Robert Witham

Nomadic minimalist, writer, and videographer

Tag: Hiking

Camping in the Sangre de Cristo Range in New Mexico

Two months of urban stealth camping in Wyoming turned out to be all that I could handle. I decided to take off and join a friend in northern New Mexico. The Cebolla Mesa Campground is a Forest Service site in the Sangre de Cristo Range in northern New Mexico.

The area is stunningly beautiful with mountains all around. The campground sits on the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge and overlooks the Rio Grande River 1,000 feet below. The Cebolla Mesa Trail runs from the campground to the river via 1.25 miles of switchbacks.

These videos cover my time camping at Cebolla Mesa Campground and hiking the Cebolla Mesa Trail. I hope you enjoy the videos!

Hiking Across the Desert to Cunningham Mountain

Since arriving at the camp in Ehrenberg, Arizona last week, I have been looking at Cunningham Mountain in the distance. It has been calling to me and inviting me to visit. Today I took advantage of the cooling weather (high of only 71) to make the pilgrimage.

Cunningham Mountain is about 3-4 miles east of the camp, through empty desert. The hike to the base of the mountain took me through sand, rocks, and several large washes, with the landscape and vegetation changing as I approached the mountain.

At 3,316 feet, Cunningham Mountain is the largest of the Dome Rock Mountains. In case that does not sound high enough to justify calling it a mountain, it is worth noting that my base camp is at 660 feet above sea level.

As it turns out, most people climb Cunningham Mountain from the east side. There is a reason for this strategy, though I was not privy to it in advance. Approaching from the east provides an easy gravel road to walk to the top of the mountain. Approaching from the west, as I attempted, involved climbing a steep knife-edge ridge as the sides of the mountain are mostly loose rock.

I made it most of the way up the ridge before being turned back when I encountered a large drop-off that would have required a lot of backtracking to hike around. Apparently I should have approached from the east. Still, it was a great hike on a beautiful day.

Perhaps the most memorable part of this hike was the feeling that I had near the base of the mountain. There was one area that had an electric-like feel in the air. I’m not prone to “feelings” like this, but I could literally feel my skin tingling for the entire time I was in the area.

Since I have been working in videography recently, I decided to record some of my hike and make a short video of the experience. That video is now available on YouTube.

Book Review: Appalachian Trials

I never wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). Until, that is, I lived in the Upper Valley of Vermont last year where the AT wandered through my backyard. Truth be told, the trail was a few hundred yards behind my house, but I could have walked from my backyard to where the AT passed through Norwich without leaving the woods.

I had been thinking about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for a few years, but for some reason never gave much consideration to the AT. This probably had something to do with being a native of Massachusetts, and living in New England or Upstate New York for most of my life. The AT was close to home, while the PCT was far away and more exotic – at least in my mind. Living next to the AT though prompted me to purchase a Kindle e-book about the Appalachian Trail in early 2011. Several similar titles followed. I was hooked.

Interestingly, while I read several trail memoirs (quite delightful reading, by the way), I did not encounter an AT book about the psychological demands of hiking 2,181 miles up the East coast just for fun.

Zach Davis thru-hiked the AT in 2011. Prior to hiking the AT, Zach admits he had only slept in a tent twice, and had never been backpacking. Nonetheless, he successfully thru-hiked the entire AT on his first attempt, despite contracting a serious virus during his hike.

Following his hike, Zach looked for an AT book about the psychological aspects of thru-hiking the AT. Unable to find such a book, Zach wrote the book himself. That book is Appalachian Trials.

Zach credits former AT thru-hiker Ian Mangiardi (The Dusty Camel) with helping him prepare for the trail by being his “therapist/coach,” and now hopes to help other hikers mentally prepare for the trail. He notes that some 2,000 hikers attempt the AT each year; however, seven out of 10 end up off the trail short of their goal.

Zach makes these observations in his Introduction:

  • “You might assume the most difficult aspect of walking the length of the eastern United States would be purely physical…
  • “In no uncertain terms, the psychological and emotional struggle is what drives people off the Appalachian Trail.”
  • “What was interesting to me about the trail were the mind games, the AT culture, the roller coaster of emotions, and the personal metamorphosis that comes from living in the woods for half a year.”

