Search This Blog

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Why would anyone want to walk 184.5 miles on a flat dirt road?: Ingredients for Meaningful Challenge and Adventure

Walking along the LA Aqueduct. Photo Courtesy of Jane Boer
When I wrote about my San Francisco Urban Thru-Hike last June, I opened with the question "why would you take on this hike?" I think a lot of people might have the same question for the choice to hike 184.5 miles on a flat dirt road along the C&O Canal.

I've heard it hundreds of times from fellow hikers: "Road walking sucks! I hated hiking alongside the LA Aqueduct on the PCT. I would love to hike the PCT again but not the desert with all its wind farms and dirt roads." I've heard it as a warning during my preparations for my CDT thru-hike this year. "Be prepared for some long road walk sections." And when I talk to westerners about hiking the Appalachian Trail I often hear: "I don't have any interest in hiking so close to civilization through those tiny hills."

Listening to these sentiments, I realize that my goals are different from many other hikers. It seems that there are a large number of people who wish for a human-less experience in the backcountry. A lot of folks just want to see the rare beauty that comes from remote areas infrequently visited by other hikers. I love this too, so deeply, but I also love learning and feeling connection to our true relationship with the land. I want to feel the full force of our actual impact. I want to learn, not simply entertained.

My friend Dirtmonger and I have had some wonderful conversations along these same lines. A fantastic article of his was recently published on Gossamer Gear's blog. In this article, Dirtmonger tells the story of trespassing on federal lands during the recent government closure. He explains his thought process and rationale for disregarding the closure and continuing on with his adventure. This controversial article has received a large number of responses and in one of these critical retorts it was written:

"And last, there are these things called mountain bikes. They make dirt roads into something other than a sisyphian exercise in neolithic absurdity."

Dirt Road Fun on the PCT. Photo Courtesy of Jane Boer

It's through the liminal space between urban, rural and wilderness that the biggest lessons reveal themselves. I love walking on High Sierra granite. I love dusty dirt roads. I love sandy beaches and paved city streets and railroad beds and walking just about anywhere. Any time a car passes or I catch someone's smile I feel like a superhero and a time traveller; walking without insulation, as naked to the world as possible in a land and time dominated by vehicles. I feel like a coyote trotting along the seams of civilization, free to sleep just about anywhere. I know I can survive in just about any circumstance. This is freedom! Walking is my way of life, it heals me spiritually, emotionally and physically; it provides balance and perspective. Walking is not just some activity I do to complete a long trail. Walking brings me the deepest joys and sorrows; it is love.

I've also been trying to incorporate my adventures as organically as I can into the framework and flow of the rest of my life. Last week I walked a 90+ mile loop between my house in Loma Mar and Santa Cruz. I visited friends along the way and pieced together single track, dirt roads, paved roads, ocean beaches and railroad beds. It was a so much fun to choose the route as I progressed. The uncertainty created the sense of adventure I had been craving. To see this land from a new perspective was enlightening. I was not in the wilderness in the traditional sense but I had a blast!

Right now, I'm home for the holidays with my family in Baltimore. What better opportunity to walk the border of my birth state and develop a better sense of place in my birth land? Not to mention the historical and ecological context described in the previous post.

To take things one step further; there are days that I dream of leaving all petroleum transportation behind. I want to live a human powered existence. I'm sure the challenges would be huge, but so would the rewards. The day may come when I'm ready to fully immerse myself in this lifestyle, "but it will not be this day."

A huge inspiration, John Francis chose to live without motorized vehicles for 22 years. 17 of those years he was silent. You can watch his incredible TED talk here.

So what are some of my ingredients for meaningful challenge and adventure?

1. Attempt something you've never done before. Set goals and intentions.
2. Stay open to connecting with the land no matter what the environment.
3. Talk to the people you encounter and learn their stories.
4. Embrace uncertainty and impermanence.
5. Accept the moment for what it is without judgement.
6. Try to stay as positive and authentic as possible.
7. Remind yourself that "beauty is everywhere."

