Technology for the JMT

It is now 4 days from the time I board a plane for Reno, rent a car and drive to June Lake outside of Yosemite.  I am finalizing my gear and packing everything up for the trip.  The last unresolved decisions involve technology and I have brought that process to a close.  Here is the tech that will accompany my 211 mile trek on the John Muir Trail;

  • InReach Explorer
  • Garmin Etrex 30x
  • Apple iPhone 6
  • Ankar PowerCore 20100 Battery Charger
  • Assorted cables and adapters
  • Total Weight:  2.1 lb


Tech for JMT

InReach Explorer

The InReach Explorer has two key functions; satellite texting and SOS emergency communication.  The texting, although crude in the user interface, will be the only way I have to communicate in the remoteness of the JMT.  All my research indicates the trail is generally beyond the reach of cell tower signals.  The InReach will hold a charge for about 4 – 5 days of hiking. It will track my progress and post to a website where friends and family can follow.  Weight: 6.8 oz

Garmin Etrex 30x

This is a brand new edition to my gear set.  I wanted GPS capability that was not available in the InReach but my Garmin fenix 3 watch was not going to make the cut, primarily because it only holds a charge for 2 days of full hiking and needs to be recharged.  I chose the Garmin Etrex 30x for its basic GPS functionality and the fact it runs on AA batteries.  The specs indicate it will run for 16 hours so I’ll carry extra batteries.  My testing has proven the device to be reliable and easy to use.  Plus it will upload results to my Garmin Connect website, which is what I have been using now for years.  Weight:  5.7 oz

Apple iPhone 6

The iPhone will be my camera, saving  about 4 lbs of camera gear.  The iPhone took great pictures in the Grand Canyon so it should be fine.  I found a telephoto lens that is small and weighs nearly nothing.  I have maximized storage space by getting rid of most apps (including email), pictures and media leaving about 54 GB for photos and video clips.  I don’t believe the empty memory space save any weight.  I could not find how much a GB weighs anyway.  In airplane mode, the battery should last 4 or 5 days. Weight:  7.8 oz (w/ lens)

Ankar PowerCore 20100

The iPhone and the InReach Explorer will need to be charged at least once before I get to Muir Trail Ranch and probably twice between there and Mt. Whitney.  I researched a number of websites and blogs, considering solar chargers and high density power chargers.  One has to learn how these devices are rated and fortunately, the hiker community has developed a bit of a standard of how many times you can charge your smartphone.  The chargers are specified by the number of milliAmp hours, but one thing to note, the airlines have a restriction on lithium batteries measured in Watt hours, which is the total volts multiplied by the Amp hours.  The limit is 100 Watt hours.

I opted not to use a solar charging system.  The ones I researched indicated you needed to charge the battery a full day to get 1 smartphone charge.  With two devices, I did not want to run the risk that they both ran down on the same day.  Plus, many of the reviews indicated that weight was a bit of an issue when you count the flexible solar panel and the battery in the system.

That leaves the lithium battery chargers.  I found these are typically rated in milliAmp hours (mAh).  A 7,800 mAh will charge a smart phone up to 3 times and weighs around 6.5 oz.    More is better right?  But bigger chargers come with more weight.

My choice ended up being the Ankar 20100, which is a 20100 mAh battery charger weighing in at 12.7 oz.  The literature boasts 7 charges of a standard smartphone.  It has two USB ports making it possible to charge two devices at a time.  Running the math, it registers a 72.6 Wh capacity, which should not be a problem for the FAA.

Assorted Cables

A USB for the phone and the InReach, plus a 10W power adapter weigh in at 3.5 oz.

HikerHead 2

Strider Out!

Why Did You Come Here?


Sunset On Mt. LeConte

He was pacing back and forth on a small section of the North Kaibab Trail, 200 yards or so north of Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  As I drew nearer, he was talking out loud, gesturing occasionally to no one around him.  The conversation concluded and as I passed him, he held up the smartphone and hit the “end call” button.  He turned his attention to me saying, “Can you believe it?  This is the only spot in the canyon where you can get a signal.”

As with any beautiful vista, one often shares the experience with others in quiet reverence as the moment is contemplated by each person’s reason for being there.  Such is the case at Cliff Tops on Mt LeConte at sunset.  There seems to be a profound respect shared by all who find themselves in the space and time of that moment.  It is a reward for the effort of hiking several miles and a few thousand feet in elevation.  However, there seemed to be a difference of opinion between two acquaintances in that the the one had no business saying what she said about the other; as the conversation was inadvertently shared with those around her during the moment the sky was on fire.  Apparently, there is a good signal up on Mt. LeConte.

“Why did you come here?”

The only electronics I took on my AT thru hike in 1984 was a flashlight, a digital watch and a small 35 mm camera, which had to be supplied with film. I replaced the batteries in the flashlight twice.  Navigation was accomplished by maps, a data book and the Philosopher’s Guide – all paper.  And the trip was documented in a small spiral bound notebook with a ball point pen.  The social network of the day was trail shelter registers, which were notebooks left by hikers providing news about trail conditions, AYCE restaurants in the next town, and who was hooking up with with whom.

