A Return, Greeted by Winter Haze

Returning to trail after an extended holiday stay at home, I found that I had skipped what would’ve been the easiest portion of winter, as temps were still barely holding below freezing. western OH is mostly follows an old canal line, occaisionally with bike path routed on it. this makes for excellent stealth camping as few bike through even the light snow. I passed through Dayton, an inadequately stealth camped, and thus was woken up and evicted. It happened without much trouble or fanfare, but I’ve become a little more cautious as a result, next time may not be so easy. Little in the way of running ground water was left, and I found myself melting snow for water each night and again each morning. This practice, while simple enough is incredibly fuel intensive, leading me to run dry near Defiance. I was able to reach out to the NCTA and the Buckeye trail Association for some assistance and was greatly helped by Anita, Clark, Greg, and Joe in finding an extra fuel cannister. Getting in touch successfully this time lead me to a series of trail angels, whom would pass word of me forward, leading to many, many, more homestays than I anticipated. I probably could have avoided camping entirely if I had wished, finding ways to slack pack instead. I think I ended up spending about four in ten nights inside, throughout northwest OH and most of MI.

Overall this Section had only a few notable mishaps, including accidentally opening up my waterbag inside my sleepingbag on one of the colder nights. This lead to much discomfort, and quite a few crunches as I tried to use body heat to dry my various down garments. Overall the next day was sunny which helped me warm up, although the nightly ramifications lasted for several days. This would be my second worst accident of the season. 

Aside from being aided by Trail volunteers (of whom there are too many to thank individually, without specifically making this post about it) it was not uncommon for me to be offered a homestay when I would stop into a cafe or bar seeking some water I didn’t have to melt. One such encounter that was particularly interesting; I was passed by a man and child in a car, walking on a minor country road, north of Lowell MI. They stopped, and backed up; asking what I was up to. After a short explaination he offered to let me stay in a home he was nearly finished remodeling with the intention to flip it soon. I took him up, and once I had found my way to the home he asked if I liked pizza. (what kindof question is that?!) Leaving me there, I did my evening chores and slept in the empty living room, only to be awoken by the man who now bore Pizza and beer! Turns out, in addition to flipping houses he owns a pizzeria in Lowell. I spent a couple days in town as I passed thru Lowell, I was able to cover a bunch of gear maintenance, cleaning some mold off my sleeping pad, drying out my sleeping bag, and getting my pack swapped out on warranty from the nearest outfitter. Semi-relevant as I recently replaced that pack some 5000 miles later, and some minor patching of my tent.

Dog Towns and Cat Hotels

One of the common threads amongst people who took me in while I passed thru Southern OH, was a surprising number of animals per home, and because this is the internet, pictures of them must be shared.

These Puppies belonged to a couple of American Discovery Trail Hikers, the ADT and NCT run concurrently in South OH for a while. They had set out westbound with a pair of dogs, whom helped them pull carts of gear and water. (The ADT is almost entirely roadwalk, making carts and strollers a surprisingly common strategy.) When they were moving an old man offered them to rent a trailer for cheap, (free? Or in trade for labor?) and thusly their progress halted for about eight months before they saw me walk past. I am a little doubtful they continued after I left either, they seemed to be putting down roots. Including building improvements to their trailer, and collecting more animals. Not pictured are two cats, four more dogs, and some gerbils (hamsters?) I spent a night and the better part of a day with them, as they caught me early.

I made a big mistake in missing the window for a maildrop the saturday before Veteran’s Day, which would’ve put me waiting for two days in a town without easy stealth camping access. Unacceptable. Even moreso in that I was to receive a new fuel cannister that ration, so I found my way to a hardware store and began to work on making a Soda Can stove. Nearly done I was spotted by a man who recognized what I was upto and offered to help me out. I ended up with a couple cans of Sterno, a wire mesh potrest, groceries, and a homestay in an old camper he had aquired with the intention of fixing up. His home had been built entirely out of recycled, found, and scrap material, giving it an awesome almost cartoon-like aesthetic. He had nine cats roaming about, including a couple little guys who’d come snuggle in the camper, and a little dog whose face was the spitting image of an Ewok. His Ewok-lookin pup was well trained and accompanied him while he would work as a trucker. The Cats were kept outside the house and were very interested in my pack, to the point where they would stay atop as I harnessed up.

