How about some Raspberry Pi for dessert?

A while back – around X-mass I guess, I got a Raspberry Pi microcomputer. I played with it a bit and then put it aside to work on other stuff. But recently I started messing around with it a bit, trying to learn some programming and such.

That’s it in the picture below, on the left side of the keyboard. Completely self contained, about the size of an iPhone but maybe three times as thick in its case. 4 USB ports, ethernet, WiFi, even bluetooth, and no fans needed, just a little metal finned heat sink. It comes with an HDMI port which means it will plug into any modern TV, but I bought an HMDI-to-Monitor cable for it so it will work on my monitor. It runs off a USB port plug, or a cell phone charger at 2 amps! The black box on the right is a 1 Terabyte Hard Drive.

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So, what can I do with the Pi? I’ve learned a tad bit of Python programming, mainly controlling what happens in a small version of Minecraft that comes with the computer. I’ve followed instructions online and built a practice morse code keyer, which will use a python program to read what you punch in, and print the letters back to you. Useful if you wanted to become a licensed ham operator I guess.

I’ve messed a bit with the GPS card I bought for it. It was cheap too. The problem is, I can’t get the GPS to initialize on it’s own. Oh I can get it to work pretty well, but every time I reboot the thing I have to type in a few complex Linux commands to restart the GPS software.

It should work, I shouldn’t have to drop into a terminal window and type

sudo gaps /dev/ttyUSB0 -F /var/run/gpsd.sock

to get a reading from the GPS. That’s just crazy.

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Maybe I’ll figure it out sooner or later. There’s a nice series of instructions for encoding GPS signals and sending them to a wireless device, the type that people have been using to send weather balloons into the edge of space and recovering the camera and such later. Also useful if you wanted to track anything moving, like cars or something.

So I gave up on that after several hours of headaches, and decided to try something simple. Networking should be easy, right? I’m not a super computer geek, but I know a bit about Windows. It didn’t take me very long on Windows to share a hard drive across my home network, so I could copy music and movies and such back and forth. My wife got a Macbook and I did the same thing, so she can move files and fonts back and forth for her craft machine.

But no matter what youtube instructions I watched and what forums I read, I couldn’t get into the darn shared drive of my Raspberry. I could see it, but it wouldn’t let me in.

A word about drive space: The raspberry comes with very limited memory – only 8 or 16gb on a micro SD card, and a portion of that is taken up by the operating system. But – I got a bigger card (32gb) and copied the files over. So I have a little breathing room. With the USB ports, though, you can use flash drives or hard drives to greatly expand its storage. I found some instructions online about creating a cheap Network Attached Storage system. I wanted a central drive that I could put any files on and get them anywhere across the home network, plus it would be something I could take with me on a trip and watch movies on a TV or play music.

Raspberry comes with a simplistic windows-looking desktop (think windows 3.1, not windows 8) that lets you do some basic things graphically, although most of what you have to do with the thing involves using linux commands from the terminal window. If you have a Mac, the Mac Operating System is basically the same thing. You can open a Mac terminal and enter commands. Don’t: because if you type something wrong you could trash your computer. Linux is unforgiving. Once you type in your command and enter the password, it does exactly what you ask it to, as wrong as it was.

Raspberry’s free OS is a bit lacking in the help department, and everything I found online was telling me to do different things to share a drive. Finally I ran across a thread where someone said, “I messed with the raspberry for hours and hours and couldn’t make it work. I loaded Ubuntu and did it in 30 minutes”.

U what Bu? This was intriguing, anything had to be better than the Raspberry’s faux-Windows. I loaded Ubuntu onto the thing. Ubuntu is basically another linux-based operating system. It just looks a little different and is somewhat more user friendly. Oh yeah, and it’s free too. All this Linux stuff is free, which is nice, but because so many people program Linux stuff, you never know what might work and what might not work. Also, some things WONT work, like my Wacom Graphics tablet. There’s no Linux driver for it.

Unfortunately I loaded Ubuntu on the Raspberry FROM the Raspberry, which is a bit like trying to put your car in neutral and change the engine  while it’s running. I crashed it something bad, pulled out the memory card and loaded everything on the card using the Mac and a free tool online called (oddly enough…) PiFiller. No terminal commands to type, because one slip-up and I could write the Raspberry files as my Mac’s OS and lose everything.

At the end of the day (actually about 2am) I had an Ubuntu Desktop, which I modified to look a little matrix-y.

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Ubuntu comes with the same free stuff that the original Raspberry system has, but it has a better web browser at least, and more on board commands that you can use graphically, such as moving and deleting files. It has a simple right-click menu for sharing drives, once you download the right file-sharing add-on. Ubuntu also comes with “Software Center”, something akin to the App Store on your cell phone. Need something? Browse the software center and click on it. Of course, Ubuntu runs on MANY computers, and doesn’t really care what it’s on. I doubt the Raspberry could handle some of the stuff, like Non-Linear Video Editing or Multichannel Audio Mixing. I did try Gimp (think Photoshop, for free) and it worked pretty well.

