Friday, June 22, 2012

into the woods

The morning that our hike began started in a blur and flurry. It seemed like we just closed our eyes and now we were up and at ‘em. We showered for the last time, thinking that our next bath may be in a stream or river. I slathered on my glycolic face moisturizer to compensate for not reaping its exfoliating and moisturizing benefits for a week. We flossed and brushed our teeth and we dressed in our hiking pants, shirts, moisture wicking socks, and boots.

We were excited, but the air was thick with a sense of "Oh my God, we're really doing this." We woke up a bit late and we felt a bit rushed. We were to be at the Sugarland Visitor's Center at 10:00 AM to meet Jeff. He would drive us to our southern starting point, the Fontana Dam. We were nervous … we were tired from getting in late the night before … and we hoped we could sleep in the car during the two-hour ride.

We ate a lackluster, but satisfying, breakfast at The Pancake Pantry. There were three other customers and four busy workers in the restaurant. The workers were stuffing menus, talking about upcoming graduations for their homeschooled kids, and complaining that Gus, the cement pourer, hadn't arrived yet and that damned demolished sidewalk was hurting their business.
We ordered coffee, orange juice, and pancakes with hash browns and bacon. I was undecided if I should order eggs with my breakfast, but the waitress -- a hybrid of Flo, Alice, and Vera -- said I should definitely get the eggs.

"Lease ya know th' aiggs er real ..." she said, her voice tapering off into a laugh.

As unsettling as it sounded, I got the eggs. We were almost too anxious to eat, but we managed. Besides, we had things to do. We had to repack our backpacks because we knew that we had too much stuff, mainly food, and we needed to reduce the weight. At the airport check in the day before, my pack weighed in at 35 pounds and Kirk's weighed in at 37 pounds. To make matters worse, or heavier in this case, Kirk still had items to move from his suitcase into his pack. We had to reprioritize what we needed, remove unnecessary items, and completely repack them to balance the weight and ensure that neither backpacks breeched 40 pounds.

This effort was frantic and stressful and done in the hotel's parking lot because we did not want to carry the packs back up the room. We felt the pressure of needing to meet Jeff. We pulled out large bags of freeze-dried food that we had planned to eat at lunch. We could not find the zip lock bags that would hold our bio-break wipes.

“Did we pack them? They were on the sofa when we were packing,” I said.
“I don’t remember seeing them,” Kirk responded.
“They were rolled up with two rubber bands,” I said, clearly irritated.

Kirk knew that this was going to be a problem. I was trying to keep emotions in check, but when I am tired, nervous, or feeling that I caused a mistake, I get defensive, otherwise known as bitchy. I have come to understand that it’s me projecting my insecurity on others.

“I’ll go buy more,” Kirk said and he went to a local grocery store, noticing my frustration and wanting to avoid any confrontation.

When Kirk returned we found the original baggies sitting on the ashphalt. The new ones went in his suitcase. The pressure was on, my patience was thinning, my anxiety was rising. Each minute that passed was a minute closer to us actually being on the trail. In the woods. We were both tired and starting to shut down. The job was rushed; but our packs were physically ready for the trek, even if we mentally weren't.

We drove to the Sugarland Visitor's Center to meet Jeff. We apologized for being late, and he did the same. He told us that traffic was bad due to road resurfacing. He hoped that our trip wouldn’t be more than two hours and that he would have us at the Dam by noon. Our lack of restful sleep was catching up to us. Kirk and I mentioned to each other how nice it would be to catch a few winks in the car during that long drive.

*      *     *     *     *
We opened our car's back hatch and grabbed our packs. I looked for my sunglasses in the front of the car, but I could not find them. We combed the car’s nooks and crevices, but they were nowhere to be found.
“Damn it! I think I left my sunglasses in the hotel,” I said. “I have no idea why they left the car in the first place.”

I glared at Kirk. I wanted to blame someone other than myself for my stupidity in leaving them behind. Everything -- and I mean everything -- was removed from the car the night before, even though some things I would have left for the night. I immediately felt bad about my reaction and apologized.
“I can wear my regular glasses. It’ll be fine. We’ll call the hotel when our hike is over.” I said, hoping that I could start relaxing. This was supposed to fun after all, wasn’t it?
If I didn’t wear my eyeglasses, I would not be able to see the distant views. Thankfully, the transitions lenses would provide some sun protection, but they were not as comfortable as my sunglasses.

We loaded our packs into Jeff’s truck and got into the backseat.
"I'm not a cab. One of you has to get in front, so ...." he drawled, the ‘so’ tapering off.

