Monday, December 19, 2011

Sun sets on our time in the New England woods (as the sun's reborn at yuletide!)

As I write, warm rays pour through the study window as the sun begins its descent along a now familiar arc, here in the Weston woods. We’re fast approaching the sun’s rebirth, winter solstice. Until then, each day’s sun seems to race ever quicker toward the western treetops, where it lives on, filtered, for about an hour, until it finally gasps its way into night.

Sun sets, rays filtered by the Weston woods
This evening’s sunset will be more significant to me than most, because it will be the last I experience as a New England resident, here in the northern woods and forests. Until last week, this time of day would have seen me wandering about Cat Rock and 80 Acre, or perhaps somewhere in the Middlesex Fells. But today the cold air, and my need to focus on preparing for our move, keeps me indoors.

While I love it here in New England, and elsewhere in these northern climes, by Thanksgiving I’m usually too affected by the shortened days to remain so far north. This year we have been lucky, and sunny warm days had been the norm until about a week ago. No matter that things have turned cold now, though, as by the New Year, the sun will be closer to me, in both latitude and altitude. And once again I’ll be outside among nature each day at sunset – so long as my work schedule allows.

Living here has afforded such an opportunity for me, and I’m forever indebted to the kind people who opened their home for these few months as we transition to our new life on the subtropical steppe of New Mexico. Having places to hike so close to home has truly opened up a new world for me. I feel more connected to nature, understand the importance of conservation and community and feel more fit than I ever have in my life.

I look forward to living in an even more hiking-friendly place (if one exists!) and continuing to incorporate hiking into other interests I have, like camping, wilderness survival, Leave No Trace living and teamwork and leadership. I’m also excited to continue pursuing the goals of this blog and becoming each day more a man of merit.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Camping: Time to pitch the tent?

We opted for a two-man tent, on sale for $20
This begins the Camping thread of Man of Merit. I recently bought a two-man tent for twenty bucks at Bass Pro Shops. The plan was to have something basic, so on our road trip from Florida to Massachusetts last summer we could save money by staying at campgrounds instead of motels. We didn’t use the tent once, choosing to sofa surf instead because finding an appropriate campground was a daunting task since we were traveling with dogs (and because neither of us had been camping for years).

Nearly six months after we bought it, we’re heading out on another much-longer road trip, and we probably still will not be using it. Still, once we’re out in Albuquerque we will definitely try it out on an overnight trip one weekend in January. Of course, before that happens, I need to learn (or re-learn) a few things about camping equipment, backpacks, sleeping bags and the like.

I’ll start now by focusing on the first three of 10 progressively difficult requirements. According to the web site Boy Scout Trail, these are:

  1. Show that you know first aid for and how to prevent injuries or illnesses that could occur while camping, including hypothermia, frostbite, heat reactions, dehydration, altitude sickness, insect stings, tick bites, snakebites, blisters, and hyperventilation.
  2. Learn the Leave No Trace principles and the Outdoor Code and explain what they mean. Write a personal plan for implementing these principles on your next outing.
  3. Make a written plan for an overnight trek and show how to get to your camping spot using a topographical map and compass, or a topographical map and a GPS receiver.
Actually, tonight I’ll start by reading the tent’s assembly instructions. Then tomorrow I may take it to the back yard to lay out the parts and verify I’ve got all necessary equipment, perhaps even setting it up, sort of test my knowledge before I’ll need it in the field. Meanwhile, I’ll start considering the overnight trek plan as well, so I’ll be ready to camp the first chance I get once settled in The Land of Enchantment.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hiking: To miss lush New England is to love arid New Mexico!

We pack the car and move to the Great American Southwest next week, and I have to admit, I'm really going to miss living in the Northeastern Coastal Forests Ecoregion. Hiking these hills and mountains of New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, I've never felt more connected to the source of all that supports our fragile existence in Megalopolis. Trees that clean the air we breathe. Precious, clean water. Wildlife living in balance with us. Still, I'm fraught with anticipation of what life will bring us down in the subtropical steppe, somewhere between the Chihuahuan Desert and the Southern Rockies. Less water for sure. But the hiking should be phenomenal!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hiking: Third 10-mile report - Middlesex Fells (Skyline, Rock Circuit and Cross Fells trails)

Well, I did it! I finally completed my third 10-mile hike! I drove to the nearby Middlesex Fells Reservation today and hiked a 10-mile lopsided dumbbell loop (that’s two loops, one larger than the other, linked at the middle by an out-and-back connector trail).

I dropped off Khizer at work in Watertown at 9 a.m. and drove about 30 minutes to the Long Pond trail head on South Border Road in Winchester. I had set out on the trail in the western Fells by 9:35 a.m., starting off by heading north on the Skyline Trail. I was considering starting off on the more rugged south loop, but I got discombobulated at the Skyline crossroads and so I looped around the North Reservoir and passed through Sheepfold just after 11.

Then, I crossed over to the eastern Fells via the Cross Fells Trail at I-93 and reached the Rock Circuit Trail in under an hour. I started on the southern half of the Rock Circuit Trail and reached the other side (along East Border Road) by 12:30 p.m. It was then, somewhere near the halfway point of the day’s hike, in the eastern Fells, that I came across a geologist from a local university who was doing an experiment on felsitic rock in the area.

I asked for the geologist's card and told him I was interested in knowing more about basalt deposits in the Fells. He was then generous enough to take me on a short side hike to a spot on the Rock Circuit Trail that featured a basalt ridge formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. It was pretty cool to realize the rock I was standing on was from the Paleozoic Era.

