1. Please introduce yourself.
My name is Jeff Clark. I am a proud West Virginia Mountaineer, born and raised a son of the fifties in Charleston, West Virginia.
At the age of 12, my family began the nomadic phase of my life when moving first near New Orleans, followed shortly thereafter by another move to Stamford, Connecticut. I graduated high school in Stamford, then attended the University of Richmond in Virginia. After college, I finally settled down and lived most of my adult life back in West Virginia.
A complete professional life following two different careers has enabled me the opportunity to rest comfortably in retirement. Being from West Virginia, I have come to love the mountains, and I discovered about a decade ago that they have mountains in North Carolina too.
If you hang around me for awhile, you will learn that I am passionate about hiking and the beauty that Mother Nature blesses us with. Living in Western North Carolina as I do, I am in an area that is world-class for hiking and biking enthusiasts.
I’m a mere half hour from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and just another half hour beyond that to mountain summits that exceed 6,000 feet elevation. Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests are right out my door, and there are thousands of miles of trails found within them. Yep, I’m in the right place.
I volunteer for the National Park Service on the Blue Ridge Parkway. With budget cuts in Washington affecting the services at our national parks and national forests, it is incumbent upon volunteers to preserve and protect our treasured landscapes and wild places for future generations. I am also a member of several conservation groups in Western North Carolina.
2. How did your passion for hiking start and when did you decide to start blogging about it?
It was my brother who introduced me to the joy of the outdoors. He moved to the Rocky Mountains in the late 1970s, setting up what became my western base for recreation. Over the many years, as I’ve gone to visit him, we have explored wilderness areas in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho and Montana.
His love of the outdoors rubbed off on me. For many years I wrapped myself up so much in my work that I only hit the trails whenever I was on vacation. Especially now that I’m retired, hiking has become more of a normal thing for me. You are likely to find me on a trail somewhere as much as three days a week. Western North Carolina is a perfect place for those who love the outdoors.
I like to be prepared before I go on a hike. I want to know the terrain, how long the hike is likely to be, how hard it is likely to be (elevation, creeks, etc.), and of course, simple directions. It helps me prepare my pack with the proper amount of water and food, rain gear, maps and first aid. I discovered the Internet had information like this for the popular trails here, but some of the more obscure trails were just that, obscure.
There was a niche for a blog about some of the lesser known trails in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains area. So early in 2011 I decided to make an effort to fill that niche. Meanderthals has grown by leaps and bounds since.
There are well over a hundred trail reports found on the blog, and I have since expanded into gear reviews, news about hiking and conservation, and interviews with industry leaders. It has become, more or less, my second hobby.
3. Please tell us the story of your best hike.
Over the years, I have found several favorite trails and I detail them at Meanderthals in the “Best Hikes” section. However, my best story about hiking involves a trail in Colorado that, while very beautiful, holds special meaning to me for an entirely different reason.
One of my very first visits to see my brother not long after he moved to Colorado more than 30 years ago, he took me 2,300 feet up a creek drainage on a trail near his home. At the time I was about 27 years old, but I was a smoker, I didn’t work out, basically I just didn’t take very good care of myself. So about three quarters of the way up this mountain I simply wore out. I couldn’t go any farther. My eastern lungs couldn’t take the Rocky Mountain elevation, and my legs were like rubber. I lost interest. We turned around and went back… mission unaccomplished.
Just last Fall, 33 years later, we tackled the same trail again. When we reached the point where I had given up many years before, we blew right on by, and we made it all the way to the destination no sweat. During that 33 year period, I had quit smoking, I hike regularly so my legs and lungs are in good shape, and I have a greater appreciation for the wilderness. When we reached the destination at the top of the mountain, I had a moment of internal pride when I realized that I had just done something at age 60 that I had not been able to do at 27.
As to favorite hikes, here in Western North Carolina there’s a place off the Blue Ridge Parkway called Black Balsam. The Art Loeb Trail crosses several 6,000-foot bald mountains on its way into Shining Rock Wilderness. The views of the surrounding Blue Ridge are panoramic, with seemingly endless ridge after ridge disappearing into the horizon 50 miles away — in all directions. It is stunningly different every season, like finding a whole new adventure.
Last year I discovered the Roan Highlands for the first time. The Appalachian Trail spans a series of high mountain balds on Grassy Ridge as it follows the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. I was there mid-June at peak rhododendron and azalea flowering season and have rarely seen such remarkable natural beauty. I also look forward to visits in the Fall to enjoy the leaf-peeping. Roan Highlands is now a regular destination for me.
4. What is your favorite outdoor gear?
My girlfriend says I’m a weather wimp, and I suppose there is something to that. In particular, I do not like being cold. So I suppose you could say my favorite gear is outdoors apparel, especially the types of core clothing that are easy to wear in layers.