Zach identifies three types of AT hikers in Appalachian Trials:

  1. Hikers who quit due to the mental challenges of the trail
  2. Hikers who manage to make it to Katahdin only through determination, but who do not enjoy the process
  3. Hikers who enjoy most, or perhaps all, of the process while successfully thru-hiking the AT

Zach hopes to help more hikers make it into the third category.

Appalachian Trials is organized into four sections.

  • Pre-trail
  • On-trail
  • Post-trail
  • Bonus material

The first three sections, pre-, on-, and post-trail all address common pitfalls and helpful mental tools to overcome psychological obstacles on the trail. The final section includes an entire chapter on gear for the AT, FAQs, money saving tips, and more.

“When it comes to backpacking 2,200 miles, the greatest determining factor of success is purpose.”

The Virginia Blues is the subject of chapter four. Virginia, which accounts for almost precisely one-fourth of the total trail mileage, is often blamed for hiker depression. Virginia is not to blame, Zach argues, instead providing helpful tips for not only surviving, but enjoying, Virginia.

“Hike your own hike” is a trademark AT trail slogan. Sometimes though this may be easier said than done. Zach addresses social dynamics on the trail, groups, and hiking partners while considering how to “hike your own hike” successfully.

Hiking the AT will certainly present thru-hikers with some obstacles. Chapter seven considers how to conquer those obstacles to keep the hike enjoyable.

“If you can’t embrace what’s happening, you should at the very least accept what’s in front of you. Wishing that your day were anything other than what is, is the fastest path to dissatisfaction.”

“This very well might be the greatest challenge in your life. What do you want to remember about the way you handled it?”

The story doesn’t end when a hiker finishes the AT at Katahdin though. Chapter nine addresses life after the AT with some helpful thoughts adjusting back into the “real world,” post-AT depression, and post-trail weight gain. Zach includes seven tips for avoiding post-trail weight gain.

Several bonus chapters are included at the end of the book.

  • Chapter 11, written by Ian Mangiardi, covers AT hiking gear.
  • Chapter 12 addresses Lyme disease and tick safety.
  • Chapter 13 includes FAQs, and some other odds and ends, covering topics from sponsorships to mail drops to whether to hike SoBo or NoBo.
    Appalachian Trials fills a unique niche in AT trail literature. This book will help prepare any long-distance hiker, AT or otherwise, for the ups and downs of trail life. Definitely buy this book if you are even thinking about thru-hiking the AT or another long trail. The few dollars you spend will be money well invested.

My longest outdoor excursion to date was a week-long canoe trip/seminary class in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I wish I had read Appalachian Trials before taking that trip as it might have prepared me for some of the psychological stress and emotional ups and downs that I experienced on that trip.

Appalachian Trials is available in paperback or for Kindle at Amazon. Both editions are reasonably priced and a good value for the money.

Zach blogs at The Good Badger, even while walking through the woods from Georgia to Maine.

Book Review: On the Beaten Path

I recently finished reading On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage by Robert Alden Rubin. I read the Amazon Kindle e-book version.

On the Beaten Path chronicles Rubin’s 1997 thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, hiking more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. Rubin hiked using the trail name “The Rhymin’ Worm.” Describing his trail persona in the third person, Rubin writes of his plan and trail name:

“The week before I left for Georgia, the Rhymin’ Worm wrote the first lines of ‘The Ballad of the Rhymin’ Worm.’ Instead of keeping a journal of his long walk north, he would write doggerel poetry – one stanza of ballad meter for every day of the hike – and record it in the register books of the shelters he passed along the way. It would describe what he saw, where he was, and what he felt like. It would be bad, obvious stuff, but the Worm didn’t care.”

The Rhymin’ Worm would eventually compose 190 stanzas of doggerel.

The 38-year-old Rubin was a burnt-out book editor prior to his hike. Facing a growing mid-life crisis, Rubin quit his job and started hiking the Appalachian Trail – with less than enthusiastic support from his wife who he left behind to pursue his quest.

Like many thru-hikers, Rubin recounts being unable to eat enough food to maintain a safe body weight. By the time he reached the White Mountains of New Hampshire he had dropped 75 pounds of excess weight. The incredible weight loss was not for lack of eating. Rubin recounts one occasion in Gorham, NH where he stopped at the local post office to pick up mail. Next door to the post office he spied a Dunkin’ Donuts where he ordered a cup of coffee and a dozen donuts – all of which he consumed in a single sitting. He describes the incident with characteristic humor:

“A nice light breakfast that took the edge off my appetite. I noticed a couple of people staring at me. They hurriedly looked away. Well, what did they expect, putting a donut shop next to the post office?”

