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[at-l] Backpacks and laptops E-mails fly as hikers hit remote trails

Backpacks and laptops E-mails fly as hikers hit remote trails


PATTEN, Maine Mother Goose meets Twisted Sister II: It's not a summer movie
hit, and it's not the latest Stephen King spine tingler. It actually
happened, along a road in northern Maine.

Veteran hiker Bonita Helton, known by the trail name Mother Goose, and Ellen
Wilcox, aka Twisted Sister II, greeted each other and embraced like long-lost
friends when their paths met for the first time.

The rendezvous between Helton, a 54-year-old waitress from Woodbine, Ky., and
Wilcox, a 42-year-old teacher from Bedford, Nova Scotia, speaks to the latest
craze to hit the trails crisscrossing the continent.

Along with tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear, hikers are stowing
hand-held and other small computers. For those without Palm Pilots or
laptops, there are always desktop computers in the libraries or in the homes
of people called "trail angels" who help hikers along the way.

E-mail is the latest signpost to help hikers find a place to do laundry, get
shelter, food, water or other kind of assistance, said Bill Miller, a trail
angel whose home in New Brunswick, Canada, is frequented by hikers.

"Everybody checks their e-mail when they get to the library," said Helton,
who packs a Pocket Mail Composer so she can add entries into her journal
every night and keep in touch with fellow trekkers all over the country.

Wilcox e-mailed Helton and a dozen or so other hikers before she began her
southbound trek from Quebec's Cape Gaspe in June. With e-mail, she could
monitor their progress, keep them updated on what to expect and give tips on
where to eat and drink.

They had never met face-to-face before that Aug. 5 day on the International
Appalachian Trail, which picks up where the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail
ends. The 663-mile IAT extends from northern Maine's Baxter State Park to
spectacular Cape Gaspe.

Wilcox, who teaches business and computers at a community college, yearned
for a break from the keyboard and decided not to pack a hand-held herself.
But she couldn't break away completely and uses a library computer once a
week or so.

"I said right from the get-go, this would be electronic-free," Wilcox said as
she sat in a trailside diner for a lunch break. "My mother would have loved
it if I had one so I could write every day. She worries about me."

As Wilcox spoke, Helton composed and sent an e-mail from the remote Maine
woods to a hiker she knows in Nebraska.

Helton, who had just completed the Apppalachian Trail for the fifth time and
was on her way toward the Gaspe, guessed that 10 percent of the hikers carry
wireless e-mail devices such as hers. Wilcox think it's closer to 50 percent.

No one knows for sure because it's still new.

"It's definitely a very recent phenomenon," said Laurie Potteiger of the
Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., which manages the
Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail. "It's only been the last two or three
years since people routinely ask, 'Where can I check on my e-mail?'"

Many hikers check e-mail from their cell phones, and global positioning is an
option for hikers with Palm Pilots, said Steve Jones, a professor of
communications at the University of Chicago at Illinois.

But Charles Golvin, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, cautioned that
hikers should not substitute a cell phone or personal digital assistant for
proper planning before heading into the woods. Cellular companies have
invested heavily in their networks, but many sparsely populated areas still
don't have coverage.

"It would be a mistake for a through-hiker to simply grab his connected PDA
and assume he'll be able to arrange the next food drop whenever the mood
strikes," he said from his office in San Francisco.

Some hikers, like Suzanne Allen, who is hiking the 1,150-mile Pacific
Northwest Trail from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, keeps in
touch through her Web site, called Suz' Adventures.

On the IAT, one of the continent's only long-distance international trails
and one of the newest, hikers use the e-mail to keep in touch with the
trail's president and founder, Dick Anderson.

"Hikers are outspoken about trail conditions," Anderson said. "They not only
tell me, they tell each other."

Through e-mail, Anderson has gotten word of blowdowns and beaver dams that
block or flood the trail.