Father-Son Overnight Hike Day 1

Let me start off by saying… I’M BACK BABY!!! Wedding…done.  Honeymoon…done.

It is almost overwhelming to go from having “something to do” every moment of every day to instantly having NOTHING to do.  In the last week I’ve progressively re-upped my habit of scouring backpacking information constantly.  It feels great. Just the act of sitting around and THINKING (I like caps lock as an accent mark BTW) about going on a hike is more fun than most things I’ve been doing in the last 6 months.  I think there really is some value for adults to maintain some degree of imagined goal.  It just seems to make me happier to have something positive to daydream about when things are not quite so positive.  In therapy we sometimes will call it a “mind-vacation”.  Getting stressed out, about to break things and run amok, take a mind vacation.  While I’d always rather go on a hike, taking a mind-vacation on the trail isn’t quite so bad.

Anyway enough of that.

When last I left you I updated that in the week prior to the wedding my father and I would be going on an overnight hike on the AT.  Well it happened and it was great!  Here’s the trip report.

The background is that this was the first time my father and I had hiked together in probably 20 years.  The last time was our trip up Kendrick Peak in the Kaibab National Forest.  Our wedding was a unique opportunity for my dad and I to be in the same place, with time off, and a lot of free time.  We had been sharing lately about his following our Appalachian Trail preparation and ascent into being more capable backpackers.  While my dad has done a lot of outdoors stuff, mostly hunting, boating, camping.  He probably hasn’t backpacked per se since he was a Boyscout.  So this opportunity was perfect.

We hiked on the Appalachian Trail from NY Route 52 to Morgan Stewart Memorial Shelter.  My resource says 3.9miles each way.  The terrain is pretty easy, with the inevitable trudge out of the pass up to the ridge right at the beginning.  After that a few simple up and downs and you make hug the ridge for the rest of the trip.

That’s the easy way to put it.  How we arrived at the decision to hike there is a whole other story.  As covered before, my WIFE (cool) and I are preparing for our thru-hike in 2013.  As a result I tend to try to view every hike as a training opportunity.  Go hard, go far, go fast, get blisters, be cold and wet, push your limits.  This works very well for me, who sees every single hill as a battle and my ability to get over it a chance to conquer.  Liz on the other hand likes to enjoy hikes, take it slow, note different patterns in tree growth, and be safe and comfortable.  Needless to say this can lead to some… conflict.

That is what made this hike so unique.  I’ve hiked almost the entire section of the AT in NY from Fahnestock State Park to Connecticut (got a small section to finish up).  So I didn’t need to use this as a test.  I still always like to “get the blood pumping” as it were but no, this didn’t need to be a 15 mile evaluation of mustard slicing ability.  With that reality it very much changed the plan as it forced to reevaluate what was the purpose of this hike.

I went through a lot of answers to that question.  I wanted my dad to see what we do for sure- loading a pack, hiking with that much weight, navigating mid-hike “necessities”, evaluating calories and water intake, being physically relieved to get to camp, etc.  Initially I sat down and looked for the sections with the highest altitude, some sort of great vista, maybe even a picturesque river or something.  NY isn’t great for that (better than Maryland though).  That section does have the benny of having one of the best shelters on the AT (so I’m told), the RPH Shelter.  There is also the Shenandoah Tent Site where you can get water from a spigot and sleep on grass!!!

With this ideas in mind I set to planning out route.  I came up with a number of options- 12.5 miles to the Ten Mile River Lean To; 8 Miles to Wiley Shelter; 8 Miles to Morgan Stewart.  You may see a trend here.  5+ miles isn’t a lot of miles in a day.  In fact its quite few.  At a pedestrian speed of 1 mph you can accomplish that with plenty of site seeing.  That was my plan initially.  I say initially.

As the week began we had a few conversations about the hike.  How much weight were we taking?  What were we doing for food?  What to expect kind of stuff.  It was fun kind of teaching somebody about backpacking.  I don’t get to do that much with Liz, she likes to figure it out on her own and we are at a pretty even spot in terms of experience.  As those conversations wore on though I started to pick up something I hadn’t expected- my dad was worried about how this would go.

My dad is quite physically able for a 56 year old guy.  When I was in college he wakeboarded with us 2 times a week.  When I graduated high school he built a giant ramada in our backyard by himself.  Even today he still bears the hallmark of being very capable of most things.  But this, this hike, he wasn’t so sure of.  His main concern was energy, endurance, and foot pain.  Despite his status as a postal worker, it is not the cardiovascular exercise you may think.  So it makes sense that my assertion “yeah we are going to walk for 3 or 4 hours” was a little daunting.

It was then that a light sort of went off in my head.  Why was I looking at 8 or 15 miles?  I know the answer is that I know he could do it.  I tried to remember our first hikes a year ago.  I tried to recall how it felt to do my first 8+ mile days.  The answer– it felt great, overwhelmingly great.  Here I realized something though- that isn’t what this hike was about.  That isn’t what the AT is about.

