A Week Long Walk In The Woods – Appalachian Trail 2014

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This is an account of my solo hike from Harper’s Ferry, south bound to the Elk Wallow Wayside in Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail. Its main purpose is to remind me years from now of my impressions of this little adventure. Fair warning, it is overly detailed and way too wordy.  I started on a Saturday evening, 19 July 2014, and ended a week later on Saturday, 26 July 2014, at about noon.  I ended up walking 73 trail miles, and I guesstimate about 90 total miles with trips off the trail on purpose and accidental. This was my first solo hike and the longest I had hiked measured by distance or time. I am very lucky to have an understanding wife who let me go out unsupervised. I went into this wanting to give myself a challenge, which it definitely was. I enjoyed it, but if I do something similar again, I will walk less and have more reading time scheduled.

The first day started at my home very early. My wife took me to our regional airport to fly out at 6 am. I had my backpack fully stocked minus my food pack and fuel canister for my stove. I would pick these up along the way. I had taken my backpack, stuffed it into an army duffle bag, and checked it with the airline. I carried with me a knapsack containing the clothes I would change into for my hike and reading material for the trip. I flew to Chicago and by the time I landed and made it to my follow-on flight’s gate, it was time to get on that flight. I flew into Reagan International in DC. Amazingly, my checked bag made it all the way. I was a little stressed that it would get lost. I got my bag and took the DC Metro to Union Station, where I had to wait about four hours for my train. I got to load up on pizza and make conversation with the panhandlers asking me for money. I finally got on my train and arrived at Harpers Ferry at about six pm. I went by the Harpers Ferry Outfitter and picked up my fuel container that I had mailed to them. I filled it with white gas and paid for the fuel. I changed into hiking clothes, packed all my travel stuff into a small box and left it with the outfitter to mail on Monday. I stopped at a local restaurant and got a less than satisfactory meal, but an excellent beer.

After all this, it was around 7:30 and I finally got on the trail. I went by the spoken directions of the outfitter and did not pull out my trail guidebook. It did not take long and I had messed up the directions. I am sure I was given them accurately, but my memory fouled them up. Instead of walking up the embankment to Highway 340, I walked underneath it and went a half mile before I realized my mistake. I figured it out and doubled back. I crossed the Shenandoah River on the Hwy 340 Bridge. As I did, it started to rain fairly steady. It was warm enough that I did not pull out rain gear, but only pulled up my pack’s rain cover. After I crossed the bridge, I started up the hill that takes you out of the valley. It goes about two miles and gains about 900 feet of elevation. It was a good introduction to the trail. It got fairly dark at around the four mile mark, but I was still able to see the trail fairly well. However, it got to the point where I was tripping over rocks and twisted roots were starting to resemble snakes laying in wait. That’s when I pulled out my flashlight for the next mile. I made it to a campsite that was a clearing with a fire ring made out of rock. There were no water sources, but I had plenty with me. There was a tent already there, and they had already bedded down for the night. I tried my best to set up my camp as quiet as possible. I got my hammock and rain fly strung up and, right on schedule, the rain pretty well stopped. I messaged my wife that all was well and got myself to bed. However, as usual, did not sleep well the first night with all the new outdoor noises.

First Day Recap: Four Trail Miles, About one additional mile because of my failure to follow instructions. The only issue was a large blister on the ball of my foot. Four hikers spotted.

I slept in the next day, and woke up to my neighbor packing up. He appeared to be a college kid and had only hiked in for the night. He was not very talkative. (It was my personal observations that people hiking the AT fall into two types. One wants to talk your ear off, and the other will not give you two syllables. I did not see any that fell in the middle.) It took me a while, but I got everything back in my pack. I got out of camp at about 9 am and that turned into a habit the rest of the week. I started walking south. About two miles into my walk, I crossed Keys Gap and Hwy 9. There is the Sweet Springs Convenience Store about .25 miles from the trail on Hwy 9. I walked up to the store, refilled my water, and got my breakfast of biscuits and gravy, hot coffee, and cold chocolate milk. The service there were very nice, so with my stomach completely packed, I continued on. The red raspberries were exploding off the bushes in the area, so I got a bit of fresh fruit, too. The trail is fairly flat along here, and I made good time. About 8.5 miles into the day, I ended up at the Blackburn Trail Center for lunch. If I make it here again for just a break, I will stash my pack on the trail and take down my food and water bladder.  The reason is that the guide says that the center is only .2 miles off the trail, but the book does not say that it is straight down. Of course, you have to climb back out. With a full pack, it seemed much further. For this lunch, I had only packed a couple of protein bars and a candy bar. Not a good lunch, but I don’t think my stomach would have taken anything else. I downed these, refilled my water bladder, and headed back up the hill.

I got four more miles of fairly flat, but then I started the section named “The Roller Coaster”. This is a section that goes a little more than 13 miles and is filled with up and downs. Luckily, I was only going about 4 miles into it today. As I went into the hilly section, I started to pay for my crappy nutrition. I was feeling it, but my goal today was to make it to the Bears Den Hostel. At the hostel, the best deal is the hiker’s package. For $30, you get a frozen pizza, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, cold soda, hot shower, laundry, bed and all the pancakes you can eat in the morning. Even though I had more snacks packed, and I was getting overly hungry, all I could think of was getting to the hostel and chowing down. I made it to Snickers Gap where I had to cross Hwy 679. I get to 679 and directly across is a post with the familiar white blaze that marks the trail. I crossed the road and there was a trail leading up the road bank at the post. I walked up it and it T’ed into another trail. I used the rule that had worked so far and chose the branch that went up hill. I walked a ways and saw no white blaze. I backed up and tried the other direction. Still no blaze. I looked at the trail and it did not look as well used as the rest of the trail had. I walked back down to the road and could not figure it out. On top of all this, I was starting to feel rather frantic because of my cruddy diet that day. I ended up calling the hostel and seeing if there was something I was missing. As I was describing what I was seeing, I looked down and saw an arrow painted on the pavement directing hikers to head down the highway to the East. I told the hostel staff to hold me a pizza and I would be there in a few minutes. I walked down the road and a bit later, there was a very obvious sign directing me up the hill. Up I went and found my way to the hostel. I got checked in and got my ice cream and Tombstone pizza.

While my pizza was cooking, I devoured the ice cream. It was some sort of toffee bar flavor, and was excellent. I scraped the container clean. I was able to only eat about ¾  of the pizza, but a through hiker was more than happy to finish it off for me after he had finished his. After eating all this and slamming my soda, my belly was very happily swollen. I talked to the staff and picked up my food pack I had mailed from home. With the bear resistance barrel and food, my packed gained 17 pounds. I then headed down to the bunk room in the basement. As I walked down the stairs into this area that was primarily used by through hikers, I get a whiff of BO that gives “funky” a whole new definition. I grab a bunk and there are five us there tonight. I was the only section hiker. Everyone else had been on the trail for months. I get a hot shower and throw my clothes in the washer. It makes me feel tons better. I got my clothes out of the dryer and stretched out on my bed. The last thought I had was that the mattress was a little lumpy and I would have trouble getting to sleep.

Second Day Recap: 16.6 Trail Miles, about an extra mile from my wanderings. I used a polypro sock liner and that seemed to take care of my blister. Other than that, lots of muscle soreness. Around 20 hikers spotted.

I slept soundly until I woke up to the others moving around. I got up and head upstairs and eat my fill of pancakes and drink a couple of cups of coffee. It is raining outside, so I slowly get my stuff together. As I am dragging my feet getting ready, the one hiker that came after me is checking his feet. He had walked a 20+ mile day the day before, with over eight miles on the Roller Coaster. His feet do not look bruised but from just above the toes to the ends of his toes, his feet appear purple. He was getting ready to do it all over again. The rain quits and I head out.

When I get back on the trail, I took a moment to enjoy the view of the Bears Den Rocks and then headed down the trail. I had nine miles of the Roller Coaster left and it was hard. Of course my pack had gained weight as well. The section stays true to its name and goes up and down. This would not be too bad, but the trail is very rocky as well. I could not get a stride going, and my pace was very slow. It was not unusual for a mile to take me 45-50 minutes. At one point, I got myself leaning the wrong way, and I ended up having my pack flop me on my back like a turtle. Luckily, there was nobody around to see this happen and no injury to report.

