The Canadian Penny

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On the thirty-third day of my road walk, I planned two more days of hiking to reach the Southernmost Point. I had always secretly wished to complete a 50-mile distance in one day, but the swelling of my balky ankles ruled that idea out of consideration.

It was just plain odd that my motel was located right before the 50-mile marker on US Route 1 in the town of Marathon, and that I walked past that marker several times on the way to buy groceries and dine. Further, it was odd that my Chinese fortune cookie predicted I would get my heart’s desire. What was my desire? Maybe to get home to my sweetheart by Valentine Day.

And most unusual, I found a Canadian penny on the pavement somewhere near that 50-mile marker. Of the several dollars of coins found during a month on the road, only this coin had been Canadian. I prized the symbol of my long walk.

As for my heart’s secret desire, I did walk 50 miles all in one day. At 2 p.m. the next day, after 30 miles, I took the decision to go for broke. Going 50 miles did not make me feel wonderful. I simply wanted to say I had done it at mid-life.

I also made it home in time to give Tricia a pair of conch shells for Valentine Day. My ankles healed, and I have since learned to keep my physical build in hiking form. The trail has not beckoned again.
Six months after getting home, the phone rang. It was my friend Darek, who once sat in council with the Chiefs of the Lakota Sioux. When I described how some events in my walk seemed to take place on a spiritual plane without my planning them that way, Darek commented,

“Don’t you see? The coin was a gift from Pamola. That Old Spirit was saying you passed the test.”

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The path of my research into the mysteries of walking is littered with hundreds of books on vitality. It seems that the pursuit of health aims at longevity, and ultimately at immortality. Likewise, pursuing knowledge eventually leads to wisdom and perhaps even enlightenment.

I am grateful for the research and insight of many authors who have taught me valuable lessons. However, do those books benefit me much more than walking for an hour daily?

You gain enlightenment for what?

To put it aside quickly as possible, in order to sharpen your mind for the challenge before you.

A hiking journal can only tell you to find nourishment in rays of light, drink from pure mountain springs, and breathe invigorating clean air. These words tell you that ordinary people have increased my faith in the human spirit, and that the future depends on the character of our people.

The long walk let me taste a drop of the eternal. But the daily grind of “real life” makes that experience seem distant. I have stayed indoors in order to describe the outdoors, and feel like a pocket turned “inside out.”

Every now and then a jotting on scrap paper makes me smile. One of them reads, “The first hundred years are the hardest.” Another says, “Your petition for enlightenment and immortality has been indefinitely postponed.”



A home is what you return to. Otherwise it’s just a house. A house can be empty. You must have a starting point in order to return home. A home is lived in, has familiar comforts, associations, and emotions. A home has spirit. Life can grow in a healthy home. On the trail, home is a temporary shelter, or that secret place which holds your memories.

For a plant, home is favorable soil. For a bird, it’s a nest. For a boat, it’s a safe haven. Otherwise you have only rocks, twigs, or puddles to return to. Make your own definition of home, and keep it in your heart. Then if you are displaced, neither rocks, nor twigs, nor water can wear your place down.



Functional Efficiency

For planning purposes, it is useful to consider the average consumption of food needed to cover a distance, such as a pound of dry food for 10 miles. Obviously allowances must be made for mountain miles or flat miles.

Some people insist that the same amount of calories are burned, whether you walk or run the same distance. While this statement makes sense as a general rule, there must be exceptions. You do not expect bicycles to be made with a single gear or cars to get the same mileage in the city as on the highway.

As a person a) warms up, b) becomes more skillful, and c) improves physical conditioning, the heart rate gets lower. This improvement in performance, signifying better efficiency, is routinely proven by marathoners and heart patients alike on treadmill tests.

Functional efficiencies permit you to complete a given distance on fewer calories. This advantage allows you to arrive at a destination with greater energy in reserve, or to go farther on one meal.


Continual Effort

Easy walking provides aerobic exercise, which means the whole body becomes oxygenated. Aerobic exercise counters diseases that thrive in the absence of oxygen, and it promotes the body’s fat-burning metabolism. Soft aerobic exercise can be continued almost perpetually.