So, once I finally got the right OS loaded and everything working, I shared a drive, added myself as a user for the drive (linux is touchy with security. With Windows, you can let anyone in with no passwords. Linux is more security conscious with who can do what), and went to my Mac. Boom, there was my drive. Actually, I have several drives shared across the network. In the photo below the “16gb share” is the extra 16 gb part of the 32gb card in the raspberry itself. It goes everywhere with the raspberry. So it’s like a built in flash drive.

The drive you don’t see is my 1TB drive (because I unplugged it for the night) called BigAssDrive. But if I plug it in, it shows right back up and I can log into it and access it.

The other two drives are on my old windows XP machine. It desperately needs an upgrade. At this point it’s only real use is converting DVDs to MPEG-4s for my iPhone/iPad (great for traveling!), and running my XMrecording software. Butthead is my main storage drive on that computer, I can see stuff anywhere across the network but not change it. Daria is my temporary drive – I move stuff there and can read/write/delete stuff from any other computer.

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The Raspberry is proving an interesting, if headachy, little device. The great thing about them is they are so cheap. For $50 you get a whole kit with the case and power plug and pre-loaded card. I spent more total on the mouse/keyboard ($20), the big SD Card ($11) and the HDMI-VGA converter ($25) than I did for the computer. When was the last time you could say that?

One of the interesting things about the Raspberry is the removable SD card with the operating system. You could theoretically have several cards with different preprogrammed functions, and just pick the one you want based on the project at hand. Want the Raspberry to automatically load a script and be the brains for a robot? Pop in the card you set up for that. Want it to be a fully functional computer with a free version of what looks like Microsoft Office, for traveling with work? Pop in your other card. Want to turn it into a dedicated security camera server? Different card. Instead of one computer trying to be everything, you can use whatever flavor software fits its function.

So what’s in my future for this thing? It has a little camera board that will do slow motion movies, I want to play with that some. Definitely get the GPS working. Learn more about programming. I’d like to try writing something to control my XM receiver. I got the control codes from an XM forum. The Raspberry comes with a pretty good set of documentation and programmable input/output pins so it can interact with the real world.

My only disappointment with the new operating system is movie playback. Under the pre-loaded Rasbian OS, there was a free movie player called TBOplayer. It worked pretty well at playing movies. Ubuntu seems a bit more processor-hungry. TBO player doesn’t work on Ubuntu, and VLC player (which works GREAT on Windows and the Mac for playing anything); while it runs on Ubuntu, doesn’t seem to work worth a damn. The audio plays and the picture doesn’t, or they get out-of-sync. So, I want to figure out what I need to do to it to play movies. It’s not a hardware issue, I just tried playing the Mpeg-4 of a movie through BigAssDrive over the network, and it plays fine. So it has to be a software or display thing.

Anyway, less nerding, more hiking, in the future. But right now it’s just too damn hot.

Pancakes Anyone?

I have experimented several times recently with trying to cook pancakes at home, over my camping stuff. The results have been – interesting – to say the least. The pancakes have stuck to my titanium plate, they’ve stuck to aluminum foil, they’ve been burned in the middle and raw on the edges.

While strolling through Wal-Mart today on our regular Saturday morning adventure, I happened across the “easy eggs” pan. Its a small aluminum pan, about 4″ in diameter with a non-stick coating, a ridged bottom, and a long plastic handle with a daisy-shaped cooked egg printed on the end. I was thinking, this would be perfect in the woods. Four dollars later, it was mine.

In case you can’t find “easy eggs”, Bed, Bath and Beyond has a similar thing:

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I got the Wal-Mart pan home and pulled off the plastic part, leaving just a little metal tab with two rivets. In the example above, I guess you could just cut off the handle right near the pot. Leave enough to grab with your multi-tool, or leave it all if you don’t carry such a thing. I just weighed the handle, it’s .6 ounces, whereas my multi-tool is 1.2, so if I can get rid of that, the little eggy handle is even lighter.

13645198_10206925291107801_6370442571228869173_nThe pancakes were easy to mix. Hungry Jack makes a pre-mixed powdered  box of “pancake mix”, just add water. So I got my squishy bowl and spork, and mixed up a cup of mix. The tricky part is heating the pan. I set it on my Snow Peak gigapower stove and and turned the flame on low. Even with the ridged heat-spreading bottom, it stayed a lot cooler on the edges than the middle, because I had to run the flame on low, so it was all right in the center. I poured a little mix in the pan, and moved the pan around with the pliers, in slow circle to heat it all evenly. Shortly the bubbles formed and then stopped filling in when they broke. I grabbed a spatula and flipped it over. I’m going to need to get a spatula and cut it down to about 2″ by 3″ just for this pot. I flipped the pancake, and heated the other side.

In this picture it looks like a full size pan, but trust me, it’s only around 4″ from side to side, and at a weight of 1.9 ounces, it weighs almost nothing. The pancake was as good as any on the big griddle, so I judge it a success.

