Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Conditioning Hike #3 - Chickamauga

October 30, 2010

Since I was in grade school, I have been an avid student of history, especially the Civil War. Thus, it was no surprise that one of the benefits of taking a job in Chattanooga was its pivotal role during that war. Lookout Mountain, the site of the famed "Battle above the Clouds", is visible from the parking lot of my apartment building. While driving to work, I see Missionary Ridge, the site where the Army of the Cumberland charged straight up the ridge to the astonishment of the Confederate defenders. And just a few miles to the south in Georgia is the field of Chickamauga, the bloodiest battle in the western theater.

Besides being full of monuments and history, the Chickamauga battlefield is also a great place to walk. Miles of trails snake through the forests and fields, through important sites such as Brotherton Field and Snodgrass Hill, and acres of land that had little impact on the battle, but are good places to walk and enjoy nature. From short spur trails to informational placards to a 14 mile loop trail that goes through most of the park, there are plenty of opportunities for a good walk.

The large number of trails and the gentle terrain of the park made it a natural place for me to do my first endurance hike. Thus, shortly after noon I took off from the visitors center, with no particular goal in sight. My only intention was to walk for several miles, to give my body notice that it would have to put up with these long walks from now on.

For the first third, I must say it was a pleasant walk through the woods. I found myself on trails near the edge of the park, away from the main areas of the battlefield. Occasionally I would run into small areas where cannons and monuments were, but for the most part it was myself, the trees, and squirrels. The trees were beginning to turn, although some were still green.

After about mile two, my poor physical condition began to rear its ugly head. My feet started to hurt, and I started to wonder where the hell I was. Not having a map or compass, I wasn't exactly certain where I was. Even when I found roads or bigger monuments, such as the one at Bragg's Headquarters, I wasn't certain where I was. Clearly for longer journeys in wilder areas I will need to be better prepared. Still, I was enjoying my walk, greeting the occasional trail runner or group of horse riders as I continued on my way.

Onwards I went, finally reaching Lafayette Road, the main road that bisects the park. Here, again without a map, I missed the trail that paralleled the road (which is not one conducive to road hiking), ending up taking a shorter trail that led from where I had met the road to Brotherton Field. Here was where Longstreet's troops made the breakthrough right where the Union had inadvertently weakened their lines, resulting in the panicked retreat of a large chunk of the Union army back towards Chattanooga. For me, the field was tranquil, if a bit too sun-drenched for my tastes.

From here on out, my walk was just a test of endurance, to see if I could get my weary body back to my car, one step at at time. There was not a continuous trail along this stretch, forcing me to walk along a pullout road. Once this road met the main road, I decided to "bushwhack" for a small distance through trees near Kelly Field, walking through the field back towards another row of monuments. Here I rested my feet for a bit, looking at the multitude of stone monuments from Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and other states of the Union.

Somewhat recharged, I settled back in on the main loop trail, on the home stretch back to the Visitors Center. Each step at this point I could feel through my shoe, but I still kept going, knowing that it was the only way to get back to my car. At one point I had to cross loose gravel of a fairly large size, which slightly rolled my ankle at least once, almost sending me tumbling to the ground. Fortunately, I kept my footing, and continued on. To falter at that point would have been frustrating.

Finally I left the last wooded area and re-entered another field, where an Illinois monument and the Florida state monument stand. This marked the end of my approximately six mile loop, but I still had a short hike back to the Visitors Center parking lot, where I dispatched with some trash I had picked up along the trail. Before leaving I checked the big map board standing outside the Visitors Center, just to get a general idea of where I hiked, and realized I had spent a good deal of time near the eastern boundary of the park, which explained why it took as long as it did to get back to the main road.

That night my feet were sore, and my legs were stiff. Nevertheless, I felt I had accomplished something, got some decent pictures of the battlefield, and felt generally good about the experience. The next day I would be going out to eat breakfast, and then take a short drive out to Cloudland Canyon State Park, where I figured I would get some nice pictures of the fall foliage from the east rim overlooks before calling it a day. Little did I realize as I went to bed that night the trek I had in store for me that next day.