Having absolutely loved my walking adventures in a full range of environments, from city streets to remote alpine ranges, it's no wonder that I would be willing to take on 184.5 flat miles of walking meditation. Plus, an entire journey taking place deep in a river valley in the middle of winter has its own unique challenge and lessons. There's a lot to be learned and I'll address these special concerns in the next post.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A 60th Anniversary Thru-Hike of the C&O Canal: The Legacy of Justice William O. Douglas

This past summer I thought a lot about my love for this country. I love the preservation of open space, the diverse beauty of the land, the generosity of its people, our freedoms and wide variety of cultures. And when I find myself getting bogged down in pessimistic analysis of our convoluted political machine, it's time to go for a long walk.

Through these long walks I've developed an intimate relationship with the land that brings sensory understanding to political philosophy. I've often dreamt about what decisions our political leaders would make if they experienced just one thru-hike.

John Muir seemed to catch the ear of many powerful politicians like President Theodore Roosevelt, and journalists like 
the influential associate editor of Century magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson. On my PCT thru-hike last summer I perused a collection of Muir's writings and conservation accomplishments posted near soda spring in Yosemite. His eloquent passages inspired dreams of taking a walk with President Obama through the High Sierra. We'd drink directly from alpine lakes and touch the last of the spring snow before it melted off into the Owens Valley. Weaving our way through the ancient foxtail pines, we'd eventually clear the treeline and climb to the summit of Mt. Whitney. There, below us, we'd look down on that magnificent valley to the east. Full of history and less full of water than in previous years, the Owens Valley hydrates our international image by giving Hollywood what it needs to survive. How many residents of LA understand that they are drinking Sierran snow melt that collects in a lake adjacent to Manzanar, a WWII Japanese Internment camp?

The Summit of Mt. Whitney

Next, I'd invite the President to join me on the long descent into the valley. Upon our arrival in the town of Independence we'd be hard pressed not to get an earful from the locals about a wide array of power, water and historical management issues. The lessons and experiences would continue on and on. We'd walk the aqueduct towards LA, passing through the heart of the Mojave Desert. We would witness huge stretches of colossal wind farms whirling alongside us for days on end and eventually, the lights of the LA Basin would greet us as we traversed the Angeles Crest. The President and I would finish our journey by walking through the heart of LA until we reached the Pacific Ocean.

Sounds fanciful I know. What top level politician today would take on such a journey? Would you believe me if I told you that a Supreme Court Justice once thru-hiked the C&O canal towpath in order to preserve this crucial riparian corridor? 

Justice William O. Douglas thru-hiking the C&O Canal

Almost exactly 60 years ago, this letter to the editor, written by Justice William O. Douglas, appeared in the Washington Post:

