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.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Passing an increasing number of southbounders (or sobos) on the trail. They started in early or mid-June at Katahdin, which means I should be able to finish in two months or so. Possibly faster, since the sobos were on fresh legs when they started, while I will be entering the challenging north with two thousand miles on these legs.

It's heartening- I might not have to flip up. I can make it straight through.

Here we go.

Garden State

Vernon, NJ
Mile 1348

Incredibly, New Jersey is gorgeous. The trail is well-graded and comparatively rock-free, with a few exciting climbs thrown in to keep the daydreaming hiker awake and focused. Views from the ridgeline are like the best of Virginia, but without the endless subdivisions (which are, for the most part, unoccupied, according to the laments of a local real estate agent). This part of NJ seems almost entirely undeveloped, more wild than anything since the far South. It's peculiar. I expected mountains lost in an ocean of urbanism.

The people are also surprisingly friendly. Folks in PA were . . . Odd. It didn't take much to remind you that you walked through the home state of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Flavoring all these observations, of course, is the fact that the weather has suddeny turned Olympian. Highs are down in the eighties, with colder weather rolling in over the course of the next week. Cooler temps mean fewer stops and a faster pace. With luck, I can get into some higher mountains by the time this cool snap is done with.

Water Bottles

Delaware Water Gap PA
Mile 1280

There's a finality in filling up the water bottles. It's the first stage of departure. It represents the most crucial of my supplies, the one thing I need out there. With water I could make it to the next town, though hungrily. Filling the bottles is the definitive statement to myself: I am filling up this most precious commodity and walking on. It's hard when a town has been so generous.

The church hostel potluck was everything I imagined. It was held in the fine old Christian tradition of "if we act really nicely, the heathen will get curious". They were wonderful people, and we talked about the Presbyter movement for hours, and whether or not the people of northern England and Wales were ever truly Catholicized. They were probably Presbyters from the get go, considering that the Arian missions frequently converted congregations to have elected clergy. Then we talked about Arius and Fox and all sorts of good things, and snorted at some of the people that pass for Christians these days. I wished them good luck in their mission. They wished me good luck to God.

A Changing World

Delaware Water Gap, PA
Mile 1280

A week of record temperatures has afficted this area of Pennsylvania near the NJ state line. In a few generations this forest will die, in fact has already started dying, as the interglacial period continues into its warming period. Whether or not the warming is human-related, it (and the impending energy crisis) will be a test of how well we have built our culture. Can we adapt in a changing world? Can people live and do without, or will they savage each other for the last pint of Ben & Jerry's? I like to think that people are generally nice, but I'm pragmatic enough to steer clear of the freezer section.

In any case, this is the hardest part of the trail so far. The grade is gradual (although the chaotic landsape of sofa-sized boulders makes things interesting), but hundred degree temperatures combined with Florida-esque humidity makes walking a torment, and dangerous. Pouring sweat, even when sitting, combined with very sparse watering holes, means you have to slow down, or risk suffering through a voluminous textbook of heat-related maladies. The heat is much worse for you than the cold, it seems.

Well, that's not quite true, but death by cold is quicker, more merciful. The heat toys with you like a physical interrogation. It makes you think that YOU are the weak one, YOU are the one so out of shape that you need to stop every hour. I'm not making you lie down on that cold rock, says the heat. You're the one that's stopping. Like a prisoner, the hiker must always remind himself that the heat is responsible, not himself. The heat is what makes him weak and nauseated- the heat makes it necessary to cool the body core against a rock. The heat is the enemy. It is trying to trick me. It will not defeat me.

In spots the mosquitoes are as bad as anything in the Everglades. We are not even in the serious bug country yet, the swamps of New Jersey and New York. Staying in shelters is no longer an option; sleep would be impossible without bug netting. Between the bugs and the awesome heat, I feel like I am doing a dramatic interpretation of At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Any moment I expect curious Yanomamo to peer through the tent door, speaking strange words and asking for cargo.

Tonight the heat is supposedly going to break a little bit. Until then, I will be at the DWG's hiker potluck, sponsored by the local Church, where locals bring vats of food and watch in horrified fascination as we eat. We eat a lot. There's no polite way to say just how much is a lot, but I'd like to say that I have never before seen "horrified fascination" so clearly expressed in people's faces.

Speaking of which, the Sycamore Grill here in town has a hamburger that has knocked the current #1 trail burger, the Hillbilly Burger at the Barn Restaurant in Sugar Grove, VA. The current top three trail burgers are now:

1) The Bar Angus at the Sycamore Grill, DWG PA
2) The Hillbilly Burger at The Barn in Sugar Grove VA
3) The Wesser Burger at the NOC in Wesser NC

Congratulations to the Bar Angus!

Pardon this somewhat scattered log entry, but I daresay that the heat is affecting my concentration as an essayist. Time to loiter somewhere air-conditioned!