Later, while hiking in the White Mountains, Rubin describes “hitting the wall” physically – again with humor:

“It isn’t that I don’t want to keep going. But right now I can’t get my body to move, and I’m sure not going anywhere without it.”

During the spring following his Appalachian Trail hike, Rubin wrote in the book’s epilogue, he traveled to Trail Days in Damascus, VA where many AT thru-hikers gather for a week-long party each year. Rubin (Rhymin’ Worm) was able to reconnect with some of his trail friends. Reflecting on the failed plans that he and another thru-hiker had tried to make to hike into Damascus on a short section of the AT, and the return to “normal life,” Rubin explains:

“By now, you see, life off the trail has gripped all of us, to greater and lesser extents, and no longer are our days governed by sun and cloud, measured by the distance between beginning and end.”

This statement resonated with me because the issue is at the heart of why I love hiking and spending time in the wilderness. One of the reasons that I love the wild lands, the woods, the desert, the sea, is because our silly fetish with clocks and artificial time is exposed for the fraud that it really is.

Addressing this very subject in his book, A Table in the Desert: Making Space Holy, W. Paul Jones writes:

“Mechanical time destroys the true experience of being human, of being communal, and of shepherding one’s tradition. Such time is no longer the time of living what is, but of being ‘obedient’ to a supposed reality independent of immediate experience. What windmills do for wind is akin to what clocks attempt to do for space-time, unsuccessfully.”

Rubin’s observation about time highlighted something that I have known, but not fully connected previously.

On the Beaten Path is a good read and well worth the time and investment. Rubin combines travel narrative, introspection and humor in one interesting package that does not bore or frustrate the reader.

Book Review: AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

I just finished reading AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller. I read the e-book for Amazon Kindle (with Kindle for PC because I haven’t bought a Kindle yet). I’ve been using Kindle for PC more and more lately because of Amazon’s interesting “recommendations” which I can fine tune to remove books that I am not interested in to see better results for what does interest me. The other detail is that the e-books are almost always less expensive than paperbacks and are delivered to my PC instantly with no waiting or shipping charges.

Miller thru-hiked the more than 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2003. His wife, Juli, surprised him with her support when he first mentioned the idea to her. Miller attempted to take a leave of absence from his job as a software engineer to hike the AT. When Miller’s employer turned down his request for a leave because they did not have a corporate leave policy he quit his job to hike the AT anyway. Thus was born Miller’s trail name, AWOL.

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is a delightful combination: one part travelogue, one part introspective journal, and one part humor. The book is also occasionally sprinkled with philosophical reflections.

Why would a middle-aged man with a good career and loving family decide to leave all behind to hike the AT? Miller addresses this question with these reflections:

“Hiking the AT before joining the workforce was an opportunity not taken. Doing it in retirement would be sensible; doing it at this time in my life is abnormal, and therein lay the appeal. I want to make my life less ordinary.”

I think there is a lot to this observation. I know for a fact that I want my life to be less ordinary. Actually, I am driven by wanting my life to be less ordinary and I believe, however tarnished this drive may become because of living in a fallen world, this desire for our lives to be more than ordinary is a gift from God. There are many decisions that I have made, decisions that were misunderstood or not understood by others, that were rooted in all or in part by wanting my life to be less ordinary. (Okay, some of them may have been dumb decisions too, but I still didn’t want my life to be ordinary!)

This desire may have been brought to the surface for Miller, in part, by life events that he chronicled in a description that he wrote of himself before he started his hike.

“I am 41 years old, and I’ve worked since getting out of college as a computer programmer. I’m in decent shape for a person who’s been holed up in an office for so long. I’m married and have three little girls. Our fifteenth wedding anniversary will pass in my absence. Nothing is wrong with my life. My family is outstanding. I have what most people would consider to be a decent job. I’m not unhappy, and I’m not hiking to escape from anything. My life is precariously normal. I’ve been told that taking this trip at this time in my life is irresponsible, a charge I won’t contest. Maybe doing it later in life would make more sense. But my father had bypass surgery and mom is fighting cancer. My opinion of ‘later’ is jaded.

“I’m headed for Maine.”