13692622_10206925291187803_471067045881760445_nNow I just need a hike and some cold weather.

 

Water Hiking

Since the south is in the middle of a terrifying heat wave known as “Summer”, and I was going to be unable to do anything on the water for the next two weekends or so, I worked feverishly Friday night, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday morning to finish my boat rack.

I started with a basic premise that I would be putting the boat on and off the car by myself, that I really wouldn’t have much help at all. So the system had to be totally workable by me. Also – since the back of the car has a lift gate with a decorative plastic piece, I had to get the boat over that when loading and unloading.

The first thing I did was make a trip to lowes Friday, and picked up 6 of their 8 two-by-fours, and 3 pieces of 4 foot 1×4 oak boards.

Measuring a LOT on top of the car, I managed to put together the main body of the loading rack. IMG_3870

The problem I had was, nothing was square. The back of the car is not as wide as the front. I used the foam boat sponges as a guide, and constructed the rack around them and the luggage rack. In this picture I’m not done yet, there are now blocks in place to prevent shifting side-to-side, and moving back and forth. There’s also a block and extension under the front piece, to prevent the rack from lifting upon the front when the boat is loaded on the back. Initially there was more 2×4 material in the design, but the oak is thinner and I think lighter overall. The rack only serves to load and unload the boat, when it is fully loaded, it rests on the sponges on the luggage rack, taking all the weight off the wood piece.

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Here you see the underside of the rack, while I’m putting on a layer of duck canvas. The side blocks and the front-to-back shifting blocks are visible now. I slopped a layer of stain on the wood to protect it from water in the future. In addition to the rack, there are a set of loading ramps that attach to the back with a steel rod acting as a hinge. The ramps themselves are two 8 foot 2×4 pine boards, also stained and covered in duck fabric.

My main issue with the ramps was: How to make them long enough and still portable? I initially tried a hinge in the middle, which when flipped upside down, provided a straight board. Any weight on the center point bent and twisted the hinge, destroying the pivot. It “unwound” the hinge at the joint. I scrapped the hinge and got 8 pieces of 1/8″ thick construction straps, a foot long each with 5/16″ holes. I bolted four straps to one piece of wood with carriage bolts, and then slotted the other board into the makeshift slot. Four more bolts and wing nuts make a temporary joint strong enough to hold the weight of the boat as I slid it up the ramp. I left a flap of fabric good enough to cover the bolts and protect the boat.

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Here you can see the boat loaded on the rack, and the ramps on either side of it. I put on a little guid on the sides I could strap down the ramps (the little arched piece of wood). You can see the ramp pairs with their strap joints sticking out. Right now the boat is on the car backwards, but it works just fine like this. In face the car’s luggage rack runs a lithe uphill, and the back of the boat is downhill from the from, so putting the boat on backwards levels it with the road a little better. After tying everything down, it was time for a full-up test.

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My daughter volunteered to be the front seat paddler and leak-test the boat with me. She had a lot of fun and it worked out well. The boat unloaded fine from the car and slid down the ramp as designed, slowly and controlled. She did help some by pushing from the front.

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We paddled for around two miles on the lake in the hot sun, and headed back to the car. It was easy to tell which way the current was running, and some wind helped push us downstream. Next time we will explore the upper end of the lake and the creek that feeds it.

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I learned a lot during this build/engineering experience. First – the south is damn hot in the summer. I sweated more Saturday than I have in a LONG time. I went through 5 shirts, 3 pair of underwear, and 2 pair of shorts. Thankfully the 4 trips to Lowes to get different size bolts, replace the crappy hinges, and buy a forstner bit to countersink some of the bolt heads, helped cool me off. I missed out on a hiking trip, but I had fun anyway, and the Air Conditioning was only 30 feet away when I needed it.

I need to make a few upgrades to the rack as it is. The steel rod hinge pin for hooking the ramps to the rack fits too snugly, I need to open the holes up just a bit, maybe for 3/8″ to 1/2″. Some fabric underneath the rack’s oak side pieces will help it slide on and off the car easier, and I need some bungee cords to make securing the side ramps a bit quicker than lengths or paracord. But overall I’m pleased with the design and it’s usefulness.

Now I have to make a rail system for sliding the boat underneath the back porch to keep it out of the sun.

Kayaking down I-20

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to visit Pensacola Beach, Florida. Stay away. It’s not that its a bad place, of course. It’s just that, several years back it was a pretty laid back community and not very busy. You could go out to the beach and for 50 yards in either direction there was no one there (take that, Myrtle Beach!).

But, since the BP spill a few years back, part of their lawsuit was an advertisement campaign that showed people what a great place Pensacola was to visit. Now, its slightly more crowded. Not nearly as bad as some other beaches (take that, Myrtle Beach!) but busier than it once was.

My child was down there visiting relatives, and I had to go pick her up. I have been interested in kayaking for a little while, especially while talking with some other hikers.

