Georgia Took My Toenail but Not My Spirit: Lessons Learned from My First 100 Miles on the AT

I smell like a mix of body odor and the damp earth of the forest. My knee feels like it’s twisting and my Achilles tendons are throbbing and pulling at my heels. The fog creeps in among the trees, and I swear when the wind rips through the forest it sounds like a baby bear yelping for its mother. My pack is pulling at my right shoulder. As I slide down moss-covered rocks, I can’t help but think over and over again about a quote I heard while listening to Backpacker Radio episode #106 from Nicole Antoinette: “What a privilege to get to choose your suffering.” 

And let me tell ya, there has definitely been some suffering. No amount of training in the gym compares to how it feels to basically do 500 pistol squats up a mountain in 30 mph winds with 35 pounds on my back. I am convinced that nothing could have truly prepared me for the ups and downs (literally) of beginning my AT thru-hike. No blogs I read, YouTube videos I watched, or podcasts I listened to convey the enormity of embarking on a 2,190 mile walking journey. I had been on plenty of hikes before this one, but until I was putting one foot in front of the other down a trail of white blazes did I begin to understand the realities that will become my daily life for the next 5-6 months. While I have definitely felt a little inept at times, I know one thing for sure: I have never felt more free and alive. 

I have learned a lot of lessons in my first 100 miles on my Appalachian trail thru-hike. I’ve come to think of the trail as a teacher – exposing my weaknesses and forcing me to learn and adapt. I never expected that one of my favorite parts of becoming a thru-hiker would be learning from new experiences every day. Trail life is humbling, but it’s also exhilarating. 

As I chat and meet other AT thru-hikers, it comes clearer to me that hiking the Appalachian trail is a deeply personal and unique experience for each and every one of the 3,000 or so people who attempt each year. I hope that in sharing lessons from my first 100 miles on trail, I will also shed light on trail life realities beyond what you may see in Instagram photos. 

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s real, and it’s beautiful.

The first day anxiety is something serious. 

When I woke up at Amicalola Lodge the morning of my start date, my stomach was in knots. I would love to pretend that I was cool, calm, and collected, but I was far from it. My nerves were out in full force. To use a common saying from down here in the South, I didn’t “know my ass from my elbow.” My mind felt like it was outside of my body as I listened to the welcome speech about bear bag hanging, norovirus outbreaks, and proper waste removal. When the woman handed me my yellow tag with the number 1541, my first thought was “What have I done?” I just signed myself up to hike for the next half year of my life. Once I began walking down the trail, my anxieties started to settle, but I never expected to feel so nervous the first day of my hike. It turns out, a lot of people felt the same way. We are all like students on their first day of class – awkward, excited, with no idea of what to expect.

Bright eyed and bushy tailed at the start of the approach trail

I had (and still do feel) Imposter Syndrome. 

If you don’t know what Imposter Syndrome is, it’s defined as a “condition that often results in people feeling like a fraud or a phony and doubting their abilities.” As I passed people and they would see my stuffed pack, they’d ask, “Are you hiking the whole thing?” I continued to respond, “I’m going to try!” As I kept walking, I started to wonder why I didn’t just say yes. Yes, I’m hiking all the way to Maine. I realized it was because I felt like I hadn’t earned that right. I wasn’t a thru-hiker; I hadn’t even made it 100 miles! When can I even call myself a thru-hiker? Even now, I feel weird writing a blog about thru hiking when I’ve still only hiked a little over 200 miles. The yellow AT tag that swings from my pack isn’t a stamp of approval – it’s a challenge. I’ve been working with each step towards changing my internal dialogue to I am a thru-hiker. I’m going to Katahdin. 

It’s the little things. 

