What are we doing to ourselves?

A few weeks ago, I found myself amazed.

If you read my previous posts, you’ll know I went hiking in North Carolina. It was a tough trip, but the nice thing about the area is there is plenty of water. I carried my little liter bottle with me, and a steripen. A steripen is a small battery-powered UV light that you put in the water and swirl around. The UV kills anything that would give you the explosive bad-mexican-food stomach runs that would make a walk in the woods a very unpleasant (and messy) thing to do. It’s incredible how these things work.

But here’s the thing… I always carry a few things with me in a post-hike bag. A clean cotton shirt (because after two day in a synthetic shirt I stink to high heavens, and a clean cotton shirt to go home in the car with is just awesome), a granola bar (in case I bonk on the way to the car), and some spare water.

So I hiked for two days (okay, the second half of one day and the first half of another) in the backwoods, drinking from streams, eating fruit and nuts, and generally having a good time. I get to the car with a nearly empty bottle, pop the trunk, change my shirt, and go for the bottle of cold water (the high was 45 both days, with a low of 30. That trunk-water was cold).

I almost gagged… like when you drink from the wrong glass of Coke, and instead of getting the cold fizzy stuff, you get the warm flat stuff. Holy crap, who knew water could taste so acrid and unpleasant. And to think, THAT is what we are drinking all the time and cooking with. No wonder people prefer Sodas to water, and have to spice the heck out of pastas and soups. That water was purely awful. Okay, thought to myself, perhaps it was the fact it sat in the trunk for two days… surely that had something to do with it. So I gave it a taste test when I got home. River water, good, water from home in bottle, ick. Water from tap, ick.

There are communities that have decided to take fluoride out of the water. Studies show it doesn’t do that much good, anyway. I say go for it. It can’t be good for the body. Then there’s chlorine… a deadly poison in large quantities. They add that to the water so biological nasty things don’t grow in the water tanks.

But here’s the trick – the same UV technology I carry strapped to my pack is used in swimming pools and hot tubs to clean the water as it recirculates through the pool system. The UV is also used to clean the air in some air conditioning systems. Put the light in a duct near the air return, and boom, airborne nastiness is dead.

So how hard would it really be to put a UV light system in every home? Right where the water comes in… They could add it to the water bill. Surely the cost of chemicals they wouldn’t have to add, could instead be spent on the initial installation? Of course, if the power goes out, now your water is untreated… and the bulb would have to be replaced after a time.

But think of the improvements to our bodies… UV is just LIGHT. If you aren’t looking at it, it doesn’t hurt you.

Thank you, Lisa…

* Warning – do not read this one if you have a tendency to get your panties in a bunch, have mangina issues, or suffer from the “United States of the Offended” syndrome. If you want to whine about it, get your own blog. This post involves violence and talk of a sexual nature. You have been warned.

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A recent discussion at work brought this memory to the surface, so I decided to share it with the world. It was worth enduring the pain of its recall.

Most of my high school memories are repressed. I was not treated well to say the least. In fact, if I would have had access to the internet and a lot of gasoline at the time, I probably would have wound up in prison.

But every now and then, something pleasant bubbles to the surface, and like a belch in church, you just have to smile. My high school biology teacher was a short, petite young woman that you could barely see over the lab counter. My physics teacher, on the other hand, was this very domineering German guy, who was half insane, but brilliant.

Back to the point of this. You may have heard this type of story as an urban legend before. I’m sure it’s happened in more than one school, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like it doesn’t pop up in almost every school sooner or later, but I was there when it happened in MY school, way back in the 90′s before Bill Clinton.

“Lisa” (Names changed to protect me from lawsuits) was the typical ditzy blonde cheerleader type. She had the right friends and the right clothes and everyone loved her, and she sat right in the middle of the room. I sat against the wall, half hidden behind one of the display cases, with only one other desk behind me in the corner, which was empty whenever the slacker kid was absent or in the office. I stayed quiet and tried to keep my head down.

So the teacher was lecturing us on human reproduction. It wasn’t called sex ed at the time, just reproduction, because there was no education on the sex part, just; here’s the male and here’s the female, and when sperm meets egg, someone’s going to be paying child support for eighteen years. This was also during the time when being pregnant in school didn’t happen. Oh, girls got knocked up, but they disappeared when they started showing, returning the following year or moving to another school. Anyhow – the teacher gets around to explaining how semen is only something like 5% sperm, and 95% water and simple sugars and fats that help carry the sperm and protect them until they can go off and find the egg.

Now, evidently Lisa had watched some of the same movies I had, or read the same magazines, or done something else to increase her popularity, because she raised her hand, and without missing a beat, said, “Then why does it taste like salt water?”

