Friday, July 27, 2012

Walking the AT: Hot Springs, NC

Date: October 30, 2011
Direction: SOBO, then NOBO
Distance: 0.7 miles out and back
Start (SOBO): Downtown Hot Springs by the French Broad bridge
End (SOBO): AT Crossing of NC 206

Not every walk I have taken on the AT has been as arduous or as long as the walk up Blood Mountain. In fact, once I had actually figured the distance I walked in Hot Springs, it was shorter than I remembered it. Honestly it wasn't long enough to keep in here, considering I threw out a walk along the AT at Newfound Gap that was almost as long. However, I decided to allow it because a) I can and b) it was my one and only walk through a trail town.

Other than maybe Fontana, the walk through Hot Springs was the flattest of my walks. There was a slight rise from the river to the crosswalk on the edge of town, but nothing too arduous. Of course, not too far past where I started and turned around you would be ascending rather quickly.

The most interesting part of the walk was the fact that the AT symbol was put into the sidewalk at regular intervals. I didn't stop at any of the store or restaurants, as I was in a hurry (I had to return to IL that night). However, it looked like it would be a nice town to visit. Despite walking through a town, I actually did see some wildlife, as a very fat groundhog ran for cover under the porch of one of the houses.

Although the Appalachian Trail spends most of its time in the wilds of the Appalachian Ridge line, it does travel through or near several towns. There are a few "trail towns" to the south, such as Franklin, NC and Hiawassee, GA, but these require either a shuttle or a hitch to reach. Hot Springs is the first town that you reach going NOBO that is actually on the trail. If you were to continue, you'd run into several other towns, such as Damascus, VA, Duncannon, PA, and Hanover, NH. Probably the most well known (to those who aren't Ivy Leaguers, at least) is Harper's Ferry, WV, which is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I'll have more to say about this trail town in #7 of this series.

A town day is one of those tangible goals that send many a thru-hiker barreling down the trail. The thought of good, hot food, clean laundry, and perhaps even a warm bed is a major incentive to them. Walking back I could imagine how it must feel to them to finally have ended that decline into town, and see the beckoning signs of restaurants, stores, and a post office. Perhaps they'd just spend a few hours in town, recharging before making that climb back up, or maybe they'd take the rest of the day off, and tomorrow as well, giving themselves an actually zero day. For some, that zero day might even become a zero week, or even the end of their trip. Perhaps some day I'll be making that decision for a nero, a zero, or just a short stop. My first visit instead ended with me getting in my car and heading off on a long drive back to IL.

Next week: Another flat trip, this time over the highest dam east of the Rockies.

*I've driven through Damascus twice, as well as Erwin, TN once. Erwin technically isn't on the trail, but the extreme southern edge of town does brush up against the trail as it crosses a river.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Journey: Hmm....

Dates: July 19 to July 25

Weight Change (Period): +3.0 lbs

Weight Change (Total): -9.2 lbs

What can I say? This is definitely a reversal of fortune, after the last two weeks as seen decent progress. I can't point to any one reason why this happened, although I suppose I maybe ate more than I thought this past week.

The menu worked for about three days, before events popped up that kind of threw a wrench in my ability to plan meals. Had I been doing it for several weeks, I figure I would have had the discipline to adapt the plan. This was the first week, however, so it was far too easy to stray. We'll see how this week goes.

On the positive side I was able to stay away from chips. In fact, I barely missed them. Also, I walked a dirt trail with small hills and everything, a first since I fell a few weeks ago. The next day I followed that up by walking down and up seventy stairs at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. It wasn't exactly Amicalola or anything, but it was a start. Weather should be nicer this weekend, so I'm thinking about trying to hike sometime either Saturday or Sunday.

As discouraging as that number is, it would have been wrong for me not to have shared it. All I can do is look at that and recommit myself to not repeating next week. I've done it before, I'm sure I can do it again.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Journey: I Can't Only Eat Just One

Dates: July 12 to July 18

Weight Change (Period): -1.8 lbs

Weight Change (Total): -12.2 lbs

Well, another week, and another net loss. I chalk it up mainly to an increase in exercise. Most of exercise was of the WiiSit variety (with the bicycle and boxing exercises creating most of the activity), but I did do some walking in place and some strength exercises while I watched Breaking Bad. Had I not enjoyed so many chips that week, my loss would have likely been better. Outside of chips, though, I think I did ok as far as eating is concerned.

