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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 2 -Starting the Trip and Learning to Think like a Thru-Hiker
"... we signed the first of many trail registers, and it was during that sign-in when we decided together to call ourselves the Double Daves."
The Appalachian Trail begins on mountain tops at both ends. In the south, where we began, it starts on the top of Springer Mountain in Georgia. It’s northern end is on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. Most Appalachian Trail thru-hikers start in the south in early spring and hike north following the warmth of springtime. Hikers starting from the south actually begin their hike at the trailhead that leads to the top of Springer Mountain. That trailhead is at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia.
My parents had agreed to drive us to Amicalola Falls State Park. My buddy Dave’s parents were going to drive us home when we reached Maine. Neither of us had ever been to Georgia or anywhere in the south other than DisneyWorld in Florida. To me driving through the countryside on the way to Amicalola Falls already gave the impression of something exotic simply because the earth was red. I couldn’t get over the fact that the soil in Georgia was a rich brick-red hue. All my life I had seen soil that was different shades of brown, black, ochre, or even a chalky color, but I had never seen anything close to the red dirt of Georgia and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
It was past lunch time on March 16th when we finally reached the Amicalola Falls State Park visitor’s center parking lot. It was inside the visitor center that we signed our first of many trail registers, and it was during that sign-in when we decided together to call ourselves the Double Daves. We didn't plan that beforehand. We just looked at each other and spontaneously agreed to sign the trail register with that as our nickname. After signing in we looked through the previous entries and saw that there were other hikers that had coined nicknames for themselves as well. Within a few days we found out that those nicknames were known to all long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail (AT) as trail names. The visitor center also included a hanging scale for hikers to weigh their packs before starting out on their trips. My rust colored Camp Trails pack weighed in at 45 pounds and Dave's brown JanSport was 60 pounds.
The picture my parents took of us as we were about to disappear into the fog shrouded woods captures us as two guys in their late teens dressed in a long blue jeans and windbreakers. Our walking sticks rise from the ground to shoulder height and there are half gallon plastic milk jugs hanging from the pack straps of Dave's pack. His blue camera bag seems to perch precariously at the top of this pack looking as if it might topple over onto his head. Our faces are white and clean shaven. Our clothes, our packs, and our boots are clean. Later pictures show the transformation that thru- hikers undergo as the days, weeks, and months pass living on the trail. After a final hug from mom and dad – yes, Dave got them too – we turned and walked away into the mist.
To read Part 1 of this series, click below:
Feeling Our Oats
The walking was easy at first. Shortly after beginning the hike we met a guy hiking in the opposite direction who said that he had been up Springer. An hour and a half later we came out on the top of a mountain with a sign that said Frosty Mt.- 3400 feet of elevation. This caused us some confusion, as we were expecting to climb Springer and we hadn’t heard anything about Frosty Mt. The trail we had been following went on down Frosty, so we followed it for want of a better thing to do. The hiking there was fast and to our great pleasure we soon came upon a sign indicating that Springer was 2.5 miles away. We slowly toiled up Springer, and about halfway up, the sky began to clear off. When we reached the top of Springer we came upon several tents pitched in an open grassy meadow adjacent to the summit. We immediately began searching for the landmark we expected and needed to see. At the summit a brass plaque is set into a stone. The plaque is engraved with the image of a backpacker and the words “Appalachian Trail Georgia to Maine: a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness".
After a few pictures by the plaque, we began looking around for a place to set up our own tent. We were pumped up and definitely feeling our oats. We walked all around the meadow introducing ourselves to everyone there. We made sure that everyone knew we were from New York State and that we were hiking all the way to Maine. We always received knowing smiles and encouragement. Some people noted that we were just wearing T-shirts, and they asked us if we were cold.
“Oh no,” we replied, “We’re used to the cold. Up in New York, it’s still wintertime.”
At one tent site we met a young couple who were doing the same as us. They had recently been married and were thru-hiking the trail together. At another tent site we met a guy who had thru-hiked the trail in 1980. He was with his girlfriend and he had a friendly black lab. They were the first of many fine and interesting people we would meet along the way.
A Different Kind of Backpacking Trip
We woke up the next morning to find that clouds had closed in over the summit. We started hiking at 8:30. It was raining and we hiked slowly. By 11:30 we had done 6 miles. It was then that we saw a structure a little way off the trail. The structure turned out to be a pavilion owned by the New Bethel Church. We ate lunch there and while we were eating it began raining harder. We decided to wait out the storm under the pavilion and eventually stayed for the night even though it did clear off around two o'clock. The pavilion was next to an old cemetery. It was very quiet there. In fact for the entire rest of the day, we didn’t see any other people.
