Fall Break

 

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This fall I had about four weeks off between working at SEI Investments and Siemens Medical Systems.I tried to make the most of it.

 

 

 

Manhattan

I drove up to Brooklyn on Monday and found a parking spot, then walked over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to look at the wreckage of the World Trade Center site.Although this was a couple weeks after September 11th, there was still dust evident on the sides of nearby buildings and lots of shattered windows.Some of the storefronts had remained closed with dirt from the dust clouds still all over their wares.Vendors sold souvenir post cards of the Twin Towers from when they were still standing.

 

There were crowds of people around most of the street intersections where the wreckage was visible, with military guards posted there.Dump trucks would leave with debris and flatbeds with long pieces of steel girders still smoking from the torches that cut them free.One of the entrances was used by the personnel, which had been marked with posters of what a black box from an airplane looks like and also papers decorated by schoolchildren.

 

The south end of the island, a park, had been taken over by military vehicles as a staging ground.The west end was entirely blocked off.

 

 

Black Forest Trail

This is a nice 42-mile circuit trail in north central PA.Circuits are very convenient when hiking with only one car.It was a pleasant four-hour drive up to a park where I found a trailhead and parked along the side of the trail.It seemed very surreal when I forgot to lock my car and backed up the trail to click the remote locking system; someone with trekking poles and an external frame backpack shouldnít be carrying car keys.When I descended down to the trail it seemed like I was returning home (see summer 2000).The woods had a peaceful, subtle scent to them.I signed into a register and was off.

 

The trail became steep after about a mile (fortunately I had stopped a bit earlier to eat a late lunch) and I remembered the work part of this activity.But it wasnít hot.The foliage wasnít the rich hues I had seen in some of the valleys off 476, but it was definitely fall. The trail was well maintained and very well marked, fortunate for me since my map was very crude.Since this was a spur of the moment trip, I hadnít had time to send away for the official map or even obtain a permit for camping.I wasnít worried; I wouldnít need much of a map with a clearly marked trail and I had stealth camped many times before to know it was easy to tuck myself away in the bivy sack.

 

Saw two people today, off on a side trail, but they were gone before I could get close.I saw some deer, white tails leaping and bounding away into the trees.I remembered how the woods are alive, full of chipmunks here, squirrels there and lots of unidentified rustlings in the leaves.

 

I stopped at an overlook and cooked dinner, and then stayed there for the night along the trail.I hoped for a sunrise but didnít get it (the sun rose all right, but it was too cloudy for spectacular color).The full moon was bright, and actually kept me awake a bit.

 

I got an early start because I had a job interview scheduled for Friday and wanted to try for a 20-mile day, although itís hard to estimate distance without any points of reference.I was glad that I was able to move along at the usual pace since it had been so long since I had hiked that far in one day and wanted to be ready for my upcoming week in the Smokeys.

 

Kept following orange dots until I came to a side trail that led to a virgin hemlock.I think it was a hemlock.I know when I tried to put my arms around the trunk, I only covered a fraction of its circumference.Itís hard to believe that a few hundred years ago, the forest was mostly composed of trees this big.We always think of woods as they are today, with relatively young trees.I met another hiker, with a dog, who was ready to meet someone and talk.He had been out a couple days without seeing a soul.It turned out that he too was an AT thru-hiker from several years ago.A few minutes later I met another hiker up from South Carolina.No one else for the rest of the day.I picked a nice spot to watch the sun set, another overlook.The views were typical of Pennsylvania trails, rolling hills blanketed with deciduous trees, made very beautiful by the random patterns of the leaf foliage.During the summer, I imagine each overlook would look about the same, but they were all slightly different at this time of year.By this part of the trail, the foliage had the reddish color that I had seen from the turnpike.

 

Saw a couple day hikers out spreading corn kernels for the chipmunks the next day.At the trail register I saw that a group had been out for a hike to the swimming hole so I would watch for that, and found it in along the creek where fishing and camping seemed prevalent.A quick dip is always refreshing after a few days of hiking, even when it isnít warm out.Up from there a nice hike up a rockslide and after a pleasant ridge walk I came across two more hikers.They hadnít seen anyone for a few days either, but had been taking some of the lesser-used alternative trails instead of the loop proper.One of them was also a thru-hiker.Down the hill, as if going into town, but there was one more obstacle before I finished the hike:a long ford across the shallow water.I made it, with a little splashing, but had to find rocks well off the official trail crossing.Back up to the car.It felt very strange to sit in the car, and to drive, even after just a couple days in the woods.The seat was oddly supportive, the engine quiet and it moved much faster than my usual 2 mile-an-hour pace.Treated myself to a burger at the local restaurant and was back home late that evening.Iím glad I made it home on Thursday because it changed from a telephone interview to be at the company and took up most of my day to prepare.

