In the summer of 2004 I travelled up to Brevard, North Carolina to be a backpacking instructor and open water lifeguard at an all girls summer camp. Since I had the confidence of a college student and the company was going to teach me everything I needed to know to lead elementary and middle school aged girls into the woods it didn’t seem to matter that I’d never once backpacked before. After that wonderful summer, I vowed to myself to take a solo-backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail since I’d spent many days hiking with the girls on the trail. 14 years later I remembered that promise I made and decided it was time to actually do it or let the idea go.
That’s how I eventually found myself in April hiking up Amicalola Falls, the largest cascading waterfall in the Southeast, following along the nearly nine mile Approach Trail, which guides hikers to the southern terminus of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (A.T.). The start of the A.T. begins atop Springer Mountain with a bronze placard marking the beginning of the nearly 2,200 mile long trail. Unfortunately, I didn’t have five or six months to hike the trail in it’s entirety, which is called “thru-hiking”, but I did have eight days of backpacking ahead of me to enter North Carolina and for that I was both eager and curious about what lie ahead.
Armed with the go to guide book, “A.T. Guide Northbound: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail” by David “Awol” Miller, I traversed to the first official shelter (a three sided “lean-to” with a roof overhang and wooden floor) on the Appalachian Trail: The Springer Mountain Shelter. We were expecting a strong thunderstorm that evening so nearly all of the other hikers opted to sleep in the shelter but I thought the idea of a thunderstorm while in my tent sounded better than the cacophony of snoring and running mice that would await me in the shelter. After setting up camp and cooking dinner I visited with the other hikers. The variety of personality and geography, as far away as Norway, was expansive but all of them had this spark that I later recognized as A.T. hiker traits: caring, warm, a bit nerdy and energetic. That night the storm came and went without issue and I awoke to my first full day on the trail. After breaking down camp I hiked on with the biggest, stupid grin imaginable because I was so happy and immensely grateful to finally be hiking the A.T.
With a singular goal of hiking north the simplicity of my days seemed to make the days pass quickly. I hiked across Sassafras Mountain, Justus Mountain, Big Cedar Mountain, Blood Mountain, Levelland Mountain, Cowrock Mountain, Wildcat Mountain, Poor Mountain, Blue Moutain, Rocky Mountain, and Tray Mountain. Who knew north Georgia had so many mountains? Upon my return home I learned that Georgia’s elevation gain and loss is the second most on the trail behind New Hampshire’s challenging White Mountains. All of the up’s and down’s, up’s and down’s along my 100 mile journey totaled roughly 25,000 feet of gain! It’s not often a Louisiana gal get’s to look around in all directions and see mountains so I was soaking it up. The flora and fauna were just starting to awaken from winter. My favorite was a distinct white flower, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), sprinkled throughout the trail that was a welcomed contrast to the brown- toned terrain. While there were reports of black bear sightings the most wildlife excitement I encountered was hearing a barred owl call for the first time as well as experiencing a ruffed grouse mating call.
Most of my hiking I was accompanied only by my 30-35 pound pack on my back and the occasional passing hiker. Some days I would stumble upon “trail magic” provided by “trail angels”. These were people that wanted to provide random acts of kindness to hikers they didn’t know by offering food and drinks. Hikers are perpetually hungry so the sight of someone with a giant box of Taco Bell and a case of Coca Cola irrationally provokes an experience of near tears and euphoria; at least it did for me even though I rarely indulge in those items in my everyday life. The community of the trail from the trail angels, the hikers, and the trail volunteers, was one of the best parts of my experience. Everyone took care of one another and showed genuine interest in each other’s paths. Of course, the trail is a microcosm of society at large to a degree so it’s not all sunshine and smiles but my personal experience was immensely positive.
My favorite duo of all of the hikers I met was a 68-year-old woman who went by “Pacify” who was joined by her 80-year-old friend who went by “Sweet Thang”. Upon arriving at Blue Mountain Shelter to eat breakfast Sweet Thang immediately enveloped me into her clan and gave me the royal tour of the shelter. “The bear bag cables, if ya need them, are in that direction. The water is over there and the privy is alllll the way down that hill. What’s your name?” I was just given a trail name, a tradition in the hiking community, the night before so I stuttered through my freshly minted name, “I’m Bear Bait.” She loved this so much she just kept laughing and saying how cute it was. Besides the large personalities these ladies packed they were both on a journey to complete the full 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. That tenacity at their age is the very attitude and outlook that attracted me to the trail in the first place.
While my trip came to a close after eight blissful days, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have explored the North Georgia mountains via the Appalachian Trail. The simplicity of the trail left a lasting impression on me which I hope to carry with me through my day to day life. The trail offers many gifts that even two months later I’m unwrapping. I’m now looking forward to planning another section hike on the Appalachian Trail for 2019.
About the Trail
The Appalachian Trail was completed in 1937 and is maintained, almost exclusively, by volunteer hiking clubs along the trail. The volunteers not only maintain the trail but upkeep the many shelters along the route, which often have privies and water sources near by. The trail works it’s way through fourteen states along the Appalachian Mountain Range and is the longest hiking- only footpath in the world. Nearly 3,000,000 people hike some of the Appalachian Trail each year with estimates of about 3,000 people setting out annually to thru- hike the entire trail. For various reasons, only about a quarter of the thru-hikers are able to go the distance.
This was originally written for and published on http://www.activeacadiana.com