Weekending at Raccoon Creek State Park

This past weekend K and I headed out to Raccoon Creek State Park to try out some of our cold-weather gear before heading out on the AT. Most of our backpacking experience is in good ol' Arizona, and although it does get cold there at night, it's usually quite sunny in the day. Needless to say, the cold winters of southwestern PA are quite a change form our previous outings, and good experience to boot.

After dropping off the nominal backpacking fee ($3/person/day)at the park HQ, we dropped Sandy off at the Heritage Trailhead parking area and started our trek.

The weather was mid 30's or so, with flurries, and the snow added a marvelous look to the forest trail. The park itself is quite developed, with cabins and a lake and boating and such, but the backpacking trails keep mainly to the park's perimeter, avoiding these non-wildernessy areas (click here to access a map of the park). There were tracks in the snow, but far more from animals than people, and we entertained ourselves by trying to identify them. Some parts of the trail hadn't been travelled by anything since the snow fell a week ago. There are many creek and stream crossings, some bridged, some not.

K crossing an icy boy scout bridge over a creek

Though it had a few short, steep sections, the Heritage trail was mostly easy and we made better time than we expected. We reached the Pioneer camping area, where we had intended to stay the night by about 2:15 in the afternoon, and it was too early (and too cold) to stop moving for the day. We decided to press on to the Sioux area, some two more miles down the trail.

M takes a break in a shelter at the Pioneer camping area

Upon arriving at the camping area, K set up the tent and I prepared dinner. We learned that the alcohol stove doesn't like to pressurize all that much when it's very cold (this can be remedied somewhat by keeping the stove and fuel in a pocket for a bit before attempting to light it). We also learned that the sleeping bags are not warmer when you zip them together (we've never had the option before, and though nice, it allows all sorts of very cold drafts to sneak in and steal away warmth). The night was quite cold, but the tent held up ok, and we managed to stay fairly comfortable in our 20-degree rated bags.

Our tent in the snow

For those who still wonder why we don't want to take a cell phone on our longer trip, take a look at this:

Cell phones and camping don't mix

Somehow it escaped our pockets and found it's way to a patch of icy ground for the night. Miraculously, it still worked once it thawed out. However, this proved that in addition to being annoying and difficult to keep charged, the phone will inevitably find some way to become dead weight in the woods.

Sunday morning we ate breakfast, packed up camp, and set off to hike the last few miles of the Forest trail back to the parking area. The forest was, in my opinon, the most interesting of the three trails, offering more terrain change and some nice views from atop the hills (in the summer, not so much, but with no leaves the view was quite nice). The loop finished up at the spillway, and we walked a road back to the car.

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What are you carrying and how much does it weigh?

I am trying really hard not to be obsessed by our gear.

It is difficult.

This is a special kind of journey, so naturally, we needed some special items. I have something of an obsession with all things tiny, and since we have to fit everything into a bag, which we will carry up and down mountains, adding up to some 150,000 meters of elevation change, we need tiny things indeed.

Here is what we are carrying so far. This is going to change in the coming weeks, but this is a rough idea of what we have in our packs so far.


Contacting M & K

How Can We Get in Touch With You?

1: E-mail us.

We'll be able to check from most towns, and will reply. E-mail is best because it doesn't weigh anything and we don't have to go someplace special to pick it up.

2: Call us and leave a message.

No, we are NOT bringing a cell phone on the trail. There are plenty of other hikers in case of emergency, and aside from weighing several ounces and serving as a particularly unpleasant reminder of the fast-paced world such a trip is supposed to remove us from, it'd be impossible to keep the battery charged. What we WILL have access to, though, is our voice mailbox. We'll have the same number and a calling card and will check our messages from town stops (and return your call from there if necessary). This is not the preferred method of contact, as it costs rather a lot to buy calling cards to call the mailbox, and they almost always get you on a connection charge. Leave a message that's short and to the point if you must (or send a lengthy and thoughtful email!).

3: Mail Stuff.

Mail is heavy. If you care to send something that cannot be transmitted in one of the afforementioned ways, please make sure it is useful, light, and/or consumable (if it's to be eaten, be sure it's vegan). Some things that would be useful along the way:

Powdered Soymilk - a staple but somewhat hard to find. This brand is yummy.

