The 2003 ALDHA Gahtering

I have just returned from the 2003 Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) Gathering. This year it was held in Hanover, New Hampshire. This was my first Gathering and I was attending because I had been asked to give a workshop on hiking with disabilities. I managed to convince several friends to join me and we made a weekend-long road trip for the event. None of them had been to the Gathering before. We experienced all sorts of things: great fall colors, strange and wonderful people, interesting workshops, deadly bad audio books, opinionated people (of course including us), and so much more. Here is my story.

Andy and Elwira were coming to pick Paul and me up in Ann Arbor. They would arrive in a rented Chevy Blazer and we would then make the trip to Toledo to pick up our last traveler: Josh. Everything went well from the start and for several minutes after that. In fact things were going so well as we drove to Toledo that no one noticed that we had easily left M-14 for I-94 and then driven to the outskirts of Jackson, Michigan. This is, for those unfamiliar with the local geography, rather out of the way. We had been enjoying the conversations in the car and not paid attention to the road. Everyone has done this before. We would do it again. We did not get to Josh and Amy's house until much later. The only saving grace here is that I suppose we did not have to worry about interrupting them when they were watching Survivor. When we did finally arrive Josh and Amy welcomed us in to crash for the night (always the plan). We had pizza and put Lynn Wheldon's video "27 Days" on. This is a video about several seniors through hiking the Long Trail. It's of interest to us since we all know Gran-Ma Soule (who I believe happens to live in Jackson, Michigan - hmm, maybe that's some foreshadowing that we were not aware of). I don't think any of us really watched the video. We were all having too much fun chatting with each other late into the night.

Early the next morning we loaded the blazer up and said goodbye to Amy. We squeezed into the blazer and set out on our 800+ mile journey to Hanover, New Hamphsire. It was about 7:30AM and our first stop was breakfast at a Tim Hortons. This took rather longer than I think any of us wanted, but hey that's life. We were well and truly on our way a little after 8:00AM. The driving was easy and the conversation lively. We had no shortage of things we could talk about. Having people with you that you can easily talk with about all manner of things can make a trip go by much more quickly. There is, of course, a small downside to lively conversation. It is possible to forget where you and and where you want to be. A few hours down the road we stopped at a convenience store for gas and munchies. Andy noticed a Pennsylvania state trooper in the store and thought he was rather far outside his jurisdiction. After all, we thought we were driving down i-90 and were somewhere in New York. We were actually driving down i-80 and in Pennsylvania. We were definitely not on our planned route, but it did not matter. Our newly adopted route wasn't taking us out of our way by much and we simply had to adjust to it. The new route turned out to be wonderfully colorful. The trees were resplendent in their fall colors and provides us with some fine eye candy. We drove through the country side past many small farms and enjoyed the day considerably.

The good driving continued on through New York's Finger Lakes region, past Albany, and then into Massechusetts. We didn't have to actually go through that last state, but Josh was in charge of navigation and had decided to stick to major highways and avoid the more minor roads. It hardly mattered. By this time it was night and the scenery was hidden from view. We drove on through Vermont and then into New Hampshire where we had some final map mix ups before we found our way to Hanover and Storrs Pond Campground.

We settled in for the night. It was surprisingly warm and clear. A fine night for sleeping. It was also remarkably uncrowded. At least I was expecting to see many more tents than I did. I also expected to hear a bit more noise even though it was now past midnight. After all, I was certain camp fires were ablaze someplace and people would be schmoozing. We all really just wanted to go to bed since we had been on the go all day and had little sleep the night before. While we had made small noises about attending the trail yoga session none of us really thought we would go.

The morning came rather quickly. We pulled ourselves together. Paul, the only real morning person of the bunch, was first. We did our camp chores, tromped through the wet grass (only Andy was impervious to it since he was wearing Sealskinz socks) to get from place to place. We had to get to the Dartmouth campus quickly to register. I had to get there to register and get set for my presentation on hiking with disabilities which was scheduled to start at 9:00AM. We figured out where we needed to go. I think we only bugged one fellow when Paul called out "Hey, Dude, where's the alumni building?" It just doesn't sound right for a western Michigan fellow to use the word dude the way Paul does. It's especially strange when the target dude is an older fellow on an ivy league campus. Elwira and I found where I needed to be and then she joined the others as they dispersed to other workshops. I waited for some people to come to mine. 9:00AM came and went and I had just one person in my audience. I gave it a little more time but by 9:10 no one else had shown up so I gave up. My planned talk needed to change. You can't just stand up and lecture to a single person. That just won't work. I had to turn it into a one-on-one seminar. We had a more of a conversation. Paul came by towards the end of my talk to contribute some thoughts too. I believe the lady who attended - she does have a disability - got some useful information out of the seminar. I think she got some confidence that she can do what she wants (though I think she already had plenty). I'm rather unhappy that nobody else came. If I do this workshop again I will have to figure out a way to attract more people. I am sure there must be a way.

