Monthly Archives: June 2012

leaving a trail of broken hearts behind in TN June 25th

June 26th

Cranked out eleven miles from Erwin on the 25th -that zero day was exactly what I needed! found a great tentsite where I had  a view of twinkly lights low, and a cool breeze blew in overnight. Used just the netting, not the fly. Wonderful.I did not want to get out of my warm sleeping bag.


Was able to climb Unaka without stopping to remove pack. a good sign. I am within two days of Roan  Highlands. got  a mini lesson on the botany of rhododendrons yesterday.

I will write later about the incident with the handgun  in Erwin. It marred what was otherwise a fine visit. it had nothing to do with the hikers, the hostel or the trail. bottom line is: I am safe and still having fun!


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advice for the beginner Hiker on the Appalachian Trail

sash, folks, this is a Boy Scout Merit badge sash, with the 21 Merit Badges I earned to become an Eagle Scout. Troop 4 of Marlboro, MA, Algonquin Council BSA, 1969.

the dawn of time

I have backpacked since joining the Boy Scouts ( 1966…) and many of the things that I take for granted seem to fade into my own psyche until I see somebody else struggling with the obvious elements of how to have a successful trip. Yes, folks, at present I am old and fat, but I still know how to have a good time and to feel comfortable when hiking….. I suppose this is because I have had my share of terrible camping experiences, and learned from each time.


On this present trip I got up close and personal with a few hikers that were totally new to this sport. I could have stayed my distance, experiencing the schadenfreude of their trip, but I tried to be useful without being too directive. I do have some advice, before you go.


first and foremost, if you have never backpacked, be advised that this is more than just a walk in the woods, especially if it is for a multi-day trip where you land in a different spot each evening. you need to deal with weather, terrain, your own physical conditioning, how much to put in the pack, minor injuries/stresses/strains, nighttime critters etc.

I introduced my two daughters to hiking at an early age, and this is us on a “mountain” of Acadia National Park, Maine. the one of the right later did a through-hike. The one on the left has section-hiked with her sister (the Mahoosucs, 2001, the Bigelows, 2002; NY, 2010)  and also with me (part of Ver Mont).


The intrepid team later known as “Snafu,” “Whoopie Pie,” and “Catch-Up” on a summit after a daring climb in Acadia National Park. Note that the protective equipment consists mainly of sweaters hand knit by grandma.

For a beginner, I recommend the book “How to hike the A.T. = the nitty gritty details of a long distance hike” by Michelle Ray.  This is a good introduction to the wide variety of problems and situations you will encounter, written in a readable style. (Be advised, there is no connection between myself and the author and this is an unsolicited testimonial).


One thing I found myself saying to a few of the beginners I met this week, was that to take a hike on the Appalachian Trail is akin to joining a cult. There are certain practices and etiquette that are followed. All the equipment that is used is specialized, more than you would think. So – among other things, if you get new stuff such as a backpacker’s stove or a water filter, make sure you have gotten it out of the box and learned how to use it before the actual hike. For example, if a backpacker’s stove is being used at a picnic table, any person sitting nearby is at risk of a burn or scald if it tips over….. not like at home!

when you plan a menu, try the recipes at home so you will know what to expect. camp in your backyard, at the very least.

Resist the urge to buy buy buy

when you first go out, you will get a lot of new stuff. soon you will discover that you didn’t actually need half of it! what you put in the pack is what you will carry. for example, if you are going on a seven day trip you do not need seven pairs of underwear. all you need is two – the one you are wearing, and the other pair which you wore yesterday and which has now been washed and is hanging on your pack to dry.

two most important pieces of equipment:

1) boots get them two sizes larger than your usual shoe size.

2) hip strap on the backpack. the weight of the pack should never be on the shoulders.

