Preparing for the Camino de Santiago

Much of the Camino is either hard surfaces (like sidewalks or roadways in towns) or this--finely crushed gravel that's pleasant to walk on.
Much of the Camino is either hard surfaces (like sidewalks or roadways in towns) or this–finely crushed gravel that’s pleasant to walk on. Notice the pack covers.  With all the rain, mine was on almost every day. Pack covers help keep the pack dry, but they aren’t 100%. Use a pack liner and waterproof stuff sacks as well.

Most would consider me an experienced long distance hiker. I’ve completed 1,405 miles on the Appalachian Trail (summer 2014) and I just finished The Camino in Spain. Each trail is different. I found there were things that were unique to the Camino de Santiago. While there are many paths to Santiago, I took the most popular, The Camino Frances or The French Way. This Camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and finishes about 780km later in Santiago. I skipped the first 30km to avoid hiking the mountains during the first week of April. (It turned out to be a good choice. There was heavy snowfall and part of the trail was closed that week). I hiked from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela in the spring of 2016. It took me 37 days to walk the roughly 450 miles (750km, approximately), which included a day off in both Leon and Burgos.

The path is well marked, though you have to pay attention since it might be signs, yellow spray-painted arrows or shells in the sidewalk. The last section has new markers like this one, counting down the kilometers.
The path is well marked, though you have to pay attention since it might be signs, yellow spray-painted arrows or shells in the sidewalk. The last section has new markers like this one, counting down the kilometers.

It turned out to be a cold spring, with substantial flooding. If you are lucky and have great weather, you probably need to carry even less than what I did.

WHAT NOT TO BRING

First let’s start with what you DON’T need.

  • Tent–It’s mostly private land, so there is almost nowhere to legally set up a tent. You can set up at some hostels, but you don’t save much money this way.
  • Cooking equipment–There are bars, cafes, grocery stores and restaurants in every little town where you can eat or buy prepared food. If you want to cook, stay in a hostel with a kitchen.
  • Water purification–Every town has a fountain and the water is probably better than what comes out of the tap in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, (although, that’s not saying much).
  • Laundry soap–You can hand wash items with the same soap you use for your body. Mostly hostels will supply soap for automatic washers (lavadoras). Some will also have dryers (secadoras).
  • Pillow–Every hostel I stayed in had a pillow.
  • Blow up mattress—Every hostel I stayed in had real mattresses. I did see at least two churches where pilgrims could stay for free, but they slept directly on the stone floor. If you are really on a budget or going during July/August (the height of the season when places run out of beds), you might bring one of these along.
  • Food—I carried only a few snacks most days—nuts, cheese or fruit. Towns are 2-6km apart and you can almost always find a place to eat. If you are not sure about supplies ahead, get a sandwich (bocadillo).
There's dozens of little towns that you walk through. All have a church that's probably older than the USA. Don't rush through. Go inside all of them that you can.
There’s dozens of little towns that you walk through. All have a church (or three) that’s probably older than the government of the USA. Don’t rush through. Go inside all of them that you can. There’s a story and history in each.

WEIGHT

Carry less and you will enjoy it more. Most guidebooks will say that you should keep your pack under 20 pounds. I carried less than that on the Appalachian Trail! I didn’t weight my Camino pack, but I’d guess it was 10-12 pounds.

WHAT TO BRING

  • Sleeping bag/sleep sheet—I hiked in April/May 2016. It happened to be one of the coldest, wettest springs on record. We had several unseasonably cold nights. Some dropped to freezing. I was grateful I’d brought a summer weight, down sleeping bag and added a blanket in a few hostels. If you hike when it’s warmer, you can probably just do with a sleep sheet or bag liner. Most hostels had blankets, but not all. Some don’t even have sheets, so bring something.
  • Camp towel—You need a towel that dries easily, so no cotton. Mine was fairly small, but others had towels large enough to wrap their bodies in. Get something you can attached to the outside of your pack on sunny days so it can dry while you hike.
  • Clothes—By far, the most important item is good walking shoes. I like Merrill trail runners with thick soles and I add an additional insole for arch support and cushion. The next most important item is socks. I use silk sock liners and Darn Tough hiking socks. I had three sets of each. For the rest of the clothing, make sure everything is rugged and quick dry. No Cotton or blue jeans. These are the clothes I brought, which includes what I wore each day. This is about one set more than you have to have, so it’s possible to carry even less: Three sets each of underwear (sport bras and quick dry panties), shirts (two long sleeve wool, one short sleeve poly). Two pair of hiking pants. One button down camp shirt that could layer over my other shirts for warmth (optional). One pair hiking shorts (I only hiked in them twice. It was cold most days.). A travel vest with lots of pockets. BTW, I hate the pants with the zip off legs. They sound like a great idea, but the zippers seldom hold up and they always seem to hit the place were my thighs rub together when I walk. Can you say blisters? The quality of men’s pants seem to be better made than women’s. My hiking companion found pants that resisted stains and light rain. They were superior to mine. Whatever you buy, make sure they have pockets.
  • Spare camp shoes—I have an off brand that looks like a pair of Crocs, but a bit lighter in weight. I wore these around town and they doubled as shower shoes. Many people use flip flops. The advantage of Crocs is that they can also be used for hiking short distances if you have bad blisters, very swollen feet a toe injury or your regular hiking shoes completely fail.