The  presence of technology in the backcountry has changed the experience across the spectrum and like any powerful capability, one must come to terms with when to use it and when not to. Despite the tone projected thus far, please know that I am not a Luddite. I embrace technology, researching and carefully choosing which devices offer value to me and which require more support than the benefits they return.   The nature of this blog necessitates GPS technology to capture mileage, elevation and location.  My growing love affair with photography has opened up a completely new realm of technology possibilities.

My latest backpacking adventure underscored just how dependent I have become on my gadgetry.  Having  run out of battery charge on my GPS watch AND my smartphone, the last leg of my hike was not documented anywhere but in my mind.  No pictures, no voice recorder, no data.  I hiked the complete 7 mile length of the Pretty Hollow Gap trail in about two hours.  The next day, when I attempted to recount the section for posterity, I found I had little or no memory of the specifics of that hike.  For a blog that relies on information and data, this is bad.  The GPS, camera, and my voice reorder do in fact, help me remember details about each hike, solidifying the memory of them in my mind.  I remember where the water is in most campsites and I remember where all the big trees are.  I remember how many wet fords there are on each trail.  This is all good.

But I also came to realize that the hike down Pretty Hollow Gap put me in a state of contemplative flow, an experience which I have come to long for in the wilderness.  Without the constant awareness of checking the watch and recording where the switchbacks and stream crossings are, I was able to forget about time.  I remember being aware of the morning, the bird songs, the coolness of the air.  I don’t remember how steep the trail was and I don’t remember any stream crossings, although there has to be some.  There was regret in not having the information to document my hike, but upon reflection, what seemed to matter more was the memory of the contentment of that morning’s experience.  I reminded myself of the question –

“Why did you come here?”

HikerHead 2

Strider Out!


Mailing Groceries to Myself

I have a long To-Do list and today I checked off a big part of it.  Planning food for 15 days in the wilderness takes a little research and some strategy.  Once you leave Yosemite on the JMT, there are basically two places to resupply; Vermilion Valley and Muir Trial Ranch.  Vermilion is about four days out from Donahue Pass while Muir Trail Ranch is a good 6 days out.  The challenge is getting past Muir Trail Ranch because there is not another good resupply location until after you exit Whitney Portal, which I plan to cover in about 8 days.  This means you have to send your food to yourself.  Opting for Muir Trail Ranch, I set about planning supplies and how to get them there.


In strategic planning, one of the things you have to know is your constraints and boundaries.  Muir Ranch is about 8-9 hiking days away from Mt. Whitney.    My bear can only holds about 7 days of food.  Getting supplies sent to Muir Ranch can take up to 3 weeks.  There are no full service grocery stores there.  Shipping food ain’t cheap.  Backpacking requires 3,500 – 5,000 daily calories.  You want to keep your pack as light as possible.

Planning the Food

The first thing to do is plan the menus.  The common wisdom is to be creative and save money by creating your own meals.  I opted for spending the money and bought 20 freeze dried dinners from REI.  I had a 20% off coupon and I spent my dividend.  The rest was packaged food from the grocery store.

My standard daily menu is essentially the following:

  • Breakfast – Oatmeal, honey, summer sausage, cocoa w/ coffee              450 calories
  • Lunch – Peanut butter, honey, tortillas, tuna                                              550 calories
  • Dinner – Freeze Dried dinner, chocolate, tea w/ honey, olive oil         1,200 calories
  • Snacks – granola bar, fig bars, nuts                                                            1,300 calories
  • TOTAL:                                                                                                            3,500 calories

I am going to run a calorie deficit, which many thru hikers do.  If I could carry 5 – 7 days food between towns, I could carry more calorie laden food, plus engorge myself in town, but space and weight are the biggest constraints.  Plus I could stand to loose 10 lbs.

Getting It There

I crammed the first 7 days in my bear can, which will fly with me to California.  The rest I had to ship to myself when I arrive at Muir Trail Ranch on July 7.  Muir Ranch has a process.  You go onto their website and pay a food pickup and storage fee of $85.  They send you mailing labels, along with detailed instructions.  You need to pack your food in a plastic 5 gallon bucket.  That’s because it will arrive at their PO Box, which then has to be carted by truck, possibly canoed across a lake, and finally stored in a shed.  Your food container has to be water proof and varmint proof.   They limit you to 25 lbs without charging you even more and they suggest shipping three weeks in advance.

Shipping a 22 lb bucket is not trivial.  There is a lot of packing tape involved.  It is not a convenient box that comes with efficient and cheap postage.  Priority mail from Knoxville to California is $66.00.  I spent about 2/3 of my food cost in shipping and handling.

But it is DONE!

The one open issue is that my bear can will not hold all the food in the bucket.  I am going to noodle on that one for a bit.  One option is to purchase a small bear can and carry both.  Another is to take less food.  I’ll have a week under my belt by the time I get there.

I may go a bit hungry but at least I won’t starve.


HikerHead 2

Strider Out!



