Wednesday, December 24, 2008

10 reasons why I love Australia

1. They are metric here - no more miles, yards and ounces! This is a logical country. They still drive on the wrong side of the road, though...

2. They have good chocolate here. Ok, it is not like Milka Noisette, but chocolate is edible and at German price level. So Wolfgang, Toek and Maik fear no more: There won't be any begging letters for German chocolate from Australia.

3. They have real jogurt here - even real fat Greek yogurt. Forget about no-fat American yogurt, this is the real stuff!

4. They have other stuff than Knorr formerly known as Lipton side dishes.... ok, there still is the universal chicken flavour noodles and Spanish rice, but they have some very good stuff, too like Lime coconut rice. Also it is called Continental here instead of Lipton. And because of their huge Asian population there is a whole variety of Asian Kimchi or Thai soups or Spicy Seafood ramen.

5. They have real muesli here - everywhere. Forget about the crappy cornflakes, here they have the real rolled oats and raisin stuff in every tiny little supermarket and it is cheap, too.

6. The exchange rate is great. First it has plummeted to a low just before I came here and second it is at a very handy 1 EUR = 2 AUS$. Calculating prices is very easy.

7. Life is cheap. Most of the time I am camping, but there are backpackers and youth hostels everywhere. You never pay more than 28 AUS$ for a dorm room. Prices in supermarkets are a little bit under German level - at least in the big cities. Unfortunately prices in small towns (and this is were I am usually hiking through) can be quite steep.

8. Food choices are great in cities. I have already mentioned that but I have to mention it again. Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Italian or Burgers - you name it and they have it. The ethnic food variety is great. And I can't remember having seen a McDonald's yet - though I am sure they have it, too. Unfortunately, in the small towns choices are pretty limited. It is mostly Fish and Chips (God bless the Queen) and I just recently discovered that I utterly dislike that.

9. They have ALDI here - and this needs no further comment.

10. People are very interesting. I have met more interesting people here in one week than in one month in the US on the AT. Australia is a very young country - much younger than the US, so I have met loads of people who immigrated themselves (instead of being second generation immigrants). Most people seem to have a very interesting life story.
There seems to be one pattern: You get an Australian boyfriend/girlfriend, you come to Australia to stay with them, you like it in Australia, you stay for 2 years, you can then apply for Australian citizenship, you become an Australian citizen....

Bibbulmun Track: A big thank you to my guardian angel

On my way out of Pemberton I decided it was my civil duty to report the storm damage to the local DEC office (that is like the Forest Service in the US). The rangers were very happy about my report because they have a lot to do now assessing the storm damage. The ranger told me that in 20 years he spent in Pemberton he had never seen a storm as severe as that. He was heart broken about the damage. The DEC had just maintained the Bibb Track and brought it to top shape - and now with all the storm damage they will have to start all over again.

Pingerup Plains
I also learnt that I had been extremely lucky. The big devastation had only happened were the centre of the storm had hit - and this centre had damaged a long strip of land across the area. Luckily the hut where I had spent most of the storm was about 5 km away from the storm center. After seeing all the damage the storm had caused I wonder what would have happened to me if I had been directly in the storm center. I would probably be lying dead under a tree branch now. I think a owe a big thank you to my guardian angel.

Pingerup Plains
The other good news is that there was much less damage after Pemberton. There were still lots of blow downs, but nothing serious. The bad news is that after Pemberton there was not much wind but flood damage. And I will hit the swamp areas now. The local tourist office told me here that the trail is officially closed - hike or better wade at your own risk. Well, I will give it a try and spend christmas wading through mud....

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bibbulmun Track: The big deluge

I seem to attract weird weather wherever I go... This weekend I was happily hiking the Bibb Track. There had been no storm warning and the locals had not told me anything either. On Saturday I woke up to an overcast sky. I did not think much about it and started hiking. At 11 am it started thundering and raining. I still did not think much about it - it had rained before and a thunderstorm here is usually over in 10 minutes. At noon I was on top of a hill and shit scared. It was thundering, lightning and bucketing down. On top of all that there was a horrible wind. I was afraid of being hit by a tree branch. I almost started running, but the next hut was still 1 hour away. I made it to the hut at 1 pm soaking wet. At that point I was still expecting that the weather would clear up in a matter of minutes - of course, once I was safely at the hut.

Damaged water tank
It was only then that the storm really started. I have never ever seen anything like that. Bucketing is an understatement. The water came down so hard that I was hiding under my sleeping bag - expecting the roof to come down any minute. The thunder was so loud that the hut was shaking - and I am not exaggerating here. I was half expecting to be flooded in the damn hut. I have seen really heavy storms in the US - but they were always over in 1 hour. This one lasted 6 hours - of which I luckily spent 4 in the hut. I just saw in the news that it had rained 57 mm in a couple of hours. The storm had actually been the remnants of a cyclone further north....