The other workshops were going like gangbusters. Across the hall a workshop on nutrition was packed. I learned later from Andy and Elwira that the presenter talked a lot about using whole foods and really changing your lifestyle. Josh was being regaled by Warren Doyle in another building. Later in the morning I was able to attend a workshop. We all selected different workshops and I hope the others got good things out of theirs. I'm not actually sure they did. Personally I think Chris Townsend did a good job describing the Arizona Trail. It could be quite the trail to visit. A completely different experience from anything I have ever done before.

The afternoon sessions were in some way superb and some ways rather less so. For people just beginning to start packing ultralight Mara and Glen had a lot of good things to say. They got heckled somewhat by audience members. The heckling is unfortunate since it took away from the limited time a presenter had to share his or her information. I think if a person can help expand on a point a presenter has brought up that is good. But it is only good if the presenter has set aside some time for direct audience interaction (e.g., a Q&A period). I'll admit that I voiced opinions that expanded on presenter points but I hope I did it in a good way. However, there were people who just wanted - or so it seemed - to play the one-up-man-ship game and that is just not good. It is particularly rude when you remember that presenters (including me) are not paid and have to get to ALDHA on their own nickel.

All this having been said I still think people got things out of the workshops. Even if the things gotten were in some ways negative. For instance, coming to the conclusion that the approach a person is espousing to say hiking cheaply is just not right for you. Josh came up with a great example of this with Warren Doyle's "leftover menu" where he seems to suggest a fine way to supplement your diet in towns is to eat the leftovers off other tables before they get cleaned up. I can say with certainty that I won't do this. I can think of some real good reasons why it's not a good idea. But for some, like Warren Doyle, it might be acceptable.

For me though some of the best parts of the first day were running into people I had met earlier in the year. I ran into a couple of people that I had hiked with either in North Carolina/Tennesee or in Pennsylvania. It was nice to catch up with them. It was nice to see they remembered me though until they said who they were I did not know who they were (that's just the way it is). Perhaps one of the ALDHA Gathering's biggest draws is the chance for hikers to meet each other again. It's rather like a class re-union. I enjoyed my short chats with people I had spent a few days with along the Appalachian Trail.

We had meant to do more during the evening than we did, but plans change. Instead we hung around camp. Storrs Pond Campground is a short drive from the Dartmouth campus. This means you either spend time in town, the campus, or the campground. If you do not have a car you may have trouble getting around. We dropped in, very briefly, on the contra dance (I was definitely not up for that) and when we left it a hiker asked if he could ride back to the campground with us. Paul immediately said "yes" thinking he was someone he knew. Turned out he wasn't but we still squeezed him in somehow. For a person like myself who does not drive or a person who attends the ALDHA Gathering (at least here in Hanover) who does not have a car transportation can be a real concern. When we got back to the campground we wandered over to the campfires, but they failed to hold our interest. I just think we were all a bit out of it and I know I did not feel like I easily fit into the cliques that seemed to have formed around the campfires. We wandered back to our campsite and went to sleep.