Towards the end of the Roller Coaster, I found myself on one of the few flat patches and found one of the few scares I had on this hike. The trail curved to the right and through the woods, I could see a large patch of black fur. The fur was moving and I froze. It stopped, too. I am standing there trying to decide what to do, when the fur starts running towards me. I thought I was going to fill my shorts. I start to think about where my bear spray is at, when the fur comes into full few. I could then see that the fur was not a black bear, but a large, black, friendly Newfoundland dog. He was happy to see me and his owners were just a little bit behind him. I learned that my mistaken bear was named Bob.  Bob’s owners tried to tell me how bad the rest of the Coaster was. I continued on, and it was tough, but did not quite live up to Bob’s owners warnings, thankfully.

About 7 miles into the day, I stopped at a camp site. This was at the bottom of the hill of where the trail crosses Virginia 605. It was a perfect campsite that had a little creek running beside it. I shared it with a young lady day hiker who had stopped there to read a book. The day had began cool from the rain, but the temperature had cranked up. I had been sweating profusely, so I kept my distance from the lady. I had been drinking lots of water and handled the heat, but I was feeling it. I took my shoes and socks off and put sandals on to let my feet air out while I ate and rested. I went down to the creek to filter water and refill my water bladder. The creek was spring fed, so it was very cold. I stood in the water for a while and let my feet cooled off.

It was about this time that I came to the realization that my food was nothing great, but one thing that had me really looking forward to meal times was the fact that my pack would be losing weight. I figured a couple of pounds a day, which would make any Jenny Craig customer very happy.

The day hiker headed out and I started to try and get motivated to finish the coaster. I only had about two miles left of it and a little more to the next shelter, but this campsite was very comfortable looking. Just as I had myself talked into it, a young couple came down the trail, heading North. The guy started going on about how hard the trail I had ahead of me. He encouraged me to stay right where I was at. It was a good argument, but I still had a bit of daylight left, so I somehow got my feet going down the trail. The good news was that I only had two uphills left

The last few miles were not easy, but did not live up to the guy’s distress.  My back and shoulders were starting to holler at me.  I got up the first hill and down the other side. The trail started following an old logging road. It was fairly flat and I was motoring along with my head down. I had gone a bit and realized I had not seen any white blazes for a while. I assessed my situation and figured I was off trail again. I backtracked and realized that the trail had turned off the trail and headed straight up the hill. I made it to the top and the end of the Roller Coaster. I yelled a loud profanity towards the Coaster as I topped the hill. I then had about another mile and a little change to make it to the next shelter. When I got to the Rod Hollow Shelter, there were four through hikers staying in the shelter, and two guys that were section hiking together and tenting. The people seemed pretty friendly and there was a good water source, so I called it a day.

The through hikers were two ladies hiking together, a young college guy and a guy probably in his 50’s. The ladies appeared to be somewhere in their 50’s, and their plan was to hike north until cold weather drove them off the trail. They would then finish the rest next year. The college guy was going to hike until he had to be back at college. The last guy had started hiking in Georgia. He had planned on only being on the trail for a week or two. According to him, his feet just kept on moving, and he had sold all his stuff to finance his hike. However, at this shelter, he had decided to get off the trail. I found out that he had met the dog, Bob, and was not a fan. Bob’s owners had showed up at the shelter earlier with Bob still off leash. I did not ask how, but Bob had popped this guy’s air mattress. On top of that, he had realized that he had lost his ATM card. He was going to have to double back a day to Front Royal to order his ATM. He said he was going to see if he could find a way to support himself at Front Royal.

I got my hammock set up and pumped some water. I cooked up my dinner and talked with the through hikers. I tried to talk to the section hikers, but they were the non-talkative types, which was fine. Also, one was having stomach issues. I ate as much as my food as I could, but was not able to finish it. I cleaned up, checked in with the wife and kids, and passed out within minutes of laying down.

Third Day Recap: 10.1 Trail Miles, about 1.5 miles extra. Around 15 hikers seen on the trail.

I got up early and got breakfast going. I gathered with the through hikers at the picnic table by the shelter. Except for the one guy heading back to Front Royal, they were all headed North and most were hoping to get to the Bears Den Hostel. They were looking forward to hot showers and clean laundry. My tales of Ben & Jerry’s motivated them even more. They headed out and I had my usual low motivation to get started. At about 9 am, I headed down the trail, with the only people left at the shelter were my fellow section hikers. I bid them farewell and I was up and going.

This beginning section was not too bad. I made decent time starting out, but my back was reminding me to stop occasionally and stretch it. Walking by yourself gives you plenty of time to let your mind free flow. Even though I have only attempted yoga a few times, the Warriors Pose popped in my head as I was trying to think of ways to stretch out my back. At my next stop, I was pleasantly surprised that it helped immensely. It became a habit at each stop, along with using a handy tree to offer resistance to stretch in different directions.

After about three miles of varying terrain, I started a long uphill of about three miles. The first half was fairly steep and the second half eased up a bit. However, it was through a meadow, so no shade. The sun was very warm, so I was downing water to try and stay cool. My sweat glands were working overtime. At the top of the hill, I stopped for a break and a snack at the Sky Meadows State Park. There was a nice view and according to my trail guide book, I could walk two miles to the park HQ, where there was a soda machine. Let me be more specific, a cold soda machine. It was tempting, but not enough to walk four miles round trip.

After Sky Meadows, I had two miles of gradual downhill. The main thing I remember about this section was that there were a ton of spider webs across the trail. These spiders were very industrious, too. A few times, I would pass someone going the other direction. I would get a couple of minutes of no webs in the face and then they would be back again. I give them credit for spinning their webs quickly, but got tired of getting that goop in my face. I walked with my walking sticks held up in front of me most of the way. I made it to Dicks Dome Shelter and stopped for lunch and to refill my water. My back was very happy to have the pack off for a while.

After leaving Dicks Dome, I had a decent uphill, then a flat, then a steep uphill and finally a very long downhill that took me to Manassas Gap Shelter. The next shelter was only 5.5 miles further up the trail, but I called it quits here today. My back had had enough. At this location, there was one tent pad on the west side of the trail, then the shelter, spring, privy and other pads on the east side. There was a group of young men at the lone pad. Something set off my low-level internal warning system, and I set up my camp with plenty room between us.  We ended up being the only ones there for the night. I heard them a couple of times and then I was asleep and heard nothing else all night.

Fourth Day Recap: 12.9 Trail Miles, about .75 miles extra. Only around 6 hikers seen on the trail.

I got up the next day, got breakfast prepared and devoured. I just wanted to mention that my back was bothering me during the day and evening, but felt fine in the mornings. I think the hammock worked well for comfort and support. I saw some of my neighbors a couple of times. They were not moving any faster than I was. Once again, it seemed like it was 9 am before I got out on the trail.

I start out walking on a very nice downhill. I only had one issue. I am walking along and I have my phone in my pocket. I think it is turned off, but it starts talking to me. It takes a second for me to realize that the phone is saying “Hello, this is the 911 call center. What is your emergency?” Holy crap. I dig for my  phone and try to answer it. They do not appear to hear me. A few seconds later, the phone rings and it is the dispatcher calling me back. I try to answer again, but once again, they cannot hear me. I start thinking and there are two things I do not want right now. I do not want any rescue people dispatched to come find out that I am fine, except for pocket dialing issues. If they track down my home number,  I do not want my wife getting a call that I am calling 911. I check my phone and I have a strong signal. I try to call the dispatcher back, but once again, they cannot hear me. I then think that maybe the issue is on their end. I try to call my wife to let her know all is well and if anyone calls from 911, let them know I am ok. I call and I can hear her, but nothing from me. I text her with a full explanation. I text the number the 911 dispatcher called me from, but of course I get an error that this number cannot receive texts. I walk a bit and then get a bright idea. I call my wife and put in on speaker phone. She is able to hear me just fine. (I later googled the issue and it seems my phone has a history of the standard microphone going bad.) I then call the 911 center, apologize profusely for wasting their time, thanking them for their service, promising that I am doing very well, and there is no need for assistance. Part of the weirdness of this, is that I am absolutely sure that I had the phone turned off when I put it in my pocket. While it was bouncing around in my pocket, the power button had to get pushed, my screen had to get swiped, the portion of the screen to make emergency calls had to be activated and finally, when the pop up came up asking “Do you want to make an emergency call?” the yes button was selected. Crazy.