Unfortunately, I had to keep moving. I was almost completely out of food and I had to get into town the next day. When the storm was over I left the hut and started walking at 6 pm. The first hour was ok but it was then that the devastation started. The wind had been so strong that huge trees had been blown down. And I mean huge... I had to crawl over blow downs a lot on the CDT but this was different. On the CDT the trees had been lying there for months and were all stripped of leaves. Here on the Bibb the trees had just fallen and there were tree branches and leaves everywhere. And on top of that the understorey here is really dense, so walking around the blow downs is a very difficult option, too. And of course, after 5 minutes of crawling through brush I was soaking wet. Usually here I am hiking 4 km/hour - after the storm I slowed down to 2 km/hour. I camped at night carefully choosing a site with no big trees around me. At night I could still hear trees and tree branches falling in the distance...The next day I decided to road walk...

Wet,but happy that it is over
I am in Pemberton right now and have no clue what conditions ahead will be like. Pemberton was without electricity for many hours and some nearby towns have been flooded. I am afraid that the storm damage will continue for many more km. I packed extra food, put on long pants to avoid scratches and will see how it goes. Cross your fingers for me!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bibbulmun Track = holiday track

The Bibbulmun Track is a wonderful surprise - a real holiday after the AT. I absolutely love it. Why? Hiking is so easy here. The terrain is so easy, that I could hike about more than 50 km per day - but what for? It is so nice and relaxing, that I decided to take it slow. Everything is new and interesting. When there is a noise in the forest, I still expect to see a deer or a bear. But here it is either a cangaroo (there are plenty) or a feral pig. The birds are gorgeous. They all look like they have escaped a zoo, but I guess normal birds here DO look like parrots. They probably are parrots... Well, they do make a lot of noise in the morning to wake me up. Instead of pine trees there is jarrah (eucalyptus) and grass trees. And of course there are poisonous snakes and spiders, but I better do not think about those.

View from a hut
The biggest surprise though are the huts: The trail is fairly new, so the huts are not older than a maximum of 10 years. They are much bigger than AT huts and there is no mice problem (they have possums instead, but they are not as bad as mice). The huts are a great place for an extended lunch break because they provide ample shade. Usually there is plenty of reading material there, too - lots of Reader's Digest, which seems to be an Australian favourite. Each hut has a rainwater tank, so water is not an issue either. There are campsites beside the hut, so I don't have to deal with snoring hikers - but I am usually alone anyway. There also is a pit toilet and I do not know how they manage, but these toilets don't smell. There is usually even toilet paper at the toilets. And all this is completely free! A real treat.

Wagaul trail marker
The trail is fairly well marked with triangel markers, there is an excellent guidebook and a lot of resupply towns, so life is really easy right now. I enjoy it to the fullest! Usually I get up at 7 am, start hiking at 8 am and have about 16 km in by noon. I then have a 3 to 4 hour lunch break to avoid the heat and hike another 16 km in the late afternoon. It gets dark around 8.30 pm, so there is plenty of daylight. The only thing that surprises me is that there are not more other hikers - this is such a great trail!!!!!!

Perth

Fire danger warning

After 3 days in Melbourne I flew to Perth. I have never been really sick on this trail (apart from an infected finger) but of course once I had to fly I got a cold.... It had already happened twice before: With a cold your ears cannot adapt to the air pressure change while landing. Beside hurting like hell you end up being deaf. And that happenend again. Despite nasal spray I was in horribly pain and could hardly hear on my left ear when I landed in Perth.

Northern Terminus of the Bibbulmun
But the good news was that my bike had arrived in one piece and even better: Hans had arrived at the airport, too. Hans is a Bibbulmun Track volunteer who had offered to store my bike while I am hiking the Bibb Track. He even came to pick me up from the airport. I could not hear much of what he was saying, but everything worked out great. And not being able to hear was a good thing, too, because the youth hostel I stayed in with next to a very noisy train station...

Luckily, things got even better the next day: My hearing came back, I could do all my errands and resupply and even saw the new movie "Australi" with a very sexy Hugh Jackman. Unfortunately, not all Australian men look like him...

Perth seems to be very nice, but I did not do any sightseeing - I was busy preparing the Bibb Track.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Melbourne

My new haircut
Melbourne was a big and very positive surprise - especially after coming from the states. There are various reasons:

1. There is an Aldi right in downtown Melbourne. It is fucking hot outside, but inside Aldi you can buy Stollen and Lebkuchen for Christmas. I immediately felt at home - and for sure half of the people in that Aldi spoke German, probably all backpackers from Germany.

2. I got a new haircut for just 14 AUS$ which is about 7 EUR. This was the cheapest and fastest haircut I ever got. My hairdresser was from Mauritius by the way. Which leads to...

3. Melbourne is a truly cosmopolitan place. You see schoolgirls in old-fashioned British school uniforms next to dolled-up Japanese girls next to Indians next to Fijians next to Good knows what. The very positive consequence of all this is that the food is incredible. Melbourne has a plethora of excellent Asian restaurants and in fact the local equivilant to a Berlin Doener Kebab is sushi. Everybody is eating sushi rolls as a snack - and they are incredibly cheap: About 1 to 1,50 EUR per roll. It actually is the perfect snack food and you see people everywhere snacking on a sushi roll in a paper bag. I do hope that I am not overeating on all that sushi before I go to Japan.

