, and que sera sera.

So, I've never been able to alleviate the fear of death by convincing myself that there is an afterlife, but does anyone really? I learned, however, that I didn’t need to. I just needed to live this life.

And as for my fear of public speaking... yeah, I don't see ever getting over that one.

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Florida Trail Update

If you've been following my blog, you may be wondering why I’m not back on the trail yet. I can assure you I’m desperate to get back. I have all my Florida Trail maps and I’m officially a card-carrying member of the Florida Trail Association, but I have to let my sore left leg heal before I can think about hiking again.

Many people have asked me how I injured it. It’s not due to a single accident, so I usually just say, “Well, I’m thirty-three and I just hiked 2,200 miles.” I’m hoping it’s just a torn muscle that will heal soon, since hiking 15-25 miles a day is the only plan I had for the next couple years. Meanwhile, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac and it’s not improving, so I worry it may be something worse than a torn muscle.

I’ve been a bit lazy lately, sitting on a couch with ice on my leg and popping anti-inflammatories, but since my mind is still very much occupied by my AT hike, and since I still can’t have a conversation with someone for more than two minutes without talking about it, I decided I’ll use this downtime to post more photos, thoughts, and stories about the trail. 

Like I said, I’m desperate to get back. My sister can attest to this by our recent trip to a Dollar General store. While she was shopping, I walked over to the food section. Not to buy food, but to be reminded of the Appalachian Trail. These stores were common in the south and I did a lot of my resupply there. I did so many resupplies in Dollar General Stores that I got tired of eating the same foods. Now I see those familiar packages with a feeling not unlike homesickness.

“Hello, apple pies with real fruit filling,” I thought. “How do you do, generic peanut butter and jelly in the same jar? And you, I could never forget you,” I picked up an oversized honey bun buried in a thick layer of chocolate icing, seven-hundred glorious calories for a mere fifty cents. “Greetings, old friend. It’s wonderful to see you again.”

Not that it has been proven clinically or anything, but I can assure you, I’m not crazy. I just miss the trail. How sad is it that I stared sentimentally at a god damn honey bun. I actually stopped to imagine I was just in some small unfamiliar Virginia town doing another resupply. I’d walk through those doors and rather than see the town I was so eager to leave months ago, there would be mountains forming the horizon. I’d walk down the road toward an AT trailhead with a backpack full of junk food and my thumb out, hoping for a hitch.

I’m writing this from our local McDonald’s. Sadly, my appetite is as ferocious as it was on the trail, but sitting on a couch with ice on my leg burns far fewer calories than hiking up mountains all day. I can already tell I’m gaining back some weight. 

I just stopped typing for a minute and caught myself daydreaming while staring through a little paper cup of ketchup. My mind inhabited by a fond McDonald’s memory. 

It’s August and I’m in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Thumper and Sixgun took a few days off to visit their parents. I waited for them to catch up in Lincoln. When they got to town, I was in a McDonald’s chatting with a woman who was traveling around the country in an RV. They burst through the doors. 

“Cam!” they yelled. Cam being the trail name given to me by Red on the second day of the hike, the day I met the girls. We crashed into a group hug in the crowded restaurant. Those few seconds, and the two days we spent in Lincoln afterwards, are some of my happiest trail memories.

It seems I can't go anywhere without something reminding me of the trail. I’m having another Dollar General moment and imagining this is a McDonald’s in a random Appalachian Mountain town. The girls would walk over with their tray of food anytime now. Soon they would have playing cards fanned out in front of them to continue our two-month-long game of Rummy. Unfortunately, the reality is that I’m sitting by myself in a McDonald’s. I have a sore leg I can’t hike on. I’m just staring blankly through a little paper cup of ketchup while rain distorts the view of an all too familiar town out the window.

While I’ve been back, inactive and waiting, the blues continue to accumulate as quickly as the pounds. I'm not a fan of sitting around and doing nothing. I'm not a fan of carbon-copy days. I need this leg to heal. I need to get to Florida.

Thoughts from Civilization

I loitered all alone on the summit of Springer well after Footwork left. The fog subdued the sunlight and concealed the view. Sounds were reduced to only the patter of rain. The combination of these things gave me a greater and much appreciated feeling of isolation. With the strong emotion I felt, I needed the alone time.