Sunday morning Elwira, Andy, and Paul made it to the yoga class. I just went back to sleep. I should have gone, but I just was too comfortable where I was. I don't think Josh even stirred as the others went away. When they came back though, after having fun (it seems) and maybe being a bit silly and goofy (par for the course) we had breakfast. For most of us that meant oatmeal mixed with the cookie crumbs that were all that really remained of the very tasty chocolate chip cookies Amy had made. This morning was again fairly warm for the time of year, but it was a bit grayer than the day before. Still and all it seemed like it should be a fine day for a short day hike. None of us really had a yen to catch any of the morning sessions and Josh really was looking forward to setting foot upon the AT. We drove to the trail head and got ready for a nice little hike. It was shaping up to be a partly sunny warm morning. The trees were displaying their colors though I don't think the full peak had been reached yet. We hiked through the quiet forest slowly spreading out as we went. Actually, I should say everyone pulled ahead of me and I lagged behind. I had, for some silly unknown reason, left my hiking sticks in the car. I therefore was traveling somewhat more slowly than I otherwise would have done. If I had the sticks I am sure I would have kept up. But no one complained. The going wasn't too hard even without the sticks and the trail was generally easy to follow. On our way to Velvet Rocks shelter I think only one person, a young lady runner, passed us. The shelter was a nice typical shelter. We lounged about for 20 or so minutes enjoying each others company and the world that surrounded us. It was a fine autumn morning. As we were getting ready to leave a lady with a springer spaniel came on up. We asked her to take a group photograph of us and she obliged. Then she continued on her way, probably down the blue-blaze trail to a nearby road and we began to re-trace our steps back to the car.

The return trip was down the mountain side. I slipped a couple of times, but it was nothing serious. The group spread out again and I was hiking alone. My usual state. I don't think I talked with anyone during the actual hike. Now and then I would catch up to Elwria or Andy as they took pictures and we would exchange "how are you"s but that was all.

We got back in time, after waiting in a very long line at Subway for lunch, to catch most of Momma Lipton's nutrition workshop. Her approach to trail nutrition was quite different from the other presenters approach according to Andy. She had some good ideas and the jerky she passed around was some of the best I have ever had. We then all hustled over to catch the movie "2,000 Miles to Maine." This film looked at the world of the through-hiker and it really did a fine job. The people they talked with and the characters they met were engaging, funny, sad, and real. There was no glossing over the fact that the trail is tough. But there were also many hilarious moments. So many that portions of the movie's soundtrack were drown out by the mass laughter of everyone in the packed room. This movie was a real treat.

I wish I could give equally high marks to the documentary on Katahdin that was shown in the alumni hall. It wasn't exactly bad, but it was not great either. The quality of the filming suffered sometimes and when you consider how long it was it seems like more should have been done. That is I should have gotten more from the movie. It was good, but not good enough. The final event for this Gathering was a speech by Bill Irwin. I've got mixed feelings about the man. I am not trying to take anything away from his accomplishment of through hiking the AT. Being nearly completely blind makes hiking difficult. I think the others may well be right that hiking with a seeing eye dog might have actually at time made it more difficult than if he had hiked with a partner. But what I think irks me more is that he really is a motivational speaker who happened to do this incredible thing. He's not a hiker. And I am not really sure that he is a good model beyond the fact that he can inspire people to push themselves to do things they might have thought impossible. As a speaker I also don't think he was that good. His stories were great, even if they were embellished in places, but his delivery sometimes was lacking. That surprised me considering he does this type of speaking for a living. Maybe the commercial materialistic aspects of things related to him also bug me. Maybe I am being unfair. But then only one person came to my workshop. I may not have a book of stories out, but I think I can offer more in many ways than he appeared to do. I think we are probably interested in different things though and I suppose that is alright.

One final campfire were stories were shared, opinions sought, arguments waged, and a generally good time was had by all. I think we probably managed to irritate some people as we talked amongst ourselves about the various presentations we had seen today. But I think everyone went away happy. We certainly had a good last night.

Our return journey home was as much fun as the drive to Hanover had been. This time we took the route, in reverse of course, that we had meant to take on the way up. The beginning was scenic enough but overall I guess the other route was better. It was certainly cheaper. We deposited Josh in Toledo (after only a couple micro-detours) a little bit before 1:00AM. We had to wake Amy up to unlock the door since Josh had not taken his keys. It's a good thing she isn't a super sound sleeper. Paul and I were dropped off next and Paul crashed on my couch. Elwira and Andy had to still drive another half an hour or so to get home but I imagine they were back home sometime around 2:30AM. We had had a long day, a long weekend, but it was all very enjoyable.

I don't know if I will go again to the Gathering. I don't think I would go if I wasn't giving a presentation. I may very well try to give a hiking with disabilities presentation again. Perhaps a second go around would see more people in attendance. It was certainly fun seeing people I knew. I learned some things along the way. However, if I did not have friends to go with I think attending the Gathering alone would be a letdown. Even tougher than say going to a major music festival by myself.