4. There is an incredible street market everyday with wonderful fruit. Mangos sell for 0,50 EUR and they are better than anything you have ever bought in a German Aldi: juicy and sweet. Right now apricots, peaches and nectarines are in season, too and they are really tasty - not like the bland stuff you get in American supermarkets.

5. Cultural life is good, too: There are some interesting museums and an awesome theatre building. I decided to get a little culture and even saw a theatre play.

I will come back twice to Melbourne and I am really looking forward to it. But right now I have just arrived in Perth, where I will start to hike the Bibbulmun Track tomorrow. I have no clue how the internet access situation is along the trail so don't worry if I am not posting for the next 5 weeks.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Australia

Welcome to Australia
A new continent - hurray!!!! I left Los Angeles being very nervous. Luckily Anita was there "to hold my hand" or I would have probably puked all over the Air Newzealand check in counter - so nervous was I. The big problem was of course the damn bicycle that had to be disassembled and packed and transported... But - oh miracle: Both me and the bicycle survived the trip more or less unharmed. I actually had a wonderful flight with the best inflight programme ever (saw "Mamma Mia" and "Juno") and could even sort of sleep. The bicycle looks like it made it too, but I haven't assembled it yet. Well, the bell broke, but this can be neglected.

I spontaneaously liked Australia. Immigration was easy - no fingerprinting, no stupid questions like "Do you want to marry an American?" - just a stamp in the passport. Awesome. Even in customs they did not bitch about German chocolate or dirty bike tires. Everything worked out great.

Melbourne is a great city - much more atmosphere than comparable American cities, probably due to the British influence. And the food is so good: Lots of Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Italian and whatever you want. But what irony: I expected incredibly dry heat and when I arrived it started to rain....

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My last days in the US

Flat Feet, his wife and I
I did a lot of travelling after finishing the AT - almost too much civilisation after being on the trail for so long. First I stayed another night with Flat Feet and his wife who took me to the old gold mines in Dahlonaga - where the first American gold rush hat taken place. They had also agreed to take me to Atlanta - but it being a Sunday they insisted on taking me to church first. I must admit that I first felt a bit blackmailed by this itinerary because I did not have much choice and am not much of a church goer. But to my big surprise this service turned out to be a very interesting event - and German priests and ministers could learn a lot from it. First of all we did not go to a church, but to an airfield hangar that was used as the churches meeting place on Sundays. The whole congregation take a huge interest in my adventures and even prayed for me - something that I can definitely need. Even the sermon was interesting - and in the end I was very glad that I had come and participate in this very American experience. On top of all that I was even treated to an enormous AYCE buffet - and that of course pleases every thruhiker. 


Martin and Larea
Flat Feet and his wife delivered me safely into the hands of trail angel friends in Atlanta- and of course there is an interesting story behind that. When I had hiked the CDT the year before I and my hiking partner were stuck in a small place in the middle of nowhere called Leodore, Idaho where we were resupplying. It had already taken us 3 hours to hitch into town because there just wasn't any traffic on the dirt road into. The first car in 2 hours had even stopped for us.... So when we were in Leodore's small library we tried to chat up people and ask them to give us a ride back - and this is when we met Martin and Larea who lived in Atlanta but had come back to Lareas old hometown Leodore for a summer vacation. They had never heard of the CDT but volunteered to give us a ride back to the trail - and the rest is history. We had recruited new trail angels and they ended up shuttling a lot of other hikers that year. Now I had come to visit them in Atlanta and they really pampered me. Larea even cooked Sauerkraut and pork for dinner for me, in case I was homesick. And the Sauerkraut was good, actually better than most of the stuff in Germany. It was great to see them again and do a bit of sightseeing in Atlanta, like the overpriced aquarium and the even more overpriced CNN headquarters. Stone Mountain which is the American Ayers Rock was very nice. And it looks like a miniature version of Ayers Rock indeed. I regarded that as preperation for Australia.

Washington, DC
After two days in Atlanta I took Amtrak to Washington. Believe it or not: I arrived one hour early in Washington, which is an incredible surprise as Amtrak is chronically hours late. I met my German friend Maik in Washington and we spent 3 short and packed days with sightseeing and updating each other on our last half year. Meeting Maik was like a short holiday in Germany. To my great surprise I could still speak fluent German... 3 days is way too short for Washington because there is so much to see. Despite being really efficient we managed maybe half of the museums. Washington is great - everything is located in the center, so it is actually a walkable city. And the museums are definitely world class. Washington was a very positive big surprise, but alas, 3 days were way too short.

Maik left for Germany and I left for Los Angeles where Anita was being my angel again picking me up at the airport at night. Luckily I did not have a bicycle that time. I have to admit that I did not do much sightseeing in LA - I am just taking it easy.

