Georgia, Tougher than Imagined
You are not ready for Georgia. The AT in Georgia is a 79-mile sufferfest and falls in line with a tradition of embrace the suck. The temperature ranges from below freezing to summertime highs. I woke up with ice in my water bottle only to have the sun beat down through the bare trees in an attempt to cook me off the mountainside.
Are You Prepared?
I thought I was pretty well prepared. I put every item in my pack through a long and thorough evaluation process. I carefully considered the pros and cons, and meditated on every possible use for each item to justify its weight as a multipurpose item. But the truth is, in addition to having a tight backpacking kit, it’s not the things that walk the trail, but people. And from my observation, the people are unprepared.
I find that people are unprepared in three areas.
–Folks are not familiar with their gear. There are numerous times I observed misused stoves, weak and floppy rain flys, poor (really poor) bear hangs, an unfamiliarity with personal locator beacons like SPOT, among a ton of other things. It is important to take the time to get familiar with your gear. Use it, set it up, find what works, and anticipate the weaknesses of your kit. I’m struggling to hone in my shelter and may be swapping it out soon.
–People carry wayyyy too much food, myself included. One factor is that people don’t know how to anticipate what or how much they want to eat. I found countless backpacking menus online and it is helpful to model meal planning according to the suggestions of others. Another contributing factor of food excess is people not eating. Starting out hiking is a total shock on the body. Some folks feel so fatigued that they don’t feel hungry and forgo eating. This compounds the problems of running calorie deficits and only increases fatigue and chances of injury.
–People are not training. There is an adage that says the best way to train for long-distance hiking or thru-hiking is to thru-hike. I’ll claim that it will be possible to be successful by not training, but you will not be doing yourself any favors in assuming a dismissive attitude toward a training regiment prior to your hike. Train, hike, do cardio conditioning, resistance training, walk up and down the bleachers at the local high school, focus on the whole body with emphasis on leg strength and endurance. Get yourself ready or pay for it later.
Starting the Trail
I started from the visitor center at Amicalola Falls State Park. I did this for a number of reasons.
–I wanted to see the falls. They’re beautiful. I also wanted the symbolic activity of crossing over, like the crossing of the river Styx and passing into another world.
–I wanted to register and get my hang tag.
–The approach itself, as I discovered, is just a great hike. There is a good incline most of the day with several creek crossings and two shelters on the approach. Having arrived at Springer Mountain near the end of my planned day really made it worthwhile for me. The approach trail, in my opinion, is a great precursor to what I could anticipate in the days to come on the AT through Georgia.
If you desire to skip the approach trail because of the distance, and especially because of the stairs, you’ve got another thing coming.
If You Get Comfortable, You’re Done
There are rock stairs and wood stairs and slick rock going straight up and straight down again. On some sections in Georgia a simple staircase would be a welcome relief to some of the topographic changes hikers slog through daily. The beginning ain’t easy, and if you come to the AT in Georgia with that attitude you’re finished.
I do see why it’s easy to think, “Oh, this ain’t too bad.” If you start at Springer and shoot for Hawk Mountain Shelter your first day, as it seemed quite a few do, then it can be easy to be lulled into a false sense of comfort. Then maybe on the second night you make it to Gooch and you’re feeling it a little in the legs but everyone is stoked.
After all, you went up over Justus and think you’re on top of the world. Then your third day is probably chill too, since you didn’t bring a bear can and camp south of the bear canister area and you’re kicking it with 20 of your new best friends eating ramen and you’ll be in Maine in no time. The fourth day you tackle Blood Mountain, and from what I observed this mountain literally feeds on hikers.
Blood Mountain Eats Hikers
Blood Mountain slays bodies and spits them out onto Neel Gap, where they are whisked away on the highway never to be seen again. If you make it past the mini-vortex surrounding Mountain Crossings, many a hiker can still be seen hobbling into Low Gap Shelter with the words of Blood Mountain on their lips.
If you aren’t drawn back home from Unicoi Gap after getting chewed apart by Blue Mountain and Rocky Mountain, then Tray Mountain awaits, which is as unforgiving as any other mountain in Georgia.
Tray Mountain is another spot where hikers seem to disappear. At Dicks Creek Gap there is a hostel nearby and Hiawassee to the north. Each is an equally appealing refuge from what has been, for some, the hardest week of their lives.
Learning to Live on Trail
In my experience, each hour spent in town is an hour that takes me farther from the trail and further from my motivation and resolve to continue hiking. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to take time off, have a meal, a shower, all those simple pleasures that I learn not to take for granted.
Learning to live on trail takes time. It’s a big change of lifestyle, habits, manners, often in a new environment. Simply put, everything changes when you step on trail. Spending more time in town or in a hostel than you do on trail doesn’t make the transition any easier. So give yourself a chance and try to take it easy and minimize town stops. Make a promise to make it to North Carolina, and I guarantee it’ll pay off.
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