My best day on the trail

I’ve had many wonderful days during my eight weeks and 486 miles on the Appalachian Trail.

Some highlights: meeting Sparky 30 minutes into my hike and climbing the 5,200-foot jewel of the AT, Mount Katahdin; meeting trail angels Scout and Birdman and hanging out with fellow hikers Sticks and Brandon for the final time in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness; completing the Wilderness, unexpectedly reuniting with Sparky (who I’d last seen a week before when a knee injury ended his hike) and getting clean clothes and a shower after 10 days without; my first zero (a day off), in Monson, seeing old Katahdin friends Syd the Kid and Fry and meeting Gingerbeardman and Marching Band; unexpectedly running into Magoo and Gigi in Caratunk (I’d hiked several days with Magoo in the Wilderness and was there the day an injury KO’d Gigi, but by Caratunk she was back on the trail); getting close enough to videotape a moose; hanging out with the USS Bennington (northbounders Cambo, Hughie, Rabbit and Yoohoo) in Rangeley; the town of Gorham, N.H., where I stayed at a wonderful hostel (White Mountains, where Marni and her staff were so welcoming), was shown incredible kindness by librarian Donna, who drove me all over town to help me find Epson salts for my destroyed feet, ate McDonald’s (after six weeks, it tasted like heaven!) and ran into Dreamcatcher, whom I’d met a month before on the bus from Bangor; the boulder playground of Mahoosuc Notch; hiking with Dreamcatcher in the White Mountains and staying at the huts; four days camping in Vermont with two of my best friends in the world, Brad and Todd, who drove up to see me from Maryland; meeting the Ice Cream Man and Moxie in Lyme, N.H.; my 17-mile day — my longest so far — into Hanover, N.H., after my return to the trail.

IMG_lake       IMG_plants

There have been so many wonderful, unforgettable days on the trail. Nothing, however, comes close to yesterday, Oct. 13. For starters, it was the second gorgeous day in a row. Who knew that after 30-degree days in New Hampshire the week before that I’d have to sweat through 70- and 60-degree afternoons in Vermont? The colors were spectacular, too. This was all that I had dreamed when I had pictured the phrase “fall hiking in New England.”

IMG_leaves     IMG_springer

It was also a short day, just 6.5 miles and a bus ride — no hitching required — into the bustling (by trail standards) city of Rutland, Vt., population 63,000. Before the bus, I had time to stop in for a beer and two Cokes at the Inn at the Long Trail and say goodbye to Turbo, a section hiker with whom I had been chatting for three or four days about hiking, baseball and Chase Utley. (When Turbo finishes this 100-mile section of his hike tomorrow, he will be at more than 1,100 miles.) Earlier in the day, I had met a couple and their nephew from Pennsylvania at Thundering Falls. “There’s another guy just ahead of you,” they said. “Yeah, that’s Turbo,” I said. They saw my Cubs hat and started talking about Chase Utley. “Why does everybody out here talk about Chase Utley?” I joked. I told them that Turbo was a Phillies fan from Allentown, Pa., and they blurted, “That’s where we’re from!” Before I left them, they made me promise to check with Turbo if he worked at Air Products, so two hours later at the bar, I said, “You don’t work at Air Products, do you, Turbo?” No, not anymore. He retired from Air Products after 35 years a few weeks before this hike. The nephew’s father worked there, too, and probably knew Turbo, but we never exchanged real names, so we’ll never know. Small world, though.

I caught the bus, which dropped me at McDonald’s, where I devoured about 3,000 calories and chugged three more Cokes. (I’m starting to worry that I’m getting a Coke habit on the trail. It tastes so good after a week drinking only water from springs.) I grabbed a coffee and walked through town with hours before game time. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention why it was so important to be in this town on this day: the Chicago Cubs — my Chicago Cubs — had a chance to eliminate their biggest rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals — the big brother, 100-win St. Louis Cardinals — in the first postseason showdown in the teams’ long histories.

I came out to the trail to learn about myself: What would it take to find happiness again after my failed marriage? What do I want to do with myself for the rest of my life? Who am I really? (You lose your sense of self after decades making compromises in relationships.) Do I like who I am, and can I change if I do not? Lots of questions, and on this journey I am slowly learning answers. But there is one thing I’ve always known about myself: I am a rabid Cubs fan.

