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Is a Gene Autrey song close enough of a description?

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Willie Nelson sang, "Just can't wait to get on the road again," -- which describes how I felt a week ago.
Gene Autrey sang, "Back in the saddle again. Ridin' the range once more, toting my old 44, where you sleep out every night" -- which PARTIALLY describes my sense of accomplishment.
I'm just not aware of any song that celebrates the joy of being out on the trail after too long of an absence, but any such song would describe my feelings perfectly.
And last week was my first real opportunity to do some major AT hiking since my knee surgery of May 8th. Doc said I had to wait "a month" before attempting any back-packing, and social responsibilities made it difficult for me to find a week during which I could head off for e a trip that would be long enough to be worth the trouble.

I decided to look for any area that I hadn't hiked before, that didn't have any major elevation changes (particularly uphill), had a terminus accessible by public transport (couldn't ask Shuttle to waste too much time driving me around), and from which I could easily get away if I had miscalculated my recovery. The area around Carlisle PA fit the bill perfectly, as I could walk the part south of Highway 944 while spending a couple days at a motel on U.S. Highway 11, and I could get to the latter by Amtrak and city bus. Not till I got well south of Boiling Springs would I hit any type of elevation change, and even that would be relatively minimal. When I saw that there would be a week with nothing scheduled and almost no chance of storms, I decided, "This is it!"
The only potential problem was the prediction of heat indices over 100 F for every day of hiking. However, I had handled such heat before, and figured I was ready again.

My first test -- a three-hour, seven-mile loop that had enough roads and flat farmland to permit to go pretty fast -- ended with me being worried. Specifically, my legs hurt. Normally I just expect such pain as part of walking for the first time in weeks, but, when your WHOLE POINT of walking is to see if you've recovered, you become REALLY sensitive to any amount of discomfort. Because this walk was so easy, I was able to complete it and get back to the motel, but pain and worry left me with a night of less than optimal sleep.

The next walk had a similar level of hiking difficulty -- a loop of about seven miles in a few hours -- but the heat index was MUCH more of a problem. When I faced this last year
I was able to keep relatively cool by soaking my hat and shirt sleeves. This time it didn't work -- the water simply did not evaporate from either of them! The linen shirt I love to wear while hiking is usually comfortable in any kind of weather; today it was like having towels drenched in warm water wrapped around my arms. My clothes weren't cooling me off, they were simply adding weight!
Lesson learned: get a hat and some shirts that are made of VERY thin material.
Other lesson learned: be willing to take enough breaks to keep your body together and your socks dry. I normally go hours almost non-stop, taking more breaks works better!

The MAIN news, however, was that my pain was LESS than it was yesterday. It would appear that my leg joints and muscles, instead of being damaged, were getting stronger. And I needed that, because the NEXT part of my trip was to involve an actual pack on my back!

Those who saw me last year in New York had every right to wonder why I was so burdened down with stuff in my pack. The simple fact was that I was using gear designed for car camping, not back-packing. My sleeping bag, tent, cooking items, and fuel canister were, plain and simple, too big. So this year I jettisoned all of them and substituted lighter versions of each. I'm happy to report it helped.
I was also able to find convertible pants made of cotton at (of all places) a Kohl's Department Store. There are a dozen places to get such pants made of nylon, but I find that material WAY too hot to wear, and the pants inevitably get tears after only a few trips. Being able to switch from full length while walking through high grass and shorts while in the woods -- and feeling comfortable in both circumstances -- also helped me along.

What helped me beat the heat was a simple strategy -- start walking before dawn! I'm not usually on the move at five in the morning, but I did not want to face another day like the one yesterday.
I made very good time (by my standards, which means horrible speeds for real back-packers), arriving at Boiling Springs at 10:30, when my plan was to arrive by noon! Spent over two hours enjoying the shade at the ATC Office, getting a cool soda, taking a shower at the pool (cost is now $2), and drying out my clothes there. This worked because the pool employees were kind enough to let my sit in the shade while my clothes hung on a picnic table in the warm sun. I must have made an interesting sight wearing backpacker clothes, surrounded by people wearing only bathing gear.

Just south of Boiling Springs is a campground about which everybody warns is next to railroad tracks. At the speed I was making -- again, a good speed for me, a lousy one for everyone else -- I decided to instead head for Kennedy Shelter. This meant my first climb with a backpack since my knee operation. Even though it was only 500 feet, I am happy to say the pain was pretty much gone by this day. I got there with plenty of daylight left, and two people already set up for the night. Which, for me, means sleeping just outside the shelter. As I'll mention again, I just can't sleep in these if there is even one other person there. Nothing personal, fellow hikers, I just have a LARGE need for privacy.

As I came to realize last year, back-packing actually kills the appetite for the first few days, and this stay was no exception. After a bagel and a small OJ for breakfast and nothing for lunch, I ate a bagel and a meat slice for dinner -- then hit the sack. Because of the heat I didn't need to crawl into the sleeping bag, so I just used it for a large pillow.

Just like last year, the humid heat kept me from fully putting a top on my tent. And, just like last year, it began to rain the night I did so.
But this year I had the sense to put the rain cover on the bottom half of my tent. In a matter of seconds after hearing the first drops, I was ready for any kind of storm. I was NOT going to have a repeat!

The rest of the hike -- Kennedy Shelter to Highway 34 -- was pretty uneventful, just a matter of minor up and downs. The Maze was a pain as far as following the blazes, but doing so is part of the "experience." I just kept telling myself what we ALL keep telling ourselves: if we wanted an easy path, we wouldn't be doing this in the first place!
Shuttle, who drove all the way from Philly and back, solely to get me home, arrived at the pickup point about fifteen minutes after I did, and I relaxed the rest of the day.

Was this a strenuous hike? No -- but that was the IDEA. When your only thought is, "Will my knee hold up to this?", you return to the trail with something EASY. Next one will be a little more of a challenge.