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Monthly Archives: March 2009

It was dusk on Tuesday night and I had just been dropped off at Amicalola Falls State Park. Like a little boy on the night before his first day of school, I had my bag all packed with shiny new supplies, carefully organized in just the right pockets. Also like that boy, I’m nervous. I don’t quite know what will happen in the morning. I keep thinking there’s some preparation I forgot. But my ride has left, so there’s no turning back now.

Just behind the visitors’ center is a stone archway marking the beginning of the trail that leads to the trail that leads to Maine. It’s a little bit cruel, but the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is on the top of Springer Mountain, an 8.8 mile hike from the nearest paved road. For many people, that’s a full day’s walk before they even officially start the trail. I call it the prologue.

But I wouldn’t start that until the next day. On Tuesday night I walked just a few steps on this approach trail to a shelter specifically for people like me  planning to start on the A.T. in the morning. I had packed all my gear. I had counted my daily caloric intake. I had planned my schedule and resupply points. I was as ready as I could be. Two other hikers were waiting for me. My new trail friends, I thought, this will be great! After making a little small talk, I laid out my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep.

“Hey,” said one of my shelter-mates, who goes by the tail name Spider. “Do you guys know where the next place we can get food is?” I couldn’t even believe he was asking. I had studied the trail guide for so long before getting there that it took me a minute to realize that he actually didn’t know. 

“Well, the first store is at Neel’s Gap about 31 miles in, but it’s not a big one. Then after that, you can hitch into Helen at 51 miles or Hiawassee at 68 miles for a bigger grocery store. Why, how much food do you have?”

“Oh, I don’t really know, I just threw some stuff together. Two days? A week? I don’t know. Hey, so there’s no store on the hike tomorrow?”

“Well, no, there’s no store at all for three days at least.”

“That’s good, I probably won’t spend any money then. I budgeted myself $25 for every day of this hike, and already after tomorrow I’ll have saved some money.”

“Yeah but, aren’t you just going to need to buy several days of food at once when you’re in town?”

“Oh, yeah. Maybe you’re right.”

You might think that I was concerned for poor Spider, worried about him starving in the woods, no knowing what state he was in or which direction to walk. But in reality, all I was thinking at this moment was that maybe I knew more than I thought I did.

“Man, we are going to learn so much out here,” Spider said, after the other two of us in the shelter had almost gone to sleep. “There are just so many people who know so much stuff. Like, I was talking to someone about knots, and he was saying there’s this good knot for tying a bear bag line to a tree, it’s like, you make a loop, and then go through it, and then around and back through or something? It’s called, like, a bowline? Or, I don’t know.”

Yes, that’s a bowline, but no, it would not be a good knot to tie on a taut line. No one responded to Spider’s attempt at knot conversation, and I fell asleep feeling ready to go.

Since then has been four days of rain, followed by one day of cold. Not the most pleasant introduction to the trail, but I guess there’s no better way to start. I am still getting the hang of things, and my feet especially are still learning the ways of the trail. But for the most part, I’m off to a good start. And hey, they sun is out today.

More to come, but in summary:

  • Zero bear sightings
  • At least one mouse has run across my face
  • Already bought $90 in new gear
  • No hunger issues
  • Two giant heel blisters
  • No heart attacks on climbs
  • My trailname: Stone Brown

 

Keep in touch!

-March 30, Hiawassee, GA

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One Saturday when I was just a kid, my dad and I were visiting a state park in the northern Georgia mountains. There was a big waterfall, and a pretty lodge, and some trails looping around, and it was all very nice, but mostly I was thinking about getting back to Atlanta to see my friend. One bit of the park did catch my attention though. The trail we walked a few miles on, I learned, continued all the way to Maine. This was most unusual. All the way to Maine? The path I was standing on just kept going, and going, and going until it was on the complete other side of the country?

Growing up hiking and camping near my home in Atlanta, I learned more about the Appalachian Trail. It is over 2,100 miles, passing through 14 states. Along the way are rustic shelters for hikers to spend the night. Many people hike the entire trail over the course of a long summer. I began to form the idea that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail might be a fun thing to do someday.

Someday, it turns out, is tomorrow. My backpack is loaded and ready to go. After a short drive to the trailhead at Amicalola Falls State Park, I’ll be setting out from the A.T.’s official beginning at Springer Mountain with the bizarre idea that I’ll keep walking until I get to Maine’s Mount Katahdin in September. I don’t have the proper certifications to examine just what thoughts or motivations would possess someone to attempt this, but suffice it to say, it’s an unusual urge.

