AT vs PCT: The first 150 miles

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Lots of people have been asking me how the PCT compares to the AT… At least in the first 150 miles there are lots of differences!

The AT is a green tunnel, the PCT is either a red racetrack or the yellow-brick road.

The AT has lots of tree cover and the trail was mostly mud or hard-packed earth. The PCT by contrast is incredibly exposed. There is rarely tree cover and much of the trail is yellowish beach sand or reddish rocks.

Walking on the AT was mostly walking on hard surfaces, walking on the PCT is mostly like walking on the soft part of the beach.

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On the AT I never used my sunscreen, on the PCT I use it four times a day.

On the AT I used my rescue inhaler four times a day, on the PCT I haven’t used it at all.

On the AT it seemed like there was water everywhere, on the PCT the creeks and streams have mostly been dry. The water caches, however, have been impressively stocked.

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On the AT almost 80% of the thu-hikers I met (in the first 150 miles) on the trail smoked cigarettes, on the PCT I haven’t encountered any smokers yet.

On the AT the birds started chirping an hour before dawn (a reliable alarm clock), on the PCT the birds start chirping sometime between dawn and an hour after dawn.

On the AT views were a rare commodity, on the PCT it seems there are spectacular new views around every corner.

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On the AT the lows were in the 40s, on the PCT the lows were in the 20s.

On the AT the highs were in the 70s, on the PCT the highs were in the 90s.

On the AT it’s possible to stay at shelters every night, on the PCT there are no shelters.

On the AT mice out number people, on the PCT lizards outnumber people.

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On the AT the crowd was mostly 20 something’s, on the PCT the crowd seems to be mostly 60 something’s (because I’m starting the PCT early and I started the AT late?).

On the AT people would look at you crazy if you hiked 20 miles on your first day, on the PCT that seems like the norm.

Blister prevalence seems the same for both the AT and the PCT. I’ve seen fewer knee injuries on the PCT so far though.

The PCT truly believes in switchbacks, Georgia thinks that it’s trying sometimes.

On the AT there are gaps, on the PCT there are canyons.

On the AT I never used my sunglasses, on the PCT I use them every day.

I didn’t seem any mosquitos the first 150 miles of the AT, I’ve seen tons on the PCT already.

There seems to be a higher default level of education on the PCT relative to the AT (could be due to the older demographic.

On the AT I hung a bear bag every night, on the PCT I sleep with my food on my tent.

On the AT I resupplied out of grocery stores and ghetty marts, for the PCT I am sending myself maildrops.

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Despite raining 4/5 of my first days on the PCT, it has generally been much sunnier on the PCT than on the AT.

When packing for the PCT I made a few adjustments to my gear. The main one was switching my alcohol stove to a jetboil sol. I loved my little alcohol stove, but because of the fire danger California has banned them this year.

In the first 150 miles I’ve also switched some of my gear. I traded out my baseball cap for a more desert friendly cap with a neck guard. I bought down booties to keep my feet warm. I bought a chrome dome umbrella for shade, I bought extra sunscreen, and I bought some Chapstick with sunscreen in it. I also realized that having a v-neck long sleeve shirt meant having extra sunburn area to worry about so I would definitely get a high-colored shirt if I were to do this again!

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Surprises (Days 92-94)

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New Jersey has been full of surprises. I try to find some sort of unifying theme for each post, and for this one it’s a bit of a stretch, but surprise is definitely the common element.

New Jersey Surprise #1: The Full Monty.

I got to the Delaware Water Gap on a nice, warm, sunny afternoon and decided that I wanted to go swimming. I’d made the ridiculous purchase of a camouflage bikini a while back and was looking for an opportunity to try it out. I talked Hot Shot into joining me on my swimming adventure and after getting directions to the best swimming hole around, we were on our way.

We followed the directions down to the highway, took a right at the visitor’s center, passed under the highway, then over the railroad tracks, and finally found the path to the swimming hole at the end of the second soccer field. It was following this path as it wound through the woods at the edge of the river that I encountered New Jersey surprise #1.

