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Shutdown Hike #2 – Laurel Run – George Washington National Forest

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Hike Summary

So, the government shutdown was still underway when I went on this hike. This didn’tt interrupt my hiking, although the weather came close to doing so. I am glad that I stayed on my toes and paid attention to the weather, because had I decided to go on my normal hiking day, I would have ended up not being able to go at all, due to the 4 straight days of rain we’ve had the latter half of this week.

I did, however, make a couple of missteps, but not hazardous ones.

The first was wearing shorts. Summer is over. I was lulled into a false sense of warmth from the previous week, when temperatures came close to the 90s, and things were super warm and cheerful. I am definitely glad I grabbed my jacket before setting out, because I certainly needed it.

I hiked this trail before, back in June, and I really enjoyed it. I wanted to give it another go in the Autumn, to get a good look at the foliage, and because I really did enjoy it before. I’m not sure what was going on with me this day (trying a new allergy medication, I suspect,) but I spent a lot of my time feeling just plain tired.

The other one was not carrying enough batteries. I’m usually really good about keeping enough batteries with me, but I also have an issue when I go hiking that I inevitably forget something. It’s like some stupid mental block that I have that I have to purposely forget something, and I find it really frustrating sometimes.

Anyhow, this oversight/error caused me to not take as many pictures as I would like, as I only had one good set of batteries and I had to pick between my camera and my GPS. I did, however, manage to take some photos with my phone later on, so I still got to preserve some of the color that was in the mountains at this time of the year.

I know that this week was just around what’s referred to as peak color for the area, so there was quite a bit to see, and the weather was mostly cooperative.

The first part of the hike, up Laurel Run, is steep. It’s steep enough that if you’re not used to strenuous hikes, you’ll get some soreness for sure going up this trail. I saw quite some pretty sights along the way, and I was able to identify some new trees with a little help.

I am not a native to the Eastern forests, so I don’t know the trees all that well. My mom had heard me complaining about this, and decided to send me some help. There’s a series of nice little pocket-sized guidebooks to help identify plants and trees and such, and she’s long had one for the Pacific coast trees, and I remember it. She sent me the one for Eastern Trees, the simple and straightforward titled Tree Finder by May Theilgaard Watts. This book is great. It’s laid out in a flowchart format, where you go by distinguishing characteristics of the leaves (or needles if you’re doing conifers) and eventually through a process of elimination you reach the correct tree. This allowed me to correctly identify Striped Maple and Bear Oak during this hike.

There are a couple of wildlife clearings along the way, and they made for lovely settings for autumn foliage.

I should mention that, even though this hike was during the shutdown, you couldn’t even tell any difference in GWNF. I know (or rather, I heard,) that the major lots, such as Elizabeth Furnace and Wolf Gap were locked, but there were no signs admonishing people at any trailheads. I think that’s probably due to the differences in how the National Forests and the National Parks are handled. The National Forests seem much more hands off to me, and the areas are usually a bit more rustic feeling.

Once up on the ridge of Long Mountain, the hike became a little easier, but there’s still a bit of up and down as you go along the trail. There was a great spot for pictures , and I stopped to take a few, enjoying the ripple of red throughout the mountains, off into the distance. It was still chilly and cold, but the sun was out somewhat, and the clouds made a beautiful pattern overlaying the sky above.

After going through a bald that looked like it was a grazing area in a previous life, I lost my batteries. I also decided to take a different route down the mountain than I had previously. Last time I was here, in June, I’d taken the Stack Rock trail, but I decided to take the Falls Ridge trail instead. It was only about a mile further than the other trail, and I wanted to do something different.

The Falls Ridge Trail had a lot more pine trees than elsewhere on my hike, the trail was lined on both sides with them, as well as other trees. It was a little bit steeper than the other trail, and a bit overgrown and less traveled looking as well. The one drawback was there was a lot more hiking along the Laurel Run Spur, which is a nice gravel road, but I am not a huge fan of hiking on gravel roads, so I was very glad to get back to the car.

Another disadvantage to the colder weather: Ice cream makes me super cold! I stopped at my favorite place, Spelunkers, on the way home, and I sit outside so my dog can join me in eating. I had to move to the car for the ice cream because the wind was biting by that point and I was shivering. I’ll have to find some good bakeries with warm pastries as the weather gets colder.