I left the geologist around 1 p.m. and started my return to the western Fells, taking the Cross Fells Trail all the way back under the interstate. From here I completed the Skyline Trail loop doing the southern half.

I made it back to the Long Pond parking area just before sunset, just around 4:10 p.m. Overall, it was an amazing day - sunny, but cold, hovering somewhere above freezing, but not quite 40 degrees. By the end of the day I felt a bit chilled and chapped. Still, I ended up not needing the extra layers I'd packed. The long-sleeve cotton t-shirt and thermal moisture-wicking base I wore was plenty.

At the end of the trail I had such a sense of accomplishment. My first 10-mile hike in the Blue Hills a few weeks ago seemed like a fluke. Then, the second 10 miler was much less rugged than the first, mostly on roads, so it felt easier, though still an accomplishment. But after this third 10-miler, I realize that this is the kind of stuff I’m capable of on a regular basis. Ten miles is not as difficult as it seems when you first set off on the trail. And by the time you arrive at trail's end, you wish you still had more trail time before the sun fell to dusk.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hiking: Ready to do my third 10-miler

Seven days ago I reported that I'd begun to suffer from plantar fasciitis. I took the problem seriously, seeking advice from a nurse practitioner, and I began icing my foot regularly and doing more stretching before and after activity. Despite last weekend's near perfect weather, I took two days off to treat my foot. Then, I began hiking again, limiting myself to about three or four miles each day in nearby Cat Rock Park. The foot's feeling a lot better, though I'm not at 100 percent. Still, I feel I'm ready to set out tomorrow on my third 10-mile hike.

For the most part, I will follow the trip plan outlined in a November 21 post titled "Hiking: Third 10-mile trip plan - Middlesex Fells, Skyline Trail with sections of Cross Fells and Rock Circuit". I will, however, make a few changes. The original plan includes a .08-mile spur to Bear Hill Tower. I will cut this part out and limit my hike to a fairly exact 10 miles. I will start out at the same parking lot mentioned in the original post, but I may head south from the Skyline Trail head instead of north so I can do the more challenging parts of the trail early on in the hike rather than saving them for the end.

I'm really looking forward to accomplishing this third 10-miler. Tomorrow's weather will be cold with "feels-like" temperatures in the high 30s, but fairly sunny (mostly cloudy until around noon and partly cloudy in the afternoon). I will set out on the trail at 9:30 a.m., which gives me about 6.5 hours to accomplish my 10-mile goal. If for some reason I'm running later than expected, I have planned out alternate routes where I can exit the reservation and continue hiking on lit streets, but I don't expect time to be an issue.

I plan on doing one more of these long hikes  here in Massachusetts before we move to Albuquerque at the end of the year. Then, I'll just have one more 10-miler and a 20-miler to do in order to satisfy the active portions of the BSA hiking merit badge requirements. I am fulfilling the other parts of the requirements - which is where a scout would normally discuss aspects of the requirements with a scoutmaster - in a thread, called Hiking 101. This thread will cover hiking safety, first aid, Leave No Trace hiking and hiking etiquette.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hiking: My advanced weapon to overcome obesity

Hiking is the most amazing fat-burning I've found. At my current weight of 264, I burn more than 1,000 calories during an 80-minute cross-country hike (and I hike three times that amount at least twice a week). That's insane. Yes, I realize those who do cardio machines at the gym may already be aware of how intense this calorie-burning thing works, but I could just never get into machines. Hiking hills close to home is the only way I'm going to be able to overcome obesity once and for all. Thirty-seven pounds to go!

If you're interested in calculated the number of calories you can burn by hiking, according to your current weight, check out the hiking fitness calculator at Self Magazine.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Hiking: Stretch those calves to avoid heel pain!

I woke up this morning excitedly anticipating my third 10-mile hike, but as I stepped out of bed and made my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth I got a sharp jolt of pain at the rear of my right heel. I get this from time to time, but usually I just walk it out and it feels better after 30 minutes or so. But after I’d dressed, packed my bag with the day’s rations and headed out the door, the pain persisted, so much so that I limped my way to the car.

Khizer, who last night made a joke saying, “Should I call the police?” when I mentioned, “My heel is killing me,” turned from comedian to nursemaid when he saw me struggling to walk normally. He’s a runner and no stranger to foot issues, so when he suggested I ice it I knew it was a good idea. But I wanted to know why it was hurting in the first place, so when we stopped at Starbucks to use a couple of our free coffee coupons I got online and did a Google search to see if I could find information on the type of pain I was feeling.

I typed in “hiking heel pain” and followed a link to a site called SportzDoc with an article titled Diagnosing Heel Pain. Within seconds I was able to find what was causing my problem – over time I have been developing a condition called plantar fasciitis. According to SportzDoc, pain caused by plantar fasciitis “arises from an overstretching of a ligament under the arch of your foot, called the plantar fascia”.

This overstretching causes inflammation, and it is apparently a problem common for those with pronated or flat feet, which I definitely don’t have. But it is also a problem if you have very tight calves, which according to the site places the fascia under even greater tension.

The problem may require medical attention, according to SportzDoc, as heel spurs may also be a problem here. But I believe in my case it’s due to the tight calves from so much hiking and not enough stretching pre- and post-hike.  According to the site, “You will do well to change the mechanical factors that make this condition worse: stretch those tight calf muscles, use shoes with a slightly higher heel as well as slippers at home (this reduces the tension on the tense fascia), and use insoles that help to support those tired and flattening arches.”

