The first days on the Appalachian Trail put me through the ringer. I hoped the struggle would be worth it in the end! Before we get started, check out my pre-hike video:
JOURNEY TO THE TRAIL
Before I could hit the trail, I had to drive from Wisconsin to the trailhead in Georgia. I hopped in the car with my buddy, Michael, who would be hiking the first two weeks with me. Before Georgia, we stopped in Asheville, NC, to stay with my friend Lindsey for two nights. Lindsey hiked the Grand Canyon with me and Michael just three months prior and it was this hike that inspired me to hike the AT. Lindsey graciously hosted the two of us as we made our final preparations.
Lindsey, Michael, and I left Asheville at 7am and headed down to Georgia. Michael insisted we stop at Waffle House for breakfast…a must when you’re in the south. As we drove, the cloudy skies turned to a drizzle. Quite the omen, haha. What am I getting myself into? We made it to Amicalola Falls State Park by 11am. Inside the visitor center there were other prospective thru-hikers talking with a ranger who was explaining to them the trials and dangers ahead. Michael and I avoided this conversation and waited for them to leave. This is what happens when you put two introverts together! Once the other hikers left, we approached the ranger who had us sign the hiker register. I was given an orange plastic tag that could be clipped onto my pack. The tag had the AT logo on it and the year 2018. It was official…I’m doing this!
After spending some time in the visitor center we weighed our packs. With food and water, and after I added a few extra clothes, I was happy my pack weighed in at 35lbs. Michael’s was similar in weight. In the pouring rain we said a wet, heartfelt goodbye to Lindsey.Just before noon we set off through the stone archway that marks the beginning of the approach trail. The Appalachian Trail actually starts at the top of Springer Mountain, 8.8 miles from the visitor center and 1,980 feet higher. Needless to say, it was quite the climb. The approach trail passes the beautiful Amicalola Falls which cascaded down in front of us. Afterwards, the trail became quite tedious, descending and ascending the hills as we slowly trudged through the mud and rain. Michael discovered rather quickly that his waterproof boots were no longer as advertised. He would describe the hike as miserable.Along the way we met Garret, a thru-hiker who had never backpacked before. His friend Dylan was hiking this first week with him to help him get adjusted. I’m not sure if I will see them again. (We didn’t)
Eventually we reached the summit. The view was a spectacular display of fog and leafless trees. We paused briefly for photos before setting foot on the actual Appalachian Trail. My fatigue coupled with the unending rain put a damper on any excitement.
A third of a mile on the actual AT we came to the turn-off for the Springer Mountain Shelter. Scattered across the trail every 5-10 miles or so are lean-to shelters for hikers. They usually sleep 8-14 people or so. I checked my guidebook and the next shelter was 2.5 miles farther. Though we had already hiked 9 miles, only 0.3 were on the AT. That didn’t sound like a very respectable number for the first day so I insisted we push onward.
Sometime after 5pm we reached the Stover Creek Shelter. It was pretty full with a dozen hikers but there was space for two more. It was getting dark and quite a hassle to get unpacked and situated. We were soaking wet, trying not to drip on anyone’s stuff while we dug through our packs for the first time. I made a meal from a dehydrated dinner pack—some sort of breakfast skillet (it was the first thing I grabbed out of my pack).
With 14 of us squeezed into the shelter, it had quite the communal feel. A lot of hikers had arrived much earlier and had gotten to know one another. Michael and I, the introverts having arrived just before dark, were too tired to play catch-up. By 7pm, with the sun down, there wasn’t much else anyone could do in the dark so we all went to sleep.
Day’s Mileage: 2.8 (plus 8.8 mile approach trail)
Total Miles Hiked: 2.8
PRemaining Miles: 2,187.2
Having been in my sleeping bag for over 10 hours, I was awake at 6am. It was still dark outside and the shelter quiet. By 7am, someone must have gotten up and started stirring because soon everyone was up and packing. Michael and I hit the trail by 8am after filtering some water nearby. Some of our clothes were still wet but it wasn’t raining so it felt like a better day already.
The trail was relatively flat to start and passed through a jungle of rhododendrons and pine forests before turning to oaks. Our first obstacle was a steep climb up Hawk Mountain. Near the top we paused to catch our breath.
It was Day 2 and I already had a small blister on the back of my heel, my hip bones were in pain from my wet clothes rubbing between my skin and the hip belt on my pack, and my knee was acting up a bit on downhill sections. I knew this journey would come with obstacles, I just didn’t expect them so soon. The previous day’s rain was irritating enough. My knee had started acting up on my backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon this last December. I’d been going to physical therapy ever since to prepare for this hike. I was feeling a little disheartened and made a stronger effort to use my trekking poles to keep the weight off my knees.