The class exploded, and Lisa turned red instantly. The biology teacher tried to quiet us, and finally had to run get the principal to calm us down. I’m sure Lisa eventually lived it down. It was likely one of those things you leave behind when you graduate high school, and go on to greater things where people don’t act so stupid. I understand she went into the military service, and I thank her for that. But more than that, I thank her for her ditzy ways and careless abandon at discussing oral sex with the class.

As I said, she must have read the same magazines I had, or seen the same movies, because I had the same basic question: “Why do girls say it tastes like salt water, if it’s made of simple sugars?” But in my haste to ask the question, I was formulating in my head, in pretty much the same fashion she blurted it out. And if I would have beat her to the punch, I never would have lived it down. I can only imagine the horrible things those little bastards would have done to me in the year preceding my release from my four year sentence at High School.

So, thank you, Lisa. Thank you so very much.

A fine and pleasant misery

I used to get “Outdoor Life” magazine as a kid. About the only reason to get the thing (because I wasn’t going to be fishing for Salmon in Oregon or going on epic Moose hunts in Alaska) was the writing of Patrick McManus, an outdoor humorist whose column closed out every issue. One of his writings concerned the “fine and pleasant misery”, which, although I remember very little of, described exactly what it sounds like. Being miserable, but enjoying it at the same time.

I experienced my own fine and pleasant misery this weekend.

In October, three of us hiked the Gorges State Park loop. It’s a 19 mile loop through a section of North Carolina very near the border of South Carolina. I decided to return to the Gorges, for a few reasons: I hadn’t hiked in a while, It’s lower elevation than some places I could go to, the weather was supposed to be decent, and I wanted to test my gear for winter hiking.

My main problem was: I hadn’t hiked in a while. Anywhere. Walking around Disney World over Thanksgiving was the closest I had come to a “hike” since October. I had quit doing my Sunday hikes down our boring in-town hiking “trail”. Four miles on a railroad bed is pretty dull after the tenth trip. I also haven’t done the treadmill – because it’s pretty darn dull staring at the wall. This would be my biggest regret.

Starting down the trail
Starting down the trail

The two of us did the long drive to NC early Saturday morning. The mountains are worth the drive, but perhaps someone could come up with something a little closer to home. I’m going to have to look into that, because when you are only gone overnight, spending six hours of your trip on the road wastes a lot of time. I need a two or three night trip somewhere.

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Look Ma, no leaves!

The weather at the start was a bit chilly, and it was expected to get down to around 30 degrees at night, so I shoved my big coat in my pack, and wisely left off the fleece stuff. The first trudge up the hill warmed me sufficiently that the gloves and hat came off. Then it was around 6 miles to the Toxaway river bridge.

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250 feet of wobbly suspension bridge

The Toxaway bridge is rather nice, but what comes after it is the hard part. Goodbye wide easy forest roads, hello Hiking Trail, thin, single file, winding walking path. This was where the “Fine and Pleasant Misery came in. By this point my body had made it well aware that I was carrying too much stuff, once again. I didn’t need the big outer coat (for rain protection I could have taken my light rain jacket, the fleece liner was all I needed for warmth), and I was out of shape, seriously.

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David on the bridge

The climb up from the lake is really tough. David was in better shape than me, and was setting the pace. I’m glad he was there, otherwise I probably would have plopped down, pulled out the hammock, and set up camp. At certain points on the slog up the side of the ridge I just wanted to sit and cry. But, once at the top, it leveled out, and I could catch my breath. Have you ever been cold and sweating at the same time? I was…

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Free Water!
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Toxaway River
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Looking back over the bridge
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Lake Jocasee floodplain
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View from the top

At the top of the ridge, thankfully the trails mostly leveled out for a while. We ate our lunch on the ground in a clearing at the top.  That was the biggest push of the day, and it was done. On the way up we ran into a woman coming down the other way. Dressed in a jogging suit and carrying nothing, she looked quite out of place, and seemed almost to laugh at us.

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David surveys the land we came up

Further down the trail, nearing the end of this section, at the edge of the park, we saw two other hikers going the opposite direction. Their packs had yellow covers on the outside, and they smiled big as we passed. We found out why as we went around the corner. In front of us was a huge pine tree that had fallen across the trail, recent enough the leaves were still green. We had to pass our packs through, under the branches, and squeeze through. So that’s what they were smiling at… they knew what was coming.

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Finally! Almost to camp

Just up the hill from the tree we came to the powerline cut, which signaled the edge of the park. We had left the restrictions of the park, and were headed a mile outside of it along the Foothills Trail. From our position it was almost all downhill, down to the camp site. The campsite sits along a creek, at the bottom of a little hollow. From the trail we could see it, fifty feet below us, and it was unoccupied.

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Fire! Fire!

