I Was Wrong About Neel Gap

People who have any interest in the Appalachian Trail are familiar with the often quoted, but never cited, statistic on the first unofficial milestone on the Appalachian Trail, Neel Gap. A quarter of all hikers who begin their thru-hike decide to end it by the time they get to mile 31.3 or Neel Gap. It’s the first main road hikers come across on their journey northbound along the Appalachian Trail, and the first opportunity they have to resupply, without making a considerable effort to get off at one of the many gaps along forest roads that dot the mountain trail. All of us couch hikers have looked at that statistic and thought, “How in the hell do you buy all of that equipment, train all of those miles, only to quit after a few days and only completing a little over 1% of your intended journey?”

Now I Know How

The early miles in Georgia are no joke. They are steep, rough, and unforgiving. The first day on the trail we were on cloud nine. The weather was beautiful. The sky was full of color, as the warm spring day helped us bebop up and down the hills to reach our first goal of the trail, Hawk Mountain Shelter, at mile 8.1. The day for us was closer to 10 miles, after completing the one-mile climb up to Springer from the forest road parking lot, getting lost for a moment, and our first trek for water. The day was by no means easy, and we stumbled into the shelter area just looking for anywhere to set up camp for the night.

What Goes Bark In The Night

Little sleep was to be had on that first night on the trail. The sounds of the forest were unnerving. I laid awake wondering what those “barks” were that were getting closer. My best guess was a family of bobcats out scavenging. I could hear them getting closer and closer for an hour or so after sunset. When they got seemingly right outside my tent the barking suddenly stopped. I couldn’t help but think that the next thing to happen was going to be their claws tearing through the tent trying to find my flesh. It felt like I was in next year’s best picture award nominee “Attack of the Meth Cats,” Purr Once For Blood.

No bloodthirsty cats came, but little sleep was to be had.

Sassafras, My Darling, I Hate You

Before the sun rose, we were packed up and on the move. We had Sassafras Mountain in our sites. But they don’t call it Sassafras Kick My Ass for no reason.  Weather was coming and we needed to outrun it. Big mistake. We got about 25% up Sassafras when the skies opened up, temperatures plummeted, the sky lit up like the 4th of July. We were screwed. There was no safety in turning back, so we pressed on. On up and over Sassafras Mountain in the middle of a gnarly storm with no rain hiking experience between us. We made it, but not without some fearful moments. By the end of the day, we were frozen and exhausted, and in a deviation from our plan, on a shuttle headed back to Dahlonega to warm up, dry out, and reevaluate our existence.

What A Great Day

After taking a zero, we head back out to Gooch Gap, where we left the trail a day prior, and made our way to Lance Creek Recreation Area. It was a great day on trail. It was a day of rolling hills as we made our way up and down beautiful mountains, with spectacular skies. We passed cascading waterfalls, and majestic views, where we could see the mountains we had crossed in the preceding days. I was just a great day.

We woke up around 6:30 Monday morning, cooked some oatmeal, watched the sunrise, and packed up camp. There was a monumental day ahead of us. We were going up our biggest mountain peak yet, Blood Mountain. Rising as the highest peak on the A.T. in the state of Georgia, at 4,458 feet, it’s a sizable step on our way up north.

Blood Mountain Blues

The hike up is steep. No, I mean real steep. Like stupid steep. It just didn’t want to end. It went up and up and up, and the temp fell and fell and fell. By the time we got to the summit we were frozen to death, but oh what a summit it was. As you approach the summit a thick blanket of mountain laurel turns into a green tunnel that meanders along the rocky outcroppings before opening up to an amazing vista just behind Blood Mountain shelter, one of the oldest on the trail.

Some think this is where the day would end but it really is only the beginning. The journey down is another few miles, and for a large part, it lacks one of the main components of a trail, it lacks a trail. No, you read that right, for the first quarter of the way down you are scrambling over boulders, just hoping you are headed in the right direction. We slowly made our way to Neel Gap not a minute too soon. And I’ll never disrespect people for stopping here ever again.

Neel or Neel’s

From this point forward I’ll no longer think, “You only made it to Neel Gap?”

For me it’s now, “You made it to Neel Gap? Badass!”

They say Georgia gives you a taste of what many parts of the Appalachian Trail is like. Well, if I could describe the A.T. as a taste, I’m going with beets. Earthy, dirty, a taste that makes you wonder what the hell is in your mouth. Then one chef cooks beets just right and you think they are delicious while forgetting how awful they have always been. I hate beets but I just tasted someone who made them perfectly. I have to find that taste again.

Not Stopping Now

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Comments 6

  • Steve Nourse : Mar 19th

    Awesome af Josh..!

    • Josh : Apr 3rd

      Thanks Steve

  • Big Matt : Mar 19th

    Looks like an amazing adventure already!

    I am en route to WV to pick up the RV – got the call this morning it is mechanically done. Going to spend a week and a half or so up here to remodel and fix up some things in the house portion before heading back to DC to finish the final storage building clean out, and apartment pack up.

    So, what is the tree with all the shoes and hiking boots. Is this for folks who leave the trail at Neel Gap? Seemed like an idea that fit with your story.

    I am enjoying following along – and still hope to meet up in MD – did you get to locate Dahlgren Chapel?

    • Josh : Apr 3rd

      Can’t wait Matt. Text me anytime

  • Mair Harper : Mar 28th

    Thank you so much for your posts. My brother is on the AT at the same time as you but hasn’t posted anything at all. At least I can see some of what he is experiencing through your eyes and I am extremely grateful to you. Good luck on your onward journey

    • Josh : Apr 3rd

      Thanks so much. What is your brothers name on the trail?


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