Appalachian Trail Kick Off 2016
This past weekend, March 4-6, people from all over visited Amicalola Falls State Park for 2016’s annual Appalachian Trail Kick Off Event. Some came to see the falls or spend a day wandering among the still naked trees and barely budding flowers. Others were there to enjoy perfect early March weather, while a great many showed up to begin their NOBO thru hikes or flip flops. There was a “tent city” set up across from the visitors center, there was music, fire and at the top of the falls, the Lodge was buzzing with activity. Dozens of speakers, authors, experts and trail angels could be found mingling with hikers of every age and experience level.
I arrived Friday afternoon after a nice refreshing road trip with my wife and trail boss, Katie (aka “Gamera”). This was my first time at the park; I had skipped the approach when I hiked in 2014. After a quick easy check-in we were pointed to the tenting area right across the street from the visitors center. It was still early and there were only a handful of tents set up, so we claimed spots right by the pounding stream. That sound could be heard everywhere in the park. Amicalola Falls is huge and it makes quite a rumble. By the time the water reaches the tenting area the clear stream looks pretty average, but still carries all the same power. As I slept by it that night with my ear near the ground, the earth purred like an engine.
But a lot happened before that first nights sleep. First, Gamera and I grabbed dinner at the lodge – every hiker’s favorite: All You Can Eat (AYCE) Buffet. And a damn good one, too. We ducked into the vendor area where people were running about hanging banners and assembling displays. Miss Janet was in a corner surrounded by people who wanted to hug her and pose for selfies. There were still a few empty tables, including one with a hand written sign that said, “Gene Espy.” No way! I thought. Gene was the 2nd person to hike the trail, and is the oldest thru hiker around. Oh look, there’s David “AWOL” Miller, the guy who makes the guidebook nearly every one of us carries. There were people from the ATC, gear vendors, hostel owners, ALDHA and more, all just walking around stacking chairs, telling stories and laughing. That sounds like a lot, maybe even a little overwhelming but the space was just the right size. It never felt crowded and the cheerful background mumble from people setting up reminded me of a family reunion more than a work site.
As the sun went down more hikers showed up. (Isn’t that always the case?) Everyone gathered on the terrace for the kickoff to the Kick Off, an entertaining and informative hour with Bob “Sir Packsalot” Gabrielsen. Bob is one of the hardest working people you’ll meet, especially this time of year. He runs the Top of Georgia Hostel where he estimates he will host more than 2,000 hikers between now and the middle of Spring. Bob hiked in 2003 and has been sharing his “10 Golden Suggestions” for thru hiking at ATKO for years, including this one. He smiled from ear to ear while he talked, and it was easy to tell that everyone there was enjoying it as much as he was.
After a short break Allyson “Clarity” Hester, a 2015 hiker shared her experiences and gave a compelling list of reasons to consider a Flip Flop. Not only has Clarity hiked, she is now also a ridgerunner and someone you’ll probably meet if you’re headed north this year. She gives a free gear shakedown right there at the approach trail, and was a grade school teacher too, so if you’re really confused, she’s good at making things simple, too. One of the main themes this year (to no one’s surprise) is how to manage the increasing numbers of people who want to enjoy the trail, and a Flip Flop is not only helpful in that regard, but as she writes “can be more comfortable” for reasons outlined in her terrific post.
By sundown the sky was full of stars and we headed back down to the tents, a short drive of about a mile. Everyone carpooled, which worked, and there is already talk of an official daily shuttle for next year’s event. When we arrived the fire was bright and there were many more tents. 20 or 30 at most – nothing like the hundreds you will see at Trail Days. We were greeted by our offical Campsite Host, publisher of The Hiker Yearbook, and everyone’s favorite Guy Who Lives In A Bus, Matthew “Odie” Norman.
The campsite as I mentioned, is across the street from the visitors center and is also near the ranger’s residence, so the location automatically lends itself to a more subdued vibe. There were campfire shenanigans for sure, marshmallows on sticks and stories galore, but as usual, “hiker midnight” got the best of us and before I knew it I was blinking awake to birdsong. I could barely see my breath in the air and didn’t need a hat. It was going to be another great day.
Saturday morning started out on the terrace again. Morgan Sommerville, ATC’s Southern Regional Director spoke about current projects all along the AT, things that affect every one of us. Things like their suggestion to use a bear canister for the entire southern half of the trail, efforts to ease the impact from increased numbers and sadly, an example of how this year’s group of hikers is already taxing that limit we keep hearing about. At the newly constructed Hawk Mountain camp sites for instance, an area carefully constructed barely a month ago, someone has already cut down live saplings to tie up a tarp shelter. And the spring at that campsite already has noodles in it. Things like that.
But Morgan’s talk was by no means a rant or list of complaints against hikers. Other than those examples, his focus was on education and empowering hikers to care for the trail more themselves. The number of ridgerunners has expanded greatly. The outreach efforts for Leave No Trace have grown exponentially. Most of us know to register our hikes now, and to be counted, because we count. “We’re moving in the right direction” was the theme. The numbers are growing for sure, but so are we.