The discussion concerning the construction of a parkway along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal arouses many people. Fishermen, hunters, hikers, campers, ornithologists, and others who like to get acquainted with nature first-hand and on their own are opposed to making a highway out of this sanctuary.
The stretch of 185 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Md., is one of the most fascinating and picturesque in the Nation. The river and its islands are part of the charm. The cliffs, the streams, the draws, the beaches, the swamps are another part. The birds and game, the blaze of color in the spring and fall, the cattails in the swamp, the blush of buds in late winter-these are also some of the glory of the place.
In the early 20's Mr. Justice (Louis D.) Brandeis traveled the canal and river by canoe to Cumberland. It was for him exciting adventure and recreation. Hundreds of us still use this sanctuary for hiking and camping. It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door-a wilderness area where we can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.
It is a place for boys and girls, men and women. One can hike 15 or 20 miles on a Sunday afternoon, or sleep on high dry ground in the quiet of a forest, or just go and sit with no sound except water lapping at one's feet. It is a sanctuary for everyone who loves woods a sanctuary that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway.
I wish the man who wrote your editorial of January 3, 1954, approving the parkway would take time off and come with me. We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland. I feel that if your editor did, he would return a new man and use the power of your great editorial page to help keep this sanctuary untouched.
One who walked the canal its full length could plead that cause with the eloquence of a John Muir. He would get to know muskrats, badgers, and fox; he would hear the roar of wind in thickets; He would see strange islands and promontories through the fantasy of fog; he would discover the glory there is in the first flower of spring, the glory there is even in a blade of grass; the whistling wings of ducks would make silence have new values for him. Certain it is that he could never acquire that understanding going 60, or even 25, miles an hour.
From the National Park service website:
The editors of the Washington Post accepted his challenge to hike the entire length of the canal. Justice Douglas assumed the hike would consist of three or four people simply backpacking along the canal. However, news of the walk spread and many other conservationists asked to join the hiking party.
The hiking group grew to 58 by the time it left Cumberland on March 20. The group included Dr. Olaus Murie, president of the Wilderness Society, and Sigurd Olson, president of the National Parks Association. The group also included experts on geology, geography, ecology, history, ornithology, and mammalogy. Each night the group was treated to lectures on what it had seen and would see the next day. Sporting clubs along the route hosted the group in the evenings, various organizations prepared and served meals, and a trail club transported the gear so the hikers wouldn't have to carry it.
Although these additions made the trip more enjoyable, it was still a difficult hike. The hikers averaged 23 miles a day, and Justice Douglas set a brisk four mile per hour pace. They even had to contend with a driving snow storm on the second day of the eight day hike. In fact, only nine men, including the 55 year old justice, completed the entire hike.
Douglas also went on to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Respect.
Who will be the next John Muir? Theodore Roosevelt? William O. Douglas? Is it possible for hikertrash to be respected and heard on the national stage if they are eloquent and compelling enough? How can long distance hiking be used to make the biggest positive impact on the earth and its inhabitants?
I'm not saying that thru-hiking produces enlightenment but I will argue that people who make decisions about a country should get to know it. A sense of place is an imperative part of education. Muir even went as far to say, "I never for a moment thought of giving up God's big show for a mere profship!"
Don't get me wrong, I believe that academic education is incredibly important but so is the education of the land. They are partners in an inspirational cycle. 
On January 1, 2014, I plan to thru-hike the C&O canal from Cumberland to Washington D.C. in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of William O. Douglas's historic thru-hike. While I walk the 184.5 miles of the canal I'll be thinking about the following:
Late in life, someone asked the justice how he would like to be remembered. Although he was involved in many landmark decisions while serving on the Supreme Court, he replied as someone who tried to make the earth a little more beautiful. (

Friday, November 29, 2013

PCT Southbound Thru-Hike Gear List

Every long hike I've done has brought about some serious gear revelations. Sometimes I painfully reminesce about the monster loads I carried in my late teens and early twenties. It's easy to imagine the intense pain in my knees, hobbling down to springs in the evening to collect water for dinner and struggling through 20 mile days. If the 30 year old Bobcat raced the 20 year old Bobcat, there'd be no contest. 30 year old Bobcat wins every time. Another Bob comes to mind: "Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now." There are some amazing benefits to getting older. I hope this trend continues for quite some time.

Last year, I started the Appalachian Trail with a base gear weight of over 15 lbs. (not counting consumables like food and water). I finished at Springer Mountain with a baseweight just under 10 lbs. This year, I left Canada heading south on the PCT with some important snow gear and a baseweight of just over 10 lbs. By the time I reached Mexico, my gear had shrunk to just under 7 lbs.

Of course, the warmer climate of the south had something to do with this drop in weight but it wasn't the biggest factor. My abilities to thermoregulate, choose warm dry campsites, read the weather, navigate, manage water and confront my fears have all improved greatly. This knowledge cuts weight and increases the amount of joy experienced on long hikes.

One of the greatest lessons I've learned from these adventures is that my limits are always further than what I imagine. Two years ago a 98.5 day PCT completion or  a 36 mile day over Forrester and Whitney would have seemed fanciful. Now, I know I can push myself even further. Dopamine addictions are strong; the rewards are timeless and powerful.

It's not just the lack of weight that is satisfying. It's also the joy of having fewer possessions. Packing up in the morning in two minutes is easy, there's less to worry about and the bottom line is: you end of having more brain space to think about the more important things in life. Don't get me wrong, gear is cool, but it's just a vehicle to incredible experiences that teach us infinite lessons.

By the end of this hike I stopped thinking so much about my gear. I had my system dialed. I know what gear I like. I know what has proven itself over several thousand miles and what hasn't.

