Confest: Like Burning Man, but more Hippies

Picture this, ladies and gentlemen: You’re in a field, with around 300 others. It’s the open market area, and there’s a few people who’ve started up a drum circle in the middle. More drummers hear the music and bring their drums in, adding their own beats to the celebration. You can see the full moon shining clearly through the branches of the lone majestic Gray Box Eucalyptus tree in the center of the market. Suddenly, someone looks up and spots the eclipse starting; that first little corner of the moon is just starting to get dark. He howls at the moon, a sound echoed by several others nearby. The drums hear, and the beat gets louder. The crowd, most of whom are wearing little more than a skirt or kilt, moves to the sound of the drums, dancing as they watch the eclipse grow, as the anticipation grows. It’s a rare moment in nature, and you can feel it in your bones. You look around, and see the billions of stars now visible in the darkening sky – the Southern Cross pointing the way to your right and Orion the Hunter chasing his prey to the left. You watch a shooting star fly by just a few degrees away from the moon, and you make a wish, knowing that the power of this event will carry it through. Then just as the last sliver of moon is about to go into shadow – with no prompting from anyone – the drums stop and everybody sits down and joins a meditative hum to welcome in this Blood Moon. For several minutes uninterrupted, the hum continues, holding steady on its single uniting and penetrating note. As that last sliver of light disappears from Luna, the crowd stands, the drums go wild, and the dancing of the crowd pounds out an energy you’ve rarely felt before in your life. It’s a primal energy, like an instinct that precedes any organized religion, and it’s overwhelming. It is one natural humanity that we all share.

Confest

Reaching toward the last sliver of moon before totality

Feel that primal energy in the beat of those drums!: https://flic.kr/p/rXBg67

That was my favorite moment at Confest, a festival in the Australian bush from which I just returned. The festival is hard to describe. The website calls it an ‘alternative lifestyle festival’, but that doesn’t really do it justice. If you’ve ever been to Burning Man or one of its regionals, you have an idea, but it’s still different from those. During the day, there are all sorts of workshops on everything from massage, to the Art of Kissing, to Aboriginal Storytelling, to any kind of yoga or meditation you can think of. The evenings are filled with drum circles, guitars and singing, or conversations over chai tea. Or, you can head down to the river and do circuits between the hot tub, the steam sauna, the cool river, and warm fire.

Those of you who’ve been to Burning Man – Confest is like that with fostering very genuine, open-minded, generous, and friendly people. But it’s also:

  • More hippies
  • More nudity
  • More chill
  • Smaller (~5000 people total)
  • In the woods instead of the desert
  • With swimming in a river
  • No amplified music (only acoustic)
  • Cooler temperatures
  • More chill evenings (less structured, no raves, and things die down around 2-3am)
  • With limited money transactions allowed (there is a market)
  • Drinking water and firewood supplied by the event

And I have to say that I love the fact that the festival was started by a former deputy Prime Minister of Australia. It’s government-sanctioned, folks! The name actually stands for ‘conversation festival’, and its original idea was to facilitate discussions about how society could be changed or improved. It’s held in the middle of the bush (the woods), nowhere near anything, so it’s also one of those magical places where there is no mobile phone reception and so no possible way to worry about the outside world. The festival officially lasts 7 days, but no one kicks you out, so it effectively lasts for a couple weeks – and it only costs $100 per person. That’s cheaper than most developed campsites that don’t have a festival going on around them! Plus, it’s family-friendly and clothing optional! (I know, U.S. folks probably find those two phrases to be mutually exclusive, but most of the rest of the world does not have such stigmas against nudity). Near the beach, it’s bizarre to see someone wearing anything. Away from there, probably two-thirds of people are topless, but only a few remain completely nude. It’s also a small enough festival that you are actually likely to bump into someone you met later on in the festival.

Confest

Me wearing my usual outfit for around Confest, standing at the center of our mini-Couchsurfing camp

So I went up to this festival with five other CouchSurfers, carpooling up there and back for 5 days. We set up our camp across from the Yoga Space tent – so quiet enough to sleep at night, but still close to most of the best happenings in the Arts village and along the river. I spent my daytime at workshops ranging from identification of local plants, to lessons on giving full-body massages, to the Art of Conscious Touch, to lots of singing kirtans (meditative chants) at the yoga space. And I was told that I brought lots of “positive energy and skill” to the famous Art of Kissing workshop (shameless self-call… ūüôā ). There were some pretty interesting points from the various workshops, a few safe-for-work ones including:

  • Almost everybody, when giving hugs, will move toward their left and put their head to the left of the other person’s. Perhaps this is a subtle subconscious thing, putting your heart further away and more protected from the other person. It does feel more intimate if you go the other way, moving toward your right when giving a hug.
  • The Maori of New Zealand have a traditional embrace that involves grabbing each other’s right arms, gently pressing your foreheads and noses together, and taking a breath together. It’s a very intimate yet not necessarily romantic greeting – a good one for close friends.
Confest

Want to run a workshop? Just write it up on the chalkboards in the Info Tent. This set gives you a good idea of the variety of events during the day.

Confest

My skin never felt so soft as it did after a mud bath (safe for work version – nobody around here was wearing clothes)

Confest introduced to me perhaps the best possible way to spend an evening – and one of the greatest advantages of Confest over Burning Man, I think: there’s a giant HOT TUB, a STEAM SAUNA, a RIVER, and lots of campfires! Spend your evening doing circuits between them. Chill out in the hot tub with it’s great view to the sky and easy conversations with fellow Confesters in the tub. Then head into the sauna to heat up and get some sweat going. Once you’ve got some heat stored up, jump in the cool river before heading over to one of the several campfires to dry off and warm back up. Repeat for as long as you’d like! I did at least one circuit for all but one night there.

Otherwise, there’s very little structure to the evenings at Confest – I just walked around and inevitably bumped into something awesome every 20 meters. I already mentioned the night of the eclipse up in the market, but I also spent one night joining a large crowd around a bonfire with one (really good!) guitarist, a saxophonist, and a couple other musicians singing classic rock and other songs for a few hours. There was a random comedy show another night, and then a “Eurotrashvision” contest which, I have to say, had better music than the actual Eurovision contest (which Australia, despite its clearly missing the whole “European” qualification, was invited to join this year).

An amazing festival, and a unique one. I met a few people who flew from Perth (the other side of the country), and at least one who flew from Singapore exclusively for Confest! Of course, largely because of nudity, you are required to ask permission of anyone who’s in even the background of any photos you take – which means most of my photos were either at night when you can’t make out people or in some of the less populated areas. The rest is all a fantastic memory!

Confest

They built a human-size birds’ nest in a tree!

Confest

Beautiful sunsets there!

Confest

And this is what Aussie backcountry roads look like – one-lane paved things with no speed limits

Posted in Australia | 3 Comments

How to Afford International Travel

In my first two months in Australia, I’ve spent about the same amount of money as I would have on one month’s rent on my apartment in New York City. Travel advertisements will bombard you with nice hotels, restaurants, and expensive activities designed to part you with your money at a maximal rate – but there’s no reason to travel that way. And on that note, I’ve compiled some of my tips and tricks for traveling on a budget:

  1. Travel for months at a time: I know, it’s not always possible if you have a steady, full-time job that you want to keep. But if your passion for exploring is greater than your passion for your job, then go. Accept that your biggest expense will be getting to the place you want to go – that initial flight – and make the most of your time once you’re there. Of course, you can also reduce that initial cost if you:
  2. Fly on standby: If you aren’t on a strict schedule to get places, then fly on standby. Every airline has different rules for flying standby – some only let you get standby tickets if you know an employee, others let anyone buy a standby ticket through an obscure corner of their website. Just Google your preferred airline. Those tickets are massively cheaper (as much as 1/4 the normal economy-class fare), but do check the holiday and school schedules for both ends of your flight – standby means that if the flight gets booked by people paying the normal fares, you’re bumped to the next flight, and that could be a long time if you’re trying to fly near, say, Christmas or New Year’s. Instead, you should probably:
  3. Leave in the middle of the tax year: The U.S., like most Western countries, charges little to no income taxes if you made less than some amount during the tax year. But there’s no measure for when during the year you earn that money. So make a real income for half the tax year, then travel, and get most of your income taxes back in a nice refund at the end of the year. Then, with that money:
  4. Get a checking account that gives you ATM fee refunds: My account gives me up to $15 of ATM fee refunds per month – for any ATM fee charged anywhere in the world. Most countries will charge the equivalent of something between 1 and 4 USD per ATM transaction. That means that I can use nearly any ATM in the world at least a few times for almost free (there’s usually a 0.2% foreign exchange fee hidden in there that you can’t really get around), and withdraw money in whatever the local currency is. Never, ever use currency exchange tellers to exchange cash or use international wire transfers to move money – the fees for those are exorbitant. It’s actually far cheaper for me to transfer money into my Australian bank account by sticking my American ATM card into an ATM, withdrawing cash, and then sticking my Australian ATM card into the same machine and sticking that same cash straight back into it. Seems silly, but it’s the cheapest way to transfer money internationally. Then, you should also:
  5. Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees (FTF): Those fees are killer (often 3%, sometimes plus another few dollars), and unless your credit card is specifically marketed as having no FTFs, you’ll receive them. But get a card without FTFs, even if it has an annual fee, and you’ll only be charged the usually 0.2% fee by Visa/Mastercard. Even if you prefer using cash for some reason, you’ll still need a credit card for things like booking planes/hostels/buses/etc. But you should also avoid the expense of hostels when you can if you:
  6. Do work-stays: Not only do you get to stay with locals who know the area, but you also get a free place to stay and often free meals as well, typically in exchange for 20 hours of work per week. Oh, and no annoying other hostel guests getting back from clubbing at 4am and making a mess of your room. http://www.helpx.net/, http://www.workaway.info, and if you like farming, http://wwoofinternational.org/ are all great sites to look at. HelpX and WorkAway will list everything from nannying to home renovations to housesitting to teaching assistants. Since there’s no money that’s changing hands, there’s also typically no taxes and you may not even need a work visa to participate. That said:
  7. If you can get a work visa somewhere, do so! Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a few other countries have working holiday visas that typically give you full work rights in the country for one to two years. Several Asian countries give easy work visas for English teachers, for which the only requirement is that you speak English as your native language (and no, you don’t need to speak the local tongue). And if you have a skill that a country needs (engineers and doctors are the most common), then you may be able to get a cheap skilled migrant visa. Any of those work visas mean that you can earn an income as you travel! And there are all sorts of companies that are constantly looking for temporary help – waiters, bartenders, construction laborers, teaching assistants, farmhands, etc. Sure, working and job-hunting takes time away from exploring, but it also lets you explore from the other side of things and stay out in the world for longer.
  8. Get involved with CouchSurfing, BeWelcome, and other travel networks: Besides for letting you stay with locals, they’re also social networks that typically have lots of events in every city where you can meet locals and travelers. You can then carpool to interesting places, get advice on cheap places to go, and hear about the things that are actually worth the expense – plus find great travel buddies! But please don’t abuse those networks – they’re not free hotels, they’re ways to explore an area with another passionate traveler who happens to have an apartment right now. Of course, if you are looking for a free place to stay, there’s always the option to:
  9. Go camping! A tent is almost always a free place to stay, plus it’s a great excuse to get out of the city. Or if you can get a good deal on a campervan or just a car that you can spread a mattress in, then you can easily find free places to park and sleep at night. Who says you need to stay in a stationary bed? Keep an eye out for festivals as well – many large festivals have free or cheap camping at them.

