Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 2: The Hike Continues

The official hike ended at Port Mayaca the previous day, but I hiked a couple of miles further to set up camp away from the trailhead. Trailheads tend to be where undesireable weirdos hang out late into the night, and I'd just as soon be off by myself.

I set up camp on the lake side of the dike so the traffic noise on the other side was more muffled and so that people in the buildings there couldn't watch me pee when it was neccessary for me to do my thing. And anyhow, the lake was pretty.

I spent the night watching the stars. Absolutely beautiful. There were some lights visible on the horizon from towns along the lake like Clewiston and Okeechobee, but it was still plenty dark and the Milky Way wonderfully bright. Two bright planets--Venus and Jupiter, I assume, were up just over where the sun set.

The next morning, the other Big-O hikers planned to wake up at an unholy hour to be at the trailhead by 6:30. Yes, in the morning! I know!

Fools. Not me. No, I figured if they started hiking at 6:30, the first hikers wouldn't reach my location until 7:00 or so, and that would be a much better time to hike.

I woke up, and checked my watch. It was 5:15. Those other fools were probably eating breakfast by then, but I would get to sleep for another hour or more. HA!

I woke up again, and a few hikers were going past. Holy cow! How did that happen? I checked my watch--that's odd, I thought. It was still 5:15. And getting remarkably light outside for such an early hour.

Drats, my watch stopped. I immediately got up, made some breakfast, brushed my teeth, and packed up camp--all while being observed by a parade of hikers who would wave down to me. =)

When I finished and was ready to hike, the last of the hikers had arrived, and I fell in with them.

The day was nice. Partly cloudy, windy at times, but nothing particularly noteworthy to report.

After 13 miles, the day's hike was over. Several people by now were suffering badly from blisters, and I encouraged people to name them but I don't think anyone did. My feet, I'm happy to report, are doing just fine, but flat hikes of 11 and 13 miles respectively are relatively easy for me.

At the parking lot, I filled up with clean water that other hikers had so I didn't have to drink the nasty surface water of Lake Okeechobee. I had my purifyer to drink the water if necessary, but I'd rather not if I didn't have to!

Another hiker, whose name I now forget, offered cold orange juice from the cooler in her car and a couple of small packs and M&Ms. Woo-who! Trail magic!

Then I walked a couple of more miles up the dike and set up camp again--another beautiful lakeside view!--near mile post 52.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 1: The Hike Begins

Amanda and I woke up early, ready to head off to the small town of Pahokee for the start of the annual Big-O hike around Lake Okeechobee, one of the largest lakes in the United States.

The hike started at 8:00 in the morning, and we followed a some hastily erected signs to the marina where dozens of people with Florida Trail gear were already milling around.

The two of us registered, myself for the entire hike, and Amanda for the 'wimp walk,' a three or four mile section that they would provide shuttles back to Pahokee.

At eight, not necessarily eight sharp since Paul (the guy who officially started the hike) asked me what time *I* had, and my watch was still on Pacific time from BEFORE the time change--the hike started. A mass of a hundred people or so started off.

Amanda and I headed back to the car so I could pick up my backpack. I planned to camp for free on the dike much of the time and needed backpacking gear.

The wimp walk went well enough. The temperature started off chilly--especially so with the wind chill--but not bad and it warmed up quickly as soon as we started hiking.

At the end of the wimp walk, Amanda had her photo taken with all the other wimp walkers--at least those who had made it that far so far--by a local reporter. Look for her in the paper soon! =)

Amanda got on the first shuttle back to Pahokee, and I continued my hike.

I can't say it was particularly thrilling or exciting. The walk was flat and easy. The weather windy, but sunny. I met several other hikers along the way who I chatted with.

The most noteworthy was Cliff, 91 years old and planning to hike completely around the lake. Born during the Woodrow Wilson administration. He doesn't remember Woodrow at all--he was too young for that--but he did tell me he remembers when Herbert Hoover was president.

This man has been around for a long time! He seemed remarkably spry for a 91 year old. Looking at him, I'd have guessed he was 20 years younger.