I knew I would have to make changes in gear, but it wasn’t in ways that I expected. I’ve learned so many little tips and tricks in my first 100 miles. My biggest lesson came on day four as I woke up to rain pattering on my tent roof. I knew the weather that day was going to be rough – rain, temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s, with gusts up to 30-40 mph (also – be sure to use for accurate information!) I had a plan to pack inside my tent and throw on my pack cover (a pack cover is like a rain jacket for your pack). What I didn’t think about was strapping a water logged tent to the bottom of my pack that would surely seep water into the inside. It turns out a pack cover is not a substitute for a pack liner. Everything inside my pack was wet (at this point my trail friends and I agree that a pack cover and liner is the best combo). I’ve continued to learn little things here and there – like tying my shoes with the heel-lock method, using a leaf to get a better flow from a water source, and strapping a small amount of duct tape around my trekking poles for easy access to cover blisters (thanks, Lee!). I’ve definitely made more major gear changes, but the little things I’ve learned from experiences and others go a long way. 

It was a little cold the first night

The pain came on strong and quick. 

Before hiking the trail, I lived a relatively active lifestyle. I walked often, went on runs, and lifted weights in the gym. I knew that eventually I would be in pain on the trail, but I didn’t realize how quick. On day five, I began to experience serious pain on the outside of my left knee. Prior to that, I was feeling sore but strong. By the end of the day, I was limping into camp. I had never had trouble with my knee to that extent, and I was terrified of an injury that would put me off trail. I tried everything to feel better – taping, taking tumeric, using anti-inflammatory creams, a knee brace – you name it. Not only that, but my Achilles tendon on my left leg was also swollen and inflamed (apparently my left leg is way weaker than my right). I continued to hike on with a goal of getting to a particular location before I had to get off trail for a wedding, but I was shocked by the amount of pain that I was in. Eventually the pain dulled, but usually a new pain just emerges in its place. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll more than likely be in a state of pain the entire course of hiking the AT. To quote a hiker I passed on the trail, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

Peep the knee brace and my tent about to fall off my pack at the GA/NC border

Free time? What’s free time? 

I didn’t think I would be kicking my feet up and relaxing once I made it to my destination for the day, but the amount of chores that need to be done after hiking can be exhausting: setting up the tent, blowing up the air pad, changing into new clothes, getting water, cooking dinner, cleaning dishes, hanging up the food bag, etc. One day I threw the bear bag so many times trying to hook a tree that I got rope burn on my fingers. Town days are even more busy. I didn’t take a zero day in my first 100 miles, but I did take “nero” days to go into town (days with a little hiking). I got so overwhelmed by the amount of things I needed to do that I started making a checklist to keep myself from missing something or getting distracted (*stops writing blog to do something I just remembered*). Resupply days can be very hectic and exhausting in their own way. 

The crew posing with the mayor of Hiawassee outside of Ingles. From left to right: Liz Ordiales (mayor), Lee, Me (Carly), Trunks, Emilia, and Bennett

Pain came on quickly, but so did making friends. 

People come to the trail from all walks of life and for many different reasons. Some people hike to heal, others for the challenge or adventure. I had read that “tramilies” (trail families) were a thing, but I never expected to meet people that I clicked with and were as like-minded as me so quickly. On the day that I learned my lesson about pack liners, I stumbled towards Mountain Crossings soaked and shivering to see a group of people sitting under the arch waving at me with goofy smiling faces. The rest is history. “The ducklings” have now been hiking together for the past 170 miles, and while I know sticking together for the rest of the 2,000 miles isn’t realistic and sustainable, the time that I have had with this crew has been invaluable. I’d love to share more about my trail fam later, but you’ll just have to trust me for now when I say the trail has a way of bringing people together. I can do it alone – but I don’t have to. 

“The ducklings.” From bottom left clockwise: Me, Bennett, Derek, Lee, Trunks, Holly, and Emilia

Online we see the highlight reel, but out here on the trail it’s real: the snack breaks on the tops of mountains with friends, the frantic resupply grocery store runs through Ingles, and the pulling off of dead toenails. All of it. It’s all of it that makes hiking the AT so damn special.  

