Day Three on the GA AT

 

Day 3 on the AT.
Blood Mountain and Longest Day.
Friday, June 23.
Trail: Gooch Mountain Shelter to Neel Gap
Distance: 16 miles

We woke up to a small Appalachian Trail miracle – no rain! We were highly motivated with magic words and thoughts of a shower, bed, and booze, and so we set off with the mentality that we were going to conquer this 16 mile day.

Today was a confusing combination of both heaven and hell. It was both a grueling and beautiful day. After being blanketed for the last two days by tree cover that surrounded our bodies and minds, we finally were rewarded with some wondrous views of the rolling green and blue colored mountains. Stepping out into the openness felt like I was lifting my face for the first time since starting this journey.

 

We would crisscross paths with the two German kids most of the day. They set out ahead of us this morning, but we’d find them on the trail, taking a break, or waiting to show us something. The first time they stopped for us my stranger-danger paranoid trail companion was on high alert, and when they told her they were waiting to show us deer, she was unimpressed as we have plenty of those in Kansas, and she kept us moving along. I later learned they had actually seen bears – a mama and a cub – and they were waiting to show us the bears. They sound the same, especially with a German accent, right? Sure would have liked to have seen those bears. Foot Powder told me at the hostel, “We were waiting to show you the bears, but you gals seemed in a hurry.” If only you knew, Foot Powder, you-sweet-19-year-old-kid-you, if only you knew.

We would also meet a few locals, who would observe our massive backpacks and ask us where we’d started, and where we hoped to get to. When we’d tell them our plan of reaching Neel Gap by evening they’d look at us like we were a little crazy and try to encourage us to embrace a different option. Being Kansas born-and-raised, we took their dissuasion as a challenge and decided they simply didn’t know how determined, strong and tenacious Kansas gals can be.

When Woody Gap came into view we nearly squealed and rejoiced at the sight of one of the most marvelous modern day creations: a trash can. It’s the little things in life. And when you’re practicing the “Leave No Trace” principle of hiking, it’s a glorious moment when you can finally dump the contents of your bag and remove the trash that you’ve been carrying around for miles. What goes into the forest with us must come out of the forest with us.

 
(above: water sources on the AT)

At Woody Gap we also encountered our first real trail magic, with a kind man offering us some beer. We declined, as both of us try to remain gluten-free, but beyond that, we didn’t want to carry the extra weight. There was an abundance of tourists at Woody Gap who were stopping to see the views and hike to Preacher’s Rock, and stepping off of the trail and onto asphalt was one of the most disorienting feelings. My feet weren’t quite sure how to respond to flat, stable ground.

 

Trash disposed of and packs rearranged, we continued on our journey for the day, hiking up Big Cedar Mountain to the rock ledges and alluring views. Scout wanted to stop and enjoy the landscape for a while but since we’d just stopped at Woody Gap for a fairly lengthy rest, I pushed us on after a few minutes, knowing what was still ahead of us according to the map. We met the North Carolina Three on top of Preacher’s Rock and our paths would intersect the remainder of the day, merging at Neel Gap for the night until we’d eventually part ways the next day.

Along the trail a giant tree fell not too far from the path, which made us realize we not only had to be wary of deadly snakes, poisonous plants, and mama bears, but trees were also out to kill us on this journey of ours.

 
(above left: Blood Mountain Wilderness sign)

We stopped at Lance Creek to filter water and take a break. At this point we had 8.5 miles down and 7 still to go. Our legs felt like jello after the last mile, but we were slaying this trail today. It helps that we have figured out our water consumption needs and have plenty of water sources along today’s path, eliminating the rookie mistake of carrying more water (and weight) than necessary.

 

Lance Creek is also the base of Blood Mountain and the point at which we begin the rising ascent. Contrary to popular belief by looking at a map, it is not a gradual incline. At least it certainly didn’t feel gradual. We paused at Slaughter Creek Trail to filter more water with the intention of a longer rest and eating some food, but due to my hatred of all things insect related and they’re obsessive love for me, we didn’t stay long because I was getting swarmed.

 

Onward and upward. It was a brutal path to get to the top, covered with a multitude of rock sections that were either smooth and slick or giant boulders that needed scaled. Thankfully, Blood Mountain was one of the more rewarding views we’d have on this journey. The panorama from the summit was glorious, and the stone shelter was beautiful, perched high upon the mountain. We summited along with Gladiator who took our photos and enjoyed the vista with us before we started back on the path leading down to Neel Gap.

 
(above right: coming up to Blood Mountain Shelter and summit)

Snake sighting today was the every lovely venomous viper known as the Timber Rattlesnake. We had barely started on the trail’s descent when I heard Scout yelling my name and rapidly racing back up the trail.

  • “There’s a snake, a snake, a snake…”
  • Me: “What kind of snake?”
  • “The bad kind of snake.”
  • Me: “Which one?”
  • “Pretty sure it’s the Timber Rattler.”
  • Me: “Holy S&#t! Is it safe for me to go check it out and get pictures?”
  • “Sure! It’s out there on the rock in the middle of the trail.”

 
(above: do you see the timber rattler?)

So I gingerly started down the curvy path but didn’t spot the snake in any obvious locations. The rocky artery was flanked on both sides with shrubbery and overgrowth acting as a barricade for anyone ever considering a detour. Fear kicked in and I was nearly yelling at Scout to find out how far she’d gone because by this point I was starting to freak out with not knowing where the creature was and envisioning it coiled up within inches of me. Just as I was about to keep going and step over a rock ledge, I saw the rattle sticking up and jutting out from underneath. Sure enough, a timber rattler, and a good sized one, at that. With nothing else to do but stand still and watch it as it moved itself off the trail and into the bushes, Gladiator came up from behind us, surprised to find us so soon and wondering what we were doing. He was thrilled when we told him what we were watching, and came close to get some photos of his own. We all watched it move off the trail until we deemed it safe to pass by and continued on our way dropping down into the tree line and continuing into the pits of craggy hell.

 
(above: the blazes moved to the rock trail; the path descended into that hole in the trees)

The trail, if you can even call it that, soon became littered with bouldered giant rocks of massive proportions and it was like the gods just dumped a bunch of rubble into the mountainside. The trail was excruciatingly slow-going on the down hill, trying to be safe and sure of our footing. At one point Scout looked up at the path, exasperated, and proclaimed “What in the actual F&#! is this?” We burst out laughing in delirium and exhaustion, and of course, I told her to smile so I could take a picture of the insanity. This was fun, right?!

 
(above left: that white mark on the tree? That’s the blaze indicating the trail)

Along this section we met Scott, who was a chatty local hiking up to do some trail maintenance. I think he would have talked for an hour if we’d have let him, but I was already exhausted, had no energy to spare with being social, and prodded Scout along. Self-preservation for a true Introvert. Plus, we were standing on some very awkward boulders as we introduced ourselves and made small talk, and I was really wanting some level ground. This challenging section lasted nearly a mile, before it finally smoothed out and descended into Neel Gap.

 
(above: Erin on top of a boulder; descending into Neel Gap)

I have very little recollection of how we got off that mountain, and somewhere in the last mile I lost my smile. Sixteen miles of grueling trail and I was simply spent. Scout seemed to get more and more jubilant the closer we got to Neel Gap, as she was incredibly motivated by getting to hitch a ride into town for provisions. We dumped our packs, claimed our plastic covered mattress beds, I kicked off my boots, and I sat in a stoned-like trance trying to figure out if I even had enough energy to eat. Scout went into town with Gladiator and Achilles to get food and adult beverages, I took a shower, and by the time food arrived, I was ready to consume an entire gluten-filled dairy-addicting large pizza all on my own. I also had Scout pick me up something I never buy at home: Coke. Oh my word. It was like being reunited with a drug that would turn me into a sugar-consuming gluten-loving junkie. This was the beginning of my descent into nutrition purgatory as I continued to consume things I never should for the next several days. Coke? Yes, please. And I’ll have a Snickers candy bar to go with that. In fact, make it two…

We had a fun night sitting around a bizarrely low table, pulling up anything that resembled a chair, talking and getting to know each other over pizza, beer, wine, and coke. We enjoyed hearing how the German boys “almost” have girlfriends back home, laughed at how resistant they are to medical suggestions (Achilles has achilles-tendinitis), and were all thoroughly entertained to watch Scout drink wine straight from the bottle. Who needs glasses? Oh wait… there weren’t any around.