Setting up camp went slow for me, as I was worn out. We set tents up and got that part over with. Hanging the bear bag rope was a treat. After five throws, we got it over the branch, and when we pulled, the branch came down next to us. The next tree we found worked really well, and it only took two throws. The rope ready for later, fire-making went rather quickly. We found enough twigs and sticks to make a decent fire, and we had some leftover subway napkins, as well as my dryer lint and fire-starter log bits. If anyone ever asks, I’m going to tell them, “It’s dried elephant dung. Ask for it at the zoo, it burns great”.

My meal consisted of: Three ibuprofen, 6mg melatonin, a Basil Pesto Noodle Meal from Trail Foods, and a Keurig cup of Chai Latte. Keurig cups are awesome. Some of the coffee ones have filters inside, but a lot of them are just powder in a plastic cup. Peel the top off and you have tasty goodness, right in your squishy mug.  I didn’t bring the “Roll-Cooker 4000” system this time, because I wasn’t sure the rolls would make the trip. I missed my rolls, but David did have some good bread stuff. The noodle meal was okay. Those things taste good when you first eat them, and by the time you are halfway done you don’t want anymore, but you can’t save it, so you have to force down the rest. Maybe I can get one and cut it in half before the next trip. Dinner is my biggest enemy on these outings., I just can’t seem to find something great.

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Packing up in the dry area

We stayed up until 8:30, keeping the fire going. At that point, it began to rain slightly. We hung the food bags and retreated to the safety of the tents.

I messed up. First, I had too much unorganized stuff inside my tent. Previously I used a spare clothes bag for my spare clothes. Spare clothes include gloves, hat, socks, and non-stinky shirt, etc. Second, I put stuff where stuff should not have gone, and lost it. I climbed in and got situated, finally getting out of my clothes, only to figure out in the process my clean night shirt had disappeared. I like sleeping in a non-stinky clean shirt, it helps me sleep and weighs very little, being only a shirt. Second, my headphones were in the tent, and my phone was there so I could listen to music, but the wire connecting headphone to phone had gone missing.

At midnight, the water I drank at supper caught up with me. It was a little rainy and cold, and I had to get out and pee. I climbed out, stumbled around half asleep and shivering, exposed myself to the night creatures, and peed and peed. Do pee bottles come in 2 liter sizes? I’m tired of getting out in the middle of the night…

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Cooking Breakfast

6:30 finally rolled around, and I could hear David moving about. I yelled over to him. Nope, not getting up yet. I stuffed my cool clothes next to me into my sleeping bag, to start warming them up. About 7 I started putting stuff on and getting ready to pop out. It took me a while to fully get dressed and ready, lastly pulling on my shoes. There was a bit of ice on my rainfly and the plants around me, but no rain. I wandered off to pee again, and collected our non-molested bear bag food.

I began stuffing things into my pack in preparation to leave. The foot end of my sleeping bag was slightly wet, as was my underquilt. I really need to use a separate rainfly line, because the water was making it through where the fly touched the hammock. If I can keep them separate, that should solve that problem.

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Our campsite had green walls

Breakfast consisted of a buttered bagel, instant grits with fake bacon (mmmmm…. Textured vegetable protein…), some honey on bread, and home-made fruit roll-ups (the dehydrator rules!). Also – some kind of vanilla Keurig coffee thing. Café Vanilla I think. Very tasty. Afterwards it was back to packing (hey, I found my other socks), stuffing (there’s my headphone wires!) and shoving (damn stuff sacks) everything back into the pack. With all the work, I got warm enough, despite the temperature being in the 30s. One last look around, and it was time to go.

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Ready to Go
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The one time during the day I was in front!
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Looking down

Yesterday’s hill climb was nothing compared to today’s. The climb up from the lake is the steepest section, at around 700 feet, but it’s done all at once. The climb up from the campsite is a mile up 200 feet or so, then 500 feet in half a mile, and then just up up up the rest of the day. We went up for a while, then down into a gorge, to bearwallow creek.

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Definitely time for some trail maintenance
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Stream crossing. To simulate, stick feet in bucket of ice water.

Putting our feet in the creek to cross it was an exercise in masochism. It was painfully, mind-numbingly, stingingly cold. But the nice thing was, it was over quickly, and it didn’t take long to stop hurting and warm up. Over the hill and around the ridge, and we crossed Toxaway Creek. Slightly swifter, deeper and wider, and rockier, but by the time I was halfway across, my feet were numb and didn’t care they were on rocks.

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He made it!
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Last downhill for a long, long time.

From there it was one thousand feet up over a few miles, all the way to the intersection of our trail and the parking lot trail. Thankfully that was downhill over a mile, so it went by easier and faster.

You can find some video here!