Too Obtuse
But another suprise was waiting for me in LA: Too Obtuse is an old PCT friend living in New Hampshire. Because he was hiking the PCT this year he was the only PCT friend I did not see while hiking the AT. So you can imagine my surprise when he mentioned in an email that he is temporarily working in LA. Well, we met yesterday in Hollywood and talked for 5 hours straight. I was having a great time and felt great about missing out on sightseeing .

In 12 hours I will be leaving for Australia - I am horribly nervous. I had to dissassemble my bike for transport and now I am having nightmares about not being able to assemble it again. At the end of this trip I will probably be a very able bike mechanic - hopefully.

Well, that is all for today - next post will be from Australia.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What is next?

Washington, DC
Right now I am staying with Flat Feet in Suches, GA. Tomorrow I will visit trail angels in Atlanta, collect about 10 packages I have sent them during my thruhike and continue on to Washington, DC. There I will meet my German friend Maik - this will be the first opportunity to speak German again for me after 6 months. I also want to tank up on cultural stuff and visit all the museums there before I go on to Australia.

On November 22nd Maik flies back to Germany and I fly on to Los Angeles to be happily reunited with my bicycle. I will spend three days there and then eventually leave for Australia. I depart on November 25th and will arrive in Melbourne on November 27th. Luckily this is due to the international date line and not to long flight times.

I will stay 3 days in Melbourne and then fly on to Perth where I will start to hike the Bibbulmun Track on December 1st. So I will not be hiking for 2 weeks now! Lots of travelling and flying around for 2 weeks. I will be glad to be back on the trail again.

Australia - here I come!

AT: How do I feel now as a Triple Crowner?

I am a very happy hiker! I met so many people who are not living their dream - because of family, lack of money, alcohol or whatever reason. I do live my dream now and I feel very fortunate to be able to do so. I feel like Alice in Wonderland. Life is like a colourful picture-book catalogue full of adventures in front of me. And I just have to point at one I like and do it! It feels great! Completing the triple crown does not feel like the end of something, it is just like one step of a big trip. There are so many more things I want to do! Life is good!

AT: Tipps and Tricks

There are loads of websites and internet forums about hiking the Appalachian Trail and therefore I do not want to go into many details here. Just some advice that might differ from what you generally hear about how to hike the AT

Harper's Ferry
Resupply: I found tons of info on where to send resupply boxes and hikers with elaborate resupply plans. You don't really need all that on the AT (if you are not on a specific diet for whatever reason). I hiked the AT without a single re-supply maildrop and did not have the slightest problem with it. You are always so close to towns that "buy as you go" is easy - I find it way more complicated to coordinate your town visits with post office opening times. You don't even need a bounce box. I hiked with the same equipment all the time except for my tent (that had to be sent away for warranty repair) and my sleeping bag (I changed into a warmer sleeping bag towards the end of my hike.

Shelters: Much of the AT image is based around its shelter and the romantic notion of the life in it. I did not like the shelters at all for various reasons: First of all there were the mice - and believe me they are a real nuisance. But by just sleeping 100 meters away from the shelter I did not have a single mouse in my tent or food on the whole trip. And by camping close to the shelter you can still take advantage of its water sources and rain protection for cooking. Also I did not only experience comraderie in the shelters - very often getting a place in the shelter resembled more of a fierce competition and occupants would not budge a millimeter to make space for newcomers. Not to mention snorers, farters, early risers and other troublemakers. Try to mentally free yourself from depending on the shelter and hiking will be a lot more stress free.

Camping: The AT was the first and only trail were I seriously considered a hammock - and if I were to hike it again I would definitely invest in one for the New England States. I have never hiked in an environment where free camping with a tent was so difficult. Either the terrain was too rocky or too steep or too forested for camping - very often I did not have a choice but to camp next to the shelter were space for tent camping had been cleared. A hammock would give you much more freedom as there are trees everywhere.

Maps and guidebooks: I did carry maps and guidebooks for the whole trail - the only reason for that being that an old hiker friend of mine had to cancel his planned thruhike due to health reasons and donated his whole map and guidebook set to me. They were nice to have, but I could have managed without them. The only essential book for the AT is a data book and town guide like the AT companion. If I was to hike the AT again I would probably just carry the AT companion and as a back up have a GPS with the AT as a track. This would just be a substitute for maps in emergencies - otherwise you really do not need a GPS for the AT.

AT: Conclusion

The long green tunnel in summer
What do I think of the AT now? In the end it was a good hike, although I almost hated it in the beginning. But that was mostly my own fault. I was worried about my low mileage in the New England States and did not realise that the terrain and hiking would gradually get easier. And when that happened (roughly after Mount Moosilauke)  I started having a good time and really enjoyed the AT in the end. But still: I will probably not rehike it in the near future, although I would definitely rehike the PCT or especially the CDT. If I had to do it again, I would go northbound starting very late, like in early May.