I sat on the southern terminus marker and flipped through the log books. It made me smile whenever I saw the name of a friend I met along the way who also made it to Springer. Most notably, Deckeye, Witticism, JTT, Right-Click, Lightfoot, Sponge, and Splake.

Amicalola Falls, the tallest waterfall
east of the Mississippi
It took a while to get myself to leave the summit. The realization that there would be no more white blazes to lead the way depressed me a little. When I finally left, I began to feel the post-hike blues. I'll be getting back on a trail before too long, but the AT is a unique experience. I was looking forward to seeing everyone back home, though, and spending a couple idle weeks out of the cold and rain. Not to mention eating massive amounts of holiday food.

I hiked the nine miles down Springer to Amicalola Falls State Park. My cousin, aunt, and nephew drove the ten hours from Indiana to meet me there. Before getting into their clean vehicle, I asked a park ranger to direct me to a camp shower where I could wash away my hobo aroma. My sister sent along some of my old clothes for me to change into. After lathering, rinsing, and repeating, I slipped on my old jeans without needing to unbutton them first. I walked out of the showers and showed my nephew how baggy they had become.

“Hey, check this out,” I said as I pulled my loose-fitting waistband away from my waist with my thumb. “I could fit Jared from Subway in these pants with me! Or, you know, something less weird of equal or lesser size.” 

During the ride home and the following weeks, I found it difficult to talk about anything but the trail. I decided to take advantage of this time when everyone wants to hear trail stories, because I’m sure people will get tired of hearing them long before I’m tired of telling them. Whenever there was a break in conversation, I often jumped in with a sentence that contained the words, “when I was on the trail.” 

New Hampshire
After ten hours on the road, I was back to where I left six long months ago. It’s incredible how efficient cars are at moving you around. For a measly three bucks in gas and half of an hour, I can cross a day’s hiking distance, even with hundreds of pounds of extra gear. Gas prices could double and it would still be an extraordinary deal. That's just one of the many things I see differently now.

Big Hump Mountain
The first night back in my hometown, my brother-in-law and I went to his bar. He let me have all the free celebratory drinks I wanted. I sipped on whiskey and drank shots of whatever the bartender brought over. A guy with a full beard walked in and sat at the table next to me. My instinct was to ask, “You thru-hiking? North or southbound?" but sadly, those words would have had no meaning here. I tried starting a conversation with a couple people, but I seemed to have lost my ability to talk to non-hiking strangers, unless I’m talking about the trail. My mind is still consumed with the AT. What else is there to talk about? 

The view from a hot tub
 in Rangeley, ME
The hangover the following morning made me regret drinking over a half bottle of whiskey. It reminds me of the hangover I had “when I was on the trail...”

It was five months ago, a woman in Rangeley, Maine invited us to stay in her beautiful lake house. We weren't the only people she's had over. She had photos on her walls of some others who have stayed in her home: Bill Clinton, Shaquille O'Neal, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore, to name a few. She had a wonderful photo of Barack Obama playing peak-a-boo with her granddaughter. She has lead quite an amazing life. Bambi and I got to hear all about it while relaxing with her in her outdoor hot tub under a bright full moon. When I got too warm, I jumped into the clear cool lake.

North Carolina
Red made a huge dinner that night on her outdoor brick grill. She opened up six bottles of wine, two of which I drank myself. The next morning I woke up early and walked back out to the lake. I couldn't see to the shore on the other side because the fog condensed my visibility to a few dozen feet around me. That also meant nobody could see me. I walked to the end of the pier. It was a little chilly, so I didn't plan on swimming. I didn't even put on shorts to swim in. I stripped down and dropped into the water. While I acclimated to the cold, two loons swam out of the fog toward me. They were so close that I could see their necks palpitate when they sang their infamous undulating song. I've never seen loons get that close to someone. 

McAfee Knob
The Last White Blaze
All that wine the night before gave me a bad hangover like the one I got from the free whiskey I drank in my brother-in-law's bar. The point in telling you this story right now is so you can see how all my thoughts lead to a trail story. Everything reminds me of the trail, and I reflect sentimentally about all of it, even a splitting headache with nausea.