Candy - Peanut Chews (red ones only - the blue ones are milky) and Chick-o-sticks are faves.

Clif Bars - these can be kinda pricey but are oh so good, and have many calories for their size. The Oddwalla ones are quite nice, too.

or other useful things. be creative! no glass, please.

The address to mail things to is a little trickier. Our resupply will be done predominately by US Postal Service General Delivery (you can mail things GD to a zip code with a message 'please hold for AT thru-hiker', and they'll keep it for a while 'til you can pick it up). However, where we'll actually be stopping will be at least partially decided from the trail. Get in touch with K's parents for the most up-to-date mailing info, as they'll be hanling our maildrops (resupply).

When will you be in/near [state/town]?

Some folks have indicated that they may want to meet us briefly or even hike a bit with us. Planning around a walker's schedule can be difficult, though. On the map to the right you'll see a series of small flags spaced throughout the length of the trail - if you click on one of these a window will pop up with the name of the town and the estimated date we'll be there. Of course, these dates and times will change, but if you want to know where we'll be in, say, the middle of june, they're a pretty good estimate (we hope). They may or may not be updated as we progress along the trail... depends on how much time we get at the computer, and how much we feel like planning ahead.

If you actually do want to meet us somewhere, use one of the methods described above to get in touch with us closer to the time in question.
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Where Will You Sleep?

Well, that depends. On an ordinary day on the trail, we will probably sleep in one of the following:

1: A Backpacking Shelter
(this one is in Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern PA, but the ones on the AT are very similar)

or 2: Our Tent (in this case, it happens to be a Mountain Hardwear PCT-2 that we've had for some time)

Both have their benefits and shortcomings.

The Appalachian Trail has shelters (or "lean-to's in the New England states) spaced somewhat sensibly throughout it's entire length. These are sturdy, mostly dry, elevated platforms with walls on three sides and a roof. They are often crowded with thru-hikers or other hikers, and are first come first serve - as such they cannot be reliably counted on to have a space for you to sleep in. They are notoriously infested with well-fed mice, which will scurry around on your face and/or chew through your pack as you sleep. Other critters (including bears) know that these sites are frequented by humans, and occasionally visit them as well. The shelters offer no protection from mosquitos or other insects. Sometimes the spacing can be inconvenient - one shelter may be too close for a full day's hike, whereas the next one is too many miles away. All told, though, the shelters are where most of the trail's social aspects come into play, and are good places to meet people. They also don't have to be pitched on wet ground like the tent.

The tent is waterproof, and in many cases can be pitched anywhere (other times only in designated areas). This allows us to hike as far as we want to in a day without having to make it to the next shelter or stopping early to stay in the current one. It does, however, need to be pitched on the ground, which can be cold, wet, or muddy. It also has to be cleaned and dried out frequently. It is private (just for me & k) so if socializing isn't what we're feeling on a given day, we have that option - then again if it is, we can always pitch near a shelter. The tent is also enclosed (which holds in more warmth in extreme cold than a shelter would, also protection from bugs and critters - though the mice will get in if they want to). One last downside is that the tent must be carried, which means more pounds. It weighs about 5 pounds with its footprint (groundcloth) when dry, and more when wet.

In warmer weather, we may add a third option - Hammocks:

These are easy to set up, light, and super-comfortable. They have many of the benefits of the tent, but since they go in the air there's no cold, wet ground. They are open, so they could be drafty, but this is a plus in hot weather. Only downside is that you need two trees spaced appropriately that are strong enough to support the load. Where we're going, this shouldn't be a problem. You can get rainflys made specifically for the hammock, or just string up a tarp. Mosquito/no-see-um netting can also be obtained to eliminate bug problems. The one pictured above is the same type as our hammock, but the photo was shamelessly pilfered from the eagles nest outfitters website. For more info on hammock camping, check out Sgt. Rock's Hammock Camping section.

And of course, any number of hostels, hotels, motels, inns, b&b's, lodges, and the like during our town stops. These range from your everyday Super-8s to hiking community standbys. Showers, Laundry, Food, and a Bed will be had about once a week and much looked forward to.
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Aren't you scared of bears?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Actually, there are a lot of things to be afraid of in the great outdoors - wildlife, the dark, ill-intentioned people, etc. But none are so terrifying as bears.

