I’ve never been fond of heights. I remember refusing to sit anywhere but on the floor in the middle of our Ferris Wheel car in Niagara Falls at a young age. In 8th grade, I practically had a nervous breakdown on our class rock climbing trip when I stood roped and harnessed at the top of a 150-foot cliff and had to lean backwards over the edge to rappel down.
In my adult life, not much has changed between me and heights. When J and I rode the Ferris Wheel in Paris last summer, I was nervous (although I did sit in my assigned seat for the entire ride). When we stood at the top of the aptly named “Jump Off” in The Smokies two months ago, I couldn’t wait to continue our hike a bit further from the edge. Today, I pushed the limits of my fears and tackled some challenging trails in Acadia National Park.
The park has two “hiking” trails that are often referred to as “technical rock climbing without the ropes.” These trails are The Precipice (a 0.9 mile trail that basically scales the side of an 930-foot cliff) and The Beehive (a slightly smaller cliff at 0.6 miles and 520 feet). This time of year The Precipice is closed due to peregrine falcon nesting season (sweet!), but The Beehive is open. J was excited for the hike, and after watching several YouTube videos and online reviews (that didn’t help much), I reluctantly agreed to make the trip.
While we lingered over coffee at the B&B this morning, we looked at our pocket hiking guidebook (purchased for a mere $3.50 at our local coffee/used bookstore, Crackskulls) and planned a hike that would bring us up The Beehive, across two miles of ridgeline to the summit of Champlain Mountain, and down over Huguenot Head on a trail made up of nearly 1,500 pink granite steps (interpret that last word loosely…). At the bottom, we would trot a short three miles along the Park Loop Road to get back to our car. It all sounded amazing, but I needed to get past The Beehive to enjoy the rest.
“Just keep going and don’t look down,” was my mantra for the first hour of the day. Even near the bottom of The Beehive, we had to use iron rungs secured into the rocks to get from one ledge of the trail to the next. A little further up, we resorted to crawling over a series of iron bars laid out like a ladder across a 20-foot drop. The two most difficult spots included a double series of iron bars that brought us almost straight up a rocky patch about 300 feet into the climb and a corner that required the use of one iron rung to scoot around it while stepping over a gap in the cliff’s edge.
Despite feeling weak in the knees, we made it to the top along with several other climbers, including a group from Dallas on their second-ever hike. (Their first was Mt. Dorr…yesterday.) It’s true that many people journey up The Beehive each year without issue, but before we started out, I wasn’t sure that would be the case for us. By the end of the day, we not only conquered The Beehive (and my fear of heights), but we enjoyed the open ridgeline walk and 360-degree views of the Atlantic, Mt. Desert Island and downtown Bar Harbor from the summit of Champlain Mountain. It was totally worth the terror. -M
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” –John Muir
More than once, the idea of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (hiking it from end to end) has crossed my mind. Three or four months of solitude in the woods didn’t sound so bad, hiking beautiful mountains and clearing my head while I explored the world on my own two feet. We’ve hiked short stretches of the AT in several states, including the Jackson-Webster loop in New Hampshire, and on this trip so far, our 10+ miles in Tennessee and Virginia. While I’ve enjoyed each of those day hikes, with every mile I log, I wonder if I’m really up for 2,000 more. And then we chatted with a few guys who were in the early stages of their thru-hike attempts, and I wondered why I ever entertained the idea in the first place.
The majority of thru-hikers tackles the trail in a northbound fashion, meaning they start their trek at Springer Mountain, Georgia and walk in a general northeasterly direction until—approximately 2,180 miles later—they reach the end of the trail on the summit of Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine. The journey takes the average hiker four to six months, although some take three and others take more. The trip is generally constrained by weather, since most hikers need to make it to Maine before it gets snowed in. In a less popular route, some hikers start at Katahdin in May or June and finish in Georgia in autumn.
The Park Service strictly regulates thru-hikers and backcountry camping. To minimize impact on the trails and ensure a level of traceability, hikers are required to stay overnight in designated shelters. There is a network of shelters (maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club and other organizations) that offer protected lodging and are spaced roughly a day apart on the trail. Backcountry tenting is prohibited, and ridge runners (volunteers who run back and forth across segments of the trail) patrol the ridge to enforce that rule.
The shelters are beautiful buildings, often made of stone and timber. But what they offer in beauty, they lack in comfort. At the Icewater Springs shelter we checked out, the bunks consist of two large wooden platforms, one about two feet above the other. Hikers (mostly thru-hikers, with a few day hikers thrown in for good measure) sleep shoulder to shoulder, often with strangers, in the three-sided structure.
We encountered several thru-hikers on the trail yesterday. Most were men, hiking alone, ages ranging from early 20s to mid-60s. We saw only one couple and one solo woman, likely in her 40s. As a general rule, they were a chatty bunch, not afraid to strike up a conversation or ask a question. We heard tales “vermin” in the shelters and of guys like “Machete Mitch,” a survivalist type who is hiking parallel to the AT (but not on it) equipped with only a machete, a compass, and an iPad. (Apparently survivalist does not mean electronics minimalist.)