 

Even though the hostel was less than ideal conditions, it was nice to be inside, out of the pouring rain which had started back up, laughing with our new friends, and feeling a little badass for conquering the day.

There was a lot of trail cussing today. It was the most hideous trail, the hardest miles, the most mentally challenging path I’ve ever been on. I later found a note I had jotted down on my phone, summarizing the first three days so far: “For those thinking of doing this, be warned that there are very few straight and level, gentle paths. You are either climbing up or creeping down.” A friend of mine who has hiked the majority of the Tennessee AT section summed it up best by saying, “It was the most miserable experience with moments of beauty. I didn’t come back changed, just really appreciative of things.”

 

Yep. I’m feeling the same way.

Happy Trails.

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Day 2 on the GA AT

 

The Day of the Ass Kickers.
Date: Thursday, June 22.
Trail: Hawk Mountain Shelter to Gooch Mountain Shelter
Distance: 8.0 miles

I’m pretty certain that Tropical Storm Cindy is trying to drown us. It poured rain all night long, and most of the day. After transferring our items to the shelter area so that we could repack and load up our gear we headed down to the water source to filter water for the day. Our friendly helper Jonathon was nowhere in sight, but we accomplished finding the “good water source” just fine on our own. I discovered how slippery a mud bank can be in the pouring rain, and not-so-gracefully took a mud slide just to round out the perfect morning.

 

Everything on the trail revolves around water. Where’s the next water source? Is it reliable? If not, how much do I have to carry? Today’s trail would involve a stretch of 7 miles over lots of PUDs (pointless up and down mountains) with no water sources. It was reasonable to expect that the army resupply truck would be at Cooper Gap, but we also knew not to rely upon that. Water collected, water filtered, water stored in the backpack. Ready for the day.

 

There are two weather elements that I love: a light rain and calming fog. I’ve never minded hiking in the rain. In Georgia, that meant that the bugs were away, the ticks weren’t out, the mosquitoes weren’t draining my blood, and the temperatures were cooler. I love the sounds of raindrops falling above in the tree canopy, bathing the world. And I love the fog. The demands to focus only on the present, the mystery it creates, the muffled quiet that blankets the earth. How it creates a magical passageway along the trail.

 

Ron had told us yesterday morning that after the end of the first day, the “vacation would be over.” He said day two was going to include a lot of ass kickers, and he was absolutely correct. The Georgia mountains were insanely hard today. Slick wet rocks on a steep trail made it grueling going up and treacherous going down. It didn’t help that at one point on a steep inclination the path diverged and no blaze was in sight. Scout thankfully picked correctly, and relief set in as a white blaze eventually came into view. At some point on a particularly boulderish area, I started yelling and hollering. “Whooo hoooo! We’re on the AT!!! Isn’t this fuuuun?!?” I’m pretty sure Erin thought I was losing it… and maybe I was, but I just needed to create a temporary break in the insane concentration it was requiring to put one foot in front of the other, and the hysterical laughing that ensued was good for our souls.

 

The trail was unrelenting in its steep climbs and sharp descents, unrewarding with no views for all the efforts that were being made. After countless vertical plunges and gains, we reached Cooper Gap and sat for a break. The army resupply truck had moved on, but we thankfully had enough water. Being the Navigator, I pulled out my map to see what kind of hell still awaited us.

Hey, Scout. You’re gonna be really excited about what I just figured out.”
Scout looked at me skeptically, not sure if I was being serious or sarcastic. “Really? What?!
You’re gonna be really excited by this news...”
Scout: “You’d better not be f%#king with me…
We just crossed Sassafras!!!!

 

Without even realizing it, we had triumphed over Sassafras Mountain. There’s a saying by locals: Sassafras kicked my ass. It’s also known as “kick-my-assafras.” You get the point. The F bomb was used countless times by both of us during the past 4.5 miles and we were elated to realize we had this beastly section behind us instead of in front of us.

 

At Cooper Gap it stopped raining and the trail finally became pleasant to be on, varying the views with twisty trees and vibrant green vegetation. The Justus Creek Campground area was an oasis with a flowing stream framed by beautiful trees and it beckoned us to rest. We stopped to filter more water, enjoying the sounds of the bubbling creek, watching little blue butterflies floating nearby and listening to the birds chirping high above. This was one of my favorite spots on the trail. Simplistic peace.

 

Today’s snake sighting was the Eastern Garter Snake. I nearly stepped on it which about caused a heart attack. As my foot was getting ready to land I realized there was a coiled snake in my step. Since I didn’t identify it in a split second, I thought my heart skipped a beat in fear it might be a rattler. It was rather pretty as it sat coiled, playing a game of flinch with me as I crept close enough to get some pictures of it.

We arrived at Gooch Mountain Shelter and had the place to ourselves for a while which felt luxurious. This meant we’d be able to sleep in the shelter instead the crazy small tent. We unpacked our bags, hung up wet gear to dry, and used the picnic table to try and sort our lives that had been reduced to items that fit in a large backpack. A couple of hours later two 19-year-old German kids joined us, both of whom were carrying a ridiculous amount of items in their packs, making them equipped for anything that ranged from needing an axe to bury a body to giving Emeril a run for his money in a campground cooking competition. Foot Powder and Achilles would be our companions for the next day and night, along with Captain Blue, who was next to arrive at the shelter. We eventually renamed Captain Blue to Gladiator, because he has done the AT four times and he slays the trail like no one else. Gladiator is an outdoor adventure expert and felt like a kindred spirit. A calming presence entered camp the moment he arrived. Another hour later we were joined by Faith and Dreamweaver, as well as Stan and Alan from the previous night.

 

I haven’t been drinking or eating enough, and am exhausted and dehydrated. I am forcing food because I know I need it. Physically, I’m surprisingly feeling pretty good after all the strenuous miles. I have some tender spots on my feet and body but that’s to be expected. Thankfully, no blisters so far. Collectively, the four Kansans have decided to split up the next day. Faith and Dreamweaver are wanting to go slower, only doing around 5-8 miles a day, and Scout and I are hoping to make it back to the rental car on schedule. That means a lot of longer mileage days for the two of us. We are embracing the hike-your-own-hike philosophy.

 

The night would be another restless night. It feels like the jungle it’s so humid. I can honestly make that comparison, because I’ve been to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador and stayed several nights with no air condition. In addition to the humidity, we also realized we were sleeping with mice. Mice have never been creatures that bother me, but I certainly don’t want one completing a marathon around or over my body. Battling paranoia over a mouse joining one of us in our sleeping bags, trying to drown out Alan’s insane decibel snoring level, a giggle fest around 12:30a at the absurdity of our situation, a mouse running in close proximity to my head, a major thunderstorm and down pouring rain… there just wasn’t a lot of sleep to be had. Did I mention it was excruciatingly humid?? There is just no way to get comfortable out here. I try to stay focused on the positives: I am dry. I am not sleeping in a tiny tent. Mice are not the worst things I could encounter out here. I have slept in more humid conditions than my current situation. I will survive this.

 

Gladiator said over dinner, “Everyone has different goals on a hike.” That is such a simple yet absolutely true statement. It’s important to know your goal so you can hike your own hike. I’m not sure I went into this trail with a clearly defined goal; certainly nothing profound or life-changing. I wanted to experience my first multi-day hike. I wanted to see a new part of the country I hadn’t yet hiked in. I wanted to see if I could push my physical boundaries while putting one foot in front of the other. Ultimately, I wanted to try something new, because it’s only through new experiences and challenges that we really learn more about ourselves.

