Thursday, December 21, 2006

War Stories

As I have mentioned before, a guilty pleasure of mine is comic books. Recently, I gave a friend of mine War Stories by Garth Ennis, a series of WW2 inspired vignettes that I hoped to read myself. I finally got the chance to read them. I was not disappointed. They are . . . everything one would expect of the deadliest conflict in human history. They are devastating. They are moving.

"Then one morning I woke up and realized my life was atrocity"

The transition from life to atrocity is an easy one to make. Thanks to Ennis and company for reminding us of that crucial fact.

Friday, December 15, 2006


A vignette of violence and espionage.


April 1, 2002 Central Eurasia, Kashkar

Seven years out of Bosnia, Ahmed Muhammed bin-Uruk-dur settled into a stinking yurt in the Hindu Kush. The tent flapping behind him was struck by his guide less than ten miles from the southwest end of the Tarim basin. It was the farthest that his guide felt Ahmed could go- a weakling khat from Arabia- and far enough into the mountains to hide. Ahmed (which was not his real name) knew the location of every piece of mass in orbit at any given time, what each thing did, and how it did it. He knew the location of the EM-630 (EQSAT5) over Eurasia, and knew that it would, within fifteen minutes, begin its last string of telemetry to the 509th Wing of the USAF flying to Afghanistan. He knew that the telemetry would be converted into binary by a Chinese-manufactured Motorola 4505 microprocessor (silent cooling), and the binary would go through the B-2's mainframe to the fire control computers, where it would enter the tiny brain of a JDAM. Running in secure mode, the JDAM would know where it was going better than the pilot of the B-2 would. Incidentally, in this case, the JDAM would know where it was going better than anyone except for Ahmed.

The Motorola 4505 (silent cooling) telemetry microprocessor, being Chinese, originally had firmware that was loaded with backdoors and built in buffer overflows to allow the PLA to take control of American equipment. The Pentagon, realizing this during the manufacturing process, politely asked the Chinese to take out the vulnerabilities so the Motorola equipment could be installed in the B-2 bomber. The Chinese specialized the firmware so it could take especially good advantage of the B-2, then gave the processors back to the Air Force, which installed them on their two billion dollar bombers. For any given day eighty percent of the USAF's firepower was under the de facto control of the People's Liberation Army. On a side note, B-2 manufacturer Northrop summarily refused to use elite domestic programmers because none of them could pass the mandatory drug test.

Ahmed (which was not his real name) had a deal with the Chinese, and had it for long enough that he was able to craft code that could take advantage of the backdoors in the B-2's Motorola telemetry receiver. He also had LANDSAT-1, a massive overengineered NASA satellite (presumed out of service) that was wide open to Ahmed's laptop and dish. LANDSAT-1 had a beast of an antenna- if Ahmed were so inclined, he could make every satellite phone ringtone in the hemisphere play "Fat Bottomed Girl" at seventy decibels. As the telemetry was beaming from EM-630 (EQSAT5) en route to the B-2s of the 509th, it would be overtaken and mugged by an overcharge signal from the LANDSAT. The pirate LANDSAT transmission would find its way to the B-2 antenna, then to the Chinese buffer overruns in the Motorola 4505 firmware, from whence it would cheerfully begin executing commands to the B-2 fire control mainframe, which would reprogram the JDAM so that it went where Ahmed wanted it to go. It would all happen when Ahmed pressed the "Return" button on his laptop. Which he did.

From that point the JDAM was the assassin, hired muscle from the Chinese stolen from the Americans, and Ahmed was sitting in a transmission center. The Americans would realize something had happened and would wipe out every dish-shaped object in the Hindu Kush. It was time to leave.

Ahmed threw everything into his mesh gear, hung it carefully from the yurt frame, and snuck into the inky night outside. Naturally a night person, his eyes found the ridgeline and the glowing cherry spot of his guide's cigarette, the only point of light in the darkness. Slowly- more slowly than the second hand on a watch- Ahmed aimed his silenced pistol at a spot three and a half inches up and to the right of the glowing spot. The trigger pull was light, about a pound and a quarter, and the suppressor functioned so well that the only noise was the metallic slap of the automatic's slide. A giblet of frontal cortex sprayed into the night, and the guard slumped like a drunk. Quickly, Ahmed jammed everything that made him Ahmed into the pockets of his guide, darkness and slippery blood making things take longer than they should; in five seconds, the guide became Ahmed, and Ahmed lost himself. The skin had come off again, and the skinless man, NV goggles and mesh gear packed, headed out of the narrow valley like all the fires of hell were after him. Which, in a sense, they were.

Ten minutes later Muhammed Shubai- the target of the skinless man- met his end at the hand of a misdirected JDAM dropped from a B-2 in the 509th. The wedding had been going on for some time, but odd how his son hadn't showed up, isn't it? He had always tried to get Shem out of the business, trying to tell him, Shem, stop dealing with the poppies and the Russians or someone will get you. His son sneered. As Muhammed lay perforated, watching his daughter die by fire, he knew that his son was behind this, somehow, and wished for the vengeance of God upon him. Allah forgive me, I have wished my son to Hell. Muhammed died. The Air Force apologized.

Almost immediately Shem Shubai -the client- wired five million dollars into a German-run mutual, from whence it would find its way - through a long and laundered route- to the man who had once called himself Ahmed. That was some assassination, thought Shem. Shem would be dead within two days, after unsuccessfully trying to find the man he thought was Ahmed.

Forty five minutes later three F-18 fighter/bombers streaked over the yurt and the dead guide who had become Ahmed. They dropped a total of three one thousand pound bombs laser-targeted on the yurt, clearing the valley of all life and scaring the local dovekie population to somewhere more peaceful, like Chernobyl. Soon the Marines would come and find the man who had become Ahmed, al-Quaeda lieutenant and mastermind of the signals campaign against Operation Enduring Freedom. His body, cellphone, and mule would be dissected, analyzed, wrung out for every last detail, none of which would show that the man was illiterate, had never handled a single piece of electronics (not even a radio), did not speak Arabic, and - most importantly- was not al-Quaeda lieutenant Ahmed Muhammed bin-Uruk-dur. The guide's wife wondered where her husband was.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Ring in Four Color

I’ve always loved Wagner. It’s safe to say that now, certainly, but for a very long time it was not kosher to say you appreciated the man’s music. There are some good reasons for his banishment. He unwittingly wrote the soundtrack for the Third Reich, and, by extension, the leitmotifs for every bad guy in cinematic history. As I've mentioned before, the horror of the Reich has been magnified by our awe of it, an awe that was quite deliberately structured by Nazi propaganda architects, since making really great film is a good substitute for having a political philosophy. At least, it works as a substitute if you're a cynic and a loser who's never had a genuine feeling in your life. Indeed, what began as a party of hero worship soon turned, under Hitler's control, into what Hermann Rauschnung called "the Revolution of Nihilism": cynically manipulative, intellectually bankrupt, and one of the nadirs of human civilization. That's a harsh reputation for a composer to come back from.

It's said that classical music didn't die in the 20th Century, it just went into the movies to hide. Wagner is the lich-king of this undead realm; appearing in John Williams and in Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings (which I understand has been made into an opera). I'm not a snooty New Yorker reviewer, so I don't mind Wagnerian touches hiding in pop culture. I enjoy them. I can't watch a weeklong opera. Pop culture makes all this highbrow stuff understandable.

In any case, I never had the faintest idea of what The Ring was about until I bought these fantastic comicizations of The Ring by P. Craig Russell. Now I have a far better idea of the plot than perhaps I ought to; Russell does a fantastic job of translating the opera into lyrical- and often quite powerful- English phrasing. The art is four-color, very straightforward, a bit hippy, too literal in its visual representations of leitmotif, but barring a full Hollywood treatment, it's the best representation you're likely to get of this high-flying epic. I can't recall how many times I've run into the following phrase regarding Wagner's Ring:

"What follows is perhaps the most difficult to realise stage directions in the history of opera."

Well, no longer. Now you can practically hear the damn thing as you're reading it, and feel the chill with Alberich's words.

Outside In

The fundamental goal of all data modeling is to create a facsimile of the objective world in a semantic composite. A table of data does this by listing aspects of reality that matter to us (columns), then recording the data for these columns in a series of rows. The relationships between these columns is the important part, though, and these relationships are only really understandable when we view the data as a diagram. The problem here is that when we view the diagram, we hide the rows of observed data for each of the column values. Our diagrammed data model may become irrelevant as the data coming in changes, and we would not know it until it is too late.

We sympathize with the data diagram approach because that is how our brains see the world: as a series of fantastically complex interconnections. We don't store a whole lot of data in our brain. Instead, when we see an object, we make connections about various aspects of that object that link to other objects. In database terms, the human brain is a database where all the values are primary keys.

Our computer brethren, on the other hand, stink at drawing associations but are incredible storage devices. We rely on them constantly, minute to minute, on remembering our music for us, remembering phone numbers, movies, news, and whatever else will fit on our Blackberries and laptops. We would not, however, ask them for the shape of the data, or for a field that no one seems to want anymore, although the sophistication with which data design can do these things is increasing constantly.

Somehow the data needs to appear in the design diagram. Obviously it can't make a cameo in the flesh, because it would make a laughingstock of design. It requires some algorithm that can convert the pattern in the data into abstractions at the design layer. Perhaps the shapes could glow red when they haven't been selected from for over two years. Blinking red.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Flowcharts and Reformation

Not too long after I started reading the draft of my undergraduate thesis, I found myself completely and totally befuddled. In my usual fashion, I had written a document that assumes a knowledge level above and beyond that of its audience, who unfortunately happened to be me, in this case. It's probably unreadable even by a specialist, unless the specialist has a browser window and is feverishly entering names and places into Wikipedia, as I was.