The First White Blaze
After leaving the bar, I slept on the floor of my sister’s house. There was a perfectly good couch a few feet away, but I couldn’t fall asleep until I grabbed my sleeping bag and moved to the floor. I guess I’ve gotten used to the ground. I woke up the next morning and took my third consecutive daily shower. I haven’t had a streak like that in months. I understand the need for it in civilized life, but it almost seemed excessive. By trail standards, I’m already satisfactorily clean if I can step into a shower and not see a trail of dirty water circling the drain at my feet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very fond of cleanliness, but I kind of miss not caring about getting dirty. I smell like soap for god’s sake. Clean, fragrant, soap, like a common day-hiker! 

If I didn’t already have plans to get back on a trail, I think I would feel completely lost right now. I got used to letting white blazes tell me where to go next. I miss having my course so clearly laid out before me, with no decision-making, stress, or anxiety about what I should be doing next.

I also miss the simplicity of living outdoors with my possessions limited to what will fit in a twenty-five pound backpack. I would love to sleep in a lean-to tonight, fully enveloped by natural sounds and cerulean moonlight, even if it had mice scuttling around. Actually, especially if it had mice scuttling around for reasons I don't think I could explain. I want to go back to when each day meant new mountains to climb, new towns to explore, and new people to meet. I want to see all my trail friends again. I want to wake up every morning with purpose and that unquestionable confidence that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. 

The only thing that seems to diminish the post-hike blues is planning and thinking about my hike to Florida. I wonder if I should or could ever go back to life as it was.

I know it has only been a few days, but I believe the trail has changed me forever, and for the better. It seems living so simply for so long has ruined me for the traditional modern life, but I'm fine with that. I see people getting stressed so easily, and needlessly. I've been reminded of that dread of having to get out of bed to start another day of unsatisfying labor, to buy things that I've learned I don't really need. I don’t want to go back to that life. I have to believe there is a better way. 

I know living how I have for the past six months is ultimately unsustainable, both financially and physically, but I have to keep it going for as long as I can. I have to because since getting back home, I've begun to feel like I'm losing the thing I love most about the Appalachian Trail.
The feeling of knowing, beyond any doubt, that I’m living my life in a way that is worthy of life itself.

- - -

One last thing before I end this post. I've been thinking about a poem Footwork read to me one morning in the Smokies. Good or bad, depending on your interpretation, I feel that in some ways I'm becoming one of the men it describes. It is called, The Men Who Don't Fit In, by Robert W. Service:

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance; 
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha!  He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone; 
He's a man who won't fit in.

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Amazon Kindle Review, For Backpackers

I should start by saying; I’m not generally a fan of gadgets on the trail. That being said, on the Appalachian Trail, I had a few. On long distance hikes, a little distraction can go a long way. The one gadget I have begun to take on every trip, however, is my Kindle. It has become my most favorite, non-essential, item that I carry.

Below, you’ll find my review of the Kindle as it pertains to backpacking. I have also included links to various handy resources you may want to have on your e-reader of choice, when on the trail.

So, why is the Kindle my favorite non-essential item?

1 – It shaves ounces from my pack
I can carry hundreds of books and it will never weigh more than 8.5 ounces (9.5 oz. with my homemade protective sleeve, see below). Before the kindle I normally packed two books for a one-week trip, which weighed about 12-13 oz. Also, I will often pick up a new paperback before heading out, and just not get into it, so it just becomes dead weight. With an ebook reader, I can take anything I think I may want to read, and purchase new books along the way, without worrying about the weight.

Not only do I carry dozens of books, but also hiking-related reference books and documents that I created myself, that I would never carry with me including: 
  • Wilderness survival books and quick reference guides
  • First aid guides and emergency phone numbers
  • Town and Backup Trail Maps
    • An ebook reader doesn’t replace the need of a good paper map, of course, but can be used for a backup trail map. These maps can also cover areas you doubt you will need, such as towns and side trails that could be needed in emergencies or resupply. Saving screenshots of Google Maps as PDFs (see below) and syncing them to the Kindle can be very useful.
    • On the Appalachian Trail, I purchased Awol’s loose-leaf AT Guide and scanned it into a PDF file for the Kindle. I kept the pages I would need for a section of trail in my pocket, and put the ones I didn't need in a bounce box that I sent to the post office in my next resupply town. On several occasions it came in handy to have the entire book on the Kindle.
  • Keep information on airports, taxi and shuttle services, and Bus and Train stations. Such as phone numbers, addresses, and schedules. 
  • Miscellaneous backpacking notes, documents, or spreadsheets
    • For example, instructions for tying useful knots, wildlife and plant field guides, tips for predicting weather, or information on what plants or berries can be safely eaten. 
To easily create PDFs, you can download the free PDF creator, Cute PDF. After installing, simply print the document and select the CutePDF Printer to save the file as a PDF.

