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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. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Appearing in the Wall Street Journal: A Powerful and Mostly Painless Lesson in The Press and Positivity


Sure, it's cool to appear in one of the United States' major news sources but I didn't feel that good about it. This past week, I appeared with other long distance hikers in a front page Wall Street Journal article about advances in performance sock technology and how wonderful Darn Tough Vermont Socks are. The thing is, I agree that Darn Tough socks are great. it just didn't come off that way in the paraphrased paragraph I was attributed with. You can read the full article here.

My paragraph read:

Joshua Stacy, who hikes about 2,500 miles a year, says his Darn Tough socks bunched up, got wet, and gave him toe and heel blisters because they didn't fit him snugly. Now he swears by socks from Fits Sock Co. that feature a small toe cup and deep-heel pocket and slide easily onto his feet, he says.

I felt pretty bummed when I read these two sentences because I realized that my role in the article was to provide a counter argument  to the rest of the story. I learned a powerful lesson: never even approach a negative comment during an interview. The severity of comments can be easily spun.

My seemingly negative review of Darn Tough bothered me enough that I wrote them a letter a few days later. I wanted to explain that I still love their socks and raved about them to everyone after my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I'm just trying FITS right now and they have been quite good as well. Gear choices are a constant experiment.

Here is the letter I wrote Darn Tough:

Hey Darn Tough,

I wanted to apologize to you guys for the journalistic spin that was put on
my words in the recent Wall Street Journal Article. To set the record
straight, I raved about your socks after my Appalachian Trail thru-hike last
year. Their durability was unparalleled and they were the best socks I had
ever used. This winter, I was given some FITS socks to try and I really
liked the way the hugged my feet. In the several hundred miles of use I've
put on the FITS they have been hotspot free but they have yet to be tested
by a thru-hike. I'll be setting out for my PCT southbound thru-hike on June
20th and if the FITS fall apart, I have some Darn Toughs on call to be sent
to me on the trail.

I know, all in all, my paragraph in the article is pretty much meaningless
but it has really been bothering me and I wanted to get this off my chest. I
still love your socks, I am trying different socks right now but that
doesn't mean that I don't think you guys make an outstanding product. Darn
Tough socks are still part of the rotation. I want to thank you guys for
making and standing behind a top quality American product.

Respectfully and apologetically,
Joshua Stacy

Darn Tough responded with a letter that put my mind at ease:

Hi Joshua,

Thank you for writing us.  We really appreciate you taking the time to let
us know how much you really do care about Darn Tough Vermont socks.  Let us
know what happens this year on your PCT southbound thru-hike this year?  It
is so nice to hear you still "love" Darn Tough Vermont socks and you feel we
make an outstanding product.  We couldn't agree more. As you know, our socks
are guaranteed for life.  I, personally, don't know of any other sock
company that does this.  Our socks are guaranteed to be the most
comfortable, durable and best fitting socks you can buy.  When you buy our
socks you buy us.

We do have a terrific team who works here to strive to make socks that out
last your expectations.  We will continue to do this in this small town of
Northfield, Vermont.  We are very proud of our American made product.

Again, thank you for voicing your concern.  No problem.  We just want you to
always be happy in Darn Tough Vermont socks.

All the best,

Andrea Donahue-Smith
Customer Service Representative
Darn Tough Vermont

I'm proud to see "hikertrash" (an endearing term) on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. I'm proud to appear in the same article as professional hiker extraordinaire Liz "Snorkel" Thomas. I'm proud to support and promote FITS socks. I'm also proud to say that Darn Tough socks are incredible! No one else has an unconditional lifetime guarantee on their socks.