2013-10-10 Laurel Run
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Shutdown Hike #1 – Bear Church Rock – Shenandoah NP

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Hike Summary

So, the government is shut down, and that means that the National Parks and National Forests are … technically closed.

This isn’t exactly stopping anyone from going out and hiking, myself included. I consider this an act of civil disobedience, and if caught I’ll comply with the authorities and remove myself. I understand the risks. I just want to go out there and hike, and I’m not going to let some jerks in our legislative branch keep me from doing so.

So, that’s that. I’d planned on doing some hikes that start from Skyline Drive, in order to take advantage of the beautiful foliage changes at this time of the year, peak season for Shenandoah, but alas, that’s proving somewhat difficult.

So, alternatives must be found. There are plenty of places where the trailheads are outside of the park, and so I drove out to almost the limit of my distance from home (within 90 minutes) to check out this hike, in the central section, down below Madison.

It was quite warm as I set out on my hike, no need for a jacket this time. It was a little hazy and overcast, but pleasant. I followed the trail along the Rapidan River, and caught some pretty reflections of the water in the morning light. The Rapidan is a cheerful little river at this point, full of trout waiting to be fished.

Soon, there was an intersection ahead, and I followed the Staunton River trail uphill, which unsurprisingly, follows the Staunton River, another pleasant little cascade. There are lots of rocks and things for it to fall over, making a very musical sound as it winds its way downhill. There’s supposed to be a swimming hole along the river at some point, but I wasn’t quite sure where it was.

The trail was lined with pretty purple asters, and some other late season wildflowers. I saw blue lobelia and even some blue phlox, which is a flower I haven’t seen much since April.

Along the way, I saw a strange sight. I’ve seen plenty of rock walls and remnants of foundations and such during my hikes, but these were different. They almost seemed like retaining walls, or fortifications or something like that. I did a little research, but I couldn’t find anything in particular anywhere on the internet about these rock piles, so they’ll remain a mystery.

The trail came to an intersection, and a very steep uphill climb. As I was making my way up, I saw a little toad making his way along, and I held out my hand. He hopped right up on my hand like it was no big thing, and stared at me for a while, allowing me to catch my breath some. I set him back down and he made his way into the drift of leaves, never to be seen again.

I decided to make a side trip for a good lunch eating spot at the Jones Mountain Cabin, which is owned by the PATC. It’s situated about 2/3 of the way up to the top, on a little side trail that’s about 1/3 of a mile. It would make a great afternoon hike and basecamp for exploring the other trails in the area. There’s a privy and a spring nearby, and some lovely trees that were changing color. There’s also a spicebush right next to the cabin, which lent a nice, fragrant smell to the immediate area.

After eating my snack, I set back out. The hike up to the top has a lot of switchbacks, and it seems forever with the steepness of the trail. There was one section lined with Mountain Laurels that had a slightly creepy look with the way their twisty trunks outlined the trail. If it hadn’t been such a nice day, it would have felt almost menacing.

Finally, after what seemed like the hundredth turn, I reached the top. It was a remarkable view. It wasn’t quite peak color yet, but the views were still glorious. So glorious, that I forgot to take pictures with my normal camera, and only took two with my phone! I am still kinda kicking myself over that one.

The only drawback was there were a large number of stink bugs up there, and although they’re pretty harmless, they’re also annoying, and they kept bumping into me, and attracting attention from my dog, who wanted to snack on them.

As I made my way back down, I encountered a couple of hikers. They were government workers who were on furlough, and decided to take advantage of their unexpected vacation by going for a hike. This was one of the first of several encounters on the way back. I ran across more hikers this day that I think I had in the previous month of hiking.

I decided to take an alternate path back instead of back down the Staunton River Trail. I had been tempted to extend my hike even further by hiking past Bear Church and heading up to the connection with the Rapidan River Trail, but I decided that that would have been a little too much hike.

All in all, this was a great day, and I think that Bear Church Rock, although somewhat far, is probably one of my favorite hikes in Shenandoah.

