All the small things

It is pretty incredible how the small things add up. And no, this isn’t a metaphor for life. I mean it could be, one day you’re fine and then the next week you have to buy a couple tires, replace the washer, find a roof leak and someone runs over your cat – and now you’re standing in the road hoping that truck hits you so the insurance company will pay out on your “traffic accident”.

But no – this is ALL about hiking. I used to have line-locks and some little metal clips on my hammock rainfly. The way it was supposed to work is I run the little tie out line around a tree or root or a tent stake, and clip it to itself, then pull the line and the locking thing would hold it tight. But they didn’t always hold up well. I finally got rid of the line-locks because they would slip in windy conditions. What I would have to do is pull the rope through the line lock tight, then make a little loop knot in the end by the lock. Why even have line locks at all?

So, I finally cut them all off. But I still had one of these on every rope.



Amazon sells these in packs and they are called “mitten hooks”. I started with plastic ones but in strong gusts the hook part would stretch open and the line would pop loose. So that is why I had metal ones to begin with. I had one on each tie-out line, and when I cut the line-locks off, I just clipped these to the loops on the sides of the rainfly.

On a tarp with doors that’s 8 of these. They don’t seem to weight much by themselves, but between them and the line locks, just going back to regular cords with no hardware saved me half a pound! Ouch!

People will say things about gear that really don’t make sense. “It weighs nothing!” Well, nothing weighs nothing, except maybe anti-gravitons, but those only exist in Star Trek. Everything you can put in your pack weighs SOMETHING, even if they weigh very little. And lots and lots of Very Littles wind up weighing a LOT.

For example, removing these things and my camp knife is enough so me to carry my small sword and break even. Or I could carry just the camp knife and save even more – 7 OUNCES more, nearly another half pound.

But really – if I want to save a LOT of weight, I need to get back on the slim fast, because its WAY easier to dump 15 pounds of me than to dump 5 pounds from the pack.

Stecoah Gap to Fontana Dam hike.

Back in November our group took a short overnight trip to Stecoah Gap. The hike itself was pretty short, only 15 miles, so we just did an easy overnight, with a short second day. I really like shorter last days so I can get home soon, and have lunch at the Mexican places on the way home. When we got dropped off, there was some frost on the ground.


The three of us were dropped off by a friend of ours at Stecoah Gap, on his way to Fontana Dam. I picked Stecoah because it’s halfway from Nantahala Outdoor Center to Fontana Dam, and I would be walking more downhill than uphill. We were dropped off at Stecoah Gap, then it was straight up and down right into the Jacob’s Ladder. There wasn’t a whole lot of flat, the first part of the day.

When we finally got to some flat section, it was very nice. We were way ahead of schedule when we got to Cable Gap Shelter. It was only about 230pm when we arrived at Cable Gap. We decided to keep going and around dusk we wound up at Walker Gap. Walker gap has a very small flat area where two trails come together. It was just enough flat area for a tent, and I went off to the side and hung my hammock. There was a little fire ring, but no water, so we didn’t try a fire. I got in the hammock and watched movies and such until I fell asleep.

The following morning was supposed to be cold, but when we woke up, there was no frost on the ground, and it actually felt warmer than the night before. From Walker Gap it was all downhill until the Fontana Crossing where the road was, then it was a little uphill and downhill to the dam itself, called “the most depressing mile”. You’re ready to arrive at the dam and you still have to go up another hill.

The dam itself was incredible. Despite the fact they had drawn down the water, the lake was beautiful. I had enough time to walk down the dam and back before our ride arrived, and it was quite impressive to be standing on the dam. It was a nice winter hike with almost no one else on the trail. IMG_9888.jpg

Wow – so its been a while.

Okay so what’s been going on with me? After my last post in July, the wife had some serious medical issues and thankfully all those got figured out. Then it was summer and I just didn’t feel like writing for a long time. I guess I didn’t have much to say, since I didn’t hike all summer. But then fall arrived and everything got busy with the sunup to the holidays. I finally went hiking a couple times, and I’ve been making knives on and off. Then Christmas… But now its a new year, new start.

First of all – Video. If you go back and read some of my older hiking posts, you’ll see videos attached. Most of them have started disappearing, unfortunately, because of the way Vimeo screwed people over. I started deleting stuff, and moving over to YouTube. Yeah, I know, I hate YouTube too. BUT – they don’t force ads in the middle unless you monetize video, and I’ll never do that. They also don’t really care if you use copyrighted music in your videos, if you do, they simply divert any ad revenue from pre-video ads to the owner of the music. So – Win Win!

