A Week in the Woods

Ok, it hasn’t been a full week out on the trail and I am super comfortable in my hostel bunk tonight but it has been a week since my journey began.

Day -1: Totality

In what feels like a very primal sendoff, I traveled with my family from northern Illinois to just south of Indianapolis to witness the total eclipse. It is impossible to overstate how awesome totality is and we got to see it for over 4 minutes! We found a great park, had a nice picnic lunch before the breathtaking dance of the sun, moon, and mother earth. While the drive home took twice as long because of all the traffic, it was well worth it and I am so many people had the opportunity to witness such an amazing event. If you haven’t seen totality, put it one your bucket list!

Day 0: A False Start

The morning after the eclipse I was on a flight to Georgia and making my way to the trail. Taking a plane to Atlanta meant I would need to buy stove fuel and I needed to check a bag because trekking poles aren’t allowed in a carry on. I was worried about checking my pack “naked” so I stuffed it into a big rolling suitcase and used one of my stuff sacks for a carry on.
My plan had been to take public transportation (MARTA) to Sandy Springs where I would buy fuel, find somewhere to throw away my suitcase, and get a hotel room for the night. I knew rei and hotels were within walking distance of the station. It was still too early to check in at most hotels so I rolled myself to rei and there was a Goodwill next door to donate my suitcase! I organized my pack on the sidewalk in front of rei and left the cumbersome suitcase in the Goodwill donation area.
This whole time (and honestly the whole week before leaving) I was relentlessly checking the weather because there was a threat of storms shortly after my start date. I even debated changing my flight and starting a few days later to avoid them but instead I called an audible and decided to skip the hotel to maybe get an extra half day on trail.

I already planned to use Uber/Lyft to reach Amicalola since the cost difference was minimal and available shuttle times were crappy so I fired up the app. After 10-15 minutes my driver pulled up in her very nice Mercedes; I felt quite underdressed in my hiking clothes and loaded backpack. We had about an hour drive and chatted about the trail, music, and other bucket list trips. Heather you were great and I’m so glad you decided to make the long drive for me!
Unfortunately, I took a bit too long making my decision start early and I got to the visitor center about 20 minutes after they stopped checking in thru hikers.

I had a few options: start hiking without a tag, try to get a room at the Amicalola lodge ($$$), or check out the shelter right behind the visitor center. I was planning to avoid shelters as much as possible due to the threat of Norovirus on trail but I figured it was worth a shot and I had the place all to myself! The Max Epperson shelter is also a very nice shelter, fully screened in and right on the approach trail (even though the approach trail is closed you can still get to the shelter). So far it is the only log book I have signed or shelter I have stayed in. It worked out great and I was in the first group of hikers tagged and ready to go the next morning.

Day 1: Cloud Walking

As I was getting everything back into my pack a couple of nice women came to visit the shelter that they helped build! It was another sign that I made the right choice for the night. I made a quick breakfast and headed back to the visitor center to get on the trail.

The first thing they had me do was weigh my pack, I saw it hit 40 lbs and quickly moved it off the scale. I knew I wasn’t going to be an ultralight hiker but that was more than I expected. I could have asked for a pack shakedown and lightened the load there but I still didn’t know what I would actually want/need on the hike. There were rumors floating around about 70 lbs packs going out that week so I decided to start with a heavy pack.

After a helpful orientation on the first few days on the trail I got tag #2183 and was ready to go. Requisite pictures by the arch were taken even though that’s not where I would be starting my hike. With the lower part of the approach trail closed, hikers starting at Amicalola had 2 options: one that started through arch but wouldn’t get a view of the falls and another that started in front of the visitor center and met up with the approach trail near the falls. I wanted to see the falls and infamous steps so I took the latter and was on my way though still miles from my first steps on the actual Appalachian Trail.

I’m sure it is nice to end such a big hike at a summit (Katahdin for NOBO’s and Springer for SOBO’s) but it makes for an awkward start. Without being airlifted to the top of mountain your thru hike will start quite a distance from the trail’s terminus. It is possible to drive closer to the summit of Mt Springer and skip the approach trail but you still have over a mile to hike and will walk that same mile right back again. I finally decided the approach trail was right for me when I learned that it had been part of the original AT when the southern terminus was Mt Oglethorpe.

Though it may seem like unnecessary extra miles to strat on the approach trail, the falls were worth the effort. And it took some effort. I started this hike in close to the worst condition I have ever been in. Way overweight and doing very little physical activity in my daily life. I was winded before I even started and I had 425 stairs to climb! Just minutes into my hike and I was questioning if I could make it to the start of the trail.

About 2/3 of the way up the stairs I was already being passed by someone from the next orientation session. Jorgin from Finland had a great big smile and was moving up the stairs like it was nothing. I stopped to get pictures of the falls a few times (and catch my breath) but we made it to the top of the falls about the same time and chatted for a bit while we continued down the trail. I quickly fell behind and doubted I would ever catch up to him again.

