Pitching the Plan

Now, inspiration is one thing. Pitching the plan to your mate is another.

It just so happened that we had recently celebrated our 25th anniversary, and I had sent Tricia twenty-five bouquets of flowers at work. Her first-grade students got to share in the fun by bringing some home to their parents.

Then Tricia had turned 50. She broadly hinted that she wanted a party, so I secretly contacted her old friends and threw a bash for her. It seemed that Tricia and Stella got all the headlines in those days.

But then an unexpected opportunity to pitch my plan appeared. Tricia joked in a social setting about my own upcoming 50th birthday.

“I know what I’m going to do for your birthday,” she laughed.

I looked her straight in the eye and said, “You’re going to let me hike the Appalachian Trail.” Silence.

Dead silence.

The impromptu plan worked. Tricia relented. Crazy like a fox, I had even settled the score for that event in elementary school when she swiped my special key chain.



Converting to Ultralight

The hip injury taught me a convincing lesson about endurance before ever hearing the term, “ultralight hiking.” In the autumn I found a book by Ray Jardine, “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook.” Reissued and expanded as “Beyond Backpacking,” this book laid out a complete, coherent system of long-distance hiking.

One tabulates the weight of every item worn or carried and makes most of one’s own gear. The object is to eliminate the impact of any extraneous weight when taking millions of footsteps, yet maintain the functionality of one’s gear. I loved the advice to field-test gear and weed out the impractical on short training runs. Soon I was making plastic tarps for Scouting overnights.

Page 27 of “Beyond Backpacking” features a graph that I revisited countless times. The graph shows that limiting total packweight to 20 pounds or less makes an average daily distance of 24 miles feasible on a long-distance hike. By making the big assumption that the terrain allows a pace of 2.5 miles per hour, that 24-mile distance could be traversed in about 10 hours of steady hiking.

This observation became my reference point in future training forays. Conventional thinking during the late 1990s allowed for 15 miles per day to be a respectable daily average. The success rate of completing the Appalachian Trail in one thru-hike was 10-15% at that time.



The Hip Injury

During the summer of 1998, James conducted an Eagle Scout service project on the Sleeper Trail, in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains. We hauled picks, overnight gear and several days of food to a campsite beyond Mount Whiteface, a 4,000-footer. At the end of the project I carried a sixty-pound pack back down. Long downhill slopes exaggerated the impact of each step. One of the crew reached the bottom first and returned to lighten my load by twenty pounds. Feeling liberated I ran downhill for a quarter-mile, only to jam my right hip.

The injury gave me a scare and threatened to take me out of the next day’s plans, a 13-mile survey hike up Mount Tripyramid, across the Sleeper Trail, and down Mount Whiteface in one day. Afraid to aggravate the hip injury, I carried minimal clothing, the smallest pack, and a water bottle. Wearing running shoes, I walked gingerly. Ignoring friendly taunts, I lagged behind the others in the crew.

But by the end of the day they tired and I kept right up with them. I felt comparatively fresh, like I could have run the last mile or gone farther.



Training Walks

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When I began distance hiking, I found that I could fit training into my schedule by taking two or three daily walks. It proved feasible to take slightly longer breaks and still complete my work. In this manner I easily built up my conditioning to 40 or 50 miles per week while simultaneously allowing plenty of time for recovery.

Stella’s enthusiastic encouragement might well have sparked the evolution of this workout strategy.



Enter Stella

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That December, within three months of Tricia’s injury, our family welcomed a 7-pound ball of fur into the household. Tricia named her Stella for the star on the Christmas tree. “Stella” means “star” in Italian.

The name turned out to be appropriate in many ways. First, Stella’s adorable personality regularly makes her the center of attention, landing her on the cover of the local newspaper twice. Second, she appointed herself my walking coach. So you might say my distance hiking was already written in the stars.

Stella quickly ingratiated herself with the household, neighborhood, and beyond. Tricia began grooming her like the daughter in pig tails we never had.



Jumping Incident

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My patience began running thin. Normally Tricia has more common sense than anyone I know, but this situation seemed to be deteriorating. Tricia remained on the couch, refusing to do anything for herself.

In exasperation I exclaimed, “Nothing will satisfy you!” Getting no response, I added, “You won’t be happy until everybody’s jumping up and down.”

Tricia sat there, arms folded defiantly, refusing to budge.

With a patient appeal to reason failing, I resorted to theatrics. I began jumping in the air as high as possible, landing on the floor each time with a dramatic thud.

“There! Is that what you want?” I cried desperately. “See! I’m jumping up and down.”

Our sons James (14) and Karl (11) had been hiding out around the corner. Concluding that no real fight was in progress, they now appeared. They started jumping up and down, too, knowing that their mother would not be chasing after them any time soon.

Tricia still refused to stand up! For one perfect moment the whole family performed flawlessly in the theater of the absurd.

Tricia snapped at me, “Oh stop that childishness! You’re making a fool of yourself.”

Success! We had finally reached a point of agreement. Thereupon, I retired from the room, muttering something like, “high-on-her-horse, smarty-pants, too-smart-for-her-own-good.” Words like that.

Having lost this battle, I returned to my work quarters to sulk and plot revenge...

What fool’s errand would she send us on next?

Our household lived a state of siege until Tricia’s anxiety attack spent itself. No amount of special attention was humanly possible for her.