AT Massachusetts – Treats on the Trail

November 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

By now you are aware that four of us started this adventure, and now only two remain. We have four days, including our biggest day, behind us now, and 3 and half days ahead of us. Since we started up the Race Brook access trail, we haven’t crossed a road that has contained anything remotely treat worthy, so we have been eating nothing but what we brought with us. While this doesn’t change on Day 5, it does change on Day 6, and then again on Day 7. Also, though Kevin got the call that told him if he wasn’t hiking then he should come home, and so home he went and we would not be seeing him on our last two days, we did pick up a new hiking mate for one night on the trail. That and more details follow in this edition of The Adventures of The Bird and The Persian Prince.

I described, well I actually listed all the food we brought with us, and when I run a wilderness adventure out west, once we go off the grid, we are OFF the grid. There aren’t any road crossings, because there aren’t any roads. So what we have on our backs is what we eat; Treats and all. The Appalachian Trail, though is different. It is called a National Scenic Trail, and technically it is considered wilderness within its corridor, but when that corridor navigates through populous areas, and what not, it is never all that far from non-wilderness, aka civilization. On the Appalachian Trail, when you take the time to read the shelter registers you pick up stories of opportunities to stray from the contents of your pack. Sometimes you don’t have to read the stories, as a thru hiker, will tell you outright. “There is a sub-shop in Dalton 50 yards from trail”. Rosie, as well as Eric, and Son from our night at Shaker all mentioned a brewery/distillery in Dalton as well. If we had been on the trail another week, I think stocking up on Massachusetts Bourbon would have been in order, but we had enough spirits for the rest of our journey.

We spent the night at October Mountain shelter, and we had a pretty easy day ahead of us on day 5. The rain had stopped during the night, and though it was wet out, there was no reason to dawdle too long before getting on the trail. We arose at a decent hour, boiled enough water for coffees and oatmeal, for me, and we got packed our shit to go. You may recall that we came to this shelter wet, and we donned dry clothing. The last thing in the world anyone needs on the trail is more wet clothing. So, we weren’t going to hike in our dry clothes, and we weren’t going to dine in our wet clothes, so the last item to pack on this day for both of us was going to be our clothes.

Ali had some kind of coffee mix that had sugar and cream all mixed together, and I was a strict black coffee drinker working through a double via of Starbucks Verona, a dark roast. Of all the coffees I have tried over the years on the trail, Starbucks has them all beat with its via. It’s good enough to drink off the trail. That says a lot! Two vias fit quite nicely into my titanium mug.

Starbucks Via and Good Hair Day

With our fast broken, there was nothing left to do but to don our wet clothes and hit the trail. There was one exception though. I packed my rain pants, and wore my kilt instead. My socks weren’t that bad, but my T-Shirt was a different story. Quite the sensation pulsated though my body when I pulled that over my head onto my bare skin. Invigorating. I also smelled, though it was hard to tell. For me it was hard to tell, for someone off the street? Probably not so hard. We hefted our packs, made a final check for anything we might have regretted leaving behind, and set off for Kay Wood.

I won’t go into the details of the day, except to note that there was a couple who were also hiking from Connecticut to Vermont at the same time as we were. They were closer to my age, than to Ali’s but they were doing all the hikes as shuttled day hikes, and spending their evenings snuggled and warm in the various Berkshire Inns and B&Bs that exist along the route. They would drive to the trail head, hike to their destination, where a shuttle driver would be waiting to drive them back to their car, and then off to the Inn to clean up, and out for dinner. Quite a nice arrangement I believe. Well we had been running into them during our run of the trail. Their destinations for the day were always beyond our shelter, so they always had a head start on us the next day, so we usually caught them in the morning sometime, picked up our chats where the previous day’s chat ended, and then moved on. On this day we chatted about the “Other” storm that we were both watching. It was going to coincide with our Mount Greylock day, but our hiking companions, because they were day hiking, were planning to hike the last section that day, and they would hike Greylock on Saturday when it was supposed to be a nice day. A good plan. One that was not available to us hoever.