I have to admit I kind of splurged on chips the past week, mainly because I knew what was going to happen come today. After the success of my McDonald's ban, I decided I would try a month without chips, and see how that goes. As much as I like them, I think I'll be able to get along without them. Besides, without chips I won't be eating dip, which just helps out there as well.

It's not a full potato ban. I figure I might eat a baked potato here and there, and I don't eat fries regularly enough (since McDonald's is out anyway) that they aren't a big deal. I suppose I won't buy any tater-tots or fries to fix at home, but it isn't like I do that a lot anyway. I also will be cutting potatoes out of breakfast, when I eat it out. By accident I didn't order potatoes with my omelet one day, and I found that I didn't need them anyway.

I'm not a big believer in permanent bans on certain foods. In my mind, if you ban something entirely, you are less likely to follow your regimen. Ideally I'd like to reach a point where I can have a Big Mac once in a while, but I can't have one every other day, or even every other week. These month long bans are more like experiments to see how well I function without them. So far the first experiment is going well, to the point that I'll probably just continue it another month.

Besides extending my experiment to potatoes, I also am trying to introduce planning of menus for my meals. The idea behind this is if I plan my meals, I won't be tempted to just get something quick and unhealthy. So far I've succeeded in following through on lunch, and am currently in the process of following my dinner menu. I'll let you know next week how well this goes.


Walking along the AT #2: Blood Mountain

Date: March 12, 2011
Direction: SOBO Up, NOBO down
Distance: 1.5 miles one way, 3.0 round trip On AT (2.2/4.4 Total)
Start (SOBO): Flat Rock Gap on AT (Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Parking Lot Actual)
End (SOBO): Blood Mountain Summit

View from Blood Mountain summit

Of the seven short hikes I've made along the Appalachian Trail, the hike of Blood Mountain was by far the most difficult. Fortunately, I was in the best shape in a few years when I did this hike. Unfortunately, I still was in pretty sorry shape, as the frequent breaks going up the mountain would show.

The hike up Blood Mountain was part two of a two-day trip in Northern Georgia for my sister and I. The previous day we had hiked the beginning of the AT approach trail from the Amicalola State Park Visitors Center up to the top of the falls, and then back down along the old approach trail. It had been a beautiful hike, punctuated by the 600 stairs we had to walk to the top. After our adventure at Amicalola we had driven around through the North Georgia Mountains. At this point I hadn't quite decided where exactly we would walk on Sunday, but by the time we had checked into our hotel at Blue Ridge, Georgia, Blood Mountain was the leading candidate. It had the virtue of being fairly close to get to from Blue Ridge, relatively easy accessibility from the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial, and a certain amount of status, as Blood Mountain is the highest point along the AT in Georgia.

Therefore the next morning we set out for Blood Mountain. But first we had to make a stop at the Walasi-Yi Center in Neels Gap. For most hikers along the AT this is the first resupply point. It's also the only place where the AT effectively goes through a building, and a place known for its pack shakedowns. As we were not thru-hikers, we were merely visiting as curious wannabes, taking a look at the various equipment and supplies that they had to offer. At this point I had never been in a real outfitter store before, not even an REI or something like that. It was interesting to see all the various stuff they had in there, most of which I had just read about at this point.

After we had spent some time looking around, and Erin seriously investigated some of the sleeping bags they had, we decided that we had stalled long enough and headed back down the mountain a bit to the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial. This is the primary parking lot for day hikers on Blood Mountain, as the Walasi-Yi parking lot is only for customers and for a very short amount of time. There were two ways to get from the memorial lot to the AT: walk up the road to Neels Gap, or take the connector trail from the lot to the AT at Flatrock Gap. As we were going to the summit, it would up all the way.

After a short period on the trail where it was mostly flat, we finally hit some switchbacks, and it was time for the climb. It was here where I felt the more common other side of my hike up Springer Mountain, as I was the slow one of the group. I could tell Erin was getting impatient with my frequent stops, but I had to make them if I were going to get up that hill. Frankly I felt she was pushing me a bit too far, but after a while I set in to a method of counting my steps, and pushing myself to take 10-20 more each time before I took a break.

