Monday, August 3, 2015

Eagle Scout projects, returning to my roots, blaze path to opportunity

The Eagle Scout curriculum offers and amazing array of self-led learning experiences that, when meshed together in the imagination of an innovative scout, can prepare him for limitless opportunity.

As an adult, this curriculum is no less valid. In fact, perhaps it is more so. There is no one looking over my adult shoulder, for example, to keep me on track toward the goals I want to pursue. There is no one that, at the end of it all, is going to say I did a satisfactory job or not. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Still, in ticking off each small task that is part of the three or so merit badge projects I'm working on at the moment, I'm constantly coming up with new ideas of how to put my newly acquired knowledge into practice. Beyond what I'm doing at the moment as a means to complete the list of must-dos in a finite booklet, I'm finding limitless the ways I can make an impact in my home, my community and in my world.

Recently I decided to abandon city life - a life I've known for the better part of 25 years - to return to a life that's, geographically at least, closer to my roots. My formative years were shared among what, as a child, I considered to be four very different communities. These communities were each more than an hour's drive from each other, and because my parents were divorced, I was constantly being shuttled between some concoction of two of the four.

These communities were Orange, in the Virginia Piedmont, Stephens City, in the Shenandoah Valley, Hanover, in South Central Pennsylvania and Olney, a suburb of Rockville in the DC Metro, a.k.a. the DMV.

Since I returned to live in the District of Columbia a year ago, I've been out exploring each of the four communities of my youth. Before coming back, I'd always remembered these communities as prisons of torment to an angst-filled teen. But in fact, there is great beauty in each of them, and the forests and trails that surround them have given me a new perspective I had not originally held.

I brought with me my adult perspective as well as my reborn love of the outdoors. And because of that, ideas that have been brewing in my mind over the past five years, since my 2010 transformation are bubbling to the surface and beginning to take shape.

Now I'm returning to a rural life, at the foot of the mountains, here in the southern end of Megalopolis. Being self-employed was a goal of mine five years ago. As such, I've been making calculated career moves for the past five years while continuing to increase my outdoors and leadership skills. And the projects I've been working on in pursuit of Eagle Scout merit badge completion have prepared me to launch new endeavors in areas I'd not originally dreamed possible.

So what's next for me? I guess like me you'll have to turn the page to the next chapter to find out.

ABOUT Man of Merit: This is a project I started to help me overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. I was diagnosed with PTSD some years after 9/11, when my weight had ballooned some 200 pounds and I was struggling to keep employment due to bouts with anxiety, depression and impending physical disability. Impacted greatly by a brief stint with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy while living in Philadelphia, the birthplace of positive psychology, I underwent a weight-loss transformation. Subsequently, I began to pursue goals I'd left behind after quitting Boy Scouts as a boy of 15, when I was "coming of age", attempting to balance an outward Christian identity with my burgeoning inner queer self.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

As springtime warms, hiking heats up in the Appalachian Mountains

by Brian Schwarz

It's been nearly two months since I've checked in here on Man of Merit blog, but a lot's been going on in my preparations for summertime camping and backpacking. I've been obtaining new skills I'll count on as I delve into wilderness survival and emergency preparedness, too.

Brian on top of Old Rag Mountain, April 2, 2015, at 330 lbs.
Old Rag Mountain

In April, warm and sunny weather broke through the cold grey winter. I was able to get in some big hikes, one out of every three days. The first hig hike of spring was Shenandoah's Old Rag Mountain on April 2.

This winter was pretty rough on me and my fit life journey; I'd gained five pounds from a combination of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise, so when I took on Old Rag I was weighing in at a beefy 335 pounds. Try not to laugh when imagining me heaving and hauling my deluxe-sized body over walls of boulders and squeezing through ascending and descending crevices. Encouraged by such an auspicious start as summiting the DMV's biggest, baddest (and perhaps baldest) Blue Ridge outlier, I'd hiked 10 pounds off by the end of the month.

A guy from work named Tom, who's in training to hike Mount McKinley this summer, hiked Old Rag with me. Rucking with 50 pounds on his back, Tom got a kick at how I handled my own 20-pound pack while at the same time grunting and groaning as I made my way precariously over, under and through the rock formations for two miles at the top.