Without much fanfare we hiked into Kay Wood fairly early in the afternoon. I think we rolled in before 3, and maybe it was closer to 2, but as expected for such an early arrival, no one else was there. Key Wood was set facing East, so the sun was behind us already. It was set down on a shelf about .2 off the AT, and was pretty well wooded, but the sun was shining through in a few places. This allowed us to get a few of our wet things hanging in the sun to dry. For the rest of it we would simply need to hang lines, and get a fire going. The lines are good for allowing what breeze existed to help with the drying process, but we would really need the fire to accomplish the lion’s share of the work.

It had rained A LOT the previous 24 hours, and everything was really quite wet. How do you start a fire with wet wood? There are tricks to follow, and I am going to go through them here. The first thing you need to know is the wood you need, isn’t on the ground. There might be wood on the ground that is good for later in the burn, but to get the burn going you need stuff that isn’t sitting in dampness all the time. Yes the area had been in drought for 2 months, but wood that is on the ground is well into or has at least started it’s decomposition process, and is usually more absorbent. So with all the rain the fell, unless the wood had fallen recently, within the last year, and was up off the ground a little, it wouldn’t be that useful.

What was needed was wood that had fallen from the trees, but hadn’t hit the ground. It is simply hanging stuck in other vegetation. That wood is a little wet, but it isn’t soaked through. To start a fire with wet wood, you need a fair amount of really small twigs that are hanging. Fortunately for us, there was actually quite a bit of this stuff hanging around. One I showed Ali what we needed he scoured the surrounding landscape for anything that fit the description, and soon we had more than enough small and medium stuff. Next we needed bigger stuff. Some of the small stuff actually came attached to bigger stuff, so we had some small, medium, and large piles. We needed more medium and large, and if possible a couple of extra large would be good as well. Extra large was going to come from the ground, yes, but we needed stuff that wasn’t mossy, and had some sections up off the ground, and fortunately again, there was some harvestable wood not all that far from the shelter.

Fire starting tip, if not mentioned already, dryer lint. Perhaps it depends on the kinds of clothes you typically dry. Clothing that contains some degree of synthetic fabrics will create lint that is a good fire starter. If all your stuff is cotton, or wool, that may still burn, but not as effectively. Full disclosure here. I do carry some kind of lightweight fire helper. There are a few of these around. For this trip I carried Lightening Bug Starters, and only used one per fire. I would put down a small pile of very small, hopefully dry but not necessarily, twigs and then atop those I would spread out some dryer lint. Then I would light the lightening bug, and place that on the lint. Follow that with more of the really small twigs, and then start to build a tee pee around that with the next size up twigs/sticks. I may have to light a couple of survival matches and insert them under the lint. That, and a little bit of blowing, soft at first, on the whole arrangement gets the small flame to create enough heat to dry out any wet twigs. If the twigs aren’t wet, they will catch right away. Once the twigs catch enough, then harder blowing will create more heat and work on drying out the larger twigs, which will eventually catch. As those catch, build another tee pee with the next size up sticks, and another layer around that with another size. The fire should be catching, and will still need some lungs behind it. If you have a flat board, I have a backpacking cutting board, you can use that. Some people carry small squares of ensolite pad for this purpose.

Once you have the fire going, then if you have larger pieces that are wet, it is a good idea to line them up around the inside edge of the fire ring. This allows the radiant heat from the fire to dry them, and by the time you burn through all your smaller stuff, they might just be ready to use. This was how we got our fire going that afternoon, and thus began the process of removing moisture from our wet things, while adding the smell of campfire smoke as a replacement. Drying wet items using a fire, doesn’t sound like it would be such a hard endeavor. There are actually two methods that can be performed, and sometimes one method works better than the other. Another important consideration, is that these days, there are very few natural fiber clothing options that you see in the woods. No one in their right mind backpacks with cotton, so rule that natural fiber out. Merino wool, or maybe some kind of wool blend is more common, but for the most part, most of what hikers wear is synthetic fiber-based, and if there is one kind of fiber that we already discussed in using lint as a Firestarter, it is that synthetic fibers burn, and they burn pretty easily. Both methods of drying are dangerous to synthetic fibers, though I believe convection offers the most risk. Method 1 is convection. This where you suspend your garment over the fire so that the hot air rises up and through your garment. Finding the right sticks to support your garment while at the same time not restricting the garment from catching the convection and inflating above the fire. There are two risks here, the first being errant stray embers that fly up out of the fire and ignite some part of your garment, and the other is simply holding the garment too close to the fire. If you can get your garment inflated, then it dries a lot faster. In fact that is the fastest way to dry a garment. The other method of drying is infrared drying, and only works once there is an established bed of coals radiating lots of good long infrared waves. All one has to do is simply hold a garment just outside the fire ring, and the infrared waves get absorbed into the fabric. Soon you see steam being emitted from your garment. Since both sides of your garment are wet, only one side dries at a time with infrared, so you flip it around and expose the other side. Socks when worn on the feet, can be dried using infrared, or a good stick can be stuck in them, and held out over the fire for convection drying, though it is pretty hard to inflate the sock. I have rarely seen this accomplished.

