Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Friday, January 27, 2012


Back when I was in high school, I did a week long backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail (AT). It was not terribly long, but a good challenge for me at the time. And it was just enough to whet my appetite for backpacking in the future.

I had never done anything like it before, and had to prepare from scratch. I used a large part of my allowance for the year to buy boots and pay for the trip. I borrowed a backpack from a friend, who had done the trip the year before. She had raved about how much fun it was, and encouraged me to go. I had my own sleeping bag - all kids do, right? In retrospect, I should have tried to borrow a proper one. The rest of my gear consisted of shorts, a pair of jeans and a couple of t-shirts, pretty simple.

We would also be carrying some group gear, so we were to only use half our packs for our own gear, since we'd also need to add food, or pots and pans etc. We used two person tents and each had a tent-mate. I can't remember whether the tents were supplied or if we worked this out between us. I definitely did not have my own tent.

I remember getting the letter with the training tips and packing list beforehand. One of the tips for preparation was to walk lots and to walk lots with the backpack on and wearing our boots. One suggestion was to fill the pack with cans of diced peaches. I think I substituted Campbelll's soup, since we only had fresh/frozen peaches at home! I was quite the site, walking around the neighborhood wearing this backpack, filled with cans of soup.

There was no mention of high-tech gear.  Goretex and Polartec all came later.  I'm not sure much was said about avoiding cotton. I did have wool socks with some sort of liner, and I used a lot of moleskin that week. I don't remember any emphasis on lightweight stuff, although by the end of the trip, I had decided jeans weren't a great choice, since they never dry out after getting soaked, and I sure would have liked a nice warm lightweight sleeping bag like some of the other folks had.

We did about 10-12 miles a day. We actually had two groups of hikers, each with about 15 students and a couple of adult leaders. The two groups drove to opposite ends of our planned route, and hiked toward each other, swapping car keys in the middle. We hiked through Rhododendron Gap in full bloom. This was a massive thicket of 8 and 10 foot high rhododendron bushes that seemingly went on forever. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. We also had some amazing mountaintop vistas combined with some thigh burning ascents and knee-torturing descents. 

One morning at breakfast, our leader read out the description for the day, describing one uphill section as a trail that was passable by jeep. And I still remember everyone taking photos of the broken down jeep half-way up that trail! Passable by jeep indeed!

I also remember getting quite chilly in my inadequate sleeping bag, and having to put on soaking wet jeans in the morning after the previous day of rain. But I had such a great time that I signed up for the trip again the next year. We did a different section of the trail the next year, and I was hooked enough at that point to buy some of my own equipment and planned to do lots more hiking and backpacking in the future. 

But my story today isn't about how I got hooked on the outdoors. It's about this 1954 Cadillac Eldorado that I spotted coming home from a bike ride earlier this week.


On one of of those AT trips, we were hiking along when the skinniest person that I had ever seen, went zipping past us. Our leader described him as looking like death warmed up! I think we were in southern Virginia, heading north. He had a very minimal pack, and was moving rapidly. I didn't see him smile. I think I just saw the blur of the bottom of his shoes as he seemingly sprinted past our group.

A short while later, another fellow caught up to our group. He was friendly and slowed to chat with our leader for a while.  He was a through-hiker, doing the entire AT from Georgia to Maine, in one go. He'd take most of the summer to complete his trek. Today, when people do multiple 1200km bike rides in a year and 50 people climb Mt Everest each season, AT through-hikers are a dime a dozen. But back then, I don't think it was so common.  Most of the folks in my group, who were well and thoroughly exhausted at the end of each day, were duly impressed with anyone who was doing this all summer long.

Then he told us about the skinny guy. Skinny guy was from New York City, and despised the outdoors and hiking and pretty much any type of physical activity. But his father had promised him a Cadillac Eldorado if he did the entire Appalachian Trail. So he did a small amount of research - no internet in those days - and came up with a minimalist approach. 