We stopped to eat lunch at the Hawk Mountain Shelter. We met up with Stefano who was planning to hike as far as he could until early April when he’d leave the trail. He would catch up with us at Gooch Gap Shelter later in the afternoon. Tending to our wounds, we applied duct tape to the blisters and any hot spots. Michael tried to fashion waterproof shoe liners out of trash bags to save his last dry pair of socks (this effort would ultimately prove a failure). As we ate a quick lunch, the rain returned with a vengeance. Donning our rain gear, we said goodbye to Stefano and hello to Mother Nature.
It was a hard rain and the winds were gusting. After descending Hawk Mountain we were later greeted by even more strenuous climbs up Sassafras and Justus Mountains. Though our rain gear kept us mostly dry, it also kept us warm…too warm…like a sweat lodge. So by the end of the day our clothes were wet on the outside and inside. A wonderful feeling.
On a happier note, after the exhausting climbs, the trail leveled out and became quite pleasant. I was sure another mountain was ahead but alas, we were in the clear. We crossed two large streams, saw some millipedes, and made it to Gooch Gap Shelter by 3pm.
The shelter was smaller than the last, yet still had a capacity of 14. We squeezed into the loft with four others. Connor and his girlfriend were a friendly bunch as well as many others at the shelter. We were glad we got there as early as we did; the shelter was full after one or two other people arrived. Everyone else had to set up tents and one guy slept on the shelter picnic table. I finally had a chance to converse and meet some of my fellow hikers. Everyone seemed in good spirits despite the rain—it did clear up by dinner time.
Overall, I’m glad for the immediate challenges. It’s helping prepare me for what’s to come and the sunny days ahead will only make it better. I’m happy with the experience so far—a little rain won’t bother me. And I’m pleased with my gear so far and what I chose to pack. I haven’t felt cold, only wet, and I’ve already got a list in my head of some things I don’t need and can send home to lighten my load.
Day’s Mileage: 12.9 miles
Total Miles Hiked: 15.7
Remaining Miles: 2,175.2
Not much sleep was had as the wind howled all night and the temperature dropped. I managed a few hours here and there but everyone awoke groggy and talking about the storm. All of the clothes that had been hung to dry were flung all over the shelter and some into the woods.
Michael and I ended up being one of the first to leave and set off, enjoying our first rays of sunshine since we began. It was also frigid and windy but the trail quickly headed upward and I began stripping layers. We planned on reaching Neel Gap about 15 miles away, our longest day so far. Everything was going well in the warm sunshine until the trail left the leeward side of the mountains and switched to the windward side. Back and forth this went on; I was constantly switching from gloves and my jacket to a just a t-shirt. Michael had run out of dry socks and was using a pair of mine. I had duct tape on several blisters. I’m hoping they are just because of all the damp, wet conditions from the first two days. As we hiked along, my foot caught on a rock and tweaked my knee. This was my biggest fear. If anything were to end my hike I always thought it would be my knee injury flaring up. I took some holistic medicinal herbs by way of prescription drugs and continued to hike. So far the injury was manageable.
We seemed to be making good progress despite my knee pain, several blisters, and Michael’s pack digging into his shoulders. We had heard after Blood Mountain the trail quickly descends to our destination. Feeling hopeful, we tackled the mountain though it nearly beat us. After a grueling, steep climb, we reached the summit at 4,457 feet, the highest peak on the trail in Georgia. Exhausted, we paused briefly to enjoy the view and began an even more strenuous descent. The way down was fraught with rock faces that were easy to slip on and seemed to never end.
At last we reached Neel Gap. Mountain Crossings is a hostel there and has an outfitter with hiking supplies. We quickly booked our bunks and were glad we did. Though our quick pace drained us and perhaps added to our injuries, we arrived ahead of most and scored some of the last bunks. Those that arrived later had to camp outside. While we enjoyed the warmth inside, the staff were able to adjust Michael and my packs to fit us better. I had hoped for some sort of cafe or restaurant but the outfitter only had packaged foods. We bought frozen pizza and stuffed our faces. It tasted amazing after all we’d been through!
Feeling quite exhausted, we spent the rest of the evening resting, using the WiFi, and licking our wounds. Still, I feel impressed with the progress we’ve made. I’ve been told that some hikers behind us have already dropped out. Another hiker gave me this uplifting statistic: 25% of thru-hikers quit by Neels Gap. So I’ve already made it farther than 25% of people! What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…I’m talking about you, Blood Mountain!
Day’s Mileage: 15.4 miles
Total Miles Hiked: 31.1
Remaining Miles: 2,159.8
Hope you enjoyed my first update on the trail. At the end of each day I’m exhausted and it’s hard to find the mental energy to write but I’m doing my best. It’s also hard to find service; I’m writing this on the hostel’s WiFi. When I have more time I’d like to get some videos up! Apologies for typos and any other errors. It’s very hard to blog from my phone!