The weather on my first day always seemed on the verge of raining and as I climbed higher it was like walking in a cloud. Large drops of water would collect on the braches and budding leaves overhead before crashing down but it never quite turned into rain. At the visitor center I considered donning my poncho as I saw some hikers in full rain gear but opted for just my fleece and pack cover. Even that was too hot and I learned the wisdom of the hiker saying “be bold, start cold.”

With the morning start, we were encouraged to hike to Black Gap Shelter on the approach trail and assess how we felt about going forward that day. Black Gap Shelter is about 7 miles up the approach trail and about a mile short of the official start to the trail. I was there around 2pm. I made myself a cup of tea and had munched on some homemade Chex mix while 3 other hikers got the the shelter. I didn’t recognize anyone from the visitor center so I assumed they all started after me. They were setting up camp for the night but I desperately wanted to make at least 1 step on the AT for my first day.

I packed up before finishing my tea and was back on my way, next stop the southern terminus! I got to the top of Spring Mountain where I ran into another blogger for The Trek having a snack. There wasn’t much of a view since we were still inside a cloud and I was ready to be done for the day so I didn’t stay too long. Springer Mountain Shelter is 0.2 miles from the summit but with the possibility of storms and strong wind we were encouraged to push another 2.6 miles Stover Creek Shelter if possible. I stood at the sign for Springer Mountain Shelter for probably 10 minutes before finally heeding the advice I’d gotten.

Tired and soggy with sweat I made it to Stover Creek where I found Jorgin and about a dozen other hikers hanging around the picnic table. It was very much like the first day of school with everyone feeling things out. There were a couple people with trail names and an eagerness to bestow them on people without. When the group found out I had brought a pound of honey to have with tea and caught sight of my yellow camp crocs, bee themed names were buzzing. Nothing quite fit right and I wasn’t ready to accept a name just to check a box on the first night. A handful of hikers stayed in the shelter but there were many more of us who put up our tents around the outside. Shortly after everyone finished dinner, a light drizzle chased us all into our tents and sleeping bags for the night.

Day 2: Rain

The evenings drizzle turned to a fairly steady rain overnight and I did not want to leave my dry tent. I checked the weather as best I could all morning hoping for something to change but by noon it was clearly not getting much better or worse so I had to suck it up and get walking. Part of me wished it had gotten bad enough that I could excuse taking the day off but I knew taking a zero on day 2 would set me up to never finish the trail.

I was happy to see a couple other people were as reluctant as I to leave camp that day but we were all making moves to leave the shelter area. With all of my things packed up I headed out into the rain. The temperature was warm enough that I didn’t bother with rain gear; I would rather be wet from the rain than wet from sweat.

It would take a bit of time before I hit my stride but hiking seemed a bit easier than the day before, still far from the comfort and ease of life back home. I made it about 5 miles when I passed a Ridge Runner who asked about my plan for the day. With the late start I consider only going to Hawk Mountain Shelter (5.3 miles) which happened to be where she was going to stay too. When I told her I started at Stover Creek she suggested that most people would go all the way to Gooch Gap for their 2nd day. I must not have looked as out of shape as I was feeling.

When I reached the junction for Hawk Mountain Shelter I took another long look before pressing on. Gooch Gap looked a bit too far but I would get as close as I could. It was a slow moving day and as the temperature starting dipping and a wind kicked in I needed to stay on the move for body heat or to get warmed up in bed. When I reached Justus Creek I didn’t have the energy to fill up on water so I climbed the last few hundred feet up an incline to Devil’s Kitchen camping area to settle in for the night.

Almost as soon as I stopped moving the chill really got to me. I was definitely the last one into camp so I scrambled to get my tent up on an imperfect spot where I could change into dry sleep clothes and crawl into my sleeping bag. I had just enough water for a cup of tea and had a cliff bar for dinner. All in all, a pretty rough day. Back in St Louis it was poker night and I knew my friends were warm, laughing, and having a real dinner. What was I thinking?!

Day 3: Still Wet

Quite possibly the worst feeling I have had on the trail so far was putting my feet in wet socks and back into wet shoes. I’m not a morning person and being uncomfortable down to my toes was as close as I have been to doubting this endeavor. Fortunately, once I get moving down the trail I warm up quickly and keeping focused on each step forward clears the mind of many of those negative feelings.

Hikers love their sayings/slang and one that has proven true thus far is: “Be bold, start cold.” As I have mentioned I really don’t use my rain gear and I have only worn my fleece once while hiking (it lasted 10 minutes up the approach trail) because it is amazing how fast I heat up as long as I keep moving. I hate going uphill but damn it gets my core temp up and before long all my cold wet clothes are warm and would be drenched in sweat anyway.

This would be a trying day from beginning to end with rain and fairly strong winds. At one point I could only describe the rain as a slush smacking down on and around me. The temperature dropping and the wind picking up I found myself starting to shiver walking into Jarrard Gap so I pitched my tent and scrambled into dry sleep clothes. Over the next 30 minutes or so my core temperature got back to normal and I heard other people making camp for the night. Usually I would come out to say hello and see who was around but I was too comfortable to move. I eventually gave a quick wave when I put out my bear cannister but even a campfire wasnt enticing enough to keep me out in the wind.