2013-10-04 Bear Church Rock

Halfmoon Mountain – GWNF

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Hike Summary

So, I had a little shopping adventure prior to this hike. An appointment I had made was canceled, leaving me with some time planned for and nothing to do. I really wanted to get some new hiking boots. I know, I’ve been complaining about my feet in almost every blog post for the past month at least. My old Timberlands, purchased in early 2012, were finally falling apart. They were decent boots, but what I really needed were Serious Hiker Boots.

So I’d been doing a little research. I’d checked out the useful post on women’s hiking boots over at Outdoor Gear Lab, and the slightly less helpful guide at Backpacker Magazine (the boot they awarded their editor’s choice to was one I couldn’t find in any retail store, and if I’m going to buy a pair of hiking boots, I sure as heck am going to try them on first!)

So, I went to an unnamed national retailer that happened to carry all of the boots and gave them a try. I instantly decided that the Vasque Breeze GTX boots were the ones that were the most comfortable. I felt a little guilty about using the store as a try-on place without purchasing, but not that guilty, as they didn’t have a price matching policy.

Anyway, my dilemma was that I needed a specific size: 8.5W. I have strange feet, due probably to the fact that I was born with a clubfoot (corrected so early that I can’t even remember wearing leg braces) and that I spent almost my entire life up until high school barefoot. I still kick off my shoes first thing when I get home, and while I’ll wear heels, I don’t exactly love them.

So I was checking around for prices, as Outdoor Gear Lab has links to places that sell the boots. I stumbled across Eastern Mountain Sports, whom I had never heard of before (likely because I grew up in California.) I didn’t even know they had a store near me! So I gave them a call. They had the boots I was looking for, and for an incredibly low price ($40, vs the full price of $160) but there was a catch: They were returned merchandise, that someone had worn once.

I decided to think it over, and wait until the next day, when I drove over there. I figured I needed at the very least to look at them, try them on and everything else. The boots had dirt on the soles, but otherwise looked (and smelled) brand new. I knew it was such a good deal, I couldn’t in my right mind pass it up.

So thanks, Eastern Mountain Sports. You guys have earned a customer for life.

And these boots. They are the best. I’ve been nervous because I’ve been slipping a lot when I go on hikes, and the soles are wonderful.

Anyway – on to the hike!

Halfmoon Mountain is adjacent to a place I hiked a few weeks ago, that stop and start hike on Signal Knob. I am unsure if this is my last hike out to the area for a while, I am having a difficult time determining when hunting season actually starts in GWNF … and with the whole government shutdown now, I am not sure at all what’s going on.

The hike starts from a nice, wide parking area with a circular road. I parked right next to the gate and set out. The first part of the hike was on forestry road, but this forestry road was a lot more picturesque than my previous hike. There’s just something about the National Forests vs the National Parks that I enjoy much more. They’re more rustic, but have better parking as well, which feels like an odd juxtaposition.

This was another chilly morning, and this time I really was seeing the autumn colors starting to come to the forest. It’s still pretty subtle from a distance, and you don’t really see it as much yet in my panoramas, but there’s plenty of fall color close up already, mostly reds.

So, the trail wound around and then split off up a steep, uphill section. This section was described as a “scramble” in the hiking guide, and it really wasn’t, just steep. As I was making my way up, I heard the baying of a hound. I leashed my dog up and continued with my hike. Eventually, I came upon a couple of men who looked straight out of central casting for “Appalachian Hillbilly.” One was older and chunky, with long hair and overalls. The other was younger and wiry, with a trucker hat and with the hound, who was lunging a little to get at us. I smiled and made some hellos, and continued along the trail. Part of me wondered if they were checking on their still, but I decided that was an uncharitable thought on my part. They weren’t unfriendly at all.

A little further on and the steep section came to a sudden end. I was almost disappointed, it seemed to me like it should have gone on further. There was a lookout to get to the top of, and on the way there, I saw a gorgeous display of fall color from the trees lining the path.

Once up at the top of the lookout, I shrugged my pack off and took a break. There *was* a tiny bit of a rock scramble up to the foundation of the old tower, and it was a great place to take a break, eat a snack, and drink some tea.

I was able to get some nice pictures of North Mountain and the surrounding area, spotting some farms down the valley.

There were annoying hornets buzzing around, and so after some time enjoying the view, it was time to depart. My new boots really proved themselves to me heading down the steep summit, I almost felt as nimble as a mountain goat.