I came around the final bend in the path and found a man looking straight up the trail towards me me with his shorts around his knees letting out an impressive stream of pee. He saw me, grinned rather guiltily, and turned to the side without interrupting his arc of pee. Though I’ve surprised a number of gentlemen on the trail in the act of peeing, this is the only time anyone had actually been fully facing me and peeing on the trail. Most hikers seem to chose to face a bush or a tree off to the side of the trail and are far more subtle about it.

After that initial awkwardness we joined the guy, his wife, and his five year old son at the swimming hole. It was a picturesque spot with lots of lush greenery and an old abandoned railroad trestle in the background. The swimming hole was pretty deep, and the parents of the five year old had an interesting (some might even say surprising) strategy for encouraging their son (who was learning to swim) to head into the deeper water… Whenever he started to head back to the shallower water they’d throw a barrage of pebbles/rocks at him. This was typically met with an onslaught of giggles from the kid, and laughter from the parents as he tried to avoid the splashing of the rocks.

New Jersey Surprise #2: Electrofishing.

The next day when I got back on the trail I was surprised to find what looked to me like three of the ghostbusters (pictured above) walking up the middle of the creek. It was especially strange because the pack would occasionally emit a bright red flash of light.

Eventually I remembered seeing something like this in the National Geographic documentary about the AT. The backpack was for Electrofishing, where they use an electric current (active when the pack flashes red) to stun and monitor fish before releasing them back into the wild.

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New Jersey Surprise #3: Beauty.

I was surprised by how beautiful the trail in New Jersey was. It seems to me that pop culture doesn’t have much if anything positive to say about New Jersey, so I wanted to share a positive surprise about it.

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New Jersey Surprise #4: Hatchet.

Walking down the trail and seeing a hatchet up in the branches of a tree was rather unexpected!

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New Jersey Surprise #5: Lost Guy.

It was a rainy, wet, cold evening so I decided to spend the night in the shelter even though it was one of the small, dirty old shelters. It is also one of the only times I’ve slept in a full shelter. Gilgamesh, Uno, Hot Shot, and I had all crowded into it as well as an old guy that didn’t speak English very well (he was German). We hypothesized that he might be the 85 yr old guy that’s trying to set the record for the oldest thru-hiker.

When he arrived it was already getting dark, so he quickly spread out his stuff in the shelter and then wandered off to go get water and use the privy. About 10 minutes later I took my headlamp and went down to the water source. The water was probably 200 yards from the shelter and it was not the easiest path to follow. It reminded me of why I try not to make a habit of night hiking unknown sections of the AT. As I was heading back to the shelter I thought I saw the twinkle of a light about 500 yards away and figured it was probably something on the nearby road.

When I got back to the shelter the old guy still hadn’t returned. I asked around the shelter to see if anyone else was starting to worry about him, and they said no. Since we was an old guy they supposed that maybe it was just taking him a long time at the privy and that we should give him his space. No one on the trail wants to be crowded.

I finished my bedtime preparations and the old guy still hadn’t returned. I was definitely worried about him now. We decided to send a search party and Gilgamesh and Uno decided that Hot Shot and I should be the search party since I thought more than one person should go.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to think that the light I had thought was coming from a road earlier had actually been coming from our old guy, so I suggested we start from the shelter and head down the access road in that direction. There was no sign of him or of his headlight. We turned our headlamps off and then called out into the darkness hoping that he’d hear and respond. After a brief pause we heard a reply in the distance in a thick German accent that sounded both frantic and relieved. We turned our headlamps back on and continued to head toward him, and soon we saw his headlamp in the distance. He’d gotten horribly lost and had just been wandering around hoping to see the lights of the shelter, but he was going the wrong direction and getting further and further away. He thanked us profusely for coming out to look for him and assured us that he was ok now and just cold.

I was just relieved that we had found him so easily and that he was ok!

The Bee Zone (Days 61-63)

I arrived at a rather decrepit shelter in the middle of a yet another thunderstorm and plunked myself down. It was the end of a long, wet day of hiking so I was very glad to finally be somewhere dry.

All of the shelters are not created equal, but as long as it was dry I figured it was good enough for me for one night. Unfortunately within minutes of sitting down dozens of bees started buzzing around me. I sighed and periodically brushed away the bees that deigned to land on me. They didn’t seem interested in stinging me, but were definitely annoying.