While I like my work to be dense, I also do not want my undergraduate thesis to read like Foucault's Pendulum, mostly because I can not keep reading my own work like this. I will go crazy trying to figure out what I was saying. So, as I often do when faced by a phenomenon of overwhelming complexity, I started making a diagram.

Unfortunately, I have no Visio, and I have neither the time or interest in customizing one of the many UML modellers out there so that it could model different personalities of the 16th Century. That's not exactly work that could be re-used. So I went to Gliffy, an online browser-based Visio clone. I was so impressed that, well, I had to post about it. While I wouldn't use it for anything too technical, it's a great (and free) workspace for people to brainstorm in. As soon as my deadlines clear up I will publish a nice "Who's Who" flowchart of the Italian Reformation. There might be as many as ten people who would be interested! Thanks Gliffy.

Probably only a matter of time before Google buys it. In an IT world so strapped for cash, one of the few business plans worth a damn is designing software that you know Google would like. Then you just wait for Page and Brin to show up with a dump truck full of money.

Hmmm, sooo . . . what else would Google want? They've got a Google Office, a Google Visio (if they buy or reverse engineer something like Gliffy). What would I make do attract Google's Mad Millionz? Or Bonus Billionz?

Would they go for a Google IDE? I think the answer would be "no". Google is primarily interested in getting people closer to the hivemind, and IDEs are a barrier to that. Granted, they DO publish a 3D editor IDE, but a 3D editor is still rooted in reality (spheres and boxes), whereas a software IDE exists in a sort of idea space that is only interesting to programmers and metaphysicians. In many ways Microsoft's voyage into the IDE is what dragged them down in recent years, and Google probably wants no part of it. Semantic constructs don't pay the bills.

There's one piece of IT functionality that Google is unusually well prepared for, and that's test automation. They've got the hardware, they've got the pipes, and they have the knowledge. They could use their black magic to spider out all UI components, track user patterns among those components, then elaborate on those patterns until the application breaks and throws an exception. Then you assign an ID to that usage pattern, ID the UI components, and attach the exception. The resulting table could then be published. It's still a little too techy for the Google market, and I mean that in the sense that only software people would care, but if you make it slick enough, you never know, Sergei might come a'knockin.

Getting all travel data in one place for the consumer would be an awesome windfall, but doing it painlessly would take some sneakiness. does something like this, but even they are getting sucked into the eerie Cosa Nostra atmosphere that is the travel business. Sergei has probably had enough of violent crime.

A very nifty application would be one that tells you where you'd like to live. It could use a lot of the functionality of a dating site without the stalker aspect while still being creepy enough for Google to love. The user could fill out some questions, and the application could grade metro areas and the surrounding countryside based on such factors as:
1) Land (Climate/geography, i.e., desert mountains)
2) Density (Biking to work versus having a ten acre lot)
3) Economic Activity (Wealth/Type, i.e., median income/Ford Motors, high income/Dartmouth)
4) School quality (education level of children who graduate the system, teacher/student ratio, etc.)
5) Taxes
6) Availability and size of local parks, soil quality, "off the grid" power options (solar, hydroelectric)
This is all stuff that's already in Google Earth, you'd just need some simple algorithms to sift it and match it with users. Or, creepier still (in true Google fashion), you could skip the questionnaire and just guess what the user likes based on the personal data you already have of them, then show them the place they want to live.

The creepiness, of course, is why Google is so fantastically wealthy: the Hivemind will know us better than we know ourselves. And who could put a stock price on the future collective consciousness of the human race? I, for one, am ready to be assimilated.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Gastronomical Observations

For the first time in three years I actually made the smoked turkey as recommended in the recipe. I had always hesitated at one step or another for fear that the combined ingredients would make the turkey too sweet. I was so wrong. The end product from the Epicurious recipe was balanced and substantial, without modification. The only misgiving I would have would be making a pan gravy: if you use a roasting pan, the fluids yielded by this bird will be 1) very salty from the exuded brine, and 2) very smoky. Still, the pan fluids from this recipe were so rich, so very tasty from the orange, mustard, and maple, that I might just try and make a gravy from these pan fluids next year.

Happy thanksgiving everyone!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Moving Pictures

Katahdin Summit, October 13th 2006

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Good point

IAG has a very good point about the Airbus meltdown

Too Much

One thing you notice about the past is that it was a lot smarter. People like Gibbons and Newton were making quantum leaps in human knowledge doing little more than just thinking about it very hard. I used to marvel at this. The Fall of Rome researched without the Internet?! Inconceivable! After the experience on the AT, however, and after a summary period of being a wart on the bum of my old life, I've determined that the surfeit of knowledge, like the surfeit of jalapeno poppers, is a bad thing.

Like jalapeno poppers, knowledge in this modern world is everywhere, sticks to your guts, and smells delicious. If you do not know something, you can know it in moments by opening your friendly google page and entering "wikipedia whatever". Then you know it. This, however, cuts out the most important part of learning: pretending to know something you don't. I don't know how many new avenues of thought I've arrived at by pretending to know things I don't. I imagine that the sum of Mankind would be a lot smaller if it weren't for people pretending to know things that they don't in fact know. To be honest, this makes a sort of sense. The human brain's memory storage mechanisms are relatively weak compared to its ability to hook things together. We don't remember things so well, but we synthesize like nobody's business.

When we get away from civilization, Google, and Wikipedia, we are forced to actually think about the knowledge in our head- and make up explanations for those things we can't look up instantly. Sometimes those explanations are good ones. I'm pretty sure we'd still be exploring the underpinnings of the Ether if Wikipedia and CNN had been around in 1912. Unfortunately, like jalapeno poppers, this pure distillate of knowledge in the 21st century is impossible to remove yourself from. It's how we communicate and how we live, as isolated nodes in an enourmous hive-mind we call "Western Civilization". You just can't stop eating the damn things.

Unfortunately, sucking knowledge and jalapeno poppers will get you to only one place: morbid obesity. And on that note, I'm going for a walk. A stroll, rather.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Glass Jaw?

It's amazing how things can change in just a few months. When I was leaving for the wilderness, everyone had Boeing on the ropes, on one knee, with its trainer in tears. There were a few who pointed out the big manufacturer's advantages: better capitalization; a virtually endless larder of military contracts; the fact that their planes still did what they did quite well even after ten or twenty years. For the most part, though, the air transport business was jumping up and down like a JV Cheerleader team: Go Go Airbus!

As it turned out, a lot of the statistics we got on the new generation of Airbus planes look like they came from an aeronautical branch of Arthur Anderson. Everything from cabin to burn. Just google Airbus to read the dirge for the "Airbus Century". Cancellations include Austrian, JAL, TAM, Emirates (ouch), Qantas, Virgin, and God knows who else as EADS picks out the dirt. Doubtless one of the chief problems lay in selling a very large aircraft that had not quite been put through all its paces. Once you sell you are locked in, which means, well, that there's a very strong incentive to overlook problems with the aircraft. Which means that investigators from Emirates will be visiting your facility shortly. And then, lawyers.

Another long term problem that the company is experiencing is its market. The LCC carriers are tying down their growth as they truly discover what "low-cost" means (and as the CRS advantage fades, with better data sharing among legacy carriers). It means bigger problems for Airbus than for the older Boeing, which can still make a fortune just selling parts for its flying fossils. The China market for Airbus is proving to be, well, a China market- which means you do your business their way, or you can not do business at all. If it's anything like the Chinese and Indian software companies, they'll buy one aircraft, reverse-engineer it and sell it for the price of a used Lexus.

I won't join in on the cat-calling of Airbus yet. Sure, they'll have some growth problems, and it's possible the bigger LCCs might disintegrate or be absorbed by the end of the decade. But we don't know what the hell Boeing is doing right now. Airbus has some great, great logistical advantages for any carrier, and a lot of fantastic features and ideas. What's the reigning heavyweight going to do now that he's found his quick competitor has a glass jaw? I have a funny feeling they'll just send more teams down to Washington, to send more no-bid contracts their way.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Wheels Down

Mile: Home

The brightness of the sun makes sunglasses mandatory, at least until these eyes get used to my home state again. The water and thickness of the air makes me feel like I am drowning, a feeling not aided by my deep chest congestion. Running is a sweatbath. Sometimes in Pennsylvania or NJ when I felt it was humid, I had totally forgotten what real humidity is. Sand drags at my steps, and for whatever reason, the first joint of my big toe has become stiff and swollen. It's the body's way of saying, "We're taking a break now, you bastard from hell".

Tomorrow I'll have been home for a whole week. The smells and sensations of home are coming back to me, and it doesn't seem quite so much like Venus anymore. The world around me seems almost unchanged, and I remember how short a time six months is in the land of the grown-ups. Six months used to go by without me hardly noticing. In my subjective world, though, six months can last a lifetime. People sometimes ask, "What was your trail name?"

"Mash," I reply, sort of embarrassed, then I am overwhelmed by a sense of dissonance, remembering the name I answered to for six months. It's no accident that the first thing a cult does is give its members new names. Our names are the root society has into us. Our names are the user id and password combination. When we change names, we change our user base. User John Mogilewsky has been reactivated, although I haven't revoked Mash's access to /home. Not yet.

This journal is no longer a trail journal, although I will probably still continue to update it with interesting tidbits from the worlds of history, science, and whatnot. Thanks for following along.


You know your branch of academics is in trouble when its dirty laundry is aired in the New Yorker. The recent article on the state of string theory is a pretty good example. I've always sort of felt that the string theorists needed to pull themselves in just a little bit, since you need truly Star Trek gadgets to test even the least of their predictions. No, scratch that, you need gadgets a few magnitudes beyond the energies harnessed in Star Trek.