I’ve often joked that I had to pick this year, the one year out of 107 that the Cubs will win the World Series, to hike the Appalachian Trail. And it’s been interesting to experience how you can follow baseball from the woods, with little to no cellphone reception. Back in July, I caught a few innings of a game on my phone in one of the most remote areas of the 100-Mile Wilderness, and hearing those familiar voices of the Cubs’ radio crew was soothing on a day I did not see another human during a 13-hour hike. I’ve checked in via texts with friends and loved ones from mountaintops to let them know I’m alive and well. “p.s.,” I would add, “Do you have the Cubs score?” I was in Rangeley when the Cubs swept four games from the San Francisco Giants in early August, stretching Chicago’s wild-card lead. I made it to Hanover, N.H., to watch the one-game wild-card playoff against the Pirates in a bar full of Cubs fans. I learned that Cubs rookie pitcher Kyle Hendricks was a local, a former Dartmouth star who had pitched just down the street from where we sat. A trail angel from Norwich, Vt., let me and three other hikers stay in his basement; I agreed to stay for free in this man’s house only after he proved to me that he had TBS, which showed the Cubs-Cardinals Game 1. (We Cubs fans are a twisted lot.) I monitored one playoff game on an app from a shelter a few days later, then hung on every text update Monday night from my friend Jeff in Pennsylvania.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is part physical: I’m in pain every day, especially my knees. To complete 2,180 miles, though, is much more mental. Can you keep going when everyone you know is hundreds of miles ahead? Is it really worth all this trouble to complete the entire trail? Is it going to rain every day? As long as the Cubs keep winning, though, I have a huge distraction. When your mind starts wandering, thinking about the comforts of home and the pain in your joints and showers and good food and … you are in trouble.


So I checked into a landmark on the trail: the Hiker Hostel at the Yellow Deli. A religious sect called the Twelve Tribes runs this hostel and a handful of others along the trail. Members give up their possessions to join this communal living society. I’d heard about this place 300 miles ago, and all hikers have opinions about these people: a cult, friendly, creepy, generous, wackos, a breath of fresh air. I had looked forward to stopping here for months to check it out myself. I worried that they would be put off if I checked in, did laundry, had a shower and rushed off to see my Cubs game. I asked if they had a TV. “We don’t,” a man named Aesh said, “but there are plenty of bars where you can watch your game.” (Count me among the fans of these people and this place, and make sure you try the Deli Rosa at their 24-hour deli if you ever find yourself in Rutland.)

They lock the doors at 10:30 each night at the hostel, but today’s game started at 4:30 so I had plenty of time to see the Cubs. I found an empty bar down the street, and the bartender put the game on the big screen. I made a quick call home to remind my son, Forrest, that the game was on and spoke with my daughter, Marlowe, for a few minutes. (Nothing on earth beats hearing your child’s voice when you have been away for two weeks.) The Downtown Tavern was the perfect place. For the next four hours, there were no more than two other customers, and Jennifer, the bartender, and Rich and the Yankees-Red Sox season ticket holder (I forgot his name, but do you really need a name when you are the world’s only season ticket holder of both the Yankees and Red Sox, mortal baseball enemies?) didn’t seem to mind that I paced and cringed and groaned all through the game. The Cubs rallied to win, and I shared a wonderful evening with three other friendly faces in a Vermont town, and friends and family far away through a flurry of stressed-out and later ecstatic texts on my phone. It was the perfect day.

I know it’s only a game, not life and death. But when you are 850 miles from home, alone in the woods for days at a time, you don’t feel alone when you know your son and daughter, your brother, sisters, nephews, friends are watching the same game, experiencing the same joy. You feel like they are there. It’s a small world, we say it all the time, but even in a small world, it’s great to know you are not alone.

AT by the numbers


How old Richard Bacon would have been today. Happy birthday, Old Man! This hike’s for you — and yes, it’s for me, too. (John Lennon, by the way, would have been 75 today. Two more special men you would be hard-pressed to find.)



Miles left to hike (mileage changes year to year).


States completed (Maine and New Hampshire).


States left to go (Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia.)


Times I’ve been inspired on the Appalachian Trail.


Times I’ve been frightened (one fall, when I feared a concussion but broke five ribs; two encounters with drifters who appeared mentally unstable).


Memories of a lifetime.


Things I miss more than anything else back in the real world. (Forrest and Marlowe, Dad can’t wait to hug and kiss you!)