A few minutes later my friend Chuckwagon arrived, and half of the bees devoted their attention to him. He swatted at them and grumbled. I wondered aloud if the Deet in my bag would deter the bees, but Chuckwagon suggested that smoke was what we really needed. Everything was sopping wet, so we didn’t feel like fighting to try to get a campfire started. Instead, we decided to wait for Colonel Patches to show up so that we could encourage him to smoke one of his cigars and rid us of our bee problem.

A few minutes later Co. Patches arrived and with some encouragement lit his cigar. Unfortunately, the bees did not peacefully disperse as we had hoped, they just found a third target to harass.

Whereas Chuckwagon and I had been sort of idly swatting at the bees, Co. Patches was out for the kill. Armed with his cigar and a map he started targeting the bees and picking them off one by one. He’d take a puff of his cigar, idly blow it at a bee and then swat it out of the air with the map. One bee down… Two bees down… Three bees down.

Suddenly it seemed like a live action bee killing video game… “The Bee Zone”.

For some reason the bees were really attracted to the grips on my hiking poles… There were about a dozen of them peacefully congregating there at any given time, so we declared the poles to be the evil villains home base. The bees clearly always regrouped there between their flights of targeted annoyance and irritation. We decided that he couldn’t kill any of the bees while they were actually at their home base.

4 bees down… Five bees down… Six bees down.

Co. Patches had finished the first easy level of killing the bees, which was conducted while sitting on the floor of the shelter, but there were at least a dozen bees still flitting about. It was time to proceed to the next level of the game, which involved him standing up and actively chasing the bees.

Seven bees… Eight bees… Nine bees down.

We envisioned the running tally of bees killed and bees remaining in the upper corner of the video game screen.

10 bees… 11 bees… 12 bees… Co. Patches was really getting into the swing of it now. There were only four bees left on base (the hiking poles).

One took flight and Co. patches chased it down and killed it…13 bees… Then another… 14 bees… Then another… 15 bees.

With only one bee left on base I jiggled the pole and it flew out into the danger zone. Co. Patches chased it into the rain (almost gleefully) and before long he called out, “16, hah! Got them all”.

He returned to the shelter and sat down to bask in the glory of a mission accomplished. The shelter was definitely a more comfortable place without all of those pesky bees flying around.

Suddenly another bee appeared… Chuckwagon and I laughed as Co. Patches chased in down… “17 bees… Or is that 18?” Without the tally running at the top of the screen we were started to lose count.

Eventually Co. Patches rid the shelter of all of the pesky bees and we settled in to make dinner and to contemplate what the next level of the thru-hiker live action video game would be… We decided that the most obvious next level of the game would involve using a slingshot to go after the mice that skitter around the shelter and get into people’s food at night…

(Bonus points to anyone that puts together the phone app for level one, “the bee zone” of the thru-hiker video game and sends it to me).

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Alone? (Days 42-45)

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It seems like there are some days when I see more bears and snakes than people. I have to admit though, I was surprised to find myself in line behind a snake at the privy. I thought about trying to pick it up and move it, but it didn’t seem worth it. I waited for it to do it’s business and move along… It took its time slithering up the stairs and around the throne before slowly lowering itself down towards the base of the privy. From there I envisioned it slithering under the base of the seat and just waiting there for me. I knew that it wasn’t likely, but still decided that I’d feel more comfortable doing my business in the woods.

Folks often ask me if I get scared hiking by myself. For the most part the answer is no. Most of the wildlife seems just as scared of me as I am of it. There is also a community of other thru-hikers that are out here sharing this experience with me, and we all look out for each other. I typically hike alone all day and meet up with other hikers when I break for lunch or make camp for the night. I do sometimes get lonely or a tad nervous when I find myself alone in camp at the end of the day.

The other night I pulled into a shelter at around 5:30 pm to make camp. No one else was there yet, but that wasn’t unusual since I usually leave camp first in the morning and am the first to make camp in the evening. This shelter was awesome, but only 0.1 miles from the road. The downside to shelters that close to the road is that *anyone* can get there easily (even if they are starting out drunk). The shelters near the roads are usually trashed, covered with graffiti, and littered with broken bottles and cans. Staying at the shelters near the roads makes me nervous… Especially when I’m alone.