See, hiking in the south in the summer just sucks. I’m NOT a summer hiker. BUT – boating gives you an alternative. You can trade fighting off ticks, poison ivy, and rattlesnakes for fighting off mosquitos, water moccasins, and the brain-eating amoeba. Plus, you’re guaranteed to have a ready supply of water around you at all times. So, I asked a few people about boats, and even considered getting one of those cheapy walmart Kayaks at one point. I asked my father where he gained his knowledge of boats, and what would be a good starting place, since he had an ocean kayak.

He said, in a nutshell “You can take mine”. It’s only a 10 hour drive to Pensacola from my house, so we headed down there, not only to pick up the kid (who stays with grandpa a little bit every summer), but to get a boat. I had Friday and Monday off, so 10 hours in the car either way, for 2 days at a great beach with family and a free place to stay, was well worth it. It was hot. Damn Hot. I just got back from Denver, and Pensacola was about the same temperature but more humid. So it felt hot. And there were a lot less people smoking weed in Pensacola.

My daughter said that the previous week there were a lot of jellyfish, but this week the jellyfish were gone and the seaweed had come in. Thus the water looked REALLY green, and it felt like swimming through a big glass of extra-pulp orange juice. But the water was nice and cool.

Some people preferred to stay out of the water. Stand-up paddle boarding is very popular here, even on the ocean. The two days we were there, the water was really calm, like a nice lake, except right by the shore line where there were small 1-2 foot waves. As always, we looked for shark teeth but found squat.

The usual white beaches were tinged with green snot. The best way to get away from the seaweed was to go out to the sandbar, the light green section at the far right of the picture below, where the water was almost clear. It was a bit of a swim, not too bad but still – its the ocean and there are sharks and risk of rip currents, so we came back in pretty quickly.

So, after discussing and planning the boat move for two days, we finally got the thing onto the car and strapped it down. If you’ve never seen an engineer working out a problem in front of you, its an interesting experience. We thought about aerodynamics, drag, where the physics would be acting on the car and finally came up with a system.

Then we realized the suitcases wouldn’t go in the back since we couldn’t raise the tailgate. I have a Toyota Rav-4 with a lift gate with a weird spoiler thing on it. Maybe its a roof for the back window, I don’t know, but  it stuck up too far to raise the rear gate with the Kayak on the car. We got everything situated and it looked really strange. The Kayak itself is an 18 foot tandem touring boat, designed for rivers and even the ocean, I think. It’s only 73 pounds, but a bit unwieldy for one person. We wound up stuffing the suitcases and other beach detritus into the car through the back seat.

Thanks to the added drag and giant boat on the car acting like some weird sail, I had to drive slower than normal. The trip home took 13 hours (with a 1 hour mandatory stop at Olive Garden for late lunch and re-trimming the boat and straps) That’s a LONG time to be in a car, but thanks to the slower drive I saved on some gas, I think. The car just started getting squirrely above 70mph. For the first time, ever, I did the speed limit the whole way home.

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Once home, getting the boat off the car proved a bit more of a challenge, without my father to help. I wound up backing up to the back porch, which, incidentally, is as high as the roof of the car. I laid an extension ladder from the top step of the porch to the car, Mount Everest Sherpa Style. After throwing a blanket over the ladder, I simply slid the boat off onto the porch. It needs a little work, but the parts should all be here this weekend.

The only issue left: I can’t take the porch with me to the lake. I’m designing a wood rack with hinged extensions so I can fold out a simple ramp, push the boat onto the car, and then remove and fold the ramp by pulling hinge pins. The blue below is the car luggage rack. Hopefully this weekend will be a good time to work all of this out. I was supposed to go hiking, but its going to be either: Hot as Balls, or: Raining. Either one is not great for hiking, so it looks like I’ll be playing engineer a bit myself.

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Smuggling is hard.

The wife and I just got back from a ten day cruise in the Caribbean, which explains why I haven’t been on here that much. We got the Facebook cruise package but it doesn’t allow anything but face booking and instakikagram and sending twits.

One of the discussions that seems to dominate cruise boards is the smuggling of liquor on board the ships. There are people staunchly entrenched on both sides of the argument.

First, let me say, I was on Carnival, the WalMart of the cruise industry. I made the mistake of saying that on a cruise board on Facebook, and had to leave the group. People get REALLY testy over little things. Carnival isn’t bad, they’re fun ships, they go to neat places, but they’re the cheapest. Your experience smuggling liquor on board may differ based on how your cruise line does stuff.

People on the “just buy on board” side have some valid arguments. The ship has to make money. They supplement their low prices by overcharging for drinks, shore excursions, and taking suckers from their money in the “Cancer Club” casino. I agree, they have to make extra money. I’ll give them that one. Disney Cruise Line, for example, used to allow you to bring your own liquor on board, and Disney costs twice as much for essentially the same service: Boat goes to islands. That practice has just stopped, probably to make more money. Carnival sells “Soda Cards” too, so you can get unlimited soft drinks at $6 a day instead of paying $2 a drink.