The AT was a pleasant hike, but it is not as spectacular as the PCT or CDT. It isn't called "long green tunnel" for nothing. You have more spectacular views in a week on the PCT or CDT than in a 5 month long thruhike of the AT. And if there is a view it something so special that it even gets a signpost... It did not really bother me because I just want to be outside and I don't mind seeing forest all the time. The logistics are easy, so all you have to do is walk. There is not much real danger: You are always in tree cover, so exposure and thunderstorms are not an issue. I did not even get much of a sun tan.

... in fall
The biggest disappointment were probably my fellow hikers. On both PCT and CDT I had met so many interesting people - I can hardly think of any hiker I disliked. On the AT I spent a lot of time trying to avoid other hikers. There were too many college kids out there who just wanted to party. I saw hikers puking into shelters and getting arrested by the police because they were too drunk. I saw ridiculously big backpacks because the hikers had no clue what they were doing. But I also met some interesting people on the AT and I do hope to stay in contact with them. The nicest thing on the AT for me though was visiting old hiker friends and trail angels. I met so many PCT and CDT friends again it is unbelievable. And I stayed with some very kind and interesting trail angels.

It was a good hike after all...

and in winter.
So would I recommend the AT to a friend? That really depends. If you know that this is the only time in your life when you get half a year off and you already have some backpacking experience I would rather hike the PCT which is much more dramatic and scenic and logistically equally easy. If you are rather inexperienced and appreciate a more social experience then go for the AT where loads of other hikers provide more safety in emergencies and company. Choose your start date very carefully though: If you start in the main season you might be just overwhelmed by the masses of hikers - who luckily thin out after a while.

Now the statistics:

Hours I hiked with other people: 8 (Half a day with Timber who had to be protected from the bears and two hours with Silver Potato and Cracker) - that was it - I had a very lonely hike on the most populated National Scenic Trail
Times I stayed in a shelter: 3 (I hate mice and snorers)
Amount of zero days: 6 (including 2 days at the Gathering), but I had a lot of nero days.
Times I was sick: 1 (I had to see a doctor because of my infected finger)
Times I used sun tan lotion: 0 (you are always under tree cover)
Times I used DEET: Several times a day through all of New England - the mosquitoes just did not want to die

Most favourite Lipton side dish: Thai Sesame Noodles and Tomato Parmesan
Most favourite Idahoan Mashed Potatoes: Baby Reds Roasted Garlic
Most favourite Ben & Jerry's ice cream: Cherry Garcia
Most favourite American Snack: Peanut Butter M&M's, Milky Way Midnight, Pringles Sour Cream & Onion
Most favourite maildrop chocolate: Milka Creme de Caramel and Creme de Chocolate (thank you Toek and Wolfgang)

Most exotic wildlife: Turtles on the trail
Most exotic flora: Peach trees on the trail
Most exotic trail angel: Mayor Dick in New York - chain smoking and cursing the hikers he loves so much
Most exotic town food: Gourmet vegetarian meal at Elmer's (a Buddhist running a retreat center and hiker hostel) - even I ate salad with dressing
Most exotic trail food: Toek's wonderful 12 pound chocolate mail drop

Best off-trail event: Unexpected visit of Gettysburg and attending the Gathering
Best on-trail event: The many nights when I went to sleep thinking "This has been a good day!"

AT: I did it! The Triple Crown is mine!

A happy new Triple Crowner
A forest fire cannot stop a dedicated long-distance hiker and - hiking the triple crown you must experience one or you are not a real triple crowner. So on November 13th Flat Feet drove me around the forest fire (I would hike the missing portion on my way back) and I started to hike the last 17 miles. I wanted to take it easy and finish the next day, but then ambition set in. I had started the CDT on June 13th, 2007 so I thought it would be a good idea to finish the AT on that exact date 17 months later. It was a very eery day: Completely overcast, cold and extremely foggy - I did not see anyone else hiking that day.

I just made it up to Springer Mountain with sunset - there was a little bit of sunlight left or I would have probably missed the plaque there. It was a pretty weird feeling, like "That's it now?". I managed to take some pictures and decided to stay at the nearby shelter and come back in the morning. There was nobody staying at the shelter. I set up my tent in the shelter which was a good idea because of all the mice. This was only my third time I had ever stayed in a shelter on the entire AT and in hindsight I know why. The mice were everywhere. I think I could not get used to seeing a mouse last thing before you go to bed and first thing in the morning. I actually had to put in earplugs in order not to hear their noise.

As a celebration menu I ate my favourite Knorr formerly know as Lipton side dish "Thai Sesame Noodles" and a highlight dessert: I had saved one bar of chocolate from Toek's wonderful maildrop for that occasion (Milka Creme de Caramel). And then I went to bed and fell asleep - I did not even have energy to listen to radio or read. I did not feel very special - it just felt like a normal day hiking. I got up next morning at 5.45 am as usual - everything even INSIDE the shelter was soaking wet from the fog. Even in Germany we do not have fog as bad as that. I ate Kashi cereal for breakfast and still did not feel special. Then I hiked back to Springer Mountain to take the official "I did it" photos which was kind of difficult because there was no one else around and I had to play with the timer nearly breaking the camera in the process. After taking about 50 photos and signing the trail register I decided it was time to leave and hike back to Suches. I still did not feel very special.