My latest video on there is my hiking video – Deep Gap to Winding Stair Gap. That will connect you to the rest of my “channel” if you are wanting to see what I’ve put up. I really find it funny that YouTube chose the image below as the “thumbnail” for the video. This was just in the middle of the trail… I’ve never seen a sign like this just off the side of the trail. There’s no privy, no national forest style pit toilet, just a clearing in the woods where you can dig a hole…


Second – Knives. I have made a few knives for people at work, and some for x-mass gifts. I tried making a knife web site here on WordPress but it was damn near impossible for me to figure out. What a PAIN in the ass! So I went and got an Amazon Seller account. But I was waiting until I had a few knives to sell, and when I didn’t add anything for a couple months, they suddenly dropped my account and deleted everything. It looks like I’ll just have to set up an ETSY account sometime in the future. I cut myself pretty good back in September and had to have stitches. Dumbass me for not wearing gloves while trying to use the angle grinder. Not the the angle grinder got me, but I got myself on a sharp piece of metal.

Hiking – I haven’t done that much, what with summer and all. BUT – I did a November AND a December hike. I love winter hiking because less crowds, no bugs, and most of the plants that might sting or itch me are dead. On of the videos is above. I have a few more videos on my YouTube thing that you might fin interesting if you like to winter hike. They involve how to copy YouTube videos and Streaming Video onto your phone, to take with you in the woods.

Writing – in general. I haven’t done a lot lately. Amazon combined “create space” and Kindle Publishing and I’m not sure where my stuff went. I’m working on another version of “how not to backpack:backpacking the AT”, as well as finishing the edits on the first of a trilogy called “Welcome to Purg” which a friend of mine started probably 15 years ago. Then I have another one that’s sort of along the lines of the 100 Cupboards series, meets Mrs. Peregrine’s… but that’s a ways down the road, I’m only up to page 40. Between Xmass knives and Ham Radio and everything, I haven’t had much time to write…

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Making Progress


Today was a good day for knives.

First of all I finished redoing my Oxo knife. It broke a month ago. It’s a cheap plastic-handled chefs knife we got 23 years ago when the wife and I married. I like the knife but the handle sucked and finally broke. I ground down the back side of the blade last week and glued a new wood handle on. Today I finished polishing the blade a bit and smoothed our the handle. It’s a great knife, if shorter.

I also got an order of leather and a leather working kit from Amazon. I made my first leather sheath today. No wood scabbard, all pure leather. It was fun and I only poked myself with a needle once.


The knife I made a few months ago. I just needed a sheath and this was a good first test.

Lastly, I finished the wooden core of a scabbard for a sword I’m working on. This has been an awesome project but i’m ready to be done with it and start new stuff. I need to do the leather cover and belt, and clean the brass and finish polishing the blade.



life in the forge

Its been a while since I hiked, mainly because summer freaking sucks. I mean, for two weeks its been over 95 degrees with like 905 percent humidity. So no hiking for me. Even in the mountains there are heat advisories. I’ll stick to three season hiking… fall, winter, spring. And I’ll leave the fourth season to those hardy enough and with a low enough body fat percentage that the sweat just rolls off their perfectly sculpted figures.

I’ve bee playing a bit with my home forge stuff and have really been having some fun with it. Pounding on metal is actually sort of fun. I started out making a set of forge tongs. The tongs I had before were pretty good, but they only had a 14″ handle and were just one shape. There are times when its better to have different shaped tongs, for different things. Also – tongs are pretty damn expensive, like $45 and up for one pair. So, I bought a kit. There were five different kinds of tongs and the advertisement said “you just finish them off” which I assumed meant “drill a hole and insert the rivet. No. Not even close.

The tongs below came as flat bars of steel with the basic tong shape cut into it. The first thing I had to do was heat them red hot, then clamp in a vice and twist the ends up vertically. Not an easy process with big gloves on, and you’re trying not to drop a red hot piece of steel on yourself or something else, while you clamp it down and bend it before it loses heat. Its really amazing how fast steel goes from red hot to black. That’s when the steel waits to get you. The best thing to do when working steel is always assume anything around the bench is either really sharp or really hot, and it’s just waiting to hurt you. So, I banged out the two sets of tongs below, and I’m just waiting on time to make the next pair, by which I mean sometime about 7am on a saturday when I get the chance to try and beat the heat.