2 - Battery Life
One reason I’m not a fan of gadgets on the trail, is batteries. The kindle will last up to three or four weeks on a single charge, if wi-fi is turned off. Two weeks is a good estimate if you are a heavy reader and use the kindle for note taking or playing a game.

The e-ink display on the kindle, will only use the battery when you turn a page, or when the screen refreshes while typing or using an app. This means, when I fall asleep in the middle of reading, it won’t drain the battery. Also, when I wake back up it will be on the same page I was reading. 

If longer battery life is needed, I also carried a USB charger (.883 ounces) with two lithium AA batteries (1.06 ounces) that I used for an emergency backup for my cell phone, or if I needed it, to get another couple weeks of power for my kindle.

3 – FREE Internet Access
Free, as in Amazon does not charge you to connect to their 3G network (note: All Kindle's allow you to connect to wi-fi, but to use Amazon's free 3G service, a 3G capable Kindle must be purchased.)  You can't watch videos or visit flash web sites, and the browser on the kindle is a pain to use. But, that is a good thing, in my opinion. I don’t want to be tempted to browse the internet on the trail, or have access to a million apps. It does come in handy, however, if you are able to get a cell signal and want to check the weather, trail conditions, or read trail journals of other people on the trail. It's also handy if you’re nearing a town and want to know what stores, restaurants, or hotels are available, or make reservations. I can also email friends and family. If nothing else, it’s nice to know you have a way to search for phone numbers of business, taxis, or emergency services.

If the kindle ever becomes a better internet browsing tool, I may have to stop carrying it. I don't want the distraction. As it is now, its perfect. Annoying enough to use, so that I only use it when I have a good reason.

4 - The Kindle Store
When in cell phone range, you can access more books, or books about a specific topic you may only have thought about while on the trail. For example, when hiking in Yosemite, I was inspired to read the writings of John Muir. Or, I could have gotten a book about the park in general. It was also nice to be able to download something new to read while sitting in a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, without having to wait for the next resupply town.

5 - Cost
The cheapest Kindle is currently only $79 with wi-fi only. I prefer the $139 3G model with a keyboard (for note taking). The extra $60 is worth it to me to have the unlimited free 3G service, since wi-fi is useless on the trail.

Special Care
The only real downside to the Kindle or any other ebook reader is that they requires special care that books don’t. I found an inexpensive way to protect my Kindle that has survived 2,400 miles of hiking and cramming it in and out of a backpack a couple hundred times. I cut a blue foam mat to torso length and used the excess to make a cheap case. I put my Kindle in a zip-top bag to waterproof it, and slip it into the foam case. I've dropped it a few times without problems. In the zip-top bag, I've dripped water on it and handled it with greasy fingers while I'm eating and it still looks brand new.

I could say much more, but this is strictly a review of Amazon’s Kindle as it relates to hiking, camping, and backpacking. For more specs, and demonstrations of how it works, please visit the Kindle page on
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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.   

Village Farmer and Bakery

From the outside the most intriguing thing about Village Farmer Bakery in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, is the large sign depicting a hot dog and slice of apple pie holding hands standing over the words, "True Love!" Holes are cut out at the top of them, so you can stick your face in for a photo op.

When I saw the inside my face lit up like Charlie walking into Willie Wonka's edible Chocolate Room. There are so many delicious things in this building it overwhelms the senses. Well, at least to someone with a thru-hiker appetite.

Thru-hikers talk about food more than anything else. We need 5,000 calories per day, so are always hungry. We describe every food we happen to be craving like we suddenly all work for Bon Appetit Magazine.

Even tiny morsels become important. One day, I saw two M&Ms in the dirt and mumbled something about the damn day-hikers leaving food on the ground.

"How do you know they're from day-hikers?" Red wondered.

"Because a thru-hiker would have picked that back up out of the dirt and eaten it." Hell, I even thought about eating it.

At the beginning of this trip, we all underestimated how much food we would want to eat. In the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine I was so hungry I licked the insides of the flavor packets from my Ramen Noodles to get every calorie. And I overheard Thumper say to Sixgun, "Are you going to throw away that Cheerios dust?"

"Yeah," she replied. "Do you want it?"