This shelter, Kays Woods Shelter, was on a shelf in the mountain/hill side with a fairly significant drop off the edge. Since the fire ring was installed between the shelter and the edge of the precipice, it meant the shelter overhang, was close to overhanging the fire ring, which meant that if the fire was pretty smoky, and ours was a smoky fire, then smoke filled the shelter. Now it wasn’t so bad on the lower level where we had set up our bunks, but the loft area was very smoky, and anyone that would want to use the loft probably wouldn’t be too happy with our fire. At the very least the happiness of fire warmth, would be offset by smoky loft unhappiness. The fire ring was a pretty substantial structure, and I can’t say that the builders of the shelter were also the builders of the fire ring, but considering the impact of the fire ring on the quality of life inside the shelter, it does seem like the ring could have been put somewhere else, and then happiness on all fronts could have been achieved.

Warm, much drier, and rested, Ali and I settled into our evening meals, and another night of Crème Brule. Ali had his bone broth and beef jerky meal, and I ate either another chicken risotto or a Pad Thai. We worked through a couple more slices of sourdough, using the last of cheese I had brought as well. The packs would be just a little lighter the next day! We were just finishing our meal when a retired police officer from Kentucky, hiked into our encampment. I don’t recall his trail name, but he was a Southbound Thru-Hiker who had started the second week of August from Mount Katahdin. He was pretty happy to find that we had a nice fire going, so he too could dry out some gear, and was pretty sure the loft would be livable later in the evening after we stopped feeding the fire. He set about quickly to get himself unpacked and make use of the rest of the quickly fading daylight, and get some of his stuff dried. We got to talking about his adventure. He told us that he has been fairly consistent in hiking about 10-12 hours a day once he had gotten is trail legs broken in. I was surprised to find that only meant 10-12 miles a day in Maine and New Hampshire, where because of the excess of rocks it is just impossible to get a good decent stride going. I thought all the water crossings in Maine were an issue, but he corrected me in that misunderstanding. For the water crossings, if you wear a fairly lightweight shoe that dries out quickly, then you simply hike right through. The old days, when backpacker wore heavy leather boots were slower, because you took your boots off, waded across in your bare feet, and then re-assembled yourself on the far side. That could happen 3 or 4 times a day, sometimes more. Today, thru-hikers are all about lightness, and lightweight trail runners are just so much easier on the feet and legs, and that translates into less fatigue, and the ability to hike further each day. With that said, his daily mileage now was 20-24 miles a day, for non-zero days. For those unfamiliar, a zero day is exactly how it sounds. You make zero progress along the trail. That can be because you simply decide to stay in the shelter an extra day, or you divert from a trailhead into a town for the night to re-supply. It’s not uncommon for some stalwarts to shuttle into town, re-supply, and then shuttle back out and still make some more mileage, but many spend the night in decent accommodations. Remember, decent is a relative word, and something hasn’t got to be all that much to be more decent than a shelter. There are a lot of “Special” deals for thru-hikers, and many places have “Hostel” setups that accommodate a fair number of hikers in a dormitory style setup. If you want your own room, then you have to seek out a motel/hotel.

