Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Appalachian Trail & an Interview with Haley Miller

Haley Miller
So I've owed you a post on my section hike on the Appalachian Trail for a while now, but I first wanted to include a story of a cool person I met on the flight out east. 

I had a direct flight to Pittsburgh on Southwest but somehow managed to be the very last person in line, in the dreaded "C" group. Seating choices were limited but I did find a middle chair near the front. And being one of those people who tries to meet his neighbors in the plane aisle instead of immediately pulling out a book, I turned and introduced myself to both the women next to me. We got to talking about the reasons for our trips to Pittsburgh and, wouldn't you know it, the woman I was sitting next to just happened to work on the Appalachian Trial in the past, and now works on trails in the state of Oregon. Her name is Haley Miller and she is an insanely cool person with a career to match. So I asked if she'd let me interview her for the blog.

You have a pretty interesting & unique career. What's your title and what sort of things do you do over a typical day at the WTA?
My official title with WTA is Southwest District Crew Leader. My week is usually split between planning and organizing the logistics for our volunteer work parties and then being the in-field staff that leads them. On any given week, I am in the field 2-3 days a week, and in the office the rest of the time. I work directly with land managers to plan trail maintenance and construction projects and I recruit volunteers for our events. It’s a wonderful mix of working independently and with others, and I love the opportunity to spend a lot of my time working in the field. 

How did you first get involved in working on the AT, & later, the Washington Trails Association?
When I graduated college in 2007, I started working for the Student Conservation Association (SCA). With them, I worked in various National Parks and on Forest Service land across the county. That fall, I worked on the AT in Virginia in the Mt. Rogers area. It was one of my more technical work projects; we were building a lot of structures with rocks we quarried from the area. The work was fascinating, and the Mt. Rogers area was spectacular. I was working there in September so the leaves were just starting to change, and on our hike from camp to work we would pass through fields of blueberry bushes filled with wild ponies. And I’m not kidding. My job allowed me to eat blueberries while petting wild ponies. It was the best. For the next few years I traveled the country with SCA. I worked on sections of the AT in the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and in the Great Smokey Mountains. I moved out to Oregon in the winter of 2010 after finishing a season with SCA in northern California. I volunteered for a Trails Skills College program my first spring here, and was hired on with WTA the next season. I have been working for them for two years and have been loving every minute of it! 

What is the best experience you've had working with trails? The worst?
My first few years working trails, I was leading groups of high school students for summer-long programs. One summer, I had a 15 year-old boy who had never spent any time away from home. We were working in the backcountry of Colorado at about 12,000 feet.  The first day, the boy came to me and told me that he wanted to go home. After a long discussion, I asked him to try and stick it out for a few more days, and if he was still feeling homesick, we would hike him out. The time frame passed, and he didn't approach me about going home. I didn't say anything to him, and the rest of the summer passed. He adjusted to the unfamiliar conditions and appeared to have a great time. When the season was over and we were at the airport, he asked me if I thought his parents would think he looked different. I asked him why, and he said “Well, I just feel really different.” It's things that like that make me really love what I do. It's not so much the building of a particular stair case, or the clearing of a particular trail, but seeing the impact that working outside can have on people. It can be really transformative, and I’m constantly inspired by people who put themselves out of their comfort zones to do good for someone else. 

As far as the worst? Well, I do live in the Pacific North West. Working in the cold rain can get pretty old. 

What advice would you give someone who wanted to first get into backpacking?
Do it! Do it, do it, do it! I know it can seem intimidating, but it’s really simple. Start with something easy. A simple 10 mile hike around a lake you can split up over 2 or 3 days. You won’t have too much mileage to cover each day, you’ll have one simple trail to follow, and you’ll get the reward of swimming each day! It’s supposed to be fun, and I think sometimes people push themselves to cover too much distance. And don’t skimp on food. People worry about weight and always stress about “ultralight” but I find that having some good, hot food at the end of the day is totally worth the extra weight.  

I was really interested in the idea you talked about with clothing: cost per wear. As this is a personal finance blog, can you talk a bit about that concept and how you apply it to some of your purchasing decisions? 
Haha, yes, the PPW (price per wear). I can be extremely frugal, and have a hard time buying things. But if I come across some gear that I really like, I break it down on how much it costs each time I’ll use it.  So if there is a really nice, lightweight jacket that I think is too expensive, I’ll think about how many times I’ll wear it, and break down the cost from there. So while I may be spending $200 upfront, after 30 wears the jacket really only cost about $7, which isn’t too bad at all! 

Can you talk a bit about your favorite hike?
Oh, I’m terrible at picking favorites. Can I just say all of them? 

