AT: NJ 94 Vernon to NY 17a. Belvale, NY

This past weekend Birch and I went backpacking so that we could finish the New Jersey portion of the Appalachian Trail. Getting to NJ 94 wasn’t easy. There were very few shuttle options from our drop off point to the trail head. For this reason, we had to settle for a taxi service with a late pick up time.

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As we waited for the taxi the wind began to blow and the flurries began to fly. This was not going to be a warm weekend! The first part of the trail is known as the “stairway to heaven”. It is a short (1.4 mile) but steep ascent up Wawayanda Mountain that is fortunate to have many sets of stairs that make the hike interesting. There were a ton of day hikers who went up to enjoy the beautiful views. We, however, had mileage to make!

Unfortunately, our late start and the early sunset made it impossible to get to Wawayanda Shelter as we had hoped. Instead, we filled up with water at a stream just south of Barrett Road, crossed Barrett Road, made our way into the woods, and resigned ourselves to setting up camp. The sun was low, so we only had time for a cup of coffee and a cold sandwich before hitting the sack.

In the morning, we quickly made our way past Wawayanda Shelter and through a beautiful wooded area. After lunch, we began our climb up to the ridge. This included several places where I had to scramble and one area that had a very cool ladder that took us up to the ridge and across Prospect Rock to the highest point on the AT in New York. Again, we saw some day hikers who had come up to the area from a side trail. Once on the ridge we came to the New Jersey – New York state line. Another state complete!

This section of the New Jersey/ New York AT was surprisingly challenging. Although there is very little change in elevation, the ridge requires lots of short climbs, up and down, over a series of rocks. This slowed us down considerably! Another challenge was that the leaves had recently fallen on the trail, making following the trail very difficult at times. Thank goodness for the great job that the New York New Jersey Trail Conference did with its blazes. It saved us!

Instead of making up time from the previous day, we resigned ourselves to stopping short of the next shelter.  Given our time constraints, we agreed to end our hike at New York 17a the next day.  Weather throughout our trip was cold. After a warm dinner we tucked ourselves in for the night and when we awoke our water bottles were frozen. However, we had plenty of warm weather clothing, sleeping bag liners, and other gear that made us able to enjoy the trip despite the cool temps. The last day we had a very short hike to make it to our destination. Once off the ridge, the hike was very easy. We look forward to coming back when the weather warms up a bit.

AT: High Point State Park to NJ-94

After spending the night in Vernon, Maple and I dropped off our car at the AT crossing on NJ-94 and were picked up by our shuttle driver. Once again, we relied upon George Lightcap, and it has been our pleasure to get acquainted with him.

The morning was foggy, and the High Point monument was almost entirely shielded from view. But, despite the clouds and the chill in the air, it was going to turn into a beautiful autumn day, ideal for backpacking.
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Once we passed High Point Shelter, we ran into two fellow section hikers, Waldo, her dog, and friend, Chad, who were traveling in the same direction.

Six miles into our hike, we stopped at a footbridge over a stream and topped off our water, just to make certain that we had enough to cook a hot lunch of ramen noodles. But, before having lunch, we decided to go a bit further.

And, then, we had a little accident. While traveling over the puncheons through Vernie Swamp, Maple slipped and went feet first into the swamp. Unfortunately, she also, then, lost her balance, and went down onto her hands and knees. Only her backpack stayed above the water and muck. In a panic, I stepped onto the same wet spot on the plank and slipped off into the swamp. I stayed upright on my feet, in eight inches of mud and muck, and with water up to my knees. We both managed to quickly get ourselves back onto the puncheons, but the damage was done. I must say, though, that Maple handled the event marvelously: no screaming, no whining, no moaning.  I even heard her say, “It’s all good.”
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Both of us had soaking wet boots, but Maple was thoroughly drenched and, on top of that, smelling worse than a thru-hiker. So, when we stopped to cook our lunch, she changed her clothes.

Our original plan was to stop in Unionville, NY, and set up camp in the town’s park, which has been made available for that purpose to AT hikers. However, upon arriving at Lott Rd., we decided to press on and try to get to Pochuck Mountain Shelter before nightfall.