This is not to say that I'm not still experimenting. I am. It's just that the changes are minute at this point. Thru-hikers approach their gear like scientists.  In fact, I've included my new prototype gear list below.

So far, with my new sub 6 lb. setup, I've been comfortable in freezing temps while on my training hikes here at home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Even though I might not be thinking about gear all the time on trail anymore, I'm always more than happy to talk with anyone about the gear discoveries I've made over the last few years. There's nothing better than helping someone have more fun in the back country. I'm certainly grateful for all the ultralighters who have mentored me over the years.

Detailed commentary on certain pieces of gear to appear in subsequent posts. Enjoy!

Zpacks Fleece Hat 0.8 0.8 0.8
Dri Ducks Jacket 5.6 5.6
Mont Bell Ex Light Jacket 5.7 5.7 5.7
Cap 2 Bottoms 4.6
FITS Low Runner 1.2 1.2 1.2
Zpacks Down Hood 1.3 1.3 1.3
Zpacks Fleece Mittens 1.2
Patagonia Houdini 3.7 3.7 3.7
MontBell Windpants 2.6 2.6 2.6
(9) Stakes in Bag 2 2 2
GG Polycro Ground Cloth 1.6 1.6 1.6
MLD Solomid 11 11
BPL Stealth Nano Tarp 6.3
Zpacks 10 degree Bag 22.7
Zpacks 30 degree Bag 17 17
GG Nightlight Torso Pad 1.3 3.1
Neoair Xlite Small w/patch kit 7.7 7.7
GG ThinLight 2.6
Bugnet 2.7
GG Pack Liner 1.3 1.3 1.3
GG Gorilla w/o Stay 19.5
Stay 3.8
GG Kumo 11
GG Murmur 9.2
Ziploc Screw Top 1.4 1.4 1.4
Sawyer Squeeze 3 3 3
1L Smartwater 2 2 2
Snow Peak Ti Spork 0.9 0.9 0.9
Sea to Summit 20L Nano Sil Food Bag 1.5 1.5 1.5
Sawyer 2L Bladder 1.5 1.5 1.5
Fenix LOD1 0.5 0.5 0.5
Lithium AAA 0.4 0.4 0.4
Derma-Safe Blade 0.2 0.2 0.2
Nail Clippers 0.4 0.4 0.4
Lumix DMC-TS20 w/Battery 4.9 4.9
Lumix Charger 1.9 1.9
GG Orange Cord 0.1 0.1 0.1
Sawyer SPF 50 Sun Block 1.2 1.2 1.2
Tooth Brush 0.2 0.2 0.2
Tooth Paste 0.6 0.6 0.6
Bear Bag Rope 1.3
Bic Mini Lighter 0.3 0.3 0.3
1st Aid Kit 0.4 0.4 0.4
Pills 0.5 0.5 0.5
BG Skin Glide 2
Phone 2.7 2.7 2.7
Phone Charger 1.5 1.5
SPOT 4.1 4.1
Peter Vacco Headnet 0.3
Maps and Guides 6.1 3 3
Compass 0.7 0.7 0.7
SPF Chapstick 0.3
Golite Chrome Dome 7.9 7.9 7.9
Bandana 0.8 0.8 0.8
Ice Axe 9.7
Irrigation Syringe 1 1
TOTAL oz. 160.6 111.5 93.2
Total lbs. 10.0375 6.96875 5.825

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


I knew this hike was going to be tough and I knew that there was going to be a lot of snow, but I didn't expect this. Upon arriving at Harts Pass, 30 miles south of the Canadian Border, I was encouraged by what I saw. There was snow but it was compact and very manageable. The snow increased as we made our way north to the border and pretty soon navigation was a challenge. Rob, a very kind man from PA, who I hiked that first day with had brought along a GPS. I was rolling with just maps and a compass. I got a little off course at one point but was able correct and re-find the trail. Things were looking pretty good after that first day.

