The First Four Days
Today marks one week since Chelsea and I first bid farewell to life as we knew it. That doesn’t sound right though, for I can already hardly remember what life is like in the world we left behind. I’m only certain that I don’t like it nearly as much the trail.
A journey of 2,190.2 miles begins with a 7 mile approach trail.
The good fortune that we have been blessed with on our journey thus far began immediately on day one when we discovered that the hotel we had stayed at was situated above the Amicalola falls. We had already talked about whether or not to climb those stairs, decided that we would, and gone off looking for the visitors center. We asked an older couple how to get to the waterfall and they told us we were already above it. We considered for half a second descending the hundreds of stairs and climbing back up them, but I don’t believe either of us ever considered it too seriously. We figured walking seven miles of the approach trail still exempted us from cheater status and that it was best to get in the habit of humbling ourselves before fate and accepting its gifts when they are offered.
I will tell you that, weatherwise, our first day on the trail brought exactly zero harbingers of what was to come over the next seven. It was a beautiful, bright sunny day. I’m talking bluebird- not a cloud in sight- with temperatures in the mid-60’s and just enough cool breeze to keep us from sweating to death as we hauled our overstuffed packs to the top of Springer.
We walked much of the approach trail with a friendly day hiker from Atlanta named Chad who talked about his sons in the Boy Scouts and told us he had never met any thru hikers before. He said he was in awe of us. I felt the compliment to be a bit premature given that we were still miles away from even seeing our first white blaze, but I kept that thought to myself.
By the time we reached the top of Springer it may as well have been the top of Katahdin, the journey had felt so long. The pack I had been training with for months was only a few pounds lighter, but the burden I carried that day felt like it was the heaviest that could have possibly been carried by anyone ever. Chelsea said that she felt the same way. We took our boots off and lounged on the summit eating our lunch and basking in the sunshine. After about an hour, we took our first steps on the Appalachian trail and made our way to the Stover Creek shelter for our first night.
Good thing we used our rain flys
As the sun dipped down toward the horizon that evening, it occurred to me that it might be a lovely night for stargazing. Chelsea looked at me skeptically and reasoned that it was perhaps best not to tempt the wrath of the heavens on our very first night at their mercy. I knew she had a point and so I threw my rain fly over my tent and walked with Chels to the campfire some other hikers had built where we talked to a couple from Australia, a kid from Boston, and three kids from Connecticut who were eating python jerky that they said tasted like Taiwanese food.
Everyone at camp turned in right around hiker midnight (sundown for the uninitiated), and presumably drifted off to sleep. Around 1:30am, I awoke to the sound of distant thunder and the pitter patter of rain drops, and proceeded to sit wide eyed for the next four hours as gales of wind blew through our campsite driving precipitation that sounded millions of tiny bullets into our tents. For awhile I could have sworn that the lightning was crashing inches away from us. It was absolutely terrifying, but a little bit thrilling too.
The rain finally stopped around 7am. Chelsea and I got out of our tents and saw that they were as wet and muddy as one would expect after such a night. But we ate our oatmeal and packed everything up and set off down the trail in good spirits anyway.
The sky was cloudy and the air a bit cooler than the day before, but it was good hiking weather. We kept ourselves entertained along the 13 mile walk to Gooch Gap shelter by brainstorming incentives for our fundraising efforts (more on that in future posts) and making up trail names for each other like the Notorious S.L.U.T. and Muffin Tits (neither of which we have earned or kept, FYI).
When we got to Gooch Gap we found a veritable tent city and it looked doubtful whether we would find a place to sleep. Fortunately there was room enough for two girls in the shelter, so we spent the night in there with eight other people. Two of the kids from Connecticut were there. They had already picked out trail names. One was calling himself Flair and the other was trying to name himself Oden, which irritated Chelsea to no end. “Tame a raven and then get back to me,” she kept telling him. I don’t think he cared.
I awoke the next morning from a series of bizarre dreams involving things like boiling Cheerios and starting kitchen fires and trying to run away from women with red lipstick. I realized that I might need a more comfortable sleeping pad.