Next up was AWOL. We sipped hot coffee while David “AWOL” Miller showed slides from his hike and told stories and jokes and answered questions. I, as I’m certain many others there, had read his book, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail when it came out a few years ago, and many are inspired by him to hike their own hikes. But even with our recent growth, we still really are a small community, and our hour together felt way more like a chat among hikers than a seminar, which it technically was.
While all this was going on, the large room full of vendors I described earlier had turned into a beehive. Uncle Johnny sat across from ALDHA while Gene Espy signed books. Someone with an owl on his arm was attracting quite a bit of attention. The sun was shining, we were hungry, and Gamera and I had never seen the falls. So we took a hike.
After lunch, Gene Espy took the stage. Over a hundred people sat and stared wide eyed as the AT Hall of Famer showed us his actual gear that he carried for 2000 miles back in 1951. You can (and really should) read about his adventures in his book The Trail of My Life. He’s an amazing story teller and he kept us mesmerized for an hour. It was like Grandpa was telling tales, only there were a hundred or so of us grand kids there at the reunion. The crowd exploded when he told us about a fire he once started by using some old dynamite he apparently just “had laying around”. Things were different back then.
One of the absolute highlights of the weekend occurred on Saturday evening. Immediately following one of the most beautiful sunsets any of us has seen in a long time, we gathered chairs and formed a deep circle around the Lodge’s enormous fireplace and mantle. Some of us were still shivering from the cold, some with excitement. There were about 50 of us in the room. When Miss Janet entered, something special happened. It reminded me of a moment in my life from many years ago when I was on a bus laughing and joking with people my age I’d just met. And then the bus stopped, and our drill instructors stepped on to “greet” us. That kind of special. Shit just got real.
Miss Janet is of of the most kind and loving people you should ever be lucky enough to meet. She is a self described “emotional junkie” and tears up a little with joy after the fiftieth person that day hugs her and snaps a selfie. She also carries a large wooden spoon which she will use on you if you harm our beloved trail. Her former hostel and her current van, “The Bounce Box” (basically a hostel on wheels) are AT famous. Legendary, really. She beamed at us and declared, “I’m your Mama, you just don’t know it yet.”
The official theme of her talk was HYOH (Hike Your Own Hike), that infamous hiker credo as oft interpreted as it is repeated. The phrase itself has so many personal and individual meanings that you can’t really put any limits on it, with one exception. Miss Janet wagged her spoon at us and admonished, “If I catch any of you using ‘Hike Your Own Hike'” as an excuse to do something stupid, I’ll put you on a bus and send you home.” And she’ll do it too. She has this strange power to do the impossible: direct hikers. She turns gaggles into platoons with a few words and confident gestures, rounding up those cats with apparent ease. People do as she says.
Miss Janet also does what the ATC calls “Empowering the Resource” by giving hikers a little bit more swagger, in the form of colorful neckties. Anyone on the trail wearing one has been deputized in a way. It’s an effort to keep the trail “Classy, not Trashy” in her words. Of course wearing a necktie while hiking is silly, but it’s also memorable and when people see one, they (hopefully) know to keep on their best behavior. And there are a lot of neckties out there this year. Her talk felt like the half-time locker room speech at the Superbowl. If what we saw that night is in any way representative of what the Class of 2016 looks like, I personally believe that this could be a banner year for the AT.
There was more music and food and fire and fun at tent city that night and Sunday morning we wrapped things up. The show was moved indoors, as a few guests had already departed, quite a few with packs on their backs and Maine on their minds. Before lunch the park hosted a panel comprised of five hostel owners, each from different sections of the trail. There was a great deal of discussion including behind the scenes on what goes on from their perspective. Some shuttle drivers spend eleven hours a day behind the wheel during “The Bubble”. Some hostels use up to an entire room or two rooms just to hold your mail! And you can stay at some of them for so cheap still! Be nice to these people. You need each other.
I’m proud to say that the park invited me to be their final speaker this year. I’ve been teaching prep classes around the southeast all winter and I recently published the story of my 2014 hike. Anyone who stuck around got to hear me say a bit about how “The Trail is Full of Surprises”. I don’t want to brag, but if I’m being an honest reporter, I was fantastic. Okay, how about this? I had a fantastic time and it seemed like most everyone there did too. We laughed a lot, shared some good advice and even got a little heavy for a few minutes on the subject of coming back home, whether it’s at the end of your hike or – Surprise! – when you least expected it.
The event wrapped up with a little ceremony to thank those people from the park and the AT community who helped make everything possible, and that was followed by some Q & A with the organizers with regards to how they could improve the event for next year. For more information about this year’s event and next, keep your eye on their home page.
Gamera and I really had an amazing time, and from what I could tell, so did everyone who went. The new hikers got to meet the other new hikers, and they all got to meet the expert hikers, and people were there who had never set foot on the trail. And just like out on the trail, everyone got along and we all will probably go back. I hope you join us next year! See you on the trail.
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