But on the other hand, I don't think the anthropic principle, and particularly the multiple-universe incarnation thereof, should bring out so much ugliness in the anti-string theory crowd. It's just a tad disingenuous. Anthropic principles are not limited to string theory. In one way or another, the anthropic dilemma has been with us since Einstein-Bell, and before that. It's the nature of the quantum beast. It's why the standard model of modern physics splits things into objective, Einsteinian reality, and bizarre, Daoistic subatomic reality. The two realms rarely intersect, except at the terminii of universes, inside the event horizon, and, apparently, in the complexity of the human mind.

I say the last one half-jokingly, but in truth, there seems to be something to this, at least to my sleep-deprived mind trapped here in the airport. What if what looks like an anthropic principle in modern physics is just the manifestation of a lower order of physical law? What if the very existence of complexity, when it exceeds a certain limit, affects the behavior of elementary particles in a way analagous to the way mass affects space-time? If mass is tied to complexity, it would explain the relationship between anthropics and quantum observations.

Mass and complexity would seem to have a one-way relationship; you can have mass without complexity but it'd be pretty hard to have a critical mass of complexity without a relatively dense mass. You could argue that certain primitive forms of material, gluon plasmas and the like, can sustain complexity, but the energy needed to maintain exotics is too high- to have enough time to reach some sort of critical level of complexity in such material you'd need more energy than is present in the visible universe. Mass and complexity are very good friends, but it does not at first glance appear that it's a two-way street.

Until you take into account that complexity allows mass to avoid losing density through energy release. Your brain, a complex organ, allows your body to walk across the street without losing mass due to energy, or collision with little old ladies in Lincoln Towncars. Feedback mechanisms in stars work the same way, most of the time, except for those times they fail spectacularly.

We won't sidetrack into the secret lives of stars and stellar masses. But complexity can help mass out. Complexity navigates the multiple worlds and finds the best one; mass gathers all potential to itself. As things get more massive, they get more inevitable, until you get to something like a primordial black hole, or, if you add sentient complexity to the mix, an intelligent agent that is possible everywhere, from which there can be no ultimate escape. It's a shame that just when you think you have a good grip on some cosmological problem, Yahweh has to make an appearance. Hi, Yahweh.

Seriously, though, what if the complexity of galaxies and the visible universe *is* some sort of possible-universes-scheme by the sentient black holes to encompass all possible realities. This sentence makes me sound like I should be committed, so I'll stop there, or maybe write a short story about it. Ziggy Stardust and the Black Hole Archons.

But we can, I think, safely play with the assumption that complexity is tied with mass. Mass gathers all that potential where complexity can occur.

To bring all this back to tying mass and complexity with subatomic systems, it would be interesting to see if the existence of complex systems force strings into new harmonics, as the complex systems suck up the local information available to the strings. The harmonics may just be adjusting to the complexity of the observational system. The string harmonic would be like a gerbil hyperventilating while stuck in a locked airtight room with a string theorist, with fifty magnitudes difference in proportion.

Seriously, though, these sorts of tests are devilish to pull off, because quantum states do not like staying in the state they are observed in. Someone managed an experiment something like this late last century using lasers and Bose condensates and space robots, but I'll be damned if I can remember how the hell it worked.

Ah well, so much for the link between quantum physics, mass, and complexity. It's time to return to the social sciences before landing, so I can throw myself into areas I might still be competitive in, even at the ancient age of thirty-one.

Totally off topic, but after so long in the wild, flying in a plane is a whole new experience, like being trapped in a vast beast of limitless power. The pressurization of the compressors, the throttle on the tarmac- it really feels like the tightening of muscles before a leap. A thousand mile leap into the air. We humans do have some cool tricks, and the JetBlue Airbus 320 I'm on is one of them.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Delmonico's circa 1834

The Inn at St. John's, Portland, ME
Waiting for the flight

There's a copy of what is supposedly the first regular menu in the United States here at the Inn in Portland, from Delmonico's Restaurant in New York. The menu is quaint but intensely interesting. The prices of foodstuffs were proportionally much different back then- the roast chicken is twice as much as roast mutton, for example. A decent fraction of the menu is dedicated to "& Cabbage" dishes: sausage and cabbage, corned beef and cabbage, pig's head and cabbage, and the ill-defined "knuckle & cabbage".

I really can't make fun of this British-American fascination with cabbage, since last night I ate a pint of kimchi from the Korean supermarket, and kimchi might just be the least rational cabbage-based product ever to arise from the hand of man. I would love to take some on the plane but that would doubtless lead to imprisonment or my being shot by sky marshalls.

They make good kimchi in Portland, which means it smells bad. I mean, really, really bad. It's not stuff you necessarily want to eat indoors.

And now, the Bill of Fare, circa 1834, with prices following each item.


Delmonico's Restaurant
494 Pearl St

Cup of Tea or Coffee-.01
Bowl of Same- .02
Soup- .02
Fried or stewed Liver- .02
Hash- .03
Pies- .04
Beef or Mutton Stew- .04
Corned Beef & Cabbage- .04
Pig's Head & Cabbage- .04
Sausage & Cabbage -.04
Knuckle & Cabbage- .04
Fried Fish- .04
Beef Steak- .04
Pork Chops- .04
Pork & Beans -.04 (What the hell? I mean, pork and beans?)
Sausages- .04
Puddings- .04 (The pudding of this time was probably more like a rindless sausage than anything we think of as pudding, and could be made from blood, innards, brains, what-have-you)
Liver & Bacon - .05
Roast Beef or Veal- .05
Roast Mutton- .05
Veal Cutlet- .05
Chicken Stew- .05
Fried Eggs- .05 (I have no idea where this price comes from, although I think the lack of refrigeration in 1834 might have made eggs a bit more of a luxury then than now, and it's also probable that a fried egg in 1834 was more something like a Scotch Egg than sunnyside up)
Ham & Eggs- .10
Hamburger Steak- .10 (Big spender! Again, a hamburger must have been something different in 1834)
Roast Chicken- .10

Name Not the Shadow

It's very hard to sleep in motel rooms. Hopefully I get the knack back, the ability to sleep in the city.

So until I finally pass out in a puddle of my own drool, I'm watching hour after hour of Law and Order. I find myself growing increasingly angry at the psychologist who is pulling demons from the cop characters in the show. It's a bit of a side plot, this head-shrinking, but it seems cruel and ultimately self-defeating. By pulling demons from their cop souls, this useless shrink is making the shadows real. You've got enough problems being a cop without having to second or quadruple guess yourself just because some jackass wants a writeup of your "psychological health", whatever the hell that's supposed to be, since I've seen absolutely piss-all in terms of actual consistent medical practice that shows what constitutes mental "health".

This pulling shadows, naming shadows . . . It's the equivalent of jumping off a cliff to see how far down it goes.

I know the bottom is very far away. I know there are bad little boxes inside me and inside all of us. So effing what? We put them away in careful little shelves inside us and we run on. Run, run, run, run, run, until it stings in our lungs, saltwater in our eyes, burn in our shoulders. It's the thick voluptous stuff of life, where our insides meet the outside, that is the vertex surface of conscious experience. The rest is just neurons, atoms, the shifting strings and gums (and God knows what other exotic nine-dimensional shapes) of the reality grid. We live in the interface. Psychiatry (and, to some extent, all post WWII aesthetic thought) wants to take that away from us.

I've always hated psychiatrists.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The AT Evaluation

Bangor, ME

Unless you are needing to give life a good kick in the pants, there's no real scenic reason to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Maybe ten percent of the trail is worth a good vacation; the rest of the miles are drudging, viewless climbs through somewhat less-than-notable second-growth forest. The Smokies, the Roan Highlands of Tennessee, Grayson Highlands and McAfee Knob in Virginia, some of Vermont, the Whites, and Katahdin are all worthy of visits. I can't be objective about the Smokies. They're where I vacationed as a child in the summer, and they are where I first fell in love with the outdoors. Some folks have a much less positive impression of them.

The trail starts brutally, with steady two thousand foot climbs and drops up and down Georgia clay. No rocks, but if there's any water on the trail at all the clay is incredibly slippery. This trend holds until you get near Virginia. The Roan Highlands are the incredible centerpiece of the southern section. I'd recommend an overnight trip starting at Roan mountain, spending the night at the gorgeous Overmountain Shelter, and finishing at Mountain Harbor Bed and Breakfast.

"Virginia is flat," so say locals and ex-thru-hikers with a perverse sense of humor. It's not flat in any way, and it's five hundred miles. I've known thru-hikers who have taken two months to get through that state. It's the state that breaks your spirit. There's pretty much nothing notable between Grayson and the Shenandoahs, except for McAfee knob, which is an OK summit. You could skip from Grayson in VA to Greylock in MA without missing an awful lot.

Get ready for the civil war state! I have great memories of Maryland. The trail in this state follows the great skirmishes around Antietem, a plaque every ten miles documenting your hike around that field of slaughter. Through MD And southern PA you can get town food every day, right on the trail. Stop at Caledonia State Park, Pen-Mar's pizza delivery, and Pine Grove Furnace for the "Half-Gallon Challenge", where through hikers race through half-gallon size portions of ice cream, to celebrate the halfway point.

Pennsylvania up to Port Clinton is really honking boring, but at least it's passable. Northern PA is nasty, nasty trail, and if I had a time machine I'd go back and tell myself to skip this section. Defining experience: after an attack of clear vomit during a one hundred and seven degree day, I collapsed in a shelter, cursing the ridiculous boulder field they called a trail. I hear a truck engine. This guy pops out of a pickup a dozen yards from the shelter. "Hiya there," he said, "I'm the Ridge Runner for this section!" If I wasn't so blasted I would have killed him with my bare hands. Ridge runner!? Ridge Driver, more like. When was the last time you saw this goddamned trail?