I remember my best times backpacking so far.  One was sitting at Jim and Molly Denton Shelter in Shenandoah talking with “Sipsy” and “Spirit” and two other thru-hikers just enjoying the day.  I had decided to stop short at 15 miles instead of pushing on and finishing in the dark.  This allowed me to get in around 2pm and have a full evening to take it slow.  THAT was what I wanted him to see because THAT is what we will be enjoying when we are on the AT.

I also recalled my solo hike to Telephone Pioneers Shelter on a night when it dropped to 17 degrees F.  I did 11 miles that day (first double digit).  But today I can’t even remember doing the hike.  All I can actually remember is setting up my gear on my own, eating like crazy to make sure I had enough calories to stay warm over night, sitting in the shelter looking over the valley (great view with no leaves) and being very happy, feeling like my fingers were getting frostbitten as I got them wet cooking, and finally being very afraid I wasn’t going to be warm enough only to find out I was PERFECTLY warm.  The most clear memory though is sitting in the shelter at sunset looking over the valley (great view with no leaves) and being very happy.  It’s the time at the shelter I really loved.  I’m going to miss the quote but I remember somebody referring to an AT thru-hike as a lot of really fun camping with some walking in between.

So I went back to the drawing board.  I needed to find an easy way to do this.  One that could guarantee that we weren’t sore or overexerted by the end of the trip.  The answer to this was the aforementioned 4 miles to Morgan Stewart Shelter.

We set out on the trail on Monday morning around 1030.  That morning Liz and I and our family went to get our marriage license, which took a little longer than expected.  The therapist in my loves the symbolism of getting a legal marriage certificate and then immediately running into the woods.  This was benefit No. 1 of cutting down the miles- we didn’t need to rush to get on the trial.

Once we were on the trail I took the lead.  This was my dad’s first time hiking with trekking poles.  It was his first time with this much weight on his back.  There were a lot of variables in general.  This is where my learning process started.  I needed to go slow enough to not gas him right from the go.  That’s exactly what we did.  Maybe 1mph for the first few hours.  Maybe.  When you get to a point that you can do a 2.5-3mph pace easily, slowing down is actually quite challenging.  However I noticed that as I did this, it was a lot more fun.  I wasn’t really even thinking about the destination.  A 4 miles hike became a series of short little walks.  While it made the overall time seem long, it wasn’t an annoying long.  It also allowed for a lot of conversation.

After about an hour and a half we agreed to take a food break.  He had gotten the hang of using poles and after not being a fan in the first 30 minutes he was raving about the difference they made.  In this space he also was not eating or drinking very much.  Probably not a big point overall because the chance of bonking at our speed was very low, but still, better safe.  We stopped at a small bridge over an even smaller dried up river bed just after a 0.3 miles section of following roads to get you over I-84 (We snacked on some nuts, jerky, and a bar.  Took down about a 1/2 liter of water.  Readjusted some things on our packs and took some pictures.  In all we were there for about 30 minutes.  Again, taking it very, very slowly.

If I can stress one point to those planning to hike with people that are newer to the activity it is this– try to get a good solid hour in before you take an official break.  I think this was key for us.  It’s probably different for everyone but somewhere around the 1 hour mark I just tend to find my stride and the same went for my dad.  Where the first 45 minutes involved some heavy breathing, leaning on poles, and using flats to recover, that last 30 minutes before we took a break was much smoother for both of us.  I think that part was key because we hit our break with mental momentum on the rise.  Feeling good.  Ready for more.  If we had taken our break while we were still loosening up I think the impetus to push on would have been harder to overcome.  Not that we would have stopped.  Instead though when the break was over, I resumed our pace, and was quickly advised by my dad that I could go faster if I wanted.

At this prompt I knew what had to happen.  I offered him the lead.  We had previously played around with pace, him asking what I thought we were doing and then showing him what a 3mph pace feels like.  If I took the lead on the new pace, I would struggle with gauging where to hold it.  If he took the lead he could completely dictate based on how he felt.

Point to stress number 2, let the more novice one’s take the lead.  He jumped at the chance to lead.  I jumped at the chance to take the camera (he has a ball cap mounted digital camera that is really fun to use while hiking).  Off he went.  We went from our 1-1.5mph pace to easily doing 2-2.5mph.  More importantly I could tell he was loving it.

There is a common theme among humans (one I really should do a post about at some point) where we love conquering Mother Earth.  Hiking, snow sports, surfing- all involve some draw to making nature your bitch.  If you think about it, surfing is a really boring sport.  Go swim really hard against a current for a really long time, then when you get there, come back in a fraction of the time.  Oh and “coming back” means standing on a board while some water pushes you.  If you’re good you might ride up that water and back down a few times on the same trip.  Nothing special, until you add a roaring ocean wave that came out of nowhere from forces you may not understand from an invisible place somewhere on that blue horizon.  Anyway, my point is- there is something magical about that moment in a hike when you get your groove, the miles are flying by, and you are conquering hills without a thought.  He hit that point.

