Fun and games … and work

Fun, fun, fun

When you are out in the woods for a week at a time, you come across all kinds of sights, smells — “Whoa! What the heck is that: A manure factory? Something decomposing? Oh, wait, it’s just me after seven days without a shower.” — and people. You never forget seeing your first moose, and you can never, ever shake that hiker smell. But the most memorable thing for me has been the interesting people I have met.

Here are just a few of the fun folks who have left an impression on me:

There are untold stories of people who begin their hike of the AT alone, only to find their future spouse or lifelong friends on the trail. Some hikers meet that first week and spend the next 2,000-plus miles together. It happens. A more common occurrence, however, is when groups form but then fall apart because of personality clashes, differences in speed or conflicting agendas (the need for rest or injuries and illness). The mantra on the trail is “hike your own hike.” In other words, do what is best for you so you do not spoil this incredible experience.

When I stopped for 36 hours in Rangeley last week, I had the pleasure of meeting four guys who had thrown in together the month before. They came from different backgrounds and states and enjoyed each other’s company enough to compromise on their hike. People have trail names, and then they give names to their groups. These guys called themselves the USS Bennington after one of their favorite towns on the trail. The crew, from left: Hughey, Cleveland; Rabbit, Pennsylvania; Yoohoo, Miami; and Cambo, Indianapolis.


We caught a ride into town and had a couple of dinners. (Well, I had two dinners that night; my hiker hunger is starting to kick in. Two of these guys had THREE dinners. Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut have nothing on long-distance hikers.) These guys have spent so much time together eating bad food, living in the squalor of the outdoors and giving each other a hard time, it reminded me of college. It was a blast.

Only Yoohoo had a deadline. He was meeting his father at Mount Katahdin to share his triumphant finish to his four-plus month journey with his old man. After summitting, Yoohoo had to rush home for the start of school at Florida International University. Hughey, Rabbit and Cambo had no reason to rush. There were other snags: One guy wanted to take a zero (a day off in town). One guy was a machine who could hike 40 miles in a day. One guy wanted to hit each remaining town on the trail to sleep in a bed every few days. But each got out his guide and worked out a compromise plan that could work for all. Pinkie promises were made, and the USS Bennington left town planning to finish their tour together.

It was just a day and a half, but the USS Bennington helped make my hike. They are close to finishing, but if you’d like a bigger-picture view of an AT through hike, check out Cambo’s blog at Not only can this Hoosier double up my miles in a day, but he writes a blog EVERY night. Now that’s impressive.

I’ve met so many wonderful people on the trail but wanted to share one more quick story about a trio that inspired me. I spent my first night in New Hampshire in a shelter with Jason, Eric and Kevin. They are three old friends who meet one week a year on the AT. They have been doing it for a decade. They finished New Hampshire this week and will start on Maine next summer. Talking with them reminded me of my old college buddies. We used to meet each March in Las Vegas for the NCAA tournament. It was our way of keeping spring break in a grown-up’s world. I loved it. I miss it. But at my age, I was more impressed with Jason, Eric and Kevin’s plan. They remain connected and share a goal, and each year they knock out 30, 40 or 50 miles of one of America’s true treasures. Happy trails, fellas. You guys are doing it right.

Care for a game?

The AT has what are basically three-sided wooden sheds about every 10 to 12 miles. Some people spend every night in shelters, nice and dry and out of the elements. Others, however, avoid these buildings and their snorers — guilty as charged — for the privacy of their tents or hammocks. In every state but Maine, these are called “shelters,” and you can usually find a water source and a privy at each one. Mainers called them “lean-tos.” (Why? The best guess I can make is that, after 281 rugged miles in the state, you no longer walk upright. Your battered body leans to the right or to the left or hunches a foot or so closer to the ground. Mine does now anyway.)

It’s probably that I’m a city/town/suburban guy, but I prefer the privies to ducking off trail and into the woods. I have come to love the AT’s privies. One in particular has captured my heart: Piazza Rock Lean-to’s privy. I first heard about it 60 miles north and could not wait to find it. It was glorious, everything I’d imagined and more!


I waited around for an hour, hoping to find a pickup game. Maybe no one had to go. Perhaps people were creeped out by the smelly bearded dude loitering at the loo. Whatever the reason, no one showed. It’s probably for the best, though, since I don’t know how to play cribbage.