The saving grace of PA was Palmerton, which was easily the friendliest trail town of the whole trip. Doubly impressive considering the whole town sits on top of a toxic Disneyland, the EPA superfund site I might have mentioned.

I raced through the mid-Atlantic so fast I hardly remember it. The Low Point at Bear Mountain Zoo was fun (124' in elevation). Crossing the Hudson was awesome. Hiking with Tin Man. Seeing Monica, getting engaged.

Once you get to Vermont, really, after Greylock, things get really scenic again. And they get scenic very fast indeed after you get to NH. I can't talk up the Whites enough, and really, southern Maine is gorgeous too. Southern Maine is also home to Mahoosuc Notch, which although it is not the "hardest mile", it is the slowest. It took me an hour, but non-thru-hikers generally want to allow four or six hours for navigating the notch.

And then Northern Maine, where the climate definitively changes to Canadian, and the trail gets intensely muddy. You fly through the wilderness- although the warning signs say to bring ten days of food, even novice hikers will probably not need more than seven, and there are resupply points in between. The fine folks running White House Landing winter in Anna Maria Island, funny enough. I told them I'd drop by when I got home. It seems a lot of people on the trail in Maine winter in or near Bradenton.

Then the big K, or Miss K, Baxter Peak, Katahdin. Easily the best summit on the trail, even without the emotional underpinnings. It's also the most challenging.

I'm just starting to get used to the idea that I'm not climbing mountains anymore. My hands are shaking. I have way too much excess energy. My kingdom for a stairmaster!

Lord knows I'm going to need one, and fast. I'm trying to eat well now, but my body still wants enormous quantities of food. I've lost thirty five pounds, and have a resting heart rate just shy of fifty BPM. I won't be able to keep this kind of shape (ten to twelve hours of aerobic exercise a day is a great way to live, but doesn't exactly pay the bills), but hopefully I can add enough muscle to this somewhat depleted frame so that my metabolism stays high.

Thanks to everyone back home for all the support- sometimes it was the emails from home that made it all worthwhile. We thru-hikers forget, sometimes, exactly the scale of this thing we do. A lot of the time we just sort of feel like hobos. "It's a very thin line between being a thru-hiker and being a vagrant". But the emails from home reminded us of who we are, and helped to restore a bit of our dignity.

And more than anyone else, a huge thank you to my future wife Monica, who's really been supernaturally patient with this whole project.

Time to get that flight set up. Time to go home.

And . . . What's this? A book about the Pacific Crest Trail?

Interesting . . .

Gear After Action Report

Bangor, ME

My Vasque full boots blew out before I got to Hot Springs, not even three hundred miles up the trail. It's excusable because the Vasques had done everything from trail work to office duty in the three years I owned them. I rarely wore anything else, and so they died very early.

The Innovate trail runners I got in Hot Springs were the best shoes I had on the trail. Light, very grippy soles, and protected with a full-length rigid shank. Tragically, it's a small British company and the only place I ever saw them was in Hot Springs, else I'd have walked the whole trail with these things.

The Hi-Tech trail runners I got in Harper's Ferry win the value prize. Less than forty dollars, but they got me to New Hampshire from Harper's.

The absolutely worst shoes of the entire trail are the Merill trail runners I got in North Woodstock,NH. The soles blew out less than thirty miles up the trail. I summitted on a mess of shoe goop and duct tape. That's a brand I'm not touching again.

I had what I consider the best tent on the entire trail, a Brawny Tarptent, made by Dancing Light Gear (which I learn has since gone defunct). 19 oz with a sewn-in floor and full bug protection. I love that tent. Unfortunately, like pretty much all my gear, the tent is trashed and needs serious rehab to be used again.

The Granite Gear Ozone backpack (2003 model) lasted the whole trail with no complaints. Less than three pounds but padded like a Byzantine throne.

I cooked on a little alcohol stove the whole trip with no problems. Alcohol, unlike cannister fuel, you can get anywhere, and unless you carry ungodly amounts of fuel, it's lighter than a cannister stove too. So long as you're just cooking for one person. Then physics step in, and cannister stoves become more efficient.

The Leki Ultralight Makalu trekking poles just about died as I came down from Katahdin. Their locking mechanism failed halfway down, and I had to break them up and stow them away. They needed new tips in Delaware Water Gap, but other than that, proved to be good poles. Leki promises to repair them at no cost.

The Campmor 20 degree down bag is hands down the best value in a sleeping bag anywhere. Less than two hundred dollars, 32 oz net weight, and a very cozy 20 degree rating (if you wear all your clothes in the bag this thing could easily take you to 0). A 20 degree bag is all you'll need on the AT, unless you plan on starting in February or something. You could probably go with a 32 or a 40, actually. I didn't have any trouble with down, although if it were a wetter year the down bag would have been useless- it loses all its insulating loft when it absorbs moisture.

Get a good food bag before you start. The Outdoor Research Hydrolight is a nice one. If your food bag is not waterproof it will start smelling like a dumpster, which really screws with your appetite.

Finally, this Palm TX has lasted the whole trail, and allowed me to journal from pirated signals the entire trail. Much more durable than I ever thought it would be.

Ice and Stone

Mount Katahdin, ME
Mile Last

We get up in the same way we have gotten up for hundreds of mornings. The sky is not yet light. First people up blow puffs of steam, then break out their cigarettes and pipes, filling the shelter with tobacco and pot smoke. Sleeping bags get rolled up first, to destroy the temptation of curling up in them again. Thermorests get rolled. Breakfast is broken out, and after we eat it, we go to the ranger station to fill in the form, under a gray sky of freezing rain.

If we do not return the form by the end of day, they will send Blackhawks to look for us. In this northerly climate, in this time of year at Katahdin's elevation, lightly equipped hikers can not be expected to survive above the treeline after dark. We pack daypacks with essentials, leave our big packs at the ranger station and head up.

The four thousand foot climb up Katahdin is concentrated in a one point five mile boulder scramble. I remember looking at the mountain from the wilderness, all excitement drained from me by wet and an incipient fever. Shouldn't be so bad, I thought, looking at the approach from the totally wrong angle. From the angle the AT actually uses, it is that bad. The day packs save us. We become quadrupeds on the way up, scared apes on the way down. It's a scary ridge. Concentrate too much on how high you are and you'd fall. You have to have a good sense of here-ness. This rock is here. I am here. I am going to the next rock.

After the scramble we are in the Katahdin Tablelands. It's a shockingly civilized climb from this point on, past Thoreau spring, so named for the prissy little bastard who never made it this far up the mountain. It's fantastic, like the Presidentials, but without the AMC presence, and the snackbars. On to the summit.

I break into a run for the last three hundred meters. Sprint to finish! People on the summit cheer. The run is a broken dancing thing, across rocks and scree, but it feels good. My body is so changed that when I summit I do not feel particularly winded. Holy Jesus in Heaven, I think, there's no time on Earth I've been in this shape. I've just run uphill for scores of meters and my lungs don't even notice.

It's freezing up here, literally. I avoid ice patches because they glow like polished stone. Don't step on the shiny bits. The view is incredible. I can see Avery Peak, more than a hundred trail miles back. My hands hurt. My nose really hurts. I don't feel either.

The sign. Katahdin. Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. I feel curiously empty. Another crazy ass mountain. It's done. I'm done.

Coming down it is another matter entirely. It is by far the most treacherous part of the entire trail. The alternate route down Knife Edge looks even worse, not something I'd ever want to tackle without some real climbing gear. Hopping Gautama Buddha, do I have to walk down that?

Yes you do, says the Buddha.

And then I am down. I'm coming home..

Hundred Mile Enron

The Hundred Mile Wilderness, ME
Mile: 2152

Given a certain number of hours bog-hopping, any person will get his or her feet wet. Jet Li may take a thirty hours, Deputy Colchrane of Hazzard County may take thirty seconds. It takes me three hours or so of solid root and rock hopping before it happens. Bog jumping is like dodging bullets: you only need to make the mistake once. One slip, your foot is wet. And what the hell, if one foot is wet, why not both? Then you can just tromp through the bog and stamp out miles, instead of mincing about on rocks and roots and trekking poles.

But then we have a quandary: why not just stomp into the bog at once and make the miles from the get go? Because we do not know where the bog begins and ends. When we start bog jumping, we are doing it in the optimistic hope that the bog will take less time to traverse than we can expect our reflexes to hold out.

This hooks into an interesting study on loss aversion I alluded to a few weeks ago. In it, we see people turning down a 50/50 $100 bet that offers 150 on a win and 0 on a loss. Well, it's easy to criticize people for turning it down, but maybe their intuitive distrust of the situation is a good survival strategy.

For example, the game assumes the odds stay the same throughout the play time. What if they don't? What if the odds improve later, or start bad and get better? Then other players "in the know" get ahead, which brings in a whole lot of other very unscientific feelings.

Or say that one player has 200 to start the game, and another has a grand. The guy with a grand has a much better chance of not being shut down, where the guy with 200 could get shut down after one bad break. This is why you distrust fund managers who advise retirees to take risky investments. The retirees have no more cash coming in- if it's all or nothing and you go broke, you are done.