They offer the “Cheers Program”, 15 drinks a day for the price of $50 per cruise day, but everyone over 21 in your cabin has to buy the program if anyone in your cabin wants it. $50 a day for two adults is $1000 on a 10 day cruise. Given cruise ship drink prices, drinking $1,000 during a cruise without the card is certainly a possibility, especially for the hard-core alcoholics out there (you know the ones – they show up drunk to the muster drill because they’ve been on the boat for 3 hours, why not get plastered by 3pm?). But then there are people that just want to enjoy a drink or two every now and then. The cruise line isn’t making much of anything from us, but $15 for a margarita is completely insane pricing.

There’s another benefit to having control over liquor. If someone starts becoming an obnoxious drunk, the ship’s bartenders can cut them off. If they have booze in their room, they can continue drinking and be a hazard to others.

So, some people smuggle, whether its to save money, or just to get away with it.

Fire in the Sky
Fire in the Sky

Smuggling on ships has existed forever, but people are getting sneakier about it.

Recently Carnival stopped allowing guests to bring bottled water or soda on board the ship. Why? Because someone figured out a way to get the caps off water bottles without breaking that security ring seal at the base, and was filling water bottles with clear liquor. So, don’t even think about it. Your water bottles will get tossed when you go through security. The only exception is distilled water for CPAP machines, with a doctor’s note.

The ships x-ray luggage coming on board. Some people have been using Rum Runner flasks, which are basically screw-top plastic bags they can put into their luggage. Sometimes they make it through, sometimes they don’t. There are plenty of youtube videos out there about do’s and don’ts. If you’ve never taken a cruise, you might not understand how rough they get with your luggage. Bags get pretty banged up, I wonder how many burst Rum Runners and soaked clothes make it to cabins? If the ship finds your liquor in your suitcase, they’ll take it and throw it out. I’d think the x-ray people would be more inclined to poke a pinhole in the bags and send them through, just out of spite.

The next trick people discovered was the “liquor in the wine bottle”. This has a higher chance of success than some methods. Open your favorite wine bottle, pour out the wine, and fill it with booze. Then go to a wine hobby store and buy yourself a corker, some corks, and a shrink cap. Use a dark color wine bottle and some food coloring in your booze and your halfway there.

But – the ships are getting wise to this and the employees are starting to recognize the shrink wraps. Certain brands are distinctive, and they may take your wine bottle if they don’t believe you. The thing is, you have to carry it on, so they can question you about it it they think you’re up to something. As an experiment, on my recent trip I took a bottle of wine. They didn’t even ask me about it, they sent it through the x-ray and waved me on. I’m wondering if eventually it will be possible that x-rays can be programmed to recognize different density liquids. Wine is only 15% alcohol (30 proof), much denser than your Bacardi 151 with food coloring. Could an x-ray pick this up and alert the operator? Time will tell.

But, the simplest way to smuggle seems to be just walk on with it. In St. Kitts last year, we went to a store with several mini bottles of local rums in a handmade little dyed cloth bag. I bought them and wasn’t even asked to turn them in when I got back on the ship. Same thing happened to my friends this trip. It’s like they overlook small amounts of mini-bottles. The other option would be just to buy a small 200ml bottle in port, stick it in your pocket and walk through the metal detector. No metal, no problem. Just hope they don’t pat you down.

On a lot of ships, they have a liquor take-up area right inside when you come back from port. Security screens you, X-rays your stuff, and points to the liquor table. They take your booze, label it, and you hope to see it again on the last night while you’re packing. Here’s where you could get REALLY sneaky, if you’re good. You need some advance planning and a partner. It helps if the gangway is busy, with people both coming and going from the ship.

Buy two bottles of liquor. Make sure they’re in two separate bags. have two other shopping bags from port (four bags total), preferably pretty much the same color. Go through the security line with your partner, where they have two shopping bags and you have two bags of liquor. The booze nazis will point you towards the liquor take-up area. Get in line with your partner, and say to them in a normal voice so others in line can hear, “There’s no use for you to wait here too, go on upstairs, I’ll do this.” Then swap one set of bags, so you have a bottle and they have a bottle. They get out of line and go upstairs, and you deposit your bottle in the safe hands of the ship.

Have fun, and try not to get arrested.

20 Miles through the mud, and loving it.

This past weekend (May 21) 9 of us headed up to Hampton, TN for an overnight hike in the rain. We didn’t purposefully hike in the rain, but when you’ve scheduled a hike for 3 months, you don’t let a little rain hinder your walking.