My fear of bears hit a near-frenzy level this summer, when we were doing a lot of camping out west in national parks that have significant bear problems. Warnings abounded at the entrances, campsites and bathrooms. I became extremely paranoid about keeping food and toiletries locked up and out of sight, and I changed my clothes after eating, before I got into the tent for the night. My campmates were slightly less enthusiastic about following all the bear precautions, which caused even more anxiety for me.

Then we actually saw a bear. Within close proximity. You can read my account here. Now, my fear of bears is no longer a fear of the unknown. They are really big and could definitely eat me, in a most unpleasant manner.

Many of my friends and family have read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. The paperback version has a bear on the cover, so you might think that bears are an extremely common part of the AT experience. Here are some facts about bears on the AT, presented in a less hysterical way than Bryson does.

The truth is, many AT hikers don't ever see a bear, the whole time they are out there. Nonetheless, it is smart to exercise caution. Here are some ways that we will do that.

1. Make noise while hiking, a startled bear is an unhappy bear. I am not a fan of bear bells (little jingle bells people tie onto their trek poles), but M and I do enough chatting and singing while we walk to scare off most wildlife.
2. Cook away from where you sleep, and hang your food away from both (make a triangle). We hang anything that might have a smell, food obviously, but also our first aid and toiletries kit, and our cooking pot. Many established backcountry camping sites have poles where you can hang your food. Otherwise, we have a really long piece of nylon rope to use.
3. Never eat in your tent, or keep food in there overnight. This would attract all sorts of pesky critters, not just bears. I also keep all chapstick, soap and sunscreen out of my tent.
4. Wear ear plugs when you sleep. This will keep you from hearing all the things that go bump in the night, that you will imagine are a bear, thus losing sleep. A tired hiker is a dangerous hiker, and you will be more likely to stumble and fall off a cliff the next day, making the fear of bears a great deal more dangerous than the bears themselves.
5. Carry bear spray. I was considering this for a while, but I think I will hold off until I am in grizzly country (which is very far away from the Appalachian Trail).

Now that I am getting over the hysterical phase of my fear of bears, my long-held fears of the dark and bad people don't seem so intimidating. It gets dark every night and has done so for the duration of my life. Thus far, I have survived it.

As for bad people, check the statistics - no more than a dozen murders in 50 years. My odds at being a crime victim are much, much worse here in the 'Burgh. But that doesn't mean I live in daily fear here - I exercise sensible precautions - and I'll be exercising those same precautions on the trail, with a few more, like avoiding camping near roads or other places the general public has easy access to. A criminal is unlikely to hike deep into the woods to prey on M and me. I've got a knife and a big stick and I know where to hit 'em where it hurts.

Everything in life involves risk, and there are certain risks associated with an outdoor adventure that we could avoid by staying home. But staying home involves the risk of car accidents and fires and muggings and other sorts of horrible things that human beings inflict upon each other. So I think I'll take my chances with the bears.
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Return of the Hippo

Some of you may remember the post from early-on about our travelling companion, B. Hippo (Post 1, Post 2). I'm pleased to say, He's back!

In actuality, he never really left - he was with us on our earlier jaunt around the country - but he's been taking some time to put together a little something special. B. Hippo is now the subject of his very own travelogue, B. Hippo, Across America.

So stop on by and take a look, and check back as we hit the trail in a few weeks. Here's the URL:

M&K's Thru-Hike FAQ, part I

What's the deal with this AT thing, anyhow?

The Appalachian Trail is a 2,175 mile long continuous footpath from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It passes through a total of 14 states (Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachussetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine). The trail is marked with white paint blazes for the distance. The map at right uses the GPS coordinantes of the trail shelters to draw the path. Though some of these are slightly off trail, you can get a pretty decent picture of the path. We'll be updating it with our progress as we hike. There is some good basic information here:

Also, a great map is available from the National Parks Service if anyone wants to order a copy or print it out and follow along.

Many people hike parts of the trail each year. It has been said that it is within a day's drive of 60% of the population of the USA. What we're attempting is called a Thru-Hike, to hike the entire distance of the trail contiguously in one season. Many people attempt a thru-hike, but few succeed - take a look at some statistics.

