470 Miles on the Appalachian Trail: Freezing and fine dining

A lot of time has passed since my last post, and a lot of miles, too. In 200 miles, I’ve left two more states behind and had some of the strangest and most amazing experiences of the trail so far.

The last few weeks have passed in a blur. I’ve jumped groups several times, hiking with different people for a couple days before either my or their pace changed. It’s interesting to hike this way. I’ve met a lot of really interesting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and have kept a good pace, but it does get lonely. A lot of groups I find myself in have been together since the start and I just tag along for a little while.

The weather has been awesome. I don’t mean it’s been good, I mean it’s been worthy of awe. My first day out of Hot Springs must have been a hundred degrees. I packed two liters of water and drank all of it in the short, five-mile day.

Only a few days later, it was windy and cold all day with showers on and off. I was forced to take a side trail along a ridge, because climbing over exposed boulders in a rainstorm did not seem like a smart idea. On the plus side, it stopped raining almost exactly when I reached the shelter for the night, so everything was able to dry.

Mist, fog and rain were constant the day after Hot Springs, and the wind threatened to push hikers off the trail.

I pushed hard into Irwin, TN on my own, leaving the group I’d hiked with for a few days, arriving May 3. I was hiking ahead of schedule, so I sent my mail drop further ahead to compensate and didn’t want to run out of food. I ended up staying the night in town, since Hot Springs was already five days behind. I ended up paying for a private cabin at Uncle Johnny’s hostel, since I was too tired to think about asking about tenting in the yard, and that was the only indoor bed available.

I spent that night frantically searching Irwin for a cheap pair of rain pants. Severe storms were predicted for the next few days, with a chance of snow, and I’d sent home my cold weather gear in Hot Springs. I was without long pants, rain pants and sweatshirt. I really didn’t want to die of hypothermia on Roan Mountain. Neither WalMart or the local dollar store had anything to fit the bill, and as much as I didn’t want to freeze, I also didn’t want to pay the absurd prices Uncle Johnny was charging for rain pants I’d probably use once.

I grabbed a few trash bags to potentially use as a rain kilt and headed out.

May 6 was when things got interesting.

I stayed the previous night at the Greasy Creek hostel to get my next week’s worth of food. The sound of rain pounding the roof woke me up several times that night and I was glad to be indoors, but I knew it had to be snowing at higher elevations. I headed out the next morning wearing my sleeping thermals and my rain jacket over a tee-shirt, relying on movement to keep me warm.

The entire top of Roan Mountain was covered in snow. It looked more like mid-January than early May. The trail was a wet mix of slush and mud, making each step difficult. Besides a quick lunch at the Roan Mountain Shelter, I barely stopped moving all day. I could feel the wind tugging at my jacket and feared the sweat underneath would freeze if given the chance.

My hiking buddy for the day, “Mercury,” and I kept each other motivated going up Roan Mountain in the snow.

I decided with a few other hostel guests to meet at Overmountain Shelter, a converted barn with space for over 20 hikers. One of the largest shelters on the Appalachian Trial, it was bound to have enough room, even with people hunkering down to wait out the storm.

Overmountain shelter is a converted barn and is one of the largest shelters on the trail.

When I approached the shelter, I saw someone coming out of it towards me. I though hypothermia must have set in and I was hallucinating, because the girl seemed to be wearing a ruffled tuxedo shirt and a bowtie. Se held out a laser-enraved wooden menu and asked about my order. I asked for the chef’s salad, salmon and green beans, and ice cream for desert, then asked what was going on.

“The Appalachian fucking Pine Mixer,” she said.

Sure enough, there were four tables set up in the bottom level of the two-story shelter, set with plates and candles. Seven other hikers were already enjoying fresh salads and hot tea and all shared shouts of “Can you believe this?” when I walked in.

The SCAD students put on a three course meal for us tired, cold and hungry hikers.

The group throwing this outrageous and amazing example of trail magic was a class from the Savannah College of Art and Design. As part of their course, they hiked 50 miles of the AT in March, then designed an experience around it.

In a world where most of my meals are either rehydrated or overprocessed, fresh salad is a downright miracle.