So don’t buy into the notion that travel must be expensive. Get out there and explore the world!

Melbourne Miscellaneous
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Melbourne, Australia – Chill but Busy

I feel like my bus ride this evening was an excellent reflection of the lifestyle here. After a day at the beach and then getting some job applications done at the State Library, I see my bus pull up a few minutes early and get on board. The bus driver, who looks Greek, says to me as I get on, “It’ll be another 5 minutes til we get going, mate. If you want to step out for a smoke or just to watch this sunset, feel free. Beautiful day, isn’t it?” As I sit down, I notice that it’s an old bus – it’s got that distinct 1970s smell to it. I don’t know what it is, but everything that’s about that old always seems to have the same smell. The bus probably served the CBD until the 90s and is now relegated to local routes in the inner suburbs. Now, it’s got newer seats and the new Myki card readers on it, but still the little electric bell and an incandescent light to signal for the next stop. We get going a few minutes later, with only 3 passengers on board. After a couple turns down these narrow residential roads that are covered in speed bumps, the driver starts singing in what sounds like his native Greek. He opens the door on the first stop, but it’s warm weather, so just leaves the front door open as he drives to get a bit of a breeze in the bus. My stop comes up, I press the button for the little bell, and as I get off the driver calls to me, “Have a good evening, mate!”

Melbourne Miscellaneous

You know that 1970s smell?

The laid-back attitude like that is evident all over Australia, and I love it. I’ve talked to some other travelers here who’ve been around the U.S. as well, and there is just a different feel in the U.S. – nationwide – than you get here, and it’s hard to describe. Maybe a bit of it is that the U.S. has a more of a sense that things you do must be functional and must be done the right way, and there being more of a ‘why not do this?’ attitude here. Maybe it’s just a general more chill attitude. I’m not sure, but it feels different.

The smaller population definitely plays a part in that as well – the entire population of Australia is equivalent to taking the population of just the New York City metropolitan area and spreading it out over the entire continental United States. That means people are much more spaced out and there’s more variety here. Oh, and one quarter of Australian citizens were born overseas. And you thought the U.S. was the “melting pot of the world”? Australian immigration is roughly FOUR TIMES that of the U.S. on a per capita basis. There’s so many cultures here all intermingling.

Melbourne

So I am now in Melbourne, exploring around here. It is definitely more of a hipster, artsy, bike-friendly city than Sydney – which I like. However, it’s also busier than I thought – it’s hard to walk the sidewalks during peak hour, and trams do become sardine cans.

Melbourne Miscellaneous

So much street art! And it’s everywhere, with entire laneways covered in art.

Also, seriously the most annoying thing here is that the public transit system is not on Google Maps. I didn’t realize how dependent I’d become on that until trying to figure out how to get to somewhere for meeting people… The stupid Public Transit Victoria app doesn’t have place names and doesn’t believe that people are capable of walking for more than 10 minutes (no, the last transit home is not at 9:30pm; that’s just when I need to walk from the train station instead of take the 3-minute bus ride…).

The social life here has taken some getting used to. I normally go about initially meeting people by going to events listed on CouchSurfing, or occasionally Meetup.com. In every other city I’ve been to, people will post events, and include either a time and specific landmark to meet up at or their mobile number to find each other. That’s almost never the case here, and meetups usually involve multiple groups mixed together and just a long timeframe during which an event is going on. It’s as if you’re expected to just walk to random people, regardless of their association, and make friends … and it is a whole lot easier to do that here. But it’s really weird to me to walk up to a group, introduce myself, and have someone almost immediately ask “hey, do you want a drink?” and then go buy me and anyone else who’s low a round of drinks. You barely know my name, and you’re buying me a drink? And you’re not trying to sleep with me? – because that’s usually the only reason that a stranger in the U.S. will buy you a drink. What? But that’s normal here. You buy everyone you’re chatting with a round of drinks, on just the rough social assumption that others will buy for you as well and it’ll balance out. And you meet new people all the time. It’s weird to me, but I do like that culture.

I’ve also been on public transit plenty and just a conversation will sprout up between me and someone sitting near me. In NYC, you don’t talk to strangers near you unless, say, you need them to move and stop standing on your foot – it’s just not done. I’ve met fascinating people who I’ll probably never see again in my life, but we’ve had great conversations!

This was evident in Sydney too, but I see it even more in Melbourne here. I hear it’s a nationwide attitude, and Sydney has a little less of it just because it’s such a tourist hub.

Oh, and it seems like this is sacrilegious for me to say, but I actually like Melbourne’s beaches better. They’re more like chill places to hang out rather than destinations to crowd into every day you can.

Melbourne Miscellaneous

And they have beachside grassy parks if you’d rather lie on the more comfortable grass while still being just a few meters away from great swimming

So I don’t know where I’d prefer to end up. I want to check out Adelaide, Brisbane, and Perth at least at some point as well. But of course, where I end up is determined mostly by where I find a job…

Anyway, I thought I’d write up some more about other topics of cultural differences between the U.S. and Oz that I’ve noticed. Some will of course be off and just a result of the circumstances I’ve experienced so far, and I may well get the reasoning behind differences wrong in places, but talking about observed differences is, I think, the best way to learn about cultures. They’re just the differences I’ve observed thus far.

Native Peoples

Admittedly, I’m very interested in cultures, but the attitude toward native peoples is very noticeably different here than in the United States. Historically, there were similar atrocities in both countries – with a massive proportion of the native peoples being killed through disease, military attacks, “treaties” imposed upon them, and forced relocations. However, in 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia and the Parliament gave a powerful speech openly and unconditionally apologizing to the Aboriginals for the atrocities committed against them by the state. That is of course still just words, but they are important words, and there is a different attitude here. You’ll often see signs indicating the Aboriginal name for an area alongside the White (for lack of a better word) name for the area. Aboriginal peoples are allowed to sue in Australian courts for ownership of land if they can prove that they were removed from their residence on it. There was a recent case of a group claiming ownership of a good portion of the city of Brisbane. There was no chance of that particular case winning, but even the fact that those cases can get to court is a good step above U.S. practices.

Of course, there are still plenty of problems in Aboriginal relations. Nearly a quarter of the prison population in Australia is Aboriginals, despite Aboriginals making up only 2.5% of the total population. But there’s more of a recognition of those problems here than I saw in the U.S. for Native Americans. In the U.S., Native Americans are generally relegated to their reservations with no hope of ever gaining back any of the land of their ancestors.

Economic Equality

Australia has a livable minimum wage of about $18 an hour, and that is probably the biggest thing that seems to make a huge difference here. There are some, but there are very few homeless people who you’ll pass on the streets. Most that are there seem to be recent immigrants – who aren’t covered by unemployment benefits.

On a more cultural level, there seems to be less of a division among people by income. That minimum wage and the good welfare system here means that everybody is able to go out for a drink or a meal or to check out a festival. Of course, there are fancy restaurants, expensive tours, overpriced shops, etc that only the rich can afford, but it’s different when no citizen has to worry about having enough money to put food on the dinner table.

I was struck by the close friendship that my first and second HelpX hosts shared (my first host referred me to the second). My first was on a definitely limited budget, concerned about the water bill and food bill with not many expensive things out on display. My second host had her own pool in the backyard, sets of fancy china, and no concern over bills. But they visited each other frequently and made dinner for each other – they were old school friends.

Politics

Another topic I have an interest in, so tend to notice more easily. Australia seems to be more blunt and have less automatic loyalty toward the elected leaders. For example, the Immigration Museum is funded by the State of Victoria, but openly talks about Australia’s obligations under the UNHCR and various treaties to accept refugees and not “turn back the boats”. It doesn’t name Tony Abbott, but it’s pretty clear. Newspapers here will be very blunt about hating Tony Abbott. The Sydney Morning Herald recently headlined with “PM asked why he keeps saying ‘stupid things'”, The Guardian Australia featured “Tony Abbott launches ‘operation budget success’ but it’s just lipstick on a pig”, The Australian had “Tony Abbott – Perhaps the PM just isn’t any good at politics?”, and the Canberra Times featured “Tony Abbott’s Nazi taunt backfires, sparking questions over his judgment”. Point being to my friends back stateside who’ve boycotted Australia: yeah, Australians hate him too.

Politics here is a little less broken than in the U.S., with two major things: (1) campaign finances are more regulated, and (2) every citizen is *required* to vote, with fines and criminal convictions resulting if you don’t. That means that the ‘silent majority’ actually has to be courted by politicians and the crazies are more likely to be weeded out.

