Getting in the groove: Unicoi Gap to Fontana Dam (52.5 -> 164.7)
It’s amazing how much can happen in a little over 100 miles! After my first week on trail and beginning to surpass milestones like the first state line and the first 100 miles, I really found myself starting to get into a groove. Here’s a little update on how those next couple of weeks went!
Getting the hang of it
The first week on trail was fun, but physically and mentally challenging nonetheless. However, I noticed within the second week that things started to get a bit easier! I had overcome many challenges already – hiking and camping in the rain, dealing with some cold temps, making new friends, hiking up some of the steepest mountains I had ever encountered, learning how to cook on trail, and so many mental doubts about whether or not I could actually do a thru hike. Once I processed and made it through these things, I felt more capable of facing the challenges that followed! During my second and third weeks on trail, I really started to feel like “this is what I do now” and I gained the confidence that I could face the challenges thrown my way.
Taking care of the most important thing – my body!
After my first zero with my tramily in Hiawassee, GA, the hiking honestly got harder before it got easier. I started to feel the exhaustion setting in that comes with pushing your body to its physical limits every day. I had to make some adjustments due to this – doing less mileage than I expected to be able to do in the beginning, slowing down my pace, taking more breaks, and eating more food to fuel my body. I want to emphasize this point specifically: there is nothing wrong with slowing down in order to take care of your body! The competitive runner in me has been trained to think things like “work harder”, “go faster”, “go farther”, etc. but I have had to throw these thoughts out the window (or off the mountain) during my thru hike. A thru hike is such a long endeavor, and if you want to make it to Maine, you must take care of the vessel that will get you there! This is easier said than done for sure – learning to be kind to my body has been a difficult process that I am still working on.
I also started to develop some achilles and lower leg issues while hiking. Thankfully this is not new to me – I have dealt with plenty of foot, achilles, shin, and calf issues throughout my career as a runner – so I knew how to deal with it! I have started implementing a warm up routine that includes dynamic stretching and activation exercises before I start hiking, and I make sure to roll out my muscles and stretch at the end of each day. I highly recommend this to anyone attempting a thru hike!
North Carolina is a vibe
At mile 78.1, we stepped across our first state line – the GA/NC border! It was so exciting to realize that I had walked 78 miles, made it through the first out of 14 states on the AT, and was actually doing the thing! To make it even more exciting, shortly after crossing the border, we realized something… North Carolina actually has switchbacks! The hiking in Georgia up to that point had literally been going straight up and straight down steep mountains. The switchbacks were a very welcome surprise!
The scenery in NC was absolutely beautiful. At one point, I was walking through what felt like an enchanted forest – twisted trees on either side of the trail meeting overhead to form an arch, light green moss and lichen covering the trunks, branches, and rocks, a slight fog passing through every now and then, and the sun barely peeking through the treetops. It was an incredible experience.
It was a beautiful, sunny day when we climbed the 0.3 mile rocky trail up to the Albert Mountain fire tower, where we would celebrate the 100 mile mark of the AT! Upon climbing the steps of the fire tower, I could see mountains for miles all around me. I was basking in the celebration with Christian and the 4 other hikers who we found at the tower. I thought the experience couldn’t get any better, when all of a sudden, I heard voices at the base of the tower. I looked down and saw someone carrying donuts! I ran down the steps and there were two former thru hikers who had hiked up to the fire tower carrying 25 pounds of food, pop, and beer – trail magic! We were absolutely thrilled to celebrate our first 100 miles with these two kind folks, some great conversations, and some delicious trail magic. It was one of the most joyful experiences on the trail for me so far.
My absolute favorite part about North Carolina was the grassy balds! I had never seen a bald before, and I’m a sucker for good views, so it was one of the main things I was looking forward to upon starting the AT. The first bald we came across was Siler Bald at mile 114. I dropped my pack, climbed the 0.2 miles up to the grassy summit at 5,216 feet of elevation, and was met with 360 views of the beautiful blue mountains surrounding me. It was everything I expected and more!
The trail itch
I noticed it during a zero in Franklin, NC – the restlessness; the daydreaming about trees, mountains, and fresh air; the urge to move my body; the itch to get back out there on the trail! This honestly surprised me, because coming into this experience, I knew the trail would put me outside my comfort zone. I had never backpacked extensively before, I hadn’t even slept in a tent that much, and I was very used to the comforts of home. There are so many discomforts on trail, and I worriedly thought to myself, “how could I ever feel the urge to get back on trail when alternatively presented with the comforts of town?” Well, I guess I’m just starting to love it! As nice as town days are, I am continuing to feel that itch to get back out on trail. I love hiking every day, soaking up the beauty and immersing myself fully in nature, setting up camp, sleeping in my tiny one-person tent, and doing it all over again the next day. And as I sit here writing this from town, I can’t wait to get back out there again!
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