An Ending Worthy of an Epic Journey
Friends and family, wine and cheese, single-digit temperatures, a soaking wet finish, and a raucous ’80s dance party—it was an epic ending to our hike.
Nothing a little wine and cheese can’t fix
Griffin’s parents drove out from Ohio to put us up in a rental apartment for two nights—my first double zero since Rutland, VT, when I had norovirus. We lounged hard, resting up for the last 110 miles of the trail, but I was sneezing relentlessly the whole weekend. I desperately searched the “cold” aisle at Kroger for allergy medicine and vitamin C supplements. It was as if my body was asking, “Are you done yet? Can I get sick?” Somehow, the moment I stepped back into the woods, the sneezing stopped.
When we got back on trail on Sunday, rays of sun reached through the trees. Temperatures had crept into the 50s, and I felt sad walking the 16 miles that we had planned for the day. Two days off trail had given me a small taste of what life would be like in a week. This epic adventure was drawing to a close, and suddenly, each experience was “one last …”
One last lunch at the top of a mountain.
One last sunset over a ridge.
One last 2,000-foot climb. (OK, I won’t miss this one too much.)
We lounged lazily for lunch at a fire tower with great views.
In anticipation of any end-of-hike blues, we’d packed boxed wine, crackers, and three blocks of our favorite cheese. We arrived at the shelter early, and like every one since the Smokies, it was empty. Within an hour, we sat around a roaring fire with our treats in hand.
It still amazes me what the equivalent of three glasses of wine do to a thru-hiker who has hiked a full day and hasn’t eaten dinner yet. We were roaring with laughter over all things big and small. We watched scores of moths fly into the fire. They were mistaking the glow for moonlight, and we pleaded with them in mock horror not to kill themselves.
We fake-cried over the moths. We joked about aggressive shelter mice. We laughed about cold nights and frozen water bottles. We paid tribute to the small but outrageous “problems” in the daily life of a thru-hiker, knowing that they would be replaced by the considerations of “normal” life in just a few days’ time.
One last kick in the butt
We had planned 18-mile days for the last week, hoping to avoid any night hiking and allowing us to finish on a Saturday. But the forecast predicted rain for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, so we decided to get in more miles sooner to keep Friday and Saturday relatively short. We stopped at Top of Georgia Hiking Center to grab our resupply.
The forecast predicted a low of 14 degrees in Hiawassee that night. The shelter we were aiming for sat at 4,000 feet. Our general rule of thumb is to subtract 10 degrees at higher elevations. The guy at the shelter said, “We can pick you up two miles before that shelter and bring you back here for the night.” We said we’d think about it, and he laughed. “You’ll be back,” he said. “Everyone comes back once they’re out they’re in the freezing cold and know that a warm bunk is just a phone call away.”
Now, I like to think that I don’t give in to the macho mind-set too easily. Yes, we’re a fairly bro-ey trio of guys in the woods, but we’d hiked 2,100 miles to this point. Rain. Snow. Heat. Bugs. Mountains. Bears. We had nothing left to prove.
But the “you’ll be back” rang like a challenge. We’d had some cold nights—we’d be fine for one more. Plus, this was our last week on trail. We wanted to be in nature, not hostels. What’s the difference between 20 degrees and five degrees anyway?
Apparently, there’s a difference.
Getting ahead of the rain meant 23 miles on this day, which, with our stop at the hostel 0.5 miles off-trail that morning, meant an hour of night-hiking in the evening. We caught a beautiful sunrise over the ridge.
The sun went down and we pushed upward—2,000 feet, 3,000 feet, 4,000 feet. With a handkerchief over my mouth, my beard would condense with little droplets of water and the handkerchief would get wet with moisture. After breathing in my own CO2 on the uphills made me sufficiently dizzy, I’d pull the handkerchief down around my neck. The condensation on my beard would freeze within seconds, the handkerchief would stiffen like a board, and my nose would slowly go numb until I repeated the process again.
Handkerchief on, dizziness, handkerchief off, numbness. On, off, on, off.