3) nowadays I would add a third:  hiking poles.

you are not conquering the wilderness

you are living in a different sense of harmony with natural elements.

it’s a marathon, not a sprint

I met two guys from a church group who said that the first day, they chose the same pace they had trained on using a treadmill at 24-hour fitness – i.e., fifteen-minute miles. four miles per hour. at that rate they could have gone ten miles in 2 1/2 hours.

oooooh nooooo….. after a half hour with packs going up hill these two newbies told me they flopped to the ground and figuratively, died. Then they had the good sense to laugh at themselves and ask what were we thinking? they recalculated a new pace. and got over their pride.

for me? I plan on 1.25 miles per hour ( including breaks). On those occasions when I go 1.75 miles per hour with a pack, I know I am zooming along!

things never to bring

an axe. too heavy

frying pans or kitchen cook ware. also too heavy

anything that is heavy.

an expensive folding knife. you generally shouldn’t expect to be gutting any deer on a backpacking trip…… likewise, leave the “heat” home. the ammo is – too heavy!

a folding chair. yes, there are legends of guys who actually brought these……it’s been done, but don’t bother. you can sit on a rock or a tree stump or a log. trust me.

any food that is half liquid such as canned beans. or, canned food in general.

soap. some people will shudder at this. trust me. there are alternative ways to clean stuff.

more utensils than, say, one cup. you don’t need a separate plate for each person.

things to always bring:

the ten essentials,as defined  by The Mountaineers in their classic book, The Freedom of the Hills. ( actually, the ten essentials omits toilet paper, so it should really be eleven essentials….)

always bring  a good attitude and team spirit

know that this is a team event

when you go with a group, or just one special partner, this is an intense interpersonal experience for the two of you, and lifetime bonds get forged. I have always been very particular about who I will take with me, and have been fortunate to find such legendary partners as Gummi Bear, Whoopie Pie, Snafu, and Sam Gamgee.

You have a responsibility to your team, you can never be alone.

think about this.

meditate on it.

it’s a terrain sport like golf

the A.T. for example, is famous. There is a nationwide community which knows every spot on the Trail just as intimately as the golf-viewing public knows the Augusta National. Strategy plays a part in a successful hike. there are days when the only logical thing to do is to wait for the weather to clear; there are days when calculated risks are taken by experienced hikers that would be dangerous for a less experienced person. for that reason, you can’t lock yourself into a pre-set benchmark of mileage per day, or try to be competitive about it.

the last thing

when you are on the Trail, be friendly to all you meet. that is what life is about, and hiking is a reflection of real life.

Oh, and buy my novel (which is about a different sort of travel) It’s titled The Sacrament of the Goddess and it’s available on Amazon


Once you finish the A.T., you will dream of trekking in Nepal and other locations. I still enjoy long-distance hiking in USA, and I teach (not hike) in Nepal when I am there. But this book is a cult classic among medical volunteers to South Asia. Why not?


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Solstice – have you hugged a Druid today? belated entry

June 21st

 Solstice day I cranked out eight more miles. The highlight was a traverse of Big Bald, 5500 ft elevation, a grassy area with panoramic views, The approach was steep and as usual I went up at a snail’s pace. Okay, at least I got there and was not totally exhausted.  I spent time at the top napping and eating M & Ms. Add about 2,000 cumulative feet of vertical climb. Somewhere along the way I saw a deer.


It was humid and as I descended into the valley I could feel the temp go up fifteen or twenty degrees. I had entertained ideas of continuing to Spivey Gap but the heat  sapped my strength and I was looking for a campsite as I hiked along.  Soon, I saw a smoke plume and was greeted by Coyote, with whom I have shared four or five spots over this past week. Then the  big event,  a crashing  thunderstorm  just as I was taking off my pack. I could hear the rain front  approaching, quickly chose a spot, and did the fastest setup of my tent ever, securing my backpack under plastic cover just in time to hop in with my inside-the-tent stuff as the heavens opened. I lay there dry – watching the rain beat down on my tent. That was close!

It’s a great feeling to be warm and dry during a dramatic storm.

Big day Friday?

I was 2 miles south of Spivey Gap and I could have hitchhiked to Erwin from there but “that would be cheating” so I planned to hike the whole distance. Thirteen miles would have been my biggest day of this year’s trip. It’s most downhill (okay, one little 700 ft hill…..) And loses 2300 vert ft over that distance.