Finding the pavilion next to the cemetery was a stroke of luck. Even though the rain stopped and it cleared off in the middle of the afternoon, we felt like just hanging around. We realized that there was no need to rush. It was as if we were coming to terms with and exploring the meaning of the long-term schedule for the trip. All the backpacking we had done in the past had been according to a tight schedule. This trip was going to take 5 to 6 months. We understood that there would be fast days and there would be slow days and we were not going to sweat the slow days. Extending a break that started out as a way to eat lunch out of the rain into the destination for the day set a tone for the rest of the trip – it established the idea that on this trip we would march to our own drumbeat. We would hike hard and fast when the mood and conditions were good. We would hike slow or explore our surroundings when we wanted to, and we would have days where we wouldn’t hike at all. We intended to kick back and smell the roses when we felt like it. That attitude turned into an important factor for our success on the trail. It became a source of many good times on the trip, and the times we spent recharging provided us with some of our most memorable experiences.
That night we slept on the picnic tables under the pavilion and when we woke up the sky was clear and blue.
The weather during mid – March in Georgia's mountains can range from snow and temperatures in the high 20s and 30s to 80°. On this day we experienced the upper end of that range. The sun was bright and the temperature reached near 80° according to our transistor radio. I remember a series of climbs up wooded hillsides and descents to dirt roads. At one dirt road I remember that we saw a dead dog lying in a shallow ditch. There were a few flies buzzing around. It was sad to see.
Throughout the day I struggled to keep up with Dave. My pack felt heavy and uncomfortable and my jeans were long, heavy, and hot. Our total of 9.5 miles for the day didn’t seem like much to me. At our camp that night at Gooch Gap all my cockiness from the first night on top of Springer had drained away. I was quiet during dinner and I was wondering to myself whether attempting the trip had been the right thing for me to do. I got into my sleeping bag early so I could think things through. As I lay there in my sleeping bag I remember saying to myself “You knew what you were getting into when you started this trip - what did you expect?"
Shortly after that I remember Dave, who was looking at the guidebook we had, saying something about tomorrow we would reach a general store at a little town called Suches. All I had been thinking about so far had been getting to Mt. Katahdin, and it seemed so far away. In a sudden epiphany, my mind grabbed onto the concept of a shorter-term goal – getting to the Suches general store – and I put the overall enormity of the trip out of my head. That was my turning point. When that concept sunk into my mind, something clicked and most of my worries disappeared.
By the time I drifted off to sleep I had won the battle in my head and from that point forth I never had any more doubts about the hike. I had taken my first significant step in my transformation to a thru-hiker. In my experience, thru-hikers keep their focus on either the here and now, or what is over the next ridge or mountain. That becomes easy because there is so much to do and see along the trail every day. Yes, they sign all the trail logs “Georgia to Maine”, but the real driving force becomes the next general store, the next shelter where you might catch up to a buddy or at least get some news about them through the shelter log, or the next great view, spring, road crossing, or any one of many intermediate goals. This is one of the reasons that the trail guides are so important, especially the unofficial guides that flourished along the way.
"To an Appalachian Trail hiker, a general store is viewed the same way a desert nomad might view an oasis."
A Thru-Hiker's Oasis
It turned out to be hot again the next day. We woke up to a light fog, ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs, and moved out. It was 4 miles to Woody Gap Highway 60, and it was fairly easy hiking. We went left down the road about 1.5 miles and came to the general store at Suches. We ate some snacks and had a soda. Outside the Suches general store, both Dave and I decided to make cut offs out of our jeans. We had each brought two pairs of jeans. Both of us were used to hiking and camping in the Adirondack Mountains where the weather is significantly cooler, especially in the early spring. Now, after hiking two successive days in the middle of March where temperatures reached around 80°, we were ready to adapt. We each kept one pair of jeans long and cut off our other pair. We used our pocket knives to do the job.
The Suches general store was the first of many we encountered on our trip. We would soon come to love general stores. To an Appalachian Trail hiker, a general store is viewed the same way a desert nomad might view an oasis. The lure of snack food to get fueled up and carry in the pack for later is a powerful draw. Thru-hikers will often walk a few miles out of their way at road crossings to get to general or convenience stores to buy candy bars, sodas, ice cream, pastries, etc. A hiker’s body burns calories like wildfire and there is only so much that can be carried in a backpack. During hiking season, storekeepers along the AT do a brisk business selling snacks to long-distance hikers.
After the side trip to Suches, where the trail crossed Route 60 at Woody Gap, we ran into the guy with the black lab we had met in the meadow on top of Springer. He and his girlfriend were friendly and the guy, who had thru-hiked the trail in ’80, told us about few things coming up on the trail. The main thing he talked about was how great a place Wesser, North Carolina was. He told us there was a hiker hostel there at a place called the Nantahala Outdoor Center where there was white water rafting and kayaking on the Nantahala River. By the time he was done telling us about it, we were really looking forward to getting there.
That evening we camped on top of Blood Mountain which was the highest mountain we had climbed to that point and the best view. Dave took a lot of pictures of a great sunset from the top. There was a stone shelter on top of Blood Mountain. It was a four sided shelter with a door rather than the usual three sided lean-to with an open front. The stone building looked good from the outside, but at the time we were there, the inside of the Blood Mountain shelter was dark and dirty with trash piled in the corners. Dave and I opted to camp out under the stars that night.