Along with tongs, I’m trying to finish up a couple of projects. One below is a Kukri, which is commonly carried by persons in India, specifically a group of people called the Ghurka. In fact, it’s often referred to as a Ghurka. This one represents the biggest knife I have made. It was cut and ground out of one piece of steel plate, not forged into that shape. I don’t forge anything bigger than tongs right now. It still needs a handle, and a leather cover over the wooden scabbard.



The last piece I just started messing with is a railroad spike knife. I was given a bucket of scrap bits, which included the railroad spike and the file you see in the background. The file will become a dagger, but I’m trying to keep as much of the triangle pattern as I can. The bottom half will be a double-bevel taditional dagger shape, but with a flat rear side with the triangle imprints from the rasp. The top 1/3 of the front I’m going to try and leave round, so you see the triangle imprints. Doing the distal taper is going to be a real challenge on this to make it look right while keeping the file look to the blade. I’m going to give it some sort of fantasy name – something “Hobbit-y” or “Game of Thrones” like. Dragon’s Spear? Wyrms Fang? Not sure, but the little triangles look like scales, so definitely a dragon theme.

The railroad spike is a real challenge. First of all – railroad spikes make crap blades. There’s just no way around it. They are crap iron that makes good railroad spikes, but the steel wont hold an edge worth a damn. Still, they are a good introduction to pounding out a blade, and some people like them because they recognize what they came from. If you think the twist is easy… its not. Same deal as the tongs. Put it in the forge, and then heat to an orange color. Then grab with the tongs (with big welding gloves on both hands because the forge is damn hot), rush to the vice, clamp it in the vice, and grab the neck of the thing with the tongs. Try and twist the head all the way around while it cools. Amazingly, the spiral stays pretty symmetrical. Then it’s back to the forge, reheat, and start pounding the side flat so there’s an actual blade there. That’s the hard part, especially since I don’t have a real anvil, and I’m hitting the damn thing on my vice.


And that’s life in the forge. Or, my carport, anyway.



The nice thing about having the big concrete block forge at the house is I can heat treat big things like cutlasses and swords. The crappy thing about it, is it wastes a whole lot of charcoal and takes forever to light if I’m just doing an 8 inch knife.

Enter the Propane Bottle Forge:

Basically what you do (and there are 400 youtube videos about it) is get a propane bottle, make it safe to drill and cut into, and then cut holes and turn it into a forge body. After that’s done, you line it with insulation and install some burners, and power the whole thing with propane.


I started with a 30 pound tank, which I ordered from Lowes. Most people use either a 20 or 30 pound tank. I wanted a little extra space for longer blades. You can’t see the back, but there’s a small slot about 4” by 1.5” so a long sword blade could slide through.

Since my tank was new, I didn’t have to try and use up the gas, then remove the valve and fill it with water. My tank had air in it, and was under a partial vacuum. All I had to do was open the pressure relief valve and then drill a hole in the top, before getting the angle grinder out and cutting the guards off either end. once the guards were off, i cut the holes in the ends and filed them smooth.

The next part was the burners. I looked all over the youtube, and eventually found what I needed. The pipe parts are all at Lowe’s. My burners are 3/4” pipes with bell reducers on the ends. On the top, I had to turn an iron pipe plug into a holder for the burner jet. I used my angle grinder and my belt grinder to cut away and smooth parts of the iron plug. Iron Plugs grind really easily.

Then I had to by the little brass connectors and reducers. Brass parts get expensive! The toughest part was getting the mig welding tip into the brass reducer. I finally was able to drill the reducer out just a little and then file down part of the .035” welding tip. Screwing the brass reducer into the brass elbow with the welding tip inside was enough to hold it very secure.

The burners go through the tank through a couple of pipes. I bought a single conduit nipple and cut it in half. I’ve never drilled and tapped anything before, but in each burner holder tube I drilled and tapped two sets of three holes, offset by 60 degrees, and one inch apart. So each burner holder has six points of contact, to keep the burner pipe secure. I just bought a tap kit, which had a 3/16” bit and a tap for 1/4” bolts. I drilled the holes then clamped the tap into my hand drill and twisted it into the holes. It took about 20 minutes to do all the holes in the iron pipes.

I drilled two holes in the tank and had to file them out because my hole saw was slightly undersized. The burner holders went in and locked in place with Conduit Locking Rings (lowes).

With everything assembled I connected the other tank to the burners and fired it up with no insulation, just for a few seconds. The burners looked good, nice blue cone shaped flame at 10psi.