 

The interview seemed to go well, but I would have to wait a few days to hear their decision.

 

 

Smokey Mountains

 

The next day I overslept and rushed down the interstate to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park to meet ďTennessee,Ē a thru-hiker I met through other hikers. He lives just a couple hours away in Tennessee and is very familiar with hiking in the Park.He also hikes with an external frame backpack, so the two of us would hopefully make a good match.We had a week and I trusted in his judgment for the trails we would hike.

 

All of this turned out very well.I made it to the Park on time, and after nine hours of driving was ready to jump out and start hiking.I hurriedly packed up for three days of food, and we were off for about three miles up to Davenport Shelter.We didnít fix a spectacular dinner, just regular hiker fare.But that was fine, neither of us had particularly strong appetites.There were a few other hikers in the shelter but it was a quiet night.

 

The next day we left the Appalachian Trail (we would try to avoid this as much as possible since most of the hikers in the Park are on this trail) for a secluded loop.The hike was familiar to me, reminding me of hiking through North Carolina the previous spring, especially the rhododendrons.Hiking trails like these feels a bit different, maybe easier, with the perspective of having hiked through it before with worse weather and less experience.We didnít see many other hikers, not on these loops.Actually, we did see some hikers as we got with a mile or so of the campgrounds, so it wasnít that isolated here.When we saw dayhikers we took that as evidence we were close to a trailhead.First, we went on the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail, and took that to the Gabes Mountain Trail.I think this is where we camped.For the only time during the trip there were some others at the campsite, but we were able to camp out of sight of them and it was as if we were alone.It had been a while since we had hung our bags from bears so we forgot a few things and had to retrieve them a couple times to put something else away or get something else we needed.We took the Maddron Bald Trail to the Albright Grove loop and then to the Snake Den Ridge Trail.Iím looking at the map now and Iím not completely sure where we went anymore.I think we went down to Camel Gap and then camped there alongside the trail.Somewhere on this hike we saw a coyote.

 

The next day we went back to the cars and drove the long slow way across the park road to I40.We were behind three trucks that averaged about 8 mph, which is typical speed for a tourist going on this narrow twisty gravel road.We made better speed on the paved roads going through the Cherokee Indian Reservation to Bryson City.After a quick stop at the supermarket and a longer stop at Pizza Hut, we got back on the trails.

 

The first camp spot was only about a mile out of the parking lot, but we did take a paved road in a ways, a road that was once intended to breach the Park to connect North Carolina with Tennessee. Then, up the Noland Creek Trail for another short day to stop at another campsite.Rain was beginning to threaten, but the next day we decided to go on up to Clingmanís Dome.The trail didnít seem terribly steep, at least not compared to what New England throws at you, but there we were on the highest point on the AT.We answered the required questions asked to anyone at the top with a backpack by the people who drive up, and then proved to ourselves there were was no view at all to be seen from the peak, just as I remembered it from the previous spring.Then we took the AT down to a shelter.We started at Double Springs Gap Shelter, which offered wet rocks as one spring and a puddle as the other.Hikers began to show up, including one southbound thru-hiker.We left when the crowd of Boy Scouts from the shelter two miles south started to show up, and made incredible time down the shelter they recently left, a newly refurbished Silers Bald shelter.We got there around dark, and having eaten at the last place (some tacos from a trio of section hikers) pretty much settled into bed.The Boy Scouts had left us a fire.