There’s a half-mile stretch where the AT runs parallel to NJ-284, and then makes a left turn to cross the road. Maple and I both missed the left turn, and consequently had to walk through a bog several inches deep. We cleared the bog and pressed on for another hundred yards or so before realizing our mistake. Not wanting to retrace our steps through the bog, we bushwacked our way through some thorny bushes until we spotted a couple of hikers and knew we had found our way back to the trail.

Just across NJ-284 there is a steam. We filled our dromedary there, and I carried our water for the next six miles, including the mile-and-a-half through the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge. With the recent cold weather, most of the birds appear to have gone south, but Maple and I did see ducks and a crane.

We arrived at Pochuck Mountain Shelter just before nightfall, quickly set up our tent and made ourselves coffee. And then, after sunset, cooked our dinner. By the time we visited the shelter, it was too dark to see and Waldo and Chad had already retired for the night. It was time for Maple and I to retire, as well. We were exhausted.

It rained during the night, and the temperature dropped below freezing, so there was a layer of frost over everything when we awoke in the morning—twelve hours later. By 9:30 we were packed up and ready to get back on the trail.

The highlight of day two was definitely passing over the Pochuck Boardwalk, a remarkable accomplishment of engineering. It follows a circuitous route through Vernon Valley and, by means of a suspension bridge, crosses over Pochuck Creek. Beyond the boardwalk are more puncheons, eventually leading us to NJ-94 and the end of our trip.

AT: Culver Gap to High Point State Park

It is the last weekend in September and we were excited at the prospect of hiking in sunny weather! Our trusty shuttle driver, George, dropped us off at Culver Gap early in the morning and we were able to make quick progress from Culver Gap to the fire tower, about two miles away. The view from the top was basically non-existent, given that it was very foggy. But it was beautiful nonetheless.

This section of the AT is flat but rocky. The biggest challenge was not the trail itself, but the incredible amount of water that turned the AT into a swamp. There were places where  we had to navigate way around the trail in order to avoid moats. The first day we had the pleasure of seeing the Sunrise Mountain pavilion, an enormous stone structure with beautiful wood beams and breathtaking views.

The highlight of the hike was an amazing encounter with “Maps.” We first met Maps at Guyot Shelter in New Hampshire, the day that Birch had terrible knee pain. As we turned the corner on the New Jersey trail, we saw him sitting on a rock taking a break. “Hey, I know you guys,” he said! What were the chances of us meeting up with him again? Maps had completed the northern part of the trail and had flip flopped in Connecticut. We wished him well and hope he makes a ton of progress this Fall.

We stayed overnight at Mashipacong Shelter. Built in the 1930s by the Conservation Corps, the shelter itself is kind of dark and low to the ground. It had a nice lawn in front of it and it is here that we decided to set up our tent (not realizing that we probably could have gone into the woods for more private tenting options.) This shelter does not have a water source, so Birch carried 6 liters of water with him so that we would be set. However, the shelter caretaker supplied the shelter with gallons of water, set in the bear box. We enjoyed a restful afternoon at our tent spot, reading and drinking coffee. We were amused to see many dogs, in all shapes and sizes. Two stayed at the shelter, including “Millie” (or Mildred when she was in trouble), an affectionate boxer with a bright blue coat that kept her warm.9-30_0742

It was a chilly night but we slept well and were up and out of camp before 8 am. The remaining part of the trail was just as wet but it offered some beautiful views. The mile just south of the High Point State Park office was about as muddy as it gets. All in all, it was a great fun and we look forward to completing New Jersey soon!

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AT: Millwood/Blairstown Road to Culver’s Gap

Day One: Millwood/Blairstown Road to Brink Road Shelter

Once again, Maple and I enjoyed the shuttle service provided by George Lightcap of Newton, NJ. He picked us up promptly at 8:30 at Culver’s Gap and transported us, together with a fellow hiker, Glenn, to Millwood/Blairstown Road. After a couple weeks of rain, it was fortuitous to have a day of sunshine, with clouds—even though the humidity was rather high.