It was a miserably day - you could hardly see a thing and I thought that it was probably a good idea to finish my hike. I hiked back a different way I came and ran into a military manouver - there is a military base close to Springer Mountain. I don't know who was more scared: Me, because 20 soldiers hiding in the fog were pointing machine guns at me or the soldiers, who were confronted with a happily singing hiker in shorts in the rain. But probably those guys were used to hikers performing all sorts of weird rituals on top of Springer Mountain...

Note Silver Potato's hiking skirt
Later on another very unexpected thing happened: I ran into a bunch of nobo AT hikers doing trail magic. Believe it or not: They were sitting out there in the rain and fog with sodas and beer trying to get a fire started to barbecue some steaks. There are not too many sobo hikers out there so they could have ended up doing trail magic and nobody shows up. But we were all lucky: I met Silver Potatoe and Cracker there plus a father and son team. Silver Potatoe and Cracker had actually married on top of Springer Mountain two years ago - isn't that romantic? So we all stood around in the rain and fog drinking beer and sodas....

But I had to leave soon to hike my last missing 3.5 miles and meet Flat Feet. This is when it really started to rain hard. I ran into a leftover fire fighter and cursed the trail a last time for going over every damn mountain. Flat Feet had even hiked in a little bit to meet me and hike the last yards of my triple crown with me. By the time we arrived at his car we were soaking wet - and I was happy that the hike was over. I still do not feel very special. But from now on I can call myself: German Tourist - Triple Crown Hiker

I at the Southern CDT terminus
Postscript: The only sad thing about my finish was the lack of a coronation party. In order to achieve the Triple Crown you have to "sacrifice" almost 1,5 years of you life and that usually deserves a big celebration. Most hikers complete their Triple Crown on the CDT - like my hiking buddy Toek whom I had the honour to coronate. In his "coronation ceremony" he was wearing a plastic viking helmet with 3 horns as a crown - each representing one of the three long trails. At that point in time I myself had only hiked 2 of them - as you can see in this picture taken at the Southern Terminus of the CDT - and so I could only were a "two horned" Triple Crown back then.

But only one year later I had become a Triple Crowner myself - albeit without a crown or party....because hardly anybody completes their Triple Crown on the AT, especially not in November and so I was all alone. I even had to take the finish photos with a timer. But I was compensated at least a bit for it by two events: Flat Feet gave me patches of all 3 trails to sew on my backpack or jacket. And when my German friend Maik came to visit me he brought a lot of my favourite German chocolate which we decided to use as a substitute chocolate Triple Crown.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

AT: Only 20 miles and I am stopped...

I have only 20 miles (= 1 day) to go and the completely unforeseen happened: I am stopped by a forest fire. This is so unbelievable as it is fucking cold right now and rainy and overcast that you would think of anything but a forest fire. But there it is: US Forest Service has closed the trail between Woody Gap and Gooch Gap. When I was told that at Walasi-Yi Center I first thought they were joking, but unfortunately it is true. Fortunately, Flat Feet, another triple crowner lives in Suches, which is 2 miles from Woody Gap. So I called him and I am staying there right now. And there is a detour around the fire, so life is not so bad anyway. According to the weather forecast it will rain on the day I will finish. Well, I started in rain so I might as well finish in rain. But it was much warmer when I started. Despite my 10 degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag I am starting to freeze my ass off at night. Maybe this is mother Nature's way of telling me that it is time to finish the trail. And when I am in Australia sweating like a pig I will probably be longing for some cold.

Also trail magic is abundant: When I tried to hitch into Hiawasse I got a ride with an Alaskan fishing guide. And guess what: After 10 minutes I got invited to stay at his place. Which saved me 50$ for a motel room, gave me some interesting stories about Alaska and taught me a new word: FUBAR (the Americans will know what that means and for the Germans: It is a word not to be used in public). Unfortunately, this guy turned out to be an alcoholic (what else do you expect from someone from Alaska?) and I have never seen anyone drinking a whole bottle of Bourbon in one evening. I also have never seen anyone smoke so much either! But we still had a lot of fun together and I even made it back to the trail alive ... with him driving and me praying.

Today I was happily hiking along the trail when I meet another hiker. He tells me that he met me last year on the CDT - this thruhiker world is really small. But it got much better when his two hiking companions turned up who happened to be from Australia. And in 10 minutes I ended up with 2 places to stay in Australia. Long distance hiking community international I would say.

Monday, November 10, 2008

AT: North Carolina, elections and deadly sins

Fontana Dam
 I liked Fontana Dam best because of its visitor centre with free toilet and shower facilities - including hot water! The shelter nearby is so nice that it is called Fontana Dam Hilton, but as usually I did not stay in the shelter but hiked on. Election day was coming up and I really wanted to watch the whole event on TV. I had seen all the previous election debates and even the vice-presidential ones either on TV or had listened to them on my cell phone radio and now of course I wanted to see the real thing. I opted to stay in a hostel together with fellow hikers Silver Potato, Cracker and others which would prove to be an interesting combination as one was a hard core Republican whereas the rest of the hikers were for the Democrats. And I truly spent an exciting evening in front of the TV - and I guess you all know who won those elections.