We got to talking to our guest for the evening, and we were curious about Dalton. Dalton, we had heard from Rosie, and Eric, contained a craft micro distillery, which sounded pretty decent to Ali and me at the time, but here we were less than two hours out of Dalton, and we would have a pretty decent day ahead of us still, so there would be no time to dawdle in Dalton in any den of iniquity. No, we would have time for food, but not for that kind of drink. Our guest, as did a couple of other SoBos we talked to, mentioned a sub-shop about 200 yards off the trail. The AT walks right through Dalton, though to be fair, it doesn’t actually traverse the downtown area. It skirts it. No problem. I just wasn’t feeling sub sandwich ish. I was feeling more sit down diner breakfast ish. That is what I was thinking, and Ali put up zero resistance to that idea. So, using google maps, we found a nice little place on the main drag. The Dalton Restaurant. From the Street view feature it didn’t look like much, but they had a couple of outdoor seating tables and it looked like just what we would want.

The morning dawned early for us. We had a big day ahead, so it was another early start for us. We did the coffee, but not breakfast routine, and got ourselves all packed up and ready to roll. Our overnight guest would have an easy day ahead of him. Remember the Inn I described just after crossing the Mass Pike? That was this Sobo’s destination for the day, where he would take in a nice meal, a warm comfy bed, and maybe a re-supply trip into Pittsfield. It was still dark when we headed out, I had to let Ali lead as I should have changed out the low batteries in my head lamp, and Ali’s was shining bright as the sun. It was a lovely pre-dawn morning, and we quickly fell into a decent pace. Dalton was only a couple of miles away, and it would pretty much be all downhill to get there. Dalton is in the valley, and we were on the plateau, so down we went. The sun was up, and Dalton was alighting as we arrived. The AT enters in a slightly industrial corner of town where we crossed an active railroad track, No Trespassing, and then through a lumber yard before emerging into a residential neighborhood where the Biden/Harris signs were proudly displayed. At this point in our journey, we hadn’t seen a single Trump/Pence sign anywhere. I was liking Massachusetts very much!

Massachusetts was one of those early industrial manufacturing powerhouses of the Northeast. A big economic engine driven a lot by textile mills. Southern cotton was shipped to Northern mills. Dalton was one of those mill towns, though it would appear the number of mills in town was not like other towns such as Lowell, New Bedford and Waltham, and we came across their mill just as we turned to cross the main drag leading into town. Though not a textile mill any longer, there did appear to be some activity in the building, as evidenced by a few trucks backed up to a loading dock. The parking lot had only a spattering of cars, so clearly this wasn’t the teeming economic engine it was in the 19th century. It was here where the trail wanders off into more residential, and the main road wanders into the downtown. It was a beautiful day, and we were hungry, so we diverged off the trail, found the Dalton Restaurant 3/4 of mile down the road, and enjoyed the tastiest food we had eaten since Saturday.

After filling up, we tried to leave, not without paying first, but Ali walked off, unknowingly, without his hiking poles. We had turned the corner and were 75 meters along when we heard a female voice calling to us, and turning around, recognized our kind waitress hustling towards us carrying Ali’s poles. I am glad we tipped her well! Ali, The Persian Knucklehead.

When I was working on enticing friends to join me on this trip, one of the people I reached out to was Paul Z…, whom I had recently (last two years) reconnected with, via #socmed, who I knew from my cycling days as a club member of the Penn State Cycling Club. Paul had indicated to me that when I plan a day hike, I should reach out an invitation, and if he could make it, he would. Backpacking, hiking, what’s the difference? So I extended an invite for the whole adventure, and smartly I might add, Paul was reluctant to commit all in. Paul has been following me, and I him, on the ole Straver, and he knows how much I get out and ride, and the shape I am in, and suspected that I might be one of those aggressive non-stop hikers, which I am, and I think he put all that together and probably made the right decision for himself. Maybe not. Maybe, just maybe he would have been fine, and could have enjoyed the entire adventure. Maybe. In any case, when Ali and I walked into Dalton, and I got adequate Verizon signal bars again, I took myself out of Airplane Mode, and noticed I had a message from Paul. Paul had told me, just before we started, that he was considering a two night adventure, where he would camp somewhere, and then would hook up with us for our night on the side of Mount Greylock, spend the night with us, and then hike over the top of Greylock, and then split off on one of the many loop trails on that mountain, and back to his car. So, I had a message from Paul, that he was just outside of New Paltz, and was planning still on meeting us. Paul did the usual right amount of research, and called the park offices which covered Greylock, and they told him “All the Shelters are closed”. We were planning to meet at Mark Noebels Shelter. So, Paul relayed that information to me in texts, and or a voice mail (Paul wasn’t yet aware that I love texts more than voice mail, but since I was looking for anything from Paul, I actually checked my Voice Mail), and Paul was worried about all that being closed. I texted back to him, “Dude! Don’t worry about closure. Yes, they are ‘Officially’ closed, but we can still use them, as long as we take reasonable measures with social distancing etc, etc, etc. There really isn’t much traffic on the trail, and more than likely we will have the shelter, it’s Thursday, to ourselves anyway. Fret not, we will meet, and we will hike. He was still in New Paltz area, and asked if there was anything we needed, and I replied, a small jar of Marmalade for what was left of my sour dough.

