Let’s get physical.

I like to think that, physically, I’m in good enough shape to hike the Colorado Trail. I ran (slowly) two marathons last year, one of them in Colorado’s Front Range. I also finished a few triathlons this spring. However, as I’m planning on backpacking across 8 mountain ranges while on the wrong side of 50, I thought it best to get a checkup first.

After initial pleasantries, the first thing the Dr said was, “Your neck looks big.”

“Thanks Doc,” I replied, “I have been working out. I’m thinking my shoulders and chest might be a little bigger too.”

Apparently what he meant was that my thyroid was enlarged. He said I should get an ultrasound right away as enlarged thyroids will turn cancerous on you. He asked if there was any family history of thyroid issues. I replied, “Not really. Other than my mom had her’s removed, and my dad’s mom actually died from her thyroid. Oh, and my brother is on thyroid medication. Other than that though, no history at all.”

“Get that ultrasound ASAP.”

“I’m all over it Doc.” (As soon as I get back from the hike.)

Later in the physical the Dr asked about my drinking habits. I responded truthfully; that I rarely drink a lot, but do have a beer or two nearly every day. Satisfied with that answer, he switched subjects to my prostate health as he pulled a glove on. “How often do you get up during the night to go to the bathroom?”

I replied, “Last time I didn’t have a drink before bed, I slept straight through till morning, no problem.”

“Well, in that case, no need to check; your prostate is fine,” he stated as he peeled the glove back off with a sigh of relief that nearly matched mine. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the last time I didn’t have a drink before bed, it was 1997.

So the bottom line is; looks like my health is assured. Let’s get ready to hike.

Ready to hike. Does my neck look weird?

Ready to hike. Does my neck look weird?

Appalachian Trail or Colorado Trail?

If you’ve ever backpacked at all, you’ve probably thought about hiking the most famous long distance hiking trail in the world, the Appalachian Trail, or AT. Of course, that thought might have been, “no way in hell,” but you thought about it nonetheless.  I’ve thought about it as well. I’ve even gone so far as to do a little research on what hiking the AT would entail. Beyond a little Internet study I’ve read a couple books about hiking the trail. As of right now, my Kindle contains 24 books written by successful AT thru-hikers.

Luckily for you, there is no need to read that many books. While the writing styles and abilities vary considerably, the information in the book is surprisingly consistent. Nearly every book makes the same main points. Here’s my take on every book ever written about the AT.

  1. The author was woefully unprepared for the rigors encountered.
  2. The hiking was much more difficult than imagined.
  3. The shelters were often crowded, dirty and full of mice.
  4. Privies along the way can be nasty.
  5. It rained…. A lot. Plan on being wet for days at a time.

    View on the AT

    View on the AT

  6. At times, the mosquitoes or other bugs were unrelenting.
  7. There’s a significant chance you’ll get Lyme disease and/or West Nile disease.
  8. There are some amazing views, but much of the time you’re hiking in a “green tunnel.”
  9. Six months of hiking can get surprisingly difficult on a psychological basis; also difficult on any relationships back home.
  10. There will be tough times when it takes tremendous willpower to keep from quitting.
  11. It was a wonderful experience.

And these are people that finished. Not many books have been written by those that quit the trail. You have to wonder if their viewpoint would tilt more towards negativity.

As an alternative to what was starting to appear to me to be a 2,000 mile plus slog, I started looking at the Colorado Trail; 500 miles through mountains from Denver to Durango. For me, at least while I’m sitting in my warm, dry house, the Colorado Trail (CT) offers the challenges and benefits of a long distance hike while avoiding some of the hardships of the AT.

  1. Only about 150 people attempt the CT each year (compared to 3,000 on the AT), so crowds on the trail or at prime camp areas should be non-existent. (Downside – Don’t get hurt; you may be on your own. Fix that snapped femur with duct tape and a stick. You did bring duct tape, didn’t you?)
  2. There are no shelters to be disappointed in. (Downside – There’s no shelters to use for things like…..shelter. When it rains, you’re getting wet.
  3. There are no privies to be disappointed in. (Bonus – your leg muscles will get stronger from squatting.)
  4. Much less rain and bugs. (Hard to find a downside there, other than it may snow instead.)
  5. The highest point on the AT is Clingman’s Dome at 6,625 feet. The average elevation of the CT is over 10,000 feet. You’ll spend significant time above tree line with amazing views nearly every day. (Downside – There’s a lot less oxygen up there. At its high point, 13,271 feet, there’s  40% less air than at sea level. Also, when it does rain/snow that high, there’s typically lightning and you’re the tallest thing around.)