Finally, after a particularly steep climb we made it to Flatrock gap, the site of our first major break. I hadn't been sure of how far it was to the top of Blood Mountain before we got there, and found out it was 1.5 miles from the gap to the summit. This sounded about right, so we committed to the summit. Had it been more than two miles one way, we likely would have chosen another alternative, perhaps walking the AT back to Neels Gap.

After a much too short flat section, we began climbing again. Unlike most of the connector, however, this was much rockier. If it wasn't going up switchbacks, it was going over stone steps carved out of the side of the mountain. Getting my heavy legs up those steps was a chore, but I made it through them. By this point my energy was somewhat shot. However, I figured it was okay, because we had made the summit. I mean, it was rocky, and there were open vistas, so it had to be near the top, right?

Well, Erin went ahead to scout this out, as I slowly puttered along the trail. Very quickly we discovered that the first clearing was a false summit, as a short and steep section up through more trees showed us. Then we climbed up the face of a boulder, and there was still more summit above. Finally Erin had reached the summit, and came back down to where I was muddling along to lead me there. After several false summits the trail leveled off as well as the ridge, and I knew we were finally there. The USGS marker placed into the rock confirmed this as well.

I sat there and drank water, eating a couple snacks I had brought along. The view was pretty impressive, although it was mainly of more wooden mountains, so there was little in the way of distinctive landmarks. We took a few pictures, conversed briefly with a few other hikers (it was a very busy day with plenty of hikers), and resolved to head down. I would have enjoyed sitting up there a while longer, but other people deserved their chance to sit at the summit, and Erin was getting very impatient.

I think I must have skimped on breakfast, and made the mistake of not getting lunch, because on the way down I felt a bit drained of energy. Also, we both made the mistake of drinking too much water going up. Fortunately it was a cool March day, or that could have been a bigger issue. As it was, it took a fair amount of effort for me to navigate back down the stairs and switchbacks.

As we reached Flatrock Gap, I felt that I had to get some water to keep me going. Fortunately there was a stream just below the gap with flowing water. I filled my bottle up, making sure it was in a rockier area that was flowing briskly and not a more lethargic area of the stream. Still, I knew it was a gamble, as we did not have any method to treat it. It tasted fine, and it certainly rejuvenated me to an extent. It was enough to get back down the trail to the car.

Besides a need to get water, the biggest thing I noticed coming down were the people carrying packs. I had read up enough on thru-hikers to know that these people we saw were not them, or at least not ones likely to succeed. They carried gigantic packs that made them look like they were on some expedition to the arctic. As we talked to a few of them, we discovered they were just college kids out hiking a few days on their break. I suppose when you are only out there for a few days, you can deal with a pack full of unnecessary stuff.

After navigating down another set of switchbacks, I recognized we were back on the relatively flat section that followed the stream I had drank from. My spirits picked up at this point, even if my feet were protesting. We headed back through the path cut through the rhododendron and finally made it back to the sign at the entrance of the Blood Mountain Wilderness. Shortly thereafter we saw the car, and thus the end of the hike.

The hike up to Blood Mountain was then and still is the largest single incline I've ever walked. It was over twice the incline of our hike up to the top of Amicalola Falls. It was exhausting, at times infuriating, and at times a bit discouraging. However, for as much bitching as I may have done, I know I truly enjoyed, much more than the things I usually am doing in front a computer during the week. When we went back up to Walasi-Yi to get celebratory soft drinks, I felt a rush of excitement. I had walked up to freaking Blood Mountain. Although that unfortunately was the peak of my hiking achievements in 2011*, it's not too shabby.

Next Week: Andrew walks the length of the trail through Hot Springs, the first town right on the NOBO trail.