And if the client is also your employee, you open up a whole other set of risks. Like them wanting to kill you. Slowly.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Last Town

Somewhere north of Monson
Mile 2070-ish
The Hundred Mile Wilderness is not quite so wild as one would expect. "I can drive you anywhere in the Wilderness", said Buddy, a local Trail Angel and all around good guy. So I've taken advantage of the driver to slack me through a few dozen miles. Slackpacking is the practice of hiring a driver to pick you up at the end of the day, so you don't need to carry a heavy pack. Without a pack, you can literally jog down the trail, covering twice the distance normally possible. It's nice. You're a lot more agile when running than you are when walking.
This morning we are getting dropped off for real. I probably won't be updating this journal until after I summit Katahdin, from the town of Millinocket. Less than a hundred miles left.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Avian Culture

There's not a lot of birdsong in Maine. It's a largely silent wood, apart from the rut moans of moose. It makes one reflect on the rich birdsong of the woods further south. The texture of the call and reply was something to marvel at. To be honest, the complexity of the calls seemed to indicate that a fairly high degree of information exchange was taking place. It would hint at the existence of culture.

Avian neurons are capable of some amazing feats compared to their mammalian counterparts- bird brains can do a lot more with less. Pepperberg's work with African Grey parrots has, in anecdotal evidence, shown that these amazing birds are capable of manipulating symbols through language, human language at that.

I'm reminded of how Europeans, when exposed to the oceancraft of the Polynesian voyagers, immediately assumed that the human brain was capable of innate directionfinding. Naturally these primitives were incapable of developing skills on their own. As it turned out, the Polynesians simply had incredible cultural tools to find land without compasses or maps, by analyzing wave patterns.

Researchers have been looking for magnetic sense in birds for a very long time. Some evidence has been found, some is lacking. What if the bare spots in this research is filled in with an avian culture? Parents teaching children how to read the lay of the land, how to find their way along a coastline?

It's not too farfetched, After all, we are sitting where we are because a few primates managed the same trick, and so many others.

Who we are

Northern Outdoor Lodge
Caratunk, ME
Mile 2018

Who are through-hikers?

They are:

7 retirees
An airplane mechanic
8 college graduates
An offshore crab fisherman
A data architect
5 software QA staff (plus me, I suppose, although I never really thought of myself as a QA person. I was more like a professional pain in the ass.)
3 sales executives
A restaurant tycoon
An executive at a CRS company
An IT professional at Cendant, my former employer
2 ex-Rangers
1 ex-Recon Marine
A golden retriever
An ordnance loader on an aircraft carrier
A small print shop owner
A real estate entrepreneur
A nuclear engineer on an unnamed nuclear missile submarine
One technical writer (plus me)
An adventure swimmer
A burglar
A gourmand and caterer
A lawyer for the tobacco lobby
A wildcat oilman, swordfighter, and expert in archaic weapons of all varieties (seriously)

And many, many others I did not have the pleasure of meeting. With two exceptions, they are all good people, and a few of them are exceptional people, people I would not mind knowing for a lifetime.

It's who we are.

Deep What?

Little Bigelow Shelter, ME
Mile 2002

Deep Survival endorses, somehow, the fact that survival in extreme situations is the result of the survivors' competence. I take issue with that hypothesis: the primary decider in extreme situations is luck, and lots of it. But given the hypothesis, he makes some interesting assumptions about the nature of a survivor.

If any through-hiker were to follow his rules for survival, for example, they would never, ever finish the trip. "If you're sweating in cool weather, you're working too hard". Horse puckey. You go until you can't go any further, then you find something inside that makes you go beyond that. I've hiked until I felt like the mountain was beating me, extravagantly and at leisure, like the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse beats Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona. No need to squirm or wiggle, I remember thinking. The heavy blows come all the same.

It seems that there are two personae in extreme situations- one is the survivor, and another is the acheiver. The two types have little in common. After all, survivors specialize in getting out of trouble. Acheivers specialize in getting into it.

That said, it's still a pretty good book, with some good real-life lessons in it. Survival is a very important part of acheivement after all.

As a postscript, it turned out to be a good decision to get off Washington when I did- there were three Lifeflights from the Presidentials that evening. I'm glad not to have been on any of them.


Harrison's Camp, ME
Mile 2014

Maine is flattening, and will continue to do so until I get to Katahdin. Ten days left now. I'm starting to feel, once again, as if I am on an exceptionally long vacation, rather that a slog across the width of the country. With that comes the realization I will be out of the mountains again. I'm making strategies in my head to adjust to normal life, while keeping up a high level of physical activity.

Harrison's is a paradise. It's an old fashioned wood-heated fish and game camp, with a twelve pancake breakfast. "We only feed this to through-hikers", said Tim Harrison. "It'd kill anyone else." He might be right. But the view from the dining room wouldn't kill anyone. Pierce Pond Creek cascades across a little valley, with Pierce Creek Falls visible up the ravine. Bluegrass plays softly in the background, and I take a break from stuffing my face. The fall colors are peaking too, the valleys look like they're made of stained glass.

It's shocking how little time you have as a through-hiker, to just sit and look. You're either pumping at hills furiously, eating, or sleeping. Stop and look, though, and you see heaven on earth. I remember a piece of dialogue from Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

"I'm not sure if I can take much more of this, but I don't want it to stop"

Near the beginning of this trip I thought of this line often, and now, near the end, it comes to mind again.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Middle of Nowhere

The trail in Maine is as wild as it gets. Go up on a ridge at night, there's no lights from houses or cars. In the daytime, you rarely see the tracks of roads. It's pretty amazing. Back in Virginia, you could practically read by the light coming off towns at night.


Bethel, ME
Mile 1900-ish

I reached some sort of spiritual peak in the Whites, and now, I think, it's done. I'm hiking now just to get home, to be with Monica.


Maine and Punishment

Mahoosuc Notch, ME
Mile 1899

"We're not here to protect you from the wilderness," said an annonymous MATC (Maine Appalachian Trail Club) scientist.

That attitude shows.

(My longer post on this topic and conservation was eaten by VersaMail. Sometimes I hate my Palm. A lot.)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Last State

Gorham, NH
Mile 1878

Entering Maine tomorrow, the last state of this journey. Southern Maine is supposedly even more challenging that New Hampshire, but it is a lot lower, completely below treeline until Katahdin. Staying below treeline makes things a lot less complicated.

New Hampshire has been the most rewarding - and the most challenging- state.

Less than three hundred miles to go, now.

Spin the Black Globe for Me

Somewhere in the Carters, NH
Mile unknown

The usual 2PM nausea had set in. I had not overeaten this time, and I was drinking plenty of water. It was the third three thousand foot climb in six hours. I was at a limit. Frost coated the front of my clothing, a morning's frozen breaths. Face steaming in the air, I went inside.


"You're not here," I say.
"Of course not. I'm the remembering of a remembering of a remembering of something that was probably not even real in the first place"
"That cinches it. That's something I would say"
She is flickering like a bad DVD. There's virtually no visual memory of something this far back, far back when I was intoxicated on youth, vodka, and methamphetamine. What is it saying?
The pink globe has been spinning now for a while. It's got the Run Lola Run soundtrack in it. It's a good globe, hotter than the green globe but without the fiery oblivion hiding inside the last globe, the black globe. A flickering hand pulls down the spinning pink globe. Another song now. "'So I run faster, and you caught me here' Good choice. There's no more running now, is there?"
"You'll run forever."
"My loyalty has turned, you know. Some time ago. I feel nothing. I'm getting married next year."
"That's good. That's the point. It's almost done."
In the real world, I can tell that I am stumbling, stumbling badly, reeling from rock to rock as if struck by blows, cheek on granite. In this moment I am stuck inside the crook of two downed trees, snowflakes flying from their needles, my head in their branches. I feel terrible. I crane my head at the summit far above, no trees blocking the bitter wind up here. Wind chill coming up on zero now. Inside I move to change globes. A flickering hand offers the hated orb. It spins with malice, it spins with blood.
"Spin the black globe for me"
I take it. The black globe opens, and I am lost.


There has been a simple melody in my mind since I left Georgia, and it has maddened me that I could not remember where it is from. Now I know. It's from the movie Fargo, one of the incident themes. The main theme melody arises in my mind and I realize that it is a dirge.

I am walking the aisle to a vast funeral barge, but I do not look inside. I sit in the pews. Who is inside the barge, I do not know, and I do not want to know.
A vast, furred shape sits beside me. It is a bear. It is a bear, so much bigger than I could ever imagine a bear could ever be. Vast. Its paws dig into my back, urging, go- go and see. I do not want to, but I go, because the bear is at my back.

It's me. I'm dead. I've been dead for almost a decade now.

Me as I should have been a decade ago. Cold in the embrace of oak and water, ready to float to forever, blooded and dismembered.

The shock brings me back to the real world, where my body is still climbing mountains. The spirit goes back to the bear, deep in fur and filth.
"Oh God. Oh God. What is this? How does it end?"
I climb powerfully, endlessly weeping. Ahuh ahuh ahuh. I blow snot and climb. I climb. I climb. Three miles per hour now.
"This is the Day of Nine Dogs," says the bear, "And this is the time of your trial and initiation. There is strength in despair."


This is the time to realize that the whole of my being is a hole. It has no bottom. If I turned the Earth into ash and corpses it would not be filled. It turns brutally inside with a black hole's tidal foce, tearing bits off with its spin. It is not filled with vodka, or food, or even whole mountains. It is pain and life and it ends only with my own death.

But it is also a dynamo. Its magnetic field is fantastically powerful, so long as I orbit at the right distance. This is the thing to do- orbit the dynamo inside at the right distance. Don't wander out of it on your own inertia. Don't plunge inside and burst into flame. Dance with your inner singularity, orbit. Use it. Ride it.

The barge has not gone on its way yet. I hide my dead face with another piece of brush. Sometime, sometime soon, I will set this barge alight. Or perhaps I will never come back to this place, this room inside my mind.