(Update) But it was not to be. After seven miles of gradual descent through very interesting terrain, the temp was noticeably hotter and hit me like a ton of bricks. (Somebody later said it was 94 in the Valley). I decided to stop at No Business Shelter. Erwin can wait a day.  There was another thunderstorm and I watched this one  from under the roof, with seven other hikers. I don’t know if the daily humidity and thunderstorm will be the norm – this is the south, though.

One guy had his 79th birthday. When we sang Happy Birthday he cried a bit
and shared Oreo cookies.

In the morning I will get an early start on the six miles remaining. The birds start singing at 0545 or so and that’s when I pack up.  The pack will be light. I will spend two nights in Erwin, laundry, R & R, resupply,  replan.

 The bare essentials

 The thing about this mode of travel is, you strip away the extraneous  parts of life and worry about the basics: staying dry. Comfortable feet.  How to find water. The pace of going uphill. The future? It’s one day at a  whack…….

 I am warm and dry, well-fed and keeping busy – love to all


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June 23 in Erwin TN – Hiker’s Hostel – “Uncle Johnny”s”

How to describe a major stop on the A.T.?

Nepal? Erwin?

My friends in Nepal might wonder, but – Mission Hospital Guest House has some similarities with this place. Very exclusive clientele with a particular purpose, for each place. An ambiance – each person there has worked hard for the privilege of laying around. Okay, the didis at MHGH are hard to top – but for me, each locale is a boutique experience in it’s own way.

The usual pleasant turmoil underfoot upon arrival at Uncle Johnny’s hostel…..a menagerie of everyone who’s been on the Trail with me the past few days & pleasant company indeed. Sarge the innkeeper du jour has been playing with firecrackers, there’s big dogs underfoot, laundry in being folded, arriving hikers are greeted loudly, and out back, other  hikers at a picnic table under a tree with cool grass by the cabins.   The recent rains swelled the river across the street, which is noisy and brown. I see my hiker buddies from Dallas did *not* come here – they stayed at Holiday Inn Express. De gustibus non disputandem.


I chose a lower bunk  in the bunkhouse, looks like three other guys here too. Old National Geographics and such. There’s a fan blowing. Won’t need much from the sleeping bag tonight.

Oh, and the hike –

Started the day with six mile hike into town, once again motivated by the empty food bag, just peanut butter for breakfast.  spectacular views into the Nolichucky Canyon, like owning a toy train set when the freight train whistled over the bridge.  The ten mile stretch from Big Bald to here was all trending downhill……. Thank God I did this NoBo not SoBo!

The hostel is two miles  from town and they run a free van shuttle three times a day to get to restaurants,shopping etc – so I had the lunchtime salad buffet at Pizzas Plus. The police in this town are hypervigilant about traffic, so everyone obeys the speed limit, which imparts an odd feel to the ride, as if this is Disneyland. My hiker buddies Coyote and Outlaw arrived in time to shower and put on clean clothes and at first I did not recognize them…..I think the rest of our crew looked like convicts on a day off.  Great to get fresh vegetables with Bleu Cheese dressing.

At the IGA I bought bananas and thought about getting a watermelon.


The hostel  has a small outfitter’s shop, and I can get some resupply here. In the bunk room is a “hiker’s box” where people have left food items they decided no longer to pack; and plaintively, there is a box of used hiker’s boots here, like cast off crutches from Lourdes. Mine are fitting me just fine thanks!

Cleanliness is next to ……

A towel is part of the $18 deal for the bunkhouse. I used a bit of hot water but I prefer a cool shower, and as in HNL I have learned to finish the shower with Cold, so as not to emerge so sweaty. Keeping the beard but I did shave my throat. Daubed antibiotic ointment to all my minor cuts and scrapes.

Just For Men?

yes, it comes in gray nowadays. back in HNL, facial hair is associated with homeless persons, I hate to say. Somebody was teasing me about becoming a ZZ Top lookalike…..