Sounds like good advice to me! So this afternoon I’m going to do some research on calf stretches and report on my findings in a follow-up blog post later today – after doing the stretches myself, of course. I’m hoping I’ll be able to reduce the inflammation today so I can get out tomorrow or at the latest on Sunday to complete my third 10 miler. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hiking 101: Get started with this great aerobic activity

Hiking is a great way to get into shape and increase your fitness level over time. It is an excellent aerobic exercise, and according to the Mayo Clinic – the world-renown research hospital – it can help you increase your stamina, ward off viral illnesses, strengthen your heart, keep your arteries clear, boost your mood and even help you live longer.

But not only is hiking a great aerobic exercise, it also works a variety of muscles in your legs, core, and even your upper body, so hiking also helps you build fat-burning muscle – all while you have fun in the outdoors. (To find out how many calories you will burn while hiking, check out the Calories Burned Calculator at Self Magazine online.)

Many towns feature hikes - look for signs like this near you!
Before hitting the trails, though, it is important to evaluate your current fitness level and create a hiking fitness plan that works for you. Before starting any new exercise routine, it is best to consult a physician. Even then, it is best to start slow and increase your intensity over time.

If you are used to a sedentary lifestyle, the first step begins by walking out of your front door. Make your way down to the end of the block and back. Do this once a day for a few days, and then increase the distance incrementally until you are capable of walking a mile round trip with ease. It is best to stick to the sidewalk when you are first starting out. But if there is no sidewalk in your neighborhood, remember to walk on the left side of the street against traffic for safety.

You can figure out street distance by counting your steps – a mile is about 2,000 steps – or use a website like MapMyWalk or Mapquest. Once you can comfortably walk a mile along the street, it is time to look into suitable off-road walks. You can find these in local parks or conservation areas near your home. Do a Google search by typing in the name of your city or town and the words “local hikes”. Chances are there are other people in your community who have already done the work for you by posting the best places to hike, including distances, geographical features of the land and difficulty level.

Stay tuned for articles on hiking at Man of Merit.

Hiking: Exploring 80 Acre Woods, counting my steps

Hilly wilderness, so close to home, in 80 Acre Woods
This morning I decided to do an experiment to see if I could estimate the distance I walk based on the number of steps I take. I measured a quarter mile on the street in front of my house and walked it - it took 500 normal steps. Then, I headed out and counted my steps as I explored the nearby woods.

The area by the house is called Cat Rock and 80 Acre Woods. It's an amazing place that in the three or so months we've lived here I haven't fully explored. Today I walked as far as I could, to the northwest corner of Weston and into Lincoln. I discovered that the walk was 4.5 miles there and back, or about 9,000 steps.

I currently walk at least 20 miles per week, usually more. Based on an article I read recently, in order to maintain optimum fitness you should walk at least 10,000 steps, or five miles, per day. That would be 35 miles per week, which is the goal I'm currently working up to. My new year's resolution, in fact, will be to walk 1,800 miles in 2012.

Near trail's end on Lincoln Land, past 80 Acre Woods
The hike I did today has a fair amount of elevation gain, probably between 300 and 400 feet, so it really gets your heart pumping, especially during the first half. I plan on adding this hike to my regular rotation. Next time I do it I'll time it so I can get a good idea as to my average speed for a typical cross-country hike.

Tomorrow I plan on heading out to do my third 10-mile hike as part of my quest to fulfill the requirements for the BSA hiking merit badge. I hope one day this blog will inspire others to get out there and start hiking for fitness.

I am still in the planning stages for my fourth and fifth 10 milers. And I haven't even begun to seriously consider the 20-mile hike I will need to complete in order to satisfy all the merit badge requirements. I do know, however, that the final 10 miler as well as the 20 miler will probably be completed in New Mexico after our move there at the end of the year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hiking: Staying fit and preparing for next 10 miler

Urban hiking with Khizer in Hanover, PA
I've been hiking quite a bit these past few weeks to stay fit and prepare myself for my next 10-miler, which I plan to do sometime within the next week, and possibly tomorrow.

Last week I did a five-mile urban hike on Thanksgiving day, in Hanover, PA, the town where I went to high school and where my mom and brother still live. And on Black Friday, I went with Khizer and my brother Zach to the town of Harper's Ferry, WV, where we did a rigorous 5.5-mile hike. 

For the Harper's Ferry hike we parked at the offices of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on Camp Hill to do an out and back trek to the Overlook Cliffs at Maryland Heights. We hiked down to the old town through Harper Cemetery and then along the AT to follow the rail road tracks to cross the Potomac. From the Maryland side we followed the old C&O Canal path to the trail head to Maryland Heights, where we hiked to the cliffs and enjoyed spectacular views of the town and Shenandoah Valley beyond.

Zach and Khizer overlooking Harper's Ferry, WV
Back in Massachusetts, I did another 5-plus mile hike along the entire Rock Circuit Trail in the Middlesex Fells with friends on Sunday. On Tuesday, Khizer and I did a four-miler exploring Tippling Rock and the trails at the Nobscot Boy Scout Reservation. And then today I did a three-mile hike, this time in the eastern Fells.

Tomorrow, I will plan to do at least a 7-mile hike. To date I haven't completed the Skyline Trail in the Fells, which is the major part of my planned third 10-miler. If I feel up to it, I will follow my prepared 10-mile hike plan. But because of time constraints I will probably opt to just do the Skyline.

