Plan Not to Plan
7 Days and 69.2 miles since Springer Mountain.
I left off last week at Above the Clouds Hostel. I would recommend the hell out of the place. It was really lovely and exactly what I needed. The respite was sooner than expected, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself about that kind of thing. One of the most enchanting aspects of the place was an old hiker named Nimrod who cooks, entertains, and runs much of the clerical side of things there. It was $65 a night, and Nimrod’s stories and advice were worth at least $40.
One piece of advice he gave us that I’ve been chewing on was in regard to the daily, weekly, and monthly planning of a thru-hike. He told us “do your research and buy the gear. Then sit down with a pen and paper, go through the entire book and plan how many miles you want to do, what shelters you want to stay at, what towns you’ll go to, and how much you’ll need to resupply at each stop. Then say your goodbyes, get yourself to Springer Mountain, hike to your first destination, then you take that plan out and use it to start a fire. ‘Cuz none of it is happening. Just hike and let your body and the trail decide.”
It was good for a laugh, but I desperately wanted to heed what he was saying. If not to escape from the headache of schedules and spreadsheets and deadlines, what are we doing out here anyway? Isn’t that the freedom we all so badly wanted when we took our leaves or quit our jobs and came out here? I’ve been trying to get into that headspace but struggling.
With this many folks on the trail all requiring periodic lodging, rooms need to be booked. It’s raining on Tuesday, where do I want to be? Forty miles to the next resupply, how many ramen noodles should I buy now? If I take the whimsically insouciant approach to not planning, I’ll miss out on hotels, spend avoidable days drenched, and starve (or carry extra weight) respectively.
These are things that must be planned for. Anyone throwing caution to the wind on these things has my respect. I’m just not a good enough hiker yet. What I am pushing back against is planning beyond what is essential. It’s hard! Everyone out here has an app called Guthook that will tell you absolutely everything you need at any given time. It’s super useful and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to know exactly where they are, what’s coming, and what the elevation is every minute. Like I said, very popular, but not for me.
I’m finding value in stashing my phone away aside from pictures and an odd text or two to my wife or mom. I have my guidebook that I look at before bed to get an idea of the next day’s terrain and the sleeping possibilities. I then bury it at the bottom of my pack and don’t look at it again until dinner time. I’m loving it. It’s therapeutic getting out of the analytical style of thinking I can be prone to. That systematic thinking was necessary for getting out here for the hike. Shifting gears from it is a process though. But it’s important to me.
So the balance I’m finding now is to just plan town/resupply days and let listening to my body and listening to the trail do the rest. Next Thursday I have a reservation in Franklin, North Carolina. I am currently in Hiawassee, Georgia. I have bought enough food to get to Thursday and whatever pace feels good or becomes necessary is what I’ll do. I’m pleased with the simplicity of the plan. I will keep everyone posted on its continued success or failure. It worked fine to get me into Hiawassee, and it was a fun fifty miles.
Wednesday I left from Above the Clouds and hiked to the iconic Neel Gap and the outfitters called Mountain Crossing that everyone stops at. I was rejuvenated and motivated. I even passed on the frozen pizza that they cook for you there and everyone looks forward to. My plan was to bust ass another seven miles to the next (terribly located) shelter and ride out the impending storm. My buddy Bilbo intervened and offered up a bed in the cabin he had rented. I took a deep breath, considered what Alicia and Mom would say, and accepted the warm bed. So while the tents of other friends were filling up with gallons of water and mud, I was barefoot on a balcony drinking beer and listening to a couple Irish musicians sing songs by The Pogues and laughing at the stories they had about back when they opened for them.
Thursday I departed from Neel Gap with a full head of steam and a bunch of dry clothing. Neel Gap is the only place on the entire AT where the trail goes through a building. Kinda cool. It’s also a metric often used to indicate where you’ve made it into the 26th percentile of hikers. One-quarter have quit by, or often quit at, Neel Gap. There is even an infamous tree (pictured) where folks throw their hiking shoes after deciding it’s no longer for them. Respect to anyone who had the balls to give it a shot.
Friday I put in my biggest day yet. 15.4 miles and three or four mountains. You lose track. Friday was the day I had lunch at Blue Mountain Shelter. It was just me and a quiet gentleman who was starting a fire in the fire ring. He had a cowboy hat, a small backpack, and combat boots. Oh yeah, also an AR-15 with five magazines and a prominently displayed sidearm on his hip. I tried to make conversation but it was clear he was used to short conversations. I couldn’t give a shit about guns, but the weight had to have been insane! He told me it was for hunting in North Carolina. Referring to my shirt, I reminded him not to shoot any turquoise deer and quickly moved on. We are all doing our own thing out here.
Saturday I wake up freezing. On top of Tray Mountain where it’s 35 degrees and windy to a point of rendering my stove a paperweight. I slept like trash last night but push on anyway. After knocking out 7.3 miles, I decide to call it a day at 1:00 p.m. I set up my bed and have lunch. Entirely alone, I experience a bit of an emotional low point. There’s no cell service, so I resign to looking through my phone’s photo album on airplane mode. I’ve got 20% battery so only for a bit but it helps. More people show up, including familiar faces. We all have dinner and bullshit about books and movies. Helped a ton.
After a mouse-heavy but otherwise restful night, I get up and on the trail by about 8:00 today. Only had to walk 3.6 miles to US 76 and hitchhiked the rest of the way (less than a mile) to Hostel Around the Bend on the outskirts of Hiawassee. I bummed a ride the 11 miles into town, and I’ve been resupplying and checking out the area. Cute little spot. Feeling good about things. It ain’t easy, but easy isn’t why I’m here.
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