I decided to cook my dinner and wait until other hikers arrived before unpacking my pack and setting up my bed. I was hoping to sleep on the lower level of the shelter if other hikers showed up, but decided that I would brave the series of rungs that led up to the loft if I was alone for the night.

By 8 pm, I was done with all of my chores and ready to start thinking about sleep. No one else had showed up yet, so I settled into the idea that this might be the first night on the trail where I would *actually* be alone. I put my backpack on and went over and looked at the rungs going up to the loft. I swear it was slightly over hung! With my backpack on, I felt like one of those monkey in a barrel toys climbing those rungs. I would cling to a rung above me with one arm and then awkwardly swing an arm and a leg out so that I could grab the next rung and cling to it.

Once I made it up into the loft it was quite nice. It also seemed like an easily defensible position. No more than one person could climb those rungs at a time and I seriously doubted anyone could do it without me hearing them. Also, unless somebody climbed up into the loft, there would be no way to know that I was hidden away up there.

I set up my sleeping pad and sleeping bad and then changed into my pajamas. I was still feeling nervous about being so close to the road, so I got my knife out of my backpack (which was on the floor beside me) and strung it around my neck. I’ve slept with it as my necklace a few times before and it’s better than any other security blanket I’ve ever tried.

Even with my trusty security blanket knife, I was still feeling a bit nervous. I hate sleeping that close to the road. Perhaps I needed a second security blanket? I remembered that my pepper spray was still in my backpack. I took it out and wondered how I could have it on my person as well. If for some reason I needed it, I didn’t want to have to fumble for it in the dark. My pajamas (long johns) didn’t have any pockets so I tried tucking it up my sleeve… It fell out. I tried tucking it into my waistband… I was uncomfortable and kept sliding down my leg. I tried tucking into the ankle cuffs of my long johns… It fell out. I tried tucking it into my ankle socks… It didn’t fit. I lay there for a minute wishing that I had an ankle holster for it when inspiration struck. My parents had sent me some tall socks (I hadn’t been wearing them because they gave me heat rash on my ankles) that would be perfect as an ankle holster for my pepper spray! I changed my socks and sure enough the pepper spray slid into the top of the sock and stayed exactly where I put it!

Feeling armed and dangerous I curled up in my sleeping bag and prepared to sleep. As soon as I was settled in and comfortable I heard a truck pull into the nearby parking lot. Not long after, the unmistakeable laughter of drunken teenagers started rolling through the hills. I sighed… groups of drunken boys/men were the exact reason I hated staying in shelters/campsites near the road.

The peals of laughter got closer for a while, then drifted further away, and then closer again. I stayed curled up in my sleeping bag, just listening. I felt secure in my fortress and my ability to deal with any situation that might arise. Eventually the laughter died down and I heard the truck roar away.

I was, quite happily, alone again. The whippoorwill began its nightly song and I drifted off to sleep.

The Hiker Plague (Days 28-30)

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Starting from day one, I’ve been hearing rumors about an outbreak of norovirus on the trail. The outbreak was supposed to be centered at Hot Springs and extending into the area between Hot Springs, North Carolina and Erwin, Tennessee.

By the time I got to Hot Springs there was no sign of the norovirus there, but I was still hearing rumors that it was running rampant on the section of the trail between there and Erwin. I decided that I would try to avoid the shelters and other people in that section just to be safe. However, as I mentioned in the last post, the rains came, and I ended up deciding to stay in the nice dry shelters to get out of the rain.

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After the rain cleared out, I had some beautiful trail and I forgot about the nasty rumors about norovirus. When I pulled into the next shelter, however, I found a hiker curled up in his sleeping bag recovering from the norovirus. Luckily, it was a nice and sunny afternoon and I isolated myself out in my tent and set everything out to dry.

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The closer and closer to Erwin I’ve gotten, the more people I’ve encountered that are suffering or recovering from the norovirus. Two people at the hostel I stayed at last night seemingly had noro and spent the night puking in the men’s bathroom.

At this point I’m crossing my fingers, getting lots of sleep, and taking a few easy days in the hopes that I’ll manage to get through this hike without getting the hiker plague!

I’ve heard that the current issue of backpacker magazine has an article about noro and this year’s thru-hikers, and the link below is to an article that talks a bit more about it:

Info about the Norovirus on the AT.