Hiking is keeping me in great shape, and I've noticed that each time I hit the trails I'm breathing easier than the time before and feeling like I can go further and further. Time is really what's keeping me from doing more frequent long hikes (hikes of five miles or more). But I'm certainly achieving my goal of hiking 20 miles per week, so I'm glad about that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hiking: Thanksgiving 5-mile hike plan

Home for the holiday, and I've already enjoyed homemade chili, golden potato bake, pork chops and several snickerdoodles. So I've decided to start off Thanksgiving day with a nice long hike to make sure I don't unwittingly pack on unwanted pounds after enjoying tomorrow's feast of turkey, all the trimmings and mom's home-baked apple and pumpkin pies.

I won't be able to do a 10-miler - there's just not enough time since most of the family won't be joining me and being anti-social won't cut it on this brief visit home. No, a nice five-miler will do just fine.

Khizer will be joining me, of course, but so far no one else from the family has shown any interest. I have, though, put out the following invite to friends via Facebook:
Hey Hanoverians...join us in the morning for a five-mile Thanksgiving hike! We're walking from the Hanover YMCA down past the hospital and old Eichelberger school to the library, then down Railroad Street to the Famous Hot Wiener, where we'll turn up Broadway and head to Moul Field. From there we'll take the Hanover Trolley Rail Trail to Wilson Avenue and head northwest on Wilson past Hanover High to end up back at the Y. Meet up at 8:30 a.m. Let me know if you're coming!
I hope to get another couple of hikers to tag along, but even if not Khizer and I will have a great time exploring the old town and checking out a bit of the rail trail. Then on Friday we hope to get out to the woods, either at Maryland Heights down by Harper's Ferry, WV, or Chimney Rocks in Michaux State Forest here in the south central Pennsylvania. Both of those hikes would include portions of the Appalachian Trail, and I've got hope that my brother Zach will join us on that one.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hiking: A passion ignited on Mount Monadnock

When I moved to Massachusetts in August of this year, I already knew I wanted to take up hiking. Living in flat Florida just wasn't cutting it. I longed for long walks with payoff - the kind you get from reaching the summit.

At Monadnock's summit, October 2011
The first mountain I climbed was Mount Monadnock. It rises above southern New Hampshire to 3,165 feet and is visible on a clear day from my favorite hills in the Middlesex Fells and even as far south as the Blue Hills, where, from the bald top of Buck Hill, you can see it by looking northwest - it lies just to the right of Watchung Mountain on the distant skyline.

I first went to Monadnock with friends on a rainy day in September, but we were turned back by the slippery terrain just about a half mile up the two-mile long White Dot Trail, not even to the point where the White Cross Trail splits from it. But I went back later that week, alone, determined to make it to the summit.

When I made it just past treeline I was excited to find such an incredible view to the south. I could see Watchung, and the ponds of north central Massachusetts seemed to scatter in all directions just below my perch. I almost said, that's enough, and considered turning back for fear I just wasn't ready to go all the way. But something inside me said, no, you've got to try!

So I pressed on, and in just two hours almost to the minute, I made it. Here is what I wrote in my journal there at the peak:
Goal accomplished! Sitting atop Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, the Western Hemisphere's most climbed mountain at 3,165 ft. elevation. Started at 12:20 today at the ranger's station at the bottom of the White Dot Trail, some 1,765 feet and about two miles below. Arrived exactly two hours later and am now optimistically dreading the descent. This hill is a bear! Steep, rocky and at points slippery. Plus, its trails are jam-packed with silly people talking about bull**** like jobs, real estate and the world of finance. Can't they see what's around them? Nature, friends, family. Why not talk of these things, and of love, or better, enjoy the silence? I wish only for some silence right now, but believe it or not it sounds like the inside of a bar - with the rush of wind the only natural vibration. Thank God for the wind!
Trail map, Mount Monadnock, New Hampshire
I took the White Cross Trail down, and at the bottom I felt like a victor. I overcame a great fear that day, and the success at Monadnock fueled my confidence to try longer and equally difficult hikes (Still, I have not had such a difficult hike as Monadnock, except perhaps my first ten-mile hike along the Skyline Trail in Blue Hills last week, which was longer and very rocky and rugged, but not nearly as steep for such an extended period of time).

I'm posting here the trail map of Mount Monadnock. I would recommend this hike to anyone. I saw children complete it that day, which isn't to say it is easy but rather to encourage you that you can do it! Just get out there and try!

Hiking: Third 10-mile trip plan - Middlesex Fells, Skyline Trail with sections of Cross Fells and Rock Circuit

For my third 10-mile hike I will be doing the Skyline Trail loop and part of the Cross Fells Trail and Rock Circuit Trail entirely within the Middlesex Fells Reservation. According to the Massachusetts Trail Guide, 9th edition, published by the Appalachian Trail Club, the Skyline Trail itself is 6.8 miles. With the portions of the Cross Fells and Rock Circuit I describe below, the total hike will be about 10.8 miles if not longer.

 I’ll start at the Long Pond parking area on South Border Road at around 8 a.m. and take Molly’s Spring Road a short distance to where it connects with the Skyline Trail. From there I’ll follow the north branch as it circles up and around the Middle and North reservoirs. On the east side of North Reservoir I will take the Bear Hill Trail spur to Bear Hill Tower. I’ll then reconnect to the Skyline Trail and continue south to where it meets up with the Cross Fells Trail at Brooks Road.

