Saturday, 27 September 2008

AT: More trail magic and Shenendoah NP

Walking the Shenandoah National Park was a wonderful experience: Excellent weather, nice trail, beautiful scenery and lots of wild life. I really enjoyed it a lot - I actually start enjoying the AT more and more every day. But anyway - one of the big advantages of a National Park is that there are lots of camp grounds and shops to make resupply easier. And so I was hiking into Elkwallow gap without any snacks left planning on resupplying in the souvenir shop there - open every day from 9 to 7 according to me guide book. But when I come closer I see a sign with the new store hours: 9 - 5.30. And it is exactly 5.30 now! I start running, but too late. Everybody has already left - this is what I call German punctuality in the US! I am about to cry and I am hungry!!!!

Outside the shop on a picnic bench are three older guys - typical section hikers: Overweight and carrying too much stuff - which is actually good, because they really offer to give me some of their food - for free. They have too much and don't want to carry it. You cannot believe how happy I was. These three guys are car dealers from California and it will always elude me how you can live in California and then come hiking on the East Coast... And on top of all that even teach me a new legal expression: Res ipse loquitor. It was a good day in the end.

The next day I encounter several bears - they always run away when they see me, but it is a little bit frightening to see how fast these teddies can crawl up a tree. I start wondering why I should even bother to hang my food. As it start getting dark and I come close to my potential camp site, I see two more bears - well, it is probably not a good idea to camp too close. I hike on and finally find a good camp site but now the major problem starts: I have to hang my food. I had tried the last couple of days resulting in a lot of frustation. It had always taken me almost hours and the last time the damn rope got stuck on a truck branch so I had to cut it! I slept with the food in my tent that night....

So now I stand there with the rope in my hand looking at a perfect tree that is far too tall cursing my father who has never taught me how to throw a stone with a rope attached over a tree branch... When I hear a noise behind me I first think it is a bear laughing itself to death at my ridiculous sight, but it is a female hiker. I confess my problem to her and it turns out she is a horticulturist specialising in trees. And in that profession she is quite fluent in throwing stones with ropes attached over tree branches. She even shows me a trick how to do it (swing the stone)and with her first try the rope is hanging where it is supposed to be! I am impressed - she is, too and is so happy that she hugs me and tells me about her local preacher who always says that you should help people in need - in my case a hiker with a bear problem. I slept very good that night.

AT: Most surprising trail magic ever and historic places

Donna & Gruevy plus parents
I am hiking down US highway 30 to resupply at a place called Hennicle's super market having visions of fresh fruit and yoghurt... Unfortunately, Hennicle's super market turns out to be an interesting Americana experience, but the worst resupply ever on the whole AT. So I am in no good mood hiking back on US 30 towards the trail crossing with a crappy resupply in my backpack. All of a sudden a car passes me, pulls over and stops and a vaguely familiar looking guy jumps out. I am thinking: "Oh no, not another local who wants to talk about the AT and steal my time." But when the guy starts hugging me and says: "Hey, I am Gruevy - of Donna and Gruevy", it finally dawns on me. This a CDT hiker I had met in 07! Donna and Gruevy live in this area now. It will always remain a mistery to me how Gruevy, who has only met me for one day on the CDT, never hiked with me, did not have a clue I was hiking the AT this year and could only see me from behind on US 30 - recognised me walking down the highway, but he did and I am extremely happy about that!!!!!

Washington Monument
We go and see Donna who also recognises me and of course now big trail talk and gossiping starts. But the trail magic is not over yet. Donna and Gruevy are renovating their house and while they are working at it they live with Gruevy's parents. And these parents are America's biggest distributor of Hummel figures. Yes, I mean German "Hummelfiguren". These are incredibly tacky porcelain figures created by a German nun and sold as souvenirs. I must admit that I did not have much clue about these figures either despite the fact that I was once restructuring a porcelain manufacturer, but I learnt everything about them while I stayed with Gruevy's parents.

War correspondent Memorial
The next day a tropical storm was announced and so I was invited to stay another day. Luckily I accepted because the storm was really bad and we used the chance to visit nearby Gettysburg and its fabulous civil war museum. I had always been very interested in the civil war and so we stayed 5 hours in the museum! Now I know everything I had always wanted to know about this war and even more. Thanks a lot to Donna and Gruevy for this wonderful present - and my second full zero day on the trail. But the history lesson continued on the trail: I walked past the first memorial dedicated to George Washington (also it look like more like a Coke bottle ad to me than a memorial), a civil war corresponent memorial (does such a thing exist in any other country?) and even crossed the South Mountain Civil War battlefield whose little museum came in really handy in a little shower.

AT: Americana Part 1

What is going on?
One day I am happily hiking up a ridge in Pennsylvania when I encounter an older hiker. He warns me about "some shooting on the other side of the ridge". When I ask him what is going on he tells me: "A convict escaped from prison and now the police are trying to catch him." I must have looked a little bit doubtful because he now tells me: "Oh no, it actually is a FBI training center there." By now I am wondering who is more dangerous: This weird guy or the shooting... He sees me confusion and adds: "Well, actually it is an El-Quaida training center."