Kirk and I looked at each other. He was in the passenger side backseat, so he moved to the front. Jeff pulled away and immediately started talking. It was clear that we would not catch up on sleep. This could have been a frustrating "Oh-my-god-he's-going-to-talk-all-the-way-there" moment, but it turned out to be an invaluable, and very appreciated, experience. He provided us advice and education.
When he saw us packing the bear spray he told us to leave it behind.
"You don't need the extra weight and you don't need the spray. If you see a bear, bark like a dog. It's how they are hunted and they have learned to be afraid of dogs."

He further explained that bears are not hunted in the Smokies, but that they are hunted elsewhere. Since there are no boarders, like fences or walls, the bears migrate into the Smoky Mountain National Forest from other areas.

“Hang everything on the bear hangs,” he professed. “And I mean everything -- your pack, your food, your boots – everything. No matter what you see other people doing, do exactly what I say. Hang everything on the bear hangs.”

He explained other basics that we didn't know, like staying safe in a thunder storm, the importance of meeting people on the trail and what to expect from them, including being be aware of shady business. (There had been an increase of jobless and homeless living on the trail due to the economy.)

*      *     *     *     *

As we rode along, we passed through varying terrain. There were vast and gassy fields in the valleys of the mountains. In the distance, we could see elk. Jeff told us about the effort to repopulate the natural elk herds that used to exist in the area until they were hunted to eradication. Some of the new elk were relocated from Canada and others from Minnesota.

We passed through the Cherokee Reservation. Jeff talked at length about the casinos, whether or not they benefitted the tribe, how crime and drugs were rampant, and other perspectives on the Cherokee. All I could think about was how horrible it must have been to be herded into a confined area, left in poverty, and then practically forced to watch those who took the land parade in and out to enjoy the forest that meant so much to ones ancestors. The raping just continues.

A band of motorcyclists (mostly aging men with ponytails and wannabe trophy wives clutching their backs) roared by. I mentioned how annoying the sound was and how using proper mufflers should be enforced. Jeff had a very strong point of view on these “two wheeled turds,” as he called them. They were rude, they didn’t pay attention to the rules of the road, they were aging men who felt entitled to what they want when they want it because they could afford it. He caught them pissing on his lawn. He also mentioned how we’d know we were close to Clingmans Dome because we’d hear the rumble of their engines.

Most importantly, he reminded us that this hike should be fun.

The road climbed into the mountains and we talked about his wife Nancy and how they started their business. I looked out the window and watched the trees moving passed us. The trees continued up into the hills, the rhododendron bushes on the side of the road blossomed, and I couldn’t help but think that up there … in those trees … in those bushes … we’d be for the next week. My stomach flip-flopped with excitement and apprehension, a combination of being excited and scared.

We waited in the traffic convoy. Jeff got out of the car and smoked. Kirk and I locked eyes. We knew we were both thinking the same things, “How much longer? We’re so close, but so far away. We are tired. At least the weather is decent.” The convoy moved and we moved forward. Jeff kept us entertained while he educated us.

We arrived at TheHike Inn that he and his wife, Nancy, run. She was going to drive us to the dam. We filled our water bottles and had time with all of their pets. Jeff and Kirk filled out the permit, which is required in the Smoky Mountain National Forest, especially the Appalachian Trail.

"Keep this in a safe place and keep it dry, so…." Jeff directed. I placed it in a zip lock bag and put it in the little side pocket on my shorts.
"Where's the map?" I asked Kirk.
After a pause, he sheepishly replied, "I think I left it in my suitcase."

We both looked at each other blankly, our eyes twinkling with the humor and horror of it all. Thoughts flashed through our minds, like what we would do without it, how we would know where we were, how we would find water sources, and whether or not we could do this hike without a map.

It just keeps getting better. Fuck.

"I have one you can borrow," Jeff said. "Just mail it back to me when you’re done. That’s all I ask, so…. And be sure to send us a picture for our picture wall."

They had a mural of photos sent to them by hikers that they helped, or who had stayed in their inn. Most sent photos from Mount Katahdin in Maine after completing the entire AT. The expressions on their faces were weary and elated. You could sense their feeling of accomplishment. A gold medal Olympian was on their wall. A man in his eighties. Couples. Single men. Single women. Varying ages and races. Maybe we’d be the first gay couple to grace their wall, even if we were just section hikers.