Now it was time to strip the tank. I banged out two sets of legs from strips of mild steel, and bolted them in place. Mild Steel (in the steel bin at Lowe’s) bends okay without being heated. I stripped the propane tank using a sanding disc on my angle grinder. It took about 45 minutes and I got white paint everywhere. Afterwards I cleaned it off really well with acetone and primed and painted everything with high temperature spray paint.

The next step was to insulate it. This was something difficult, as I didn’t do my forge like a lot of people on youtube. Online they cut the end off the tank, line it with insulation, then weld the end back on. I don’t have a welder, so I had to do everything through the end hole. I bought 5 feet of 2 inch thick by 2 feet wide Kaowool. It’s a kiln insulation, and looks like a blanket online but it’s very dense. I measured the circles for the ends (12 inch diameter) and cut them out with a hacksaw blade. I tried several things and the hacksaw blade seemed to cut it the best without tearing the wool up too badly.

After I rolled up the back end and shoved it in the hole and unfolded it, I measured and cut the blanket for the inside. I had to cut it in two parts because I couldn’t fit the folded full piece through the hole. Once that was inside, I folded the front piece, put it through the hole, and unfolded it. Finally everything was jammed in place, and it was off to the shower. Kaowool itches worse than pink fiberglas insulation.

The last steps were to paint paint the whole thing black and then seal the kaowool with a cement called Satanite. I cut the blanket at the top with the hole saw so the burners could poke through. The painting part was easy, just spray it on. The Satanite wasn’t too bad itself. Take the dirt looking powder, mix it in a container until it has the thickness of sour cream, and then brush it inside the forge with an old paintbrush. I did one coat and left it to dry in the South Carolina sun. The next day I built up a second coat. After a couple of days I double checked the burner connections and it was time to start the curing process.

First you fire up the burners until the kaowool starts steaming. Then you shut them down and let everything cool. Then you do it again until there’s no more steam coming out. The purpose of the cement stuff is to hold the wool in place so the little fibers don’t float around at 2000 degrees, burn you and give you lung cancer.

Once the cement is completely dried out and cured, you bring the forge up to full operating temperature. I replaced the plug on the back end and partially covered the front end, and let the forge rip. The satanite glows red and gets really scary looking.

After the first time, I got a piece of ceramic tile and put it in the bottom. Then i put a small scrap of steel on the tile and heated everything up to a bright red. It didn’t take long.

Overall I’m happy with the process, learned a little bit, and now I have a tool that I can use for smaller knives.

Hot Tub Time Machine – except for the time machine part…

Its too hot to hike, too dry outside to grind steel to make knives, and I finished all my Ham Radio projects for the time being…  so it’s time to relax.

When the wife and I got married one of the first improvements to the house (23 years ago) was a hot tub (also called a spa) outside. It was a lot of work, but nothing very difficult. I had to wire up a 20 amp outlet outside, with its GFCI outlet. Then I poured my own pad with pre-mix concrete (just add water and stir!) and we trucked in the spa and plopped it down and plugged it in.

Over the years it has been a lot of fun but it’s also given me some challenges. The motor stopped working once, and it was a while before I dug it out of the bowels of the thing and took it for repair ($75). Then it was the digital control pad and temperature display up top. The hot tub filled up too much at one point and water seeped into the display, killing it. So I replaced it ($150). Then the motor I previously repaired finally gave up the ghost and I replaced the whole motor ($300). After replacing the motor, the hot tub worked great for six months and the controller burned out.

The controller board is the single most expensive part of the “guts” of a spa.  Replacement controllers aren’t even available for my unit, but they can cost upwards of $750 for controller boards for some brands. The controller takes the information from the temperature probes, turns on and off the motor and heater, and sometimes controls an air blower and even the lights, so they have a big job.

BUT – my spa is SIMPLE. There’s no heater, no air blower. The air/water jets work through a venturi system, so you control the amount of air in the jet’s stream by turning a little air valve knob on the top of the spa. The water is heated through transconductance – the motor turning under the spa heats the air under the spa and the water warms up through the fiberglass due to the warm motor. I increased the efficiency of the spa a few years ago by adding a light bulb socket. Then the motor comes on, a 100 watt light bulb goes on as well, adding some additional heat. The digital display on my spa had a temperature display, a button to turn on the light, and a button to turn on the motor IF the spa was already warm enough.

So all I really need is something that will turn on the motor when the temperature gets too low. What does that? A thermostat.