I realise that this guy just has a weird sort of humor but it is astonishing what he is really worried about: "Well, I was just joking. It is just some good old boys trying out their toys. But this shooting is going on for more than 4 hours now - it must cost them a fortune in ammunition! They even have automatic weapons."

When I finally walk down the ridge - still wondering what automatic weapons are - I really do hear the shooting. And I realise what automatic weapons are... ratatata (this is the machine guns) bum bum bum (probably hand grenades). I know by now that Americans love to reenact civil war battles, but this sounds more like the battle for Stalingrad in WW II. Unfortunately, the AT heads straight towards the center of shooting. I am wondering now if the good old boys know where the damn AT is or if they try target shooting on thruhikers.... The shooting gets so loud and frightening that I consider (a) putting in ear plugs and (b) taking cover on the ground and start crawling.

In that moment two local guys turn up hiking up the trail towards me and greet me: "Hi, there is a little bit of shooting going on...." And smile and leave. As you have found out by now - I survived the shooting, but I am now wondering too how much ammunition these guys wasted...

Saturday, 20 September 2008

AT: Pennsylvania - dry on the rocks

AT signpost
Well, the title of this post does not refer to a new drink. Everybody who has hiked the AT will know what I mean: The famous Pennsylvania rocks. And it is all true. The trail was extremely rocky. I could still hike 20 miles per day, but it cost me a lot. On top of all that, Pennsylvania was dry. Hiking without much water is not new to me, but the problem was that I did not expect it. When I hiked out of Port Clinton I decided to carry only 2 liters of water as my map indicated 5 springs on the way. Luckily on my climb out of town I met 2 day hikers who told me that all of those springs are dry now - and basically saved my ass by giving me their last water. And indeed - all those springs were dry: I almost felt like back on the CDT in New Mexico. I just barely made it to the next reliable water source with not a spare drop of water left.

Inside Cabela's

Next to Port Clinton I came across another "attraction": A Cabela's superstore! Cabela's is sort of an outdoor store but not exactly aimed towards hikers, but hunters, fishermen and car campers. And it is huge! You won't find any lightweight gear there, but lots of stuffed animals. Therefore I can truthfully say that I have seen a huge polar bear on the AT - in a Cabela's superstore. Another interesting sight there were Amish people in their traditional dresses shopping there. I would have loved to ask them for a ride back to the trail - but Amish are not allowed to own a car and therefore they were waiting for a lift by non-Amish friends just like me.

Organic Steve's brother
And I visited another trail friend: Organic Steve. Steve is an organic farmer (therefore the trail name) and lives close to Boiling Springs. This is the busiest time of the year for him but he still found time to see me. We met for dinner and he brought his brother along who had accompanied him on parts of the CDT. His brother is a biology teacher and so I could ask all sorts of stupid questions about wildlife and plants. I was pretty much disappointed to get to know that all these exotic turtles I have been seeing on the trail are quite normal... I have never seen a turtle outside a zoo and did not know that they existed in the US outside of water. His brother lives in the thriving metropolis of Boiling Springs where I spent my second zero day on the whole trail.

Karl Meltzer's support vehicle
But I liked PA - beside being rocky and crossing about 20 interstates (I am exaggerating here) I came across a lot of farmland, too and that was a nice change after all this green tunnel. In Pine Grove Furnace State Park there is also the official half way point of the AT - and the location of the famous Half Gallon challenge. Thruhikers are supposed to eat half a gallon of ice cream to celebrate this important mile stone of their hike. But in Pine Grove Furnace State Park I did not only meet hikers eating loads of ice cream but also Karl Meltzer. He is a well know long distance runner attempting to break the speed record on the AT by running the whole 2,174 miles in only 47 days. Well, he never made it. Due to foot problems it took him 56 days instead of 47 days - but at least he kept going even when the record was out of reach. And in all honesty: I have not exactly seen Karl but only his posh support vehicle that was waiting for him at every possible road crossing with food, water and massages whereas normal human hikers like me could only dream of such luxuries.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

AT: Wind Gap, PA - The Good and the Bad

AT bridge
I had sent all my maps and guidebooks to Wind Gap so I had to be there on a work day for the post office. And of course, I ended up hiking into Wind Gap on a Sunday. Ok, that called for a zero day. I happily hiked one mile into town to get to the only motel there that was unfortunately right next to an Interstate. But I did not have much choice so I checked in. This motel was not the poshest place in the world, but it still looked pretty decent. Other hikers were more clever: They had checked in and left after 10 minutes because there room was so gross. Unfortunately, I stayed.

I spent most of the evening with earplugs because of the interstate noise and eventually went to sleep. I woke up at midnight because my arms and legs were itching so bad. There had not been that many mosquitoes lately so I was a little bit surprised about the itching. Then I switched on the light to check it out. And then I discovered about 10 bed bugs (= Wanzen) crawling all over me and the bed. I could not believe my eyes. First I thought I had brought an insect in myself but I discovered more and more bed bugs all over the place. When I killed them blood (my blood!) came splattering out. And then I discovered all these bug bites all over my body. This was about the most atrocious thing that ever happened to me on any trail.