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One Year On From That First White Blaze

The Appalachian Trail was where it all began.
That’s where this boy first learned to call himself a
man.
It was the wind that taught me how to spread my wings;
It was the path that led me on to better things!
– “The Appalachian Trail” by Walkin’ Jim Stoltz

One year ago today, on March 21st, I took those first steps up Springer Mountain to that white blaze marking the beginning of an amazing and life-changing journey. One year on, I find myself on the other side of the planet – in Melbourne, Australia – where I’m meeting even more beautiful and crazy people who share that passion to explore, to hunt down adventures, and to live outside of the societal box. I’m still looking for a full-time job, but you can’t have everything – and I’m getting closer!

The Australian Aboriginal peoples have a beautiful tradition called Songlines or Dreamings. In the Aboriginal tradition, Australia was created by the Naji – spiritual people – who awoke to a desolate land and walked paths around the continent, singing everything into existence. Every living creature, from the smallest ant to the largest tree, has a song that brought it into existence, that embodies that creature, that renews it. The trails – the songlines – that the Naji walked are still known by modern Aboriginies, who pass down those same songs from generation to generation. They’ll periodically walk those paths, singing the songs, and renewing that life.

The Appalachian Trail is like a songline; it’s a sacred path, where you can quiet your worries and come to hear and understand the things and creatures you encounter along the trail, and understand your place among them. Every part of the Trail is unique, with its own creatures and its own shape that’s been carved into the land. I could try to describe what the trail is like in a few minutes of talking or writing – as I have tried many times with friends old and new I’ve encountered since my hike – but those few words can never embody the Trail. It is the song of every unique step, and the conglomeration of every one that makes that songline into the months-long harmony that still sings in my memory.

While I was on the trail, I didn’t understand why so many people thru-hiked the AT multiple times. I do now. Last week, I was backpacking for an overnight with a couple CouchSurfing friends through the Blue Mountains here. There were a few times when I was going past a stretch of pine trees, or climbing over a few boulders when I couldn’t help but think “this reminds me of home.” The AT still feels like home to me. I can be away from it for a while, but it’s as though there’s some deep instinct that wants to keep renewing the songs of that trail. It wouldn’t be anytime soon, but maybe in another 20 years, I’ll go back to the Appalachian Trail. For now, I’m still thinking the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand will be my next long thru-hike, whenever that happens. We’ll see where the winds take me. And for now, I’m still singing the songs of a journey that started with one white blaze.

Atlanta & Appalachian Trail

That first white blaze of the Appalachian Trail, on the summit of Springer Mountain

Atlanta & Appalachian Trail

Just a green-horned city boy, starting out brand new

 

Posted in Post-Hike Reflections | Leave a comment

First Impressions of Australia

When you see that southern cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be running from is so small
But it’s as big as the promise – the promise of a coming day!
– “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash

So much has been happening over the past month since I arrived in Sydney – and I love this place.

My first impression was that Australia combines all the good parts of American culture with all the good parts of British culture. There are fantastic beaches, lots of festivals, and long shop open hours – but also an excellent welfare system, efficient public transit, and much more relaxed and friendly people. It’s sort of like a slightly bigger version of Seattle, but with beaches and much better weather.

Coming from New York City, Sydney is way more relaxed and open. I don’t normally expect the kebab vendor to strike up a conversation with me! Other than right at rush hour, you don’t get the sense that people are in a rush to get anywhere. In fact, in NYC you can identify tourists because they’re the ones who wait for the walk signal at crosswalks; in Sydney, the tourists are the only ones who *don’t* wait patiently for that walk signal. They’ll just have a chat with their mates while standing on the corner.

Another interesting cultural thing is that there is no distinction between a city neighborhood and a suburban town; everything is just called a “suburb.” That reflects peoples’ attitudes, too – no one identifies much with their suburb. You’re a “Sydneysider”¬† even if you’re from an outer suburb 90 minutes’ drive away. Perhaps as a consequence, the events in the area are pretty focused in the CBD (city center) area – and they are BIG. Oh, it’s Chinese New Year? Sounds like a two-week festival with parades and events all over the CBD! Valentine’s Day? Fireworks in the harbor and another two-week festival! So much fun!

Sydney Miscellaneous

Obligatory Harbor Bridge and Opera House photo. I promise this is the one and only…

I’ve been in the Sydney area since I got here, partly so that I could explore here, and partly for more practical reasons of just having a semi-consistent address where I could receive mail (tax file number, health insurance card, etc). So that I don’t burn through money too quickly while I’m still job-hunting, I’ve been mostly doing work-stays – in my case, helping some older folks with house renovations in exchange for free room and board and most meals. It’s a pretty good deal – 20 hours of work in exchange for what would otherwise be the vast majority of my expenses. So I’m not bleeding money! And I get to spend time with actual Australians. My first hosts even brought me to a bush dance – Australia’s version of contra dancing, which I’ve been participating in for years before this.

So what have I actually been up to? Well, besides for the usual exploring the city and hanging out at the famous beaches, I’ve taken three trips out of the inner city area: to the Blue Mountains, Jervis Bay, and Kangaroo Valley. Most of what I’ve done has been with CouchSurfers – meeting up in the CBD for drinks, movies, or events – or carpooling out to the wilderness. And the countryside here is beautiful! The cliff-edged plateaus and amazing waterfalls of the Blue Mountains are beautiful – with “blue” referring to the fact that the mountains appear almost a royal blue on the horizon due to oils in the eucalyptus trees.

Blue Mountains of NSW

One amazing lookout in the Blue Mountains!

Blue Mountains of NSW

Our group looking out on a spectacular sunset – an Aussie, a Spaniard, and two Americans (who are planning to thru-hike the AT next!)

Blue Mountains of NSW

The blue hue is not a trick of the camera – it is in fact the effect of those eucalyptus oils in the air.

The white sand beaches of Jervis Bay are nestled in amongst kangaroo-filled forests and have no crowds at all!

Jervis Bay

I much prefer white sands over white snow…

Then tenting in the Kangaroo Valley with late-night rope swings, gorgeous overlooks, wombats and kangaroos everywhere, and the best swimming hole I’ve found yet nestled into a verdant waterfall-filled glen.

Kangaroo Valley and Bendeela Camping

This qualifies as a road for 2-wheel-drive vehicles in Australia.

Kangaroo Valley and Bendeela Camping

Tenting with two tents, and two cars each with their own mattresses in the back.

Chilling at the best swimming hole ever with two Germans, a Kiwi, and Aussie, and another American.

Chilling at the best swimming hole ever with two Germans, a Kiwi, and Aussie, and another American. Photo taken by Celeste (https://instagram.com/p/zcHooayYT1/)

Right now, I’m at a hostel in-between work-stays. My next one will only be for about a week, and then next weekend, I’ll probably fly down to Melbourne. Enough friends have told me that they thought I’d like it there better, and it’s a cheaper city anyway, so it sounds like a good place for me. Of course, where I find an engineering job will determine where I actually end up, but until I get that job offer, I’ll continue with work-stays or maybe some minimum wage jobs (and minimum wage is actually livable in this country – $18/hour!). Oh, and job hunting is a royal pain here. It’s taken me a while to learn what Australian conventions are like with a much greater predominance of recruitment agencies and resumes that are more like long CVs. But now I’m in full swing, with networking events, memberships in professional societies, construction certifications, and applications flying everywhere. So hopefully I’ll find something soon!

Well, I guess that about wraps it up for now. My next post will probably be from Melbourne!

Oh, and vegemite is indeed disgusting.

Kangaroo Valley and Bendeela Camping

Wombats! Such funny-looking animals, and they just wander around eating grass, not caring at all about humans around them.

Jervis Bay

Kangaroos! This was my first, but I’ve since been inundated by herds of them!

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Greetings from Down Under!

Today, after five days of travel (and a night of sleep) I write to you from Australia, the Land of Oz! How long I’ll be here, I don’t know – I have an 18 month work visa, but maybe I’ll try to stay longer, or perhaps the winds will bring me away sooner. I don’t know. And that’s what’s so exciting. As Rosalia de Castro wrote, “I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.”

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Getting bumped from my flight for four days have me the opportunity to explore Los Angeles and its gorgeous sunsets!

Several friends and family have wished me well on my new life. But that’s the thing – it’s not a new life; I merely have the bravery to live my life now. It started when, after grad school, I took the job in New York City despite knowing how I was a country boy and didn’t want to go back to the area I grew up in. Then I quit that job to fulfill that life dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Now, with the courage imparted by those six months in the woods, I’m flying into the unknown – into a country I’ve never been to before, a continent (one of the few…) on which I have but one existing friend, without even a proper job lined up yet. Crazy, eh? But you know what? I feel more alive than ever before. This is hopefully a step closer to being able to do good for the world. I’m still thinking humanitarian engineering may be the direction for me, but then serendipity could lead me to other options – we’ll see!

So what are my plans Down Under? Well, I want to find a good engineering job – one that can get the experience I need for my Professional Engineer license (known as “Chartered Status” in Australia). I haven’t had much luck so far, but it should be a fair bit easier once I’m actually in the same country as companies. Ideally, I want to aim toward Melbourne or maybe Adelaide, but we’ll see. I’ll also apply to some engineering jobs in New Zealand. I would need sponsorship to work there, but they’re still reconstructing Christchurch, among other awesome structural tasks, so may have more available.

But until that engineering job comes around, I’ll play tourist a bit, join up with the CouchSurfing groups (I’ve been active with the network for several years now), and probably find a work stay, maybe doing some farm work, which I have long wanted to learn better. I’m also still doing research work for my old grad school adviser, and am working on another journal paper now!

And you can be sure that my time here will include lots of hiking and biking – among the three bags I brought are all my backpacking gear and much of my cycling gear. Cheers to a new adventure!

“We call them fools, who have to dance within the flame,
Who chance the sorrow and the pain,
That always comes with getting burned.
But life is not tried, it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire!”

Now time to explore the southern hemisphere! Last night, I went to an Australian Day celebration out on Darling Harbour here in Sydney. It’s compared to Australia’s version of the Fourth of July in its celebration – but it put every Fourth of July celebration I’ve ever seen to shame! When was the last time you saw a US government agency sponsor a DJed dance party with a rave-style cockatoo floated in the middle of a harbor with a laser light show and a literal metric ton of fireworks? That was an amazing introduction to this country – even for my sleep-addled brain yesterday!

