Pinhoti Trail Beginnings

The Plan

The southernmost peak of the Appalachians above 1000 feet in elevation is Flagg Mountain, Alabama, which marks the southern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail. This is where I will start my 2600 mile trip up to Maine by foot. First tackling the 335 mile Pinhoti Trail through Alabama and the start of Georgia, then linking with a 72 mile stretch of the Benton MacKaye Trail to connect to Springer Mountain, Georgia, and finally proceeding to follow the Appalachian Trail approximately 2200 miles from there to Mount Katahdin, Maine. This is an ambition I’ve had in the back of my mind since first hearing about the AT from a thru hiker I ran into in the White Mountains. Starting out to turn it into a reality and boarding a plane to Birmingham is an indescribable flurry of emotions that I can’t come close to explaining in writing.

Sunset from the plane window

Sunset from the plane window during takeoff. On the horizon awaits possibility

Day One

Getting to the Southern Terminus

My first piece of advice to anyone considering the Pinhoti: do not trust Greyhound. I showed up to the bus station hoping to get a ride an hour south to Sylacauga and was told the route was cancelled for the day. Someone else wanting to take it was saying it got cancelled yesterday too, so I decided to eat the cost of an Uber and be done with transport to the start. It’s a good thing I did because the next morning I got a text from Greyhound saying the route got cancelled for a third day in a row. I don’t mind the route getting cancelled as I understand things come up. The total lack of communication from Greyhound until less than 15 minutes before it’s scheduled to depart each day, however, I feel like could do with improvement.

Getting Humbled

I arrived at the trailhead next to Prater Road 5 miles from Flagg Mountain around 1pm on March 9 and set out for what I imagined would be a gentle first afternoon, heading 5 miles to tag Flagg and then doubling back 1.5 miles back to a shelter just below Flagg for the night. My laziness over winter had other plans. The rain didn’t help as I got soaked within an hour of starting.

My hopes were for the Pinhoti to train me into shape before reaching the AT and I told myself it would work out great because the Pinhoti is easier hiking than the southern AT, but deep down I knew this was a lousy plan. After barely exercising and getting overweight during winter, I can tell I’ll be in for a rough week or two getting in better conditioning. How? By the panting and needing to stop for frequent breaks on the 5 mile trip up Flagg. Still, the spring smell and sounds are a welcome shift of scenery from 20 degree and snowy upstate NY.

A Quest within a Quest

Over the winter I made attempts to learn different wildflower species, and my study paid off. I noticed 9 different kinds of wildflower and flowering shrubs on the short first day on my way to Flagg, around half of which I recognized by sight. The other half I snapped pictures of to use a plant id on later. Red buckeye, rue anemone, and birdfoot violet were the most abundant. I also spotted quaker ladies, coltsfoot, dogwood, redbud, sweet violet, and deerberry. There was a decent amount of mayapples and trout lilies not yet in bloom, which gives me something to look forward to in the coming weeks as they emerge. As a bonus there was large patches of apple moss just below the CCC cabins. My favorite kind of moss! It’s like a miniature forest with small moss trees stemming up from the ground bed. It wasn’t until the summit that I found my tenth and most showy flower of the day, a Narcissus daffodil.

Red buckeye in bloom

Red buckeye

Narcissus daffodil in bloom

Narcissus daffodil

The Flagg fire tower and caretaker’s cabin is maintained by Nimblewill Nomad, who when I got there was out an an AT hike of his own. He’s a legend in the community and recently set a record for oldest known person to thru hike the AT at 83 years old. The fire tower was closed due to safety risk, but the cabin was open. It contained a trail register and a poster about the Eastern Continental Trail, running 5400 miles all the way from southern Florida to the end of land in Newfoundland, Canada. I added my name to the trail register and began doubling back to a shelter I passed a mile and a half before Flagg.

Along the way, I passed one of the Pinhoti’s iconic views into Weogufka river valley.

Weogufka river valley

Weogufka river valley

I shambled the remainder of my way down to the shelter, rolling my ankle a few times in the dying light as I stubbornly refused to dig out my headlamp, thankfully none of them serious. If the shelter log is anything to go by, the shelter doesn’t see much use. It’s a shame considering it’s well built and maintained, but also understandable with it being so early into the Pinhoti. That structural integrity would be put to the test overnight as a violent thunderstorm woke me to the sound of heavy rain, wind howling, and occasional cracks of lightning filled the air. Day one may not have been what I expected, but it felt like what I needed and I can’t wait for what’s to come.

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