The second day, the size of the task at hand became more apparent. I had hiked ahead of Rob in the morning and when I arrived at Rock Pass I was greeted by a giant cliff of snow. The trail stopped right at the top of a nearly vertical, approximately 1,000 ft. snow bank. I thought my trip was over. I checked my maps and guides, and sure enough, there was supposed to be some switchbacks here that would bring me down into the valley. I tested the snow wall and after a few steps of descent I took a slide. Day two and I was already self-arresting. I swung onto my stomach, set my ice axe into the snow and and came to a skidding stop on some scree, which took some flesh out of my knuckles.

Slowly, I climbed my way back up the slope and took a seat atop the bank. "That was scary", I thought and took a deep breath. Then I noticed, next to my self-arresting slide were a series of bear tracks. The bear had just clawed it's way right up this vertical slope. The day before I had seen cougar tracks going down a similarly precipitous route.

It was time to regroup, slow down and tap into some patience. My enthusiasm and thirst for speed had nearly cost me dearly. I got out some lunch and just looked at the pass for the next three hours; inspecting various angles and options.

After a long deliberation I decided that I didn't have to turn back. There was an option. I just had to do something I had never done before.

I had read up, visioned and acted out many basic mountaineering skills before my hike but I had never put them to the test on snow before. I knew that glissading ( a controlled snow slide) was part of traversing the PCT but I didn't imagine that my first one would be over 500 ft.

I broke the glissade into pieces. 4-5 slides into self arrests so I wouldn't pick up too much speed. It was a success, but only the beginning. Afterwards, I had to traverse half a mile in a very slow axe, step, axe, step, manner across some very steep side hill with another 500 ft. drop below me. If you are my mother, I hope you aren't reading this.

It was a tiring afternoon, but all in all it went quite well. I made it to the border, saw a beautiful black bear who was unaware of my approach as it was deafened by two creeks, and signed at Monument 78 on the Canadian-US Border. Now the hike could officially begin.

To summarize my trip through Washington, it was the most challenging and rewarding hiking I have done. I can't wait to post some of the photos I took. That will have to wait until I return. I've learned the power of patience and teamwork at such a deep level. In the Glacier Peak Wilderness I waited by the gorgeous glacial summit for nearly a day after not being able to locate the route of the trail for nearly a day before that. I got myself into some steep, dicey situations and ultimately I had to show some humility. Once again, the lesson was patience. At this wouldn't be the last time. Patience is needed to wait for the soft snow of the afternoon and the lower flow of water in the morning when fording the larger swollen ice melt creeks. Patience is needed when waiting in the blazing sun for someone to pick you up and take you to town for resupply. Patience is need to hike over 2,650 miles.

While I sat next to that glacier I knew that Nat and Jane were behind me; two great folks from Alaska. I knew that my map and compass weren't getting me through this section, at least not alone. I needed friends to feel safe and no one could have been more helpful in that moment than Nat and Jane. The three of us along with their GPS-PCT linked iphone apps allowed us to navigate trail-less trail for the next 6 days. We worked so well together, spotting glimpses of trail and gaps in the trees. Sometimes it was just a sawed off log that gave us piece of mind that we were still on track. Nat truly is a snow whisperer and Jane is one of the kindest, most positive, gifted conversationalist I have met. It was a joy to hike with them and I definitely miss their company. They're going to take some time off to go to a family gathering once they reach Cascade Locks.

Since Stevens Pass, about 200 miles from the border and the end of the North Cascades, the snow has been significantly less abundant. I'm happy to not have to deal with icy side-hill traverses everyday but this comes with mixed blessings as the clear-cuts and mosquitoes have become more abundant. Up in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, it was just us, the whistling marmots, thumping spruce grouse, bears and cougars. The only signs of humans we saw for five days were two F-18 jets which flew very close to our heads. But southern Washington has had immense beauty as well. There have been some giant herds of elk that rumble on in front of you like an earthquake for miles. Without exaggeration, I walked behind one herd for about 2 miles.