Silver Potato and Cracker
I continued hiking around Silver Potato and Cracker who are avid mountain bikers and we found an interesting topic: The seven deadly sins. A fellow hiker had called me a "glutton for punishment" when I told him about my next hiking plans and I learnt what gluttony is - and that brought me to the question of what the other 6 deadly sins were. Surely in such a Christian country as the US we would be able to name them all? But even with combined hiker effort we could not come up with the solution and I had to promise Silver Potato and Cracker not to attack passing hikers with weird questions about deadly sins - it might cast a bad light on us. For all of you who don't know the answer either but care to know you will find the solution here.

Around the same time I had had a pretty bizarre "Christian" experience myself: I was happily hiking along the trail when I saw a sign saying "Trail magic 500 yards" and of course no hungry hiker can pass up such an opportunity. I ended up in front of a rather posh house which was quickly opened and I was invited to an opulent pancake breakfast. The trail angels, a retired couple seemed very nice and friendly. But all of a sudden and completely out of context the husband asked me: "What do you think will happen when you die?" I nearly dropped my fork and all my alarm bells started ringing. Had I fallen into the hands of serial killers? It turned out not to be quite that bad - I was only dealing with some over-zealous Christian missionaries who tried to proselytize hikers. Discussion was not possible and ended up getting a very long sermon which I had to endure defenseless as I was still eating breakfast. And in the end I was more or less forced to take a Christian book with me. I was very glad to get of there and not surprised at all to find loads of similar books in the next shelters....Apparently other hikers had had to endure similar experiences.

AT: Tennessee or Wildcat, Halloween and Hot Springs

Snow in the Smokies
As it was finally getting colder and colder every day I was looking forward to the town of Hot Springs – which really boasts some hot springs for soaking. But there was another attraction, too: Elmer's, a sort of buddhist retreat and hiker hostel. Elmer is an American offers very cheap accommodation in his huge, but a bit decrepit house. The rooms are big, but the sanitary facilities a bit out dated and each shared toilet had its own quirk. But all this was more than compensated by an extensive library and the fantastic vegetarian food served for dinner. As each night there are different guests Elmer starts the dinner conversation by a question everyone has to answer in order to introduce himself – in my case “If you were to die in a natural disaster which one would you choose?” I guess in reality you do not have much choice if your number is up, but the various answers were quite interesting. The hot springs on the other hand were a bit disappointing in comparison: This being puritan America you could only soak in separate pools – and it was not very sociable to sit all on my own in an outdoor tub in water that got colder by the minute.

In the Smokies I finally received the first snow of the year - and it hit me hard and very cold. In the morning not only my shoes and socks were frozen, but my complete water bottle. Even on the CDT I hardly ever had so much frost. So I was trudging through ankle deep snow on my way to Newfound Gap - but I was in very good mood because I knew that some trail magic is waiting for me there: Wildcat! And of course Wildcat was already waiting for me when I got to there – with tons of food like sandwiches, fruit and sweets to feed a hungry hiker. His wife Becky even cooked Sauerkraut for me as a special treat for German hikers. 

Wildcat and I
Wildcat had hiked the CDT the same year I did and although we just had met for one evening he invited me to his house and a zero day in Maryville, TN. And what a great zero day I had: Halloween. We do not have Halloween in Germany so I was invited to do the Trick or Treat stuff with the kids (probably eating most of the candy I was supposed to give to the kids myself....) I was very well fed, laundered and showered when Wildcat and his wife Becky brought me back to the trail. And even the snow had melted by then which was just in time because I had to climb to the highest point on the AT this day: Clingman's Dome at an elavation of 2.025 meter. After all that snow I enjoyed a beautiful Indian Summer day.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

AT: My "Deliverance" experience

Everybody and their mother had told me about the movie "Deliverance" and warned me about Southern Appalachia. But nothing had prepared my for my own private little Deliverance experience. I was not so happily hiking one day when it was raining and storming so badly that even I decided to stay the night in a hostel 0.7 miles off trail. Of course there was no cell phone reception so I just walked there. When I arrived it was nearly getting dark and it was raining cats and dogs. There was a sign at the reception saying "We are in the house next door - come over and knock." which I did. The door was opened by - a guy about 20 years having no (I repeat: no) front teeth whatsoever, red eyes and being so drunk or stoned or both that he could hardly talk. The house behind him looked like a total mess and more like the crime scene of a ritual murder than an American home. But it was too late to tactfully retreat....

He finally managed to find some keys and followed me into the pouring rain totally oblivious of the fact that he was getting wet. He tried to show me the bunkhouse but could hardly find the hole in the lock to open the door. And I was more interested to see whether I could lock the door from inside. And it was not very helpful that he told me that I was the only one staying at the whole place that night... But the weather was so bad that I decided to stay! I barricaded the door with a chair and locked it - and actually had a good night's sleep!