    If you are carrying too much weight and going too many miles a day to enjoy the trip, you are going to miss all the art, like this!
    If you are carrying too much weight and going too many miles a day, you won’t enjoy the trip. And you are going to miss all the art, like this!
  • Water bottle—I just re-use a soda or juice bottle. Nothing is lighter in weight or less expensive. When the bottle gets banged up, I buy a new drink. You don’t have to carry a lot of water at any given time since almost every town has a fountain where you can fill up. Lots of people use those large bladders that fit inside a backpack, but I don’t like them. They leak, are tough to clean and way too easy to overfill. Water is heavy and since there is plenty of clean water readily available, it’s unnecessary to carry much. While I usually had two 1-liter bottles, I often just drank a lot of water at each fountain, then carried half a bottle.
  • Credit card/bank card/cash—Make sure to let your banks know you are traveling. Find an ATM card and a credit card that will work in Europe and won’t charge you an arm and a leg in fees. You will mostly need cash. Small hostels and cafes won’t accept credit cards.
  • Passport—You will have to produce this for every hostel.
  • Pilgrims Credential—This is your Pilgrim’s Passport which you will have stamped every day at hostels and cafes along the way. This is to prove where you walked and will serve as a nice souvenir later. You can get this along the way or order it ahead of time.
  • Plastic zip-lock bag for your Passport/CCs/Credential/Cash/etc.—A simple plastic bag will store everything, keep stuff dry and will be easy to carry. This is essentially a waterproof wallet. I took mine with me everywhere–even the shower. I slept with it under my pillow. This is the one thing you cannot afford to lose.
  • Coat/Fleece—I wore my down jacket often during this cold spring. It packed up very small, but still kept me warm. I even slept in it several times. I like fleece for the warmth and light weight, but it doesn’t pack up as small as I’d like. This can double as a pillow if the one at the hostel isn’t comfy.
  • Hat—for sun and rain
  • Sunglasses
  • Buff—Doubled as a sleep mask, ear muffs or headband. Don’t know what a buff is?

    Take a break 2-4 times a day and meet other walkers. There are lots of nice cafes for second breakfast or just a pint.
    Take a break 2-4 times a day and meet other walkers. There are lots of nice cafes for a second breakfast or just a pint.
  • Rain gear—Jacket/rain pants/poncho/pack cover/pack liner/umbrella or whatever combination works for you. This spring in Northern Spain was unseasonably wet and cold. We saw rain 32 out of the 37 hiking days. We got hail twice and saw lightening every evening for most of a week. I had a rain jacket and added an umbrella, which worked especially well in town. Near the end of the hike, the temperatures were just warm enough that I over-heated in a full coverage rain jacket. I’d wear the jacket, unzipped, and use the umbrella to keep out most of the rain. If it were very cold and windy, I’d put the umbrella away and add rain pants. If we’d had sunshine, the umbrella would have doubled as a parasol since there’s little tree coverage on this trail. I made sure the rain jacket was large enough to go over my down jacket in case it got really cold. Sometimes I wore the rain jacket just to deal with the wind. I’ve had poor luck with ponchos—somehow I can’t seem to stay dry in them. BTW, check to make sure your rain jacket is still keeping out the rain. I brought the same one I’d used on the Appalachian Trail two years before, but it had lost its waterproof properties. I had to replace it. I also recommend a pack cover, a pack liner (I use trash compacter bags, but any trash can liner will do), and I have each of my sets of gear in multi-colored, water-proof stuff sacks. DON’T GET ALL YOUR STUFF SACKS THE SAME COLOR. Color coding makes it easy to know your clothes bag from your sleeping bag at a glance.
  • Backpack—The less you carry, the fewer features you need in a backpack. I originally thought I’d take a smaller, summer backpack that I used on the Appalachian Trail. However, with so much less gear, I didn’t need anything large or substantial. I found a durable day pack and wore a travel vest (a vest with lots of pockets) to carry small items.
  • First aid kit—Don’t over-do it here. I’m talking about band-aids (plasters in Europe) and the anti-inflammatory of your choice. I also used a simple knee brace. Remember you will be able to buy what you need along the way. I highly recommend buying Compeed Brand for covering your blisters. Nothing sticks as well. They are easy to find in Spain.
  • Personal items—toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, comb, small bar of soap, small container of shampoo. You can easily replace this stuff as you run out, so use a small size/travel size of each.
  • Guidebook—I used the most popular English guide by John Brierley. The maps weren’t always accurate, but over-all it gave me the info I needed. He spends WAY too much time talking about things that are off trail for me. After I’ve done 20km, I’m not about to add an additional 5km just to see another church). He’s also clearly tuned into a spiritual side that I can’t relate to. I saw a Michelin Guide that was smaller and about as good, though many hostels weren’t mentioned in it. As I used pages, I tore them out and threw them away to lighten my load. Yes, the ounces add up.
  • Hiking poles (Optional)—I use them when going up or down hill and I think they save my knees. These can be difficult to travel with on a plane, however. If you don’t have checked luggage to put them in (and make sure they fit in your luggage), consider buying a cheaper pair after you get to Spain. Or do without.
  • Phone/iPad/Camera/Journal (Optional)—Most hostels and restaurants have free wifi, so you can check in with the folks back home by email. I have an unlocked smart phone and put a Spanish SIM card in it. For 40 Euros, I got the SIM card, a new phone number and enough data for 3 months in Spain, since I use it frugally. Using Apps like FaceBook Messenger or WhatsApp, you can even make international phone calls for free when you have wifi. If you carry any of these items, make sure you have chargers for them, waterproof bags to keep them dry and a plug converter for Europe.