There is quite a community of present and former AT thru-hikers, and there is a wealth of information available about how to prepare and what to expect. For those who read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, though it was a humorous book, it is not a good picture of what an AT thru-hike, or AT thru-hikers are like. If you're curious, take a look at some of the following:

  • Trailplace - a comprehensive AT message board and info center maintained by Dan 'Wingfoot' Bruce. Requires a username and password, but is free, and really a great site.

  • Whiteblaze.net - "A community of Appalachian Trail Enthusiasts"

  • The Thruhiking Papers by Spirit Eagle capture a lot about the considerations and emotions that go into a thru hike. So many sites are just concerned with gear and scheduling, but there's a lot more to it than that.

  • Then The Hail Came by George Steffanos is basically a trail journal from his thru hike in 1983. Much better picture of the experience than Bryson, and though a lot has changed since then, it captures the feeling and difficulty in a humorous and easy to read way.

Hikers are known to give each other (or themselves) a 'Trail Name' for the duration of their hike. This can be an existing nickname or one that is related to some incident along the trail. K and I are not choosing trail names, as we figure we'll pick them up along the way.

How Far Is It?

Though the actual distance varies from year to year due to trail reroutings, it is approximately 2,175 miles from Springer to Katahdin.

How Long Will It Take?

According to the Appalachian Trail Conference, it takes the average Thru-Hiker somewhere between 5 and 7 months to hike the entire length of the trail. Baxter State Park, the site of Katahdin in Maine, closes on October 15 (or sooner depending on weather), so most thru hikers start between March and May. We've opted to leave earlier in the season, to allow more time to explore, and quite honestly because we're restless at home. We should finish around the beginning of September.

How Far Do You Have To Walk Each Day?

Assuming a six month (180 day) trip, we need to average 2,175 miles / 180 days = 12.1 miles per day. However, some of those days will be spent off trail in towns (doing laundry and bathing) or hiking shorter distances in bad weather or tough terrain. Other days will no doubt make up for this - most hikers have at least a few 20-mile days.

Won't Your Feet Hurt?


People have actually asked us this. On average a hiker goes through three pairs of boots over the course of the trail. Blisters are inevitable. Infections (of the blisters) as well as orthopaedic problems from too much weight or ill-fitting boots can take a hiker off the trail for some time. Even with great, pre-broken-in boots, plenty of fresh socks, insoles, and a light pack, we're talking about walking 2,175 miles almost continuously. A little foot pain is to be expected.

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What Will You Eat?

As most of you know, we are 'Strict Vegetarians' (Vegans who still wear leather). We are asked 'So what do you eat?' on a regular basis, but even more frequently so in connection with hiking, as the many of the mainstays of trekking vittles (Kraft Dinner, Various Jerkys, Cheese Blocks, Butter, &c.) are decidedly animal-containing. Though it is possible to subsist on granola and GORP alone, the monotony would be hard to bear on a trip of this duration.

There are options, of course. For starters, some of the other mainstays (Unfrosted Pop-Tarts, Oriental Flavored Top Ramen, Jell-O Instant Pudding) ARE, in fact, vegan. There's a good list here of readymade and easily obtainable things that are free of animal products. However, many of these foods, though high in calories, are relatively low in nutrition and contain all sorts of fun stuff that's hard to pronounce.

Though we'll certainly be eating our share of pudding and pop tarts, the thought of trying to subsist for 3500+ calories per day on Top Ramen is distressing, and dehydrated backpacking meals are ridiculously expensive and usually have quite a lot of packaging. Solution? Like many things, do it yourself. We figure we'll be out and about for at least 180 days, some of which will be spent in towns haunting all-you-can-eat buffets. So about 150 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for two are needed. Additionally they'll need to be easy to prepare, lightweight, and relatively high calorie, not to mention nutritious.

Step One: Make a bunch of something.

Here's some Cheez-o (cheese that's not cheese at all, rather it's made of a concoction of tofu, beans, miso and other yummy things) that will be taking the place of Kraft Dinner. This pot contains enough Cheez-o for about 16 2-person meals. As you can see it's quite large, unwieldy, and certainly not light.

Step Two: Dehydrate the something you just made.