The Winds of Mt. Sterling

Mt.Sterling Loop

Date: May 21 – 22, 2018

Miles: 21.1       

Having completed the first loop of my backpacking trip, I enjoyed some lunch while catching glimpses of elk at the edge of the trees in Cataloochee Valley.  Plus, I had to dry out my shoes, not to mention my feet pickled by the miry swamp that was the Caldwell Fork Trail.  For this loop, there were three entry points depending on how much hiking I wanted to do the second half of the day.  I did a quick check of the mileage if I stayed in Cataloochee and started up Pretty Hollow Gap,  taking Little Cataloochee Trail to Long Bunk and then up Mt Sterling Trail.  With about 7 miles done in the morning, I figured another 10 or so would get me to the top of Mt. Sterling and CS# 38.  Not only did I miscalculate the mileage by about 4 miles short, I also failed to realize the magnitude of the 13.7 mile climb that was in store for me that afternoon.  Pretty Hollow Gap leaves Cataloochee Road at 2,717 feet and the day ended at the top of Mt. Sterling at 5,840.  Overall, it was a 21.4 mile day and a 3,823 ft. climb ending in a 12% grade up Mt. Sterling Trail.

But enough whining.

With after a lunch of summer sausage, Tillamook cheddar, pistachio nuts and a few granola bars, I started out on Pretty Hollow Gap Trail refreshed and dry of feet at about 12:45.  The trail is a gravel road for a quarter mile or so, passing the Cataloochee horse camp at 0.2 miles.  I took the right onto Little Cataloochee Trail and started a easy climb up toward NC 284.  There are a few rock-hopper stream crossings in the first mile and a half making for damp feet but the climb is moderate until you reach a switchback and a ridge crest a tenth of a mile ahead, where there is a nice clearing for a rest.  At about 2 miles, the trail bends at a rock fence typical of this area.  Not too far beyond the bend, the DSC01164trail arrives at the Dan Cook Cabin at 2.5 miles, which is a delightful setting with notched joints and a split rail fenced yard.  Across the trail from the cabin is a ruin of a rock walled building the guidebook called an apple house.  The trail becomes a gravel road past the cabin.  I noticed on this section there was fire damage on the right side down in the hollow, yet the fire did not jump the road as the upper left side was DSC01178pristine.  The Little Cataloochee Baptist Church appears at 3.2 miles with its large cemetery.  I did not spend time investigating either spot as I wanted to get the afternoon’s hiking done but I remember there being graves dating back to the civil war.

Continuing down the road, the fire damage picked back up just past the yard of the church.  I noted that whatever the fire event was, it burned right up to the edge of the church property and stopped.  Less than a mile past the church, a side trail leads to the DSC01185Hannah Cabin, which is unique for it’s brick chimney.  Just 0.2 miles past Hannah Cabin is the Long Bunk Trail intersection.  From there it’s a mile to NC 284.  I took a brief water and granola bar break at the road.  900 Miler purists will note that I did hike the mile out and then back to Long Bunk Trail rather than call it even, but that ethical decision added two of the miles I failed to calculate in the afternoon mileage.  This trailhead was the second choice for starting the loop and would have only required a 7.8 mile hike to Mt. Sterling.  In retrospect, it would have been a better choice for this loop.

The steady climbing continued on Long Bunk Trail.  It was 4:00 when that hike began and I was still over 6 miles from the end of the day.  The Hannah Cemetery is at 0.2 miles and there were fresh flowers on a couple of the graves.  Past the cemetery, the jeep track became a single track pathway.  There are a few shallow streams to cross over the next mile but with deft stepping, the feet can remain dry.  Long Bunk Trail is rather unremarkable in its features.  It is a steady climb on good trail and it terminates on the Mt. Sterling Trail about a half mile in from the road.  I completed the 3.7 miles in an hour and a half.

This time I dropped the pack to hike the half mile out to the road, which is the third option for starting the loop.  Touching the gate, I immediately turned around started the watch to count the miles on Mt. Sterling Trail.  Much of the trail is a primitive jeep track that serviced the fire tower on the summit.  The pack was waiting for me at 0.5 miles and I donned it for the last 2.2 miles of the day.  The switchback at 0.8 miles was a slap in the face because it began the more strenuous part of the trail that would continue to the top.  The climb was steady, not severely steep or rugged but on top of 20 miles, it was miserable going.  I didn’t make any voice recordings after the switchback at 1.6 miles but I remember going a tenth of a mile, catching my breath, then repeat.  The mind plays tricks on you when you are exhausted and still have a long way to go.  Actual mileage lengthens to fill the worst depths of your imagination.  You begin to notice damp rocks in the trail and wonder if you could get enough water to make camp right in the trail.  No energy in the legs and the heart only beats so fast at this point in the day.  There is nothing to do but keep plugging with an eye toward dinner.  The 2.7 miles took a pitiful hour and a half to get done and there was rejoicing when the trail broke the top of the ridge, leading 0.4 miles to the summit.