    This hill was covered in rocks and sheep droppings, but it had a lovely cross on top and a great view.
    This hill was covered in rocks and sheep droppings, but it had a lovely cross on top and a great view.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?

Most guidebooks will lay out a 30-33 day trek starting from SJPP to Santiago, roughly 500 miles. Take longer so you can enjoy it more. Remember, you can start anywhere or you can walk other routes. If the Compostela (the document they give you at the end to verify you did the walk) is important to you, you only have to walk the last 100k (or bike 200k). And you can do this at your speed. Why push yourself with 30k day when 10-15-20 is so much more enjoyable? Personally, I say take all the time you can. Stay an extra day in Burgos and Leon and really enjoy those lovely cathedrals and art museums while resting your feet. It’s the journey, not the destination! Can you take 40 days? If not, then just choose a shorter route. Or decide to do the walk in sections.

Take an extra day in Leon and see the cathedral. It's amazing. Leon also has a castle.
Take an extra day in Leon and see the cathedral. It’s amazing. Leon also has a castle.

WHEN TO WALK

If I had it to do again, I’d go in the fall. Spring will always be wettest, though this particular year had record flooding. July/August is the high season and the hottest time of year. It can be difficult to find a free bed in the hostels and heavy sweating is not my thing. Winter is too cold for me and some hostels and cafes won’t be open. I’d go September and October, starting about a week after Labor Day. By mid-November, it’s getting pretty cold and dark, plus hostels and cafes in small towns will start to close.

Even if you aren't Catholic, go to a pilgrims mass occasionally. Most every town has one every evening.
Even if you aren’t Catholic, go to a pilgrim’s mass occasionally. Most towns have one every evening.

COSTS

  • I budgeted 35 Euros a day and came in a bit under budget. You can do it for less by eating from grocery stores and staying in the lowest priced hostels. You can easily spend more by staying in hotels or pensions and having a service carry your backpack (mochila) for you each day (5-6 Euros a day).
  • Hostels are 5-12€. The closer you get to Santiago, the more expensive. Once you get within 100Km of Santiago, the prices are 10-15 Euros. There are more people, too, and more of a party atmosphere.
  • Food: breakfast of 2 eggs, toast and cafe con leche is 5-6€. A more common Spanish breakfast is toast and coffee for 3-4€. BTW, you’ll have to ask for butter and jam. Toast usually means dry toast.
  • Pilgrims meals are 9-12€. It’s a big meal, including a first and second course, dessert and wine or water. There is usually a vegetarian option, but it might be little more than pasta with a few veggies.
  • Coffee or a caña (short, draft beer) is usually 1.5 Euros.
  • Laundry—usually 3 Euros to wash and 3 Euros to dry. Typically, the hostel wants to do the wash, so double check your belongings as soon as you get them back. You aren’t carrying much and you can’t afford to lose socks or underwear.

I hope this information can help you have a successful hike!

My Compostela--which we waited 2 hours in line for. Since the bicycle riders I. Front of us had not showered in a month, this turned out to be the most grueling part of the hike.
My Compostela–which we waited 2 hours in line for. Since the bicycle riders in front of us had not showered in a month, this turned out to be the most grueling part of the hike.