During all this, I walked the 5.5 miles to the Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. This is supposed to be one of the premiere shelters on the trail and I was tempted to stop here. There are real chairs to sit in and relax. The layout is very pleasant with lots of flat space. One item to note, it had the nicest smelling privy that I had experienced on the trail. Wood chips were provide to throw in the hole that were primarily to promote decomposition, but also acted to suppress the overwhelming smell.I applaud whoever hauled in the bag of cedar chips.

I made it there and the guy I had met at the Rod Hollow Shelter was sitting at the picnic table. He was the one that Bob the Dog had popped his mattress and had headed back to get his ATM card replaced. He had made it here, dropped his gear, made it into Front Royal, ordered the replacement card, resupplied at the grocery and returned to this shelter to wait for his card to arrive at Front Royal. He figured he had about three days to wait. His plan was to cool his heels there until the card arrived. He was then torn between staying at Front Royal and looking for a way to support himself or to try to hitchhike out to Colorado. I ate my lunch and listened to him talk through his options. He also told me that he had seen my neighbors at the Manassas Shelter. He talked to them a bit and was offered a variety of smoking choices that would have made an Amsterdam cafe very proud. I was glad that I kept my distance, but I give them credit. They had not bothered me at all.

There was one let down here. According to the guide book, there is a solar shower at this shelter. I was looking forward to this. My new friend broke it to me that the shower left something to be desired. It was a free standing wooden stall with a wooden floor.  It had a large plastic tank on the top for water. It appeared that there was a waterline running up into the tank, but it no longer worked. There was a faucet at the base, so you had to fill your water into something, climb the side of the structure and pour it into the tank. Since there was no bucket available, my choices were limited to my water bottle. It did not have very much capacity. I asked him if he had used the shower. He said that he ended up filling an empty Gatorade bottle and using it to pour the water over himself. I asked him if he still had the bottle. I ended up taking my water bottle and his Gatorade bottle and heading down to the shower. I warned him that there would be some shouted profanity, because it was straight spring water, and I really hate cold showers. This was very cold. I did what I had to do and ended up feeling better afterwards.

Anyway, it was still early in the day, so even though it would have been great to stay, I pushed on after a very long break. I ended up going only 1.6 more miles further, all at a steady up-hill. I could see clouds rolling into my view. I got almost to the top and there was the Colonel Mosby Campsite. It was a very nice campsite, so I stopped. Between the storm clouds and my back barking, it was definitely a good time to end the day.

I had plenty of time to set my camp up, pump more water, eat, and I even got some quality reading time. It kept threatening to rain, but did not really start until after midnight. It stormed a couple of hours with a nice light and sound show, but I stayed dry in my hooch. This was the only night that I ended up being the soul resident at my chosen campsite.

One additional item, this was where I realized that I was not going to make it to the Lewis Mountain Campground like I had originally hoped. I was not making the miles and my back would start hurting a couple of hours into my hike each day. I did not see a big uptick happening in the miles. All that was fine with me, but I started to make alternate plans.

Fifth Day Recap: Only 7.1 miles and nothing really extra. Only 2 or 3 hikers seen on the trail.

With the storm that rolled through, I ended up sleeping in the next day. I was in no hurry to get up. I finally did and the place was damp, but there was no water standing. All my gear was nice and dry.

I did not get on the trail until around 10 am. I started with a short steep uphill, but then I had around two miles of downhill. The trail was not bad except that it was wet. I could not let myself get going too quickly due to the slippery footing. I had made it about ¾ of the way down, when I planted my foot on a rock, but my foot did not stick. My foot shot out and I went down. Luckily, I was able to catch myself with my walking sticks and only ended up with a skinned knee. Without the sticks and with the weight of the pack, I would have probably tumbled a ways.

I cleaned myself up and headed on down the hill. Right when it flattened out, I ran into some sort of youth group on a day outing. I tried to stay downwind of them, but I am not sure I was successful. There is a nice long flat run and then I got to the blacktop that runs into Front Royal. I walked parallel to it and this was nice and flat. I ended up crossing the blacktop and then there were 3+ miles of uphill to pay for my morning of dropping elevation. About a third of the way up, it started raining steadily. It was warm enough that once again, I pulled on my pack’s rain cover, but left my rain gear packed away.

About half way through the rain, I came up on a spur trail that was well marked and well used, but there was nothing in the guidebook. There was a wooden placard that looked like it had a sign on it at one time, but now there was something carved into it. When I looked at it, I saw “HH”. I was curious, but I could see it went downhill a ways. I dropped my pack and went exploring. Walking without a pack after hauling one around adds a bunch of spring to your step. I made it all the way down to the bottom and there was a sign saying this was a 4-H camp and hikers were to report to the pool’s office. I assume a shower was available, but I did not feel like pursuing it. I walked back up the hill and realized the “HH” was a “4-H”.

After about a little over an hour in the rain, I ended up at the Tom Floyd Shelter, just outside of Shenandoah National Park. I was hoping to make it into the park this day, but the next shelter was over 10 miles away. I had talked to the North Bounders, and some of them had run-ins camping in non-designated places in the park. On much of the trail, people are allowed to do their own thing. In the park, there are more people, so there are more rules to maintain some sort of order. Many of them had issues with park rangers, but in retrospect, I think it was more an understanding issue. Whatever it was, after hearing all those stories, I was unsure about trying to camp in a non-standard spot in the Park. Plus, I was wet. Plus, my back hurt. I called it a day.

Here was a bonus about the Tom Floyd Shelter. Once again, it is about the privy. This privy had a split door. So, while you were doing your business, you could swing open the top door and have a nice view of the woods.

This was my shortest day other than the partial first day. There were a guy and a girl through hiking and were grabbing lunch inside the shelter. The guy was from Germany and the girl was from Arkansas. As it stopped raining, they headed on out as I set up my hammock and tarp. I got it taken care of when another hiker showed up. He ended up being a local who wanted to just come out and spend a couple of days in the woods and get away from the hubbub. He had hiked a good portion of the trail previously and his trail name was “Mountain Mike’. I did not stay out there long enough to get a trail name. The great news was that Mike had a container full of homemade chocolate chip cookies and he was sharing.

This shelter was on the hill side. The shelter itself and the tent sites were pretty much dents in the hill. I hung my hammock where one side had the semi flat pad and the other side was the drop off of the hill. I was kind of proud of it, until Mike pointed out that I had a good crop of poison oak growing underneath. Back home, we have a fair amount of poison ivy, but not much of the oak variety. I left the hammock where it was and ended up with only one tiny spot of poison oak on one of the knuckles of my toes.

Mike and I ended up being the only ones there that night, and we got a decent fire started. We shared stories for a while and I headed to my hammock to read for a bit and rest. My back was still not very happy with me.

Sixth Day Recap: Only 6.5 trail miles, and about a mile extra. The daily miles keep going down. Four hikers seen on the trail.

The next morning, I was up fairly early. After breakfast, Mike shoved more cookies on me. It was not a hard sell. As I was about to head out, Mike asked if it was ok to pray for me. This caught me by surprise, but knowing I could always use some help, I readily accepted. With Mike’s request for blessings, I was heading on up. I was touched by his gesture.

There was a short very steep stretch and then I was at the Shenandoah NP self-registration kiosk. I was finally in the park. I got to walk a nice long flat piece of the trail. Along the way, I met a lady from Minneapolis that was out hiking for a couple of weeks while her kids were in summer camp. She was heading North, so I gave her the highlights of my last few days and we had a great discussion of how great the Boundary Waters are in Northern Minnesota. I guess I fell into the “talk your ear off” category here.