DSC00972The trail ends in a clearing that is the home of a fire tower standing watch over the far northeast end of the Park.  The views are spectacular and I couldn’t wait to summon the energy to grab some pictures before sunset.  But the first order of business was to get water for the night.  I was out and also dehydrated.  The water source is almost a half mile down the Baxter Creek Trail just past the fire tower and it IS steep.  The side trail leads 700 yards to a small piped spring that, at best, offers a trickle of clean cool water.  I dropped the pack, and stripped to my skivvies because everything was soaked and I figured it would be easier to dry off by moving around.  With the water bag filled, I climbed back up to the campsite, grabbed my fleece jacket and camera and climbed the tower to the landing just below the top.  Then I sat down.

The sun hung low in the evening sky but still lit up the clouds brilliantly.  I snapped a dozen or so shots with different f-stops and wide angles, hoping to get at least one good shot to capture the moment.  The wind was picking up and I was still pretty damp with body moisture.  Chills were setting in as the sun got low.

Sunset at Mt. Sterling


I decided dinner was the next challenge to accomplish but before that, I hung the hammock among the evergreens that adorn the top of this beautiful ridge.  There was a bivy style tent in a spot nearby but there was no sign of another human being.  Despite the small tent, there was no pack or food bag hung on the bear cables.  I opted not to “knock on the door’ and introduce myself to the neighbor.  I was thankful for the quiet loneliness.  I had been looking forward to camping here for a long time and the peacefulness was a reward for the hard day’s work.

I got my stove ready for dinner, poured the cup of water to boil and opened the pouch to ready the ingredients.  There were two pouches; one obviously food and the other was a “heating element.”  Bewildered, I read the package to figure what exactly I had brought along for dinner.  It was a self-heating backpacking dinner.  Who knew?  There is a white package of some material, which you cover with water in the meal package and you dump in the other pouch of food, unopened of course.  The material spontaneously starts to “boil” the water, with steam and everything.  After 10 minutes, diner was warm enough to eat and it was pretty good, although one must adjust for the quality of food, accounting for camping after 22 miles of hiking uphill.  My shoes would probably have tasted pretty good at that point.

The setting sun was taking its light down with it and after a bit of clean up, I secured things for the night.  Anticipating a cool wind, I unrolled my thermal pad but I decided to try it uninflated.  The wind was picking up as I wiggled into my cocoon for the night.  I warmed up quickly and started to doze as darkness settled.  The wind rattled the fire tower and I heard the typical animal activity as I was drifting off.  Within a few minutes there were voices.,  Having ruled out a dream and being reasonably sure the voices were outside my head, it turned out to be a few late arrivals.  They must have been as exhausted as I was because after a couple tents were thrown up, they got quiet pretty quickly and we went back to the low roar of the wind to sing us to sleep.

Hammocks sleep cold.  My experiment proved to be a failure as the wind blew under and around every surface in contact with my backside.  While I wasn’t freezing, I was not warm either.  I finally inflated the thermal pad and I was immediately toasty and warm.  The final report: You gotta take some insulation with a hammock, even in the summertime.  Once I was warm, I slept soundly for the second night in a row.

I awoke early and set up for breakfast.  The owner of the bivy tent could still not be seen but I did meet one of my late arriving neighbors as I boiled water for my oatmeal and coffee.  The three of them had come up Baxter Creek Trail, which must have been a killer that late at night.  I offered the balance of my water so he wouldn’t have to negotiate the walk to the spring.  Packing up a hammock goes quickly and I was on the trail a little after 7:30 am.  Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail to Pretty Hollow Gap and out the trail named for the gap.  My arduous effort the day before would reward me with a 7 and a half mile hike back to the trailhead.

The details of this part of the hike are pretty sketchy.  I had brought a battery charging device for my watch but I failed to include the proper cable.  Furthermore, my phone battery was all but dead as well.  The features and fallacies of technology are a topic for another post, but here, let me say that it is amazing how much detail one forgets when not archiving it somehow.  Mt. Sterling Ridge is a steady downhill hike from its start at the Mt. Sterling Trail, following the ridge as it descends into Pretty Hollow Gap where there is a crossroad of trails.  To the right is Swallow Fork Trail, which leads down to Walnut Bottom, one of my favorite camping spots in the Park.  My path took me to the left down Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, which looses about 2,000 feet along its 5.6 miles.  In my anxiousness to finish, coupled with all my technology being dead, I remember very little of that hike except that I got to the bottom before 10:00.

The final tally was 38.9 miles in less than two full days of hiking.  I can’t speak for high altitude but I think I am in reasonably good shape for the JMT in a month.

HikerHead 2

Strider Out!

The Swamps of Caldwell Fork

Cataloochee Backpack

Date: May 20 – 21, 2018

Miles: 17.8       

Camping on Mt. Sterling has been on my list from the first time I discovered the evergreen covered ridge top with its fire tower sentinel surveying the northeast end of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  It’s not easy to get there.  The shortest hike is the Mt. Sterling Trail at 2.7 miles from the NC284 gravel mountain road out of Waterville, NC at the NC/TN state line on i -40.  The trail gains over 17oo feet from there at 631 ft./mi. or 12%.  Other options are more ambitious.  The plan was to start a 3 day backpacking trip from that point making two loops out of several trails in the Cataloochee section of the park.  Those plans suddenly changed when the reservations were full for Campsite #38 on top of Mt. Sterling for Saturday and Sunday nights.  The the base of operations was shifted to Cataloochee Valley, which paid off in the end.