We met at the US 321 Crossing of the AT at Hampton, TN by Watauga lake, about 10 minutes before our prescribed time, and waited on our shuttles. And waited, and waited, and waited. After several tense phone calls with the outfitter in Damascus, we were told that the shuttle driver had taken the van to Wilbur Damn road, 40 trail miles away but 40 minutes up the road. They sent a new set of cars and took us for free. So by the time we hit the trail is was almost 1 in the afternoon. The only good part of that, was that we went ahead and ate lunch in the car and had to carry a little less food weight. We were dropped at TN91 – Cross Mountain Road (which you may remember from the trip where we got snowed on a few months ago)

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According to some thru-hikers we met along the way, it had been raining for days. One said they hadn’t seen the sun in 9 days. The trail showed the strain. Everywhere we stepped was covered in mud. The trail was sloppy, squishy and wet. Most everyone had mud halfway up their calves by the time we got any distance. It was cool, though, which made the walking easier. We soon began splitting into separate groups, intending on making Vandeventer Shelter by 6 or 7pm.

This trip sort of changed my outlook on thru-hikers. Not that I ever had any issues with them, but I’ve usually thought about trying to avoid the thru-hiking bubble. The woods are for peace and solitude, a place to relax and be alone with your thoughts. But meeting the thru-hikers was fun, and going south you get to meet lots of them if only for the few seconds you’re in talking range. Most of the interaction is limited to what’s coming up in your respective directions: Wheres the water? How far to the shelter? Seen any bears? Is the shelter full? There may be a little bit of extended talking at water spots or shelters, but that’s by choice.

We met a father-daughter team that had been on the trail about two months together, at Iron Mountain shelter. I saw a group of guys that had obviously seen each other several times. We all stopped at the only decent spring for a few miles, to filter some water. One of the guys (Eno or Emo – not sure exactly what his trail name was) looked to be about 150 pounds soaking wet, and talked about Trail Days and the fact he had to get off the trail for a little bit because he was so exhausted. Walking 30 miles a day for a couple of weeks, no wonder he was exhausted.

The only good part to come from starting so late, was that while we were sitting in the cars dealing with the shuttles by phone, it rained on and off several times, some times pretty good. Once on the trail it rained a little, only once really good enough to worry about putting on the raincoat. But the wind got up pretty good several times, so I was happier to have the jacket as a wind breaker than as a rain protection.

One problem with wearing a rain jacket while hiking is sometimes you get just as wet from sweating as you do from rain. But at least the raincoat keeps the wind off. One nice feature to have on a raincoat is “pit zips”. I just discovered my jacket unzips at the armpits. Two years. I’ve had the jacket for two years and I just figured this out by watching someone else. It was nice to unzip the jacket and stick my arms out, only keeping my torso covered for wind protection, but letting my arms cool off some.

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Our fortunes turned in the afternoon. About 5 we stopped for water at a pretty decent tent site. By now, Three of our group were 4 miles ahead at the shelter. Another three were ahead by a half mile or so, leaving me, Carol and Kim at the back taking it easy. This was supposed to be the last easy water until after the shelter. While we were stopped, Carol texted one of the others to ask about the shelter situation. We were told a group of boy scouts had been in front of us intending on using the shelter and the sites around it. Unfortunately, Vandeventer Shelter is on a ridge line, surrounded by rocky sections and lots of overgrowth and poison ivy. It’s not great for big groups wanted to spread out. The text came back: the shelter was packed full and all the space around it was occupied. The next four miles after it were ridge line too, with no way to tell where a decent site might be. So we made a decision to stop where we were for the night.

The only problem: This was a two day hike of about 21 miles. We had done 7.6. The shelter was around 4 miles ahead, and the end of our hike was a little over 13 miles ahead. So the first three hikers had 4 miles on us, about 2 hours of hiking time. We had a great tent site, but would have to make it up in the morning. Thankfully, the way we drove up in small groups meant we could take one extra hiker in our car. The first three could leave when they got to their car.

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Night went very well. Surprisingly, the rain held off until we got camp set up. About 630 the rain started one again in earnest while I was eating supper. I recorded a complete “how to make supper in the woods” video for a coworker who was interested in that. After supper the rain sort of tapered off to a barely defined drizzle. The other three hikers showed up at this point. Up until now it had been just me, Kim and Carol at the campsite. Jim, Dorothy and Steve arrived and began setting up. Steve chose a solitary spot across the trail with a fire ring, because Kim and Carol took up the only flat tent spots right close to the fire rings on our side of the trail. It was my intent to avoid the inevitable depression from not being able to start a fire.

Steve, however, was a scoutmaster or ninja or something and started a campfire with wet wood in the rain. At first I thought he was just sending smoke signals but before long he had a decent little fire going. Unfortunately there was really nowhere to sit around his fire and I retreated to the hammock area, and partook of Carol’s Jamaican Rum with hot spiced cider. Not too long after that, it was bed time. I lay in the hammock only to find that apparently some application had been running the GPS all day and I was down to 15% on the phone.

No music, no games, no movies, no reading. Not if I wanted the alarm to wake me in the morning. So I lay back in my new hammock, only to realize I hung the thing on a slope and my feet were a little too high. I had a hammock made by a company that was going out of business. I sent them some tie-dyed fabric I did, and it turned out awesome. It has dual side zippers so I can sit in it like a chair, get in either side, and even reach out the sides to fix the under quilt or grab something from the backpack. I ignored the feet issue and tried to sleep.