Okay, so we deal with the gray hair situation again……. Does the beard make me look “old”? Or “distinguished?” Somebody said I should dye the gray hairs on my chin orange like everyone else does in Honolulu.

I also clipped my nails. Getting ready for an evening on the town! The shuttle goes to a Mexican restaurant this evening. Ole!


Mine was d.i.r.t.y. Yep, it had the smell too – the “hiker’s smell” of which the main component is sweat that has been layered on each day and ground into the very fiber of each item. Nice to get a fresh start.

Future plans

When I leave here I have about nine days before I take the Fourth of July break. Gotta strategize as to  how far I can hike in that time. The forecast is for temps in the 90s all week ( in the valley!). I am not dealing with the heat very well. My best hiking hours are early morning. The Roan highlands beckon me from not too far away – about 35 miles up the Trail. Once I am over these I can lighten my pack a bit for summer, I think. Roan is 6,100 ft elevation but the actual approach climb starts high and is only 2,000 feet – eminently do-able for this huffenpuffer.

I have finished map 3 & 4 of NC/TN – on to the next map, which is 1 & 2.

Anyway I am still having fun. Tomorrow is the Chinese Buffet; also maybe a rafting trip……


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June 20th at Sam’s Gap, TN/NC line

“Well a Robin – flew by my window – for a moment – thought it might be you – judging by the color of it’s breast, and the sound that it made – well – I’m just thinkin of you!”

(Prettiest tree on the mountain, Ben Sollee)

My daughters like Ben Sollee’s music, and today Julie tells me she attended a concert of his and spoke to him. Using her phone, Ben called Whoopie Pie. Later, he dedicated “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain” to Amy…..

Ahhhhh…… These kids take after me. No denying.

Hiking legs

So yesterday June 19th  was a really good day for me, I feel like I am getting my “hiking legs” back. I did ten miles from Flint lean-to to the next, including 2,000 vertical feet. Beautiful scenery.

The movie “Hunger Games” was filmed in this general vicinity in case you need to know what the woods look like. There are entire forests of rhododendron here…..

The hiking  was not “effortless” but there were times when I recaptured that feeling of gliding along and not having aches and pains. I am using less NSAIDs and taking fewer breaks. I have more strength at the end of the day and I sleep better.

Little Creek Diner is  – GOOD!

At Sam’s Gap I needed to resupply for the next two days to Erwin, so I took a detour from the trail and am presently stopped at a diner. I ate  a big ol’ southern breakfast including cheesy grits and biscuit w gravy, at the Little Creek Diner, 2.8 miles downhill from the Trail.

I will be in Erwin TN, Friday or Saturday eve, and stay at the hiker’s hostel there.  Stay a day or two. Chill. Laundry. I need to wash the straps of my backpack!

I will then get back on the trail until July 2nd or so – hopefully this will include Roan Mountain.  Then after my son-in-law’s US citizenship swearing-in July 4th, I will return. I plan to reconfigure my equipment so it’s lighter and more apropos of summer at that time.

Monday 18th

Stayed in the Flint Gap lean-to by myself…. Two other parties were tenting nearby.

This one is located in a grove of rhododendrons.

Bathing on the Trail

The day’s highlight was: a stream deep enough so that I could fully bathe. By “deep enough” I mean three inches deep. I suppose I looked comical but it felt great! Frigid cold water; but I had not showered since leaving Hot Springs. And it was sunny so I rinsed out my clothes and hung them to dry. (Wore my long johns while doing so) I get very sweaty when I hike, this mitigates it a bit.

Bright lights, big city?

I’m getting closer to Erwin, TN, the next Trail town, and will be there in three days. The hiker’s hostel there is legendary – like Rivendell I suppose. Or Rick’s Cafe Americain – everybody comes to Rick’s……

I hope everyone is well. Keep those cards and letters coming!

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June 14th, Trail towns and Food……

“Run, Forrest!”