The “vermin” didn’t sound too exotic…mostly field mice and chipmunks looking for food…but in my mind, even a chipmunk becomes terrifying if he’s running across my face in the middle of the night. Then there’s the incessant snoring from your neighbor, and if you’re extra lucky, a crying baby like one hiker reported from a shelter in the night before. (Parents: I understand the desire to take your kids into the backcountry overnight, but can we agree to wait until they are potty-trained?)
And while the majority of the AT does cross scenic ranges in sparsely traveled places like those I imagined, some sections cross right through major tourist areas or the centers of towns. One hiker shared the culture shock he experienced when he hitched a ride into Gatlinburg after two weeks on the trail…and was dropped off near a Hard Rock Café. Not exactly the scenery of Muir.
I have total respect for folks that attempt a thru-hike, tackling a strenuous journey and relying only on themselves while they attempt the adventure of a lifetime. Most sources estimate only 1 in 4 hikers who start the hike will finish it. I, however, have a 0% chance of finishing it, because I will never start it. But I will go to the mountains when they call, and I will return to the AT. I’ll just continue to seek out my adventures in metered doses, in 10-mile sections that can be covered in one day. -J
Skyline Drive traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains through Shenandoah National Park. The north end of the drive begins in Front Royal, VA, a surprising town that appears to be maintaining itself quite well despite the economy. The architecture in Front Royal is familiar, each building crafted of the same stones, bricks and shingles of eastern towns ranging from Plattsburgh, NY to New Castle, PA to Greenville, SC. It is the architecture of hardware stores and insurance agencies, small public libraries and aging churches. We agreed Front Royal would go on the list of potential places to live “someday.”
At the entrance to Skyline Drive, Howard, the friendly, nervous, red-headed (and bearded) ranger, sold us our $80 Interagency Annual Pass, allowing access to the many places we hope to visit across the country in the next twelve months. Armed with our pass and some park literature, we hit the road. Skyline Drive is 105 miles of winding, rising and falling road filled with wildlife, old growth forest and very few other people. (Most park facilities don’t officially open for the season until later this spring.) After getting distracted by a handful of deer, two overlooks and countless circling hawks, it had taken us nearly 20 minutes to go the first five miles. It was looking like the drive would take longer than the three hours we had estimated. (The maximum speed limit on the drive is 35 MPH.) We were all smiles and in no hurry. Today, the deer posed for pictures, but despite our vigilance, the bears were elusive. Maybe we’ll be luckier in the Smokies…preferably from the car.
At the halfway point of the drive, we parked and hit the trail for a short hike to the outlook on Stony Man Trail, recommended by the ranger as a brief but rewarding trip into the woods. At 4,010 feet, it is the second highest point in the park, and part of the summit route overlaps the Appalachian Trail. The trail was well-maintained, and we cruised to the top in 20 minutes. Once there, we surveyed the valley and took in a recommendation from a local couple to visit the “Camp David of President Herbert Hoover,” also in the park. We determined that this newly found part of America was worth a second visit and a much more thorough exploration of Shenandoah National Park. Perhaps later this spring…
The second half of the drive went more quickly than the first. At the end of the road, we opted to take the highway to Tennessee instead of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although the Parkway is on our “must do someday” list, it wasn’t on our “must do this trip” list. We capped off our 415-mile day with a dip in the hotel pool and a tall draft beer. My first time in Tennessee has been more relaxing than expected. I’ll be enjoying the hotel bed tonight, since tomorrow night will bring the Great Smoky Mountains and our first campsite of the trip! –M
Here’s a look at what we saw from the summit of Stony Man:
The timing of our first few weeks on the road will coincide with the last few weeks of our training before we run a half-marathon back in our hometown. It will be my first half (his second), and despite a recent bout of bronchitis, I’ve done a decent job sticking to my training plan during what turned out to be a mild New Hampshire winter. What’s proving to be a bigger challenge is ensuring we stick to our training plans while on a road trip. Planning our workouts (especially our long runs) will be critical to ensuring we return home at the end of the trip ready to run the race. I spent part of today mapping out a workout schedule, taking into consideration which days we have extended drives planned (making it tough to fit in any kind of workout) and which days look like they’ll offer us a big block of free time (perfect for a long run). We’ll control for the variables we can (like choosing to stay in locations that seem to offer decent running routes) and be flexible when faced with ones we can’t (like weather or terrain or quirks of a small town road). We’ll also need to be more careful than usual when hiking during the first week of the trip. We’re planning to tackle some moderately challenging hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains, and what might be normal fatigue or a nuisance injury on any other trip could become a race-ruining injury on this one. No amount of internet research or advance planning will prepare us for exactly what we’ll find on the road, but having a plan in hand when we set out will give us the best chance of sticking to it while we’re out there. –J