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My phone's pictures of the fireworks didn't come out, but this was the music barge

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The Best Parts of the Trail

The most common question I received from people along the trail was always what my favorite part of the trail was. Sometimes they meant which physical section was best, and sometimes they were talking more generally. The latter is easy – the people on the trail – but I’ll focus more on the former in this post: the best physical sections of the trail. Maybe you want to get a taste of the AT without committing to a full thru-hike, or maybe you just want to go for an awesome hike or short backpacking trip somewhere. I’ll give you some suggestions, as well as some descriptions of what made each state different from others.

But first, a little more on that first question: the best aspect of the trail. The magic of the Trail is really in the people you meet. I met people from every walk of life. There was a guy who’d left his home in 2003, refusing to pay taxes as much as possible in protest to the Iraq War, and has been hiking back and forth on the AT ever since, completely self-supported. There was the airline pilot, still employed and getting paid, and slackpacking much (most?) of the trail. There was the 79-year-old section hiker who was doing his last section: the White Mountains (dang, I hope I’m in that kind of shape when I’m 79!). There were recent college graduates and recent retirees. And everyone in-between. Probably a majority of them are folks who I would never normally have a conversation with. But out on the Trail, you’re all one people, and conversations flow like water. Often, the conversations are simple comments about the latest terrain, or passing on trail gossip about the upcoming town. Sometimes, they’re deep philosophical conversations. No matter what, you’re all part of the same community, all suffering the same challenges, and all sharing same amazing places.

The Best Locations on the AT

Most AT hikers will tell you that the Grayson Highlands was their favorite section, and for good reason. I’ll add a couple more than that onto my list, though:

  1. Big Bald, Roan Mountain, and Laurel Falls area, Tennessee: This rural area just north of the Smoky Mountains features beautiful, bald-top mountains, deep Civil and Revolutionary War history, and one of the most interesting shelters on the AT. Have you ever tried walking in 40 or 50 mph winds? Then add a full backpack (aka “a sail”). It was actually really fun going over Big Bald in those winds, walking at a 70 degree angle to the ground past farm fences and memorial plaques. Just south of there was Overmountain Shelter – an old barn converted into a shelter with four walls and one of the best views from any shelter. During the pouring rain, I walked downstairs to the picnic tables and watched lightning flash out across the valley below.
    Erwin, TN to Roan Mtn, TN

    The winds of Big Bald (it also had a great view when the clouds weren’t blowing around me)

    Erwin, TN to Roan Mtn, TN

    The view from Overmountain Shelter’s downstairs porch

    Erwin, TN to Roan Mtn, TN

    And the upstairs in Overmountain Shelter

    Roan Mtn, TN to Damascus, VA

    Laurel Falls. There are awesome campsites along the brook here too

  2. Grayson Highlands, Virginia: It’s a mystery why most of the bald mountains in the south are actually bald. In this state park, however, the answer is known: feral ponies. Herds of them roam the mountain tops. Most of them are pretty shy and will just walk away from humans, but some have discovered that us thru-hikers are covered in salty sweat that is delicious to lick!
    Damascus, VA to Pearisburg, VA

    The ponies!

    Damascus, VA to Pearisburg, VA

    And the views there are gorgeous thanks to all the land the ponies cleared!

  3. Maryland: It’s a short state, and I’m just going to include all of it on my list here. The state has a fantastic variety of terrain, and has notably put a huge amount of state-funded effort into the AT. The trail runs through multiple historic areas, including the first Washington Monument (yep, before the one on the Capitol Mall). The state has also installed frost-free water spigots regularly along the trail, and even has free showers in one spot (Dahlgren Campground). Oh, and a couple of my favorite camps were along there: Annapolis Rocks tenting area (cliff-side tenting area covered in Mountain Laurel bushes), and Raven Rock shelter (the shelter is two-story with friggin’ polished wood floors).
    Front Royal, VA to Boiling Springs, PA

    One of the best shelters on the AT: Raven’s Rock, in Maryland

    Front Royal, VA to Boiling Springs, PA

    The cliffside view from Annapolis Rocks campsite

    Front Royal, VA to Boiling Springs, PA

    Washington Monument – the original one!

  4. Upper Goose Pond through Cheshire, Massachusetts: Upper Goose Pond Cabin is a full-fledged cabin, maintained by the local AT club and completely free for section and thru-hikers (donations appreciated, though). It’s got mattresses, rocking chairs, a tradition of the caretaker making pancakes in the morning, and canoes – all just feet away from the shoreline of a gorgeous pair of ponds. I took an unplanned zero here I liked it so much. I also had some of the best trail magic on the AT when a group on a pontoon boat waved me over, tied my canoe along side, and gave me beer and barbeque while I joined their awesome group for a party on the water! The next 40 miles north of the cabin also rank up there for me, with trail angels providing free places to stay in the quaint towns of Dalton and Cheshire, and some awesome marble cliffs overlooking Cheshire. The towns are very hiker-friendly, and I met some of the best locals at bars in those towns. Also, just to prove that I’m not entirely swayed by fortuitous events that just happen to me, the day after UGP Cabin was the most miserable weather and worst trail conditions I had, but I still think it was a great stretch of the AT.
    Upper Goose Pond, MA to Cheshire, MA

    Why yes, those are curtains in the window of this free cabin!

    Upper Goose Pond, MA to Cheshire, MA

    And that canoe is free for hikers to take out on the gorgeous pond

    Upper Goose Pond, MA to Cheshire, MA

    The marble cliffs of Cheshire, MA

  5. Rangeley through the Bigelows and Caratunk, Maine: Great towns, stunning terrain, and nearly every campsite is along the shores of a beautiful body of water. Rangeley is the last town with a viable choice of restaurants and services on the AT, and it doesn’t disappoint – nestled between two lakes, you can watch the sun set over one and rise over the other, all while getting your last good resupply and even listening to some live music at the bar. Once you leave, you’ll head above treeline over Saddleback Mountains, and then the Bigelow Mountains. The Bigelows, I think, are my favorite mountains on the AT – an interesting climb that’s just the right level of challenging, and summits that drop off in cliffs to both sides, making you feel like you’re flying up there. You can then camp right on the beach at East Flagstaff Lake tentsite, and head over to the Kennebec River, where the only ferry on the AT (a canoe) will take you across the wide river to Caratunk. Caratunk doesn’t really have anything in it except for two places to stay: the historic, awesome, and cheap Sterling Inn and Northern Outdoors. The latter also boasts a free hot tub for hikers and an on-site microbrewery and pretty good pub.
    Rangeley, ME to Caratunk, ME

    This is the view from Bigelow Mountain’s Avery Peak – amazing!

    Rangeley, ME to Caratunk, ME

    If this is a town’s advertisement, it’s a good town…

The States of the AT

The AT crosses 14 states in all, ranging from 8 miles to over 500 miles in length. I realized as I walked that locals in each state can have vastly different ideas about what “hiking” means because they’ve mostly only experienced their local terrain. So, to clear that up a bit, below are the things that I believe mark the biggest differences between the AT in each state, both in general and state-by-state:

In general, the south has:

  • Smoother trails (few rocks and roots)
  • Shorter and more rolling mountains or hills
  • More ridgelines that you might walk along for days at a time, and few lone peaks
  • Some long climbs/descents, but rarely are they very steep
  • A lot of long, flat sections of trail – in fact, relatively flat is the norm in many stretches
  • Few ponds or lakes but plenty of streams and springs
  • Uglier towns (a lot of strip malls and box stores) with few accessible bars
  • More hostels, and very few free places to stay in towns
  • More trail magic, and especially more spreads of food with people at them (church groups often provide the trail magic)

In general, the north has:

  • Endless rocks and roots
  • Bigger, more jagged mountains
  • Mostly lone peaks that you constantly go up and down, and few ridgelines that keep you at altitude
  • Lots of steep climbs/descents
  • Rarely is the trail ever flat for more than a quarter mile
  • Lots of ponds, lakes, and rivers
  • Quaint towns with fewer chain restaurants/hotels and more accessible bars
  • Towns are less likely to have hostels, and more likely to have individuals, organizations, or the town government provide free places for hikers to sleep
  • Less trail magic, and it’s more often in the form of coolers of food or drinks left at trailheads by individual train enthusiasts

State-by-State Summaries, with Ratings:

  1. Georgia: The first state of the AT, with a few short mountains and smooth trails. Rhododendron bushes abound here, and you can walk through tunnels of them. The trail is well-maintained and the club is in the process of replacing the traditional 6-8 person shelters with large, 2-story shelters that can hold 12-20 people. Blood Mountain seems like a big mountain being on day 3 of the hike, but it’s actually very tame. The only town you’re likely to see is either Helen or Hiawassee. The latter is just a bunch of strip malls, but the former is a German medieval place (why, I have no idea, but it is).
    Trail Conditions: 8/10
    Trail Easiness: 8/10
    Views: 7/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 8/10
    Towns: 5/10

    Unicoi Gap to GA/NC Border

    Many tunnels of rhododendrons that you hike through

    Unicoi Gap to GA/NC Border

    Plumorchard Gap Shelter – actually, this one is three stories!