Crossing Fellsway West and going under Interstate 93, the Cross Fells Trail continues heading east through Wright’s Park until it reaches Woodland Road just past Quarter Mile Pond. Shortly after crossing Woodland Road, I’ll reach the Rock Circuit Trail and take the southern portion of this loop down past Boojum Rock and Bears Den and back north to where it reconnects with the Cross Fells Trail at Fellsway East. I’ll then take the Cross Fells Trail west again, back to where it connects with the Skyline Trail in the western Fells and will continue the southern loop to Wright’s Tower atop Pine Hill.

From the tower, I’ll continue west and north on the Skyline Trail as it runs just below South Reservoir. I will complete the Skyline Trail loop as it once again reaches Molly’s Spring Road, at which point I will follow that road back out to the parking area.

I plan to undertake this hike during late autumn when the days are short, so I will need to keep up a good pace despite the hilly and rugged nature of this intense Fells hike. I’ll be prepared as I have been for the previous two hikes with plenty of rations, layered clothing and a change of socks, which I’ve found has been essential for my feet to remain comfortable, dry and blister-free, particularly after about seven miles on the trail.

I’m not sure when this hike will take place, as I’m heading to Pennsylvania for the Thanksgiving holiday. But rest assured I will do it on the first suitable day I have available either the last week of November or, at the latest, the first week of December.

To keep in shape for this hike, I will continue my habit of hiking between three and five miles per day interspersed throughout each seven-day period to total at least 20 miles per week. In fact, even while on vacation, I will maintain my schedule by hiking part of the Appalachian trail to Chimney Rocks in the Michaux State Forest of south central Pennsylvania and another part of the AT to the overlook of Harper’s Ferry at Maryland Heights.

More about my mission

The aim of this blog is highlighted in the first post, On becoming a man of merit (November 17, 2011). In that post, I mentioned that - as a middle-aged man - I'm trying to complete requirements for several BSA merit badges, ones that I would have liked to have completed before I dropped out of the Boy Scouts organization for personal reasons in the 1980s. But I'd like to explain more about my goals here.

This blog will follow my progress as I work to complete the requirements for the 12 most important merit badges in the BSA, those that are required to earn the Eagle Scout rank. Twenty-one badges are required in all, but according to the Boy Scout Handbook, these 12 must be earned:

  1. First Aid
  2. Citizenship in the Community
  3. Citizenship in the Nation
  4. Citizenship in the World
  5. Communications
  6. Personal Fitness
  7. Emergency Preparedness OR Lifesaving
  8. Environmental Science
  9. Personal Management
  10. Swimming OR Hiking OR Cycling
  11. Camping, and
  12. Family Life

First, I have decided to start by pursuing the requirements for the Hiking merit badge. I am also very interested in earning the Personal Fitness badge, since fitness is one of my primary passions (see Fitness400). First Aid and Emergency Preparedness are also on my short range list, as is Camping. The others I will also work on in turn.

I don't currently have any friends who are involved with the Boy Scouts, but if anyone finds this blog who is in the organization, I would appreciate your input. This is going to be a fun project, and I am excited to see what I'll be able to accomplish with what I learn through the process of becoming a man of merit!

Dance to Death

This is a poem I wrote in October of this year - a month ago today, in fact - while sitting on a rock on the Skyline Trail about three-quarters of the way up the western slop of Great Blue Hill in the Blue Hills Reservation, south of Boston. I originally posted this on my blog Fitness400, which follows my 160-pound weight loss journey over the past two years, but thought it would be fitting on this blog as well. It gives insight into what inspires me to do the things I'm doing.

Dance to Death
by Brian Schwarz

Dying things are all around
As soon as birth, then death abounds
Not just in the devil's touch
But God, through death, has taught us much

To love and care and fill our days
With life and laughs and curious ways
And all the time we've got is ours
Till finally we've marked the hours

So dance to death; fly, be free
March your way down to the sea
Then back again to mountain tops
Take on life with all you've got!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hiking: Second 10-mile report - Weston to Lincoln and Concord

Pastoral scenery along Conant Road
Today I did my second 10-mile hike. This time was a bit easier than my first hike along the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills, which was extremely rocky and hilly terrain. I only climbed one large hill today – Cat Rock – and that was toward the beginning of the hike.

I started out at 12:40 p.m. from the house where I’m staying on Page Road in Weston, Mass., and headed straight into the woods to cut through Weston Conservation Lands, connecting Weston to Lincoln on Conant Road. The remainder of my hike would be along roadways and well maintained paths.

Once I reached Conant Road I was treated to some spectacular rural scenery around the Valley Pond and Valley Brook areas. I hooked a right from Conant onto Weston Road and passed by Browning Fields. Along this stretch I was surprised to see so many baby boomers out on the road cycling, jogging, and walking. I even saw a couple in their 60s using rock-climbing gear to climb a tree in their yard. It was interesting to say the least!

Pierce Mansion
As I reached the Lincoln Center, I decided to enjoy my lunch on a picnic table beside an elegant Georgian mansion – the Pierce House – in the adjacent Pierce Park. This was the four-mile mark, and my legs were getting tired, but I was excited to press on.

Spot where Lincoln Minutemen mustered
I passed the Lincoln Library and further on a stone marking the place where the famed Lincoln Minutemen mustered to march north to be the first militia to battle the British along the Battle Road. I walked northward feeling strengthened somehow by knowing the history and the strength of those men who marched here more than 200 years ago facing uncertainty in their brave attempt to forge a new nation.

About a mile and a half north I crossed Massachusetts Route 2, and then soon I was entering Minute Man National Historic Park. My first impression of the park was the Captain William Smith House at the corner of Bedford Road and North Great Road. Smith was the commander of the Lincoln Minute Men and Abigail Adams’ brother.