After having the idea in the back of my mind for a decade, I began planning the hike last fall and spent the better part of every day over the last week making preparations. As you might imagine, there are lots of details to work out. There’s the boots, clothing, shelter, cookware. There’s the maps and schedules. There’s the nutrition and hydration. What seems like it should be a simple walk in the woods turns out to be a lot of work to get ready for.

Feeding myself over the next few months is the biggest challenge. Hikers don’t really like to carry more than five or six days of food with them at a time, so walking for several months without starving means lots of resupply points. Fortunately, the trail passes through or near towns every few days on average. I will be able to either buy groceries at the local store, or send a pre-made box of food to myself for pickup at the post office. Not only do the post office food drops require good logistics and careful planning, they require someone back in civilization to send me the food. For this task I volunteered my parents, and before they could say no, the dining room was covered with trail mixes and ziploc bags.

It’s tough to eat well while backpacking. I’m shooting for around 4000 calories a day to replace what I’ll burning carrying my pack many miles up and down mountains. The trick is, it shouldn’t weigh much more than two pounds. After a lifetime of ignoring nutrition labels, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last week studying them in grocery stores. It turns out that packing 125 calories into an ounce is really hard. Every time I saw a food I liked, I would check the nutrition facts and see…no! not enough calories! They even have foods now where they take out calories. It makes my job pretty hard.

What I ended up with is a bag full of peanut butter, nuts, oatmeal, pastas and soup mixes. How long until I get sick of these hiker staples, I’m not sure, but the important thing is that I’ll be able to improvise on the trail. No one does a thru-hike of the A.T. without a good deal of flexibility. If I’ve had it with oatmeal, I can switch to granola. I have a rough calendar planned out all the way to Maine, but I know full well that if I’m feeling great one week, I might move a little faster. If I find the perfect swimming hole, I might move a little slower. You can only plan so much, and I’m at the point now where I am ready to get out in the mountains and start walking.

Tracking me down me may not be easy, but I will try my best to keep in touch with my friends and put some updates here as I’m able. Click on the “Appalachian Trail Page” for info. Even though I won’t be connected all the time, I’d love to hear from you on the way, either in email, voicemail, or old-fashoined stamp mail. And over these next months remember–while you’re stuck in traffic, I’ll be strolling through the forest, and while you’re dining on grilled meats and fresh vegetables, I’ll be eating instant rice and dehydrated chicken.

NOTE: This post will not be updated. Check here for (somewhat) current info.

Are you going to be in any of these lovely places while I’m in town? Stop by and say hello! (Bring leavened bread and leafy greens.) Or, send mail to any of the bold locations.

All dates and locations subject to change, often!

3/25 Springer Mountain, GA
3/29 Hiawasee, GA 30546
4/4 Bryson City, NC 28713
4/11 Cherokee, NC
4/17 Hot Springs, NC 28743
4/22 Erwin, TN
4/28 Hampton, TN 37658
5/1 Damascus, VA
5/8 Atkins, VA
5/13 Pearisburg, VA 24134
5/20 Daleville, VA
5/26 Buena Vista, VA 24416
5/31 Waynesboro, VA
6/6 Luray, VA
6/11 Harper’s Ferry, WV 25425
6/16 Fayetteville, PA
6/21 Duncannon, PA 17020
7/2 Delaware Water Gap, PA 18327
7/7 Vernon, NJ
7/14 Kent, CT 06757
7/21 Dalton, MA 01226
7/24 North Adams, MA
7/29 Wallingford, VT
8/2 Hanover, NH
8/7 North Woodstock, NH 03262
8/14 Gorham, NH
8/17 Andover, ME 04216
8/22 Stratton, ME
8/27 Monson, ME 04464
9/4 Abol Bridge, ME
9/6 Mount Katadhin, ME

SCENE: Exterior, riverside restaurant. Rosario, Argentina. 10:30 PM. Table and chairs. DINERS converse quitely nearby. FRIEND and ME have sat down for dinner. Both are tired from a day of traveling from Buenos Aires.

ME: Welcome to Argentina! I know it was a long flight, but it’s worth it. The food in this country is amazing.

FRIEND: I sure hope so, I’m starving. Why couldn’t we eat any earlier than this?

ME [matter-of-factly]: It’s just what they do.

FRIEND: I don’t care what they do, I’m about to gnaw a finger off. [nibbles a bit on a pinky]

ME: No no, it’s cool, don’t worry about it. You’re lucky we’re eating this early. They’re so provincial out here, this would not be fashionable in the city.

FRIEND: I’m not even listening to you. I can only think about steak.

[Enter WAITER. WAITER wears a vest and bowtie and looks like your uncle. Dialogue with WAITER is translated from the Spanish.]

WAITER [politely]: Good evening.

