Rail Trail Weekend

This was a rail trail weekend for us. On Saturday, we hiked along a trail linking Ayer, Massachusetts, and Groton, and on Sunday, we walked the Bruce Freeman Rail trail in Concord. Between arthritis and hip replacement, the more strenuous sort of rough trail hiking that we used to do is problematic, but a rail trail offers the perfect compromise. You are out in the countryside hiking, but the surface is regular. All that was needed was a pair of sturdy walking shoes, water, a cane, and the bold guide dog – Max, the trailblazer, to guide you along the way. Max was there to protect against wayward red squirrels and the occasional rabid frog. He insisted that following him was the only way to avoid extinction at the paws of other hiking dogs who needed to be greeted in the prescribed doggy manner of a whoof and a sniff.

On the Bruce Freeman Trail, there is a section of very fragile marsh and swamp habitat. The local Concord Middle School provided informative signage on the types of plants and wildlife that could be seen. The bikers speeding by missed the clever artwork and brief descriptions, and by doing that, I think, reduced their experience. The signs were creative, attractive, and informative, and I found them interesting parts of the rail trail experience.

Bodice Ripper in the Mountains

Campfire stories are a particular genre. Some are meant to be a bit spooky, have a gruesome ending, or end with a moral. I can imagine Norse Sagas being told around campfires. They have just the proper supply on hand of gore, doomed characters, and the supernatural.
But some years ago, I was on a long Memorial Day trip to Baxter State Forest. Camped near Mount Katahdin, we gathered nightly after days of climbing to eat, drink and tell stories.
One of our numbers was a proper old timer who had known Percival Baxter and had been in on the park’s founding. But Ron was early to bed and early to rise, so somewhere around ten, we were down to a hard core of campfire members. One night to mix things up, we decided to put story themes into a hat and have everyone pick a theme and, when it was their turn, tell a tale based on the guidance on the slip of paper. What could go wrong?

I drew a slip of paper that said “drinking.” This was easy. I told a tale about my friends on Boston Beacon Hill and how we used to have Truth or Consequences drinking contests in which the most outrageous teller of lies won. To my right, John drew another easy one, “horror.” At last, the hat with the slips of paper arrived at Harriet, a quiet young woman. With a big smile. she slowly drew the slip out of the hat, unfolded it, and then stopped. Someone snickered and asked, “Well, where’s the story? What does it say?” Harriet rolled the slip into a tiny ball and hurled it into the fire. After a moment of silence, she announced the theme -“Bodice Ripper” in such a quiet voice that we almost couldn’t hear it. Giggles came from some of the girls at the far end of the fire, and some of us males shifted uneasily on our log stools. Then, after a moment’s silence, she began a tale of innuendo and raging lust in Regency England that had to have been lifted whole cloth from a recently read Harlequin Romance. It easily rolled on for ten minutes, after which she rapidly departed the campfire. An embarrassed silence settled, and soon we banked the fire and went to our sleeping bags in ones and some twos.

The following morning was filled with breaking camp for the trip back to Boston. It was quieter than the usual last morning in camp, and a few glances were cast in Harriet’s direction.

No one ever admitted to adding that theme to the slips in the hat. I regularly hiked with many of the campers on the Katahdin trip. I periodically saw them at Appalachian Mountain Club local hikes and trips. Over the following year, we listed the names of the usual suspects for doing something like this but came to no conclusions. Finally, we decided that it was well that there seemed to be a bias toward camping stories, comedy, and goofy horror stories around the campfire. Bodice ripper was not the worst topic that could have been handed out, considering the sense of humor of some of our friends.

Oh, and we never saw Harriet on hikes again.


On organized hikes, the sweep is the individual who comes last in the group, trailing behind to ensure that no one gets lost. The sweep for a large group of hikers may be the first person who knows that someone has a nasty blister, has become dehydrated, or has overestimated their ability to complete the hike.

Most good leaders try hard never to lose sight of the rear of their group, but sometimes, with a large group, the hike breaks into fast and slow ends, making life for leaders and co-leaders complicated. So the role of sweep is more than a tail-end Charlie. The sweep may become the default leader of the rear end of the hike and needs to know the trail and destination.

As the sweep and co-leader for one of my closest friends and mentor, I always carried extra water, first aid supplies, food, and toilet paper. Of course, you hoped for the best but planned for the worst. Typically, my sweep role was to watch out for someone who needed a “station break” to go to the bathroom or just needed to amble along at a slower pace. Providing the odd shoelace or water happened also. Sometimes My job was to escort hikers to where the cars were staged because they could not complete the hike.

Then, the hike leader miscalculated a hop between boulders on Mount Katahdin and broke his hip. I became the leader on the spot, detailed individuals to notify the rangers, and stabilized my friend in place until we organized the Alpine Rescue.

So why did I do sweep year after year? When the leaders discussed who was doing what on the hike, I always chose to sweep. Well, I had an ulterior motive for this. I had noticed that when group sizes get above five or so people, the hike gets loud in the woods. So loud that any chance of seeing wildlife drops to zero. Birds go silent, and small mammals fade into the woods.

I discovered that by dropping back a bit further than expected, the routine of the forest returned. I heard the loons on the lake, the chattering of squirrels arguing, and saw the birds flitting through the woods. It was as though they were saying, “it’s safe to come out. Those idiot primates are gone!”

So next time you go on a hike, don’t pity the sweep way to the rear. Envy the sweep. While the rest of you are chattering away, only the sweep gets the experience that drew you to the woods.

Ten Mile Hike

Trigger warning: Sex gets mentioned in this post. OK, now I have your attention!

