Georgia on My Mind – Ray Charles
The Lead-Up to the Start
My dad kindly drove me to Heathrow Airport at 5 a.m. for my 8:25 flight. I was concerned that the airline may question my carry-on only ticket as I had my full Osprey backpack in tow. Nobody asked anything (you can get away with murder as long as it’s in a backpack and not a suitcase). A Spoons’ breakfast was in order with the time before my flight.
It’s a Jersey Thing
I got to New York without a hitch, and after a quick meal (New York City has some awesome vegan food places) I headed to Jersey to spend the night at my old friend Tigga’s place. He took me straight to the Jersey section on the Appalachian Trail. We hiked together to the Catfish fire tower, while catching up, where I almost slipped over on ice. We even got to go in the fire tower and learn about how the tower teams in the area operate to prevent wildfires.
Tigga and I returned to meet up with his partner, Kayla. The three of us did the only thing one does when in Jersey… dinner in a diner. This was an award-winning diner (as I’m sure all diners are there) and we spent the evening chatting away about the upcoming hike, as well as the lives of Tigga and Kayla.
Back to Camp Vacamas
After sleeping like a baby, I was dropped off at Camp Vacamas (my spiritual home). I spent the next two days with a whole group of friends who live and work there year round. I dragged Laura on the hikes around camp that got me into hiking in the first place. This seemed like a very fitting full-circle moment in advance of the thru-hike.
I caught up with an old friend, Gail, whose optimism is always remarkable. She was full of joy and we spent several hours chatting away and watching the world go by.
Janneris and Lee hosted a potluck on the second evening. We all went over with various delicious dishes for dinner, laughter, karaoke (Elton John, George Michael, Lionel Richie, Freddie Mercury, and even Hannah Montana), and games.
Janneris made sure she knew my planned route and tried to find everyone in her phone book along the way. This was her plan to keep me fed and watered! I said goodbye until later in the summer, when I plan to pass by for a zero day or two.
I made my way to Atlanta, where I bought the last few items I needed from REI, and bought my first week of trail food. Not knowing when I’d eat well again, I stuffed my face with bread sticks at Olive Garden. I struggled to find a last-minute shuttle for the 75-minute journey to Amicalola Falls State Park that wasn’t really expensive. Low and behold, an Uber was the cheapest option, as well as pretty awesome talking with the driver.
The Day Before Day One
I arrived at the state park to obtain my hiker number #1673 and trail tag, and to receive the free thru-hiker induction from the awesome Nick, aka Master Splinter (previous thru-hiker). He did tease me for packing hummus and now I will make sure I have hummus at every resupply possible. As a fellow vegan he gave me some great nutrition advice and American foods that I could pack out easily (just not hummus).
I stayed in the falls shelter in order to rest up for my start date of Sunday, March 31. There were some other cool hikers sleeping in the shelter. We spent the evening telling our various stories and reasons for hiking. Little Smoke told me I had “Maine written all over me.” As someone who had thru-hiked before this was a great start to my trip. I am glad that my determination to reach Katahdin is etched on my face and comes through in my demeanor.
It poured with rain that night and I felt sorry for all of the ultramarathon runners who were finishing the 74-mile Georgia Death Race in the state park. Their supporters were noisy throughout the night so I didn’t feel too sorry for them.
The Approach Trail
I woke up and had a hearty breakfast of porridge (oatmeal in the US) with peanut butter and banana. With my pack all geared up and water at the ready I walked to the falls of Amicalola Falls State Park. Six hundred steps in total; difficulty: strenuous.
The stairs were fine. I had already heard loads of stories of people quitting on the stairs. To me they were fine. I was out of breath at the end, but slowly and steadily I worked my way to the top.
The remainder of the 8.8 mile Approach Trail progressively got harder as you ascended toward the Springer Mountain terminus. I was very ready for a break after walking in the strong winds and foggy/cloudy skies. Reaching the trailhead marker where I planned to eat was underwhelming with no view and cold winds. I took a picture and pressed on.