"Can I come back here after today?", I ask.
"There is no after today," said the bear. "Everywhere is today. Today is a facet of all your tomorrows. This is the day of shamans, the day that is not a time but a place." The animal raises itself on its hind paws, to its full height of twenty feet. "Now . . . It's time to start running."

I return to light, to the outside world, and pick up speed. The rock face flies past me. I feel very strong. It is one of the best days of my entire life. This is what they mean when they say "peak experience".

Awe and Presidents

Mt Washington, NH
Mile 1843

Most of the trail in the White Mountains looks like the kind of grade that made my mother say things like, "Get back from the edge". It's the sort of playful trail that makes us want to meet trail planners and slowly choke them to death with a topo map. "Does the phrase 'contour line' mean anything to you? What about 'featureless thirty foot cliff we are expected to levitate over'?"

When the serious stuff comes up, though, the trail is all business: big rocks arranged in huge, but manageable steps, careful blazing, and helpful signs. The ascent of Washington was like that, with helpful placards warning "IF THE WEATHER IS AT ALL DUBIOUS, GET OFF THIS MOUNTAIN OR YOU WILL DIE. SERIOUSLY."

It didn't help that, the previous night at Mitzpah Hut, I scared myself silly reading Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure in the White Mountains. This lovingly annoted volume of human misery documents the many, many souls who came to ignomious ends on the slopes of the Presidentials, people often dying yards away from rescue, blinded by panic, fog, and hypothermia. Needless to say, I had my eye very close on a cold front that was due to hit that afternoon.

"It's got a lot of energy, and you can see there's a twenty degree differential there," said a wilderness first responder at Lake of the Clouds. We rushed up Washington, menaced by the grey- black shape that was the front, zooming in from the western horizon. It was a strangely cheerful climb. The two young gazelles in front of me re-enacted Monty Python and the Holy Grail while I puffed along behind them. We got to the summit feeling quite fine, devouring the daily special meatball subs at the summit cafeteria. Feeling so fine, in fact, that we completely forgot about the front. One minute, it was fifty degrees with a twenty knot wind. Twenty minutes later the temperature had fallen to thirty degrees, and the wind chill bumped down below zero, the wind gusting beyond hurricane force. Mother of Jesus, I thought. I can barely stand in this, and there's still eight miles above treeline.

"Screw that," said one of the gazelles. He showed me an alternate route, which, although it was not the AT, took us down a lot more rapidly to the treeline. Tuck's Ravine, one of the steepest ski slopes on the planet, would take us down to Pinkham Notch, dropping three thousand feet in the first one point two miles. "I'm in," I said. We would chop off six miles from the AT, but in the circumstances (and with my own cold-weather inexperience), I felt that it was justified.

Going down Tuck's proved challenge enough. Visibility decreased steadily. The rock cairns marking the trail appeared and disappeared in the roaring clouds. At one point, out of curiosity, I stuck my pole ahead of me to see if visibility had decreased below a meter. It had. The tip of the pole appeared and disappeared. During those periods I stopped and waited to get a fix on the next cairn, then I started again, down a barely-controlled boulder crawl. When the actual ravine appeared, a relatively sheltered area from the wind and the fog, it literally took my breath away.

Sheer sides fifteen hundred feet tall fell down to a smashing alpine floor, littered with the red crosses of emergency supply caches. Water cascaded down every crevice. Somehow the trail threaded down into this awesome waste. In winter, snow builds up in this ravine up to three hundred feet in thickness, to the point where the snow layer begins acting like a glacier. Daredevils yearly come out to test their downhill skills against the snows in this ravine, their knees meeting the slope. Sometimes they die. Without snow it held the same threat. I moved slowly to the bottom.

Sleeping that night in Pinkham Notch, I reassured myself it was not cowardice that forced me off the ridge. "It was really goddamn nasty", said the gazelle that had gone on the AT, coming into the lodge after dark. Prudence is a virtue too.


Mt. Webster Cliffs, NH
Mile unknown

Fresh from the AYCE at Crawford Notch, I had cheerfully greeted my bloated belly in the same way that the Blues Brothers greeted a full tank of gas. That was an hour ago. Now I gaze at the next cliff face from my perch on this cliff, and reflect on how awkward ten slices of bacon, five eggs, six sausages, four pancakes, two english muffins, a bagel, a donut, a liter of coffee and a cup of maple syrup can make a man. How in the hell am I going to get over there?

I climb the only way possible in these sorts of boulder scrambles: jump at a point higher than yourself and hope you stick, like one of those octopus toys that came in cereal boxes when I was a kid. As I splat into the next rock, I hug the granite with as much of my body as possible, feeling the breakfast try to come up for a breath of air. Vomit would perilously lubricate the space between my body and this rock, so I swallow and burp, tentatively. Stay down there breakfast. Nurlp. Nurlp. Gurp. My body stays stuck to this rock, my breakfast begins a more civil discussion with my body, and I begin pulling myself up the "trail". I'm averaging just over 1.2 miles per frickin hour.

Some places in the Whites are harder than others. Webster Cliffs is one of those places. Doubtless harder places wait for me tomorrow, and- oh look!- a cold front! Just in time for Mt. Washington tomorrow. You know, the Windiest Place on the Planet.

I think about sedentary life and how it seems strangely attractive, just for a moment, when I'm sure I'm about to throw up my breakfast. For some reason the internet humor site Something Awful comes to mind, specifically its inexplicable Steve Perry fanfiction. Wait wait wait wait wait. Don't think about Steve Perry, I warn myself. Don't think about Steve Perry . . Don't think about Steve Perry . . Don't think about Steve Perry.

Too late. Oh crap in a hat. Now it's stuck.

"Don't Stop!


Say hello to the Whites' new theme song.

Hitchhiking Delights

Crawford Notch, NH
Mile 1829

One of the skills I've picked up over the course of this hike is the art of hitchhiking. In a lot of ways, hitching is like gambling. You start the hitch attempt sort of wanting to get to town, in this case, for an all you can eat breakfast buffet. Time goes by. You wonder if you really want the AYCE buffet, and how wouldn't it be nice to get to the hut early before the forecast heavy weather sets in? But the thing is, the more you think about that AYCE buffet, with its limitless tanks of sausage gravy and eggs and bacon and pancakes and real local maple syrup, the less likely you are to give up the hitch. It begins to look like a big jackpot that you're just around the corner from. A jackpot filled with pork grease and sugar.

And truth be told, hitching is a something-zero game. If you can give up a certain amount of time, you get odds to win the ride. Given enough time, you will win. If there was a casino with this kind of game, people would be knocking each other over to play it, right before the house closed the game.

Then again, maybe they wouldn't. In a New Yorker article on neuroeconomics and loss aversion ("Mind Games"), researchers noted that people often choose not to gamble even when the odds are overwhelmingly in their favor. For example, if they are given a game where they have a 50-50 chance of either winning a hundred fifty dollars or losing a hundred, eighty percent choose not to play, in spite of the fact that if they play it twenty times, they will end up quite a bit ahead. "The brain has a lot of competing systems in it, and they don't always say the same thing," said a researcher in the article. You're telling me, bub.

The gambling analogy is a lot better than the charisma analogy, in which every passing car is an affront to your personal dignity. No sir. It's not a popularity contest. It's just a game.

That said, thanks to all those picking up hikers off lonesome roadways, especially Jocelyn from the AMC Highlands Center. You make us- and our bellies- very, very happy.

You make our bellies very happy until we attempt to climb four thousand feet in two miles. Then we get very very sick.

The Croo

White Mountains, NH

The White Mountain huts are operated by "croos" of excited young people with the agreeable arrogance that comes from being in your early twenties and able to haul eighty pounds of provisions over any type of terrain. They are united in their desire to avoid sedentary life for as long as possible, or, usually, for as long as their families will tolerate.

Screw their families, I say. You'll have plenty of time to get your law degree in your forties when your knees are destroyed. It's not like anyone in America is having kids, anyway, which is the only reason to be making serious money. Apart from vice.

Anyway, typical posts at an AMC hut include:

Asst. Hutmaster
Asst. To the Asst. Hutmaster

I really liked "Harpooner".
They're eccentric, but, heck, up here, who isn't?

Tiger Stripes

Galehead Hut, NH
Mile 1815

The high ridges in this part of the Whites have tiger stripes going over the dorsal, white stripes of blown-down trees wherever the ridge is near the timberline. They look like sand ripples Probably when a blowdown occurs, the open space makes it more likely that more blowdowns occur in that area. The initial blowdown is more likely to occur in the same area, due to the shape of the mountains and the prevailing wind. So you get very consistent shapes. Tiger stripes.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


North Woodstock, NH
Mile 1801
The Whites are incomparable in every way. They are easily the most scenic mountains I've seen so far, and I have yet to reach the high point of the range at Mt Washington. The descent from Mt Mooselaukee (sp?) followed what was essentially one long waterfall, Beaver Brook cascading almost continuously over four thousand vertical feet.
Weather's been good, for the Whites. Temperatures on the peaks are in the twenties and thirties, with winds running around ten knots. In a place where the average wind is hurricane force, a ten knot wind is downright hospitable.
Physically, the trail here is more demanding than anything I've ever seen, but I keep underestimating my stamina. I'm doing forteens with plenty of time left in the day, even with nine thousand foot aggregate daily gains.
Zeroing out here in Woodstock to wait out this rain and my modest hangover. Some of the guys got me a bottle of my very favorite vodka, Ciroc, and I'm afraid I overindulged. The ol' liver isn't quite as capable as it used to be. It's also probably a lot less cirrhotic.
Tomorrow we'll be seeing Franconia Ridge (home of the once Old Man of the Mountain).

