Appalachian First Impressions: Angels, Shelters, and Trash
To those of you who don’t know much about backpacking, that title might be a bit confusing. Let’s include some setup: a “trail angel” is anyone who decides to help out a hiker out of nothing but the goodness of their heart. That kindness itself is called trail magic. You’ll see all different forms of this, from a guy offering soda and fruits out the back of their car to full setups offering freshly brewed coffee or hot food, which is heaven for a hiker in winter. Another term you’ll need to know is ridge-runner. Ridge-runners are hired to patrol the trail while keeping it safe and clean.
Where the Magic Happens
It’s incredible how many people work to support the AT. It’s hard to go more than a few days without seeing trail angels or ridge runners or even just another hiker who’s willing to share. Granted, this is only my third day out here, but already I’ve seen a trailside grill of hotdogs and hamburgers at Hickory Flats, a free delivery of pizzas to the Gooch Mountain Shelter, and I was even given hand-warmers by a hiker named Shane on a cold morning.
Today marks the first night I’ve spent outside of a shelter – I’m tenting at Lance Creek – and it has really put into perspective how lively the shelters are. When everyone is sleeping in their own tents, it’s hard to have much more than a quick conversation about the weather at some point. For some people all the snoring and moving around makes it hard to sleep in shelters, and if you look around for more than a few minutes you’ll definitely find a nest of mice. According to Shane, the mice were literally crawling all over me during my first night, but with just a few earplugs, I was able to sleep through it all.
More People, More Trash
One of the most common conversations you hear at a shelter or next to a trail angel’s setup is about how much trash people saw on the trail today. This can range from a few beer cans thrown about to a trashed tent-site with trails of litter, condiments, and gear strewn about over the range of about a mile. I saw that last example for myself just before making it to Woody Gap, where, luckily, I ran into a ridgerunner making the rounds willing to clean up the place.
I heard somewhere that whatever number of people registered to start their thru-hike on a given day, double that number head out. Not to jinx anything, but I’ve been wondering where everyone is. If it really is double, then over fifty (sometimes 100!) people a day are beginning this week. Between all the different shelters and campgrounds it can be hard to get a full picture of the trail population, but even then I haven’t heard anyone complain about overcrowding yet.
All In All…
Even though two of my three days out here have been in a fog so thick you can’t see 100 feet ahead of you, I’m already in love with the trail. It’s a carefree life with nothing to do but walk, sleep and socialize. Sure, it gets cold and your legs are going to feel dead at the end of most days, but as long as nothing is seriously injured, you’ll wake up the next morning feeling almost good as new. The Georgia winter is a lot colder than I expected, but it turns out my gear I spent months researching can actually keep me pretty warm.
As far as the people go, everyone out here is already amazing just for the fact they’re attempting a thru-hike. You would be hard pressed to find a community more outgoing and supportive than the people out here. There’s also the section hikers and day trippers that you’ll walk by, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a kick out of how impressed they are with the thru-hikers. A pretty common phrase you’ll hear from them is “I could never do something like that,” but I bet they’d be surprised what a bit of money and research can make them capable of.
My journey is just beginning and I already have two friends who are coming to hike a leg with me after mountain crossings, so you’ll have plenty more to hear me talk about as I walk north. I have a feeling that even with all I’ve learned so far, there’s still a thousand lessons the trail is waiting to teach me.
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