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Traveling to the Appalachian Trail

Volume 31: Wed April 16, 2003

Friday, April 11th finally arrived. It was time to start my journey to Georgia and the Appalachian Trail. Strangely enough, it was one year ago to the day that I left for Central America, and it seems like an oddly appropriate day to begin my AT journey.

Originally, I was supposed to go by train from San Luis Obispo to Atlanta, but Amtrak called to say that Union Pacific was working on some of the tracks south of San Luis and asked if it would be okay to put me on a bus from there to Santa Barbara to make sure I wouldn't miss my connection in Los Angeles.

Sure, why not? =)

And thus began my journey in a bus. What can I say? It was a bus. It wasn't nearly as adventurous as some of the Central American buses I've been on, but it was clean so I can't complain much.

In Santa Barbara, I transferred to a train. It was wonderful. Large, spacious seats that would make first class on an airplane look as crowded as a baseball stadium during the World Series. Tons of room in those overhead compartments. This is traveling in luxury!

As loud as trains are from the outside, I was very surprised at how quiet they are on the inside. I picked a seat on the upper level. My theory was that the view was better, but also you're further away from the clickity-clack of the railroad track, as slight as it is. And the further back in the train you are, the less you can hear the train whistling at road crossings and such.

And there seems to be a universal law when it comes to trains—for some reason, everyone wants to go to the front. I can't explain it, but it's true. There will be a line ten people deep trying to board on the first car, and there's not a single person (except myself!) sneaking onto the second, less-crowded car. It's very strange.

Travel through Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico generally isn't well known for breathtaking views, and this trip was no exception. The vast expanse of nothing besides tumbleweeds and cactus is hypnotic, and you could find me quite a bit in the Sightseeing Lounge car just admiring the harsh environment for hours on end. It's a good thing I amuse easily....

Anyhow, it sounds cooler to say you've been hanging out in the Sightseeing Lounge car, where it's even less crowded than the spacious coach cars. The seats are even facing sideways you don't even have to turn your head to look out the window. The only thing I couldn't find on the train was a movie theater, but rest assured, I'll let Amtrak know about my idea of a movie car. They do show movies at night, but only on small little TV screens in the lounge car. A whole car just for movies would really hit the spot, though. A little gym wouldn't be out of the question come to think of it for these long trips.

My favorite stop on the train was at El Paso, Texas. While going into the city, our lounge car attendant pointed out Mexico on the right side of the train, maybe ten or fifteen feet away. I could have spit on the fence that was erected to keep out illegal immigrants, although the large hole in it suggests it's not a very good deterrent.

I've never stepped foot in Mexico before, and it just broke my heart to see such a beautiful country passing before my eyes. Juarez, the town just across the border, reminds me of Central America with the many visible dirt roads and run-down looking buildings. Quite a difference compared to the much more modern looking city of El Paso. It just kills me that I can't stop long enough just to tromp over the border for a few hours and practice my Spanish. *sigh*

And then on we continued through Texas where we'd be spending 22 hours because, as our lounge car attendant told us, "Texas is a big state."

Just past Houston, us folks looking off on the left side of the train got an interesting sight of a boat that was clearly grounded in the middle of a large river. Absolutely none of the boat was actually IN the water, but rather resting on a high area in the middle of the river where it looked like low tide (had there actually been tides) while two people stood at the wheel watching us while passing by. They looked rather befuddled and possibly embarrassed and no doubt they could see some of our rather amused expressions which probably didn't help in the ego department. =)

Just outside of Beaumont, Texas, I spotted an alligator which was something of a thrill since I've never seen one of those in the wild before. Until I saw it, I didn't even realize that Texas had alligators!

Another thing I really enjoyed about the train are all the people that wave to you! =) For whatever reason, whenever the train passes by, they always turn to watch and wave at us. I always made it a point to wave back whenever I saw anyone waving, though most people didn't. Kids especially always seemed excited to see us in the train. =)

During my trip from San Luis to Atlanta, this was the only picture I took—of the Hog's Bar in New Orleans

Then we arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had the luxury of a ten or so hour layover here before I could board for my train to Atlanta, so I naturally did what any self-respecting tourist would do: I checked the place out.

Truthfully, I didn't really have the best time for such a layover, since I didn't arrive in New Orleans until 9:30 PM and was scheduled to leave at 7:30 the next morning. Some might argue that's the perfect time to see the city, but I keep old people's hours and am not really the parting type. And Sunday nights aren't really known for being a party night.

Hearing that all the interesting action was in the French Quarter, I proceeded in that direction—on foot—based on the vague notion that that building with the red, white, and blue cupola might be the right direction, since that is the colors of the French flag. Of course, there was the danger I could be wrong since it's also the colors of the American flag and it could have been a patriotic display of colors.

