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Exclamation Haleakala or bust...
Old 05-28-2010, 05:16 PM   #1
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Exclamation Haleakala or bust...

I've been off the board for the last week having a "significant life experience".

On Saturday 15 May a friend invited spouse & me to join his 12-person backpacking group at a cabin in Haleakala Crater on Maui for four days. They've been doing this for five decades but two dropped out due to injuries. The NPS severely restricts access to Haleakala, and of course going with such an experienced group is probably the chance of a lifetime. The challenge was that we had just five days to prepare.

Our friend planned this trip for months (perhaps since he finished last year's hike) and he sounded tremendously relieved that we could go on short notice. (A benefit of ER!) He's much too polite to get into the details but I bet he made a lot of calls before he got to our names on the "D list". He's in his 60s and at ages 48/49, spouse and I were the 2nd/3rd youngest. We've talked casually about "someday" taking up hiking again when we're empty nesters but we sure didn't expect to get back into it like this. We're both camping & day-hiking veterans but for the last couple decades it's just been Diamond Head, Makapu'u Point, and Brownies. We've hiked at altitude and know what to expect for thin air & sunshine. We're both skinny and in good shape (taekwondo & walking), and above all else we are extraordinarily stubborn persistent. We've endured plenty of environmental misery during our Navy years. We were pretty confident that we could do this. Above all, we didn't want to pass up this chance and spend years wondering "What if?". So we scrambled to rent backpacks & sleeping bags, made flight reservations, and stocked up on ibuprofen. No chance to buy, let alone break in, proper hiking shoes.

Well, we survived to cross this one off the bucket list. But the scenery and the critters were wonderful, and the people were pretty fun to be around.

I haven't been so physically challenged since the taekwondo black belt test, and that was only six hours. It took three weeks of Airborne parachute training or Navy diver school to make me feel the way I felt after four days of Haleakala, although I'm a bit older than those days. Spouse felt hammered down into pain levels somewhere between "plebe summer" and "giving birth". Our critical asset was [S]obstinance[/S] perseverance, and it's not hard to find that when the alternative is dying of exposure.

Haleakala's altitude is from 6500-10,000 feet. It's mostly desert with some alpine meadows. The night before we hiked in, a front passed through with gusts to 78 mph. Winds at the top are routinely 20-30 mph and temperatures are 40-70 degrees even without the wind chill. The sun at 10,000 feet is intense and the altitude inhibits conversation, let alone exertion. The trails are unpredictably treacherous at all altitudes & conditions-- deep ankle-slogging lava sand, slippery rocks, sharp lava gravel, narrow deep-cut trails, crumbly switchbacks, and even an occasional muddy spot. Parts of the crater were used by the Apollo astronauts for lunar environmental training.

I think that NPS is losing the conservation battle. Ancient Hawaiians have left trails from the 1700s and traffic has been rising steadily since the 1930s. The land is so dry and the vegetation so fragile that it's easily damaged and can take decades to recover. Silverswords put out surface roots that can be killed by walking over them and lots of invasive species (rats, mongoose, goats, pigs) have cut back the bird population while reducing plant seeding & pollination. Some of the trails have had so much foot traffic over a few decades that they're worn 12-18" deep and the park service has to re-route them. Others are worn off the mountain by the (very) occasional rainshower with waterfalls down the trail. The silverswords are much reduced even in the last 50 years-- we saw groups of a dozen or two at a time but none of them were as big as the ones in the old photos. Even 30-50 people staying overnight (plus hundreds of day hikers) can overwhelm the area. OTOH the NPS has closed off nearly 40% of the terrain for conservation research and fenced most of the ridgeline to keep out the goats & pigs. We had to watch a mandatory 10-minute video before picking up our passes-- it explained "stay on the trail" and "don't litter" but it mostly delayed our start to 9 AM.

Our group of 12 was three married couples and a motley assortment of friends & co-workers. Ages ranged from 43 to 63 and everyone was in fairly good shape. Most had hiked Haleakala before and three of them (in their 60s) had been visiting the crater for over 50 years.

We left our cars at the summit. My pack started at nearly 40 pounds, including food and three liters of water. Clothing included a pair of jeans, three pair of shorts, four t-shirts, a windbreaker, and a hooded rain poncho. (We left fresh clothing in the car.) I could have ditched a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. I used all of the contents of my pack over the next four days except for the emergency gear and maybe 1000 calories of food. Three liters of water was plenty for a 10-mile hike and I could have probably done it on two, but the third liter is a nice emergency spare in a high-altitude desert.