 

Between the two shelters I really felt good about my hiking prowess.I canít think of myself at being very good at all that many things, but I felt it here.I think perhaps itís because when you are amongst experienced thru-hikers, you feel average.When you hike alone, you feel like anyone could manage as well as what youíre doing, perhaps a little better.But when you are surrounded by people who are suffering sore knees and are far behind their deadlines, people who are cold and tired, you might feel like you know what youíre doing.We saw hikers that had intended to complete the whole park and were only able to complete half of it.Dads were hiking with kids, dressed poorly, came into the shelter after dark exhausted, and barely able to cook dinner for their hungry kids.They were wearing jeans and sweatshirts and they were wet.Tennessee thought that the ridge of the park was no place for these neophytes.Iím not sure what makes a good hiker; Iíve carried as much weight as some of these guys, Iíve wore cotton at the wrong times, Iíve gotten hurt.I suppose thatís it, just having done these things before gives you experience and a positive attitude at times when thatís what you need.It probably also doesnít hurt that Iím younger than the adults who were hiking, and I exercise regularly.I really am happy that my hiking this fall went so smoothly and that I didnít need to spend much time getting back into the shape I was in the previous year.Iíll do some more hiking yet.

 

Another I learned at the shelters:donít trust section hikers.They all carry, somewhere, one of those candle lanterns which they will burn all night as either a nightlight or, more sinisterly, some sort of appeasement to a pagan god.In any event, as long as you donít sleep underneath the light you should be okay; otherwise youíll get candle wax on your stuff.It scrapes off fairly easily though (speaking from experience here).

 

The next day we remembered that the rain always sounds worse on a metal roof and set off down the trail.Quickly the trail turned from being just wet to quiet and peaceful.We went down the Forney Ridge Trail, across streams that were increasingly wide, down to the truck.We went into town for a lunch and then resupplied for another night in the park.I think this was another sign of our thru-hiker mentality; instead of retreating to a hotel room, we decided to take our wet stuff back into the park for another nightís rest at the same campsite a mile into the park.

 

Then it was back into the truck for a fast food breakfast and the first coffee since I had worked at SEI and we went back to Big Creek ranger station to say goodbye.On the drive back I was filled with energy and happiness.I felt as good as I pretty much ever have.The weather was great, the trees were beautiful in their fall colors, and I kept seeing familiar towns and trail crossings.I wanted to hike the trail again.I wanted to pick up thru-hikers and take them to town.I wanted to leave leftover food at the trailheads.I wanted to go to a shelter near the road and drop off soda or food from the supermarket.

 

I saw three hikers at Atkins, where I stopped for gas and I knew it to be a trailhead.I didnít get a chance to speak to any of them, but also got a little shy at the last minute.Helping was fine, but I didnít want to skid to a stop, blowing my horn and scare them into the woods.I happened to drive past another trailhead, but didnít see anyone there either.So far I really havenít provided much trail magic at all.I meant to do it last summer, but never really got the chance.It would be easier if I lived closer to the trail; Iím about two hours from the trail in PA.

 

My long-term plan for hiking was to hike the John Muir Trail in California, and if I enjoyed that month, look to hiking the Continental Divide Trail over the next summer.Iím not sure if Iíll be able to take a month off for the JMT with the new job.

 

 

Rome

 

I spent about a week at home after that, finishing up little things before work would start.But then, late into Monday afternoon I got an e-mail telling me not to show up for work the next day, but that it would start the following Monday.I went into a bit of a panic, and rebelled against all fiscal sense and investigated a more expensive holiday than the others.I wanted to go to Utah, to visit with some friends I met in Peru, but there was no way to fly there, or any domestic location, at a reasonable fare without several days of advance notice.I decided on Rome, and bought the ticket Tuesday morning to leave that afternoon.The other big choices would have been a trip down to Florida by car to visit friends there (17 hours) or hiking the Quehanna Trail in Pennsylvania.It was said to be peak foliage color in Pennsylvania, but I wasnít sure I wanted to spend my whole break hiking, especially since I wasnít sure that I could take any more time off for a while.And since I was said to have the job, just couldnít start yet, it wasnít such a foolish idea to spend money.

 

No big delays at the airport.State Police were present, but didnít seem to do more than make themselves seen.This was my first flight since September 11th and I had no idea what to expect, having heard both the horror stories and that things were routine.Things seemed routine to me except for new signs around the barrage check-in about knives, and random searches as you got into the airplane.It seemed that the officials asked the same questions about whether you had packed your bags yourself a little more vigorously, but no new questions.

