Friday, August 28, 2009

The Start

It’s four in the morning, and I can’t sleep. Even my parents’ dog, Tweety, who has taken to sleeping on the floor in my room, has been up these last fifteen minutes, somehow tuned in to my anxiety.

. . .

Today, I’m starting the hike. From Corpus Christi, I’ll head northeast along the coast. I don’t know how far I’m going today or exactly where, but this doesn’t bother me.

. . .

My restlessness seems to have taken root in the overall unknown of the project. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable this is. I do take some solace that this general mode of life has existed with regularity for quite some time. But I stand on one side of a divide right now, tossing and turning in a comfortable bed; stepping over it will soon separate me from the life I’ve led.

. . .

On the Appalachian Trail, I had to hitchhike from time to time away from the trail along a busy road to get to a grocery store. Hitchhiking is no big deal along the A.T. because people have gotten used to seeing thru-hikers in their area. However, I still remember the first few moments of sticking out my thumb. It was a very humbling experience. I got rejected, as is the norm, for quite some time, and I felt stupid having my hand out there, secretly wishing there were an easier way. It’s the same feeling, the uncertainty of sticking out my thumb, that I’m having right now.

. . .

I’m reading a book my mom wrote for her children called Stories I Want to Tell You. In it, she recounts many of her mother’s and father’s stories of growing up and living in Texas, as well as several of her own. I’m thinking of one in particular in which my grandfather’s family put him on a train to Texas from Mexico City. He was wearing a nice suit, had some pocket change, but otherwise was unprepared for the country. In my grandfather’s later years, he referred to that trip as enormously stupid. He hadn’t known the language, nor anything of the country. Perhaps it is a common trepidation felt between travelers, no matter what the era, against an unknown vastness.

. . .

I want to try for another hour of sleep. I’ll be hiking the first few miles with my friend Darren, and I’d prefer to be awake and in good spirits when I do.

. . .

I have added a few photos to this post, things either one or both of us will pass in the first few miles. Enjoy! My favorite is the juxtaposition of the two signs. That just strikes me as too funny.

I don’t know when I’ll post again, but I’m hoping for sooner than later.

. . .

Until next time, faithful walkers…

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Hat

It’s hot down here in Texas on the Gulf Coast. And by hot, I mean really hot. In fact, it could be ridiculously hot. It just feels like home to me.

. . .

Because of the sun, I’ve been wearing a lot of hats. I received a nice one from a Montana fellow named Ralph (Ralph is a gentleman, but he’d never let on as he has a reputation at stake.). The hat is turquoise, some kind of synthetic, and has a nice cinching strap to help keep it on. I used it for about six weeks in Montana, then took it with me on the four-week survival course in Utah. Since some of the previous blog photos came out, it has been retired.

. . .

I have taken to wearing a Stetson I picked up in a local cowboy shop. I wanted something a bit stiffer that also had decent ventilation. It’s a comfortable fit and now gives me full reign to wear starched shirts and say in a slow drawl “That’ll be the day.” My mom laments the transformation, but I tell her she’s missing the big picture. When pressed what I mean by ‘big,’ I tell her that I meant to say ‘last.’

. . .

If you’ve got such a hat, then wear it proud. There really is something to it, as you might be able to ascertain from my mug shot below.

. . .

Until next time, cowboys and girls…

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Final Details and Final Days

I’ve been a little sick for a few days. It was some strange combination of the shock of the starvation of the survival course, the subsequent gorging of food during a four-day road trip back to Texas, and visiting with my nieces and nephew, two of whom had the beginnings of a cold. My legs from my knees to my feet swelled up, and it hurt to bend down to pick up a pencil. Then my throat hurt one day, my nose was runny the next, and before you could say “Texas Perimeter Hike,” I was down for the count.

. . .

I visited a family physician who had no idea what to make of me. I had a big unkempt beard which covered much of my face and neck, a dark tan, and legs that belonged to someone else. It was a puzzling case. The doctor poked and prodded, hmmed and ahemed, then suggested a variety of tests, tests, and more tests. I took five the first day, which included blood, urine, and an ultrasound of my legs, and three the next for good measure. I passed them all.