The first day we hiked nearly 10 miles to get to the crater's "best" cabin. The first five miles slogged through Shifting Sands trail, raising clouds of lava dust with every step. We started with 30 mph winds (gusting to 50) and about 50 degrees but the wind soon went to zero and the sun began to bake. The crater terrain descended steeply over 3000 feet from the summit through switchbacks into blasted/eroded lunar-landscape terrain (with no shade) punctured by occasional 1000-foot-tall cinder cones and sporadic groups of silverswords. We saw no critters above 7000 feet-- they're not stupid. Even the boot-wearing gaiter-wrapped hikers had lava dust through their socks, and the cinders went easily into our well-ventilated sneakers.

At five miles we passed Kapala'oa cabin, which was considered "OK" but not as good as our destination. We'd been at it for nearly three hours and the sun was at high noon but spouse wanted to press on before her muscles locked up. We'd mostly been snacking on high-protein energy bars (about 600 calories for me) and water. Some of the hikers had been jamming their toes in their shoes (blisters and bruised toenails) but we were fine. We added a fresh coat of sunscreen, shook out a cup of cinders from our shoes, and pressed on.

The next five miles were even more downhill, and two miles of it were over rock & lava flows. It was brutal. You had to move slowly and pick your footing. Fast steps would turn over a rock or even sprain your ankle. Instead of wandering over sand trails 30-40" wide, the passage was only an ankle-scraping 12-18" wide and cut 12-30 inches deep into the hillside. Reaching out for a handhold was a bad idea when everything was either razor-sharp lava or delicate yet thorny plant fronds. We slipped & fell on our sore muscles for a couple hours before the terrain flattened out a bit and we could cut across grassier meadows to the cabin. At this point spouse began having her "come to Jesus" moment and was seriously negotiating her continued endurance. We made the 9.8 miles to Paliku cabin in about six hours.

The cabins are 20'x40'. 12 bunks are stacked three high around a large table with benches. The main room flowed into a two-person kitchen next to a small closet that doubles as a changing room. The closet is full of wood for the stove, although we also had a propane burner. Water gravity-flowed from the catchment tank (mostly dew but occasional misty rains) and the pit toilet was about 100 feet behind the cabin. NPS provided firewood, toilet paper, kitchen gear, silverware, and bedpads. No open fires, we boiled our drinking water, and we had to burn or pack out our trash (including food waste).

We rotated dinner/breakfast cooking among two-people teams because the kitchens are that small. Most of the evenings were spent boiling more water for the next day's drinking. Some filled their solar shower bags while others used wet washcloths or baby wipes. (Submarine water conservation & low hygiene standards came in handy here.) Alcohol was surprisingly plentiful considering how heavy it feels after the first mile-- bourbon, gin, vodka, even a plastic bottle of Chivas. Good thing, too, because most of us were nursing blisters, bruises, and cramps. I don't know what the medical community advises, but ibuprofen goes down great with a cup of Irish coffee. I spent most of the four days chugging 800 mg of ibuprofen every six hours.

Nene hung out around the cabins, probably begging or cleaning up after campers. The Paliku cabin was favored by a mated couple with their three chicks who put in regular photo appearances. We also saw partridges & pheasants and heard lots of smaller birds. Clouds & mist showed up around 4 PM at the lower altitudes but cleared by 9 PM to an absolutely stunning starscape-- first time I've seen the Milky Way in Hawaii. Most of us saw it that night only during a midwatch trip to the pit toilet.

The second day we hung out around the cabin and rested up. (The veterans felt that it was better to beat ourselves up on that first day to have the privilege of staying two nights without the packing/unpacking hassle. I'm no longer so sure about that concept.) Morning dawned misty and wet from the cloud cover. We tried to hike a nearby ridge but it was just too wet & slippery (including us hikers). We spent a lot of the day holed up talking story, dressing wounded feet, napping, playing card games, and reading. (The latter two activities also had to have their gear packed in. Ouch.) By afternoon the clouds had cleared away for us to hike a different ridge for a couple hours, just enough to work out the kinks. The eastern edge of the crater is eroded away to offer stunning views down to Kipahulu & Hana, lots of coastline/ocean and even the Big Island's peaks of Mauna Kea & Mauna Loa. That little hike was worth the view as well as the chance to work out sore muscles.

