Being on Trail is the Most Personal Freedom You’ll Ever Have

“This is the most personal freedom you’ll ever have. You get to wake up when you want, walk how far you want, sleep when you want, and stop in town when you want. You probably won’t realize what I’m saying until about halfway up trail.” Trail legend Geek dropped this nugget of wisdom on us as we were sitting in lawn chairs with cold sodas at a gap on Day 4, what us hikers call “trail magic.” We were having our first really good day with perfect weather, having taken the day at a hostel the night before to dry out, and we were planning an almost 12-mile day to catch up to our friends.

He’s right though, I really don’t understand because right now everything on trail seems a bit like a job, but it’s slowly starting to become second nature. Every day, I put on my cold clothes and get to walk around outside, but it’s hard to not think about making miles. We’re moving slower than I thought we would, but I guess that’s a lesson I need to learn — take it slow, smell the roses, and enjoy. I’m going to focus on just enjoying the first moments on trail while I can and we can worry about pace when we hit Virginia.

In these first 11 days, we have met a ton of amazing people. I didn’t expect to be walking around a small town in Georgia and recognizing people on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, at the hotel, and all around town. The bubble of hikers we’ve been traveling from town to town with have really made it feel like home; especially when we haven’t seen someone in a week and we have an unexpected reunion at a shelter or in town. I know basically nothing about these people but the only thing I feel like I need to know is that they’re crazy enough to be out on trail too.

A blue tent set up in front of a sunset

Home, sweet home for the foreseeable future.

Now for those who want all the details, here are the stats, highlights, lowlights, and milestones for each day. It’s pretty long, so if you are following along on Instagram, you probably know all of the details below:

A hiker under the arch at Amicalola Falls State Park pointing at the camera

And we’re off!

Day 1: Amicalola Falls State Park Approach Trail 8.9 miles to Springer Mountain Shelter (although only about .2 miles are AT miles for those counting). We got started about 11 a.m. after the sign-in/tags/talk and the shelter was abuzz with new hikers when we got to camp for our first night. On the first night, my sleeping pad leaked and I woke up shivering on the cold ground, on top of being nauseous and anxious at the start of a big journey. I thought how embarrassing it would be to quit on the first day because I was cold until I realized that it was my sleeping pad’s problem and not mine.

Day 2: Springer Mountain Shelter to Hawk Mountain Tentsites, 7.4 miles

I shivered from about midnight to 7:30 a.m. until I changed and got out of my shelter, then shivered some more until we got started. We thought going only 7.4 miles and reaching camp around 1 was a little ridiculous, but we were both beat from the approach trail the day before and I was low on calories from the excessive shivering. We ran into some hikers we had seen before, so it was nice to chat during our downtime. One hiker had done 1600 miles of the AT the previous year and was finished up the rest of it this year, and he was also planning on taking it slow this first week, which made me feel much less stupid for stopping so early. I had thought we’d be able to move a little bit faster from the beginning, but that was not the case. I fell asleep to the sound of rain and thought it sounded nice falling on my tent…

Day 3: Hawk Mountain Tentsites to Cooper Gap, 5-ish miles

Apparently, we got more rain than we were expecting and it was an eventful night. I woke up to my tent a bit flooded and just moved everything from the puddle and went back to sleep (oops). I woke up again to water hitting my face, which prompted me to start drying off my sleeping quilt so I could keep it dry. I was in a daze after having to blow up my sleeping pad every two hours, which kept flattening in the middle of the night, when Ally told me her tent had collapsed and everything was wet. She asked me to help stake out the sections that got washed away so that she could stop holding her tent up and pack up. We decided that with her stuff getting so wet, it would be safer to try to grab a shuttle to a hostel to dry our stuff out before coming back to trail, so we hiked about five miles to Cooper Gap to get picked up by Nimrod at Above the Clouds Hostel. We enjoyed chatting with him about the origins of his name and we were happy to be taking a quick break. The hostel was completely full so we happily took a mattress in the old store that they use for overflow. First of all, I’m not sure why all hikers don’t stay here, this place has everything you need & then some. If I were hiking the AT from the beginning again, I would 100% plan to stay here and make a reservation ahead of time. I was also able to check my sleeping pad for leaks and it was unfortunately leaking from the valve, so I’d have to continue blowing it up every two hours. We were thankful for the company and commiseration this day.

A sunset behind trees

Our Lance Creek sunset.

A tree in fog with shoes hanging from it

The infamous tree at Mountain Crossing, where hikers who have quit hang their shoes from the limbs.

A very foggy view of mountains from a rocky mountain top

Almost views from Blood Mountain.

Day 4: Cooper Gap to Lance Creek Restoration Area, 11.7 miles

As mentioned above, our bluebird trail magic day. We really needed a good day and we were so happy to catch up with people we had seen before. 