I turned left on the old battle road here and continued down toward the Samuel Hartwell House site. On this path I read a vivid description of the British Column, close to 700 soldiers that took up about 300 yards of the road as they marched from Meriam’s Corner in Concord to Boston Harbor. It sent chills down my spine.

British soldier on Battle Road
I then headed off the Battle Road to continue west on North Great Road, which turns into Lexington Road as it moves into Concord before Meriam’s Corner. It was getting dark, but along Lexington Road I enjoyed more pastoral scenes, including the sun setting on the historic farm behind Noah Brooks’ Tavern, and a bit farther down the road near Meriam’s Corner, the Palumbo Farm.

Once I passed the intersection of Lexington Road and Old Bedford Road, known as the aforementioned Meriam’s Corner, I was just two miles from Concord center, where I would catch the train back to Kendal Green. But still some surprises were in store. On my way into town I passed by the Grapevine Cottage, home of Ephraim Wales Bull, originator of the Concord Grape, The Wayside, home of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Orchard House, home of the Alcotts and the famous “Little Women”.

By this time it was starting to get dark. Fortunately, there was a walkway along the road where I could stay safely out of the way of traffic, which wasn't the case for much of the time I spent on the roads today. Still, I picked up my pace despite the extreme soreness I was beginning to feel in my knees and calf muscles.

Sun sets on Palumbo Farm
Finally, I made it to Concord, where I made my way down Main Street to Thoreau Street and the commuter rail station. I arrived just before 5 p.m., an hour before I anticipated. My total trip time was just over four hours. I calculated my pace at about 2.5 miles per hour, given two stops I made to refuel along the way. Since I was early for the train, I waited at the Starbucks down the street.

All in all, it was an amazing day. I feel I’m pushing my limits while at the same time seeing my limits being stretched out farther and farther in the distance. Who knows what I’m capable of, but one this is for sure: After a few more of these 10 milers, I’ll be ready to take on a 20-mile hike without hardly breaking a sweat!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hiking: Second 10-mile trip plan - Kendal Green to Concord via Lincoln

For my second ten mile hike in my quest to fulfill the requirements of the BSA Hiking Merit Badge, I've chosen a route that is a mixture of trails and country roads, leading from where I’m living, on Page Road in the Kendal Green neighborhood of Weston, Mass., to the Concord Station, at 90 Thoreau Street in Concord.  I will pass through Cat Rock Park and take trails that connect Weston and Lincoln at Conant Road. I’ll follow Conant briefly before taking Lincoln town trails the back route to cross Silver Hill Road and continue on through to Bedford Road and Lincoln town center.

At the library in Lincoln, I will continue north on Bedford Street to the Cambridge Turnpike (Massachusetts Route 2), where three quarters of a mile on I will reach North Great Road and the Minuteman National Historical Park. I will head west from here along the old Battle Road to Main Street and Concord town center. I’ll catch the train from there back to Kendal Green.

The total mileage of this trip is about eleven miles. I’ll pack snacks and extra clothing as I did for my previous hike, but since I will not be able to head out until around 1 p.m., I will take along a flashlight to be prepared. By the time the sun sets I should be in a populous area near Concord, but I don’t want to take any chances.

I’ll navigate using the GPS on my phone when needed but will primarily depend on maps. I’ll carry the Trail Map of Lincoln, Mass., which I purchased from the town office, and the map of the Minuteman National Historic Park, which I picked up for free at the downtown Boston Freedom Trail National Parks office. I’ll also carry the Boston Western Suburbs Map (GM Johnson City Map Series) and the MBTA System Map (including a schedule for the Fitchburg/Acton Line).

I estimate the hike should take around four hours, since the elevation gains will be only slight, and I will not be hiking on a rocky or rugged surface for the majority of it. Also, I’m considering about a half hour may be spent taking photos and sightseeing along the way.

Tomorrow night I’ll post a follow-up to this one. Until then…

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hiking: First 10-mile report - Blue Hills, Skyline Trail

I have to admit, I was prepared for failure. But with each step I took, the feeling grew inside me that giving up was not an option. There was too much riding on this after all. Alone in the woods it was just me. Well, there was me and the occasional squirrel or chipmunk, and a random white-tailed deer. But in my head, there were all the people along the way who have watched me progress to the point I’m at now; For me, and for them, I was not going to stop until I’d hiked that final 10th mile.

Here I go!
I set out from the trailhead at the Shea Rink parking lot on Willard Street in Quincy at 8:20 this morning. I was semi-well rested and had a backpack full of tasty and nutritious trail food, which I’d packed the night before with some of Khizer’s leftovers and a bunch of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, raw carrots and celery, and a few fresh fruits as well. And I took along a change of socks, some dry clothes for the end of the trail, my map of the Blue Hills Reservation and a positive state of mind.

The initial part of the walk was serene, with very little elevation gain. And my mind was still full of a thousand things that should’ve been left behind, beyond woods’ edge. My thoughts carried me half a mile out of my way before I realized I was still on a fire road that shared the Skyline Trail temporarily after crossing Wampatuck Road. I back-tracked, found the turn off, and I quickly began my ascent to the sweeping views of Boston and the greater Massachusetts Bay area that give the trail its name.

The first hill was called Rattlesnake. The trail here wound up and around a placid vernal pool, its still waters perhaps belying a storied past as a romantic water hole dating back to the days when the native, pre-colonial Massachusett people would come at the end of summer to prepare for winters there. The rocky, precarious descent from Rattlesnake Hill and the subsequent climb and descent of Wampatuck gave me just a taste of the scrambling I would have to do on a number of the more than 10 hills I would traverse today.