 I was a Thirteen-year-old Boy Scout from an urban Troop in the wilds of New York City’s Washington Heights, and I was sent away for a month at Boy Scout Camp. So what do you think we talked about around the campfire at night? The following day’s hike? The rotten food served in the cafeteria? Or perhaps the ghosts said to haunt the nearby lakeshore? Nothing so inspiring; remember, this is a bunch of thirteen-year-old males. So instead, we spent our time talking about women. Or the little we knew about them at that stage.

Ratso, known for the extreme overbite that gave him a rodent-like profile, came to the campfire one night with a hot fresh rumor. He’d heard from some friends that the councilors and some of the Scout Masters regularly slipped away to one of the neighboring towns for some extracurricular activities at a house of ill repute. Said house was located behind a local tourist trap that every scout was interested in visiting because of the selection of exciting souvenirs offered. But now, the location was doubly attractive because of the added lure of sex.

Remember that while we were inner-city kids, we were all virgins. But virgins eager to lose that status. After this, our campfires were lurid with imagined tales of what our exploits would be if only we could get there. Our imaginations operated over time, night after night, as we painted in supposed pleasures. Please remember that this was a very long time before the internet, and we mostly had only our imaginations to paint in the details.

I have to admit that I showed leadership ability one night by pulling out the map, compass, and dividers. After that, it was short work to plot the hike and figure out the rationale for getting credit towards our Hiking Merit Badge and visiting the Promised Land. The next day we were on our way.

The hike was an easy ten-mile loop over wooded terrain with only a few bushwhacks to cross from trail to trail. We approached our target before noon. We figured that we had enough time for “quickies,” whatever those would be, shop in the store and return to camp in newly found adult male statuses.

As luck would have it, on our arrival, we met some of those councilors and Scoutmasters who took a dim view of our hiking activities and turned us around towards camp. On our arrival, having shown leadership potential, I was taken aside and assured that I would never get a Hiking Merit Badge. Sending me home from camp early was also debated. No one suspected the primary purpose of our visit. It was thought we were just going shopping, and of course, we were.

So we were restricted to camp and put on kitchen cleaning duties for the remainder of our stay at camp. Campfires were more somber now and ghost stories just didn’t cut it anymore.

So There you are, the entire sordid little story. And if you are still out there somewhere, Chief Scoutmaster McClanan, we know where you were on Friday afternoons – Shame on you!

HIking Season

I used to be an avid hiker and climber. People who do this sort of stuff as an activity all have their preferred methods of getting ready for the season. Techniques and equipment have improved much since my “salad days” in the dark ages. Here’s how it used to be:

Physical Prep-

One friend got ready for spring hiking season in the White Mountains by loading his backpack with stones and pebbles. Every year around early March, He’d start conditioning by loading progressively heavier loads in his pack. He was not a flabby person, and he didn’t seek to lose weight by doing this; he did it just to tone the muscles in his legs for climbing.
Another friend used jugs of water and drank the jugs as he hiked. He never worried about hydration and ended his hikes with less load than when he started. Yet another friend had a training method where he wore as many layers of wool as possible and sweated. Few wanted to be too close to him by the end of a warm day of hiking.
I considered these methods nuts and began a moderate series of daily and weekend hikes to prepare for mountain hiking.


Equipment is another area where some truly individual practices existed. For example, a close friend believed that to toughen your feet, you should stand in a basin of dark brewed tea – literally tanning your feet and thereby toughening them up. For another, a sure-fire way of breaking in a new pair of boots was to put them on, stand in a puddle until they were thoroughly soaked, and then hike until they dried on your feet.
Similar preparation was given to tents, sleeping bags, and other equipment.

On The Trail-

By far, the worst ritual of hiking was contained in a small brown bottle with a label that read “Old Woodsman.” Old Woodsman was a fly dope or repellant, with such an awful odor that you could be tracked by odor alone if lost in the woods. If you wanted to enchant or develop a romantic relationship, both parties had better have solid constitutions and lack a sense of smell. Since the scent lingered on you and your equipment, people could smell your outdoor adventures all week. Apply too much, and you’d get a referral to a commercial laundry for yourself and equipment.

Without a doubt, things have changed for the better.

Learning How To Fall

I was never to be one of those eager rock hoppers effortlessly jumping from one boulder to another. If there were enough, flat enough, and close enough together, you might see me doing my imitation of the better climbers in our group. They accomplished feats that I’d put in the same category as those achieved by mountain goats. But, for me, the fall waited if I attempted them.
Despite years of martial arts to improve my balance, I remained a hopeless klutz who could twist an ankle on a flat trail. The best boots seemed to make it worse. It didn’t help that on one trip across Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge, a friend idly calculated how long it’d take to reach the bottom.
Why did I insist on hiking and climbing with these fears? Falling was disastrous, but being away from the outdoors was worse. There was no bromide for my clumsy climbing and walking. But I preferred being a denizen of the woods, trails, and heights to being desk-bound on weekends working on term papers.
On Memorial Day weekend in Maine one year, we were going over the Knife Edge and then up to my nightmare, Pamola, a sheer little peak that was all torture for me. But, something clicked for me that morning, and I decided that for once, I would be mindful of the dangers of falling but wouldn’t let them control me. So, up I went hesitant but much more confidant than ever before. Instead of the downward gaze I had schooled myself to avoid, I found myself looking about in all directions.
Of course, I was scared of falling, and I’ve never ceased being a clumsy klutz on the trail and climb. Excellence is not an achievable goal. But I take care and avoid letting the fear of falling become my failing

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