 

Today we hiked just 8.0 miles. It was a shorter distance day but possibly one of the more grueling days. We know that tomorrow won’t be any easier, as we’re hoping to double the distance and tackle a difficult 16 miles to make it to Neel Gap and the hostel. Motivation is high when it comes to magical words like “shower” and “bed” and “pizza” and “beer.” And when there’s motivation like that, I don’t think there’s any stopping us.

Happy Trails.

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Day One on the GA AT

 

Date: Wednesday, June 21.
Trail: Springer Mountain to Hawk Mountain Shelter.
Distance: 9.5 miles.

I started this trip exhausted. Probably not the best way to start, but I hadn’t slept well in weeks. No matter how much planning and preparation had been done, and no matter how much Tulsi Holy Basil I consumed, I could not seem to shut down my subconscious mind and the anxious feelings I had about my first ever multi-day hike. The rainy and balmy morning in Hiawassee as we packed up our final bits of gear did nothing to calm my nerves.

 

We drove to Dick’s Creek Gap where we’d leave the rental car and meet Ron, our shuttle driver to Springer Mountain. Ron jubilantly drove up, loaded our packs, and off we went…. the point of no return quickly disappearing with a backward glance at the car. Flowing from Ron’s lips in a torrential flood was all of his years of local knowledge and experiences, which left us feeling thoroughly terrified of what was to come. Four Kansas girls rode in the Rav4 trying to absorb as much as possible, in hopes we each could remember the key things that seemed to be high on the life saving scale. I think we were all wondering if we were really going to die.

Truly, Ron is an amazing informant… however, after the onslaught of information during our two hour drive we had little confidence of making it to North Carolina, let alone surviving the first day. By the time we reached our starting point we were all just hoping we’d make it to Neel Gap. Ron offered us some encouragement and comfort, insisting we check in with him when we got off the trail so he’d know we were okay. He likes to keep track of “his” hikers. This trail angel, sporting glasses and a mustache driving a trusty Toyota, also assured us that if we needed to get off of the trail early, for any reason, he’d either come find us or help us locate another trusted driver. Ron was the best find for this whole trip.

 

Once we were dropped off, we became a SOBO hiker for one mile. That’s “South Bound” hiking, for non hikers who are wondering. The southern terminus is not accessible by a road or parking lot, and so hikers must go south for one mile to the famous plaque and official start of the Appalachian Trail, unless you decide to come from the difficult and lengthy approach trail through Amicolala State Park. We had opted for the shorter option, hiking south for the first mile, feeling excited and accomplished upon reaching the spot that thousands of people have traversed, taking the required photos before turning around and officially becoming a NOBO (north bound) section hiker. That first mile should have been an indication of what was to come, but we were too euphoric for the implications of the rocky terrain to really sink in. There were too many beautiful trees and blooming flowers and colorful mushrooms and adorable snails to keep us distracted from the reality of what was to come. Ignorance and distraction are bliss. If only that bliss could have lasted!

 

Along the day’s trail we crossed over a footbridge at Three Forks and a dirt road which led to a cemetery, pausing a moment to wonder how many spirits might be roaming the trail with us. This is a trail, after all, that has seen some horrible battles – places like “Slaughter Creek” don’t get named for the warm and fuzzy moments in history. We took a small detour at the blue marker to see Long Creek Falls which was well worth the minor deviation.

 

Every day on the trail would bring a snake sighting for me. Perhaps I should embrace my Chinese Zodiac and feel more at peace with the slithering creatures, but so far, they succeed in startling me almost every time. Because it was rainy and somewhat cool in the sun’s absence I wasn’t expecting a little black snake to be occupying space in the same area as my intended footstep. At least it was harmless.

The first day felt strenuous. Perhaps it’s because the first day of any trip is always the most tiring. I mean, Lao Tzu even says that “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Starting can be hard. Maybe that first day felt challenging because the pack was at its heaviest, and we were carrying too much water due to unfamiliarity with how much we’d really be consuming between water sources. Possibly it’s because I was exhausted and sleep deprived going into the day. Or could it be due to the thousands of boulders and rocks I hiked across before reaching the shelter and campground? Whatever the reasons, the day was tiring. My left hip hurt the majority of the miles and my feet were really fatigued by day’s end. Thankfully I didn’t have blisters. But that hip? That would prove to be challenging the remainder of my time on the trail, eventually causing my knee to swell. But those are details for a different day’s summary.

 

We reached Hawk Mountain Shelter for the night, utterly exhausted, and met Jonathon, Stan, and Alan, three guys who we thought were traveling together, but came to realize they’d also only just met. We would meet a lot of different characters in our short time in Georgia, and that’s part of what makes the trail special. Our lives would never have intertwined without this crazy Appalachian Trail.

 

After unloading our packs and setting up the tent, we made our dinner and drank the small bottles of wine we’d carried. Not because we wanted the alcohol, but because we no longer wanted to carry the weight. I now think in terms of ounces, and every ounce counts. By 8pm I was needing sleep, so we climbed into the most ridiculously small tent that two people every tried to occupy. It’s a good thing I love my friend dearly.

 

Despite the exhaustion, the night would not permit much rest. One thing I learned about my friend on this trail: she has insane stranger danger paranoia. Many times throughout the night she’d whisper to me, “Do you hear that? There’s someone out there.” No, Erin. We are not sleeping with a murderer. But on second thought, maybe we were. Jonathon was a bit of an odd character and a little creepy at times. I didn’t get a bad vibe from him, and I’m usually really accurate at reading people. But he was a little too helpful which set off some red flags. It didn’t help that he was covered in tattoos… and not the “oh, that’s an awesome looking sleeve” but the kind that made us wonder what cell block he’d been on when he got those. Particularly the ones on his face. Jonathon insisted he was a converted Buddhist from Brooklyn, who felt called to help with trail maintenance out of the goodness of his heart. Yet he was not employed or associated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. He kept telling us when we were ready to find water that he’d show us “the good spot” to get the water from. Um, no thanks. I’ll locate it just fine on my own. He also refused to have any pictures taken, which started making us think he was hiding from something. And besides, what Buddhist doesn’t know of Thich Nhat Hanh? Apparently the Buddhist Jonathon isn’t well versed in the global leaders of mindfulness.

But I digress. Because we’re best friends, Erin and I had made a pact to pee together at night, in the brave stance of mitigating any potential night-time harm. Because that’s what best friends do, right? You pee together. In the dark. Bears, snakes, giant spiders, losing sight of the tent, Jonathon wandering around with a gun… let’s be honest. Peeing at night in the woods in a strange place is just downright scary. I mean, who knows what the heck was out there with me? And where did the damn tent go?!

 

In addition to my feverishly paranoid friend, the miniature sized tent, and pitch black pee excursions, we also had a moment with a claustrophobia attack, condensation build up from high humidity accompanied by pouring down rain, and a thunderstorm. Hawk Mountain Shelter transported its GPS coordinates to somewhere in the rainforest, I swear.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the middle-of-the-night wake up calls of machine guns and mortars. Because that’s exactly what one should expect on the Appalachian Trail, right? Thankfully our all-knowing trail angel Ron had let us know that the Army Rangers were possibly in the area doing covert training. This meant two things to us: if we heard the machine guns, we could possibly count on a water resupply tanker at Cooper Gap, breaking up the really long stretch of no water sources on the AT between Hawk Mountain and Justus Creek. It also meant that if we went to relieve ourselves in the woods, there could be a pair of eyes on us, without us even knowing. How comforting.

My friend’s fiancé gave us the theme for the trip: Embrace the Suck. It was a perfect theme.

Day 1 was the “easy day” and yet we were all hurting by nightfall. We embraced-the-suck when moments required us to do so. And honestly, given that Tropical Storm Cindy had moved into the area and the morning started out with heavy rain in Hiawassee, along the trail we surprisingly had a perfect weather day.

The day also brought about our trail names. My friend, who is always in the lead when we hike, was named Scout. I am Navigator, making the plans and reading the maps and knowing what’s ahead. Our other two trail companions are Faith and Dream Weaver. We would only be with them for part of the trip before Hiking our Own Hike and going our own pace, but we started together, and Embraced the Suck together, completing 9.5 miles on the first day.