ME: Good afternoons.

WAITER: Welcome to Don Ferro. Here are your menus. [suspiciously] If you prefer, I can bring menus in English?

ME [proudly]: No no, they don’t necessitate menus English. I reads menus small Spanish good.

WAITER: Very well. The special tonight is a salmon quiche, it’s exquisite. I’ll be back in a moment.

[Exit WAITER]

FRIEND: Wow, you’ve done alright with the Spanish here.

ME: Well, I have been here a month and a half, I should hope I’m able to handle dinner in Spanish by now. And don’t forget, I’ve taken over thirty hours of Spanish classes.

FRIEND: Well can you tell me where on this menu the big plate of meat is?

ME: Oh, that would be great, do you want to split one?

[Enter WAITER]

WAITER: Are you ready to order? Can I bring you that salmon quiche?

ME: Is it possible for a mixed grill of two people to exist?

WAITER [straining]: A mixed grill for two people?

ME: A mixed grill for two people.

WAITER [thinks for a moment]: Of course, but it’s actually a bit larger, for three. It includes ribs, sausage, blood sausage, intestines, tripe, glands, liver, and brain.

FRIEND: What did he say?

ME: He said they have it. Something about ribs and sausage and some other meats, I didn’t quite catch all of the names.

FRIEND: Yes! That sounds perfect. Oh I’m so hungry. Should we get a salad too?

ME [to WAITER]: Mixed salad also.

WAITER: Would you like our salad of fresh arugula, walnuts and goat cheese in a raspberry vinaigrette?

ME: [pause] What?

WAITER: We have an arugula salad, it includes a delicious goat cheese, is tossed with chopped walnuts, and lightly coated with a raspberry vinaigrette.

FRIEND: Did you catch that?

ME: Not exactly. [to WAITER] Please salad mixed. Lettuces, tomato, onion?

WAITER: Lettuce salad, very well. Would you like me to bring you the salmon quiche as well? It’s very good.

ME [to FRIEND, impatiently]: He’s really pushing this salmon quiche. Do you want any?

FRIEND [also impatiently, but with additional hunger]: Don’t we have enough food? I though we were getting the meat plate for two.

ME [to WAITER]: The mixed grill, is of two people?

WAITER: Well no, it’s actually for three, but I suppose if you are really hungry for glands and brain, it would be good for two people. Otherwise, I would strongly recommend the salmon quiche.

ME: He says it’s good for two people.

FRIEND: Perfect.

ME: No quiche. Want only salad and mixed grill.

WAITER: Salad and mixed grill, right away sir.

[exit WATIER]

FRIEND: I am impressed, you got through that very nicely. I had no idea how quickly you can learn a language.

ME: I didn’t either. It’s just important to be immersed in it, you know? I mean, I’m practically dreaming in Spanish now.

FRIEND: That’s great. Not as great as this dinner is going to be though. All of that thick juicy steak, I have been waiting so long for this!

[Later]
A platter of assorted animal parts has arrived at the table, served atop a small coal grill.

ME: What do you think this one is?

FRIEND [not amused]: It looks like something else that is not steak.

ME: I think it’s kidney. Do they eat kidney?

FRIEND: They might, but I don’t.

ME: What’s in blood sausage anyway? Actually, nevermind. [pokes at something with a fork] I definitely don’t recognize this one. [turns it over] Oh look, it’s brain!

FRIEND: I bet there’s a reason we usually throw that out. [shuffles through a large pile of shredded lettuce on her plate without interest] And what’s with the salads here? This is incredibly boring.

ME: Yeah, I know. That’s just how they do it here. No one told them how to make a good salad I guess.

FRIEND: And this plate of intestines, is that also just how they do it here?

ME: Oh no, I haven’t had anything like this before. I usually just get a steak.

FRIEND: Well thanks for treating me to your experiment. Do you actually like this?

ME: I don’t like this liver very much. Did you notice how it’s pretty dry and hard? I think it was sitting on that grill for too long and got overcooked.

FRIEND: I did notice that. That’s why I stopped eating it.

ME [with mouth full]: Interesting point. You don’t think you should have gotten the quiche, do you?

FRIEND: I think I should have gotten the English menu.

[CURTAIN]

And so began my final week in Argentina. The food only improved from there, I promise. I learned a lot in that strange foreign land, but apparently, not that much. I have now safely returned to the US, where the steak is much more expensive, but much easier to order. While this concludes the Argentina portion of the blog, I hope you will stay tuned for further adventures. Hasta luego!