And of course, little compares to the beauty of the Knife's Edge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness or the brilliantly designed Cat Walk north of Snoqualmie. The beauty of this trail is boundless and I'm less than 1/5 of the way. Oregon awaits, but before that I need to go eat some barbeque at Shrek's Swamp, a fantastic trail angel's place who lives here in Cascade Locks. The generosity of kindness of trail angels and town folk have been astounding. Up in Baring, WA the Dinsmores have put together an idyllic Hiker Haven and I can only hope that throughout my life I can "pay it forward" as often as possible; living with intention, kindness and joy.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Giving Thanks: Setting Off to Hike the PCT

It's finally time. After months of dreaming and planning, I am about to set out on my southbound thru-hike of the 2,655 mile Pacific Crest Trail. I've barely had enough to time to digest and process my San Francisco hike and already I'm up here in Seattle preparing to get back on "the trail."

I wouldn't want it any other way; one adventure after another. It has seemed like an endless stream of hikes between the Appalachian Trail thu-hike last year and the hike I am about to embark on. My fitness is up, my skills have developed, my understanding of gear has deepened and I'm feeling really good. I can see a marked difference in my mindset at the beginning of this hike as compared to a year ago. I have a lot more confidence but I'm still anxious about the new elements that the PCT will bring to the table.

I have very little snow experience and even though my navigation skills have been growing, this will be a new test. I've also never experienced the miraculous alpine world of the west. I have a lot to learn and that's why I'm taking on this challenge.

The Pacific Crest will also bring a whole new dimension of beauty. Replacing the "green tunnel" of the Appalachian Trail with the expansive vistas of the Cascades and Sierra. I'm also very excited about the possibility of hearing wolves and witnessing the northern lights up in Washington.

Once I left my home in Loma Mar, CA a lot of the stress and anxiety that comes with meticulous trip preparation evaporated. I just can't wait for that moment when I actually set foot on the trail. At this point I just have to react to what happens; no more preparation. There is definitely a lot of peace of mind that comes with having been through this experience in the past.

In these last few days before I embark on this next adventure, I have been thinking a lot about the innumerable people who have helped me on my journeys this past year. I want to give thanks before I depart.

First of all I am so grateful for the support of my family. My parents and sister have helped me so much emotionally, supporting me unconditionally. They have also provided some key logistical support during my AT hike. I love my family so much and deeply appreciate all that they do to aid me in living the life that I love.

My friends and community at home in Loma Mar and around the world have also been incredible. Hiking with me, meeting me on my hikes with delicious treats and showering me with love through calls, letters and the internet. Thank you all so much for your support. I look forward to exchanging stories when I return. 

I want to thank, in particular, my community at Exploring New Horizons Outdoor School. I can't thank you all enough for helping me grow and being flexible enough to let me go on these journeys. What a gift it is to have a beautiful and inspiring community and job to return to after a long hike. Many thanks to all of my students as well. You have taught me so many lessons and I look forward to returning home with some new lessons to share. 

Thank you to the Trail Angels and strangers who have helped me exactly when I needed it. I hope to "pay it forward" as much as I can in my life. Thank you to all the wonderful trail friends I have made and I look forward to many more on the PCT

And of course, thank you to the land, the animals, the plants, the fungi and the water for sustaining me and inspiring me on my journeys. Your healing abilities are infinite. I hope that I can return the gifts that you have given by helping to protect you. 

May the good fortune continue and weather be kind. May it be a fun adventure and a meaningful journey. Here's to safe passage!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

SF Urban Thru-Hike Part 2: Community Focal Points

The Mosaic Staircase at Moraga and 16th
The SF urban thru-hike was diverse, challenging, and beautiful. I was constantly navigating and never on autopilot. My senses were fully engaged at all times and I was constantly surprised by the hidden gems tucked away around every turn.

I fell in love with stairways on this trip. I know that sounds weird, but I really did. I would get so excited every time I would see one. Each had a different design and ornamentation. It was such a fun game trying to find where they were hidden between houses and at the terminus of dead end streets.

Many of the stairways were surrounded by spectacular gardens. These pedestrian passages were community centers and the glue to many of these neighborhoods. Without a connecting stairway between two streets, residents might never interact with each other, much less grow vegetables and raise bees together. Stairways are also the focal point of a lot of exercise groups. I ran into many of these groups on my hike as well as a few folks who were using Adah Bakalinsky's book to explore the city.