After this stretch of flat, I crossed the Skyline Drive that bisects the park lengthwise North to South. The trail pretty much runs parallel to the road. There are ups and downs, but nothing compared to what I had seen previously. I made it to Marshall Mountain and got to see my first Shenandoah grand vista. It was a great place to stop for lunch. If you have never been to this park, the overlooks are fantastic. Growing up and living in a fairly flat place, these are something I truly enjoy and appreciate.

Most of the rest of the day was downhill, and I ended up getting to the spur that leads to the Gravel Springs Hut. Since it was 13 miles to the next one, I stopped. The spur was only a quarter of a mile in length to the shelter area, but it was a steep downhill. When I got there, two tent sites were already taken. One was a south bound hiker that had a goal of doing the whole trail in sections. The other was a dad and daughter who were just there for the night. I pulled out my phone to check in and there was zero service.

After I got things settled, I walked back up the hill to get a signal. This day was Friday, and I checked the weather forecast. Saturday looked great, but thunderstorms called for on Sunday. (A piece of trivia that applies here: the man in the Guinness Book of Records for being struck the most times by lightening is a retired park ranger who worked at this park. It is known for lots of lightning strikes.) I called my wife and the plan was for her to pick me up on Sunday as she traveled through the area to visit her family in the DC area. She had ended up leaving a day early. Since she would be in the area on Saturday and because of the pending storms, I decided to end my hike on Saturday instead of Sunday. It was decided to meet at the Elkwallow Wayside the next day. Also, due to phone battery that died and various coordination, I ended up walking up and down the hill four times.

I got back down the hill the last time, ate dinner, visited with my neighbors and fell into my hammock.

Seventh Day Recap: 10.5 trail miles, and about 2.5 miles extra. Eight hikers seen on the trail.

I got up and had my last breakfast on the trail. For a change, I was the first one out on the trail. Seeing my family again motivated me to get my feet moving a little sooner. It was a beautiful day and a great day to be outside.

Two miles into the day, I made it to the Hogback Overlook. This was on Skyland Drive with a place for cars to pull over and enjoy the view. There were groups of bikers going up the hill. Twenty years ago, I lived in the DC area. One of my favorite things was to drive out to Front Royal and do an out and back bicycle ride on Skyline Drive. I ended up taking a picture with the bikers for old times’ sake. I thought about telling them that I use to be wimpy and would ride a bike up the hill, but now I haul everything on my back. However, I kept it to myself.

I then made it to Rattlesnake Overlook and used this as a place to have a snack. It was a great view and a nice breeze.

Along the trail this day, I came across two impressive piles of bear scat. I saw no other sign of the bears. One thing that struck me as odd is that they had the whole woods to poop in, but had chosen the middle of the trail both times. I took it as a message from the bears that it was time for me to get off the trail.

I made it to Elkwallow Wayside. It was kind of anticlimactic. I was walking, walking walking, and all of a sudden, there is the wayside.  They have a park store with souvenirs and limited groceries. They also have a sandwich grill with counter service. I ordered a double cheeseburger, fries and one of their renowned blackberry milkshakes. While I am waiting, I learn that one thing they do not have is cell service. I check with a couple other customers and nothing. They do have a pay phone. I have not used one of those for a number of years, but figure it out. I get my wife’s voice mail and let her know I have made it to the pick up point. I also let her know that there is no rush. Lots of picnic tables and lots of shade. I take my bounty and head to one of the tables. The burger was great, fries I could have left and the milkshake lived up to the entire hullabaloo that I had read. I head back and get a cold soda to top off my meal.

I set and people watch for a while. The southbound hiker I had met at Gravel Springs makes his way through. I talk to a young guy who is through hiking north. I asked him if he wanted my extra food. He is more than willing to take it off my hands. I end up giving him some cliff bars, a box of noodles, chicken in a foil packet, and some trail mix. He was very happy and I was glad to let it go. I ended up pulling out my book and reading it while I waited. I was reading Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. It is a great book and the story will have you questioning every complaint you have ever made.

It took a little while, but my wife and daughters arrived and we had a grand reunion. They hugged me even with my aroma. I had put on a clean set of clothes I had saved, hoping that would help.

Eighth and Final Day Recap: 5.7 trail miles, and about .5 miles extra. Ten hikers seen on the trail.

I had hoped to go about 20 more miles total. Even with the extra day, not sure I would have made it. I was very happy with what I had done and I was very happy to end it here. I appreciate people who hike the whole trail end to end, but that is not for me.  I could see doing another week on the trail sometime, but not much more at one time.

There were two things that I was pleasantly surprised about. These were the two things I was most worried about when I realized that I was going to be doing this hike in July: heat and bugs. It got hot, but was manageable. I drank and drank and I kept a bandana handy to wipe my face. I also used a headband to keep the sweat out of my eyes. I was really worried about the bugs. I soaked my clothes in permethrin, and I only sprayed myself with Off at the very beginning. I saw zero ticks and very few mosquitos. That made me very happy. As a bonus, I saw zero snakes.

To give you an idea of food, I pretty much had the same thing every day and I tried to keep it very mild to keep my stomach from rebelling.

Breakfast – Double packet of instant oatmeal with raisins, nuts, ground flax see and powdered milk added.

Dried Fruit

Quart of Gatorade or Tang

Water

Advil

Snack –       Cliff Bar

Lunch –     2 x Tortilla with peanut butter, jelly, and granola

Beef Jerky

Quart of Water with electrolytes tab

Finish water if any left from morning walk

Advil

Snack –       Payday candy bar and Trail mix

Dinner  –    Boxed Noodles (For example Lipton brand)

Slice of Spam or cooked chicken in a foil pack

Finish water from afternoon walk.

More water

Advil

During walk-        My camelback bladder was 1.5 liters. I would drink a full one in the morning and another one in the afternoon. I made sure to finish it off if any was left at lunch and dinner.

One thing that surprised me was that from what I had read,  I was assuming that I would lose some weight. Any weight I loss was negligible. I am assuming that since I was not putting up the through hiker mileage, I just did not burn the calories I thought I would. Looking at this now, one thing that I will probably change next time is adding some protein powder to the oatmeal. Otherwise, I might shrink some of the servings.

To finish this off, here are some random thoughts and things learned:

  • Through Hikers would not be good foot models.
  • A foot model would never do a through hike.
  • When you meet a hiker coming from the direction you are heading, never ask them how the trail was behind them. Either they lie or their perspective from that direction is just too far off.
  • When one does not normally eat beef jerky, one should try it before buying it for a hike.
  • Listen to your internal warning system.
  • Don’t expect to be in trail shape just because you are in above average shape.
  • Don’t expect hiking the plains of Missouri to fully prepare you to hike the Appalachian Trail.
  • One cannot plan a hike by just looking at a map. Like all great plans, it is only great until the first shot is fired.
  • The Appalachian Trail will figure out a new way to kick my butt every day.

I am writing this about 1.5 weeks after my hike. After the hike, I spent another week on vacation at my in-laws. Other than tight legs, I seem to be ok. Once I quit carrying all my belongings on my back, my back seemed to be just fine. Like I said previously, I was happy to have done what I did. I am not sure when I will get out again, but I can see myself doing it again sometime. Hopefully, it will be sooner than later.

For photos of this little adventure go here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boconorm/sets/72157645760495850/

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Lessons from youth coaching

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I am finishing up my season coaching my youngest daughter’s U8 Girls Soccer team. This is my third year coaching and the first year that practices are not part of the game. The first two years, you practiced for 30 minutes and then played for 30 minutes. It made things fairly easy. This year, we have a 90 minute practice.

Anyway, I have been jotting down random thoughts as the season progressed. I wished I would have written more down. There could be a book in here if I had more quantity.