Whenever I spend a lot of time in a country, I like to visit a smaller neighboring country to the northeast. From Thailand I went to Laos, from India to Bangladesh, and now from Argentina I visited Uruguay. It’s important to take these side trips to get a better perspective on the culture of your primary travel destination. These countries give a better basis for comparison than your home country, so they can reveal a lot. Then, on returning to the larger country, you feel in some way like you are coming home. Also, you get another passport stamp. Actually, that’s really the first reason anyone goes to these secondary countries. Bonus points if most people can’t locate the country on a map. Any traveler who says otherwise is lying.

Along with my vacationing friend from the U.S., I went to Uruguay for a few days to get my stamp, and see a few places too. We traveled to Montevideo and Colonia, two of the country’s three destinations of any note. From the first day in the capital of Montevideo, the difference between Uruguay and Argentina was clear. Whereas in Argentina, people frequently drink mate, in Uruguay they simply never stop drinking it. Mate (MAH-tay) is sort of like tea, except instead of a tea cup they use a dried out gourd, instead of sipping they drink it through a filtered metal straw, and instead of steeping with a tea bag they stuff the gourd nearly to the brim with yerba leaves. The preparation and drinking ritual is often communal, performed among friends, say, sitting in a circle in a park. One person fills the gourd with hot water, passes to someone to drink it dry, then it returns to the water-filler. The taste is very bitter and it has some mysterious chemical properties. It looks like it should be illegal.

The phenomenon is quite apparent in Argentina, particularly away from the city. But in Uruguay it looks like an obsession. Everywhere in Montevideo, people walk around with their gourd in hand and a thermos of hot water cradled in their elbows. One arm devoted to mate, they must do anything else with a single hand. Or, they can buy a special leather shoulder bag, sold all over, designed specifically to carry this mate paraphernalia. I know what you’re thinking—a Uruguayan walking the streets of Seattle would certainly think it strange how all the people are attached to little paper coffee cups. But at least we don’t have to carry our own hot water supply.

The other area in which Uruguay has Argentina clearly beat is in cobblestone streets. In the world of contemporary urban and travel fashion, cobblestone is in. Whatever city had the foresight centuries ago to build streets out of little stones and then the self-discipline to not pave them over in all those bumpy years is reaping the rewards today. “A charming neighborhood of cobblestone streets” is a guide book cliché and a visitors’ delight. Why we love them so much I’m not sure, but it’s probably because cobblestone has some vague European connotation, and Europe has a vague cultural connotation, and we want something cultural when we travel. They also satisfy another travel criteria: authenticity. No city fakes its cobblestones.

On the cobblestone scale, the town of Colonia, Uruguay is second to none. Sure, the old quarter of the city has a small maze of streets paved entirely with old stones. But what sets Colonia apart is its occasional blocks of streets made of large, irregularly shaped rocks that seem to have been dropped at random. They rise and fall unpredictably with occasional gaping holes. These streets are closed to cars, and walking on them without hiking boots is a bit difficult as well. Leisurely strolls turn into focused treks. Women do not wear heals in Colonia. If cobblestone streets are good, then rock streets must be better. It’s all part of the charm.

Colonia has had a long time to age this charm. It was founded as a Portuguese colony in 1680 as a staging ground for smuggling goods in and out of the renegade Spanish port of Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires was having a slow start. The Spanish crown required trade to go through the west coast of the continent, routed through Lima, which was closer to the silver mines of Bolivia and the Andes. In fact, Argentina hardly mattered at all to Spain because it had no silver. This did not deter its early settlers. Like Greenland and Rome, Georgia, Argentina first gave itself a misleading name, derived from the Latin word for silver, “argentum.” Buenos Aires also sits on the wide mouth of the Rio de la Plata, or “Silver River.” The names may have only fooled people for so long, but Buenos Aires was still a good location for a port handling the area’s non-mineral riches. But without approval from Europe, it was a stealthy port of smugglers. Colonia, a short sail away, was the Portuguese attempt to get in on the action.

With its colonial architecture largely preserved, and frequent ferry service to Buenos Aires, Colonia is now a popular tourist destination for weekending Argentines or stamp-seeking travelers. Buenos Aires has roots going back several centuries, but for the most part the city is just 150 years old, and its architecture much younger. The original area of Colonia looks a lot like it did 300 years ago. You can tell by those cobblestones. It’s the oldest place I’ve seen on this trip, which along with its smallness made for a very nice change of pace.

The nation of Uruguay was founded as a buffer zone between the frequently skirmishing Spanish Argentina and Portuguese Brazil. You may not expect a buffer zone country to have much of a culture or identity, or to deliver much more than a passport stamp. But Uruguay has its own quirks and charms well past its border guards. I won’t say it’s worth a trip of it’s own, but if you find yourself in the neighborhood, you should definitely cross over to see.