*A couple weeks after the hike I got an infection of some sort that seriously kicked my ass. I'm not sure it had anything to do with the water I took from the trail or not. The usual result from bad water was kind of the opposite of whatever I went through. I tried coming back from it too soon on a short hike from Cravens House on Lookout Mountain and that scared me off any real hikes. In fact, it wasn't until about a year later I made a hike of any real incline or distance.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

On the Trail: Limberlost

Limberlost Trail
Shenandoah National Park

Distance: 1.3 Miles (loop)
Difficulty: Easy

Bridge along the Limberlost trail

Shenadoah National Park stretches for about 100 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Northern Virginia. It's a park that can be experienced quite well by car, as the scene Skyline drive winds from Front Royal, Virginia to Rockfish Gap, where it becomes the much longer scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. There are many overlooks, as well as plenty of opportunities to see wildlife, such as deer, groundhogs, and even bear.

However, the park is also a great place to take a hike. From short to long and easy to difficult, there are plenty of opportunities for people of all ages, shapes, and walking abilities. If you wish, you can even hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which winds along close to the route of Skyline Drive throughout most of the park.

However, if Old Rag or Hawksbill Mountains are just a bit above your skill level, there is the Limberlost trail. Most of it is somewhat handicapped accessible*, and although it isn't level, the inclines and declines are fairly easy. For example, I was able to go up the entirety of the climb without more than a couple stops to take pictures and drink some water.

We only met one person while on the trail, so it was a very peaceful walk. We didn't see any bears, although we were certain there had to be some out there. Perhaps there were a few looking at us from the steep hillsides around, or even up in the trees. As usual on about every trail I've ever walked, there were squirrels to be seen, and birds to be heard.

If you are looking for a challenge, or scenic mountain vistas, you will need to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if all you are looking for is a tranquil, refreshing leg stretcher on your way between I-64 and Front Royal, this is a great option. The day we walked the trail was warm and humid even up in the higher elevations of Shenandoah. However, the Limberlost trail was pleasant, shaded by the tall trees and cooled by a slight breeze. Had it been in the sun, or had we been at a lower elevation, it unlikely would have been as pleasant of a walk.**

The diversity in hiking opportunities at Shenandoah is one of its best features. The next time I am back in the park, I hope to try one of the longer and more challenging walks. However, I may make time to take a stroll along old Limberlost as well, particularly if I am in the park for more than one day. There are several benches along the length of the trail, making it a great place to have a snack, read a book, or just revel in nature. For those with small children, those with limited time in the park, or those who aren't quite ready for rock scrambling, I highly recommend it.

*According to the NPS site for Shenandoah, there are plans to bring it up to the most current ADA standards. The first part we walked in June 2012 would be accessible, but the second half was less likely to be accessible for wheelchairs or people with severe walking limitations.
**See my upcoming recollection of the AT walk through Harpers Ferry for a much warmer and less refreshed experience.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Walking along the AT #1: Springer Mountain (UPDATED)

Though we haven't yet taken the big walk from Georgia to Maine, we've been fortunate to have had several opportunities to walk portions of the trail. All in all, I've walked six seven segments ranging from about one mile to two and a half miles, and Erin has walked three of them.* The sections we've walked range from effectively flat to an 1800 foot gain in elevation (counting the walk up from the parking lot near Blood Mountain).

Over the next six seven weeks or so, I'll be sharing my memories of each section**. Although there was plenty of sweat and struggling, every one was enjoyable because I was on the AT. Hopefully within the next couple years, we'll be adding much much more about our experiences on the trail, but I certainly anticipate adding more posts to this feature. As I'll be going through this in chronological order, I'll start with my first experience of the trail. Interestingly enough, that would be Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Date: February 20, 2011
Direction: SOBO Up, NOBO down
Distance: 0.9 miles one way, 1.8 round trip
Start (SOBO): USFS 42 Parking Lot
End (SOBO): Springer Mountain Summit and the last white blaze.

Of the six walks I've taken on the trail, this one is the most memorable for three reasons. For one, it was the first time I had walked the trail for any appreciable distance. Also, it was Springer Mountain, where the trail begins for those going north, and ends for those going south. This wasn't exactly some indeterminate section in the middle of nowhere. Finally, it was special because I walked it with my parents.