So I found the above thermostat on Amazon. Looks good, runs off of 120v, and has two separate relays inside, completely separate from the rest of the unit. It doesn’t put out 120volts when the circuit closes, all it does is turn a switch on an off. You CAN wire stuff to share the 120 volt input, but you don’t have to.


BUT – the Spa motor needs 15amps, which would overpower the switch and melt stuff.  So I need one of these…. basically a larger version of the switch inside the thermostat. I can use the thermostat to send a 12 volt signal to this relay. This big thing will then switch up to 40 amps… but since I’m only putting 15 amps through it, it will stay cool and happy.

I’ll also need a bypass switch, just like the old controller had. Because if the spa is already warm enough that the motor doesn’t need to run, you still need to be able to turn the motor on manually, because a hot tub without the jets is just a big ass bathtub outside. and THAT’s the reason for running the hot tub motor relay with 12 volts instead of 120 volts. Because 12 volts won’t kill you. Trust me, go outside stick your finger in your car’s lighter socket, you know, the thing that you plug your phone charger into. See, you don’t scream in agony. If you try the same thing with a light bulb socket (which would be a terrible idea), you’ll probably scream in agony, might pee yourself, and risk a sudden onset of death. So, bypass switch on the spa… 12 volts.

The last thing the spa needs is a way to get rid of excess heat. The maximum temperature of a hot tub is supposed to be 105 degrees, for your safety. Because when you sit in the tub, your body absorbs some of the heat. If you’ve ever had a terrible fever of 104 or so, you know how delirious and tired you feel. So water over 105 can give your brain the effect of having a bad fever, cause you to become lethargic, and in severe cases, render you unable to get out of the tub, so you drown.

In the south in the summertime, we can easily hit 103 for several days in August. Add to that a dark spa cover and you could easily get water temps over safe limits. The spa is supposed to not run if the water is over 105, so you would say to yourself, “Maybe I shouldn’t get in.” I’m adding a vent fan, and maybe a red warning light. Since the thermostat has a “cool” relay as well, if the temperature of the water goes over 105, I can have it switch on a fan inside the spa, which will pull in outside air and exhaust warm spa air, cooling the underside of the spa and helping to lower the water temperature.

So for less than $100, three trips to the hardware store, half a day of sitting in the hot sun and sand next to my hot tub, and waiting two days on Amazon Prime, I should be able to get the hot tub fixed.

If this is my last post, you know I messed up somewhere.


Oh the places You’ll Go

Way back when Cellular phones were called “Car Phones” because they were hard wired to the car, or came in fanny-pack sized packages with a lighter plug, and only nerds had Wi-Fi at home, there was no google maps on the go. You either had a dash mounted GPS or even a big paper thing called a MAP. New maps were often free at state welcome centers, and could be purchased at gas stations.

Back then, trip planning was tough. Then along came Microsoft “Streets and Trips”.

I miss Streets and Trips.

Sure, Google maps and the convenience of apps like Waze, with constantly updated traffic and hazard avoidance are GREAT for on the road. But they suck for multiple day trips.

Say you want to drive to several places over a week, like a tour across the Southeast or New England. Suddenly we are back to 1990, when you either make an excel spreadsheet, or write it down on paper, or even a notepad file on your phone. What happened to the convenience of Streets and Trips?

The trip planner of the late 1990s was like a dozen Google Searches all rolled up into one. You could put in a route and it would give you directions. Tell it how many miles you get to the gallon, and how big your tank was, and it would warn you about where you would need to find gas. You could tell it you were stopping overnight, or at a restaurant for about an hour. Then print the whole thing out and you would have turn-by-turn directions for the whole trip.

Later versions turned your laptop into sort of a giant GPS screen, showing you exactly where you were, while you were driving. Assuming of course you had a GPS that would plug in to the laptop, and a power inverter in the car, because laptop batteries of the 1990s lasted about 2 hours before the things died.

So, I miss that convenience. Planning a trip is half the fun, especially somewhere new. It would be nice if something like that still existed that would work with modern devices – a program (oops, thats an “app” now) that would sit on the ipad and use the best of google maps, waze, and a database of some sort so you could plan a ten day road trip down to the hour and day.

It was good enough for the Clark family as they drove to Wally World, why isn’t it good enough for us?


Oh, Oh, Its (trail) magic.

On April 20th I went on my first backpacking trip in a while. It was designed as an overnight with a short second day so I could get home before it got too late. It was my second solo trip, and provided me with some new experiences. “Solo” isn’t the best word for Spring on the Appalachian Trail. There aren’t many places you can go on the southern sections in April and be truly alone. I must have seen 25-30 people.