Things I learned this trip: Get my flabby ass back on the treadmill. As dull as it is, walk on the damn thing. I could easily lose 15 pounds from me. Losing pounds from the pack costs a lot, losing pounds from me costs nothing. Get out on Sundays and hike again. Find some new places, something to build the leg muscles WITH the pack on. This trip was strenuous in October, but not painfully difficult like this time.

Don’t over pack. I carried a waterproof coat that I never used, that weighs a ton. I overestimated how cold I would feel. My light waterproof rain jacket would have been fine over fleece, even if it was snowing. I also had some stuff I didn’t need I was scared NOT to bring, like the emergency mylar blanket, and some hand warmers. It turns out one hand warmer is probably good enough, and when you are moving about with a pack on, it takes surprisingly little clothes to keep warm.

Acting your age.

My daughter made me feel old this week. I turned 40 a few months ago. Not really a big deal, after all, 40 is the new 30. Isn’t that right? Not quite. You know who says that 40 is the new 30? Forty year old. There aren’t a whole lot of twenty-five year old people saying stupid shit like that. Forty is forty. Fifty is fifty, and eighty is just freaking OLD.

I’m cool with 40. My hair is turning grey in spots, but it’s not falling out. Because I’ve been so nearsighted all my life, my far vision is getting better. My child-producing years are behind me, and I’ll be fifty when mine graduates high school.

But I felt old today. I live in South Carolina – but I like to go snow skiing. This state sucks for skiing. We have a couple of mountains (one that’s 3300 feet), but nothing major. Couple that with little snow that stays around for a while, and a complete lack of ski resorts, and it makes skiing tough. So I have to drive to North Carolina or West Virginia. Skiing is expensive and time consuming, so we only get to go once a year. Even in West Virginia, you can only ski from late December to late March, if you’re lucky. The temperature and weather just doesn’t cooperate.

So, I thought, to save on my costs, I could purchase skis. That would cut my rental charges down, and they should last me a while. But to recoup my investment, it would take many trips before they are worth the purchase. My kid is 10. So I have a couple of decent years before skiing with Dad is the last thing on her mind. In four or five years I’ll suddenly be stupid and embarrassing, and that probably won’t change for six years after that, then she’ll go off and live her own life.

So to pay for themselves my skis would have to be used every year. Used stuff runs around $300 for everything. That’s ten years of rentals at a rental a year, and if I skipped some of those teenage years, it might take twenty years before they pay for themselves. My wife kindly and lovingly informed me, “You don’t think you are going to be skiing at sixty, do you? You’re crazy.”

So, I immediately felt very old. I remember skiing with my father when I was younger. We would drive up to North Carolina or West Virginia in the early morning, ski all day, and turn around and drive home. It was a long ass trip, to be sure. Yes, there were hotels we could have stayed at, but it was either ski and come home, or not go at all. He wasn’t sixty yet, and it was still quite a trip for us.

So, knowing that I have maybe twenty ski trips left in my life was very disheartening. I can’t ski like I used to. For one thing, I have to ski carefully. I remember being a kid, and pointing the skis down the hill, hoping I could go faster, yet reaching some threshold of the slope of the hill, my skis’ friction, and wind resistance that would only let me go SO fast. After all, these are Average Joe courses, not hills in the Alps for advanced professionals. As an adult, however, one thing is constantly on my mind. If I break my damn leg, how am I going to get my nine year old kid home for school on Monday? Anything over about twenty miles per hour becomes frightening. But if she could DRIVE… suddenly going a little faster isn’t such a bad thing.

The skiing “wall” scared me. If I can’t ski past sixty or so, how much time do I have left for other things. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail. How long will it take? I could never do it in one shot. Some people start in March, head north, and are done in October: 2200 miles… all in one shot. The idea of leaving home for anything for six months is totally alien to me, even after retirement. So I’m going to have to split it into manageable chunks. How long do I have to hike it? Twenty years?

I saw a documentary last year on The Trail. One man was thru-hiking it at 75. So, I have Thirty-five years? Maybe I should do the hard parts now, and save the easy bits for when I’m closer to climbing into the coffin for the dirt nap.

When Earl Schaffer stepped onto the top of Katahdin in Maine, 124 days after leaving Georgia, he was 30 years old. He was also the first person to ever do The Trail in one shot. People thought he was lying, then they thought he was crazy, carrying supplies that even modern minimalist hikers called inadequate. He was only 30, however, and a soldier in World War II, reasonably “field experienced” and in pretty darn good shape.

Then, I read about Grandma Gatewood… she was the first woman thru-hiker. She hiked it all in one go, her first time at the age of 67. If a 67 year-old grandma can do it, using an old Army duffel bag, a poncho and an Army blanket, wearing a pair of Keds, surely a modern hiker on Social Security, with modern conveniences could handle it. After she finished, she hiked it her second time at 72, and again at 75, the last time in sections.

The clock is ticking. If you want to do something, get out and do it…