. . .

Little by little, the symptoms of my various ailments have naturally gone away. The mystery of my ailment will remain as such for my doctors, but at least I’m doing better. My legs are mine again, and my cold is just about to check out, perhaps another day or so.

. . .

To celebrate my slow-but-steady recovery, I shaved my beard. I'd been wearing it for two weeks after the BOSS program, and it more or less granted me the freedom to act like a Cro-Magnon man. But in order to get better, I often psyche myself into it, in this case shaving, showering, and going out for a fun time. Ah, but to be bearded again...

. . .

The road is calling. I’ve got a handful of tasks to do before I’m out the door. But this is an official countdown. No matter what the weather, come next Friday, I’ll be hugging the coastline and heading into the sunset.

. . .

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Survival Course, My Return to Civilization, Bread, and the TPH Start Date

First off, I survived the survival course.

BOSS, better known as the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, took me and four other guys into the Utah wilderness for four weeks. We had three instructors, so our total group consisted of eight for eighteen days; the remaining ten days were spent more or less by ourselves.

A quick summary for anyone interested in the BOSS 28-day Field Course: this is first and foremost a backcountry hiking trip. With the exception of a three-day gorge fest on a sheep, most of the food rations are small, and participants stand a decent chance of experiencing the initial stages of starvation, while doing the aforementioned hiking which could be anywhere from five to ten miles a day. There is intermittent survival instruction, but only the basics are covered in any given subject.

Knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would have signed up for this particular course. I enjoyed the minimalist philosophy (see photo of blanket backpack and miscellaneous items on white cloth), but I wanted more instruction and quite frankly a more grueling hiking regimen in preparation for my Texas trek. As a group, we had a lackadaisical attitude and pace toward our daily hiking (truth be told, we had one extra-slow hiker), and as a result, our instructors scheduled several low-mile days for us. The instruction itself was good, but our instructors’ follow-up was close to nonexistent (that is, little was done to make sure we had mastered anything, with the notable exception of fire-making and some plant identification).

That said, there were many moments that were funny, crazy, scary, and wonderful which helped make the four-week course memorable. Here are a few anecdotes that I enjoy recounting:

1) The eight of us fasted during the first three and a half days, instructors and students alike, while hiking approximately ten miles a day and sleeping on the ground at night. During this time, we found out that one of our instructors was an apprentice. Someone asked if he got paid, and he responded that he did not. Then he added, “Well, they do give me room and board.”

2) In the final few days of the course, we were given maps and told to hike to a rendezvous point by ourselves. Two of our group of five were experiencing the onset of starvation. My pre-course body fat had cushioned me quite well to the nutritional rigors of this particular BOSS course, but I felt terrible for my fellow students (one fellow could be found in the evenings digging up cattails and eating the roots in a desperate attempt to feel full).

During this time, I started taking the “fishing” more seriously. This meant getting in the streams and patiently going after the fish with either our bare hands or roughly made spears. One afternoon, I saw a fish dart under a rock, and I snuck up on it. I gently reached under and lightly touched its side. To my surprise, it let me! As the expression goes, I “tickled the fish,” first with one hand, then with two. When I knew the fish’s exact location (where the head and tail were, specifically), I tried to tighten my grip. Sensing the threat, the fish tried to swim away, but I pushed it against the rock and held it there while trying to figure out a good way to get a grip on it. I sank deeper into the stream, wrestling to hold it down.

Then I got it and brought it out! It was a 14” bottom dweller (like a freshwater catfish without whiskers). The other students were ecstatic. We were going to have some decent protein and perhaps stave off hunger for an evening. I was a hero for a day.

3) During this same period of time, we had to traverse a very narrow canyon. It kept getting more and more narrow until finally my shoulders could touch both sides. It really felt crazy. We worked together in a way that hadn’t been seen before. We helped each other with our packs, took the time to make sure everyone had made it through each stretch okay. We perhaps made a mile in an hour and a half, but we came through as a tighter group.