Caught up in the rat race
It was clear from the numbers at Gooch Gap that there were more people using the trail than the trail could very well accommodate. We had heard from a ridge runner the previous day that there was a cold front and snow coming in starting early Saturday night, and we had devised an ambitious plan to push through the 15 miles to Neel Gap and secure a spot in the hostel. We were disappointed, though not surprised, to learn that this plan was a very popular one. Every bed in every nearby town was booked, it seemed, and so we resigned ourselves to stopping at the Lance Creek tent site and waiting for the weather.
The big crowds were making the going stressful for both of us, and the blisters forming on Chelsea’s feet were making it even worse for her. She showed me her toes and I thanked heaven for my years in the restaurant industry and the callouses of steel on my feet. She was a trooper about it, but at times her face betrayed some serious pain.
We descended into Woody Gap and found a large parking lot with trash cans and bathrooms and -could it be?- trail magic on the other side! Two of the women cooking food worked at the Amicalola lodge and recognized us right away. The one named Barbara told us to help ourselves to buiscuts, sausages, bacon, eggs, juice, and coffee. It was so unbelievably thoughtful and it really lifted our spirits.
After eating our fill, we climbed out of the gap back into the hills. At the top of one of them we met a really nice young couple named Ash and Janine. Janine told us that her sister and her husband were a few weeks ahead of us hiking the trail. She told us that when they had gotten to Neel gap, her and Ash had picked them up and hosted them for the night. She offered to do the same for us and gave us her phone number if we wanted to take them up on it. We decided that we should and made plans to meet her at Neel at 5pm the next day.
It turned out to be a pleasant evening in Lance Creek. We cooked dinner right outside the tent (we both slept in mine on account of the cold) and met a new friend who brewed us tea and played the guitar for us (I’ll tell you more about him later because he really requires his own post). We fell asleep this time to the sound of gentle, rather than torrential rain, and woke up the next morning to about a half inch of snow.
We were the last to leave camp that morning by a long shot. We were very cold and tired but our bodies seemed desperate to keep us going, pumping us full of enough endorphins and adrenaline that we could not stop commenting on what a beautiful day it was, despite the fact that we had spent the morning packing up gear that was covered in ice and mud and walking through a forest shrouded in cold mist. It was nice to miss the crowds though. Our late start meant that we were able to reach the summit of Blood Mountain without hardly passing a soul, and the silence was divine.
We finally both hit a wall at about 3:30 when we got to Neel gap. I was too cold and tired to even eat. I got my package and my letter from Zach Davis with the stickers. I purchased a cool new Buff and a regular Sawyer Squeeze (my Sawyer Mini just wasn’t cutting it) and spent the rest of the time standing next to the space heater shivering while Chelsea got her shakedown and we waited for Janine.
Janine pulled in just after 5 with the heat blasting (what an angel!) and she drove us to her house in Dahlonega 20 minutes away. It was a beautiful drive. The sun had come out just in time to cast beautiful evening rays of gold on the streams and green valleys and quaint North Georgia farmhouses. She showed us to the guest room and the bathroom and I called my mom and took the best shower of my entire life.
Chelsea and I insisted on taking Janine and Ash to dinner, so we went out to a pub downtown called Shenanigans where we indulged in a hiker feast like you read about. I had a painkiller, a Blue Moon, “crack dip,” a Guinness burger medium rare with mushrooms and provolone, fries, half of Janine’s sandwich, and the hash browns that Chelsea left on her plate. If they hadn’t been closing down for the night I probably would have eaten more. I swear my stomach was still growling when we left.
We drove home, shared a bottle of wine, and stayed up late into the night talking politics and religion. Ash and Janine very generously offered to host us another night, and it was difficult to pass up the tempting offer. But ultimately Chels and I decided it was simply too soon for a zero day, and so the next morning we ate breakfast in the kitchen with Janine, and then she drove us back to Neel gap and we headed once again into the woods, a forecast of snow and temperatures in the teens looming over our heads.
To be continued…
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