Dehydrating food is nothing new. Most food contains predominantly water and becomes lighter and smaller upon its removal (think banana chips, sundried tomatoes, raisins). Conveniently, almost anything can be dehydrated. Beany stews become powdery, tomato sauce turns into a pasta-flavored fruit-roll-up, hummus turns to powder. All you need is a dehydrator and some time. There are many plans for making your own dehydrator (1|2|3), and a lot of appliances out there, but my all-time favourite is the Excalibur Food Dehydrator. It's relatively quiet and efficient compared to other products, and you can fit an awful lot of stuff in it at one time. Here it is in action drying out some peas and mixed veggies for instant samosa filling.

Step Three: Parcel out the now dried food.

Divide it up and put it in a Ziploc or something. I like the FoodSaver, as it vacuum seals all the meals and they stay fresh for a lot longer. Downsides to this are that the bags are heavier than sandwich bags, and sort of expensive. They also only come in a few widths, resulting in some oblong packaging. But when hiking, food often becomes the motivator for the second half of your day, and I personally believe the extra freshness will count for far more than a few tenths of an ounce in pack weight. Plus you can reuse the vacuum bags if you wash them out.

Step Four: Label and Date.

Here are a few of our finished meals. We'll be eating these for most lunches and pretty much all dinners. The lunches are mostly dips and spreads for eating on pita, tortilla, crackers, whatever, and rehydrate without heating. The dinners are predominantly stews, curries, and sauces for pasta.

Step Five: Repeat. A lot. Six months is a lot of food!

Here are our meals. There are a lot of 'em, and the samples (to test freshness, ease of preparation, &c. have been well worth the trouble.

Though we've posted parts of it before, here's a more complete list of our meal choices:

Lunches: White Bean Hummus, Samosa Dip, Black Bean Hummus, Refried Beans, Regular Hummus (Chickpea), Sundried Tomato and Herb Hummus, Black Bean and Sweet Potato Enchilada Filling

Dinners: Southwestern Three Bean Chili, New Orleans Red Beans and Rice (Homemade, not Zatarains!), Misir Wot (Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew), Coconut Lentil Curry, Spinach and Chickpea Curry, Cincinnati Style Chili, Sloppy Lennies (Joes sans beef), Jamaican Peas and Rice, Pasta with Tomato Sauce, Pasta with creamy pesto sauce, Three-Bean Dal, Chipotle and Corn stew, Boston Baked Beans, and of course Macaroni and Cheez-o.

For those out there who wonder how we know what to make, the recipes are mostly mine, pieced together from countless other recipes and a lot of mistakes. Good recipe sources are Vegan Planet by Robin Robertson, the Post-Punk Kitchen by Isa Chandra Moskovitz, and the Internets. Pretty much anything you want can be Veganized if you're clever, careful, and prepared to scrap it and start over if it doesn't work out.

Some things dehydrate well, others don't. Anything too oily won't solidify - try leaving the oils out and carrying some olive oil to add upon rehydration. Also with soups and such, of course don't add any more water than you need to to cook it... you can always add it back when it's time to cook and eat. I've had success with adding some already-dry ingredients (TVP, spices) at the end of drying: for example, the Cincinnati Chili was brittle and hard to package without puncturing the bag when cooked together and then dried. I made a big batch of just the sauce, and dried that, packaging it with the already-dry TVP and some dehydrated beans (for you purists out there, it's an already-mixed-up four way, no cheese. I know the beans and onions belong on top), and the results are quite good, actually better than when it was dehydrated all-together. Experiment and see.
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How Will You Cook?

Now that we have all of these nice meals, how are we going to prepare them on the trail? There seems to be some kind of idyllic cast-iron-on-a-campfire picture that most people think of when camp cooking is mentioned. To put this at bay, we will not be starting fires (leave no trace! if there's no need to make a fire to stay warm or cook, don't do it). Since most all of our meals cook in boiling water, we really have a rather limited need for an extensive cookset. Plus stoves/pots/etc. can quickly get pretty heavy. Here's what we've got:

1: Stove

This is made from old beer cans. You can see the plans here. I made a bunch in case this one breaks. It burns several types of alcohol, which are readily available for a number of uses.