Rough day at the office

Yesterday was a day I’d like to forget. After a month in Maine, I finally made it to New Hampshire on Sunday. (I LOVE Maine. I really do. But I was so relieved to make it to my second of 14 states on the trail. It was the mirage of progress, I guess.) And Monday, I knew I would reach town, Gorham. But the day started badly and somehow got worse.

Monday morning, I was hiking with a bounce in my step. I was making good time. I could almost taste the fast food awaiting me. Then I took a wrong turn. I followed another hiker down a side trail. The blazes — the paint marks on trees that show you the way — were blue, not white. Blue means “side trail” or “water,” but we figured New Hampshire just must be backward, so we hiked on. We had a great pace going, and it was all downhill. Our guide showed some ascents mixed in with descents. We shrugged it off. Finally we stopped. We had taken a wrong turn. The other hiker decided to keep going, to follow the stream out to a road and hitch into Gorham. I was tempted but came out here to hit every blaze on this trail. I turned back.

When I got to the fork in the road, I went the other way. This time, the blazes were yellow. “Yellow?!? What does that mean?” I grumbled. Still I followed. I hiked most of a mile, and the blazes stopped atop a mountain. “We must have taken a wrong turn even earlier than we had thought,” I decided. I turned back and hiked even farther back up the trail. In another mile, I came to another fork in the road. We had gone left when we should have gone right. Three hours later, I corrected my mistake. THREE WASTED HOURS! My 11.8-mile hike had turned into 16 or 17 miles. Back on the right trail, I came across someone’s art project, made of moose poop. It was probably a hiker’s work, but I preferred to think of it as a sign from above: $hit happens. So I hiked on.

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I was late, very late, but I refused to give up on my dreams of Gorham. So i hiked onward, stopping only for water and food. Every day on trail, I take off my boots during food breaks. Letting your feet air out makes all the difference when you spend 12 hours stepping over rocks and roots. Every day, those boots come off. Every day, that is, but Monday. Each step hurt worse than the one before. By the time I arrived in town a little before 8 p.m., my toes were throbbing. It took more than a month, but I had finally butchered my feet, leaving the tops of my toes blistered and raw.

My feet hurt, but not as badly as my heart. When I left for this hike, I had promised my children that I would write them each at least one postcard a day every day of my hike. After 33 days in Maine, I had written 88 postcards to Forrest and Marlowe (1.33 each per day). Monday, I forgot.

Something tells me Monday is one day I will never forget.

Still work to do

I have an important job on the trail. Besides figuring out the rest of my life as a single father, I came to trail to honor my father, Richard Bacon. I don’t always mention the Alzheimer’s Association fundraiser on this blog; I’m still trying to figure out this whole blogging thing. But it seemed like it was time to remind folks that there is still time to contribute. To make a donation, go to:

Thanks for reading and sharing this adventure with me.

Major history

I earned my bachelor’s degree in political science and history at Indiana University. In the 25 years since, politics has come to irritate rather than excite me. History, however, will always have its hold on me. After three-plus weeks on the Appalachian Trail, I have stumbled upon roots, rocks, bog bridges — and several cool historical nuggets.

In the summer resort town of Rangeley, life revolves around its beautiful lake, though this place offers more than most among Maine’s trail hamlets: a theater, three sports outfitters, a bowling alley and several restaurants. At Thai Blossom, I fed my weekslong craving for pad thai. The shrimp was delicious but was nothing compared to the story of owner Somchai “Sam” Sriweawnetr.

Sam is a chef from Thailand, but 36 years ago he found himself at the center of one of the 20th century’s most tumultuous times in U.S. foreign policy. In early 1979, he took a job at a Korean restaurant in Tehran, Iran. After only six months, he was out of work when anti-western cleric Ayatollah Khomeini shut down the restaurant for selling alcohol. Sam found work cooking for American diplomats.

Student revolutionaries stormed the American embassy Nov. 4, seizing more than 60 hostages. Five Americans were outside the embassy during the attack, and Sam helped them hide out in Tehran. The embassy’s chief political officer, Victor Tomseth, was married to a Thai woman, spoke Thai and was an acquaintance of Sam.