Yes, you can definitely say all of them! What tips might you offer for making hiking a more frugal or cost effective activity? 
I think I would have to say try not to skimp too much upfront. If you really want to enjoy hiking, you need semi-decent gear. You want your feet to be comfortable and dry. This doesn’t mean that you need to buy the most expensive pair of boots out there, but also, if you spend a little more upfront, you’ll get a good pair of boots that could last you a really long time. But you also don’t need to go to really fancy stores to buy your gear. Army-Navy surplus stores usually have good options, and some of my favorite websites to find cheap gear are steepandcheap.com and Sierra Trading post. 


My AT Section Hike - a Quick Story...with Pictures!


Day 1:
We get into Harpers Ferry late due to four, count 'em, four pee breaks on the way down to West Virginia. I won't name names, but it wasn't my doing. I am in control of my bladder. Still, we don't get onto the trail until noon with over twelve miles to hike and, as we started so late, temperatures are in the nineties with high humidity. We gain a lot of elevation this day, too, so are were sweaty & beat by the time we make it into Blackburn Trail Center. Luckily, this is the Taj Mahal of campsites, complete with a screened in backpacker's cabin, water from a tap we can drink without purification, a solar shower, and even a couple of volunteers who stay at a house on site. We do notice a sign indicating that this area has a resident bear, so we are sure to hang our food bags.

During the night I have to head up to the privy, and on the way back I nearly step on a snake without realizing it. Only after my buddy tells me to watch out do I realize I have gently kicked a brown snake that we think might be a copperhead (but that is unlikely as they're not nocturnal). Anyway, it is good enough for a scare. 




Day 2:
We wake up to find that some little creature has climbed the pole & gotten into our hung food bags, eating all our oatmeal (i.e. - all our breakfasts), half our trail mix, and bits of other stuff. There is also a slimy residue on the bags that we suspect is raccoon saliva, so we segregate anything that's been drooled on into our trash bags, in the rare event the critter has some sort of disease. This is not the way we wanted to start the day. We take an inventory and find that we can split our remaining lunches into small breakfasts & lunches. We'll be a bit hungry for the next few days, but no big deal.

Off to the hardest section of our hike: the aptly named Roller Coaster. We again get a late start due to the raccoon, and the temperature is hotter today with the same humidity. All day we are heading up and down eleven miles of ridges with rocky footing, and we are hurting. We stumble into Sam Moore Shelter at dusk, make a quick meal, sweep some gnarly spiders out of the shelter, and collapse into our sleeping bags. Not a great day. I contemplate giving up & hiking out. Luckily my best friend is there to get my mind right and convinces me to keep going.



Day 3: 
More Roller Coaster today, and we realize immediately that we are not going to make the 15 miles we thought we would today. We instead decide to finish the Roller Coaster, camp at the end of it, and try to make up time on the next couple days which will be on much easier footing. Finally, we have a good day as it's much shorter, the hardest bit is behind us, and we actually use the little tent we've brought and make a fire, which makes for a better camping experience. We meet some cool through hikers at camp who heard of another guy at Blackburn who'd had his food bag broken into by a raccoon, so at least we're not the only ones.



Day 4: 
Thirteen miles today, and I'm getting the dreaded hammer toe. I make a mental note to buy different (bigger) boots. We run out of jerky and are moving onto the last of our trail mix. No matter, we are getting near the end and making good time. The scenery changes as the trail occasionally moves through open fields & meadows. It feels great to walk on grass for a while. We also get to see a primitive campsite that was apparently used by confederate Colonel Mosby as a base in the Civil War.




Day 5: 
We trek the final fifteen miles over beautiful, manageable terrain. At the end of the day we crest a mountain into Shenandoah National Park and are rewarded with not only a great view, but the final mile down to the car. We change clothes & try to wipe ourselves clean as best we can behind my buddy's Honda on the side of the road. We slap a high five, and drive into town for burgers & fries at Spelunkers, where they grind their chuck on site. We each order the double cavern burger, with over a half pound of beef...and of course decide to add bacon because, well, we can. As expected, they are the best burgers of our lives.




Lessons Learned
This is running long so I'll just close with some parallels I found between the hike and personal finance:

Your Possessions Cost You - Not just a financial cost, but the burden they put on you. Lugging around my thirty plus pounds, I realized that you pay a penance for having too many possessions. We do this in our normal lives, too. The cost for having too much stuff is realized each time we move to a new residence or in the daily stress of mess & clutter. On the journey of life, travel light.

Gut It Out - There was a twenty four hour stretch on the hike where, like the fifteen year old in Haley's story, I just wanted to quit & hike out. Giving up sounds like a good option on some days in our financial lives, too, as paying off debt, working side hustles after our normal jobs, or just another day of frugality can become a grind. When you want to quit, do like Haley suggested and try to gut it out for a couple more days. Chances are that things will seem easier if you can push through the low point.