So, on this day, we would be hooking up with my friend Paul, and we had just had a great breakfast and were heading back into the woods. The next town along the trail would be Cheshire, Ma and between us and Cheshire we had Weston, and North Mountains, as well as some set of hills called “The Cobbles”. After “The Cobbles” we would descend into Cheshire. I believe this is the section where we ran into our hiking couple who were hiking all of Mass At, but doing it as daily section, or multi-section hikes and using shuttles, and Bed & Breakfast inns. If I didn’t say it before, I see the attraction in that kind of adventure. You get the beauty and solitude of the trail, but you don’t have to eat trail food, and you don’t have to sleep in a shelter. That part of adventuring isn’t for everyone, or, perhaps, at some point, it just isn’t in the cards for some people any more. Anyway, I am pretty sure we ran into them again on this day. It was a beautiful day, tomorrow would be crappy, and they would knock out the last portion of the trail tomorrow and wait for better weather on Saturday to take on Greylock. They had that flexibility.

When we arrived in Cheshire, and again I removed Airplane Mode, I had a text from Paul that the parking area he had planned on using, which normally (non covid normally) is a multi-night parking site, was temporarily single day usage only, and any vehicle left overnight would be towed. Paul was trying to find some alternate. Ali and I were in the South part of Cheshire, where there was a rail-trail, and it had parking, but Paul called back, and because he is such a friendly fella, the nice lady in the information office told him “I shouldn’t tell you this, but at the AT intersection on Rt 8, there is a small parking area that is federal land, and you can park there, if it is empty.”. Ali and I were about 20 minutes from that spot, and I told Paul we would meet him there.

We arrived before Paul, and as the kind informative lady had said, it was a small lot, but there weren’t any other vehicles there, and when Paul made it, he would have his choice of the best of the two spots at his disposal. Ali and I dropped our packs, and then dropped into the grass ourselves, and settled in to wait for Paul. It was a pretty nice day, the sun was shining brightly, and Ali and I found a nice spot where the sun could wrap us fully in the warmth of its rays. This was a 16 mile day for us, and we only had 3-4 miles left, so we were both on the side of tired. Not exhausted by any stretch of the imagination, but we had walked a fairly brisk pace, because in case you don’t remember, we had our trail legs now, and other than that fine breakfast in Dalton, we hadn’t snacked on anything else, so we dug out some snacks and lunched.

It wasn’t too long before Paul arrived. In truth, he arrived multiple times, but we didn’t see him, nor did he actually zero in on the entrance to the parking area. It was easy to miss, and he actually pulled into a garage area next to the trail, where the kind folks there told him he was right next to the AT parking. We got him settled in, and then we began the “You don’t need that” sessions. That is where Paul pulls out gear he thinks he will need, for example his tent, and then I say, “You don’t need that”. His Stove: “You don’t need that”. His water purifier: “You don’t need that”. Lot’s of water: “You don’t need that much”. Bear Canister: “You don’t need that, they have Bear Boxes”. So, we were able to trim Paul’s load down considerably. Load reduced, we got hefted our loads, and set off up the trail. Up on level on a shelf was the direction for the rest of the afternoon. We climbed for awhile before emerging out of the woods into a large open field. A very picturesque Oak, or Maple sat out in the middle of the field, the AT taking us directly there, we soon found that someone had hiked up three plastic outdoor chairs and set them underneath the shade of the tree with a perfect view south of The Cobbles. If we hadn’t already rested, we might have stopped, but if we wanted the shelter, then we needed to be the first ones there, and we kept moving.