There are lean-to shelters at various intervals along the AT. The rule is that through-hikers get priority, allowing them to travel lighter - without a tent. Of course skinny guy was making use of the lean-to shelters. These two through hikers had met at a shelter the night before and had hiked together a bit that day. Skinny guy's one concession to weight was a listing of the shelters and distances between them. He had determined he could make a shelter about 10 miles further up the trail that day, and was on a mission when he passed us. It was pretty late in the day when we saw him, but friendly guy was pretty confident he would make it, both to the lean-to and to the end. 

But the part of the story that really stuck with me was that skinny guy had determined that he could save a lot of weight and live off the land, in part by cooking and eating stinging nettles. He would soak them to remove the stinging effect and then boil them. It was rumored that it was a bit like cooked spinach, providing some amount of protein and vitamins. Although my memory of skinny guy was that he didn't look like he was a diet high in protein!

I've thought about skinny guy occasionally, when I have some big challenge and need some motivation. I can't imagine doing what he did - a couple of months of misery for a car, even a Cadillac Eldorado. But these days I hear about all sorts of motivation and inspiration that make me pause. The news is full of stories about performance enhancing drugs in big money sports. But those drugs are also being used where the prize is just your name in the paper, or a medal. What is the motivation?

I'm not sure how proud I could be of a medal I got through cheating. I recently took part in a contest that included a public vote on facebook, through their *like* system. The top prize was a bike, with a some smaller runner-up prizes. One of the competitors apparently bought his likes. Yes, there is a company that provides a service, where for a fee, they provide you with some number of Facebook likes. Fortunately my motivation for the contest was to have fun, do some rides and take some pictures. No prizes for me, but i did some nice riding, had some great food (no twice-boiled stinging nettles), and took a few photos for posterity.

But what gets me out in the rain, or cold, or doing a really hard climb, or a really long day, or through some really drab scenery? Is it the fame, the glory, or just to have something to write about in the blog :-) I'm not so sure but I know it is not me seeking a reward like a car or even a bike. 

There's a well know story of a Zen Buddhist Master who saw his students riding their bicycles and asked them, “Why do you ride your bikes?”

“I ride it for my health and exercise.” one said trying to impress his master.
    “Ah … then you will live to an old age.” the master said.
“I return from the market and use it to carry my load.” said another student.
    “Ah... then you will not have a crooked back like me in your old age.” said the master
“I ride my bike to ride my bike.” said the other.
    “Ah... I am your student!” the master replied.

So while I won't claim to be a zen master, I agree with the sentiment. I ride my bike to ride my bike.

So tell me what inspires you?


  1. Wonderful post and there is no better reason to ride a bike. It is sometimes hard for so many of us to keep our own rides, goals and experiences in the front of our heads on our bike, and not get challenged or influenced overly by someone else's bike life. There are so many good ways reasons to ride a bike, all personal. I like to push the wheels around and see, smell, experience the world around me. I am very glad to have found your site!

  2. Bought likes? I hope that is not true. I thought the 500 was voted on internally and not just by "liking" it on FB. Boo on Ralpha if they condone the practice. It is such a poser way to win.

    Anyways I enjoyed your daily log of the event and look forward to more posts. I ride many of the same roads you do and felt connected by your words to the roads north of Boston. Though I ride year-round, I was humbled a bit by the distance you covered on some of those cold, cold days. You won by a long shot in my book. Cheers!

  3. People buying facebook "likes" to win a Rapha contest? You have got to be kidding me, that is all I can say.

    Wonderful story abut your backpacking and inspiration. Real motivation has to be intrinsic.

  4. The fellow with the 1500+ suspicious votes did NOT win the bike, something about views and votes not matching up. The fellow who won the bike deserved it, IMNSHO.

    But next year, I'll just have to arrange for a blizzard on the day I ride 500km in one go and write an annoying song about it that I perform on a video while riding my unicycle, and then plaster the social media world asking people to vote for me, or maybe not...

  5. BTW, I still want to know what inspires or motivates folks...

  6. I can't explain what motivates me, I just feel compelled to do it. It is obviously addictive too, because the more I ride the more I want to keep riding.

  7. The experience of silent running.