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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Caught… (Days 59-61)

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At least the rain isn’t lasting all day, everyday now, though I still seem to be getting caught by intermittent deluges where the sky opens up and dumps 1-2 inches of rain in an hour, and then sunnier skies return. It’s definitely an improvement over the last week, so I appreciate that.

Yesterday, for the first time, I found a tick on my leg. It didn’t seem to care that I’d coated myself in deet, or maybe the rain and sweat had just rinsed all of the insecticide away.

Ticks and Lyme Disease are constantly on people’s minds out here. I check myself for ticks everyday, and have been glad not to find them. Some of the other hikers have found as many as 29 ticks on themselves in one day! The hikers with dogs seem especially prone to collecting lots of ticks.

Hopefully that will be the first and last tick to try to feast on me, but I will remain ever vigilant in my battle against the bugs.

It looks like I might actually get a break in the weather so I’m going to get back out on the trail and soak up some sun while it lasts!

50 Shades of Grey/Rain (56-58)

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I think I’ve seen all of the shades of grey that the sky can muster, along with at least 50 different variants of rain. The skies have been grey and it has rained almost every day for the last month. Those of us on the trail are definitely tired of all of this rain.

Here in Virginia, we can at least take some solace in the fact that it is a record breaking amount of rain?! In the mountains the storms have been dropping 1-2 inches of rain/hour in bursts of scattered storms for days, which has led to record setting rainfall amounts and flash flood watches/warnings every day for the last week. Daily rainfall totals in the mountains have been: Monday= 3 inches, Tuesday= 4 inches, Wednesday= 8 inches, Thursday= 6 inches, Friday= 6 inches.

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Needless to say, this has caused the rivers, creeks, and streams to overflow their banks, and widespread flooding has been reported. This adds an extra element of excitement and challenge to hiking the AT. The trail becomes even more of an obstacle course.

The rainy day obstacle course includes the following challenges:

1) Trail or Stream? You have to try to figure out whether you are hiking on the trail or in a stream. White blazes may or may not be available to assist you in this quest.

2) Creek Fording. Just when you think that your boots couldn’t get wetter you come to a fast flowing flooded creek. Be prepared to take your boots off and pick your favorite route for crossing.

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3) Tree vaulting. With all the rain, wind, and the saturated soil, you can’t count on the trees to remain upright.

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When we’re lucky, the trees have fallen away from the trail and we avoid the obstacle, or the awesome trail maintenance crews have gotten there first and cleared the way for us.

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Sometimes, however, we come across a set of downed trees that the topsoil just couldn’t keep rooted anymore and we have to figure out if we’re going over, limboing under, or bushwhacking around the downed tree or some combination of all of the above.

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(Though the picture may not make it obvious, that was a combination of 3 downed tress, plus tree branches, that had freshly fallen. I had to climb branch to branch over as it was too dense to go under and the ravine I was in made going around it impossible. It created a blockade 5 ft tall and about 5 ft wide).

4) The mud slalom. Slick mud covers many parts of the trail threatening to either swallow your leg whole or to send you sliding down the slope in one awkward bound.

5) Critter craze. Try to hike faster than the snails, turtles, and newts in the trail. Also avoid stepping on and getting bitten by the snakes that for some reason prefer the wet weather.
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Here’s hoping for some slightly less rainy weather around here!
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If you’re curious about what this crazy weather is looking like in the cities near here check out: Crazy rain in Roanoke,VA area, where they report that there’s been 12 inches of rain above the average so far this year!

P.S. Speaking of the AT obstacle course, the stiles around the cow pastures are (too me) one of the most odious obstacles, especially when wet. Sometimes they are coated with poison ivy to make the challenge even more exciting.

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Earning My Name (Days 53-55)

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Patches. That’s the theme for this post. Patches of fog on the trail, patches of rain, patches of thunderstorms, and white patches on my throat (uvula and soft palette).

I’ve been feeling draggy and have been struggling with a sore throat for a few days, but had assumed that it was just allergies (probably from dealing with all of those dogs). When I got into town I spotted a mirror and pulled out my headlamp to take a peek at my throat. Sure enough, it was covered with white patches. The white patches meant one of two things: strep throat or thrush. Either way, I was going to have to take a day off of the trail and go to the doctors.