He served in the Navy during WWII--was even stationed at Pearl Harbor, but he was in California when that was bombed. His wife was there at the time, though. His war years were spent in the Pacific on submarines.

He already holds the record as being the oldest person to hike around Okeechobee--he did it last year at the young age of 90. He didn't walk fast, but he wasn't last either!

At the end of the day, everyone else took off. Some went to Pahokee to get their cars and go home. Others were shuttled to the KOA in the city of Okeechobee where most people who planned to do the whole hike were staying.

I, however, hiked out a couple of more miles and camped on the dike. It was free, and the views over the lake were wonderful! I made burritos for dinner, and watched the sun set as alligators swam around in the lake. Probably waiting for me to go to sleep, I thought.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Florida--the home away from home?

Somehow, I'm in Florida again. I'm not exactly sure how it happened, and you'd have thought I learned my lesson from my thru-hike earlier this year, but once again I'm in Florida, and I'll be hiking.

This particular hike is a mere 110-mile walk around Lake Okeechobee. I did the western half of it during my thru-hike earlier this year, but this time I'm sticking around to hike around the whole thing.

I expect to get online occasionally during this time--I pass through quite a number of trail towns along the way with libraries, for instance! I can check my AQ mail through my PocketMail device at any public pay phone I happen across. So I won't be completely out of touch--my my Internet access will be limited and if you need something or have a question, you may not get an answer from me until December.

I'll officially start the hike Saturday morning--I'm in the Tampa area right now, getting ready at the moment. Those important last minute details, like making a new stove because I forgot to back my old one, accidentally burning off Amanda's step-mom's cat's eyebrows, and the usual pre-hike antics. The hike officially ends on November 30th, though it might take a few days before I make it back to Seattle and any return to normalness.

Hope you all have a great Thanksgiving! And keep Wassa from getting into too much trouble. I'd still like to recognize the site when I come back. ;o)

Happy trails!

-- Ryan

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tips for Listing Boxes

One thing I try to do for Atlas Quest is to keep box listings as up-to-date as possible. It's not as easy as you might think, and a large part of that is simply because the people who list them don't always seem to be sure what they're doing. Which could be partly my fault for not explaining things better, or maybe it's due to sheer laziness of the person listing the boxes, or maybe because the person listing the box is more interested in their own logbook than making things easy for people who want to find their boxes.

So I'm going to explain some of my thoughts on the subject. When Atlas Quest first went live, my big idea was to build a better search. I don't mean to knock LbNA about this--every website has its strengths and weaknesses, including Atlas Quest--and one of the more frustrating things for me on LbNA were searches. I had to search multiple regions across two different states to see all the boxes within a half-hour drive of where I lived. When I traveled to other locations, I rarely knew what county I was in. And even when I knew what region to look under, there would often be a list of lots of boxes, some of which I already found and had no interest in finding again, in no useful order. So one of my goals was a way to cut through the clutter and allow me to search for boxes that I actually want to find. Everything else was irrelevant.

I created all sorts of useful search options. Filter the results based on attributes, length of hikes, ordered based on how close a box was to the town where I was in. A way for people to mark boxes as retired or missing (why would I want to look for those?). A way to exclude boxes that I'd already found or planted.

It worked pretty well, too. As time goes on, however, and boxes are abandoned or listed improperly, the search results get progressively less useful. I hope the "abandoned" status I created earlier in the week helps out in that regard. A lot of boxes known or suspected of being gone were still listed as active, and they aren't anymore! Hurray! But the listings are still there and accessible for those who want to find them anyhow.

A surprising number of people fail to update the status of their boxes at all. I can't count the number of boxes where someone write in the clue that the box is "confirmed missing." Or they'll write that the box is missing in the title of the box. Or something they'll write in the first aid section that the box is missing or retired. The problem with any of those 'solutions' however, is that the box is still listed as active and shows up when people try to search for active boxes. I've changed the status of hundreds of boxes whenever I see something like this.

Please update the actual status of the box rather than find a box to write it in whenever the status changes. The status can be used for custom searches--writing it in the title, clue, or first aid box does not.