Yesterday the 13th I bestowed two people their trail names. The college-age guy is a through-hiker and his blond girlfriend is joining him on and off. He wears two metal knee braces as he hikes, and they guffawed when I told them he should be “Forrest Gump” and she should be “Jenny.” They will be ahead of me and I can see if the names stick, by reading the Log Book at each lean-to. “That’s my favorite movie!” He said – so, I suspect they will adopt their new names.

Bridges and rivers

The A.T. Is routed through the main street of Hot Spring NC because here a bridge goes over the French Broad River. For my night in the town I rented a small cabin overlooking the river and from the porch I can see that it is brown and roiling after the rains a couple days ago. To swim or ford this river would be a death-defying feat for a hiker with a backpack. Today I will cross the bridge heading out of town. Looking ahead The next Trail town is Erwin, TN which also has a bridge. The Trail crosses several major roads between here and there, so if I need to, I can leave the Trail. Erwin is only about thirty miles as the crow flies, but the Data Book says it is 68.1 miles from here to there, and the map shows that the trail meanders.

“Am Army marches on its stomach” – Napoleon Bonaparte

So yesterday I went to the Dollar General grocery store here and bought food supplies. For ten days. Could you carry ten days of your own food in a backpack? This is a conservative plan, to go 7 miles a day, seeing as how I just included my first 10-mile day last week; but this upcoming section includes climbing a 5,000 footer. I decided to re-add Beef Jerky to the menu and am not getting as many Mountain House items. Lots of noodles. Powdered mashed potatoes. Not so much tuna fish. I found I craved protein when I got here – and this morning, after a meat binge, my muscles were not nearly so sore. I think I am tearing up a lot of muscle based on how sore I am. To replace this, needs to be a focus. (yes, Barbara…. I am still obese and I am still planning to get in better shape but these things take time. I am not starving myself. I am actually having fun doing this!). So – more protein goes in the food bag.

Joining a Posse?

So, I took a walk while doing laundry, pausing to read all the restaurant menus on Bridge Street. At the micro-brewery some hikers came out calling me by my trail name, and dragged me in. I’d met this group of three several days ago. They bought me an Anchor Steam, and I sipped it as we chatted.  I knew then I was going to have to buy a round….. yikes. The oldest of the three (65) is from Maine, originally.

From a bar stool….

Naturally we were ordained to solve the problems of the world, and we set about doing so. The big discussion was to contrast the idea of “focus” from “Obsessive-Compulsive” as a motivating factor for a long hike such as this.

Long story short:

they invited me to hike with them, fourth man for their team. A time-honored tradition, dating back to Athos, Pathos and Aramis – here I was, with a valid entree to become – D’Artagnan! I was flattered. Every man needs a couple of “wing men” now and again, and here were three such, at my service. I could picture evenings around the campfire being a hoot from now on…..

But I declined. I still need to hike at my own pace and make my own decisions. To hurry would risk re-injuring my knee.

To my mother: Yes, mom, I whiled away several hours in a bar on a hot day. look at the good side: at least I didn’t get a tatoo that said “Gloria”

To my dad: yep, I could have spent the time “working.” No piles of dirt were moved in Hot Springs NC yesterday that I know of.

To my kids: “Estou de ferias!”

To Ben Franklin: thank you for the quote “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” (did he really truly say that

No matter what happens, I’ll still see them along the trail ahead. I’m kinda picky as to hiking buddies – once you have hiked with such worldclass hikers as Snafu and Whoopie Pie, you get spoiled.

Exit Strategery-

Ate a “Breakfast bowl” at the nearby store – grits, gravy, egg, sausage, biscuit. I check out of my little cabin at eleven. I have errands to do such as buying more of the water-purification tablets and white gas, to say nothing of checking email. The first mile out of town is a 1,000 foot climb. I will leave here around 3 PM, do the climb, and “cowboy camp” at the top, using the tent. It’s nice here now but will get to the 80s by afternoon.

Hot Springs, NC is the finest example of small town life in America! Anyway – don’t know about cell reception ahead, can’t say when the next entry will be…….