    Common view in Colorado

    Common view in Colorado

  6. The plan is to be done in 5 weeks. A long hike to be sure, but short enough to see light at the end of the tunnel during a bad day. (Assuming the bad day isn’t Day 2.) Of course, that’s still plenty of time to see how I look with a neck beard. Plus, at my age, that may even be enough time to grow a nice crop of ear hair. We’ll have to wait and see on that one, but I’ll let you know if I’m successful.

And, it would be hard to beat singing John Denver songs to myself as I hike in the Rockies; provided I can suck in enough air to do anything beyond panting and wheezing.

 “I guess he’d rather be in Colorado
He’d rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after a rain…”

John Denver

While it appears the decision has been made, perhaps a test hike on the AT would sway me. Here’s how it went.

Backpacking the “Little Smokies” (Part 2)

Read Part 1 first!

It was around 4 AM when I determined that the 30 degree comfort rating on my sleeping bag was woefully optimistic. We were 6 miles into a 23 mile backpacking trip at Shawnee State Forest, about 2 hours east of Cincinnati, so picking up the 0 degree bag was going to be difficult.

The temperature bottomed out right around 30, so, while I wasn’t cozy, I wasn’t facing hypothermia either. The rain fly on my double wall tent was covered in condensation, but I had stayed dry. The ultra-light single wall tent of Bill’s captured the condensation and actually filled the interior with ice crystals. Per Bill, the design worked best on dry, breezy, warm summer nights. (In other words, when you don’t really need a tent at all.)

Bring on the cold!

Bring on the cold!

After a breakfast of freeze dried sausage, potatoes and eggs (good thing I brought a lot of gorp), we started on the day’s target distance of nearly 13 miles. I warmed up fast, not so much because of the sun, but due to the climb out of the camp area of approximately 350 feet in just over a quarter mile. It was just the first of four “epic” climbs that day.

The weather turned out great with a blue sky and temperatures climbing to 60. While most of the leaves had dropped, allowing for some great views, there were still a few oaks and maples holding on to provide a splash of color.

Shawnee tree

We reached Camp 2 of the North Loop by a bit after noon, were able to refill our water bottles, and broke for lunch. Immediately after passing Camp 2 we walked into what turned out to be the toughest climb of the entire hike. In his book, “Backpacking Loops and Long Day Hikes in Southern Ohio,” Robert Runchhoft describes the hill there as an “agonizing obstacle” and the climb as “grim.” Bill and I came up with additional descriptive terms, and most of those were four letters as well. It seems the trail designers had never heard of the term switchback because nearly every hill was attacked straight up.

Thankfully, after the climb, the trail stayed on a ridge for quite a while and we were able to enjoy great views and another perfect day. We also passed by the only other people we’d see on the entire trail, two squirrel hunters and a small group day hiking near a road crossing. With an hour of daylight left, we arrived at Camp 3, which had been moved from the top of a ridge into a hollow, and uncomfortably close to State Rt. 125.

We had time to set up camp and enjoy some freeze dried pasta primavera (just like mom used to make) before darkness and the temperature fell. Colder than the previous night, the fire became less about atmosphere and more about staying warm. Climbing into the sleeping bag later, I hoped wearing pants, two pairs of socks and three shirts would lower the comfort rating of the bag to match the temperature.

Backpack tip # 273  if you are using  a flashlight that fits on the bill of a ball cap, make sure you actually bring a cap with you. Otherwise you may find yourself in the woods wearing a less than fashionable cap from Dollar General.

Morning of day three arrived crisp and clear. The viewing window in my tent’s rainfly had frosted over and there were icicles hanging from the tent poles, but I had stayed warm enough for a good night’s sleep. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and Advil, I was ready to break camp and tackle the final 5 miles back to the car. By now, most of the food was gone and my pack was nearly as light as Bill’s was when he started, so hiking would be easier.

This final stretch is shared by both the North and South Loop of the Shawnee Backpack trail. Much of the route parallels State Rt. 125 and the vehicle noise detracts from the “wilderness feel” the rest of the trail provides. Despite the occasional sound intrusion, the trail remains scenic with stretches along a stream and views of Turkey Creek Lake before dropping out of the woods, to the car and the two hour ride back to Cincinnati.

Crunching through dry leaves, we didn’t spot much wildlife, though deer and turkey are prevalent and even bear are spotted on occasion. Traveling earlier in the season would have resulted in more wildlife sightings, but less of the grand vistas opened up by the leaf drop.

The Shawnee State Forest Backpack Loops are seriously challenging and should not be taken lightly. The trail is long, rugged, steep and secluded. Having potable water and a latrine at each camp area is a nice touch though. The trail is a great adventure unto itself, but could also serve as a good trial hike for those contemplating a significant mountain backpack trip. As the Guidebook mentioned before says, be prepared for a strenuous, arduous struggle. Bring plenty of gorp, it will be fun!

Ohio State brochure on the trail