Jeff opened the map, reviewed the trails we were taking and the shelters we'd be staying in. I put the map in my shorts pocket. We looked around at the arrowhead museum in what used to be the living room. Jeff collected them on hikes. There were thousands of them in different sizes and shapes. Kirk hoped to find one on our hike.

*     *     *     *     *

We put our packs in Nancy's car and off we went. She was very excited for us and was very pleasant to be with for the twenty-minute drive. My nerves were near boiling over and my stomach was growling. I had to pee. I was starting to get very nervous. She talked about how fun it would be, how nice to be in nature, and how much we were going to love this challenge. She was very calming, as if sensing that we were both on edge.
We got out of the car at the dam's welcome center. The air was cool and the sky was cloudy. Nancy pointed us towards the bathroom in the welcome center and reminded us to have fun. As she was getting into the car to pull away, I asked one last question.

"Which way do we go?"

She pointed and gestured over our backs.

"That way … over the dam. You'll see a sign for the Smoky Mountain National Forest. Just follow that. That's the trail."

She drove away. The sound of tires rolling over gravel faded into the distance and we found ourselves alone. We looked at each other, shook our heads, and laughed.
"Fuck! Here we are!" Kirk said.
“This is insane.” I said, “Oh my god. We’re totally here."

We took turns using the bathroom -- our last toilet and sink for a week. I was too nervous to pee, but stood in front of the urinal trying to focus on the fact that this was really happening. This was no time to be afraid. This was no time to second-guess myself. This was a time to push myself and to live my life, to be adventurous and not worry about failure.

I walked back to where Kirk was standing. We heaved our packs onto our backs and adjusted them by tighten the belts. We gave each other a hug and a kiss and started walking.

As we crossed the dam, we took a picture to capture the awesome view from the top. We looked at the hills to our right. They looked huge. We thought that we were hiking to one of the fire towers seen in the distance, which we assumed was near our first campsite. Those first minutes seemed like an eternity. Getting used to the weight of the packs was a strange difficulty.

It took twenty minutes to get to the trail head at the edge of the Smoky Mountain National Forest.

"Here we go ... into the woods!"

We started crunching our way into the woods. Trees lined the trailside, which was a wide dirt path with no noticeable incline. The sound of our footsteps, breath, and packs echoed in our ears. It was now perfectly clear what would fill each minute of our journey … walking. For the most part, we were silent; except for the occasional "Oh my God" or "This is crazy" we were pretty much in our own heads.

Those phrases, coupled with "This pack is so fucking heavy!" swam through my head. It was unsettling to realize that in moments after starting, we were already feeling out of breath. It was clear that this would to be harder than we thought. We were not prepared.

“I should have gone to the gym more!” I screamed out as if wanting to banish the thought from my mind.

We laughed about our New York City “practice hikes,” and how we thought they were a challenge. Not yet an hour into our first day, and we were both feeling the effects of the packs on our backs, the sweat on our foreheads, and the mental impact of what we were setting out to do.

Were we prepared -- in the slightest -- for this hike? Are we really going to be able to do this for seven days? Was my mom right; should we have started with a three-day hike? Should I have fucking read “A (fucking) Walk in the Woods”?

But, we walked on. The road narrowed and the incline gradually increased. The gravel path eventually turned into a dirt trail. The tree canopy enveloped us. Thunder rumbled in the distance. We walked on. We walked on.

We walked into the woods.

*     *     *     *     *

Sunday, June 17, 2012

excited and scared ...

Reflecting back on the backpacking excursion in the Smoky Mountains, I can easily say that it was an amazing experience. It was a huge challenge from all aspects: physical, mental, and spiritual. It pushed me in ways that I had hoped ... and in others that I could not anticipate.

how'd he get the part so clean?
We flew from LaGuardia Airport in New York City to Raleigh, North Carolina. We saw an interesting site on the plane: a guy with a major "up do" that was part beehive / part doo-wop. The looks he got when we deplaned in North Carolina were priceless.

We drove to Greensboro with Kirk's sister-in-law, Carla. She was bubbly, funny, and filled with energy. She was my first "family" welcome and it couldn't have been more pleasant.

The weather was warm with scattered showers. It was slightly sticky, but not too humid. We chatted about the upcoming days and what we needed to accomplish before we left. We also worried that the trails would be packed with people or day campers because it was Memorial Day Weekend. Carla dropped us off at Kirk's parent's house; we were borrowing one of their cars to drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Before leaving us, she hopped in a joyful circle on one foot in a pair of three-inch leopard print heels that Kirk brought for her. Her laugh was infectious.