Cataloochee has proven to be one of my most favorite sections, first because of its remoteness.  One does not go there by accident as any entrance involves several miles of gravel mountain roads, which are closed in the winter months.  Secondly, the Park reintroduced elk to the area and they make their home in the valley.  And thirdly, because of the diversity of hiking.  The new plan called for two loops.  The first included  Caldwell Fork, Boogerman, a section of Rough Fork and the Big Fork Ridge trails.  The forecast called for rain and it delivered.  As I entered the valley, a shower opened up, giving me an excuse to drive through the valley and check it out.  I met a couple backpackers on the road and offered them a dry ride but they were near their cars and IMG_5619politely declined.  The Caldwell Fork trail head is near the Cattaloochee campground with a small parking area at the footlog bridge over Cataloochee Creek.  The rain abated at around 2:00 as I donned my pack and crossed over.  As footlogs go, this is the best I have seen with stone steps and handrails on either side;  a welcome and fitting entrance.  It’s a short walk to the Boogerman trail, which loops off the Caldwell Fork Trail and back to it 3.9 miles later.  The name comes from one of the early Cataloochee citizens, Robert Palmer, was called upon in primary school to recite what he wanted to be when he grew up.  His reply was to be “the Boogerman” and apparently it stuck.  The trail was named in his honor as he was one of the landowners of the area.

IMG_5547The walk is well graded and carpeted with evergreens as one saunters moderately uphill.  The laurel were blooming with some still in buds while others were already dropping their petals.  A little sprinkle reminded me of the forecast but it lasted only minutes.  About 2.25 miles there is a giant Tulip Poplar at the left of the trail.  This is a granddaddy tree with its root feet reaching out from its 6 foot trunk.  It is notable for its size but one notices a bit of a path around and behind this titan.  I am so thankful that I decided to take a look because on the backside, the tree is hollowed out and large enough to stand tall inside.  The trail continues in its moderate climb until about 2.8 miles when there is a steep climb and the the trail descends back toward Caldwell Fork Trail.  At 3.3 miles there is a well-built stone wall notable because it used no mortar in its construction.  A side trail leads off to the left at around 3.7 miles to a very small cemetery plot with two four small stones marking two graves, mostly like of two children.  There are a few stream crossings to conclude the Boogerman trail as it returns to Caldwell Fork trail.  I followed Caldwell Fork for a half mile and then turned right onto the Big Fork Ridge Trail, making the shape of this hike a bit of a figure 8 loop.


Less than a tenth of a mile in, the trail crosses Caldwell Fork, which on this day was swollen and rushing swiftly.  Fortunately, there is a friendly footlog to keep one’s feet dry.  The path climbs moderately a mile and a half to a small clearing and heads back down to Cataloochee road.  As I neared the end of the trail, I noticed an buck elk in the woods.  Although he had not grown his rack of antlers for the season, he was still an impressive beast and he took note of my presence.  Less than a tenth of a mile later, a female elk was grazing just off the trail.  Stopping to take her picture, I became aware of another presence to my left where I looked and saw the buck watching me through the trees, perhaps checking up on his mate as this stranger invaded their afternoon meal.

IMG_5589The Big Fork trailhead is at the very end of Cataloochee Road, where the trailhead for Rough Fork Trail is also located.  My destination is CS #40, which is a mile and a half down Rough Fork Trail.  The trail is a gravel jeep track and descends ever so slightly as it follows it namesake, which you cross on a sturdy footlog a half mile in.  At one mile, you arrive at the Woody Place, which is a farmhouse that is well preserved and open for exploration.  The house was pretty luxurious by most standards as there are several fireplaces and closets in every room.   The trail leaves the road at the Woody place and continues gently uphill to CS #40, which is my home for the night.

IMG_5592Campsite #40 is amidst a rhododendron thicket, well off the trail with small clearings here and there.  At the back of the site, where the main fire ring is, I found a couple folding camp chairs someone had left.  I chose a couple sturdy trees to hang my hammock and set about my back-country domestic duties that included getting water and cooking supper. It was far too wet to consider building a fire and despite the lush greenery of the site, I found very little dead-and-down wood.  But I did enjoy sitting in a chair while I prepared my freeze dried banquet of Thai chili noodles and a desert of dark chocolate.

After an unusually restful evening (I don’t normally sleep well the first night out…), I made my breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and took off by 7:20 am.  The trail ascends steadily from CS #40 and will take me a mile and a half back to the end of Caldwell Fork Trail.  At that point,  I left Rough Fork Trail as it continued uphill to Polls Gap and I started the full length of Caldwell Fork.

IMG_5596A treat arrives by 1.2 miles in, which is “Big Poplars”.  A short side trail takes you to a huge Tulip Poplar tree which is one of the largest I have seen in the park.  Just past Big Poplars is CS #41 located on Caldwell Fork, which is a nice site for tents.  Crossing the creek on a footlog, the trail gently descends as it follows it namesake all the way back to the trail head.  At 1.7 miles, you pass the intersection with Hemphill Bald Trail marked by a large pile of rocks.  Hemphill Bald is a spectacular site, but it will have to wait for another time.