In the morning I went over to have another look at the reception and big surprise: An older couple was sitting there and they solved the mystery. First they apologized for their boy "being under the weather". Then they explained that their son is a stone mason and is currently renovating their house - therefore the big mess there. And because of all the dust he had to drink all that beer... When they had come home and realized what was going on they decided not to check on me that night because they did not want to scare me any more - what a good evaluation of the whole situation. So the story had a good and happy ending - and I even got a free ride back to the trail.

AT: The gathering

Birdnut
 I have almost completed the triple crown but I had never been to any Gathering. I had to change that. This year the Gathering was taking place in Athens, WV and I was hiking in the area anyway. And when Weathercarrot, the coordinator of the program sent an email around that he was still looking for someone to do the CDT workshop I volunteered to do that. I only needed a ride to get to the Gathering - remember: I am hiking in a country with hardly any public transportation. I sent around an email on all mailing lists and what a surprise: Birdnut, another PCT 04 hiker volunteered to give me a ride. We met at Elk Garden and already had a great time driving down to Athens.(Postscript 2011: This meeting laid the foundation of another great trip in the future. During the drive to and from the Gathering we started talking about paddling the Everglades - which we eventually did in 2010)

The program was a blast: There were so many workshops I was busy all weekend long. I learnt everything about hammock camping, got new trail ideas about the Florida Trail and hiking in the Andes, learnt about Peace Pilgrim and the Israeli National Trail and even did some dancing. The dancing was most interesting as I more or less had to drag Birdnut into the square dancing. There were all these hikers at the Gathering who had walked thousands of miles but nobody wanted to do square dancing! The first very reluctant Birdnut liked it so much that we actually square danced well into midnight (I mean real midnight, not hiker midnight!). (Postscript 2011: The presentation of the Florida Trail was so great that I decided to hike it - which I did in 2010)

And I met so many interesting people: First of all old PCT friends like Birdnut, Cadence, Radar, Billygoat and Weathercarrot. Then current AT hikers like Timber (who was so afraid of bears that I had to hike with him), Longwe Tru and Rockfish. And of course new hikers like Roni from Israel (who had to confess that he never hiked the Israeli National Trail), Stumpknocker and Miss Gorp who told me about cycling and so many more.

Weathercarrot
Even my CDT workshop was a success despite the fact that Jim and Ginny Owen (who had done the workshop in all the years before) were constantly giving their comments on whatever I said. I liked it so much that I decided to come back another year and do a workshop on hiking in Europe. (Jim and Ginny Owen have never been to Europe and can therefore make no stupid comments...) Billygoat told me how proud he is of me: "I still remember you starting on the PCT completely intimidated and convinced that you will never make it - and now you are almost a triple crowner and give CDT workshops." Thank you Billygoat.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the AYCE food 3 times a day that was actually really good. And the campfires at night. And the free book about hammock camping. And the PCT CD's from Weathercarrot. And.. And.. And... When Birdnut had brought me back to the trail I was singing the whole day - so happy was I. I had had such a great time - I will be back for another Gathering.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

AT: Trail magic in mail drops

Chocolate makes a happy hiker
I must admit that on this thruhike the food was really getting to me. I had been eating Lipton Sidedishes for half a year on the CDT in 07 and now I had to eat Lipton Sidedishes for another half year on the AT with only a short break of German food in between. I started to hate Lipton Sidedishes. And Idahon Mashed Potatoes. Not to mention Top Ramen Noodle Soup. Even with thruhiker hunger it took me forever to eat me dinners.

But then my friend Wolfgang came to my rescue. He had already sent me resupply packages to the PCT and CDT. On the AT I sent him a long list of what food I wash craving - basically the German version of Lipton sidedishes. The package was sent to Pearisburg and resulted in a very happy German hiker. I could eat something different than Lipton sidedishes for a whole week. Sweet and sour noodles instead of Teriaky noodles. Tomatoe Mozarella instead of Cheddar Broccoli. I know it sounds ridiculous to non-hikers, but for a hiker this can change the world. Thank you so much Wolfgang!

Toek's parcel
But the biggest surprise came from Toek and the Netherlands. Toek and me had hiked whole New Mexico together and of course I had always been bitching about the American chocolate. So when Toek emailed me and volunteered to send a care package I was sort of expecting chocolate. But what finally arrived in Damascus exceeded my wildest expectations. Toek had sent me 12 (in words: twelve) pounds of chocolate. Good European chocolate. Milka chocolate, Fair Trade chocolate, Euroshopper chocolate. Milk chocolate, hazelnut chocolate, caramel chocolate. To say that I was overwhelmed is an understatement. I opened the package and could not believe my eyes. This chocolate will accompany me through the rest of the AT - I keep bouncing it ahead. Toek, this was the best birthday/triple crown present I could possibly imagine. I took pictures of it so whenever I am hungry I can look at it again. Toek, you are fantastic.