Mountains, Messy Hair, and Early Bedtime
Our adventure started on a high note-pizza in Atlanta the night before starting the hike. As of April 3, hopes were high and morale was even higher. Not a full hour passed into hiking on April 4 up Springer Mountain that I realized I’d overpacked. I could feel the hip bruises forming and with them, morale plummeting. “It’s the first day,” I told myself, it wouldn’t be easy from the start, but I had yet to fully convince myself that this was going to be more of a mental game than I imagined.
Arriving at our planned shelter for the night, I found it was packed with maybe around 25-plus tents and a no-vacancy shelter. This wasn’t a surprise. My extensive reading led me to believe we had started at the most common hiking time so it wasn’t much of an unexpected problem. I was the only person there hammock camping and that became the real issue. I’ve set it up plenty before and had previously only backpacked with my hammock. I didn’t, however, use the same setup-one that I had done some research on with YouTube that I found to look the most efficient. Utilizing two carabiners and four descending rings (close to an extra pound of weight), it was supposedly easily adjustable and quick to set up. I’d tried it a couple times at home, but hadn’t slept in it. As you could’ve guessed, I ended up on the ground that first night. This setup has since been sent back home but consequently lost in the depths of the Georgia postal department. Shout-out to USPS for being all-around awful. In addition to the flop of my hammock setup, my backpacking stove (MSR Pocket Rocket) had some refusals of its own. I thought I was comfortable around this fuel and stove setup, having used the same one around a dozen times, until it turned on me and started bustling flames from the mouth of the fuel canister. I was quick to put it out with water and turn off the gas release. This was absolutely not what was supposed to happen, but which I attributed to the wind combined with the stove not being tight enough on the canister. After a mortifying dinner, it was 7 p.m., which I came to find out was bedtime. Such a relief for someone who loves getting to bed early back at home. After that time, the temperature drops drastically enough that if you’re not hiking you’ll have to snuggle up in your sleep system and hope it’s warm enough (which it has been for me, but I also wear all of my clothing, omitting my hiking attire).
Another day strictly hiking, another day to get in my head. No gear choice of mine was safe after the first trial-by-fire night on the trail. After another night in around 29 degree weather, I was planning on switching to a tent for a more wind-protected shelter. It wasn’t until the next morning when I sat shivering in my hammock that I impulsively and angrily ordered my new backpacking tent online to be sent to my parents’ house in the next two business days. Thankful for Verizon’s service everywhere on the trail in Georgia.
Found out hiking partner is a horrifyingly loud snorer. Added earplugs to restock list.
In my daily journal I’d been keeping, the first entry of the day was “I love this.” I became filled with optimism after accepting what I need to work with, and embraced the freedom I remembered that came with living with all you have on your back.
There are chores here to do that you don’t think about when you live in a house. A daily itinerary looks roughly like this:
Wake up. Early. Take down camp. Make breakfast (oatmeal and some granola bar). Find and filter water (sources had been close to every shelter but require a quick walk). Hike. Get to camp. Set up shelter. Cook dinner (a dehydrated veggie meal on good days, a ramen mix on the lesser-exciting dinner days). Find and filter water. Get tucked in and try to read but really just fall asleep by 8 p.m.
By our first restock at Neel Gap, I was eating far more than I thought I’d be and requiring a shower far less than I imagined after a handful of days of hiking in the woods
There’s something surreal about the trail; it’s not like the outside world. Almost everyone is a decent, friendly person, and after hiking with the same few for a couple days you feel close. Close enough, even, to split a Blood Mountain cabin with two people you just met- both of whom are from countries outside the U.S.
My hiking partner, Sad Beans (formally known as Sully), had more than one choice to rethink. One: I wore Teva sandals, and he wore Chacos with Darn Tough socks. After erupting in blisters he had to switch to trail runners at Neel Gap. I stuck with my Teva choice for the first 100 miles of the trail because they gave me absolutely no trouble. Two: Sad Beans only brought beans that required soaking and cooking, which would’ve taken hours cumulatively, hence the earned trail name. My dehydrated veggie meals were shared often, just until I got hungry enough to start eating two servings, circa mile 140.