I get up at 330am and head to Georgia, to make my Shuttle ride with time to spare. I had to stop at a Wal-Mart for a couple of things outside Greenville, including Immodium because my stomach was not happy with me for some reason. Great – having the poops on the trail would be fun. It worked very well though, and stopped me up.

The shuttle driver arrived 15 minutes early, right when I was pulling into the parking area. I had to rush around to change and get the pack in her car, and in the process, lost my car keys. I did a thorough search, to no avail, and finally gave up and grabbed the spare key from its hidden spot. I always hide a key in a spot so hard to find it would take a thief forever to find it. That way even if I lose my pack in a river or an animal drags it off at night, I can at least break my window with a rock and go home.

After a short ride from Unicoi Gap to Dick’s Creek, she dropped me off and I realized that my pack was soaking wet on the back. I figured I had left my water bag valve open and it lay on it. No – by the time I walked over to the picnic table at the side of the road, I could smell it. It was denatured alcohol. I checked my stove fuel bottle, and sure enough, the lid had flipped open during the ride, and I was out of fuel. Thankfully, unlike water, it would all evaporate quickly, but now I was going to be trying to cook without fuel.

As it turns out, there were a few hikers at a van packing up to go somewhere. I yelled over to them and asked about fuel. One of them met me with a can of the same stuff I use from Wal-Mart, and gave me a few ounces to get through the night. As I finished up, another of their group ran over to me with a cardboard box, and asked if I wanted the last doughnut.

They say “The trail will provide”. Unanticipated luck, finding a ride at just the right moment, encountering someone out of nowhere that is able to help you, or having things suddenly go the right way is called “Trail Magic”.  Sometimes people call Hiker Feeds “trail magic”, but that’s not really what the term was coined to mean. Having someone that just happened to have a big jug of the fuel I use… that’s Trail Magic. It was already raining lightly, so I got out my rain jacket, which was also wet from fuel. Great – very stongly scented clothing. I’m sure a bear wouldn’t find that interesting at all.

I started out at Dick’s Creek Gap in Georgia, heading south towards Unicoi Gap, a distance of right about 17 miles. I like going south against the thru-hiker attemptees. You meet more of them, and you don’t constantly play leapfrog with the same people all day. The first obstacle was Kelly Knob. This is the same hill that kicked my ass last year and made me give up and go to a hotel. This year, I was starting fresh, instead of being on Day 2 of an already tough trip. Its 1500 feet up from Dick’s Creek, and although its a four mile hike, there are some downs in there too, so the ups are steeper than a flat 1500 foot/4 mile climb. There are several places where rocks and logs are placed like steps across the trail.


I made it to Kelly knob, and stopped for a rest. It was nearly lunch, I was tired, and the rain had turned to a wintry mix of snow/sleet. There was a lull in the precipitation, so I pulled out my Ham radio and set it up, right there on top of the mountain, off the trail. I made a couple of contacts, so I know it works fine. I wanted to try to do a “Summit on the Air” activation, but this weekend was the Michigan ham party (called a “QSO Party”, where people in Michigan try to talk to as many other counties in Michigan as they can, as well as other states. The frequencies were clogged with people already using them. I finally found a clear frequency, and called several times. I couldn’t get an answer and it started sleeting heavy. With no way to keep all my stuff dry, I figured I would try again a little later. It was then that two guys in yellow traffic jackets walked up.



There was an injured hiker, they said. Someone had hurt their knee yesterday and was sheltering in place, but no one could find the person. Supposedly they were in a blue tent off the trail. I hadn’t seen a blue tent today, but I hadn’t gone off trail either. I hadn’t even got off trail to find Deep Gap shelter. I told them I would keep an eye out, and if I found them I could get on the ham radio again, if there was no phone service. Up until this point, phone service was okay. On most of the hills I had a signal, although right there on Kelly Knob, nothing.

So down Kelly Knob into Addis Gap, the heavy sleet had stopped and it turned into light snow flurries. It was strange because nothing was sticking, when it hit plants or the ground it would melt. But everything was muddy, slippery, and wet. Down through Addis Gap I saw the rescue truck on a forest service road, complete with a stretcher. I passed a few northbounders and let them know about the problem, and if they saw someone hurt just to relay it to the yellow coats people. One lady said she had seen a man hiking south that looked in bad shape, with just a mylar Space Blanket wrapped around himself. Hopefully he made it to the road or they had already taken him. I never saw him.