But fortunately, I was right. While nearing the building, I saw a bunch of flashing lights and headed in that direction because it looked like something was happening. Fire trucks had taken over one road, and I learned from a spectator that a fire had broken out in one of the apartments.

Interesting, I thought, but not interesting enough. I continued meandering through the streets aimlessly. If there's one thing I can say about the city, it's the buildings. I really enjoyed the interesting architecture of the buildings all over place.

One interesting place I discovered was a sex shop, which naturally I had to stop because, hey, wouldn't it be cool to write about later? I've never seen such a variety of toys to use on oneself or others since, sheeze, the LA Erotica Convention, but at least this time I wasn't surprised to learn that such a thing as a butt plug exists. Then I continued my adventure visiting various stores on Canal Street.

In one of them, I heard the two guys behind the counter speaking Spanish to some customers while I was browsing. Ultimately, I decided to buy an official New Orleans lighter to use on the trail. I surprised the two guys at the counter by speaking in Spanish when I was ready to pay for the lighter. =)

As it turns out, one of the guys was from Honduras while the other was from Brazil, although he had traveled all over Central America and Mexico. So I chatted with them for an hour or so, all of us taking turns to tell war stories about our travels. The highlight of the night was when I was standing outside with one of them and he pointed saying there was a hooker picking up a guy behind me.

What?! No, that only happens in the movies.... Right? =)But sure enough, even to my untrained eye, it was obvious that's exactly what was happening. While my Spanish-speaking Brazilian friend gave me play-by-play commentary. "Now they're haggling over the price." I guess they agreed on something because then we saw them walking off arm-in-arm. When they walked passed us, sensing a possible sales opportunity, my new buddy yelled out at them, "Hey, we've got condoms here!" It didn't work, though.

The guy was a real hoot to watch as he tried to talk people into stopping at the store. One girl walked in asking if they had shoes because the high heels she was walking in were killing her. You could see her flinch at every step. Probably what I'll be doing soon enough, although for clearly different reasons. He told her that they didn't have shoes, but the Everything Store a couple of blocks down probably would. She came back ten minute later saying nope, no shoes there. How can the Everything Store not have shoes?! I guess they'll need to change their name to Everything But Shoes Store.

About my impending adventure on the Appalachian Trail, he shook his head a lot muttering 'loco' several times. Then told me the insightful news that it's probably because I'm from California, and we're all crazy out there.

Finally, we said our goodbyes and I continued my meandering through the city. Eventually tiring, and finding a nice park bench to sleep on. =) By the time I was done exploring the town, it was already past 1:00 in the morning, and I had no interest in paying for a hotel that I'd use for less than six hours! I may as well get used to sleeping outside, because I'll be doing a lot of that soon. Anyhow, the night was warm and dry—perfect for slumming it. =)

After an hour of trying to sleep in the park without much success I headed back to the train station to kill more time looking at maps and all the other stops that Amtrak makes around the country. Then I found a corner to try to fall asleep in and went back to sleep.

At least until 3:30 when a security guard woke me up to ask if I had a ticket for the morning, since only people with layovers were allowed to spend the night there. Of course, I did have a ticket, which he wanted to examine, and then allowed me to go back to sleep.

At 7:20 or so the next morning, I boarded the train to New York City, but I told the conductor collecting that I'd be getting off in Atlanta and walking the rest of the way, because I'd probably get there faster on foot. =) Okay, I didn't really say that, but I was thinking it would be funny if I did.

On the train I met a nice girl named Emily who I spent the day chatting with and trading barbs about each others origins. She's a southerner, so it was real easy for me. Like shooting ducks in a barrel. Being from California, she had a more difficult time of it because us Californians are so perfect. =) Ultimately, she had to make fun of my mispronunciations of the names of southern towns I had never heard of before.

And finally, I arrived in Atlanta, where Amanda was waiting to pick me up. She's as excited about me doing this hike as I am, and wanted to be there to see me take the first few steps of the 5 million or so I'll be taking on my way to Maine.

She insisted that we go to The Varsity because it's "An Institution" in Atlanta. The food was awful, which is probably it's claim to dubious fame, but now I can say I've been there.

Now I have been to Atlanta before when I stopped for a few days on my way to Africa, so I wasn't totally in 'foreign' country, but my entire experience in the south amounted to three days in Atlanta. While the area wasn't totally exotic to me, I wasn't exactly an expert on getting around either.

Tuesday was to be a day of sightseeing and letterboxing. And our first stop: Piedmont Park, Atlanta's largest park. I had hidden a letterbox here a couple of years back which had since been reported as missing by several people, and I wanted to finally return this box to its long-lost hiding place.

The hardest part about this park is finding where to park. Amanda was driving the rental car like she lived there—which actually she had a number of years back, but but it didn't comfort my mind as she tried to run through red lights while I covered my eyes in fear.