Monday, September 11, 2006


Hikers Welcome Hostel, Glencliff NH
Mile 1774

There are no mountains I've ever seen that rear up quite like the Whites. Four thousand feet straight up from the valley floor of a thousand feet, an uninterrupted run in four trail miles. A day in the Whites will see the typical through-hiker gain more than ten thousand feet of altitude. Everest veterans have quit in the middle of the Whites. Needless to say, mileages in this area are not great, with 10-16 miles per day being the maximum for most people.

But the sheer beauty. The tops of the highest mountains of this range are lifeless as the surface of the moon, then you plunge through krummholtz to spruce forest and then to a northern deciduous forest. And back again. I think I'm going to like it here.

I do not know how long it will take me to get through the Whites. If we get bad weather, I could be stuck at an AMC hut for days (which is OK, as they are well-provisioned). On the other side, if I get good weather, the Whites could be done in ten to twelve days. Currently the weather is good, but a little chilly. Chilly is good. Chilly means you walk a lot faster. Walking faster means you get to the next hut faster, and in the hut there is coffee.

Regardless, it looks more and more likely that I will flip up to Katahdin from somewhere in Maine, so that I do not face a closure of the mountain before I finish. As an added benefit, flipping allows me to say goodbye to all the people I have hiked with (as well as allowing me more solitude towards the end of this trip, which is something I need).

For the rest of today, all I have to do is eat, wash, wash, wash, and call home. And eat a few more times. Life can be so simple sometimes.

Friday, September 08, 2006

All Systems Go

Incredibly, this little campsite on the edge of Hanover is in the range of a wireless network. I love college towns.

Funds have been replenished. Hiking the AT does not take place in a logistic vacuum, and I've become more and more aware of this over the past few weeks, blowing days in town moving funds around. It's worth the peace of mind to just keep the necessary funds liquid, a fact of AT life I know now all too well. Lord knows I'm busy enough getting to that damn mountain before 10/15

Now, with enough liquidity to finish the trip, I feel strangely energized, like a Saturn V smoking with condensation on the pad. I've spent too long running this trip like the Soviet space program.

No more days lost in town now. All or nothing.

Burning time

Waiting in Hanover for funds to find their way to checking. Strictly speaking, I'm in Lebanon, NH, a support community of minimum wage earners that make college towns like Hanover possible. It's every bit as bad as it sounds.

With shopping done, full of my first Taco Bell I've had on the entire trail, I am struck by how incredibly ugly strip malls can make a place. They make cars happy, I suppose, but the people inside them seem to live little better than cattle in feed pens, though most dairy cows I've seen seem in better spirits and have superior medical benefits.

The people's spirits are bowed in their labor, but do they realize that they are working for things they do not need, or even want? Why buy a throwaway digital video game for your child when you can have a grocery cart race instead? I love those. Children are a great excuse to act in the way we really want to, i.e., like we have the screaming meemies.


The good point of being stuck in Lebanon is that it has many avenues for escapism, such as a great comic book store. Good comics have been a guilty pleasure of mine for years, and I readily immersed myself in Frank Miller's "300" and "Sin City", Gaiman's "Furies", and the last installation of "Y: The Last Man", which I heard may become an HBO series.

"300" in particular was very stirring, in a manly sort of way, like:

"Come home carrying your shield or come home carried on it"

Hell yeah! Who doesn't love Spartans?

"Our arrows will blot out the sun!"
"Excellent. Then we shall fight in the shade"

This is the sort of stuff that makes good chest-pounding fun.

I'll contribute:

"Death or Maine take me!"


This is another scatterbrained post, but I'll chalk it up to Spartan blood-madness. And the fact that I really want to get out of here, and into the Whites where I can really crank up the heart rate.

Goodbye Vermont

Hanover, NH
Mile 1733

For a hundred or two miles in VT, the AT shares the trail with the Long Trail or LT. This is some beautiful country. My climb up Killington was as good as any experience I've had on the trail- the peak area reminded me of the six thousand foot spruce forest back South, only the forest was much healthier. Well, except for the weather knocking all the trees down.

Killington and Peru Peak were being blasted by the low pressure zone formerly known as Ernesto, the tropical disturbance turned into driving sleet by altitude and latitude. A thirty knot wind you can feel in your blood. Wildness like that, it throbs where it brushes, like the first touch of a woman.

Vermont is gone now. The AT where it breaks east from the LT becomes boring, steep, and very, very boggy- my hiking poles sank up to the handles in muck (this is no exaggeration), and I gave up on avoiding a mud coating for the last forty miles.

The Whites are now thirty miles away. Way I see it, the Whites are a perfectly flat stretch of trail with a few five thousand foot speed bumps. And the windiest place on Earth. Lowest wind-chill factor on Earth too, incidentally. No problem. Weather looks good, and with a recent cash infusion, I can stay at the huts if I want. The huts in the Whites are basically rustic little inns, strategically placed at convenient intervals, and they won't kick you out if you're in danger of flying off in a hundred knot gust.

Incredibly, less than five hundred miles (440) to Katahdin. It's going to be very close to the October 15 deadline. It's sort of hard to believe I'm this close.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Hanover, NH
Mile 1733

Over the past decade, I have become something of a materialist. I have not always been so. I used to think that ideas shaped the larger world of human affairs, love and beauty mattered more than steel and concrete. It's a good recipe for a long term drunk. Being an idealist, that is.

On the trail, however, I begin to see that dismissing intellectual history is like rejecting language. Ideas exist because they describe reality particularly well. They are reality, they are the power behind history. Wars are fought to control the place in which the ideas are stored- minds, books, computers. They are ideas waging war on other ideas, by attacking the ground in which ideas can grow. The ideas are the competing organisms, fighting on a battleground of possible futures.

It is somewhat frightening, thinking of things like "The Reformation" and "Communism" as gigantic five-dimensional macrointelligences controlling human affairs. But as our minds become better connected- more like nodes than individuals- these idea forces take on more substance. They rear, monolith, over human affairs of the 21st century. I am not sure if their sudden solidity makes me feel better or worse about the futur

The Ring

Manchester Center, VT
Mile 1636

There's been a scenario that I've played out in my mind, a mental image that has helped me put one foot in front of the other for these hundreds of miles. In it, I meet Monica on Katahdin and ask for her to be my wife. It seemed a suitable action-hero way to propose. The accompanying snow and wind would also provide a useful analogy to matrimony to myself. This mental image was a warm globe that I could rely on to force me up the next thousand, three thousand, six thousand feet.

What actually happened, we decided to go on a day hike during her visit in Sheffield. It was more of a rain hike. We strolled up a moderate grade to a waterfall. As we gently lowered ourselves down a slope to an overlook, Monica turned suddenly around with a tiny box in her hands. She opened it. Inside was a ring. "So- will you marry me?", she asked.

What could I say? She's been with me through my mood swings, my alcoholism, my limitless capacity for fecklessness and God knows what else, not least of which is this trip- an enforced six month absence from which she receives no physical promise of security, except for my word over the phone that I have become the best man I have ever been in my entire life.

For the past five years, she has been the warm, glowing center my life has revolved around. There's nothing I am that would be possible without her. I love her.

For a split second, I wondered how I was going to explain this gender flip to my family- Monica proposing to me, after all. I decided that wasn't that important right now. It's the 21st Century, after all.

All these things flew through my mind in that moment. "Yes . .yes", I said, as I drew her to me.

We hugged for a long time, there in the rain, me whispering, yes, I will marry you, yes. I glow in the remembering of that moment.

It's a moment I will carry with me for the rest of my life. The ring is titanium- a hiker's ring- virtually weightless, but shining on my finger, a reminder of the moment.

As it turned out, my proposal idea couldn't have happened, as Monica has a board meeting to attend on my summit date. We might have otherwise ended up proposing to each other at the same time. Although this would have been sort of humorous, I can't think of a better way for it to have happened than the way it did.

I'll make my own proposal bid later, in the year we have before a marriage date. It'll be a good one, at a random moment (don't let your guard down sweetheart). During a good hurricane maybe. Something powerful, something as unpredictable as it is inevitable. In other words, something like love itself.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Blogger's system is being modified. There might be a bit of a delay before I can post again.
Since I was thinking of sending the Palm home with Monica this weekend, this is not too much of a crisis.


Dalton, MA
Mile 1555

The feeling of suddenly being under a closing deadline is a strange one after so many months of just walking. It's amazing I used to spend every hour of my life under not one or two but scores of closing deadlines, each one flexible in either direction.

To be honest, I miss stress. Not the stress of meetings, but the stress- and reward- of doing a task well, under pressure, in less time than thought possible. It's what I call "good" stress. It makes life red-blooded and fun. In kung-fu movie terms, you start the day with five masked men trying to feed you into a Troy-Bilt chipper/shredder, and you end the day with one guy in a laundry hamper, one in the cement mixer (legs hanging out amusingly), and three on the messy end of the Troy-Bilt. You go home, wipe your pants off and get ready for the next day. Occasionally you have to put one of the masked men in your trunk to work on at home, but that's okay, then it's a revenge-kung-fu movie. You killed my free time! You're gonna die!

As everyone learns, however, doing things successfully under deadline leads to unpleasantness. In the surreal corporate world, if you are doing things quickly, you don't have much to do. Your tasklist quickly grows off the monthly calender and onto the multi-year calender. You have to decide which tasks to do half-ass, and which tasks to be done seventy-percent ass, and which ones to ignore completely. You have to decide which boss sits higher on the totem pole, and which boss everyone ignores. To do this, you get involved politically, to determine whose horse to tie yourself to. This is what I call "bad stress".