Lastly, and the most vortexed I’ve gotten, in Cincinnati I re-connected with Little Bird, making it to her parents home just in time to be invited not to spend Thanksgiving alone in the woods. Little Bird’s Mother operates an Animal Rescue in their basement, and had nearly forty cats and maybe ten dogs. Although a few of the dogs weren’t rescues. While helping move what could’ve been a couple tons of cat litter to their basement, and being in a good place to slackpack and figure out my plans for returning home for Xmas and some pressing business. (mainly getting health insurance, as I was about to fall off my parent’s plan.) I offered to earn my keep by helping to put in a DIY elevator capable of moving a few hundred pounds of animal supplies, and cut the distance they would have to move things by 80+%. (The route through their house and down the stairs was not straightforward at all.) Also got to play with tons of Kittens.

Open Roads, Open Doors

As the trail began to stretch out unto road I began to experience a great deal of chairity. Many times I would stop into a little café or diner, strike up a quick conversation, and find that some unknown benefactor had bought my meal. I’d heard that these kinds of interactions are somewhat common on the AT during its regular season, but seldom experienced it. I must’ve been quite novel to them, as the NCT is so much less travelled. On occasion I was offered motel rooms, attics, or the bed of a camper van parked on a nearby lawn. It was very striking for me, exiting the woods and receiving such a reception in civilization. At first it made me uncomfortable, and I turned a couple such offers down, feeling that I was undeserving of such chairity when I had chosen and prepared for this lifestyle. In part I still feel that way, but I also no longer reject kindness when offered. One such time I was approached, sitting on the grass median of a big box store, polishing off my second pint of Ice Cream, (gotta jump when they’re BOGO) and was given two $20 notes. I returned them, and the man who had offered seemed taken aback, saying something to the effect of “I dunno what you’re doin’ but buy yourself another meal or two.” His kindness towards me was less predicated on a perception of my destitution, and more upon his ability to see himself in me. When younger he could’ve been me, I see this interaction repeated, and no longer reject such connections. The NCT has its share of dedicated Trail Angels, and while I was not yet dialed into their networks, I crossed paths with them aswell. Staying at Lake Piedmont Inn, and eating with the caretakers and their dogs. (the first of many domestic animal encounters South and East OH, would provide.) Or Shew’s Orchard, drinking cider and camping behind the barn, while very thankful for my tent as the wind howled, funneling between the rolling hills, tossing sheets of corrugated roofing about, yet not quite collapsing my tent with each burst.

Once joined to the Buckeye Trail (BET) the days began to blend together, and I spent many nights bivvied in a roadside thicket. That isn’t to say they were without wonder, and with Autumn’s slow arrival there was yet greenery on the branches. The veil between the natural world and civilization wore ever thinner. Punctuated by nights spent in cool tunnels running beneath the interstate, or following a river to a dammed reservoir, where the waters are still couched in forest. It had its moments however, there is some rugged country in the southeast of OH, and the Hocking Hills area in southern OH is particularly beautiful, with many embankments built into the stone, bridges that span the chasm at various heights, each adding to a confluence of nature and architecture, setting it apart as a major highlight of the eastern half of the NCT. It is capped westbound by Ash Cave, a massive undercut cavern with a tiny dripping waterfall at the center. The day I spend there was overcast, almost foggy, and added a distinct ethereal feeling, but detracted equally from the lighting conditions…

Turkey, Train Tunnels, and Ghost Towns

Whilst in NY I had made ready for that year’s total lunar eclipse, looking far forward and anticipating camping on the northwestern side of a lake. Over whose clearing I would have a wide viewing angle for the eclipse set to begin shortly after moonrise. This plan however could not go smoothly, as the lake it centered around, did not seem to exist. After exhausing efforts to find it, I gave up, setting camp in a rough parking lot which would provide a smaller yet adequate clearing. Having planned to camp near a lake I hadn’t carried in enough water for dinner and the next morning, luckily this lot had a large puddle, which even though fully opaque, would suffice for my immediate needs. The third and final misfortune of the night, wherein I was practicing sword drills and cracked the wood of the grip, the leather binding had deteriorated and finally came fully off, leaving it vulnerable to exactly this kind of failure. It did not crack into pieces, but I would need to be more careful with it going forwards. Even accounting for these I had a nice night, watching Princess Mononoke on my new (at the time) tablet before staying up for the complete cycle of the Blood Moon.