Honestly, I hadn't thought about going up there when they first came to visit that weekend. However, as we were at dinner, we were discussing what to do. I suggested we go visit Amicalola Falls. As we talked about that, I remembered the fact that there is a parking lot for hikers less than a mile from the Springer summit. Although it would be six miles up a rough USFS road, we had my parents SUV, so it wouldn't be too bad. With their assent, we decided to get up the next morning and make the drive from Chattanooga to Springer Mountain.

After a breakfast at Cracker Barrel in Dalton, and the drive through the mountains from Chatsworth to Ellijay, we found ourselves on the road to both of our destinations. For several miles we were on the main Georgia highway, but well before Amicalola we made a left turn, and were on a less traveled, but still paved road. After about thirteen miles or so of this, we made a right turn onto a rocky road. This was the road that would take us to the parking lot and our trail head.

The road was only six miles or so, but it felt like twenty. It was bumpy, it was steep, and it was rarely straight. Finally we arrived at the pass where the parking lot was, and found a spot. As it was a nice day, there were several cars there, but the lot wasn't full. Some people were preparing their own hikes, either up to Springer or along the trail to the north. While we were unloading from the SUV and getting prepped for the hike, some cars approached from the opposite direction on the road from where we came. As that is the way to the lot from Dahlonega (and ultimately Atlanta), I would guess this is the more popular route to the lot.

Finally we had packed a few snacks and our bottles of water, and crossed the road. Almost immediately we were walking uphill. For the first part of the hike, the trail was dirt and not too steep. As we went along, though, it became rockier and a bit steeper. All in all it wasn't too bad, and nowhere as tough as going SOBO up Blood Mountain (my second AT adventure). Due to a stretch where I had stayed disciplined in my exercising, I was in the best shape in years at the time. Oddly enough that put me in a position where I was having to ease off a bit so I wouldn't get too far ahead of my parents. That being said, I did plenty of huffing and puffing going up that trail.

Despite being February, the weather was pleasant if a bit crisp. The leaves had yet to start budding, so we had views out to the terrain around us. Although not exactly stunning, it was still great to see mountains, and interesting to get a better idea of how the land actually was contoured.

Gradually the ridgeline to our left kept getting closer and closer. Finally, we came up to a fork in the trail where a short blue blazed section went off to the shelter, privy, spring and campsites adjacent to the summit. By now I knew we were close to our goal. The trail had leveled off, and we walked through the trees out to a rocky clearing. We had arrived at the top of Springer Mountain.

Naturally we took the obligatory pictures, including the one of the plaque and first blaze seen above. We stood there for a while admiring the view, and chatted with a couple of hikers who had walked the approach trail from Amicalola. There were a few people around who looked like thru hikers, although I never did verify this (I'm not one to just approach and talk to someone I don't know). I'm sure at least a couple were thru hikers, although it was still a few weeks before the peak start season would begin. I can't say about my parents, but it was tough for me to not just start walking north beyond the parking lot, all the way to Maine if I could. I fought that urge as I ate a snack cake and drank some water, looking out over the mountains of northern Georgia.

Finally we had to start back the other way, as we wanted to also visit Amicalola before it got dark. On the way out we took the blue blazed side trail to the shelter, so we could see the first shelter along the actual trail. We also took a look at the bear bag wires and the water source, a spring bubbling pleasantly just a short walk from the shelter.

A quick bathroom break later, we were heading back down the trail. The good thing was that it was all downhill, so there was less huffing and puffing. The bad thing was that it was all downhill, so I was being extra cautious around the rocks and roots. Still, we made it down at a fair clip, passing several people, some with dogs and little kids, heading up the hillside. Before long we were back down to the parking lot, and it took a bit of effort to keep me from being a damn fool and continue on up that trail on the other side of the parking lot. Instead we got back in the SUV, and headed back down that bumpy road.

All in all it was a fun hike, made all the better because I shared it with family. I think my parents enjoyed the trip, and were glad they did it. I know for a fact I did. Here's hoping that either March 2013 or March 2014 I will be heading back up there, this time for a much longer walk.

Next Up: Andrew and Erin hike to the top of Blood Mountain.

***UPDATED*** 07/14/2012: Somehow I forgot completely about my short hike up to Round Bald near Roan Mountain, which was along the AT. I'm not sure why I forgot it, as it was one of my favorite places I've ever walked. I've edited the references from six to seven to account for this.

