Measuring our time on the trail

We are all quants now. Like the Wall Street analysts, we quantify everything that has a number associated with it. We can track our steps, our total distance covered, our sleep, our heart rate. We can track our pace or our speed. We can track our rise and fall in elevation, our calories burned, our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly accumulated mileage, or, switch to kilometers to really up the numbers. We can get the information on a gps watch, a black bracelet, a fancy watch, a smart phone or tablet or delay the gratification and wait to get back home to check out the stats on a desktop. Now with wearable technology, even our shoes and socks can log our data.

The quantitative analysts on Wall Street can do what they do because business is described in numbers-the quarterly profit and loss numbers, the numbers of widgets manufactured, sold, not sold and sold and returned and of course the stock price and dividend. But now quantification is becoming firmly embedded even in the trail under our feet not to mention in our daily lives. The proliferation of tracking devices reduces a post hike recap from a simple ‘wow’ to a “wow, did you know we just logged 1,854 feet of elevation change” and a simple sense of exhausted exhilaration following a hard run is replaced by poring over the stats, the list of  mile by mile times and a careful evaluation of the pace. Was it better or worse than the day before, the week before or the month before. And these tracking devices now add the daily temperature and wind speed to their reports as well and even leave space to add a few comments like, “felt pretty lousy” or “sore left knee”.

I know about this because I have succumbed to this practice. Immediately  after a run I immediately check my tracking app. And I actually find the information quite useful, interesting and even actionable, especially if I have a goal in mind.

But what are we not measuring and not communicating? My running app has no happiness metric or pure joy tracker. It has no early morning dew on my shoes alarm, or sunlight shimmering on the water detector. It does not have an amazement meter that goes off when watching acrobatic swallows diving through the air or an “oh wow” tracker when I spot a cormorant surfacing in the river with a fish in its beak or spot a yellow warbler amongst the leaves.  And my running app does not tabulate how many times I started out in a so-so mood and ended up pretty happy, or, vice versa.

yellow_warbler

yellow warbler (www.lilibirds.com/gallery2/v/warblers/yellow_warbler

I submit that what we can not measure gets lost and subsumed in the massive data which we can measure. The intangibles like joy, freedom, inspiration, accomplishment, overcoming adversity and other critical elements that constitute the human soul are lost as the fleeting moments that they are and perhaps, that they are supposed to be.

We truly have no language to quantify the most valuable of our experiences and this is certainly true when out in nature, pushing our physical limits or simply enjoying the time out doors. Art and music strive to capture out deepest emotions at the most ephemeral moments of life but they can not quantify our experiences like a gps watch can track our miles, pace and elevation changes. Our time in the woods, by a lake or in a meadow, will remain what it is – a transcendent moment. And our memory of that experience with nature will leave us as it should. Speechless.

 

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

 

 

On the Trail: Boots on the ground

"Wild" from Fox Searchlight Pictures, featuring Reese Witherspoon, and Danner boots,

“Wild” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, featuring Reese Witherspoon, and Danner boots,

The movie “Wild” is coming to a theater near you, the screen adaptation of the eponymous book about Cheryl ‘Strayed’, a newbie hiker who set off and thru-hiked the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail on a journey of self discovery and emotional healing.

When you see a trailer for the movie, you will see Cheryl’s boots, the camera pointing straight down toward her heavy backpacking boots. Big, solid leather boots with prominent red laces and metal lacing hooks. For the movie at least, the actress Reese Witherspoon wore Danner boots, made by the long-time boot manufacturer in Portland, OR. I know this because I ordered a pair of Danner Station boots which I wear to work and therefore I am on their email list. They proudly sent me an email newsletter with a short film about the making of Reese’s boots, including footage of the Danner manufacturing plant and interviews with the employees, craftsmen, really, who assemble this old-fashioned bespoke footwear. (See Danner’s well done promo about their Mountain Light Cascade boot worn in the movie here).

Danner;s Mountain Light Cascade

Danner’s Mountain Light Cascade

Over the past several years, hikers, backpackers, runners and anyone who takes more than a passing interest in walking or running, shoe wear and design knows that the trend toward lighter weight foot wear has taken over much of the industry, at least for the shoe cognoscenti. Hikers are routinely thru-hiking the country’s longest trails, the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails, in running shoes or low cut hiking shoes.  And the reasons are simple. Researchers have established incontrovertibly that every 100 gram decrease in shoe weight results in about 1% less oxygen consumption required during activity. Basically, lighter weight shoes are simply easier to wear over long distances.

