Moving Forward, Looking Back

August 3, 2018


Almost at the Tableland - view looking down to where I'd come from
It feels like the time has just flown since I finished my AT thru hike. After Millinocket, I met my wife and in-laws at the beach in North Carolina’s Outer Banks for a week.

The trail continued to provide in Millinocket. A kind thru hiker named Shaggy from a prior year gave Frank (the triple crowner from The Netherlands) and myself a ride to the Bangor airport from Millinocket. As soon as I got through security, I got a text alert that my connecting flight from Newark to Norfolk was canceled, but luckily I was able to hop a flight that was leaving within the half hour…to Chicago! Yep, I flew west and waited at the Chicago airport for much of the day before I could head east again. In the end though, it all worked out – I walked into the rental house in the Outer Banks at midnight, just in time to scare the beejesus out of my wife as she had fallen asleep. I guess it will be an adjustment for her too! She’s had a house and bed to herself for four and a half months.


The Chicago airport was a plunge back into reality for me. The first things I noticed when I exited the plane were that it was noisy, there were people everywhere, and no one seemed to care about each other, simply pushing by to handle their individual agendas. I noticed the distinctive lack of fitness and obesity that seem to be more and more common in our society today. Consumerism was everywhere – shops, shops, and more shops. Some people were dragging piles of luggage, carrying what and going where I have no idea. The whole scene seemed absurd and maniacal. I felt like I was waltzing through some kind of insane asylum where everyone had escaped their individual rooms and were now running about, each living out his and her own individual delusions in concert. It was culture shock to the max! I have experienced this before. I spent roughly 4 years in China and certainly felt restless upon re-entry back in 2003, but for different reasons. And, of course, when I have taken longer vacations from work in the past, particularly if traveling overseas, return has often greeted me with microcosms of culture shock. This was a little different. This time I felt more like Keanu Reaves in The Matrix. I had taken the blue pill. There was no going back. I knew in my heart that I could not just fold back and erase the lessons the trail had taught me, and the freedoms it had bestowed upon my consciousness. As such, I felt like an alien in the crowd, and it would take some time for this feeling to mitigate to where it is today, which is that of an alien who blends in a bit more, but is convinced and determined that he will not return back to some of the thinking and behaviors that trapped him before this grand adventure began. As far as I am concerned, this is a good thing – a positive result! I chose the picture for this journal entry not just because I love the view looking down Katahdin on the climb up, but also because of the caption to the picture and the metaphor therein.


The week at the beach with Gillian and family was awesome. My legs and feet hurt badly, to the extent that walking on any hard surface without shoes was (and still is, to a lesser degree now) quite painful. We spent most days just relaxing on the beach, enjoying the sea air and waves, catching up on life, telling stories, and getting re-acquainted. I tried to temper my appetite and my craving for processed sugar, but it was a losing battle. My week was peppered with the joy of getting texts from trail friends summiting Katahdin and completing their own hikes. I had to get used to hearing my real name again. I will admit that whenever someone calls me “Hungry Cat” now, it sends synapses of joy through my brain. To me, it will always be a name that represents so much more than just a trail “nickname.” It’s everything I worked for, all of the learnings and lessons the trail bestowed upon me, the people I met along the way and their kindness, and the commitment to confronting fears and making changes – a self-made promise to really live life. Hungry Cat has no limits. Hungry Cat is free from the baggage of the past.  Hungry Cat makes do with less, and enjoys that. Somehow, those two words, that silly nickname, became a chrysalis of promise, hope, strength, kindness, spirituality, and adventure. My trail name contains the highest peaks and the deepest valleys, the winter rains and the warm summer fields. It reminds me that I can be whole; that I don’t have to feel or be “stuck.” I can meet adversity and live in gratitude.


Life at home continues on. I have not even started looking for work, or worrying about what I will do next. I am going to take an “easy does it” approach there. I am lucky that I have time to ease back into things and think about that gradually. I am trying to get back into running, but my feet still hurt and my legs are still stiff, so it is a slower process than I expected. I have not been hiking since I came back to Atlanta, though once in the Outer Banks I walked to the grocery store with my pack and hiked home with the groceries J. I’m sure I will get out on a trail soon.  I was very excited when Gillian and I returned from the beach and little Lucy (our cat) remembered me! I was so worried that she might not, or that she had bonded with my wife and would just ignore me. We have been blessed with the best of both outcomes – she did bond with my wife, but now she just loves us both and spends more time being affectionate with Gillian than she did before I left, which is great! I think Gillian is slowly getting used to having me around the house again too, and we have been enjoying just doing normal things together again. She also grew quite the garden while I was gone!!