The third day was rated the worst Haleakala hike that even the grizzled veterans had experienced. The rain started at 2 AM and continued until dinner. It eased to a drizzle occasionally but was mostly steady and windy. We hiked 6.3 miles uphill/northwest to the Holua cabin, wearing rain ponchos that merely divided the soaking between rainfall & sweat. The first mile of the trail was ankle-deep in rainwater. Thank goodness the wind was mostly from the northeast, but I still blew out a seam of my (cheap plastic) poncho. The day was an exercise in uphill ankle-twisting slogging and survival skills. Of course the rain eased as soon as the last hiker made the cabin. We spent most of that evening trying to dry out our gear and get warm again, not necessarily in that order.

Holua cabin is slightly smaller and the pit toilet is slightly better ventilated. There's a nearby lava tube that can be hiked through a quarter mile, and a cave in the surrounding hills that was the first Haleakala shelter from the time of the ancient Hawaiians up to 1935. One of our group (who's made this trip dozens of times) had hiked in two weeks before with a case of beer and hidden it in the lava tube where it stayed a cool 45 degrees until he retrieved it. That surprise was much appreciated because the liquor locker was pretty much depleted by the first night.

The final day we hiked out a 3.9-mile trail cut into the side of the crater. I lost count of the switchbacks and the ridgelines. We gained something like 1600 feet of altitude during the climb. By this time spouse had two hiking speeds-- "compound low" and "stop"-- and everyone's legs/feet were sore. The trail ended at a parking lot where we'd stashed a car to ferry us the final 2000 feet back up to the summit. We showered at one of the local hiker's homes, lunched in Makawao, and shopped or hung out for a few hours before the group split up. Spouse and I bookended our stay with nights at the rustic Kula Lodge.

In retrospect I'm glad that I tested my limits in this crucible, but the decision was irrevocable. A change of heart didn't mean "quit and go home"-- it meant "don't screw up or else you'll have to try to stay alive for another 12 hours until the rangers can arrange the helicopter, if the weather is clear enough". I won't say "never again" (spouse certainly has), but these memories will have to fade a heck of a lot before I'd try again. Even then I'd stay at Kapala'oa cabin instead of Paliku (above the rain/cloud line) and limit the day's hiking to 5-6 miles.

Haleakala day hikes are relatively easy, even with a 10-pound pack. Survival gear is essential (warming blanket, first aid kit, water, food, poncho) because if you sprain an ankle then it may literally take a day to get you out. There's no cell-phone service, no cabin phones, and no standby rescue helicopter. If the weather closes in then the rangers have to use pack horses.

Haleakala camping is challenging because you have to pack in/out everything (including trash) and open fires are forbidden. Campers have to pack a stove & fuel if they want hot food/drink. (You will want hot food/drink.) Water is non-potable and has to be boiled or treated... or packed in.

Haleakala cabin stays are 90-day advance reservations, which typically fill up about five minutes after midnight. That's the main reason we jumped at the chance for this trip, despite the short notice and our lack of preparation-- it's almost impossible to get the cabins, let alone get tutored by the experts.

If I ever decided to do this again (and that's a big if) then I'd buy real hiking shoes, gaiters, and a lightweight pack customized to my size. (The right pack frame size is critical for women or smaller men.) I'd also buy a high-tech one-pound sleeping bag instead of the typical 3-4 pounder. For those with less than stellar balance/reflexes I'd strongly recommend a pair of hiking poles. I'd practice hiking several days a week, building up to several 10-mile hikes with a 40-pound pack. Even that wouldn't necessarily prepare for altitude or bad trails, but it'd help avoid injuries.

I was astonished at how many of our group had serious foot damage despite their experience & stamina-- big bleeding blisters, bruised toenails (which will fall off in a week or two), and abrasions. Moleskin and duct tape were consumed by the square foot. Shoes/boots have to have roomy toe boxes to avoid banging toenails on downhill slopes. Topical pain cremes & antibiotics or even lidocaine sprays helped speed recovery.

