Army Ranger Training on the Appalachian Trail
It’s day two of my journey along the Appalachian Trail and I’m hiking along a gloriously sunny ridgeline in the Georgia mountains. I glance up towards the right of the trail and notice two men in the woods. My first thought is that they’re hunters because one is lying on his stomach looking through the sight of a rifle. But no, these men are in military camo, and I remember the AT trail ambassador back at Amicalola telling us that there is an Army training facility in the area.
As I walk closer I see that there are maybe 25 men in full camo with face paint in the woods right alongside the trail. I also realize that if I continue walking I will walk right through the line of sight of at least two rifles.
I stare at the two men closest to the trail, one of whom is pointing a weapon directly at the path of the AT. They’re about 10 yards away, close enough that I can see the blank expressions on their faces. They pretend I’m not there. I realize that I’m afraid to look away – if I must walk through the line of sight of that gun, then I feel like I have to closely monitor the movements of these men.
I walk past, and shift my gaze to the larger group a bit further from the trail – maybe 20-30 yards back. There’s another rifle pointed directly at the path of the AT. I continue walking, and as I’m almost past one man towards the back of the group raises his hand and waves. I wave back and look behind me to see that my mom is waving as well. She has the same bewildered look on her face that I imagine I have after walking through that training exercise.
Later that day, in camp at Hawk Mountain Shelter, everyone comments about their close encounter experience with the Army Ranger training exercise. Fear and surprise were expressed by many, including myself.
That evening, as a group of 15 or so thru-hikers gather by the fire pit, I ask the two volunteer ATC trail ambassadors about what we’d seen earlier that day. Is it normal for them to be conducting their training exercises that close to the trail? And for guns to be directed towards the trail?
I’m a bit baffled to see how normal this seems to them. A few of the other thru-hikers gathered around the fire also seem unfazed by the incident. One fellow hiker, Andy, overhears us talking and jumps in to offer some answers. He went through this Ranger training, it turns out, not that long ago.
As darkness settles in, we hear gunshots crackle from across the gap. We look up from the fire and can see the little points of light as the shots ring out from both sides of this pretend firefight. As it happens, Andy rattles off the details of what this probably looks like on the ground, from the trainee’s perspective. The few of us still awake just sit and listen. I grab my audio recorder at one point and walk a few paces away from the fire to capture the sounds of gunfire from my second night out on the Appalachian Trail.
You can hear those recordings that I made that night, as well as a short segment of the interview that I conducted the following day with Andy, in the short podcast episode that I’ve shared below.
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