200 miles down – 2,000 to go. 

Georgia, you may have taken my toenail, but you didn’t take my spirit. 

If you want to continue to follow along, please subscribe to my posts below and/or follow me on Instagram or Facebook. If y’all would like a gear update, there are plenty of things that I have changed and adjusted! Just let me know if you’re interested in that type of thing. I’ll see ya back here in about 200 more miles.

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Comments 12

  • Emilia Grunden : Apr 14th

    Carlyyyy! I love reading your writing and hearing your voice in my mind. So cool to see your perspective on this first chunk. I love walking with you!!

    • Carly McCalla : Apr 14th

      I have a post “cooking up there” about the trail family that I can’t wait to share. You all are so awesome and I’m so thankful!

  • Richard Skaff : Apr 14th

    Hello, Carly.

    I’m an 80 year old guy who uses a wheelchair for mobility, that thinks you’ve got it figured out!

    Life is so short, that if we knew how short life really is early on in life and believed it, I think our lives would be dramatically different, and for the good, different! Instead, many of us follow the trail our ancestors walked – we were born, grew up, we’ve gone through school (through whatever level we do), get a job, get married (or find a life partner), get older, retire, maybe do a few fun things, if we have the funds and energy, and die!

    You, on the other hand, have found the courage to stop, smell the AT, and decided to break that chain most of us have that makes us think “this is all there is”!

    Be proud of yourself, whether you are successful in hiking the whole AT or not. You stepped out and took a challenge that will change your life, for every last day of your life. And you will have those amazing memories most of us just think about.

    Hang in there!

    But most of all, you go girl!

    • Carly McCalla : Apr 15th

      This was such a sweet and encouraging comment. I agree with what you are saying! I appreciate your support and words of wisdom!

  • Jingle bells : Apr 15th

    35 lbs sounds like a lot. Might take you two posts to list your gear. Just kidding, but there are probably things you can reduce. Suggestions from your tramily? Outfitter shakedown?

    • Carly McCalla : Apr 15th

      I’ve shaved some weight off since then! When I left I carried about a weeks worth of food – wayyyy too much! It’s heavier at times than others, such as after a supply, with more water, or a drenched tent and pack!

  • Dennis Guenther : Apr 15th

    Great read. I really get a kick out of your very descriptive phrasing in your account. It’s very entertaining and fun to read. I’ve only hiked the AT in short trips, but can identify with some of your comments of the challenges you have had. I hiked once for 4 days with my daughter and her fiance and at the end of the trip she commented to me that she “only cried 3 times.” Ha Have fun!

  • Bill little : Apr 15th

    Keep up the miles and keep up with the smiles! Be safe, enjoy everything and everyone! 👍

  • David Odell : Apr 15th

    Enjoyed your post. Good luck on the rest of your AT hike. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

  • Wayne Foskey : Apr 16th

    Congrats !!! I thru hiked the AT IN 2017 and loved every step ! I love your post ! I’ll be reading everyone . I’ll be , once again , hiking the trail next year and your absolutely right ….no matter what type of shape your in or how much you hit the gym , nothing can prepare you for the trail like the trail . Your in for a fantastic , life changing trek. One foot in front of the other Carly !! YOU CAN DO THIS ! Happy hiking and I can’t wait for your next post !!

  • Steve : Apr 16th

    Hope the pain improves. Losing a toe nail might be an indication to change footwear or sizing. Perhaps the heel lock lacing will keep your toes away from the toe of your shoe.

    Pain on the outside of the knee can be an inflamed IT band, which can cause pain from anywhere down the outer thigh to the outer knee. Hope it gets better soon.

  • Julie Tomlinson : Apr 18th

    Carly so good to see you back with the misfits! I’m so glad you met Emily, she’s my friends daughter. So glad your doing this journey for yourself and ultimately your family too.

    We are thinking and praying g for your tramily every day.


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