On the Next Edition: Rocks, Roots, and Canyons, Oh My!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Conditioning Hikes #1 and #2 at Fort Mountain and Brasstown Bald

October 23, 2010

From what I can gather online, all the conditioning and preparation one can do before attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail still doesn’t come close to the experience. However, years of sitting in my chair eating Cheetos, drinking Yuengling, and dicking around on the Internet has left me with a rather soft exterior. In order to just be able to make it through those first really tough weeks, I need to be in considerably better shape.

Thus, over a year before the big day, I’ve begun using my weekends, vacations, holidays, and sometimes even evenings to take conditioning hikes. As I’ve yet to acquire any backcountry gear, my hikes are limited to dayhikes for the time being. They come in three flavors: relatively short hikes up strenuous terrain to fortify the legs and lungs, much longer hikes (sometimes as much as 10-15 miles) over gentler terrain to build endurance, and a combination of both.

My first two “official” conditioning hikes were undertaken three weeks ago in the mountains of north Georgia. As both hikes were less than 1.5 miles each, consisting mostly of moderately steep inclines, they qualify as “Climb” hikes.

I suppose the trail up to the overlook at Fort Mountain is an easy hike. It’s fairly wide and in most places is well trod. It’s steep, but it isn’t that long. Had I been regularly walking for several weeks, I doubt it would have been much of a thing. However, this marked my first conditioning hike, and I had only been “exercising” using my WiiFit for a week. Thus, mere yards into the hike I was huffing and puffing. I took it slow, resting when necessary, and finally made it up to the overlook. By far this first part was the roughest climb, although the part of the trail beyond the overlook was narrower and rougher, and the climb from the opposite side up to the “stone wall” trail was not a gentle stroll through a meadow. Fortunately the trek along the “Mysterious Stone Wall of Fort Mountain” back to the overlook trail was mostly downhill and gentle, the highlight of which being a small snake slithering in the grass off to the side.

If the hike up to the overlook at Fort Mountain was a challenge, it paled in comparison to the 0.6 mile walk to the top of Brasstown Bald. The highest point in Georgia, it is a popular place to visit, with a large parking lot and a shuttle to the top for the old, the handicapped, and the lazy. If you choose to hoof it, it’s a 428 foot climb in just over a half a mile. Obviously this would be a bit of trek.

Up and up I went, stopping far too often to catch my breath before continuing up. The trail had started with a few informational placards, and I had hoped those would continue, so I could assuage my ego by saying I was stopping to learn. Unfortunately, they were few and far between. Slowly I made it up each switchback, until I finally crossed the road to the top and hit the home stretch. Finally the sign announcing you were at the top, and the large interpretive center/observation deck behind it, came into view.

I took the requisite pictures, refilled my water bottle, and enjoyed a delicious apple I had purchased at Kroger earlier that day. I was proud of my accomplishment, as difficult as it may have been. That pride was tempered somewhat by the sights of a dachshund walking the path with its owner, and a small woman pushing a baby-occupied stroller. Sure, it was something I had acheived, but I still have a ways to go.

On our Next Episode: I attempt my first endurance hike.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

John Muir once said "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks". As I sit here in front of my computer with Mr. Muir's quote in mind, I think over the challenge my brother, Andrew, proposed last week.

"Let's hike the Appalachian trail".

Well, to be fair, he didn't say it quite like that. I guess that was just paraphrasing. The idea is there though. And so this idea of hiking roughly 1200 miles and taking a good portion of a year has been festering in my mind. I say that because lately every thought has been going back to this hike to end all hikes.

When I think of all of the issues surrounding it, actually completing the hike isn't even remotely a worry. I'm extremely excited at the prospect of doing something so wonderful and challenging and surely amazing. Agreeing to see this through didn't even take a millisecond. What worries me more is the more practical (read: lame) things surrounding our preparations. What if I get my internship that I've wanted to do for the past few years? What if I don't get it? How will I continue to pay off student loans while I'm out on the trail?