What do you do when you’re on the trail and need to see a doctor? You wander into the nearest clinic.

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So I wandered into the clinic and got checked out by an M.D. It turns out that the pretty, lacy white patches that were making my throat bleed were from thrush, which is a pretty common side effect from the daily use of my asthma meds (inhaled corticosteroids) in the backcountry. The doctor prescribed a nystatin mouthwash (which is annoyingly heavy for backpacking) and gave me a prescription for some systemic meds in case the mouthwash doesn’t eradicate those nasty white patches. I’m happy that my asthma is under control enough that the side effects of the asthma are worse than the asthma itself.

While I was there I also had the doc look at the patches of rash that have
developed all over my legs, hips, butt, and thighs in this hot, humid, and very wet weather. The doc determined that it was folliculitis and prescribed me some antibiotics for it after making sure I was doing everything else correctly first.

Dog Days (Days 52-54)

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These days I’m not much of an animal lover, at least not up close and personal. This is partly because all things fuzzy and furry strongly contribute to my asthma and allergies. I still think your cats and dogs are wonderful and lovely creatures, but I’d rather not touch them or have them share my local breathing space.

There are lots of dogs hiking the trail with their owners, and like their owners, most are quiet, respectful, and move off of the trail to let other hikers pass. Some try to get my attention, but when I don’t touch them they quickly move on to someone that is more willing to scratch them behind their ears or play with them.

The other day I used a zip line (see picture) to cross a creek so that I could sleep on the Captain’s (the Captain is a trail angel that opens his porch and property to weary hikers) porch after hiking 20 miles in the pouring rain. I was thankful for having a dry place to stay (and a refrigerator full of soda to drink), but I didn’t love his five wet, muddy dogs that were aggressively trying to get me to play with them. I used the furniture on the porch and erected an anti-dog barricade to aid me in fighting off their exuberant affection as I curled up to sleep in my sleeping bag. By the time I left the Captain’s porch the next morning I was convinced that I definitely was not a dog person!

A couple days later I came across a woman sitting beside the trail with a puppy dog that was panting heavily. As I got closer, I realized that the dog was wheezing and constantly gasping/gulping for air. It reminded me of how I feel when my asthma is really bad… Extremely short of breath, and gulping air like water in the hopes of somehow sating my need for oxygen, but finding that the glass I’m trying to gulp from is always empty… It’s a horrible feeling and I found myself commiserating with that poor puppy.

I was worried about the puppy, so I stopped and chatted it’s owner. She said that the dog had been getting worse and worse for the last couple of hours, but that she didn’t have the strength to carry her (the puppy) off of the mountain. It was really hot out (the dog days of summer are here), so when a couple of day hikers came by with water to spare, we doused the dog with it, hoping that she was just overheated and that if we got her cooled down it would help. It didn’t seem to.

Every now and then the dog would try to get up and move, but her hind legs weren’t working correctly. She got up, moved a little bit, and collapsed beside my hiking pole, still gasping. Her big brown bulging eyes looked up at me, and it seemed as if she was silently asking me for help.

I looked down at her. She did need help. She probably needed to go to the hospital. She wasn’t getting better and she definitely needed to get off of that mountain. Suddenly it occurred to me… I’m a thru-hiker, I’ve gotten pretty strong, I could carry the dog off of the mountain! I could help!

I threw my pack and hiking poles into the bushes and offered to carry the puppy down the hill (~ a mile) and to woman’s car in the parking lot. She nodded her ok, so I bent down and scooped the now muddy puppy up into my arms and started down the hill.

She weighed about 35 lbs and I had no trouble retracing my steps and carrying her down to the car. Her breathing never improved, though she did manage to slobber all over me on the hike down. Once I got her safely to the car, her owner whisked her away to the nearest animal hospital.

Trail angels are constantly doing things that make my life better. In that same parking lot earlier in the day, some day hikers had left fresh fruit, cold water, and sodas in a cooler for me. I was glad to get the chance to do something nice for one of the day hikers, and I hope that that poor puppy ended up being ok.