A Streetcar Named Inspire

I’ve been thinking about changing my trail name. Huckleberry Finch has great meaning for me, but there just might be a more appropriate moniker: Blanche DuBois.

You see, on the Appalachian Trail, you always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Sitting on the couch for five weeks in Indiana with five broken ribs, I had no idea how difficult it would be to return to the trail. When I left New Hampshire in late August, I would wake to refreshing morning temperatures in the 50s. Last week when I returned to the AT, it hit the low 30s most days, and I was shocked by how tough it was to peel myself out of that cozy down sleeping bag. Before I exited the trail, I was routinely hiking 12- to 14-mile days in the rugged mountains of southern Maine and New Hampshire. Friday morning — Day 1 of my return — I struggled to 8.5 miles over relatively mild Mount Kinsman. It took all day, and I felt pain in every inch of my body the entire next day as I plodded just 4.9 miles without seeing a soul during my hike. Day 3, I went only 3.5 miles and was fighting the urge to get off the trail for good. “Why am I doing this?” I kept thinking. “It’s so cold. I’m out of shape. And every hiker I know is a month ahead of me … and I’m lonely.”

And then it happened.

Hey, remember me?

Sunday night, I cleared Mount Moosilauke, my final hurdle in the White Mountains. No more 4,000-foot peaks for 100 miles until Killington in Vermont, and this 8.5 miles felt as if I’d earned it. I felt good, even if I would be spending another night without human contact. As I arranged my things and prepared to make dinner in the shelter, a man approached out of the darkness. We chatted. “Hey,” I thought, “I know this dude!” “Did you work at the Madison Spring Hut?” I asked. He smiled and said he had. His name was Lorne, and days before they had closed the hut for the winter.

I had met Lorne on Aug. 22 during my first work-for-stay at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut. (Through hikers “work” for about 30 minutes in exchange for dinner and breakfast leftovers and a night camping on the floor instead of outside.) “Met” is not the right word, though. I had asked him a single question, something like “Can I fill my water here?” “Yes,” he said. The reason I remembered him, however, is his distinctive deep voice. It’s difficult to explain, but he has a slight accent that I’d never heard and it made an impression. Though I barely spoke with him in August, he had said quite a lot. You see, the hut employees are jacks (and jills)-of-all-trades: cooks, servers and performers. They introduce themselves to the guests, sharing small details such as hometowns and where they went to college. One of Lorne’s co-workers was a Hoosier who, like me, had graduated from Indiana University. Melissa, who had completed the trail earlier in the summer, is from Mishawaka and had spent time in Indianapolis, so I spent most of my time chatting with her.

IMG_Hut              IMG_Lorne

Each morning, the hut workers perform a skit during breakfast. On Aug. 23, they went with an old standby: Jurassic Park. Lorne (above left) played John Hammond, the octogenarian owner of the dinosaur preserve. Each skit has two important elements: remind guests to leave no trace on the mountain trails and remember to tip the hut workers.

When I met Lorne in the shelter, we talked about the huts, the people on the trail and his winter job as one of the caretakers for Zealand Falls Hut. (If you are hiking the Whites this winter, stop by and see this fine man.) He mentioned a hiker named Justin with whom he’d had a great time a few weeks before. “Justin For Fun?” I asked, referencing a hiker I’d met three days earlier at a hostel in North Woodstock. “Yes!” he said with a grin. “I gave him that trail name!” Lorne gave me something, too. He shared an amazing tomato — you have to be out in the woods for several days to appreciate how good fresh produce can taste — and half his block of cheese. He also made a lonely guy feel connected to the world when he really needed it.

Too good to be true?

Monday was an even better day. With the big mountains behind me, I hiked 15.7 miles. That total fell just short of my best on the trail back in August, but that is not what made Monday so memorable. A chance meeting with a stranger made my day.

I was in a zone, moving pretty quickly on the flat terrain and almost didn’t see the man until I was nearly past him. “Sorry,” I said with a start. “I didn’t see you.” He was Travis Brunt, a small-business owner from Plymouth, N.H., who was out for a practice hike. He is considering hiking the Appalachian Trail next year and wanted to talk.

I shared my story of the trail: the divorce, the daily postcards to my kids and how I’m hiking in memory of my father, who had Alzheimer’s. “Do you take cash donations?” he asked. “No, sorry,” I said. “Do you need anything? My truck is a half-mile back (he pointed the direction opposite to where he was hiking); I could drive you to town for supplies.” No, I said. I’ve got everything I need, but thank you so much.