  2. North Carolina / Tennessee: These two need to be grouped as the trail runs largely right along the border. Featuring the Smoky Mountains and the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the states have amazing terrain, extreme weather, and generally crappy towns. The Smoky Mountains include the highest peaks and highest shelters on the AT, as well as notably extreme weather (rapid temperature changes and lots of snow). The shelters are also a very unique style, all being stone structures with fireplaces and tarps on the front which provide a fourth “wall”. Oh, and everyone whines about the shelter regulations there, but other than not being able to stealth camp, they really don’t actually end up affecting you. The Blue Ridge Parkway used to be the AT, until the trail was moved off to roughly parallel the road for nearly 100 miles. That means there are plenty of trashcans, but those “blue rocks” for which the ridge is named make for one of the rockiest sections in the south. Afterwards, I noted that the Big Bald / Roan Mountain area was one of my favorites. The towns include Fontana, Gatlinburg, Hot Springs, Erwin, and Roan Mountain. Of those, only Hot Springs is a good trail town (and it is good); the others are either strip mall havens or expensive tourist towns.
    Trail Conditions: 7/10
    Trail Easiness: 7/10
    Views: 9/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 7/10
    Towns: 2/10

    GA/NC State Line to Nantahala Outdoor Center

    Beautiful views from just inside the NC border

    Great Smoky Mountains

    And from the Smoky Mountains (Clingman’s Dome)

    Great Smoky Mountains

    The Smoky Mountains have rather unique shelters, with tarps and fireplaces

    Hot Springs, NC to Erwin, TN

    The trails are generally pretty easy and gorgeous

  3. Virginia: The longest state on the AT is Virginia, with roughly 500 miles of the trail. The state therefore gives rise to the phrase “Virginia blues”, referring to boredom going through the state. In contrast, I found Virginia to have nicely varied, yet comfortable terrain with fantastic views throughout, and pretty good towns. Stretches walk you across farm fields, along cliffs, into Grayson Highlands, and through Shenandoah National Park. You’ll encounter stiles frequently as you cross fences, and cross a varied selection of well-maintained bridges over streams and rivers. I talked about the Grayson Highlands above, and it’s the stretch that hikers will most commonly tell you is their favorite. The Shenandoahs are pretty easy mountains as the AT goes – fairly short and easy grades – and they feature one of the biggest concentrations of wildlife you’ll encounter. Bears, friendly deer, and far too many ticks will all be on your radar as you walk through the Shenandoahs, but it all abruptly ends at either end of the Park. The “waysides” (general store / grill combinations) mean that you don’t have to carry much food with you and that the trail will feature lots of drinking (the waysides sell booze too). One of the most famous views on the trail is from MacAffee Knob, and it is a great view, but I found the surrounding area of trail to be touristy and not particularly exciting. Dragon’s Tooth will give you a similar view with more interesting terrain. The most notable climb in Virginia is The Priest / Three Ridges – a 3500 foot descent straight into a 3500 foot ascent – but they’re still pretty smooth, constant, and not very steep mountains. The towns, such as Damascus, Glasgow, and Waynesboro, vary in size but are all fantastically hiker-friendly.
    Trail Conditions: 10/10
    Trail Easiness: 8/10
    Views: 8/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 6/10
    Towns: 9/10

    Waynesboro, VA to Front Royal, VA (Shenandoah National Park)

    The Shenandoahs epitomize the “Great Green Tunnel” of Virginia

    Glasgow, VA to Waynesboro, VA

    And Virginia loves good suspension bridges

    Pearisburg, VA to Daleville, VA

    Dragon’s Tooth – with more interesting terrain and views as good as McAffee Knob

    Damascus, VA to Pearisburg, VA

    Virginia goes through quite a lot of farmland with great views

  4. West Virginia: Honestly, I’m not really sure when I entered and left this state. The only thing important about it is that Harper’s Ferry is there – a touristy town, but it’s got interesting history and it’s the spiritual center of the AT (the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is headquartered there). Oh, and the C&O Canal is the fastest, easiest stretch on the trail – it’s flat as a pancake.
    Trail Conditions: 9/10
    Trail Easiness: 9/10
    Views: 4/10

    Shelters/Campsites: n/a
    Towns: 6/10

    Front Royal, VA to Boiling Springs, PA

    The perfectly-flat C&O canal is to the left of this touristy lookout in Harper’s Ferry

  5. Maryland: See above –¬† the whole state was one of my favorite stretches on the AT.
    Trail Conditions: 10/10
    Trail Easiness: 8/10
    Views: 7/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 9/10
    Towns: 8/10
  6. Pennsylvania: It’s got the nickname ‘Rocksylvania’ on the trail, but it’s not really that deserved, nor is it particularly unique to Pennsylvania. The rocks are indeed obnoxious, but they’re really only in the northernmost 50 miles of the state, and they actually continue on into New Jersey and New York as well. Also, the towns in that stretch help make up for it – Palmerton has a free town-provided hostel, Wind Gap has free tenting at the local bar, and Delaware Water Gap has a free church-provided hostel and good food. The southern part of Pennsylvania is a lot of walking on ridgelines. The climbs up and down those ridges can be somewhat steep, and the views aren’t particularly notable. People also complain about water in Pennsylvania, but it was not the worst state; there weren’t many water sources, but the ones that were there were all at least reliable (spoiler: New York was actually much worse). The worst part about Pennsylvania, in my opinion, was the trail maintenance. Some stretches were great, but there was a lot of walking through overgrown thorn bushes – ouch. I didn’t really have problems with painful plants in any other state. Oh, and bugs start being a problem in PA – especially no-see-ums (there aren’t many bugs south of here). On the plus side, Pennsylvania did have some pretty good shelters – notably Eckville and the 501 Shelter, both of which had free showers and available pizza delivery. And definitely stay at the Allenberry Resort Inn, which is a legitimate resort that offers a fantastic deal for long-distance hikers.
    Trail Conditions: 2/10
    Trail Easiness: 6/10
    Views: 4/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 8/10
    Towns: 9/10

    Hamburg, PA to Palmerton, PA

    The basement of this town hall in Palmerton is a free hiker hostel!

    Boiling Springs, PA to Duncannon, PA

    And The Doyle is a famous, cheap hiker hotel – dirty, but a great place to shelter from the rain and eat some good town food!

    Hamburg, PA to Palmerton, PA

    It was the state where I first bought a head net – it was needed…

    Hamburg, PA to Palmerton, PA

    This is Rocksylvania, but it is only the northernmost couple of days in the state

  7. New Jersey: You know the reputation of New Jersey as a toxic waste dump with unfriendly NYC suburbs? Yeah, the AT doesn’t go through that part. New Jersey actually had some of the most frequent trail magic and some of the best-maintained trails. Literally several miles of New Jersey is made up of nice bog bridges or boardwalks, and the hills, while short, often have observation towers at their summits. There is a fair bit of road walking in NJ, but that does mean flatter terrain. NJ also starts the so-called “deli run”: you’ll walk within a third of a mile of a deli nearly every day. The towns aren’t very interesting (not much character nor good places to stay), but they have food. Notably, there are almost no shelters in NJ – you’ll have to tent or stealth camp in most of it, and there aren’t really places to stay in the towns.
    Trail Conditions: 10/10
    Trail Easiness: 9/10
    Views: 6/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 3/10
    Towns: 5/10

    Delaware Water Gap, PA to NYC, NY

    This is what miles of New Jersey look like

    Delaware Water Gap, PA to NYC, NY

    One great bit of trail magic, with well water, a shower, and an electrified shelter provided by a local

    Delaware Water Gap, PA to NYC, NY

    Even New Jersey’s “High Point” isn’t very high, but it does have two observation towers

  8. New York: People don’t tell you that New York is actually a pretty hard state. There’s a lot of climbing over short but steep piles of rocks. There aren’t many mountains, and the things they call “mountains” are really just hills, without many views. The terrain is interesting, though, with flat rocks and lots of wildflowers. You’re also continuing the “deli run” all through New York, you can take a break and head into NYC pretty easily, and private organizations provide amazing places to sleep. Warwick Drive-In Movie Theater lets thru-hikers pitch tents after the movies, Graymoor Spiritual Life Center provides a free shelter and shower, Clarence-Fahnestock Park has a free shower and tenting, and RPH Shelter has pizza delivery. It’s also the only state that I had actual problems with water in; most of the sources are unreliable and/or are actually stagnant mud pits.
    Trail Conditions: 7/10
    Trail Easiness: 5/10
    Views: 4/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 8/10
    Towns: 5/10

    Delaware Water Gap, PA to NYC, NY

    Graymoor Spiritual Life Center made their electrified baseball field shelter and shower available to hikers

    Delaware Water Gap, PA to NYC, NY

    There are even ladders in a couple places on the steep rock climbs!

  9. Connecticut: With only 56 miles of trail, yet 3 ridgerunners (why?), Connecticut is a weird state. The hills are small, the terrain fairly smooth though swampy in parts, and the towns are nice, but it doesn’t have much that stands out. The trail goes through a fair bit of old farmland and you’ll pass some rusting farm equipment. The shelters are mixed, with one providing a great view of the passing thunderstorm, but one far off the trail and one located in a swamp (and mosquitoes are already bad in Connecticut). A couple of the shelters have hand pumps for water supplies. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums can be pretty bad in sections. Salisbury, however, was a very cute town and good to hang out in, and there were some great waterfalls that you could jump off of in the aptly-named Falls Village.
    Trail Conditions: 6/10
    Trail Easiness: 8/10
    Views: 6/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 7/10
    Towns: 7/10

    NYC to Upper Goose Pond, MA

    Fairly basic, but nice and smooth trails

    NYC to Upper Goose Pond, MA

    There are a bunch of old farms and farm equipment along the AT here

  10. Massachusetts: Featuring easy trails with great towns and amazing shelters, this is a very good state. I wrote above how one of my favorite spots on the trail was Upper Goose Pond Cabin, but the rest of the shelters are quite good with good privies, and the towns in Massachusetts are fantastic! Great Barrington is a big but very hiker-friendly town, and Dalton and Cheshire both had the most friendly and helpful locals I encountered on the trail. There was also a lot of trail magic in this state, with free bikes for hikers in Adams, Tom Levardi offering free tenting and bikes in Dalton, and the local church offering a free roof and snacks in Cheshire. That said, Massachusetts is sometimes nicknamed “Mosquitochusetts” for a reason, and water drainage on the trail could, well, use some work. On my day after Upper Goose Pond, it had rained pretty hard, but the trail was a minimum of about 6 inches deep in unavoidable water, plus I had to ford three fast-moving, deep “streams”. Throughout the state, while most views aren’t very notable, Mount Greylock does have a great one.
    Trail Conditions: 6/10
    Trail Easiness: 9/10
    Views: 6/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 10/10
    Towns: 9/10

    Upper Goose Pond, MA to Cheshire, MA

    See that pond ahead? Yeah, that’s the AT.