Back to Mile Zero
After 8.8 miles the AWOL guide takes the numbers back to zero in advance of the next 2,192 miles ahead. I broke for the Springer Mountain Shelter and ate lunch with a few other people, sheltering from the wind. As we left the shelter for the final 2.6 miles of the day, the sun came out and ice shards that had formed on all of the surrounding trees began to drop around us. It’s not a phenomenon I have seen before, although it was rather beautiful.
I made it to Stover Creek Shelter, where I chatted with other excited hikers, did my yoga stretching routine, and set up my tent for the first night of sleep on the trail. It was the coldest night I experienced in Georgia, and was expected to be below freezing. We all kept warm around a campfire until bedtime and then we slept with our water filters to ensure they didn’t freeze.
A fellow Brit and former thru-hiker named Super English was sharing his experiences of 2018 and although I am here to make my own experiences, it is reassuring to hear from those who have gone through it all before.
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
The following day we all arose early from the cold in anticipation of a day of hiking and got out on the trail. There was a lot of crossing paths as people stopped for breaks, lunches, to fill up water, and to set up camp based on their hiking plan.
It is advised you start on eight miles a day for the first week to get your body used to the miles and then to increase slowly. Of course I didn’t listen to this. My second day was 12.9 miles and I reached Gooch Mountain Shelter. I’m a grown man and know place names come from various things, but I still chuckle at this, especially as it’s only a few miles from Dicks Creek. This time I slept in the shelter as I wanted an early start.
Even though some of the people at each shelter differ from the last it is nice to hear more stories, as well as compare base weights and equipment. We all have a common goal and it is a useful bonding technique.
The following days I gained more confidence that I could hike further and had an 18-miler and 17-miler in quick succession. This was a mistake.
Georgia: The Butt Kicker
By now I had spent a couple of days walking alone, in pairs, and in groups. There were several people that I had stayed with for a few nights now and I am very happy to have made such great trail friends early on. They are Annie, Eric, Little Bear, and Burning Man.
From multiple different backgrounds and various ages we seemed like an unlikely bunch, but we got on well and were happy to help each other out. In fact the latter two (both 19-year-old Canadians) had to help me on not one, but two occasions with getting my PCT-style bear hang right. I kept losing my cord in the trees. Eventually I had to replace my cord that still resides somewhere on the trail south of Unicoi Gap. We did manage to get my rock bag and carabiner back though. It only required Little Bear to stand on the shoulders of Burning Man, while I was spotting in case of a fall. Annie passed the stick and after a few attempts of a catch a duck style fairground game we had succeeded.
We also met Bill, Patrick, and Trampus in the night, before we had planned to head to Haiwasse to resupply. Bill did the waterfall steps on the Approach Trail twice, as he didn’t realize it was a loop trail and walked merrily until he found himself back at the park office; Patrick had quit the trail after a couple of days, but then came back as he knew he had to do it; and Trampus had just retired and had convinced his wife to let him loose for a six-month jaunt along the AT.
It’s Called a Mountain Trail for a Reason
Having already had two heavy days of hiking with climbs up and down from Blood Mountain, my knees were feeling a little tender. Even with my trekking poles I wasn’t being careful with going downhill. The 1.5-mile descent to Unicoi Gap, where we planned to hitch, was very steep. However, the excitement for real food made me go faster than I should have. There was trail magic at the road, where people come and provide hot food, snacks, games, and refreshments to hikers just out of the kindness of their hearts. We had our fill and then played the hitch game. In the end, Annie managed to flag down a red pickup and a sweet gentleman gave a ride to five of us into town. My knees were very sore.
Getting into town was a little surreal. Even though I grew up in human society (I can hear my siblings questioning that when it comes to my eating habits), we were all a little excited for the simplicity of things—to be able to walk down a flat, paved street, take a shower, and even get water from a tap that doesn’t have to go through a filter.
After resting, resupplying, eating heartily at a Mexican restaurant, sitting in a hot tub, and sleeping in a real room for the first time in five days, I was ready to hit the trail again.
