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!