You never know….

timthumb.php5/21/2015
You never know the people you meet. It’s said we have less than 5 seconds to make a good first impression, then less than 2 to confirm that impression. Say what you will, but humans DO judge a book by its cover. Hiking the Appalachian Trail last year, helped me to be less judgmental about looks, but obviously, I still form judgments. As a human, you have to.

But sometimes you are wrong.

This is how I remember him. James Hammes in 2013. credit: David Milner for this article: http://www.sj-r.com/article/20150521/NEWS/150529846
This is how I remember him. James Hammes in 2013. credit: David Milner from this article: http://www.sj-r.com/article/20150521/NEWS/150529846

I ran into Bismark and Hopper a half dozen times along the AT. We stayed in the same shelters as least two nights. One day when I was particularly tired, Bismark got water for me from a distant source—which is about as kind as it gets for a hiker. Bismark seemed honest and a normal hiker, if that’s possible. At least, he wasn’t any odder than any other long distance hiker. He said he got his name because he was from North Dakota, but when you go by trail names you don’t really expect much history from someone. He may have mentioned that he did contract jobs by computer. Our conversations were what ALL hikers talk about: weather, distances, trail conditions, and far to the next resupply point. He had decent, though not pricy, gear. I got the impression he was a life-long AT hiker–a “lifer”—and that he lived frugally so that he could afford the time to do so. I do remember that he wasn’t particularly modest and I had to avert my eyes quickly once. But if you’re very “sensitive” or a prude, staying in shelters is not a good idea. His girlfriend, Hopper, (though I thought “wife” at the time) WAS a bit off. I was polite, but kept her at arm’s length. If anyone had something to hide, I thought, it was her. In retrospect, perhaps she was being protective.

I haven’t thought of them in about a year. Until I read this. It seems Bismark was arrested during the recent Trail Days in Damascus for embezzling. He even has a Most Wanted Poster.

status-imageHere’s an additional article:
A fugitive since 2009 embezzling charges, Lexington man arrested in Virginia
A Lexington man wanted since 2009 on federal charges that he embezzled more than $8.7 million from a local Pepsi bottling plant has been arrested in southern Virginia.

James T. Hammes, 53, was arrested Saturday in Damascus, Va., the FBI announced Monday.

Hammes, a former controller for the Lexington division of G&J Pepsi-Cola Bottlers, disappeared after being interviewed by the FBI in February 2009 about allegations that he had opened a fake bank account in the name of a vendor that worked for G&J, then put millions of the company’s money into the account. He allegedly then would move the money into personal bank and brokerage accounts.
Hammes had worked as controller for the company’s Southern Division in Lexington since 1995 and, according to an FBI news release, “was responsible for all financial accounting and internal controls.”

He is accused of taking $8,711,282 from 1998 to 2009.

Three months after Hammes fled, he was indicted in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio on 75 counts of wire fraud and money laundering.
In 2012, his case was featured the CNBC show American Greed: The Fugitives, and America’s Most Wanted.

A “Wanted” poster published by the FBI stated that Hammes, who was born in Wisconsin, was an accountant as well as an avid scuba diver and licensed pilot.
At the time of his disappearance, he was married to Deanna Hammes, but Herald-Leader archives indicate she later filed for divorce. Hammes’ previous wife, Joy Johnson Hammes, 40, who worked as community service food program coordinator at God’s Pantry, died after a fire at their Turkey Foot Road home in 2003. James Hammes was out for a walk at the time of the fire, and their teenage daughter, Amanda, was out with friends.

Joy Hammes’ family told American Greed and America’s Most Wanted that they were suspicious about the cause of the fire because James Hammes had been involved in a number of other fires in the past.

Investigators determined the fire was an accident.

The CNBC show reported that after James Hammes left, his wife and daughter went in a room he kept locked at their Lexington home. There they found books about how to disappear and create a new identity, as well as birth and death certificates for males who would have been about the same age he was.

Hammes was being held Monday by the Southwest Regional Virginia Regional Jail Authority in Abingdon, but is to be returned to Ohio to face the charges against him.

He made his first court appearance in Virginia on Monday, said Todd Lindgren of the FBI office in Cincinnati.

Lindgren said the charges against Hammes were filed in Ohio rather than Lexington because G&J is based in Cincinnati. The privately held company manufactures and distributes Pepsi products.

In its news release, the FBI thanked the Richmond Division of the FBI, Bristol Resident Agency, U.S. Marshals Service, Virginia State Police, Washington County, Virginia Sheriff’s Office and the Damascus Police department for helping with the investigation.

No information was available about how investigators found Hammes or what he was doing in Virginia.