Here are my random thoughts of what I have learned by coaching a great group of 7 year olds soccer:

  • There are no rhetorical questions.
  • When you are in charge of  a group of 8 year old girls, standing silent to signify you are waiting for them to stop talking, does not work.
  • General instructions don’t work very well. If you want the kids to kick it up the side of the field, don’t tell them to kick it up the side of the field. They will kick it to the side and it will go out of bounds. Give them a target, like “Kick it towards that other coach, or that tree, or that blond headed girl with the long pony tail.”  The more exact the better.
  • If you are feeling a little down, this is a great group to hang out with.
  • There is not a happier group of people.
  • There is nothing like getting a hug after a game from a member of a team from a past season.

Anyway, it has been a fun season. I am lucky enough to get these same girls in the Spring. I had enough fun with it that I might just coach for one more year.

Issues with flat names in group calendars in Lotus Notes.

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From my time in the military, we are taught to write Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). The bottom line is that as of Domino 8.5.2, one can no longer use a flat name for a mail in database mail file owner and use that database as a group calendar with all standard Notes Calendar functions. You must now create a legitimate Domino Address Book canonical entry and use that as the owner of said database.

I have not seen a write up on this, so I am going to cover it here. Hopefully, it affects someone besides us. The event I’m covering happened back in February, so I will do my best to get all the facts straight. Luckily, I actually did a better than my usual job of documenting.

For a long time, admins in our company have created group calendars in the following method.

  1. Create a mail file with an older mail template.
  2. Make a simple flat name the owner of the database (Notes 7 and before allow this).
  3. Replace the template with an up-to-date mail template.
  4. Make calendar the default view.
  5. Create a mail-in database entry in the address book.

 It was pretty simple and it has fit our needs.

 Last February, a support ticket was opened by one of our users. The user said that a group calendar she had been using was suddenly behaving irregular. Every time she would create an entry, she would get an error “Double Book. An error occurred while searching for free time. We are not able to perform conflict checking for you at this time. This meeting will be created and placed on your calendar. Continue?” The choices are “Yes” or “No”. If yes was chosen, the entry was created. I could recreate it from my account.

 I opened up a ticket with IBM Support. At first, support had me primarily looking for issues with CLU Busy. These troubleshooting attempts came up empty. However, tt was narrowed down that it was only happening with Appointments, Events and Meetings.

After troubleshooting CLU Busy some more, an error was observed on the status bar “Schedule request chaining loop detected. “ After the IBM Support rep performed a remote support session, they noticed something. Their question was “Are you using a flat name for the owner?” Somehow, I had not communicated that point.

After I filled in the support person of our process, I was told that in 8.5.2, there was an upgrade to security features. One of these was not allowing calendars to have owners with flat names. A full canonical name was needed.

I deleted the mail in database in the address book. I created a full entry in the address book. I then made that entry the owner of the calendar. I tested. The user tested. Everyone was happy.

Here is a technote that touches on the issue, but does not cover it completely. http://www.ibm.com/support/docview.wss?uid=swg21316659  The main point I take from it is that this is the way Lotus works now, and do not expect it to change.

I want to give kudos to Notes support. In this case, I had unintentionally not given them all the applicable information. They were able to help me work through the events and draw the info out of me. Much appreciated

Spreading the good news of Managed Mail Replica

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Earlier this year, I was honored to be asked to present at the View’s Admin2013 in Boston. I presented on my company’s experience in implementing the Managed Mail Replica (MMR) in Domino. I want to post about that subject here to spread the good news about MMR.

What drove us to decide to use this feature is that many times Lotus Notes gets wrongly accused of being slow, when it is just a symptom of less than superior bandwidth or other applications hogging network resources on a PC. As Notes Admins, we cannot affect most of this, but with MMR, we can take these variables out of the equation.

To give background on the MMR feature, it was new to Domino 8.5.2. (Because of code updates/fixes, 8.5.3 is preferred and HIGHLY recommended.) One way to think about this, it’s a new improved version of having a Local Replica. Instead of Send/Receive operating on a schedule, it is automatic and happens nearly instantaneously. The I/O is primarily in the background so the user’s perception is that things are happening faster. When new emails are received at the server or created by the user, replication is automatically triggered. Other functions (Delete, Read Marks, Folder Moves, etc.) still happen on a scheduled replication. Anther high point is that the activation of the feature is pushed from the server and no end-user interaction is needed.

There are many benefits to the user perspective. The primary one is there is less latency since the replication happens behind the scenes of the user interface. When the user clicks on an email, it is being accessed from the local replica, not the server. Since replication is triggered by new mail, there appears to be less delay for an email to arrive.

Here are a few lesser benefits:

  • User Is Oblivious to Server Roll-Overs: We have multiple mail servers that are clustered. Before, if the primary went down, users could get a pop-up that the server was not communicating or they might have to close Notes and re-open to get the client to access the back-up server. Now, this all happens behind the scenes without any notifications to the user.
  • Fewer Location Decisions – With our set-up, our users had to decide between Office, High Speed Access, Slower Access, and Island. Now, the choices of High and Slow Speed are combined to just Internet. One less thing the user has to decide about.
  • User Experience More Consistent – If we have a laptop user go from the Home Office, to a Branch Office, and then to a hotel, their experience will be much closer to the same at all these locations.

There were some benefits to the Admins as well. They were:

  • Users Are Happier – Anecdotal evidence states happy users are less likely to call the help desk.
  • Little Intervention Is Needed – Less contact between admins and users is usually a good thing.
  • Uses Existing Architecture – If you have 8.5.2 servers and clients (remember, 8.5.3 preferred) or higher, you have all you need. No need to purchase additional software, hardware or licenses.
  • Lowers Network Traffic and Server Load – Emails are transmitted once and then user access is all local resources.
  • Local Replica is Self-Healing – Most times, if there is data corruption detected, Lotus automatically deletes the local replica and recreates it.

Through policies, an admin can automatically push this out to the user base. A basic knowledge of policies is needed, and to know what to change in policies, refer to – http://www.lotus.com/ldd/dominowiki.nsf/dx/Managed_Replicas_

This is a great document that takes you through step by step. When we did this, we basically followed the IBM suggestions. We did choose to implement full text index and to locally encrypt since these are only tasking the local PC’s resources. We also selected to replicate at start up and shut down of the client without any user notification to ensure they have fresh replicas at user and server level.

This was the basic process we followed:

  1. Created the explicit policy so we could stage migration.
  2. Created a distribution group for MMR users.
  3. Applied the explicit policy to this new group.
  4. Added users/sub-groups to the MMR Group.
  5. Go back to step 4.
  6. After all sub-groups had been added to the MMR Distro Group, we incorporated the MMR settings into the Default Policy.

Overall, things went very well. Everyone away from the home office saw the greatest improvement and they all loved it. We were not going to push it to home office, but there were enough laptop users that could be away. Also, the other positive items listed above made us to decide to push it out to everyone. The home office folks are not as ecstatic, because the improvement was not as drastic, but overall, they have liked it.

There were four primary issues.

  1. Some people had issues with the replication page popping up, since they did not see it before.  I put this under user education issues. We ended up writing an article for the employee web site and also handled with one on one interaction. It was not a wide spread problem, but with communication, it was easy to resolve.
  2. People accessing their mail with multiple devices were having issues that not everything was updating immediately across all devices. This was another user training problem and looking back, we should have prepped people better about the delay. An example of this is someone would delete an email on their phone, but it would stay on their desktop until replication happened.
  3. There were a few cases that had corrupted data in the local replica initially. To cure this, we deleted the local replica and it automatically rebuilt. My unscientific research had this occurring with less than 2% of our users.
  4. Last one is mostly my fault. Most of our clients are 8.5.3, but we have a fair amount that is still 8.5.2. I believe this is the Mat Newman Commandment that states we, as admins, must keep our users at the latest release. I failed to do this and many of our 8.5.2 users would have issues where replication would occasionally stop until the client was closed and re-opened. That means no mail received and none sent. We are currently working to get all of our clients up to 8.5.3.

That’s about it. It was overall a positive experience. We are happy with our decision to use MMR and do not plan on backing out anytime in the near future. If you want to take more control over your environment, you should take a deeper look at Managed Mail Replica.