I learned a decade ago that there is nothing more comfortable, cushiony and protective for my feet than merino wool socks. You will find me wearing them year round… heavy ones with liners in winter, and lightweight, low tops in summer. I also learned from experience it’s best to have a waterproof lining in my hiking shoes. Whether it’s trail runners in summer or conventional hiking boots in winter, I always make sure that I can walk in a creek without getting wet feet.
I usually wear water-resistant nylon pants to hike in, convertible with zip-able legs is best. If it’s winter hiking, then I will put on a pair of runner’s tights under the pants for additional warmth, or even a layer of merino wool long johns. Up top it’s layers, layers, layers. Nothing I wear is particularly heavy weight. I just wear several so I can modulate my core temperature simply by removing or adding layers. I usually carry at least one extra shirt in my pack… a dry one for when I perspire in summer, and an additional one if I get too cold in winter.
Doctors say your body temperature will generally reflect your extremities, so I make sure to keep my head, feet and hands warm in winter. I’ve mentioned my socks and shoes, but I also tend to layer gloves. I wear a pair of silk glove liners underneath whatever thickness of gloves I may need for a particular temperature. The tight fitting liners are also great for operating the camera even on the coldest days. On my head I like to go with a neck gaiter. I can pull it up to cover my ears and face while still leaving the top of my head exposed so I don’t overheat.
And of course I always carry a rain jacket in my pack; rain or shine, winter or summer, it doesn’t matter. It is ALWAYS in my pack.
5. What is your favorite camping air mattress or sleeping pad?
Day hiking is my thing and I haven’t camped in more than 30 years. So I don’t even own an air mattress or sleeping pad. Sorry, no help there.
6. What gear do you recommend for the beginner hiker?
Hiking can be a very inexpensive hobby compared to some others like skiing or golf, but at the minimum a new hiker should get a pack to carry their food, drink and safety essentials, and a good pair of durable footwear to protect their feet from the wear and tear of the trail. There is a big difference between sneakers and shoes or boots designed for hiking.
As you hang around hiking clubs or Internet sites you will begin to hear about the 10 Essentials. This is gear that will help keep you safe while out exploring the wilderness. Once you have a pack to put your essentials in, here is a list of some things you may wish to consider:
Let’s start with your skin: sunblock and insect repellent. Always. Water and food, bear spray, first aid, matches, small candle, small flashlight, pocket knife or multi-tool, paracord, emergency shelter (small space blanket), rain jacket, rain pants, gloves, knit cap, dry shirt and socks, map and compass, smartphone, camera. I keep most of this gear in waterproof zip bags.
I don’t carry every item on every hike, but you can bet I have most of them. The thing is, it is remarkable how most of the necessities in my pack are really lightweight. My loaded day pack weighs about seven pounds, plus the water.
7. Can you give us 5 tips on how to make the best of a hiking experience?
A. Be prepared. Nothing will harsh your mellow more than discovering you simply weren’t properly prepared. Whether it be underestimating the difficulty, not having gear to handle unexpected bad weather, or getting lost – these experiences can easily ruin what would otherwise be great fun.
What good are those seemingly comfortable flip-flops going to be when you get your foot wedged between two rocks at the bottom of a creek crossing, or when that timber rattler whose space you just invaded decides to strike?
Hiking can be strenuous. Water is heavy, so you don’t want to carry too much, but dehydration is no fun. You can get disoriented, weak, even become unconscious, and yes, die. Always have at least a bottle of water even if you think you’re only going to be gone 30 minutes.
There’s a reason you see experienced hikers wearing a pack. It’s to prepare for the unexpected. If you are just wearing shorts and a cotton t-shirt on an 80 degree day when you hike a nearby 10,000-foot mountain, you’re asking for trouble. Mountains are notorious for quickly attracting bad weather. Thunderstorms, hailstorms, high wind and cold air move in fast and furious in the mountains. Do you know what’s in those packs? You will find rain jackets and pants, gloves, knit caps, extra socks, and dry shirts. The first time you get trapped by inclement weather, you’ll understand.
Getting lost is serious business, especially when dark is approaching. You may think you’re only going to hike a mile, or you’re only going to be gone half an hour, but expect the unexpected. Getting lost does happen. That’s why it’s a good idea to have some sort of guidance tool. Even if you don’t have a compass, chances are your smartphone has a GPS, and there are dozens of apps to pinpoint your location. At least take a map. Maps are easily obtainable at any ranger station. Hey, just do a little homework the night before. You know roughly where you’re going, right? Search for a map to print out before you go. That’s a big part of what Meanderthals is all about – to help you before you go.