I was also pleased to see that there were a lot of native plant gardens. These green spaces provide important habitat for endangered butterflies such as the Mission Blue and the Green Hairstreak. I actually had some really great nature moments during my hike. In Golden Gate Park I saw a Red-Tailed Hawk catch a vole. And in the Presidio there were three baby cygnets with their parents.

Even cement couldn't keep the Poppies from thriving:

Here are some of the stairways:

Some of the stairways were in the sidewalk next to the road. That's how steep these SF roads are.

The 42 hills of San Francisco also make for numerous stunning views. Whether shrouded in fog or illuminated in sunshine, this city is gorgeous. I learned a lot about the power of the elements on this trip. Mountains aren't the only places that have powerful weather. The weather alternated constantly between blowing cold fog and skin burning sunshine.

On top of Twin Peaks I felt like I was climbing through the blowing fog of Mt. Washington:

San Francsco is also a very quirky city filled with unexpected surprises:

Seward Stone Slides 
I could've used one of these
Banksy perhaps?
Wave Organ
Other great sights:

Corona Heights
From Mt. Davidson

Glen Canyon
Lombard Street

Sutro Baths

The Batteries. This is where the stairway counting got tricky.
Finishing my trip with a hike through the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Mt. Tam and Pt. Reyes was a great transition to hiking the PCT next week. I like the progression of moving from urban spaces and parks to less urban to wilderness. I felt like I was walking along a connecting thread that links our cities to the mountains. Hopefully this will help me understand our connection and impact a little bit more. 

Bobcat Trail!
Mt. Tamalpais Fire Tower
On my way out of Muir Woods I ran into this fellow on the road. A Pacific Giant Salamander. I rare find and one of my favorite amphibians. This one was almost a foot long.

The End of the Hike in Pt. Reyes

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

SF Urban Thru-Hike Part 1: Design

In preparing for this urban thru-hike of San Francisco, I was often asked "why are you doing this?" or "how did you come up with this idea?" The original idea came from an article I read about professional hiker extraordinaire Liz Thomas. Liz, who goes by the trail name "Snorkel" hiked what "might be the world's first urban thru-hike." Snorkel posted an account of her hike on her blog and LA Magazine published a great interview with the hiker. The more I read and researched the more excited I became about the possibility of an urban thru-hike of SF. What better city to attempt this hike in than the hilly and beautiful "city by the bay?"

The first challenge I had to overcome was how to find the stairways. This was actually a lot easier than I thought. I quickly purchased a copy of Adah Bakalinsky's absolutely amazing book "Stairway Walks in San Francisco." In this book, Adah has routed 29 lovely walks that traverse over 200 stairways. I started constructing my route by linking and slightly altering all of Adah's routes. In the appendix of Adah's book she also lists 670 stairways throughout the city. I then expanded the routes to include more stairways and ended up with 65 pages of maps and directions which would guide me to over 370 public stairways in the city. The route ended up being about 110 miles within SF. The planning for this trip was far more intensive than any wilderness hike I had planned previously.

Many questions came up over the course of this planning process. I figured there was no one better qualified to help me with my hike planning than Snorkel herself. 

Snorkel is amazing! She was very generous with her time and information. She answered all of my questions and this whole hike would have been much more challenging if not impossible without her mentorship. One of my biggest questions was about the rules for designing an urban stairway route. I wanted to be respectful to the stairway culture. I knew that there was a big stairway culture in SF, as there was in LA, but I couldn't find any long distance routes that had been constructed. In LA there are several. Liz linked together the Inman 300 (designed by Robert Inman) and Dan Koeppel's "Stairtrek." She traversed 300+ stairways over 165 miles in 5.5 days. I wanted my journey to have similar dimensions.

The rules for stairway routing that Snorkel passed on to me, I suspect, were based on Dan Koeppel's list. 

Here's Dan's list from the Big Parade FAQ, a yearly stairway walking festival in LA:

"When it comes to the stairways - especially my other stairway routes (I’ve got about 20 of them, ranging from five to forty miles), all follow some basic rules. I made up the rules, and I try to obey them at all times. Why? Because I think they make the routes into real treks, and give them an aesthetic consistency.