Day 5: Lance Creek Restoration Area to Neels Gap, 7.6 miles

Today I zoned out and lost Ally like 15 minutes into the hike, but ran into another guy from our group from the night before and hiked with him. Lost him before the last big climb up Blood Mountain and made it to the top in about 2 hours. I do not like thunderstorms, so I busted my ass to get up this mountain and it felt like a really fun challenge. It was definitely getting spooky up there and super windy, so I thought it would be a great time to listen to Pink Floy’s Dark Side of the Moon album and vibe on the way down. This was a great decision and I showed up at Mountain Crossing a few minutes after noon with a huge smile on my face. I’ll definitely spend more time matching music with the hiking mood later on. Luckily, I made it right before it started pouring, but I made four separate trips into the store, so I got wet anyway. They also had free massages here from a local PT school, shout out to my guy Forest. Once the rest of our group rolled in (soaked by the thunderstorm), we walked to our cabin at Blood Mountain Cabins with our new friends Genie and Liz to dry out, shower, watch Ghostbusters, and plan our next few days. We had been camping with Sunni (and her pup Mya!), Blue, and Peter for the last few days, so they also came over to hang out.

Day 6: Neel Gap to Low Gap Shelter, 11.5 miles

There were a bunch of hard climbs this day and we got a late-ish start. The weather was super nice and sunny. We got into camp a bit late and snagged some okay campsites; it was totally packed in the shelter too. We got to catch up with people we hadn’t seen since Day 1. This night was VERY windy and I could hear the gusts over my earplugs;l, but luckily we didn’t have any tent issues.

Day 7: Low Gap Shelter to Unicoi Gap, 9.7 miles, ride into Helen, Georgia

1 week on trail! I woke up shivering at about two a.m. with my quilt soaked, probably condensation from my own body heat? Was not a good night. I shivered until I saw the sun come up over the ridge and decided to go to get my food bag from the bear cables. Opened my doors and saw my girl Mirage (an appropriate name) coming up the hill with my food bag like a real-life angel. I was able to warm up in my bag and dry in the direct sunlight while eating a Twix bar. Today was rough because I couldn’t recover the shivering calories again. Also, my phone cable broke off into the charging port so I couldn’t even listen to music. However, the saving grace was being able to see people we knew, and we enjoyed taking lunch with friends and hiking with some other familiar faces. We got a ride from a woman giving trail magic who hiked the trail in 2016 (trail name Dulsey Girl?). Stayed at a hotel, put in laundry, got dressed when it was dry, and went to Bigg Daddy’s for dinner, and I remembered how much I missed March Madness.

(At this point in the blog upload, I couldn’t get any more pictures to upload. Sorry!)

Day 8: Unicoi Gap, to Cheese Factory Site, 3.7 miles

The people we got to meet today were the real highlight of such a short day. Since we’re still getting used to town chores, we got out a bit late. At Unicoi Gap, I chatted with a man from Edisto Beach, SC while Ally recovered from the windy Georgia backroads. We were the first ones at the tentsites until a man showed up with his two kids, followed by a group of about 10 other thru hikers, including Sunni and Blue. I did my first bear hang (a bad one) with help from the dad to tie the knot under tension. We had some great conversations today and it was nice to meet some new people.

p.s. I did eat cheese here.

Day 9: Cheese Factory to Deep Gap Shelter, 9.7 miles.

We got up early to try to get space in the shelter with the prospect of a big thunderstorm rolling in. Big climb up Kelly Knob today and it felt like a pretty hard day mentally for me. The saving grace, again, was the awesome group of people here — new people, friends we’d seen for the past few days, and some we hadn’t seen in a while. I planned to stay in the shelter and even fell asleep for about 30 minutes in a tiny spot on the upper level, but my claustrophobia got the best of me, I panicked, and tried to quietly pack up and set up my tent in the dark at 10:30. Not my most glorious moment on trail, but oh well. Anything that happens off trail can happen on trail too!

Day 10: Deep Gap Shelter to Dick’s Creek Gap, 3.7 miles

Only slept about four hours and woke up to everything in my tent wet and Mother Nature just dumping rain outside. We set out at 7:15 for the four-mile stretch and the trail was basically a river. Pack felt 10lbs heavier because everything was soaked. Got a ride to the hotel and they let us check in really early (thank the lord). We were a bit stressed again and just started laying all our stuff out to dry before going to McDonald’s for a mood-boosting meal. We ran all of our errands (which took our mileage total to over nine for the day) and we decided to take the next day off. We enjoyed watching trash tv and taking it easy.

Day 11: Stay in Hiawassee, Georgia, 0 miles

We had breakfast with even more people we didn’t know were staying at the same hotel, are finishing up the rest of our town chores, and relaxing. It feels weird watching our friends set out on trail but I think we really needed an extra day. Now I’m writing this blog, my stomach hurts, and we just have a few more things to cross off the list before we cross Georgia off the list tomorrow! 

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Comments 3

  • John Roden : Mar 27th

    Great read, please keep up the hard work. Hopefully you find a good solution to staying dry during the night from condensation and rain. Enjoy your adventure!

  • Jeff W : Mar 30th

    What a funny tale! When you’re looking up to see bottom, you’ve nowhere to go but up!
    Your sleeping pad trials burn in the aphorism: foam pads rule. My neo-air didn’t leak over 800 miles, even with desert camping on the PCT. I changed up to a hammock for the rest of my hike, so I have no stories of mice chewing through a tent or of camping in a puddle that grew deeper with each hour of rain.


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