The problem with parking is that there is none. At least none that we could find. We circled the place and eventually parked in a residential neighborhood where the fire hydrants were gushing water and firefighters were all over the place. There wasn't actually a fire—or at least none that we could see—and Amanda theorized they were cleaning the hydrants. It seems possible, and I would hope that they would be checked occasionally to make sure they still worked well in case of emergency.

We entered the park and I immediately noticed some significant changes. The road that turned to dirt in my clue no longer turned to dirt. So when I told people to continue past where the road ended, which no longer ended, and they had little hope of finding the box after that. My spirits soared that perhaps the box was in fact still there, and alas, it was. I rejoiced! =)

After checking up on that box, we then headed to Galyans where I could buy some last minute supplies for my adventure. For those of you that don't know it, Galyans is an outdoor store—an outdoor's person greatest fantasy.

After spending another $150 there to outfit myself, we then headed out to Stone Mountain Park where four letterboxes awaited us, including one of my own! Amanda had some 'negative feelings' about the one on the top of Stone Mountain due to the fact that it was uphill.

My original letterbox there went missing, but I mailed a replacement stamp to a local letterboxer, Mark, that was kind enough to replace it for me in a nearby, but slightly different location. So I had to hunt it down like just like everyone else does. I've never 'found' my own box before, which is a strange kind of feeling.

Then we headed out to the campground there where I could test out some of my new gear I had gotten over the last month or so.

I've decided to sleep in a tarp because it's so much lighter than a tent. It won't keep any bugs out, but I'll deal with that problem if and when it comes. In all, my tarp, groundsheet, rope, and stakes weight abut 1 1/2 pounds. Beat that, Jenny Craig! =)

With the shelter up, it was time to cook some grub. I bought a new stove that I had never used before. It's a white gas stove rather than the more common canister type of stove because I heard that canisters can be difficult to find along the trail.

These white gas stoves are a very different breed of stoves, and my multi-fuel stove is actually capable of burning white gas, kerosene, diesel fuel, and even unleaded gasoline in a pinch. (The white gas is preferred, though, because it clogs the stove less often.)

While looking for the food, I noticed something wrong. Have you ever left for a trip and felt like you forgot something? I had that feeling too, and as it turned out, I did forget something. I forgot my food—an item essential for anyone wanting to thru-hike the AT. There was none. In all the hustle and bustle in getting out the door and to the train station, I completely forgot all my food for the first several days on the trail!

Fortunately, I discovered this before getting on the trail, and rest assured I visited the grocery store before starting the hike. I was still itching to actually try the stove, though, since I'd never tried it before, and Amanda wanted some tea which gave me an excuse to boil some water. I may not be a gourmet chef, but even I knew how to boil water.

White gas is a liquid, much like gasoline, that needs to be poured into these special bottles with pumps attached which are used to build air pressure in the bottle. It's a little tricky getting the fuel into those little bottles, and Amanda was growing quite alarmed at the large quantities of fuel spilling across the table.

Now I realized a couple of days ago that I had forgotten the instructions for this stove, a potentially alarming development since I had never used a stove of this type. Fortunately, I had read the instructions before I left California and hoped I'd figure out how to work it.

These types of stoves require priming, which I've heard can cause rather spectacular flare ups. I moved the stove to the other side of the table—using the area with fuel spilled all over seemed like a bad idea—and turned the stove on. I didn't light the stove yet; I just wanted to prime it first by getting some fuel into the stove. I turned off the stove after after a few seconds. Stretching my arm out as far as possible (I didn't want my head nearby when the stove was lit!), and lit it.

Boom! Flames exploded one or two feet high and Amanda, who was looking in the opposite direction at the time, jumped. A gaggle of geese took off from the nearby lake and dogs started to howl. I heard a baby crying far in the distance. Amanda says, "Isn't there a simmer on that stove?" at which point I explained that yes, it does allow simmering, but that the stove was actually OFF at the moment.

The flames continued flickering away for the next 30 seconds or so, about 6 to 12 inches high, before finally dying down to almost nothing, at which point I finally turned on the stove—a little.

And a beautiful, blue flame came spitting out. Perfect. I had successfully lit my stove! The water boiled relatively quickly and Amanda and I celebrated by dancing on the table. Okay, we didn't really dance on the tables, but the thought did cross my mind.

We ate some snacks for dinner, and headed of to sleep. The next day (today), I'd be hiking my first of five million steps of the Appalachian Trail, which is where I'm off to as soon as I send this e-mail.

As an aside, to help keep in touch with all my friends and family, I bought this neat little device called the Pocketmail Composer. It's about the size of a checkbook, but slightly thicker, which I can use to read and send e-mail from. You hold it up to a phone (any phone will do) and it'll talk to a server through it. It's a cool little gizmo, and little is the operative word since I'll be carrying it on my back for over 2000 miles.

And now, I'm off to start my hike!

— Ryan

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