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/05/18/3858239_a-fugitive-since-2009-embezzling.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

AT-Guide-James-Hammes1
David Miller’s The A.T. Guide Booth at Trail Days 2015 with James Hammes on the right. ~ Photo courtesy of David Miller According to David: “[Bismarck] was a contributor to The A.T. Guide, and seemed nice, intelligent and helpful. He visited my booth at Trail Days on Friday (to the right, in blue shirt).” I also contributed to the A.T. Guide in 2014.
Postscript: A social media friend added a link to this article, which is superior to any I’ve read. It explains the use of trail names. Please note that there is an error in the article. He says that Earl Shaffer, the first person to hike the AT (which is true) and that he was 11 years old when he did it (which is not). Shaffer was an adult and recovering from WWII service when he became the first thru hiker in 1948. He went on to hike three time completely and probably hiked some sections hundreds of times.

Hiking Gear for the Appalachian Trail

When I started hiking the Appalachian Trail March 1 of 2014, I knew I wasn’t the strongest hiker out there. I couldn’t carry as much weight as I used to and I had little experience camping and hiking in winter conditions. I was prepared to learn a lot. The one thing I thought I knew was gear. I was very sure I had chosen the right equipment for my hike.

So it is very humbling to admit that only a handful of items were still with me by the end of the trip. I changed everything except:

  • One long sleeve, button down shirt, which I still wear.
  • The trash compactor bag (not just a trash bag) I lined my backpack with. This held up well and kept everything dry.
  • A simple down jacket from REI (which I used as a pillow in warm weather).
  • Silk bag liner (which I sent home in the summer).
  • Silk long underwear (which I sent home in the summer).

Before I totally forget the details, I wanted to put down all of the changes I made to my hiking gear and why. These changes obviously increased the cost of my hike immensely, though in most cases I had purchased the original item from REI. I highly recommend buying equipment from REI because they have an outstanding return policy. They are not, unfortunately, easy to buy from while you are on the trail, but they will let you ship anything back if you are a member and it was purchased within a year.

sleeping bagSLEEPING BAG

I started with a 27F Women’s Big Agnes Bag. I ended with a Western Mountaineering 10F Down sleeping bag, (cost, roughly $550).

Why I changed: The Big Agnes bag is a perfectly good sleeping bag; it simply wasn’t warm enough for me and for the conditions. I had originally planned to start the hike April 1, but started a month earlier than that. I needed more warmth for what turned out to be a cold, extended winter season. Also, I sleep cold.

I switched to a lightweight, summer bag the first week of July. It was down, so a bit pricy, and rated for 35F. It worked well, but was not dry down, so needed airing out in the sun often to keep it really dry and fluffy. By July, it was too warm to use most nights, but I kept it.

BACKPACK

I started with the 70 liter, GoLite Jam. I almost immediately changed to the ULA Catalyst (cost $250). By summer, I changed to the ULA Circuit (cost $250). ULA packs were very popular on the trail this year and almost everyone I talked to loved theirs. The packs are virtually identical, only the size is different.

Circuit-2TWhy I changed: The GoLite Jam was the most horrible pack I’ve ever owned. It didn’t hold the stated weight (30 pounds) and all the straps were showing wear by day three. One broke on the third day of my hike. The worst was the fit, which got more painful with each step. If I’d had to use this pack for the whole trip, I’d have thrown in the towel that day.

At day 3 at Mountain Crossings, I was fitted with a ULA Catalyst. I’ve never had a better fitting pack in my life. It has never shown any wear, is water resistant, versatile and roomy. The only reason I went to the ULA Circuit is that after a while I needed less room. I kept reducing my gear weight, and needed less volume. The Circuit was smaller and a pound less in weight. I cannot recommend these two packs highly enough. Also, please visit this the outfitter and hostel at Mountain Crossings when you go through Neels Gap, GA. Let them go through your pack and lighten your load. Don’t be embarrassed. It will keep you hiking longer than any other thing I can recommend. I bought the Circuit at the Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, Virginia and they are also good, knowledgeable folk with solid advice for hikers.

TENT

solo5I started the hike with the Big Agnes Fly Creek, UL2. I changed to a LightHeart Gear tent (about $250)

Why I changed: In a mix up, I briefly lost my Big Agnes Fly Creek tent, 3 days before I reached Franklin, NC. At the time, I didn’t think I would get my tent back and so bought a replacement at Outdoor 76. I needed the item immediately and there were no Fly Creek tents available in town. The Big Agnes tent is excellent. Both the Fly Creek and the Copper Spur models were very popular on the trail this year.