The sky filled with stars, but stopping to admire them meant letting the wind cut through our layers for ten seconds longer than was necessary. We hiked in silence, all feeling the fatigue of a long day while trying to walk fast enough to keep warm but slow enough that we didn’t trip in the dim light of our headlamps. A sprained ankle at that moment would be bad.
Our water was freezing by the time we arrived at the shelter. I had kept my filter in my chest pocket during the hike, allowing it to warm from my body heat. Once a Sawyer filter freezes, it stops working forever. Then came all the hilarious considerations that accompany near-zero degree weather when you’re not equipped for it. Every layer couldn’t stop the shivering, so all night-time chores became an exercise in speed.
I needed my fingers to cook, but they got more numb with every minute I wasn’t hiking. I don’t think I even chewed my dinner. I tried squirting in some hot sauce, but it had frozen in the tiny squeeze bottle. When I finished, I couldn’t wash my pot because the food remnants stuck to the top half had frozen during the five minutes that I was eating.
We pushed our sleeping bags to one side of the shelter and slept as close together as possible, practically spooning. “Can you feel your toes yet?” I ask Sonic. “Nope!” Twenty minutes go by like this.
We put our frozen water bottles between our legs inside the sleeping bag, hoping that they’ll melt so that we can drink something during the night, but they just suck the heat from our bodies, and after five minutes, we put them out in the cold.
Every now and then during the night, I would awake with my face in the bag, slightly out of breath from having inhaled my own stench for too long. I’d poke my head out to get some air, but the cold would force me back after a minute or two.
We all woke up at 3 a.m., delirious with thirst, but our water was still frozen. We sat up talking for a while, laughing as each person made a mad dash to pee. When we awoke in the morning, we played the same game with the privy—each person sprinting over to the open-air box 20 yards from the shelter, sitting with exposed thighs as the wind whipped through. Back in the shelter, I attempted a selfie while exposing as little of my face as possible.
We counted to three, jumped from our sleeping bags, packed up in record time, and practically ran down the trail.
One last day hiking together
Wednesday evening was supposed to be nearly as cold. Egos sufficiently battered from the previous night’s ordeal, we paid $24 apiece for one of the Blood Mountain Cabins. It was the perfect, heated spot to rest up before our last two days on trail. On Thursday, we walked the whole day together, thinking back on the last four and a half months and trading stories. Each person posed a question, and we’d offer up our own unique experiences from the days that we had hiked separately during the first half of the trip.
Scariest day on trail? Griffin recounted a night with strange animals creeping just outside his tent. Sonic nearly fell off Franconia Ridge. I had spent an hour hiking upward into a raging thunderstorm in Maine.
Best surprise on trail? Griffin got pulled off trail for two days unexpectedly in Virginia by some friends. A random couple in Maine put up Sonic for a night, fed him, and drank with him for an entire evening, pleading with him to return for another night. I remembered happening upon a restaurant with free camping at the end of a long day in Pennsylvania, trading ramen alone at a shelter for burgers and a beer with some other hikers.
Favorite state? Maine, Maine, Maine.
For other highlights, we pulled from our shared experiences during the second half of our trip.
Favorite trail town? We all agreed that Erwin, TN, was somehow high up on the list with its endless supply of fast food within walking distance.
Least favorite trail town? Gatlinburg.
Favorite hostel experience? Two games of Risk fueled by margaritas in a can at Standing Bear.
Favorite meal? A dozen SOBOs converging on the Shoney’s in Franklin, NC, for a Thanksgiving meal. Not the best food, but amazing company.
Best shower? Fontana Dam surprised all of us with heated bathrooms and an endless supply of hot water after five cold days in the Smokies.
The miles went by quickly. We arrived to find yet another empty shelter for our second to last night on the trail.
One last day hiking alone
On Friday, the day before our Springer summit, we spread out. It was unreasonably warm, and somehow the rain held off the entire day, letting us take our time for the 13 miles that we had planned.
For the first time since Maine, I put my poles away and walked, hands free. The trail pleasantly surprised me with some beautiful stream crossings and waterfalls.