Life is easier in my tent!
But what could I do? This was the only hotel in town and it was midnight. I raised hell and woke up the manager. First he tried to tell me that I had brought the bugs in. I almost started yelling at him. He insisted that he never had any problems like that before - I did not believe a single word of that. Eventually he gave me a different room - without bed bugs. I still could not sleep much that night. All this happened 10 days ago and I can still see the bug bites. I have travelled in a lot of Third-World countries but I had to come to the US to experience bed bugs....

But now I want to talk about the good: Gingerbreadman, a long-distance hiker and triple crowner had offered to send me a food drop to Wind Gap, so I was very curious when I went to the post office. Getting an unexpected food drop is like Easter and Christmas in one day for a hiker. And it was really there: A nice package with a lot of nice stamps looking very exciting. I could hardly wait to open it. Inside were all the goodies a hiker needs: A variety of ziplock bags (especially the big one Gallon ones), all sorts of energy bars, drink mixes, nuts, potatoe chips and even a newspaper article to read. Gingerbreadman - you rock! Thank you so much - I really loved that package!

AT: New Jersey

Timber at the Gathering
New Jersey has the highest bear population per square mile in the US - 1 bear per square mile. They even enter suburbs and towns to raid trash cans - but I did not see any single one of them. I just keep seeing turtles all the time. But another hiker - Timber - was actually chased around by one. He got so paranoid that he came running back to meet me and hike with me. So there is this 43-year-old ex-military and carpenter who is so shit scared that I - weak single German female - has to hike with him (meaning to hike in front of him) to scare away the bears. My opinion of American men has never been that good but it has suffered substantially since this incident. But seriously now: This is Timber's first long hike and I guess he just has to learn a bit more. Beside that he is a great guy!

There are also other good things to report: The weather improved, there were blueberry bushes everywhere, resupply was easy and life was generally very good.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

AT: New York

Bear Mountain zoo
Hiking through this state was quite a cultural experience. On the one hand hiking was surprisingly remote and the scenery very nice, but on the other hand every weekend half of New York including their mother and kitchen sink was out there, too. I hit Bear Mountain on a Sunday and almost got a claustrophic attack. There is small zoo there where the AT goes through and I could not decide what was more interesting: The animals or the other visitors! I saw my first and only bears so far in this zoo - behind cage bars of course. But the most amazing thing for me was the variety of visitors. There is a picnic area nearby that was bursting with people. I saw orthodox Jewish families in their old fashioned black suits picnicking next to Arab families with headscarves next to Indian women in Saris. The most amazing thing for me were the Jewish families who still spoke Jiddish, which consists of many German elements. I ended up in a long discussion with one Jewish family (in English).

There was also one very outstanding trailmagic in Unionville, NY. The mayor of Unionville is hosting hikers after his wife died a couple of years ago. In order to show his love for the hikers he calls them "stupid assholes" all the time which took me quite a while to get used to. The mayor himself is about 70 years old. He has some friends that help him with the hikers and are about the same age so the whole set-up reminded me a lot of a male version of "Golden Girls". There are several rules in this house:
  • Don't even try to do dishes. (I liked that one very much.)
  • The first beer is free and any other beer is 25 cents. (Luckily that applied for sodas, too because I don't drink beer)
  • Don't use any word with more than 3 syllables. (Luckily that rule was not enforced because I received some very interesting language lessons there).
  • You have to spend 25 minutes to watch a video. This video is about Paul Potts, a guy I had never before heard of. Paul Potts is a completely uninteresting and unattractive British sales guy for cell phones who won a British TV talent show by singing a Puccini aria. The mayor's message is that you just have to believe in what you are doing and you will win. So now picture about 10 dirty stinking hikers sitting in the mayor's living room and listing to the Puccini aria out of Turandot "Nessum dorma".... It was just hilarious.
The only drawback of the Mayor's house was that all of the male "Golden Girls" where chain smoking - I decided to camp outside instead of staying in the basement where the mayor had put 10 bunk beds.

Another place that I had looked forward to a lot turned out to be a big disappointment: Graymoor Monastery. I had visions of a peaceful and scenic little monastery where I could get a bit of a spiritual rest. Instead Graymoor monastery turned out to be huge - and I could not even find a church. The hikers are not allowed inside the monastery buildings any more but have to camp on the ball field - and that field today was occupied by hundreds of Latinos celebrating mass and having a huge barbecue afterwards. Although the rather expensive food was nice I was very disappointed by the lack of spirituality of the whole place - and just hiked on after an extended lunch break.

By the way: In New York there even is an active train station called "Appalachian Trail". And at some point on the trail you have to cross a busy highway - hitching on it would get you into New York City that is only 40 miles away! Although a lot of hikers take a break here and do go into New York I personally could not stand the noise and stress of a big city during such a long hike - it was difficult enough to just get across the highway!