Days 0-2: My Beloved Monster and Me


I got to the visitor center at Amicalola Falls at the tail end of the day, with just enough time to get a shakedown, sleep at the Max Epperson shelter, and come back for orientation the next day. My start had already been delayed by a day, and now that was becoming two days, and I was stressed, exhausted, and frantic. So when the man shaking down my pack (which weighed in at 42lbs) told me to drop something, I dropped it. Save for a few items I deemed luxuriously necessary for my morale, I purged what felt like a lot and was truly very little.

The comments on my gear choices made me feel inadequate — probably less because of my volunteer and more my own self doubt taking hold. My hammock system wasn’t good enough. My sleeping bag was too heavy. I packed too much food. I didn’t need the Ursack. My Nalgene was too heavy, and the reason I had it (in case I wanted to use it as a hot water bottle) was deemed unlikely to be needed. I didn’t need my emergency bivy sack since I had all I should need on my back (but could he take it for his first aid kit?).

I packed my fears, I was told. So I listened, terrified at my weigh-in number and feeling like all the research and preparation I had done was all wrong. I felt naive and childish and like I had obviously bitten off more than I could chew, and I was sure that man knew it and knew how much of a fool I saw myself to be.

I took the topquilt he offered me for my hammock system in exchange for putting my 3lb Big Agnes Torchlight in the hiker box. I dumped a bunch of my food and bought eight hiker meals to replace my mac & cheese dinners and tuna packet lunches — the volunteer said that tuna’s so smelly and bears will come for it. He gave me a lot of information that conflicted with or didn’t align with everything I had researched in preparation for this journey. I didn’t trust myself, or the research, and I was so stressed and scared of how I had worked so hard and spent so much to get here only to be shown how completely idiotic I am. I would probably have to go home, a failure who couldn’t even start the approach trail.

I slept that night at the shelter, with my thermals on in the top quilt wrapped around my sleeping pad. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about my sleeping bag — how I’d slept in it for about a month before I left for Atlanta, how it felt like a hug, how warm it was as a short bag fitted to my petite body. The topquilt was too long, left too many air pockets. It was around 40-45 degrees that night, and I was freezing. I couldn’t get comfortable. I kept thinking about how weak I was, and how impossible it seemed to be able to make it up Springer Mountain — much less 2200 miles and up Katahdin.


The arch!

In the morning, I waited outside the basecamp doors for about 15 minutes before they opened at 8AM and swapped back for my sleeping bag. This was my security blanket, and I was sure that if I could just take that with me then I would be okay, I would be able to do this. I tried to sell back half my hiker meals that I realized I was allergic to (bought in a panic, forgot to read the ingredients, got VERY excited about corn chowder), but they can’t refund or return food products (absolutely understandable). I put them in the hiker box and took my tuna back. The real problem was my pound of peanut butter, but I figured if I ran through everything else then the calories from the PB would be good to have on standby. (Fear packing strikes again.)

We had purged my bag to 36lbs the day before, but after swapping things around again I chose not to weigh it. Figured I could mentally push past the weight better if I don’t have a number to focus on (which turned out to be true – and I still refuse to weigh her even though I’ve purged and replaced a LOT so far).

Then I sat and did orientation with Barb and Jen, two women who had stayed at the shelter with me the night before. We decided to hike up the approach trail together since we all wanted to split it into two days and pace ourselves at the beginning of this long-distance thru-hike — as I say a million times a day now: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Me, at the bridge in front of Amicalola Falls

We took off along the route that takes us to the falls and up the stairs to the Springer approach trail. My god. I cannot believe that was only a fraction of all of the stairs. It was beautiful and it was worth it, but the only way I can describe how brutal it was to start off an 8.8 mile hike (with likely a ~40lb pack) at what felt like a million stairs (none of which you can use your trekking poles on) is to explain that I got up Sassafrass saying “This isn’t worse than the Falls.” From there we climbed another 3 miles up to a campsite. Yes, climbed, because the inclines were so goddamned steep it didn’t feel like hiking.

Me, after earning the burn in my calves at the top of the Falls.

The Springer approach trail is no joke. All of us who did it so far in our bubble group all agree in some way that it made these first few days on the white blazes more manageable and approachable. To that point, it also overwhelms some folks and makes them feel like they aren’t ready for the AT. This was the case with our friend Jen, who decided to get off trail once we got to camp. She was so lovely to hike with, and I hope she comes back next year feeling more confident and tackles the trail.

Barb and I began to set up camp and ate our dinner. And… this is where I admit some true naïveté: I hadn’t tested out my shelter system at all before I came out here. I was so sure I would love hammocking, and that it would be more efficient at and better for Leaving No Trace. I love hammocks! I bought a hammock for my room, spent all the time in my old roommate’s hammock I could, I’d even always end up in the hammock at some point at the after hours club I used to go to!

My crappy ENO Junglelink set-up, with an underquilt, underquilt protector, and hammock sling Can you say “useless weight”?