But, is there a hidden cost to our light weight foot wear?

Cam Honan who Backpacker magazine says “trekked 50,000 miles” on foot is reported in the March 2014 issue to have worn through 28 pairs of shoes on a 15,000 mile hike of all of the longest trails in the US including the AT, PCT and CDT. He switched out shoes on average every 535 miles. His experience is not unique. Long distance hikers often literally wear out multiple pairs of shoes. Old shoes, if we are conservation minded, get donated to a charity, if they are in any kind of wearable condition. Otherwise, they get added to the growing pile of the world’s refuse heaps.

So while boots like Danner’s Mountain Light boots are very heavy (probably approaching 2 pounds each), they are resoleable, what Danner calls “recraftable”. Perhaps Cam Honan could have covered 15,000 miles in two boots, the one he was wearing and the one that was being resoled. Who knows? But as we embrace lighter weight footwear, we should think about the issue of durability and having to throw more junk into our landfills.

The hiking and trail running shoe manufacturers should start to take a cue from rock climbing shoes, which take a beating, getting scraped and brushed against all manner of hard rock surfaces, yet, can be resoled and more than once. I have been wearing a pair of Five Ten Guide Tennies for a number of years and have had them resoled. Why can’t hiking shoes be light weight and resoleable?

I challenge hiking and trail running shoe manufacturers to design technical footwear that is both lightweight and ‘recraftable’. That way we can be both good to our feet and good to the planet.

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

On the Trail: Peer into the Shade

 

Shade on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills (http://www.nature-photography-in-the-rough.com/)

Shade on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills (http://www.nature-photography-in-the-rough.com/)

Summer has begun and in the northern hemisphere that usually means hot and sunny especially if trails are above tree line. But in the northeastern United States we are lucky that miles and miles of hiking trails remain well shaded as they traverse forests under a canopy of millions of maple. birch, hickory, oak and beech leaves, among others. The shade is a balm on a hot and sunny day.

Striped Maple, an understory tree (http://njurbanforest.com/about-nj-urban-forest/)

Striped Maple, an understory tree (http://njurbanforest.com/about-nj-urban-forest/)

Running through a shady trail last week, I thought about the challenges of life in the shadows. For plant and tree life dependent on sunlight for photosynthesis, shade would seem to a be a punishment, like half rations for a prisoner, or no rations at all. Yet, the understory of forests, the part that is mostly in the shade, does teem with verdant greenery. Indeed, some trees, notably the striped maple, inhabit only the understory and do not ever breech the forest canopy. Other trees, however, are shade tolerant. That is, they can survive in the shade, for years if needed, until they have an opportunity to leave the understory and poke their tallest limbs into sunlight, perhaps after a nearby taller tree topples over, clearing a space in the forest canopy. And, many plants, even in our own gardens, flourish only in the shade.

How does life tolerate the dimness of the daytime darkness, the absence of direct sunlight, especially when that light is a currency of life for most plants and trees? There is no one answer. Instead, plants in the shade use a cornucopia of adaptations for their survival.

Think of common shade plant in many home gardens, Hostas. Notice that they have large leaves, an adaptation to collect as much sunlight as possible. In addition, the chloroplasts in the leaves of shade dwelling plants and trees are larger than in trees and plants that live in full light and their epidermal cells are better designed to maximize light. Also, shade trees and plants have no waxy layer on their leaves, something that trees in full light use to help reflect away unneeded light. And, in addition, shaded plants can change the angle of their leaves to maximize any available light during the day.

Shade is not only sunlight blocked, but rather potential not yet realized, growth untapped, waiting for opportunity. Shade tolerant plants, though, have it figured out. Do not wither during lean times. Adapt and be patient. If you find yourself struggling out on your trail, peer into the shade for inspiration, then continue on your way.

The sunlight, it is a coming.

Howard E. Friedman

 

(for more information about shade apaptations, visit : http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au)

 

On the Trail: One Dose of The Escarpment Trail

Sunny Morning on the Hudson, Thomas Cole, c. 1820 (explorethomascole.org)

On the last Sunday and Monday of May I was fortunate to backpack 19 miles of the Escarpment Trail, a footpath dating back in parts to the early 1800s, which climbs up, and down, and up and down as it traverses the eastern most ridge of the Catskill mountains, providing a commanding view towering 2,000 feet above the Hudson River valley and the self-same river seven miles in the distance. The escarpment, a rocky buttress which extends for more than 30 miles in all, inspired many American painters in the nineteenth century who carried their easels from the southern section of the trail up onto the rocks overlooking nearby North-South Lake and river and valley below, garnering the name for themselves, Hudson River School painters.