We stayed in this groove for a while.  The next 2 miles flew by in under an hour.  As the time pushed toward 1230 I knew we should stop for lunch.  I knew we were close to the shelter but I couldn’t be exactly sure.  What I did know is that we happened upon a great vista.  At least for the portions of the AT I’ve been on that is what happens, you can’t really predict where you will get a view.  You just turn a corner and there it is.  For us it was at the top of a ridge, on an outcropping of rocks.  Before us was a whole valley.  Some trees had jumped on the early-fall bandwagon after the warm summer we had.  It was great to be able to see a few of those yellows and oranges.  Especially for my dad who lives in Arizona- land of brown and sort-of-green-but-not-moving (no seriously, anything green in Arizona doesn’t move, you won’t think its a big deal until you get around trees and realize nature can actually be alive instead of a big stick in the ground).

It was here that we had a perfect AT moment.  We had leap-frogged this guy a few times this morning and he happened upon us at this spot.  This guy was out just to head to Morgan Stewart for lunch and head back.  His food was in a plastic bag, he had on regular trousers, sneakers, and a button up, and I think he had a standard walking stick.  INSIDER SECRET: I think this also motivated my dad to push on after our break (when we first saw this guy), it’s always nice to have a little “if he can do I definitely can”.  The guy stopped and had a chat with us a bit.  While there another guy happened along.  Well this guys knew our new friend as well.  What was going to be a 30 minute lunch break ended up closer to an hour as well shared stories, had some laughs, and reveled in those great moments that really only happen on the top of mountains.

I’m not sure what it is but those conversations are never stressful, never angry, never uncomfortable.  You are complete strangers.  The only thing bringing you together is that your feet were capable of carrying them to this point.  There’s nothing more or less guaranteed to be in common about the two (or four) of you.  I love meeting people in that manner.  You know nothing about them but over the next how-ever-many minutes they will create a person in your life that is entirely contained in what they tell you.  No pretense, no warnings, no rumors or advance information.  One guy hiked because his wife had died and he found comfort and friendship in God and hikers.  The other hiked because he seemed to really enjoy the outdoors and the technology of hiking.  I know very little more about either of these guys.  I don’t need to.  For one hour they were in our lives and they never will be again.  I think it was Fight Club that refers to them as “single serving friends”.  There it is a negative concept but for me it is a very endearing one.  These guys aren’t buying wine when they come to my house out of societal expectations.  They aren’t getting angry because I didn’t invite them to the Christmas party this year even though they haven’t come in years.  They are here, they told us about themselves, we told them about themselves.  We talked about hiking, gear, and food (the thru-hiker trifecta) and the weather.  Some people hate talking about weather, I love it.  There is something so cool about being in a moment where there is nothing else important enough occurring to trump weather as the topic du jour.  It’s simple.  It’s easy.  That is what moments like this are all about.  That is what I wanted my dad to experience.

We parted ways and covered the final quarter mile to the shelter.  On arrival we scouted out a great tent spot and I showed my dad the routine of tent, bear-bag, water, sleep system, clothes, food.  We made our way over to the shelter to put dinner together.  It was about 4pm so we decided to make a cup of coffee before committing to an early dinner.

This was my first time using the GSI Halulite Minimalist after using the GSI Pinnacle Backpacker before.  I will review the Minimalist this week.

We also tried out the Guyot Squishy Bowls I picked up at an REI Attic Sale for $8.  I will review these soon as well.

A bit into dinner two hikers came through. They were in the middle of a week long section hike. These guys were doing 20 mile days. It is always cool to run into people that do bjg miles. There’s an aura to them surrounding the ability to walk for 8 hours at a pedal-to-the-metal pace, and get in to camp, eat, go to sleep, and and do it again the next day. Continuing with our previous trend, these guys were so cool. They were from one of the Carolinas and had all of that southern hospitality. They weren’t bragging about miles, pack weight, and ability to sleep on a rock with one eye open. They were just normal dudes. I only make this point because while for the most part the thru-hikers I’ve met have been equal cool there are a good percentage that are a bit aloof to non-thrus. Probably the result of being a kind of celebrity ever time they enter a camp and subsequently getting grilled about the same questions for months on end. But still, as a prospective thru-hiker it is always nice to meet people who are just nice people.
After dinner we made our way to the tent. Neither real tired, but we laid in the dark and chatted about life, and getting married, growing old, raising a family. All the stuff you want to talk to your dad about but probably don’t enough because, well, how often are you in a tent in the middle of the woods together. I will admit we did one thing that may not be too popular- my dad had a data connection on his phone (gotta love the AT) so we watched Thor on Netflix. That eventually induced sleep (its actually a good movie) and we both drifted off to sleep. It was one of those perfect nights in the woods on the shoulder of fall- cool weather, slight breeze, very quiet.

It was a good thing we had this perfect night… because tomorrow would be very different.

… to be continued

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