After the field, the AT re-entered the forest, and soon we were switch-backing up successive shelfs, gaining the elevation we needed to gain, but not at such a terrific physical cost. We pushed on, and Paul seemed to be doing just fine. I made sure he didn’t pack more than a liter of water, so his total pack weight couldn’t have been more than 25 pounds. I am sure that helped him greatly. To talk him into leaving his tent, I assured him that even if the shelter was occupied, I had plenty of room underneath my Tarp shelter for him, so he wouldn’t need his tent.

We made very good time, and between 90 minutes and 2 hours after we left Paul’s Volkswagen, the trail sign for Mark Noebels was upon us, and it was only .1 off the main trail. We knocked that .1 out, and guess what? There was no one there, so we scored big, and had yet another shelter to ourselves. We got there with enough time to unpack, and set out into the woods to find dry tinder. Ali yielded the other bunk to Paul, and set his stuff up in the loft area. I think he was curious about the lofts the entire trip, but never said anything, so when the opportunity arose, he jumped on it. For Ali and myself, that was the end of a 16+ mile day. We changed out of our boots and into our sandals, and then went into the woods to gather our fire needs. I gave Paul my instructions about looking for all the hanging “fruit” of dry wood to harvest, and then we would hunt the ground level stuff for the driest stuff we could find. While we did find enough hanging fruit to get the fire started, the stuff on the ground wasn’t that dry, and we would have a hell of time with that fire the rest of the evening. That fire was a lot of work to keep going, but once the sun went down, the heat it radiated was welcome heat.

We took some time to take care of meals, and while we were doing that we ignored the fire. By now, you know Ali had his fatty bone broth, I had a pad Thai, and Paul brought a “cook in the bag” concoction of rice (separate bag) and some kind of Indian curry dish. Not lightweight, but he only had to carry in one night’s dinner, so more than acceptable. As I didn’t fully comprehend when he tried to tell me, just what he needed to cook/heat his meal up, we did find ourselves challenged for a sizeable pot large enough to hold enough water to both cook his rice, and heat up his curry. We made due with what we had, but perhaps I should have let him bring his own cook set :).

Returning to the fire pit after dinner, I picked up the cardboard we had been using to fan the fire, and fanned the fire. It would seem just letting the fire alone for that amount of time, allowed a significant portion of the wet wood to actually dry, and when I fanned the embers, and almost immediately the flames re-ignited, and really decent fire started up. Nice enough to toast some sour dough bread. I sliced up three pieces, and raked some coals to one side and was able to balance the pieces such that they toasted nicely. As you may recall I had asked Paul to buy some Marmalade, which he did, and so as a first desert, we had toasted sour dough with orange marmalade jelly. That is one of the tastiest combinations of two products that can be assembled. What’s more, assemble that in the woods at the end of a long day of backpacking, and that is what they call “Heaven on Earth”.

It was about this time that “Mailman” walked into camp. Mailman was another southbound thru-hiker who had taken advantage of the clear night and that he was chatting up a cute young peer-aged woman to watch the sun set from the top of Greylock. I think he said that he scored her phone number, and then descended in the dark, head lamp in use of course, to our shelter. He was a very personable young man, and we fell into discussion quickly. He also started the end of the second week of August, and was making about the same amount of daily distance as his contemporaries. He was aware of our previous night’s companion, though Mailman and he hadn’t yet spent a night at the same shelter. Mailman had a couple of different SoBos that he was trading off with in their southern march. Mailman wandered in late, but not too late to score some marmalade laden sour dough, and enjoy some of what was left of the fire. He had snacked while watching the sun set, so he didn’t need to cook anything, and set about grabbing the bunk above Paul. The day was gone, and night was set full upon us, and we all knew rain was coming in. By morning it would be raining, and tomorrow was at the very least going to be a wet start. So, we all said our good nights, and turned in for much needed rest.

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