"Uh yeah, that's second breakfast."

So yes, we love food out here. If you're curious, I just bought a Boston Cream Pie (to share with Deuce and Brother), some cookies for my next stretch of trail, and their famous $2.49 combo, a slice of apple pie and a hot dog. Mmm, together at last.

Church of the Mountain

Yesterday afternoon, I crossed over the Delaware River and into Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. I planned to grab some food and get back on the trail, but had my needed miles for the day and couldn't pass up the hospitality of the Church of the Mountain. They keep a room open 24 hours for weary hikers, a warm dry place with couches, bunks, shower, and restroom. The fee is whatever you can afford, $3 recommended. I stayed up late chatting with two other sobos, Deuce and Brother. They are nice and I hope our paths occasionally cross again, but of course nobody could replace Sixgun and Thumper. I talked about them, and all the experiences we had on the trail, so much that Deuce said, "Man, now I'm missing them," even though he never met them.

Anyway, I really like Delaware Water Gap, PA. The food is great and the people very friendly. It's amazing how that changes by simply crossing a river.

More Wildlife

I climbed on top of this mountain that I didn't know the name of. The view was so amazing I thought, okay, so maybe NJ isn't so bad. Just then I nearly stepped on a Timber Rattler. He coiled up and hissed. Not in the mood for pictures at all. In fact he was a bit of a drama queen if you want to know the truth. I looked up the name of the mountain for this blog post. It's Rattlesnake Mountain. I wonder how they come up with these crazy names for things.

A hiker just passed by and I told him to watch out. He told me he just saw two bears. Hmm, maybe no night hiking tonight.

The Tortoise

This footlong tortoise was the highlight of my day. Not that the pizza wasn't fantastic, but after hiking 19 miles of flooded trail that got as high as knee deep, with moody gray skies, relentless rain, and lightning cracking overhead, I was starting to feel low. It didn't help that I was soaked to the bone and the temperature dropped into the 40s. I had my head down plowing through the miles when I almost had a head-on collision with this guy. He helped to put a smile back on my face.

I made it to the Mashipacong Shelter after dark, happy to have a roof overhead so I could dry off and sleep, but the leaky shelter was full of hikers.

This morning I ran for much of the first 7 miles toward food in Branchville, NJ which seems to hate hikers. Rude business owners, silent unfriendly stares from locals, and I even got flipped off by a passing motorist for no reason.

So far NJ has been a hard state to love. There is one more day to turn that around, I'll be in PA tomorrow.

New Jersey Border

I'm in New Jersey now. I've actually been walking along the state border with NY for a couple days, so I go back and forth. New Jersey is where my chances of seeing black bears increases. They say there is one bear per square mile in some parts. Coincidentally, bears can smell strong odors from two miles away. Don't worry, I don't believe there has ever been a bear attack on the AT. You only need to worry about my food supply.

So far, New Jersey has been wet, muddy, and mosquito infested. Foot bridges and bog logs have been washed out from flooding, so I've spent the days sloshing through water and trying not to slip on roots and rocks. If I try to slow down and avoid the water, by walking over stones, the mosquitoes swarm in numbers unlike any other state so far. It hasn't been an ideal couple of days, but surprisingly I still love it. It sure beats the cubicle life.

On My Own

The second half of my journey started out foggy and wet. I'm being drizzled on by the leftovers from last night's rain getting blown off the leaves above me.

I wonder what the next three months will be like. What will I see and do? Who will I meet? It will undoubtably be different than the previous three months, because I've come to realize the experience of hiking the AT isn't formed by the wilderness or the seemingly endless miles of trail, but by the people you meet. I'm incredibly sad that my friends are gone, but also excited by the unknowns ahead.

Thumper Going Home

Due to lack of funds, Thumper has decided to go back home to Kentucky.  She didn't leave unhappy though. She got on the bus excited that she'd soon be seeing her family again after three long months in the Appalachian mountains.  I met her and her sister (Sixgun Wild) on day two of my trip, so it's hard to imagine the AT without them.  I've never been closer to people I've only known for three months. We had a hell of a time and a lot of laughs. They were a huge part in making this trip the best time of my life.  I don't even want to think about how this trip would have been different if our paths didn't meet.

I will miss you both so much!  I know we'll see each other again. You are family now.  Please don't forget to call or send me the occasional text.

Creative Commons License
A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.