I’ve been spending some time thinking about future adventures, mostly for Gillian and I. I won’t deny that I am interested in other long trails, and have been thinking a lot about the PCT here stateside and the Te Araroa in New Zealand. A hiker friend also broached the idea of finishing up the Long Trail in Vermont this year, since we have already hiked about 100 miles of it. I’m thinking about that as well. For the immediate future though I’m just going to enjoy getting back to some normalcy here at home. I picked up a few books, I have some house projects to work on, some travel day-dreaming to do, and I get to enjoy the normal day-to-day with family and friends, which is great! I already had one “plumbing adventure” with my father – the joys of home ownership, a special train in itself! I’m slowly managing to tame my appetite, but definitely looking forward to stepping up my exercise game quite a bit as my legs and feet continue to heal. I hope to continue writing in other capacities now that I won’t have my daily trail journal to maintain. Next week I have to report for jury selection, so I may find myself serving on a jury soon.


While I was hiking the trail, I took a little snippet of video almost every day. Most of it was just of the trail and the views. I wanted to put together a short compilation so that I could share the trail in a visual way with friends and family, as well as have it as a memory for myself. I managed to finish this and included some photos as well, particularly of friends, hiker acquaintances, and Trail Angels I met along the way. If you would like to watch this, I uploaded it to my video section here on Trail Journals, and here is a direct link to view it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7qg9m362GoM. Of course, it is set to some of the music that I thought about and wrote about in some of my journal entries. Putting this video together reminded me, yet again, of how grateful I am for the people I met along the way who really made the journey magical.


I can’t thank everyone enough for the support here on Trail Journals! I really do appreciate each and every entry into my guest book – they have been a mix of fun, memorable, supportive, uplifting, hilarious, kind, and inquisitive, all of which I appreciate! I had another request for a final commentary on gear that I used during the hike, so I added some gear notes as a post script to this journal entry.  What a journey this has been! I will continue to check back from time to time in case anyone still wants to sign the guest book or has any questions for me about gear or otherwise. I do not know what the road in front of me will bring, or where it will lead. Much like the trail, I guess that is half the fun of life! I do know that I am going to try and keep a positive attitude and outlook, and to live every day to its fullest. Perhaps I will write about some of my future adventures. I have really enjoyed the separate journey of trying to describe for other people, in my own twisted way, what I am experiencing. If you have enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it, then I guess I have met what became a goal of sorts. I hope you all enjoy your own journeys and trails through life, whether they lead into the woods, or through other places. If you are trying to get up the courage to have your own adventure, or if it seems like it is too hard to make it fit into life, then I would encourage and challenge you to get into action. Only YOU can make it happen! It won’t just happen for you. Dreaming and planning will never be a substitute for doing. The hardest part for me was making that actual leap. Once I left my job and took the action to set myself on a course of committing to the trail, the rest was quite easy and enjoyable! Of course, my path was a bit drastic. Not every adventure needs to be a thru hike, or requires leaving gainful employment. Define your own adventures and live your own dreams!


Life is an adventure; life is a trail. Enjoying the present day is the easiest way for me to continue the adventure, or to start a new one. I don’t know what excitement may come in the future, but I know what I am going to do right now. Right now, I’m going to go for a little walk with my wife and see where it leads….


Postscript:

#1 – Gear Review. Here are a few final comments on some of the major gear areas where I either made changes or have strong opinions.


Pack – I started with an Osprey and changed out to a Zpacks Arc Haul in Virginia. I am so glad I switched! The Osprey was fine, but it was heavier and noisy and held a lot of water weight when it rained. I loved the lightweight, waterproof, quiet design of the Zpacks. It was totally worth the money!


Clothing – Overall I was happy with my clothing choices. In the end, I was hiking in the same smartwool T-shirt and running shorts with built-in underwear every day. I loved the wool t-shirt because it could get filthy and it never really smelled that bad! I liked the one piece of the shorts with built-in underwear. In addition to these items, I carried a smart wool quarter zip long sleeve shirt and a pair of Prana water-wicking pants to the end. I also kept a light silk base layer top for cooler higher altitude nights.  I would change this and probably ditch the pants for lighter weight tights, and ditch the quarter zip smart wool for something like a button down lightweight Columbia long sleeve shirt. Why? The wool was too heavy for when I was awake, and I had the light base layer for sleeping if I needed it. If I had utilized a button-down long sleeve shirt I probably could have gotten rid of the base layer top as the weather got warmer because I still had my precipitation jacket for warmth, as well as my puffy. The pants were just bulky and I hardly wore them. Tights would have been more versatile. I carried my rain pants until the end. I would definitely keep my rain jacket, but next time I will ditch my rain pants in warm weather. They are just too hot to deal with, and I didn’t really need them as a warmth layer. They were too warm to be versatile once the weather heated up, but were great during the winter and I would carry them again in the winter in a heartbeat! As for my head, I loved my buff and will always bring that on future trips. I also loved hiking with my mesh hat – it became a must-have item for me! I finished the hike with two pairs of socks and sock liners and that combination worked well for the entire hike.