Down Kelly Knob, up Round top, across the “Swag of the Blue Ridge” and over to Tray Mountain shelter was another 1000 foot climb, and 6 miles of smaller ups and downs. The last push up towards the shelter was tough. I passed the same two yellow coats I had seen on Kelly Knob, again hiking north. They had been joined by two others and were convinced the tent was somewhere between Addis Gap and Tray Mountain. They told me the shelter was really full, and I said I was heading over the hill and down to Indian Grave Gap, wjhich would give me only 3 miles to do tomorrow. It was barely 5pm, and I had at least three more hours of daylight.


All the recent rain did me good, as well. I thought I was going to have to go off trail, past the shelter, to get to the only water source listed in the book for Tray Mountain. But, on the way up just past the rescue group was a spot where water drains off the higher parts of the mountain. These are often dry except during the wettest weather. Since my camelbak was empty and I was on my “reserve bottle” I keep outside the pack, the water was a welcome sight. I stopped and put 2 liters in my pack and headed up and over the hill.


Down Tray Mountain to Indian Grave was 2.5 miles and 1400 feet. It was a long grueling descent, painful on the knees and thighs.  I stopped just after the peak and went off to the side to cook my supper. I was starving, hadn’t eaten much, and knew I needed the fuel so my wobbly legs didn’t give out. Afterwards, I ran into a few more people, but it was after 5 and most seemed to be stopping to claim camping spots. I ran into two women in their 20s going up the hill. When I stopped to let them pass, their dog found an interest in me. I told them, if they were going to the shelter, that I was told it was full. They said they were going to the top then back down to Indian Grave Gap to camp. I said I was thinking of camping there too, and they said “see you there!” and we all parted ways.


When I reached the bottom it was just after 6 and I looked at the trail. Only 2.5 more miles. I weighed my options. I could go ahead and stop and set everything up, in the rain. I have done rain and there’s no problem with rain, but I would be drying wet gear out all over the house. I knew I needed to get home as early as possible tomorrow as my daughter had a hospital thing to do early Monday. The thought of the dog running around the camping area wasn’t that thrilling, and there wouldn’t be a shelter or fire to sit around. The only obstacle in the way was Rocky Mountain. Although the trail was only 2.5 miles long (usually about an 80 minute walk), I had to go up 900 feet and back down 1100 feet to get to the car.

I hadn’t done a 17 mile day in a LONG time. It was also about this time that a notion formed in my head, and my brain convinced me it was true. So – when I returned to the car from the shuttle driver and lost my keys, my brain conjured up an image of me sitting the keys on the roof by the driver’s door. If that was true, anyone that found the keys would have a free car. Although Vandalism is always a possibility, a more likely scenario in my mind would be someone coming through checking doors to see if they are locked. So all that convinced me. Make a break for it.

Woe was me… Rocky mountain seemed a lot more brutal than I had figured. I had run through most of my water again, but I stopped 2/3 of the way up and just sat down right beside the trail to finish the last of my food (except what was cookable for breakfast) and drink from a spring off the side. It was everything I needed. I had looked at the elevation map on my phone 3 times and thought I would never make it. It was one of those trails that you think you’re almost to the top, you round a corner and theres a whole mountain still in front of you. And of course, every time there was supposed to be a good view, it was shrouded in mist.


After my rest break, it was only about another 150 feet to the top, all scrambling over wet rocks and trying to find the trail in the dwindling darkness. I told myself that if the other side of the hill was like this, I may have to give up and stop at the first trees I could find. It was nearly dusk and I didn’t want to get lost. The other side wasn’t as bad. When I topped the hill and started down, it was a good steep incline, but lots of regular trail with a few rock steps here and there. I turned on my headlamp about a mile from the car, as it was too dark to see clearly.

The mist and fog that held out all day long was still there, fogging my glasses and making it harder to see every time I breathed out. The landscape made for unforgiving camping, and there was a LOT of water rushing across the trail in spots. I could hear a nice creek nearby, but my crappy Lowes headlamp only let me see about 15 feet in front of me at any one time. It didn’t seem like a good place to stop unless you had to. The last half a mile was full on, black dark. I could hear cars going by and see headlights below, and I finally stepped out into the gravel parking lot.

The car was there!