Kirk and I were happy and excited to begin the first tactical part of our journey: loading the car with our packs and suitcases and starting the drive to what would be our ending point of the hike, the Sugarland Vistor's Center. I got a tour of their house, we went to the bathroom, we had a soda, and then ... we were off.

We began the 255 mile, 5 hour drive. Kirk drove and I navigated. Well, TomTom navigated. We stopped to buy three things that could not fly with us: propane gas for cooking, the ever-important Bear Spray, and a Taco Bell lunch.

We were comfortable and chatty, we were on our way to the unknown, or mostly unknown; especially for me. Kirk grew up in that area, first in Knoxville, TN and then in Greensboro, NC. His family had a timeshare in Gatlinburg and used to spend Thanksgivings there in his youth. He was excited to be back in the town that was an important backdrop of his childhood. I was excited to see the place he so fondly talked about.
*     *     *     *     *

We reviewed our plan for each day of our hike. We had planned to cover about 8 miles each day, which would definitely give us time to stop and look at views, take pictures, soak in nature, and get to camp early enough to relax, journal, and enjoy the stars before going to bed. We also anticipated that we would have time during lunch to read or nap. This was going to be a great journey. Our daily itinerary included the following:

Tuesday: Arrive in Gatlinburg, check into hotel, take long showers, get lots of sleep.

Wednesday: Breakfast at Pancake Pantry, put on hiking clothes, repack backpacks, park at Visitor's Center, meet Jeff (the shuttle driver), drive to Fontana Dam, hike the Lakeshore Trail to the start of the Eagle Creek Trail and on to our first campsite (Site #89), set up camp, enjoy our first evening in the woods. We'd cover about 8.5 miles on this day and felt it would be easy.

Thursday: Hike the Eagle Creek Trail to the Appalachian Trail and our first AT shelter, Spence Field. This would be approximately 8 miles, but with high elevation gains (roughly 2,200 feet) and we'd have to cross a river fourteen times. We knew this was going to be a challenging day, but were excited to get to the ridge and be on the Appalachian Trail.

Friday: Hike the Appalachian Trail to the Derrick Knob shelter. By our map reading, we would be on the ridge and would have declines and inclines of between 100 to 400 feet. Nothing major. For the most part, we felt this was going to be an easy day. We would cover a little over 6 miles on this day.
Saturday: Hike 7.2 miles to the Double Springs Gap Shelter. We'd gain elevation as we progressed closer to the highest point in the Smokies, Clingmans Dome. On the map, the elevation gains seemed gradual. We'd hit Rocky Top on this day. We anticipated being at our camp site early, resting, reading, journaling, and preparing a longer day on Sunday.

Sunday: Hike to Clingmans Dome, double back on the AT to the Goshen Prong Trail and hike to our campsite, Site #23. This day was going to be super fun. We'd hike to the highest point in the Smoky Mountains (elevation of 6,643), soak up the views at the observation area (also a tourist area, too), and then return to the woods and continue with three days of tent camping. This was our three day decent from the ridge that would lead us back to Gatlinburg. We'd cover 9.5 miles on this day and drop 2,400 feet. 

I looked forward to the next three days of our hike most of all. I wanted to tent camp. Pitching the tent, having campfires, the sound of the tent's zipper ... all of it reminded me of being a little boy camping with my family at Pinecrest Lake or on Mount Shasta in California.

Monday: Continue on the Goshen Prong Trail to Little River Trail and then to our second campsite, Site #24. Again, another easy day of descending into the woods. We were very close to rivers during this day and planned to swim or wash each other's hair. We would be at our campsite early since they were relatively close together; we'd only hike 4 miles.  
Tuesday: Continue on the Little River Trail to the Husky Gap Trail and to Site #21. We'd trek just about 2 miles to our last campsite. We'd set up camp early and take a "packless walk" to Huskey Branch Falls. We weren't sure exactly how we would feel, but we knew we would be ready for a shower and some real food.
Wednesday: Hike Husky Gap Trail to New Found Gap Road and then walk to the Sugarland Visitor's Center and our waiting car, about 6 miles. Our packs would be lighter since all of our food would be eaten. We'd drive to our hotel, order room service, take baths and showers, change clothes, and lounge in the bed. This evening would be quiet and restful and we would need the recouperation. 

Thursday: SPA DAY! Having room service and the options for massages and mani / pedis at our hotel were nice things to look forward to. This day would be filled with rest. We'd sleep in, loung at the pool, order room service, do nothing, take it easy.

