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Appalachian Trail hiker finds excitement, difficulty on path; HOWARD AT PLAY


COLUMBIAN CHUCK Daniels retired after a 31-year career as a computer programmer, his work-world legacy including software designed to help operate all but four of the nation's ubiquitous state lotteries.

Since Feb. 7, though, the 60-year-old Daniels has been dealing with an entirely different game -- investing five months in an attempt to hike the famed Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, estimated this year (the distance varies a few miles every year) to be a journey of 2,165 miles.

At last account, he was in mid-Virginia, where many "through-hikers" hit the marathoner's equivalent of "the wall," a point where body and soul ache to the point of depression just before kicking into what some call physiological overdrive.

Members of the Howard County Striders, the sizable and active running club, are following Daniels' adventures via the Internet. Daniels, who said that five years ago he "couldn't run to the end of his driveway" but has since completed seven marathons and one 50-mile ultramarathon, set out from Georgia earlier than most through-hikers.

With his permission and that of the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies in Hot Springs, N.C., which among other things operates a compelling Appalachian Trail Web site, here are several excerpts from his journal. For more, check out the Striders' Web site, www.striders. net.

Treacherously icy trails the very first day were not Daniels' sole, initial challenge: "Very first night: I learn a lesson in mice activity 101. The mice chew and gnaw all night long, on I don't know what. Of course, I think it is my pack or hanging food bag, but I do not find any holes. They run all around the rafters and all over the floor and keep me awake. I brush half-a-dozen off my pillow -- and one even kisses me on the forehead."

A few days later in February: "About midnight, the rain starts and pours hard for an hour. I'm awake at 7: 30 amidst the roaring of freight-train winds, the entire mountain trembling around me. I peer out to see the surrounding trees fiercely swaying and the hail starting. Soon the forest floor is white again -- bombarded from ice the size of marbles.

"The deluge continues for another hour; the whole time I try to make breakfast and stay dry, thinking I can't hike in this stuff. A flash flood 4 feet wide passes in front of the shelter; everything in its path gets swept away."

Farther north in a rustic shelter at night, a sound awakens him: "I shine my flashlight around but see nothing. I look behind me, and I all but die. I am close enough to pet the darn [spotted skunk]. It walks slowly past me staring at the floor; I await the big spray.

"Thank God, it doesn't happen. I say to myself, 'Chuck, the night is young, and you had better get your skinny [rear end] in a tent.' Mr. Skunk appears to live under the shelter."

Still farther north: "It's 24 degrees out, and I know I have a tough day ahead with the first shelter, Sassafras Gap, only a short stroll of 6.9 miles but straight up for 3,322 feet. That makes for a climb equal to a 415-story house with 8-foot ceilings -- or, at 15 feet per floor, a 221-floor office building.

" what's really significant is that I will climb the stairwell of this building with a 50-pound pack on my back and do it in only six hours."

We'll update you now and then, if that's OK with Daniels and his wife, Andrea Almand, who is home, transcribing his journal entries and helping logistically. He credits her with getting him interested in the outdoor world and running; she's been a Strider since 1986.

Daniels, she said, is pleased with one unexpected benefit of his trek: a third-grade class in Logansport, Ind., found his journal, corresponds regularly and is tracking his journey on the Web as a learning experience.

Dan Bruce, who founded the Appalachian Trail studies organization and is a seven-time through-hiker, estimated that about 2,500 will start the trail this spring in Georgia intending to finish in late summer or early fall in Maine, more or less without stopping. The youngest so far, he said, is 17. The oldest is a woman from Grand Rapids, Mich., with one such hike already to her credit; she's 74. About one in 10 who start finishes, he said.

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