*This doesn't count the 1/4 mile I walked NOBO at Newfound Gap in the Smokies, a 200 ft section we walked NOBO in Shenandoah this past June, or a small section I walked up to Wayah Bald. I mean, the path was paved, and it was less than 1/4 mile from the parking lot. We also walked the beginning of the approach trail NOBO from the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitors Center to the top of the falls. Yep, all 625 steps in one walk. We've got shirts to prove it and everything!

**If we're really luck, and all cheer in unison, Erin might even emerge and share some of her recollections as well. With me, everyone: YOU CAN DO IT ERIN! YOU CAN DO IT ERIN! YOU CAN DO IT ERIN!

The Journey: A good week

Dates: July 5 to July 11

Weight Change (Period): -4.0 lbs

Weight Change (Total): -10.4 lbs

So I guess getting rid of McDonald's is working out pretty well, eh? Granted, I've not given up all fast food (just the Golden Arches and a few of the other most egregious offenders), but that has to have helped. I've only done the one walk (detailed in my previous post), and a couple of "WiiSit" sessions. Honestly I think it comes down to a cut in the calories of taken in, and a few good decisions here and there.

I doubt that I can keep this rate up week in and week out. If I only lose a small amount in the upcoming week, it will be a bit of a letdown, but not much. After all, that would still make three weeks of decrease in a row.

I guess if I started with giving up McDonald's, I can move on to making a different change this week. Perhaps I'll add one more vegetable per day, or commit to eat nothing after 8:00 pm. Whatever it is, I'm sure I can do it, and help me continue on the straight and narrow. Which is good, because as experience has taught me, this path is as narrow as a knife's edge atop a ridgeline.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Getting Back on the Trail

As mentioned in last week's "The Journey", I fell down while taking a walk nine days ago. In the eight days since, I haven't attempted a walk of any distance beyond going from a car to a house, movie theater, restaurant, or store. That all changed today.

Sure, the walk wasn't long, only a bit longer than a mile. It wasn't particularly strenuous either, just a few times around the Beech Grove trail at Forest Glen. Except for a short jaunt down a grassy path to reach over a mile, the path was paved, mostly level, and dry. All in all, it was more of a stroll than a hike. However, it was a start.

Quite frankly, once I had verified my ankle and knee hadn't been seriously injured in the fall, the biggest issue I faced was mental. Several times over the next week I would catch my self reliving the moment when my ankle did that double roll thing, and it would make me shiver. At times I wasn't sure if I could get myself to walk to my mailbox, let alone a full mile, or the miles in a day's worth of hiking.

Nonetheless, I did it. Was I over worrying about it happening again? Hell no, I evaluated every step my right leg made, ever cautious in case it did it's rolling thing again. Nonetheless, I still found enjoyment in walking in the shade and hearing the birds chirp and sing. I even took pleasure in the sweat from the exertion in the July warmth. Short and easy though the trip was, it was good to be back.

At one point I needed to take a quick walk to get in at over a mile. I could have chosen to walk up the parking lot road to the main road and back. Instead I chose a short grass path through trees between the parking lot and a nearby open area. I approached it gingerly, as there were mole tunnels all around. At one point I almost detoured back to the paved area, but I instead plowed forward. Sure, it was a short jaunt on non-paved ground, but it felt good to walk on something approximating a real trail.

All in all, it was a very small step back, but also a good one. I'm still hesitant about doing any sort of significant distance or elevation change, but I know I'll get there. I have faith that I will because I like doing this, and because it gives me pleasure and calms my nerves. And if I fall down again, or if I have other mishaps or obstacles in my way, I know I can get over them. I can't say I'll be going out and hiking twenty miles tomorrow or anything, but at least I'm confident I can start working my way to there.

Monday, July 9, 2012

My (not really unfounded) worries #2: Falling Down

As mentioned in the most recent edition of The Journey, I tend to find creative ways at falling*. That scary piece of falling was the second time in about a month that I've fallen while walking. The other time was an even scarier, although ultimately less painful, fall on the Appalachian Trail at Grayson Highlands.