Happy Trails.

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NOBO Section Hike on the Georgia AT

 

I’m still trying to find an adjective that will accurately summarize how I feel about the 45 miles I hiked on the Appalachian Trail in Northern Georgia. Words seem to fail me. One of my friends offered me the word “Adventurous” – and that probably is as good of a descriptor as any.

I’m a realist. Most days I’m a positive realist, but on the Appalachian Trail, my positivity was probably absent from the realism during a lot of miles. I didn’t come home feeling like this was a life changing experience. I didn’t feel like it was the most fun or rewarding thing I’d ever done. But I also didn’t go into this trip with the expectations of either of those things. I knew it was going to be challenging. And it definitely was. It was probably the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done – both physically and mentally. No amount of preparation could have adequately gotten me ready for this trail, but I’m really glad I had trained as much as I had or I’d have probably quit on the first day.

Am I glad I did it? Yes. I enjoy challenging and pushing myself beyond my limits and seeing where I can grow. I enjoy physically knowing I can conquer just about anything I set my mind on. Do I hope to one day be able to section hike my way through completing the entire AT? Definitely no. I’d like to go back for another 2 nights and 3 days to finish the Georgia section, but if I never make it back to do that, I won’t lose any sleep over it. I feel proud of what we accomplished, the miles we put in, appreciate the new experiences I had, and am happy to say I still love my friend who I went on the trail with. However, this trail confirmed what I already suspected: I am firmly in the camp of happily being a day-hiker. That’s just what I like. I like a lodge and a bed and a hot shower at the end of a really long day on the trail. This doesn’t mean I’ll never camp or shelter sleep again – I’m certain I will. But I’m not longing to sleep in a cramped tent anytime soon.

There were so many questions that I worked through as I was planning this trip. Things I’d never before contemplated….

  • What is a gap?
  • What do I do with toilet paper?
  • Should I take a pee rag?

Logistics questions that took some pondering…

  • How do we get to the AT?
  • How do we get back to civilization?
  • Do we need shelter reservations/permits?
  • Can we pitch a tent anywhere?
  • Can I really do this?
  • How much food do I really need?
  • What kind of hiking shoes do I need?
  • How much is this trip actually costing me?!
  • What am I going to wear?
  • Do I need a bear bag for my food?

And topics that I wish I didn’t have to learn about or prepare for…

  • Ticks
  • Bears
  • Snakes – venomous vs “safe” ones
  • Bugs
  • Peeing at night
  • Poison ivy and poison oak

My vocabulary exploded with so many new acronyms…

  • Slackhacking
  • AT
  • Bald
  • NOBO/SOBO
  • Section Hiker
  • Trail Magic
  • Cat Hole
  • PUDs
  • LASHer

My skills have expanded to now read multiple kinds of maps and life-saving symbols. I’ve learned how to read blazes, what the different blaze markings mean, and the different colors for off-shooting or intersecting trails.

A friend asked me “what was the best part of the trip?” I really had to pause and think, and I’m still contemplating that question. My first answer was to say “Springer Mountain and the Southern Terminus.” Because it was only 1 mile into the trail, and I felt my strongest and freshest, and it was exciting to finally begin the adventure. But honestly, my favorite moment was probably the last 2.2 miles of the journey, when we had decided to end the trail. Not because I was finally getting off of the trail, but because of the way things lined up to make it happen. It was nothing short of miraculous, and for the first time, sun streamed through the trees providing sun beams as we raced those last two miles to make it to our exit point in time. There was a feeling of euphoria at both the beginning and the end.

That same friend also asked “what was the worst part of the trip?” This was easier for me to answer. My answer was “Somewhere on Sassafras Mountain.” Those pointless ups-and-downs (aka PUDs) and ass-kickers were brutal, and we didn’t even know we were on Sassafras, but at one point we lost the trail markers. That is the most uneasy feeling you can have out on the trail, thinking you’re going the wrong direction. While I distinctly remember struggling over those PUDS, the real answer was “Coming down from Blood Mountain.” I know it says Blood Mountain is a gradual incline, and comparatively to the 800 ft elevation gain in less than half a mile of Sassafras, it probably is gradual. But it didn’t feel gradual. And coming down felt just down right awful. Nearly 3/4 of a mile of giant Hercules-sized boulders to climb and scale and navigate along with sections of slick, sheer rock trails were enough to tax every ounce of reserve I had in my body. By the end of that 16 mile day, I was simply done. Somewhere on that last section of the trail I lost my smile, felt unsure of my legs and footing, and just wanted the day to end. That might have been the worst part of the trip for me.

Any trip is going to have high points and low points. And the further out from the trip we get, the more nostalgic we become. But I’m realistic enough to know that the words “that was the greatest trip ever” are not going to come out of my mouth. For a lot of reasons but also because I’ve had such spectacular trips to other places in my lifetime as well.

We conquered 45 miles of excruciatingly hard trails over the course of four days, hiking through Tropical Storm Cindy, making it from Springer Mountain to Hogpen Gap. We survived a lot of things that are designed to cause you harm or kill you: venomous snakes (both Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads), bears (we didn’t see them but they were around), poisonous plants, killer trees falling from the storms, torrential downpouring rain, thunder and lightning (and thus electrocution), and who knows what else. I am incredibly proud of what we accomplished, how we handled the trail and each other, and the decisions we made along the way. The trail doesn’t call to me… yet. And I do hope to finish those final few Georgia miles. But if it doesn’t happen, I’ll still be living with no regrets.

 

Happy Trails.

Categories: Appalachian Trail | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

A New Decade Begins in Banff

 

I firmly believe in celebrating birthdays, but I especially believe in doing something truly memorable for monumental numbers. You only roll into a new decade every so.. well, ten years. A new decade deserves to be ushered in with boldness and adventure. At least, that’s how my internal workings and beliefs are wired.

I was thrilled when my brother agreed to join me for a trip to Banff to help celebrate my big day. Once I was over the shock of him saying yes to going (he doesn’t like to travel), I got really excited about being in the mountains and having some quality sibling time. Plus I thought this sign that we found in Banff summed it up perfectly: Mountain Porn ahead.

 

Late May is technically considered shoulder season in Banff, which made it a tiny bit hard to plan. Would it be sunny and warm? Would things be unthawed? Would there be a late season blizzard and the place be buried in 10 feet of snow? Weather is just so unpredictable! The week before we arrived there had been snowfall, which meant that the ski resorts were still open when we were there. But because it was pretty warm, we opted not to partake in slush skiing. Instead, we spent a lot of time in the vehicle meandering on scenic drives, enjoying the mountain views, scanning fervently for wildlife, and attempting some shorter hikes.

 

We weren’t expecting shoulder season to be so busy. Even though we were tourists, neither of us like touristy areas. This was challenging for us, but it was also the first nice weekend in months, and it was also a holiday weekend for Canadians, which meant that people had come out of the woodwork to enjoy the mountain town and surrounding area.

We also weren’t expecting it to be so difficult to find a local. Banff appears to be very transient. We met workers from all over the globe…. From Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, England, and various other parts of Canada. When we’d ask people “what do you recommend” we kept getting the same tourist-recommended answers. This made it difficult to find something off-the-beaten path. And perhaps there really aren’t that many “locals only” trails or hidden gems. If there were, we didn’t find them.

 

What we did find was this: majestic mountains, snow capped beauty, lots of bears (seven to be exact), several elk, friendly big horned sheep, gorgeous lakes, delicious beer and hard cider, nice short hikes, and a quaint mountain town.

 

 

I cannot fathom how busy Banff and the Icefields Parkway must be during June and July, because it felt incredibly busy even in shoulder season. We wish we’d have had more knowledge about the Canmore area, just a mere 25 minute drive away, where more trails were accessible due to a slightly lower elevation and the snow being melted. But even with the bustle of locals and tourists, the Banff area was a great choice for a sibling trip to kick back and relax and celebrate the turning of a big year.