Just prior to reaching the Old Rag rock scramble that day, Tom and I ran into a dude who been shopping at our store the day before - Abdiel. As it turns out, Abdiel would end up joining our little HTO hiking crew, too. As a result, the two of them would become avid hiking partners for as long as I could keep up with them; We ended up doing several high points in the Massanutten Mountain Range and elsewhere in the Appalachians before the month was out.

Abdiel and Tom on Massanutten's Buzzard Rock, overlooking Fort Valley
Signal Knob and Maneka Peak

Signal Knob and Maneka Peak was the first big Massanutten hike I did with Tom. About 100 yards from the Signal Knob overlook, there's a tower for Virginia public television. You'd think this would detract from the views, but its existence in no way takes away from the experience.

After spending a while panning the landscape at the Signal Knob overlook, a couple walked up who had a lot of knowledge about some of the topography you could see from here. I was able to gain connections from the geography I'd learned while living in the area for five years in the 1980s. The couple pointed out in the distance a series of small outliers from Great North Mountain.

One of these outliers rises up from the valley floor just west of the city of Winchester; It's called Apple Pie Ridge. This ridge, I remembered, is where I'd gone to the Ridge Campus of my high school for marching band practice. And it was during those many intensive band practices that I'd built up the base for my "hiking calves", marching in cadence and formations all while playing a saxophone at my core.

Hiking north, down from Kennedy Peak, overlooking Shenandoah Valley
High Peak and Massanutten Ridge

On a foggy and drizzly day, Abdiel and I hiked to High Peak along the Tuscarora and Massanutten trails. We heard more than 70 gunshots in Shenandoah's south valley that day, and I'm pretty sure we'd agree that we heard a bear rifling around near a newly rerouted section of the Tuscarora Trail, below Shawl Gap. There was a cool bear's den sort of outcropping along the trail. Maybe we were passing by its home and it was watching from a distance. In any event, we kept moving along.

Kennedy Peak and Edith Gap

It was a super sunny day when I hiked Kennedy Peak with Tom. The views from the Kennedy Peak tower are some of the best I've seen in the region. At the summit, Tom surprised me with a fish taco - simply a small flour tortilla filled with grilled asparagus and striped bass meat. But the meat was from a fish he'd caught only the day before at the confluence of the Potomac River approaching the Chesapeake Bay, so as we looked east from the summit tower, across the Shenandoah Valley and toward the Blue Ridge in the distance, this down-home Virginia-caught bass tasted especially good.

Buzzard Rock

Even after experiencing the overlook at Signal Knob and the high tower at Kennedy Peak, a much easier hike that I did with both Tom and Abdiel sticks in my mind most for the incredible vistas from its namesake rock. I say the vistas were incredible, but I honestly lost words at the moment I saw the view of Fort Valley and western ridges of the expansive northern Massanutten Mountain Range. Lost. Words. I possibly even gasped.

Buzzard Rock is the huge slab of rock that you see hanging high on the ridge to your left as you enter Fort Valley and the Elizabeth Furnace section of Washington National Forest from the north along Passage Creek. The day we hiked to Buzzard Rock, there was a group camp set up just down from ridge. We stopped and chatted with one of the group for a while, who told us he was a guide with a therapy outing. Some teen guys were being "straightened out" through leadership and trust exercises while rock climbing, or some such.

Next Steps

My hiking has slowed a bit in May, and it's been by choice - I felt for the first week at least I needed to recover. I'll be heading out on a big hike tomorrow, though. Tom and Abdiel are doing 13 miles at Crabtree Falls. I'd go with them but Tom leaves soon for a three-week expedition at Denali National Park, so I think he may want to go harder than I'll be able to handle. Instead, I think I'm going to opt for something shorter, around between seven and 10 miles, maybe in West Virginia.

So when am I going to start backpacking? I've taken four days off around my birthday weekend, so this is probably when it will happen. I still need to buy a backpack, which is a pretty big deal. It's going to cost me around $200, and it's a really big decision as to which one to buy. I need to do it soon, though. Meanwhile, I am planning to do some car camping in conjunction with big day hikes at wilderness areas around Charlottesville and Roanoke. But backpacking will happen soon. Stay tuned to see my progress!

Follow Brian's adventures on Instagram @fitlifechronicles. Check out his splash page at

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Learning Boy Scouts outdoor and survival skills - not just for the young!

by Brian Schwarz

Time to get back to the blog Man of Merit, where I'm working toward the requirements of Boy Scouts merit badges. Who says you have to become an Eagle Scout before you turn 18 - it may take me a lifetime, but I think it's a worthwhile pursuit, so I'll keep at it as long as I need to, or as long as I can.