Unfortunately, I can also relate to this statement. Last summer I ruptured a disc in my lumbar-sacral spine and was not certain that I would ever walk again without excruciating pain. I certainly could not walk at all during the time of my injury, and my neurosurgeon was not offering much hope that he could put Humpty Dumpty back together again. My wife is battling incurable, metastatic cancer and has been since her 40th birthday. So, yes, I guess my opinion of “later” is just a little bit jaded as well.

One of the great things about AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is that Miller balances descriptions of the miseries of extended hiking with the positive experiences that also accompany the journey. All of this is laced with humor that often had me laughing aloud. Miller describes one episode of “gastric percolation” that he experienced while hiking through a dense area of forest with this observation:

“I can wait no longer and crash through the foliage. Hurdling fallen branches is a true test of my continence.”

On another occasion Miller stayed at an open shelter where bears were known to be in the area. Anyone who has spent any time in bear country knows how nerve wracking it can be trying to secure food supplies away from animals small and large. Miller humorously reflects on his food storage decisions at the shelter where bears have been spotted recently:

“Most of us just hang our food from the shelter rafters, as I have generally done from the start. But tonight is the exception, as I don’t want to wake to the sight of a bear in the shelter playing pinata with my food sack.”

Miller occasionally interjects philosophical reflections into the book, but tastefully so. He wrote journal entries throughout his trip which were published to an online journal, and also wrote a bi-weekly column for his local newspaper chronicling his journey. Reflecting on writing and the work that it required, he wrote:

“I am glad that I write. Experience is enriched by reliving it, contemplating it, and trying to describe it to another person.”

I really appreciate his insight into writing. This statement is written with the passion of a writer and I can relate.

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is frequently so funny that I found myself laughing aloud. I e-mailed one of these quotes to my father, noting that it was reminiscent of a canoeing trip we had taken together in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. I had never in my life encountered mosquitoes like we battled in Algonquin! My father wrote back to say that he was laughing aloud reading the story as well. Miller describes a similar scenario in his book.

“The trail exits onto a rural road, crosses a bridge, and then runs parallel to a steamy shallow swamp that was formerly a sod farm. This area is called Wallkill National Wildlife Preserve. The preserve ostensibly exists to promote waterfowl, but it truly excels as a haven for mosquito breeding. They swarm me mercilessly, stinging my exposed arms, legs, neck, and biting through my shirt to draw blood from my chest and back. They also drill unproductively into my pack straps. I dab on some Deet, but it does nothing to deter them. I collapse my trekking poles and stuff them into my pack so I have both hands free to defend myself, developing a constant, swatting, preemptive pattern of swatting my face, shoulders, and arms, often scoring multiple mosquitoes in a single slap. Damn the national park’s preservation efforts. The end isn’t even in sight before welts redden and itch, so I add scratching to my spastic slapping routine. There is a park bench located on this path through the breeding grounds. Never have I seen a bench look less inviting. I’m running this gauntlet.”

In another account Miller describes gnats in similar humor:

“Gnats fly into my eye, nose, and mouth. Sunglasses fail to deter them. I eat three gnats; with effort, I could probably suck in a couple dozen. If all hikers consumed a few dozen gnats a day, would we put a dent in their numbers? Would they leave us alone if they feared us as predators?”

I suppose anyone who has ever been “eaten alive” by mosquitoes, black flies, or gnats can relate.

Certainly a five-month hike would provide many amazing experiences and memories. Miller notes that many of his fondest memories come from the more “mundane” experiences of the hike though.

“My fond recollections of my hike are full of unremarkable moments, like the smell of a dewy morning, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the blaze of a campfire, the soothing trickle of a stream, or rays of sun through a maze of trees.”

The five months of trail life also left Miller with a new perspective on consumerism and possessions. Miller made the following observation regarding the many outlet stores he saw during a stop in Manchester, VT:

“The stores have no draw at all for me. Months of scrutinizing everything that I carry have conditioned me to view my possessions as burdens.”

I made a similar discovery during myself during the week-long canoe trip that I mentioned earlier. After a week of hauling everything you eat, wear, sleep in, or otherwise feel the need to carry, your perspective on what is truly necessary begins to shift radically.

Miller returned to programming computers after his hike. He now also publishes The AT Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail. The AT Guide is updated annually.

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is a great read. This book is well worth the money and the time. I reckon that it is easy to see from the quotes and my comments that I enjoyed this book. I shared less than half of the quotes that I bookmarked in Kindle. Anyone who is interested in hiking, the outdoors, or just appreciates a good travel/journal/humor book will enjoy AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.

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