Another personal reason I made the hike was to see how my knees would handle it. Both my ACLs are torn (not repaired) and my left medial meniscus is pretty low on cartilage. They've been that way for nine years. I've been training taekwondo for six years and I've spent the last couple years with a trainer building up my quads & hamstrings to stabilize the joints. My knees handled the conditions surprisingly well although I was chugging ibuprofen at the trail head and kept it up with every meal. My feet had no blisters or toenail damage until the final morning. I had no stability problems. In fact my balance, coordination, and reflexes were the best in the group, although admittedly I was one of the younger hikers. I had plenty of reserve stamina at the end of each hike (if necessary) and I recovered quickly. Knee pain was minimal (my gluteus maximi hurt a lot worse by the third day) and swelling didn't start getting ahead of the ibuprofen until the last morning. (I think it was caused by the 1600-foot climb.) Four days after hiking out of the crater, I'm totally healed and ready to resume workouts. This hike convinced me that I can handle anything I'd normally try to do with my knees, and I'm going to avoid ACL/meniscus surgery as long as possible.

If you're planning a Haleakala trip then you need to re-read this post I can pass on plenty more info. PM or e-mail me for the nitty-gritty details.
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Old 05-28-2010, 05:20 PM   #2
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I'm amazed Nords! Thanks for sharing the experience.
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Old 05-28-2010, 05:37 PM   #3
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Ouch! And congratulations.
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Old 05-28-2010, 05:55 PM   #4
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Great story and photos! We were at the top of Haleakola when we visited Maui several years ago. No hiking for us then, but some gorgeous views.

Your story reminds me a bit of hiking to the top of Mt Whitney. You have to pack everything out, and since there are no cabins or pit toilets, that even includes all your bodily waste. But at least the trail up to the top -- although very steep at times and at high altitude -- is well maintained and solid. No creeping through loose sand or gravel like you went through.

Can't wait to get back to Hawaii!
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Old 05-28-2010, 06:10 PM   #5
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What a terrific post! Thank you for letting us re-live the experience with you. I bet the seasoned pros were impressed with your abilities. Did you give your DW a dozen roses or what ever it is that makes her smile...maybe a day at the spa?!
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Old 05-28-2010, 07:42 PM   #6
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Great post ! Thanks for sharing !
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Old 05-28-2010, 07:43 PM   #7
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Thanks for the great story. Now I feel like I've done it myself. Well, maybe I'd feel like I did it myself if I did 5000 deep knee bends, took a weedwhacker to my bare feet for three minutes, then sat in a cold shower for 5 hours.

Congrats. You and DW have a lot of grit, and not just in your sneakers.
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Old 05-28-2010, 08:14 PM   #8
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I saw Nords and Kevin (the 43 year old kid) that went on the hike. They were pretty miserable. In contrast the 60 year old hike organizer and his younger wife seemed fine.

Kevin told me "I am in pretty good shape I am doing the NY Marathon (which IRRC is an invitation event) in few weeks", but echoed Nords comments sayimg it was the toughest thing he has done in years.. He complained about lugging the booze and other stuff and that his pack weigh 60+ pounds. I reminded him that the typical pack that troops in Afghanistan carry is 60 or 70 pounds He said yes but that are 20 something. Actually, quite a senior NCO are in their late 30s or even 40s and still humping lots of gear this Memorial Day in Afghanistan at altitudes even higher than Haleakala

Nords helpfully gave my name to the organizer for the next trip. I honor which I will easily decline.
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Old 05-28-2010, 09:22 PM   #9
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Nords......a beautifully detailed saga. Makes the readers think they are there with you (and glad they're not).
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Old 05-28-2010, 10:23 PM   #10
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Wow! What a great adventure! And what an incredible place! I have worshiped it too but not quite so intensely.

Audrey
P.S. Did manage to photograph the incredible silversword in bloom.
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Old 05-29-2010, 12:39 AM   #11
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I have a life-long testosterone poisoning attraction to these types of physical/mental endurance challenges. If I don't grow up pretty soon then eventually it's going to get me into trouble. I gave up parachute jumping shortly after I got married. I've finally (reluctantly) decided not to compete in next month's USA Taekwondo Senior National open tournament. But in the meantime I'm still going to get started on pushups/situps for next spring's 2nd dan taekwondo test.

Quote:
Originally Posted by clifp View Post
I saw Nords and Kevin (the 43 year old kid) that went on the hike. They were pretty miserable. In contrast the 60 year old hike organizer and his younger wife seemed fine.
Kevin told me "I am in pretty good shape I am doing the NY Marathon (which IRRC is an invitation event) in few weeks", but echoed Nords comments sayimg it was the toughest thing he has done in years.. He complained about lugging the booze and other stuff and that his pack weigh 60+ pounds.
Well, since you brought up the subject...