Ready for warmer weather? Hikes this winter were infrequent and short!
I've pretty much nailed Hiking and am well into several other merit badges, thanks to becoming an expert day hiker and hike leader with several regional trail organizations in 2014. This year, 2015, is all about continuing my skills improvement, migrating some of my fun from land to water and learning the basics Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, known as SUP.

Camping will take a primary role whenever I'm able to link two days off in a row. When I'm able to get three or more days off, I will be venturing into Backpacking.

You should see the drafts I've written this winter about how I was going to brave the weather tomorrow and head out on the trail. Always "tomorrow", but tomorrow would almost always cut my planned five miler down to a pitiful mile, if I the weather was forgiving enough for me to be able to get out and get active at all.

I've overcome many of my weaknesses over the years, and as tempting it is to give up on becoming an all-weather hiker and just move south to a warmer climate - maybe Southern California or North Carolina, or perhaps Ecuador or the Mediterranean even - I am committed to life in the Northeast Megalopolis and will try better next winter.

For now, though, it's spring! And today's hike will be in the mid-70s with only a slight chance of a brief thundershower in the afternoon.

Today, I'm off to test a new pair of trail shoes I got yesterday - Altra's The Lone Peak 2.0. I'm used to hiking with much more stiffness and support, so before I head out with them for the 12-mile hike I'm leading on Sunday I thought I'd test them out on about five miles of rocky terrain this afternoon. The reviews online lead me to believe I'm going to love their performance, and I've got to say I'm already in love with the wider toe box and moderately cushioned soles.

The choice to live life as a Man of Merit is made moment by moment.
Subscribe to my blog if you agree that more of us should be focused on outdoor and survival skills building, no matter the stage of life. Until there are more curricula geared toward the middle age set, the Boy Scouts curriculum - with a few adaptations here and there - suits me just fine!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

On Becoming a Sierra Club Regional Outings Leader

Today I led my first mentored hike as a provisional leader of the Sierra Club Potomac Regional Outings group. A few weeks ago I attended a retreat at the Bear's Den Hostel, located along the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia, on a ridgeline overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, where after two days I was certified in basic first aid and had completed a multi-module wilderness leadership training course. Today's hike was half of the next phase in the process of becoming a sanctioned leader of the club, and despite a rocky start I would say it was a resounding success.

Sierra Club Virginia Chapter SCPRO 2014 Leadership Retreat at Bear's Den
Photo by Ellen Hill, SCPRO
The hostel where the retreat was held is maintained by another organization I'm a member of - the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Just last month I completed the training process to join the PATC Trail Patrol. As it turns out, several of the mentors and trainers at the SCPRO event were also PATC members, so it felt like family - a new family I've been adapting myself into since I moved back to the region in July of this year.

One of the best elements of the weekend retreat was an evening bonding session with my fellow classmates, instructors and mentors. This was when much of the sense of "family" began to take root for me. Also, as our new SCPRO Class of 2014 peer group was forming, we made a few jaunts out to a nearby rocky overlook along the Appalachian Trail - at night, in the morning and at noon - to stretch our legs. This was a time to shift the energy to a more intimate level, to get to know folks a little more deeply.

SCPRO Leadership Class of 2014 ( with organizer Liz Guertin on the right)
I came away from the whole retreat experience knowing more about my fellow humans as we were there, growing alongside each other; I left excited to begin the next step in the outings leader training program - my two mentored hikes. So today as I was signing in some 15 attendees, you can imagine how wonderful it made me feel to see one of the old class coming along on the first real-world test of my ability to apply our new leadership skills.

The hike was titled, Hike Through History: Rock Creek Park. Here's what I had to say about it in the MeetUp write-up:
One of the country’s first national parks, Rock Creek Park is home to a rich history that often remains hidden from residents and visitors alike. On this hike, we’ll discover some of this hidden history – as revealed in the recently published “History of Rock Creek Park”, by Scott Einberger. Entering the park from Connecticut Avenue via the Melvin Hazen Trail, we’ll first traverse the southern bluffs section of the park, exploring the fall zone via the Western Ridge and Valley Trails. Here we’ll learn about a skinny-dipping president and the naming of Boulder Bridge, pre-Colonial quartz mining, the mills of the valley and other bits of Rock Creek trivia. Eventually, we’ll make our way up to Fort DeRussy via the horse trails, where we’ll talk about the fort’s critical role in the Civil War Battle of Fort Stevens.