I made the status as easy to update as I could--whenever you view the box details page of one of your boxes, the status is a drop-down menu. Click on the status you want to change, then click on the value you want to change it to.

I've seriously considered setting things up to automatically set the status of any box with the words missing, retired, and MIA in the title of the box to retired because nine times out of ten, those words have absolutely nothing to do with the actual name of the box. It's the status, but the owner failed to update the actual status of the box. I might still do that at some point, but I haven't yet. The more such abuse takes place, however, the more likely I will implement such tweaks.

More recently, the Rise of the Event Boxes has been a growing problem. There are a lot of boxes out there that, when you open up the clue, say something like, "This box will only be available at the XYZ event." The problem, however, is that the event happened months before and the status is still listed as active, and based on the clue, it sounds more like an event stamp.

Honestly, I'd just as soon as these boxes never get listed on Atlas Quest, and if they do, to have them listed as event stamps. I don't care if they were actually planted in the wild and had "real" clues that were distributed at the event, and I'll tell you why. =) If the clues will only be available to people at the gathering, they don't need an online listing to tell them that there are clues there.

"But this way, people can record the find!" I've heard it before, and I don't put much stock in that excuse either. Those who are premium members would have been able to record the find anyhow, and those that aren't will always have logbooks that are less than accurate anyhow. But when the boxes get listed, two things invariably happen: The box seems to get into a permanent active state, even though the event happened months before, and it clutters up the search results when people try to search for boxes they actually want to find.

So my favorite solution is just not to list them at all. For those of you that are addicted to listing boxes, however, show some consideration for others on Atlas Quest. Mark the box as retired once the event is over. Don't even list the box until the last possible moment before the event begins. There are no bonus points for listing an event-only box months before the event takes place. Do NOT include a clue with the listing. No clue at all. Searches for traditional boxes, by default, will only include boxes that have clues. So by leaving a clue off for a box where clues are not publicly available, you help people avoid cluttering up their search results with boxes they can't find.

And finally, consider listing the box as an "event stamp"--even if it's not THE official event stamp, and even if the box has real clues. I've been thinking about renaming that category to "event BOX"--to include anything that's planted specifically for an event regardless of whether or not it has clues, is "hidden" on a table in plain view, or is out in the woods. If it's supposed to last just for the duration of an event, let people know it by marking it as an event box.

Premium members, if they really want to make sure their F-counts are correct, can still record the find as an unlisted box. Non-premium members--well, they're F-counts aren't going to be very accurate anyhow, so what does it matter? =)

But it can make an enormous difference in helping people with cleaner, more useful searches.

In any case, do be careful about how you choose to list "event boxes." If I see a clue that makes your box sound like an event stamp, I will change the type to an event stamp. If you must list such a box as a traditional box, wait until the last minute to list it, retire it as soon as the event is over, and don't put a clue at all--especially one that just says, "This box will only be available at such-and-such event" or that it will be available at said event and "replanted later." To my ears, that sounds like an event stamp and I'll change it to reflect the fact. If it's "replanted later" (often said more often than it's actually done), it sounds like an event stamp that was later turned into a traditional box, so there should be a listing for an event stamp (for those who found when it was an event stamp) and a traditional listing (for those who found it in that context).

So to make a long story short, when you list a box, consider how it'll affect other people's searches. A search that doesn't work well because it's full of incorrect or misleading information is in nobody's best interest.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Talk of the Town

Wow, today was an exciting, fun-filled day to be in my little hometown of San Luis Obispo. =) I'm out here visiting my mom, and this morning we smelled smoke. It was probably a little before 8:30 this morning, and we walked into the backyard and it looked like the whole mountain ridge nearby was on fire!

So I did what everyone else in town did--I went out to watch.

