Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
At 4 a.m. on Sunday, after what amounted to little more than a short nap, I rose from bed, took a shower, grabbed my gear, and caught a lift to the airport for a flight to northern Georgia. When I boarded the plane, I was dismayed to discover that the exit-row seat I had purchased, out of a desire for some level of comfort, had no ability to recline. Fortunately, Atlanta is but a short hop from home in southwest Florida. A home I hope not to return to for another eight months. Compared to the prior six months, the non-reclining-seat ordeal was little more than an annoyance.
In August 2019, I was in the midst of planning a six-month thru-hike of the 1,800-mile-long Te Araroa trail in New Zealand. I was growing fat at my desk, 60 pounds heavier than I cared to weigh, when I learned that a family member was now, all of the sudden, a type two diabetic. It didn’t help that at around the same time, an employee downstairs dropped dead of a heart attack at his desk. My health was not on a favorable trajectory; a long walk is good for the body and even better for the mind.
In the final days of a wonderful summer internship at “Florida’s best newspaper,” my boss offered me a six-month fellowship so that I might stick around a while longer. It’s nice to show a future employer that you were employable out of college. It’s nicer to show that someone wanted to keep you around. I accepted. Plans for New Zealand were shelved.
The fellowship was unlike the internship. As hard as I tried, it was difficult to fall in love with a job that should have been automated years ago. I’ll spare you the details for your own sanity, but rarely do I ever enjoy completing the same task over and over and over and over again. This job had me doing the same thing all day, every day, for half a year. This was not what I had in mind while attending journalism school, but I held out and tried my best to enjoy it. No luck. As time passed, having no job seemed more enjoyable than continuing on in that particular job, so began the planning of an exit strategy.
New Zealand in February was out of the question. Much of that trail is closed in the winter months so that sheep can graze. Thru-hiking season in America would open in February, so it was naturally decided that I’d put off an international hike for the time being.
I’d learned in online forums that permits for the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) had already been handed out, so there were few options but to re-hike the 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Seven years had passed since that earlier adventure, so it was far enough removed to warrant another go-around. Soon after informing close friends of my plans, I discovered that one last batch of PCT permits would be released mid-January. Through luck, I was able to secure a slot for March 14.
While the position at work wasn’t ideal, the paper and its reporters are in fact, as the slogan suggests, the best in the business. Like their predecessors, most of these journalists will end up working at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. It’s a talented bunch. Saying that it is a great first job in journalism is almost an understatement. It was the only paper I cared to work for fresh out of college.
It wasn’t an easy decision to pull my foot from the door. At one point, I even offered to stick around if a data position, my specialization, opened up, but the journalism industry has a hell of a lot less resources than it did in its glory years. I would have enjoyed my time there in a role that didn’t drive me to the edge of insanity, but I promised myself long ago that I’d never be held hostage to a job for the want or need of a paycheck. I said as much to my boss before accepting the fellowship. So depressing was my job, that unemployment was beginning to look like an opportunity.
My fellowship would end mid-February, leaving me with a month until I could start my Mexico-to-Canada trek. I declined a month-long extension in order to prepare for the hike and decided to use the AT to warmup for the PCT.
The plane touched down in Atlanta at 8:30. I grabbed my pack and took the commuter train to the Sandy Springs MARTA station where I’d arranged to meet a relative for a ride to the trailhead at Amicalola Falls State Park. After a quick game of Marco Polo, breakfast at McDonald’s, and some last-minute shopping at Goodwill and REI, I was delivered to the park with plenty of daylight remaining.
The Southern Terminus of the trail, located on the summit of Springer Mountain, is often regarded as less prestigious than the Northern Terminus atop Mount Katahdin in central Maine. The limited view is often shrouded in fog and the climb from a Forest Service road, a mile below, lacks any inspiration, which is somewhat unfortunate. Just a few miles below Springer Mountain sits one of the most spectacular cascading waterfalls on the East Coast; the tallest in Georgia. Why the trail doesn’t terminate at the base of the falls is beyond me.
Upon arrival to the park, I repacked my bag, removing supplies required for the desert section of the PCT, and began the eight-mile climb to the summit of Springer.
I’d last climbed the Approach Trail in 2013 at the beginning of my first thru-hike. From memory, I expected it to be an arduous endeavor with a generous spattering of four-letter expletives every 100 feet or so. As I ascended it seemed to be more of a walk in the park this time around. I deduced that not having a 50-pound albatross of a pack on my back might have had something to do with the change in perspective.
On the way up, I met a lot of thru-hikers who looked much as I did seven years ago. While sympathetic to their plight, a little suffering is often the only path to a change in behavior, especially among those in the long-distance hiking community. It’s not that these hikers are stupid; they simply lack an appreciation for how heavy 50 pounds really is and how little is truly needed to survive comfortably in the woods and mountains. A handful of hikers each year are branded with the pseudonym “Rambo” due to the huge knives they carry down the trail. Even a pocketknife is overkill.
At 7 p.m., five miles in, I summited Frosty Mountain, saw no one, and decided that it’d be a great place to shelter for the night.
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