This is a moderate hike of about 7.5 miles. The route has several ups-and-downs, and there’s also a bit of an optional rock scramble.

I recommend that folks each carry 2 liters of water; Bring along trail snacks and lunch, which we’ll eat somewhere along the way. A bathroom break/pit stop will be made at the Nature Center.
In hindsight, I would have added a few more qualifying statements, such as "there will be several stream crossings, one made more difficult due my poor route choice, the result of my failure to scout the hike in both directions." But everyone made it from Cleveland Park Metro through the national park and back again without losing a limb and with a smile on their collective face, so I'd say I achieved my overall goal while experiencing some real learning-in-action.

With "The 2 Anns", along the AT Bear's Den Rocks during SCPRO retreat
Having led more than 60 group hikes in the mid-Atlantic over the past two years, I was confident I could achieve my goals. I'm glad I'll have the chance to apply what I learned today on my next hike, coming up in December.

By the way, I didn't take any photos of today's hike, because I asked at the beginning if anyone minded being in group photos snapped along the way that might be posted on my blogs or social media domains I manage, and one person raised their hand. My hikes are all about inclusion, so I certainly didn't want to be someone managing an exclusionary process when I needed to focus on - as a host - making sure everyone felt they were part of an experience worthwhile.

My next hike will be December 20, time and place to be determined. Check out SCPRO on MeetUp and Hiking Megalopolis on Facebook for more info.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

From the PATC to the Sierra Club - for me it's about leadership

by Brian Schwarz

I'm looking forward to improving my outdoor skills this weekend, taking a class that leads to becoming a Sierra Club Outings Leader. Part mountain survival, part Leave No Trace, part leadership, the class is set at a hostel out on the eastern edge of the Appalachian's central valley in Northern Virginia, at a spot where some of the lowest mountains of the Appalachian Range rise to lift the AT off the floor of the Shenandoah Valley.

From the PATC to the Sierra Club - it's all about becoming a better leader
As a kid, I backpacked and camped somewhere in those eastern valley hills, though I believe it was a little further south of where I'll be hostel-crashing this weekend. It was sometime around my transition to Boy Scouts when I was here before. I was a pre-teen, or really I guess I was transitioning, becoming a teen. I just remember being confused about the experience of camping and couldn't really focus on whatever it was that I was supposed to be getting out of the whole thing.

The feeling? Awkward. I hadn't been in school long enough to make friends, so I just developed a crush on my patrol leader and did anything he asked me to do, with enthusiasm. I made it through. But I ended up with chaffing in very uncomfortable spots because I wasn't that great at managing personal hygiene in a simulated wilderness environment. We slept in wet tents down by the creek, at a clearing in the woods, with a field nearby for capture the flag, somewhere with no bathrooms, just a swell in the creek big enough for group bathing.

I had no idea over time it would prove to be one of the most significant of my personal experiences growing up in terms of providing a richness, texture and framework to my life that always brings me back to concepts I learned in scouting.

Hence, the blog Man of Merit where I am trying to go back and finish all the merit badges I'd not been able to complete when I was that confused transitioning teen; I'm working to fill in the gaps as I explore the art of living in the great outdoors. First the PATC Trail Patrol Training. Now this.

I feel like I finally get it. Now I'm ready to camp.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Challenge of Outfitting the Big Man for an Active Outdoor Lifestyle

by Brian Schwarz

Outfitting the big man for an active outdoor lifestyle is a challenge, to put it mildly. First, big and tall stores don't cater to the active outdoor lifestyle. Heck, they don't even acknowledge that some big guys are active and even fit. The assumption is perhaps, hey, you're big, so just go and put on these stretchy-waist jeans so you can look decent while standing in front of a barbecue grill, be comfortable tucking into the table when you're done, and not pop your buttons when you plop down on the couch for your after meal nap.

Rocking my Columbia Omni-Tech shell and Columbia fleece mid-layer
Sorry for sounding bitter, but as an active big man who feels he has been abandoned by retailers to make due with maybe one style and two colors for a pair of active shorts and a moisture wicking shirt - if I'm lucky enough to find even that - I think I've got the right to be a bit perturbed.