The rest of the hike was fairly uneventful, there were fewer fall colors on this side of the mountain, and I made good time back around and to my car.

On the way home I made a stop at Woodbine Farm Market, and this time I actually remembered to take a picture of one of their excellent cookies before shoving it into my mouth. Hiking makes me hungry!

2013-09-27 Halfmoon Mountain

Signal Knob – GWNF

Hike Summary

It was cold, rainy and foggy as I pulled into the parking lot for the Signal Knob trail. I was a little upset at myself, because I probably should have brought a jacket and didn’t.

I lucked out though, because the rain stopped shortly after I set out, as the weather had forecast. The first part of the hike, which crisscrossed through some river gullies while slowly ascending, is fairly heavily forested.

There are definitely more and more signs of autumn on the way. Some of the trees are turning already, and I saw a few of these as I ascended.

About halfway up, the sun decided to make an appearance, and the rest of the day had lovely, sunny weather. There’s nothing like that contrast between the coolness of the shade and the warmth of the sun as it comes out.

I hit a nice point on the switchbacks, and there were some great views towards Buzzard Rock across the way. I stopped here for a small break and snapped some pictures of the view. There are some nice camping spots just above the viewpoint. It would be the perfect place to do a late afternoon hike with a camp at the top, to view the morning sunrise.

The trail wound around to another overlook, the Fort Valley Overlook, that was unfortunately obscured too much by trees to give a very good view. After this point, the character of the hike changed a little bit. It became much much more rocky, and pretty uncomfortable. I am increasingly aware that I need new boots soon with every hike, as my feet became very sore climbing over an endless succession of rocks. It seemed like every turn was another rockpile!

Eventually, the trail intersects with the Meneka Peak trail, and we were in territory that I’d last visited in early May. The trail levels off here, and goes through evergreen forests to the transmission tower and Signal Knob, where I got a nice view of Strasburg, I-81, and Great North Mountain off in the distance. I’ve gotten a little more familiar with the area overall since I was last out here, only a few months ago. I’m less afraid to stop and check stores and places like that out. I really enjoy getting to know the whole area, especially after years of cutting myself off from almost everything and staying indoors. It’s not all better yet, and I don’t know whether it will ever be, but I’m trying.

After my stop to admire the views from Signal Knob, I made the descent down the fire road from there. There were a few late-summer wildflowers out and about, mostly asters of various types. I also saw a mature Indian Pipe, which I hadn’t seen before now. It’s easy to miss the brown and pink of the plant, they look like something dead.

Back down to the intersection of the Tuscarora Trail. There’s a section that goes out to Doll Ridge and parallels the fire road that I’d like to get a hike on one of these days, but this day I was going in the other direction. It was another ascent, and I was pretty tired already.  About a mile in, and I’d finally hit the other end of the Meneka Peak trail and it was all downhill (well, mostly) from there.

I got to make a new observation, an Eastern Fence Lizard, as I made my descent. Usually, animals don’t hold still long enough for me to take pictures of them, especially when my dog comes to help investigate. I missed out on a picture of a huge black racer snake the previous hike, for instance. But this lizard was nice and helpful and pretended it was part of the rocks long enough for me to take a picture.

Most of this descent was dry and rocky before finally hitting some forest at the bottom. It was nice to have some shade on the way back to my car.

2013-09-13 signal knob

Maryland Heights – Harpers Ferry NP

Hike Summary

I am convinced that Harpers Ferry, WV has only one type of weather: overcast. Every time I’ve been here, it’s always been grey and gloomy. This day, it was particularly chilly, and I kicked myself for not bringing gloves.

One of the problems with hikes with a lot of hills is that one gets overheated going up, and then freezing at the top/on the way down. Luckily, my jacket still keeps me warm, even when soggy.

Navigating to/around this park is kind of a pain — there’s a big visitor’s center over near Bolivar, with a nice spacious parking lot and a shuttle down to the town. A shuttle that of course doesn’t allow dogs, so if you want to visit the downtown area, you need to drive in and hope there’s parking. Same for the various parking areas around the trailheads — the first parking area was actually full, but luckily there was an additional one, which put me on the C&O Canal towpath for a short distance.