    Upper Goose Pond, MA to Cheshire, MA

    Even after the power went out in town, Jacob’s in Dalton still did everything they could to feed us hikers and keep the beer flowing!

  11. Vermont: It’s nicknamed “Vermud”, but you’ll really only encounter that mud in the most southern day or two in the state. Other than that, the Green Mountain Club maintains the trail well and has uniquely and well-designed shelters. They were the first to build two-story shelters, were early adopters of the much nicer mouldering privies, and most of their shelters build the picnic table into the interior of the shelter so you’re actually well-protected from rain. This is the first state NOBOs encounter with some real climbs in it, at Stratton, Killington, and Quimby mountains – though there are few rocks to fight with other than at the very summit of Killington. Views are fantastic, with several 360-degree or cliffside views, and even the view over Rutland Airport has plastic chairs that some local hiked up! Make sure you read the registers in this state to find some of the awesome restaurants and shelters just off the trail, with my favorite being the mountain slide just out of view on Bromley that’s free for thru-hikers and has a bar at the base. Oh, and the towns are amazing, with some of the best, local foodstuffs on the trail and very good outdoor stores.
    Trail Conditions: 7/10
    Trail Easiness: 6/10
    Views: 9/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 9/10
    Towns: 9/10

    Manchester Ctr, VT to Killington, VT

    Be sure to take the side trail through the rock sculpture garden to the White Rock Cliffs – one of the great views of the trail

    Cheshire, MA to Manchester Ctr, VT

    Towns feature great restaurants like this one, that serves only fresh, local ingredients

  12. New Hampshire: New Hampshire is hard to give one set of ratings for, as the division between Dartmouth Outing Club-maintained trail and Appalachian Mountain Club-maintained trail is rather obvious. The DOC takes sensible routes, provides all free shelters, and has the only really good hiker town in New Hampshire (Hanover – which gives lots of free food to hikers, and has lists of trail angels who provide free places to stay). I already ranted about the AMC in an earlier post, so I won’t repeat that here, but they’re the reason for the very low ratings below for shelters and trail conditions. Most shelters cost money in their territory and the trail is poorly-marked and unnecessarily routed over the most technical obstacles. That said, the views in the White Mountains and throughout NH are the best on the AT, completely making up for the painful climbs. Just avoid some of the areas in wet conditions, as they will be dangerous – particularly Wildcat Mountain and Mount Garfield.
    Trail Conditions: 3/10
    Trail Easiness: 1/10
    Views: 10/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 2/10
    Towns: 4/10

    White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)

    Definitely some of the best views on the trail

    White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)

    Several times, I had to pay $8 to very awkwardly pitch my tent on an annoying tent platform…

    White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)

    But seriously, were the ridiculously technical rock climbs actually necessary?

  13. Maine: Maine is again divided by a division between AMC territory and Maine Appalachian Trail Club territory, the former of which is described above. MATC territory, on the other hand, is insanely well-maintained – with stone stairs, rebar ladders, and intelligent trail routing that keeps the trail challenging but avoids being annoyingly technical. That said, trail conditions are also dominated by Maine’s naturally massive quantity of roots and rocks that will slow you down. Views in the state rival the Whites, with the Bigelows and Saddleback being among my favorite mountains on the trail (see above). Shelters are back to your basic three-sided lean-tos, but they and tentsites are almost all located in some of the most beautiful spots – at lakeside beaches, along river swimming holes, or at amazing views. Towns in Maine are small, but will have everything a hiker needs, including either great hostels or very nice, cheap inns, as well as good food.
    Trail Conditions: 7/10
    Trail Easiness: 5/10
    Views: 10/10

    Shelters/Campsites: 8/10
    Towns: 9/10

    The 100-Mile Wilderness: Monson, ME to Baxter State Park, ME

    Very beautiful campsites! This is Antlers in the 100-Mile Wilderness

    The 100-Mile Wilderness: Monson, ME to Baxter State Park, ME

    And seriously, the trails in the middle of the woods look better than most house front walkways!

Posted in Post-Hike Reflections | Leave a comment

2185.3: Mount Katahdin!!!

Mount Katahdin & Baxter State Park, ME

SUMMIT!!!

I made it! I have walked from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. It’s taken 6 months and 2 days to walk the 2,185.3 miles to here. I reached the summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT, at around 12:30 pm on September 23rd (Tuesday).

I feel more satisfaction at having completed than AT than in I think anything else that I’ve done in my life: this was something that¬†I did, that there’s no expectation of anyone¬†to do, and that no one except myself would be disappointed in a failure of.¬†I have spent half a year doing something that I love, that fewer than 15,000 people in history have ever succeeded in doing: thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail – the oldest and most famous of long-distance hiking trails in the world.

I’ll have several more AT-related posts on this blog, including things like gear reviews and suggestions for the best sections to hike, so stay tuned for at least another month. I may also continue the blog after that as I move on to whatever my next step ends up being in life (maybe moving to Australia!).

By the Numbers

  • Distance walked: 2,185.3 miles
  • Time: 187 days = 6 months, 2 days (March 21 to September 23)
  • Number of states: 14
  • Zero days: 18
  • Average daily distance: 12.9 miles (11.7 miles including zero days)
  • Pairs of shoes destroyed: 3 (4 trail runners, 2 boots)
  • Backpack weight: 30-45 pounds (depending on summer/winter, and how much food I was carrying)

2014 Thru-Hiker Statistics:

  • Total hikers starting:¬†2,500 NOBOs, 242, SOBOs
  • Total hikers @ midpoint: 1,267 NOBOs, 65+ SOBOs ¬†(at the approximate midpoint of Harper’s Ferry, WV)
  • Likely total thru-hikers:¬†~600 NOBOs, ~60 SOBOs, ~50 flip-floppers

Take a look at more statistics for this and past years here: http://www.appalachiantrail.org/about-the-trail/2000-milers

The Trail Behind Me

“Which way did you go? We took the long way round,
Anywhere the wind blows, far from the city sounds.
It’s not the road that you know, but it’s sure to take us there
‘Cause anywhere is alright when you haven’t got a care!”
– Barra MacNeils, “Haven’t Got a Care”

I just heard that song performed live here on Cape Breton island in Nova Scotia, and it was one of my theme songs for this hike. This hike that is now behind me. Physically, I was ready to be done; ready to have central heating, fruits and vegetables, padded seats, and to finally stop eating 5000 calories per day. But mentally, I would love to keep living on the trail. It’s such an amazing culture out there.

I spent 6 days going through the “100-Mile Wilderness”. The name is a bit of a misnomer: while there’s no place to resupply in that 100-mile stretch, there are plenty of dirt roads criss-crossing the trail. It was beautiful in there, with some of the best trails and campsites on the AT. I started out going over a couple of decent mountains – Chairback and White Cap – and then the trail descended to actually flat terrain that meandered its way along rivers and lakes. There were only two rivers that I needed to ford; the rest could be rock-hopped. Many of the campsites were located right along their banks. My favorite was Antlers Campsite, which is on this peninsula of land sticking out into Lower Jo Mary Lake.

As I approached the end of the 100-Mile, the excitement and sadness at completing the trail became all I could think about. Amusingly, the other “Wing It” (actually, she spells it “Wing-it”) caught up with me, and it turned out we were planning to summit the same day. I had been listening to the radio for weather forecasts, and the 23rd was sounding like good weather for summitting – 60 degrees and mostly sunny – so that was our target.

The last night on the trail is traditionally spent at The Birches Shelter – the only campsite in Baxter State Park – located right at the base of Mount Katahdin. I pitched my tent for the last time, and then built a good bonfire (with the wet, rotted wood in the area at that!).

The 100-Mile Wilderness: Monson, ME to Baxter State Park, ME

Haha, no. I brought 6 days of food with me and was fine.

The 100-Mile Wilderness: Monson, ME to Baxter State Park, ME

Amazing views in the 100-Mile Wilderness.

The 100-Mile Wilderness: Monson, ME to Baxter State Park, ME

This is from the Antlers Campsite. Gorgeous place!

Mount Katahdin & Baxter State Park, ME

One last AT bonfire…

“Katahdin” is a Native American term for “Greatest Mountain”. And that she is, well worthy of being the final stop on the Appalachian Trail. The forecast posted at the ranger station confirmed the weather¬†that morning – 60 degrees and mostly sunny. I started my ascent at 8:00 am. It was the last 5.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and I was running on adrenaline!

Mount Katahdin & Baxter State Park, ME

C’mon Dad, hurry up and take the photo…

  • Mile 1: 15 minutes (8:15am). I am so excited! Is it really supposed to take 4 hours to get up this? – I’m flying!
  • Mile 2: 35 minutes (8:50am). Lots of boulders, but this isn’t bad! I ran into thru-hiker friends Rod N Real, Penguin and her boyfriend, Why Wait, and Rob Steady on the way.
  • Mile 3: 60 minutes (9:50am). Okay, some technical climbing to make this mountain worthy of a final climb! This is actually on par with Wildcat Mountain in New Hampshire.
  • Mile 4: 90 minutes (11:20am). This goes straight up, and visibility is now about 20 feet. And there’s … ice? The ice is starting at about 4000 feet – I still have another 1200 feet to ascend, and it’ll only get colder… Well, it’s definitely the greatest mountain!
  • Mile 5: 60 minutes (12:20pm). I’ve now put on all of my winter gear – it is frigid and windy! And the trail has reached the point of being a bit dangerous without crampons, but nothing is going to stop me from finishing now! It really is like a different world up here; I feel like I’m on Mars.
  • Mile 5.2: 15 minutes (12:35pm). Is that the famous sign? … It is! SUMMIT!!!
Mount Katahdin & Baxter State Park, ME

No really – it looks like Mars!

Mount Katahdin & Baxter State Park, ME

A very frigid yet beautiful Mars.