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Checking in from Hot Springs, NC Wednesday June 13 2012 A.D.

Executive summary: Now in Hot Springs, NC.

36 miles since Friday, including “Max Patch”  – O !  laudetor Maximus Patchimus!

62 miles cumulative. Blister is just about healed. Not bothering me in the least…..

Hot Springs is a jewel of the south! I love this town! (BTW it is a prime source for Cecil Sharp’s ballads, if you are a folk music fan…)

The most exciting part of the adventure so far?

Almost forgot to mention: Friday while hitchhiking from Asheville to the trailhead, was nearly in an accident on I-40. There was a weigh station for truckers, and an 18-wheeler had missed the turnoff, so it was *backing up* in the right hand lane. I was chatting with the couple who picked me up, when she slammed on the brakes – we squealed to a halt ten yards behind the big rig, with just a bit of fishtailing. Glad she was paying attention, otherwise we would have rear-ended him at 65 mph.

Fri eve June 8th – Got on the trailhead at 1 PM, it was 90- in the valley, but cooled off as I gained elevation. Set up camp on a small island between two branches of Painter Brook. No other hikers, which was unsettling because two SoBos told me they had seen a mama bear with two cubs in the vicinity. This is halfway up Snowbird Mountain – I’m being very careful about the vertical climbs. It was a clear night so I only used the mosquito-net portion of the tent. Chili mac w beef for dinner. I am taking it slow, purposefully. It was very hot on the way up here but I stayed hydrated. Rumors of bears were greatly exaggerated. Nice to wear my new crocs around camp. The knee is 100% and the blister is under control.

gory details:

The center of the blister reopened Friday; what I am doing is to paint Liquid Skin on the intact area, put a dot of antibiotic ung on the open area, and put duct tape over the whole shebang. I am walking on it w no pain. Today I go up and over snowbird mtn en route to Ground Hog Creek shelter. It’s 1,200 vert ft, about five miles.  I will be there by 1 PM, but I need to restrain the urge to make more miles, early on. Still getting in shape!


Snowbird Mtnb was my first “southern bald” – very nice and I took a nap at the top. I could see Roan Mtn in the distance. Stayed at Ground Hog Creek shelter – got here by 2 PM but I am taking the miles slow and will save Max Patch for Sunday.

When I got up to pee at 0300, I saw an astounding firefly show here; I felt like my retinas were detaching! Shared the lean-to with J2. another Eagle scout.

There is an impending cold front w rain. I will embark anyway, I like going uphill in rain and though Max Patch is 4600 feet, it’s unlikely to snow. I ate chili for breakfast…..

Max Patch?????

“Max Patch” lived up to its billing,got there just as the sun came out. I felt like singing the “I’d like to buy the world a coke” song. The trail on the north side of Max Patch went through a stand of rhododendron so thick it had a dark haunted quality to it. On that stretch, a long gradual downhill of four miles, I was able to pick up the pace – it felt like “the old days” – zooming along down the trail……

foot stories

loving my “crocs” which I switch to once at camp for the night.

The trail here goes through stands of rhododendron. Just beginning to bloom. Sometimes the trail is strewn with pink petals.

Tuesday June 12th,

I did a 10-mile day which started with a 1,000 ft climb up bluff mountain. This was my longest single-day miles yet. I got within 3.2 miles of the town. This morning (Wednesday) I got up early, gathered my stuff by the light of my headlamp, and set off on the hike to town. They were nice to me at the breakfast place despite my “hiker smell”, and I enjoyed a nice southern breakfast.

I will spend a day or two here. Laundry. Shower. Find internet. Plan out my menu for the next leg of this hiking trip, and buy  food at the Dollar General in this town.

The French Broad River goes through the town. Maybe I will go whitewater rafting.

Maybe Not.

Mint Julep?

My time in Hot Springs will not be solely devoted to sitting on the porch sipping mint juleps…..

I need to actually plan out my menu and food choices before I take off on this next leg…. I waltzed into here with no food remaining – on the one hand the pack was light but on the other hand, that was cutting it close.


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