The thing is, I hike mountains. I backpack. I ride a mountain bike. I rollerblade. I'm even getting interested in kayaking and stand up paddleboard. And yes, I weigh between 280 and 310 lbs. And my is a XXL.

The thing is, though, most outdoor apparel companies don't manufacture their clothes up to a men's XXL. And if they do, their idea of an XXL is more like a slim-fit XL. And even then, lots of stores don't carry anything bigger than an XL, so I'm shit out of luck if I don't go online and take my chances that whatever I order might fit.

That being said, I have found a few brands that I can more or less count on. Columbia is by far my go-to brand for outerwear and mid-layer apparel, including waterproof and breathable shells and cozy fleece mid-layers. Champion has several options for moisture-wicking skin layers. And the REI store brand has a couple of options for me in shorts and long hiking pants. I rely on Woolrich and Eddie Bauer for button down shirts and other insulation layer items.

 Still, the selection in my size is frustrating. I'm often jealous of the broad array of styles and rainbow of color options available to those XL and under. Several years ago, before twisting my ankle while hiking a rocky trail at the Delaware Water Gap, I had lost enough weight to comfortably fit into an XL - and I'll tell you I was in clothes shopping heaven for about two years. But after that injury I put on 50 pounds. Afterward I have been struggling to take the weight back off. I feel if I had more options for affordable performance clothes in my size I would be even more active than I am now.

I'm willing to spend the money for better performing clothes that make my physical activity more comfortable. But the brands with superior performance that I really want to add to my wardrobe - The North Face, Patagonia, Millet and others - are just not available to me as I continue my lifelong fitness journey and try to shed these excess pounds to get me back to a size that is more healthy for me in the first place.

In short, outfitting the big man for an active outdoor lifestyle is a challenge. It can be done. But I feel it should be easier. The availability of performance clothing in bigger sizes from major active outdoor brands would make my life easier as well as the millions of others around the globe who are struggling to overcome obesity.

Brian Schwarz is a freelance writer, trail guide and outfitter based in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hiking Merit Badge Earned; Now Let's Go Backpacking!

by Brian Schwarz

I'm ready to move on from the Hiking Merit Badge requirements and begin with Backpacking. The fact is that even though I didn't do the 20-mile hike as prescribed in the Boy Scout Requirements for the Hiking Merit Badge, I have more than earned it. Besides the fact that I've planned and executed several hundred hikes, including more than 60 during which I led groups), I also have to consider the level of difficulty of the hikes I've done.
Boy Scouts of America Hiking Merit Badge
The average 20 miler executed by a Boy Scout is along fairly level terrain. According to the Sierra Club hike rating system, this means one of these typical hikes could be rated as low as 20 if there is no significant elevation change (1 point equals 1 mile). Every 400 feet of elevation gain and/or loss is also equal to one point.

Case in point, in June of 2012 I planned and executed a hike to the South Summit of Sandia Mountain in New Mexico. This hike was 10 miles out and back, but with 3,000 feet of elevation gain and 3,000 feet of elevation loss, the hike would be rated at 25 - higher than what would be required by the 20 mile hike done on relatively flat terrain. And this was not even my most strenuous hike. Later I hiked the South Summit from a different route - a 12 miler with 4,000 feet elevation gain and 4,000 feet loss - which would have been rated as a 32 on the Sierra Club hike rating scale.

So with that, I am ready to move on. I consider the Hiking Merit Badge requirements to be complete and am excitedly moving on to Backpacking. Stay tuned as I ramp up to tackle this beast of a badge!

PS - I'm not giving up on doing a 20 miler or even completing the three-day 30 mile challenge I set for myself in a previous post. I simply realized that those two things were not necessary for me to consider this Hiking Merit Badge challenge complete for myself based on all that I have accomplished in hiking over the course of recent years. I'm just ready for this new challenge to begin and am setting my sights firmly on completing it. Next weekend I complete training to become an official member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Trail Patrol and in November I train to become a Sierra Club outdoor leader. I've also taken a job where I'll be exposed to all the best outdoor gear, so it is time for me to give my full focus to this and other new challenges.

Brian Schwarz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Way to old to be an actual Boy Scout, Brian has set a goal to complete the requirements of Eagle Scout by his 50th birthday in August of 2021. While some slight modifications are made to the requirements along the way, the spirit of the Boy Scouts guide all efforts Brian has on his journey, living life as a Man of Merit.