Friday: Go to Dollywood, ride the rides, see shows, and enjoy the Bluegrass and BBQ Festival. We both love theme parks and roller coasters. I couldn't wait to see how kitchy Dollywood would be. And the people watching! Oh joy! This would be our day to play tourist. We'd walk around downtown Gatlinburg, too.

Saturday: Wake early, drive to Greensboro to Kirk's parent's house, shower, do last minute laundry, go to Kirk's brother's house for a BBQ to celebrate his father's birthday (early), meet Kirk's entire family. We'd sleep at Kirk's parent's house.

This sounded intimidating and a little frightening. Meeting the entire family in one visit? Yikes. I was up for the challenge and, besides, we'd have lots to talk about considering we just did this long hike.

Sunday: Have his parents drive us to the Raleigh airport, board our plane and arrive back in NYC that afternoon, hug and squeeze my pooch, and settle back into our lives.

*     *     *     *     *

The sun had set and our stomachs were growling. We stopped at a steakhouse and had a feast. This would be our last real dinner, all dinners after this would be freeze-dried entrees prepared in the pouches they came in. We had mozzarella sticks, salad, prime rib (medium rare with lots of au jus), veggies, rice, biscuits and butter, and sweet tea. We stuffed ourselves silly and drove off to our hotel.

Part of the drive was through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It rained and it was dark. The road was twisty and turny and it was sometimes scary how fast Kirk was driving (at least from vantage point as the passenger). I am not a fan of driving at night or driving in the rain. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I spent a good portion of my adulthood driving with less-then-decent vision.

We arrived at our hotel around 11:30pm, much later than we had thought. We were completely wiped out and had wanted to be there earlier. We left our packs in the car, took up our suitcases, and prepared for sleep. We showered and settled into bed.

*     *     *     *     *

"Tomorrow we start our adventure," Kirk said as we lay there in the dark like kids on Christmas Eve.

"I know! It's crazy!" I said, my voice filled with glee.

"Are you excited?" he asked. The sound of the hotel air conditioner hummed in the background.

"I'm excited. And scared," I replied, thinking of Little Red's song in "Into The Woods."

"Well, excited and scared," Kirk sang, as if reading my mind. This wouldn't be the first or last time that we'd know exactly what each other was thinking.

"Me too," he said.

*     *     *     *     *
Our conversation may or may not have continued. The melatonin kicked in and we drifted off to sleep with visions of freeze-dried rice pudding in our heads and the occasional dreamy thought of a bear sighting. The anticipation of not knowing what to expect was at bay for the night.

Living each day in the moment means that anything could be possible, and tomorrow ensured that all possibilities could be possible. There was no turning back. We were going to do this, come what may. It was exciting and it was scary. We had no idea what we were going to encounter, how we would react, how we would get along, or even if we could do what we were setting out to do. We were gloriously naive.

And, it was probably better that way ....
*     *     *     *     *

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

waste not , want not : hike preparation

In preparation for our backpacking excursion, many tasks had to be completed. We had to shop for necessities, like backpacks and boots, pick out delicious freeze-dried entrees, determine the exact route to wander, book flights to and from Raleigh, and figure out how to get to our starting point. We bought all the equipment and tools, and we found a couple who own an inn in Fontana, North Carolina. They give advice to hikers hitting the Appalachian Trail, fondly known as "The AT," and they give rides to starting points (or from ending points).

We read several books about the AT, the art of backpacking, and how to prepare for emergencies. One book, "Ultralight Backpackin' Tips" by Mike Clelland, was a fun read. His tips were easy to follow and he does his own illustrations. He also has a blog.

His book focused on how to backpack with as little weight as possible, namely 10 pounds or less. In our case, was not the case. We didn't go light at all. Our packs weighed roughly 35 pounds each (much less than the anticipated 50 pounds -- ugh!). We were preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. Our philosophy was to "take it" and know by the end of the hike exactly what we need and what we don't. We didn't feel we could be as "extreme" as Mr. Clelland on our first hike, but we did profit from his advice.

The "Hang Your Food at Night" chapter was insightful. It outlined how to create a bear hang so that your food is inaccessible to bears at night. Mmmm hmmm ... bears at night. Yay. Now that's something I definitely paid attention to, considering my fear of bears.