“We’ve been trying to deliver a new type of trail magic that’s a little unexpected and a little out of the blue,” said Becky, or FBI, one of the students and our waitress for the evening.

After hiking through freezing weather, having a fresh-cooked meal was the last thing I expected, but it was certainly very much appreciated. The SCAD students gave me and my fellow hikers an experience none of us are soon to forget.

A salmon dinner or probably the last thing I would have expected from a shelter on the Appalachian Trail.

I’m not sure if it was the meal, or the desire to cross another state border, but the next few days flew by. I racked up two 20+ mile days getting to Damascus, more than I’ve ever done before. It was worth it, though. I’m in town, had some good food, slept for a night at the amazing Woodchuck Hostel and am ahead of the bubble coming into Trail Days next week. In less than two weeks, I’ve walked 200 miles. I guess I need to start getting used to seeing those hundred mile markers.

Damascus, Virginia is the first major town the AT passes in the state and is home to the famous Trail Days party, a week from now.

In those days, I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks. Spotify has a lot for free download, and in particular I’ve been listening to the works of Jack London. In his novel White Fang, about a wolf-dog and his struggles in the Klondike gold rush, London presents ideas about what it means to be alive and wild; to move, hunt, strive. He also talks about the contrast between instinct and law; that instinct is what one knows to seek what is good and does not hurt and law tells us to do what does hurt for a greater purpose through learned experience.

I’m finding that hiking the AT has given me a new perspective on the idea. Hiking for hours a day can hurt, sleeping on the ground isn’t all that comfortable, and the food is terrible. Every instinct should tell a person to not do this thing, to go home, go inside, where there isn’t sunburn and blisters and bears.

And yet, thousands of hikers each year strap on their boots and walk 2,200 miles. Why do we ignore these instincts and go out in the woods and climb mountains with 30 plus pounds on our backs? Is there a reward at the end? Is there some kind of unwritten law we are following that makes us disregard our instincts?

Maybe it’s just the way we found to stay alive, to strive, to push ourselves. Maybe there’s something to be gained, something to prove, through all the suffering the trail gives. Those small victories, getting to the top of the mountain, reaching the next town, add up along the way, and maybe they cancel out the suffering and pain and loneliness.

Maybe. What do you think?

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Dungeons and Dragons at summer camp

The party of campers prepares for battle against several giant spiders and skeletons.
The party of campers prepares for battle against several giant spiders and skeletons.

I get paid to play Dungeons and Dragons.

Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement. The summer camp I work at, Greenwood Trails, in Winsted, CT, is letting me run a D&D activity with several kids a session. Regardless, it’s still pretty awesome.

I ran the activity last week with a group of the older campers, ages 13 to 16. We were using Fifth Edition and it went about as well as could be expected with nine kids who’ve never played a table-top RPG. We spent a day making characters and the next few running an adventure set, where else?, at a summer camp for aspiring adventurers! They didn’t get all that far in the four days, but they dealt with a giant rat infestation and a sahuagin problem in the lake and a good time was had by all.

This week, though, I have seven kids ages eight to 12. We are using a HEAVILY modified version of F*cking D&D, mostly to simplify it even more and remove the gratuitous profanity.

We’ve only been through one day, and it’s already one of my favorite activities to run. The kids have made their characters and started their trek through a mysterious forest to find a group of missing villagers.

We have a party of three rogues, two rangers a wizard and a druid. They all started out kind of clueless, as we all do with a new game, but only an hour in, they’re starting to utilize their character’s abilities and work as a team. One thing I was pleasantly surprised at was the level of role-playing they got into. Instead of just blindly smashing forward through the enemies, they utilized the rangers’ tracking abilities to scout out an abandoned camp and the druid’s shape-changing to scout ahead. So far, they are doing okay against a few skeletons and giant spiders.

It’s awesome seeing them work together and explore a creative new hobby. Dungeons and Dragons, and other collaborative story-telling games, are a great way to get kids to explore lateral thinking, problem solving and creative writing. Many of the kids playing in my games this summer have begun developing backstories for their characters outside of the game.