I guess I'm just trusting that these things will fall into place. Finding the time isn't an issue; I feel like such an adventure is worth taking time off between graduating college and starting the hunt for Grad School. My other plans can also be pretty flexible, especially considering they revolved around traveling.

Other things, like saving up money for equipment (and a new camera...), will work out too. If there's a will there's a cliche, right?

Besides, I've got plenty of time til least I think so.

Every Journey Begins With One Step

The Appalachian Trail

It starts on Springer Mountain, a tree covered Georgia summit a couple hours drive from Atlanta. It ends on the alpine summit of Mt. Katahdin, the great mountain of Maine. In between are over 2100 miles of lung burning ascents, knee obliterating descents, and a wide variety of flora, fauna, and weather conditions. Millions of people have walked at least parts of it, but only thousands have tried to walk the whole thing. Significantly fewer have overcome the rain, snow, blisters, ticks, snakes, bears, poison ivy, precarious trails, and sock eating porcupines to say they walked the entire trail.

Why do people undertake this great adventure? Some do it because they want to reconnect with nature, to live a simpler life, if only for a few months. Others do it because they have just gone through a major life change, such as graduating from college, ending a marriage, or losing their job. Many do it because they want to experience the vibrant and eclectic trail community. Some do it because it is there, and it can be conquered.

For myself, I have to say pretty much all of the above. Far too often my life involves doing complicated things for seemingly arbitrary reasons to achieve goals that are at best murky. Hiking the Appalachian Trail may be much less comfortable than a climate controlled cubicle, but it is a concrete, steadfast goal. It offers a rugged clarity lacking in my life. A walk with nature seems like a way to assuage that lack of purpose.

On the other hand, I relish the idea of accomplishing something that relatively few people have ever done. That isn't to say I don't value the journey itself (because I do), but that I am trying to be honest about my motivations. The idea of standing triumphantly at the end of the trail is something that frequently inhabits my mind, as much as any of the other thoughts about the trail.

Whatever the reason, every spring hundreds of people descend on Northern Georgia to try this feat. A couple months later, a much smaller group of hikers decide to be contrarians and start atop Mt. Katadhin and go south. Whatever the direction, only a fraction reach the other end. Some bow out after the hard climbs to the starting summits. Others make it much farther, only to be felled by poor planning, unfortunate injuries, or the various necessities. Some, reaching Harper’s Ferry, decide to start over at Katadhin to make sure they get New England conquered before winter descends. Many more conquer the trail over years, section by section.

There is no dishonor in flip-flopping or section hiking. Hiking the Appalachian Trail isn’t a competition, and a 2,000 miler is a 2,000 miler. The unofficial motto is “Hike your own hike”, and one would be wise to follow that. After all, the value of the hike is in the journey, and not the destination. Still, the romantic vision of the hike is of the the thru-hike, the great trial of logistics and determination.

For my sister and I, our journey starts long before our planned thru-hike in 2012. As of this post, I have spent a grand total of one day in the “wild backcountry” of Illinois. Before we take our first steps in Maine or Georgia (as yet undecided), we will have to acquire the equipment that will serve as our homes for about five or six months. We’ll have to get in hiking shape, and learn how to do things without the easy crutches of modern day life. And even then, I'm sure the trail will still kick our ass those first few weeks.

Nevertheless, I am excited about this once in a lifetime opportunity. From shake-down hikes, the puzzle of logistics, to becoming familiar with cat-holes, bear bags, and mouse trapezes first hand, we hope to entertain, to interact, and possibly even educate. Like the roller coaster of Northern Virginia, I anticipate plenty of ups and downs before, during, and after the expedition. Plus, there’ll be pictures. So fire up that beer can stove, fix yourself a cup of instant coffee, and follow along as we work to our great Walk with Nature.