Cook System  - My stove worked fine (Snowpeak Litemax). In the future I might try the even lighter BRS, but my Snowpeak was fine. I liked my Snowpeak 700mL cookpot as well, but the lid drove me crazy. The lid just sits loose in the mesh stuff sack, and so it would always slide around. Eventually the mesh sack broke, and so the lid would get loose in my pack. I will probably look for a strong rubber band to replace that. I’m interested in the Titanium BOT  cookpot with the top that screws on, both so I don’t have to think about the lid getting loose and also for cold soaking. But, for now, the Snowpeak will be fine if I find a band to contain the lid. Cook pouch – I would use this again. It was cheap to make and I used it most nights so that I didn’t have to clean my cookpot. I would NOT bring a pot cozy again. I made one and brought it, but stopped using it because I wasn’t cooking in my pot. Also, it was only really useful for the winter anyway. I nixed it eventually. Lastly, I am interested in experimenting with homemade alcohol stoves, and may work on one of those soon. I will thank Lucy in advance for her contribution of a cat food can to get started.


Sleeping bag – I used the same Western Mountaineering 20 degree ultralite bag the entire trip. It was too hot on the warm nights, but I just opened it up. I love this bag. If I could get this performance in a lighter bag, I would try it.


Footwear – No boots. Probably not ever again! If I were solely doing some kind of snow expedition, I might look at boots, but otherwise they are a firm “no” for me. Trail runners were much better at keeping my feet cool and comfortable, as well as drying out. I liked the popular Altra Lone Peak 3.5 and went through two pairs, but ultimately I wished I had hiked more in the Altra Olympus 3.0s. I hiked the last 150 miles in the Olympus model and LOVED it. It is much more padded than the 3.5s, but has a lot of the same great features (breathability, gaiter trap, zero drop). The 3.5s just weren’t enough cushioning for me on the Pennsylvania rocks, and then again not enough for the rocks in NH and ME. So far I’m a fan of the Olympus and plan to continue hiking in them to see how they continue to perform. Camp shoes – I ditched my crocs and had no camp shoes for a while, then regretted that when I got to Rangely, ME and my feet were wet, but I had no alternative footwear for town. I picked up a $2 pair of flip flops there and those worked great! I think they will be my go-to camp and town shoe. They are much more compact than crocs, lighter, and I used them to ford a few streams without issue.  Lastly, I loved wearing gaiters and they have become a “must” for me. Dirty Girl Gaiters all the way!!!


Water filtration  - The Sawyer squeeze (not the mini! Don’t do that to yourself…the flow rate is painful) worked great for me. I used the CNOC reservoir bag and LOVED it. I didn’t have any issues until the bag developed a pinhole towards the end. It was odd and CNOC had FANTASTIC service and sent me another one on the trail. That one then had a hole as well and they sent me yet another one. The pinholes were odd and I haven’t heard of other folks having this problem. Otherwise, the bags were great and much better than Sawyer. Towards the end of the hike I kept one 1L Smartwater (or Lifewater) bottle with clean water and one with dirty water that I screwed my filter directly into. This enabled for quick gathering while hiking, but a way to have clean water in a bottle if I wanted to use electrolytes or some kind of drink additive. I would do this again. Along with my CNOC water bladder, I had a total carrying capacity of 4L. Most days I tried not to hike with more than 1L at any given time.


Tent – the Big Agnes Flycreek HVUL2 was ok. It wasn’t the best in high wind, and I didn’t like Big Agnes’ (or REI’s) service (or lack thereof) when I had an issue with the shock cord inside the tent poles breaking. In the future, I would like to try going lighter and using a single-walled tent like the Zpacks Duplex. They are expensive though….


That’s it for a gear rundown! The one thing I learned was that doing without and hiking with less weight almost always outweighed the comfort of having whatever item it was that I didn’t absolutely need. A lighter pack really helped me enjoy the trail that much more! If you are trying to decide whether to bring something, think about whether you really truly need it. Does it have multiple uses? You’ll be walking 90% of the time. Is it worth carrying it through the 90% of the time you’re hiking if you’re only using it occasionally? Consider these questions to help yourself make gear decisions. I definitely plan to try to keep getting lighter and lighter as I move forward. In some ways, that is a metaphor for the rest of my life as well. The lighter my “pack,” the happier I seem to be!

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