There were a couple of places requiring scrambling and hiking over a rock field, but overall, I’d say that the 10.9 mile hike to Brink Road Shelter was easier than the average AT hike. What made it more difficult for Maple was that one of her hiking poles broke during the first mile. It snapped in two where the sections joined together. We tried using duct tape, but that solution failed miserably.

I saw several salamanders and frogs on the trail during this trip—perhaps, because of all the rain we’ve had recently.

Just before leaving on this trip, I purchased a second Helinox Chair Zero—an excellent chair to bring backpacking, weighing only 1 pound each. I carried both, and Maple and I were able to enjoy a nice lunch break at a place that had no convenient rocks or logs to sit on.

Just before climbing Rattlesnake Mountain, we came to a nicely constructed bridge over a brook, compliments of the Boy Scouts. Rattlesnake Mountain was, I think, the most precipitous and rocky ascent that we had this day, but the view to the north from the top was certainly worth it. There we stopped and took a short break.

9-15_1725When we got to Brink Road Shelter, we found that the ground in front of it was under water. The water stretched out over the road, and most of the way toward the spring—so it was no simple task to make our way to the spring to fill up our dromedary. Once we got there, we found that our water filter would not pump. Ultimately, we decided to take our chances, and take our water directly from the source of the spring, without filtering.

Day Two: Brink Road Shelter to Culver’s Gap

We awoke in our tent on day two to the sound of light rainfall. This was not in the forecast. In fact, the weather report said there was no chance of rain in Newton, just ten miles to the south. Even so, the sprinkling was not bad, and Maple and I got out of our tent and enjoyed a cup of coffee and oatmeal for breakfast.

We didn’t get far on our second day’s journey, without noticing the saturation of the forest with spider webs. Webs crossed the trail, and we both had to use our trekking poles to clear the way before us.9-16_0936

After about an hour, we were out of the spider infested forest. Soon we had to make our steep descent from Kittatinny Mountain to Culver’s Gap.

We had fun, and look forward to continuing our journey in two weeks.

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Birch, with Culver Lake in the background.

AT: Delaware Water Gap to Millbrook-Blairstown Rd.

Last weekend Birch and I resumed our northbound progress on the Appalachian Trail. After so much time going south to complete Virginia, we were happy to be back in New Jersey.

We dropped our car off at a parking area on Millbrook-Blairstown Rd. and were shuttled to the Dunnfield parking area by a shuttle driver named George Lightcap. George was a wealth of information, super helpful, and very encouraging.

8-25_1131The trail starts near a stream and then winds up a gradual incline for about 3 miles before reaching the top of a cliff and the Campground #2 tentsite. There are a ton of tent spots here, many with impressive views of the the Worthington State Forest, the river, and the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border. The site includes bear boxes and a couple of privys.

Birch and I set up our tent under a tree and had the entire afternoon to relax.  Each of us brought our Nooks so that we could read and we even brought a luxury item – a camp chair! As you can tell, this wasn’t a heavy hiking day. This was a day to just enjoy the trail and the outdoors.

The next morning we broke camp and continued north on the AT. It was flat and not too rocky. Before long, we reached the south side of Sunfish Pond. It was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1970. The trail around the pond was very rocky but it was fun to be by the lake and to see the frogs jumping into the water as we approached. About halfway around the lake there are sets of really cool rock sculptures.8-26_0826

After leaving the lake we hiked onto Raccoon Ridge. Here, we came to the Herb Hiller Overlook for hawk observation. Two men had binoculars glued to their faces. What were they looking at? A broad-winged hawk, we were told. This area is an ideal spot to watch the migration of hawks, we learned. This will happen mostly in September. One neat thing about this area is that it has an owl decoy perched on a long pole. Why? Who knows!8-26_0947

About 11 miles into our overall hike we passed the road to the Mohican Outdoor Center where there is a beautiful stream. Then, we ascended up to a ridge where we stopped for lunch and had some incredible views. After a few miles we reached the Catfish Outlook Tower. Here, the trail becomes more like a fire road. It wasn’t long before we were back to our car.

 

AT: Harpers Ferry to Gathland State Park

It has been a very wet spring and summer in Maryland! Birch and I decided we couldn’t wait for nice weather to hit the trail so we planned a short hike from Harpers Ferry to Gathland State Park. We had done this hike before, only in the opposite direction.