The night before we drove up to the summit, Kevin accepted the organizer's generous offer to help pack his backpack "since it was Kevin's first hike". What Kevin didn't realize is that he ended up carrying seven pounds of steaks (for our group's first dinner), almost all of the booze, and even a pound or two of books & investing materials that were up for discussion. Plus the cribbage board and a deck of cards.

About 30 minutes after spouse and I made the cabin, the 11th hiker came in and said "Kevin's struggling. A couple of you need to go help him." I hustled back up the trail with a partner named Tim, and we found Kevin a quarter-mile in. Tim immediately relieved Kevin of his pack and started trotting back to the cabin. Kevin was grateful for the assist until Tim shouted back over his shoulder "We have to start dinner and you're carrying the steaks!" We got to the cabin and the organizer said to Kevin "Oh, good, now that you're here, can I offer you a drink?" Turns out he'd packed Kevin's favorite sippin' whiskey... in Kevin's pack. At least he'd repacked it in a plastic (lightweight) bottle instead of the original glass.

Thus we all did our share to lighten Kevin's pack. And the organizer introduced Kevin to a cute blonde who developed a mutual attraction, so I think Kevin's willing to forgive him. Or at least to bide his time at planning his vengeance.

The evening we returned to Oahu, we were invited to a social event that required wearing close-toed shoes. It wasn't until I tried to slip on my loafers in the parking garage that I realized my feet had swollen nearly an entire size. But everything's back to normal now.

Spouse didn't get her day in the spa, but we stayed at the Kula Lodge the night we hiked out of the crater. It's on Haleakala's outer slope (in, um, Kula) and has stunning views of Kahului & Ma'alaea. We lingered over the sunset in their dining room, admiring the view and having our way with their dessert menu. Then we went back to our room and used up the rest of their hot water...
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Old 05-29-2010, 02:19 AM   #12
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Glad you survived and thanks for posting.
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Old 05-29-2010, 07:29 AM   #13
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What a fascinating account of your hike! I am thoroughly impressed! Your story has convinced me, though, that day hiking there would be more my speed! Thanks for sharing.
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Old 05-29-2010, 08:06 AM   #14
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Well done. Seems you'll have a good collection of smirks for the rocking chair.
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Old 05-29-2010, 11:07 AM   #15
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Have to agree with others, sounds like you had a fantastic trip and you describe it so graphically. However, I have to say, this is a hike that is never likely to be put on my list after hearing what you went through. Once it started raining I would have been done.
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Old 05-29-2010, 04:55 PM   #16
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Once it started raining I would have been done.
Yeah, me too. DH and I did a fair amount of backpacking and hiking in our younger days. Now my idea of "roughing it" is no room service in the hotel.
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Old 05-29-2010, 07:31 PM   #17
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Great story Nords. I have hiked the Sliding Sands trail from the summit at 10,000 feet then over the lava to the Silversword loop and Holua cabin then up the Halemau'u switchbacks - seems like they never end - to the parking lot at 8000 feet. But I did it as a day hike and it makes a big difference to be carrying an 8 pound daypack vs a full backpack.

There were 2 nene at Holua cabin while I was there which I found way cool.


I would post some pix but I don't know how.


Ha! Figured it out. That is me in the white golf shirt. Check out the giant bird I saw on the hike up the Halemau'u switchbacks.
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Old 05-29-2010, 09:17 PM   #18
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Did you see any of these cool birds?



It's a Chukar. An import from India. We saw some on Haleakala.

Audrey
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Old 05-29-2010, 10:56 PM   #19
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Hey, were you with the group that left all the trash there? Just kidding...

We passed right by the silversword loop because we were already about out of gas by then. And after all of those switchbacks up Halemau'u I'm really glad that we had a car in the lower parking lot. Having to hike the road up 2000 feet to the summit would've been a real morale-killer.

About 2/3 of the way up the trail I joked that I'd lost count of the number of switchbacks and wanted to go back down to start over. Didn't even get a chuckle.

The birds were all over the place. They inhabit the entire hillside behind the Holua cabin and kept us awake until nearly midnight. We couldn't tell if they were bickering about sleeping sites or making more Chukars. This is as close as I could get even with the zoom lens.

We also flushed a bunch of pheasants, but they wouldn't let us get any closer than a hundred yards.
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Old 05-30-2010, 12:04 AM   #20
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What a great post. Thank you, Nords. I found myself wondering, "Why don't these people own hiking boots?" But then I thought, "Duh, I don't own a surfboard."
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