Our path began in the town of Windham, NY with a three mile climb to Windham peak at just over 3,500 feet elevation. Our trail followed due south, cresting Blackhead Mountain, 3,950 feet elevation before dipping back to lower elevations. We camped along the ridge top after completing 11 miles, setting out early the next morning to continue our journey, stopping to refill water at a piped spring gushing water from a sandstone massif. The trail transects several types of flora along its course, from Northern hardwood forests of birch, beech, maple and pine trees to Alpine type forests of primarily Balsalm Fir, which fill the air with the smell of Spring itself. The forest than changes to large stands of primarily birch trees along the way. Splashing the trail with colors on either side of the single track footpath were abundant amounts of Purple Trillium flowers (also called Wake Robin) along with Canada Violet, Spring Beauty and Wild Columbine.

Purple Trillium, photo by Jim Salge (www.vftt.org)

Purple Trillium, photo by Jim Salge (www.vftt.org)

My mind was still playing back scenes from the Escarpment Trail days later when I read about new research that found that modest exercise in senior citizens can help them maintain their mobility. These findings were reported on May 27th, 2014 at the annual American College of Sports Medicine conference and published in the recent Journal of the American Medical Association . Researchers found that a daily walk of only 400 meters, or once around a high school running track, was sufficient to keep older, primarily sedentary people mobile. Of course, everyone knows that exercise is good for you. But, we don’t really know how much is needed to get results.  This study establishes that for this group of 1,635 sedentary people, ages 70-89, walking only four hundred meters could be considered one “dose” of exercise. And according to Wendy Kort Ph.d. from the University of Colorado, who reviewed the study, this research begins to refine the notion of what is an appropriate “dose” of exercise.

Our backpacking trip was necessarily short to accommodate work and family responsibilities. We left at 8:30 Sunday morning and returned home around 5 p.m. Monday but, with travel, our time on the trail really extended for just a bit over 24 hours to cover the 19 steep, rocky miles and allow time for eating and sleeping.

Black-and-white warbler, photo by John McKean (www.allaboutbirds.org)

While the trip was short we did manage to traverse most of a well established hiking path, packed with beauty on the trail including not only wildflowers and shifting forest types, but vistas of the horizon, including the Hudson River, views of other Catskill peaks and even an unexpected close-up view of a black and white warbler only several feet away, perched on a spruce branch. The trail does include one macabre reminder of the power of windy downdrafts along a 2,000 foot escarpment: the well preserved fuselage of a Cessna plane that rests feet from the trail, exactly where it crashed in this mountainous area decades ago, killing its pilot.

This trek into the woods I would say, was one dose, or perhaps a double dose, of immersion into nature untamed. Time will tell how long it will last before I will needs prescribe myself another dose.

Howard E. Friedman

On the trail: A virtual backpacking trip thru Yosemite…

from Project Yosemite by Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty

from Project Yosemite by Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty

With warmer weather, thoughts turn to epic hiking and backpacking trips, many of which, unfortunately, will not materialize, at least not this season. While I do not profess that technology can replace a true outdoors experience, I would be foolish not to at least acknowledge that the increasing marvels of technology are bringing the outdoors closer and closer to our fingertips.

I would love to spend some time backpacking through Yoesmite Valley. But, it won’t happen this summer. In the meanwhile, my eyes and even my soul can feast on the magnificent time lapse video footage capturing the movements of land and sky filmed over 10 months with sophisticated equipment to create a pretty darned good simulation of sights and sound of a hike throughYosemite National Park.

Colin Delehanty and Sheldon Neill hiked 200 miles carrying 70 lbs. of camera equipment on their backs to make the following five minute outstanding video. Visit www.projectyose.com to see this video (a Vimeo editor’s choice), nourish your soul, learn more about their project and see links to others they met along the way who have also captured on film the beauty that is Yosemite National Park.

Howard E. Friedman

To Walk the World…

For walkers, trail runners, travelers and even armchair explorers, read about one man’s slow seven year walk retracing the route of human migration over millennia. Journalist Paul Slopek, partially funded by National Geographic, is making this journey and posting every several hundred miles with text, photos and even a short audio track of the sounds that surround him, wherever he may be, desert, town, market, or no where particular. In this article Slopek writes his first extended length article about this journey he began earlier this year, starting in Ethiopia. Now he has crossed the Red Sea and is walking north along the coast in Saudi Arabia.

Here are some of his opening thoughts in his National Geographic essay. (He can also be followed at outofedenwalk.com ):

“Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.