Just as we got to the Harpers Ferry parking lot it began to rain. It was a gentle mist but we were ready with our full rain gear. As we crossed the bridge next to the railroad tracks, it was interesting to see just how fast the river was flowing. The heavy rainfall this spring definitely shows itself in the water below.

Before long we were on the smooth, wide C&O canal path that is also the AT. It was a very easy hike for the first couple of miles but the rain didn’t make it easy. It POURED! We heard thunder in the distance but never worried that it was dangerous. The real challenge was navigating all the huge puddles that formed. We zig-zagged along until we got to the point where we crossed the railroad tracks and began ascending the mountain.

I remembered this section of the trail as being very steep. I was really glad to see that our latest workouts seem to be paying off because Birch and I never even had to stop to catch our breath. We just scurried up the hill! Once on “top” we still had to contend with areas of puddles but it didn’t take long before we were at the Ed Garvey shelter – the only ones there!

Before long, folks started gathering at the shelter. By the end of the evening, there were probably 40 people staying either in the shelter or in a their tents or hammocks. Wow! I think we’re in the “bubble”.  We met many nice people, including Pac Man, a thru-hiker. When I mentioned to someone that we were going to have to go without coffee because we didn’t pack it, a nice young man immediately dug through his 55 pound pack and offered us some of his. (Not surprisingly, at 55 pounds he had a lot of extra stuff!) For dinner, we had kung pao chicken. (I was testing my recipes for our next long hiking trip.)

 

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Our tent, among a sea of others!

 

One feature of this location that is a real bummer is the water access. The guides put the spring at .4 or .5 miles away from the shelter. This is true. The tough part is that it is a very steep trek down to the water source. Many people decided that it was easier to wait until they got to Gathland than to load up with water here. The water source was really good, though.

The next day we packed up and quickly traversed the 4 miles back to our car at Gathland State Park. I really like this part of the AT. It may not be super strenuous, but it provides an excellent opportunity to get outside.

AT: Elk Garden (VA 600) to Damascus, VA

Day One: Elk Garden to Lost Mountain Shelter

2-10_1030Birch and I were shuttled to Elk Garden this morning, starting a three day backpack trip to Damascus. Throughout the week, the weather forecasts were dismal. Tons of rain! Thus, we were pleased to be able to start our ascent up White Mountain in dry weather. The trail leading up to White Mountain was very icy and – in some places – covered with snow. The crampons that we left in the car would have come in handy. Once on the top of the mountain we were quite pleased with ourselves because we assumed we had experienced the worst of the weather. Then….the wind! The area near Buzzard Rock was exposed to the elements and practically blew us over.

As we began the 200+ ft. descent we found the south side of the mountain to be warm and gorgeous. There were a few showers here and there but it wasn’t a challenge. The last mile before the shelter was not difficult but we have not hiked in 3 months so my body was complaining all the way.

Lost Mountain Shelter is huge. The water supply was great. It had a big overhang which sheltered us as the rain finally came.

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Lost Mountain Shelter

Day Two: Lost Mountain Shelter to Saunders Shelter

Wow! It poured last night! By morning it was drizzling. Birch and I made quick work of the first part of the trail but, once again, I complained about all the ascents. At times it was pouring but it was fairly warm out (for February) and we were sweating in no time. I’m not sure if the inside or the outside of my rain gear was more wet!

Saunders Shelter is 1/4 mile off the trail. It is not as big as Lost Mountain but well built, with a nice large overhang to protect us from the rain. By late afternoon it stopped raining and we slowly dried out. But it took a while! By the way, we have not seen a single person on the trail so far.  I guess the weather isn’t for everyone.

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View from Saunders Shelter

Day Three: Saunders Shelter to Damascus, VA

By our third day, it was drizzling just enough to convince us to wear our rain gear. Fortunately, we really didn’t need it. it was a cloudy and foggy day but relatively dry. A two mile, 1000 ft descent brought us near Whitetop Laurel Creek and the Creeper Trail, a nice bike trail that paralleled much of AT in the area. This is a beautiful area worthy of a day hike. The creek is beautiful.