No matter how rewarding the job is, if there is too much bad stress in it, the job stops becoming rewarding very fast. This is because dealing with bad stress is something usually called "management". It's why managers make that mad money. When you are doing a job and find too much bad stress puddled around your feet, you start asking yourself, "Where in the hell are those high-priced janitors to clean this crap up?". Seven times out of ten you can see it's a lot less trouble to just stop working and wait for management to eat itself, since you'll get in trouble working on anything any one person assigns you.

In a lot of ways, an employee wants to work at a task just like he or she wants to work at an email application. The employee does not want to craft MIME, or hard code IP addresses, or solder wires, just to send an email. Similarly, an employee does not want to go to management meetings, finance meetings, operational meetings, and work Project Plans just so he can write ten lines of SQL. He just wants to do the job. Like a good email application, good management hides all the bad stress and lets an employee get on with his kung fu ass-kicking.

Making a good manager, however, is a lot more complicated than making a good email client. Being a good manager is probably something a lot more like being a good athlete than being a good coder, or artist, or writer. It's confidence, moxie. It's panache. It's some unquantifiable quality that we don't have a lot of these days, something no software can replicate, and which is detectable only by others with some of that same quality.



Near Mt Greylock, MA
Mile 1572

When I think of mountains, I think of the southern Appalachians, where steeper generally means higher, and flowing water slows as it gets lower. This sense of the land is no longer applicable. This far north, deep inside the old icesheet, swamps and bogs can appear on mountaintops, and the lower slope of a mountain can be a sheer cliff. Ridges run helter skelter, completely unaware of the streams running around them. It is an environment shaped not by the running water of the present but by forces of the distant past. I sometimes yearn for the stream-shaped mountains of my childhood vacationland, but reject the cowardice this implies, the infantility. This place is new, it holds a mystery, and the mystery is growing stronger, as the mountains again begin reaching for the sky. It is the labyrinth that dreams.

The past- the invisible, implacable past- is what shapes these northern lands. I wrestle with both the ghosts of the land and the ghosts inside my own mind. They know each other, they work together. These are what frighten me about this place: the dead powers. The north is their place.

At the end of this thing I must pass inside myself and emerge whole, shaman and scholar. This thing is big. I don't know if I can do this. I am so frightened I can taste iron on the back of my throat. Season of ghouls.

The closing months are upon us. Summer is over. Fall is coming, and in Maine, winter is on its very heels. A golden time, then the day of trial. It is almost here. They are coming. It's time to meet them.

"There is only ever one day, and that is the Day of Nine Dogs."

Cabin of Rest

Upper Goose Pond Cabin, MA
Mile 1535

JoAnne, the caretaker of the Upper Goose Pond Cabin, is a quiet, kindly schooteacher who is somewhat older than my parents. She rows to the cabin to take care of the place and of the various hikers.

I can't get over the physical shape of her and the various older people I've met on the trail. I always thought, hell, sixty and you're done. But she's got shoulders big as mine, lifts forty or fifty gallons of water up a couple of hundred feet from the pond each day. She looks ten, twenty years younger than her age.

I am incredibly grateful to Joanne and AMC for keeping up Goose Pond Cabin. I have been hiking with a pretty light food bag, and the summer sleep system I have been using since Sugar Grove VA is just not warm enough to let me sleep well. The cabin has piles of warm comforters, and mattresses, a big fireplace with a chimney that passes through the bunkroom, and a pancake breakfast. It seems as good a place as any to hold on a day for Monica to get to Dalton. Besides, if I hurried into town I'd be stuck there, anyway, bleeding money, sharing a motel room with six other people. Here in the cabin it's a bit more like home.

Oh, and now complete with hollering children. They're busy tying each other into the hammock. Oh God, I haven't laughed like this in years. Better than cable.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Bear Dance

Connecticut has turned out to have some of the more "friendly" bears I've seen on the trail. Looks like the infamous Jersey Death Bears are migrating north.

At Pine Swamp, I heard something jostling my food bag, tied in a remote branch near the shelter (I was tenting because of the bugs). Went outside, surprised the bear off the tree, where it was hanging upside down trying to figure out how to reach the food bag. Returned to bed, only to be awakened hours later by the TWANG of one of the tent lines springing free, and a furry moonlit sillouette on the tent wall. "WAAUUUGGHH!", I said. "Snurt!", said my would-be tent mate, followed by the sound of something very big running off a cliff. Crunch, run, crash . . . . CRASH! Thump thump thump. I slept like hell the rest of the night. "Not again", I said to myself. Do I give off some kind of smell that attracts these things?

A few days later, I saw a bear on the trail near Great Falls of the Housatonic. I did the usual, maybe still a little jumpy from the Pine Swamp of Horrors episode. "RAAAAUUGH!", I yelled, waving my poles around. He sauntered off the trail thirty yards, allowing me to pass. He gets promptly back on, and Mother of God, starts following me. "WAAURRRR!", I yell, a nice spurt of adrenaline allowing me to heft a torso size rock and blast it against a rock face. It shattered into a million tiny pieces with a very satisfying crash, which did the trick. The bear turned tail and ran away very quickly. Terrified, I hurried into town.

Bluffing bears is a show-act, but when it's following you on the trail there's some very real fear and anger there (let me sleep you furry clown from hell!). It's still all a show. Aside from the pepper spray, there isn't the least thing I could do against the speed and power of these animals. I can pretend, and that's about it. Thank God bears are horribly nearsighted. It makes me wonder how many tribal costumes and dances are based on scaring away predators. Maybe I should get a big shaman's wig and mask, until I get through Connecticut anyway, and dance the Bear Dance before I go to bed.

Damn Yuppies

Salisbury, CT
Mile 1485

Salisbury CT is an evil cash-sucking vampire of a town, but it's the first place since Vernon NJ where I could get a shower for less than a hundred dollars.

Isopropyl alcohol is five dollars. A loaf of bread is four. This is insane. What do all these people do, making this kind of money in the middle of nowhere? More importantly, how do you get rich in the first place if you are willing to spend four dollars for a loaf of bread? If I was a multi-millionaire I'd be damned if I would set foot in a store that charges those kind of prices and STILL doesn't have a cheese selection worth a damn. Not only are they yuppies, but they are uncultured yuppies.

Blasting off this morning for the Birdcage in Dalton MA, 75 miles up the trail. The Birdcage is a "hostel" run out of the house of one very nice Ron Bird, who also runs the Shell station. I will be meeting up with Monica again around then, for a good visit to see me off into the endgame of this thing.

Between here and there we are finally going over the 2000 foot contour, for the first time in a couple of hundred miles. The mountains of Massachusetts loom impressively, unlike the tame hills we've been zooming over.


Mile Slave

NY/CT border
Mile 1441

One through hiker- I'll call him Freight- is one of those type-A folks cleverly disguised as a hippie. He's very Deadhead laid back, but push the right buttons, and watch the hell out. I saw this in person in an exchange with a not terribly friendly local.

LOCAL (leering at hiker girls): I bet it's like a big party up in the woods, right? Like Woodstock.
FREIGHT: Yeah, it's just like Woodstock, except you pull twenty miles every day in the snow, rain, heat, mud, over these goddamn mountains, and rest maybe one day in fourteen. You want to hike this hill today? (Freight offers the local his hiking poles)
LOCAL: (looks appalled) No!
ME: But it's still a lot of fun! Ha ha! Boy!

My attempt to break the tension proved futile. But Freight was missing the idea that this whole thing is a voluntary endeavor. It doesn't feel like it sometimes, but when it stops being fun it's time to slow down.

Unfortunately, you can only slow down so much. They do close the mountain at the end of this thing on October 15. At some point, every through hiker becomes a mile slave, and it's just something you have to accept. It takes grit, but by now we have plenty of that, mixed with the various foul effluvia coating our bodies.


Telephone Pioneers Shelter, NY
Mile 1430

New Jersey was as far south as the glaciers managed to come. The two thousand foot thick sheet of ice parked there, scraping out Sunfish Pond and God knows what else, while the freeze and thaw cycle turned Pennsylvania into rubble (which it remains to this day).

Here in New York, the ice sheet was more robust, and the differential torque between the area under the ice and the area over the ice sheared off the mountaintops over the two thousand foot contour. As the sheet retreated, the wandering tops and associated rubble ground their way to a halt on the remains of the mountains, like Noah on Mt. Ararat. These geological formations have an assortment of amusing names like "erratic" and "drumlin", but they are caused by the same underlying phenomenon, ice grinding, lifting.

It's worth noting that ice ages can come and go with incredible rapidity; from a geological point of view, climactic changes are practically instantaneous- ice cores in Greenland indicate that the planet once went from glacial to interglacial in five years. Seven meters of sea level in five years . . . thoughts to keep you warm at night. But then again, so does the thought of a greater trans-Caucasus war. Or, if you are a real cold sleeper, both.

Anyway, in terms of hiking, all this means that from north Jersey on through, you have a bunch of very smooth, easy hills topped with hundred foot boulder piles that apparently dropped from the sky. The AT, laid out by consummate sadists, wanders through this zone gleefully. One formation was known to us only as "The Lemon Squeezer". No more information was provided until we "walked" through it.

Moving north into New York the trail grows more mild, however, probably because we have entered an area where the trail maintainers are not quite so mischievous. Soon it won't matter how mischievous the trail maintainers are, because we will be above the timberline, and everything will be sere and wild.

The weather is quite cool, and I take my time to enjoy the rolling climbs and steady pace. Not many town stops (that anyone can afford) in this area, and I miss Monica a great deal, more than I can say in this limited and rather public space.

But if I rush too much, all I will remember is missing and torment and sweat and blood. Lifting my head and seeing the wild reminds me that hiking the AT is something that is only done once. Life outside.