I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races.”

Here is a link to the NG article:

via To Walk the World.

The Power of New Shoes?

Of course new shoes can make your feet feel better. But can they really help your soul?

I ran a trail yesterday I have run many times before. I did not see the Great Blue Heron I once saw there feeding not 15 feet away. Nor did I see the Northern Oriole building its dangling hollowed ball  shaped nest I’ve seen before nor the spring irises lining the trail here and there. Yet I felt newly exhilarated despite the sameness of the scenery. What was different?

Not much. Just my shoes.

New shoes.

The old (Asics Trail Sensor circa 2009) and the new (La Sportiva Wildcat circa 2013)

The old (Asics Trail Sensor circa 2009) and the new (La Sportiva Wildcat circa 2013)

New shoes I had researched and pondered, read reviews about and weighed pros and cons before arriving at my decision. I looked for them in stores and ultimately ordered on the web. Even guessed right on the European size.

I am loyal to my shoes. Not the brand specifically but actually to the shoes. I do not part ways with them easily. I wear them until they are frayed. Until chunks of rubber are missing from the sole. Until I am pretty sure the mid sole layer has lost its cushioning. Yet, I have seen pictures of the poorest of the poor running around or carrying water in tattered shoes, or no shoes and I know even at their worst my old shoes are quite adequate.  And so I relinquish them reluctantly and don new shoes undeservedly.

But I am attached to old shoes for quite another reason too. We have traveled together for so long. The rubber rand covering the front of the shoes is peeling. The lining around the heel has worn completely away after thousands and thousands of steps on streets and sidewalks and grassy fields and trails criss crossing county and state parks, as my shoes and I have hiked our way together across rocks in a fast flowing brook or run across a wooden bridge while looking upstream at  riffles of frothy white water. They were with me when I ran a trail race and badly sprained my ankle and they were with me the following year when I redeemed myself on the same course.

Old sole, new sole.

Old sole, new sole.

I look at the worn sole but don’t see shoes worn out. Rather I see miles walked, hiked, run.

Yet the trail does seem more fresh and alive and spirited with my new shoes, a feeling which I attribute to more than better cushioning and less fraying. I am inspired by the possibilities of the new, real or imagined. The shiny sole of my new shoes with their special features to provide traction on uneven terrain beckons the deep forest trail. And I will even take inspiration from the picture on the shoe box, of men I know not, running toward towering mountains I know not where in a place I will likely never be.

Photo on the cover of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes

Photo on the cover of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes

(Old shoes: Asics Trail Sensor. New shoes: La Sportiva Wildcat)

Walking with the wisdom of the crowd…

My son and I set out to explore a rock climbing crag nearby, recently approved by the municipal land owners and sanctioned for climbing. The area is an otherwise unused strip of land, long with several undulations of granite cliffs no more than 100 feet tall with several smaller rock formations at its base. The most prominent feature of this wooded land however is a series of towering power lines. The land is actually a power company right of way for high capacity electrical lines. Indeed, if you listen carefully it is possible to hear a faint crackling of electricity traveling through the lines at the top of the steel super structures which stand guard on otherwise undeveloped woodlands.  images

No formal trails lead to the rocks but faint foot paths have stomped down tall grasses. In some areas a dirt path has emerged but no blazes mark the trail. Leave the parking lot, look for a faint trail and walk. Look for a stream and cross by a  fallen log the instructions explain. Pick up a trail on the other side, faint as it is. Finally crossing a dirt road one sees an official sign at the informal entrance to this newly opened rock climbing area.

514744213_1c0dcc8046

Neither my son nor I are real climbers. We have climbed in indoor climbing gyms which simulate some of the athletic moves needed for outdoor climbing on real rock slabs. And we have climbed once in the famous Shawungunk climbing area in New Paltz, NY under the supervision of a watchful and well trained guide. So we were just scoping out this new venue to see if we and the rocks made a good match.

By the time we started hiking into the woods we did not have too much time to explore but did have enough time enough to spot a flock of goldfinches dressed in their bright summery ellow and black plumage flying in and around some low brush.

imgresOn the way back we lost the trail, with no supplies, lights or even water. We were never more than half mile or so from the car but with dusk approaching the thought of stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar woods was unappealing. While we lost the main trail, faint as it was, we picked up several other ‘herd’ paths – that is, trails going this way and that left by the footfalls of previous hikers. On some summits a herd path usually leads to a great view, or short cut to the trail’s continuation. The herd path deviates from the main blazed path, placed purposefully by the trail maintainer. White rectangles 2 inches wide and 3 inches long mark the entire 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Herd wisdom, or the wisdom of the crowd, has been around for eons. Thompson’s Gazelle‘s use the wisdom of the crowd to turn tail and bolt in the opposite directions from a prowling lion. Schools of fish do the same. And now a days humans ‘crowd source’ using the collective information gathering skills of hundreds to pull resources together to yield new information hitherto not easily knowable.