On the flip side, strenuous activity calls for frequent rest breaks. Fast uphill climbing, with bursts of effort and heavy breathing, represents anaerobic exercise. Lacking oxygen, the body triggers its sugar-burning metabolism. Too much anaerobic training wears you down.

While the body burns both fat and sugar all the time, you can train in the aerobic state, getting both stronger and healthier in the process. Thus, advanced training coordinates bursts of effort with continual effort.



Letter from Skid

Here’s a couple of observations. Pretrail training will pay off regardless of hiking style. Keep at it. However, the AT has a long hiking window and this is not as important as it is on the other trails.

A word to the wise. It is very tempting when hiking lightweight to max out your daily averages. This can hurt your body, much like carrying too heavy a load. I suggest spending more time on mountain tops, swimming in more creeks, watching more butterflies and reading more good books than hiking from dawn to dusk. If you are in shape, properly outfitted, you can easily hike twenty miles in seven or eight hours on the AT. This leaves a lot of daylight hours in which to play!

I’m impressed with you taking the initiative to make your own gear. Gives you a sense of satisfaction, doesn’t it?

Have you adopted this lightweight philosophy to other areas in your life? Living simply — for example — only consuming what you need for existence?

I probably have more questions for you than answers, because I too am a seeker of knowledge... Always remember, there is no right way or wrong way to hike the trail, some styles are just easier on your body.


Appalachian Trail preparation

I walked about 900 miles during the winter and spring, going out for 3 miles, twice per day on the flat landscape near home. I gradually increased my pack weight to 31 pounds, trying to gently build muscle and cartilage strength. I played tennis, hoping to condition knees and cardio, and to gain flexibility.

Even so, my weight inflated to 168 pounds. I could not understand the weight gain at the time, but the answer probably lay in my heavy granola breakfast and the advice to eat one piece of junk food daily (such as snacks at convenience stores).

I prepared or bought 200-300 pounds of bulk food, mostly organic and natural. Breakfast: homemade granola, including nuts and seeds. Snacks: homemade trail mix, dried fruits, fruit leathers, Snickers and Little Debbie's Brownies. Cooked meals: organic whole-wheat pasta with various seasonings, and rice with bean combinations.

Drying food and filling 700-800 baggies took weeks. The packing operation moved into a bathroom, with both air conditioner and dehumidifier running.

My base packweight was 8 or 9 pounds, 15-17 pounds provisioned. During the winter I bought a dozen pairs of running shoes on sale and broke them in. Most of them worked badly for heavy-duty use.

Outdoor skills seemed vital to preserving physical well-being and safety. From online journals it seemed most hikers experience mid-hike breakdowns involving foot and leg injury. Considering the inevitability of “hitting the wall," I wanted to recover and continue intact. Praying for help in adapting to adversity on the trail, I recited the 23rd Psalm.



Long Trail Preparation

Since regular commitments had no sympathy for my absence, putting in extra time at home would enable me to take a long hike in the short time available away from home. Vermont’s Long Trail, a precursor of the Appalachian Trail, offered a nearby opportunity for a short venture away from home. The beauty of ultralight is in looking at a trek as a series of day hikes.

Building on broad outdoor experience and conventional wisdom, I gradually reduced the weight of each article in my bag and developed specialized skills for using home-made gear. If one article could perform multiple chores, so much the better.

I wanted to test for myself that less weight means more miles. The lightweight style offered one additional advantage: improving my chances for completing the distance without a breakdown.

I trained for six months, walking at least six miles a day. The base pack weight was 8 pounds. Including consumables, 15 pounds or less. The pack weighed about 12 ounces, the tarp with lines and stakes about 14 ounces, 40-degree quilt about 24 ounces, and umbrella about 8 ounces. My assortment of clothes was minimal.

For cooking, I referenced “Diet for a Small Planet,” eating mainly vegetarian foods from the health food store that I dehydrated. I used a tuna can stove to boil a cup and a half of water as Jim Mayer described online. Consumables consisted of 4 ounces of denatured alcohol for the stove, a liter of water, and 5 or 6 pounds of food. The ration worked out to about a pound of food for every 10 miles.

Referencing the Long Trail End-to-Ender’s Guide, I planned an 18-day itinerary, based on 10-hour hiking days at 1.5 miles per hour.