It’s also a pretty busy trail, even in the middle of the week in a chilly autumn, I saw several groups of hikers coming back from the cliff vista area when I was on my way up. I would eventually head there myself, but I wanted to get up to the summit of Maryland Heights first.

There are a lot of informative placards on the trail, and the trail itself is pretty wide on the way up. It is steep though — a real “ball buster” of an incline. It was a 1400 ft incline in the space of a couple of miles. I had a good chuckle when I read a sign that mentioned that even Lincoln, when he was there to inspect the Union fortifications, decided that he didn’t want to go up to the summit.

Once up at the top, there are good views to the east, where there were gun emplacements to keep watch over the Potomac, and some towards the south towards Loudoun Heights. Even though the place was heavily settled during the war, nature has taken its course over the past 150 years and obscured much under layers of leaves and plenty of tree regrowth. The signs are definitely there, though.

On the way back down to the junction, the trail gets really steep and narrow, with a lot of sliding rock. It got better when I went on the trail to the cliff overlook though, with a lot of switchbacks, that made the way a lot easier.

The overlook is fantastic, offering a wonderful view of the old downtown, as well as up the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. I took quite a few pictures, and most of them came out pretty well, despite the crappy weather.

I tried not to dally too much around on this hike because of the weather and my hands getting cold — same with the visit to Harpers Ferry in general. I find the driving in this area to be a little stressful, and I had farted around a bit at home before I set out this day, which made me take too long. I really want to take some time to visit the downtown again and poke around the buildings, maybe visit the AT center that’s there, and the bigger gift shop. Well, there will be more opportunities, I’d like to hike some of the other trails that are around the park area.

More Pictures of Maryland Heights

Appalachian Trail – Pine Grove Rd to Raven Rocks

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Hike Summary
So, after that marathon (for me) saga of Mary’s Rock a couple of weeks ago, I decided I should do something shorter. I had planned on hiking this last week, but of course Sandy had other plans, and I had to stay home. That gave me some extra time to recover and plan.

I decided to go on a Tuesday this week, because I was a little worried that the Nor’easter was going to drop some snow on the area (completely didn’t happen, but better to be safe than sorry!) and it was a beautiful, clear, and rather chilly and blustery day.

This is my second time hiking a portion of the AT, and the first one where the focus of the hike is that particular trail. It has a reputation for being called the “roller coaster” in the Virginia portion, and after this hike, I can definitely see why. This hike was a bit of a roller coaster in miniature, as it wound its way up and over a couple of hills before coming up to Raven Rocks.

It starts out as a little path coming off a parking lot on Pine Grove Road, at the intersection of the Leesburg Pike.  Up and down it goes, over wrinkles of hills, down into little stream valleys that had trickles of water flowing. The second stream, I never actually saw but only heard, as it burbled under my feet. It was around this valley that I saw my first AT Survey Marker, which are used to mark the right of way of the trail and as reference points.

One thing that is somewhat easy to forget, but was actually also a fairly constant reminder, is just how well traveled this trail is. I only actually saw one other hiker this day, but every time I put a hand out to steady myself on a tree branch, I could feel a smoothed down feeling. It reminded me of the railings at Disneyland, and also really spoke to just how many people travel on this trail. The occasional bits of debris and garbage are of course another reminder, and I picked up what I ran across.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures this day, I am not really sure why. I was feeling a little less motivated about my photography skills than I have been. I’ve been trying to read about how to take better photographs, but it often seems like I’m unable to put those things into practice. I think I sometimes get distracted by the fitness aspect of my hiking, and forget to take time to stop and look at things better. I need to remember that, although I am trying to lose weight, I also am hiking to enjoy the hike, and that the purpose is to get out of doors and enjoy it.

Somewhere along the way, I ended up losing my hat. I was silly and only half shoved it into the pocket of my jacket after going uphill and becoming too hot.

Continuing on, I crossed the border into West Virginia, and then a little further and up to the Rocks, which are definitely a place that is well and often visited. There was a splendid view towards the south, with a teensy bit of color left in the trees. I marveled at having such a good phone signal, which is rare, and then looked behind me.

One can never truly escape technology anymore, it seems.

Back I went, headed towards home. I did find my hat, at least.