 

The ride was kind of a treat.The seat seemed more cramped than usual, but the movie system is now pretty high-tech.There were several movies to choose from and your video stream was separate from anyone elseís; you could stop the movie or switch to another at any time.Watched ďBlowĒ and read my novel, Smileyís People.

 

From the airport, I got a train into the city and walked around to find a hostel.I couldnít get a dorm spot at any of the hostels listed in the book, but someone at one of those places recommended another spot.I went ahead and signed up for two nights.I was a little concerned that it was too far out of the city for effective sightseeing, but central Rome turned out to be much more manageable than I thought.It was a long walk each night back to the hostel, especially the night I got lost, but never a problem.

 

I set off and got a tourist map to start the long list of things I wanted to see.Soon, I found myself not in sight of the Coliseum, but next to some others from the hostel, so I joined them and saw the Pantheon and got some pizza.Then we went to the Spanish Steps and watched models be taped climbing up and down the stairs.Then I left the others and went down to the Coliseum.That was an incredible sight.You can walk around inside and peer down into the chambers underneath the floor and try to imagine what it was like in the day.It was hard to picture where fifty thousand people would sit, but still very real.

 

From there I wandered down past Palatine and through the Circus Maximus, now a dog run and wandered back up to the hostel.Darkness seemed to come early here.

 

The next day I went to the Vatican and saw some sort of ceremony and I think the Pope.The Basilica being occupied, I went over to the museums, and wandered through a labyrinth of fantastically colorful painted ceilings and walls.One hallway particularly impressed me because it was all maps.The idea of being able to use an entire hallway as a reference for maps, all hand-painted seems incredible today.The Sistine Chapel is one of the big draws here, and I had little idea of what to expect.Itís a large room with benches on the sides, full of tourists staring at the walls and ceiling.There are guards who repeatedly have to shush the crowds.Itís a little overwhelming.I donít remember much more for that day, hit a restaurant for the extended traditional lunch and read at some of the fountains.I think that was the day I went to the ruins of a second century shopping center, now just incredibly old rooms in surprisingly good shape.Itís funny to compare the ruins from Rome to those of Peru; the Roman ones are much older and in similar condition, a pretty good feat for brick and mortar thatís been through two World Wars.

 

I should mention that no ruin in Rome is without cats.There is a law in the city that cats may live wherever they are born, so stray cats populate most of these open areas and are fed by volunteers.

 

I went back to St. Peterís Basilica and snuck in twice with my backpack.I was amazed at the marble sculptures; it was so hard to think that someone could have envisioned that image in a block of rock and then carved it out.One in particular impressed me because it simulated a sheet coming out at the viewer.Itís hard to explain.I stood in a long line for the cupola, but the line itself was long because of the wait for the elevator.I had already chosen the stairs, so once I bought my ticket, I was waved ahead like a VIP. The wait wasnít too distressing because with my bag I had water to drink and a novel to read.I raced up the stairs and found myself near the roof of the church.I was a little concerned that this was what I had waited so long to see, but what I thought was the exit led up to the top of the dome where I could look out at the city.

 

My next stop was something to eat and then to the Castel SantíAngelo, a castle and a museum connected to the Basilica by a long wall.The interesting part of this was that it was an ideal vantage point to watch a German group hold a prayer vigil and then, taking up candles, march peacefully on the Vatican, singing.I was tempted to join them in a spontaneous spirit of adventure, but I didnít speak their language to fully understand their cause.And I was a little tired too, so I went on back to the hostel.

 

On my last full day in Rome I tried to see the sights that had slipped through the cracks.There were some churches that sounded promising, including one built on an old Mithric church, now catacombs.This was my first visit to church catacombs so it was pretty neat.At some ruins of baths (immensely large empty open rooms now) I met some Americans taking Spanish classes in Spain and they invited me to dinner.We split up to do different sight seeing but rejoined at a square in Trastevere to find a restaurant.I had a calzone to round out my Italian food, although the pasta was still tempting.

 

The next day I didnít have much time to do anything but fly home, although there was one last breakfast to enjoy.The flight was as nice as the one over, although the movie selection hadnít changed, and it was good to be home.I was searched twice at the airport in Rome, and then again by customs on the way back (no problems).

 

Work started the next day, with no apparent difficulties from jetlag.Still no plans for future vacations.

 

Photos from Rome