We talked for at least 30 minutes. I told him good resources to study up on the trail, books and blogs and gear tips. Before we said goodbye, we exchanged information. He promised to read my blog. He was excited and could not wait to try the trail. When I left, I had a bounce in my step. Meeting great people propels you on your hike, like extra endorphins. One thing bothered me, though: Why hadn’t I taken that cash donation? I was trying to show him I wasn’t a con man by turning him down, but I could’ve mailed in his money when I arrived in Hanover, N.H., in a few days. I felt like a knucklehead who had missed a chance to help my cause, the Alzheimer’s Association. Travis was too good to be true. He was never going to read my blog and donate when he got back to town. Life is entirely too busy.

The next day, I found a cell signal on a mountaintop. I texted family and friends to let them know I was well. I checked my email. There in my inbox was an email that said I had hit the halfway point of my Alzheimer’s fundraiser. Halfway to my goal? How could that be? I would need a $200 donation to achieve that. For hours, I thought of whom that generous donor could be. That night, when I found some Wi-Fi, I was able to discover which of my relatives or close friends had made my day with their incredible generosity … Travis Brunt. A stranger I had met on the trail. Too good — and true.

The Ice Cream Man

I’d heard about the Ice Cream Man months ago, but that was before I had to leave the trail and fell more than a month behind most other southbounders (SOBOs). Ice cream? Ain’t nobody got time for that when you are trying to get to Georgia just as fast as you can. When I passed the sign, I glanced at the house at the end of the trail but did not stop when I saw no lights on. It was getting dark, and I needed to make another mile to Trapper John Shelter, where I might see Avi and Babbul, two guys in their 20s from Israel I had met earlier in the day. On problem, though: I could not find the trail on the other side of the road, so I headed back to the Ice Cream Man’s house.


Back at the empty house, I found instructions by the door inviting hikers to free ice cream on the back porch. The sign said hikers were free to sleep on the front or back porch or pitch a tent in the yard. For 50 cents, you could buy a cold Coca-Cola. (A Coke is worth more than gold on the trail!) I signed the hiker log — where I saw entries from Avi and Babbul and XL, a SOBO I had met in North Manchester — and walked toward the ice cream. All I found in the freezer was an empty ice cream box, so I returned to the front porch to set up my sleeping bag for the night.

As I came around the house with my headlamp on, a car pulled into the driveway.”Great,” I thought, “I’m going to get shot when these people get out of their car.” When I met the man and woman approaching the house, they were bearing only smiles, not guns. “Are you the Ice Cream Man,” I nervously asked. “I’m his brother,” he said. The young woman with him mouthed, “He is the Ice Cream Man.”

They invited me inside and introduced themselves: Bill Ackerly, the Ice Cream Man, and Moxie, a 2014 SOBO through hiker. Moxie had met Bill the year before on her hike and drove down from Maine on her weekend to visit this dear friend. They had just come from dinner, and Bill invited me to stay by his fire and join them as they listened to a radio special on presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Before the show started, I told Moxie that Bill was out of ice cream and I had left the empty box in the freezer. She thanked me, Bill got me my ice cream and refilled the freezer, then he started a fire, turned on the radio and brought us each a piece of apple pie.


After we listened for 40 minutes in Bill’s warm home, he thanked us for indulging him. He — who opens his home to strangers and waits patiently on them, no matter how smelly — thanked us?!?! As we sat by the fire, I told them my story of the trail and about my blog and talked of how inspiring my encounters with trail angels like Bill and other hikers had been. Bill loved my name and brought me a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which he had nearby.

Moxie talked of her hike a year ago, describing how she had been equally inspired by the people of the trail. Moxie is from Virginia and returned to Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness this summer to work as a ridge runner, a ranger who is there to help if hikers are in danger, maintains the trail and cleans up after those selfish souls who can’t be bothered with packing out their own trash. I asked Moxie if she had heard of the amazing trail magic in the southern part of the Wilderness. “Oh, you mean Scout –” she started. “And Birdman!” I interrupted. “Wait a second,” she said. “You’ve got a blog and you wrote about them, right?” She told me that she had read my blog and that I had talked about my father in it. I had heard from a hiker — Many Faces, an Oberlin College student from South Korea — on a blog comment this summer that Scout and Birdman had printed out the blog entry and were sharing it with hikers that stopped by. And now I was meeting someone who had read the blog; this had somehow made it feel more real. Scout and Birdman’s generosity had kept me going through the rough days of August, and I will remember them always. It felt so good to know that they had appreciated my small gesture, too.