I brought some champagne with me as well as some 12-year-aged Jameson in my old fraternity’s appropriate “To Excess” flask for a¬†summit celebration. I got my photos and began my celebration with some thru-hikers who were already up there, and then waited briefly while the thrus I was climbing with came up behind me. We got our group photo with Rod N Real, Why Wait, Rob Steady, Penguin and her boyfriend, Affirm, Onward, and myself. Under normal circumstances, I would have lingered for a while up there, but my fingers were already completely numb, so about 20 minutes after reaching the end of the Appalachian Trail, I began my yoyo hike.

Mount Katahdin & Baxter State Park, ME

That’s 12-year-aged Jameson in there.

Mount Katahdin & Baxter State Park, ME

My summit group!

Well, I had no plans to yoyo more than 5.2 miles, but I got down to the parking lot where my parents were waiting to pick me up and congratulate me about 4 hours later. The weather warmed up a little and the cloud ceiling rose enough that I got some views from the Tableland (though it was still overcast). Of course, having views I could now see just how steep and narrow the AT is going up to the summit! That descent had so many mixed emotions … I’m done, after just over 6 months of living in the woods.

Mount Katahdin & Baxter State Park, ME

That is what we climbed – the AT runs the tip of that steep ridgeline. Dang!

So What’s Next?

“Now I’m sitting here, before the fire
An empty room, a forest choir
Flames have grown, won’t get any higher
They’ve withered, now they’re gone.

But I’m steady thinking my way is clear
And I know what I’ll do tomorrow
When the hands have shaken, the kisses flowed
Then I’ll disappear!

Oh but let me tell you that I love you,
That I think about you all the time:
[Appalachia]’s been everything I’ve ever had!

And if I should become a stranger,
Know it would make me more than sad.
[Appalachia]’s still everything I’ve ever had…”
– “Caledonia” (traditional Celtic song)

My journey on the Appalachian Trail has taught me a lot. A couple who gave me trail magic back in Caratunk, Maine asked me a question that got me thinking for a couple days afterward: “What is the biggest thing you’ve learned on the trail?” I’ve decided that it’s not so much a thing, but it’s that I now understand and believe that there is no need to follow a traditional, normal way of life. If working a POS job for just long enough to be able to go on your next long-distance hike makes you happy, then that’s a good way for you to live. Society tells us we need to go through university, then get a career job, settle down, and make our way up the corporate ladder until we retire. There’s no need for that. I want to wander, explore, meet people – and I have no desire to become a CEO or to kill myself with workloads.

I think my ideal job would be something like disaster relief work in third-world countries. I’m trained as a structural engineer, and have worked as a forensic structural engineer – I have skills that are needed for that kind of work. I greatly enjoy bringing an order to chaos, which nearly defines disaster recovery. I need variety in my work, and I need to be outside on a regular basis. And I want to make the world a better place, and help those less fortunate. So I don’t know what it is that I will end up doing, but I’ve been thinking in that direction.

I do know that I don’t really want to settle down. I definitely want to have a family someday, but exploring the world appeals to me much more than having a secure routine. I know that attitude is typical of many people when they’re young, but I’m 27 now and that attitude doesn’t seem to be changing. I’ve become increasingly convinced that forcing myself into trying to settle down in a secure routine¬†will just make me unhappy.

For my immediate future, I’ll probably hang out in the U.S. at least through Christmas, and then likely head to Australia. I have an 18-month work visa approved for going down under, and it seems it’d be foolish to not take advantage of that.

As the song I quoted above talks about, though, I do seem to keep getting drawn back to Appalachia, no matter what I do. I’ve now lived in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York – and I spent 6 months hiking through it all. Most of my friends and family are here. I’ll be in the area plenty, in my Caledonia.

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2070.8: To the 100-Mile Wilderness and Beyond!

I tried, but despite having gone over Maine’s second mountain and passed through two awesome towns, I couldn’t think of anything from the past section to title this post; it’s titled after my upcoming section. That definitely says something. I have a whole 114.5 miles remaining on the entire Appalachian Trail!

The next 100 miles is called the “100-Mile Wilderness” – it’s one of the longest stretches without a town or major road on the entire trail. Some people get food drops in the middle of it, but those are expensive. I’m going through with six days of food, which should comfortably get me through. And then it’s just 15 miles further pasty that – through Baxter State Park and up to the summit of Mount Katahdin! I’ve gotten a couple glimpses of “The Greatest Mountain” (as the name translates to in a Native American tongue) off in the distance, and it is exciting!

I definitely have mixed feelings about finishing. I love it out on the trail, and I wish I could stay out here in this amazing culture. But, it is getting toward time to earn an income again, and more importantly, it’s getting cold! My nights out here have been typically close to freezing and high winds. My sleeping bag is still plenty warm, but it is less fun when I need to huddle into it so quickly in the evening.

Anyway, ONE WEEK TO GO!

The Week Past

image

My beautiful beach-side campsite on Flagstaff Lake, where I watched the sun set over Bigelow. More photos to come!

Well, I should actually talk about my time since the last post. Since Rangeley, I crossed over my last big mountains until Katahdin: the Crockers and the Bigelows. The Bigelows in particular were gorgeous. They were narrow, rock summits just above a beautiful highland pond that I crossed over during amazing, warm weather. While other hikers rushed past me on the summit, I sat up there journaling and admiring the views for a couple hours. It was one of my favorite mountains so far.

I afterwards found myself in an odd drought of thru-hikers for a couple nights, but I was at beautiful locations each night. Flagstaff Lake campsite let me tent virtually on a large, secluded beach from which I could watch the sun set over Bigelow. Pierce Pond Shelter gave me an awesome pond view, and then Tim Harrison fed me some delicious pancakes the next morning at his awesome, rustic cabins. I got ferried across the Kennebec River on the official Appalachian Trail canoe ferry service (there’s a white blaze in the canoe!) and then nearo’ed in the little town of Caratunk, Maine.

Caratunk featured the first time in nearly a decade that I’ve used a phone. Nobody has cell phone service there, but you need to call one of the two nearby inns to get a shuttle somehow! The Sterling Inn was one of my favorite places I’ve stayed – I got my own room, in an historic B&B, with delicious breakfast included, a big DVD collection, free shuttle to the pub at the other inn, and laundry and resupply on-site – for all of $40. I ran into the only other two people staying there that night at the pub (they were up here for a fly-fishing trip). We had a great conversation, they gave me trail magic, and then I spotted the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – outside. I’d seen warnings about it being likely that night (I’ve been on every email and text message alert list I could find ever since an amazing display that I saw from New Hampshire back in 2007), and I’d been trying to spread the news via trail gossip and shelter registers. I hope some of my fellow hikers got to see it too! But anyway, we drove out to an open view without streetlights to watch it for a bit before returning to the Sterling Inn, where I kept watching the display. It never got huge, but I got some shimmering columns of faint green and red. The Northern Lights are beautiful.

My next two and a half days were finally easy terrain. I even did a 20-mile day one day! I’d forgotten what those felt like… But I spent today in Monson, Maine – a small town built on Lake Hebron. And the hostel here, Shaws, is great. It’s also for sale if any of y’all want to buy it. I’ll enjoy their famous all you can eat breakfast before heading into the 100-Mile Wilderness!

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1928.4: Through the Whites and onto My Final State!

So many emotions rushed through me when I parted ways with my parents saying “see you at Mount Katahdin.” That was on my way out of Gorham, NH – and I’ve now made it to Maine! I crossed the border on August 31st, after some gruelingly slow miles through the White Mountains as well as some perfect visits from my parents. I now have a mere 220 miles remaining until Mount Katahdin!

Gorham, NH to Andover, ME


MAINE!!!

It’s been a while since my last post, and I probably only have one more on-trail post after this – I’m only 220 miles from Mount Katahdin! I’m taking probably my last zero day right now, in Rangeley, Maine. I’ll make stops in Caratunk and Monson as well, and I will try to post again from Monson – which is the beginning of the 100 Mile Wilderness.

Anyway, this will be a long post, as my clever plan of posting after I parted ways with my parents on my way out of Gorham, NH was foiled by a distinct lack of anything resembling a reliable data signal… So I’ll start where my last post left off, back in Hanover, NH:

The 50 with My Dad

My dad joined me for the 55 mile stretch from Hanover to Mount Moosilauke (known as “The 50” by tradition at Dartmouth). 40 years ago for him, and 10 years ago for me, almost to the month, we each had our Dartmouth freshmen orientation trips along roughly this stretch of trail. Not only was my dad joining me on my journey up the AT, but we were each reliving some of our fondest memories of our Alma Mater.

Hanover, NH to Mt Moosilauke, NH


Leaving Hanover with my dad, fully packed up.

It was amazing having my dad with me for those 5 nights. I was impressed with his hiking stamina, as he pushed out 10-12 mile days over what turned out to be some difficult terrain. His pace was slower than mine, but that didn’t bother me, especially since I was trying to go easy on my left knee to make sure it healed fully before I hit the Whites. We got to have some great conversations, and he got to experience a lot of what I’ve been going through every day – even hitchhiking and some fantastic trail magic!

One of the best days out there was when I was wanting to stealth camp near the base of Mount Cube, but my dad pushed for the Mount Cube Sugar Farm, which was a 2-mile hitch, but offered a free place to camp. The owner of the sugar farm, Peter Thomson, turned out to be one of those trail angels that you just love meeting: “Oh, come on in to the sugar house! Feel free to spread out these mattresses however you’d like. Kitchen is here, along with our maple syrup – you’re welcome to anything in here. What time can I give you a ride back to the trailhead in the morning?” Dang, thank you so much!

Hanover, NH to Mt Moosilauke, NH


My dad making some pancakes in the sugarhouse, with lots of delicious maple syrup ready to use.

And of course, there were the crowning moments of our last day together, at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge. So many memories there, and it is a beautiful place – it’s not listed in the AT Guide, but it’s only 2.8 miles off the trail, and was once the largest log cabin structure in the U.S. Plus they stuffed me with delicious, family-style, locally-sourced food!

When my dad, who acquired the trail name “Moss”, parted ways with me on the summit of Mount Moosilauke the next day, it felt like I was walking away from a hiking buddy who had been with me for ages, not just our few days. In a way, perhaps he has been.

Hanover, NH to Mt Moosilauke, NH


The Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, with Moss and I.