2: Pot Stand

This keeps the pot the right distance from the stove. It's made from bike spokes and an old TV antenna (though any small, light, and hollow metal tube will do). I based it on this plan.

3: Windscreen

This is made from two pieces of 4" aluminum vent stuck together. It provides good protection from gusts, is very light, and comes apart to nest inside the cookpot.

4: Cook Pot

It's an Evernew Titanium pot. We have 2, but are only bringing the 1.3L one, as all we need to do is boil water.

5: Pot Cozy

It's made from Reflctix Foil Insulation and tape. It weighs next to nothing, but keeps things warm (or hot) for substantially longer than just the pot (Titanium transfers heat very well, so it warms up quick, but it also cools off very rapidly). It was inspired by the cozies available from Anti Gravity Gear.

Essentially, we'll boil some water, cook any pasta or rice, add in the dehydrated goods, and put it in the cozy for 5 minutes or so to reach the original consistency. Here's a shot of the whole mess in action:

And here's everything all nested together. All together (without fuel) this weighs only 11.5 oz. With the scrubber, sporks, matches and lighter it's up to 14.5 oz.

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FAQ is Forthcoming

Greetings, all!

K and I have been working on some new posts over the last couple of days that seek to answer some of the commonly-asked questions regarding our Appalachian Trail thru hike. The FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) will be divided into several posts, and the questions and answers will be linked for navigation in the sidebar at right. One thing we DO need, though, is your help: What do you want to know? Here's a list of the Questions so far:

  • What is this AT thing anyhow?
  • How Far Is It?
  • How Long Will It Take?
  • How Far Do You Have To Walk Each Day?
  • Won't Your Feet Hurt?
  • Where Will you Sleep?
  • What are you Carrying and How Much Does It Weigh?
  • What Will You Eat?
  • How Will You Cook It?
  • Aren't You Scared of Bears / the Dark / Weather / Bad People (are you carrying a gun)?
  • How Can We Get in Touch With You?
  • When will you be in/near [state/town]?
And so, Friends, Family, and random Web Readers, please comment! We'll try to add your questions (and our answers) as the posting commences...


All aboard!

Well, it's official - we've booked the tickets, and are Georgia-bound in just a few weeks. Rather than fly (expensive, good chance our gear will be lost or messed up), drive (what to do with the auto for 6 months?) or take the bus (seriously, have you taken the bus on a ride that long), we'll be travelling by the transportation that changed America: railroad.

Hopefully this experience is better than my last. We had these free flights from Southwest, and K was in Atlanta for 6 weeks, so I thought I'd go visit. Except Southwest doesnt fly to Atlanta - no matter, they fly to Birmingham, AL, and the train goes right through there... I could get there for $30 instead of $350. Seemed well, except the northbound Crescent train was delayed. Really delayed. I think it was supposed to arrive at 1:15 or so, but had been delayed until 8:30 or 9:00. I walked several miles, rented a car, and drove to Atlanta before the train even showed up, and I ended up spending around what a ticket to fly into Atlanta would have cost anyway. sigh.

Anyhow, this time things will go better. I've still never travelled by rail, nor has K. We'll be leaving Da Burgh on 2/21 and heading to DC to visit some family. From there it's another train to Charlottesville to visit more family. Then a third train (the dreaded Crescent!) to the ATL. We're not in a hurry, and have left plenty of time inbetween trains. Only a few weeks, and we'll be on our way...


Yurts On Sale

Some of you may have heard M and I talking about living in a yurt, which we describe as a Mongologian tent. This description, although factual, doesn't really convey the intended meaning. So before everybody concludes that we are crazy hippies, I wanted to share some additional information.

Pacific Yurts is having a sale right now. Check out the pictures they have on their gallary, so that you can see for yourself how nice they are.



M is always telling me not to worry so much. It's not so much that I worry, though, more like my brain is always generating potential outcomes for a given situation, and these outcomes are not always happily-ever-after in their nature. But bad things do happen.

Which brings me to the ducks.

We live in an idyllic country setting, at the end of a long, gravel driveway. Our neighbors have a pond that we pass on the way to the road, where we see the occasional heron, but more frequently a pair of ducks.