 

Warning about Managed Mail Replica in Lotus 8.5.x

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Recently, I spoke at the View’s Admin2013 in Boston. The topic was Managed Mail Replica and how it is a good thing.

I stand behind that, however, since the conference, an issue has surfaced. We have a mix of 8.5.2 and 8.5.3 Lotus Clients. We had updated the image so all new machines were getting 8.5.3 and were letting the 8.5.2 machines get replaced as physical machines were replaced.

It has not happened all the time, but occasionally, the 8.5.2 machines will not replicate the local replica with the server. If the user goes to the Replication Page, they will see that each entry on the page shows pending 1 of xxx, where xxx can be any number. If the setting of “Replicate\Synch when I start\shut down the client” is activated as was recommended in my little talk, the client will lock up and not shut down since it cannot complete replication. The only way to get around this is to force the client to shut down via Task Manager and then restart it.

I opened a ticket with Lotus Support. It appears to be some sort of semaphore error/conflict. Their only answer is to upgrade the client to at least 8.5.3, so we are currently working on pushing 8.5.3FP4.

Anyway, I realize if I was a good, proactive Notes Admin, I would have been keeping clients updated anyway.

Bottom line of this is I highly recommend that you upgrade your servers and clients to 8.5.3 before implementing the Managed Mail Replica Feature. It will be a preventive to some heartache.

A visitor to Boston.

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Note: This installment is long. I thought of breaking it over multiple parts, but I thought this is more for me than anything else. Feel free to read and if you get something out of it, great. If it is too long, feel free to skip it.

This is Blog entry number 2 and I promise to stop counting them after this. Like my first one, it will probably be a little lengthy. It is probably more an exercise in self psychotherapy than anything else.

This is my account of the events of Boston Marathon week as a visitor to the city.

To start with, Boston is a town I have always enjoyed. I have always liked reading history and this is the location of so many of my country’s stories. You have the Freedom Trail and all its sites in the city. Around the city, you have the towns of Concord and Lexington and others. There is Walden Pond and the phrase “Banned in Boston”. The fictional story of Johnny Tremain has always been one of my favorites and set here in Colonial Boston.

When I was a younger man, I was sent to nearby Fort Devens for training two different times. Both times, I was able to explore the area. I was lucky to be there with a friend who was as much a history geek as me. We enjoyed going to local cemeteries to hunt for tombstones from the revolutionary war and before, as well as historical names we knew from our school books. We usually ended up at the cemeteries at dusk and scaring the crap out of each other.

The last few years, I have been going to a technical conference in the heart of Boston every other year. It is usually very close to Marathon weekend, but not quite on it. This year, I was going and even getting to speak at it. Also, it started on Tuesday and the Boston Marathon was on Monday. I had friends running the marathon this year, so I decided to arrive on Sunday, so I could see the marathon for the first time. Along with this, I should say, I enjoy running and I have ran four marathons and a number of half marathons. However, for Boston, you must have a qualifying time in another Marathon. For me, I would need to run about 20 minutes faster than my fastest marathon time. Not much chance of that happening, so this was my chance to at least observe.

I arrived on Sunday afternoon. Since I am not being reimbursed for this night at the hotel, I ended up staying in the outskirts of Boston. I took the subway out to my hotel. I dumped my luggage and then contacted my friends who would be running the next day. They were going to go out for a good pasta meal, so I hopped back on the subway to meet up with them. The three of them were in good spirits. They were experienced marathon runners, so there was little nervousness. We had a good meal and it was strange to be the one not running. We split up and headed to our respective hotels.

The next morning was race day. The rest of the time, I was going to be staying at the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge, on the Charles River. I packed all my stuff up and headed downstairs. As I got down there, I see the hotel shuttle is about to leave for the subway station. I don’t want to miss it, so I grab a biscuit and a few pieces of bacon from the hotel breakfast and head out to the shuttle. It was a nice sunny day, but a little cool. It was a great day to be running. I found the hotel and they even had a room ready for me, even though it was still early. Once again, I dumped my things in the room and headed out.

This is going to sound selfish in retrospect, but just to put into perspective where my thoughts were, I add this. When I checked in, I asked about the kayaks that their website said they had to loan. Every trip I have made, I always see the kayakers and row teams on the Charles and wished I could be out there. I learned that the kayaks were only available after Memorial Day. I could not help but think, “That’s a cruddy way to start the day: a bacon biscuit sandwich and no kayaks.” I felt guilty about these thoughts later, of course.

I got in touch with another friend, Jeff. Jeff is about eight years younger than me and grew up near me. Our dads worked together and I had babysat him and his brother a few times. He had moved away to Colorado, but was there to cheer on his wife in the race. It took a few calls and a few texts, but we were able to connect. He had a great spot on the corner of Hereford and Boylston. This is the last turn the runners make on the race. This is also where they first see the finish line which is only about 5 blocks away for them, all downhill.

We are there early and we see the wheel chair racers come across. There are people along both sides of the street and they are all cheering extra loud for these men and women. It takes a while, and then the elite women come across. It is a tight race for the women, since there is a group of three all right with each other. Not much later, the elite men make their appearance. Then, all the rest show up. This is why most of the people are there. The people that are around us are all looking for a friend or family member that is in the race. I am trying to see each face, but it soon gets to be too many running by. Of course, my friends do not even know where I am at on the course, so they do not even know to look for me here.

The part I remember the most is seeing the range of emotions in the faces as they make that turn. You had looks of elation to looks of dazed surprise. Some people looked like they had run much more than 26 miles while others glided gracefully around the turn. There were no worries or concerns other than finishing the race that they had preparing themselves for a very long time.

After a while, Jeff saw his wife go by. I realized that my running friends had most likely gone by, but I had missed them. Jeff was going to head to the finishers area, and I tagged along with him. The crowds were too great to walk along Boylston, so we went to the first alley north of Boyston and walked parallel to the race course. We walked a few blocks past the finish line where they were herding the finished runners. It was a mass of people milling there. Jeff and his wife had a predetermined spot to meet, so he headed off. I looked at all the people and realized two things, there was no way I was going to find my friends and I was starving. My biscuit had burned up long ago.

I decide to find something to eat and then try to meet with my friends after they were cleaned up. I am not sure of the time, but I start walking. There are crowds everywhere and I walked away from the finish to find a place that was not packed. I started walking southwest from the finish, but I did not have a set destination. I ended up making a arch were I was heading more or less east and was southeast of the finish, a little over a mile away.

I am not finding anything appealing and the area I know best is the area around the finish line. I think of a couple of my favorite spots and start heading in that general direction. I am now around Washington and Mass Ave. That is when a couple of police cars went flying by me. It seemed like they were driving very aggressive, but I wrote it off to being in a big city. Then about six more police cars went by and a fire truck and a couple of ambulances. The way they were driving and their siren was going, this was not something minor liked a passed out runner, but it was something major and everyone better get out of their way. After I found out what was happening, I admired the way they were diving into an unknown danger.

I am now on Mass Ave heading in a generally northerly direction. I still do not know what has happened. I did not hear anything. I see a group walking towards me and seem to be in distress. I excuse myself, and ask if they know what is going on. They tell me about the two explosions and I admit that I go into kind of a daze. I realize I am still walking in the same direction as the emergency vehicles. I decide I need to stop and collect myself.

I duck into a café and order some lunch. As I am waiting for my food, I call and text my wife and kids. I tell them something bad has happened in Boston, but I am ok and not in the immediate area. About this time, my parents call, because they have seen the news bulletins. Then my phone starts going crazy. People from work, a hometown friend who lives in north of Boston, other friends, my sister are all checking on me. I give them quick replies that I am ok. Then I post on Facebook that I don’t know what has happened, but I am ok. I also check on my friend Mike who was one of the racers. He lets me know he is ok and so are the rest. I get my food and take a couple of bites. I realized that I cannot even taste the food. I pull up my map on my phone and realize that I am only a few block from the B&B where my racing friends are staying. I call Mike and ask if I can come over and hang out until things calm down or we learn more. He tells me to get over there.