Hanover, NH to Mt Moosilauke, NH


Summit of Mount Moosilauke: my dad’s first time up there, and my return to it.

The White Mountains

The White Mountains are HARD. They aren’t kidding when they say your pace will drop by a third through them (and sometimes it was more, depending on the stretch). But those views are worth the effort, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. My entire time through the Whites, I only got lightly sprinkled on one afternoon, and I had warm, clear views going over both the Franconia and Presidential ridges.

Hanover, NH to Mt Moosilauke, NH


Yes, well – ahem. This is rather true of the Whites. An old trail sign at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge.

One of the most difficult things about the Whites is finding places to sleep at night. The AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) – we’ll get to more about them later – doesn’t build many shelters along its stretch of the AT, and those that it does build usually cost $8 per night (virtually every other shelter along the AT is completely free). There are huts throughout the Whites, but those cost about $120 per night – way out of thru-hiker budget. The huts do take in two thru-hikers on a “work for stay” basis each night, but you can’t count on that as they may turn away hikers after the first two, and even if you do get in, you can only sleep on the dining room floor after lights out hours, between about 10pm and 6am. There are a few stealth camping sites, but not many since the ground is often far from level and there are all sorts of “forest protection area” restrictions on camping everywhere. I ended up doing a mixture of all of the above – stealthing, a work for stay at Greenleaf Hut, and paying for shelter sites.

However, I did get awesome trail magic one night at the end of the Presidential ridge: I walked into Madison Spring Hut and asked if they had any work for stay slots still available. “Actually, we had a last minute cancellation and they said to donate their bunks to the first two thru-hikers to show up. You’re number two. Dinner is at 6.” SWEET! I don’t even know your name, mysterious trail angel, but thank you! I got a comfy bunk with a reading light and two full, delicious meals there, without even having to wash any dishes. It was also a gorgeous, warm night with an awesome sunset and crystal clear skies of stargazing later on.

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


Madison Spring Hut gave us a gorgeous sunset!

I had been told by multiple people – even a bicyclist I bumped into way back on Mount Greylock in Massachusetts – that the one thing that the AT misses in the Whites that is really worth it are the Bond cliffs. So I took one clear morning to take the 2-mile spur trail out to Bondcliff. And I agree – it was worth it.

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


The Bond cliffs – an entire ridge of rock cliffs, looking out on Franconia Ridge (to the left of this photo) and several gorgeous slides.

The difference between the Whites and the rest of the trail earlier on is not just particularly high mountains to climb; it’s that the trail also becomes very technical. There are sheer rock faces at 70 degree angles that you’re left to figure out how in the world to get up or down on your own. There are waterfalls that the trail follows, giving you wet and slippery rocks at a steep angle to negotiate. I had one section, from Greenleaf Hut to the summit of South Twin mountain, that was 8.5 miles but took me nearly 8 hours to traverse just because the terrain was so darn technical. Some of that is because the mountains are actually very rocky, but the AMC also either makes little effort to avoid or intentionally goes over (I’ve heard both theories from AMC employees) technical sections in order to make the trail challenging.

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


For example, this sheer rock face going up Wildcat Mountain – was that really necessary?

Most thru-hikers will rant about the AMC – “Appalachian Money Club” as it’s nicknamed – because of the lack of free shelters (they’re free in every other AT club’s territory) and the unnecessarily technical terrain. I’ll be a little more nuanced and point to their history. In the late 1800s / early 1900s, the White Mountains were this country’s most popular tourist destination. Folks who could afford it would ride their carriages up to mountain summits (to the many “tip top houses”) and enjoy the out of doors. It was also the age of storybook adventurers who would leave their mansions to bushwhack new places to explore. That’s the culture into which the AMC was born. As that culture faded and summit hotels and huts started going out of business, the AMC was the last survivor, continuing to make a profit off their Presidential ridge huts. When the Appalachian Trail was founded, most of the trail maintenance clubs were local volunteer groups, often newly started up. But the AMC was already maintaining trails in the Whites, so they became the trail maintenance club for the White Mountains and up to just past the Mahoosuc Notch in Maine. The AMC, as an organization, is therefore building off a different legacy – one of making money off of the mountains rather than simply being volunteer stewards of the trail. The employees at the huts and campsites are typically young backpackers themselves and so empathize with us thru-hikers quite strongly – they’re usually very nice to us and often let more than two sleep in the huts or give work for stay options at the shelters as well. But they’re working in a different type of organization than along the rest of the trail.

Despite that annoyance with the AMC, the terrain was gorgeous and it was worth every minute! Franconia Ridge was a bit chilly, but I got amazing views of billowing clouds and the open ridge. On the Presidential Ridge, I was actually sweating at 6000 feet in the bright sun and dramatic, crystal-clear views. I only left the summit of Mount Washington after the quantity of tourists became almost frightening… And then, there was the tradition of mooning the Cog Railway train as it brought folks up to the summit the whimpy way.

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


The sun rising over Franconia Ridge, as seen from North Kinsman mountain.

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


I had beautiful weather going over Mount Washington. Here’s one of the Lakes of the Clouds, with calm waters.

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


The summit of Mount Washington!

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


But there were so many tourists on the Washington summit! You can see why I escaped down off of it rather quickly…

Leaving the Whites and into Maine

Southern Maine fools you; the first 15 miles out of Gorham, NH were actually pretty easy. Thankfully so, as my parents came up to visit me in Gorham and they joined me for a short stretch up Mount Hayes, seeing me out of town. But the hard terrain was just ahead.

The Whites had definitely knocked it out of me – I needed a zero and spending some time with my parents was a perfect respite. My body felt like it was about two days ahead of my metabolism on burning calories, and my knees were sore. My parents got to watch me gorge on food for several meals per day. Spending the evenings just sitting still out on the porch with some drinks, shooting the breeze, was amazing. We also drove out to the Lancaster Country Fair for a day, exploring the 4-H exhibits, watching some horse and ox shows, and eating fresh foods.

Gorham, NH to Andover, ME


My parents, seeing me out of town with a short hike up Mount Hayes.

The terrain started getting hard and technical again around Goose Eye Mountain, especially since I went over it in the rain, but I still pushed out a nearly 15-mile day that day. The next day, though, was the Mahoosuc Notch – the famously hardest mile of the AT. It’s a mile-long scramble over and under 5 to 30-foot diameter boulders. That is, it’s an adult jungle gym, and it was quite fun. I was expecting it, so I planned a shorter day, and it lasted just the right length; 2.5 hours later, I hit the end of it right as I was getting tired of the terrain. What I did not plan was that the Mahoosuc Arm – the mountain immediately after the Notch – was also steep and very technical. At 5.1 miles, I hit Speck Pond Shelter, and my legs were just done. I called it a day at about 4pm, and that was my shortest day on the trail.

Gorham, NH to Andover, ME


The Mahoosuc Notch. See that arrow pointing toward the ~2 foot tall crevasse you have to squeeze through? After hopping over all of those boulders on the way?

Thankfully, it was also basically the end of AMC territory, and my next days eased up as I got into Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) territory. Don’t get me wrong: Maine is still steep and hard, but it’s transitioned back to mostly dirt paths with dirt tent sites, good blazing, and few technical areas. Maine also features highland ponds all over the place where you can swim, stargaze, and often stay at a shelter just a few dozen yards off the shore. I love it. This is a great state.

Andover, ME to Rangeley, ME


And I do mean gorgeous lakes! Two loons actually swam almost right up to me a few minutes earlier on this lake (and they sang for us all at the shelter during the night).

The towns in Maine, at least so far, are small but fun with all I need for good resupplies. Rangeley here is a touristy ski town for Saddleback Mountain during the winter, but is now just a beautiful small town, with the claim to fame that it is exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. It also has a fantastic unlisted hostel that I only found out about via trail gossip – the Gray Beast – $25 for my own room right in the center of town, with a great caretaker, and breakfast and laundry included. It’s hard to beat that deal, and it’s supposed to thunderstorm all afternoon today, so I’m zeroing there.

The Last of the Trail

As I’m closing in on Mount Katahdin, I definitely have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m excited to be reaching my goal and definitely want to get there before it starts getting too cold up here. On the other, it’s the end of a journey that I don’t want to end and marks the need to return to the so-called “real world” of jobs and routines.

The northbound crowd has definitely thinned out, and I’m only rarely seeing a southbounder now. However, there are still enough of us NOBOs that I’m rarely alone if I stop at a shelter, and I know there are a bunch of folks traveling near me. Hiking slower with my dad, and then going through the Whites, I’ve backed into the center of the NOBO bubble a bit more (I was previously closer to the leading edge).

My former group from the Smokies is almost all still on the trail, and most are fairly close to me. Wiki, True Story, and Muffin Man are a bit ahead; Stylez, Tigger, Mighty Blue, Bluebird, Simba, Boss, Beans, and even Stealth are behind me and most are within just a few days; Twist rocketed ahead and has already summitted Katahdin.

For now, it’s still a couple more weeks on the Appalachian Trail. It felt really good to go through and estimate out the rest of the trail while I was in the Whites. Right now, I’m projecting around September 22nd or so to summit. That will depend a bit on how hard the terrain ends up being, what the weather’s like (I will wait for a nice day to summit Katahdin), and who I want to summit with. But it’s getting close!

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


Hikers are definitely way thinner than they used to be, but there are still enough of us to socialize. Flinch, Little Bit, Oregon, Potatoes, Muffin Man, Pope, and others congregated at Madison Spring Hut.

Gorham, NH to Andover, ME


This is a common sight of me, that I decided I needed a photo of: I like stopping and lingering at pretty overlooks. Perhaps journaling, perhaps reading, or perhaps just meditating.

Bonus Pretty Photos from the Whites

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


The Presidential Ridge, seen from Mount Madison. Notice how Mount Washington, the peak to the left, is in the clouds while the rest of the sky is clear; that’s its usual state.

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


The Presidential Ridge and the Great Gulf Wilderness, seen from just below the Washington summit.

White Mountains National Forest (Mt Moosilauke, NH to Gorham, NH)


Crawford Notch. Deep.

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