Sunday, March 25, 2012

Andrew Skurka 22 March 2012, Asheville NC

I spent a day hanging out in Asheville, NC.  I stayed at the Sweetpeas Hostel right in the old-timey downtown area.  Long lasting economic devastation started by the Depression ensured that historic buildings were preserved. Now there are hostels with historic brick walls and Urban Outfitters with vintage wood floors.  Sweetpeas was alright as hostels go, it was expensive, brand new (Ikea!) and had lots of rules.  Lots!  (e.g. no alcohol or barefeet).  Hostels, regardless of how many ridiculious rules they have, are great places to meet folks.  I had my backpack stuffed under my bunk (no backpacks on beds! Rule!) and another guy in my room noticed.  "Hey, do you do like, real wilderness backpacking?"  "uhhh, yeah I guess so."  I was brushing my teeth at the time, but really I was thinking "Thanks for noticing? Wanna know my baseweight?".  Later, in the more appropriate environ of the swanky living room, we got to talking--FellowBackpaker and I (FB).  He asked "Are you going to the Andrew Skurka talk tonight?"  Andrew Skurka! Is in town? Really?  What luck.
"Oh, too bad.  I saw his slideshow last night and it was really amazing.  Tonight he is going to do a gear-talk"
So we talked a bit.  I use a tent, he uses a tarp.  He did the same section (Amicalola to Franklin) last year that I'd just finished.  Isn't the AT Cool? 
Eventually we decided that I would indeed like to go to the Andrew Skurka talk and that FB would give me a lift.  I whiled the day away in Asheville.  I went to see a Tragic foreign film at the local art-house-cinema, picked up the maps and guide for the North Carolina/Tennessee sections, a new CD (support music stores! yeah!) A Note of Hope (Because Woody Guthrie would have been 100 this year too) and drooled over some ultralightweight windshells and then met up with FB again.

The talk was at the Grove Park Inn.  Nice place.  When I'm rich and famous I will stay there instead of hostels.

For two hours AS wowed us with stories of Peril! Adventure! and Gear!  AS had his gear spread out on a few folding tables.  He's got a friendly presence and smiles easily.  He was wearing jeans and a stylish black sweater with big buttons half way down the front and the collar turned up and, to my horror, brown leather shoes.  I can forgive him for this, though.  He is clean shaven and looks like he came from the farm next door.  He credits his success in long-distance hiking partly to his appearance. "If I walk up to a farmer in Minnesota with a scraggly beard and say 'Hi I'm Paul Revere', it might not go so well."

He begins his talk in this way:
"You guys should see this," he started pulling off his shoe and sock.  "I was running on the AT yesterday and...."  His big toe was a black and blue swollen mess.  Gasp from the audience.

"Is it broken?"

"I don't know,"  he put his sock and shoe back on.  "I can walk on it so I guess it's okay".

The audience was mainly old guys and a handful of Cub Scouts.  AS asked at the beginning if anyone wanted to share who they were and why they were at the talk.  "Because you're a celebrity" would have been my contribution, but I kept my mouth shut.  Instead a loud Boy Scout leader stood up, "I'm a Boy Scout Master and our last trip was a disaster"  I'm sure it was.  

The main point of the presentation was to introduce beginners to the types of gear you can carry to improve your experience.  Beginners often carry foolproof gear (tents, water filters) anything that requires little skill to use properly.  They also 'pack their fears' for extreme what-if scenarios.  Both of these things increase the weight of the pack and thus decrease the ability to enjoy hiking.  So you need skills--or the 'stuff between your ears'--to decrease the weight of your pack and increase the enjoyment of the hiking part of hiking--not necessarily the 'camping' part.  AS can blow through 30 or 40 miles a day but the second he makes camp he's in his sleeping bag and sleeping--he only carries gear necessary for hiking, not for camping--mainly that's clothes and food.

AS and I agree on many points.  Our first aid kits, shorty sleeping pads supplemented with backpacks for foot insulation, cooking kit and water purification systems are identical.  According to him, though, I could trim my weight significantly by switching from tent or hammock (foolproof!) to a tarp and from a full sleeping bag to just a quilt with a sewn in footbox (basically a sleeping bag missing the back half).  Also, I could downsize my sock collection from three pairs to two.  Of course, my system (tent, full sleeping bag and three pairs of socks) have served me well enough so far, but I can't help myself.  I have a problem. I am tickled by the possibility that I might NEED more gear.  AS SAID so and he is an Expert after all.

AS describes his diet as "lots of snacks and bars, all containing some sort of chocolate, before a hot dinner of mashed potatoes or anything I can throw into hot water".  He also pre-packages all his food in small ziplock bags.  This would help to ensure that you knew exactly how many calories were going into your pack.  The recommendation was 3,000 calories a day and carrying food dense in calories--at least 150 calories per ounce.  (Assuming your food averages 125 calories per ounce, that's 1.5 pounds of food per day).  Olive oil added to a dinner is a great way to add really dense calories at the end of the day.

My pack was definitely heavier than it needed to be when I left Neel's Gap.  It was 30 lbs (! I'm embarrassed to admit this)  Unseasonably warm temperatures made my 20* down bag overkill--I sweated most nights--and I ate much less food than I anticipated.  Whether or not I replace my sleeping bag and tent before I head back to Franklin I will be streamlining my food supply.


  1. Thanks for coming to the program. Hope you heard a few things that help your travels north.

    My girlfriend laughed at your black shirt, brown shoes comment - she gives me grief too, but it is hard to be perfectly dressed every night when you are on the road.

  2. Woah! Andrew Skurka. Hey, I don't even have to occasion to own nice shoes, so don't listen to me. You're the pro, thanks a bunch.