 

Recommendations:

  • Bow Valley Parkway. Absolutely gorgeous with ample wildlife opportunities if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. This parkway is where we first saw bears.

  • Bow Lake. This was frozen when we visited, but beautiful. Bonus – sinking hip deep in the snow thinking you’re on solid ground. Oops.

  • Waterfowl Lake. This was our favorite spot. So much so that we went to the area twice. The hike to the lake is short but offers stunning views. Cross the footbridge and you have hiking options of going to Cephren Lake or Cirque Lake, neither of which we made it to, because after hiking in the slushiest, muddiest trail ever, we wound up knee deep in snow with no visible sign of the trail, forcing us to turn back. Bonus on this trail: we heard our first ever avalanche, which is both incredible and a bit creepy all at the same time.

  • Mistaya Canyon. Definitely worth the short stop if you’re going by it on the Icefields Parkway.
  • Banff Hike: Tunnel Mountain Trail. Worth doing for some great overviews of the city of Banff. Gorgeous mountain scenery on a local trail that requires little effort to get to and isn’t too difficult but can be somewhat crowded.

  • Lake Minnewanka area. Another one of our favorites, simply for the views. The friendly big horned sheep were a surprise bonus.

 

  • Canmore area. Grassi Lakes Hike and Spray Lake Scenic Road. Simply spectacular views of emerald green ponds and lakes on the Grassi Lakes Hike. This is probably going to be busy no matter when you go, but don’t skip it.

 

Skip

  • Johnston Canyon Hike. Unless you like to climb upward, with a thousand other people, on a narrow path where you’re forced to walk at a snail’s pace for a very unrewarding view, skip this.
  • Lake Louise. I know, it’s the iconic lake of the area. But I say skip it, especially if you’re there when it’s still frozen. It’s crowded. REALLY crowded. And honestly, being frozen, the scenery wasn’t that grandiose.

No matter what you do, you can’t go wrong in the Banff area. It’s stunningly beautiful with picturesque lakes and mountains, teeming with wildlife and jaw-dropping views. I am forever grateful to have been able to spend that time with my brother in such a beautiful, relaxing setting.

 

Side note: Lesson learned: Never tell your older brother that you can keep up with him drinking.

Categories: Canada | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Unicorns Don’t Exist. Neither Do Perfect Hiking Boots.

It can be hard to admit when you’re wrong, or you’ve made a wrong choice. But I’m going to be an adult here, and admit that I’ve chosen poorly. My unicorn of hiking shoes has failed me greatly. After so many attempts to find the “perfect” hiking shoe and finally committing to the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP boots, I am sad to report that they are simply of the devil. At least, for my feet, they are.

I took my new boots out for a hike a few weekends ago, with the goal of 9 miles over easy terrain with roughly 40 pounds in my pack. I’ve done this trail several times before, and was anticipating a good outing with the new Merrells. After all, my Merrell trail shoes have served me well on this same path many times. It was a much warmer day than it had been, but I assumed it was good conditioning for what Georgia will feel like in June. I set out, happy to be in the forest, and content with my new shoes.

That smile? That was between miles 1 and 2. Before all of the trail fails happened. It was hot out. At mile 2 I realized I forgot my poles, which weren’t needed so much for terrain but for load assistance.

By mile 3 I was really sick of wiping cobwebs off of me and swatting flies. I also started to feel a little twinge in my left foot. Not anything major enough to make me pause, but I remember the thought of “hmmm, I’m only 3 miles in.”

By mile 4 my new hiking shoes started to feel like a tiny version of hell. A bone in my foot was really starting to hurt.

Between miles 5 and 6 I realized I was going be out of water before the loop trail was done, which has never happened before.

Shortly before mile 7 I stopped to switch out my shoes for my old trail shoes, which I’d thankfully brought along, but my feet hurt the rest of the way and I was painfully aware with each step of how little cushioning is really left in my trail shoes.

Around mile 8.5 I took my last swig of water. I have never had this happen before, and thought I had taken plenty with me for the 9 miles. However, I didn’t factor in how much warmer it was than previous times out on this stretch of trail.

And at mile 9 I came out of the woods, tired, hot, thirsty, frustrated, and aching. I was so glad to see my vehicle and drop the 42 lbs off my back.

 

Some days training hikes just suck. But this led me to another issue: what shoes were going to be “the ones” for the major hike coming up in just a few weeks?

I thankfully had not yet returned the ones I liked and had deemed as the “runner up” in the never ending shoe competition, and so I committed to the Oboz Sawtooth Low non-waterproof shoes, hoping they were going to be magical for me. I started wearing them around town and in my place, getting a feel for them. I bought new insoles for them to help absorb more shock. And I took them with me on my trip to the Canadian Rockies, where I knew I’d wear them multiple days in a row with several shorter day hikes to break them in.

I am superbly happy to finally have found “the shoe” that my feet seem to love. The Oboz worked great for day hiking and wearing long hours in a row, multiple days in a row. My shins felt a little stiff after a pavement day in them, but I also don’t walk on pavement very much, so might have felt this way even with my running shoes on. The shoes have been sufficiently and thoroughly broken in, with carrying mid-weight in my day pack. The real test for them comes in a couple of weekends when I take them out on the same 9 mile hike carrying a 35 pound load. But I’m pretty confident they’ll do great. I’m already committed to them, and feel like we’ve bonded on the many trails in the Rockies. Plus, they’re quite filthy at this point. And even though they aren’t waterproof, they do seem to resist water, up to a certain point. I know I can’t expect non-waterproof boots to keep the moisture out when I’m trekking through 2 feet of snow and the slushiest, muddiest trail I maybe have ever been on. But they dried out quickly baking in the sun, and therefore, I’m comfortable with not having waterproof boots for the upcoming summer hikes.

(above: drying out socks, insoles and shoes after hiking in the snow)

I should have followed my initial instincts. I’ve never had waterproof boots. I’ve never hiked in mid height boots. Why I felt pressure to conform to either of those needs is beyond me. But in the end, I’m just super thrilled I finally have a pair of solid boots that are going to work over a variety of terrain.

Plus, they just look cool. Hike on, friends, hike on.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

There’s No Adventure in “Perfect”

I recently had a conversation with a friend who was planning a trip to Costa Rica and he wasn’t sure how to bring the plan together. After some back and forth about prices and using tripadvisor as a place of reference, he finally said “Yea, I just want it to be perfect.”

To which I replied, “Well, it won’t be. It’s a Latin country. And there’s no adventure in perfect.”

That simple statement – “there’s no adventure in perfect” – led me to think about some of the adventures I’d been on that definitely wouldn’t fit the criteria of a “perfect” day, but resulted in some incredible days and memories due to the unexpected deviations in plans.

There was that time in Ecuador, when I was determined to see an alpaca. Best place to do that near Quito? Hire a driver and head toward the mountain of Cotopaxi. This sounds simple enough. Except Quito sits at an elevation of 9,350 ft, and Cotopaxi is even higher. The day I tried to fulfill my alpaca dream was a dreary, rainy, foggy, cold, cloudy day. Our driver insisted the skies would clear, we’d be able to enjoy the view of Cotopaxi, and most importantly, I’d get to see alpacas. About 45 minutes into the drive we realized the weather was getting even worse, and the point of going was just a waste of time. We asked the driver to take us back to our lodge, and he refused, which sort of felt like a hostage situation for a very brief moment. What commenced next was a lot of rapid Spanish, some very awkward looks, and an eventual car door opened on the moving car with the threat of us bailing out. I’m not sure the driver wanted a couple of seriously injured or dead Americans to explain, so he whipped over and let us escape what felt like the beginning of a kidnap situation. After being dumped on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere and with views of Quito far below, I was resigned to getting a good long walk in. But within minutes another taxi pulled over and agreed to make a fast run to the old town area, where we spent the day walking around the cobblestone streets, sampling a variety of foods, people watching, and interacting with the locals. This was one of my more favorite days, simply because there ended up being no plan, and we got to meet some really great people who invited us to their rooftop garden for some conversation about life and excellent views of the city.