But walking in the woods in the waning light, pushing away boughs of thorn bushes obstructing the faint herd paths we had little choice but to follow the foot steps of walkers before us, and hope that their intentions in walking this ground were our intentions, that they were going, or coming, from the direction we sought. It felt comforting to embrace the wisdom of the footsteps of the crowd which indeed led us back to where we started.

Austrolapithicus on Breakneck Ridge

My son and I hiked what is commonly referred to as one of the more strenuous day hikes in the greater metropolitan New York region, noted for its steep ascent requiring both hands to navigate several steep rock scrambles. The route begins on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, separated by the Metro-North Hudson line train tracks. The route ascends promptly and continues to do so for seven tenths of a mile, climbing 1,260 feet to the summit.

Ascending Breakneck Ridge

Ascending Breakneck Ridge (photo credit Daniel Chazin, NY/NJ Trail Conference)

While clinging to the precambrian granite gneiss and searching by feel for a toe hold to provide a slender ledge from which to push myself higher I thought for a moment of the footsteps upon which I stood 48 hours earlier. Two days prior I had visited the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and spent a few moments in the Hall of Human Origins. Near the beginning of the exhibit stand two short hairy human-like people, holding hands, one male and one female. Their gaze is straight ahead and has an air of contented surprise.

Austrolapithicus

Austrolapithicus

The curators have placed in front of this couple a casting of Austrolapithicus footprints, discovered by anthropologists Mary Leakey and Paul Abell in 1978 and taken from a dig in Laetoli, Tanzania, not far from the Olduvai Gorge. About 3.5 million years ago dozens of footprints were fossilized in volcanic ash. The footprints appear human. The great toe is not simian –not angling wildly away from the foot. Rather it is parallel to the other toes and the footprints also reflect an arch, another human characteristic.

These prints are significant because they are among the earliest signs of bipedalism in human ancestors and scientists believe they are proof of when our ancestors mastered walking on two feet, which they also conclude was long before our ancestral brain increased in size.

Visitors of the exhibit are invited to place their feet on the fossilized prints. That I do. My size 10.5 foot dwarfs these uber-ancient footprints. I stand there face to face. This moment of staring in their eyes while also standing in their footsteps came back to me while on Breakneck Ridge, as I searched for a toehold on metamorphosed granite, hardened deep in the earth’s crust eons before man took his first step.

Austrolapiths’ footprints are recorded for all time, a record of a straight-ahead walk across a muddy flat. My toehold on the granite gneiss will leave no mark, no impression on the earth. Yet at that very moment for the first time I contemplated a  connection between myself and the most early walkers: a relationship between those early humans we know by their footprints for whom walking upright was a seminal event in human history and me and my fellow humans for whom a good toehold on the rock is just another day well spent.

Why We Watch Walkers

June is a month of gathering to watch people walk, in graduations, weddings and parades.    parade march

This coming Sunday is the Puerto Rican Day Parade, one of the largest in New York City. Last week was the Israel Day Parade, also traveling up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. On Memorial Day small towns across America had parades and this will be repeated on the Fourth of July.

Why we do we gather in large numbers to watch other people walk with flags and banners? Would we gather in the same numbers to watch people stand with flags and banners? People do not gather in large numbers to watch other people standing in protest. Yet we gather to watch a parade.

Arguably, a parade has music and festive ‘floats’ which is enjoyable to see. But we also gather to watch our children march down the graduation aisle. And no doubt we would go to their graduation even if they did not march in to Pomp and Circumstance. And the same for weddings. We would definitely attend even if there was no ‘marching’, really walking, down the aisle. Yet intrinsic to the graduation and weddings is the walk down the aisle.

graduationWe gather to watch people walk, to move, to transition from one stage of life to another. We gather to watch people walk en masse, in an organized manner that is a culmination, that required dedication and planning, that marks an accomplishment or a declaration of allegiance to a cause or an identity. We stand and observe  while the people we care about move forward. Walking is after all the choreographed  movement of temporarily losing than regaining one’s balance. We the observers stand and bear witness that people we care about or identify with  have imposed balance and order in their lives in what at times is a world fast paced and often off-kilter.