I’m Going to Need a Bigger Tube of Sunscreen – Springer to Neel Gap

Hello all you freshly-showered, well-rested humans. Here I am at Neel Gap, 31-ish miles into the AT and the place where 25% of prospective thru-hikers heed the siren call of flushing toilets and clean sheets, throw their boots into the Quitting Tree, and head home…..or so say the legends.

Me and friends beneath the Quitting Tree

I think it’ll be easiest to give you these updates in the form of daily journal entries. That way you’ll hopefully get something more interesting than “I woke up, I walked, I ate, and I kept walking.”

Day 1 – Springer to Hawk Mountain Campsite – 8.4 miles

I slept past my first alarm but somehow woke up on time to hurriedly finish packing and check out of the lodge at about 7:30. I hiked 1 mile downhill to the Visitor Center, where a member of the Georgia ATC gave us a quick Leave No Trace training. A lot of the presentation was spent warning us about the norovirus outbreak among AT hikers in the last few weeks. If you don’t know, norovirus makes you incredibly ill from both ends for about 48 hours and, as you can imagine, is a nightmare to experience in the woods. We were told to make sure we washed our hands frequently, as hand sanitizer doesn’t kill viruses.

I picked up my yellow hiker tag and weighed my pack – 36 pounds. Surprise surprise, Overkill packed too much. Then I caught my shuttle to Springer and got to the top of the mountain at around 10:30, marking the official beginning of my thru-hike.

Summit of Springer Mountain and the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail

I turned around and headed north, doing about 5 miles before stopping for lunch at Long Creek Falls. It was in the 60s and sunny and my spirits were high. For most of the day, there was a surreal feeling of “is this really it? Am I really doing it?” The relatively easy terrain probably had something to do with that.

Lovely view for lunch

After lunch I only had to walk a few miles to Hawk Mountain Campsite, where I picked the flattest, most stone-free site I could and set up my tent. I met a few other hikers on my way down to the spring to collect water. I think we were all sharing a mix of excitement and anxiety on this, our first full day on the trail. I ate some rice and chicken and eventually fell asleep, rehearsing the next day’s plans in my head.

Day 2 – Hawk Mountain Campsite to Gooch Mountain Shelter – 8.3 miles

An easier portion of the trail up Sassafras

After a couple miles of warming up, I stopped for a rest and a snack at Horse Gap. Ahead of me lay the formidable Sassafras Mountain, with the first really challenging climb of the day. A couple hikers wearing mics and cameras bounded past me and charged up the mountain. More power to you, I thought, I’m more the trudging type. I’ve found that I have to frequently remind myself that this isn’t a race or a competition, and that if another hiker (or five) pass me, it doesn’t matter. So I took my time heading up Sassafras, taking lots of breaks and trying to slow down my breathing (read: huffing and puffing). Finally I got to the top and ate lunch under my umbrella. The thing about hiking before the trees leaf out is that there’s nothing to block the merciless sunrays beaming through the branches. I discovered a new tan line on my arms and added “put on sunscreen” to my mental list of morning chores.

Spring is coming!

I headed down the mountain, trying to use my trekking poles to take some weight off my knees on the steep descent, and walked another few miles to Gooch Mountain Shelter. I sat around the campfire ring with several other hikers, eating, swapping trail name origin stories, and generally making friends. The evening was warm and I didn’t even need to cinch my quilt around myself, so I pulled it over my shoulders like a comforter, pretended I was in a real bed, and drifted off to the rattling snores of my neighbor.

A beautiful water source

Day 3 – Gooch Mountain Shelter to Woods Hole Shelter – 11.9 miles

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the tears of overconfident hikers. 8-9 miles have been fine, I thought, so let’s push it to 12! What I neglected to take into account is that included in those 12 miles was over 1000 more feet of ascent than in previous days.

It was still taking me 2 hours to eat, pack, and break down camp. I decided I needed something else for breakfast; oatmeal is great, but cooking it can really slow you down. I finally got moving and was feeling strong. All the water sources were right on trail, which is so much easier than having to scramble down a steep bank to collect.

Splashing my face with cold mountain water never felt so good

I met a few of my friends from Gooch Mountain (I’ll call them the “Gooch Group”), and hiked a few miles with them. They stopped at a campsite but I wanted to press on. Since I have a bear can and not just a bear bag, I was allowed to camp in the next five miles of trail. So I kept walking, but soon found I’d overestimated my abilities, underestimated my soreness, or some combination of the two.

It’s pretty hard not to get discouraged when you’re only 3 days in to a 6-month-long hike, and you’re struggling to finish 12 miles in a day. If you can barely do 12, said my brain, how the hell do you think you’ll ever get to 20? I finally hobbled into camp at around 7:45. Everyone who was already there was bedding down for the night, which suited me fine since I was in no mood to socialize. I set up my tent and cried for a few minutes out of sheer exhaustion. Then I reminded myself that, like an overwrought toddler, I’d feel better once I’d eaten and slept. I cooked a quick dinner, chased away a couple overzealous mice asking if I had any leftovers, popped 2 Advil PM for my aching knees, and told myself I’d sleep as long as my body wanted to.

Day 4 – Woods Hole Shelter to Neel Gap – 3.6 miles

I woke up around 9, feeling very refreshed. There was a chill in the air and fog drifting across the campsite as I packed up. Today would be a long climb up the infamous Blood Mountain, then an even longer descent to Neel Gap and Mountain Crossings, where I planned to eat real food, shower, and stay the night at their hostel.

I’d heard that Blood Mountain was the most technical climb yet, but as I headed up the mountain, it didn’t seem any worse than Sassafras, and I was definitely feeling much fresher. The mist was a welcome change from the glaring sun of the last few days.

At the top of Blood Mountain, the mist did away with any chance of a view, but I felt proud of myself for making it up the mountain. I took a break, grabbed a snack, and headed down the other side. HERE was the technical climb I’d been hearing about; I varied between sliding down 4-foot boulders on my butt and inching my way down wet slanted rocks. Finally I heard traffic – music to my ears! A couple minutes later I saw Mountain Crossings through the trees, and before I knew it I was outside the store being offered pizza by a member of the Gooch Group who had beat me there. It was heavenly.

I found out that the hostel was closed due to plumbing issues, which was a pretty big blow since I’d been using that hostel stay as my motivation. After talking to a couple other members of the Gooch Group, I found another hiker was planning to hitchhike into nearby Blairsville to a hotel where he’d reserved a room, and I decided to join him to get my own hotel room. It took us about 15 minutes of sticking out our thumbs and looking friendly before a man picked us up and drove us to the hotel. We got our rooms and walked half a mile to Ingles, where I committed the cardinal sin of food-shopping before I ate, then had the nerve to be surprised by the length of my receipt. After getting back to the hotel, I took an absolutely luxurious shower, reserved a shuttle to take me back to the trail the next day, and passed out. What happened next may surprise you…..

I got back on trail.

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Comments 3

  • ELS : Apr 6th

    Great writing! – I’m an avid follower of trek bloggers from my sofa in Houston. Looking forward to your journey!

  • Jingle bells : Apr 7th

    Sassafras way more challenging than Blood Mtn. The Blood Mtn lore makes no sense.

  • Jeff Greene : Apr 7th

    Keep on keeping on! Appreciate the well written account!


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