 

There was also that time in Guatemala, where our entire schedule had been bogged down with delay after delay. The original plan was to make a huge driving loop, but after getting to the Tikal area and being told the continuing road for the loop was closed, I nearly lost it with the idea of spending that many hours backtracking on the roads I’d just experienced. A decision was made to try and take a one-way flight from Tikal (Flores) to Guatemala City and hire a different driver to then take us out to Atitlan. Except it was New Year’s Day, and flights were booked for several days solid. Winging it, we showed up to the airport before the sun even rose, and miraculously got the last two seats on the first flight out when a couple didn’t show, presumably because they were hung over from the New Year’s celebrations that never ended. After arriving in GUA and finding our new driver with no problems, it seemed that the new plan was falling into place and we’d soon be chilling lake side with volcanic views. Smooth going… Until the part where the road to Atitlan was completely washed out in the middle of nowhere. After much deliberation, the driver decided he’d just risk the water levels and drive his car down the bank, through the little river, and hope we made it to the other side so we could continue on our way, vs backtracking and going an additional 3 hours out of our way. Definitely not an expected part of the day, but made for a memorable experience after a thankfully successful river crossing, which then gave us an extra day at the absolutely serene location of Lake Atitlan.

 

In Mérida (Mexico) there was that time we rented a car and drove across the Yucatán peninsula, and once reaching the city, got pulled over for making a right turn on a red light. I’m sure the flashy red rental car didn’t scream “tourist” or anything, but I’d thankfully read before going to the gulf side of the Yucatán that most of the policia didn’t speak English, and so our key phrase en este momento was: “no hablo español.” It worked. With seemingly no options for communicating with us or issuing a ticket, the officer let us be on our way. A Mexican police station is not a place I want to spend any portion of my vacation.

And then there’s Cuba. Oh, Cuba, how I love you so. Each trip I’ve made has provided some entertaining schedule changes or “imperfect” experiences. There was that time on my first trip when we started driving from Havana to Santiago, and had a flat tire in the middle of no where around 1am. Certainly not ideal, but the delay provided an opportunity for some brilliant star gazing on a luminous night in a foreign land. There was the time our brakes went out in Santiago, which is hilly like San Francisco, and so our plans changed which allowed us time to explore the historic areas of the city while our vehicle got new brakes. There was the time we drove around looking for gas. Not because there weren’t gas stations, but because our team was trying to save money, so we were on the hunt for some black market gas to buy at a cheaper rate. Or maybe our team was out of gas rations at the moment. Who knows in Cuba. Either way, it was an interesting experience. (we found some gas at the fifth house we stopped at). Or another trip of mine where we stayed with our friend’s casa instead of a hotel, which isn’t exactly legal to do. So imagine the stress and frenzy upon waking up and finding police cars lining the street. The immediate concern was thinking that the policía had come to take us away and arrest our friend. But it ended up that the building next door had been broken in to, and the policía weren’t aware of our illegal activities of sleeping in a room next door. This unfortunate break in next door did mean that there was a heightened awareness on the street, and affected how much time we were allowed to freely roam around for fear that someone would actually report us. And on my last trip to Cuba, after driving across the island (yet again) to Santiago, we decided to fly back to Caimito. In true Cuban fashion, it was hurry up to wait. And wait. And wait. We arrived at the airport around noon to try and purchase tickets for the 5pm flight. No luck. So the 8pm flight it was, which finally left at 10:20pm, on the most freezing cold flight I’ve ever lived through. Now an airport is most definitely not an ideal place to spend a lot of solid time, and particularly not a Cuban airport. But ten hours of waiting did provide us ample opportunity for talking, playing games, missions planning, laughing, exhaustion-induced loopiness, and really bonding at a much deeper level.

 

Bottom line, you can plan all you want down to the smallest of details, which I usually do for most any trip. But once the trip has begun, I always wind up using the plan as an overarching guide because I know there are going to be itinerary changes and tweaks along the way. Things are going to happen that are outside of my control. I’m eventually going to find myself in a place where I don’t want to stay and need to make a rapid change in the plan. If you go into a trip with the idea that it has to be perfect then I think you’re going to be very disappointed by the end. Because part of traveling is living in the moment, absorbing the culture, digesting the differences, meeting the locals, and being flexible enough to realize that what may seem like a bad situation or a scheduling conflict can often times turn out to be an incredibly memorable experience that will stay with you forever.

I think there might be a bigger lesson here. Sometimes the things that seem as if they’ll derail the moment, day, week, or trip are the very things that lead to an unexpected yet fantastical journey accompanied with potential growth. Embrace the adventure and imperfection of every day.

Side note: Don’t worry, Mom. I was never in any real danger in Ecuador.

Categories: Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Unicorn of Hiking Shoes

Let me preface this post by saying I am hypersensitive. Bright lights, the tiniest of noises, temperature fluctuations, smells, and the way things feel – they all affect me greatly. I think I’ve always been on the more extreme end of the sensitivity spectrum. Most of the time this sensitivity isn’t a big issue. I kindly ask my coworkers to not use products or eat things that smell strongly. Radios are used with headphones so I can’t hear the minor noises in the background. I wish I could do something about the fluorescent lights in my office, but I’m told my influence only reaches so far.

 

However, while I can usually keep my sensory issues under reasonable control, this sensitivity has become a huge issue when trying to find the “perfect hiking shoe.” And while there may not be such a thing as a “perfect shoe” I’ve been determined to find one that my feet won’t notice in any negative way. I should also point out that I have normal feet…. there’s nothing weird to work with here… just your run-of-the-mill standard sized 8.5 medium width foot going on.

I’m currently wearing the Merrell Grassbow Air trail shoe (weirdly, in a size 8). I had originally bought a pair over a year ago, and then had one shoe go defective. Merrell promptly sent me a replacement pair and they’ve been working great ever since. (and in the shoe’s defense, they probably weren’t meant to be used on rubber floor mats during kickboxing classes… oops!). The Grassbows are super comfortable and I’ve hiked many many miles in them… but on my longer training hikes with my pack loaded at over 40lbs, my feet have started to feel a little bit tired after 9-10 miles.

I first considered getting a newer, sturdier pair of hiking shoes last November when I was getting ready to go to Zion National Park for some good long day hiking. There are so many things to consider… besides the obvious of fit and feel, there’s low height, mid height, tread, stiffness, waterproof, leather, ventilated, etc. It’s overwhelming.

I went to my favorite store, REI, and tried on lots of pairs, finally settling on the Ahnu Sugarpine mid boot. I brought them home, excited to have them, and started the courting process of bonding with the new boots by wearing them around my dwelling. After just a couple of hours, my feet were tired and angry. Back went the Ahnu boots.

This was about the time of Black Friday sales after Thanksgiving and I saw a super sweet deal on Merrell’s website, so I ordered a pair of Capra Mid Sport Gore-Tex boots to “just try” even though I’d never tried them on. These fit horribly. Back they went. No harm, no foul…. free shipping both directions and a full refund.

Next on the list was the Merrell Moab 2 Mid WP boots. I had stopped into Bass Pro and tried them on, thought they felt okay, so ordered a pair from REI – because I’m a member, and that’s what members do. Plus then I’m not rushed to make a return when they inevitably don’t work out. The Moab 2s arrived and felt… well, okay. They may be a contender. But I still wasn’t sure.

 

I went online and researched shoes, and saw that the Keen Targhee II Mid Hiking Boots had outstanding reviews. Against my better judgment, I ordered a pair… from REI, of course. They arrived, and felt… well, awful. I should have known better. Neither Keen nor Salomon shoes have ever felt good to me. Back they went.

In this process I made a trip to REI to try on more shoes. The gal helping me convinced me to give the brand Oboz a try. I mean, they felt pretty good in the store. The toe box seemed abnormally large, but the gal told me that was okay. So I brought home a pair of the Oboz Sawtooth Low BDry Hiking Shoes.