It’s awesome for me to see a group of kids getting into a hobby I enjoy so much, and doing it at a place like summer camp, where the whole point is to try new things and learn from each other, is just the icing on the cake.

Hopefully the boys make it out of the lair of the Weaver Queen and her hoards of spider minions with a fun new hobby to bring home to their friends.

Summer Camp: The hardest job you’ll ever love

For the past four and a half weeks, I’ve been working as a summer camp counselor at Greenwood Trails in Winsted, CT. I’ve had the job for the past three years, and I can honestly say there is no better job in the world.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Far from it. Every day, I and the rest of the 40 counselors deal with almost 200 kids from ages eight to 16, running activities, organizing cabins and generally making sure they don’t kill themselves. I walk probably five miles a day between the office and the high ropes course and pass out asleep every night from sheer exhaustion.

Our super professional staff learning the ropes during certification week.
Our super professional staff learning the ropes during certification week.

But, each day I wake up with a smile on my face because I’m doing the job that I love. Summer camp provides kids a great opportunity to get outside and try things they’ve never done before. I’ve taught kids how to fence, fish and climb a rock wall. I’ve even introduced them to some of my favorite hobbies like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, both of which were surprisingly big hits.

For many, it’s the only chance to get out into the woods, learn to be comfortable in the outdoors and get a little dirty. Last weekend, I led an overnight backpacking trip up St. John’s Ledges on the Appalachian Trail. Even though the kids were lugging over-sized car-camping tents and bookbags stuffed with sleeping bags, they walked off the trail laughing and singing.

Greenwood Trails is right in the foothills of the Berkshires, so we get to go to some awesome places on our days off, like New York, Boston, or Bash Bish Falls in Massachusetts.
Greenwood Trails is right in the foothills of the Berkshires, so we get to go to some awesome places on our days off, like New York, Boston, or Bash Bish Falls in Massachusetts.

Camp isn’t just for the kids, however. I have a ton of fun as a counselor. The people that I spend these short ten weeks with become some of my best friends. I’m lucky to say that I have friends on almost every continent. On days off, we take great trips to local lakes and attractions, or maybe just hang out.

Camp is an important part of growing up and I believe that every kid should have the chance to experience it and learn from it and every young adult should consider working at one for the same reasons.

Unfortunately, my short off period is almost over, so I’ll have to wrap up. It’s chicken nuggets again for lunch and I have to run to the dining hall before the kids eat them all.

It really wouldn't be a post about camp if there wasn't a campfire somewhere, would it?
It really wouldn’t be a post about camp if there wasn’t a campfire somewhere, would it?

Hurling: The fastest game on grass

It’s really amazing that it took me more than 21 years to hear about a sport that’s been around for more than 3,000 years, especially since it involves full contact and heavy sticks.

Hurling has been played in Ireland for centuries and is one of the country’s national sports. It has a growing community in the U.S. through cultural societies and collegiate clubs.

I started playing with the University of Connecticut hurling club last fall. They had the booth next to the fencing team, of which I was already a member, at the involvement fair. I had heard a bit about the game from a friend from Ireland, and was curious to try it for myself.

A contact sport that involved swinging heavy sticks at each other and probably heavy drinking after games? Sold.

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After seeing the Fenway Hurling Classic in Boston last November, I knew this was the sport for me. The Galway and Dublin senior team, some of the best in the sport, played an exhibition match at Fenway Park to a packed house. I knew I had to be a part of the community and atmosphere of this game. The Dropkick Murhpys concert afterwards didn’t hurt either.

Hurling is a great sport. Jokes about on-field violence and post-game beverages aside, it’s a fast, complex and engaging game. The ball, or sliotar, moves between players incredibly fast, propelled off the player’s sticks, or hurls, which are enticingly axe-like in shape. “The fastest game on grass,” as it’s called, requires much communication between teammates, field awareness and positioning. Points are awarded for either putting the ball into the goal or between two uprights at either end of the field.

As someone who has not played a competitive team sport since I was about eight, there’s a bit of a learning curve, but after getting the initial motions of swinging a hurl down, it gets simpler from there. It has a more “wrist-flick” motion than “baseball swing.”