There are a number of stream crossings along Caldwell Fork, many of which are rock hoppers but these require as much care as any.  One gets complacent by the seemingly simple hop from one rock to another.  But just as the attention wavers, the foot lands on a slick rock and you find yourself getting up out of the mud with a bruise or two on the legs and hands.  I was reminded of this reality about 3 miles in.  McKee Branch Trail comes in at 3.1 miles.  At 3.6 miles, I passed the south end of the Boogerman Trail and the next 2 miles proved to be wet… very wet.  There are a few footlogs but a couple are in bad condition.  This whole section is swampy with several muddy crossings and at 4.4 miles, there is a wet ford in knee deep running water.  At 5 miles, the Caldwell Fork invites back into itself with another knee deep wet ford and yet another deeper one at 5.2 miles, where I had to remove my iPhone from my pocket to keep it dry.  A third ford is at 5.2 and a fourth at 5.3 miles.  With great relief, you get to cross Caldwell Fork on a footlog at 5.4 miles, which was fateful because a ford here would have been a bit treacherous.  At 5.9 miles, I passed the head of the Boogerman Trail letting me know I am close to finishing this wet, muddy, sloppy trail.  The last bit is level, pleasant and ends  where I started at the nice footlog back at Cataloochee Road.

While I did not plan on it, I am glad I hiked Caldwell Fork Trail in the direction I did.  Starting this hike with 4 wet fords in the first two miles would have made for miserably wet feet for the rest of the day.  In future hikes, it should be noted the Boogerman Trail conveniently bypasses the wet section of the Caldwell Fork trail and may be worth the extra 2 miles of hiking to keep your feet dry.  A philosophical dilemma for future discussion.

All in all, this was a nice one-night backpacking loop that leave time for exploring the valley or starting the next loop…

HikerHead 2

Strider Out!



The Paradox of Place


Sunrise from Gregory Bald

Soon, I will finish the work by Belden C. Lane: Landscapes of the Sacred.  I was introduced to him by finding his book, Backpacking with the Saints by accident.  Dr. Lane has trod the path I am on and has engaged in a scholarly quest to understand place in American Spirituality.  I am blessed to follow his footprints.

Lane introduced the “tension between the idealistic celebration of placelessness and the materialist’s attention to the concrete demands of placement.”  Lane recalled the lives of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin whose lives both contributed to a theology of place.  On the one hand, we pursue a Creator who transcends space, revealing himself when He chooses.  Those who were sent to guide us were travelers, itinerants, humble humans to whom material possessions held no value.    On the other, we are creatures defined by our spaces and places.  It is easy to dismiss this all in anti-materialist idealism but Dorothy Day put a more human connection to our need for place. In her work with inner city women and young families in New York, she found that family needs a sense of place.  Humans derive dignity from having a place of their own to nurture their families and provide a safe home.  Home is defined by place.  Maurin and his more contemporary prophet/poet, Wendell Berry, believed that human dignity is derived from hard work tied to honest care and tending of the earth from which we came and to where we will return.  The earth, the land is embodied physically in place.

Whether your place is a small flat in New York City or a farm in rural Kentucky, place is integral in human existence.  But with place, then comes stuff; and the continuous accumulation of more stuff, requiring more space until we exceed our ability to put stuff.  It turns out it is easier to save our stuff than get rid of it so we rent more space, buy bigger homes with bigger closets and bigger garages.  We build bigger barns and buy more land.  And so then the struggle for each person to decide when they have enough  ensues.

In my own journey, more and more, I am adopting the simplicity of Thoreau as a guide but I am finding it difficult to balance my need to save what is valuable to me and realizing the implications of keeping it.  It is a work in progress that often requires compromise with my wife who has her own sense of place and the accumulation of stuff.

But one thing is certain, wilderness is the doorway to encounters with Creation and The Creator.  Wilderness is where sense of place changes.  There, we are the visitors.  Boundaries are obscured and the idea of ownership of place has no meaning.  Wendell Berry taught me that the only legitimate way to experience Creation is to do so on foot.  John Muir knew this.  Edward Abbey knew this.  Any assistance offered by machinery of any kind requires accommodations and has ramifications, all of which diminish the point of entering the wilderness in the first place.  Wilderness requires a Sabbath of sorts from our technology and our sense of place.  We get to leave our stuff behind and for a time, experience the joy of being.  We take only what we can carry and the less of it, the better.  Careful choices are made for survival and less for comfort and convenience.  But the rewards are rich and the benefits life changing.

HikerHead 2  Strider Out!

The Boxes We Build


Giant Sequoias In Jedidiah State Park in California. A true cathedral thousands of years old.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about boxes.  The kind we build for ourselves.  To shelter us, to protect us, to entertain us, to separate or to bring us together.  To hold our stuff, to differentiate ourselves culturally or economically.  To provides homes for our government, our commerce, our rich, our infirm, our indigent, our outlaws.