Every Once in a While, Look Up - Like Ferris says, life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it. Yes, you have to pay attention to the terrain to make sure you don't trip over a stray rock. But don't get caught looking at the three feet in front of you all the time. Stop for a second and look around. You might be missing out on a great view.

Thanks for reading through the long post & have a great week.

40 comments:

  1. There is nothing better than hiking the AT. We have done it once, but have camped along it many times. The people are awesome and the views are spectacular. Great rundown!

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    1. Thanks, Grayson! Living close enough to use the AT just to camp sounds awesome -- just about every shelter we see is a pretty sweet camp site with water, fire pits, & sometimes a picnic bench, too.

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  2. What a trip. I'm not wild about backpacking simply because I hate carrying all that weight. I was a camp counselor and lead a four day hike, had to carry all the extra food and water for my kids- I think that did me in forever. Still love a good day hike, just don't want to see any snakes.

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    1. Carrying water and food for multiple people for four days? Yeah, that sounds flipping tough...that might turn me off, too.

      I'm with you on the snakes -- I am not a fan.

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  3. That was an inspiring post. Now I'm itching for a day hike. Perhaps I can drag my family up into the coastal mountains for a hike. Thanks.

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    1. Thank you, Bryce. I bet a day hike would be beautiful this time of year. You're up in the Pacific North West, right?

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    2. Actually, we're in the Silicon Valley, West San Jose to be precise.

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  4. That is a really interesting story. On a side note, your background really reminds me of Yahoo's fantasy football site right now. Only they have the fuzzy football field laid out as the background.

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    1. If I'm following in Yahoo's footsteps, this blog is in trouble...

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  5. What a cool coincidence that you met her on the plane! I'm officially jealous, "My job allowed me to eat blueberries while petting wild ponies." I give you lots of credit for doing this hike. I I don't it's much of my style since I'm really only into day hikes and sleeping in my own bed. What an adventure!

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    1. Hi Tonya,

      I loved all of Haley's responses, but that was by far my favorite. Petting ponies while eating blueberries doesn't even sound real -- it's like something out of Fern Gully. I was blown away that we got to sit next to one another on that flight...one in a million odds.

      I will say that sleeping on my pad is not nearly as good as my bed. I enjoyed my first night back home. It was really nice to sleep with an actual pillow, too, instead of using a fleece shoved into a dry sack.

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  6. I am soooo super jealous! That's all my old stomping grounds. It looks amazing!!! So glad you had a fabulous time!

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    1. Small world! Thanks, Cat. Your old stomping grounds are really beautiful -- I was glad I got to visit.

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  7. That looks awesome, I want to drag my wife out there. That's what living is all about.

    Are you an ASU grad? I thought you were in Tucson but I guess you're in Phoenix?

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    1. I'm actually an SDSU grad. (Go Aztecs!) But we're in the Phoenix area now.

      My wife and I are planning on doing some trips together, maybe along the PCT out west as it's so much closer. If that ends up happening, we'll squeeze a post or two out of it.

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  8. You left out the most important part! How were your knees!?!

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    1. I know! The post ran so long that I had to leave a bunch out. I ended up getting blisters on my feet & even my hands (from the hiking poles), a pain in my back & shoulders...but my knees were totally fine! Go figure, right?

      I think the tip you gave on the hyaloronic acid really helped. They both feel better now.

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  9. I've never been hiking on the AT, but would love to make it out there someday. It looks like it's quite the experience! Love the tip about looking up every once in a while - so easy to miss out on things when you're always looking at the ground.

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    1. Hi DC. Thanks for the kind words -- it's kind of a sad irony that, since the footing is tricky in parts, you spend a lot of time just staring down at the ground. Stopping for a second is sometimes the only way to take things in. I thought that might parallel our financial journeys a bit.

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  10. Wow! I have so many comments because you cover everything in this post!

    First, I'm president of a local non-profit called Partnership for the Pathway, building trails in our local area....so I found your interview inspiring. Also, I've always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail (I've maybe hiked about five miles of it, in total). We've always been big day hikers, setting out for a nice 8-15 mile walk with a day pack and comfortable boots.

    Finally, I'll bet that was the best burger in the entire world.

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    1. Hi Joe!

      That's cool that you lead that non-profit. What a cool organization. I think it's great that you guys are putting more trails in for your neighbors.

      We're generally a day hikers, too -- I just do a trip like this once a year, mostly as an excuse to spend a week with my buddy. I think we'll get a bigger group next year. :)

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  11. Sounds like you guys had an awesome trip! That story about the 15-year-old boy is such a good one. I had the same experience multiple times as a camp counselor and in every instance they ended up being totally fine and in fact much better off for sticking it out. Such a great lesson.