Here are the rules:
1) We never go up and down the same stairway - with one exception.
2) The exception is if the stairways is a circuit, meaning that it has a built-in split that allows us to ascend and descend it in a way that’s fun (think of it as a revolving door.) There are about five stairways on the route that fall into this category, which I call “circuit stairs.”
3) The route never doubles back on itself. Ideally, we should never walk the same stretch of street twice. Sometimes, this is impossible to avoid. If that’s the case, I try to minimize doubling to as little as possible, and - if practical - walk on opposite sides of the street. This may sound nuts, and probably it is, but the point, again, is to make this a real exploration. Why see something twice?
4) We try to use only genuine public stairways. Sometimes, that’s hard to determine, but property tax and city assessor’s maps help. 5) On walks that claim to be complete - for example, and “Every Stairway in Silverlake East of the Reservoir” walk - we will add any stairway we find, no matter how it forces us to change a seemingly-perfected route. That’s part of the challenge. The new route must always meet the general rules.
5) Another design goal is to minimize the distance between stairs, so our routes tend to “tighten” over time as we find ways to make them more efficient.
6) The Big Parade is a little different in that it doesn’t attempt to include every stairway within the set boundaries of the trip (it can’t - we’d never get done in two days.) So the basic rule of what to include and what not to is that we don’t “cut” stairways that are on the outer fringes of the route.
7) Stairs that are very close to each other should be done in sequence. This is because they are usually built in sequence, or to serve similar needs. Plus, they’re fun to do all in a row."

Snorkel added a few rules that I followed as well:

1) No backtracking on road or stairs
2) Stairways count as 2 if separated by a road
3) Buses and other public transit available to everyone are allowed but private cars and taxis are not
4) Allowed to go "off trail" for bathroom/food/water
5) All sections of staircases should be covered as either an up or a down (including when it splits into 2 directions, in which case, backtracking is ok to get both sections).

Snorkel also gave me lots of tips on gear, logistics, bathrooms etc. Her suggestion of a GPS watch was critical in the success of this trip. I ended up purchasing a refurbished Garmin Forerunner 310XT. Without this device, it would have been very difficult for me to keep track of my daily mileage. In addition, I now have maps of my routes created by the GPS software.

Check out the maps:

In the end, I covered 165+ miles in 5.5 days, averaging a little over 30 miles a day. 110 of those miles were part of the "urban hike" and the remaining 55 or so took pace in Marin County, traversing the gorgeous Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Mt. Tamalpais and Pt. Reyes. Over 370 stairways were traversed over the course of the hike although sometimes the counting of what was one or multiple stairways became a bit difficult to judge. I'll demonstrate these circumstances in Part 2.

I plan to streamline my route and estimate that it will get down to about 100 miles even. We'll see what happens. I'm excited to come back to it after I get back form the PCT. I also hope that others will come hike the SF route in future. I'd like to name it in Adah Bakalinsky's honor but I haven't been able to get in touch with her to get her blessing.

Getting back to the original question: "Why would someone want to do an urban hike?" The more I thought about this, the more the answers seemed to be the same as why I do any long distance backpacking trip. Walking allows for a more intimate understanding of a landscape. The intricate dynamics and relationships between people, other living things and the land are much more apparent at 3 miles an hour than they are at 30. I also wanted to really learn the layout of the city, explore its fantastic parks and meet its amazing and diverse residents. Plus, Adah Bakalinsky's book is full of wonderful history and ecology that added a great deal of depth to the planning of the hike. All of this added up to yet another meaningful and very entertaining adventure. And of course, there was the physical challenge of navigating a city that has 42 hills. Averaging 30 miles a day with 5,000 ft of elevation gain was no easy task. I'm feeling very ready for my Southbound PCT thru-hike that starts this week.

Once again I want to thank Adah Bakalinsky, Andrew Lichtman, Ying Chen, Robert Inman, Dan Koeppel and especially Liz Thomas for their inspiration and guidance directly or indirectly. This was an incredible adventure and I look forward to more urban hiking adventures in the future.