I find my way down Mass Ave. The B&B is only a block off of it. Mike meets me in the lobby and we head up to his room. We both laugh at the size of the room. It reminds me of the one Harry Potter had underneath the stairwell. We watch the local TV news for too long. After five or ten minutes, they are showing the same footage over and over. They are repeating themselves and then start reporting what they, the newscasters, think might have happened. Mike’s phone starts ringing off the hook. I guess he had a friend that works at the local tv news program and Mike’s number is being passed around their staff and made it out to our local newspapers as well. He ends up talking to a couple of reporters, but he does not have much to say. He ran his race, had finished and cooled down and was on the way out of the finishers area when the two blasts happened. His only interaction with the police was being told to evacuate the area and asking for directions as he tried to find a roundabout way to his hotel.

We finally head downstairs to the lobby. It is filled with people that ran the race. There was a few that were at the finish when the blast went off. Luckily, none had been injured. Being a non-participant, I felt like an open ear for all of them. I refrained from telling them about my time in Iraq and rockets fired into our base. I just let them talk. That seemed like the best thing I could do for them. Kind of like what I am doing here. While we were there, one lady showed up. She had still been running when the bombs went off. They had stopped her and everyone else on the course immediately. They held them for a while then told them they had to leave, but could not go the finish, of course. She had found her way back to the B&B and was spent. A couple of people immediately jumped up to help her to her room.

Somewhere in this time, I talked to my friend north of Boston, Laura. We were going to try to go out to eat that evening, but there was no question that was not happening. We decided to try on my last night in Boston, Friday.

Many of the people are trying to makes sense out of what happen, to come up with why someone would do this. I tell there is no sense to be made of it. A crazy person did this who thought he or she was right, but their reasons will make no sense. There is no way to understand a crazy person’s thoughts. I am not sure if this helps any.

It got to be about 7 pm. Mike, I and our two friends, Whitney and Matt decided to try and find something to eat. We had talked to people who had ventured out, and they said some places were open. However, police were trying to keep large groups from gathering. They had closed a market and drugstore because too many people were there. We ended up at a pizza place that was on Boylston, but a ways from the finish line and the bomb sites. As we walked there, it seemed like another world. This was an area I had been to a number of times that usually had tons of people. Now, most of the people on the street appeared to be police and the rest of us were kind of scurrying as we tried to look all around. It seemed more like some unstable Third World country than Boston, USA.

We ate and I talked to a couple of policemen who were there eating as well. I had heard that bridges over the Charles were closed and my hotel was across the Charles. I thought I might be taking up floor space in Mike’s room. I asked if the closed bridges were true. They said they have plenty of patrols on the bridges, but that I be able to cross.

After we ate, I split up with my friends at Boyston and Mass Ave. There was an eerie feeling as we said our goodbyes. Mike made me promise to let him know as soon as I got to my hotel. They were flying out the next day, so I made them promise to let me know how their travels went.

It was dark now, and I made walk to my hotel. It was about a mile and half, but a very quick walk. I made it back to the hotel and up to my room. As one could expect, it was a very odd feeling. I phoned home to let them know I was well. I texted Mike that I was safe. I contacted a few others that had checked on me throughout the day. I looked up on-line for a map of the blasts. It was only about 2 or so blocks from the second blast where Jeff and I had watched. That was way too close. I watched a little news, and thought about all the people affected. I finally could not watch moreh of it, and I crashed.

The next day I woke up. At first, it seemed like a very bad dream. It seemed like an Iraq dream (by the way, I never remember having any of those), but Mike, Jeff, Whitney, and Matt were in it. None of them had been with me in Iraq. It took a little while to convince myself that no dream had happened.

I did go for a run along the Charles River. There were other runners and many police. I felt very safe, but unsettled at the same time. I got back and cleaned up. I went downstairs and checked in for the first day of the conference. It was happening. We were going to pull this off and not let the terrorists change that. People were talking, but I was not ready to talk about my experience yet. I mainly spent my time praying for those that were loss and injured and their families. There were moments of silence out of respect and to remember these people affected, but we proceeded.

I heard from my friend Mike. He and Whitney and Matt had spent the day walking around the North End. They had made it to Mike’s Pastries, an obvious favorite of his. He got his fix of cannoli before they flew out.

My friend from work, Jewell, skipped the first day, but arrived late that night. The next morning, we met up as we got ready for another day of classes. The lockdown had not been put in place, but nobody seemed to want to go very far from the hotel. There was a mall next to it, and besides my run, that was the extent of my wanderings. My past visits to Boston, any downtime had been spent walking the streets of Boston. I enjoyed the history and the people and just the feel of the city. I was not getting this experience this time.

Wednesday was pretty non-eventful. We were making our rounds to presentations and catching up with old friends that you make at these conferences. I think, if nothing else, the classes gave us something to think of besides what had happened. In between classes, I catch quick snippets of news to see if there is anything breaking.

Thursday arrived. I gave my presentation first thing that morning. With the tragedy, I was not able to feel much self pity about being nervous. I gave it and it went very well.

That evening, things seemed a little more relaxed. Jewell and I went to the Cambridge Brewing Company for some non-hotel food and a couple of beers. We were walking back and I pointed out that we were next to the MIT campus. We got back to the hotel and had not been there very long, when police cars went flying by with the same aggressiveness as on Monday. We found a tv and found out that there had been a shooting of a police officer at MIT, but not much more information. We suspected it was connected to Monday, but nothing to confirm it. I head up to my room with lots of questions.

The next morning, I turned the tv on first thing, as I had every morning that week. I learned about the big shoot out and the killing of one of the terrorists. I found out about the lockdown and that they were searching for the second terrorist. I meet Jewell for breakfast and we compare notes. It looked like we were only 3 or 4 blocks from the start of last night’s activities.

Just for the record, that was way too close for me. When I spent my year in Iraq, a common thing spoken between soldiers was that the main reason we were over there was to ensure things like this did not happen in the US. Well, this all stomped on those sentiments.

During all these days, I am also keeping in contact with my family to reassure them. My middle daughter was especially worried about me. She was only five when I had deployed to Iraq, but still remembers. I tried to let her know I was ok and staying safe. There was extra security at the hotel and I was staying put.

I talked to my friend Laura, and we agreed that it did not look like we were going to get to catch up this time around. Hopefully, her next trip to Columbia, we could get the two families together.

That evening they lifted the lockdown, and soon after, took the second terrorist into custody. There were cheers throughout the hotel. Jewell and I decided to try and find some place other than the hotel to eat. We walked a couple of blocks in each direction, but every place was still closed. Even the mall was completely empty. It was very strange for a big city like Boston to be closed down like this.

We ended up back at the hotel, but the meal tasted much better with the two bombers dead or in custody. There was a little celebrating that evening.

The next day, Saturday, Jewell and I were flying out in the afternoon. I had good intentions of running Saturday morning, but when my alarm went off, it was raining cats and dogs. I used it for an excuse to sleep another hour. I woke up and it was still raining. I said the heck with it, showered, dressed and headed out.

I ended up in the Italian area of the North End. I found my friend Mike’s favorite place, Mike’s Pastries. I had a huge cannoli and a couple cups of coffee. I bought some extra to bring home to my family and for Mike and his wife. I then headed out. I went by the large farmers’ market that is next to the town hall. I walked more and the rain stopped sometime in that time. I learned a lesson. Do not walk too close to the street. It took only a couple of drenchings from cars to learn this.

I ended up at the West end of Boylston where they still had barricades up. A makeshift memorial had popped up here. It looked similar to other ones I had seen in pictures of other disasters. I wanted to say my respects, but there were about 6 or 7 news cameras there. They seemed to zoom in on anyone deep in reflection. Somehow, I was able to slip in on the side, pay my respects and slip out. As I walked back to my hotel, I saw a few runners. There were some that had American flags on their clothing and lots more that had Boston Marathon jackets from various years.

I got back, packed up, and met up with Jewell. We headed to the airport about three hours early in case the security was tight. We were pleasantly surprised that there were little lines. Security was thorough, but you could feel the relief throughout the airport. Actually, my box of cannolis brought more attention than anything else.