I took this photo from the corner of Johnson Avenue and Laurel Lane. It seemed to be the closest place I could get to the fire, but it wasn't actually a good place to watch it because the smoke was blowing directly toward where I was standing obscuring things. I took this when a short gust blew most of the smoke away, but while waiting to see something, I did see countless police vehicles charging up the road and evacuating residents. Also saw two flatbed trailers with bulldozers being moved into position, an ambulance (just in case, I assume, since as far as I know, nobody was actually injured), a phone company truck, a cable company truck, and fire trucks from Atascadero, Arroyo Grande, and Pismo Beach. And another truck loaded with road blocks which they started erecting to block people from entering the streets. And finally, an airplane flying around in circles dropping fire retardant on the fire.

I have to say, I found it amazing how quickly all these resources came together. The fire had only been burning for all of about a half hour. Given the far more serious fires south in Santa Barabara last night, I wouldn't have been surprised if the planes and extra fire trucks from the area had already gone south to help out there. But I guess they still had plenty of resources for our own little fire.

But like I said, the close-up view I couldn't see much because there was just too much smoke around, so I changed tactics and backed off. I walked out to Terrace Hill for the "big picture." This photo was taken perhaps an hour or so after the fire had started. Maybe a little more.

This ridge, so far as I know, has no official name to it. I've never seen it named on any map, and nobody I've ever talked to in the last 30 years has ever known a name for it, so I've always called it Reservoir Ridge. The reason for this is because just behind the ridge is Reservoir Canyon, and so it seemed reasonable to call the ridge Reservoir Ridge--and it just flows off the tongue so easily. Perhaps if I tell enough people, it'll stick. Someday. =)

Now you're probably thinking, what the heck does any of this have to do with letterboxing? Well, I could have posted this on my Walking SLO blog, but not many people read that. But so this post isn't completely irrelevent, I'm going to point out a letterbox in this photo. See that red arrow? It's pointing to a tiny, almost invisible pile of rocks in this photos, which is the landmark for my Sacrifice at Reservoir Ridge letterbox. After I planted the box, I hiked down a road/trail along that line of trees to the left of the fire. I am also happy to report that the letterbox survived the fire unscathed if you choose to still look for it. =)

Now the absolute coolest thing to see was planes dropping the fire retardant on the fire. I've seen it on the news, I've seen it in pictures, but this was the first time I've actually witnessed it LIVE and IN PERSON! And it's really cool to watch!

I had my puny little digital camera with me, and the pictures aren't great, but there you go. I took this photo just a split second too soon--that red absolutely explodes into color, but my trigger finger was just too fast.

The other problem with my digital camera--it can't take two consecutive photos one right after the other very quickly. This is the same plane dropping the same load of fire retardant as the last photo, only a second or two later, but by then, it was already too late. The load has already been dropped and isn't very visible anymore. I saw several other drops but missed getting photos completely. In fact, they're hard to get photos of because they do several "fly-bys" before actually dropping the fire retardant, probably to make sure they're lined up correctly. Practice runs, if you will. So we'd watch another fly-by wondering, "Is this when he'll drop the fire retardant?" Sometimes yes, sometimes no. *shrug*

After dropping the fire retardant, the plane flew about 100 feet over Terrace Hill, and I took this photo. Notice the underside of the plane is red? I guess they have to wash the planes after each use. I can't imagine they leave the fire retardant just sticking to the plane like that once it's done for the day.

Small, orange dots on the ground then would move into the area where the fire retardant was dropped. They were firefighters, the infantry for the war against fire. The orange dots were all over the mountain, although they're way too small to see in any of the photos I took.

So that's what I did this morning. About two hours after the fire had started, it seemed pretty clear that the fire was getting under control. I walked back to my mom's house. The power had been restored. (The power was out when we woke up this morning--completely unrelated to the fire, I might add.) So I logged onto the local news website to see if I could get any additional details about the fire. It said 200 firefighters were sent in to fight the fire, which burned about 100 acres. No structures burned and no injuries reported.

By the time I went out for lunch, I could no longer see anything burning and no smoke was coming off the ridge, although the orange dots could be seen moving around all over the burned area. Strangely, although at this point the fire looked pretty contained to me, the news reporters said "full containment" wasn't expected until about 8:00 this evening (still an hour away!), and the fire wasn't expected to be "completely" out until 10:00 tomorrow night. (That doesn't surprise me--wildfires can burn and smolder for days--I learned that quickly while hiking through Florida!) They started letting people back in their homes hours ago.