It has been super easy to lose track of days on the trail. If my watch didn’t have the day of the week I’d be absolutely clueless. Every day we spend in town to restock or shower feels like a weekend and every hot shower feels like heaven.
All I could think about some days were weight. I even refused to carry more than one liter of water at a time between sources.
Ultralight hikers hustled past me with their packs not exceeding 25 pounds and less than the height of their torso-both qualities my setup lacks. I can’t help but be jealous at their proper planning for the absolute essentials but then I think about how I love reading my Kindle and would not enjoy this experience if I was stripped of every item that brings me comfort and enjoyment.
My GI tract was in utter shock of the change of lifestyle and diet consisting heavily of seeds and dried fruits. Interpret that as you will.
There’s been constant discussion on the trail about what’s coming up. Topics like the elevation grade and difficulty for the next day are of utmost importance to people here. And I can say firsthand that this talk does not matter. I’ve learned to take it with a grain of salt- all we have to do for the day is hike. What else are we going to do?
After a ten-mile day back on the trail following a restock in Franklin, N.C., the nozzle of my water reservoir froze. I couldn’t get water unless I opened my full pack and dumped the bladder. But here was the biggest “nope” I’ve ever been signaled; I quickly called friends from Couchsurfing to rescue us from sleeping 4,000 feet in 26-degree weather with an additional 40 mph wind for the night. The Ericksons were an amazing couple who had their fair share of travels and shared their stories. I’d never been so thankful for an indoor place to stay. The following day back on the trail was warm enough to wear a T-shirt. Weather can’t be trusted out here.
A quick jump on the scale told me I’ve lost at least five pounds since starting hiking; then again, I’ve consumed enough pizza and breakfast meals to overshadow that in our town stops (please don’t worry, mom). I can definitely tell my muscles are getting used to it all, and when I tried on pants in my size, my quadriceps have grown past the point of being my size anymore
I’m happy to say it’s flying by in a bittersweet way. After hitting the 200-mile marker this week (only ten more times that same mileage… easy) I can genuinely and proudly introduce myself to locals as a thru-hiker. As far as a trail name for myself, friends have on and off called me Masshole because I love Boston sports (go Bruins) and have gotten a few speeding tickets, but who hasn’t ?
And for wildlife-I’ve been happily woken up more than once to the close calls of barred owls, walked within ten feet of a full-grown gorgeous deer that was accustomed to people in the Smokies and not scared of us, and my favorite wildlife encounter was tripping over my pack and falling backward trying to get away from an irate squirrel vocalizing loudly in a tree at one of the shelters. Still not sure why this little guy was so territorial but I’ve heard that red squirrels can get feisty.
Under the Gravity of 34ish Pounds
The terrain has been fairly consistent as far as the trail goes. Some areas are a little more muddy than most, but overall the trail is usually overrun by water if there’s any amount of precipitation. Wet feet are just another part of the walk.
Physically, I’ve been doing amazing. I’m so grateful my body has shown its strength, and even if something aches one day, something different aches the next. With this switch off I haven’t minded hiking with weight on my back, having high spirits that are sometimes wholly weather dependent. I was relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one with this mentality. One particularly quick and strong member of the bubble of hikers we’ve been sticking with turned to me after he passed me in the rain and let out a breathless “all of the happiness has drained out of me” from under his drenched rain jacket. Since then we are back with high hopes as a recharge in a trail town was necessary. Speaking of these trail towns (any town with shuttles to and from the trail) it feels like they aren’t real places.
Gatlinburg, Tenn., in particular seems like someone tore it out of a fictional novel. There are not only a few, there’s seven Old Timey Photobooth shops, all of which are within the one mile strip of shops and restaurants. I haven’t been offered an explanation yet and it’s our second night stay in town here.
We were so lucky to catch the Stanley Cup playoffs last night at a dive bar with off-colored televisions and ended up the rowdiest group cheering for the B’s.
Final Trail Thoughts
My pack is no longer shiny and new. The only things I dream about are food items I’m not currently carrying on my back. Yet I’m still quite content about it and can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to be able to take on such an adventure at this point in my life.
Follow my trek here and on instagram: @jennnerrr !
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