B. Find someone to enjoy a hike with. I do go hiking solo on occasion. There’s a lot to be said for the totally quiet, private time you can have with Nature in the wilderness. However, usually I go with at least one compatible companion. It’s great to have someone else to talk to and share experiences and discoveries with. It is very useful from a safety perspective because there is someone else who will have your back. If you get injured they can go for help. If you get lost, well usually two heads are better than one at remaining calm.
C. Test your limits. There is a reason athletes are always striving to achieve their personal best. There is a great sense of exhilaration derived from accomplishing a goal, particularly when that goal is hard and stretches physical boundaries. Let’s say you hiked eight miles this week. Go for 10 next week. Was that mountain you climbed 1,500 feet of elevation change? Next time choose one that goes up 1,800 feet. There is satisfaction in becoming a better and stronger hiker.
D. Go where you want. Some hikers like climbing mountains. Others like following streams to exciting waterfalls. Still others simply enjoy a gentle stroll through a beautiful forest. If waterfalls aren’t your thing, don’t be afraid to tell your potential hiking partner. Let them know you would rather summit a peak instead. Perhaps you’re recovering from a minor injury and climbing would be difficult. That would be the day to explore that new forest trail that just opened last month. You won’t enjoy yourself if you’re roped into going somewhere you really don’t want to go.
E. Eliminate distractions. Make sure you don’t have conflicts in your schedule. If you have a meeting at 1:00 in the afternoon, perhaps instead of rushing through a morning hike, you should wait until tomorrow. I completely overexerted myself one time because we were hurrying to get back for an appointment a companion had. He didn’t even mention it until we were already on the trail. I made a hard and fast rule after that. I won’t hike with you if you have other commitments.
Even if you estimate a hike will only take three hours, allow the entire day. You might get to that mountain summit and find a herd of elk. You don’t want to miss the experience because you have to rush back to civilization do you? Allow extra time to enjoy exciting surprises. Maybe you will happen upon another hiker with a broken ankle. If you don’t have to be somewhere else, you can be there for that person. So clear your schedule of distractions.
8. What is the most terrifying experience you had while hiking?
I suppose you could say I have been fortunate with my wilderness experiences. I’ve never really had a brush with anything that was truly terrifying. No encounters with hungry wildlife that was bigger and faster than me. No major injuries. No bad falls. No tornadoes or earthquakes.
Sure I’ve fallen in a creek or three in my day. Yes, there was the time I was climbing in the Colorado Rockies and reached a very steep and icy summit that sent my head spinning with vertigo. And there was that time I rappelled down a slick granite face to get some waterfall pictures and couldn’t get back up. I even got lost for about an hour once. But terrifying? Nope, thank goodness.
Maybe I’m not trying hard enough.
9. What gear would you like to have close in a survival situation?
Food and water obviously. I ALWAYS pack more food and water than I anticipate needing for a hike.
Something to help stay warm overnight. That’s why I carry a compact space blanket.
First aid, including bandages and pain reliever. A pocket knife or multi-tool to carve a splint if necessary.
A light source. Whether it be waterproof matches to start a fire, or a flashlight, it’s comforting to be able to see in the dark.
Compass and map. Eventually you have to find your way out of the mess you’re in.
If you look closely, you will notice this list almost matches the list above of pack essentials. When I am loading my pack, basically I am packing for survival, even though I’m just going day hiking. I am anticipating the unexpected. 99% of the time I don’t use any of that stuff that’s in my pack. That’s okay though. I don’t mind carrying a few extra pounds for the peace of mind and comfort I get knowing I have it.
Another thing to consider is being able to help others. I have almost never gotten a blister while hiking. Proper fitting footwear assures that. But I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve come upon novice hikers sitting on a rock with their boots and socks off rubbing their feet. I have passed out a dozen padded bandages over the years to help another hiker with their miserable feet. It’s good trail karma, y’know?
10. Who is your favorite adventurer, hiker or outdoor hero?
Most of my heroes are going to be those types of people who got us thinking about conservation. People like John Muir, Edward Abbey, Teddy Roosevelt, even some members of the Rockefeller and Vanderbilt families who purchased large swaths of wilderness land to donate or hold for the park and forest services.
Every time I set foot in a national park or national forest I thank those who had the forethought more than a century ago to protect our special places for future generations. I get to enjoy the fruits of their brilliance. It’s why I volunteer – to thank them.
I also have an admiration for those who pioneered the long distance trails in this country. Benton MacKaye originated and laid the foundation for what eventually became the Appalachian Trail. Ron Strickland not only imagined the Pacific Northwest Trail, he used a pick and shovel to build it, and lobbied the halls of Congress to recognize it. He devoted decades of his life to that single purpose.
Most of all, I will always admire my brother for encouraging me long ago to spend more time out in the wild places.
11. A message to your fans.
To quote the Center for Outdoor Ethics:
Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.