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    1. On another note, one of the most fun days of my life was a day-trip I made with a friend up to a ski mountain nearby after a giant snowstorm. There was about 3 feet of fresh powder, which I have never experienced before (skiing in the northeast is much different, read: icier, than skiing out west, or so I'm told). It was a total blast, but also incredibly exhausting. On our way back home we stopped for dinner at this tiny little brewery and that beer was by far the best beer I've ever had. Your note about the burger made me nostalgic.

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    2. Those are both cool stories, Matt. Being a camp counselor sounds like a pretty great experience -- I can see you being a good one. And while I'm not a skier I've heard how difficult it can be to ski in fresh powder. I bet that beer was great...and well earned.

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  12. So nice to have met Haley - it was clearly a good sign for your adventure. And it sure seems like you had a great time there. I'm not much of a hiker myself but, boy, for that burger I'd start climb mountains - it looks absolutely delicious!

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    1. Hi C,

      Yeah, I'm still kind of amazed that I met Haley on the way out to Pittsburgh. The burger was definitely awesome - probably enhanced by my hunger & fatigue but I think it might have still been the best one I'd had even without all that. Thanks for the comment. :)

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  13. I have all sorts of love for this post, both for the interview (I love the story about the teenager, it's so cool to see the transformation that wilderness can do to someone) and the beautiful pics - well done, Mr. DbF! Overall, it sounds like a wonderful experience and great bonding time with your buddy, and I agree food tastes epically delicious after a multi-day (especially burgers). Insightful final thought on possessions weighing you down - couldn't agree more!

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    1. Thanks so much for that comment, Anna! I'm smiling now.

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  14. I will never forget a moment that happened on a hike I went on in junior high. It was an individual hike with index cards placed randomly throughout, each having a random fact or reflection. After about 10 of these cards, I stumbled upon one that simply said, "Look Up!" and I will never forget how beautiful the sky and trees looked at that moment. Ever since then, I've made it a point to always just stop and look around.

    Great post!

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    1. Hi Lisa!

      Thanks for that story -- that's a pretty sweet experience. What a neat idea to supplement a hike with reflections.

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  15. Awesome post! Your trip sounds incredible. Every AT trip i hear about, something goes wrong (like the raccoon), but it just makes for a good story. That final decent to your car is one of the best experiences out there. And those burgers look like they reLly might be the best in the world. Thanks for all the beautiful pictures!

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    1. Thanks, Cash Rebel! I agree that the mishaps make for a better story, so in the long run it's probably all for the best...life would be boring if nothing went wrong.

      If you end up trying to head out again next year, let me know what section you'll be hiking. My buddy and I are thinking about doing Shenandoah a little later in the year to escape the heat (late Sept/early October) but we might be flirting with some cold weather if we time it wrong.

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  16. Sounds like one great adventure of a lifetime! For someone who has endured so much of the city life (which is also great ), venturing on a trail is something I would definitely do if given the chance. The pictures showed the amazing beauty of nature. I can imagine being one with it, the peaceful tranquility plus of course the stories I would be able to tell. Well maybe they won't be as exciting as yours but exciting nevertheless!

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    1. Thanks, Jen! I hope you find a way to get out on the trails.

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  17. Great adventure! I was never did hiking. Some way you inspired me. Thanks mate!

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    1. No problem, Jon! And thanks for the kind words.

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  18. Spelunkers is an *awesome* place to get food. I'm glad you enjoyed the hike, I'm sorry you picked the week we had a horrendous heat wave, though I suspect it was nicer up in the mountains than down here in the swamp.

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    1. Yeah, we loved Spelunkers! Yelp pointed us in that direction, and we were not disappointed. The weather could've been cooler but, all things considered, not bad once we got some elevation, like you said.

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  19. Experiences are really what life is about. What a great one! I sincerely appreciate the packing light metaphor. Our stuff better be pretty incredible if we are going to be weighed down by it.

    We purchased our log home in a beautiful canyon back when I had a nice salary and it has crossed my mind a dozen times how much the mortgage holds us back from saving. But ultimately our home is more than just a house, it adds definition and experience to our daily lives and it's also where we work now. So out goes every other possible expense, in order to be able to carry the weight of the cabin.

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    1. I agree with your take: a log home in a beautiful setting is more than your typical house with a mortgage. It sounds like the means to a better quality of life, and kind of idyllic, too. We have similar dreams of building a tiny house (or, maybe a few of those tiny Tumbleweed homes on wheels) out on some land in the country...maybe making the world's cutest little bed & breakfast, and projecting old movies on bedsheets for our tenants while they eat homemade popcorn.

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