We were told that a brand new bridge opened near the Rt 58 crossing and so we were excited to be one of the first to use it. After crossing it and Rt 58 we were surprised to find a swollen creek that had water running well above the rocks. We were disappointed to realize that we were going to have to remove our boots, take off our rain pants, and hike up our pants in the cold weather. Birch crossed then realized that his boots were still on the other side. Thus, he had the joy of crossing three times.

We hiked up to Cuckoo Knob (about 700ft in 2.5 miles) then came down into Damascus. The Creeper Trail, the AT and Rt 58 all merged together for the last leg of our journey. How sweet it is, after 550+ miles in Virginia, to walk into the ultimate hiker town and the southern most part of Virginia!

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AT: VA-16 to VA-650

October is a beautiful month for hiking. Birch and I met up with Sabrina from Eller Taxi Service early Saturday morning.  Sabrina is friendly and knowledgeable. She helped us to drop off our car at our destination (that had a very nice parking lot) and take us to Mt. Rogers Visitors Center for our start.

IMG_0440Birch and I breezed through the first four miles. The trail is level and easy. We stopped for a snack at VA-601 and continued on.  Both of us carried extra water. This area has been pretty dry and we were worried that the spring at Trimpi Shelter would be dry. There were promising signs along the way, however. A stream listed as “intermittent” in AWOL was running just fine.

About 3 miles before Trimpi Shelter we walked across a field. By now, the day had warmed up and Birch and I were soaked with sweat! Luckily, it was only another mile to the shelter. Up we climbed until we reached the turn off to Trimpi.

Trimpi is a solid stone shelter with a fireplace. We set up our tent and ended up having the place all to ourselves.  Although the day had started off cool, there was no need to make a fire so the beautiful shelter went unused.  One of the best things? The spring was running (yay!) so we didn’t need to worry about water. We relaxed, read (using our Nooks), drank coffee, and enjoyed watching the falling leaves.

The next day, we had a 4 mile hike back to our car. The first 2.5 of it was a steep 1,000+ ascent. It was a perfect day, with cool weather, a nice breeze, and plenty of sun. The leaves were dropping like crazy so I don’t expect us to see these beautiful colors again for another year.

 

 

 

 

Cascade Canyon to South and North Forks, Grand Teton National Park

Birch and I woke up early on July 22 so that we would be on one of the first boats to cross Jenny Lake. This crossing was the best way to get to the Cascade Canyon trailhead and it had the added bonus of providng us with a beautiful view.

Cascade Canyon is one of the more popular day hikes in the park, but few people make it much past inspiration point, a spot that affords a nice view of Jenny Lake. We were on the trail by 8:15 am so it wasn’t crowded. The first mile or so was very steep, with a 1000 ft. ascent through a canopy of pines. The trail was wide and easy to navigate. Several times we had the chance to look down at Jenny Lake and we took our time going up the trail, stopping at spots to enjoy the cascading water and the river that roars through the canyon.

At the Jenny Lake boat dock.

I must say, Birch and I have finally found our trail legs. We are now used to the elevation and to carrying heavier packs. This made the ascent pretty easy and it wasn’t long before we were on a fairly flat trail. At one point we ran into a Park Ranger who warned us about the Marmots. Apparently, they like chewing trekking pole handles, backpack straps, and other things that taste salty.

At around 4.5 miles we reached the fork in the trail. We turned south to go on the “South Fork”. Finally, we were on the Teton Crest Trail! We began a steep incline and crossed several rapids/rivers. Luckily, the trail was in good shape. There was no snow and it was dry.

Immediately upon entering the camping zone we saw a great camp site. Without hesitation,we took it! We had amazing views of several peaks, including Grand Teton itself. The site was on a river that lived up to the “Cascade Canyon” name. As we looked out our tent, we could see a waterfall on one side, and the mountains on the other. We arrived pretty early (around 11:30 am) so there was plenty of time to relax.