Coming into PA, the early snowfall was fortunate, as the bugs wouldn’t recover for the season and thus abought me 7 months to hike without being pestered by insects, an ongoing trend of good luck with the climate. I was worried that the frost would wilt all the plantlife and leave me to hike through miles of barren brown dead forest. While the colors had already peaked, much of the greenery bounced back as the thaw came quick and frost did not return until long into OH. With the change of the season I found myself sporting a blaze orange scarf on my pack, as the occasional company I would find turned from hikers to hunters. As designated camping areas became more sparse; waking up while stealth camping, to the blast of nearby gunfire of indeterminate origin became quite common. Most encounters with hunters started coldly, but I would get a warmer reception as I explained my story and their recognition of me changed from that of a vagrant, squatting in their haunts, to a fellow, and I would trade talk for advice on places to pitch my tent. To their disappointment it seemed that their hunting grounds were filled with far more hunters than game, I don’t think I saw a single one carry out a bird. After the opening weekend these meetings too seemed to taper off precipitously and I was once again, alone.

I had two rations sent to PA, although I comically misjudged the distance between them, as I shifted to the 4th (of 9…) kind of map I would use for the NCT, and once again readjusting. Carrying six days of food I found myself taking ten days between maildrops, and easily using grocery stores to bridge the gaps as I spent more time on roads. Stopping nightly in the woods, beside ghost towns, abandoned train tunnels, and the occasional derrick standing still over the original US oil patch. The fewer hunters I saw, the more I noticed the turkeys, and it came to where I would flush a half dozen groups of them each day, one such group must’ve had more than eighteen birds in its number.

Alley cats and Finger Lakes

Having come out from ADK the reality of the North Country Trail truly began to set in, finding myself totally solitary save for the occasional interaction with post officers, grocers, librarian, or restaurant attendant. Newly armed with a tablet I had acquired while in home I began making great use of it as an e-reader almost immediately, reading Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, by the time I had made it out of NY. (As a side note: this was when I began working to make this blog more than just a twinkle in my eye.) I had long since abandoned the pretense of having medium-term plans, and picking up a tablet was a great way to keep my short term logistics somewhat in order.

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The downside of course is that now I was reasonably exposed to the internet once again, and found myself loitering about libraries, or listening to podcasts and music while hiking. This seemed to make time pass quicker through the endless pastoral Americana of the NCT and Finger Lakes Trail, at least at first. Quickly music and podcasts became a crutch and actually make days seem to drag on longer than when I had been losing myself in the landscapes. Though some of this could be attributed to the paradigm shift and the new proximity to roads, some serenity is surely lost as a semi speeds past only slightly to your side. Overall they’ve made a welcome addition to the kit.

The conclusion to my air mattress troubles came in the mail, as the replacement by warranty arrived, and as a side sleeper I can say the simple folding foam pad I had picked up to use as a stop gap was not ideal. While this is a weakness in that I seem to require a more specialized piece of gear, maybe in a warmer climate I’ll try to get in the habit of sleeping pad-less. With the mattress the rest of my mail carried poor tidings as another bout of ration troubles had begun, this being the one that would ultimately cause the switch from Nemo covering my rations. Once again with these troubles I feel the need to point out how much of a help it was to have someone running ration support, and that these troubles rather serve to highlight how much easier it made things, as I make poor food buying decisions when I am hungry, and I am always hungry.

The FLT itself has many shelters, they were a welcome and familiar place to stay, a reminder of sorts that the land itself was not uninviting, though if the signs on the trees were their thought bubbles it would’ve seemed much more hostile. I became quite accustomed to stealth camping along the road sections, to the point where I ceased planning my days so tightly around the shelters, and frequently made my resupplies into town from a nearby stealth camp, as keeping to the shoestring budget would keep me hiking longer, and if I must spend money I prefer ice cream to lodging. Upstate NY is filled with rolling hills, and given decent weather provided a fine vantage point from which to watch the season shift across the forest, replacing emerald with a cornucopia of warm reds, and yellows to contrast with the cooling temps. NY ended with a surprise early snow, and while it had begun to melt by the time I made PA it signaled what would be a trend, snow would follow me throughout the trail, and I would find snow in every state of the NCT save for ND.