The chef and the diplomat were able to speak freely in Thai on the phone — “The Iranians were listening for English,” Sam said — and together they helped the five Americans escape to the Canadian embassy. When the five Americans landed safely in Canada, Canadian newspapers told the story of the Thai chef who had helped them escape. Sam went into hiding. “My life was not safe,” he said, “but I looked like the Iranians and spoke Farsi.”

The Iranians kept their hostages for 444 days, releasing them Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Sam escaped Iran only three days before the Americans, returning to Thailand for a month. He wanted to move to the United States, but the Americans found him a job at the Sheraton in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, until tensions from the hostage crisis settled down.

After a year in Abu Dhabi, the hero chef came to America, settling in Boston. If this story of international intrigue sounds familiar, that’s because it came to the big screen in 2012. Sam’s character was cut out of the Oscar-nominated film “Argo,” but he can show you his part of the tale in the book.


Fifteen years ago, Sam and his wife opened their restaurant in Rangeley. “I love Rangeley,” he said. “They are very welcoming here.”

Sam misses his grandchildren in Boston, however, and is retiring to Massachusetts after this summer. If you get a chance to see him before he heads south, be sure to thank him for his tasty pad thai and his service to America.

Fifty miles north and 200 years earlier, another big moment in U.S. history took place. Between the towns of Caratunk and Stratton, Col. Benedict Arnold’s troops portaged 13 miles between the Dead and Kennebec rivers. The 1,000 troops were headed to Canada for the invasion of Quebec. The effort failed, but Arnold distinguished himself and earned a fan in George Washington, the commander of the Revolutionary forces.


The Connecticut native impressed Washington, who did what he could to aid Arnold’s career. Unfortunately, Arnold was not adept at the political game and often felt snubbed by the Continental Congress and had run-ins with Gens. Ethan Allen and Horatio Gates and other Revolutionary leaders.

After what he saw as repeated indignities from politicians and military leaders, a serious leg injury suffered in battle and financial troubles, Arnold betrayed the colonists and joined the British.

A man who looked destined to go down as one of his nation’s first great patriots became the most scandalous New Englander in history … until Tom Brady, anyway. (Sorry, Carl. I couldn’t let the air out of that softball. I had to swing away.) Then again, at least Brady stuck with the Patriots.

2001: A trail odyssey

Twenty days into my hike of the Appalachian Trail, here are some key numbers:


Dollars raised to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. To all of those generous people who have contributed, all I can say is, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”


Miles hiked. That’s an average of 9.4 miles a day.


Miles left to hike. I don’t know how director Stanley Kubrick felt back in the day, but 2001 seems like it’s light-years away for me. If I continue at my 9.4-mile pace, I should be done by 2020 — OK, I would really be done by March. Thankfully, however, the miles get much easier — easier, not easy — once I finish Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.


Times I have hitchhiked in my lifetime. The first was back in college when a dispute between two friends landed me and two others 30 miles from Bloomington on a dark country road. We were picked up by a scary dark van in the middle of the night after walking about five miles. The second time was today. I don’t recommend hitchhiking for those back in the real world, but when you are hiking the AT, it is common practice. Many towns are five or 10 miles off the trail. Today, I walked two miles before a kind soul named Mason and his dog, Balta, picked me up and saved me from walking the final three. When I got in the car, I found two northbound hikers Mason had helped before he found me. Mason and Balta, you dudes rock!


Percent of the people I have met on the trail and around it who are simply amazing. I cannot describe all of the generosity and smiles and uplifting conversations I have had with strangers in the woods. Here’s something I never thought I would say: The humans have been even better than the nature so far.


The age my knees felt after the Bigelow Mountains. The views were stunning, but my knees were not impressed.


Times I have seen moose. I could see them 3 million times, and it will never get old.

Magic and trail magic

IMG_4791I survived the 100-Mile Wilderness, and it was not as tough as I’d feared. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t times — and there were many times — that I wanted to quit. The bugs weren’t apocalyptic like seemingly every blog had warned, and it didn’t rain every day — just seven out of nine. But it was a tough, long slog for a beginner, filled with rain, dirt and doubt.