I also liked a pair of Oboz Bridger Mid Boots in the store, but at this point was interested in going back to a low boot, so went online to order the low version of the Bridger since the store only had the mid height in stock. The mid height boots felt entirely too stiff to me. I was hopeful for the low. The Bridger shoes arrived, and I sort of liked them. Until I started walking in them. The tongue was so stiff it kept pushing into the top of my foot and felt like a board. I hate the design of tongues like this. Back they went.

If you’ve lost track at this point, this is currently leaving me with the contenders of the Merrell Moab 2 Mid Boot and the Oboz Sawtooth Low boot. Neither of which I’m convinced is still “the one” for me.

 

In exasperation, I went to my local outdoor store and tried on some more shoes. I really liked the Vasque Inhaller II – but they didn’t have my size. It felt more cushy, and even though it was a mid height, it didn’t feel so stiff. This might be a good option. I went home and ordered a pair in my size online through Amazon. For the first time ever, Amazon failed me, taking entirely too long to ship. I cancelled that order, and ordered the same shoe from Backcountry whom I’ve used before and had free 2-day shipping. Does this count as two pairs or one pair of ordered shoes?

In this process I decided that I should also order a pair of the original Merrell Moab Ventilator Hiking shoes, but in the low version, because I think my hang up with the mid version is that they felt so heavy and clunky. Neither of which I want when I’m going to be doing any sort of hiking, but particularly not on a multi-day hike. Amazon had them on a super cheap clearance since the Moab 2 version just came out. Score.

And while I’m at it, why not just order the Oboz Sawtooth regular shoe (non waterproof) just to round out my obsession? Boom. Ordered. I wondered if the waterproof ones vs the ventilated ones would feel much different. I was hoping there’d be just enough difference that I’d fall in love with the regular ones.

This seems extreme, I know. It is. Even I admit it. It causes me a great deal of stress. It’s almost as bad when I search for a new running shoe. Almost.

But honestly, the hiking shoes are the most important component of the entire hike. I would be really really really happy if I am successful without having any blisters, or super tired feet. I need something cushy, so my shins don’t hurt and my weight plus my pack’s weight is being handled well.

So the final component of my craziness is that I love a bargain. Given that the Merrell Moab 2 Mid shoes felt really good, I couldn’t help but wonder if the original Moab would feel just as good, and thus save me over $50. So of course, I ordered a pair on Amazon.

 

Within a few days of the online shopping spree, all the newly ordered shoes arrived, which gave me six pairs to line up and decide between. It was a ShoePalooza!!

I’d also like to assure anyone who thinks I might need a mental health diagnosis that shoes seem to be the only area of my life where I have this huge of an internal debate and problem with making a decision. I am super thankful this doesn’t cross over into other areas and I can make decisions like a normal human being on things that ultimately matter. Things like… wine or margarita. Hiking pants, tights or jeans for an outing. Toms or flip flops. The important things.

So by this point, I know you’re asking yourself, “Did she ever make a decision?” And yes, my friends, I finally did. The verdict and the winner of the late great shoe race is…. drumroll….

  • Winner: The Merrell Moab 2 Mid Waterproof
  • Runner Up: Oboz Sawtooth Low Non Waterproof

 

I think I should party like it’s 1999. I haven’t put in any serious miles with the Moab 2s yet, but I’ve worked out in them a few nights, and worn them for many hours at a time. So far, so good. I think they’re a clear winner, and I think I’m adjusting to the weight of them and the feel of a mid boot. Whew.

Besides, who doesn’t love a boot that’s named “MOAB” which stands for “the Mother of All Boots”?!

Sidenote: Total cost for this insanity? Less than $10 to return the Vasque pair of shoes to Backcountry. Everything else had free shipping, free return shipping, or I could return the items to my local REI.

Keep reading below if you’re in the hiking-boot market and want my quick assessments of some of the versions I tried.

Meanwhile, I think I’m gonna go grab a margarita and celebrate.


  • Oboz Bridger Low Waterproof – these felt pretty good upon initial fitting, but felt really stiff when on hard surfaces. The tongue on this shoe is also not very padded, and felt like it was cutting into the top of the bend of my foot. They’re out.
  • Oboz Sawtooth Low Waterproof – these were the highest contenders for a short period of time, but I decided the toe box was just entirely too wide, and was probably going to leave me with blisters. I like extra room in my toe box, but not thatmuch room.
  • Merrell Moab II Mid Waterproof – these felt comfortable, but a bit clunky and heavy. This could be because I’m not used to mid height boots. They were and still remained one of the highest contenders through this process.
  • Merrell Moab Mid Waterproof (original Moab) – I don’t know what the deal is between the two shoes, but the original version just didn’t feel that great. They hit one of my big toes oddly on the side, and just didn’t feel as comfortable. I read reviews comparing the two versions, and Merrell evidently made quite a few upgrades to the interior of the shoe and the shoe bed for the Moab II release. Back go the original version.
  • Vasque Inhaler II Mid Waterproof – upon initially trying these, I thought I was in love. They felt like a running shoe, they were so cushy, but also provided ankle support. They were also the most expensive pair of shoes I tried. My concerns with these shoes were the following: the side of the foot was a thinner mesh feeling, which would probably be good for ventilation, but might not be good if something sharp poked the side of my foot. I felt like my foot could easily be bruised or injured with the lack of side bracing. The mid sole on the bottom also isn’t protected well and left more open, which probably is how they saved weight on these shoes, but could lead to a faster breakdown of the shoe. And my final concern with the Vasque is that with the level of cushiness they came with, I wondered how well they’d hold up over rugged terrain and carrying 35-40 lbs in my pack over many miles. Given all these concerns, the Vasque went back. Plus, with being the most expensive, I just feel like I can’t enjoy them nearly as much as I would a less expensive pair.
  • Merrell Moab Low Ventilator – these arrived and felt fabulous. However, the toe box felt a little large. My Merrell Grassbow Air shoes are a size 8, but the mid boots and all other boots have been in size 8.5. I ordered another pair from Amazon in the size 8 to compare the toe box sizing. The size 8 arrived and was entirely too tight fitting, which leads me to believe that my size 8 Grassbow Air shoes are a fluke in size, even though they fit wonderfully. Back went both sizes of the Moab Lows.
  • Oboz Sawtooth Low Non Waterproof – I really liked these. And my initial assumption was correct – the waterproof version has a much larger toe box than the non waterproof, making the non waterproof ones a pretty good fit and the runner up in shoe choice.

 

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meandering in Montreal

Some of my most favorite urban traveling memories are from when I have been able to explore cities on my own. Like the day I spent discovering the beautiful streets, churches, and sidewalk artists in Paris. Or the twisting and turning that came with each new wall mural in Lucerne. Navigating my way through the bustling sidewalks and streets of Hanoi. And more recently, wandering in Montreal.

 

I usually set out with no agenda and fall into step with whatever tempo presents itself. These days are carefree and leave me feeling exhilarated from my willingness to go whereever the moment takes me, trusting my path to lead to interesting places. On these days I’m guided by curiosity instead of expectations.

Meandering… no demands, no deadlines. Street by fascinating street.

 

Montreal is a city filled with stylish, fashionable, multicultural, multilingual people. It’s friendly, it’s chic. It feels young with all the trendy people clipping down the streets in their flashy shoes and skinny jeans. That is, until you cross a street and round a corner and suddenly an old church from the 1600s pops into view, offering an observable reminder that this city has a wealth of history, too.

 

My first couple of days in Montreal were spent exploring with a friend. We did the typical “first time in a new city” things and we thoroughly enjoyed them. My friend left after a few days of catching up, and I stayed on for a few more.

 

On my last afternoon in Montreal I went back to parts of Vieux-Montreal that I hadn’t yet seen. It was a walk that took me through China town and down to the old port area. I was reminded of how much I enjoy wandering on my own. Turning this way or that simply because the architecture or window whispers “come this way...” and winding my way through cobblestone streets lined with beautiful foliage and flowers in window boxes hanging onto the end of summer.