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Bridging the Gaps

My first week on the NCT was bookended by bridges, the first crossing from VT to Crown Point NY. I spent a little time talking to the people manning the historical site hoping to find some info regarding the terminus, and maybe a trail register. I had missed office hours for the NCTA, so without inquiring of them I departed for the Adirondacks without much fanfare. Into the Dix mountain wilderness via an ill-advised bushwhack up the east side of Macomb Mountain, through pine thicket for about 5 miles, ended up taking some 13 hours of hard trekking. (Put some of the most significant damge on shirt No.2 that it would see, aswell) Moving quickly into and thru the high peaks wilderness, with nought but a short side jaunt up Mt. Marcy to check cell reception (no dice, but got service at a random shelter a few hours later…) and for a state high point. Caught the beautiful Northville to Lake Placid Trail (NPT) outta the high peaks, with a little extra time for some swimming in the river. Shortly after hitting the road I got the payoff of a minor logistical miracle, in which four of my friends, including Nemo, had managed to road trip out to meet me. The purpose of the trip, Mighty Mac, the bridge between the two Michigans is only open for pedestrians one day of the year, Labor Day, and was at the time part of the “official” NCT thru route. (I have since heard that a couple weeks later they pulled it, C’est la vie.) Between the ADK and Mac we spent some time at Niagra falls in the middle of the night, and burned an afternoon with a little swordplay at the beach. 

Crossing the Mackinac Bridge was in itself a bit sof a shocking experience, having mostly been alone or within a small group of mostly known individuals, to suddenly find myself amongst a huge crowd at a well choreographed event was jarring to say the least. Of course security wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about my carrying a sword, or large bags so I crossed with neither my pack nor my sword. (The only notable distance walked without the sword.) The rest of the way back to Minneapolis was mostly sleepy for me, as being freshly overstimulated by the sudden reintroduction of friends to my life. Staying home was odd, but mostly productive, and I was able to pack in a few medical appointments while I was still covered by my parent’s insurance, attend a regular HEMA session, acquiring a tablet to help manage logistics. My father had a minor health complication just before I was set to return to trail, so I was a bit delayed in returning, resulting in about two weeks of downtime.

Returning to the NCT just before the exit of the ADK put me on a track following a loose connection of trails, roads, and rails. Stealth camping by night in the ditches and thickets beside the road, beneath bridges and within a couple abandoned mills located alongside some of the area’s more significant rivers. Catching the established NCT at the old Erie Canal near Rome, NY. During this bit of road problems with my air mattress came to a head and it delaminated to the point which it no longer held air. While this was covered by warranty, it still left me without a sleeping pad, so I took the canalway trail significantly farther than the NCT’s turnoff point, into Syracuse where I could find an outfitter to hopefully help with the warranty process, and at least get me a pad to use in the interim. In a way ot sort of worked out, on the drive back out to the ADK I had dropped a Ration box with the Syracuse Eastern Mtn Sports, not realizing how far off route it would be. 

Long Trails, and Road Walks

The first of the road-walks between the AT and the NCT was mostly uneventful, I set myself up to cross NH in a day (up at the skinny point) and it worked pretty well. I even got a sort of pseudo homestay just inside VT, a guy I met at a pizza place pointed me to his cabin and I hitched out to it from near the NH/VT border. Got a little lost and tried to hitch to somewhere I knew where was, and got even more lost. (I wasn’t carrying very good maps for this bit, and no tablet or GPS enabled device yet either) then got righted by some college age kids. (maybe younger?) Even with that misadventure though I put down the road mileage pretty fast.