We build boxes to glorify ourselves, our wars, our victories over other humans.  And we build glorious boxes as a home for The Creator.  I have seen these boxes.

Humans have a strong sense of place.  We ascribe sacred significance to the places we build because they commemorate who we are as a people and who we believe The Creator to be.  I have been in some of these boxes and they are exquisite.  The European architects really knew how to create a sense of space reaching to the heavens, all under a roof and within walls.  Fabulous light comes into these spaces through colored glass depicting significant moments in the mythology of the believers.  The Hebrews built a temple to Yahweh that was the architectural marvel of its day.  The space within St. Peter’s Basilica is a place where man did indeed reach up and out to God to create a suitable residence for the almighty or at least in demonstration to other humans that the home of God should be a palace of the highest order.  The cathedrals of Europe are true works of art and represent the highest genius and ingenuity that humans developed, and they represent place… sacred space… inspiring awe in those who enter their walls.

Humans have long striven to build a house for The Creator, to set aside a place, or a box which they could designate as sacred space where they could come meet God at the time appointed for their rituals.  But here’s the thing…


The mighty Colorado River in the most grand cathedral of them all, The Grand Canyon

Whenever humans encountered The Creator in a significant moment, it was often in the wilderness.  Elijah, Moses, Jesus, Paul, all had life changing encounters while they were outside, not inside a box.  Yahweh met the first humans in the Garden, walking in the cool of the evening as He willed.

The Creator cannot be confined to place.  Yahweh chooses where and when the encounter takes place.  The Native Americans knew this.  Their being was inextricably tied to the earth itself.  The idea of owning property for oneself was foreign and certainly, it was The Creator who held deed to the earth and all who walk upon it.  How the Hebrews missed this is a mystery.  They were relentless in their desire to build a home for Yahweh and even confined him to a literal box: the ark of the covenant.  They passed that sense of place on to us and we have been fighting about it ever since.

If it is a significant moment, humans will mark it in space and time by building a monument.  It becomes theirs.  A space to be celebrated… and defended at all cost.  The ultimate sign of conquest is symbolized in the destruction of a culture’s sacred spaces.  It turns out that space and place are what define us as people, as cultures, as civilization itself. But space and place cannot last.  If humans don’t destroy their own sacred spaces, the planet eventually decides it’s time for change.

The Creator lives outside of time and space.  Our encounters are not chosen by us.  We can put ourselves in places free of distraction, which usually do not include walls, where we can become attuned to the natural rhythms and songs of Creation.  We can walk among the tree people to learn what they have to teach us about time and patience and we can watch our animal brothers glorify God by simply being who they are.  And if we are chosen for a blessing, we may get an invitation to a moment, an encounter, a vision of eternity.

HikerHead 2  Strider out!

My JMT Gear List

fullsizeoutput_52aWhen it’s raining outside and you are too wimpy to go backpacking in it, you go through your gear, weighing everything in preparation for the obligatory gear checklist.  And of course, the picture of your possessions in the House on Your Back.  On the gear spectrum, I tend to fall near the ultralight folks but I am willing to make compromises for comfort and convenience and I readily admit this list is somewhat flexible.  I own no Cuban fiber.  But just for kicks, I did cut the handle off my tooth brush and I have been known to trim the borders off my maps.

The Big Three – 6.3 lb.

I am very pleased with how the big three (pack, tent, sleeping bag) ended up.  My ULA Catalyst is roomy for the bear can but I took out the plastic back support saving a pound.  I made the investment in a Western Mountaineering down bag and it was a good one.  I’m not yet convinced quilts have that much of an advantage, at least not enough to invest in one to save about 6 oz.  The one compromise was the tent over a tarp.  Ease of setup and built in bug protection carried the day.  The REI Quarter Dome one came in at only 2 lb. 2 oz. amking it the secound heaviest piece of gear.  I am still debating over my sleeping pad.  The Ridgerest is light but my old bones sure appreciate a self-inflatable.  That would add about 6 oz.

The Kitchen – 3.8 lb.

Here is where I will find out if anyone reads this stuff.  I DON’T GET THE ALCOHOL STOVES!!!  Check my previous article where I did a performance test between my super light and reliable MSR Pocket Rocket and my homemade alcohol stove.  My conclusion was whatever few oz. you spend on a stove/canister more than compensates for the amount of time… and fuel… it takes to heat water with alcohol.  The bear can is the obscene weight hog here at 2 lb 11 oz.  The rest of the kitchen is 1.1 lb.

The Closet – 3.9 lb.

I guess the biggest question here is whether to take the set of long johns.  They weigh almost a pound.  I like sleeping in them, even in the summer because they keep my bag clean.  I could save a half pound by using just the tee shirt and leaving the top.  The rain gear serves as wind protection.  The pants may get left home though since I tend to wear long pants hiking.  I don’t really need long johns AND rain pants for warmth.

Misc. – 1.5 lb.

The biggest weight here is my first aid kit at just over a pound.  It contains first aid stuff, personal grooming, sunscreen, Vitamin I  (ibuprofen), fire starter, duct tape etc.  I could shave an ounce or three here but I’m pretty good.