 

Montreal is seemingly under restoration and repair, with barricades, construction, torn up streets, bright orange cones and detour signs in nearly every place you’d want to take a picture. I think I’ll just caption most of my photos from this walkabout as “Pardonnez la construction.”

Nevertheless, despite the construction, Vieux-Montreal still manages to be eye-candy for the soul, and a day of spontaneous wandering reminded me how much I enjoy letting go of the agendas and schedules, if only for a few hours or a day.

 

 

 

Categories: Canada | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hiking in Bryce, Zion and Valley of Fire Parks

 

Zion National Park Reflections

At the end of 2015 I set some rough intentions of places I wanted to travel to in 2016.  I had anticipated going hiking in Zion National Park over Thanksgiving, but didn’t book a flight in time, and the costs were outrageous. That worked out to my advantage, though, as I had one of the best Thanksgiving holidays I can ever remember. And then on a whim, I checked flight costs for mid December, and found them to be super cheap. Impromptu trip right before Christmas? Yes, please!

A quick five day hiking and exploring trip with my nephew turned out to be one of my more favorite trips in recent years. I created quick notes on my phone for each day of the trip called “Observations” and am so glad I did, because recording the best parts of each day together was a great way to have conversation with my nephew about what we each liked best or what was most memorable from each day.

Bryce Canyon Bryce Canyon 2

We flew into Vegas, rented a car, and then drove toward Utah, staying in St. George for the night. Observations from Day 1:

  1. When your almost-19-year-old nephew, who loves to sleep late, tells you he woke up at 7am because he was so excited for the trip, you know it’s gonna be a good day.
  2. No wifi or technology on the Southwest Airlines plane leaves a teenager befuddled, but leads to quality time actually talking and enjoying the changing landscape outside the window.
  3. Getting to watch someone experience the Vegas airport and strip and all its stimulation in childlike wonder is highly amusing and fun.
  4. Flying into Vegas never gets old, particularly if you’re sitting on the side of the plane that allows you to see the Grand Canyon, Lake Mead, and Hoover Dam.

Bryce Trail Bryce img_5676

Because a winter storm was in the fairly immediate forecast, we decided to visit Bryce Canyon at the higher elevation on our first day exploring. The drive into Utah is spectacular, and Bryce Canyon seemed to appear out of nowhere. We opted to hike the Queens Garden Trail Loop, which starts at sunrise or sunset point and descends to the canyon floor, providing an ever changing landscape of stunning rock formations and scenery. There was ice on the trail, so we bought yaktrax for our shoes, which was possibly one of the best purchases I’ve made for slick hiking. Observations from Day 2:

  1. Fresh, crisp mountain air is a spectacular way to start the day, and any day spent hiking is fantastic.
  2. Bryce Canyon is indescribably amazing.
  3. Hoodoo. It’s just fun to say. (we never did learn why the rock formations are called this)

Bryce Trail 2 Bryce Switchback

After a day exploring Bryce Canyon, we drove to Zion National Park where our lodge was already booked for the next three nights. The drive through Zion at dusk is simply beautiful and we encountered our first wildlife with over 200+ mule deer that were lining the roads.

Bryce Bryce Canyon

Our first day in Zion was a very rainy day, but that didn’t stop us. We knew we wouldn’t be able to do the Narrows because of the rain and flash flood warnings, but we hiked the paved path toward the river to see what it would be like. The one thing we didn’t bring on this trip was good rain gear, so by the time we were done with the 2 mile out and back path we were drenched and headed back to the lodge for a nice rainy day nap. In the afternoon we walked the 1.2 round trip mile path to the Lower Emerald Pool but decided not to go any further because the water was raging and there was no way to go behind the falls and continue on the trail without becoming soaked again. Zion, when it rains, becomes an enchanting place where the cliff walls weep and waterfalls rage. Observations from Day 3:

  1. Even if it’s raining it’s still a good day to get outside and explore.
  2. Waterproof hiking boots and rain gear would have been really helpful today.
  3. Thunderstorms echoing in the canyons sound awesome and double rainbows are amazing.
  4. Naps are good.

Zion Rainy Zion

Our last full day in Zion went on record in my memory as one of the top five hiking days I’ve ever had. After checking with the Zion Adventure Company to see if the Narrows were open, and learning that it was but the water was up to waist level and raging pretty quickly still, we decided to skip the Narrows and go for the 8 mile round-trip strenuous hike to Observation Point. The trail is 4 miles up with an elevation gain of 2,150 feet. We hiked too many switchbacks to count, over boulders, ice, snow, mud, sand, and dirt, along the east rim, through the water-carved walls of Echo Canyon, and up to the top. We had to cross a river jumping over rocks and balance-hug a very tight canyon wall to avoid the water. The diversity of scenery on this one hike alone ranks it as one of the best I’ve done, simply because every single turn revealed something new and unique and stunning. At a final elevation of 6,500, with a view of Angel’s Landing far below and the rocky vista stretching out beyond the park, taking some time to savor and appreciate the glorious site is an amazing reward for the effort it took getting there.

Switchbacks img_2557 img_2543

Zion Vista Observation Point

Hiking back down from Observation Point is equally beautiful, but we were really happy to finally see the switchbacks from the first mile and the tiny specs of cars in the parking lot far below. We made a quick drive to a restaurant for some much needed carb-loading, and after gaining a bit of energy again, decided to go and hike all of the Emerald Pools Trail that we weren’t able to do the day before. This 3 mile round trip moderate hike features multiple waterfalls, and because the temperatures were colder, many parts of the falls were frozen, which was spectacular to see. Observations from Day 4:

  1. Eleven miles. That’s what we hiked today.
  2. Observation Point Trail is simply amazing.
  3. Secretly beautiful. That’s how my nephew described this trail, and enthusiastically stated, “I love this park! I’m definitely coming back here!”
  4. Zion National Park should be on everyone’s list as a place to visit.

Obs Pt Trail Trail Time

Icy Path Zion

On our last day of vacation we drove back to Nevada, stopping at Valley of Fire State Park. This park is teeming with red sandstone formations, and after much convincing, my nephew joined me on the 1.5 mile White Domes scenic trail which had a fantastic slot canyon. The boulders on the first part of the trail didn’t feel so great on our knees, which were sore from the previous day’s 11 miles, but it was still a park worth doing some minor exploring in. We then drove through Lake Mead National Recreation Area to Hoover Dam for a very quick stop, and then still had enough time on the Vegas Strip for a couple of hours of walking around before going to the airport for our late evening flight home. Observations from Day 5:

  1. Final day of vacation is a great day to reflect on how truly awesome the trip has been.
  2. Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada was incredibly surprising and beautiful. It’s the desert, and I laughed out loud at my nephew stating, “I’m a little concerned about seeing a 10 foot rattlesnake. And if I see one, I am gonna scream like a girl.”
  3. My nearly 19-year-old nephew can’t keep up with me. That does wonders for my ego since I’m closing in on the road to 40. Sometimes you just gotta run around on the cliff walls and revel in the feelings of freedom and health.
  4. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is desolate. It’s unique with all the plateaus and mountains, but isolating and has a ridiculously low speed limit the entire way (which we didn’t abide by).
  5. Hoover Dam is insanely busy with visitors and the Vegas Strip is always entertaining.

Valley of Fire Valley of Fire Canyon

I think Utah might be one of the most underrated states and can’t believe I’ve never been prior to this year. There are so many other state and national parks that we didn’t have time for, and I look forward to one day returning and discovering the many other treasures that belong to this amazing area.

Nevada Driving

Tip: Go in the off season. One of the outdoor store workers told us that during the summer months as many as 1,000 people can be going back into the Narrows. No, thanks.

Tip: If you go in the off season, plan your food options accordingly. Many restaurants were closed during the off season, and the ones that were operating still closed incredibly early, making it difficult to find good options. Two nights we ended up just eating from the grocery store, which is also really expensive because they seem to charge double the normal grocery store prices, simply because they can. This was probably our most frustrating part of the entire trip.

Categories: United States | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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