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From the LT’s northern terminus, you can see this ten-foot wide swath cut into the woods as the only thing separating the Canada from the US, there are some pylons noting the Treaty of Washington, which without googling, I would guess is the document that formally specifies the border’s location geographically, maybe some other stuff too. Heading south, the LT is about as tough as anything the AT had to offer, save the notches. I was lucky in that I saw little rainfall, which drastically helped the mud situation, even so there were a few deep mud pits. (I was able to stick a trekking pole down to my wrist, and I didn’t try for much farther…) Overall however only one day dropped me below 20 miles per day, and that was because I happened upon a mountaintop wedding, and decided to stick around and watch,which then turned into cowboy camping on the deck of a ski chalet. In a bit of a moment where worlds collide, the wedding was for a friend of a friend of Dosu Kinuta, an AT thru-hiker I had brushed elbows with. (My parents gave him trail magic while they were slack packing me.) I got his contact info and was told he was gonna finish the LT NoBo starting in a week or so. We missed one another, (and pretty narrowly I think) as he was getting back on really close to when I was getting off.

Overall the LT was really pleasant, a nice change of pace from the relative hustle and bustle of the AT, I had a lot of nice simple interactions with folks on trail. Even got a homestay from a couple, Root and Woven, who were almost done with their NoBo and happened to live on a homestead really close to my route, and at a really convenient midway point, enabling me to make it between the LT and NCT without any  stealth camping, which is a plus. Most nights on the LT had a few people around, there were some college outdoor clubs out in force, and my last night I got to spend some campfire time with a few people, including two musical vagabonds, and someone involved in the administration of the LT. Which lent an additional positive light to my memories of VT, and maybe elevated it to my favorite of the eastern states. On my little bit of road-walk between the LT and NCT I also ran into Transplant’s father, whom I had briefly met on Katahdin, I had to decline his offer of a ride, but he gave me some advice on where to find food in Middlebury. I also ate many Maple Creemees on the way, and was able to make Crown Point without too much trouble, though I did have to hurry a bit going forwards.

The Way Back.

Returning to trail after finishing the AT was at once wonderful, and very melancholy. Taking my time and sparing no side trail I worked my way through the hundred mile wilderness much slower than before, taking eight nights to my previous run’s two. I was able to help out a couple south-bounders just starting out, gave one some food after he ran out near the end. In the course of a day I found about four thirds of a trekking pole, for a complete extra, (It was even a carbon fiber pole with flick-locks!) only to find someone who had snapped a trekking pole. I had matching parts so I fixed their pole on the condition that they carry out the broken pole sections I had packed up while scavenging out their replacement sections. The hundred mile wilderness is one of the best sections of the AT, (VT to ME is the best quarter of the AT in my opinion) and if you know where to look there are a couple AMC huts that gave me pretty easy work-for-stays even. The other side of the return trip, is that every time I meet up with one of my friends I had passed, it’ll probably be the last time we see one another. All the registers are filled with the parting thoughts from  friends since finished, many of whom I had missed entirely. I certainly had a longer good-bye to the AT than was I was immediately ready for. (Although, looking back on it I remember it very fondly, but at the time it was bittersweet.)

Managed to serendipitously run into Desolation Row, and Baby Blue. The second father child pair, (two twelve-year-old kids did the AT in one year. So no excuses if you really wanna do it.) this time the twelve year old in tow was his daughter, we swam in one of the hundred miles’ many lakes and caught up for a while. Also met Little Bird, whom I had briefly met on my way North. She had attempted a thru 2 years prior, and broken her wrist, she came out the following summer to finish and caught Lyme’s disease. This year she was finally going to make it. She lives on the North Country Trail (NCT) so she’ll come up later on.

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SoBo out of the hundred I stayed at Shaw’s, and for quite a while, there was a bit of ration difficulty. I had a resupply box sent there for me to pick up on the way north, but since my parents met me earlier I had no need for it, and resolved to use it on the return trip. The resupply never showed up, it should’ve been there even a week or two before. I waited a couple days, (The town vortex at Shaw’s was strong, and I got along pretty well with Poet and Hippie Chick) then caught a ride out to a decent grocery store for a real resupply. Getting a hitch back took a while, but it was worth it, I ended up getting picked up by a 2002 thru-hiker, Machine, after hiking he’d become an organic farmer, and hooked me up with a whole bunch of fresh veggies! Lots of beans, peppers, and celery. I read Orange is the New Black, (found in the hundred miles) watched the Perseids and in general just relaxed a lot, dropping to about 20 miles per day before finally making Stratton, ME where I would drop from the AT and cut west for the north end of the LT. Changing my life style into Road walk, stealth camping, and getting eyed by the border patrol agents zooming around.