Day 4: The Quitting Tree

The wind howled through the gap all night and it was still chilly when I woke up. I heard just almost everyone else pack up before I even unzipped my sleeping bag. I knew it would be one of the notable early days on the trail; I was planning to go over Blood Mountain and into Neel Gap. Blood Mountain is the highest point on Georgia’s section of the Appalachian Trail and Neel Gap is home to one of the best known outfitters on the trail. Neel Gap is also said to be the point where 25% of thru hikes have ended early.

My spirits were further lifted as the cold wind of the morning quickly developed into a beautiful sunny day. After such a gray start to my hike, I was taken aback by the range of blues the Georgia sky would exhibit. Even in the middle of the day there were times I had to look twice to confirm that the deep blue peaking through the trees weren’t storm clouds.

At the summit of Blood Mountain I met a mix of thru, section, and day hikers all enjoying the spectacular views. There were familiar faces from my first night on the trail and spirits were high at the promise of frozen pizzas at Neel Gap. Some people had stuck together since that first shelter while others, like me, preferred doing most of their hiking solo. At times it can feel a bit lonely not joining one of these groups but I am so much happier being free to follow my own pace at any given moment. The hiker community is also super accepting so even more solitary hikers are welcomed whenever they gather.

I spent most of the way down Blood Mountain with hikers planning to spend the night at Neel Gap. As the AT makes its way through Georgia there are many opportunities to spend the night away from your tent in a hostel, cabin, motel, etc. After the demoralizing weather my first few days it was very tempting.

I could hear Neel Gap long before it came into view. The beautiful weekend weather brought car and motorcycle clubs out to the winding mountain roads. It was a bit jarring to come down the trail and cross a fairly good sized road into a full parking lot at Mountain Crossings. Mountain Crossings is right on the trail, in fact the AT passes right through the building at one point. Out front stands a tree with large branches adorned with hiking boots and shoes. It is romantic to think of these as relics of thru hikes coming to an end though I am pretty sure at least 50% are simply hikers upgrading their footwear after finding their starting gear wasn’t up to the task.

Thru hikers are quite distinguishable from  people who woke up indoors that day so it was easy to find a welcome spot to put my stuff while I checked out the shop. When I first walked through the doors it was hard to believe this was the famous outfitter I had read about. It looked more like an average souvenir shop with t-shirts, magnets, and mugs that no thru hiker would be willing to carry. As I weaved through the aisles I found the shop expanded quite a bit beyond the checkout desk and there was indeed a large stock of hiking gear. So far I was happy with everything I started with so I was just window shopping. My first time in the shop I picked up a couple candy bars and a grape soda for a quite shot of energy. It was about midday when I arrived and I wasnt ready to make a decision about staying the night.

On the back patio thru hikers were going through their gear, charging electronic devices on overloaded power strips, and enjoying the opportunity to seat on something other than a rock or log. My hunger increased as more pizzas were delivered by the store staff and I made another walk through the store to get one for myself. After 20 min my Red Barron frozen pizza was ready and it was astonishingly delicious. Something crispy out of an oven is a revelation after nothing but mushy rehydrated food for the last few days. I still haven’t gotten the proverbial hiker hunger that comes from days of strenuous activity but I eat all but one small piece.

While enjoying my pizza a former thru hiker came by with a cooler offering cold sodas, my first bit of trail magic on this journey. Food and a couple hours of rest had me ready to hike on a bit longer. First I wanted to lighten my pack by sending a few things home. I got a flat rate shipping box and piled in as much weight as I felt I could. I sent home my hard copy of the AT Guide, a selfie stick that was never used, a notebook for journalling that never happened and a few other nonessential items. My pack weight was down from 40 at the start to 28 lbs leaving Mountain Crossings. I would hike another 4 miles and shedding that weight felt amazing!

I made camp at Baggs Creek Gap with about a half dozen other thru hikers, some new faces and some familiar. The nice weather made for a much more social atmosphere and it was good to start making trail friends. Camping with us were a couple of friends just out for the weekend who also hiked in from Mountain Crossings. After dinner one of them opened their bag to pull out some mini cakes and lit candles for their friends birthday. It was my second round of trail magic and made for a perfect end to a great day. The doubts and discomfort quickly faded to memory and I was once again excited to be on this adventure.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 3

  • Jingle bells : Apr 23rd

    “ It was very much like the first day of school with everyone feeling things out. “

    Great metaphor.

    Putting on the gross/wet clothing is all part of the adventure ^_^

    • Victoria : Apr 24th

      I just finished a book of a single woman hiking the Pacific Crest trail and she was doing it alone and was hiking for about 2 months and her story was very exciting and the struggles of her feet and sores and blisters and not being able to get cleaned up, but meeting some other hikers doing the same thing, mostly in pairs however she was doing it alone and was the only female hiker and all by herself, fantastic read and she to started out with a heavy gear

  • Samuel J Antholz/ Jane M Antholz : Apr 23rd

    Good reading


What Do You Think?