But I didn’t account for the wind, and I didn’t account for the claustrophobia of the tarp. I was scared. I was anxious. I could handle a few of these fears and tackle them, but all at once was so overwhelming. And we were in the middle of the woods, I didn’t think there’d be a shuttle that late, and I felt trapped.

There was no way out, and I was terrified.

I called my mom, having a full blown panic attack, once again feeling stupid and childish and silly and ridiculous. I cried, I wanted to go home, I was too gung-ho and now I was going to pay for it alone in a wind-whipped cacoon of darkness at night, where bears could get me.

Every sound from outside started the panic attack all over again. My mom told me to breathe, my dad and her trying to calm me down from hundreds of miles away. She reminded me that I came out there because I knew I was ready, that I had done good, hard research and wasn’t as naive as I was feeling. She reminded me, also, that part of the reason I came out here was to teach myself how to ask for help when I need it and that maybe I should ask Barb if I could hang out with her for a bit since I was feeling scared. After a lot of convincing, I did. That was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Barb is an incredible person. She just has this energy that makes me feel at home, understood, and respected. We ended up sharing her tent that night, which she appreciated as it made her feel less lonely as well — and (most importantly) because it was going to drop down to 26 that night and we needed every ounce of body heat we could get.


That morning, I woke up and stopped feeling foolish about my gear choices and as if I messed up my research.

Going back to get my sleeping bag probably saved my life.

I had slept in my sleeping bag with my underquilt inside of it, with every layer I had with me on my body. I was still cold, but not uncomfortably so. It was literally freezing. I spent that whole morning thinking about how cold I had been in the top quilt, and how I genuinely likely would have died from how cold I would have been the night before if I hadn’t trusted my gut so stubbornly for my security blanket. If I just have this with me, I can keep going. Truer than I could have realized at the time.

I also realized that, obviously, hammock camping wasn’t for me. I decided to drop the hammock system at Black Gap with a note to please take it, and radically let go of the sunk cost with the unnecessary weight.

Radical rejection is what I’ve been calling it. Not being mean to myself over wasting money, and just taking it as what it is: A lesson in what I need that I’m happier to learn on day one than farther along the way in a worse situation.

Barb and I continued along the approach that day, keeping a steady pace and breaking to let our breaths and heart rates balance out. I spent a lot of time adjusting and readjusting my pack — who we affectionately began calling “Monster”, like Cheryl Strayed’s pack, because she was a thicc girlie — until after dumping what felt like ten pounds at Black Gap.

A freshly purged Monster and a happy hiker.

Between my excitement and Monster’s purge, the last two miles to the summit felt like I was flying. Once I realized we were nearly there, I got emotional. I kept tearing up, itching to reach the top and touch my first white blaze.

It had been such a journey to get there, even in the time since I’d landed in Georgia. I had been waiting to be on this trail, to be out of NYC and out of a toxic environment I can’t seem to help myself in. I had been dying to get to the safety of the trail. I had worked harder to get here than it felt like I had on anything for a long time.

And then I saw it.

I made it.

I started sobbing. I wasn’t sure if I would make it there until I set my own eyes upon that plaque.

I made it. I did it. I finally made it here. And now that I was there, atop Springer Mountain, looking out as the sun began to set in front of Barb and I as we had the whole summit to ourselves, we soaked it in.

I let Barb go on ahead of me and took a moment to myself. I sobbed more, and harder. I spoke aloud to myself:

I did it. I made it! I fucking DID THAT!!! And I will MAKE IT TO KATAHDIN! I’m going to do this!! I did it! I made it to the trail! I’m HERE! This one’s for me. For me. Not for anyone else. Not Insta, not my friends, not my family, not spite. This is mine. I did this, for me, and I’m doing this for me. I can DO THIS! I AM AMAZING!”

And I was right. I still am right.

I’ve never been prouder of myself. And I can’t wait to tell you all how I’ve never loved myself more, appreciated who I am as a person as much, been more sure of who I am and where I belong in the world. I’ve never been this happy in my entire life. I’ve never felt less lost than walking in the woods with strangers. This is my home, this is where I belong, and I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.

Before I bounced my way over to the campsite 0.1 miles into the official Appalachian Trail, I hugged the plaque and thanked it thrice. I jogged the first few yards, saying “I’m going on an adventure!” like I was Bilbo Baggins, and then walked singing “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains

There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line

And the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine

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Comments 3

  • Bluewhale : Mar 23rd

    I’m looking forward to seeing the AT through your eyes. Keep your goals in mind and you’ll get through the lows. The highs will make it all worth it!

  • jen l : Mar 23rd

    Wow Spark! What an honest and inspiring story so far. Good for you for getting your bag back and making good choices on gear changes. You’ve done the hardest part, and now it’s just one foot in front of the other and breathing through the difficult days. Looking forward to more!

  • Marieke : Mar 26th

    I’m so proud of you. What an inspiring start! Trust your gut. It’s a good one. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️


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