That night, I slept on Bill’s porch. In the morning, as I prepared to leave, he brought me a glass of orange juice. “Anything else I can get you?” he asked. I asked if he could spare a coffee, and he came back out to warm it for me a little while later. Before I left, I asked if Bill knew how many people had stopped by for his generosity. Moxie showed me Bill’s system in the log book, revealing that I was his 1,937th visitor this year. Bill has been taking care of hikers for more than 10 years, so he has spent more on ice cream than some Dairy Queens. He invited me to come back, and I told him I would love to bring my kids sometime. “You can play croquet in the back,” Moxie said, pointing to Bill’s course in the backyard. It stood right next to the port-o-let Bill installed to accommodate his thousands of hiking friends.

Nom de plume

You know, the more I think about it, I believe I will keep my trail name. Huckleberry Finch honors my father’s memory and keeps him in my heart. But the inspiring kindness of strangers on and along the trail has also earned a special place in my heart, and it will stay with me always.

Whenever I’d watched Vivien Leigh — Tennessee Williams’ tragic heroine Blanche in the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire” — speak of how she had “always depended on the kindness of strangers,” it always evoked pity for this woman. Now, after seven weeks on the Appalachian Trail, I feel only pity for those who have not been lucky enough to depend on strangers’ kindness. As Bill Ackerly so perfectly put it: “The trail brings out the best in you (hikers), and it brings out the best in us (trail angels).”

Everyone needs to experience this trail for at least a few days. Because experiencing the best in people is more breathtaking than anything you will find in nature on the Appalachian Trail or anywhere else for that matter.

On the disabled list

It’s been awhile, but I’m finally back. Online that is, not the trail. Not yet anyway. Tomorrow, I return to work at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire.

All along, I had planned to take a 10-day break in late August. Two good friends drove here from Maryland and picked me up at the notch, and we camped four nights in Vermont. After the fun would come business: flying home to Indiana to take a state-mandated divorce class. Indiana would not be completely bleak as I would get to spend a week with my children and see other family and old friends. I was beat and looking forward to a little break.

Then I slipped. And my little break became five little breaks … on the left side of my ribcage. Luckily, I was hiking with a friend that week in the White Mountains and that friend, Dreamcatcher, was able to check me for a concussion (it was negative) and help push this banged-up old guy another 33 miles to Franconia Notch. My quick 10 days became five long weeks.

This morning, I flew back to Portland, Maine, and caught a shuttle 95 miles to North Woodstock, N.H. Golden Waldo, my driver’s trail name from his 1990 hike, is another of the many trail angels you will find along the Appalachian Trail. Ever since he hiked, he has been hooked on the White Mountains. He spends half his time in New Hampshire and Maine shuttling hikers up and down a 500-mile stretch of the trail for gas money and expenses. In late October, he heads home to Louisiana to cheer on his Saints. Great to meet you, Waldo (even better because he’s a Cubs fan, who at 82 deserves some good karma for his team this fall for all he does for us hikers).

In the morning, I catch a ride back to Franconia Notch. It feels like it has been forever since I was there in August. It was kind of eerie to see the play “Same Time, Next Year” advertised in town since it feels like it’s been a year since I was here. I already miss my kids terribly and the weather is beginning to turn cold, but I have some unfinished work to do out here.

Until my next entry (hopefully in a week from Vermont), happy trails!

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.

IMG_5018 (1)

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.

IMG_4739     IMG_4741

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.

A man named Huckleberry


My father called me Huckleberry.
It was probably because I was a tow-haired little man, always getting into trouble, never slowing down and never, ever stopping talking. The nickname was a father’s show of love, but I always hated it. To me, Huckleberry was another word for “yokel” or “hilljack.” I was simply too insecure or took myself way too seriously to accept my dad’s gift. So I took Huckleberry and buried it deeply, like a painful childhood memory.