Our flight back was fine and landed in St. Louis. We split up here since we both had cars at the airport. I got home and I did all I knew to do. I hugged my wife and kids extra tight and said a prayer of thanks for us and remembrance for those lost and affected.

Tale from a first time speaker.

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This is my first ever blog and my first ever entry. I am not sure how many more there will be. Hopefully, if there are any others, they will be much shorter.

Since it is my first entry, I thought I would write about another first. A week ago, I was invited to speak at my first technical conference. It was a great honor and I am very proud of it. For those that are thinking of speaking, I wanted to give a first person perspective. For all of the old timer speakers, maybe this will awaken some memory cells of your first time.

For background, in late 1999, I became involved in Lotus Notes. My company switched from an archaic mainframe based email system to a modern pc-windows based system, Lotus Notes 5.0. In the beginning, I was a Developer and Admin. In 2005, I morphed into a fulltime admin. Also, in 2005, my company started sending me to conferences every year to maintain and develop my technical knowledge. I usually went with my co-worker, Don.

After every one, Don and I would have the same conversation.  (As I am typing this, I am thinking of the vultures in the Jungle Boy movie by Disney.) “We could do that.” “Yeah, we could do that.” “What would you talk about?” “I don’t know. What would you talk about?”  “I don’t know. What would you talk about?”

The real problem was not that we did not know what to talk about, but what would we talk about that others would want to hear?

Last October, I saw a posting on Planet Lotus that the View was accepting proposals for presentations for the Admin2013 conference. It was to be held in Boston this year. (By the way, my second blog post will be about what happened in Boston from my perspective. It needs and deserves to be its own entry.) This is one of my favorite conferences. I like that it is smaller than Lotusphere (call it what you will) and, because of that, it is easier to get to know attendees and speakers. Also, I am a small town kind of guy and it fits my personality more.

We had been piloting the Managed Mail Replica feature of Lotus Notes for an extended period. We wanted to push it out to the rest of the company, so I thought, “What the heck.” I typed up a quick summary of what I wanted to present. It would be a first person perspective of our company’s experience with this feature. I would include a live demo and real world problems and solutions. As I sent it, I thought “That’s the last I have seen of that. I will be lucky to get a rejection.”

It was not too much later, I heard back from Celia of the View, their conference coordinator. She sounded excited about this presentation. I had a hard time believing it. I wondered if this was a marketing ploy to get me to register for the event or some other ulterior motive. However, I quickly learned she was completely sincere. I wrote up an outline and she was still very enthusiastic about it.

As this progressed, I had two main thoughts. First, I had better start figuring out how I was going to fill an hour and second, I better get this project into production.

To handle the speaking part, I started outlining my talk, first in general and than in detail. Also, I had some public speaking, but it had been a while. To try and knock off some dust, I joined my company’s Toastmasters club. Along with all that, I rubbed the fact that I was getting to present into my friend Don, every chance I could get.

About this time, the View published the tracks and presentations available at the conference. I opened it up and scrolled down. There were all the people I have gotten to know and admire through the years: Andy Peddisch, Gab Davis, Susan Bulloch, Chris Miller, Rod Axelrod, and more. All of a sudden, in the middle of them, I see “Norman Cox”. I have to admit that even though I was 46 years old at the time, I was like a little kid. I started yanking people in my cube and pointing at the screen. My fellow Notes folks were somewhat impressed or feigned it for my benefit. The non-Notes folks I grabbed just gave me a standard, “That’s nice, Norm,” with a patronizing nod. That went along with the “That’s nice, Dad” when I showed my kids that night. I tried to tell them that these were like the Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake of Lotus Notes, but classier and more modest. I don’t think they got it.

When I looked at my name on the screen with all of the notables, at first there was elation. Then it sank in, “Oh crap. People will be paying money to go to this and are expecting to hear people that know what they are talking about.” I had spoken many times in front of people, but this was the first time that someone would be expecting a return on their investment. This would be different than when I was in the army. There, people were told to be somewhere, to listen to me, and that they would like it. It would be a different scenario here.

On the production side of this, we ran into a couple of issues which was both good and bad. Good, so I would have a couple more slides. Bad, because it gave me more work. Another good part was from what we were seeing, Managed Mail Replica worked as advertised. That’s always a nice surprise. However, it was uncovering some issues that had been around in our environment, but we were not aware of them. Luckily, there were no show stoppers.

At the end of February, Celia put the message out that slides would be due in a couple of weeks. I used my tried and true defense of avoiding looking at the email for a while. When I could not do that anymore, I requested a week extension and put the slides together. I sent them to her, still expecting a note back that would say something like “We appreciate your effort, but this is really not what we were expecting.” However, that note never came and I got an approval from my first submission. No rework needed.

As the time got closer, I would go back and forth between the emotions of elation to “What have I gotten myself into this time?” I reviewed my slides with my friend Don to ensure that I had my facts straight and communicated well. He and another friend even set through a practice run through of the presentation. I talked to Celia and other folks of the View a couple of times. They were always full of reassurance. I reached out to a couple of the speakers listed above. They had only encouragement and support to get me through my self-doubt.

About a week before the conference, we applied Managed Mail Replica to the last group. It had gone fairly well. Still, the only issues were ones we already had, but did not know about. Also, I found out I had fouled up a couple of settings. I was just 2 mouse clicks off. However, I am always happy to laugh at myself, even in front of people. This caused two positives. It was easily fixed and another slide was provided. Luckily, Celia allowed a late change.

I headed out to Boston. (Once again, more on that part of the story next time.) I arrive at the hotel and check in at the conference registration desk. I get loads of encouragement from the event staff. However, by this point, with the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, my self-pity is over. There are more important things to worry about. The conference started on Tuesday and I did not speak until Thursday morning.

Tuesday night was my birthday and I ended up at the hotel bar, introducing a new friend from Denmark to Kentucky Bourbon. Wednesday morning, I am reminded that I am no longer 20 something. That was half a lifetime ago. During the day Wednesday, I get checked out in the room where I will present. I try out the mike and try to get used to hearing my voice over the speakers. I try the wireless clicker and figure out how I will have the equipment arranged at the podium. I make note of all the wires around the podium and hope I stay on my feet. All is well. Somewhere during this time, I take a picture of my conference badge with the speaker ribbon on it and proudly post it to Facebook. Wednesday night, I learn from my mistakes the night before, and bypass the bar. I head up to the room for an early bedtime.

Thursday morning, I get up at my usual early time. I go and work out to burn some nervous energy off. I am definitely nervous, but it is a positive nervous, not debilitating. I go down and set up the room since I am first up. I am still very early, so I stop by breakfast and get something to eat. I figure I might as well feed the butterflies in my stomach to keep them happy. I head back and about 8:25 people start actually coming in. At 8:30, I am up against Susan Bullock and Chris Miller, so I am not sure what to expect in regards to attendance. I end up with about 15-20 people. It’s not a big room, and I have it about half full. I am very happy with this. I go into my spiel. I start out a little slow, but I pick up speed. I look around the room and everyone actually looks attentive to what I am saying. At this time in the morning, I was assuming I would see some heavy eyelids. I get through it all and ask for questions. This sets off a decent discussion as people talk about their individual environments. I am able to answer some items. Other points set off discussion around the room. This goes on for about 10 minutes or so. As soon it was done, I of course thought of things I could do better. However, overall, I was very happy with it. I got to take a peek at evaluations and they were very positive and kind. The rest of the conference, I continue to get positive feedback from attendees.

So, what is the plan now? I made it through this time ok, but the real test will be if I can come up with another topic and can be invited back again. Also, when requests go out for IBM Connect (Lotusphere), I plan on submitting this same talk. I’m not sure what will happen, but the worse is that they say no. If they say yes, I think I will be a little calmer this time around. However, I will be pulling even more people in my cube to see that schedule.

Finally, for the old timers, remember us newcomers. Your positive support means loads. To those thinking about speaking, give it a try. The worse that can happen is you will be told no, and if you are told yes, you know you will be among friends.

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