I grabbed the key out the pack, started the car for some heat, and changed my clothes. Everything was wet, either from rain/snow or from sweat. I hadn’t taken my rain jacket off all day. I dug around and found some food in the car, some Toast-Chees or something, and I had my post-hike water in there as well. I texted the wife I was at the car and I would take a nap and then head home at first light. Once the car was warm, I leaned the seat back, pulled out my top quilt, shut the car off and fell asleep. I woke up at 2am thinking it was getting light, but no, it was the full moon out lighting up everything. I fell back asleep until 6, then drove home.

Even though I cheated and “car camped”, I was glad I did. Facing Rocky Mountain first thing Sunday morning would have been awful, with sore legs and a night in the hammock. Georgia is DONE. I’m glad, too, because everywhere in Georgia is so inconvenient for me to get to. I have two spots in North Carolina south of the Smokies that are the same way, but then anything else is up towards Virginia, and mostly interstate driving.

It was hiking in Beast Mode for sure. 17 miles for a weekender is no mean feat. I went up a total of almost a mile, and came down a total of just under a mile. And – I got to use my radio to actually talk in the woods, which was a lot of fun. Oh, and that missing key? It had fallen into that void between the seats. It took a really bright flashlight and five minutes of searching just to find it.

The Trekstion display.

Recently on the facebook uBitx ham radio group, there was a discussion about replacing the stock LCD screen with a touchscreen display that seemed to make running the thing easier, and displayed a lot more information. But, I didn’t want to risk my current radio by screwing around with it.

As luck would have it, someone was selling their uBitx radio kit, complete with enclosure, knobs, and partially assembled, for a lot less than the bare bones kits coming from India. He said he just didn’t have the time to mess with it. So we worked out a deal and I got his radio kit. I was pretty impressed with the little case, and there was room for other stuff.

The case came with a power supply to run it from 120v wall power, but since I always run the uBitx from a 12 volt supply, I left the wall supply out. On the  right side, in the big clear space, I decided to put a computer case fan. Since the front of the box was clear, and everything else was blue, I got a PC fan with blue LEDs to light the whole thing up.

I also added the same power boosting board that I always use on the uBitx, to squeeze a bit more juice out of the power transistors. Right now its set up to feed the transistors with 20 volts instead of 12. They can handle up to 30, I think, but I didn’t want to tax them too hard. With 20volts in, they push right around 20 watts of radio power out, which is twice what the original output is set for.

In the front, you can see the hole for the original 16 character, 2 row screen. Thankfully  it is  easy to remove, as it just slots in with some pins. The replacement screen is by a company call Nextion, which makes touch-sensitive screens for a variety of industries. They even provide a simple programming interface. There is already a set of files for the little onboard computer that lets the screen and radio talk to each other. Someone else already did the hard work.

The uBitx is controlled by an arduino, a little computer on a chip that is often used to create simple projects and help people learn about programming and such. Its the little blue board to the right of the above pictures, and its not much bigger than a USB flash drive. The Arduino talks to the monitor through two wires, blue and yellow, above, through a serial port. The monitor has its own computer and control software.

Programming the Nextion screen was pretty easy. Again, most of the work had been done already by other hams and engineers, so all I really have to do is make backgrounds and move the click-boxes around so the old stuff and new stuff match up. The table above is the frequency change page, with all the little labelled click-boxes.

As popular as Star Trek and Star Trek computer stuff is online, it was really easy to make a new background in PhotoShop, put it into the programming interface, and move the click-boxes into position. My screen is bigger than the original, about 4.5″ versus the setup of 2.5″, so I had some extra room to play with on the sides of the images. Below was my first screen, completed. LCARS – for those not complete nerds, is Star Trek’s “Library Computer Access and Retrieval System”. Its basically their name for the computer system that runs the ship.

After finishing that screen, I did the main screen, which you spend most of the time looking at and running the radio from. After figuring out where I messed up and fixing several things, I uploaded the data to the display and waited. Then I rebooted it, and the Trexion  display was born.

So there it is sitting on the desktop, the red light in the background is just the power light for the Arduino and its board. Unfortunately, the screen pulls more power than the little LCD, and it wasn’t long before I almost overheated the arduino’s voltage regulator. The screen started flickering, and I unplugged everything.  So I had to get a 12v to 5v converter, which will mount next to the fan. I can power the screen separately from the arduino, which will keep it from burning out important stuff.

While I wait on parts and keep working on the case, I’ll redo a few more screens. There are at least two more common screens I want to work on, but there are about 5 I’ll almost never use.

This would make a decent road radio for car camping or even parking lot activations, but its too heavy and the power consumption is a bit much for backpacking. But its a fun engineering challenge.