Joining soles at Neels Gap
There I was. Standing in a puddle, in my wet socks, in a cold rainstorm, fingers freezing, manically cackling and eating an uncooked brick of ramen halfway up the stretch to Dick’s Creek Gap on the Georgia section of the Appalachian trail. I was laughing because I was thinking: What the fuck decisions did I make that have lead me here?!
All the right ones — because even on the rainy days, I’ve been having the time of my life.
However, if you talked to me on day one, I might have said something different. After the approach trail, I thought I was screwed. I walked the eight miles to Springer, obsessing over my hip (an old injury) and worrying that I wouldn’t be able to walk the next morning. When I arrived at the shelter, there were two other people, and I started to panic. Where was the social experience that I anticipated? The multi-level shelter seemed hollow, devoid of the many thru hikers I had thought I would have seen piled in there. Laying in my tent that night, I couldn’t help but think I had made a huge mistake. In fact, the first line in my journal reads: I finally have a direction but now feel more lost than ever. The approach trail left my legs feeling like a giant had used them as drumsticks in a Phil Collins solo — what the hell would the rest of the trail be like?! I began to think only deranged people do this, and I just wasn’t one of them. My hang tag fell off, and I almost started to cry. I had been looking forward to this for over a year. I had told everyone about doing this. If this isn’t who I was, or what I was meant to do — then who was I?
I grabbed my Kindle and opened up the first book I could think of to turn to for advice. Appalachian Trials. (Seriously shoutout to Zack Davis, every time I’m bummed that book is an instant comfort.) I was for sure having a trial on that first night. A phrase in it stuck with me: “If you bail out each time a honeymoon period ends, you won’t ever follow through with anything worthwhile in life.” For me, I had been fantasizing about the trail for so long, it had become an ideal that reality would never live up to. I decided in that moment, that I would give it at least a week — and I have been so thankful I did ever since. (Plus my brother made a bet that I wouldn’t last a week — so I had to prove him wrong. I also couldn’t be that person that quit a day in.)
The next morning, I decided to have an attitude adjustment. I burned the zip tie shut that held my AT hang tag on my pack. I wrote all of the reasons why I was hiking and why life would be miserable if I quit in the front of my journal so I could refer back to them. On that first night, what kept me going was taking photos of two little toys I’m bringing along for my younger nephews. If I quit, I couldn’t do that anymore. Sometimes, it’s the littlest things that make the biggest differences.
Additionally, I had met an older man at the base of Springer, pacing back and forth with his pack. I said hello, and went to head up the mountain and he stopped me. “I walk this trail every day,” he looked at me, with a tired smile, “I tried to thru hike in 2010 and quit. This is all I can do now. I’ll never get the chance again. Don’t quit.” If that wasn’t the trail talking to me, I don’t know what is.
Quality Over Quantity
Soon, I realized what the trail lacked in the quantity of the social experience, it more than made up for in the quality. I met three thru hikers that would become great friends to me within the first week. Thru hiking friendships form quickly — it’s hard not to become close to someone that farts in front of you, sleeps next to you, and snores extra loud.
After the first night, I ran into them all again at the following shelter. I stopped to make myself lunch. Usually I cold soak my food, but I had brought a stove on trail to have a little warmth. I laid on the ground (as I’m prone to do) and started to light it. I had cranked it way too far up. A blossom of flame burst from the tip and I yelled. I turned it back down, set my food on top of it, only to tip it over DIRECTLY FACING ALL OF MY GEAR. Now there was a stove sized flame thrower, belching fire towards my backpack! I fixed it quickly, and cautiously continued to make my meal. One of my friends, Rumrunner, cackled, “Jesus! It’s the second day on trail! Your name is Fireball now.” And it stuck!
For the next few days, the three of us would leap frog with each other. I’d usually leave second or third from camp after doing stretches for my hip. I worked in some stretches for my feet as well after plantar fasciitis started seizing up my feet again. Since then, I’ve begun soaking them daily in cold springs, and it’s done wonders for my foot pain. I would catch up with Rumrunner, and he’d usually be yelling about a huge hill and why there’s all these damn inclines, and I’d get a good laugh about his misfortune while hiking through my own.
Still, I would end the nights wondering what the point of hiking this trail was. I realized, usually, I was wondering what the point of life was anyways — so I might as well continue to do that on a trail where I felt like I was walking into the person I wanted to become.
I began to start each morning with affirmations as I begin walking. I never thought I’d become one of those motivational-tape-listener-people, but here I am. Every morning, as I begin to climb the first mountains, I tell myself: I am an Appalachian Trail thru hiker. I am strong and independent. I find my own path, and will not let others affect my decisions. My pack is light, my feet are strong, and I am going on and on. I will take care of my body and it will take care of me. I am content, rain or shine. I am doing what I have dreamed of for years and I am exactly where I need to be.
These might sound cheesy to some — but they work for me and always make me happy. I also perform a mindfulness exercise while I walk and say good morning to whatever I see in my surroundings. This helps to ground me in the present moment, and helps me to practice gratefulness for whatever stretch of trail I’m passing. (Yes, I say good morning to the trees, leave me be. Someone has to.) I spend the rest of the morning singing Third Eye Blind lyrics, belting out Sublime guitar solos, and talking to myself. Most people think I’m talking to someone, and I have to say, “Nope! Haha, just me!” as any crazy person would, naturally.
After a grueling descent down Blood Mountain, I had one of my favorite nights so far. And it wasn’t even because I was staying in a hostel — though the pizza did help. I got a new pair of shoes, the Asolo Softrock Hiking Shoes and a new pair of Superfeet inserts. I originally had Altras, but have high arches, and they just weren’t working out for my feet. I chucked them up into the tree with much delight. (Even though it took me at least four times to make it into the tree.)
Afterwards, I stood over by the wind chimes, stretching my feet. Thru hikers were gathered at the picnic tables to the side of me, sharing stories, resupplying, dumping gear into hiker boxes. I looked over at the hundreds of pairs of trail runners dangling from the oak tree to the other side of me. On this peaceful summer day, we were doing something hundreds of folks had done before us. We were walking along the same trail, stopping at the same backpacking store, telling the same stories. As the chimes resonated in front of me and the old shoes swayed in the breeze, I had the strongest feeling that I was exactly where I was meant to be. This is what I was meant to do. These are the people I’m meant to be with. And there is no other time that would’ve been right other than now. That night, my friends and I slept in the hostel beneath the soles of the thru hikers who walked before us, and I threw my own sole up in the tree for the thru hikers who would come after us. My old shoes dangled on the breeze. The next morning, I walked north on the trail that connects us all. With each step, I imagined my new friends, old thru hikers, new hikers, all the people connected by this one trail spanning 14 states — and an infinite number of lives. I was walking along a mountain range older than time, and feeling younger than my twenty two years. Each step was electrified, a lifeline to something ancient and binding, sacred and earthen. I could feel it. Each step would connect me to lives I never would have known, places I had never seen. I was grateful to finally find my direction in life: to meet and understand as many others as I could. To walk north, and to find home — not in any single place, but in the winding trail and the people I meet along the way.
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