Whenever we went by, we greeted the ducks and commented on their daily activities. Usually, they were eating, or cleaning their feathers. Really, what else do ducks do? We wondered why they didn't fly south, with the other ducks. Last month, we had a brief cold spell and the pond nearly froze completely, but for a small circle in the center, where the ducks swam around and around, their churning feet keeping this small area from freezing.

The ducks became a symbol for our relationship, a reminder that we should stick together, and together, we would prevail.

And then, one of the ducks wasn't there anymore. At first, we thought he might be off in the field, or maybe he got an irresistible urge to migrate south, with the rest of his kind. A week passed with no sign of him. The remaining duck looked very lonely to me.

My mother-in-law, during Christmas dinner, reported that, in fact, the neighbor had found the missing duck, or rather, the body of the missing duck, on the side of the pond. "Something got it," were her exact words, I believe.

I know it's just a duck, and it's not even MY duck, but a feeling of melancholy washed over me, so strong, that in that moment, I lost all faith that anything, in my whole life, would turn out ok. Luckily, I am a relatively rational person, and the next moment erased such feelings of hopelessness. It was, after all, just a duck. And life, after all, is filled with loss, as well as joy.


Over the holidays, Matt and Mark got together to perfect their vegan pierogies recipes. They made 102 potato, saurkraut, jalepeno and onion filled pierogies. We took most of them to Tony and Rita's New Year's Eve party, where they were scarfed down. Alex (the Cat) was pretty interested in the process of rolling the dough out.


Holiday Memories

My family is somewhat obsessed with traditions, especially during the holiday season. We have an artificial mistletoe with a strange little elf sitting on top that must be at least forty years old. The angel that sits atop the Christmas tree is the first and only tree-topper my parents have ever owned, and blinks in a hypnotizing pattern that seems different every year. As much as we embrace decades-old traditions, we are equally willing to start new ones.

During the past couple of years, my three youngest cousins have come over to our house on December 23rd to spend the night. It gives my aunt and uncle a chance to finish up some last minute things, and it brings a certain youthful enthusiasm for the season into our house. Generally, we bake cookies, decorate the tree, hang lights outside and play games. All amidst spontaneous outbursts of holiday songs. Have a holly, jolly Christmas....! Chestnuts roasting on the open fire.... You get the idea. I thoroughly enjoy it.

Now that my siblings and I are adults, we don't often find ourselves in the same city anymore, but they are truly among my most favorite people and it was great to be together this Christmas. This photo was taken before we wenet down the hill to the Thunderbird. Lucy, in the middle, is much cuter in person than in this picture.

And of course, the holidays are never complete without hats on animals. Rosie was cooperative for a few minutes with this hat on, but it didn't last. She kept walking backwards, as if that would get it off her head. A funny sight to see, for sure.


No More Cowher Power

So Bill Cowher made the big announcement everybody knew was coming. Clearly, I am the last person in the world to criticize someone for taking early retirement, however, I don't think we've seen the last of this guy. He won't be back in black and gold, though. But he will make a lot more money. I say it was no coincidence that Cowher resigned when he did. It was a sign that we should bring Chuck Noll back. He got four rings for us! The new slogan could be, "One for Chuck's Thumb". I can see it now.


News and Updates

Well, we're back to the daily grind. I am continuing to temp at the University of Pittsburgh, and I listened to 45, that's right, 45 minutes of voicemail this morning, and it was ALL the same question. Oh well, at least I have a nice view from the top of the Cathedral of Learning.

M continues to cook like crazy and study for the LSAT. We have added 3 bean Dal and Chipotle Chili to our meal selection.

Congrats to Matt and Loren, who got engaged on Christmas Day.

Greetings to my sister, whom I miss already, since she flew back to California over the weekend. We had a marvelous visit. Greetings to the Butlers, also in California and a get well soon wish for Jaeger.

Thanks to Tony and Rita, who threw a killer party on New Year's Eve complete with food, drink, dancing and a toasty fire on the porch. We rang in the new year with joy.

Reality is setting in...it is now 2007, the year that we will hike the Appalachian Trail! We will actually be leaving Pittsburgh in about 6 weeks. That doesn't seem like much time at all. So far, it has been a very mild winter in the East, and we are crossing our fingers that it will stay that way, although if it doesn't, I have my 10 degree sleeping bag and fleece jacket to stay warm.