Georgia Mud Pies
Week 1 on the AT
The drive to Georgia was one of those things that feels fictitious, like the moments just outside of a dream. We arrived two days before my planned start date, so I registered early at Amicalola for my lovely purple tag (number 359). I was wholly uninterested in climbing the stairs with a full pack through throngs of people, so my wife and I traversed them that afternoon. The waterfall was gorgeous, but the descent was possibly worse than climbing up the damn stairs!
I donned my pack and bounced down to the arch for my photo op. I even spotted some hikers settling in at the Max Epperson shelter. My brain was buzzing with excitement, but it still didn’t feel real. “You’re about to walk to Maine,” I kept telling myself. “You’re crazy, and you’re about to walk to Maine.”
I suppose that next day was technically a zero for me. I remember thinking, how far will I be able to hike tomorrow? When I picked up my tag, I sat for the LNT presentation—it really turned into a “don’t hike too far” presentation. I knew in my bones that my body was capable of doing this, but everyone around me seemed to think I would overdo it. They seemed to think pushing myself to my limit was a bad idea. Still, I fantasized about my first day mileage. Could I make it into the teens? What were these mountains really like? I would soon find out.
I left from the lodge that day around 10 in the morning. The goodbyes were really hard. I didn’t want to make a big thing of it, and I knew the more drawn out the goodbye was the harder my tears would fall. So, sadness in tow, I booked it up the trail and focused on my footing. I cried for the first few minutes, but I was eventually able to replace the aching in my heart with a disdain for the steepness of the climbs. I wheezed my way to the top, and hit the plaque on Springer by 1:30 pm.
I felt like there were rockets in my shoes. The adrenaline rush was insane, and my body was feeling so good and strong. I remembered reading that the approach trail was so grueling, and yet I found it invigorating. Tough, sure, but I conquered Springer!
I set up camp that night at a spot just beyond Stover Creek shelter, which put my first day mileage around 11.5. I could’ve pushed longer but I was nervous about time management as far as camp chores. I hadn’t perfected a routine with setting up my tent yet, and my bear hang skills were rudimentary at best. I wanted to allot plenty of time for mistakes that first night. After eating one of my dehydrated dinners and reading a bit of my book, I settled into my tent. I would love to say I slept well, but I got almost no rest that night. Perhaps it was the change in environment, or the uptick in physical activity, but I remained restless until sunrise. Groggy, I packed up my things and set off to do it all over again.
The Adventure Shines On
The next couple of days held that same level of excitement as the first day. My second night on trail, I picked another site just beyond a shelter. The thought of walking into a shelter gave me so much anxiety—almost a paralyzing amount—so I avoided them and other hikers like the plague at first. I just couldn’t fathom the idea of making small talk with complete strangers. What would we talk about? How would I know if I’m imposing on them? What do I do if we don’t get along? A string of questions longer than the dental floss in my first aid kit reared its ugly head, keeping me from even trying to make people’s acquaintance. Still, I came out here as a solo hiker and I was proud to be trekking up and down mountains alone.
My third day on trail I received my first trail magic. As I walked into Woody Gap, there was a small group of hikers gathered around a picnic table, staring at a Coleman grill. Hot dogs! Some men and their dog were cooking us hot dogs!
I told myself this would be an excellent opportunity to try my hand at the small talk. I was starting to feel badly about how blatantly antisocial I was, and missing my friends back home. I grabbed a hot dog, mentally convincing myself that food would make me feel better anyways. I struck up a bit of conversation with some of the guys, but my thoughts were jumbled and my hot dog was cold. I eventually booked it out of there, promising myself that next time I would at least finish the hot dog faster so I didn’t have time to hate it.
My First Shelter Experience
Night 3 I stayed at Woods Hole shelter. This shelter is in a small section where a hard sided bear canister is required for overnight guests, but that requirement doesn’t go into effect until March 1st. Since I hiked through this section early enough, I pitched my tent in a flat spot right outside of the shelter and threw my food bag (a dry bag lined with an scent proof plastic bag) inside of the bear box.
Unbeknownst to me, a mouse or two had taken up residence in that bear box. Apparently I slept hard that night, as I did not hear the other hikers fussing over this furry creature’s bear box invasion. The next morning, I discovered my bag was lighter—and not just from the missing fabric!
Thankfully, I was only a few miles from Mountain Crossings, where I’d be able to get a new food bag and pick up my first mail drop. The day was kind of cold and very dreary. I got nothing but thick white fog from atop Blood Mountain, but I was elated nonetheless. This trail, so far, had been such a change of pace that I was still enjoying every moment, even losing my food bag.
First Town Day
The only thing I really wanted at this point was a chance to dry out my tent (which had essentially become a mud pie hut). In a moment of weakness, I booked myself a room for the following night in the town of Helen and hiked giddily to Unicoi Gap. Looking back, I should’ve stayed in Hiawassee instead. Helen has a roller coaster, but few actual hiker services. Nonetheless, a lovely shuttle driver picked me up, and I ate some decent food in town. The laundromat was pretty far, so I washed my clothes in the shower and laid most of my gear out to dry. I felt emotionally replenished and ready to take on more miles.
That next morning, as I hiked up out of Unicoi Gap, I watched the weather quickly turn. The sun was beating down on my face as I crawled up that next incline. By the top, the skies greyed out and raindrops pelted my face. It rained for hours, so much so that my raincoat became utterly pointless. I wondered why I had even bothered drying out my gear, or showering. Not even 24 hours had gone by and I was drenched once again.
My irritation turned to absolute fear that night. I chose an isolated camping spot again, not knowing there was a wind advisory that night. Winds came indeed—they shook my tent and rattled my soul. It was terrifying to realize I was at the mercy of the elements.
In Need of a Milestone
When I awoke the next morning in a state of absolute humility, I realized I was only about 16 miles out from the GA/NC border. This lifted my spirits. I can be in North Carolina by tonight, I thought, and what a way to close out the week!
I was on the move by about 7:30 that morning. I had been pacing at about 2 mph, so I knew the distance was entirely possible before dark. As the day rolled on, though, I realized I was kind of slow. Maybe it was the soreness finally settling into my joints, the relentless Georgia humidity, or even my low morale from the night prior, but my body was struggling for the first time since I’d begun my journey.
About a mile after passing the last shelter in Georgia (only 3 miles from the border) I rolled my ankle on a downhill and ate dirt. Initially, the shock of the fall kept the pain at bay, but as I began back down the hill my foot started to throb. I hobbled into a particularly unsavory campsite—the water flow was very low and the ground made no attempt at being flat enough for a tent. It wasn’t ideal, but my foot was so bad now that putting any weight on it was painful enough to make my eyes water.
I took a handful of ibuprofen and Benadryl that night, propped my foot up on my pack, and cried myself to sleep. I was convinced the injury had done me in, and that I would have to quit my adventure after only one week on trail. Even the next morning, the pain was bad enough that my camp chores were all done while limping. Stubborn as I am though, I was not prepared to let this take me out. With a touch of determination, and some encouraging words from my wife, I would make it into North Carolina safely the next day.
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