Another book, "The Appalachian Trail Hiker" by Victoria and Frank Logue, also provided great information. This was the first book we read and it provided invaluable information like the history of the AT, shelters and tents, necessary equipment, and tips on preparing for your first hike.
*     *     *     *     *
Both books reviewed a "necessary-to-know" detail: how to deal with going potty -- specifically, going poop. It isn't all that complex; dig what is called a "cat hole," squat over it and do your business, and then bury it. We also learned that we couldn't bury toilet paper on the AT -- even if it's biodegradable. We'd have to pack it out.

Mmmmm hmmmm ... pack it out. Take it with us. Not leave it behind. Take it with us. Not bury it. Take it with us. Not burn it. Take it with us. Take it with us. Take it with us. Take. It. With. Us.

There are no garbage cans on the trails. Our first opportunity to off-load this crap (literally) would be Clingman's Dome, a popular destination for tourists to view the Smokey Mountains. We'd arrive there five days into our hike. That's five days of packed out poo wipes we'd be carrying. Mmmmm hmmmm ... five days.

*     *     *     *     *

I researched a few ways to carry out this packed out -- let's call it "stuff." I found a thick, opaque sealable bag with a chemical gel inside that eats waste and the material used to collect it from one's bum. I was about to order them, but learned that they are made for port-a-potties. They were huge in size and heavy in weight. I could not imagine trying to carry those. I also could not imagine carrying used wipes in a regular plastic baggie. Gross.

So ... I decided to make my own "pack-it-out poo concealer." For shits and giggles, I thought I would show you how I did it.
*     *     *     *     *

How to Make a Pack-It-Out Poo Concealer
Mentally prepare for what you are creating. Take a deep breath and enjoy the creative process as it unfolds. You are making something useful! Like Martha Stewart....

1. Materials: a one-gallon-sized zipper storage bag with a reliable zipper (we used freezer storage bags), one roll of duct tape, one pair of scissors.

2. Cut several strips of duct tape at least two inches longer than the bag width. This project requires at least 25 strips.

3. Carefully place the first strip just below the zipper area. Press firmly. Place the second strip halfway over the first strip.

4. Continue to layer strips until the the bag is covered. The last strip's edge should be flush with the baggie's bottom.

5. Turn the baggie over and fold the duct tape flaps over both edges.

6. Repeat the taping process on the back of the baggie and then repeat the folding of the edges.

7. Place a tape strip along the baggie's bottom with the seam in the middle of the strip. Cut the strip as shown to create "sealing flaps."

8. Fold the top flap over and press firmly; fold the tape strip up and cover the bag's bottom edge . Press firmly, turn the baggie over, and firmly press the remaining sealing flaps.

9. Repeat for the bag's sides and your Pack It Out Poo Concealer is ready for use!

10. Use small zip top baggies to contain used wipes. Place them in the Pack It Out Poo Concealer for a better-insulated, and worry-free, environment.

*     *     *     *     *

As gross as this may seem, it wasn't all that bad. And let me tell you, these baggies worked! No see, no smell, no touch. Well ... that's not entirely true. There was a moment of see, smell, and touch ... but that's a story for later.

*     *     *     *     *

Monday, June 4, 2012

return from the wild ...

As many of you know, I went on an extended backpacking excursion with Kirk. I spoke of this in a few different posts, "writer's block ... or maybe not" and "lions, tigers, and bears ... oh my!"

We have returned and I am ready to regale you with stories of our challenge: the fun, the overcome fears, the laughs, the tears, the pitfalls, the aches and pains, the teamwork, the effort, the mileage, the scenery, and the intricacies of taking an extended "walk in the woods."

It was an amazing journey and an awesome vacation, unlike any I have had. Not only did I get to experience some of the most beautiful aspects of nature, but I was also able to meet the three objectives that I set out to accomplish: push my physically, mentally, and spiritually.

And we actually did it. We set a goal -- a lofty one at that -- and we accomplished it. We also had several different mini-vacation moments within the vacation.

One of the most interesting aspects of this trip was seeing how our planning played out in action. Did we pack enough? Did we pack too much? Could we actually achieve the daily mileage objectives? Could we carry those backpacks for an extended period? Would we use up all of our fuel before we were done? Would we keep our wits about us if we encountered bears or snakes? Would we end up hating each other by the end of the trip?

It was great to come home yesterday to New York City, hug and squeeze my pooch Victor, sleep in my own bed, and wake up in my own apartment. But ... the hiking bug has bitten and I am already thinking about the next trip. I miss the sounds of rushing water, the free and gentle bird songs filling the air, the wind that whispers through the leaves, and the smell of the earth in all its glory.

Details will be revealed in upcoming posts this week and next week, with lots of great photos of the journey.