When you hike the Appalachian Trail, everyone takes on a new identity. You trade in Steve or Mark or Evelyn for a trail name. You could be Firegod for nearly burning down a lean-to at dinnertime. Perhaps you are Sticks because you’re always carrying twigs as fuel for your Emberlit stove. You might become Hotpants for catching your clothing on fire while drying it after a downpour. Or you are Crusty Tissues — even I don’t want to hear that story. Maybe you’re Oklahoma because you come from … OK, you get the point.

Most hikers I have met who are walking all the way from Maine to Georgia (or Georgia to Maine) frown on those who name themselves. “That’s not how it’s done,” a guy named Kick-it said. “You cannot pick your own name.” I am one of those people who broke that rule, and try as they might, I’m not giving back Huckleberry Finch.

On Father’s Day 2012, my family took my dad an Indiana University flag stitched by his wife, Jane. She had given me this wall hanging so I could have it autographed by IU basketball legends gathered for a reunion in Indianapolis. My father grew up a Cleveland Indians fan who traded in his childhood team for the Reds when we lived north of Cincinnati in the 1980s, and he stopped following baseball when Pete Rose was banned for life. Dad loved the Cleveland Browns as a kid but became a Jacksonville Jaguars diehard when he and my mom became season ticket holders during the franchise’s first eight seasons in their adopted hometown.

Only one team was a lifelong sports obsession: his alma mater, Indiana University. Dad loved IU basketball and IU football. No other sports came close. On his Father’s Day flag were the signatures of Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, then-New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson, Big Ten scoring king Calbert Cheaney, Jay Edwards, Steve Downing, Ted Kitchel and scores of other Hoosiers legends. I was the proud son that day.

When we brought Dad his flag for his room at the Alzheimer’s care facility — where he would be evicted within the month for having the audacity to actually exhibit Alzheimer’s symptoms — he did not seem to care or notice his gift. All my father could see was my 8-year-old son, Forrest. As my wife, my daughter and I spoke to him, my father stared past us and beamed at Forrest, who is the spitting image of his old man. (Let’s hope he grows out of that 🙂 )

We could tell that our boy was unnerved by the attention. “Do you know why Grandpa kept staring at you, Forrest?” my wife, Shanna, asked. He shrugged. “He thinks you are Huckleberry.” My children had no idea my father had ever called me such a name, and they wouldn’t unless they’d overheard him say it — no, that’s not right — he would sing it to me when he saw me. “Huckleberr-eeeeeeeeeeee!” In my 40s, I still hated that stupid nickname.

Three months later, my father died at a nursing home in another town. After family and friends came and went and after Dad’s funeral, life returned to normal. The kids had to get back to school, and we had to get back to living. Monday morning, I walked Forrest to the door to catch the school bus. After I kissed him goodbye, he stopped and quickly turned. “Have a great day, Huckleberry!” he said. I hugged him so hard, this wise little man who had just said the sweetest sentence I’d ever heard. When I let go, he had a huge grin. “I’m Huckleberry 2.0!”

As a hiking rookie, I try to limit my mistakes. I attempt to leave no trace, packing out all my trash and picking up after others where I can. I stick to approved campsites. I do what I can to be a good citizen of the hiker community. I have broken one rule, violated one protocol: I named myself. I took a name I once hated and finally — after 40some years — embraced it. I paired another of my favorite figures in literature, Ol’ Atticus Finch, with Huckleberry Finn. And now whenever someone calls me Huckleberry, I think of my dad.

I miss so much when I am out in the woods. I long for a shower, a steak, clean clothes, a beer. I dream of tacos and friends and family, movies and books, my Chicago Cubs. But besides my children, there is nothing in this universe I miss more than my dad. He was quite simply one helluva good man.

My father called me Huckleberry.

The wild, the magnificent and the no-street shuffle

I should sleep. But I can’t. In the morning, I  begin my southbound hike of the Appalachian Trail. No biggie, right?

My first 12 1/2 miles today are to the top and of Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin. The magnificent. (Apologies to Springsteen for twisting my blog post title to squeeze out a cheesy rock ‘n’ roll reference.)

Day 2 should be a leisurely 13-mile hike to the border of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Then it gets really wild.

Eight or nine or 10 days with nothing but the black flies, deer flies, mosquitoes, ticks and other AT hikers. No cellphone service, no roads, no McDonalds. It will certainly be interesting.

Check back in a week and a half for my next post in which I will tell you all about my trail name. Why did I choose Huckleberry Finch?