I can't recall why I fell. I assume one of those blasted rocks that are on the trail tripped me up, and I was unable to keep from falling forward. I think my trekking poles may helped me fall a bit more graceful, going straight forward instead of bending back or going sideways (both terrible things for my knees). From the reaction of Erin, and the fact I ended up flat on the ground, it didn't look pretty. Fortunately all that happened was a ugly bruise just below my knee. It was the first time I've fallen on a trail since another harmless fall at Unicoi Bottoms State Park in Georgia, not counting a slightly less harmless fall on a slippery boardwalk in the Okefenokee Swamp. It was also the first time I've ever fallen on the AT.

Honestly, unlike worrying about weather, or snakes, or pooping outdoors, this is something that legitimately worries me. I'm not even talking about chronic stress on my knees, which is another issue I'll have to deal with entirely. I'm just talking about trips and falls.

I guess my worries boil down to four types of falls, of varying worries. The first type is losing my balance and falling either forward or backwards on the trail. This is the kind of fall that could ultimately be the worst (falling off the side of cliff never is a good thing), but also the one that least worries me. Perhaps it is just the increased perception that usually comes when you are put in a somewhat dangerous situation, but I just don't worry about this.

The next type of fall is related to roots and rocks. Obviously this is something to worry about on trails such as the AT, as most of its distance is this (when it isn't crazy boulder hopping or walking through trail towns). Considering I've only ever fallen a few times, despite many stumbles, I don't really get worried about this. However, I do tend to slow down when the rocks and roots get numerous. As long I stay careful, this won't be a big issue.

The third type that worries me are slick conditions. Whether because of ice, snow, mud, slick rock, or a combination of all of these, it does make me worried. I've had a tendency to find the slick spots before, falling many times on ice and mud. This isn't a worry at all if its a warm dry day. But if I am going to hike the AT, I'll be hiking through the Smokies during the last days of its winter. I suppose good shoes, careful steps, and some work on balance may help here. If all else fails, there's the safer, if less dignified method of sitting down and scooting down. Obviously this would only work in some instances.

The fourth, and most worrisome, type of fall comes courtesy of my eccentric right ankle. Granted, I walked the eleven miles in Cades Cove, 625 steps at Amicalola Falls, and up Blood Mountain without once having one of these horrible incidents. Rather, I'm more likely for this to happen on a gravel road, or possibly even a paved one. Even then, most times I'll catch myself before it rolls too much. However, the times it has caused me to spill have not been fun, and if it does give me trouble on the trail, the result could be disastrous.

I suppose the best way to prepare for this is to just wear shoes that will support that ankle. My hiking shoes tend to alleviate some of that, although they aren't high tops, so they don't help completely. As long as I tie them good and tight they have helped. I suppose I could look into taping up my ankle, or some other form of support. Although not directly helpful, I'm sure losing weight can't hurt. Working on improving my balance combined with using my trekking poles will also help.

In the end I can succumb to my fear of falling and do nothing, or fight through it. As long as I'm careful, I'm sure I can minimize my falls, as well as minimizing the damage when I do fall. Fighting through those fears is totally worth it. Just keep me away from those fallen walnuts.*

*Yes, I've tripped over a damn walnut before. As it has happened exactly once in 30 years, I can't say nut caused tripping is one of my true fears.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

On the Trail: Big Woods Trail

On the Trail is an irregular series describing my various impressions of trails I have walked. Some will be short trails, some long, some magnificent, while others just a pleasant walk in the woods. Every one of them deserve some recognition. We start with a short walk through the western edge of the great eastern deciduous forest.

Big Woods Trail
Forest Glen Nature Preserve
Vermilion County, Illinois

I know I've talked about Forest Glen many times before, but I have to state again that it is a true treasure of Vermilion County. Nestled in the border zone between the great prairies of the Midwest and the deciduous forests of the East, it is a great place to commune with nature. There are many trails in the park, from the short paved Beech Grove Handicapped Trail to the 11 mile long River Ridge Backpack Trail. For Illinois, there is a surprising amount of ups and downs throughout the park.

The Big Woods Trail tends to the shorter, being less than a mile one way. However, in its short run in descends down to the streams at the bottom of ravines and ascends back up twice. It's a great workout, and the one trail in the park that best resembles ridge walking on the AT.