The End of All Things.

Or: in which I finish the AT and get melodramatic about it.

North of the Mahoosucs ME is pretty easy, the Bigelows are there but aren’t a significant challenge what I’d already gone up against, and it was getting time to speed back up. I was Getting into ME when a lot of the SoBos were getting out, and I gave them some (hopefully) good advice when we met, but for the most part, if they were making it outta ME, they’d probably be fine getting to GA. Managed to pass off the copy of The Hobbit I’d picked up in VA to a SoBo who said she’d try and drop it significantly farther South so it could keep bouncing around the trail. Book-wise, I’d moved onto Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, an Author who I’ve found myself reading in the wilds on more than one occasion, as for my thoughts on it, in a word, great. Easily my favorite new book I’ve read on trail so far, (speaking from MT a year later.) and I would recommend it to anyone who is searching their person, or the world for something.

My parents, almost as excited as I am about my antics on trail had decided to meet me in ME for the end and a day or so of rest. (… and to try and set up this blog, didn’t work out all that well, took till this past May to actually get things set, and I’m only a month in so who knows if this is fully set[fingers crossed here]) Best of all, they brought their dog, and my cat along for the ride, both of whom handled the trip surprisingly well, and I was very happy to get to play with my cat Athena. Only problem with this arrangement however, is that I was behind schedule, by a fair bit too. They we able to extend their time out here and disperse trail magic (homemade brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and whole milk!) for other hikers as they got into slackpacking me northward. This really picked up my pace, and I was able to three day the hundred mile wilderness as a result. This lead to my longest day so far (and somewhat unlikely to be surpassed…), Jo Mary Rd in the hundred miles, to Katahdin, and back to Katahdin springs campground, for about 62 miles.

Nearly everything went my way for that final push, little in the way of elevation, a full moon to climb Katahdin by, and clear skies the whole way up. On a mission, I wordlessly passed the last few shelters filled with hikers in various stages of sleep. Made my way into Baxter, gave a token effort to find a register before heading up, and started the climb. Katahdin is maybe the most significant elevation gain on the whole trail, and it shows as you climb inadequate ladders of rebar, and hoist yourself up the rocks chasing the trail ever higher. A half hour or so after reaching the tree line the moon had begun to set, and I was strictly on headlamp for actionable light. Moving as if dreaming, “surely, the tablelands can’t be much farther…” I would repeat to myself. Finally the sky began to brighten, as I was just on the cusp of the tablelands: I had not walked all this way, from Georgia, through this night, to have set my eyes on a summit sunrise and fail. Reaching the table lands as the deep black of night turns navy and the yellows and oranges bound up from the peripheral horizons as if jeering me onward. Half stumbling, half running, till I could faintly see the sign that marks the Appalachian Trail Terminus, Looming over the last bit of elevation before the end, twenty-one hours and 57 miles of hiking since I had started the morning before.

I had made it.

Fiddling around so I could take a good picture of me on the sign took forever, angling a camera between a rock and a jacket so you can climb a sign in amid decent gusts is hard work, especially when you are already tired. I ended up spending about an hour and a half at the aerie by my lonesome, not quite ready to be done, not quite ready to get back to walking. When the sun was firmly in the up position I began to head down, meeting other thru-hikers all the while put it in perspective, I was done, and the AT was over, every time I would see one of my friends from here on it might be the last time. That’s how it always is though, life gives no guarantees. I finally made it back to KSC, found my father and signed the register and collapsed into the passenger seat of his van, ready to sleep until it would next be time to eat.

Pacific Northwest Trail!

Finished out the last significant road-walk for a long time, (winter) between the NCT and PNT, and am getting started on the PNT this morning! Thanks to my Dad’s slack packing I was able to make it this quick. I’ll probably be out of internet range mostly until the PCT in early to mid August, but I have a long buffer of blog posts that will hold out unless something catastrophic happens. Here’s an uncropped version of the picture I put on instagram last night. The last good sunset I got before the Rockies came into view. (and brought a lot of rain with them)

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And here’s the first good look at the Rockies I got:

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Glacier NP is an exciting place.