After crossing Chickatawbut Road the trail steadily rose past the Blue Hills Reservoir and I was treated to some amazing changes in scenery. I climbed steadily to a young grove of aspens, before descending again to pass through some older growth oaks and maples, and up again to a grove of stumpy conifers, where I sat on a flat rock and had a mid-morning snack.

The nourishment was a good idea, as I had three successive hills to climb – Nahanton, Kitchamakin, and Chickatawbut, which was topped by a fenced-in learning center with an inaccessible lookout tower, a solar panel array, and several bird houses – before making a steep descent to Randolph Road.

Knowing I had easily hiked the 3.6 miles (plus about another mile due to my unanticipated detour) as listed for this checkpoint in the AMC* Massachusetts Trail Guide, I was confused when I calculated the distances of some of the signs that were posted between where I found myself now and the beginning of the trail. From the trailhead, the distance to Great Blue Hill is listed as nine miles. But the signs posted along the trail implied that the distance linking these two locations was only six. I can tell you after completing this hike, and comparing it to my experience hiking Massachusetts hills these recent months, that the distance is likely closer to nine.

Looking northwest from Buck Hill
In any case, I set off from Randolph Road and began a rapid ascent of Buck Hill, which it would turn out provided my favorite views of the day – a full 360 degrees from a large flat and circular top. From here I could see Wachusett and Monadnock mountains to the northwest, Boston and the harbor to my north and east, and a large extent of the South Shore.

Moving on, I descended Buck, which was in turn followed by another steep ascent to Tucker Hill. Once I'd summited Tucker, I made my way down its western slope to arrive at Hillside Street, at just past 6.5 miles, where I would lunch at a picnic table in front of the ranger’s headquarters for about 20 minutes or so before pressing on.

At the ranger’s station I met Maggi, supervising ranger at the Blue Hills, with whom I shared my thoughts on the errant signage. She gave me her email address and I promised to send photographs so they could verify the mileage and correct any signage problems once recently collected official GPS data is available and reported.

From the headquarters I took the northern branch of the trail across the scenic and quite challenging Hancock, Hemenway and Wolcott hills en route to Great Blue, and the nine-mile mark. Once there, I climbed the stone tower at Blue's summit and snapped one last shot of Boston's skyline to share here on my blog and then continued on to the south branch trail some meters to the south.

View of Boston from Great Blue Hill
Before setting off on this final spur, I texted Khizer, who, after class, where he had dissected a sheep’s brain and cow eyeball, was patiently waiting for me at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts shop, to tell him I was about an hour from our rendez-vous point back at the reservation headquarters on Hillside Street.

I thought this final spur would be an easy one, since just one more hill – Houghton – is listed on the AMC map for the southern route. To my surprise, though, before reaching Houghton's summit I would have me climb two other smaller hills, each increasing some in elevation before dropping back down into notches. (As a side note, I now refer to the hills leading up to and including Houghton as the Three Brothers. And Houghton is definitely the meanest of the three, with a final descent from his summit that's a steep and rocky pain!)

Making it safely to the road below, I was both elated and exhausted, happy to find Khizer waiting in a warm car with a hot cup of coffee for me. Honestly, I couldn’t believe I had done it, but Khizer said he expected nothing less. All said and done, I'd hiked more than 10 miles with an elevation gain of around 2,500 feet, and I'd done it in less than seven hours! Today was an experience I will surely never forget.

*AMC is Appalachian Mountain Club

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hiking: First 10-mile trip plan - Blue Hills Reservation, Skyline Trail

This is the trip plan for my first 10-mile hike as part of my quest to fulfill the requirements for the BSA Hiking Merit Badge. This plan fulfills requirement 5, while executing the plan and debriefing tomorrow will fulfill requirement 6. The plan includes “map routes, clothing and equipment list and a list of items for a trail lunch”, as required in the 2009 Merit Badge Series. I am also following the basic outline of a trip plan as highlighted in chapter 4 of the 2004 edition of the BSA Fieldbook.

I have two maps for the Blue Hills Reservation. One is the map distributed for $2 at the park headquarters by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). The other is one that came with the Massachusetts Trail Guide, 9th Edition, published by the Appalachian Mountain Club. It is Map 4 of the AMC map series for the state. I will opt to use the AMC map because it’s smaller and less likely to tear.

The route I’ll follow is the Skyline Trail, starting at the easternmost part of the reservation, at the Shea Memorial Rink in Quincy. I’ll follow the length of the Skyline Trail west, about two-thirds of the way through where the trail splits at the reservation headquarters, and take the northern branch to Great Blue, at 8.5 miles. Then, I'll loop back to reservation headquarters to complete a full 10.2-mile loop along the southern branch.

This route gives me the option of shortening the trip at various points along the path, as it crosses three roads, but I do not plan on cutting this one short, though according the website Rugged Hikes in the Boston Area (Blue Hills)*, the elevation gain here is about 2,500 feet.

Estimating that a normal hiking pace is about two miles per hour, the full hike would take about five hours, but for the elevation gain. Adding in an hour for each thousand feet, this hike could conceivably take 7.5 hours. The sun will set at 4:20 p.m. tomorrow, so I plan to be on the trail no later than 8 a.m. This is a through hike and I won't make it all the way back to my car, so I’ve made arrangements for Khizer to pick me up. He’ll be in the area around 2:30 p.m. and will studying at a coffee shop close to trail’s end. I expect to complete the hike between 2:30 and 4 p.m.