I would guess it is because of the large tulip, red oak, and beech trees that can be found along the trail. Most of the trees that grow here cannot be found farther west in Illinois, while they make up the bulk of the trees in the climax forests of the eastern United States. Thus you spend the majority of the trail walking below a high canopy, giving you a closer feel to the lower areas of the Smokies or the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. At several points along the trail the ground slopes down on both sides to streams below, really giving you a feel that you are walking atop a ridge. Even though you no more than 100 feet above the low points, and you never even get above 800 feet in elevation, it is the closest you can come to feeling like you are in mountains in central Illinois. Heck, in a couple places there are even rocks, a real rarity on a non stream-bed or moraine ridge trail in central Illinois.

The high canopy shields the trail from the harshness of the summer sun, and even on warm days the shade keeps you relatively cool. My most recent hike I didn't see many birds, but I could certainly hear them, from the little chickadees to the woodpeckers looking for food. It is highly unlikely you can walk this trail without seeing a deer or two, and often more. Otherwise, look for squirrels, chipmunks, and other mammals. There are a couple places where you get close to small streams (even crossing one over rocks at one point), so there are places where amphibians and reptiles roam as well.

There aren't too many dangers along the trail, as it is fairly easy trail (even an out of shape guy like me didn't have too many troubles). Watch your step going up and down, as there are some stairs that aren't too stable. Other than that, just the usual precautions such as watching for ticks and being careful when it is wet, muddy, or icy apply.

Unlike many trails in the park this one is one way, ending near the observation tower that stands overlooking the Vermilion River valley. It's a pretty impressive view atop the tower, although those with aversions to height or numerous steps might choose to skip it. A short, yet surprisingly steep, walk down the gravel path near the tower will take you to the Vermilion River. When you are ready to head back, you can walk back the way you came, or walk roads back to the parking lot. For my last hike I walked back part way along the road, then cut through on a small trail to the Backpack trail and walked it back to the Big Woods trail head. Another option would be walking roads back to the Beech Grove trail head, which has a connector trail between the paved trail and the Big Woods trail. Keep in mind that while the Big Woods trail is nice and shady, most of that road walk is in direct sunlight, which can be rather unpleasant during the summer. There is a seasonal water fountain at the Pine Knoll Picnic shelter, which will be along the road walk from the tower area.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Journey: Lurching Forward

Dates: June 28 to July 4

Weight Change (Period): -0.8 lbs

Weight Change (Total): -6.4 lbs

First off, the good news. Despite there being a holiday in this week, I actually lost weight. Considering I attended a party on Saturday and a cookout on the actual Independence Day, replete with the usual grilled meats, sweet treats, and cold beers, this counts as a minor miracle. I must say I am proud of my restraint yesterday, limiting my celebrations to one beer and one plate of food. Let us hope this is a trend.

Now the bad news. On Monday my daily walking came to a temporary halt. As we were turning towards home, my foot must have hit a irregularity in the road and my ankle did a little roll. I lurched forward, appearing to catch my balance. Unfortunately, my ankle disagreed with me on this, deciding to roll a second time. Unlike the first time, I had no hope of catching my balance again, this time falling over. The result was a sore ankle, a sore knee, and an ugly series of scrapes up half my leg. All of this happening on the leg that was just getting over my hellatious looking (yet not that damaging) fall on the AT at Grayson Highlands.

Fortunately, it doesn't appear that I did any permanent damage. I'm already moving much better, and I suppose I could get back to walking by next week. At least I can, assuming I can get myself to do it. It seems rather pathetic that I have to overcome a significant amount of trepidation just to walk a little more than one mile. Perhaps I just need an ankle support, or wear shoes with higher tops that can support the ankle.

Oddly, I'm not too worried about this affecting me while hiking. I've never had the issues with ankle rolling out on the trail as I do walking in the morning. Perhaps it is the shoes I wear (which aren't really ankle supporting), or even the socks. Perhaps I'm just more careful with my foot falls, or maybe my trekking poles help. Whatever it is, this isn't something I'm that worried about when I try to hike a long distance, such as the AT. Nonetheless I have to be able to walk on roads if I want to get some aerobic exercise in there. We'll just have to see how it goes.