Friendships forged on The Appalachian Trail
“Sometimes people come into your life for a moment, a day, or a lifetime. It matters not the time they spent with you but how they impacted your life in that time.”
Recently as our friends were summiting Mt. Katahdin, I reflected about my brief yet amazing experience on the Appalachian Trail, and I realized that the above quote is especially true for hikers. Looking back I could not have asked for better people to hike with, to form friendships with and to know my life is forever changed by the time we spent together on the trail. As with any hiker, who has experienced the A.T. I find myself going back to our first few days on the trail.
On February 14, 2014, a few days after the wrath of Winter Storm Pax , we headed off to Springer Mountain via Amicalola Falls and the approach trail. The sky was a beautiful blue with a few white fluffy clouds flittering by. The snow was as least 12 inches deep on the trail and the temperature was in the mid 30’s. Fred and I signed the Appalachian Trail Log book, the last two names on the page. I remember looking at all the names before us and thinking man there’s a lot of crazy people just like us. Around noon, after a few pictures, hugs and encouragement from our Atlanta family, they sent us on our way. I remember looking back realizing we were suddenly all alone. No more familiar faces, warm beds and hot showers. With snow crunching underneath me and my home on my back the pit in my stomach went from small to huge in the matter of seconds. I couldn’t believe Fred and I were actually here. We were really going through with this hike. I was terrified and excited, both at the same time.
I had read all about the bonds of friendship made on the trail and I was eager to be apart of this community. As we made our way along the trail we were surprised to only run into a couple hikers which made me wonder where all the other hikers were. As our day progressed we witnessed the beauty of the Georgia Mountains and swore more than once at the damn approach trail. It’s said that this section is one of the hardest trails you’ll hike on your way to Mt. Katahdin and it isn’t even part of the Appalachian Trail. What the HELL!!!!! After an invigorating first day, we settled in for the night at Black Gap Shelter. Only two hikers passed the shelter in the cover of darkness. We thought for sure they’d stop and spend the night, but they must’ve been determined to make the last 1-1/2 miles to the Springer shelter. That night we had freezing rain and I experienced my first night ever in a shelter.
Walking up to temperatures in the single digits had us moving as quickly as we could to get ourselves warmed up. The climb was hard and I questioned my sanity, but in the end we made it to Springer. We were “officially” on the Appalachian Trail. We made our way to the shelter in hopes of meeting a few hikers, but no such luck. We grabbed a quick bite, I think this was my first time ever having Tuna for breakfast (don’t judge). About a quarter of a mile into our 2,185 mile trek we met a young Australian, aka (wiki) Wikipedia. He was a nice young man and we learned in our brief conversation that he’d been one of the two hikers to pass by the shelter the night before. He made his way in the dark to the Springer Shelter only to find there was no room for him. In the dark and with snow now falling he set up his tent and all was good. When we left him he was going back to the shelter to look for his sunglasses. We wondered if we’d met him again along our journey. (We did and he completed the trail September 9th)
After a long beautiful 9.6 miles we made our way to Hawk Mountain. Around 3 miles from the shelter Fred began to experience intense pain in his knee. Unbeknownst to me, the day before he had fallen between a rock and a log hidden under the snow and wrenched his knee. I went ahead to see if there was room in the shelter. I’m sure we where a sight. I’m huffing and puffing, Fred is limping and before us are several of the hikers whose names were on that log. They were AMAZING. While the shelter was full, they somehow made room for the two of us, offering to get our water, asking if Fred needed ibuprofen and Ricarda shared a shot or two of whiskey, and Jere aka honeybun gave Fred his knee brace. Here we were in the mist of hiker generosity and I suddenly knew what all those before me were talking about. And as tired as I was, I was exhilarated by the day and our new friends. Little did we know that our shelter mates, would become family not only on the trail but to this very day.
I vividly remember meeting Haley. She was this cute funny girl with an abundance of energy, hence her trail name Sunshine. Her fiance’ Julian aka young-beard was equally fun. 3-mile and I spent many miles hiking with them and I must say sunshine has given me memories I will never forget and plenty of stories to tell. (I’m happy to report that they summited Mt. Katahdin September 5th)
Over the days that followed a few more hikers joined our group. Every day we all started out a different times, with different paces yet almost every night we ended up at the same shelter, hostel or town together. A handful of strangers braving the snow and cold temperatures to test their mental and physical endurance, quickly forging a bond over a common goal. Completing the hike. While some of us have had to come off the trail due to injury or illness at least seven of our original fourteen friends have complete their hikes.
The pride we have in our friends accomplishment is enormous as we remember the early days. The days when we were all figuring it out. The daily doses of encouragement, the laughter, the meals we shared, stories and an occasional beer by the campfire. The feeling of belonging. For some, this was the first time being surrounded by people who understood their dreams, their fears and the undeniable desire to be a part of the Appalachian Trail. Yet, right now at this very minute I have bittersweet feelings as I watch my friends achieve their dreams. Why bittersweet? Because I’m supposed to be there with them. I’m longing for 2015 to come when it will be 3-mile and I standing on that sacred wooden sign on top of a Mt. Katahdin crying and rejoicing in our accomplishment and feeling what our dear friends felt this year. And I know that the friends we made on the trail will be the first ones to cheer us on.
Because hikers are a strange and unique breed of people. Most of our friends and family think we are crazy for actually wanting to hike 2,185 miles, over a five or six month period. But what they don’t understand is that, while yes we might be crazy, each of us is looking for something. What that something is, is as unique as the individual seeking it. For some it is about finding their calling in life and walking for a friend who can’t such as our friend Priest. For others it’s about the loss of friends and realizing that life is too damn short to put off dreams. For some it’s simply the challenge of completing the trail. For whatever reason the goal to finish the trail is the common denominator that binds us hikers together.
For several of us the dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail with a partner or friend was always part of the plan. What happens when one of you can’t finish or never has the chance to start? Does the other move forward or forgo the dream? Moving forward can make the one hiking even more determined to complete the trail or once under way decide to put their hike on hold and wait for their partner. Our friend Sean Cintron aka Priest fell into the first scenario. Priest was a calming influence amongst us. He always seemed at peace, with a quiet determination. More determined than most, although I never knew why. So when I found out that he had planned on hiking the trail with his friend, journalist James Foley, I got it. I understood the drive he had. He had to finish the hike not only for himself but for his kidnapped friend. Upon completing the hike on July 30th, Sean returned home to NYC to begin his last year of college before pursuing his dream of becoming a Jesuit priest. Sadly, shortly after his return home his dear friend was brutally murdered. See Sean’s exclusive interview here about his friend James Foley and why not finishing the hike was never an option for him.
One never knows how his or her life will be impacted by those they meet in life. I am forever grateful for the fourteen hikers who changed my life in such a positive way. Their triumphs will be my triumphs. Their sorrow will be my sorrow. The Trail changes you and never has this quote been more truthful. “Sometimes people come into your life for a moment, a day, or a lifetime. It matters not the time they spent with you but how they impacted your life in that time.”
For my fellow 2015 hikers “Embrace the trail, the magic and the people for they will forever be in your heart and soul”
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