The day after I bought the new tent, my old tent was returned to me. I decided to keep the new one because it was only 2 pounds (about a pound less than the Fly Creek) and used my hiking poles as support. I was very happy with this tent. There are several ways to set it up and though condensation is a problem in the most closed down set up, I think it’s the best single walled tent I’ve seen. At Outdoor 76, they cut a ground cloth of Tyvek for me for an addition $8. Please visit this outfitter when you go through Franklin. They were kind and gave me good advice.

imagesIMPNFQZTSLEEPING PAD

I started with the Big Agnes Q-Core Women’s full length pad. I ended with a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad, ¾ size.

Why I changed: The Big Agnes pad is a fine sleeping pad. It is even possible to sleep on your side with this pad–something you can’t often say. But it weighed 18 ounces and I simply had to cut the weight of my load. Also, I didn’t have the lung capacity to blow up the full length pad by the end of the day. The ThermaRest was 9 ounces and because it was ¾ length, it was easier to inflate. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable, but it was adequate for me. This would not have been a good solution for everyone, nor the best one for cold weather. BTW, I had initially spurned the NeoAir because it sounded like a bag of potato chips when I lay down on it in the REI store to try it out. I don’t know if they changed the model or if it simply wasn’t as loud as I had thought, but I didn’t find this to be an issue at all.

STOVE

JetBoilI started with the Snow Peak GigaPower Stove with Piezo ($50). I ended with a JetBoil ($79), which I sent home once it got warm.

Why I changed: The Snow Peak is a good stove. I’m not knocking it. I changed because I found I didn’t really want to cook; I wanted to boil water. And I wanted the water very hot, very fast. Plus the Piezo starter on the Snow Peak didn’t work as well in very low temperatures. Of course, nothing works as well in very low temperatures, so that’s not a surprise nor a reason not the buy the Snow Peak. This is one of the few times I got something that weighed more, but I didn’t need to carry a spare fuel canister since the JetBoil took 2-3 minutes to heat the water instead of 8+ minutes. But the truth is I don’t care much about cooking when I’m hiking. If I were camping, that would be different. When it was cold, I was most concerned with hot water for coffee or soup. Once it got warm, I skipped the soup and found other ways to get my caffeine. Personally, I found the JetBoil almost impossible to cook in. Meals burn easily in it. Others had better luck, so perhaps I’m not attentive enough. But if all you want to do is boil water, this is your stove.

MISCELLANEOUS CLOTHING CHANGES

I also changed most of my clothing.

SOCKS: I’d started with Thor-Lo hiking socks and almost immediately went to Darn Tough. They may be pricy at $ 19 each, but they really take a beating. They still look good after 1,000+ miles. I used silk sock liners for the first two and a half months until I had pretty much destroyed the liners. Silk is expensive and it is fragile (when wet), so it’s no surprise they didn’t hold up for as long. I wore them because I have extreme issues with blisters. The silk felt so good on my feet and the liners lasted long enough to let my feet toughen up. They were well worth the money to me. I had two pair of liners and I wish I had brought four.

SHIRTS: I had started with a few poly shirts. I replaced them with Smart Wool. Wool doesn’t hold body odors as long and it kept me warm. I loved the wool–until the temperature hit 90F. At that temperature, the shirts suddenly felt like a furnace and I had serious chaffing issues under the arms. When it’s that warm, though, your shirt doesn’t matter much. I bought a couple cheap shirts from a thrift store made of some poly material.

SHORTS: I mostly hiked in basketball shorts. I liked the length (almost to my knees) and the pockets. I wore them over silk long underwear or leggings when it was cold.

SHOES: I buy Merrells. Period. Use the thick, hiking sole ones, not the thin “barefoot” style. You need the extra sole, especially in Pennsylvania where the rocks are killers.

SMALL STUFF: I also made some minor changes to small gear, mostly to save weight. I bought a tiny headlamp, very small knife and got rid of anything I didn’t absolutely, positively need. By the end of the hike, my full pack (summer gear) was always less than 20 pounds, even with a liter of water and 5 days of food. With winter gear, it would not have exceeded 25 pounds. I cannot stress enough how important a light pack is.

I hope this information will be helpful to those who are hiking in the future. Again, this is what I learned from 4.5 months of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

NOTE: I have plans to hike The Camino in the future. All this gear may get another tough use.

Vietnam in one week

I am on my way to Vietnam in only one week. There’s still a list of things to take care of, but I’m mostly ready to go.

The last document needed for my work visa is in the mail. I’ve bought my ticket and packed the items I’ll carry with me. I’ll be spending my last week in The States with my dear friends Kathy and Julia, outside of Albany, New York. We’ve got a few adventures planned, mostly involving wine, good food and a little sightseeing. Kathy and Julia rescued me off the AT when my foot was too injured to hike on. I am indebted to them forever and can’t possible express the kindness they have shown me.