At about 5 pm, a hiker named John and two of his friends joined us in camp. They had been on the trail many more days than us and John was carrying quite a load, including 40 ft. in rope, an ice axe and about 30 pounds of camera equipment. He told us that the rest of the South Fork was not to be missed. So, after dinner, Birch and I took a long hike (sans backpack!) up the trail. We took water and bear spray and went as far as we could while still being able to get back to camp before dark. The side trip was well worth it because we saw an enormous water fall that must have dropped thousands of feet down the side of a mountain.

Sunday morning was chilly! We had coffee and breakfast, then packed up and descended the South Fork until we came to the North Fork. This trail had many open expanses that enabled us to see for miles. The views were breath-taking! The trail is well maintained with stairs in many spots. Before long we encountered bolder fields. Then we saw snow! The snow was mostly off the trail until we got to within a mile of Lake Solitude. The last few yards up to the lake were snowy and icy.

We arrived at the lake just in time for lunch. What an amazing sight, to see so much snow and ice in July! The trail is not well marked so I can see why the park rangers were cautious about people backpacking in this area. Lake Solitude is at 9100 ft. in elevation and we would have had to go another 1300 ft or so in elevation to cross a pass under difficult conditions.

Fortunately, our plan was to camp on North Fork. We went back down the trail and found a spectacular site about halfway down the mountain. The camp had a nice stream for water. However, the best thing about it was that it had a large boulder/ledge with a fallen tree for seating. This had a view that was jaw-dropping. And we had it all to ourselves! Birch made coffee and be basked in the sun while enjoying our surroundings.Late that night we woke up to star gaze. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a night sky!

The view from our campsite.

The next morning was bitter sweet. This would be our last day on the mountain. As we descended, I took time to take enjoy my surroundings. Before long we were at the fork that brought us to the Cascade Canyon trail. The farther we descended, the more day hikers we saw. We were back at the boat before lunchtime. It was done all too soon!

AT: VA-606 to VA-52

Birch and I were eager to get back on the trail this Fourth of July weekend. We drove down from our home in Maryland – a 5 hour drive! Bubba shuttled us to our starting point at VA-606 and we were on the trail by 12:30 pm. This might be one of our latest starts but we had a very short 6+ mile hike to the shelter.

The hike began near Kimberling Creek, where we crossed a wobbly suspension bridge. At the other end we met a couple of backpackers who were hiking north. They were able to assure us that water was flowing at Jenny Knob Shelter. At this time of year you never know, so it was great news.

It was a hot, sticky day and it felt like we were in a rain forest. The trail winds around ravines and slowing ascends up to a ridge and Brushy Mountain. We hiked beside a stream that is listed as “unreliable” in the AWOL guide and that was a pretty good description. It was barely flowing.

Jenny Knob Shelter

It wasn’t long before we reached the shelter. We were a little surprised to find that we had it all to ourselves. Before long “Wolfgang”, a long section hiker from Germany, joined us. Wolfgang planned to hike from Georgia to New Jersey. He was about our age and was very philosophical about what hiking the trail really meant to him. We enjoyed his company.

By 7:30 am the next day we had completed breakfast, packed our tent, and were on the trail. Although the guide books make the hike look pretty flat it certainly didn’t feel that way. We seemed to be doing a lot more “up” than “down”! The ridge line was beautiful. As we approached Helveys Mill Shelter the woods switched from oaks and birch to pines. There were beautiful blooming rhododendrons too. The trail itself was very smooth and it was a pleasure to be able to look ahead and not have to watch our feet.

The only thing missing was…people. What a difference it makes to be out of the thru hiker bubble! Several miles into our hike a woman named “Maps” approached us going north and remarked that we were the only people she had seen all day. Likewise! “Maps” is a section hiker who has completed a lot of the trail. She was really impressive.

Once we got to Helveys Mill Shelter we had a choice. We could walk down to the shelter to camp and hike out the next day, or continue on another 2.2 miles to our car. It was just after noon and the shelter itself is .3 miles off the trail so the choice was easy. We continued on. After a quick descent we arrived at VA-612. We were really perplexed at our next move. Signage here is really needed! We walked about .8 miles along VA-612 until we came to our car at US-52, near Bland, VA. The big news is that we now have over 700 miles completed on the AT! Our next backpacking adventure will be very different. Look for our next blog to learn more! 🙂