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Unfortunately some people didn’t respect the traditional 9pm hiker midnight, and laughed and such until late. It was okay, though, because a Barred Owl started his call over and over. We hooted back at him, some a bit more, umm, alcohol-infused than others. He kept up his conversation for about 20 minutes until it started POURING RAIN. This quieted everyone down and finally we were off to sleep. It rained in fits and starts throughout the night, but overall it was one of the better sleeps that I’ve had. New hammock definitely an improvement over my too-short Hennessy that always cramped me in (I knew I should have bought the tall version). At 4:20 the rain returned with a vengeance, and stayed that way until about 6am. I finally got up, ate and began packing. 8% left on the phone!

We started drifting out of camp around 8am. Carol was first, and I followed a little after. Steve caught up with us at some point, and then we leapfrogged each other for a good while, meeting up at the Wilbur Damn Road access point. I sat for lunch for about 5 minutes before Carol and Steve showed up. We crossed Watauga Dam together, and I played with using my “stickpic”, a little plastic thing that turns a trekking pole into a camera mount. It seems to help smooth out some of the bouncing and jerking that walking while filming seems to plague my videos. My guess is the arm muscles help to form a simple kind of “stedicam” with the camera on the end of a long pole.

After the dam it was a rolling 3 more miles up and down through a section of trail that was known for bears. Simple instructions from the park service: Don’t stop, don’t hang around. Just walk straight through. I got a bit ahead of Carol and Steve, despite telling everyone to stick together. That was my bad… but I kept asking NOBO hikers about bears. No one had seen anything. Turns out I wasn’t far ahead. Carol and Steve walked out into the parking lot about 3 minutes after me. I had time enough to change my shirt and take off my “base layer” (what they call leggings for guys, so guys will buy something to keep their legs warm), and that was it. I was, however, exhausted. Jim, Kim and Dorothy walked out of the woods about 5 minutes later. We split up, and thus began the long drive home.

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My video is here:

My video of me cooking supper over my Fancy Feast cat food can stove, as requested by someone at work:

 

 

 

 

Into the bubble

Over the weekend I got the chance to get back out into the woods. It had been about a month or so since my last hike, and it was time I found the comfort, solitude, and torturing pain of a backpacking trip.

Im a three season hiker – I prefer fall, winter, and spring. As the weather gets warm I start to shy away from doing many hikes, but the weather looked good, mid 70s at 6000 feet. Originally 9 or more people had signed up, but as is typical with trips, people started dropping out the closer we got to the hike. A few days before, the weather took a turn for the nasty: Good temperatures, but lots of rain. I said, “Screw it” and held fast to the idea of going. A few more people dropped out Friday afternoon. Saturday morning 3 of us showed up at the meeting spot, two drove direct to Erwin, and 1 failed to show up at all. Since I don’t usually drive, I drove our little crowd up to Tennessee. Jim, Paul and I met Bob and Laura at the Hostel for the drive up.

We started our hike in Erwin Tennessee, at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel (On the Nolichucky River, of course). There I got just a glimpse into the thru-hiker life. Back in February or March, people in droves started flocking north from Springer Mountain, Georgia, intending to walk five or six months to Mount Katahdin, in Maine. They spread out, but in general a big group of them spread out over a few hundred miles moving slowly north. This is called the “thru-hiker bubble”. Time of year and last month’s forest fires meant we were smack in the middle of it. A tent city had sprung up outside Uncle Johnny’s, not to mention a full parking lot of people in cars out for the weekend or section hikes. People were buying alcohol fuel by the ounce, getting mail drop packages from home, and were in all states of wear from fresh faced and clean to scraggly and smelly.

So we paid our shuttle fee* and followed the van up to Iron Mountain Gap, dropped a car and took a quiet but long van ride to Carvers Gap. There were lots of Bicycles out on the cool, misty, very windy morning. We hit the trails, which Jim said looked like the Pacific Northwest. Lots of tall evergreens blocked most of the wind and a lot of daylight. It was a nice medium “up” for the first mile, about 700 feet. I stopped to take a couple of pictures, fix my shoelace, get a little extra water, and take off my outer shirt. Jim, Bob, Laura and Paul went on and it was mid day before I saw them again. Hiking is like that, you can spread out and hike alone, while with your group.

It was lunch by the time I got to the turnoff for Roan High Shelter, the highest shelter on the AT at 6200 feet. I walked up to it and found a small group had already taken over for the day. They appeared to be staying there, even though it was just lunchtime. I went inside the bare room (which would have been great for filming a horror movie), sat down and ate my lunch. Bare floor, log walls apparently cut from local trees, with what appeared to be concrete in the log gaps to keep down the wind. The building was cool but it was out of the wind. The group I met had been hiking for a while, over 2400 miles across many different trails and states. They would hike a while, find work, make some money for food and gear, and hike more. It was a real nomadic life. It sounded sort of appealing, at least for a little while.