Everyone says how jealous they are that I’m “footloose and fancy free.” But it’s not that easy. This has taken some careful planning, more time than I expected, more money than I’d hoped, and every ounce of persistence I possess. And I’ve given up most of my stuff. Here are a few random details for those of you who might consider an adventure like this:

EVERYTHING I OWN I’m not taking much with me. The first thing I did when I realized I was definitely going to tropical Vietnam was to shed all my warm clothing. I’ll be lucky if it ever drops below 60F. I’ll be carrying most of what I own on the plane. I’ll have two carry-ons—a backpack and a large handbag—which will have a change of clothes, my documents, electronics, camera, a couple fragile items and a few toiletries. I’ll check two bags, mostly with clothing and personal items. The first bag is free and I’ll have to pay about a hundred dollars for the second checked bag. That may seem pricy, but it’s less than sending it later, plus I’ll have the items immediately. That will leave about two boxes of things that my friend Kathy will mail to me when I have a permanent address. I’ll be sending items USPS. A box of 25 pounds will cost roughly $125. I’ll store my hiking equipment with Kathy, but not much else.

Please remember that I used to own a three story, two bedroom, two and a half bath condo, filled to the brim with stuff. I’ve shed most all my belongings. The folks at Good Will know me very well. All my books are electronic, my photos digital. Even the art my niece sends me is scanned and kept electronically. My clothes are horribly boring and all intermix. My hairstyle requires little more than a comb and my makeup routine takes a minute and a half. I have nothing decorative, nothing to dust, no furniture, no kitchen equipment.

Ladies, I only own four pair of shoes. And I might get rid of one pair.

Most of what I kept when I started hiking was stored in my friend Sue’s attic in Atlanta. Another friend who has shown unbelievable kindness and support.

CAR Julia’s husband, Bill, has arranged to sell my car after I leave. Bless him. It’s a 2001 Saturn with 200,000+ miles on it, so I’m not expecting much money. But it has served me very well. I can’t imagine what I would have done if dear friends Ann and Nelson in Snellville had not kept the car in running order for me during the summer while I was hiking the AT. Another set of friends I am indebted to for life.

TOURIST VISA I’m going initially to Vietnam on a Tourist Visa.  Many countries require a visa, but most you can get on arrival (Visa On Arrival, VOA). Here’s the details for getting one in Vietnam. And this is the company site I used to get my letter.

WORK VISA I did most of my research about teaching English more than three years ago. The rules have changed and it isn’t as easy as it used to be. There are new laws, Hague conventions, which require more documentation than I was prepared for. Most countries that want English teachers require only two things: English is your first language and you have a four year college degree. That’s still true. And you can travel there on a tourist visa, though you can’t legally work on one. For the school to get a work visa for you, you have to prove you are not a criminal and that your documents are legitimate. Basically, I needed an FBI Background check and a copy of my diploma. And EACH had to be “apostilled.” An apostille is an authentication process. Quoting the FBI website: An apostille is a certification that a document has been “legalized” or “authenticated” by the issuing agency through a process in which various seals are placed on the document. So far it sounded easy, especially for someone who has no felony convictions and hasn’t even had a parking ticket in three decades.

It wasn’t.

The diploma had to be sent to my college, who verified that the diploma came from them, and then sent to the Illinois Secretary of State office for a seal and letter of authentication. It took 6 weeks and about $30. The FBI background check took FOUR sets of fingerprints before I got success. The first three were ink and were turned down as un-readable. The last set was digital. I paid a “channeler” $50 or more for each set, even the ones that didn’t work. According to the FBI customer service person I spoke with, “a high percentage” of inked fingerprints are turned down by the FBI, but digital prints “almost always work.” Please note that the FBI website gives instructions only about inked fingerprints. That took two months and more frustration and tears than I care to remember. It could have taken a year if I’d done it without the channelers. Then the background check had to have an apostille. If I’d had 2-3 months, I could have sent it to the US State Department myself. I paid a courier service about $200 to take care of it. I’ll have the document this week.

All of this to prove I have a real college degree and that the FBI keeps my criminal file in a folder marked “Harmless.”

LEAVIN’ ON A JET PLANE I’m flying out Monday. My dear, dear friends have agreed to drive me to Newark Airport rather than have me fly from Albany. It won’t save any money, but it cuts off about ten hours of travel time. It’s roughly 22 hours, with one stop in Hong Kong. Flights of that length, especially sitting in coach, are brutal. Though it’s important to move around when you can, I do my best to be unconscious for as much of the flight as possible. I wear eye shades, ear plugs and take a sleeping pill. I especially try to sleep on the NEW schedule of the country I’m flying to—it takes a bite out of jet lag later. I don’t drink alcohol as it makes jet lag worse. I won’t arrive until almost midnight Tuesday.