I will be hiking alone, but this is a well-hiked and well-managed trail, and I will carry my cell phone fully charged in case of an emergency. For lunch and snacks, I am packing two liters of water, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread, some quinoa and chicken curry, trail mix, a whole grain cereal bar, some raw vegetables, and two bananas and an apple. I’ll be carrying a back pack and will follow the principles of Leave No Trace while on the trail, which means I will leave the trail as I found it, in the same condition or better.

The weather will be sunny and clear with a temperature all day that promises to fluctuate around 40 degrees, so I will wear a long sleeve shirt and jeans, but will also have with me a short sleeve t-shirt to change into if I get too warm and a down vest in case I get cold. In the car, I'll have dry clothes to change into for the ride home. Also, I'll be wearing my hiking boots and will carry a change of socks in case the pair I’m wearing gets wet.

That’s pretty much it. I’m posting this on my blog tonight, and of course Khizer knows my plan, so I’m accounted for in case I don’t show up at the rendez-vous site on time. I’ll post again tomorrow night after my hike with pictures and a report of my experience.

*The website Rugged Hikes in the Boston Area (Blue Hills) can be found at

On becoming a man of merit

I often joke with my friends that I’m having a mid-life crisis. The year before my 40th birthday I took dramatic steps to get back into shape. I lost a total of 160 pounds. I started and maintained a five-day-per-week gym schedule, getting back the strength I’d lost and then some. And I found myself a soul mate – an amazing, beautiful person 12 years my junior who is the perfect complement to my revitalized, youthful outlook on life.

The week before the big 4-0, we quit our jobs and set out together on a two-week trip, driving up the eastern seaboard, visiting family and a variety of friends I’d not seen or heard from since childhood, en route to Massachusetts, where we decided to stay for a while as we prepare for our next big move.

Once we’d doused the burning cake to avoid what could have become the epic fire of August 9, 2011, I realized it wasn’t enough for me to simply be fit at 40. I needed to find something to do with my newfound fitness. I’m not in it for the looks, that’s for sure. That ship sailed long ago! No, I needed to find a constructive and entertaining activity that would help me maintain my fitness level so I could keep up with my feisty 27-year-old collaborator for many years to come.

I considered joining a rugby team, but that idea lasted all but two seconds. I found out that beer and drunken mischief played as big a part in the rugby lifestyle as the sport itself, and I wasn’t willing to substitute my former food addiction for alcoholism, thank you very much! So I began to scour my memories for the passions of my youth.

As a kid, I remember spending every waking hour that wasn’t spent in school outside riding my bike and hiking through the woods around my rural-suburban Virginia neighborhood. I’d walk and ride for hours, getting lost, and then finding my way back home. Once home, I’d read maps and try to find connections between the places I’d been and the places I wanted to go. And I’d dream about the day I’d finally have the freedom to set out on my own path, blaze my own trail and become the man I wanted to be.

I was what I’d call a social loner. I loved my time alone, reading and wondering, and wandering. But I was also externally focused, desperately seeking approval from others, while not always getting the passing grade. I was a Boy Scout, though not a terribly successful one. And I was a youth leader in the YMCA, working as a summer camp counselor throughout high school and during the first couple of years of college.

But as most adults will know, youthful passions are often times squelched by the competing new demands of young adulthood. Before starting out on my career in journalism, I spent several weeks backpacking across central Mexico, from Cuernavaca to Puerto Vallarta, exploring Michoacán and other hidden Sierra Madre mountain towns and countrysides along the way. But by the time I got back to the states and got to work, there was less and less time for exploring. And as I bellied up to my desk day after day, my belly grew, and my appetite for adventure, while not satiated, had somehow slipped away.

So if this is a mid-life crisis, hooray! Because it’s a mid-life crisis that’s reminding me of the boy I once was and the man he wanted to become. These past 15 years spent indoors haven’t been a total wash – I’ve built leadership skills, earning a master’s degree in education and teaching English and life skills to hundreds of adults, who, I hope, are further along their own paths to lives of self-sufficiency and happiness because of my efforts. But now is my time to focus on me, to continue to develop the outdoors skills I need in order to do the kinds of things the kid in me is yearning to do.

This blog will follow my mission to become a man of merit, a man worthy of his place in the world, a contributor. The beginning of this journey will have me finishing some of the goals of youth I once left behind but never forgot. The first of these goals is to do what it takes to earn a few Boy Scout merit badges I never got a chance to complete – particularly the ones in hiking, backpacking, camping and emergency preparedness.

Not that it's a regret, but I quit scouts much too soon, primarily because I was struggling with my identity as a young teen, and the Boy Scouts in the mid 1980s was just too repressive for me to handle. But with the awkward struggles of youth well behind me, I can now focus on the skills instead of the scandal. And I'm ready to accomplish some things that should have been accomplished long before now!

So here goes! I’ll start with the merit badge for hiking. Planning and carrying out several long-distance hikes – including a 20-mile hike in a single day – is cornerstone of this badge. And tomorrow I’m setting out for my first 10-mile hike, along the Skyline Trail in the Blue Hills just south of Boston. I’ve been working up to this point, having hiked at least 20 miles per week for the past month. Still, my longest hike to date has been just over six miles, so I’m prepared, but anxious to set out on the trail. I’ll blog again post-hike to let you know how things go.

But this is just the beginning, a start to a book that's yet unwritten. And there's lots of ink in the pen! I hope you'll read and encourage me in my journey. It's no fun to go it alone!