4) One component of the course is called "Big Game Processing." Basically, you slaughter a sheep and in doing so learn the rudimentary skills of processing any small to large game.

During this phase, we used much of the animal, including the stomach with which we made stomach bread. We cleaned the sheep's stomach quite well, going so far as to put it in a nearby stream to get the gunk off. Then I was charged with making the dough (all the dry ingredients were pre-mixed; "just add water"). After I did that, we put it in the stomach and cinched the open end. Then we boiled it for about 75 minutes. What we got was a wonderful slice of heaven.


5) Our final task was a solo night hike. I’ve hiked alone in the dark before, on the Appalachian Trail and elsewhere, but this was something entirely different. We were relieved of our packs, which was nice, and headed out from camp one by one. The timing was such that during the first twenty minutes we could all see an unobstructed moonrise. The sky was clear, the night air crisp, and that moon shone like a spotlight over the land. It set the mood for a lovely ten-mile hike to our final camping destination.

We didn’t know how long our hike would be when we set off, so this gave each of us a long two-and-a-half hour window to think with an open mind of our experiences and lives, unencumbered by a mental endpoint. When we approached a confusing fork in the path, there was a green glow stick indicating the correct direction (sometimes these glow sticks were miles apart!). Everything was quiet. I passed a couple of the others, and we did so more or less silently. We came into the final camp one by one, hugged our instructors, chatted near the fire, and turned in, doing our best to sleep in the cold desert air.

So, yes, I survived. On August 8th, 2009, we were all readmitted to civilization, happier, skinnier, and ready for a series of big fat meals. Our first order of business: hitting up the Boulder grocery store. Two fellows bought miscellaneous junk food. Another bought bread, a jar of peanut butter, and jelly. The last guy and I split the price of a half-gallon of peanut-caramel ice cream and pretty much devoured the entire thing while sitting on the grocery porch (I heard a little girl ask the owner, “What are those guys doing out there?” and the owner responded, “Those men just came from the wilderness and haven’t seen peanut butter or ice cream in a long time.”). It was a glorious pig out.

In fact, I haven’t stopped pigging out. I estimated that I weighed somewhere in the 130s at the end of the program. I weighed myself today, and that means I have put on over twenty pounds in ten days. Yes! I’ll lose most of it in the months to come, but I am resting better knowing that I will once again have a fat buffer between me and my hiking trials.

My return to civilization also had a peculiar twist: both my legs swelled up from my knees to my feet. This has never happened before. It was a little unnerving to see a stranger’s legs on my body. I saw a doctor today, and as best she could figure, I had a spike in my salt intake after the course followed by prolonged inactivity in the car which probably caused my temporary bilateral swelling. I took a few tests to confirm that nothing was wrong, and they all came back negative. So it’s just a matter of a few more days to get completely back to normal.

In these last few days, I have started baking a ton of bread and treats for the family, a nod to my time in Helena at Sweetgrass Bakery. I’ve made brioche, croissants, bagels, butter cookies, rolls, challah, and cream cheese danish. Together with my nephew Will, we made fresh pasta and raviolis (my nieces Caroline and Grace helped with the final molding of the raviolis). Everything has been a hit, so much so that you’d think my family had been on the survival course with me.

I have settled on an August 28th start date. I will distribute my first article a few days before that, do some final preparation, then take off. I do not anticipate any fanfare, though my friend Darren has committed to walking the first leg with me. Little does he know it’s 40 miles.

I’m excited and amazed that this moment is finally upon me. I’ll save final pre-trip words for a later post.

If you are along the route and would like to meet or share interesting historical and/or personal anecdotes, please drop me a line well in advance at I can’t promise to meet everybody, but I will try to do my best. If you are an organization or school and would like a lecture or presentation, I would suggest contacting me a minimum of six to eight weeks in advance. All queries representing people within fifty miles of the perimeter will be seriously considered. Let’s make this trip happen together!

Until next time, wanderers…