More Pictures of Appalachian Trail – Raven Rocks

Buck Hollow/Mary’s Rock – Shenandoah National Park

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Hike Summary

This hike.

This hike was something.

What kind of something? I am still trying to figure that out. I feel drained. I’m almost too tired to even write. This hike was tiring, interesting, boring, exhilarating, and ultimately exhausting.

I got up at 6AM on Thursday, knowing that this hike would take a while, so I tried to plan ahead to make sure I had the most of the day to get it done in, preferably in the morning before it go too warm. Even though it’s Autumn, we were having an unusual warm spell, and temperatures were almost in the 80s.

I got to the trailhead, and that’s when some of my troubles started. First, my phone GPS wouldn’t lock on. Then, my heart rate monitor stopped sending data (this is a new toy I’d picked up recently) until I realized that putting my phone in Airplane mode is what turned the Bluetooth part off.

Anyhow, once I got all those things fixed, and all my gear adjusted, I was off.

The woods were sort of still wreathed in fog, but it started to burn off as I hiked. Buck Hollow Trail crosses the Thornton river (more of a creek) and follows another intermittent stream on the way, which was gurgling with water, and had a few lovely cascades. Going up was a pretty tough climb, but the views of the autumn foliage were nice, and when I occasionally had to stop to drink or catch my breath, I could hear plenty of forest sounds, like the rattling of woodpeckers, and the arguing of other birds.

Eventually, the trail comes up to Skyline Drive, at the Meadow Spring parking area. From there, the trail continued via the Meadow Spring Trail. This trail was much more crowded, much more than I expected on a weekday, with plenty of hikers making the same (but shorter) trip up to Mary’s Rock.

This was also the first time I got to hike for any significant portion on the Appalachian trail. Granted, it was only really a mile’s worth, but that’s more than I’ve hiked before. I really would love to hike the whole thing someday. After this hike though, it made me realize I have a lot to go before I can tackle such a challenge. I need a lot more strength and endurance.

So, up to the summit of Mary’s Rock I went, and upon arrival, there was a group of Baby Boomer types perched at the top, chatting. I took a break, taking pictures, relaxing, wolfing down another Clif bar. More people started to trickle up to the top, and it wasn’t long before it was almost a traffic jam. My dog was starting to get a little overstimulated from all the people around, so I decided to head back, stopping to take a picture of the old homestead on the way.

Down we went. At Skyline again, I ran across a group of people from (I am guessing by accents) New Jersey who were lost. They wanted to get to Mary’s Rock, so I gave them directions, giving them the map that I’d printed out, since I was on the way back, I didn’t really need it anymore. Hopefully it helped them get there. They were really pleasant people.

The way back down was pretty easy seeming at first, as downhills tend to be. It wasn’t particularly steep, but it seemed like it was taking forever. And then … I came to the rocks and The Stairs. The last mile or so of Buck Ridge Trail, before it joined back to Buck Hollow Trail, was extremely steep on loose rock and gravel. This rock and gravel was not very kind to my already sore feet. The trail builders tried to compensate for the steepness by building steps. These steps are evil. They were shallow with loose gravel, and they were also covered by tons of leaves, making them slippery and very treacherous. I will have nightmares of those stairs. I didn’t take any pictures of the stairs because I was so exhausted by this point (and thirsty, having run low on water, an error I don’t plan on repeating,) that my world just shrank into focusing on shuffling down these stairs, plus the endless sound of crunching leaves.

Eventually, I made it back to the main trail, and then back to my starting point. I almost hugged my car, I was so happy. I had done it. Nine … nay, almost 10 miles in one day. An altitude gain of over 2000 feet. I was, and still am, tired.

I think it will be a while before I do that length/difficulty again. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I know I can, but that it took all of my reserves to do so. I was running on empty by the time I was done.

More Pictures of Buck Hollow/Mary’s Rock Hike

Hopefully I will be able to go on a hike next week, but I am a little worried about the Frankenstorm, AKA the storm currently known as Hurricane Sandy. It is set to hit my area (if the current projections hold) on Wednesday, and there’s the possibility that it might dump snow on me. If that’s the case, I’ll have to think of something interesting to blog about that isn’t an actual hike I’ve been on recently.