Time to Rethink
The trail ascended, descended, and ascended again in marks of 1,000 feet. It was our first hike in the rain and my right knee was screaming at me! How could I have been so foolish to hike so far in my first week? Why didn’t I follow the sage advice of the ridge runner from the state park? I was overenthusiastic.
Taking It Slow
I knew if I wanted to continue I’d have to reevaluate things. Struggling the five-or-so miles to Tray Mountain Shelter, I arrived in time to say goodbye to some of my hiking group. Although this was sad for me, I knew it was the right thing to do. I stretched for an hour, put on my knee brace, also taking ibuprofen for any swelling. Trampus also drifted in as he had been listening to his body and stopping when he was tired.
Another group of hikers drifted in and I spent the evening with them around a campfire. They lifted my spirits as we covered the important topics of EDM, living in Spain, and what your useless super power would be. They had also been hiking only eight miles a day.
I vowed to take my pace down a notch. The next day I set out and reduced my stride, and took much longer on ascents and descents in order to place my feet with precision and allow my knees to move carefully. This made a world of difference. It wasn’t long before I was stopped for lunch, listening to the water of the stream trickle by. Trampus joined me for lunch and we both decided we weren’t ready to call it a day as it was early and we felt good. We overtook each other at various moments, and then heard there was trail magic. I edged ahead and promised to get him a hot dog for when he arrived.
Different People, Same Lessons
I reached the road and although I had missed the hot food, there were plenty of snacks, cold drinks, and fruit available. I stockpiled for Trampus and me.
The other, less positive surprise was my friend Annie was also there. I assumed I wouldn’t see her again for some days while I built my knee strength up. However, her knees had also been playing havoc on her and I soon discovered she had begun to struggle only miles after I had decided to stop.
Rest, Recuperation, and the Bizarre World of Trail Magic
Annie had made the decision to take a few days off to rest her knees so she could continue on her way. I spent an hour with her just relaxing, while she waited for a ride from her family back to South Carolina. I know I will see her again once she is rested and ready. (We have kept in touch and she will be joining the trail again very soon.) The hikers from the day before at Tray Mountain Shelter also drifted to the road to head to town. There was a knee brace for Bubbles Friend that the trail angels had picked up from a chance meeting the day before at the previous gap, and left for her to collect at Dicks Creek Gap.
I said bye to Annie and then Trampus and I headed one mile uphill to a campsite for the night. We met Hurricane, from New Zealand, who had been blasting 18-mile days with no issue. It goes to show that everyone has their own fitness and abilities. Listen to your body and its needs. The three of us chatted away and went to bed.
It rained overnight and Trampus had a wet night. He was soaked through. He decided to regroup in town and get a better tent to keep him dry. Another friend I have made and another “see you later.”
I walked again using my new, more mindful method and found I was able to crack out the miles again. A cooler day to begin with, I walked while appreciating the sites and sounds of my surroundings.
My last day in Georgia was surreal.
Georgia is an overture for the symphony of 2,192 miles. Anything you will find on the trail is here in some form or other: altitude; rocky paths; mud; trail magic; overfilled privys; bugs divebombing toward your eyes and mouth.
This was the first taste I had of my thru-hike to come. Over 78.1 miles I had already learned many new lessons.
Here is what it taught me:
Georgia is tough.
Georgia is really tough.
Take your time: this is a marathon not a sprint. (Well, closer to 83.67 marathons).
You will make friends.
You will say goodbye to friends.
There is always time to appreciate a view, an insect, or a flower.
Filtering water, although necessary, is time consuming.
There are some very kind people out there always willing to help.
Proper blister maintenance.
I am fed up of oatmeal and peanut butter.
Take ahold of the opportunities that come to you.
Enjoy the journey.
A view is always more special once you have sweated your way up a mountain to get to it.
As I head into North Carolina I am thankful for my experiences and lessons. There is one thing I know: North Carolina will be even more of a butt kicker than Georgia, but I am stronger, wiser, a little skinnier, and more determined than ever.
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