The Appalachian Trail is called the Green Tunnel because you walk for hours in the woods without seeing the sun. In that vein, I dubbed Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness the Root Canal. Every step you take, it seems, you must dodge slippery spaghetti-shaped tree roots, slick rocks and bogs of mud with the texture of Nutella. Take a wrong step, and you are on your backside or stuck in the muck up to your knee. One day early on, my left leg was swallowed by the mud, only to be rinsed clean when I skidded down a barkless tree bridge into a stream within the hour. Nature sullies, and nature washes away.

I slipped and fell more than two dozen times in the Wilderness. I always hurt somewhere; the aching in my feet was more painful than the worst dental procedure I’ve experienced, and that pain was constant. The biggest challenge, though, was the loneliness. Sometimes you could hike all day and talk for no more than 30 minutes of that 12 hours in little five-, 10- or 15-minute chats with passing hikers. The nights setting up a tent in the dark, soaked to the bone, with no one with whom to commiserate about your pruned and swollen feet or your struggles on White Cap, could turn your epic adventure into a forced march. Those were the days I longed to quit the trail and head home.

I hiked on. Why? I’m raising money to fight Alzheimer’s in my father’s memory. That fact kept me going. Willpower played a role, too. A big reason I came to the AT was to show myself I would not bow to adversity. Perhaps the biggest reason I’m still out here came from external forces, however. I call the first magic, and all hikers know the other as “trail magic.”

Back home in the suburbs, there is certainly magic every day. Spending the morning at school hanging out with Marlowe and one of her best friends during the second-grade readers theater is magic. Watching Forrest and his soccer team play two guys short — seven players versus nine — for an entire month and fall just one quarter short of winning the league championship, that’s magic. Putting off bedtime for an hour because you can’t put down “Harry Potter” after hours spent together, lost in an amazing tale, is undeniably magic. There is magic every day back home, but unfortunately you are too plugged in or wound too tightly to notice it.

In the woods, it’s different. Life slows down, and you see the magic all around you. A moose crosses the road in front of you as your shuttle enters Baxter State Park. Take that, bucket list! You catch up to friends at a shelter when you are feeling down, much faster hikers whom you are certain you had seen the last of days before. You stop and talk with an English hiker who says, “Isn’t that the roundabout capital of the U.S.?” when you tell him you’re from Carmel, Ind. Finding toilet paper in a privy when you are running low and still a day and a half from town. Meeting a 75-year-old section hiker from New Hampshire whose wife does not want him to hike alone anymore, so his daughter and grandson set aside a week here and there to accompany him. (“Yes. I. Can.” has hiked 25 percent of the trail and vows he will finish. Did his family’s commitment to him melt my heart? Yes. It. Did.)

Every day I found magic that kept me going. I met four young hikers in the Wilderness who asked if I was enjoying the blueberries. “I’ve read ‘Into the Wild,’ ” I confessed, “and am too afraid to try any wild food.” (Chris McCandless died in a school bus in Alaska after eating the wrong part of a potato plant. McCandless knew much more about the outdoors than I ever will, so I’m playing it safe.) You can’t miss the blueberries, one hiker said as he knelt down and picked dozens. “If they have crowns, they’re blueberries,” he said, showing me before he shoveled them down. I’ve been eating blueberries ever since. Magic.

The cry of the loon is magic. A day in town with real food and real beer and good conversation with instant friends is magic. Reaching a dry shelter minutes before a deluge, talking Jon Lester and the Cubs with a Red Sox fan, watching a beaver’s hunt for sticks, discussing the Old Oaken Bucket and college football with a Purdue grad, all of these are magic. After a bad day on trail spent mostly alone after getting myself lost atop Moxie Bald — don’t let your friends text and hike! — a northbound hiker pointed out a beautiful stealth camping site. It saved my day. The next morning, though, I was still feeling a bit blue as I struggled with my energy level while climbing another peak. So I stopped for a coffee and found a double-dose of magic. “Nacho Libre,” a hiker I’d heard of in advance because he has been on trail for eight months, gave me a doughnut. (A doughnut with my coffee in the middle of the woods?!? Life gets no better.) When he left, I chatted with his friends heading north: two Peace Corps buddies, “Nap Time” and “Smoke Signal.” We talked for an hour — Nap Time is the first Hoosier I’ve met and knew all about Sun King — and I left that shelter transformed. My energy was back, and my 6 miles to town were a snap. I was renewed. It was magic.