HOUSING IN VIETNAM That remains to be seen, but initially, I can stay at the school’s apartment. Many English schools in Asia provide housing, but this one doesn’t. On the other hand, housing is fairly inexpensive. I hope to find a small, furnished apartment. I’m sure I’ll have a couch for friends to visit. (Hint, hint) I’ll be 20 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in a town called Bien Hoa. It’s the site of the former US military base.

TRANSPORTATION My school host, Thom, has promised to meet me on arrival to Vietnam. This is a true kindness. It will be midnight before I walk out of the airport outside Ho Chi Minh City. The apartment I’ll stay in initially is on the same block as the school and I’ll have use of a scooter. I expect to buy one after I arrive and get up enough nerve.

LEAVING MILLINOCKET, ME Remember than most of the above was arranged while working twelve plus hour days at a hostel near Mt Katahdin, the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. I’d like to say that my work/live stay at the Appalachian Trail Lodge was a lot of fun, though very hard work. I’d like to say that. Well, the hard work part is certainly true. While I won’t waste time or energy on details, I will say that my time with the owners of this lodge sucked from me much of the joy I initially felt about the Appalachian Trail. While I may be able to finish the hike eventually, I won’t be staying here.

I will miss my co-worker and roommate, Tie. She’d like to manage a trail hostel next year. No one would be better or harder working. Whoever is smart enough to hire her will be delighted with their choice.

THANKS Barring injury, hiking the Appalachian Trail (I initially typed the word trial. Freudian Slip?) is mostly mental. It’s hard to stay positive unless you have people behind you. No one hikes alone. I want to take this time to thank all of you who supported me in my hike north on the AT. I was blown away by trail angels, kind words on my blog, offers of support, soft beds to sleep in, cold sodas, donations to keep me on the trail, encouragement on social media and many smiles. It helps more than you can know. I didn’t finish the hike the way I would have liked to, but I did FOURTEEN HUNDRED AND FIVE miles. Nothing to be ashamed of. You helped.

Things I’m still working through:

  • Insurance. I expect I qualify for travel insurance and have asked for a couple quotes.
  • Notifying my credit card companies
  • Canceling my phone. I’ll get a new service once I’m there.

So that’s the update. The adventure continues…..

The AT is different for each person…

photo

This made me smile.

I’m working hard to secure an overseas teaching assignment. I have a verbal agreement with a school in Vietnam. The school is located outside Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) and classes are predominately evenings and weekends.  I am trying to learn a few simple words and phrases in Vietnamese so I can at least say hello, thank you and I’m sorry when I arrive. It’s a very tough language and I suspect I will be the comic relief of the entire school. If I’m successful at securing the job, I’ll be doing SAT prep for high school students who want go to college in the USA. While I’ll work with students on English conversation, much of my classroom focus will be SAT math and science prep. So in addition to learning a new language, I’m reviewing Algebra, Geometry & Chemistry (which is going quite well) and Physics & Trigonometry (which I am NOT doing so well with).

Since I only have a verbal agreement with the school in Vietnam, I am continuing to look through other teaching opportunities, but they are only back up options. Verbal agreements are probably worth the paper they aren’t printed on. So……Just in case.

But, frankly, none of the above is as difficult as wading through the documentation needed to get a work visa. New global regulations have gone into place in the last couple years, mostly to combat terrorism and false documents. New words have joined my vocabulary, especially Apostille. It’s a French word for an authentication process and I need one for my college diploma to prove it’s real and not a fake created on the internet. That’s taken a month, but should be delivered this week.  I’ll also need a health check (which I can do in country), copy of my passport (got that) and my TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).

The item that’s taking so much time is the FBI background check. First I need the background check, Then I need the apostille for the background check. So far, two sets of fingerprints have been rejected. The ridges on my fingers don’t show up well. Clearly, I should have been a thief. I sent a third set of inked prints last week through a channeler: someone who should speed the process along (from 6 weeks to one) but also charge four times the usual price. This (I hope and pray) will be back this coming week. Next I’ll pay a small Washington DC firm to speed through my apostille–which will take another 5 business days and more money than I’m willing to admit to. Ugh.

But at least I’ll have it done and will be ready to move onto the next steps. I’m ready to move from the red tape to the real adventure.

For those interested in teaching English outside the US, this blog post was one of the few I found helpful with the process. If you’d like to be confused AND have lots of time (or a desire to cure insomnia) go straight to the FBI website.

This is what a background check should look like. Suspect all mine says is "Mostly Harmless."
This is what an FBI background check should look like. Suspect all mine says is “Mostly Harmless.”