And now, we have a black hill to look at for the next several years as a reminder of today. =)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ugly Side of Letterboxing

It's sad, but true. People stop letterboxing. I can't explain why, and I'm sure they'll have all sorts of reasons, but some people up and quit. Or at least stop using Atlas Quest. And that's a problem if they've left a bunch of letterboxing listings on the site. What to do with them? Leaving abandoned listings on a website is as much litter on the website as abandoned boxes in the woods.

So I worked up a solution where boxes that appear to be abandoned can be adopted. It's not a perfect solution, but it was better than nothing and seemed reasonably fair. Asking someone to log in once per year to keep their box listings up-to-date didn't seem like a particularly unreasonable request, and AQ would attempt to contact the person through their registered e-mail address to let them know what was about to happen and how to stop it, and gave them a system to take back control of their boxes at any time if they so chose.

The rest of you might not know it, but occasionally, I would get the irate e-mail from someone complaining about my putting up their boxes for adoption without permission, even chewing me out when they actually got my notifications in time to stop the whole adoption process. I tell you, I was half tempted not to even try notifying people about the adoption process if they're going to chew me out for notifying them what was about to happen and how to stop it if they so choose. *rolling eyes*

But all-in-all, the notifications weren't particularly effective anyhow, since most of the e-mails ended up bouncing leaving me with no other way to contact the owners and I suspect many of those that don't bounce end up in spam folders and never get read. There's probably a bunch of people who's boxes are up for adoption now that would be irate if they actually logged in and found out. Hey, I tried to tell them. *shrug*

Anyhow.... I got to thinking about the problem and hit on a completely different solution that in the long run, I think would be much more effective. As of this evening, the Letterboxing Orphanage is officially closed.

This is how abandoned listings are handled now:

First, if the registered owner has not logged in within the past year, Atlas Quest will attempt to change the ownership to the planter, author, carver, and lister--in that order--until it finds someone associated with the box who can own it and has logged in without the past year.

Then, if nobody associated with the box has logged in within the past year, Atlas Quest will change the status of the box to "abandoned" if the status was active or unknown. Boxes that are already marked as unavailable or retired will stay that way. Only the AQ system can change the status of a box to "abandoned," and it's done automatically each night.

The abandoned status is a lot like the "unknown" status--the box might be there, it might not. It's hard to tell since everyone associated with the box hasn't logged into their account for over one year and therefore aren't keeping their listings current. If you like a challenge, an abandoned box might be just the thing you want to hunt for. =) And, if fact, if you check the Advanced Search page, you'll see that you can now include (or exclude) boxes that are marked as abandoned.

And that's it in a nutshell. If the owner of the box does later log into Atlas Quest, they can update the status to the appropriate value.

Besides the fact that (I hope) I get fewer pieces of hate mail for daring to consider allowing someone else to adopt their box, I'm also hoping to discourage people from keeping old boxes alive past their prime. It seems that a lot of letterboxers have a strong tendency to never let a box die. I know the feeling, I felt that way in my early years of letterboxing too. It's a wonderful box, you want it to last forever, you feel like the person who planted it would want to thank you for your help. There still are a couple of boxes that I think are historical enough to keep alive--the first box in each state, for instance--but letterboxes are not meant to last forever.

The whole adoption process actually encouraged people to make letterboxes last forever, but in hindsight, I think that's a mistake. As boxes go missing, let them die. Retire them. Open up space for new boxes, new people, and new ideas. You can only find a box once, and if everyone in an area has already found it, it's not doing anyone any good. When it goes missing or is destroyed, replace it with something completely new and give those same people a new reason to visit the area. Give yourself the opportunity to create something even bigger and better. Use your time to create something new for everyone instead of maintaining something old for no one.

So there you have it. The Letterboxing Adoption Agency has closed its doors. And hopefully, this new system will still help insure that the search results aren't cluttered up with abandoned (but often missing) boxes. Not unless you want it to, that is. =)