The kindness of strangers is magic, but some people take that to a whole ‘nother level for hikers; that’s trail magic. That can be a Boy Scout troop leaving a barrel full of peanut butter jars in the middle of the Wilderness. Trail angels, as they are called, give hikers rides into town or pass out sodas on the trail. They let people stay in their homes. Angels might cook you breakfast. Mostly, trail angels lift your spirits and keep you going when too many rainy days have sapped your will to push on. People give trail magic for many reasons. Some angels are former hikers who are paying forward kindness shown to them. Some must get a rush from the smiles they leave in their wake. Only 2 1/2 weeks into the trail, I’m already amazed by the generosity I have seen. I’m also convinced I will find no better trail angels than two I’ve already met. “Scout” and “Birdman” I will never forget.

Twenty miles into the Wilderness, I started meeting excited northbounders spreading word of some amazing trail magic ahead. These two gentlemen had let one guy spend the night in their cabin and made him breakfast. His hiking partners had filled up on Coca-Cola, beer and hot dogs. Everyone I passed gushed about these guys. For 65 miles, the thought of that food and drink drove me. Every tough day was doable because I knew hot food and cold beer were just 50, then 40, then 28 miles away. … Each night, I would meet up with “Firegod” and “Sticks” and we would fantasize about this food.

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I had dreamed of this for 65 miles, yet somehow it exceeded all expectations. I walked in, and Dan (“Birdman,” formerly “Lobster Boy,” my favorite trail name ever) said, “How about some cheeseburgers?” He was wearing a Minnesota Wild sweatshirt, so I figured I better tell him I was a Blackhawks man before I entered. Apparently — thankfully! — there are no rivalries with trail magic. Dan was actually a Bruins fan — another Blackhawks playoff victim in recent years — and welcomed me with open arms. I asked about “Yogi Bear,” the reason Terry (“Scout”) and Dan, a lifelong friend, were out here. Yogi Bear was Terry’s son and an avid hiker. Last year, Terry, Dan and others spread Yogi Bear’s ashes during a memorial in the 100-Mile Wilderness. Terry and Dan had been out here for two weeks, honoring Yogi’s memory and making hikers’ days. My friends got barbecue chicken and hot dogs; I had two amazing cheeseburgers and three beers. Dan turned on the generator so I could charge my iPhone. They showed us a picture of one hiker whose feet they had soaked in Epsom salt. They told of how they had shuttled some hikers to town for resupply, 11 miles away but a 45-minute drive each way. They had extra supplies they offered us. They had a toasty fire where we could dry out. They quite simply restored my faith in humanity with their inspiring generosity.

Why were they doing this? Hanging with Yogi’s people made him closer to them, I surmised. I more than most understood that. As I hike in memory of my father, Rob Bacon, I feel so close to him out here in the wild. Despite the cold and wet, my father’s spirit warms me. Terry and Dan must feel the exact same way. Theirs is a selfless act, but I’m sure they get more out of it than they give. I’m sure, too, that Yogi is looking out for them. A few days before I arrived, Dan had left a case of Coors he was buying for hikers on his shopping cart back in town. So he turned around and drove 45 minutes back to the store. When he walked in, the cashier said, “I know why you’re here. … Your case of beer?” Someone had found a free case of beer in the parking lot and had taken it back inside and returned it. Who does that? How does that happen? I know, and Dan and Terry know, too. It was magic. And there’s one last bit of magic from my two hours with these incredible trail angels. I stopped at their cabin on the final day of their weekslong run. If I had spent 10 days in the wilderness as I’d first planned, I would’ve missed out. That crushing blow might’ve sent me crawling home to Indiana. But I had magic on my side.

Terry and Dan ask only one thing of the hikers they meet: Send them a picture from the end of the 2,180-mile hike, Mount Katahdin for northbounders or Springer Mountain, Ga., for southbounders such as me. I’d like to ask one more thing for them. Next time you are giving a toast, raise your glass to Yogi Bear and Rob Bacon. They’re out there, somewhere, smiling.