Camera Gear – 3.4 lb

This is my biggest debate over weight.  I love my Sony Alpha 6300 mirrorless camera.  It takes most of the pictures you see in this blog.  The iPhone does a great job and served me well in the Grand Canyon two years ago.  Plus they now make some pretty cool lenses for it that are reasonably priced.  My total base pack weight is 20 lb. so 3.4 lb. is a significant portion – almost 20%.  I really don’t have to decide until I hit the trailhead, which is probably when I’ll make it.

Plus, leaving the Sony at home would challenge me to shed one more pound to get to 15 lb base pack weight, which, with a bear can, would impress most any thru hiker on the PCT.


Gear List

That is all…

HikerHead 2

Strider Out…


The Bear Can

Bear CanisterThere are a number of things that make hiking out west different from hiking in the Smokies.  Elevation is one thing.  From what I can tell, I’ll be spending most of my time above 10,000 feet.  Mt. LeConte is 6594′.  Clingmans Dome is 6644′.  The tallest mountain in the east, Mitchell, is 6683′.

At those elevations, one spends a lot of time in the Sierras above tree line, which occurs around 9,500′.  No trees, no hammocks or bear bags.  And no bear cables like we are accustomed to in the Smokies.  But there ARE bears.

To that end, the Park Service and the National Forest Service require bear canisters for storage of all smellables like food, toothpaste, sunscreen, deodorant (deodorant, really???  People take deodorant???). No one ever talks about whether body odor smells like food to bears or mountain lions.

Bear canisters are available for rent, I have read, but I decided to go ahead and get my own.  I chose the Bear Vault BV 500.  I’m not sure what the “500” means.  It holds 700 or 11.5 liters and it’s 12.7 in high and 8.7 inches in diameter.  And… it weighs 2lb 11 oz. REI price: $80.

The upsides are it is guaranteed bear proof, although there are pictures in blogs where they have failed, you don’t have to hang a bear bag, and it provides a great seat upon which to rest while cooking dinner.  At the end of the day, you just set the can 200 feet away from the tent and hope no one plays overnight soccer with it.

The downsides – big and heavy and expensive.  The BV 500 is among the cheaper options.  They can go as high as $200 and weigh over 3.5 lb.  All this light weighting I am trying to employ goes away when you add nearly three pounds of food container, making it the heaviest single item in my pack.  And unlike a good water proof food bag, it does not get smaller when you eat the food.

That’s I have to say about that…

HikerHead 2


Shalom –

Strider out!

Of Birdsong and the Pulse of a Mechanical Heartbeat

I got home in the early afternoon on a cool day in April.  I went out on the back deck to check out the situation and there… there…

Had I not been able to see a thing, it would have still been a blessing because the chorus of birdsong rivaled anything ever composed by Handel or Rutter.  Wanting to bathe myself in this rich aural moment, I rushed back in to get my ENO and a couple books appropriate to savor the moment, some Wendell Berry and some John Muir.

The hammock  secure, I nestled in and began to listen.  To listen the way I used to when I mounted just the right record on my audiophile turntable and sat at the right angel to the speakers for optimal stereo separation and frequency response.  Except today, there were no electronics.  No technology.  No anti static record fluid.

It was sensational:

Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher……… Gibery, gibery, gibery – Gibery, gibery gibery

Chit        Chit, chit         Chit       Chit, chit, chit

A modal scale worthy of a John Coltrane solo, played over and over in perfect rhythm

A Harley Davidson winding out it’s gears

Beecher, beecher, beecher           Beecher, beecher, beecher        Beecher, beecher beecher

Pruit         Pruit          Pruit          A 737 engine climbing to altitude from McGee Tyson

We arrrre,  we arrrrrre, chibber, chibber, chibber

Caw caw caw caw caw

The 5 speed transmission of an old Ford pickup with a bad muffler, grinding it out

Burgee, burgee, burgee, burgee, burgee

A commercial lawn mower,  and a leaf blower

Another one      

A skill saw screaming

Urrrrr chee, chee, chee, chee, chee 

A train whistle       Slabs of wood being dropped in a pile    

A Bobcat spreading gravel at the new house down the street    

A hedge trimmer next door

Wheeee che de de de de de

A Japanese motorcycle bragging its horsepower through a high pitched whine

Dog….  no, dogs barking               The air conditioner across the street

An airplane droning across the sky        A police siren, or maybe a firetruck?

A constant low roar combining all this, times a hundred, spreading out from every direction,  sound waves moving in and out of phase –  the pulse of a mechanical heartbeat

I became aware of my shame as I seemed to be an expert in the noise of man, yet I could barely mimic the birdsong, knowing nothing of the artist that shared it.  My shame bore anger and the magic was gone.

The ENO was stuffed in its sack, the books were gathered and I returned to my box and shut the door.  At least it was quiet there, but the artificial kind of quiet that comes from a well insulated wall, not the stillness of a cool breeze whispering across a meadow.

The city is noisy.  But the birds do not care.  Their beautiful songs are inherent in their nature and they share freely and joyfully

With each other

With the rest of creation

I wish I could be more like they are.