After eating, I said goodbye and wound up just down the trail at a beautiful bald area formerly occupied by the Cloudland Hotel. Nothing remained but a bit of driveway. I smelled someone down the hill in a parking area cooking hamburgers, but there was no sign for hikers, so no Trail Magic for me. Trail Magic is when, completely unexpectedly, someone will set up a hiker feed or offer to take a hiker to their house for a shower or whatever. The hiker culture is really weird, because everyone is generally so nice and helpful to each other. It’s kind of the way society is supposed to be.

I met up with the rest of my group soon afterward, sitting down to lunch in the middle of an incredibly green field of trillium and wildflowers. I kept up with some of them for a while and we began spreading out. It was a 2000 foot drop over 4 miles from our highest point of the hike to Hughes Gap. I stopped for water at one point and Paul went on ahead. Laura happened upon me as I was finishing up. We headed towards the shelter, looking for the other three of our group. Along the way we passed Little Rock knob, which had some beautiful views over the landscape. It was totally worth walking back up 1000 feet to see the view. The sun had come out and it was a little warm out by this point. Even though there were clouds in the distance, it was beginning to look like the weather was in our favor.

Laura and I found the rest of the group getting water just half a mile or so from the shelter. We walked on as a group and found that the thru-hikers were laying siege to the area around the shelter. We found several decent tent spots and began setting up. I went for water, which was a heck of a clog down the hill and back up, but the water was cold and clear and flowing pretty well from a pipe stuck into the side of the hill. I ate dinner and got my stuff prepared for rain, because during dinner we heard some rumbles of thunder. We started a small fire right about 6:45, immediately followed by the rain beginning in earnest. I lay down and relaxed in the hammock while it rained.

I had a cellular signal and posted a few hiking pictures, although Jim was 75 feet away and had no signal. The mountains are strange that way. Along about 7:45 the rain eased off and several more people showed up, setting up tents in between the rest of us. I got up and walked around a bit. One grizzled older man walked up to me and just said, “Mountain Man” and confused me, until I realized it was his trail name. “I’m Taco”, I said. He looked at me confused and I pointed at the hammock. “Because I sleep in a bear taco”. By 830 the rain started back and I went back to lay down, intending on sleeping. The people in the tents right next to me were planning there hike for the morning and the sound was carrying right through the tent walls. I tried to rest, and soon they got quiet. It started raining like crazy, and rained on and off all night. I slept pretty well. The temperatures were perfect and the rain was soothing.

At 5 am I woke up and couldn’t stand it any more. I HAD to pee. I moved around and got redressed in the hammock, got up and went just outside the tent area to pee, and started putting aways some of my stuff around 5:30 By 6 I was mostly packed and sat around and ate breakfast. Oh, yeah, and it was still raining. The nice thing about an overnight trip, is you don’t really have to worry about wet stuff. Keep your sleeping stuff dry and everything else just gets jammed in the pack wet. By 7 I was done with eating and was packed, and looked over at Jim and Paul. Paul was about to put his pack on, and Jim was right behind him. Laura and Bob hadn’t packed up yet, but they were driving separately.

I shrugged on the green beast and walked off down the trail. After about a quarter mile I realized I had on too much stuff and that it stopped raining. I took off my jacket and over shirt, and braved the woods in just my shirt. The wind would occasionally shake the trees and drop some water on us, but the rain seemed all but done. The weather made the woods very misty and otherworldly. It would have been a beautiful forest to film movies about elves and dragons and stuff like that. The rain made the browns deeper, the greens really showed up, and the light filtering through the mist was really nice.

Jim and Paul caught up to me after a while, and we stuck out the rest of the day together. It was only 6 total mile to the car from the shelter, mostly a series of tough ups followed by tough downs. Overall it was downhill to the parking lot, by close to 1000 feet, but we paid for that downhill with lots of ups. It rained on us a bit on the way to the car, but not hard enough to get out the jacket again. After all, there were warm dry clothes in the car.

We left the trail around 10:30, took a tour of the backwoods of TN wile finding the interstate, and headed home. A quick stop at a seafood place later, and we were home. It was nice hike, although I have the “hiker hobble” today.

My hiking video is below.

 

*A note on shuttle fees: We talked about this at length on the trail. So many people sign up to these things, then drop out at the last minute. This often causes problems for people that want to go but can’t because a hike is full. Also – no shows are a big problem, because if I schedule a shuttle for 9 and show up with 5, they charge the same rate as they would have for the 9. Its just how shuttles run. So the 4 that dropped out just cost the 5 that showed up extra money. In the future my rule will be something like this:

I will schedule the shuttle when I arrange the hike. You get a spot on the hike when you PayPal me some money for the shuttle. Anyone unpaid a week before the hike gets dropped. Anyone who drops out less than a week before the hike may not get a refund. No shows don’t get a refund. When you show up for the hike, I’ll take care of the shuttle at no additional cost for you.