It felt like Maine. I stopped often, trying to bring back the feeling that I had during my first month on the trail. Back then, I would pause at a spot on the trail with no special landmark, stare off into the trees, take a deep breath, and laugh. I would laugh at the enormity of what I had done—quitting my job, parting with my fiancee, walking into the woods with a crazy goal to walk to Georgia. I would laugh at the stark contrast between my life in Brooklyn just a month before and my life on the trail as it had come to be.
From busy streets to an empty trail.
From traffic, sirens, and shouting to utter silence.
From an apartment full of stuff to just what could fit in my backpack.
From days spent in a school with 400 teenagers, running from meeting to meeting and classroom to classroom, to days on end walking alone in the woods.
So on this last day, I took extra time to stare off into the trees, breathe deep, and laugh. I laughed at the seemingly endless span of days between Maine and now. And I laughed because despite all my fears, worries, and insecurities, here I was—2,190 miles later, happy and healthy.
On Friday, we woke up to the pouring rain—a detail that didn’t really bother us, knowing that Sonic’s family was waiting in a parking lot just two miles away with warm cars to drive us back to Atlanta.
As we entered the parking lot a mile from the summit, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings came screaming out of cars. They even had a sign that said “Welcome home, Sonic!” and “Welcome to Georgia, Carrot Top and Griffin!” And in the background—Breezy! Breezy had finished the trail two days before and driven the two hours from his home in Atlanta back to the trail with his wife in order to see us finish. His wife, Stephanie, handed us still-warm sausage McMuffins (god they were good) and had Yoo-hoos and Fantas waiting in the car for when we finished. And without too much more conversation, we headed to the summit, Breezy in tow. Twenty minutes later, we were there.
And just like we had so often dreamed over the last five months, we reached the summit in an explosion of emotion, bursting into tears as we kneeled before the sign in disbelief at our accomplishment.
There were smiles and hugs but no tears as we got in formation to take our pictures while the cold rain pummeled us. We shivered as we delayered for our collective shirtless, bro-ey badass photo.
And of course, my favorite photo simply because of Griffin’s pose:
We signed the logbook as best we could, pen failing to write on the wet notebook paper. And then, it was done.
We grabbed our packs and headed to the parking lot. The emotion of the hike had hit at different moments along the rest of the journey. Our final day, oddly enough, felt like just another day of hiking. And that was fine with me.
One last celebration
We had one other reason to finish by Dec. 1.
According to Sonic, this was the night of his favorite Atlanta club’s annual ’80s dance party. He hyped it up for the entire last month on trail—I even downloaded the “All Out ’80s” playlist on Spotify to get excited for the occasion.
The party didn’t disappoint.
We laughed, cried, sang, and, of course, danced with a lack of self-awareness that can only stem from months on trail doing whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, in the middle of nowhere, with no one to see. The bouncers eventually had to ask us to leave when they closed at 3 a.m. Utterly spent, we put back on our MTV, Duck Tales, and Goonies T-shirts and stumbled back to Sonic’s house.
Carrot Top, signing off
Now, I’m home in Massachusetts a full week after finishing. I’ve filled my days so far by babysitting my adorable nephews and nieces and watching massive amounts of crappy television. And in a few hours, I get to see my fiancee for the first time in five months. Five months! She supported my crazy dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail since the first day I mentioned it. While I was on the trail, she worked with a nonprofit in Mexico and then spent the last few weeks traveling the country. Now—finally—we get to celebrate together.
I purposefully waited a week to write this last post. I thought that, maybe, once I was out of the woods for a few days, I would have some big revelation about my hike. That I would realize how it had changed me, or how my life would be different from this moment forward. That all the pieces of the puzzle would fall into place, and I’d see “the big picture” so much more clearly.
Nope. Nothing like that yet. Maybe it’ll happen once more time passes. Right now, I look back, and all I can think is, “Wow, that was fun.”
Thanks for reading along,
Carrot Top, AT SOBO ’18
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