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Memorial Day weekend marks the National Collegiate Gaelic Athletic Association National Championships in Boulder, Colorado. Six teams from across the country are competing for the title. Four teammates and I are leaving in the morning to make the three-day drive.

We’ve been preparing for the tournament all season, practicing hard and playing against the other local clubs. Whether we win or not, I can’t think of a better event, better game, or better people to to spend my time with.

April Loot Crate Unboxing

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What secrets could the “Quest” Loot Crate hold?

Loot Crate is one of many “mystery box” subscriptions on the internet today. For about $20 a month, a box containing an assortment of products that fit that month’s theme is shipped to you, but the contents of the box aren’t revealed beforehand.

April’s box had the theme “Quest: Adventure Awaits,” and contained stuff from Harry Potter, the Vikings TV show, the movie Labyrinth, the Uncharted video game series and the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game series.

lootcratequest

The Loot Crate site says that the the items are worth more than $45. That may be true, if you were to buy them from the store, but I don’t think I would buy some of the loot by itself.

Lets have a look at what’s in the box:

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Cue Legend of Zelda treasure chest noise.
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The purple is a bit much for me, but the Labyrinth design is cool.

First out is a shirt by Ripple Junction, from Labyrinth with the late, great David Bowie as the Goblin King. I’m a fan of the movie, but the purple color isn’t really my thing. Might make a decent gift or simply relegated to convention-wear.

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I am really looking forward to using this drinking horn. Looks like it will hold maybe a little less than a full beer.

Up next is probably my favorite thing in the crate, a replica drinking horn from the Vikings TV show, by Chronicle Collectibles. The horn looks cool, and I’m sure will serve its duty as a drinking vessel, but plastic construction and the paint job seems a little lacking. It seems solid, though and has a neat neck strap so you won’t spill your mead. I’m not sure of the exact volume, but it looks just a bit small to fit a full bottle of beer.

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Not my favorite item in the box, but it will make a good gift for a Potter fan I know.

As a Harry Potter fan, I was excited to see what this crate contained. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed by what Loot Crate had to offer this month; a pair of socks by Hyp Hosiery with the various Horcruxes created by Lord Voldemort. They’re kind of cheesy, and I’m sure there’s some fans out there that would love them, but they just don’t do anything for me.

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The bourbon takes 12 points of cold damage.

lootcratemoldNow we’re talking! I’m super excited to use this d20 ice mold made by Loot Crate Labs. It’s in two parts and made of silicone for easy use and cleaning. There’s not much better than a cold drink during a long Dungeons and Dragons game, and this should be a great way to keep a glass of bourbon chilled while I DM.

 

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“I am a man of fortune and must seek my fortune.” Pretty cool poster, if a bit small.

There was also a small poster included in the box. This one was from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I’m a huge fan of the series, so this poster is definitely going up somewhere, even if it is a bit small. It’s only about a foot by eight inches, but it’s got a really cool graphic, so no real complaints here.

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I like the mix of D&D and Legend of Zelda in the pin.

Lastly, there was a LootPin included in the box. It looks like a cross between a Master Shield from Legend of Zelda and a d20. Apparently, it also gives you a special DLC for the D&D Neverwinter MMORPG. Entering a special code will get you a special gelatinous cube companion (haha companion cube) to use in the game. I’m not a Neverwinter player, so I can’t really comment on the DLC, but the pin is sweet, so I’m on board.

Each box also comes with a magazine that explains all the items in the box and a few extras, like letters from fictional characters and a few drink recipes to fill up the new drinking horn. The box also flips inside-out to reveal a maze to go with the “Quest” theme.

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The maze on the inside of the box. I haven’t tried to solve it yet.

Overall, I’m about half and half over this Loot Crate. The drinking horn, ice mold and pin are pretty neat, but I’m not super fond of the socks and the shirt is okay. The poster is nice, but it seems like something I could get for free at a convention or press event, so I’m not really counting it in the value of the box. I’d recommend getting a Loot Crate if the theme of that month and the properties included are ones you like, but if you’re unsure of more than, say, one or two of them, I’d skip it and just buy the stuff you want for yourself.

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All the loot laid out.

What would be in your ideal Loot Crate? Tell us in the comments!